Byko: Fur flies at ACCT board meeting

Kristin Burns hugs Max, her adopted pet.

Crab, beef, and bologna were on the menu Monday night at the public session following the meeting of the board of directors of the Animal Care and Control Team (ACCT), Philadelphia’s animal shelter.

Some 60 animal activists, almost all of whom volunteer for or work with ACCT by rescuing adoptable animals, attended the session that stretched for more than two hours.  (Rescue refers to groups that take — they use the term “pull” — dogs from the shelter and place them into the hands of adopters.)

The crab were comments and the beef were complaints laid on the table during an often-contentious meeting. The bologna, in the mind of the activists, were some responses given by ACCT staff.

As an example, rescuers complained some dogs were put down too quickly, denying them a chance of rescue. ACCT staffers denied that, but a couple of rescue people referred to dogs by name they said had not been given a fair shot.

All this played out against the background of an ongoing two-month rehabilitation of the ACCT building at 111 W. Hunting Park Avenue. The construction halved the number of available kennels, putting the shelter and its partners under greater stress, which was sometimes evident in the pointed questioning of the board, or open hostility during the meeting.

Kathy Calabrese, Pennsylvania state manager of the Anti Dog-Fighting Campaign, refused to listen to anything said by board chairman David Wilson, who is a city deputy managing director. The city funds and oversees the shelter, but does not operate it.

Calabrese’s primary complaint is that too few dogs are available for adoption. “There are four on the floor,” meaning ready for adoption, “while there are 20 behind the line,” meaning unavailable because they had not been evaluated. Other volunteers voiced the same complaint.

The volunteers numbers were right, said ACCT spokeswoman Ame Dorminy, but they didn’t understand the “why.” Many of those dogs were too stressed to be fairly evaluated and each dog must be evaluated for temperament before it can be put up for adoption.

One issue that was not raised at the meeting  was the live-release number for dogs. In 2016, 388 fewer dogs made it out of the shelter alive than in 2015 even though fewer dogs were taken in in 2016 (7,874) than in 2015 (8,670).

Dorminy explained because ACCT has cut owner surrenders of friendly, easy-to-adopt dogs,  keeping them out of the shelter, it has hurt the live-release numbers.

I can see that point, but the kill numbers are the kill numbers.  The 77 percent live-release is good, but could be better. 

ACCT volunteer Kristin Burns complained that volunteers could only walk evaluated dogs and small dogs weren’t walked at all, or even touched.

“Volunteers are not allowed to open [the small dog] cages to clean the feces or urine.  We are not permitted to take them outside or even fill their water and food bowls,” Burns said.

Dorminy said, “small dog housing” needs improvement, “and we are committed to making small dogs’ stays here more comfortable.” Many of them, she said, are “bite cases” and are quarantined for the safety of humans. 

But the ones who are not bite cases get the same cruel confinement, volunteers say. Being confined, not exercised and lacking any form of enrichment for 10 days would make almost any dog “cage crazy," volunteers say. 

The main reason for reducing volunteers’ contact with animals was liability, said Wilson.

Last year the shelter was sued for $1 million by a family whose child was bitten by a dog adopted from ACCT. The family settled for $337,000. While that was paid by the insurance company, that increased the premium, and that comes out of ACCT’s $4.6  million budget,  said ACCT executive director Vincent Medley.

In a later interview with me, Calabrese dismissed the liability concerns. “I have liability insurance, most of the rescues do.”

Some volunteers said they had seen  dogs surrendered by their owners were walked right into the euthanasia room, a claim disputed by ACCT staffers.

One of the volunteers said she and others felt “marginalized,” a complaint I have heard before, and so has the board. This board meeting seemed like a marital counseling session with no psychologist present.

ACCT can’t accomplish its life-saving mission without volunteers in the shelter and rescue partners.

What I have seen in recent meetings is a Hatfield/McCoy  relationship between volunteers and ACCT’s leadership and board. 

This needs to be cleaned up. Both sides must come together for a peace parley, moderated by a knowledgeable, neutral party agreeable to both sides.