Meeting of the Minds

Philadelphia’s animal advocates have been meeting once a month since last fall, ostensibly to try to fix an animal control plan that’s been unraveling at the seams. To put it kindly, the PSPCA has had a turbulent year since taking over the city’s animal control contract last January: CEO turnovers, dramatic board and staff changes as well as sick animals and fudgy statistics first reported by PW last summer.

Meanwhile the “save rate” — meaning the percentage of animals that are adopted or rescued out of the shelter versus the percentage euthanized — hit rock bottom in August, when 76 percent of dogs and cats that entered the ACCT (Animal Care and Control Team) building on Hunting Park Avenue were euthanized.

But despite the crisis, the mission of the newfound advisory group still isn’t clear yet.

Last August, Health Commissioner Dr. Donald Schwartz and Izzit Melhem, Acting Director of Environmental Health Services who directly oversees the contract, sent out a resume request to leaders on the local animal rights scene. Two months later, Schwartz issued ten formal letters of invitation for recipients to “serve on the City of Philadelphia Department of Public Health’s Animal Advisory Committee. The purpose of the committee is to advise the Philadelphia Department of Public Health on animal care and control issues.”

At the first meeting in October, new members agreed to meet once a month. November’s meeting was a promising vision: representatives from nonprofit organizations—including PSPCA CEO Sue Cosby–and city council committed to work together in order to pull Philadelphia’s animal welfare out of medieval times. But as issues like animal licensing—the vast majority of pet owners in Philadelphia don’t bother to license their pets, which means lost revenue and vaccination opportunities—were discussed, the big picture loomed, the elephant in the room.

The big picture is that “save rates”—the bottom line–are low and sinking lower; the PSPCA’s endowment is reportedly shrinking; Philadelphia already woefully underfunds animal control by a long shot; PSPCA’s contract is up for renewal in June, and it’s no secret that the city is strapped for cash. It’s a tough set of circumstances all around, but it’s the reality that needs to be acknowledged and addressed head-on.

After all, what’s the point in discussing making veterinary care more affordable for responsible pet owners, for example, before addressing the fact that the majority of animals born in Philadelphia will be systematically killed by a system unable to prevent their overpopulation to begin with?

To that end, committee members drafted and circulated a “Vision Statement” amongst themselves in December in an effort to get everyone on the same page. But it turns out, they weren’t even reading the same book.

Just prior to the last meeting on January 26, committee members were surprised to discover they were referenced in a lawsuit when they were carbon-copied on a letter from Richard DeMarco of Klehr Harrison Harvey Branzburg to Dr. Schwartz.

DeMarco sent a letter to Dr. Schwartz that followed up on a lawsuit DeMarco filed on behalf of his client, Lanie Jacobson, last March. In the suit, Jacobson’s complaint was essentially that she wanted to file a waiver to be legally exempt from a local law that limits the number of pets any one person a can own to twelve. DeMarco claims that Jacobson could not file for the waiver because the city did not have the regulations for the waivers in place. Since then, the health department has attempted to enact the regulations but Demarco claims that the regulations were enacted improperly because the Animal Advisory Committee—which didn’t exist though city code has called for it for years–was not involved with the process pursuant to the provisions of the Philadelphia Animal Code.

In DeMarco’s point of view, since the committee is finally established, he’s urging them to address the issue relevant to his client. The letter states, “We are happy to report that our lawsuit was successful in getting the city to deal with the issue, and because of the law suit, your committee has once again been formed and is now active.”

Some committee members were unnerved. Melissa Levy, Executive Director of Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) and one of the most vocal committee members sent out an email to the committee and health department: “I am disturbed that we have met as a committee three times, yet there has been no mention of a pending lawsuit, nor even of the fact that there is city code governing and instructing how we are to conduct ourselves,” Levy wrote. “To learn these things from an outside attorney is startling and, frankly, embarrassing.”

That’s when things got even blurrier.

Dr. Schwartz addressed the issue off the top of the next meeting. He explained that the committee formed by the health department last fall is not the same committee DeMarco is referencing. It came as news to the committee members that they weren’t the committee referenced in Philadelphia Code.

Dr. Schwartz apologized for the mix-up and pointed out that if and when the official, mayor-appointed committee convenes—it still doesn’t exist—members of that committee will have to comply with financial disclosures and other politically limiting formalities that do not apply to this committee.

“I don’t know when that group will be formed, if that group will be formed, whether that group needs to be formed in the future,” said Dr. Schwartz.

“You can understand the confusion. The letter says, ‘Welcome to the animal advisory committee.’ The charter says there will be an animal advisory committee,” said Levy, slowly. “It’s hard not to assume that those things are one and the same and to be told now that this committee isn’t that committee, is a little bit confusing.”

Nan Feyler, lawyer and the heath department’s chief of staff, assured the group that they don’t need to be concerned about the letter, saying essentially it’s irrelevant because they’re not the committee referenced and they wouldn’t be effected even if they were.

“We’ve been in touch, there’s been a long-standing communication as you know, as you can guess,” said Feyler. DeMarco, at press time, said he hasn’t received any response from the health department.

“We merely ask that the health department involve the Animal Advisory Committee in the process of drafting the regulations required of the Philadelphia Code with regard to granting waivers of the 12 cat and dog limit. Involving the Committee in this process is required by the Code, and we believe it will result in a prompt resolution of the litigation,” said DeMarco in an email.

Despite the lawsuit mix-up and general frustration—or perhaps because of it–the committee’s focus may be just about to finally snap into place. The day after the last meeting — where it was decided the up-until-now “Animal Advisory Committee” would change their name — Portia Scott Palko, owner of Central Bark Doggie Day Care, sent an email to the group that finally addressed the big picture.

“While I feel that the work planned for our committee is valuable and valid, I think there is a pressing, emergency need for work on what is currently happening in the city and the large numbers of animals killed in our city shelter … quite frankly I am horrified.”

As of press time, a few replies have come in from non-profit reps (though notably not PSPCA or the health department). The suggestions are whether to form a sub-committee of some kind, or keep the same committee but meet separately. If history has anything to teach us here, one look at the last decade (not to mention this past year) of animal control in Philadelphia should tell you that it seems a tough road to dismantle City Hall’s problems with City Hall’s tools.

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