Is Philly's Animal Control Finally Under Control?

By Tara Murtha
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 32 | Posted Mar. 28, 2012

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This week, the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PSPCA)—the venerable nonprofit organization that’s been fighting animal cruelty since 1867 but has been struggling for three years to dig its way out of a scandal-ridden turn in charge of Philadelphia animal control—is finally getting out of the business it had no business being in in the first place.

Since last year, the PSPCA has been working with the city to set up, and transfer those duties to, a new city-related nonprofit called the Animal Care & Control Team (ACCT Philly). ACCT Philly formally takes over the contract and the city-owned animal shelter on April 1.

Advocates hope the changeover will finally give the city a chance to save more animals and turn around Philly’s national reputation as one of the worst cities for animal control.

The saga first came to light in 2004 after a Daily News expose revealed that the city-run animal-control agency, the Philadelphia Animal Care and Control Association (PACCA), was stacked with nepotism hires who ran the shelter like a grisly sausage factory. The game-changing news story described the shelter as “an Abu Ghraib for animals, where the ones euthanized within minutes of their arrival may be the lucky ones.” Heads rolled, fresh leadership was installed, and by 2008, the PACCA was finally making headway—at which point the city abruptly decided to change course, opened the animal-control contract to bid, and awarded it to the PSPCA, which had previously performed that role in the 1980s and ’90s.

It was an odd move and, frankly, a stupid one. The whole reason the city had created the PACCA in the first place was because the PSPCA walked away from handling Philly’s animal-control duties in 2000, citing insufficient funding. But new people in charge on both sides of the equation thought things would be better this time.


Chaos erupted right away. PSPCA CEO Howard Nelson, who had doggedly pursued the city contract, resigned six weeks into the takeover at the beginning of 2009. He officially cited health concerns as the reason for his departure, even as longtime PSPCA board members resigned in protest of his policies and rumors swirled that he was muscled out. (Nelson remains a presence in the local animal community today as president of the Doggie Style pet-boutique chain.)

The sudden departure of the man with the plan left a huge, thankless, Sisyphean task of taking in more than 30,000 homeless animals a year to an inexperienced and overwhelmed PSPCA board. In short order, the operation was swamped with vaccination delays, disease outbreaks and unnecessary animal deaths. As reported by PW in April 2009, the PSPCA lied about its euthanasia rates, killing more dogs and cats than they claimed in official reports (which were later corrected).

With the PSPCA’s mess now having laid waste to the years of slow, painstaking animal-control reform that the PACCA had undertaken since its own disaster five years earlier, the organization turned to a familiar face to help clean up again, hiring the PACCA’s former COO, Sue Cosby, as its new CEO in June 2009.

It didn’t take long for Cosby to ascertain that her big-picture mission regarding animal control wasn’t to fix the PSPCA’s handling of it, but to establish that the PSPCA was the wrong entity to oversee those duties—and to help both the organization and the city negotiate a new infrastructure for moving forward. To put it simply, she says, “Humane societies were created to protect animals, and animal control [agencies] in municipalities were created to protect people from bad animals. Animal control didn’t fit in with the mission of PSPCA.”

That strategizing dominated 2011 after, at the suggestion of former Councilman Jack Kelly, the city’s Managing Director’s Office assumed governmental authority over animal control—previously the jurisdiction of the Dept. of Public Health.

“We checked out a number of different models” for handling animal control, says Brian Abernathy, chief of staff to Managing Director Rich Negrin. “Everything from bringing it into the city directly to what we finally decided on—which was a city-related nonprofit.”

A city-related agency is any authority or quasi-public corporation that either receives appropriations from the city and is in a continuing contractual or cooperative relationship with the city, or operates under legal authority granted by city ordinance. Examples include the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation and the Redevelopment Authority.

Now, after what has felt to Philadelphia’s animal-welfare community like interminable years of shuffling the deck, ACCT Philly is finally poised to take over. “The complexity of [setting up] a roughly four-million-dollar business that takes operational authority on a set date isn’t an easy thing to do,” Abernathy notes. After conducting a national search, Abernathy offered ACCT Philly’s top job to Cosby, who resigned from the PSPCA in January. While Cosby has her critics—“She’s not warm and fuzzy,” says Abernathy—the principal players are all on board.

This time around, local animal-welfare advocates are optimistic that all parties have learned from the mistakes. They say Philadelphia’s animal control is in a good place for the first time, in a long time. And they give a lot of credit to Abernathy for that.

“There’s been a lot of really positive progress in the last year, and Brian’s been wonderful to work with,” says Melissa Levy, executive director of the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), the only no-kill animal shelter in the city. “He’s been very forthcoming and open to dialogue and to any issue we feel has been necessary. It really feels like everyone has had a seat at the table.”

Abernathy agrees that “the animal-advocacy community right now is pretty united. I’m not going to take credit for that, but I will take credit for not dividing it,” he laughs. “I started off rocky with a number of advocates, but both the advocates and I worked very hard to improve those relationships. I wanted to avoid a lot of the pitfalls we’d made … the city’s interests are protected, but at the same time the city doesn’t run over the animal-advocacy community.”

ACCT Philly will be governed by a board that includes members of animal organizations, City Council, the community and the Animal Advisory Committee, a 2-year-old group established to advise the city on animal-welfare issues. Aside from those checks and balances—seemingly a novel idea—the practical benefit of establishing a city-related nonprofit is that it allows the organization to engage in its own charitable fundraising to supplement its city funding. This is a key factor, as, at $3.6 million, Philadelphia’s animal-control budget is the largest it’s ever been—and still well below industry standard for a city of our size.

The PSPCA will retain its shelter on Erie Avenue, just over a mile away from the ACCT Philly shelter, and will continue to function as an adoption center for dogs and cats.

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Comments 1 - 32 of 32
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1. Anonymous said... on Mar 28, 2012 at 10:55PM

“Sue Cosby is more of the same. I am very discouraged for her to be the director of ACCT. "Nothing changes if nothing changes"”

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2. Anonymous said... on Mar 29, 2012 at 05:22AM

“Please Sue, no more of your $1 cat sales. Last season I found three microchipped cats who had been adopted during these sales. One owner was nowhere to be found. The other two said they didn't want the cats back--one because he was sick, the other because "he might have fleas" and she was unwilling to pay for a few doses of Advantage. I surely understand the challenges when you have so many cats and kittens flying through the door, but cats shouldn't go to these sub par homes for $1 a piece.”

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3. Anonymous said... on Mar 29, 2012 at 06:50AM

“Their policies are absolutely the worst. In the last 18 months I've fostered a kitty that, after a dozen "vet" visits (you see a vet tech, never a vet) I adopted the kitty and took her to MY vet, was diagnosed with feline asthma, NOT a URI AND when we adopted a dog, he had to be returned within 24 hours because he had bloody stool POURING out of him and could barely stand up. He was also cat aggressive after we were told he was cat tested. (we have four cats) The staff of ACCT is rude, ignorant and not at all helpful.”

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4. Anonymous said... on Mar 29, 2012 at 07:35AM

“Who is making these decisions over at the ACCT? I mean its obvious that they don't care about animals. Who is on this board that seems more preoccupied with putting the same old crew in the same old positions, rather then fixing the problems that everyone who deals with ACCT is aware of. Sick animals, sub par management, disgruntled employees, and inadequate services and a return CEO making more the 100,000 bucks a year? The city once again shows its lackadaisical attitude in serving the residents of this city. As the first comment said: "more of the same".”

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5. Anonymous said... on Mar 29, 2012 at 08:59AM

“Disagree with all of the above posts. Everyone I've ever encountered at ACCT works as hard as they can with the resources they have....who would be smiling and chipper every day when their job is to take in animals that nobody wants and do their best to re-home them and save them from being euthanized? The volunteers are the best you'll find anywhere. I too have adopted a sick dog from ACCT during a canine flu outbreak - it took a couple of weeks and some extra TLC to get her better, but she recovered and is the BEST dog ever! I say, good luck Sue! And by the way....$100,000 is not a lot of money for a CEO...even of a non-profit.”

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6. Anonymous said... on Mar 29, 2012 at 09:08AM

“As an ACCT employee, I find it very disrespectful to say that we do not care about the animals. We love animals and we try our best under our current policy to help the animals at the shelter. We have an awesome volunteer group who are here at the shelter from 8 am to almost 10 pm everyday walking dogs, training dogs, working with cats. As the only public intake shelter for the entire city, we have more animals coming in daily than we have them leaving the shelter. Of course we would like to save every animal but unfortunately we can't. To paint a picture last year in July, we took in 2308 cats. That's just July alone. Now I would agree that the policies need to be reformed as well as the board. This job isn't the easiest between dealing with phones ringing non stop, customer's at your window, and entering paperwork. If you think you can do this job, feel free to just sit here and observe just two hours in the shelter and see what exactly we see.”

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7. Anonymous said... on Mar 29, 2012 at 01:29PM

“I am a new employee and upon my hire I was amazed at all the services that ACCT offers at no or little cost to the residents of Philadelphia. The people that work there border on being fanatical about their commitment to the animals which they serve. And make it clear, they feel as though they serve as the voice of animals which cannot speak for themselves. It is easy to criticize the organization upon first site of a frustrated employee. However how many tooth baring grins are you going to have when you have just told a person that their sick animal is probably going to be put down, or dealing with a person with a dead animal which they have had for years. Emotionally this job has me involved more with people's needs then any of my 15 years of non for profit experience ever has. I am not involved with the political aspect of the job, and truthfully I have very little interest in what goes on behind the scenes. I am here to SERVE their needs and nothing more.”

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8. Anonymous said... on Mar 29, 2012 at 03:34PM

“As an ACCT volunteer for over 2 years I have seen wonderful improvements during my time there. This has been due to the staff and volunteers. The pen pal program, Dog Behavior team, Cat behavior team and adoption events have done more to save these animals than any of the policy makers that claim to be responsible for the improvements. To hear the quote above from Sue Cosby that
“Humane societies were created to protect animals, and animal control [agencies] in municipalities were created to protect people from bad animals. Animal control didn’t fit in with the mission of PSPCA.” is very surprising for me to hear. There are NO bad animals at ACCT. Only animals who have been abandoned by thier careless owners. Each and every animal I have ever been in contact with at the shelter has been starved for love and attention. I have fostered over 15 animals and adopted both a dog and a cat from ACCT and not a single one of them is "bad". They have all been amazing.”

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9. Anonymous said... on Mar 29, 2012 at 03:42PM

“As for the person who mentioned about the 'cat test. Cat testing at ACCT consists of bringing the dog into the cat room where all the cats are in cages to see how the dog might react upon seeing and smelling the cats.It is by no means the best system, but is the safest for the cats. It can be very difficult to get an accurate read on any animals behavior in a shelter environment. It is a loud, scary, unfamiliar place. This is why the amazing adoptions counselors provide every adopter with resouces such as contact information for the dog and cat behavior teams so that you can talk to them about how to properly introduce your new animal into the home. They are an amazing group of volunteers who have fostered hundreds of animals between them and can offer great advice on your new pets behavior issues. It is up to the adopter to take advantage of the education and resources that they can provide. You can't expect the animal to know what to do in a brand new environment!”

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10. Anonymous said... on Mar 29, 2012 at 04:57PM

“I posts about the $1 cat sales above and wanted to add that I've had wonderful experiences with the life saving department and volunteers. They work VERY hard to place animals nobody else wants and do so with few resources. I do, however, wish there could be a bigger change at the top.”

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11. Anonymous said... on Mar 30, 2012 at 08:43PM

“The Truth About Free Cat Adoptions”

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12. anonymous said... on Apr 3, 2012 at 08:12AM

“The main problem that the employee's of ACCT encounter everyday, are the careless, and mindless pet owners or customers. Whoever have a negative comment to make about the employee's, need to be an employee for just one day to see first hand, the neglect of people to their animals.”

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13. Anonymous said... on Apr 3, 2012 at 10:09AM


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14. Anonymous said... on Apr 6, 2012 at 07:24AM

“Cosby is involved with Nathan Winograd and Rick Berman. They support puppy mills and hoarders and also the breeders that help create the overpopulation problem. Looks like the animals of Philly are going to suffer again!”

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15. ExposingTheNKAgenda said... on Apr 9, 2012 at 08:19AM

“BINGO Comment #14 - all this club of NK is going to do is work to change/eliminate our city's HUMANE animal ordinances. This is happening nationwide in animal controls and humane societies.

Biggest red flag is the massive amounts of dog breeders who buy and recommend the NK "tour" machine's book -Redemption. In fact, Google his name, the book name and "Akc dog breeder" and get comfy.

They are being exposed slowly but surely - thank GOD.”

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16. ExposingTheNKAgenda said... on Apr 9, 2012 at 08:23AM

“For detailed exposure of this "agenda", visit this website:

Whoever does that blog reports on it all across the nation - not just in one state.”

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17. Joyce Oxfeld said... on Apr 10, 2012 at 06:40PM

“ACCT Philly is not a holding area for 'bad', dogs. Many more things, have I observed as a volunteer have been happening here. Cats and Dogs who are frightened and/or have been abused are socialized. Illnesses that could kill or lower the chance for adoption are treated. Injuries are treated. Orphaned Kittens are nursed. Dogs have the the Pen Pal program to get intensive attention, training and exposure to help with foster or adoption. Big dogs are given exercise from their pens. All dogs. Foster and Adoption Parents are screened. The Hunting Park facility is Hugh. They never turn an animal away 24/7. They work tireless to save and place each animal possible.”

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18. Current Volunteer said... on Apr 15, 2012 at 07:38PM

“Maybe someone should ask why the dog behaviorist was fired last year for animal abuse and then reinstated. As of April 1 he was promoted to shelter manager and is still dating a volunteer who is one of the leads for the Dog Behavior Team. I'm thinking things are going back to the way they were with nepotism taking hold quite well. I also hear that some of the staff has made harsh comments to volunteers on Facebook and nothing has been done to those employees. I'm sure it will blow up in their faces once again.”

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19. Frustrated... said... on Apr 24, 2012 at 12:56PM

“First of all, about ACCT employees being rude, unfortunately sometimes yes our emotions do get the best of us. No it's not fair to the customers who are there with good intentions but after seeing abused, neglected and dying animals walking through our doors day after day with excuses from owners like "we just don't want him anymore" or worse, finding an animal that was abandoned by their owner and left to fend for themselves on the street and then having 5 people call screaming that there is a dog running loose on their block...we can only take so much. Our vet techs have to put countless animals to sleep everyday because some people (who should have never owned a pet to begin with) just don't care. We take the thought of sadness and death home with us everyday because that is what we see. It's an emotionally challenging job that most people could never do, anyone who disagrees should come and sit in our lobby for a few hours one day and just listen to the things we hear.”

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20. Frustrated... said... on Apr 24, 2012 at 12:58PM

“continued: Our animal control officers who patrol the city picking up stray and unwanted pets from owners who can't even be bothered to bring their animal in themselves are driving around in vehicles that break down on a regular basis. City residents don't want to hear that there is only so much we can do when we receive hundreds of calls a day from people needing our help on top of investigating complaints. They don't want to hear that our officers are on another emergency and will be there as soon as possible, no that's not the residents fault but it isn't the employees either. There really is only so much we can do, Philadelphia is a big city with a lot of people living in it. Please be patient with us and we will do our very best to help you. The day to day employees you see everyday have nothing to do with making the policy's we only have to follow them. Most of us are there simply because we care about animals and want to help, I personally am there for no other reason”

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21. Frustrated... said... on Apr 24, 2012 at 01:02PM

“@"Current Volunteer" - you really should do your homework and make sure your facts are straight before making a post like that. If you are so unhappy with the way things are being run then why do you volunteer with us.
We do our best to work hand and hand with the volunteers but it's not always easy. And yes I'm sure that goes both ways. The volunteers are very important to the animals in the shelter and without them a lot more lives would be even worse. Please consider making positive suggestions to the volunteer coordinator instead.”

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22. Anonymous said... on May 8, 2012 at 08:19PM

“@Current Volunteer you clearly don't know your facts. I am a current employee who was here when it happened (not that it's any of yours or anyone's business). The last time I checked this is an animal shelter and that manager who you are referring too is a DAMN GOOD MANAGER/BEHAVIORIST. The last time I checked, you're a volunteer, just that a volunteer meaning do what you're supposed to do. And that is work with the animals not to sit here and gossip or put another persons business on front street. To be honest you need not volunteer here anymore if you are more concerned with another human being's personal life. Here's an idea, how about you get a life. Or better yet, why don't you and your little buddies (THIS DOES NOT APPLY ALL ONLY SOME VOLUNTEERS) who have a secret facebook page discussing or talking about the employees here at acct....its funny we have a meeting tomorrow and I think i will bring this up.”

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23. Jamielynn said... on May 16, 2012 at 11:46AM

“I will not post anonymously. I am an active volunteer & foster home for the shelter. I respect the job that many of the staff do at the shelter & the volunteers. I found this post accidentally while googling to find an email address at ACCT. As to #18 's comments I would be curious to see your facts backing up that animal abuse occurred & if that is the case it absolutely should be reported if someone was abusing animals. However I have a feeling the post may be based all on hearsay & gossip & is out of line.
As to comment #22-25 I find it offensive & disappointing to read that a staff member would make this comment: "youre a volunteer, just that a volunteer meaning do what you're supposed to do". What does that even mean? The volunteers at ACCT go far above & beyond just working with the animals- we are right there in the trenches of it too. It's a shame you posted anonymously-now we just have to wonder which of the ACCT staff have such an attitude towards "just volunteers"”

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24. Anonymous said... on May 18, 2012 at 11:18PM

“First there are no behaviorists or certified dog trainers at their facility. Second seeing the comment from an employee it's pretty clear how they feel about their volunteers. What a shame for those animals that nothing will change while the current regime is in control no matter how hard the well meaning volunteers try. So to the volunteers-why try and help where you are not wanted?”

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25. Anonymous said... on May 19, 2012 at 03:45PM

“The solution of the problem is not keeping the old one. The PSPCA was not doing a good job overseeing the animal control for the city, so they bring in the same person who was head of the PSPCA to run the animal control now. Nothing yet has changed. You still see the same old Pspca run animal control under a new name. The same broken trucks, just with duct-tape on them now. The same broken building. The same broken management, just shuffled around. What has changed?

As for the volunteers vs the employees there. The volunteers for the most part act like they run the place. I've seen some belittle the employees to their faces and behind thier backs. Don't get me wrong, some of the volunteers are kind and sweet people. Others seem to feel like they are so much better then they petty people who work at animal control.

As for the employees, I feel bad for them. The place gained a new name, but just gained a new polished terd. They are always shorthanded, overworked, and ill-equipped. Atleast once a month you see one of their trucks broken down or baing towed somewhere. The office staff running to other rooms to get something they printed because the printer available to them is broken.

When will this change? When this incarnation fails and the city chooses to go back to the PSPCA?”

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26. Anonymous said... on Jun 17, 2012 at 10:27AM

“I am so saddened by the things I am reading. ACCT does a ton. Is it perfect? No. Human beings are flawed, from the volunteers to the paid staff, to the "owners" who come in all day long surrendering their animals because "she is rude" (as I read on a cat card once!).

Sniping at each other clearly is not helpful. The reality is that the building is not big enough; there is not enough staff, and there are too many animals. The trashy obsession with breeding pit bulls as "fighting" dogs or "guard" dogs exacerbates our problem, as do the idiots who surrender their pregnant mom cats because "she pregnant."

The volunteers often have their hearts ripped out when dogs and cats get euthanized, but it is even worse for the kennel attendants who actually have to do the killing. So much death is not healthy for normal people and it takes its toll. Many want a "No-Kill Philadelphia", and many have great opinions on the subject, but they are not chipping in to expand our services and facilities.”

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27. logan said... on Jul 1, 2012 at 02:36PM

“#25 - well stated.

It's hard to believe no better candidates exist for CEO than same-o sue - a nightmare @ pacca - powertrippin @ pspca until unceremoniously dumped for a cambell"s soup executive - overall bad track record @ both places. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

I admire staff and volunteers who work there. I call to foster animals and the staff are very cordial and up to date on information.

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28. Anonymous said... on Jul 1, 2012 at 04:09PM

“This is a post made on a volunteer's PUBLIC Facebook page. This volunteer was upset about posts made by then Dog Evaluator, TJ Cunningham. It is a shame that he would post such flaming remarks on a volunteer's Facebook page.

February 4, 2012

8:36am. Yeah I have such a way....ACCT murdered her yesterday! Great job TJ!!!
18 hours ago. Oh no! That makes me sick. Is ACCT animal control? Who is TJ?
18 hours ago. Well it takes a lot to ruin my appetite, but that just did! Poor dog! We need more non-kill shelters desperately.
17 hours ago. The idiot who ordered her to be put to sleep. And would not give me one day to try to get her out of there. This is the harsh realities of the shelter.”

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29. Anonymous said... on Jul 1, 2012 at 04:10PM

“17 hours ago. Im sorry for your loss but TJ is not the one to blame for this. The fact is we are a high kill shelter bc we are the only open door shelter in the entire city of Philadelphia and not because of TJ but because of the people who breed and dump their animals every day. Open door means ACCT cannot turn animals away. Blame the people who left her at the shelter. No Kill shelters are in theory great however they turn animals away and it doesn't mean they never euthanize like you may think. Spay/Neuter/Foster and Adopt!
17 hours ago • 1. They are to blame but so is he for this particular dog. That is my opinion and I was there. There was space enough to give her and me the courtesy of a few hours. I didn't even get the opportunity to say goodbye. he made a mistake and Precious is dead.”

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30. Anonymous said... on Jul 1, 2012 at 04:15PM

“February 4, 2012

11 hours ago. Tj Cunningham: Food aggression does not relate to how a dog takes treats. knows all to well about T.I. and his food issues."
11 hours ago.Tj Cunningham: 128 kennels, 138 dogs, do the math
11 hours ago. Do the math! You killed a deserving dog because you have no clue what you are doing.
11 hours ago.Tj Cunningham: ooops...did I comment out loud? I'll delete!
11 hours ago.Tj Cunningham What was the joke?
11 hours ago • 1.Tj Cunningham Its a math equation. I have X amount of kennels, I have Y amount of dogs...the Y is always larger than the X...its one of my jobs to equal out that amount
11 hours ago • 1.Tj Cunningham every single day
11 hours ago.Tj Cunningham because I don't comment on these kind of posts
11 hours ago.Tj Cunningham I like to comment on positive posts
11 hours ago.Tj Cunningham I won't be hearing about anything...I have a specific job to do, I do that job”

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31. Anonymous said... on Jul 1, 2012 at 04:16PM

“11 hours ago.Tj Cunningham there are very few people around willing to do this job
11 hours ago.Tj Cunningham you have no idea what is concstructive
11 hours ago.Tj Cunningham that made no sense
11 hours ago.Tj Cunningham so you walked the kennels, took out a number of dogs last night, all of them I assume, because you know exactly what my job which dog would you have chosen instead?
11 hours ago.Tj Cunningham what were you told?
11 hours ago.Tj Cunningham doesn't matter. Complain away
11 hours ago.Tj Cunningham I encourage it

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32. chris said... on Dec 23, 2014 at 10:18PM

“now she cut the hours back form all the volunteers hours back from helping the dogs at act wtf this bitch has to go !!”


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