The ACCT Philly sad-go-round

America elects people to the House of Representatives every two years, and Philadelphia selects a leader for ACCT Philly on about the same schedule.

Aurora Velazquez was the fifth executive director of the city animal shelter, at 111 W. Hunting Park Avenue in the Feltonville section, since 2012.  She has resigned, effective in November, exactly two years after she started. She came from New York City.

Aurora Velazquez in front of adoption center, completed on her watch. (Photo: Stu Bykofsky)

Her predecessor, Susan Russell, lasted about a year. Russell came from Chicago and succeeded  Vincent Medley, who came from San Antonio, and ran the shelter for 2 ½ years.

I’d call it a leadership merry-go-round, but it’s more like a sad-go-round. It’s hard to carry out a mission when leaders change so frequently.

In an email to me, Velazquez said, “My exit is purely voluntary, as I simply do not feel that my goals and values are aligned with that of this community. Anyone can tell you how much discord there has been since my arrival and there does not seem to be a way to move past that and forward productively.”

She declined to elaborate on the nature of the conflict other than to say “there is a lot of misinformation circulating, unfortunately, and there is likely nothing I can say that will help. I am extremely proud of the work done here in the last two years.”

I reported on problems in the shelter back in January.

In its coverage, the Inquirer made passing mention of “an ongoing dispute with some local shelter activists and volunteers.” 

One of my sources said Velazquez allowed the population of the shelter to swell, creating crowded conditions, primarily for dogs.

“Aurora Velazquez also alienated rescues and volunteers so the rescues have taken 258 less dogs this year due to their problems with ACCT,” said my source, a long-time volunteer who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Another volunteer criticized Velazquez’s second in command, Summer Dolder, who reportedly sent staffers home for being “argumentative.”

As a result of reportedly high-handed behavior, fewer dogs were being walked and fewer rescue groups were removing dogs from the shelter, which eventually resulted in a higher euthanasia rate. Dogs who are never walked can be driven crazy by endless confinement to a cage.

“While we walked 75 dogs a day under Susan [Russell], we are walking 20 to 30 a day now due to so many volunteers quitting,” said one source.

I have covered every executive director of ACCT Philly since 2012, and covered those who ran the shelter when it was known as PACCA — Philadelphia Animal Care and Control Association, a house of horrors for animals that I helped blow up in an expose in 2004, with the help of brave whistleblowers.

In 2019, a Cornell University report was critical of the shelter’s management.

I had cordial relations with all of the honchos except Medley, who didn’t seem to understand that someone paid with public funds was accountable to the public.

Since the 2012 reorganization there have been low points, such as a 2019 deadly outbreak of Canine pneumovirus, the third in several years, the sad-go-round of leadership, and continuing complaints of animal mistreatment, and deteriorating services.

In continuing columns I have questioned some ACCT Philly policies, and criticized others, in a quest to get what is the best for Philadelphia’s homeless animals in an under-funded shelter.

In the near-decade following the reorganization, despite the continuing churn and occasional chaos, the save rate — meaning the percentage of animals leaving the shelter alive — has crept up, year by year. It was about 20% when I first wrote about it in 2004. 

In January, the save rate reached 92% for dogs and cats for the first time, even if it has fallen back a bit since then. 

Some — but not all — consider 90% to be essentially “no-kill,” because 100% is impossible to attain. Some animals are too sick to be adopted, or too vicious.

During Velazquez’s tenure, “We completed the Petco Love-funded Welcome Center, and acquired additional space to make the shelter more inviting for people and pets, installed new kennels and upgrading flooring for the dogs in our care,” said Joanna Otero-Cruz, co-chair of the board of directors.

Most of the improvements were in the pipeline when Velazquez arrived.

I await the sixth executive director with a mixture of hope and trepidation.

21 thoughts on “The ACCT Philly sad-go-round”

  1. Thank you for the information Stu. As you should remember, your feelings are totally aligned with mine when it comes to animals so I would like you to tell me what suggestions you have to try to make the situation better at ACCT Philly.

  2. HAPPY SUNDAY !!!
    pallie,
    Talking about a sore subject. I’m not surprised that you take a strong stand on protecting and servicing the animals.
    Not knowing who or what you know, I’ll take a shot at the problem.
    Volunteerism. In one word, Passion.
    Ineptness. Welcome to Philadelphia.
    Burnout. That which happens to the volunteers for any number of reasons.
    Leadership. Usually something inside you drives you to ‘lead’, rather than taught as in ‘management’.
    We were taught from a young age, to give back. Today’s young people haven’t had that education. I do know that people volunteer because they like ( love ) what they do. Time is the controlling factor here.
    I would also think that to solve this management/leadership problem, managers, directors, leaders from other Philly volunteer organization should take a critical look at the ACCT that give their assessment.
    Money is not the big problem. Philly is the BIG problem. A leader will find the way to get the most out of the volunteers without suffering burnout. This includes bringing in more help, more donations, more everything.
    Most importantly. Philly has to change it’s losing ways. Let the new LOCAL Director do the job. Good Luck.
    Tony

      1. Stu,
        MONEY is always a problem. If you don’t have it, you’re hurting. If you have it, everybody wants it.
        I said, “Money is not the big problem”. If you don’t have it, you make do. You try to get bye on what you have, as you look for other resources.
        A lifetime ago, I was with the Burlington County, New Jersey, YMCA. When I shook hands on our first meet, I would always ask, “what do you do?”. I made contacts and was able to do a lot of good ‘gladhanding’.
        Yo can’t really compare monies in various cities. It’s how much you get and what do you do with what you get. Then what do you do to make your program work. Lots of hard work being a director of a Volunteer organization. That’s why I said that the people that should be doing the looking are the people that run volunteer organizations in Philly. Nowhere else.
        Tony

  3. Almost everyone loves animals especially dogs and cats. My children love pets and two have multiple cats. We have major problems that most other cities have and the immediate one is lack of leadership which starts at the top. If a city leader can convince voters that he is the best to lead then others will seek to join him or her with the intention to sign up for some volunteer position under their leadership. You contribute by your rallying call around the center by intermittent columns on the need for helping our small four-legged friends. But if we cannot raise awareness about the plight of our homeless, our veterans, or more importantly rampant crime in our city then four-legged and two-legged members of our species just don’t enter on the list of charitable institutions. Maybe because if it has no financial return it gathers no investment. Your position of writing about and caring for lonely and forgotten pets is to be commended. In my humble opinion, it will take some leadership from industry, politics, and successful fundraisers to establish goals and finance. Only then can we acquire an answer to the revolving door and find a happy ending but we need to entice participation from those who now cater only to their own pets.

  4. I am pleased to be able to comment, Stu Bykofsky, because I have enjoyed following you on Fb and cannot comment there. There will always be problems, but finally achieving a Live Release Rate of over 90% was quite an accomplishment that involved everyone because all the staff and all the volunteers love the animals at ACCT and you are foolish to believe otherwise. What I would like to see from the knowledgeable writers and posters is a comparison, such as ‘we should be more like “this” major city’ or “we should visit “that” major city ‘s shelter to see how they are achieving such high grades’. Over and over I see criticism (recently vindictive) of Philadelphia and ACCT, but I never hear about anywhere else that is doing a better job, somewhere we can emulate, a place for ACCT to be like. Perhaps that is because, other than multi-million dollar organizations like Best Friends, those places do not exist. I have volunteered at ACCT one day/week for more than 5 years and have treasured every moment, feeling honored to be allowed to help.

    1. still HAPPY SUNDAY !!!
      Charles,
      You, I admire. You give of yourself, which is an almost impossible request in today’s world.
      Take a look at the Brandywine Valley SPCA’s website. They service Wilmington, Delaware and Chester County, PA, as well as Plymouth Meeting, PA.
      As you ( we ) said. Organization is the ‘key’, especially for volunteer organizations.
      keep up the good work,
      Tony

      1. I love the work that the SPCA does, but any SPCA will have better numbers than their local open-intake shelter because the SPCA is no-kill, and stays that way by controlling intake (not an option for open-intake) by sending problem animals to the open-intake shelters.

        1. HAPPY TUESDAY !!!
          Charles,
          My point is to always share knowledge with ALL of the people that are on this blog. If you took a look at Brandywine Valley’s website, you couldn’t miss all of the corporate sponsors that are listed.
          I will bet that most people are not aware that ALL corporations set aside monies for local charities. That sponsorship is mandatory with the franchise food chains as well.
          I’m not too proud to ask for help when I’m buying supplies for my activities.
          Tony

    2. My compliments on your motivation and volunteerism it is refreshing in a world that is us versus them or in Washington strictly partisan. I too have written many times about our acceptance of gun violence, rising crime rates, and poor journalism coverage and have searched elsewhere for comparisons. But we have leadership problems in our highest levels and voting blocks who are totally disinterested in improving the city where it needs change. I just returned from a cross-country trip of three months to visit family out west and found some positive actions by leadership in other cities but things like homelessness and veterans care remain problems. I would hope that the young would pay attention especially to JFK and his question of Just “what can you do for your country.”

      1. Your reply is very good. It is so easy to point and say “You are doing it wrong!” but not so easy to show what to do.

      1. Stu Bykofsky, I am very familiar with the article you linked to. I read your article, Mr Abernathy’s email and Susan’s response many times when they were new. Around the same time I had composed and posted a Petition through Change.org to City Council and the Mayor saying that it was time for Philadelphia to stand up and increase funding for ACCT
        https://chng.it/KzZ9MYgR
        The petition received almost 5000 signatures and things were improving when covid hit. Again, I will point out that to achieve no-kill status during the pandemic was quite an accomplishment. Of course I just read your article again, which mentions the shelter in Chicago where Susan came from but it only mentions the budget and not statistics. There are only budget comparisons in your article and no examples of better statistics, which is what I have been searching for on and off for the past few months. Please don’t misunderstand – I feel your writing is very worthwhile and on Philadelphia’s animal shelter there seems to be nothing similar to be found. You do a great service. But if you can hold up some city that has an open-intake shelter with better statistics, please do. Thanks.

        1. Thanks, Charles. I did not include the save rate in other cities for one of several reasons. Maybe I did not think of doing that, maybe they were not germane, and maybe they were not publicly available. There is a limit to the amount of detail readers can stand. Thanks for your involvement.

    1. Vince, I, too, abhor people who mistreat animals. Over my many years here I have turned in information on animal abuse when I have witnessed it.

  5. “She declined to elaborate on the nature of the conflict”
    Some elaboration: Saint, a dog brought to ACCT for safekeeping in August, was brutally beaten and had his jaw broken shortly after his arrival by an ACCT employee to the extent it was left attached only by soft tissue. Then Aurora Velazquez and Summer Dolder lied to Saint’s owner’s when they arrived a short time later to reclaim him. She first claimed it was the police who broke Saint’s jaw, then later recanted when her lie was exposed. She refused to let Saint’s family take him home and then proceeded to have Saint killed and his body disposed, destroying evidence of the horrific treatment he was subjected to at ACCT. Aurora knew she had a duty of care to get veterinary treatment for Saint after his jaw was broken. She also knew she had no right to withhold Saint from his owners, to have him killed, or to have his remains disposed.
    The employee that broke Saint’s jaw is still employed, still handling animals at ACCT. Aurora took no action to address the cruelty committed against Saint and his family except to help hide it and she is allowed to resign.

    1. This is the most detailed info I have heard about Saint. I can look into this but first I need more info, specifically name and contact for Saint’s owner, name of the employee responsible and names and contact info of any eye witnesses. Email me at stubyko@gmail.com and your identity will be protected.

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