Comedy, tragedy: Does Philly's city-funded animal shelter deserve more money?

Lisa Maggiolini testified before a City Council committee with her dog, Starr.

The ACCT melodrama — part comedy, part tragedy —  played Monday afternoon before an audience of City Council committee members and interested animal advocates.

Act I was good news, supplemented with a plea for additional funds. Council members heard from members of what might be called the animal care Establishment — people from the Humane Society of the United States, and the local Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society, followed by management of the Animal Care and Control Team, Philadelphia’s animal shelter.

Act II was decidedly downbeat, with several critics squawking, with one saying ACCT doesn’t deserve more funds at all.

Everyone appeared before a joint meeting of Public Property and Appropriations to investigate ACCT funding levels.

Before the meeting began, aware of some hostility in the ornate Council chamber, Public Property Chairman Bobby Henon said the hearing was “designed to shed light” and said it was “misguided” to blame the ACCT staff  for what he called “Philadelphia’s failure to adequately fund and support” the shelter. Henon is the city’s representative on the ACCT board of directors.

First to testify was Marsha Perelman, who has a long record of leadership in local animal issues, and currently is on the board of HSUS, the largest animal advocacy group in America.

“Philadelphia is the most poorly funded municipal shelter in America,” she said, adding we are “dead last among major cities.”

She backed it up with stats: Philadelphia has 1.5 million residents and spends $4 million on the animal shelter. San Diego’s population is 1.3 million and spends $17.6 million; San Antonio has 1.4 million residents and spends $13.9 million.

This may come has news to members of Council, but it is not news to animal advocates. The animal shelter has been underfunded for decades.

In addition, Perelman said, the size of its home, a former warehouse  at 111 W. Hunting Park Ave., is inadequate.

“It is not able to meet minimum sheltering standards,” said Inga Fricke, an officer of the HSUS.

ACCT has 19,000 square feet in the building. An additional 13,000 square feet is held by vector control, which targets animals or insects that carry or transmit disease. The quickest and cheapest solution to ACCT’s space problem is to relocate vector control. I’ve been hearing that for years.

I asked Henon why it couldn’t get done.

“We had a commitment from the last administration,” he told me, but nothing happened. This administration will do a “space assessment,” he said.

Perelman said $8 million a year would get ACCT close to comparably sized cities.

That would mean doubling the current budget and, while the amount is small in a $4 billion city budget, there would be pushback. “We might be able to phase it in by 2020,” Henon told me after the hearing.

The Act I good news was a live-release rate of 80 percent the highest it has ever been. That means 80 percent of the animal taken into the shelter exit alive.

During his testimony, ACCT executive director Vincent Medley painted such a happy picture of operations there — live-release rate up, awards from national organizations — it was almost against his own interest. If things are so good, why do you need more money?

And why do I keep hearing complaints?

Act II came after a long pause the committee took to transact some unrelated business.

By the time it returned to animal issues, many of the 40 members of the public had left.

The most devastating testimony came from Azita Kay, president of the Paw It 4Ward Foundation rescue group, who urged Council to not give any more money to ACCT until it cleans up its act.

She said dogs were released to her rescue either “misdiagnosed or not declared b y the medical staff,” which stuck her with “thousands of dollars in medical bills for each dog.” She also questioned the live-release rates posted by ACCT.

Other witnesses questioned the professionalism and courtesy of staff members, others complained that dogs are not walked enough and are euthanized even when there are empty kennels available. These are issues that were raised at the last board meeting.

Candace Schreier, president of Noah’s Ark Rescue Project and Sanctuary, complained the board doesn’t answer legitimate questions, the vet staff “routinely misdiagnoses dogs,” ACCT lacks the staff to do routine behavior assessment that is required before a dog can be adopted.   "ACCT needs to undergo a massive cleaning of house, starting at the very top," she said.  

The final witness, Lisa Maggiolini, who attended with her rescue dog, Starr,

complained about the excessive euthanasia rate and disinterest of the staff.

I have heard complaints from others that the live-release numbers are being fudged. That is a serious charge.

I know the board has an investment in Medley, the man it hired, but the only way to learn the truth is to have an outside audit.

The numbers are either correct or not. We need to know.