It’s been four months since the PSPCA took over the city’s animal shelter system. It’s failing.
Doomed to Repeat?
It wasn’t long ago that the Hunting Park shelter was the scene of some very crude animal crimes. Back in 2002, PSPCA, then in charge of animal control, walked away from the contract over money and the pit bull policy (Philly refused to outlaw the breed, and PSPCA’s policy was to euthanize them). The Philadelphia Department of Public Health was then forced to create and staff a new animal control organization, Philadelphia Animal Care and Control Association (PACCA), as a subdivision of itself; by all accounts, it was staffed with many bad-apple nepotism hires. Under this initial administration of PACCA, the shelter was a grisly murder mill. It remained a self-contained catastrophe until 2004, when the Daily News’ Stu Bykofsky wrote a five-part exposé.
Bykofsky’s gut-wrenching series described dogs and cats swung into cages by their legs or necks as administrators chomped on cigars; one animal after another being killed within minutes of arrival; and starving dogs hosed down in their cages.
“Six mornings a week a truck loaded with animal carcasses leaves the PACCA extermination camp and dumps them in a landfill near the Walt Whitman Bridge,” wrote Bykofsky. Eighty-nine percent of all animals that entered the shelter were killed.
That exposé led to a second, reformist administration of PACCA. Between 2005 and 2008, when the city awarded the contract back to PSPCA for 2009, imperfect progress was made.
Bad employees were fired. Volunteer, foster and rescue networks were established.
And the save rate rose. A save rate, at its most basic level, means the percentage of animals who leave the shelter alive. If 100 dogs come in the door, and 50 are adopted, sent to foster homes or otherwise rescued, and the other 50 are euthanized, the “save rate” is 50 percent. Under the reformist administration of PACCA, this number rose steadily about 10 percent a year.
Meanwhile, in 2007, PSPCA named Howard Nelson (off a stint as executive director of the Washington Humane Society but formerly best known as a high-level Fannie Mae exec) as its new CEO. Nelson spent the next year waging a take-no-prisoners war for the animal control contract—a mere $2.9 million feather in PSPCA’s $33 million cap. (PSPCA is a statewide nonprofit organization, unconnected to other SPCAs and not overseen by another organization.)
During Nelson’s pursuit of the contract, PSPCA began to signal breakdown. Two longtime board members resigned within a few months of one another, each citing Nelson as a contributing factor (attorney Richard Elliott cited Nelson’s “inability to concede human fallibility”). Allegations of inhumane euthanasia methods sparked investigative reports. Nelson was caught lying about the number of humane officers in the state. Lawsuits popped up concerning the legality of some of PSPCA’s cruelty raids.
By late 2008, the epic battle between PACCA and PSPCA for the Philly contract climaxed: Secret alliances were forged, backstabbing ensued and kited statistics were floated. It was the stuff of scandal junkie dreams.
The battle ended on Dec. 1, when PSPCA was awarded the contract for a six-month term by the Health Department. PACCA disbanded and employees scattered, but many volunteers and rescue partners stayed in animal control, more concerned with saving animals than with political turmoil.
Now animal control in Philadelphia was supposed to flourish, maybe even to a level that could atone for the gruesome sins of the past.PSPCA’s contract proposal bubbled with campaign promises of “improved experience for the animals” and “improved save rates and quality of life” ensured through “bullet-proof operations.” It vowed to “protect the animals” and “prevent disease and reduce related stress while ensuring the best atmosphere for adoptions and other life-saving activities.”
Meanwhile, local animal activists were leery of what would happen with the PSPCA—and specifically Nelson—taking over Philadelphia animal control while unraveling elsewhere in the state.
Under Nelson’s reign, key organizational relationships—like with the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and the Federated Humane Societies of Pennsylvania—dissolved, seen as odd lurches toward isolation in an industry where successful models depend on strategic cooperation. Then there was Nelson’s history of creative accounting. PW reported last December that though Nelson boasted of saving every “adoptable” animal while at the Washington Humane Society, records show they actually killed 70 percent.
Nonetheless, as watchdog blogs like tortiball.com cringed, the Inquirer heralded PSPCA’s transition into ACCT, making much fuss about the fresh-painted walls and polished floors. With the bidding business over and decisions made, there was little for advocates to do but hope for the best after the paint dried.
Then, less than two months into the six-month contract, Nelson vanished. Soon after posting PSPCA’s first month’s “save rate” stats and amid controversy elsewhere in the state—there was community outrage over a shelter shut down in Monroe County, the Pocono Record published reports alleging abuse of authority and the board was reportedly pressuring Nelson to answer “certain questions”—he suddenly resigned via email on Feb. 11, citing health concerns and “an environment no longer conducive to my success or the success of the organization.”
As of press time, there’s still no replacement, though PSPCA president Yaron estimates a new hire by the end of May. While PSPCA sails its rudderless ship—interim CEO Beth Ann White, who did not respond to PW’s request for interview, is a part-time volunteer—into the final third of its contract, the organization has yet to fulfill the majority of its promises. Thousands of animals are suffering for it.
Some animals, especially cats and kittens, are getting so ill after leaving ACCT that they’re dying a short while later. Rescues and fosters report taking home an animal and either watching it die or taking it back to ACCT for euthanization.
“One of the problems is that cats don’t show these signs of illness the day they come into the shelter,” says a longtime rescue partner who pulled hundreds of cats a year from ACCT and has years of experience saving kittens so young they’re hand-fed by bottle. “I can pull them three or four days after they’re surrendered, and they are picture-perfect,” she says. “Give them a few days and they nosedive.”
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