Who Will Save Them?

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Politicians argue over best way to save beleaguered animal shelter system

Most elected officials and animal rights advocates agree that New York City's public shelter system is desperately in need of reform. Shelters are grossly overcrowded and understaffed, the city spends only 10 percent of the Humane Society's recommended $8 per capita on its animal care, and an average of 54 animals are euthanized every day. What politicians and advocates cannot agree on, however, is how to fix this broken system.

City Council is expected to vote this week on Intro Bill 655, sponsored by Speaker Christine Quinn and Upper East Side Council Member Jessica Lappin and supported by the mayor and a cadre of prominent groups like the ASPCA, the Humane Society and the Mayor's Alliance for Animals. Council Member Dan Garodnick is also one of the bill's 15 sponsors.

The bill would infuse Animal Care and Control (ACC), a division of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, with a $10 million budget bump to fund expanded hours and staff at existing shelters and receiving centers, create a field service division and regulations for Trap-Neuter-Return programs. It would also repeal a law passed in 2000 that requires the ACC to build and maintain a full-service shelter in every borough, a requirement the city never fulfilled, and would negate the city's obligation to operate shelters in Queens and the Bronx, where there are currently no city-run shelters.

Because of this provision, some animal rights organizations are crying foul on behalf of their four-legged charges, claiming that City Council is trying to abrogate its responsibility by throwing cash at a broken system. They are supporting an alternate plan put forth by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer-a viable rival of Quinn's for the 2013 mayor's race-that would spin off the ACC into a quasi-independent not-for-profit organization, much like the Central Park Conservancy.

"We are currently in an emergency situation," said Lappin. "If we can get this money now, if we can hire staff for this now, let's do it. That does not mean that we can't get more in the future." She is pushing hard to get the bill passed on the basis that she'd rather take whatever resources the city can offer and put them into the system now than wait to perfect it. "I do think we would like to find a way to reform the system. We are looking at ways to do that," she said. "That's not what this bill is focused on-it's about improving service and putting more money into our ACC system."

Opponents have seized on just that fact, alleging that putting more money into ACC is exactly the wrong prescription to fix an ailing shelter system that can barely handle the animals it takes in.

"There are inhumane conditions. There are healthy animals being put down, animals sleeping in their own waste," said Stringer. "We have members of the board who have absolutely no experience in fundraising and no experience in animal control. It's a disgrace."

"My view is that New York City can become a national leader in humane animal care through sensible reform. The root of the problem is that ACC lacks the funding and expertise to live up to its name," Stringer said. He has put forward a proposal to take the ACC out of city control and require the city to comply with the existing laws mandating a full-service shelter in every borough.

So far, a petition supporting Stringer's plan has garnered 8,165 signatures and the backing of many animal welfare groups, like Stray from the Heart, the nonprofit that sued the city for its breach of the shelter law, claiming they incurred financial injury as a result of picking up the city's slack. The court originally agreed and ordered the city to set up a timetable to build additional shelters, but the city appealed on the grounds that Stray from the Heart had no standing on which to sue, and won. In a rare move, the appellate court ruled in favor of a motion from Stray from the Heart to reconsider the appeal based on legal errors in the interpretation of standing.

Toni Bodon, executive director and founder of Stray from the Heart, has worked on the lawsuit for three years. She is confident that their case will ultimately triumph in the court system and is dismayed that it may be voided by the passage of Intro 655.

"They're running scared, so now they've fast-tracked the bill," said Bodon. "Let the court of appeals decide this very important decision." She said they had already won on the merits of the case, and that all the city had to fall back on were technicalities. "They called minivans that are parked in depressed neighborhoods receiving centers," she said. "We said no, and the judge agreed."

Assembly Member Micah Kellner, who has sponsored state legislation that would set minimum standards of care for shelters, said the Department of Health should be taken out of the equation entirely.

"Over the last decade, you've seen the private sector step up to the plate when it comes to saving animals," said Kellner. For example, "There's the ASPCA, which has provided free and low-cost spaying and neuters for people's pets, particularly ones coming from rescue groups. So you've had all of this private investment in saving animals' lives so we can have a no-kill city-all you've seen is the city under the Bloomberg administration take a step back."

Fellow Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal, who also has a legislative history of working to protect animals, has been urging City Council to vote no on Intro 655 and supports Stringer's alternative.

"This current bill to put more money into ACC, while it's commendable," said Rosenthal, "doesn't address some of the essential problems of homeless dogs and cats out there."

Some of those problems include a lack of capacity and high rates of euthanization at shelters. Richard Gentles, director of development and communications at ACC, said they will euthanize sick animals at the requests of owners, if they have severe behavior problems and can't be placed in adoptive homes and for simple illnesses they can't afford to let spread.

"Our isolation wards are very limited," said Gentles, an animal lover who is about to add a rabbit to his roster of adopted pets that at one point included goats. "We don't have a lot of extra space for animals, so if they're sick and contagious," even with just an upper respiratory infection like a cold, "they'll have to be put down."

Rosenthal said the problem of space is her main objection to any bill that allows the city to get out of building new shelters.

"This might increase the number of staff people," said Rosenthal. "[But] there will be no room. This is sentencing thousands of animals to death by not following up with building new shelters."

With major support from the council, Intro 655 is likely to pass this week.

"In reality, if the mayor and the speaker support this, the only thing we can do is wait for a new mayor and speaker," said Queens Council Member Peter Vallone Jr., whose father passed the original bill to mandate the shelters.

"The bill does good things, I'm aware of that, but there's not reason to let the city out of its legal responsibility to build a shelter in Queens and the Bronx," Vallone said.

Lappin and other groups supportive of the measure say they're doing the best they can and would prefer not to let animals languish in shelters for lack of staff and funding while the city fights over how to restructure the ACC.

"There are people who would say, 'Until we completely dismantle it and start from scratch, it's not worth it,'" said Lappin. "I don't agree with that."

A recent visit to the Manhattan shelter showed the ACC doing its best with scant resources. Volunteers and staff members worked to clean the cages of the hundreds of dogs, cats, rabbits and other miscellaneous abandoned pets-recently, a pigeon and a pig-but many sit in small cages with their own waste precariously close to their food, waiting. What the ACC needs more of, said Gentles, are adopters, volunteers and money.

"We need to supplement our contract money from the city," said Gentles, noting that the ACC is able to raise its own funds as a nonprofit but still relies heavily on the city, which appoints its board. He couldn't say whether Intro 655 or an alternate plan would best serve ACC at the moment. "We're all wanting to do the same thing, to help the animals," he said, voice raised slightly above the din of howling pit bulls in cages a few yards away.

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