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Shelter Skelter

There are plenty of things this city does right. Taking care of its lost or unwanted pets isn't one of them. Given the number of New Yorkers who care about cats and dogs, do we really have to kill 40,000 of them every year?


In the inelegant lobby of the Center for Animal Care and Control, a large animal shelter on East 110th Street, a woman is holding a puppy, about 6 months old, on a frayed rope. The woman looks tired, like she was up half the night, while the puppy is bouncy, ready to climb Mount Everest. "I just found him in the street," she tells an intake clerk at the counter. This is a line he has heard so many times before, it probably pops up in his dreams. The dog leans against the woman's legs as if he owns them.

"What are you going to do with him?" she asks.

"If we examine him and find him suitable for adoption, he'll be available," the clerk says, without looking away from his computer. "Otherwise, he'll be euthanized."

The woman freaks. "You're going to kill my dog?" she shouts. "How could you kill this puppy?" The lobby is full of people who are waiting in line to surrender the dogs they also just happened to have found. "Hey -- you gonna kill my dog too?" one man yells at the clerk. The word kill cuts through the air. The clerk remains unruffled, focusing on the woman with the puppy. "We will only euthanize the puppy if he's not suitable for adoption," he repeats.

The woman regards the dog for about five seconds before deciding to surrender him. She signs a form, turns briskly, and marches out. She doesn't look back. Odds are overwhelming that the puppy, a pit bull with cropped ears -- a signal that the dog may have been bred to fight -- will be put down as soon as the next shift begins its routine, assembly-line euthanasia. The CACC rarely adopts out pit bulls, especially ones with cropped ears. Many of the dogs arrive abused and scarred from street fights, and the "people who you wouldn't even give a mosquito to are the only adopters who want them," according to Jackie Casano, head of adoptions in the Brooklyn shelter. The average adopter is looking for a poodle, maybe a Jack Russell terrier.

In fact, the CACC is filled with poodles and purebred terriers, too. On any day of the week, there are more than 100 dogs, not to mention 75 to 100 cats, available at five shelters, one in each of the city's boroughs. On recent tours through the Manhattan and Brooklyn facilities, I met Maine coon cats, lilac-point Siamese kittens, a couple of Russian blues, and countless tabbies, calicoes, tuxedos, and tigers. I saw a toy poodle, a West Highland terrier, a longhaired dachshund, two cocker spaniels, a sheltie, two beagles, two German shepherds, and a 5-month-old Rhodesian Ridgeback, all up for adoption. I couldn't count the picture-perfect shaggy terriers, for whom I have a terrible weakness. There were far too many Rottweilers and Chihuahuas; a blond, a black, and a red Chow; three thin Dobermans; four adult boxers; an energetic golden retriever; a yellow Labrador; and a few spotted hounds. All these animals, along with myriad mixed-breeds, are there for public viewing seven days a week. Yet the CACC gets few visitors. Most New Yorkers who want to adopt pets don't even know it exists.

The CACC -- a four-year-old agency created when the ASPCA withdrew from the arduous job of animal control in the city -- does virtually nothing to promote the fact that animals are up for adoption at its shelters. But that's only the beginning of the bad news.

Of the 4,502 dogs and cats that entered the CACC's five facilities in June (the most recent month for which figures were made available), 938 were adopted out -- and 3,388 were killed. Most adoptions are to rescue agencies -- in March, for instance, only 18 of 220 adoptions in Manhattan were to walk-ins (2,905 animals were euthanized). A total of about 40,000 a year are put down. Conditions in this system are appalling in this quality-of-life-obsessed era: Dogs sit in their own feces, most of them stacked in small cages. Large dogs can have trouble standing up or turning around. Sick dogs and cats often go untreated

The agency's critics, a mixed bag of animal activists, experts in the field, ex-staff members, and ordinary pet owners, charge that because there is no oversight (the city both runs and monitors its own animal-control program), the facilities are shamefully substandard, and that the staff is too small, badly managed, and untrained. They argue that too many animals are needlessly euthanized, too few are sterilized before adoption, that sick animals go untreated and "exotics" -- guinea pigs, hamsters, ferrets, lizards, and snakes, which are kept in two small rooms on the second floor -- are inadequately caged and are neglected.

They charge Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who appoints the majority of board members, with condoning, out of indifference, an underfunded, chaotic agency that is light-years behind the rest of the country.

Every city has some kind of animal-control program responsible for housing, feeding, and euthanizing unwanted pets. Killing animals is controversial, but given the population crisis, one agency or another is going to have to do the job. The ASPCA gave up its animal-control contract in New York to focus on more fundable -- and hence more popular -- programs, largely in humane education and cruelty prevention. Now the A, as it's called, is thriving, while the CACC starves. The two agencies have no joint programs, even though they're walking distance from each another. In cities where fewer animals are euthanized and more are sterilized and adopted, all the animal-welfare agencies work together; healthy shelters are embraced by their local communities. The CACC has not even made it easy for New Yorkers to see the animals, let alone adopt them. As for lost pets who get caught in New York's Dickensian system, many are in dire trouble.

"I was away with my family over the weekend," says Adrienne Evans, a financial assistant at BMG Entertainment in New York. "My neighbor was watching our dog for us. She took him for a walk in the park and he slipped his collar." The dog, who had the misfortune to be born a pit bull, was sitting on his own doorstep when the CACC picked him up. Evans came home a day later and immediately began searching. When a neighbor informed her that the CACC had picked up the dog, she called the shelter right away. "I was told they couldn't find him, and that I had to come in and look for myself. The dog was really distinct, brown and white with big blue eyes." His ears and tail were not cropped, indicating that he had never been a fighting dog. The following day, Evans went straight to the Manhattan shelter after work. She went through the wards, calling out the dog's name. "I knew he'd cry out to me," she said. She stopped every kennel worker and described her dog. Yes, someone told her. "He's here. I saw him." Yet no one could find him, or knew where he had been caged. After a painful search, one of the managers brought Evans into a room and sat her down. A staff member had found her dog, dead but still warm. He had been put down while Evans was going through the kennels looking for him.

New Yorkers are taxed only 75 cents a year for animal control -- a little more than half the national average. Today, the CACC operates with a budget of about $6 million; to run a program at the minimum standard suggested by the Humane Society of the United States, the CACC would have to raise an additional $5 million every year. At the moment, there is no full-time fund-raiser or development director on staff. The volunteer program, the backbone of many municipal shelters, has been slashed by the CACC's current director, who felt it was a hotbed of anti-CACC activity. At one point last year, before she was fired, Sandra Batalla, volunteer coordinator of the Manhattan shelter, had 75 volunteers walking, grooming, and finding homes for the animals. "One even brought her own cleaning supplies," Batalla told me. "She couldn't bear to walk the dogs and put them back into such dirty cages."

In contrast, Bide-a-Wee, a private shelter in Manhattan, has 200 volunteers, says Joyce Fridman, who runs the volunteer program. "I have to turn people away. What makes me sad is that I can't send them to the CACC, where they're really needed. They'd just be rejected."

The CACC is not, strictly speaking, a city agency. It was set up as an independent, nonprofit organization that would contract with the city to handle animal control. Yet of the seven board members, three are city commissioners, and the other four are appointed by the mayor, who can fire them at will.

"When it's convenient, they act like a city agency; when it's not, they act like a nonprofit," says Rosemary Joyce, a fund-raiser for animal causes who was briefly on the board. "I joined the CACC in 1995 because I believed it was a charitable organization, interested in helping animals. That couldn't be further from the truth. The CACC is just part of the mayor's machine. The board has no interest in raising funds."

"For four years, we've been trying to get a decent director in that shelter," says Jane Colton, one of the original volunteers when the CACC first opened its doors. "They just don't care about doing it right. The mayor knows exactly what's happening. We've written to him, informed his staff; he won't even admit there's a serious problem."

When the CACC's first director, Martin Kurtz, a veteran of the Department of Health, left in 1997, board members set out to hire someone with experience and vision to save the place. "Our only hope was to get a knowledgeable director with fund-raising contacts into the shelter," says Louise Murray, a veterinarian who was a member of the CACC board and the search committee. "We were looking for a candidate with a minimum of five years' experience, and we received a stack of résumés."

At least two highly qualified candidates -- Ed Sayres, an executive who was about to leave the American Humane Association, a prestigious 100-year-old national organization, and Michael Arms, who had been director of operations at the North Shore Animal League for twenty years -- expressed willingness to take on New York. The board voted unanimously to offer the job to Sayres, in part to take advantage of his national fund-raising contacts. "But they were stalling every inch of the way," says Murray. The city postponed the decision for months, cutting Murray out of the loop. Despite protests from board members, Marilyn Haggerty-Blohm, from the mayor's Office of Operations, where she primarily dealt with solid-waste management, was brought in as a temporary acting director. Sayres eventually took another job; Arms was never called in for an interview. Several months later, on June 1, Haggerty-Blohm was officially hired.

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