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Protecting New York's Animals

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A key measure of any city's humanity is how it treats its animals, and unfortunately New York falls short compared to the rest of the country. It is time for this to change, because our city should be a national leader when it comes to the humane treatment of animals. I believe we can achieve this goal with a few sensible reforms.

The root of our problem is the city's division of Animal Care & Control (AC&C), the largest animal shelter system in the Northeast. Even with City Hall's recent and welcome promise of $10 million in additional funds over three years, AC&C remains chronically under-funded, resulting in shameful conditions in many city shelters. With these new funds, ACC plans to spend about $1.47 per resident to protect the health and welfare of city animals -- an amount which is still well below the national average of $3.50 per resident.

But the real problem is structural: AC&C is controlled by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, an agency whose core focus is the welfare of people, not animals. This institutional limitation causes AC&C's budget to shrink every year. AC&C and its small, seven-member board lacks both the independence and fund-raising capabilities that would help it fulfill its important mission.

What we need is a top-to-bottom restructuring of AC&C -- a new model that reconstitutes the organization into a quasi-independent, not-for-profit with a large, diverse board that can bring both new resources and new expertise to the city's animal welfare system. The city has done this before: in the late 1970s, Central Park was in a state of disrepair and neglect. Today it is the nation's premier urban oasis, thanks largely to $390 million in funds raised privately by the Central Park Conservancy, since its founding in 1980. Although the Parks Department retains policy control over the park, 85 percent of its $37.4 million annual budget is raised independently by the Conservancy and its dedicated, 60-member board.

We can and should do the same thing for AC&C. New York's animal-loving community is large, diverse and deeply passionate about the humane treatment of animals. But right now the city is doing almost nothing to harness this energy and fund-raising potential. We need to throw open the doors of the city's shelter system and create a new management structure for AC&C -- one that can leverage both the city's financial and human capital.

One of our top priorities should be to build full service animal shelters in the Bronx and Queens, which right now have none. In 2000, the City Council passed a law requiring the City to build shelters in all five boroughs by 2002. But the current administration has chosen instead to ignore this mandate. My office filed an amicus brief in the most recent appeal to ensure the City fulfill its legal responsibility, but it's time for New York to halt its obstructionist maneuvers and abide by the original law. If AC&C had a real board capable of raising real money, there's no question in my mind that we could finally get these shelters built.

It's time for New Yorkers of conscience to speak up and demand action, which you can do by signing an online petition that I am launching today. New York already leads the nation on so many fronts when it comes to protecting the rights and privileges of people. It's time for us to treat animals with similar care and respect.