In South Jamaica last week, two big dogs rummaged hungrily through trash in a rundown basketball court. “The brown one bites,” warned a young man. The dog had part of a broken chain hanging from his neck. Other dogs roamed adjacent streets, either abandoned or let loose by owners who didn’t care about them.
New York City’s chronic problem with animal abandonment reaped a terrible toll earlier this month when a pack of stray dogs mauled two joggers in the Rockaways, practically destroying one man’s face. The tabloids ran photos of the mixed pit bull and other large breeds that run loose in the area, labeling them a life-threatening problem and a sign that the city is going downhill.
The dogs that attacked Lev Liberman, 74, and Marlene Fils-Aime, 51, are dead now, but that doesn’t solve the problem, say animal activists. If all the stray dogs in the city were gathered and euthanized, the core issue would remain unaddressed: how did they get there in the first place?
Starting at the turn of the 20th century until a few years ago, the city’s animal control was handled by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the first animal welfare organization founded in the United States.
But in 1995, the agency pulled out. To fill its place, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani created the Center For Animal Care and Control and appointed its head, Marilyn Haggerty-Blohm.
Funding for animal control in New York City has always been low; lower per capita, than almost any other city in the nation.
“It was a thankless job, I have to say,” said Steve Musso, chief officer of Operations at the ASPCA. Musso was involved with the organization when it was the city’s animal agency.
The ASPCA wanted to focus on animal welfare. But as the city’s official agency, it found virtually all of its time was spent euthanizing the pets New Yorkers were too irresponsible to care for. “A lot of this is inner city problems,” Musso said.
The CACC is harshly criticized by animal activists, who compare its shelters to the Nazi death camps of World War II. They say the CACC treats animal control and care like a business, rather than as the humane social service they want to see.
One much-criticized fact is that the CACC does not have a Queens shelter or clinic, despite a law passed in 2000 mandating that the agency build a full-service shelter in each borough.
The CACC’s only presence in Queens is a drop-off storefront location on Queens Boulevard in Rego Park, which serves as a transfer point between the main shelters in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Why more emphasis has not been placed on animal care and control in Queens is not known. Geographically it’s the largest borough. It is also, along with Brooklyn, where most of the city’s dog attacks take place, including the most serious attack in recent history, the Rockaway mauling.
Both the CACC’s Press Department and Haggerty-Blohm did not return several calls requesting comment for this article.
The CACC’s defenders point to the extremely limited funding the agency receives—$8 million per year. And that was just cut by over $800,000 in response to the citywide economic crunch that resulted from the September attacks.
¶The CACC does the best it can under the circumstances,” said Woodhaven resident Virginia Hennesy, who has been a volunteer at the CACC’s Brooklyn shelter for the past seven years.
“There is very limited funding from the city. The problem is the irresponsible pet owners. Right now we’re seeing all those dogs and cats that parents bought their kids as toys for Christmas. No one thought of them in terms of work and responsibility. The CACC can’t possibly clean up all the debris.”
It’s the same every January at the shelters. Other times of the year are only slightly better.
Since September 11th, both the CACC’s Bronx and Queens locations have been completely shut. Officials say a CACC computer data facility near the World Trade Center site was affected by the attacks. No re-opening dates have been announced.
In the meantime, all of the animals picked up in Queens—about 100 per day—are taken to the Brooklyn shelter. That’s where the pack of dogs who mauled Liberman and Fils-Aime were taken to be destroyed.
Euthanization is primarily what the CACC is forced to do. With 40,000 animals coming in each year, there are not enough cages to contain them all. If an owner surrenders an animal, it can be euthanized immediately if necessary, regardless of its age or health.
If an animal is found loose, it must be held for 48 hours to give its owner time to contact the shelter. Around 90 percent of animals who enter the shelter are never claimed and never find a new home.
The shelters stink of urine and feces that terrified dogs and cats deposit on the lobby floors and in the hallways. On any given day fat cocker spaniels press their noses against their cages, whimpering to attract the attention of passers-by. Puppies who grew too big to be loved by their apartment-dwelling owners stare through the bars. Many dogs, afraid even to bark, cower at the back of their cages. Those who look lethargic are even less likely to catch the eye of a prospective adopter.
Lack of Law Enforcement, Education
The ASPCA estimates that there are one million dogs living in New York City.
Roughly 90 percent of them are unlicensed, which is illegal. At $8.50 to license a spayed or neutered dog and $11.50 to license one that is not, the city could claim up to $9 million in lost revenue if the laws were enforced by police, who see dogs being walked without license tags on their collars.
The Department of Health issues dog licenses. But while Greg Butler, an agency spokesperson, said the department works “very closely with the CACC” he acknowledged the DOH usually only sees dogs that have become a health threat.
The DOH held the pack of dogs that mauled the Rockaway joggers for 10 days after the incident, for example, to observe them for signs of rabies before their euthanization.
Another enforcement challenge revolves around curbing unwanted pet reproduction. New York City law requires the CACC and other city shelters to spay or neuter any dog or cat that it adopts out. But shelters just outside city borders are not regulated. New Yorkers who cross the borders to adopt often bring back fertile animals, activists say.
Breeders and Pet Stores
Hennesy speaks for many animal activists when she says the single greatest contributing factor to domestic pet suffering is pet stores and puppy mills. There, dealers are concerned primarily with making sales and do not care who gets their animals.
Laws exist to regulate the treatment of animals and their sale. But without DOH and CACC inspectors available to examine the city’s thousands of pet stores looking for infractions, many abuses get overlooked.
Puppy mills, that breed large numbers of whatever breed is fashionable, do not publicize their locations.
Pet store owners rarely admit that they have purchased their animals from a mill. They may not even know.
Animals from mills are notoriously ill-bred and often have the problems associated with overbreeding and inbreeding. These include the kinds of mental and behavioral problems that can lead to an animal being abandoned or taken to a shelter when they are older.
The Pit Bull Problem
It may be difficult to feel compassion for a muscle-bound pit bull, its jaws capable of tearing a human limb from limb. But as Musso says, while pit bulls, German shepherds and other big dogs have higher “prey drives” than say, chihuahuas, these animals do not start out vicious. It is abuse from humans that makes them that way.
Such abuse is particularly prevalent in street and drug cultures, where pit bulls are seen as status symbols. They are trained as attack dogs to protect their owners and the products they peddle.
Dog fighting is an even greater problem. The underground sport is widespread in Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn, where in housing projects and poor or industrial neighborhoods the rich and poor alike gather to gamble and watch pit bulls maul each other to death.
Musso said that of the more than 40,000 animals that enter the CACC shelters each year, 25 percent are pit bulls. Many of them are former fighters and they have been so abused that they are unfit for adoption and must be destroyed.
Most New York City pet stores do not sell pit bull puppies, due to their high abandonment rate and the fact that they require more exercise and space than an urban environment can offer. But in places like Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn and South Jamaica in Queens, where dog fighting is popular, pit bulls and pit bull mixed breeds are easy to buy.
Employees at stores in these neighborhoods say they get their pit bull pups from “local breeders.” Animal activists say that translates into people who breed dogs to fight.
Hennesy said some of the people who come in looking to adopt a pit bull at the CACC shelter are the kind “you wouldn’t give a mosquito to.” She believes it’s better to put an animal to sleep than to send it into the kind of horrible life that many potential adopters have in mind.
Role Of the Activists
With the city’s agency overworked and strapped for funding, animal activists often fill the service void. The CACC actively encourages rescuers to help them get animals out of the shelters, allowing them to put “holds” on animals (delays on their euthanization) they think they can get homes for. This usually mean cats and small dogs. The larger animals are often left to a harsher fate.
Regina Massaro, founder of Roxy’s Sanctuary in Maspeth, rescues dogs, mostly pit bull mixes, from the streets. While a harsh critic of both the CACC and the city, she admits that the dog owners and breeders are most to blame. According to her, the Rockaway dog mauling “was a tragedy that didn’t have to happen.”
Many of the activists have contacts at the CACC, who call them when they hear about animal cruelty or animals in need. Others, who oppose the conditions at the shelters, refuse to work with the agency, preferring instead to save the animals by taking them from the streets themselves and sending them to “no-kill shelters” in New Jersey, Long Island or upstate or by placing them in foster homes. This often means paying for the animal’s boarding and medical expenses out of pocket. These activists rely heavily on sparse funding they receive from supporters.
Looking For A Solution
Individual activists and the ASPCA believe that the way to solve the city’s crisis is to punish animal offenders, educate pet owners and offer low-cost spay and neutering services throughout the city.
Advocates like Massaro believe that “junkyard” and stray dogs are the demographics reproducing at the most alarming rates. She recently rescued a number of dogs from an industrial property in Corona, where there were several male dogs and only one female, who had been routinely giving birth every six months. The puppies had been distributed to children in the neighborhood, many of whom could not care for the animals properly. The owner did not know that low-cost spay and neuter services were available to him.
The ASPCA has a spay-neuter van that visits local shelters. The suggested donation for the service is only $25, but few pet owners know it exists.
Massaro agrees with Musso that much of the crisis is due to “inner city problems.” The Queens neighborhoods with the biggest stray animal problems, she said, are Corona, South Ozone Park, Maspeth, Richmond Hill, Elmhurst, Jamaica, Long Island City and Flushing—areas with poor and immigrant populations.
“There are some cultural issues that are not being addressed,” Massaro said. Immigrants come from countries where animals are treated differently than they are in the United States. Many Hispanic families, for example, do not believe in spaying and neutering their animals.
The CACC and the Department of Health’s Veterinary Public Health Services Division fund education campaigns about spaying and neutering, but most activists say much more must be done.
Massaro is planning to raise funds to buy a van to transport dogs to the ASPCA’s spay-neuter van. She would provide a pick-up service for pet owners who can’t get to the van themselves.
What the CACC needs most, advocates say, is a full-service spay-neuter clinic in Queens, which could be funded with increased enforcement of dog licensing laws. But the problem is that finding the personnel to do the enforcing would require a reorganization of either the DOH’s or the CACC’s staff. Alternatively, police could put unlicensed dog owners on their list of potential offenders.
“We enforce for licenses on cars,” Massaro said. “I see police in their cars going backward along the streets to check registrations at the beginning of the month.”
Musso blames elected officials for the historically poor funding of animal care and control. “We’d all like to see more done with animal control, but unless New York City invests some money it’s not going to happen.”
What Hennesy would like to see is tougher prosecution of people who abuse or neglect animals, especially those who fight dogs. She tended to the pack of dogs that mauled the two joggers this month, when they were sent to the Brooklyn CACC shelter for euthanization.
“Each one of those dogs was a nice dog individually. I think they just went into a frenzy. People sometimes go into a mob frenzy mode where they do things they would never do by themselves.”
But more than the pack mentality, Hennesy said, what contributed to that tragic incident is that those dogs were unloved and abandoned—abused and then left to fend for themselves in a hostile environment.
“The only one to blame is the people who do these horrible things to the animals. There are also some cruel and sadistic people out there who think that once they pay their money for an animal they can do whatever they want to it. And frankly, who is going to stop them?”