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Shelter Skelter


"We were completely duped," says Murray. "The city never intended to hire an outsider." Rosemary Joyce adds that then-sanitation commissioner and CACC chairman John Doherty "told us the city couldn't afford to hire Sayres at a six-figure salary. Then Marilyn Haggerty-Blohm comes in at $100,000 with absolutely no experience." Murray and Joyce were both kicked off the board. "They did a great job," says Murray, "execution-style."

Faith Elliot, director of publicity, was one of the first to be fired. In an unusual move for a quasi-public agency, Elliot was asked to sign a confidentiality agreement before receiving her severance. She refused, as did two other employees, Sondra Batalla and Alton Allen. What does the CACC have to hide?

"Plenty," says Elliot, who had been responsible for a cable-TV show promoting shelter animals and an off-site adoption program -- both of which were discontinued. "The goal is just to euthanize as quickly as possible. And make sure the mayor's reputation isn't tarnished."

After weeks of negotiations, Haggerty-Blohm agreed to an interview and let me into the Manhattan and Brooklyn shelters. I had visited both facilities two years ago and had written critically about the CACC's troubles, and she was convinced that I would see improvements. The attractive, thirtyish director was sitting in her office on Park Place, far from any live animals.

Haggerty-Blohm was raised on Staten Island, where she moved up through the ranks of the local bureaucracy all the way to the mayor's Office of Operations in Manhattan. As she tells the story, one day she and then-deputy mayor Randy Mastro ended up talking dogs. "I noticed a portrait of his bearded collie on his desk," she explains. "No picture of his daughter -- but the dog is there." They bonded over a discussion of the Westminster Kennel Club Show, and apparently the conversation led to a job offer.

The new director readily admits that the "facilities are atrocious," a fact she is quick to blame on the ASPCA, which built them. But she said staffing and policy changes had produced improvements. According to Haggerty-Blohm, there's $2.2 million in the city coffers to renovate the Manhattan shelter and $4.5 million tucked away for a new shelter in Queens. But the CACC could not provide any evidence of a schedule for the Manhattan or Queens renovation. Brooklyn has completed the first phase of a renovation, at a cost the CACC declined to divulge. "But things are better already; the animals aren't suffering," she says. "They're exuberant."

Haggerty-Blohm drives us up to the shelter in her new white Jeep. The Manhattan branch of the CACC, a two-block walk from public transportation through mean streets, sits next to a junkyard guarded by two large dogs. There's no parking lot. Potential adopters have little opportunity to spend time with the animals, and are discouraged from walking dogs around the block. Radio cabs are called to the shelter door for adopters to get home with their new pets.

Michael Pastore, director of operations, takes us on a tour. (Pastore has since been moved to director of field operations.) First-time visitors will be painfully aware that "the wards," as they are called, are narrow, dirty, and badly ventilated. Cats do better than dogs at the CACC because they can survive in small spaces. Dogs are stacked in three-by-three-foot cages, forced to eat, sleep, and defecate in the same small area. The staff has no time for bathing and exercising them.

I notice that some animals have water, some don't. A few dogs sit on tattered mats, which are soaked. "They don't work," acknowledges Haggerty-Blohm. She wants to purchase elevated racks for the cages, so the dogs won't be sitting in their own feces. (Three years ago, Scotlund Haisley, then the Manhattan shelter director, told me he had been begging the administration for the funds to do this. Haisley resigned after a year of frustration. Since then, none of the facility's four directors has managed to improve conditions.)

"Look at that dog," I say. "He's too big for his cage. He can't move." There's a huge brindled dog, maybe a mastiff mix, who can't turn around or stand up. Haggerty-Blohm nods sadly. "Get him out through rescue right away," she tells Pastore. Later, a rescuer calls me about a Rottweiler with five newborn pups. They were all put in a small cage, and the mother smothered three of the pups because she had no room to move.

Strays are kept in a separate ward while they are being assessed. In New York State, they must be held for five business days before they are put down or put up for adoption; the city has a special dispensation to evaluate -- and invariably euthanize -- strays after 48 hours. These dogs look worse than those in the adoption ward. There are numerous pit bulls, many of which look as if they've been through a war. One particularly sad dog covered in scars is unconscious; the police brought him in, having shot him with tranquilizer darts. When he wakes up, if there's no legal dispute over his destiny, he will be put down. The staff spends most of its time caring for animals that will be killed.

It's early afternoon, and the strays are still sitting in mounds of feces that have obviously been left all night.

"Why haven't these kennels been cleaned yet?" I ask Pastore.

"You can't control when they go to the bathroom," he replies.

True. But you can control when the kennels are scooped and cleaned. An ex-employee will later tell me that at one time, "one worker was often responsible for keeping between two and three wards clean, which can mean 75 animals." This man says he was alone in the Manhattan shelter from midnight to 8 a.m., with "300 animals to watch and water, telephones to answer, and the front door to monitor." A CACC spokesman says that two people currently work the midnight shift.

Pastore moves the tour upstairs to where the long-term "holding" animals are kept. Their owners have died; or been hospitalized, arrested, or evicted; or have lost their animals for other reasons. A tenuous legal safety net keeps these pets alive. Until they are released, a process that can take days or months, the dogs remain in the same small cages. Most of them are in visibly poor physical and psychological shape at the end of their incarcerations at the CACC, unless they become house favorites and receive special treatment. The holding animals apparently receive less attention and care than the dogs and cats downstairs.

"It's hard to get most of the vets to even go upstairs and treat these animals or update their vaccinations," reports Ralph Gonzalez, a former assistant Manhattan shelter director, in a telephone interview later. (Internal disputes erupt over the euthanasia of particular animals. Gonzalez resigned in April after he ordered put down a beagle that he knew others wanted saved.) While Gonzalez was still with the CACC, a kennel worker was fired for hosing down a cage with steaming hot water without having first removed the animal. "He had done it several times," said Gonzalez. The worker was using ear protectors and couldn't hear the dog crying out in pain.

"What can you expect?" a former employee said over the phone. This woman had been warned, like everyone else, not to talk to the press, but her frustration prevailed. "The management hires kids for $8.25 an hour. They know nothing and are badly trained. No one -- that is, no one who cares -- is watching."

The ward is being cleaned as we enter, and we wade through a river of urine, water, chemicals, and feces. The shelter is so badly designed that the muck from the cages all has to go into a drain in the center of the floor. Haggerty-Blohm tiptoes through the swamp in beige pumps. In the hallway outside the holding wards are eleven Chihuahuas in a stack of cages; each dog is sitting in feces. "They are about to be cleaned," she says, optimistically.

When we go back downstairs to the shelter offices, Haggerty-Blohm looks at me and says, "Well, doesn't everything look better?"

The Brooklyn Shelter, in east New York, is partially renovated but more dilapidated than Manhattan, and the tour is even more discouraging. The unrenovated wards are stifling; the newly air-conditioned wards are freezing. Sandra Batalla, the former Manhattan volunteer coordinator, worked in Brooklyn during the recent renovation. "I would come in the morning and see kittens with goop dripping from their eyes and noses," she told me. "They were freezing to death. The wards are either saunas or freezers."

In the new sections, dogs and cats are housed in the same wards -- taboo in most shelters because it's far too traumatic for the cats. The CACC has purchased glistening, stainless-steel three-by-three-foot cages -- which are triple-stacked. To be placed in the top ones, dogs must be lifted four or five feet off the ground. Scared dogs that keep to the back of a top cage are removed by lasso. Staff members have told me that dogs often get their legs broken on cage doors while being taken out. According to Batalla, "If a worker breaks a dog's leg, the dog is euthanized."

The Brooklyn kennels, unlike Manhattan's, are very clean. I ask when the dogs were last fed. Pastore -- along for this tour as well -- tells me they are fed each day "at two in the morning and two in the afternoon."

"You wake the dogs up and feed them at two in the morning?"

"There's nothing else for the staff to do," he explains, "so we have them feed." It's 2:30 in the afternoon, but there's no food in sight. "Why aren't the dogs being fed now?" I ask.

"I had the staff hold off," Pastore says. "I didn't want the feeders getting in your way."

Denise Brown, the Brooklyn shelter director, reluctantly agrees to answer some questions. When I ask her whether she has been flooded with incoming animals, she says, "Not really."

"There's no space problem?"

"We don't euthanize for space," she says, like a recording. "We only euthanize sick or aggressive animals."

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