Aurora Velazquez is the fifth executive director of ACCT Philly, the city’s animal shelter, since 2012. “Does that worry you?,” I ask during an interview in her office at 111 W. Hunting Park Avenue in the Feltonville section.
“Sure,” she says matter-of-factly, “it is a major concern, one of stability. It’s impossible for an organization to have a clear path forward when it changes once a year.”
Her predecessor, Susan Russell, was hired from Chicago, she was well-liked, but she lasted less than a year. Russell’s predecessor Vincent Medley, was hired from San Antonio, was not well-liked but lasted 2 ½ years.
Before coming to Philadelphia, the 37-year-old Velazquez was the chief operating officer of Animal Care Centers of New York for more than eight years and worked in animal control in her native Jersey City before that. Her Philly salary is $170,000.
She and her husband Alex — a soccer coach and dog walker — have settled in West Kensington with their two adopted dogs, one cat and one parrot.
She arrived in November at a pretty good time in the history of the animal agency with a checkered past. As we talked, workers were close to completing an attractive $1-million adoption center (funded by Petco) as a wing on the shelter’s building. Within a couple of weeks, ACCT Philly will move into the 9,000-square-foot city vector control building adjoining the shelter.
These were long needed improvements.
“It’s a huge deal,” she says about the gift of space from the city that had been on the wish list of previous ACCT Philly leaders.
It will give cats space further removed from the barking dogs, it will give more room for staff and, importantly, isolation for sick dogs.
The lack of isolation leads to the spread of disease, such as an outbreak of URI — upper respiratory infection — that affected a number of dogs over the last few weeks, resulting in one dog that had to be put down.
Velazquez said it was more of an “uptick” than an outbreak, and no dogs died — this time. Five dogs were euthanized during a URI outbreak last summer.
The key measure of an open shelter such as ACCT Philly, which must accept all animals brought to it, is the live release rate. That means the number of animals that get out of the shelter, to permanent adoptable homes, or to rescue groups that find homes for them.
Back in 2004, when it was known as PACCA, I did an expose headlined “The Cruel Cages” because of the inhumane treatment suffered by animals in the shelter. The agency was torn apart, rehabilitated and in 2012 morphed into ACCT Philly.
As PACCA, the live release rate was 20%.
In 2019, ACCT Philly’s live release rate — dogs and cats combined — was 84.5%. In 2018, it was 83.5%.
I ask Velazquez if ACCT Philly could continue improving by 1% a year. She nods her head.
Now 1% may seem small, but ACCT Philly could hit 90% in five years, and 90% is widely considered to be functionally “no kill.” It is impossible to hit 100% because some animals may be too sick, too dangerous or too old to be adopted.
As is widely known, ACCT Philly is seriously underfunded when compared to a number of cities of our size, or smaller. City Councilman Allan Domb helped secure a grant of $480,000 for some necessary work to supplement the agency’s $4.3 million budget.
Early in 2019, city controller Rebecca Rhynhart reported financial mismanagement under previous executive director Medley, which followed up on reporting I had done in 2018.
It is hoped a reconstituted board of directors will pay closer attention to operations and finances. It also is hoped the new board will be active in fund-raising, a normal board function, for ACCT Philly.
Velazquez knows one of her missions is to get more money for the shelter and that means convincing the city — and private donors — that the shelter is being run properly. Her first goal, she tells me, is to make sure the shelter is employing best sheiter practices and is at least equal to its peers around the nation.
One consequence of under funding was an inadequate veterinary staff, which led to releasing dogs for adoption that had not been neutered. That is a worst, not a best, practice and Velazquez assures me it has been reversed.
Her biggest task? To build trust with a community that over the years has had reasons to distrust ACCT Philly.
“I’m a pretty tenacious person,” she says.
She will need to be.