(By Jeff Latzer, co-founder of Adopt NY, in collaboration with Urgent: Pets on Death Row)
Behind every corrupt politician’s sudden resignation to, “spend time with family” is a dark scandal hidden from the public; the same goes for Julie Bank – who was, until yesterday, the Executive Director of Animal Care & Control. Buried behind her official press release is a tale of negligent homicide that also brought the firing of Doug Boles, AC&C Director of Operations. The heartbreaking story is the result of a shelter system that has always found ending lives more convenient than rescue or adoption; killing at AC&C is routine, rife with errors and, until now, never subject to any sort of accountability.
Helena was a charming, mellow pit bull with a black coat and brown eyes who would whimper softly in her cage, waiting for a walk from a volunteer, or a new family to adopt her. She would quietly cuddle with volunteers in Thomas Jefferson Park on 112th Street, but had a tendency to avert her eyes around cameras. Helena also had a family looking for her.
Since Helena was a black pit bull, she was put on the kill list almost immediately after arriving at the Manhattan shelter as a stray. She was put on the at-risk list on September 19th, pulled off of it for unknown reasons, and then put on the kill list again on September 20th. At this point, the family that had been looking for their lost dog located her online, and arrived at the shelter at 9am the following morning to be reunited with Helena.
The family paid the reclaiming fee. A memo was placed in the Chameleon computer system which removed Helena’s EUTH command, rendering her safe. For unknown reasons, the family was told by the front desk staff to come back at 5pm to receive Helena-- even though adoptions typically begin at noon. Seeing no other choice, they left the shelter and returned at 5pm sharp.
Since AC&C kills anywhere from 10 to 30 dogs and cats each day in each shelter, the often unlicensed vet techs can spend about half of their work day putting animals to sleep. At 3:00pm, one such vet tech in Manhattan checked his handwritten list of dogs to kill, and came across A0945637. He typed the number into Chameleon, only to find the system had crashed – a routine occurrence. Sitting in the room connected to the industrial body storage freezer, the vet tech called Doug Boles, Director of Operations for all of AC&C. Despite not having access to the computer system, Boles told the vet tech to end Helena’s life. Once the computer system was restarted, and the vet tech entered a new memo in Helena’s file, appearing right next to her anxiously waiting family’s credit card receipt. “PTS,” it read. Put to Sleep.
At 5pm, Helena’s family returned to the shelter. AC&C staff apologized, then removed Helena’s body from the industrial freezer, providing the family with a last glimpse of their beloved pet. According to a shelter memo, the family was offered a free cremation.
On September 26, six days after Helena’s death and amidst an ongoing lawsuit, Julie Bank offered her resignation; in an email sent to all volunteers, she wrote, “I have family issues that I need to address and I am sure you understand that family always comes first.” Unheard amidst the Department of Health’s flattering press releases documenting her accomplishments was that they also fired Doug Boles on the same day. Today, two more heads rolled. A staff member from the Brooklyn New Hope Department and a Brooklyn Shelter Manager. Who will fall tomorrow? We don't know, but we'd be happy to put forth a few suggestions!
The killing of Helena follows another gruesome incident of employee neglect inside the Manhattan shelter – this one caught on video camera. A volunteer was very badly bitten as she walked a dog. Despite her screams the only people to come to her aid were other volunteers. Two staff members stood by and did nothing while two more staff members ran briefly to the scene only to see what was going on and then left to return to the yard (without rendering any sort of assistance) where they resumed playing with dogs while the volunteer was still being actively attacked. Also troubling is the "security system" which requires codes be punched in to both enter and exit doors. That several people had difficulty remembering the code to punch in during a crisis delayed help... it is also scary to think about what would happen if someone's life hung on the ability to recall said code in order to EXIT a door under the stress of a life-threatening emergency.
When a shelter system is structured around euthanasia as its sole method of operations, mistakes happen, and at AC&C they happen very often. This is not the first animal AC&C killed by mistake; many other erroneous deaths can be read about here on Urgent. But Helena’s death is particularly indicative of an institution managed by those who do not place any value on the lives of the animals in its care. As long as the Department of Health maintains control of the city shelter system, and the shelter’s Board of Directors is stacked with appointees of the Mayor’s political choosing, the shelters of New York City will never change.