Stu Bykofsky: Lack of leadership impairs animal welfare

Posted: March 26, 2012

A GAME OF Executive Musical Chairs in the animal-welfare world has slowed progress toward making this a "no-kill" city.

After less than three years on the job, Pennsylvania SPCA CEO Sue Cosby resigned in order to run the Animal Care and Control Team (ACCT), a soon-to-expire subsidiary of the PSPCA, which now is seeking a new top dog - its third leader since 2007.

A new ACCT starts as a city-created, city-related nonprofit agency on April 1, which is no joke.

There are no laughs for the 30,000 dogs and cats that annually languish in cages in the city's shelter. About 40 percent of them leave in bags headed for a landfill after they are euthanized.

For Cosby, 43, it's like Groundhog Day because a few years back she had been the chief operating officer of the Philadelphia Animal Care and Control Agency, the predecessor of ACCT.

At PSPCA, Chief Operating Officer Marc Peralta and Chief Financial Officer Eric Daugherty are jointly serving as interim CEO while the PSPCA board examines a list of candidates.

Meanwhile, supervision of animal-control issues was transferred from the Health Department to the managing director's office over the past year, generally regarded as a positive change because the managing director's office has more clout.

When I started following Philadelphia animal issues a half-dozen years ago, the hope of leaders and activists was to make Philly a "no-kill" city by 2015, meaning all adoptable animals would be placed in homes, none would be executed for space.

In 2012, Philly is no closer to no-kill. Without strong leadership the "no-kill" goal is impossible, and you can't have strong leadership when the top people keep changing. Achieving no-kill requires strong leaders, the continuity that stability brings and the cooperation of the community.

I attend almost every meeting of the animal-advisory committee, composed of various animal-activists who offer advice, guidance and help. The meetings can be like watching paint dry - the city is a bureaucracy, after all. Forward movement is glacial.

With managing director chief of staff Brian Abernathy in the driver's seat, there have been several significant benefits, according to Garrett Elwood, a smart and devoted activist who had to leave the committee when he moved to the suburbs.

Another person whose opinion I respect, Melissa Levy, executive director of the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society, says that although progress may not be visible to the naked eye, building blocks have been put in place.

Not visible yet is the recently passed dog-licensing law that Abernathy lists as his No. 1 achievement of the first six months. It will generate fresh revenue and also require all shelters to report their "save" rates, something not required in the past.

The biggest achievement of the second six months, Abernathy says, was getting the new version of ACCT up and running. An early failure of his, he admits, was poor communication with all the animal-care stakeholders.

Most of them agree that the managing director's office has brought focus and energy.

The animal-welfare budget has increased to just under $4 million, the maintenance of the ACCT facility on Hunting Park Avenue has been transferred to Public Property, which is expected to bring improvements. There's also talk of an expansion and upgrade of the facility this year.

All that is good, helpful. What's lacking is a leader with the courage to set a goal of making Philly no-kill by 2015. It will be hard, very hard, but without a public deadline it might never happen.

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