The PSPCA owes it to Philly to stay. Then go.
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.
Since last year, the PSPCA has been working with the city to set up, and transfer animal-control 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.