New York Newsday, page A7, March 10, 1997
[A photograph shows members of SRAC standing in front of the CACC Manhattan shelter on 110th Street. Photo caption reads: "Coalition members, from left, Elizabeth Forel, Sara Lee, Gary Kaskel and Patty Adjamine, with Beauregard, yesterday."]
Animal Agency's Books Targeted
Advocates seek data on fate of dogs, cats
By Merle English
After heatedly criticizing the city's animal-shelter system for two years, a coalition of humane groups has filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court in Manhattan seeking to end what it calls the system's "closed book policy."
Charging that the Center for Animal Care and Control is unnecessarily killing thousands of cats and dogs and has published inaccurate and deliberately misleading statistics, the animal-protection activists are seeking access to the center's records.
They want to know how many cats and dogs the city's two shelters in Manhattan and Brooklyn take in annually, how many are spayed and neutered, the number that are adopted and how many are destroyed.
The humane organizations also want their representatives to be allowed to attend meetings of the center's board of directors and to get copies of minutes.
The center, which reports destroying about 60,000 dogs and cats each year, according to City Councilwoman Kathryn Freed, (D-Manhattan), is underreporting those figures, the activists say.
"We have information from people within the shelter who say they [agency officials] are covering up all kinds of misdeeds," said Gary Kaskel, a spokesman for the Shelter Reform Action Committee, an umbrella group of more than 40 animal welfare organizations, that brought the suit. "We've reason to believe they're killing more animals than they say.
"Animals are in dismal conditions. The cages are too small. They are not kept clean. The air condition and ventilation are terrible," Kaskel added.
"We have a lot of doubts about their [the agency's] statistics," said Patty Adjamine, director of New Yorkers for Companion Animals. "We have a tremendous problem in this city with homeless animals. It's difficult to get through to city officials about the need for spay-neuter clinics in every borough when we don't have reliable data concerning the situation."
The lawsuit, filed at the end of February, was triggered by the center's refusal to turn over records the animal advocates said they have requested repeatedly under the Freedom of Information and Open Meetings Laws.
Center officials contend that the CACC is a non profit organization not subject to the laws, according to court papers.
Faith Elliott, a spokeswoman for the CACC, confirmed that is the center's position but said, "We do however, have our own corporate general policy to provide access to the maximum extent possible." She said she was "not at liberty" to discuss details because of the litigation.
Court papers reveal, however, that under corporate policy the humane groups would have to pay $50,000 for copies of all the records they seek. Information considered private -- including the names and addresses of people who adopted animals or left animals at the shelters -- would be deleted.
Shelter critics maintain that the agency is subject to the Freedom of Information and Open Meetings Laws because it was established by the city; because it is under contract with the city Department of Health to provide animal care and control; and because its board of directors is comprised of city officials and appointees, including Health Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg. The lawsuit seeks a court order declaring the CACC a city agency, which would force it to comply with the laws.
"The concern is, there is no oversight to the way this agency works," said Kaskel. "It's a closed book arrangement between the Health Department and the mayor's office and this entity. We don't know how they're spending our tax money."
Robert Freedman, director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, said the CACC "is essentially a creation of government and my feeling is it would be covered by the Freedom of Information law. Usually not-for-profits are not but in those situations where there is substantiai government control, the courts have held they are subject to the law."
Asked to comment, Health Department spokes man Fred Winters said, "It is the policy of this. department to obey all laws." But he added, "We aren't prepared to comment because we haven't had an opportunity to review the lawsuit."
In a letter dated Aug. 30, 1996, that Martin Kurtz, the center's former director, sent to Sara Lee, a former shelter volunteer and ardent Kurtz critic, and to Newsday, Kurtz called the system "challenging."
He said, "Loyal employees and volunteers suggested proper rubber matting for the cages, met with Police Department representatives to offer guidance on how to capture and transport animals to sheIters," and continued to improve the delivery of animal care and control services.
"The attacks spewing forth from the small group of malcontented quitters will ultimately hurt the animals most, as people avoid 'that horrible place' that exists in the mythology of the vocal disgruntled," Kurtz wrote.
He resigned in February.
The lawsuit is the latest tactic by the humane community in a long running feud with the CACC over animal care.
Several groups are working to place on the November ballot a referendum that, if approved, would create an independent Bureau of Animal Affairs to replace the CACC.
Complaints from former shelter employees and volunteers alleging incompetent management, inhumane and unsanitary conditions at the city shelters, and misallocation of funds, triggered an ongoing City Council investigation of the CACC that began last fall. Activists said Hamburg has refused to meet with them to discuss their concerns.
Freed said the. investigation had stalled because the CACC failed to provide information the council requested.
"We're still waiting for things we asked for as far back as November,"she said. "We're getting stonewalled on things."