Stories

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.”