Wednesday, November 10, 2010

In Honor of National Animal Shelter Reform Week

In Honor of National Animal Shelter Reform Week, November 7 - 13, 2010.

I walk into the Manhattan branch of Animal Care and Control of New York City. I'm in here on an increasingly regular basis to pull dogs (and the occasional cat) from the kill list for rescue, I transport them to Pets Alive when they ask me to. The kill lists are released every night around 5pm and executions begin the following morning as early as 8am in Manhattan, 6am at the Brooklyn branch. It's not much time to get pulls organized, but I live only 10 minutes from the Manhattan branch and 25 minutes from the Brooklyn branch. My pickup truck, a rarity in New York City, helps me pull up to 5 dogs at a time for transport. I am happy to help however I can.

Today I am here for one, who is supposed to be ready after 10am. It's 10:10 when I enter the front doors.

The Manhattan desk is, as per usual these days, manned by a lone staffer. NYCACC recently saw massive budget cuts that have led to reductions in essential services. Prior to the latest budget cuts, they were already one of the worst funded shelter systems in the country, receiving about .87 per capita from the city. Guidelines from the Humane Society of the United States recommend per capita funding in the $4-7 range. The only way they remain remotely functional is through massive assistance from an outside non-governmental group called the Mayor's Alliance. At the beginning of November, the New York City shelters eliminated their call center as a cost-saving measure; it is now near impossible to contact the Manhattan branch by phone.

I walk in and sign the sign-in sheet at the front desk. I recognize the woman working. She is experienced and efficient and kind-hearted and overwhelmed. She has seen way too many things that no one should have to see.

I wait during a few cat turn-ins, mostly people who have found cats on the street or when moving neighbors have left them behind. These mostly go as smoothly as is possible. All are advised that if a suitable home cannot be found for the cat, it will be "euthanized" (God, I hate that word), but people want to believe that the cat they have found is special and will be snapped up in a heartbeat. They are all special, but they are not necessarily snapped up - in September, the last month for which there is data available, 1/3 of intake were killed. Disease runs rampant through the shelters here and many cats will land on the kill list strictly for coming down with upper respiratory infections. A new HVAC system was recently installed in an effort to prevent the spread of disease, but they are so desperately understaffed that there is no time for proper cleaning, so the spread of disease continues unchecked. On paper there is a volunteer program that could help with the staffing issues, but not many are here. The volunteer program hasn't had any new volunteers start work since April. I've been trying to volunteer for them since June and have attended the orientation and my meeting with the coordinator. I've paid my $25 volunteer fee. I still need to take several classes over the next few months in order to be allowed to begin. There are many people who have heard about the service cuts and want to help. I wonder how many will stick with it through the long process.

An NYPD officer comes in and we who are waiting in the lobby yield - she steps to the counter. She's bringing in two dogs that were abandoned, an adult that was left tied to a tree and a puppy that was laying nearby. She needs help unloading the adult dog in a crate from her car but has to wait as there is no one yet available. The desk attendant begins the long process of entering the paperwork, asking for details that the officer mostly does not know. Sex? Color? Without the adult dog in front of her, she's not sure. She has carried the puppy in in a milk crate and he's on the ground in front of her. She mentions that the puppy was crying and wailing during the whole trip, but the focus on paperwork continues. We curious onlookers lift the blanket that covers the weeks-old puppy in the milk crate; his skull is crushed. It is inflating and deflating as he breathes. The man next to me brings this to the attention of the desk worker and he is whisked away, likely for euthanasia. It is probably best to end his suffering as soon as possible.

A man steps up to the counter to take his new dog home. All he has left to do is pay to take his new companion home. The credit card machine is not working and he is not carrying enough cash to cover the adoption fee. He is sent away to find other payment. I dearly hope he comes back.

I am next in line but I let two women in front of me, a few more minutes won't kill me and they have more pressing issues. One requests euthanasia for her desperately ill cat. His kidneys are failing and she cannot afford further treatment or her vet's euthanasia charges. She is very upset and crying and obviously cares very deeply for her cat. She is quickly processed and taken to the back.

The next woman at the counter is also turning in a cat. Her neighbor moved away and left five behind, she has placed four of them but this one remains and she says she is highly allergic. Sometimes this can be an excuse but as she opens the cat carrier her eyes begin to water, her face flushes and she begins to sneeze uncontrollably - she is, in fact, highly allergic. She has a good heart to have helped those cats who were left behind. She has nothing but praise for this cat who has been wonderful with her multiple dogs and her children, and the cat is young and friendly. As she is lifting the cat from the bag, the desk attendant mistakenly bangs the crate he is to be lowered into against the desk and he startles and flails, scratching the woman holding him. The desk attendant explains that now that he has (barely) drawn blood, he is to be placed on a mandatory Department of Heath hold of approximately two weeks, during which time his fate will be decided. The woman is confused - he's a normal, sweet cat who reacted in a perfectly logical manner to being frightened. She doesn't hold it against him, but rules are rules. What she is not told is that any cat held for that length of time is nearly certain to become ill and is likely to be killed due to illness even if they are judged to be not a threat to public health. These animals generally do not show up in shelter statistics.

I am called into the back to meet the rescue coordinator for the dog I am to pick up. She says she needs a little more time, the dog has not yet had the required shots to be released. No problem; back to the lobby. Many of the coordinators are good people, she's trying to get as many dogs out as she can this morning.

The man who was sent away to find alternate payment comes back for his dog, an older black mutt who is so very excited to be going. I'm so happy the man came back for him, older black mutts can be hard to place! We're all happy to see the dog go home.

I see the dog I am to pick up in the hallway beyond the doors to the back. He is coughing and hacking. They all are when I come for them, nearly every dog I pick up is sick or will get sick. He is being held in the middle of the hallway for his immunizations which are quickly administered, but he's coughing all up and down a hallway that has animals moving through it constantly, hacking up mucous and spit. The coordinator pokes her head through the doors and asks me if I have a slip lead - they never have enough. I hand her one and she leads the dog out to me into the lobby. A man has entered with his Yorkie and I try to keep as far away as possible with the sick dog. His cough is deep and rattling and he has green mucous around his nose, he will need further treatment once we arrive at Pets Alive. I get him out of the building as quickly as possible and load him into my truck outside, then go back in to sign his paperwork and get copies of it, as well as the antibiotics that go with nearly every dog.

Two hours after entering the lobby I am on the road. The dog I have picked up is sweet and social, calm and well-behaved. Most of the dogs I pick up there are, and most are quickly adopted once they are nursed back to health from the illness caused by the shelter.

I can't imagine what it would be like to enter as a potential adopter and to witness all of this while waiting for someone to have the time to help me. It's enough to drive one to the nearest pet shop. While NYC's kill numbers are better than the national average, most of what they count as "adoptions" - approximately 2/3 - are really transfers to rescue. I wonder how long even that is sustainable in the face of budget cuts.

I'm happy for the dog I've picked up as I pull away. I'm glad I'll have a chance to know him and hopefully to see him adopted into a good home. But always I remember the ones I have left behind.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article. Unfortunately, your story in NY is remarkable similar to ours in Houston and around the country.

9:44 AM  
Blogger Barbara Ruth Saunders said...

Thank you for your post. I am wondering: it seems that one of our obstacles in the no-kill movement is that the public believes we just can't do any better because the money is lacking. However, I see the same kinds of incompetence and inefficiency in so many agencies - the unemployment office, the disability office, the business licensing office. Is this really a money problem? Can we get allies into the mix demanding change for animals on the simple basis of generally higher performance standards for ALL agencies that serve the public?

10:42 AM  
Blogger LynnO said...

Barbara, that's a GREAT idea! Everybody has agency horror stories. John, this post is so simple and so real. There aren't a lot of "bad" people, there are just a lot of people with different levels of understanding and compassion, different incomes and tolerances.
There are animals out there for each of us, it's the making of the connections that are sometimes difficult.
This is why Petco and PetSmart invite shelters into their stores. It's easier to shop in a store environment, where you don't have to deal with an angry owner or a frazzled government worker or a sobbing relinquisher.

Off site adoptions work! Volunteers need to support those more.

12:37 PM  
Blogger Miriam said...

I have to agree with the off site adoption. I recently helped my mom adopt a dog I saw at a Bully Rally in Atlanta. The dog was one of many available , but had she not been at the park that day we never would have.found her. We did go into the city shelter to get her and thankfully one of the gentlemen that was with her at the park saw us immediately, I don't know how long my mother would have lasted in the shelter, the noise the mess the dark lighting were upsetting to both of us.
Thankfully we found Sissy quickly and just about ran out the door with her. We both cried on the way home . I give the shelter workers all the credit in the world they were all.friendly and calm in the middle of chaos.
But if Sissy hadn't been in the park that day she probably would never had made it out of there alive.

5:52 PM  
Blogger drdoolitte2800 said...

Wow, John. How much of your heart do you leave behind each time you leave there?

What an ugly operation for such an important city.

If you want to read about a shelter that will leave you smiling, read this =

7:10 PM  
Blogger Christina said...

Wow. Just heartbreaking. Please keep up the amazing job you are doing.

2:57 PM  
Blogger Sandra Parker said...

Thank you for taking the time to write such a detailed post. I would think it would be so hard to see this day in and day out, and it would take a very strong person to return day after day to rescue more dogs and cats. Thank you for the work you do and thank you telling it like it is.

8:09 PM  
Blogger Courtney K. said...

Should have mentioned that every time someone like John goes and gets a dog out of that hell hole to take care of and put up for adoption under a different organization, the Mayor's Alliance gets to count that as an adoption. And the cat that went on DOH, because the shelter worker scared him, will not count as a euth when he's put down. The Alliance doesn't have to tally that one, or all the others that are put down after they get URI from the shelter. This no-kill mission is the biggest joke the City has ever seen.
My comments are directed at the higher level, not those working in ACCs.

8:53 AM  
Blogger hobby said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

4:28 AM  
Blogger edward said...

I hate the way the word "euthanization" is used also. It is not even used accurately or according to definition. I live in a rural area in the south where many people treat animals like trash. Apparently, something we have in common with many New Yorkers. Hunters treat their hounds like the garbage they leave in the wake of their (often drunken) slaughter. Like a lot of people, I'm appalled and disgusted by the way a lot of people act. The only way I can see beyond the current social malaise, toward a reasonable future is to pressure for legislation that helps to put an end to the "freedom" people currently "enjoy" in mistreating, abandoning, animals, whether domestic or livestock.

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10:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for speaking out. Things are slowly changing as the internet’s influence brings this whole shelter issue out into the open.

Our nation is going through some “growth pains,” but eventually the public will come to know that shelter and humane are not necessarily synonymous.

It seems the only way to make this shelter reform happen, unfortunately, is to challenge the industry’s efforts to paint a smiley face on everything. The shelter industry has hidden its flaws for too long. Your work is helping a lot to expose these weaknesses so we can begin to work on them.

Keep up the great work. Maybe some day in the near future we can genuinely celebrate shelters as the safe haven their name suggests.

Alex Frisch

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