Near the end of September, the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) warned the city its services were coming to an end — the same warning it delivered in November 2009 and the year before that.
Without a contract with the city and the associated funding stream, the organization is forced to cease many of its operations, from hurricane and storm shelters to animal control — a service that has been handed off to the New Orleans Police Department's (NOPD) K-9 unit.
SPCA chief executive officer Ana Zorrilla wants to know why New Orleans, unlike other cities in Louisiana, depends on a contract with a nonprofit rather than operating a municipal, city-owned animal-control unit. She also questions why the city doesn't offer its animal-control contractor a multi-year contract, or at least fund a full year at a time. Last year's money ran out in November. This year's stopped in October.
Zorrilla says she has had little discussion with the mayor's office about the SPCA's future and its inclusion in the 2011 budget. "We were hoping to hear something about it prior to it going before (City) Council, but at this point we don't know where we stand," she says.
At an Oct. 14 news conference following his preview of the 2011 municipal budget, Mayor Mitch Landrieu briefly addressed the SPCA deal, saying the city was "in negotiations with the SPCA now." He added, "They were only budgeted through Oct. 15, which I understand is a common occurrence [in the budgets of former Mayor Ray Nagin]. But the bigger point is ... we shouldn't be stopping in October to fight about what should have been in last year's budget."
Presumably negotiations will continue through October. The 2011 budget should be finalized by November, after the City Council makes approvals and recommendations. Landrieu's plan calls for a $483 million city budget, smaller than those of recent years. "It will be tight," he acknowledges — about $20 million tighter than the current budget.
"In New Orleans, people just assume (responding to calls about animals is) what the SPCA is supposed to do, when it's what the city is supposed to do," Zorrilla says. "We've, time and time again, done it because we can do it effectively and efficiently, and very humanely, and we're able to leverage our nonprofit resources to do more for the city than if they did it themselves, and it's hard. The city is in a difficult spot financially, I don't envy them in any way, they have to make some really hard choices. ... If we value our animals and our safety, we make a small investment in that and get significant returns."
Without proper funding for the remainder of 2010 and 2011, the SPCA is forced to drastically scale back a host of services. It'll suspend temporary storm shelters and evacuations of animals in the event of a hurricane. After-hours services are redirected to NOPD. Veterinarians, not the SPCA, will quarantine animals that bite humans. The organization also will stop enforcing mule inspections and the intact-dog ordinance, which requires pet owners to spay or neuter dogs older than 6 months (unless the owner has a permit). Owners who want to relinquish their pets will have to do so at SPCA's shelter in Algiers at 1700 Mardi Gras Blvd., and stray animals will not be trapped or collected — they will have to be brought in by the public.
"Whether the SPCA does it or someone else does it, at the end of the day, what I want is (to know) the animals are well cared for, they're safe and the citizens are safe," Zorrilla says. "And my concern is, during this period of reduced services, there are animals that are going to be injured, there are people who are going to be injured that didn't need to be. That could have been prevented."
The SPCA operates with a $4.5 million budget. Animal control costs alone account for $3 million. In 2010, the city provided $2.1 million. The SPCA cut services and raised money through donation drives and fundraisers to make up the difference. That budget allows for its shelter operations, adoptions, spay-neuter clinics, a wellness clinic, after-school and summer programs and community outreach. SPCA employs about 60 people and receives help from hundreds of volunteers.
The SPCA will continue emergency response, but without the group performing after-hours animal control, those duties will be handed to NOPD's K-9 unit, which is absorbing the SPCA contract loss by putting its own officers in the field.
Superintendent Ronal Serpas suspended that unit's suspect apprehension team earlier this month after a Department of Justice review. Serpas says the unit needs training — following officer Jason Lewis' guilty plea in the death of his K-9 partner Primo, a Belgian Malinois who died from heat stroke in 2009 after being left in Lewis' car. Photos of the officer's car show the dog ripped the seats to shreds in a desperate attempt to escape.
In another case, Sgt. Randy Lewis' K-9 partner Phantom fell 17 stories in an elevator shaft at Charity Hospital last year. Malfeasance charges against that officer were dropped.
Cmdr. Bob Young, the head of NOPD public affairs, says the police department will assign two K-9 unit officers to handle calls the SPCA typically would answer after 5 p.m. "We're going to step in and do the deed until this is resolved," Young says. In addition to training for working with their dogs in the field, officers also are receiving training on how to handle strays.
"How are you going to actually deliver some level of service? If you're not going to let the SPCA do it, do you really have that many extra NOPD? I'll say this as a private resident: I live in Orleans Parish. I want NOPD picking up criminals, not dogs," Zorrilla says. "I want them to do what they do well, or better. ... My goal is that it get done and we're not worried about people or animals being attacked because we can't afford to."
The Humane Society of the United States estimates between 6 million and 8 million cats and dogs enter the country's 3,500 shelters each year. Zorrilla says the SPCA here picks up about 5,000 stray animals each year, or 450 a month — more than double the national average.
Of those animals collected nationally, 3 million to 4 million are adopted and 3 million to 4 million are euthanized because no homes can be found for them.
Devona Dolliole, Landrieu's director of communications, says the city "obviously wants to have animal care," and will continue budget negotiations to pay for the remainder of 2010 and all of 2011.
"We want the city to win, the animals to win — we want to do good work," Zorrilla says. "It's a service we want to make sure happens."