Trust: What ACCT Philly needs to earn

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.

ACCT Philly Executive Director Aurora Velazquez stands in front of animal adoption center under construction. (Photo: Stu Bykofsky)

“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.

ACCT Philly Executive Director Aurora Velazquez plays with Albany, a handsome boy available for adoption. (Photo: Stu Bykofsky)

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. 

20 thoughts on “Trust: What ACCT Philly needs to earn”

  1. Omg these animals sit in filth dying from a disgusting building and the director makes 170k. Unbelievable city pays that but doesn’t do one thing to help the animals or fix the crap hole. NO ONE SHOULD MAKE THAT MUCH AT A NONPROFIT PERIOD

    1. City doesn’t do much because CITIZENS don’t raise hell. When I dropped by the kennels were clean and the place didn’t smell. They do get dirty during the day.

    2. I cannot begin to trust ACCT until I learn why i was suspended from volunteering. I donated somewhere from 80 to 100+ hrs in less than 3 months time and was informed in an email before Christmas that my privileges were suspended. No true explanation was provided no chance for discussion has been opened. $170k? That’s about 7 times what I make, and i would argue that I could improve the conditions exponentially by donating 80% back into the shelter and using my skills and talent.

  2. I HEAR SHE IS JUST AS BAD AS VINCE MEDLEY WHICH IS REALLY BAD.SHAME THEY FORCED SUSAN OUT SHE WAS WONDERFUL.

    1. “I hear” is proof of nothing. On social media, some accusations were made against Velazquez. I invited anyone with facts, not rumor, to come forward. No one did. I looked around the internet and found nothing. My sources at ACCT say Aurora doesn’t shmooze as well as Susan, but is more efficient.
      My observations are second hand as I am not in the shelter. Those who are know how to reach me.

  3. Susan may have been well liked by people outside but she was incompetent and toxic. It wasn’t lack of funding that led to a veterinary staff shortage, it was Susan running half of the overall staff out of the building. Thank god she’s gone but too bad it took so long.

    1. Maybe you worked there for a few weeks then. She’s a keyboard warrior who tricked her way into a position of power. No need to argue back; everyone who knows knows. Stu is more than welcome to contact me if he wants the real story.

    2. See how Marina and Meredith contradict each other. That is why I ask for evidence of wrong doing, complete with name, dates, times and witnesses. I have several sources who I regard as trustworthy and objective.

      1. IIRC, Marina worked at ACCT for a few weeks before disappearing before the summer of hell started due to the ED’s conduct and incompetence. FWIW, multiple experts and a multitude of staff agree on what happened last summer. Feel free to reach out and I’m sure you’ll get the in depth story you want if anonymity is ensured and there is a true desire to cover what occurred.

        1. Anonymity is assured. This is now history, as Russell is no longer there, but I would be interested in-hearing what people have to say. They must tell me their name and position at ACCT and come prepared with dates, names, facts — not rumor. They can reach me at stubyko@gmail.com and they can Google me and ACCT to see the amount of reporting I have done over 16 years.

  4. So much sturm und drang over a dog and cat shelter. Wish Philadelphians would get so excited over the lousy schools, the business-killing taxes, the parasitical pols running the joint, etc. Although I am now a suburbanite, I worked in the city for a slew of years, so I am entitled to kvetch.

  5. HAPPY WEDNESDAY !!!
    Pallie,
    You always write columns and blogs about our domesticated animals. As you should. I don’t remember you unloading on the great people of Philadelphia ( et al ) who indiscriminately allow animals to breed. Think of it this way. Short dumping is when a person doesn’t want to take refuse to the dump. You have to pay to LEGALLY dump at an approved site. You DO NOT have to pay to ILLEGALLY dump on a dark side street in some one’s neighborhood. The city barely goes after the short dumpers. The city can find, imprison ( multiple offenses ) confiscate the vehicle or ignore . The city pretty much does the same with animals and the people that are supposed to care for them.
    Stu, research this item, then write a blog.
    Tony

    1. Excellent point. I have mot dome it in a while, but I have devoted parts of column to condemning irresponsible pet owners, who don’t have them neutered, don’t socialize them properly, do not take them to the vet.

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