City's Animals in Danger—Again

The PSPCA owes it to Philly to stay. Then go.

By Tara Murtha
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 10 | Posted May. 25, 2010

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The city’s animals could be in big trouble next month. “The PSPCA’s contract is set to expire on June 30,” said Councilman Jack Kelly. “It’s unclear whether the group even wants to continue, and once again we are on the verge of potential disaster as we have no Plan B.”

Kelly made that speech in 2009, though it could have easily been made in 2002, or even last week. Right now, Philadelphia’s animals are at the mercy of the PSPCA for the third time in less than 10 years.

The first time the PSPCA walked away from the contract, it was over a disagreement about pit-bull policy (the PSPCA generally euthanizes the same type of dogs they make so much hullabaloo about saving on cruelty crusades these days) and money. With no other agency able to handle the job, the city’s Department of Public Health attempted to do the job itself. The department created its own agency called PACCA and staffed it with nepotism hires. This led to an infamous era of animal control defined by corruption and mass animal killings that ended only after the Daily News published ‘House of Horrors’ in 2004, an expose that revealed that 90 percent of animals that entered the door were killed.

Bad apples were weeded out of PACCA, and conditions improved slowly and steadily. Then, in 2008, PSPCA’s CEO Howard Nelson launched a campaign to win the contract back again. After fighting long and hard (and some say, dirty) to get it, the PSPCA resumed services again and PACCA, no longer in charge of the job they were created expressly to fulfill, disbanded.

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. Nelson deserted his post after six weeks. Vaccine delays, shelter outbreaks, unprecedented rates of sick and dying animals and chronic personnel turnover ensued. The organization even got nailed fudging statistics to falsely bolster the save rate.

This time last year, the PSPCA, run for months by a headless hydra of inexperienced volunteer board members, said they needed an additional $1 million to re-up the contract on June 30, because they already spent more than $500,000 of their own endowment in the first few months on the job.

Then, they hired new CEO Sue Cosby and extended the contract, and critics were both disgusted and relieved. Some were even optimistic. After all, Cosby was a key advisor back in the day for Tara Derby, who led the second administration of PACCA, the one driven out of business by PSPCA’s campaign.

A year later, it’s unclear whether the group wants to continue, and once again we are on the verge of a potential disaster, as we have no Plan B. This time, the PSPCA has formally asked for an extra $900,000—and the city doesn’t have it.

It’s a morbid game of deja vu with a dash of Stockholm Syndrome: Despite the dysfunctional relationship between the PSPCA and Philadelphia, once again the city’s top animal advocates hope like hell the PSPCA will grace us with its poor service a little longer simply because there’s no other choice.

Poor service is better than no service. For now.

Health Commissioner Don Schwarz says he’s been in constant negotiation with the PSPCA.

At a recent meeting of the Animal Advisory Committee, comprised of Philly’s top animal-welfare professionals and advocates, Schwarz briefed the group on the situation.

“We’re hopeful if we don’t have a contract for a year, we’ll have a contract for an extended contract,” he said. “It’s up to the board of the PSPCA. They’ve had real problems … with their investment portfolio.”

On paper, the PSPCA has little reason to renew. It lost a lot of money and faces attempting to execute a job fought for and won by a long-gone ex-CEO, and their endowment has reportedly tanked further because of the economy. For all the drama and promises, the save rate was worse in 2009 than 2008, 46 percent compared to 59 percent in 2008.

And good riddance on principle, too. Part of the beef against the PSPCA taking the contract in 2008 was that industry standards (and common sense) dictate that the local organization charged with investigating local animal cruelty—like the PSPCA does throughout the state—should not also be charged with animal control, which basically means humanely euthanizing homeless animals. It’s simple checks and balances.

When you hear reports of animals being treated inhumanely at PSPCA, who do you call?

It makes no sense that the pit bulls the PSPCA wants you to know they saved from a dog-fighting circle are likely to be euthanized by the same organization after the cameras click off.

But the bottom line is that Philadelphia needs the PSPCA, and the PSPCA has a responsibility to help Philly transition out of this mess. We need them to stay for a grace period that would give the committee a chance to create a new Plan B that has nothing in common with 2002’s ‘House of Horrors’ Plan B. Then they can go focus on their primary mission of investigating cruelty complaints.

It shouldn’t be that hard a decision.

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Comments 1 - 10 of 10
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1. journalismisdead said... on May 26, 2010 at 08:39AM

“Once again Tara Murtha has written another one-sided, ax-grinding piece of garbage about animal control and the PSPCA in Philadelphia. "It makes no sense that the pit bulls the PSPCA wants you to know they saved from a dog-fighting circle are likely to be euthanized by the same organization after the cameras click off." -- Really, Tara? Have you ever been to the PSPCA and shadowed their behavior team for a day? The ones who work on rehabbing rescued dogs with emotional and behavioral scars? They could tell you dozens of success stories of animals they have taught to trust again who have gone on to live in new homes with new families. I'm sure the PSPCA is spending time and money on a rehab program because they love euthanizing pit bulls. You want to criticize the euthanasia of some of the fighting dogs? Maybe they should put dangerous, aggressive pit bulls who can't be rehabbed up for adoption. You want one, Tara? Anyone? That's what I thought.”

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2. kittysaver said... on May 26, 2010 at 09:12AM

“Well said journalismisdead. I'm not sure Tara Murtha actually visits the PSPCA shelter on a regular basis, OR that she is in contact with anyone at the shelter to get facts for her "articles." Many of the statements made here are in actuality just supposition made without any genuine involvement with the situation. Unfortunately, many will read this and believe her without a second thought. The number of pitbulls up for adoption there is staggering, and the rehab work done on raid dogs is incredible. I don't like to get nasty in postings, but geez, I'm on the verge after this latest piece of garbage that is ostensibly being passed off as investigative journalism. Does Tara Murtha want to help these animals or not? Because, honestly, this kind of "writing" does them no good and merely serves to polarize the animal welfare community and encourage a renewed period of wild finger-pointing and invective. Do you want to save the animals Tara? Then be a real journalist.”

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3. kat said... on May 26, 2010 at 09:22AM

“This article is ridiculous. It is so obviously written with no idea what the SPCA deals with on a daily basis. How hard they work to save these animals, how many insanely dedicated volunteers visit BOTH shelters on a daily basis. Honestly, anyone who believes this wasn't going to rescue a dog anyway.This is not all politics. The people at the SPCA and ACCT, strangely enough not mentioned, work 7 days a week to get their dogs homes. They beg for fosters and people to bottle feed the thousands of tiny kittens. This is a societal problem. And articles like this, bashing the only organization begging for help, only aggravate the problem. Tara, please, just once, do some actual research, out of the office, off of your ass. Spend a day at each of the SPCA shelters and see what happens there. See how much of the work done is done not for money, but by volunteers and by staff going above and beyond out of their love for these dogs. And those dogs saved are often rehomed.”

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4. Kathy L. said... on May 26, 2010 at 12:35PM

“If PEOPLE were more RESPONSIBLE with their companions, we wouldn't have such a crisis. It IS human error as always, the cause of "all our woes."”

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5. Truth will set you free said... on May 26, 2010 at 04:24PM

“This is one angry "opinion"! A simple search of newspaper articles from 1995-2002 will state quite simply that then CEO Erik Hendricks was responsible for the policy to euthanize pitties, back in the 90's and early 2000. If Tara Murtha cared at all about the city's stray and homeless animals she might use the power of the pen more wisely, by writing something truthful and provocative, like Mike Newell's piece about pitbulls in pain. I'll bet that article get's 10x more hits. If you want to stir up drama don't do it at the expense of innocent animals - look around, there's more than enough drama to go around. Why keep rehashing the same sad history of animal control? This is a serious situation and this "article" reads like the ramblings of a lunatic. It hurts the animals and is demoralizing to the dedicated staff - and yes - even board members - working incredibly hard on their behalf.”

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6. Anonymous said... on May 26, 2010 at 07:49PM

“What a load of crap. Not the article, but the health department. The health department wants "security?" Huh? It's the very fools in the health department that played right into the hands of the PSPCA's board and leadership to being with. They allowed this to happen. In fact, they encouraged it. This mess is just as much their fault as it is the PSPCAs. All in all, quite a repulsive bunch. Think you should've read the "balance sheet" before you awarded them the contract Dr. Schwarz? Ridiculous.”

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7. Anonymous said... on May 27, 2010 at 04:42PM

“where does it say the volunteers aren't doing a good job? It's about administrators...volunteers are probably good people doing good's the bosses that don't seem to have it together”

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8. doggiedaycare said... on May 28, 2010 at 12:07AM

“So what's Plan B? Surely there must be some thoughts on this from someone so involved in animal welfare they are compelled to trash the SPCA including the former CEO at every whim, using year old quotes from the very outspoken Jack Kelly. Why don't you write an article about what other solutions may be? Of course that would require a working brain cell and maybe a real visit to either shelter, it's so much easier to be an armchair critic.”

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9. Anonymous said... on May 29, 2010 at 01:38AM

“I am sick of hearing from Jack Kelly. Look at his public reports. Donations from Tara Derby and other PAWS board members when they had the contract.

I am sure the financial support has nothing to do with his positions or public statements, but just an interesting coincidence.

Tara Murtha. Read her tweets and you will not take her seriously. Period.”

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10. Anonymous said... on Jun 8, 2010 at 06:22PM

“Anyone who writes an article about PSPCA/ACCT needs to walk a day in their shoes. Learn about the organization and the sheer number of animals that are brought in each day. Learn about the incredible staff and volunteers who stay well into the evening to get animals fostered and adopted. Foster yourself - it is always needed. Learn about all the different programs that are hugely helping the cities animals.
No one can write an article until they've stepped inside the organization, instead of merely attending a few meetings about the shelters in the evening hours.”


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