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Inside the squalid world of NYC's animal shelters

(Photo: Adam Latzer)
Inside an AC&C Manhattan shelter, November 13, 2010. (Photo: Jeff Latzer)

At an animal rights debate last week, five mayoral hopefuls voiced their support for a change in city oversight of animal shelters.

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio set his sights on Animal Care and Control of New York City, the organization that runs the city’s shelters. “AC&C has been a mess,” Mr. de Blasio said. “It’s been unfair to animals and unfair to everyone who cares about animals.”

According to volunteers, Mr. de Blasio’s comment is right on the mark.

“A dog will have a Post-it note on its kennel card saying ‘move to isolation ward’ and it’ll be there for five days and they’ll put a new arrival right next to it,” said one volunteer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “There is no disease management or infection control.”

Jeff Latzer, an ex-volunteer, agreed. “If you really want to quarantine your animals,” Mr. Latzer said, “you need to have a separate HVAC air system going into the quarantine system, and a separate one for adoption, and a third one for incoming animals. When it’s all combined you have this stale air, which becomes a petri dish for disease and infections.”

Mr. Latzer is one of a group of ex-volunteers whose experiences helped inform a report, put out early this year by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, which raised questions about AC&C shelter facilities.

Mr. Stringer’s report portrayed a chronically underfunded and overcrowded shelter system in which employee negligence and unsanitary conditions lead to an infection rate of nearly 100 percent for animals after intake.

AC&C spokesperson Richard Gentles, however, disputed critics’ characterizations of sanitary conditions.

“AC&C has cleaning policies, procedures and protocols in place to help limit the spread of infectious illnesses in the care centers,” Mr. Gentles said via email, explaining that all kennels are thoroughly broken down and cleaned at least once a day.

“Volunteers,” he added, “play a vital role in the operation of our shelter system, and we are very grateful for their support and hard work.”

(Photo: Adam Latzer)
A squalid shelter cage, May 21, 2011. (Photo: Jeff Latzer)

According to those who have spent time volunteering, though, few people show up on a regular basis to help out. Whether it’s the stress of spending time at a shelter where animals face the threat of euthanasia or the burden of working in an environment where, some say, basic needs of animals are often neglected, turnover is high.

Mr. Latzer said that volunteers find different ways to try and make animals’ lives better in the shelter environment. For some, this means buying extra toys and healthier food. Others help out by obtaining euthanasia lists—released every night—and anonymously asking animal rescue organizations to save the animals before it’s too late.

But it is slow going, and some have moved to advocate for systemic change.

Esther Koslow, a former AC&C volunteer, serves on the board of the Shelter Reform Action Committee, a coalition of animal rights advocates devoted to reforming the city-funded shelters.

The SRAC advocates for a divorce of the animal shelter system — which operates shelters in Harlem, Brooklyn and Staten Island under a five-year, $36 million contract— from the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

The committee argues that the department is much more concerned about animal control than animal care, resulting in poor funding to AC&C—which has not had a full-time medical director since 2010, according to Mr. Stringer’s recent report.

“If you look at the Department of Health mandate,” Ms. Koslow said, “the only mention of animals is to protect people from animals and animal diseases.”

Ms. Koslow and other ex-volunteer advocates favor a conservancy model for the shelter system, which would allow for an independent and expanded board of directors with more animal care expertise and fundraising prowess.

(Photo: Adam Latzer)
Unsanitary conditions, November 20, 2010. (Photo: Jeff Latzer)

AC&C, for its part, has begun to make some changes on the heels of Mr. Stringer’s report. The agency is hiring new staff for several positions and creating a separate department devoted to adoptions. It’s also slated to receive a total of $10 million in additional funding from the city by next year, which it will use to add more shelter staff and expand some existing services.

But volunteers-turned-reformers say they’re skeptical much is changing.

“The AC&C has been in operation since January 1, 1995,” Ms. Koslow said, “and they just decided, oddly enough after the Stringer report came out, that, ‘Gee, you know what, we should have an adoptions staff.’”

Ms. Koslow and Mr. Latzer both said they will fight to change the system from the outside, whether it’s by testifying at City Council hearings or spreading the word to the public in New York and beyond through social media.

The city, they added, contains enough compassion for animal welfare, as well as the resources and energy to make reform a reality—if only New Yorkers knew what was going on right under their noses.

This story was produced by The New York World.

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