Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Guest commentary: A cruel fate awaits pooches that wind up in city shelters

By Kevan Cleary

Tuesday, November 17th 2009, 11:02 AM

Kevan Cleary is a Brooklyn lawyer who volunteers walking shelter dogs.

On the morning of Nov. 3, 2009, Madison died at the Animal Shelter on E. 110th St. in Manhattan. A needless death. A pity for a small pitty. Yes, Madison was born a so-called pit bull, although she never saw a fighting pit and never bullied even a fly.

She committed the doggie crime of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The victim of a drive-by bite from another dog. A small bite, leaving only two small puncture wounds in the fatty part of her neck. But, sadly for Madison, the bite was lethal. No, not for medical reasons - she had no ill effects from the bite - but for "social" reasons.

She died at the New York City Animal Care and Control Shelter because a city agency, the Health Department, requires that dogs that are victims of bites be observed for a period of time to rule out rabies. But bed and board cost money, and the CACC does not have it. Nor does it make any effort to determine if the money can be raised from animal rescue groups or just ordinary animal lovers. When I learned that Madison was "on the list" to be euthanized that day, I began e-mailing the director of the shelter and the head of CACC, asking for a stay of execution while I worked the problem. My e-mails went unanswered by CACC.

A few hours later, I learned she was dead, a victim of a city that is indifferent to the needs of its smallest creatures. Man's best friend, indeed. In the case of Madison, it was unrequited love.

As a volunteer dog walker at the East Side shelter, I can tell you that the conditions are poor. The cages are small and there is no adequate exercise yard. What is worse is that the dogs, especially the harder-to-place large breeds, stand very little chance of survival at the shelter for more than a few days.

The recession has impacted the city's dogs hard. They are put out on the street by the city's poor, who can no longer afford to care for them. They are swept up by animal control and after that, their end usually comes quickly - euthanized by shelter staff.

If it were just the very old and infirm dogs - whose salad days of tail wagging, running, playing and begging for tidbits to eat are long gone - it could be justified. But every week, many dogs are put down who are, like Madison, mere puppies, a danger to no one.

The New York City Housing Authority ban on large dogs and certain breeds has had a deleterious effect. Lost jobs have had an impact.

Negative attitudes about certain breeds are a factor too. The pit bull was once celebrated in American popular culture - who can forget Petey the white pitty with a black patch around his eye? Petey was the pet dog of a gang of poor kids, known as Our Gang. Pit bulls were featured on war bond posters during the first world war - a symbol of stubborn defense of the nation by the armed forces. Loyal to the death. Semper Fi. The United States Marine Corps still has a pit bull mascot who, bless their hearts, was rescued from a shelter.

Finally, it is most unfortunate that dogs got a swift kick from the trustees of Leona Helmsley's estate - all $8billion of it. The queen of mean had a soft spot after all - for her dog, Trouble.

As is legendary, she left him plenty of bucks for the rest of his life. But she also indicated that the rest should go for dogs. The trustees of the estate have discretion over the disbursement of the rest of the estate to various charities. But so far, they have given only $10,000 - barely enough for some dog biscuits, to the ASPCA.

Some of the Helmsley fortune could fund a new shelter with large enclosures, a grassy exercise area, better veterinary care. And finally, what most of the dogs in the shelter need - a good bath.

The recession has impacted the city's dogs hard. They are put out on the street.

Kevan Cleary is a Brooklyn lawyer who volunteers walking shelter dogs.