Animal shelters and rescue organizations nationwide have been experiencing a range of dramatic ups and downs over the past several years. Initially, the Covid-19 lockdown led lonely isolators to impulsively seek companionship. Dog adoption grew in popularity during the pandemic—until those adopters decided that caring for an animal was too burdensome once their day-to-day life was returned to them. (The problem is also international. Australia’s 9News recently reported that the number of dogs being surrendered in Victoria is reaching a crisis point, post-Covid.) With office workers going back to their physical places of employment and finding themselves unable, or, often, unwilling, to care for their pets, and others just generally overwhelmed by the responsibility of tending to another life, the warm-and-fuzzy pendulum has started to swing in the wrong direction.
In the summer of 2020, at the height of the pandemic, my wife, Michelle, and I went in search of a dog, not only to help maintain our emotional stability but to finally acquire the pet we never felt able to get because of our exhaustive office jobs. However, with the surge in adoptions during the Covid lockdown, only one facility out of the more than 20 we filled applications out for responded. Bobbi and the Strays, a nonprofit no-kill rescue organization with adoption centers/shelters in Glendale and Freeport, New York, took the process very seriously, visiting our home for an inspection and allowing us to meet with dogs to see if we were a good match. Once we met our dog, a young Yorkie mix who was surrendered by her owner, we waited another 48 hours until she was released to us. We were advised that if the adoption wasn’t working out, we could bring her back. “Our main goal is to find permanent, loving homes for all the dogs and cats that we rescue,” Roberta “Bobbi” Giordano proudly states on the organization’s website. “We have a guaranteed return policy on all adoptions—because our goal is to place animals into good homes for life.”
Although leaving an unwanted pet at a shelter might seem like a humane option, the fate of the animal is left entirely to the facility’s ability to care for it and to find an adopter.
The swell of deserted dogs, cats, and other critters has caused a strain on many rescue facilities, which only a little more than two years earlier had waiting lists of people looking to adopt. Often volunteering their time or working for little pay, the caretakers of these innocent lives work tirelessly to ensure that their animals are healthy and given proper food, living space, quality of life, and medical treatment as needed. Similar to the abandoned creatures they care for, some of these organizations have difficulty speaking up when they’re in need of aid and support, weary of begging for funding and resources from the city and state, and from private donors.
One outspoken operation, Rescue Dogs Rock NYC, sent out a newsletter plea on June 22 asking for donations to keep their nonprofit afloat. Founded in 2015 by Jackie O’Sullivan and Stacey Silverstein, the former Animal Care Centers of NYC (ACC NYC) volunteers pooled their personal resources to help the city’s homeless and shelter dogs (and cats) find homes, as well as to educate the public on general animal care, welfare, and population and disease control. In its seven years of existence, Rescue Dogs Rock reports that it has found homes for more than 9,000 animals and taken in the vagrant and those in need of veterinary treatment, as well as offering services including rehabilitation and behavioral training for animals who have experienced trauma from previous owners, kill shelters, and puppy mills. In their open appeal, Rescue Dogs Rock opened up about their vulnerability, detailing the high cost of vet bills and the possibility of shuttering the operation.
“[We] take responsibility for every dog or cat for their entire life, and we try to place every one in a loving home as quickly as we possibly can, so that they can have the second chance they deserve,” Silverstein tells the Voice. “I think we are always preferred over a [city] shelter, because we do not euthanize.”
Although leaving an unwanted pet at a shelter might seem like a humane option, the fate of the animal is left entirely to the facility’s ability to care for it and to find an adopter. Katy Hansen, ACC NYC director of marketing and communications, tells the Voice that the organization has consistently placed 90% of the animals it’s taken in since 2017. (ACC NYC is a nonprofit entity responsible for the city’s municipal shelter system, under contract with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, with support from major donors including the ASPCA.) ACC NYC currently houses approximately 15,000 animals throughout the city, including snakes, goats, and somewhere around 1,500 guinea pigs (for those who sought an easier alternative to dog or cat ownership during the pandemic), and works with more than 230 rescue partners, including Rescue Dogs Rock NYC and Bobbi and the Strays, which pull dogs from city facilities to help facilitate adoptions. Inflation has been cited by ACC NYC as a leading cause for the 25% increase in drop-offs and surrenders, and “the biggest reason people are surrendering their pets right now is because of landlords,” says Hansen. “They’re being forced to move due to the 30% rent increase in New York City, and the landlords are not allowing any pets.” Over the past year, the organization has experienced a decrease in adoptions and a shortage of staff at its three shelter locations, in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Staten Island, and in February announced limits to its services.
I can’t help but wonder at the luck our dog had, to have been dropped off at a no-kill shelter before finding her way to us. I always feel that I’m the fortunate one.
But over the past decade, ACC NYC has frequently come under fire from animal rights activists for its euthanasia rates. Although some advocacy groups have described the organization as achieving a “no-kill” status of a minimum 90% live release through direct adoptions or placement with other rescue organizations, activists claim that the 90% statistic is bolstered by a large number of small animals, such as guinea pigs, kept alive, and that the euthanasia numbers for dogs are much higher. In 2012, former director Julie Bank resigned after heavy criticism surrounding the volume of alleged unjustified euthanizations at ACC shelters. (Bank stated that she was leaving for family reasons.) In September 2020, New York City comptroller Scott M. Stringer concluded, after an audit of ACC NYC, “Our review of ACC and DOHMH’s [Department of Health and Mental Hygiene] management of the shelter system uncovered multiple deficiencies that need to be fixed.” And in February 2022, the organization was criticized for its high euthanization rate, as reported in Our Town, with ACC data from 2021 revealing that 1,072 dogs and 1,223 cats had been euthanized between January and November. Hansen tells the Voice, “In the first five months of this year, we euthanized 65 out of 1,765 dogs for behavior reasons. That represents 3.7% of our population.” But stories abound in the rescue community of adoptable dogs landing on the “kill list”—of healthy animals euthanized on the day of their arrival, before potential adopters could view them, and of euthanasia for breed and space reasons.
The New York State Senate recently passed a bill banning the sale of pets supplied by puppy mills. The measure now goes to Governor Kathy Hochul for final approval, but is already cause for optimism in the rescue arena that there will, in the near future, be fewer homeless dogs and cats, hopefully slowing the population increase that shelters have experienced. Like so many small businesses, nonprofit rescue organizations are struggling amid inflation, rent increases, the rising prices of gas and electricity, and supply chain issues, with the added pressure of raising funds through donations.
As my wife and I approach our two-year adopt-a-versary with our pandemic-adopted dog, I can’t imagine her being anywhere else but with us. “Who knows what could have happened to her if she ended up in the wrong hands?” Michelle said to me the other day while stroking our pup’s fur, soft from the doggy bath we’d just given her in our tub. I can’t help but wonder at the luck our dog had, to have been dropped off at a no-kill shelter before finding her way to us. I always feel that I’m the fortunate one. And I know that animals in the system face a sometimes insurmountable journey in finding their forever home—and keeping it, too.
As the country faces a potential recession, with New York City certain to take a hit, it’s unavoidable that other no-kill shelters and rescue groups will be faced with the same threats facing Rescue Dogs Rock, which says it has been in the process of opening a rescue and rehabilitation center on Long Island. But they could be forced to close their new doors before they even open them, and more rescue groups may follow without public and governmental support.
If you’d like to throw Rescue Dogs Rock NYC a bone, visit their PayPal page. ❖
Raj Tawney is a journalist covering race, culture, identity, and human impact on the natural world from his multiracial American perspective. His work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Guardian. He is currently completing a memoir.