Last year, New York City killed some 35,000 animals in its shelter system-that’s about 100 dogs and cats given a fatal shot of sodium pentobarbitol each day. This year, according to Edward Boks, the new executive director of the renamed N.Y.C. Animal Care and Control, “the numbers will come down.” In five years, Mr. Boks vows, the city will end the practice of “euthanizing adoptable pets.”
This ambitious policy shift marks a radical regime change in the city’s animal-shelter system, long a tragically mismanaged corner of City Hall bureaucracy. When Mr. Boks begins his full-time position on Jan. 12, he will take over an organization formerly known as the Center for Animal Care and Control, or “Animal Control” for short, that was perceived as a city agency but is in fact a nonprofit only loosely tended to by the city. Yet before Mr. Boks was hired, the organization did little fund-raising, content to starve itself on the city’s minimal funding, forcing tens of thousands of animals to await their almost certain death in horrific conditions in its five shelters, while the public assumed that it was a city-run agency.
Now, for the first time, the organization will fulfill its mandate as a tax-exempt nonprofit, which means Animal Care is entering the sharky waters of the city’s nonprofit world. Ahead are fierce battles-for dollars from the city’s wealthy and famous, and for media attention to keep the animals’ plight in the public consciousness. Already, the organization has begun a media blitz that has placed Mr. Boks’ smiling, kindly visage, along with various photogenic shelter doggies, in The Times and the Post , where this week he plugged a campaign to rename pit bulls “New Yorkies.” A public-relations agency, TJ Public Relations, has been hired to manage the media image-a move that, like everything else having to do with animal welfare in the city, experts say should have come years ago.
Indeed, for a feline- and canine-filled city in which organic dog biscuits are sold in West Village boutiques and Burberry doggie sweaters are de rigueur in certain circles, New York has had one of the worst animal-welfare systems in the country.
Mr. Boks, a hale, 52-year-old, silver-haired former minister, brings a stellar track record to his new role. In Arizona, as the director of Maricopa County’s Animal Care and Control program based in Phoenix, he turned the county with the highest pet-euthanasia rate in the country into the one with the lowest rate in just five years.
“The biggest problem I face is that there is a perception that our organization is a city agency and part of the Public Health Department. That’s simply not true,” Mr. Boks said on a recent Wednesday as he sat in his office at 11 Park Place, a few blocks from City Hall. Wearing a gray polo shirt and khakis, Mr. Boks spoke in quiet, deliberate sentences. He has the calming, confident demeanor of a popular high-school civics teacher. “We are a charitable organization with huge problems and huge needs,” he continued. “There is a perception that we are underlings of the city government. And we need to-if we are going to turn this situation around-start acting like a true nonprofit with real fund-raising.”
On Nov. 9, Mr. Boks launched Animal Care’s new era of fund-raising at a black-tie event held at the Donna Karan boutique on Madison Avenue, where 200 guests-including Bernadette Peters, Mary Tyler Moore and Harvey Fierstein-mingled among the satin gowns and raised more than $30,000 for Animal Care. That’s chump change, considering that some experts say $20 million will be needed to bring things fully up to date, and yet it was the largest fund-raiser in the organization’s eight-year history.
In terms of spreading the word, though, the evening was a success. “To have Ed Boks at the head of Animal Care, a man who really cares about the animals, we’re going from a terrible situation to having someone who can get a handle on this crisis,” Ms. Peters said. “People just aren’t aware that we have thousands of shelter animals waiting for adoption. Animal Care needs to do more fund-raisers. The city has only so much to give.”
Soon after that evening, on Nov. 22, Mr. Boks held the first of two sold-out volunteer orientations.
Tucked away past the barber shops, bodegas and walk-up apartments on East 110th Street in Harlem is the city-financed Manhattan Animal Care and Control shelter, a low-slung red brick structure done in Cold War bunker style. A recent visit offered a glimpse of just how bad things have gotten for New York’s abandoned dogs and cats. In the waiting room just beyond the animal drop-off desk, muffled barks and growls could be heard from behind the stainless-steel doors that shield the animal-holding areas. A raven-haired middle-aged woman in a pillowy sweatshirt, baggy sweatpants and vintage Nikes stood in the lobby while attendants retrieved the missing pit bull she had come to claim. Ten minutes later, the attendants emerged with the animal, a nylon muzzle tightly strapped around its jaw. But as the woman tussled with her mocha-colored canine, the elation of the reunion melted into panic as she felt a four-inch wound on the dog’s belly bound by surgical stitches.
“What kind of place are you running here? Did you hurt her?” she trilled toward the two shelter attendants. Her anger welled. Alex Alvarez, the shelter manager, stood nearby, witnessing the developing fracas. “We get aggressive owners all the time,” he said to me as the woman continued to bellow. In a modest tone, he explained to the woman the shelter’s policy to spay or neuter the dogs and cats that enter the shelter system, a regulation aimed at reducing the city’s brutal pet-overpopulation problem, which, according to animal-welfare experts, has swelled to more than a million pets in recent years. But animal-welfare policy was of little concern to an owner who had come to retrieve a dog, only to find that her pet had unwittingly gone under the surgeon’s knife.
“Look, she’s a pretty puppy,” she said pointing at the jostling dog, still trying to break free of its taut leash. “I wanted to breed her some day. Who gives you the right to stop me? It’s my dog.”
The Big Fix
Several days before the Donna Karan fund-raising event, on the Today show Mr. Boks unveiled the Pet-Ark system, a touch-screen computer kiosk that works like a cross between an A.T.M. and Friendster, dispensing cheery animal profiles and pictures in lieu of cash. The bright blue machines will be installed at five city-financed animal shelters, as well as the ASPCA and other brick-and-mortar shelters, and eventually in public locations across the city like parks, post offices and city buildings.
Mr. Boks is also going full-speed ahead on the “Big Fix” program, which will provide subsidized spaying and neutering services to pet owners on any form of public assistance.
While the animal-welfare community waits for these programs to make a dent in the problem, for now, the mere fact of new leadership at Animal Care is seen as a harbinger of progress.
“Ed Boks brings a lot to New York City. He understands that Animal Control did a terrible job, and he knows he needs to fix it,” said Jane Hoffman, the president of the Mayor’s Alliance for N.Y.C.’s Animals Inc., the nonprofit group set up by the Bloomberg administration in 2002 to coordinate the myriad animal-rescue groups and shelters working to place adoptable animals in homes.
“The city’s focus on animals has changed,” said Marcello Forte, the director of the Animal Haven shelter in Flushing, one of the premier private shelters, and a board member of the Mayor’s Alliance. “We’re beginning to be on the right track; now we need the public to start realizing what the issue is.” Animal Haven operates a shelter in Queens with 240 healthy cats and dogs available for adoption, including many purebreds.
At a time when you can read about the Atkins diet for dogs in The Wall Street Journal and fleece-lined dog pillows in the Styles section of The New York Times, there is little general knowledge about the plight of the city’s unwanted pets.
Indeed, the numbers are staggering. The roughly 100 dogs and cats given a lethal injection each day mean that every year, nearly 70 percent of the animals who enter the shelter system will be put down. A meager 10 percent get adopted and placed in new homes. Of the nearly one million dogs in New York, only 20 percent are licensed with the Department of Health, making returning a lost dog to its owner virtually impossible (according to numbers provided by Animal Care, only 1 percent of unlicensed dogs are returned to their owners). The Health Department, the city agency that oversees Animal Care’s contract, slashed the organization’s budget from $8.2 million to $7.2 million in 2003. The city spends less than $1 per capita for animal control, the least of any metropolitan area in the country (comparatively, most animal-control programs receive $1.75 to $3 per capita).
City officials say the budgetary issue is the result of the city’s current fiscal crisis.
“The reality is, we don’t have the resources to do everything we want to do,” Dr. Thomas Frieden, the commissioner of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said. “We need to prioritize getting the healthy animals that are adoptable into homes.”
Shelter dogs, it bears saying, are on the whole not mangy mutts; nearly 20 percent of the animals in the shelters are purebreds-Labradors, poodles, terriers-just like the lucky dogs that frolic in Central Park each morning.
End of The Dark Years
“There is a perception in the community that, in the past, this organization wasn’t completely open with people who were asking legitimate questions,” Mr. Boks said diplomatically, swiveling easily in his office chair behind an organized oval desk. Stacks of blue folders were neatly perched on shelves next to a window overlooking downtown Manhattan. Two whiteboards on opposite walls were covered with scribbled numbers and arrows.
It was a particular slight to animal-welfare groups, Mr. Boks said, when in February 2002 the city placed John Doherty, the sanitation commissioner, on the board of Animal Control, further reinforcing the organization’s image as a “disposal” organization. “When I heard that New York looked at Animal Control as a sanitation issue, I thought-the whole animal-welfare community thought-it was bizarre,” Mr. Boks said. (He added, however, that Commissioner Doherty has been “very supportive” of his efforts.)
During these dark years, according to critics, Animal Control acted covertly and treated volunteers as potential whistle-blowers who could expose the abhorrent conditions of New York shelter animals.
In 1997, Kathryn Freed, then a City Council member from the First District in lower Manhattan, held hearings to investigate the city’s contract with Animal Control. Her 90-page report and subsequent hearings provided a scathing review of the city’s practices and the leadership of former director Marilyn Haggerty-Blohm, who was fired in 2002, according to the Daily News .
“The one time I visited the Brooklyn shelter, I had nightmares for months. Large dogs were stuffed into small cages and couldn’t move. Dogs sat in their own feces; some had broken bones. Dogs and cats were stacked on top of each other. It was heartless to see them suffer like that,” said Ms. Freed, now a Civil Court judge. “The organization was so badly mismanaged; there were such horrendous conditions in the shelters. They didn’t do any education or fund-raising. Under the previous administration, Animal Control was an arm of the city government, plain and simple. It was disingenuous to say it wasn’t being run as a city agency.”
John Stevenson tells a similar tale. The president of the North Shore Animal League, the country’s largest private adoption organization (with a budget of $33 million, North Shore places more than 30,000 dogs and cats in homes every year), Mr. Stevenson said that his offers to assist Animal Control during the late 1990′s went unanswered before Mr. Boks’ arrival. “We had political issues with the previous director, Marilyn Haggerty-Blohm,” he said. In one instance, according to Mr. Stevenson, he presented a proposal to install a permanent adoption facility in Bryant Park to put shelter animals on display in a high-traffic area in midtown Manhattan. “Nothing materialized, so we got discouraged and moved on,” he said.
Ms. Haggerty-Blohm declined to comment for this article, saying only, “I’m no longer in that position. It’s over.”
Mr. Boks said he understands the political baggage carried by his organization, and is committed to an open dialogue with critics and the animal-rescue groups working to move abandoned pets out of the shelters and into safe homes.
“We have created this dirty little secret by putting the pounds in parts of the city where people don’t often visit. We have to give this issue the attention it deserves,” Mr. Boks said.
“We’re now getting to a place where we can evaluate shelter animals the same way a pet owner evaluates their pets,” he continued. “This is an issue that touches every New Yorker. We have a responsibility to domestic animals; they’re a product of our creation. It’s been a slow progression to get where we are today-but we’re here. And this is the tipping point.”