Can Sue Cosby Turn PSPCA Around?

A "no-kill" expert tries to save the city's animal control contractor from its own worst mistakes.

By Tara Murtha
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 5 | Posted Jun. 18, 2009

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Going back to the contract, the current contract expires June 30. You said you were working with the city to explore new and different ways to make a renewal happen. Can you speak to any of those ideas?

Actually I would like not to talk about specific things, because I haven’t presented them officially to the city. I have been talking to city representatives casually at night, on weekends, so they’re prepared with what we are going to offer and none of it seems to be a problem. The city has also come up with their own set of suggestions for how they could assist with cost. I think between the two of them, we’re going to find a way to make this work. We’ll be meeting with them this week to officially present that but I hesitate to say anything now because if it turns out we don’t do that …

So that’s June 30. Does that mean that we, meaning the public, should know what’s going on by July 1, or is there a grace period of some kind?

I think Jeff [Moran, Director of Communications for the Health Department, who sat in on the call along with a PR representative] would know more than I particularly about the city contract process. I know that it has some things that it has to do but I think we can reach an agreement pretty rapidly on what’s going to happen. If we had any issues, I believe already on the table was an extension of the current contract, so it’s not like there’s going to be no animal control as of July 1.

So you’re saying PSPCA is definitely interested in renewing the contract?

Yes, absolutely.

OK. Because there was some talk from [PSPCA board president] Harrise Yaron that that might not be the case.

To address that specifically, part of my job and part of the skills that I come to the table with is that I have to be able to problem solve, and I have to be able to problem solve for the benefit of the organization and for the animals.

When I interviewed for this position, I realized that the city contract was part of it, so I’m well aware of all the situations that lead up to the PSCPA getting the city contract, and so I completely understand that dropping the contract is not in the best interest of the animals and I don’t believe it’s in the best interest of thePSPCA . If when we had our first meeting, if the city had said, ‘We are not willing to work with you and we’re not willing to budge,’ I might be looking at this differently, but that’s not at all what they said. It’s been a very good process so far.

OK. Both in my interview with some of the PSPCA Board members and in Stu Bykofsky’s articles in the Daily News, the figure $1 million additional dollars to renew was stated. I know you don’t want to speak to specifics, but I need to ask if that is on track.

That was the original budget that had been on the table. It would have put the PSPCA in a hole for actually over a million dollars. My role is to solve problems. I don’t know that anyone had given their full attention to trying to solve the problem. I think that recognizing that there is a deficit there is the first step, and then really doing an analysis to try to figure out what we can do to salvage this and to make it work, that’s the second step. And I can’t imagine that the board had anyone at that time who was really providing them guidance on how to do that. It’s daunting even to me knowing operations like I do, so I can sort of put myself in their shoes not really knowing how this could get done. Even for me looking at it, I’m like, this is one of the toughest problems that I’m ever going to have in my life, and that’s my job to do this. The board members are passionate about the organization, but they do have careers and lives that are not about running shelters, so I wouldn’t expect them to be able to find those answers.

I think the broader question that readers would be interested in finding out is your thoughts and goals on no-kill.

I’m a very passionate advocate for no-kill. A lot of people who have worked in high-volume shelters maybe come to the conclusion that no-kill is impossible. My belief in no-kill communities was reinforced by working at PACCA as opposed to being run down. Ultimately, that is something that I think the city can achieve and that’s my goal, that’s my ultimate goal. Realistically I know it can’t happen overnight, but it’s probably the most important thing to me in my career and my life, to save the lives of animals wherever possible. That’s how we operated 2005 to 2007; we really worked toward achieving that despite being thrown in a similar chaotic situation as now.

When you say you’re going to be working toward making Philadelphia no-kill, some people quantify it and say that translates into about 90 percent for a live release date. What does no-kill mean to you?

It actually has less to do with percentages and more to do with counting our savable animals. I helped create the lifesaving matrix for the No-Kill Advocacy Center that defines savable versus not savable. I’m the person who put feral cats into the savable column, so if they’re killed in a shelter, they are to be considered savable and you can’t be no-kill until you’re able to do a comprehensive TNR [trapping, neutering and returning] program in your community.

So that’s really what it comes down to: savable versus not savable. And it’s pretty specifically defined in that matrix. And the numbers are going to vary by your community, and by the year and by what you see in your shelter. It’s not random, it’s not something you can make up on the fly. We all might argue a little bit on, you know, when does a dog have an aggressive problem that is not manageable or savable, and there’s always going to be someone who thinks every single dog is capable of being rehabilitated, but I’ve written about this before: The majority of your dogs are savable and the overwhelming majority of your cats are going to be savable, so that’s kind of what it comes down to. The numbers that a lot of shelters have come up with for—and the reason the 90 percent number is thrown around—is that in the shelters that are open admission and no-kill, approximately 90 percent of the animals leave alive. The core definition is saving the savable animals.

To that end, PSPCA needs to improve and strengthen relationships with rescue partners and organizations. How do you see doing that in the climate that you walked into?

I don’t see that as a major hurdle, because we had no relationships with rescues when I got there in 2005. As a matter of fact, a very good friend of mine who runs a rescue, sent me a photograph that she had taken that had a sign up at PACCA in 2004 that no one was allowed to call a rescue, and had her name posted on the wall! And we turned that around to develop a huge network of rescues so I don’t see that it’s going to be a big problem again, to do that. It just involves rebuilding relationships.

One of first phone calls I made was to Barry Watson. Barry was there in 2005 and Barry was able to see the changes that we made, and he told me, I mean you can talk to him, he told me that 2007 was the best year, and for me that was the year that we had achieved the greatest lifesaving while I was there, and he told me personally the disease rate had gone down, dramatically, since prior to our coming on board in 2005 and he was really happy to work with us. So I already put that call into him, he has my cell phone number and he can call me anytime. We haven’t made all of the changes yet (laughs) because it’s kind of crisis right now with getting everything situated, but those changes are going to come and they’re going to come sooner rather than later.

Since we’re talking about no-kill and the statistics—I think it’s confusing for the public to go to the website and look at save rates and live release rates since the methodology has switched, so…

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1. CatSitter said... on Jun 19, 2009 at 06:19AM

“What a no-nonsense well-spoken person. I am a volunteer at the PSPCA and have already seen some great changes (like making space for more adoptable cats, staff accountability, etc). There are so many good staff persons doing their best and all they need is leadership. I think Ms. Cosby will do a great job!!!!”

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2. Beth Treisner said... on Jun 20, 2009 at 10:05PM

“As I said in an comment to an earlier article, I don't believe that most rescues will hold a grudge with the SPCA. It is about the animals. When the PSPCA is finally back on track and there are less severely ill animals coming out of the shelter - if they reach out to the rescues - most, if not all will likely begin working with them. Reading the interview with Ms. Cosby certainly has helped to put my mind at ease. I certainly hope, and am inclined to believe, that she is a very good person for the position, and I wouldn't be suprised if from this point on things will keep getting better.”

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3. Anonymous said... on Jun 24, 2009 at 09:35AM

“Where is Tammy Kerr? I miss her ridiculous and incoherent ramblings on these animal blogs. Maybe Ms. Cosby will hire Tammy back because of her lengthy experience as an animal cruelty agent. What was it? Two weeks of training and three months on the job?”

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4. Anonymous said... on Jul 4, 2009 at 03:10PM

“to anyone who is already starting to fall in love with cosby just you wait until she starts pushing off all her no-kill b.s. and see how long you love her for after animals are being sent out the door with god knowes who”

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5. Amanda St. John said... on Aug 7, 2009 at 03:17PM

“To Anonymous...
(who doesn't have the courage of her convictions to post her real name.)

I and the No-Kill community stand behind every no kill effort Sue Cosby proposes. An animal "pushed out the door with god knowes(sic) who" is an animal saved. I seriously doubt that she won't find out if the person is capable of owning and caring for a dog or cat before she lets him go. But do you honestly think that animals in kill shelters, little cages of filth and loneliness are better off there than 99.9% of the homes on offer? Perhaps you are of the conviction that they are better off dead than in a home that is not "perfect" according to some unrealistic ultruistic standards? .
Read Nathan Winograd's book Redemption. Get your facts straight and start working WITH us for animals. I know for one as a rescue group, that I and others will do everything we can to help no kill shelters.

Amanda St. John
Founder,
MuttShack Animal Rescue

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