Philly stints on homeless animals

The woman who just resigned as the leader of the city animal shelter, and the man who oversees it, recently had it out in a brutally frank exchange of guided missives. 

Firing first was Brian Abernathy, Philadelphia managing director, who supervises the city animal shelter, known as ACCT Philly, located at 111 W. Hunting Park Avenue, in Feltonville. He was targeted, along with Mayor Jim Kenney, during an August 21 pro-ACCT protest outside City Hall. 

Protest picket sign targets Mayor Kenney, Managing Director Abernathy (Photo: Stu Bykofsky)

In the broad overview offered in his email, sent to everyone who wrote to him, Abernathy made several startling admissions. 

  • Funding levels for the shelter are indeed below the national average
  • Funding for all city departments is below the national average
  • Many of Philly’s communities are violent
  • Two institutions found fault with ACCT’s disease management practices 
  • While funding to ACCT has increased slightly in the past year, “conditions at the shelter have deteriorated dramatically. 

“These failures are unacceptable and the city has put the board [of directors] on notice that we expect them to be addressed immediately,” Abernathy wrote. I imagine him stamping his foot. 

The board certainly deserves some blame, but the chair of the board is deputy managing director Joanna Otero-Cruz,  appointed by Abernathy himself. Board members are approved by the city and the board hires the executive director, so Abernathy can’t avoid his own culpability.

The city does provide, rent free, the facility for the animal shelter, a former warehouse that everyone knows is too small and dilapidated. While it is true the city has made some improvements and installed new HVAC recently, the building is still a mess that doesn’t allow the isolation of sick animals. That leads to the rampaging spread of disease.

As Abernathy notes, the city also provides vehicles to ACCT, which is a non profit funded and supervised by the city, but not operated by the city, which demands that employees be union members. The city seemingly likes not having direct responsibility for the facility, for whatever reason.

Now, let’s listen to Susan Russell, the ACCT executive director who recently resigned, after less than a year on the job.

Susan Russell and furry friend

She posted on her Facebook page, she says, “to correct the plethora of inaccuracies” in Abernathy’s email. 

About the studies that criticized ACCT’s disease management practices, well, Russell herself commissioned one of them.

It is ironic that Abernathy would bring that up because he has known for at least a decade that the building is a cauldron of communicable disease.

The building, which ACCT shares with vector control, the city’s rat-catcher, is ironically infested with pests. The building is inadequate, and so is city funding, which spends less on animal care and control than cities smaller than our own.

Philadelphia was called “the most poorly funded municipal shelter in America” by Marsha Perelman, a board member of the Humane Society of the United States,  at a 2017 City Council hearing. At the same hearing City Councilman Bobby Henon agreed the city does not “adequately fund” the shelter. 

Perelman said Philly’s $4.3 million budget pales next to the $17 million spent by San Diego, population 1.4 million and the $14 million spent by San Antonio, population 1.4 million.  

Chicago’s shelter is three times the size of Philadelphia’s, says Russell, who was the executive director of that shelter before coming to Philadelphia.

Well, Chicago’s population is 2.7 million, compared to Philly’s 1.5 million. Yes, but Chicago’s shelter handles 16,000 animals a year while Philadelphia takes in 18,000. 

The deteriorating conditions at ACCT have been there for years, Russell wrote. She knows that second hand because she arrived in October 2018. I’ve been going into that loud, leaky, awful facility for more than a decade, and I know its inadequacies.

A previous ACCT executive director, Sue Cosby, had this to say: 

“The shelter will always struggle with contagious illness because of the budget and the building. Animals die and are euthanized because of the budget and the building. Visitors and adopters have a traumatic experience because of the budget and the building. Staff and volunteers suffer emotionally and physically, with PTSD symptoms, being branded as killers — all because of things they have no power to change: the budget and the building.”

The people of ACCT know it. Animal advocates know it. Even Abernathy and Kenney know it — the city’s animal operation is under funded and located in a shithouse that drives both the animals and the staff to distraction.

In a $5 billion city budget, the amount needed to fix ACCT amounts to a fingernail. What is missing is the will to do it.

11 thoughts on “Philly stints on homeless animals”

  1. Good article Stu. Seems like that gene pool who run Philly needs a bit more chorine added to it.

  2. I have been to ACCT many times since I volunteer. But I only go to the offsite PetCo. because the shelter is so very awful and I cry buckets when I do go. I volunteer and donate monthly. The people in Lifesaving work their hearts out to save as many as they can – which frankly means getting animals out of this HELLHOLE as quickly as possible.
    The city gives MILLIONS in tax breaks to corporations and the CEO’s buy their 3rd vacation homes in the Caymans. While poor, neglected animals sit in urine and feces and volunteers CRY as they see the unwanted ones take their final walk. Philadelphians should be ASHAMED. THE POLITICIANS SHOULD BE REPLACED BY CARING, RESPONSIBLE PEOPLE, NOT PR MONGERS LIKE KENNEY.

  3. I would love this job! Get in start fresh, cleaning the entire building, look to get proper staff. Redesign the building to house pets and make it comfortable for them and people who work there and come there for adoptions.
    Why is it so hard for the city to spend money on thes furever babies???

  4. Aber apathy is full of it.
    Philly spends 18 % of what d.c spends on their animals while spending 50 % of what d.c spends on its schools.
    Philly spends 24% of what nyc spends on its animals but spends 74% of what nyc spends on schools.
    In other words acct is 3 times more underfunded than the philly school district . If it was only 2 times more underfunded then acct would an extra 2 million dollars a year .
    Plus aber apathy screws acct twice by appointing the board , 5 of whom ( out of 8 ) cant fundraise

  5. Thank you for highlighting these issues. I recently took on some kittens from ACCT to foster. The staff there are amazing—I cannot imagine having to work in that horrible environment. I can’t bear to even go there. It is so depressing. No living creature should have to spend time there. It is truly disgraceful.

  6. Since the employees are unionized, I wonder how much of the budget goes toward their health and pension benefits-that can soak up a lot of cash.
    Philadelphia is also the poorest large city in the US so there is another problem. I see the only hope as continued public shaming including insider videos of the operation. So tragic.

    1. I don’t blame benefits or wages. Don’t tell me a mayor can’t find $2 million more in a $5 billion budget. Kenney doesn’t care about animals. Period. I believe Abernathy does, but he must dance to his boss’ tune.

      1. Obviously he does not care but can you imagine how many advocates for money claim Why can’t so and so find an extra$MM out of a $billion budget? There is never enough money. The fact of the matter is, if this were a private nfp they could probably run it more efficiently and raise more money but no one wants to donate to a city run institution because you don’t know where the money is really going in the black hole of city rules and regulations. You would probably get more volunteers who now don’t want to be tangled in with union rules (if they even allow volunteers). As to wages and benefits, if they can all make $30/hr –great, but if its just another human welfare program eating up the budget then that is part of the problem. I could easily declare that the current pension and benefit system in Philadelphia is the source of your shortfall in funding because it soaks up so much of the city budget AND, even then, it’s only 50% funded. Chicago is 30% funded. Unfortunately, you can’t remove economics from the equation although I would certainly rather see a more proportionate share go the the shelter.

        1. Tom, you make more assumptions than I care to deal with.
          Yes, there are competing claims for the money. There are probably a half dozen committees and offices that duplicate each other and could be closed. We should have ONE office foe “minorities” rather than a bunch each aimed at a sliver — “immigrants” (meaning illegals), black men, Hispanics, transgender people, “returning citizens,” women…

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