Until recently, New York’s animal shelter system, formerly known as the Center for Animal Care and Control (CACC), was notorious: its adoption numbers were abysmal, it was plagued by rumors of mismanagement, and had the unfortunate reputation of euthanizing animals deemed “unadoptable” soon after arrival, leaving little time for animal guardians to find their lost loved ones.
All that will soon change if its new Executive Director, Ed Boks, has his way. The first thing Boks did was change its name to NYC Animal Care and Control (AC&C) to better express his goal of putting the “care” back into NYC’s shelter system. Boks aims to up the adoption rate of homeless animals, and ultimately, make New York a “no-kill” city. Fresh from his success at turning around Phoenix, Arizona’s shelter system, Boks brings his know-how and compassion here to the Big Apple.
Lawrence Carter-Long sat down with Ed Boks to hear more about his plans for all New Yorkers.
Why don’t you tell people about the mission of NYC Animal Care and Control?
The mission statement of Animal Care and Control is to promote and protect the health and safety and welfare of pets and people in NYC. We sort of summarize that into a tag line: we create happiness by bringing pets and people together. Our mission is to help our community to really recognize the value of companion animals and of the animals that find a way into our shelter system, and help them start to see the system as a safety net—that really, if an animal ends up in our shelter, that’s not a bad thing. It’s a safety net—it’s better than being hit by a truck or whatever else… left in the street. What we don’t want is for these animals to come here and abandon all hope; for our shelters to be a dead end. There is the hope and desire that we can place these animals, so we’re going to have a very aggressive adoption program, including outreach and partnering to help get animals out of our shelters and back into the community. Back into homes.
So along those lines, what would you say your priorities for the organization are? And secondly, what are its greatest challenges?
Well I’ve had the advantage of having to work part-time here for the last six months, going back and forth between here and Arizona, and it’s given me ample opportunity to do assessment and analysis of the organization. So, probably by the end of January we will have completed a massive reorganization and have more direct lines of communication between the front line and decision-makers so that we’re more responsive to the community.
Once I’ve got a management team in place, the first thing we’re going to focus on is putting together a strategic plan that’ll guide us for the next five years: really identify the issues—what are the demands of the community, what are the realities of our budgetary constraints, space issues and that sort of thing—and come up with initiatives to specifically address those issues. Of course that means we are going to be looking at reducing euthanasia of companion animals and increasing adoption; and of course, the third leg that balances the stool is having a viable spay/neuter program that provides low- or no-cost services to the pets of any individuals on any form of public assistance. That’s our Big Fix Program.
What does NYC Animal Care & Control do from there?
It’s not in place yet, but that is what we will be doing. There’s a couple ways to approach Big Fix. One is to have regularly scheduled spay days, in which we have veterinarians and med techs volunteer in our clinics. At some point, we hope to have a spay/neuter clinic in each of the five boroughs, right now we have one in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Staten Island.
In February 2002 the city placed the sanitation commissioner on the board of Animal Control, further reinforcing the organization’s image as a “disposal” organization and causing an uproar in the animal care community. What are you attempting to do to alter that perception? Since that time, do you believe that public concern for animals has reached the consciousness of policymakers?
Clearly. The changes to NYC AC&C are reflective of that. Politicians would be well advised to understand animal care is an issue that can affect the outcome of an election. Virtually everybody has a pet. Nobody is going to vote for a politician if they hate animals—or act as if they do. There are many more people out there who will vote for somebody who demonstrates they have a heart for animals. I remember when Mayor Bloomberg made the comment after the blackout: “Don’t forget, feed and water your animals.” Across the country animal welfare people were going, “Did you hear that?” I don’t know that he said that for political effect; he said it from his heart. That’s why it resonated with people.
There is a misconception that the NYC AC&C is a city agency and, as such, part of the Public Health Department. I would assume that bears with it the stigma that you are connected to city government. How are you working to correct these assumptions?
AC&C is a vendor—a contract vendor that provides services to the city of New York through a contract we have with the Department of Health. The DoH is a wonderful partner in supporting us in our animal control aspect. When it comes to the animal care component or the types of programs that provide for the humane needs of animals—that will ultimately bring down the cost of animal control—we are reliant on donations. The city does not have the wherewithal or the means to provide more than the very minimum approach to animal control and very little for animal care.
Would you say that the bulk of the funds received from Public Health is for animal control and not for care?
That is correct. Over the course of the last year, the budget has been cut from $8.9 to $7.2 million—clearly, not enough resources to do what needs to be done. But we have to do what we can with what we’ve got. Thankfully, anybody who wants to help, can. We have a volunteer program; you can give donations. The team that is coming together—including those who have stayed and those who have joined the organization—are extraordinary people. Turn this organization around we will.
You started full-time on January 12. What are your priorities for NYC AC&C?
The top priority, of course, is to get humane shelters built. That’s a long-term goal; we will have to do a capital campaign to achieve it. In the very short term, I’d like to get all the cages out of our shelters, I’m speaking specifically about dogs, and turn them into humane kennels where animals have room to turn around, are not lying near feces or urine, and can eat/drink and get some exercise. That to me is really, really key right now. The current configuration of our shelters can be very detrimental to the mental and physical health of animals.
And the primary stumbling block to making those necessary changes is money?
Right. We need about $150,000 to put the kennels into the Manhattan shelter and I think we’ve raised about $40,000 to $50,000 already.
Last year, NYC killed some 35,000 animals in its shelter system—that’s about 100 dogs and cats daily. Currently, nearly 70 percent of the animals who enter the system have needed to be put down. You’ve expressed the goal of ending the practice of “euthanizing adoptable animals” in the next five years. What are the critical components of making that happen?
Humane shelters would go a long way. My definition of a humane shelter is one that provides for the well-being of animals as well as the people who come in to adopt or look for their lost animals. Our shelters right now are little more than holding facilities. They really were not designed or developed for adoption; or to find a lost pet either. Which is why we’re relying so much on technology to get them adopted and out of shelters.
Education is also important. We’re developing a program called TLC—Teach Love and Compassion—which will work with troubled youth in classrooms, teaching them the importance of compassion and responsibility in developing self-confidence.
Are exotic or wild animals an issue you have to contend with, such as the individual in Harlem recently found to have a tiger and an alligator in his apartment?
We rescue in the neighborhood of 8,000 wild or exotic animals each year, and we end up holding them for days, even weeks, at a time trying to find a place to rehab or release them. Every time we do so eliminates a space that could house a homeless dog or cat. This is a significant problem that nobody seems to be able, or in some cases, wants to address. AC&C is doing this not because it is in our mandate or mission, but sadly, because nobody else will—basically out of necessity. We’re working with a group of organizations that have agreed to form a nonprofit to deal with the problems surrounding NYC urban wildlife. We think we may have found a facility that can be used to house and rehab wildlife and, in the process, free up tens of thousands of kennel spaces each year.
Many readers may not be aware—I certainly wasn’t—that you are a former pastor, and prior to your position here, were the director of Maricopa County’s Animal Care and Control program in Phoenix, AZ. What were the “aha” moments in which you realized animals needed greater consideration and how have your experiences helped prepare you to revitalize and restructure NYC AC&C?
I’ll start with the last part of the question. One of the things my staff challenged me with was, “You’re coming from Arizona? This is real animal control. We rescue 45,000 animals a year.” Well, in Maricopa we rescued 62,000 a year: the largest animal control program in the U.S. It services 24 of the fastest growing towns and cities in the country and covers an area larger than 17 states, over 9,200 square miles. It’s huge. I think working up through the ranks with that organization, first as a kennel worker and eventually as Executive Director, gave me a keen understanding of this industry.
When I went to work there I was the pastor of a church, a principal and a teacher at a private high school. It was very costly to run. After a few years of doing that, the congregation decided they had to disband the school, which was my source of livelihood, the preaching was pro bono.
Recognizing that eating was a hard habit to break, I had to find something that put food on the table. I had worked my way through high school and college as a vet tech in Michigan. So, I heard about this job in Maricopa county and started out entry level there while at the same time I was a pastor.
Maricopa County in those days was not unlike NYC. It was a pretty abhorrent situation. When I got into it, it was an eye-opening experience seeing the condition of the shelters and the policies. It had an abysmal adoption and a very high kill rate. I quickly recognized this was a huge societal problem. While I loved animals and had worked as a vet tech, it had never dawned on me what was really going on. It was a shock.
Would you say that’s a case of ‘out of sight out of mind’?
Absolutely. You go to any city in the country and shelters are our dirty little community secret. They are in parts of town that people generally don’t frequent, which makes it real hard to elevate the issue the way it needs to be. Anyway, we were euthanizing 150 to 200 animals every day when I first started in Maricopa and that was my responsibility. I would go home at night and wake up in a cold sweat. To tell you how barbaric it was, that was back when they were giving cardiac injections—where you put the needle into the heart and inject sodium pentobarbital. It was very difficult to do it right and could be very slow and agonizing.
I would wake up in the middle of the night, in a cold sweat, and actually feel like a needle was puncturing my chest. Just gasping, catching my breath like “what am I doing?” It didn’t take long before I ultimately resigned the ministry and started moving through the ranks, and soon was responsible for building the first two spay and neuter clinics in Arizona.
It’s interesting. People ask “why’d you leave the ministry?” and my response is “I don’t think I left the ministry, I think I found my ministry.” [Laughs.] It’s all shepherding. And with shelter work you get to shepherd everybody—four legged and two legged.
You hear about these approaches where people show euthanasia on public access TV and it usually backfires. People just don’t want to see it. It was in my face. I guess my “aha’s” were having to see and grope with it daily and recognizing that we can make a difference. We can change this. Recognizing too, that—and this is what makes coming to NY special for me—in Arizona when I began to have this awakening and would reach out to the community, they wanted to help. A lot of shelters have this bunker mentality, “we’re the government, we don’t need any help,” a “you can’t handle the truth” mentality. But I found that if you just open the doors, people want to help. I’m hoping we can do the same thing here.
The turnaround we’ve seen in just the last six months is amazing. This is only my second full-time day on the job. We’re just starting. I want the media to shed light on this—if people know what is going on, they will want to help. We’re seeing that happen. Our volunteer program is really blossoming. We’ve had two orientations since a fundraiser last fall and they’ve been packed. We had to turn people away…that’s just unheard of.
Late last year a system was unveiled, which I saw described as a touch-screen computer kiosk that works like a cross between an ATM and Friendster, dispensing animal profiles and pictures instead of money. Tell us about the plans for the system, and how it works.
Basically, anybody looking for an animal to adopt or that they’ve lost can access all the animals not only in our shelters, but any brick-and-mortar shelter in the city. The shelters are all working together to provide that service; it’s already available in all five of ours. It doesn’t take the place of searching a shelter if your animal is lost, but it’s a great place to begin; it can tell you which shelter your animal may be in. And if you’re looking to adopt you can find out all kinds of details—a photo, their story—you can actually look at the information, print it out and bring it to our shelters and say “hey, I want to give this animal a home.”
You obviously recognize the importance of language in re-framing public attitudes about our responsibilities to animals. You’ve been a long-time supporter of In Defense of Animal’s Guardian campaign—which seeks to shift the emphasis from that of an animal ‘owner’ to one of a guardian—and have renamed your organization NYC Animal Care and Control. Why are these changes important?
Words mean something. We wanted to get away from the acronym CACC which sounded a bit like a cat spitting up a hairball. When you have five shelters spread out over an area as large as NYC and you call yourself “the center,” it’s like “Where is that? Where is the building?” But we are an organization focused on animal care and control, and the name should reflect that. By control what we mean is the enforcing of ordinances which have to do with animal care, for the sake of the animal and for others. The thing you are really controlling—you can’t control the animals—is the people who possess the animals.
I think the reason you see so many ancillary animal welfare organizations popping up across the country is because the animal control agencies haven’t really fulfilled the expectations of the community. The best way I think we can tell when a municipal or city agency is not fulfilling expectations is when these ancillary groups start popping up to help you achieve your mission. It is almost like, “well you obviously don’t care about the animals so [we’ll] take it from here, rescue them from you.” What I’m hoping is that animal control across the U.S. and here in New York can take on more of the responsibility the community expects us to take on. Emphasizing care and control. Care comes first. But it is ‘and’—not or. There’s an equality there.
Much of the strategy for revitalizing AC&C involves fundraising. The need for that is obvious given your mission and budgetary situation. However, many rank and file animal protectionists are often strapped for cash due to the costs of caring for animals they’ve rescued. What else can people do to assist you in reaching your goals?
We also take ‘in kind’ donations—if someone has a business and can provide printing or graphics or any number of things. There is so much that needs to be done; feel free to call us or ask. And of course there is volunteering, which is huge. You name it. We have opportunities to work with our information technology (IT) folks; you can work directly with the animals; we need dog walkers, adoption counselors, administrative assistants, people who can do grant writing. Just contact our volunteer coordinator Amanda Faye, who can be reached through our website or phone number.
Connecting the city’s various rescue groups is of critical importance. So many groups feel that they need to go through an intermediary of some sort to work with us, and we’re trying to show that you don’t have to do end runs to work with us. Not only will we work with you, we will bend over backwards to help you help animals. We are going to be applying for grants for various projects. Also—for any auto dealerships out there—we’d like to get some vans, so that when rescue groups find animals they are interested in placing, we can actually deliver those animals. What’s happening now is rescue groups find animals, then they have to go through all kinds of contortions to logistically move the animals from our shelters to wherever they want to take them.
It is interesting that the whole animal welfare movement was formed in NYC with Henry Berg’s work and [looking back] how the whole concept of animal care has evolved, it ultimately produced a nonprofit organization called Animal Care and Control which sort of does it all. We are not only the number one animal rescue organization in NYC, but also in the whole state.
The bottom line is: Anybody that can help us positively affect the lives of animals, well, the door is always open. Whatever your heart compels you to do—just contact us.
To learn more about the NYC AC&C, to get involved or volunteer, visit www.nycacc.org or call (212) 442-2076.