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Animal Care and Control volunteers bite back

Former helpers at city dog and cat shelters have turned into some of the system's most activist critics

Esther Koslow started volunteering at New York City Animal Care and Control’s Manhattan shelter in June 2006. Koslow, who lives on the Upper West Side, spent much of her time at the city-sponsored facility in East Harlem, writing brief biographies and taking photos of the cats and dogs there to help get them adopted.

She hasn’t worked there in four years. In 2009, the organization got a new executive director, one of 11 to take the position since 1995. Koslow saw management becoming less receptive to volunteers’ input on shelter practices, and decided it was time to move on.

Like other former volunteers at city-sponsored shelters, which take in more than 30,000 animals each year, Koslow now devotes her volunteer time to advocating for systemic change at the Center for Animal Care and Control, Inc., which operates shelters in Harlem, Brooklyn and Staten Island under a five-year, $36 million contract with the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

“I couldn’t do what I do and be a volunteer there,” she said.

Jeff Latzer, a former volunteer at Animal Care and Control, violated shelter rules to take pictures like this one, to advertise homeless animals’ human-friendliness. He’s now a leading critic of the system. Photo: Sabrina Paige

Koslow now serves on the board of the Shelter Reform Action Committee (SRAC), a coalition of animal advocates devoted to reforming the city-funded shelters. The committee uses its website to report on what it alleges are negligence, mismanagement and political dysfunction in the agency, sometimes using volunteers working in the shelters as anonymous sources.

Those sources are violating the agreements they signed when they came on board. Everyone who volunteers at Animal Care and Control signs away their right to talk about what goes on in shelters, so anonymity for whistleblowers is a necessity.

Their reports are often harrowing. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer used their accounts in a devastating report on the shelters. “These temporary cages are always filthy — covered with feces and no food or water,” attested one former volunteer last year. “I check on these cages when I come arrive [sic] and when I leave, and they stay the same: filthy with vomit, diarrhea, dirty or no water.”

Stringer’s report portrayed a chronically underfunded shelter system where employee negligence and unsanitary conditions lead to an infection rate of nearly 100 percent for animals after intake. (Animal Care and Control disputes the report of the infection rate, which came from City Council testimony by the medical director of the local American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals adoption center.) 

It’s not what the volunteers expect when they walk in the door. They sign up to walk dogs and socialize with them; to help out with adoptions and, sometimes, clean cages.

In an e-mail, Animal Care and Control spokesperson Richard Gentles said that more than 400 people are enrolled in the volunteer program, with about 250 classified as active volunteers.

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

According to those who have spent time volunteering, however, 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 volunteers say, basic needs of animals are at times neglected, turnover is high.

According to a current volunteer at Animal Care and Control in Manhattan, one ward in the shelter puts new intakes in cages right next to cages containing sick animals, on a frequent basis.

“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 the volunteer, who asked to remain anonymous because of the nondisclosure agreement. “There is no disease management or infection control.”

Gentles 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,” he said.

Gentles said that that all kennels holding animals are thoroughly broken down and cleaned once a day or more than once if the kennel is especially dirty and that kennels are also spot cleaned throughout the day.

While a volunteer at Animal Care and Control in 2011, Jeff Latzer documented conditions in the East Harlem shelter. Photo: Jeff Latzer

The Shelter Reform Action Committee advocates for a divorce of the animal shelter system — which also includes intake centers in the Bronx and Queens — from the city health department. It argues that the department is much more concerned about animal control than animal care, resulting in poor funding to Animal Care and Control and cuts in staff and service.

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

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 the fundraising prowess.

At a debate on animal rights last week, five mayoral hopefuls — not including frontrunner Christine Quinn — voiced support for a change in city oversight of the shelters.

“Yes to full-service facilities in the Bronx and Queens, yes to a conservancy model or type of model that provides a strong, independent board with the ability to gather their own resources,” said candidate Bill de Blasio. “AC&C has been a mess. It’s been unfair to animals and unfair to everyone who cares about animals.”

One of the ex-volunteers who helped write the report, Jeff Latzer of Sunnyside, Queens, chose to lend his services at an Animal Care and Control shelter, instead of a privately funded no-kill shelter, because he said wanted to help out at “the place with the most need.”

According to Latzer, many shelter volunteers — particularly those authorized to go beyond the adoption rooms visible to the public — find that they don’t like what they see.

“You start to ask questions and you realize how little time these animals have and how few the resources that are provided to them to make it out alive,” he said.

Volunteers find different ways, Latzer explained, to try and make animals’ lives better in the shelter environment. For some volunteers this means buying extra toys and healthier food for animals. Others help out by obtaining the shelter’s list of animals to be euthanized, released every night, and anonymously posting photos and blurbs about these animals on Facebook, begging animal rescue organizations to take them out of Animal Care and Control before it’s too late.

After Latzer spent three years and about 4,000 volunteer hours walking and socializing dogs, Animal Care and Control sent him a letter in the mail telling him that he had been “terminated” from the volunteer program for violating shelter policy and procedures, without specifying which rules he had broken.

Latzer believes he was fired because he walked dogs who had bite marks, which by policy are handled only by employees because of the possibility of rabies. (Rabies has not been found in a New York City dog in years.) Latzer also allowed other people working at the shelter to photograph him interacting with the homeless dogs in order to advertise their sociability to potential rescuers and adopters, which is against agency policy.

“They need to ‘be alone in the photo to remind people that these are homeless animals,’ which I can’t imagine someone saying with a straight face, but they put it in writing and these are the rules,” said Latzer, who says he knows other volunteers who have been fired by the shelter system.

Before being terminated, Latzer anonymously criticized Animal Care and Control practices online, but now that he is no longer at the shelter, he can attach his name to his cause.

One of his complaints about the shelters is lack of space and inadequate facilities.

“If you really want to quarantine your animals, 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,” he said. “When it’s all combined you have this stale air, which becomes a petri dish for disease and infections.”

Gentles said that the Manhattan shelter has separate zones for dog kennels, cat areas, hallways and offices, with fresh air replacing existing air in each room roughly 13 times per hour.

Stringer’s report raised questions about shelter facilities as well, calling them overcrowded. His report quoted Shelter Reform Action Committee’s blog, which details animals sitting in their own excrement and left continuously in small cages meant only for transportation. The report also noted that Animal Care has not had a full-time medical director since 2010.

Animal Care and Control has begun to make some changes on the heels of Stringer’s report. The agency is hiring new staff for several positions and creating a separate department devoted to adoptions.

Animal Care is also slated to receive a total of $10 million in additional funding from the city by next year, thanks to the City Council, which it will use to add more shelter staff and expand some existing services.

Volunteers-turned-reformers say they’re skeptical much is changing. “The AC&C has been in operation since January 1, 1995, and they just decided, oddly enough after the Stringer report came out, that ‘Gee, you know what, we should have an adoptions staff,’” said Koslow.

Both Koslow and Latzer say they will continue their 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. They say that the city contains enough compassion for animals and their 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.

Said Latzer, “Part of the priority is to start to broaden the base of people who are aware of AC&C issues.”

 

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12 Comments

  1. This is a great article and one that all New York City animal advocates should read. Thanks for publishing!

  2. It just baffles the mind that the Mayor is more concerned about the girth of his city’s residents than the fact that helpless animals are being mistreated and dying by the thousands in his city-run shelters! I remember when Jeff Latzer was “fired” from his job as volunteer because he broke the rules and appeared with the dogs in photos. They also fired the wonderful photographer, Emily Tanen. This was a huge loss for the shelter and the animals who depended on them. Although the volunteers today try their best to get great photos of the dogs, most don’t compare to those taken by Ms Tanen. She made sure that the dogs had costumes, and if possible, were photographed outdoors. Some of the most heartwarming photos were those that contained Jeff Latzer with a dog.

    Letters have been written to Mayor Bloomberg, petitions have been signed and protests have been staged. However, things continue to deteriorate at the shelters. It’s amazing to me that they can even find anyone to volunteer at the run-down Brooklyn ACC, which is in an unfavorable, unsafe neighborhood. Has the Mayor ever set foot in any of the shelters? I am so thankful for Mr Stringer’s interest and involvement. I wish he’d run for Mayor of NYC! My heart aches for the animals who end up in the NYC ACC. Of course, the problem is not only that of the shelter system. There is also a problem with irresponsible pet-owners in NYC. Every day, beloved pets are “dumped” because they became old, there was a new baby in the house, someone had allergies, the family was going on vacation (this is true!), the owner had “no time”…you name it. Then, there are the backyard breeders who breed dogs for profit, then dump the adults on the street when they are no longer needed. Yes, the shelter system is broken, but NYC residents also have to take some of the blame. Pets should be forever, and pets should never be “purchased”.

  3. More support needs to be provided to the reform group, as NYACC is corrupt, dishonest, greedy, and wasting the limited funds pn useless management. Management is a joke on every level. Surely wish we could take each one and place them in a filthy cage for 72 hrs, without water and food, and medical treatment.

  4. Richard Gentiles – you are so full of s**t I don’t know how you can look at yourself in the mirror every morning. Your comments about cages being cleaned once a day and spot cleaned is utter crap. I’ve volunteered at the Brooklyn shelter two days running and see the cages of many animals in exactly the same state as the prior day, unless of course the dog has miraculously learned how to defecate in exactly the same place and exactly the same shape. The only things I saw being cleaned with any regularity are the ACC employees cars in the back yard using the hoses and materials that are supposed to be used to clean the facility. If the staff were as diligent about cleaning the shelter as they are about washing their cars on company time you probably wouldn’t have a systemic hygiene and infection problem.

  5. I do not live in NY or have ever been to this shelter, but I do work for an open intake municipal shelter. It does seem a little ridiculous that they do not have an adoption staff. Though, I can’t help but be offended by how many times the staff has been referred to as “negligent.” In most city funded shelters, the staff are very greatly outnumbered by animals. Though everyone tries to keep them clean, healthy, and comfortable, it’s impossible to have every cage spotless at all times. I think that as volunteers who care so greatly for these animals, should actively help clean, when they see these conditions. Most shelter staff got into this line of work because they are very passionate about animal welfare. They also do pretty grueling work, see horrific abuse cases, and work for minimum wage. To be working in that position, trying to do your best, and then to be demonized in the media is terrible. Their frontline staff has my support. Also, the shelter is more likely to ask volunteers to not walk dogs with bite wounds for their own safety. The shelter is a very scary place for most animals, coupled with a history of abuse, the behavior of these dogs can be unpredictable. Obviously, that doesn’t apply to all dogs with bite wounds, but no shelter wants to see their volunteers get hurt. These article doesn’t do much in the way to speak about how exactly disease spreads in a shelter setting. I think it’s really unfair to create this kind of hysteria without a weigh in from medical staff. But, regardless, I hope that this article brings some attention to the issues and helps the animals have better care and find loving homes,

  6. I am writing in response to your May 15th article, “Animal Care Volunteers Bite Back.” I have been a volunteer with AC&C since May of 2012 and have seen an immense amount of change over the last year. First of all, the quality of the staff has improved greatly. When I first started volunteering, there were times that I was shocked to see the staff treat the animals like objects. Now, I rarely, if ever, see that treatment – the staff treat the animals with care. It is clear that AC&C took action and improved the screening process for new hires. Secondly, there have been many positions added which has led to a marked improvement in communication and enforcement of policies regarding safety and cleanliness. Each week an email is sent out to volunteers to keep us up to date on successes, and also where there is room for improvement and the steps toward that end. In addition, a blog site has been created for volunteers to communicate with each other, and select staff members who have been tasked with being the link between the volunteers and the staff.

    The pictures in your article are from 2010 and 2011 – you’d be hard pressed to find such conditions today. This is not to say there isn’t room for improvement, but the answer is not criticism. The answer is more funding to allow for the positive changes that the community, staff and volunteers alike know need to be made.

  7. Your recent article “Animal Care and Control Volunteers Bite Back” (May 15,) omitted any reference to the current, dynamic volunteer team committed to Animal Care & Control of NYC (AC&C). AC&C is full of compassionate people—both volunteers and staff members—devoted to caring for homeless and abandoned animals. We are inspired by the dedication and generosity of AC&C’s team of volunteers and we value their input. Significantly, at least ten volunteers have become full time employees as a result of their volunteer experience. And several staff members are also active volunteers and foster volunteers. The City has increased AC&C’s funding over a five year period which has enabled us to implement many improvements to the entire organization beginning two years ago. We seek to continually improve the level of care for all our animals and are equally concerned about their welfare. AC&C takes in over 30,000 unwanted, homeless and abandoned animals each year. No animal is turned away. It is only with the support of the NYC community that we can make even more progress. We encourage New Yorkers to get involved by volunteering at our centers, fostering or adopting animals, or donating to help fund their care. Together, we can continue to improve the lives of the animals in need in NYC.

    Risa Weinstock
    Interim Executive Director
    Animal Care & Control of NYC

    • I guess Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer made up this report about NYC AC&C out of THIN AIR ?
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8zw8s07yrzM
      Please watch this video and get educated to how NYC AC&C Animals are being treated .
      And, the research report as written called “Led Astray ” .
      http://www.mbpo.org/uploads/FINALLedAstrayReport.pdf

      Great Lengths were taken to investigate of the cruelest Animal Shelter in this Nation the NYC AC&C !
      No more playing Peek ~ A ~ Boo their tricks & lies are being unearthed everyday by NYC’s Animal Rights Advocates & our NYC Politicians !

      Everyone, that dedicated their time & energy to do this report I give you a Big Hearted Thanks !
      Sincerely,
      Judy Starr

    • Since you have taken over from Julie Banks, the situation at ALL the kennels is so much WORSE. 62 cats and kittens dying in less then an hour today, and 18 lovely dogs. I don’t know how you all live with this, and the poor animals just DIE in their cages…..if they are lucky one of your employees might look at them hours later. This “shelter system” is beyond belief, I could NEVER imagine in NYC that this kind of abuse to animals happens in the shelters. YOU should all be ashamed.

  8. The NYC ACC is KILLING 62 cats and week old KITTENS TODAY, along with the normal 18 to 20 LOVELY DOGS……DO SOMETHING PLEASE, they dont listen to us