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.
The PSPCA proposal is a sight to behold, stocked with swashbuckling campaign promises. On paper, it looked like 2009 would be a relatively good time to be a homeless animal in Philadelphia. Instead, disaster ensued.
Baptism by fire, shit storm, train wreck: These are the nice ways to describe the situation that Sue Cosby -- the new CEO of the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals -- is hurling herself into. Earlier this week, Cosby talked with PW about her new role, her vision for the city’s animal control, and what a long, strange trip it’s been.
Two weeks away from a City Hall investigational hearing called by Philadelphia City Councilman Jack Kelly to drill into the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PSPCA)’s mismanagement of Philly’s animal control contract, the PSCPA is coming clean on euthanasia and save rate statistics.
An activist wants to know what is wrong with Philadelphia animal control.
Everyone who has worked directly with Howard Nelson—who in an earlier life was a Fannie Mae exec—has a strong opinion on him. His detractors are rapid; his supporters devout.
PSPCA employs dedicated animal-lover volunteers, but making sure these dogs are walked properly will be a challenge. Insiders have long said that on a regular day, there aren’t enough volunteers to walk the shelter dogs properly.