After revolving leadership and chronic underfunding, what’s next for Philly’s beleaguered animal shelter?
ACCT Philly, which took over operations in 2012 as a nonprofit created by the city, is required to take every animal — including all manner of critters — that comes to its facility.
Philadelphia’s primary animal shelter in 2004 euthanized nearly 90% of the cats and dogs that went through its doors.
Today, the nonprofit that provides those shelter and animal-control services for the city saves the lives of nearly 90%.
Yet, year after year, ACCT Philly struggles with harsh criticism of its management, revolving-door leadership, and chronic underfunding.
The shelter is required to take every animal — including all manner of critters — that goes to its facility at 111 W. Hunting Park Ave. in North Philadelphia. It is often full with large dogs, mainly pit bulls. The staff is constantly scrambling to find rescue partners to take animals. And euthanasia is still an unfortunate reality, as evidenced by web pages for dogs and cats scheduled to be put to death unless someone intervenes.
Animal control and sheltering in Philadelphia has a turbulent history that predates ACCT Philly, which took over operations in 2012 as a nonprofit created by the city.
The legacy of a ‘house of horrors’
ACCT Philly replaced the Pennsylvania SPCA, which had replaced the Philadelphia Animal Care and Control Association overseen by the city Public Health Department. PACCA was created in 2002 to replace the PSPCA, which had also had the contract for previous years and was beset by its own controversies.
During the tumultuous decade before ACCT Philly took over, the trend toward “no-kill” sheltering — with the goal of avoiding euthanasia as much as possible — began to take hold nationwide. At the end of ACCT Philly’s first year of operation, the “live-release” rate — the percentage of animals adopted or sent to rescue partners — was 62%.
That number has fluctuated but has gradually improved. In 2004, the Daily News published investigative columns characterizing PACCA as a “house of horrors” with at least six out of every 10 animals being euthanized.
It was worse than that, according to an internal analysis performed several years later. The number of reported adoptions apparently had been “grossly inflated” and the “best estimate” for PACCA’s 2004 save rate was 11%.
A tumultuous tenure at the top
In late 2019, ACCT Philly hired Aurora Velazquez as executive director. She arrived shortly after a disease outbreak that forced dogs to be placed in tents. Despite the subsequent human pandemic, however, the news seemed to be trending toward the positive in 2020.
The total number of animals received by ACCT Philly over the years had decreased by nearly half; in 2020, it took in 11,263 animals of all types.
At the beginning of 2021, ACCT Philly reported a live-release rate of 92%, surpassing the industry standard to be considered “no kill” for the first time.
The celebration was short-lived.
In July, a state inspector said the facility’s sanitary conditions were unsatisfactory and “A referral for cruelty was made.”
The PSPCA, which received that referral, determined that ACCT had not violated Pennsylvania’s cruelty code, but improvements were needed.
In August, ACCT Philly’s treatment of a dog named Saint caused an uproar among local animal-welfare advocates. Saint somehow suffered a broken jaw and was euthanized, even though a co-owner wanted to take the injured dog home. That case is under investigation by the PSPCA and a lawsuit has been filed against ACCT Philly by the dog’s owner.
In a statement, ACCT Philly said that while it is waiting for the results of the investigation, what happened to Saint was a “tragedy” and the shelter has changed its policy to allow an owner to reclaim an injured animal.
The leadership team was the subject of a Change.org petition alleging widespread mistreatment of animals and demanding the resignation of Velazquez and her top deputies. Across various online platforms, she and her staff were called murderers or worse.
By the end of September, Velazquez submitted her resignation. In a statement at the time, Velazquez said: “In the last two years, we have made great strides forward, while also having continued to face challenges. However, it has also become clear to me that my goals and values do not seem to align with those of the community.”
Velazquez declined a recent interview request from The Inquirer, but in a video conference call with other animal-welfare professionals she described what she faced in Philadelphia as “some of the most awful things I’ve experienced in my career.” She said she and her top deputy faced “death threats” and “threats of physical violence.”
Marsha Perelman, cochair of ACCT Philly’s board of directors, said Velazquez chose to resign. Perelman declined to discuss the reasons Velazquez gave.
Speaking generally, Perelman said that debates over animal welfare and shelter management have long been contentious.
However, she said it was ACCT Philly’s responsibility to win over the critics — or at least try.
“Frankly, it is our job to take care of animals so well that the contentiousness will abate over time,” she said.
The shelter now
In the meantime, the board is relying on two existing staffers serving as interim co-executive directors, Sarah Barnett and Tara Schernecke. Perelman said there is “no search underway at this point” for a permanent leader, allowing the board to rethink ACCT Philly’s organizational structure.
In a recent tour with a reporter of the shelter facility, Barnett pointed to recent improvements, including a long-delayed “welcome center” for adoptions, rooms converted from offices into spaces for animals, and a quiet cat kennel area no longer right next to the barking dogs.
The shelter appeared to be relatively clean. Barnett acknowledged that the facility was having a hard time when it was criticized by the inspector in July.
Frequently, Barnett would note that a special area, such as an isolation room for animals with certain illnesses, was paid for thanks to a “generous donor.”
Chronic funding struggles
When the pandemic hit, the city reduced ACCT Philly’s funding from $4.6 million — not counting a $488,000 midyear infusion — down to $3.8 million for fiscal year 2021. It remains at that level for the current fiscal year.
To help cover the shortfalls, the board of directors has raised around $1 million, Perelman said.
The complaints about underfunding date back to at least the 1990s.
“There was already a disparity with the funding of ACCT Philly … and funding of other shelters in major cities, but cutting the budget by nearly one million dollars and expecting them to provide the same services is not sustainable for any organization,” said Kirsten Tullo, Pennsylvania state director for the Humane Society of the United States.
In 2015, the Petco Foundation (now called Petco Love) gave ACCT Philly a $1 million grant for the welcome center. The sloppy handling of those funds led to a critical report from the Philadelphia city controller. The foundation nonetheless stood by ACCT Philly, noting how poorly it compares in funding with similar large cities.
For the coming 2023 fiscal year, ACCT Philly is requesting $5.9 million from the city. Perelman said the nonprofit needs $6.9 million to perform the work required under its contract, but the remaining $1 million could be made up through donations, grants, and fees.
If the request for more money is rejected, then ACCT Philly will need to continue relying on its wide array of partners.
Among its challenges, the medical needs stand out.
In November, ACCT Philly hired a staff veterinarian — a position that had been unfilled since early 2020. In the meantime, on-contract veterinarians had been providing care.
“She actually was met with applause when she walked in the building,” Barnett said.
Barnett was recently accompanied in her office by Cookie, a pit bull with wrinkly hints of shar-pei who had multiple eye-related conditions that required costly surgery when she arrived at ACCT Philly.
Cookie’s treatment was paid for by the Yoda Fund, which was established by Perelman to pay for urgent medical care, Barnett said.
When her workday is done, Barnett said, she takes Cookie home as a foster. However, Barnett offered, “she’s up for adoption.”