Byko: Humane housing is for the dogs

Rocky was put down by the Animal Care and Control Team, the city’s animal shelter. Volunteers insist better use of cage space would have saved him.

Dog advocates - volunteers, fosters and rescuers - howled at a meeting of the board of directors of the Animal Care and Control Team, the city's animal shelter, Monday night at the shelter at 111 W. Hunting Park Ave.

Board business took about 20 minutes. That was followed by 80 minutes of public comment, mostly complaints about a new ACCT policy called "humane housing." It was instituted in January by new executive director Vincent Medley, the fourth ACCT leader since 2007. Under the policy, nine cages that had held two dogs each in cages separated by a sliding "guillotine" door, were turned into larger cages holding only one dog. Space for each dog was doubled, but the number of dogs accommodated was cut in half.

Admitting it was a "radical change," Medley told me in February the policy was intended to give the dogs a less stressful experience in the shelter, reduce the spread of disease, and allow dogs to "present" better to potential adopters. This would move them out of the shelter faster and life-saving would increase.

Each month ACCT posts statistics, including "live release," which refers to animals that leave the shelter alive with adopters, foster care or rescue groups.

I compared the January-May live-release rate to the same months last year. The numbers (see chart) are a mixed bag, certainly not a big improvement.

At the meeting, volunteer Ian Griffiths cited occasions on which dogs were euthanized when they could have been saved by lowering the guillotine door on cages and giving ACCT staffers extra time to find homes for them. He had tearfully cradled one of the doomed dogs, Sara, in his arms before she was led to the euthanasia room.

Volunteer Gary Auerbach said humane housing is supposed to be in the interest of the dogs, but it's not for those that die due to lack of space.

When the shelter approaches capacity , urgent notices are sent out, alerting the community that some dogs will be put down if not quickly removed from the shelter.

"When animals are dying, the community responds," Medley said. But not all can be saved.

Other shelters that run at capacity have higher euthanasia rates, he said, adding the brutal truth that "if an animal is in the shelter, they are on death row."

Auerbach asked if it was true Medley wanted half the kennels empty. "I am not requiring that, not by any stretch," Medley said, but later conceded 10 other cages are kept empty to accommodate owners who might want to surrender their dogs. ACCT must accept all surrenders.

If dogs already in the shelter are euthanized to make space for dogs that might come in, that needs to be rethought.

"Humane housing is one part of a continuum of care that asks us to look holistically at the best interests of the animals in our care," I was told after the meeting by city deputy managing director David Wilson, who chairs the board.

"These changes were not made lightly and we continue to monitor our data to ensure humane housing is a success for the animals, our consumers, and the staff."

Only one volunteer, Darcy Oordt, was positive about humane housing. "I see an improvement in the animals," she said.

The meeting was attended by about two dozen volunteers, fosters and rescues.

All volunteers are animal lovers who work for no compensation other than saving lives.

The shelter is the saddest place on earth for volunteers and staffers - a jail for dogs that have done nothing wrong but become homeless. One-quarter of them will not leave alive.

Rescue groups are a vital link in the chain of life. They take (or "pull") dogs from the shelter, saving them from death, and place them in adoptive homes.

In the past, all dogs released to rescue were neutered. "Now, rescues are expected to foot the bill of these surgeries at private vets," I was told by Megan Kelly, a board member of Dog Town Rescue in Colmar, Pa. "At the same time, those smaller or younger dogs we used to otherwise be able to pull," she said, are no longer available.

Rescues charge adopters a fee to defray expenses. The smaller, cute dogs - called cream puffs - bring a higher adoption fee than older, bigger, not-so-cute dogs. Another rescue echoed the complaint, adding smaller dogs provide the revenue to help them work with larger dogs.

Medley conceded he does "challenge" rescues to step up. Kelly said the rescues are plenty challenged.

For perspective, ACCT arose from the ashes of the former Philadelphia Animal Care and Control Association, which was a house of horrors, as I reported in a 2004 series. PACCA was dismantled and replaced by ACCT, which started with a miserable live-release rate.

Last year's live-release rate for dogs was 77 percent, a great improvement over a decade ago.

The Petco Foundation gave a $1-million grant to ACCT, because "we found them to be one of the most productive and effective organizations with the resources that they have available," according to Susanne Kogut, executive director of the Petco Foundation.

The improvements are there. We will have to see if humane housing is one of them.

215-854-5977 @StuBykofsky