New York Times profiles Edward Boks

PUBLIC LIVES; Saving Animals Is Ex-Pastor’s New Mission by Nora Krug Nov, 26, 2003

Ed Boks and Today Show
Edward Boks on the Today Show

A MILD allergy to cats does not keep Edward Boks from playing with kittens — or from working with hundreds of them as the new executive director of the nonprofit organization that handles most animal care and control for New York City.

In July, Mr. Boks (rhymes with ”cloaks”), a soft-spoken former pastor, came to New York from Maricopa County, Ariz., to take over the agency, New York City Animal Care and Control, which he says is in dire need of reform.

In June 2002, a scathing report by the city’s comptroller’s office concluded that agency, under a previous name, had failed to provide humane conditions for the animals in its shelters.

Mr. Boks’s plan to solve the problem centers on an ambitious agenda: to drastically cut the number of animals that are euthanized, and even turn the organization’s five shelters into ”no-kill communities” over the next five years. That does not mean, he is quick to point out, that no animals would be euthanized. Rather, it is a philosophical shift.

”The best definition of no-kill is to get to the place where we use the same criteria in deciding whether or not to euthanize a shelter animal as we use when deciding whether or not to euthanize our own pet — when it is a loving decision and not a pragmatic decision based on whether we have enough space,” he explains.

It would be extraordinary, he says, to reduce the number of animals euthanized by the organization — currently about 30,000 of the nearly 50,000 it receives a year — by 10 percent to 15 percent a year.

Accomplishing this means reducing the animal population through a spay/neuter program, increasing adoptions and decreasing the number of animals taken to shelters.

Mr. Boks plans to do this through various programs, like discounting neutering fees for the pets of lower-income New Yorkers and adjusting adoption fees on a sliding scale based on an animal’s ”marketability.” This will cost money, something the organization does not have in abundance.

The city cut its budget to $7.2 million in fiscal year 2004, from nearly $8.9 million in fiscal year 2002. So Mr. Boks plans to raise money through donations. He has already gotten fund-raising help from some big names, like Bernadette Peters and Mary Tyler Moore.

Mr. Boks, 52, exudes a patient intensity about his mission. ”This is a community crisis and it’s going to take a community to solve it,” he says. ”So be it.”

But as he walks through an adoption center on 110th Street in East Harlem, he shakes his head at some of the conditions. ”Dogs belong in a kennel,” he says, pointing to the rows of dog cages, the smallest of which are only 18 inches tall by 18 inches wide by 18 inches deep.

The dog room smells, well, doggy, and his voice can barely be heard over the barking. Among Mr. Boks’s many ideas for sprucing things up is creating a soundproof dog room. Adoption centers need ”a pleasant, retail-like atmosphere with climate control and the whole nine yards,” he says. They also need to be in more accessible areas of the boroughs they serve, he says.

Working with animals was not always part of Mr. Boks’s life plan. Growing up in Harper Woods, Mich., he thought he would become a priest. He ended up converting to Protestantism, getting married (and divorced) and becoming a pastor (he left the ministry in the mid-1990’s).

Still, as a student in Catholic schools, he worked in an animal shelter after school and idolized St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals. His commitment was put to the test in a shelter in Arizona, where he euthanized animals himself — some 250 a day. Mr. Boks, who is partial to boxers, decided he wanted to save animals’ lives. He is now a vegetarian (though at times he craves rack of lamb).

In Maricopa County, an area that includes Phoenix and Scottsdale and is home to more than three million people, Mr. Boks was able to help increase the number of adoptions by about 30 percent and reduce the number of animals euthanized per year from 30 animals per 1,000 people to about 8.

He hopes for similar success in New York, where last year 11,000 of the animals taken to one of the agency’s shelters were adopted.

IS he ever tempted to bring home an animal himself? ”Every day,” he says. He does not have a pet now (he still spends two weeks a month in Scottsdale, a pattern he will continue through the end of the year) but says he would like to get a dog soon, since he found an apartment in the Village that allows them.

As a child, he always had a dog for a pet, even though his father ”thought dogs belonged in a doghouse in the backyard,” he says. Mr. Boks persisted, and persuaded his father to allow the Labrador-mix puppy, named Candy, to sleep in the basement, then the first floor, then the second. Eventually, the dog slept in the same bed as the young Mr. Boks.

If his father could be persuaded, Mr. Boks figures, New Yorkers should be a cinch.