BOOKS—Led Astray: Reforming New York City’s Animal Care & Control

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  May/June 2013:

Led Astray:  Reforming New York City’s Animal Care & Control by Scott M. Stringer,  Manhattan Borough President  (lead researcher/writer Shaan Khan),  January 2013 Free download from:

Led Astray is the latest of many evaluations and exposés of alleged deficiencies within the New York City Center for Animal Care & Control,  originally known as the CACC,  now abbreviated AC&C.

Twenty years after AC&C was formed on short notice to take over the New York City animal control contract,  held for the preceding 100 years by the American SPCA,  the city rate of shelter killing has fallen from about six animals per 1,000 residents,  which would still be very low today,  compared to the national rate of 9.7,  to 0.82.  This is the best record of any major U.S. city,   bar none,  even factoring in that New York City residents keep about half as many pets as the U.S. national average.  

That fact alone should send the perennially baying AC&C critics home on the run with their tails between their legs,  though of course it does not.  Assisted by the low-cost sterilization services provided by the ASPCA,  the adoption partnerships coordinated by the Mayor’s Alliance for New York City’s Animals,  and the low-cost and free veterinary care given to the pets of low-income residents by the Companion Animal Network,  the AC&C has provided to New York City dogs and cats a community safety net second to none.

Also to be acknowledged are the many contributions,  over decades,  of the North Shore Animal League and Friends of Animals,  the pioneers of high-volume adoption and low-cost sterilization.  Located in the New York City suburbs,  the organizations’ efforts began when the city was killing more than 250,000 dogs and cats per year.  The most recent 12-month total was below 7,000.

This is not to suggest that the AC&C cannot be improved.  The accomplishments of the AC&C and partner organizations have been achieved despite handicaps including severe underfunding and shelter infrastructure inherited from the ASPCA that was already obsolescent when the buildings opened. Led Astray is in many respects the best-researched of the whole miserable file drawer full of critiques of AC&C. Yet Led Astray nonetheless manages to miss point after point that should emerge from the history and statistics that it summarizes.


Led Astray presents itself as a sequel to Dying for Homes,  a June 1997 performance review produced by the New York City Council Committee on Contracts.    Dying for Homes,  recalls Led Astray,  identified “several systemic problems with the CACC,  including a lack of animal care experience on its board,  inadequate funding,  insufficient and inaccessible facilities,  poor public relations,  shoddy volunteer management and an ineffective adoption program––all problems that persist today.”

Much of this could be debated.  New York City has needed more and better-located shelters since the 19th century,  but few shelter boards anywhere include anyone with animal care experience going much beyond looking after personal pets and perhaps some volunteer dog-walking and fostering.  Few shelter publicists generate more promotional material than the present AC&C publicist,  Richard Gentles.  The AC&C adoption program,  if measured by success in rehoming impounded animals,  is four times as effective as that of Calgary,  whose animal care and control system Led Astray cites as a good example. Indeed,  Calgary has long enjoyed unique success in selling dog licenses,  and has done very well in other aspects of animal care and control,  relative to U.S. and Canadian norms.  Yet Calgary has not done nearly as well as New York City at either saving impounded animals’ lives or preventing dog attack fatalities and disfigurements,  the original intended purpose of animal control agencies.

“Adoptions have dropped 37% in the past six years,”  Led Astray laments,  “while placements,  which enable AC&C to pass the responsibility of caring for an animal onto a rescue group,  have increased by 70%.  Dog licensing,  a viable source for significant revenue,  lingers at around 10%,  and the number of new licenses issued has declined for three straight years…AC&C’s inability to generate outside revenue has made the nonprofit overly dependent on city funding, which historically has been inconsistent and inadequate.”

The latter is somewhat of an understatement.  ANIMAL PEOPLE pointed out in 1994,  when AC&C was first formed, that New York City spent about half as much per human resident on animal control as the next lowest major cities.  This has not changed. The New York City budgeting process year after year leaves the AC&C as perpetually underfunded as some counterpart agencies in the developing world.

Led Astray argues,  like all other evaluations of New York City animal care and control funding since 1895,  that the solution to underfunding is to sell more dog licenses.  Reality is that an animal control agency can either do labor-intensive door-to-door canvassing to sell dog licenses,  or do the actual work of animal care-and-control.  Seldom if ever can it afford to expend the staff time needed to do both.  In the high-rise neighborhoods characterizing much of New York City,  moreover,  door-to-door canvassing is even more laborious and less productive than in the average U.S. or Canadian city.

The ASPCA accepted the New York City animal control contract in 1895 under the illusion that dog license sales would provide sufficient funding.  The ASPCA then subsidized the animal control work until 1994 to ensure that the job would not be given to a private contractor who might sell dogs to laboratories. Never at any time was license revenue alone enough to cover the full cost of services that the ASPCA provided to New York City.  By the time the ASPCA returned the animal control contract to the city,  the annual loss to the ASPCA of fulfilling the contract exceeded $2 million per year,  even though the city had long since begun supplementing licensing revenue with annual cash allocations.

Led Astray suggests that higher licensing fees should be introduced,  and that license sales could be inexpensively increased if New York City moved toward the incentive-based Calgary approach.  This is probably true––but developing a high rate of licensing compliance by offering licensing incentives took Calgary several decades.  Inasmuch as the U.S. rates of pet keeping per capita are now in decline,  especially among older urban residents,  even a very successful effort to sell more dog licenses is unlikely to lastingly relieve AC&C’s perpetual economic stress.


“Nothing reflects the organizational dysfunction of Animal Care & Control more profoundly than its management history,”  Led Astray continues.  “Since 1995,  the corporation has had 11 different executive directors,  including eight in the last ten years.”

This is also true,  but says more about how AC&C has been booted about as a political football than of the actual quality of management,  which has ranged from very good to quite inept and back again,  several times.

Animal control agencies,  by the nature of their work,  inevitably make enemies by impounding dogs and cats, often because of animal-related disputes between neighbors.  In addition to responding to public complaints and expectations,  animal control directors manage stressed personnel and try to keep volunteers working as part of a coordinated team,  if the agencies accept volunteers at all.

No animal control agency or director is ever without critics.  Because New York City is by far the biggest U.S. city, full of media-savvy people,  the AC&C has from inception caught the most sustained flak of any animal control agency, anywhere,  ever.  Even in Los Angeles,  notorious for unceasing and often irrational criticism of the animal control agencies,  whose record is also overall quite good,  the fury is split between the Los Angeles Department of Animal Services and Los Angeles County Animal Control.  In New York City just one agency and director take the heat from all.

Regardless of who has headed AC&C,  and regardless of the actual AC&C record of accomplishment,  the critics have usually enjoyed outsized political influence.  But very few of those critics,  including political office holders,  have ever evidenced any clear understanding of the realities of doing effective animal control.

Safety & structure

  Most significantly,  an animal control agency exists to protect the public––and the animals of the community––from dangerous animals and zoonotic disease.  An animal control agency may also investigate and prosecute cruelty and neglect,  though in New York City these jobs are still part of the mandate of the ASPCA.  An animal control agency does not exist to do the work of nonprofit adoption and rescue agencies.  These jobs are best done by nonprofit organizations which do not have the sometimes conflicting task of ensuring public safety.

The word “bite” does not appear in Led Astray.  Neither is zoonotic disease mentioned,  except in one footnote about rabies.  Indeed,  there is no substantive discussion of any public safety issue in Led Astray;  discussion of animal safety is limited to disease outbreaks occurring within the New York City shelters and the risk that some impounded animals may be killed.

Like Dying for Homes,  and most other post-1994 critics,   Led Astray concludes that “The roots of the problem are structural:  AC&C is controlled by the Department of Health & Mental Hygiene.”  Led Astray calls for restructuring the agency to,  in effect,  re-invent the ASPCA as it existed for the 10 decades when handling New York City animal control was almost all that the ASPCA did,  or was able to do.

In those years New York City animal control critics mostly howled that doing animal control work was inconsistent with doing animal advocacy.  Especially after the San Francisco SPCA gave up doing animal control,  obliging San Francisco to form a municipal animal control agency,  New York City activists clamored for the ASPCA to follow the San Francisco model.  Finally it did.  New York City even hired then-San Francisco Department of Animal Care & Control director Carl Friedman to advise the formation of the AC&C.

The AC&C could have been formed as a new city agecy,  but this would have inhibited soliciting grants,  bequests, and donations.  The AC&C was instead created as a nonprofit corporation.  It might have been supervised by either the police department,  which had the primary responsibility for public safty;    the sanitation department,  which would have meant that homeless animals were in effect classed as refuse;  or the Department of Health & Mental Hygiene, whose mandates already included protecting animal health as well as human health.

Many animal advocates might have preferred that the AC&C have an independent board,  not under the authority of any public safety agency––as the ASPCA did,  and as Led Astray recommends.  But New York City elected officials and public safety directors had good reason to mistrust the possible consequences of forming an agency whose focus might creep from protecting the public,  and the pets of the public,  to protecting animals who were impounded for dangerous behavior.

The pit bull on the cover of Led Astray hints at the omitted history.  In August 1987,  two days after police shot a pit bull who menaced five children at a Bronx housing project,  then lunged at the first police officer to reach the scene,  then-Mayor Ed Koch recommended legislation to ban pit bulls,  and to require that any pit bulls already in New York City be sterilized,  muzzled in public,  and insured against liability.  As passed in 1989,  the Koch bill required only that pit bulls be tattooed,  photographed,  registered,  and insured.  No more pit bulls were to be allowed in New York City after October 1,  1989.  In September 1989,  however,  enforcement was halted by a preliminary injunction issued by the New York State Supreme Court on behalf of a coalition led by the ASPCA.

The New York City Board of Health replaced the Koch ordinance in April 1991 with non-breed-specific regulations applying only to dogs who were declared dangerous after a hearing.  This proved unwieldy.  The New York City Housing Authority managed to enforce the law on behalf of tenants only a few dozen times while the ASPCA still did animal control,  but evicted 50 tenants for violations in the first year after the AC&C took over.

Pit bulls in 1986 inflicted 4.5% of the bites in New York City that required medical attention,  and were 5% of the dogs impounded for biting.  By 1997 pit bulls inflicted more than a third of the bites requiring medical attention,  and were 40% of the dogs impounded for biting.  In 2010 pit bulls inflicted “only” 815 of the record 3,609 bites requiring medical attention,  23%––because Rottweilers have also proliferated. The AC&C transition from promoting adoptions to promoting transfers of dogs to adoption agencies,  which Led Astray laments,  should have occurred years earlier,  as a matter of maximizing opportunities and resources.  Instead it was impelled in part by political concern over the liability issues associated with adopting out pit bulls,  who are now nearly 60% of the dogs in the AC&C shelters––twice the national average.

What AC&C needs

The real problem at AC&C is the continuing reluctance of New York City government to reinforce the job of ensuring public and animal safety with appropriate funding,  effective legislation to halt proliferation of dangerous dog breeds,  and defense against unjustified criticism.

Rarely if ever have New York City mayors,  councilors,  and borough administrators accorded animal control work the respect accorded to police,  firefighters,  and even garbage collectors.  Only when and if this occurs will AC&C enjoy stable leadership,  who can discipline staff and volunteers if necessary,  without risk that the disciplined personnel will enjoy the support of politicians in blaming management for their own mistakes,  eroding the morale of everyone else at AC&C,  who for the most part do outstanding work under difficult conditions.

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