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.
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.