Shelter Skelter

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.

“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.”

I am wondering whether she actually believes this. According to Gonzalez, more than 100 animals are put down every day citywide during the summer crunch. In Manhattan, animals are selected for euthanasia twice a day. “For every animal that I held onto, four may have had to go down because of space,” he says. “Each animal is holding a cage – it’s simple mathematics.”

And it gets to people. One kennel worker took home a puppy scheduled for euthanasia and bottle-fed it for a few days. The pup turned out to be a lost pet and was returned to its owner; the worker was fired.

Gary Kaskel, a passionate animal activist, is the sharpest thorn in the CACC’s side. Kaskel has been watching the CACC, documenting its every blunder, since his first battle with the agency, over the disposition of ferrets. He is also co-chair of the Shelter Reform Action Committee, a coalition of organizations and individuals that is determined to get a humane animal-control program for New York.

“The city is covering up a despicable program, financed by tax dollars,” he says. “The CACC claims it’s not a city agency, yet what kind of private, not-for-profit organization allows the mayor to kick directors off its board?”

Kaskel is working on a lawsuit that will challenge the city’s creation and operation of the CACC. In the meantime, the SRAC is running an anti-CACC campaign in the New York Times to educate the public about the fate of shelter animals. Kaskel has also gotten the D.O.H. and CACC to respond to more than 50 Freedom of Information Act requests and open up CACC board meetings to public scrutiny. Everything you never wanted to know about the CACC – documents, articles, reports on meetings, press releases – is gathered together on the SRAC Website. Along with others in the humane community, Kaskel wants Haggerty-Blohm fired. “She’s an inexperienced city hack,” he charges.

When the CACC’s first three-year contract with the Health Department was up in 1997, City Council member Kathryn Freed called a hearing to investigate the agency’s performance.

“The majority of the animals weren’t – and still aren’t – being sterilized,” says Freed. “There was, and is, no education program, no fund-raising, and no real effort is made to adopt out animals. All they do is kill them.” But Dr. Benjamin Mojica, commissioner of health, didn’t come to the hearing, and Freed canceled it in disgust after about a half-hour of interviewing a flunky who knew nothing relevant to the questions at hand. Her next option was to subpoena members of the DOH, but in the meantime, the CACC’s contract was quietly renewed.

It’s not as if Giuliani would have to reinvent the wheel to build a decent shelter system. Other cities have managed to shelter animals without the Sturm und Drang that affects the CACC. Municipal shelters routinely round up strays, deal with public-health issues such as rabies, efficiently license animals, and perform euthanasia on a high volume of pets (approximately 20 million dogs and cats are put down each year in the U.S.). But these shelters are also working with hundreds of independent humane societies and rescuers to lower euthanasia rates.

The only way to stop the killing is to prevent the animals from being born. Spay-and-neuter is the law at most shelters. Although the CACC pressures owners to sterilize their animals (or pay $285) when they redeem them from the lost-and-found, it hands out thousands of dogs and cats that are intact to rescue groups. Some CACC animals are sterilized each week at the Fund for Animals’s midtown clinic, but there are no plans for a surgery inside the CACC, de rigueur in shelters that have made a difference.

In 50 cities across the country, breeding and sterilization will both soon be subject to law, but not in New York, despite the fact that it is cheaper to sterilize animals than to shelter, feed, and kill them; over time, the intake would go down, allowing the shelter to house animals for a longer period and find them homes. In Las Vegas, Mary Herro, a pioneer in the field of sheltering and currently the president of the Animal Foundation, is close to reaching a “zero-kill” goal for adoptable animals. She has built a high-volume spay-neuter clinic in her shelter and has plans to build a new $5 million facility across the street. But Herro has Las Vegas mayor Jan Jones solidly behind her, raising money and public consciousness.

At the moment, San Francisco has one of the country’s model programs. There, several groups work together, despite inevitable tensions. “We don’t all like each other, but that doesn’t matter,” says Carl Friedman, director of the Department of Animal Care and Control – San Francisco’s CACC. “The goal is to save as many lives as possible.”

The well-funded Bay Area SPCA is a Disneyesque facility that looks more like a country club than a pound. But the spectacle draws the public, which finds clean, well-fed, and exercised animals. Every dog and cat is kept in its own “condo,” as if each had an independent trust fund (a few have roommates). Each condo comes with furniture, and paintings hang on the walls. The operative illusion is that the shelter is a home – not a prison. The SPCA has a list of 2,000 volunteers.

On a recent trip to San Francisco, I watched a group of Persian cats lounge on a sofa watching a video of goldfish swimming in a bowl. The cats looked a little bored, but people were amused. “If you want to do adoptions, the public has to have a happy experience walking through the shelter,” says Michael Arms, who, when he was with Long Island’s North Shore Animal League, managed to get 3,000 families going through on an average week. “The CACC is a warehouse where animals are stacked in boxes and hidden away.”

Next door to San Francisco’s animal palace, the Bay Area facility described above, is the city’s municipal shelter, where Carl Friedman must accept every animal that comes his way. (The SPCA, on the other hand, has the privilege of picking and choosing its residents.) But the two agencies have an agreement. When space runs out for any healthy, adoptable animals at Care and Control, they are moved across the street to the SPCA, which does not euthanize – it’s a “no kill” shelter. One facility is a palace, the other a tenement, but the animals are well cared for in both places. Staff are friendly and available. In comparison, New York’s CACC is an armed camp.

“The Manhattan facility is a disaster,” says Friedman, an ex-New Yorker familiar with the CACC’s problems – he is the co-author of a scathing report on the New York system, commissioned by the CACC when it first took over from the ASPCA. “The pressure is on them to improve conditions, yet they have no resources to do it. If all the New York humane agencies don’t begin to work together, instead of fighting with each other, the animals will never benefit.” (Haggerty-Blohm told me she is in close touch with Friedman and other municipal-shelter directors; Friedman says, “I can’t recall speaking with her. But I talk to many people.”)

Haggerty-Blohm can get the mayor to hold a puppy for a photo op. But can she get him to understand that city animals deserve better? “I have a direct line to the mayor’s ear,” she says. “That’s exactly what the CACC has lacked.”

Humane activists are skeptical. “The problem is that we need someone who can shame the city into putting more money into animal control,” says Gary Kaskel. “Haggerty-Blohm’s allegiance is to the mayor – not to solving this crisis. All she wants to do is keep the lid on a very volatile situation.”

Kathryn Freed is currently drafting a spay-neuter law for New York City. This alone could make a dent in euthanasia statistics, but it will not affect how animals are treated during their stays in the pound. And Freed is pessimistic about transforming the CACC into a decent Humane Society.

“How many millions do we have to spend before the taxpayers understand that there hasn’t been an iota of progress for the animals in this city since the CACC took over?” she asks. “If dogs and cats could vote, the mayor might pay some attention.”

Shelter Skelter