First, some background…
New York Center for Animal Care and Control is a non-profit agency contracted by the City of New York to house and care for any abandoned, relinquished, or homeless animal within the five boroughs. They are not permitted to turn any animal away for lack of space. They are also contractually obligated to respond within 24 hours to complaints or “tips” regarding unleashed dogs, stray cats, and assorted wildlife—even though one of Julie Bank’s first responses to heartless budget cuts by the DOH was to stop having field officers pick up stray cats. Finally, they also shelter seized animals in cooperation with the police. All animals seized by eviction, arrest, or for health reasons (such as owners in the hospital or hoarding situations) come to Animal Care and Control of New York City. Not the ASPCA.
Although AC&C is technically an independent contractor, and not a “city agency”, the truth of the matter is that funding for the organization comes out of the budget of the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, usually referred to as the DOH. The Department of Health oversees AC&C and presents its contract under terms AC&C cannot refuse. Not surprisingly, they allocate a truly shameful budget to its redheaded stepchild. In fact, New York City has one of the most underfunded animal control agencies in the United States. (for more information on how the NYC Gov’t controls the AC&C, please read this: http://www.shelterreform.org/WhyDOHShouldBeRemoved.html )
In order for AC&C to qualify for desperately needed (but still not even close to enough) supplementary monies from Maddie’s Fund, a grant foundation dedicated to promoting a no-kill community in New York City, certain benchmarks must be met to be eligible for the donation. This year, the benchmark of progress is that no animal can be euthanized for the documented reason of lack of space. Under Maddie’s edict, an animal can only be euthanized if it is ill, or if it is otherwise deemed unsuitable for adoption.
This is why the city euthanasia list currently shows only two reasons for the killing: “Illness”, or “Temper”.
SHAME ON AC&C!
These terms may not have originated with AC&C, but they were not picked randomly, either. They are carefully chosen so that the vast majority of ordinary people believe that the only animals dying in city shelters are either very sick or aggressive. Reformers, such as all of us at “urgent”, charge that these definitions are, for a vast majority of animals, misleading and unethical, discouraging adopters and claiming a progress for homeless animals that is unearned and not at all accurate.
New York City is not only killing the “sick and the vicious”. Instead, they are killing some animals with genuine aggression, either toward other animals (much more common) or toward people, but also many animals who fall into the following categories:
- hyper or under socialized dogs,
- fearful cats,
- emaciated or underweight animals who guard food,
- animals who develop cage aggression after days of isolation and a constant assault of the senses, untrained animals,
- “frisky “cats,
- highly strung and traumatized animals
- animals who are withdrawn, shy, or unresponsive…
and heaps upon heaps of animals whose only “sickness” is kennel cough- a symptom of an extremely common viral or bacterial infection, so ubiquitous at ACC that the question for every animal who walks in the door is not if they are going to get sick, but when.
How is an animal classified for behavior and temper at AC&C?
There are currently three established, generally accepted ways of evaluating an animal’s behavior at AC&C:
1. For all animals: Medical employees can “score” an animal based on how easily the animal handles during a routine medical exam, which includes being given vaccinations. An animal can score anything from a “no concern” (the highest rating) to “mild” to “moderate”, “questionable”, or even “severe”. To urgent’s knowledge, there is no employee manual that allocates certain behaviors to ratings, so a cat who flinches, or a dog who struggles when he is held down, could be viewed as “mild”, “moderate”, or “questionable” based on nothing more than the employee’s inherent attitude and bias at the time.
These behavior ratings are a snapshot of how the animal behaves within anywhere from 1-12 hours after they arrive. Animals are supposed to be evaluated again once they have settled in. This step is missed for far too many animals, far too often.
In addition, any animal who enters the shelter tranquilized (if police officers use that as a precaution when seizing animals from a house) defaults to a “questionable” rating. These animals are supposed to be evaluated again when they recover, but sometimes are forgotten, keeping the “vicious” label throughout their stay.
SHAME ON AC&C!
Way too many animals die with only the initial assessment by medical. Impartial auditors have seen medical technicians yelling at dogs to “sit”, demonstrating unreasonable fear and muzzling/restraining animals who are already afraid, and shaking the temporary cages that hold cats.
2. For dogs: Dogs who receive a formal evaluation (not all do) are subject to the SAFER behavior test. The SAFER behavior test was developed by former ASPCA employee and dog behaviorist Emily Weiss, and according to her own website (which has since been taken down, though you can read the text here), the test has limited value as a predictive tool, even when administered by certified professionals under recommended space conditions, neither of which AC&C honors.
“The SAFER assessment should only be used as one of many sources of information to help with
adoption decisions.”, Weiss also asserts that all behaviorists utilizing her method become officially certified because: “Without internal checks, and without analyzing technique, testing can be inaccurate – which means unsafe dogs on the adoption floor, and even more tragic, safe dogs that do not make it to the adoption floor.” (taken from http://www.shelterreform.org/SAFERWEISS.html).
Dogs are tested for their reactions under the following conditions, with some minor variations from tester to tester:
a. Look- the dog’s head is cupped in the assessor’s hands, and eye contact is made and sustained.
b. Sensitivity- the dog is pet and touched to see how they respond.
c. Tag- the assessor attempts to engage the dog in play, and while the dog is somewhat engaged, they tap the dog on the hind quarters.
d. Squeeze (2 versions) a dog’s paw is pinched, not to the point of pain.
e. Food- a dog is given wet dog food to eat, and then a plastic hand attached to a long stick (marketed by Sue Sternberg as Assess-a-Hand, shown here) removes the food, lifts up the dog’s lips, and otherwise obstructs the dog while she is eating.
f. Toy- a dog is given a toy to play with while the plastic hand attempts to take it away
g. Rawhide- a dog is given a rawhide and then attempts are made to remove the rawhide or interfere with chewing by the plastic hand
h. Dog to dog- a “helper dog” is brought in by an assistant, leashed, while the tested dog, also leashed, reacts. If the dog does not lunge or display aggression, the dogs are allowed to greet each other.
SHAME ON AC&C!
As this article is being published, AC&C is in the process of abandoning the list/score method of presenting the SAFER test in favor of a narrative style that makes it easier to “interpret” the test according to their agenda. Once again, AC&C is more concerned with concealing the fact that they have no space than they are in saving animals or ensuring the safety and solvency of rescue groups.
3. For cats: Employees, either specifically hired to care for cats or general kennel workers, perform a test that is not codified and has no standard of accuracy. They literally make it up! Sometimes they use common sense and test by observing where the cat holds herself in the cage (far back to the wall or up front and ready to greet), holding their hands to the cage to allow sniffing, attempting to pet the cat on the head, and attempting to scruff/pick the cat up. However, there are multiple documented instances of employees scoring cats based on their response to having their back quarters or stomachs pet, both of which many perfectly adoptable and friendly cats object to. Cats who allow scruffing, but squirm after a time, are also marked down.
What is so wrong with testing for behavior in an animal shelter? Don’t we want to protect people, especially children, from animals who may hurt them?
YES. Animal attacks are serious. They happen, even the smallest dogs can disfigure and even the tiniest kittens can bite and scratch. Other animals in the home are particularly vulnerable, and anyone who has been in the middle of a fight between two animals will tell you that it is emotionally traumatizing at best and tragic at worst. Therefore, any hint of aggression should be noted and taken seriously, with a strong emphasis on safety rather than risk taking. Even if there was a magic wand to identify those animals whose behavior requires significant professional intervention and perhaps a lifetime of restrictions, AC&C’s adopters are a varied lot, some with extensive experience with animals and some with none at all. They may engage in behavior that provokes a dangerous reaction, such as yelling/fighting in the house, allowing children to tease/overhandle/carry the animal around like a toy, not following proper procedures for introducing two animals, or tethering/tying up an animal to increase frustration. There are plenty of animals who would be wonderful in one kind of home and terrible in the next, but for a high volume shelter, the moral obligation for the safety of everyone is to assume that any animal in their care will go to the most inexperienced home, with the most poorly behaved children, and dominant animals, and nonstop people coming in and out, with no place for the animal to retire to. When there is little to no adopter screening and no resources for follow up or counseling, such as with AC&C, defaulting to the worst is often the safest method.
The SAFER test, and the cat-test-which-has-no-name, are inherently limited, even when performed perfectly, and they are not performed anywhere close to perfectly. AC&C still refuses to certify the majority of its testers or make video footage of the test available for review, despite continual pressure
from rescuers. A tester’s subjective opinion counts for a lot in these tests, and the people responsible for this task know just as much about animals as you or I, or anyone off the street. Ask yourself how you would interpret the following reactions, all taken from actual SAFER records at the ACC:
- Dogs eyes are averted with slightly tense body ,low tail and ears back
- Dog takes the rawhide away, places body between the assessor and the rawhide but remains loose in body
- Dog jumps on the assessor ,and will not allow the assessor to conduct the assessment
- Dog gently places mouth over the assessors hand applying moderate pressure
- Approaches the helper dog by rushing in with stiff body, head high and tail curved over spine.
None of these behaviors point directly to aggression, and yet any one of them could mark down a dog to “moderate” status, the score at which a dog can be killed for its “temper”. That’s correct. The most evasive and elastic of all the behavior scores, the one that reads almost exactly like ‘mild’ over 60% of the time, the score that corresponds to a “B” grade or less in familiar terms, is the point at which an animal can be killed for “temper”
Interesting fact – The ASPCA will not destroy a dog for failing the food portion of the SAFER. The NYC AC&C will destroy a dog that failed the food portion, yet passed every other test with high marks. That means that a dog can score all 1’s (A) on every portion of the test but if they scored a 3 (C) on Food, they will be labeled as “temper” and added to the euth list.
SHAME ON AC&C!
While previous years saw only dogs rated “questionable” and “severe” as eligible for euthanasia for temper, in 2010, under the leadership of Julie Bank, “moderate” dogs were killed …and then marked, counted, and marketed as unadoptable animals with behavior problems, thus concealing the problem and deceiving the public.
For cats, well…how many of us love a wonderful companion kitty but know not to touch his belly? How many of us know cats who will hide for a time when meeting new people, only to be coaxed out with nothing more than patience? How quickly are employees attempting to hold a cat, and how are they holding him? We don’t know, because an employee has no one to answer to, is under no obligation to duplicate his or her results again with the same cat, is not under any surveillance, and has the blessing of shelter managers to measure adoptability on standards that are inherently prejudicial to cats’ natural instincts and responses.
What happens to animals who don’t score well on their test? Someone told me that they go to New Hope to get rescued instead.
Sure they do. They also probably told you that all the dogs get walked and all the cats get outside of their cage once a day. This like so much of the rhetoric is either the articulation of wishful thinking or a self serving lie.
SHAME ON AC&C!
Animals that don’t score well on their test are removed from the adoption ward and left to wait to die. If they are a dog, they are not walked. If they are a cat, they get their litter changed and the paper lining changed, but are not held or engaged in play.
How long they are allowed to languish unseen is just a matter of space concerns in the shelter. New Hope, the arm of AC&C that works with partner organizations to get animals into rescue situations, may decide to take up the cause and email their photo and bio out to groups, but the animals chosen to be advertised as rescue candidates are completely at their discretion, and they are absolutely allowed to refuse to email out an animal’s photo based on his or her behavior scores or medical status.
Why should I care about this? There are enough animals who need homes who show perfect behavior, right from the start. We are in the middle of a recession and people are suffering. Why should I waste time on animals who may not even be good in a home?
Because the test was meant to be part of many opinions and observations to give a full picture for both safety and the animal’s sake, so it is unethical to use it to cover up the fact that they need a cage. It encourages people’s prejudice about shelter animals and produces long term problems for an illusion of progress. New York deserves real progress, not a shift in the language to make us all feel better.
Also, if you are reading this article, you are probably an animal lover, and may already be familiar with the homeless animal problem on some level. Perhaps you give money to rescue organizations, or perhaps you have taken in a stray or two once in your lifetime. These rescue organizations are largely responsible for the progress AC&C takes credit for. The number of animals placed via walk in adoptions versus those animals placed by rescuers is very low, too low, and AC&C has no motivation to increase adoptions and do their job as long as rescue groups bail them out. These people are angels, working on scraps, and out of respect for the fact that a rescuer takes legal responsibility for an animal for the duration of its life, AC&C owes them the courtesy of honest evaluations performed by a professional and long term planning to reduce the number of animals coming in. They cannot rely on the few rescuers actively pulling to exhaust their savings and their bodies while the executives at Park Place pat themselves on the back for their improved adoption numbers. In urgent’s opinion, rescue groups are the saviors of the system and genuine angels on earth, and their needs should be top priority for an agency that would look like a war zone without them. Instead of being treated like the heroes they are, however, rescue groups are thwarted at every turn by overwhelming euthanasia lists and inadequate or inaccurate information.
The time has come for us all to join forces and demand reciprocity! Hey, AC&C—the “adoption” numbers on your site come from our hard work and tears. It’s time for you to pitch in and do your part.
What can I do about all of this?
It seems like there is so much that needs to be fixed. I don’t know what I can do to help.
There is a lot that needs to be fixed, but the good news is that being a pest, especially in the form of polite but firm letters, embarrasses people in authority and puts pressure on them to respond. Speak up!
Demand on behalf of NYC’s animals:
- Certified SAFERists in every shelter
- Video footage of said test available to rescue partners
- At least two evaluations per animal
- Increased adoption events
- Increased partnerships with storefronts and other animal friendly organizations to display either live animals or updated photos
- Bulletin boards in every shelter with printouts of sick animals with URI, so the public can be made aware of their presence
- Increased awareness for pit bulls in NYC, with accurate information about this misunderstood breed on AC&C’s website
- Aggressive foster recruitment for bottle babies and other easily predictable seasonal surges.
- Clear employee policies for handling animals, including penalties for non compliance.
- Reformation of the terms used in the behavior tests to stress the experience level needed to adopt.
These are just a few improvements we can think of that are low/no cost and proven to work in other shelter environments. What are YOUR ideas for improving the chances for AC&C animals? We welcome your feedback, ideas, and questions.