NEW YORK'S SECRET ANIMAL CRISIS:
How New York Created the Cruelest Animal Rescue System in the Country
Written by Elizabeth Hess
From The Village Voice August 6, 1996
Velazquez is holding a dead possum with a "gripper," a giant pair of metal tongs. The limp creature smells and is soaking wet. "When I called you to come it was still alive," says a man standing in front of his Staten Island ranch-style home. He's a little embarrassed. A dirty white husky sits chained in the shade of his garage. Several hours ago, the man trapped this possum by forcing it into a metal garbage can, which he left out in the sun. It is 94 degrees out. The possum was baked alive.
When Eli, as he's called, opens up the back of his ambulance to add this bundle to his collection of animals, he reveals a raccoon we've just picked up in a Brooklyn cemetery. "What's going to happen to him?" asks the man. "It will be seen by a veterinarian at the shelter," Eli tells him. "And then it will be euthanized," I add. "That's horrible," the man says in disgust. "It's a better way to die than being cooked in a garbage can," I suggest. The possum killer walks back to his house.
"Always best not to argue with people," Eli gently warns me as we drive away. He's been driving an animal-rescue ambulance in New York City for 30 years. At 51, he has handled everything from a parrot with a broken wing to a baby lion. Eli has more dog and cat stories than James Herriot. He drove for the ASPCA when it was in charge of animal control, and now he works for the Center for Animal Care and Control (CACC), the new and very troubled agency created by the city when the ASPCA finally quit the business in 1994. "Which agency was better?" I ask him. Eli shrugs. "It's the same out here. People are still dumping their animals in the streets."
I have been riding with Eli since 8 a.m., responding to a steady flow of emergency calls coming in over the radio from headquarters, where Barry Lerner, in charge of rescue services, and Stephanie Easter, his assistant, handle sometimes 200 calls a day from the public, the police, and the fire department. The radio is always crackling in these brand-new air-conditioned vans, which are supplied with cages, humane traps, metal poles, ropes, wire-cutters—the necessary tools for urban animal warfare. We are responding to maybe 10 percent of the assignments coming our way; this is the only ambulance for all of Brooklyn and Staten Island at this time of day. Apart from the small mammals, in four hours we have collected a cute collie-mix who bit two children (one is in the hospital with 100 stitches in her face), several wounded sparrows, and two feral cats who have had their last night of freedom in Bay Ridge.
We pull up in front of a laundry in a tough Staten Island neighborhood, Eli tells me to lock the van. There are red "Beware of Dog" signs posted around, advertising the rottweiler we are here to pick up. At the sight of the van, the dog's owner, a thirtyish businessman, comes running out, sweating: He's desperate to get rid of the dog. Cujo, a/k/a Tonka, has mangled his brother's hand, threatened his employees, and is currently struggling to break free, "Did you bring a gun?" he asks. "I don't use guns," replies Eli. The guy is visibly skeptical. "You'll never do it without a gun."
Tonka, huge and regal, is behind the shop with a steel chain heavy enough to restrain an elephant around his neck. The dog is standing in an enclosed alley where he's been chained for months. Police tranquilizer darts covered with blood lie scattered around him on the ground. "They had no effect," says his frightened master. Eli warily approaches Tonka with a metal pole that has a lasso on the end of it, and the dog backs up, cringing . "It's easier when they lunge at you," he tells me. "They're more predictable." Everyone from the shop is hiding. After a 40-minute struggle, the beast is safely caged, The shop owner goes back into his office, where he is having lunch with an insurance salesman pitching him a policy that covers dog bites. Eli is disgusted. "Just the weight of the chain alone is enough for a cruelty charge," he says as we drive away. "But what's the use? The courts don't listen."
At our next stop we collect a maggot-infested raccoon under a shed; the owner claims he didn't know was dead. This is a job for the sanitation department, but Eli gets out the gripper again. Before moving on to pick up a dog hit by a car, we open the back of the van to check the animals. A gust of fierce heat whooshes out. Something is terribly wrong: The van is an inferno. The air conditioner has been blowing hot air on the animals for at least 45 minutes. The cats are in bad shape, their tongues drooping from their mouths; the collie-mutt is lying down, his coat matted with moisture. The birds are strangely silent, and the colossal rotti is not moving at all. Eli pokes him. His massive body is crumpled unnaturally in his small cage. Tonka is dead.
Eli runs to the nearest house to get some water and sprays the animals. The cats and the dog lick the moisture off their faces, but we can't open a window for them because the new vans are designed without any in the rear; it's over 100 degrees inside. Our immediate task is to get back to the shelter before all the animals die. Eli knows every shortcut, zips along streets with no names. I wonder how the sparrows are doing. "No need to look," he says quickly. "I'm sure they're dead."
We get stuck in traffic on the Verrazano Bridge. "Turn on the siren," I say, starting to panic. Eli looks at me. "There is no siren," he says. "I've been begging for a siren for years." We finally make it over the bridge, and Eli pulls off the road to open up the van. The animals are still alive. Both of us are elated. He sprays them again and drives to the shelter.
It is only later that I realize these creatures were doomed the minute we picked them up; the CACC does not place feral cats, raccoons, or biting dogs. All the animals will be euthanized. Our ambulance, as it turned out , is a hearse.
Animal control in New York City is a nightmare. On an average day, hundreds of unwanted animals are born, hundreds die, and a few lucky ones enter a shelter and survive. Most New Yorkers don't have a clue that their city is responsible for one of the worst animal surplus problems in the country; we take in roughly 60,000 dogs, cats, and wilder creatures a year. And that's the good news. Without a shelter system, these animals, and discarded pets would die painful, often slow deaths. The bad news is that the vast majority—almost 40,000 dogs and cats last year— are euthanized by lethal injection. This is the task animal-welfare workers face daily. Many of them don't sleep well at night. But what about the folks who are running this show? What do they dream about?
The CACC is one of the largest shelter systems in the country, but critics charge that it is also the worst. Morale is low in the CACC; at least seven people have quit in recent months, and three of them, along with a group of anonymous employees, volunteers, and rescuers, are so angry they're talking to the press. The humane community—a motley group of rescuers, funders, activists, zealots, and politicians—has been sounding the alarm ever since Mayor Giuliani hastily launched the CACC 19 months ago. The quasi-public agency he created apparently does not consider itself accountable to the public.
The ASPCA, which virtually invented animal control 100 years ago, finally quit the job in 1994. Now, the A, as it's called, focuses on humane education, law enforcement, and the most popular aspects of animal welfare. Over the past two decades, this agency has set up a shelter system with small pet-receiving facilities in the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island, and full-service shelters, in Brooklyn and Manhattan, where the animals are housed, fed, given medical attention, and either adopted or euthanized. Mercy-killing the city's unwanted animals is not the most desirable job. But how much "mercy" was involved was debatable, as reports of staff mistreatment of the animals, including bestiality and setting a kitten on fire, leaked out of ASPCA headquarters.
Nevertheless, Giuliani has a big gap to fill without the ASPCA, a problem he tuned over to Health Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg. According to Hamburg, experienced shelter experts were not rushing to take over the ASPCA's $5 million contract; she claims only two groups expressed interest. So the city decided to do the job itself. The mayor needed an agency head with a good track record in urban animal control, who would rise to the daunting challenge of ending the city's animal crisis; local activists argue that qualified resumes were intentionally lost in the shuffle.Martin Kurtz, who had worked under Hamburg as the health department's chief of public veterinary services, was appointed to head the new agency. The CACC was organized as a nonprofit corporation, administered by DOH; three city commissioners (John S. Doherty from Sanitation, Yolanda Jimenez from the NYPD, and Hamburg) sit on the board with four citizen members. Two seats are currently unfilled; the humane community is agitating for representation on one of them.
Despite a report commissioned by the city, which judged the ASPCA's facilities inadequate, even inhumane, Giuliani purchased the Brooklyn and Manhattan shelters for the CACC. "The city bought the buildings in a sweetheart deal," says City Council member Kathryn Freed, an outspoken critic of the CACC. This was not an auspicious beginning for the newest agency in town. By January 1995, Kurtz was sitting in his new office, overseeing 145 employees. Seventy-five per cent of these were rehired from the ASPCA. They had new logos on their uniforms, but it was difficult to distinguish the new operation from the old.
Within six weeks, there were so many complaints about the CACC that the City Council called a special hearing, held on February 9. At the hearing, Kurtz and Hamburg painted a rosy picture, while activists presented a list of charges, including mistreatment of animals, filthy conditions in Brooklyn, inadequate spay/neuter policy, and managerial ineptitude. Nothing happened.
Now, the humane community has begun holding secret meetings and strategizing to get Kurtz fired. They describe a chaotic system in which animals are lost or needlessly killed, and donations earmarked for animal care go unspent. In addition, shelter conditions have not significantly improved since the ASPCA was in control. The money to rebuild the shelters has been allocated, but it isn't being spent. Nor has the agency devised a fundraising program that would enable it to expand its services.
"This is one of the most sophisticated cities in the world, and we have the worst facilities in the country," says Anne Earle, who ran the adoption program for the ASPCA and worked at the CACC until resigning in May. Earle developed a funding proposal for a low-cost, high-volume, spay/neuter clinic. But no one has been able to convince Kurtz to act as if sterilizing animals is an immediate priority. In effect, the CACC is feeding itself animals to be killed.
Shelters directors are always targets. Kurtz blames many of his current problems on the ASPCA, which set the precedent for animal control. "I'm trying to change the system," he says. Yet he has been unresponsive to staffers who are demanding change. "If you care about animals, it's impossible to work for the CACC," says Scottlund Haisley, the 28-year old former director of the Manhattan shelter. Last month, he resigned in protest after only one year.
Haisley was trained by Peta, People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the largest animal rights organization in the country. He says he transformed the Manhattan shelter from a slaughterhouse to place where animals are treated with respect. "My first task was to change the ASPCA mentality about dogs. It took only about one hour to put 50 dogs down, and not one went out in a humane way." Haisley says the dogs were tied up in a room and forced to watch the killing before their turn came up. When the vets missed a vein, which was often, animal cries echoed through the building. He retrained the staff. "Now the dogs are brought into the room one at a time by a handler. If they're scared, the dogs aren't yanked up onto the table, they're euthanized on the floor. And the tables are cleaned between procedures." Haisley demonstrates how the animals are held close to the chest, enabling the vet to inject the dog quickly and safely.
I spent time with Haisley his last week in the shelter. He was constantly in need of supplies; he pointed out backed-up sewage pipes in kennels swamped with feces, broken ventilation systems, damaged cages, and numerous problems that have been plaguing his staff, and the animals, for a year. "My hands were tied the whole time," he complains. "I couldn't get Marty to fix anything in the building or buy basic supplies." Like raised mats for the cages, so the dogs don't have to sit in their own urine and feces. Nor could he convince Kurtz or anyone else with authority in the CACC to expand the facility into an available storage garage that would almost double kennel space. "Space is the killer," says Haisley. "We could have easily built livable runs for the holding dogs [about 60 to 100 animals held, sometimes for months, as a result of legal constraints], who never get out of their cages. We could also keep the strays longer." Under New York City law, strays must be held for 48 hours before they may be euthanized. "But neither the CACC or the city are interested in saving animals," Haisley says.
Homeless animals are no more a priority for the Giuliani administration than homeless people. Animal lovers know there's a budget crisis, and no one is demanding that the mayor allocate scarce resources to animals over people. But other major cities, including San Francisco, Las Vegas, Vancouver, Seattle, and Denver, all have cost-effective, humane animal-control programs. New York does not. (In 1995, taxpayers here paid 67 cents a year, while the national average was $1.18.)
I'm no expert in animal affairs, but my family and I share our home with two fine mutts and a large, opinionated cat. For several years, my daughter and I have volunteered at a rural shelter in Hudson, New York, where I have watched a garden variety of pets and their owners part ways. I have wept with some owners who had nowhere else to turn and repressed the urge to strangle others who neglected and abused their animals to appalling extremes, before dumping them altogether. But the number of people routinely casting out their "best friends" in this city would stagger the most calloused shelter worker. It is not unusual during summer months (cat season) for the CACC to take in up to 1000 cats and kittens in a week, along with maybe 500 dogs, and an unpredictable number of raccoons, fighting cocks, ferrets, seagulls, sparrows, monkeys, snakes, hamsters, and turtles. "I believed that if the public found out how animals were being treated in this city, there would be an outcry," says Pam Ferdin, the CACC's ex-director of public relations. Ferdin is wrong. The public is part of the problem.
Marty Kurtz is sitting in his office at the CACC headquarters on Park Place. There are no animals around. "The building won't allow it or I'd have a mascot here," he tells me. "So, don't accuse me of not being an animal person." Kurtz chuckles, which he does frequently, and his face breaks into a sheepish grin. "I have one cat at home," he notes. The director is friendly, willing to give me hours of his time. His office is neat as a pin, and a romantic depiction of a horse and buggy hangs on his wall. At the DOH, Kurtz was responsible for overseeing the ASPCA and the city's carriage horses. "Our horse laws are so great that they're used as a model around the country," he boasts. When I repeat this comment to Peggy Parker, founder and director of the Carriage Horse Action Committee, she says, "That's patently absurd. New York City has the lowest protection standards in the country." (Paris and London banned carriage horses altogether decades ago.)
Every day, Kurtz faces an array of shelter problems that would rattle most executives. "It goes with the territory," he says, grinning. Kurtz dismisses recent complaints from Haisley and Ferdin. But while working on this piece, I received calls from more than a dozen activists, rescuers, staffers, and volunteers, who uniformly describe Kurtz as an ineffectual bureaucrat who has made no progress helping the animals. "If he's not in a meeting, he can be found playing solitaire on his office computer," one livid ex-staffer tells me.
Kurtz calls Haisley and anybody else who criticizes the CACC a "liar." He denies accusations of mismanagement and says he's "sick of being attacked because I'm not an animal person. I can learn about animals, can't I?" He does not appear disturbed by his greatest failure, to actively promote adoption and sterilization. Why doesn't he spay and neuter the animals? "That's my goal." Why doesn't he spend money rebuilding his shelters? "I'm working on it." Why isn't there a full-service shelter in every borough? "There will be." I'm not reassured.
When the questions get factual, Kurtz is at a loss, so he brings in Doug Mansfield, the CACC's staff attorney. Mansfield has dozens of legal cases on his desk from owners who want their animals back, bite cases tangled up in DOH bureaucracy, and cruelty cases that are slowly moving through the legal system. These are the animals who get stuck in the shelter (most of them go to Manhattan) for months, living in small cages on the second floor; they are never walked because they are considered dangerous. On June 5, Mansfield had 137 dogs and cats in residence who were waiting for their cases to come up in court. Seventy-five per cent of the "holding" animals are pit bulls, most of whom are aggressive and badly mistreated. When a cruelty case is won, the dog is usually euthanized. Pit bulls, especially ones that have been abused, are too unpredictable to place.
Thanks to Kurtz's failure to advertise his agency's most benign function, few New Yorkers realize there's a new dog-catcher in town and several shelters stocked to the brim with adoptable animals. But he's willing to let me tour his facilities, so I decide to visit the full-service shelters in Brooklyn and Manhattan, which house, euthanize, and adopt out animals from all five boroughs. I've heard that they represent the worst—Brooklyn—and the best—Manhattan—the CACC has to offer. I start with Manhattan.
The shelter at 326 East 110th Street is a plain, two-story modern building with glass doors. There's a garage and a junkyard, complete with scruffy guard dogs, next door. When I arrive for my first tour, the lobby is crowded with television cameras. The press is here to shoot a pit bull brought in by police the night before for mauling a woman. "They're the saddest cases," says Joan Silaco, in charge of special adoptions. Silaco places as many CACC animals as she can with other shelters, including the North Shore Animals League, and with independent rescuers, some of whom have their won organizations. She has spent years winnowing out the realistic saviors from over-the top animal collectors who stockpile dogs and cats.
The newsworthy pit is beginning his sentence in the holding ward upstairs, just cooing out of a stupor. He's brown and white with cropped ears (owners crop ears to prevent them from being bitten off in dog fights), and looks like he weighs about 100 pounds. The dog is intimidating. Reportedly, he was out walking with a young man who got into a confrontation with a woman; he threatened her with the dog and then made good on his word. "The dog bit off her nose," says Haisley, who is giving terse interviews on the case. The police arrested the man, shot the dog with tranquilizer darts, and brought the comatose giant to the shelter.
"Is the dog vicious?" asks an inquiring reporter. "There are no vicious dogs," Haisley snaps. "There are only vicious people."
Downstairs, the lobby is filling up with animals and their soon to be former owners, uniformed employees, guards, and handlers. The police deliver two more comatose pits, who are being rolled in on a wooden stretcher. Their muzzles and legs are bound with black tape. Haisley is pissed off. He rushes the dogs out of public view and immediately removes the tape; one dog has a splotch of blood on his side. "The dart hit him in the rib cage," Haisley says.
Technically, the dogs should be shot in the muscle of their hind leg. "Aren't the police trained?" I ask. "The police are terrified of the dogs," says Haisley. "There's absolutely no need to shoot them till they drop, or tape them when they're unconscious." Another staffer says that summer, half the dogs the police bring in are dead. "They're overtranquilized and thrown in the trunk of the police cars. If they don't die from the drugs, they suffocate," he says.
Over the course of a week, I see a steady flow of police cars pulling in with trunks full of pit bulls draped over spare tires. When I ask Kurtz about police mishandling of the dogs, he says, "We need a meeting on this." Later, a rescuer tells me that police treatment " is really uneven. There are some officers who can't do enough for the dogs."
A kid, maybe 17, stands at the front counter demanding to see his dog, a young pit I happened to have just seen in holding. The dog is friendly, solid white. Apparently, a police officer saw the boy kicking the pup on the street; he made an arrest and seized the animal. "I just want to see him," the dog's owner begs Haisley. The director assures him the dog is healthy. "I don't believe you," the boy says, getting upset.
Haisley wants to calm him down. "If you want your dog back you have to get a lawyer." Haisley explains the procedure, writing the information down on a piece of a paper. The kid crumples the paper up and throws it on the floor. "I don't want a lawyer," he shouts. Haisley has him escorted out. "What's going to happen to the dog?" I ask. If the owner goes to court and loses, the arresting officer wants to adopt the dog for his girlfriend. There's a nte on the paperwork.
A young couple walks in carry a purebred chow the color of peaches. They're moving to a place that doesn't allow pets, the most common reason that people give for surrendering an animal. The dog is two years old, unneutered, and appears to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown; the woman is fighting off tears. A line of people with their unwanted pets is forming at the counter. There's a older black man with a long-haired mutt, two Hispanic girls with a Labish puppy, and two white men with a mother cat and her litter. The man with the mutt tells the clerk the dog belongs to his neighbor. The dog is whimpering, trying to hide behind his legs. "Calm down , Lucky," he says as he strokes her. "That dog sure seems to know you," says the clerk. "Well, I walk her now and then," he says sadly. "But I can't keep her."
"People surrendering their animals rarely tell us the truth," says Danielle Genova, in charge of general adoptions. Adds Silaco, "It all depends on what makes them feel the least guilty." They and two others (Alton Allen and Helene Velazquez) are the gatekeepers between the animals and their potential new homes. "If we don't get the animals out, they don't survive," says Silaco, realistically. Euthanasia is performed at eight in the morning and four in the afternoon. On a recent day in June, 175 animals were destroyed in Manhattan; the figure for Brooklyn was probably higher.
Adopters are prescreened before they can even see the animals; they must fill out a one-page form and submit to a short interview. The process takes about five to 10 minutes. The adopter must be at least 18, have two forms of identification with a current address and a verifiable phone number, a reference, agree to spay or neuter the animal, and keep it indoors. Thirty to 40 percent of all applicants are turned away.
For just $60 (for a dog) or $55 (for a cat) the adopter walks away with a fully vaccinated pet and a certificate for a free spay or neuter, which can be performed a one of more than 50 veterinarian clinics in the shelter program. Only 17 per cent of adopters comply. (When the others don't, the surgery fees, already paid for by the CACC and considered shelter revenues, are returned to the city.) Silaco won't let so-called dominant breed dogs—Dobermans, rottis, pits—out of the shelter unsterilized. But this in not a general policy. "Marty doesn't set any policies," says Ferdin. "All the adopted animals could go out fixed. But Marty won't do it."
One might assume that the staff would prefer to give the animals away, rather than put them down. But this is not the case. "I look for people willing to make a 15-year commitment to a pet," Silaco says. And Haisley, who got his own dog, Capone, from a backyard cruelty case, adds, "I'd rather euthanize a dog than send it to a backyard t be chained for the rest of his life." No statistics are kept on how many adopted animals are returned.
An affluent-looking couple rings back a Maltese mix with a weird haircut; the dog was adopted the day before out of the Bronx shelter. "What's the matter?" Silaco asks the sullen couple. "He hides under the couch and he won't eat," says the woman. "He also has bad breath."
"What do you mean, he has bad breath?" asks Silaco. "The dog has food allergies," the woman continues, not pleased with the interrogation. Her husband stares at the floor. "Did you take him to a vet?" asks the counselor. No. "You've had this dog for one night! Imagine going to a new home after coming from a place like this. You haven't given him a chance." They insist there's something wrong with the dog. They don't want him.
Silaco grabs the little white dog and gives him a cuddle. The dog is nervous. The woman won't look at him. She wants a different dog, today. Silaco tells them to call her tomorrow; she will discuss a second adoption with the Bronx staffer who made the original placement, and then decide whether to give them another dog. They're annoyed, but they leave.
A few days later, Silaco does give them another dog; a shelter vet confirmed that the Maltese was genuinely sick. He was euthanized. The second time around, the couple chooses a fat little black dog who looks like a cross between a dachshund and a beagle. But they will return him, too. That's the last animal they will get from the CACC; they're on an internal warning list. "So they'll get a dog somewhere else," comments Silaco.
Every animal at the CACC is initially examined by a veterinarian, frequently an unlicensed one; most of these vets have been trained in other countries, and, for one reason or another, they are unable to pass the license exam here. "Finding any vet to work at the CACC is difficult," says Kurtz, defending these employees, who he calls "animal care specialists." The pay is low, the hours long, and moreover, the job is primarily to end lives rather than save them.
Staffers say Kurtz ignores their complaints about CACC vets treating animals with assembly-line indifference. The relationship between the staff and some vets is openly hostile, but the vet's role in the system is crucial; they are the ones who examine the incoming animals and designate them as status one, two or three. Dogs and cats in the first category are immediately adoptable; those in the second are, too, but with minor problems. Status three animals are on death row. Strays are given 48 hours for an owner to show up; over 300 lost-animal reports are filed each month. While I'm at the shelter, my own neighbor comes in to retrieve his lost pit bull.
This is a system that looks for reason to euthanize animals, because there is no space, time, or funds to house, let alone treat, roughly two out of every three incoming animals. (A rescuer tells me that during the summer, status-one cats sometimes get one day in adoption before they are euthanized.) Often, if these animals sneeze or cough, they are "marked down"; infections spread like fire through the wards. The pressure to save animals—quickly—is enormous. In the adoption kennel one afternoon, Silaco hears a very adoptable golden retriever mix cough; when a rescuer shows up an hour later to take several small purebreds, Silaco insists that she take the retriever, too. "Sometimes I can make a deal," she explains. "I'll give them the cute scottie if they take the older, larger dog, too."
Who lives, dies, or gets medical attention are highly contested decisions in every shelter. The new chief veterinarian, Dr. Susan Kopp, who began just as Haisley left, is trying to rationalize the decision-making process, and update cleaning procedures and vaccines to stop the spread of disease. But the public's standards for adoptability are also a factor. Purebred dogs and cats do better than mixed breeds and older animals; puppies and kittens are most popular. (Pits are euthanized first in the space crunch, then shepherd mixes.) Rescuers can take status-three animals at no charge. "I took a basset hound that was marked down for mange," one told me. "He had an allergy that went away after a week." No one did a skin scraping on intake. Dr. Gerald Eichinger, one of the best-liked shelter vets, frequently reexamines animals and marks up their status. But ultimately, if one is saved, another dies in its place.
Silaco and I walk outside to a newly accessible, enclosed dog-run—a project initiated by Jane Colton, a volunteer walker, and constructed free of charge by members of the New York District Council of Carpenters. Until this run was available, the adoption dogs (status one and two) were not regularly taken out of their 3 X 3 metal cages, where they eat, sleep, and relieve themselves, all in one place; the exercise program is run by volunteers. (There is no play area for cats.) "The cages are so small that some of the dogs can't stand up and turn around," says Haisley. "They're also badly constructed. They break down frequently and there's a ledge in the front where dogs get their legs caught." If this is the best the CACC has to offer, what is Brooklyn like?
"The only comfort is that the animals don't stay here for very long," says Jackie Casano, in charge of adoptions at the Brooklyn facility, which makes the Manhattan shelter look like a palace. This Dickensian shelter, located on Linden Boulevard, which is difficult to get to without a car, is literally crumbling; the cement cages and floors are so old and porous that they can't be properly cleaned. The animals rarely leave their cages except to die; there are no volunteer walkers in Brooklyn because it is difficult to attract people to this facility. Kurtz recently opened a parking lot for visitors.
Annette Gonzalez, hired by Kurtz to run the Brooklyn shelter, is in her office with Pooh, her rescued pit bull. Pooh has scars from her fighting days, but today she's friendlier than her owner. The director is not looking for press attention. Who can blame her? The press only comes calling when things go wrong, and Gonzalez has been in the hot seat when animals have been mistakenly euthanized. There have been staff complaints about her management; the worst is that suffering animals are not promptly euthanized, but left to languish in the facility. Gonzalez, who answers my questions brusquely, seems burned out. Morale is so low in this facility that both staff and animals are visibly depressed. One person in the front office tells me that she can't even bring herself to go into the kennels any more. In the lobby, a group of cats in cages barely lift their heads when people pass by; several have no water.
The day I visit, there are 165 dogs and 173 cats in residence; between nine and five, Brooklyn takes in the same volume of animals that Manhattan gets in 24 hours. (The animals from the rescue vans all go to Brooklyn.) Following the director into the kennel, I see a black-and-white cat sitting in a cage on the floor. It has just come off a van and is waiting for medical attention with about 20 others. I've never seen anything like this before; the cat has been used as an ashtray.
I grab Gonzalez and point out the cat. "Will there be a cruelty charge?" I ask her. The director looks affronted, as if I'm attacking her for this atrocity. "It's just a stray," she says, wearily. "We see this all the time. People are cruel to children and to animals." Then she walks away.
On a second visit, Jackie Casano, who also worked for the ASPCA, is anxious to spend some time with me. Casano is like a lifeboat in the midst of a disaster. Walking through the wards, we stop to see a cat having an unexpected birth and to pat an affable, pregnant beagle mix on death row. Virtually all pregnant animals are terminated in this overburdened system; the cat wasn't caught in time. Then we come across a half-conscious puppy convulsing in a cage, who know for how long. Casano throws open the door, grabs the furry body, and runs it into the examination room. "This dog is sick," she exclaims. "When's it scheduled to go?" asks the vet without looking up from his desk. "Tonight," says Casano. "But do it now."
We're both upset. "Sometimes I walk into the kennel and I just can't speak," says Casano. When I ask her how long she's going to last in this job, she replies, "For a long time. These animals are my life."
Casano presses me to note the assortment of breeds available for adoption now. There's a dachshund, two miniature white poodles, a husky with piercing blue eyes, a collie that would rival Lassie, a six-month old German shepherd, and a Lhasa apso with a red bandana around his neck. Many of these will find homes. But what about the fuzzy terriers, sad-eyed hounds, and dozens of shy shepherd mixes?
Although mixed breeds like these often come with great genes and temperaments, most of them won't get chosen before their time runs out. Shelter adoptions are the best buy in town; the biggest potential draw is a chance to get a purebred at a bargain price. But most people want to avoid the distress of a visit to the pound. So pet store and breeders get the high-end traffic, and rescuers get the rest. The CACC has done nothing to address this problem—with adoption storefronts or mobile vans—even through it has surefire appeal to potential donors.
There is an informal network of skilled rescuers in the city who take in and adopt out more than 10,000 animals a year. At the ASPCA, these people were dismissively known as "humaniacs." Kurtz, to his credit, is releasing animals to rescuers—and, in the process, saving the CACC thousands of dollars.
Casano is meeting a purebred cat rescuer from Queens who will take an eight-year-old Himalayan (owners "had no time to care for" him); a flea-ridden Persian kitten who was a stray; and two Siamese cats. The rescuer, an Eastern European woman who supports her cat habit as a dentist, places through her patients. The cat problem in the city is obscene. People acquire cats and dump them in the streets, where they cannot survive. While I was visiting the Brooklyn shelter, a man pulled up in a big car and stood near the gate offering money to people bringing in their unwanted cats. Spotting him, a rescuer yelled for the guard, who came out and chased him away. He wanted the cats for pit bull bait.
The frenzy to save animals turns the CACC into a high-stress emergency room. But the staff turnover is most acute at the management level. "Good people are forced out," says a former fundraiser who quit when she discovered that the money she was raising did not go directly to animal care. "I was begging Marty to focus on advertising and fundraising, but he has no idea how to run a nonprofit." The ASPCA used to raise over $1 million each year to supplement its budget; it would be well worth it for the cash-strapped CACC to make a similar effort. When the fundraiser expressed her frustration to a board member, she was told she was being too emotional.
Haisley claims he couldn't even get staffers who were abusive to the animals fired.
"That's ridiculous," says Kurtz, who points to a foreman in the kennel he recently terminated for showing up drunk. "I had been trying to get that foreman fired for three months," says Haisley. (When word got out that it was Dr. Eichinger who reported the man, the vet's car was apparently slashed in retaliation.) When three staffers went to Kurtz to make a formal complaint about Brooklyn director Gonzalez, nothing happened. "Running Brooklyn is tough job," he tells me.
After Haisley leaves the Manhattan shelter, Silaco is the only outspoken advocate for the animals left. But last week, Kurtz fired her for dispensing an antibiotics to a rescuer who had taken a Belgian shepherd with kennel cough from the shelter. Silaco says she got the antibiotic from a shelter doctor and was simply handing it out, a common occurrence. "I find it ironic that I've been fired for trying to save an animal," Silaco says. The CACC would not comment on the incident.
It is currently possible to walk into the CACC and walk out 20 minutes later with an unlicensed, unsterilized dog. Yes, adopters agree to get their animals fixed and mail in their license forms—but they don't necessarily do it. The result is a perpetual population of unwanted animals. Last December, the Staten Island facility placed more than 100 puppies at Christmas. Many more of their offspring will end up in the shelter's freezer, waiting to be carted away for cremation.
Instead of solving this problem, the CACC is aggravating it. "Whenever a program gets developed to help the animals," says Ferdin, "Marty puts up a road block." While Anne Earle was writing her proposal for a long-term spay/neuter clinic, Ferdin came up with an interim plan to perform the surgeries right away on the premises. For an estimated $12,000, she proposed to turn a small treatment room in the Manhattan shelter into a temporary surgery. "I got two licensed vets to inspect the area. They agreed it was adequate for surgical procedures. The money was in the bank," says Ferdin, referring to a $76,000 account of donations for the animals. (Donations, which come in over the counter or as small grants from humane organization, are kept in an account separate from the budget. Last year, the CACC spent less than a third of this fund.) Ferdin proposed a similar project for the Brooklyn facility, "but Marty won't move forward on anything," In his defense, Kurtz says, "We've been around for less than two years. I need time to get a program going." Ferdin began a project to adopt out animals through pet stores, and began identifying Hollywood names to do publicity spots. Kurtz nixed it all. The director so eager to talk about his goals seems unable to act on them.
Council member Freed is sponsoring Intro 321, the Dog and Cat Overpopulation Control Bill, which would make it mandatory to fix all adopted shelter animals. Although Kurtz says he supports the bill, it has been stalled by objections from Hamburg and the ASPCA, who say it's unenforceable. Yetcities such as Seattle and Denver, which have passed similar ordinances, have seen a 40 per cent drop in their euthanasia rates. Kurtz could institute an immediate no-choice spay/neuter policy at CACC shelters, with the approval of his board. This spring, Earle brought in Mary and Richard Herro, experts who have set up cost-effective municipal spay/neuter clinics around the country, to meet with the board and other city officials; Hamburg didn't show up. Some board members have never even visited the Brooklyn shelter. "The board hasn't faced its own role in the suffering of the city's animals," says Ferdin. Can a board dominated by officials invested in their own city agencies hold the mayor accountable for a humane animal control program?
"It's an obvious conflict of interest," says Gary Kaskel, a local activist who has hired an attorney to probe this issue. "The city runs the organization that it also contracts with to do animal control. There is absolutely no accountability." Kaskel has filed a complaint with the city's Conflicts of Interest Board. He's also organizing a class-action suit of pet owners whose animals were mistakenly euthanized. "I going to renovate the Brooklyn shelter," Kurtz promises. But whether or not he's pushing the city to release the money it has already allocated for this massive project is unclear. "It's not in my interest to fight the city," he explains. When I ask about an actual schedule for renovations, Kurtz tells me to speak with Lisa Polk, assistant director of veterinary public health services at DOH. E. Randy Dupree, her supervisor, returns my call. Dupree confirms that the city does indeed have more than a $1 million in a capital fund for shelter renovations. The work, he thinks, might begin next December. "Is there a schedule?" Yes. Will he send me some evidence—on paper? Right away.
I ask Dupree if he is aware that animals are especially at risk in the Brooklyn shelter. " If that were the case, the facility would not be open," he declares. I inform him that infectious diseases easily spread in the shelter; animals that come in healthy are being put down. "If the place were that bad we wouldn't have workers in there at all," he replies. The animals—not the people—are at risk, I explain. "We run a safe, secure, healthy facility," he repeats. Are we talking about the same animal-control program? I ask why he thinks euthanasia statistics are so high. "Only unadoptable animals are put away," he tells me.
Finally, he says something inadvertently candid. "The city is in the business of public health. We have a contract with the CACC to protect people, not provide humane services."
After my conversation with Dupree, even the DOH press officer refuses to return repeated calls: I cannot get through the gate to Hamburg. Dupree fails to send me any documents to indicate the city has a plan to rebuild the Brooklyn shelter.
Nineteen months ago, the CACC got stuck doing the dirty work for the culture it mirrors—a culture that sentimentalizes animals even as it allows people to use and abuse them. However reluctant its officials may be to admit it, the CACC is primarily in the business of animal extinction. But partly because it will not face this reality, the agency is making a bad situation worse than it has to be. I t costs more to round up, house, feed, kill, and dispose of an animal than to get it fixed. Until the agency focuses on this, it will not make a dent in its own workload.
This may be the worst-run agency in the city, which is saying something considering the bureaucratic horror stories that regularly dominate the news—for example, recent scandals at the Child Welfare Administration. But unlike the CWA, the CACC is not an entrenched bureaucracy, with years of case overload and mismanagement to overcome. The CACC is new, and yet it's so thoughtlessly organized, it's virtually been set up to fail.
The staff takes the heat, both in person and over the phone, for the endless line of animals taken, one by one, to the euthanasia room. "People think we like to kill animals," says Haisley. Adds Silaco, "We have no choice. If we don't kill them someone else is going to do it. Would that make people feel better?" It shouldn't, but high-profile shelters like the North Shore Animal League are building their reputations by advertising the fact that they do not kill animals. Shelter workers know there's no such thing as a "no-kill" facility. "We get the North Shore returns," says Haisley, "and we have to kill them." North Shore turns some animals away. "We get them, too," he adds.
"The trend in animal protection is to get out of euthanasia altogether," explains Earle. "Once you stop killing animals, the press is more generous, along with foundations and donors." The ASPCA is off the hook in New York. "Now, we're the killers ," says Kurtz. "Are you going to use that word?"
The flip side of New York's animal crisis is the hundreds of extraordinary dogs and cats continuously available for adoption. Twenty to 30 per cent are purebreds, and summer is the season for puppies and kittens. Don't be afraid to go to the shelters; the payoff may be a pet of your dreams.
CACC ADOPTION CENTERS
Manhattan: 326 East 110th Street (212-722-3620)
Brookyn: 2336 Linden Boulevard (718-272-7200)
Queens: 92-29 Queens Boulevard (718-997-6330)
Bronx: 464 East Fordham Road (718-733-0743)
Staten Island: 3139 Veterans Road West (718-984-6643)
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This article was reprinted with permission from the author.