The head of the city’s animal control organization tendered her unexpected resignation last week. New York City Animal Care & Control (ACC) executive director Julie Bank, who had received a contract extension in April, said she would be leaving for family reasons, effective October 19. The organization’s director of operations left earlier last week. The departures were only the latest signs of an organization, and city animal care policies, that are in flux.

"With the impending resignation … we find ourselves at a very important crossroads for the organization and for all of our four-legged friends who call this great city home," wrote Brooklyn Councilmember Vincent Gentile in a letter to Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Commissioner Tom Farley, who chairs the ACC.

In early September, a local animal rescue organization was scheduled to present oral arguments against the city in the Court of Appeals, the highest level of the state judiciary. The hearing was postponed until November 14. But when the court does take up the case, animal advocates hope it will give them standing to push for widespread changes in an animal control system some say is in crisis.

That system is run by the non-profit ACC, with a budget of almost $11 million for the current fiscal year. Last year, ACC took in 36,000 animals. Roughly 20,000 were released through adoption—most through smaller affiliated organizations, and 5,900 via the ACC itself. And almost 11,000 animals were euthanized.

ACC adoption numbers have declined for six consecutive years. The organization—which has had six directors in six years and eight since Michael Bloomberg became mayor—has not had a full-time medical director for two years. According to former employees and volunteers, ACC facilities routinely run out of basic supplies like cat litter, wet food and rabies injections. These sources also claim animals in ACC are getting sicker and disease strains are getting stronger, and further claim the agency has expanded its list of "untreatable" conditions to justify euthanasia.

ACC officials denied most of these claims. It is difficult to verify either version because ACC is a contractor rather than a city agency, with fewer available records on its performance, and requires employees and volunteers to sign confidentiality agreements that apply even after they have left the agency.

According to the Humane Society of the United States, communities spend on average $8 per capita for animal shelters. New York City spends less than one dollar per capita on animal control. Former ACC executive director Ed Boks said the budget "is so buried ... New Yorkers would be shocked if they understood how deliberately underfunded the ACC is."

Difficulties from the start

ACC was created in 1993 and commenced operation in 1995. Among some animal advocates, it was controversial from the start. Though it was supposed to be "independent," it was and is a vendor of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH), from whom the vast majority of its budget comes.

"The mayor and the previous mayor enjoy this construct that they want to make sure no organization can walk away from having the ACC contract," Manhattan Assemblyman Micah Kellner (D) has said. "The fix is clearly in." This refers to the situation created in 1993 when the organization then in charge of animal control—the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA)--announced it would not renew its city contract to provide such services.

ACC uses city-owned facilities. The mayor appoints all nine of ACC's board members—many of whom are city employees, including the health commissioner. That means Farley, as head of DOHMH, oversees a multimillion-dollar contract held by ACC, of which he is board chair. Beyond this conflict, critics wonder if an agency pledged to improve the health of people is qualified to oversee an entity devoted to the welfare of animals.

Throughout the 1990’s, the ACC came under criticism for dismal conditions in the shelters and euthanasia rates usually hovering in the 70th percentile. These conditions and statistics became the genesis for the City Council's 2000 Animal Shelters and Sterilization Act, which mandated that 24-hour a day, seven-day-per-week full-service animal shelters be constructed in each borough.

ACC by law must accept every animal brought to its doors. Running five full-service shelters would have added to an already enormous workload for the organization. But it also would have reduced the potential for overcrowding—with its implications for animal health and survival. In the end, only three of the five shelters were constructed, in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Staten Island, with DOHMH primarily calling the shots about budget, location and building schedules, according to two former ACC directors who spoke to City Limits.

After receiving an extension by the City Council in 2002, DOHMH and the ACC tried to build the other two facilities required by the 2000 law but circumstances kept getting in the way—whether in the form of community opposition or a landlord not wanting to wait for the city's cumbersome purchasing process. And the financial burden to build the remaining shelters was a deterrent. In the end, the city said it was just not able to establish sites in Queens and the Bronx, instead opening receiving centers—which are simply locations where people forfeit their animals—in those boroughs.

When Bank first became executive director in 2010, the city had just decimated its funding to ACC, slashing from $8.7 million to $7.2 million over two fiscal years. As a result, she and her management team had to make choices that were ultimately reflected in shelter conditions. Already low staffing levels were cut. The lost and found department and the call center were effectively closed, making it virtually impossible to find a lost pet. Operation hours also diminished.

Today, only the Brooklyn facility has an X-ray machine. "We are looking at some private funding that might allow us to have an X-ray in Manhattan, although space limitations might prevent that," Bank said in an August interview with City Limits, before she announced her departure. But she played down the impact of ACC's scarce resources. "If we need the help…. in a procedure or something we can't do, we utilize outside veterinarians and we pay for those services," she said.

Questions of expertise

ACC has not had a paid medical director on staff since 2010, and according to Bank, doesn't plan to hire one until 2014. The ACC's previous medical director currently works as the full-time senior director of community outreach for shelter medicine programs in the ASPCA’s Veterinary Outreach Department, but is also considered the ACCs "medical director/consultant" regularly on call.