View Full Version : The New York Times: For ASPCA 'Animal Precinct,' Reality Is in Dispute

July 23rd 07, 04:19 AM
July 23, 2007
For 'Animal Precinct,' Reality Is in Dispute

"Animal Precinct," the six-year-old reality TV series, has long been
more than just a gritty chronicle of the A.S.P.C.A. police unit that
specializes in rescuing animals victimized by cruelty in New York

A hit since its first season, the cable show on the Animal Planet
channel has given millions of Americans new insight into animal abuse,
raised money for the society and elevated the stature of officers who
had previously occupied law enforcement's lower tier.

"Years ago other law enforcement might bark when we walked into the
precincts," said Annemarie Lucas, an A.S.P.C.A. supervisory
investigator who is featured in many episodes. "Now they can't help
you enough."

But for all the good the show has done, some animal welfare activists
and others who monitor cruelty conditions in New York say it depicts a
level of enforcement that is at odds with the reality on the streets.

The activists say that beyond the televised successes, the A.S.P.C.A.
is struggling to respond to a growing number of cruelty complaints,
driven in part by the popularity of the show. Cruelty complaints have
risen 70 percent since 2000. Yet the budget for the society's police
force of 18 officers remains small, about 6 percent of the
A.S.P.C.A.'s $58 million spending plan.

And though the unit has grown in recent years, officials acknowledge
they still do not have the resources to put more than two officers on
the night shift, answer the cruelty hot line after 6 p.m. or call back
every person who reports a case of abuse in a city with 5 million

In light of the challenges, some activists say the television show has
been a mixed blessing: a call to action, but one that may mask the
need for a more robust response by the American Society for the
Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

"If they are going to profit from the TV show, they should hire more
officers," said Gary Perkinson, a former A.S.P.C.A. manager and one of
several people who say officers never responded to reports of abuse
they had phoned in.

Officials for the A.S.P.C.A., a nonprofit group that does not receive
government funding, call the criticism unfair, asserting that the
"animal cops" have never been more effective, that the unit's budget
has been increased and that arrests are up significantly over prior

Dale Riedel, 57, a retired New York police captain who directs the
unit, known as the Humane Law Enforcement division, calls it a model
for the country. Expectations must be realistic, he said. "We are not
a 911 agency," he said. "We don't have a radio car that can be there
in five minutes' time."

Given its name and its status as the nation's oldest animal welfare
organization, the A.S.P.C.A. is often mistaken for a national umbrella
organization. Actually, the 141-year-old group operates independently
of all other S.P.C.A.'s across the country, although it does help many
with grants and training and works to spread its message nationally
with lobbying and education efforts.

"They are dedicated and effective and knowledgeable," Regina Massaro,
founder of the Spay Neuter Intervention Project in New York, an
independent group, said of A.S.P.C.A. officials.

Increasingly, since the cable series first aired in 2001, the face of
the A.S.P.C.A. has been Ms. Lucas, the pretty, assertive animal
welfare investigator. She is the host of fund-raising infomercials and
has become one of the society's highest paid employees, earning
$141,000 a year, according to its last financial filing. That is more
than the amount paid to her boss, Mr. Riedel, and to the veterinarian
who is the director of medicine for the society's animal hospital.

Other officers are paid an average of $45,000 a year, plus "a bit
extra" for their participation in the television show, Mr. Riedel
said. The society would not say what it is paid for "Animal Precinct,"
which draws 3.5 million viewers in peak weeks.

"We immediately saw Annemarie's potential," said Sally Anne Lomas, a
producer of the show for Anglia Television of England. "Her
feistiness. The little blonde on the streets."

Questioning a Rosy Image

Beyond the klieg lights, though, critics say "Animal Precinct"
resembles other reality shows that present overly positive views of
police performance.

"You get the idea from the show that they are patrolling constantly,"
said Amy K. Tanguay, a credit manager for a Manhattan law firm. But
when she reported several cases of abuse to the unit, she said, no one
pursued them.

"Their whole attitude," she said, "is extremely defensive: 'We can't
do anything about it. It's not our problem. Have a nice day.' "

Last year, the society's cruelty hot line received more than 50,000
calls and determined that 4,191, fewer than a tenth of them, were bona
fide complaints. Of those, officers made arrests in 103 cases, or 2.5
percent. An additional 109 people received summonses.

Police agencies typically make arrests in a higher percentage of
cases, even for the tough-to-solve crimes like burglary, where
officials generally push for clearance rates above 10 percent. But
A.S.P.C.A. officials said cruelty cases were particularly difficult
because animals cannot testify.

"It takes weeks to make these cases," Ms. Lucas said. "Agents come
back again and again on rechecks."

Mr. Riedel said that despite the screening the society does, the
cruelty complaints it receives are not as solid as the reports filed
with a traditional police agency.

"If I was a detective commander and had 4,000 of them, and then I only
had 103 arrests, I'd be as skeptical as you are right now," he said.
"But we are actually getting a lot of calls that are not, in fact,
crimes. They are disputes, or we have to go and educate people."

Mr. Riedel added, "If you actually look at where there are crimes
where we can say an animal was intentionally neglected or maltreated,
it's much, much smaller. It's not 4,000 to 103, it probably comes down
to 300 to 103."

It is difficult to compare animal police units because their
responsibilities and jurisdictions vary. Some organizations, for
example, collect stray animals, as the A.S.P.C.A. once did. But the
society decided to focus on anticruelty efforts, and a city-sponsored
nonprofit group took over the dog-catching function in 1995.

In Los Angeles, though, S.P.C.A. officers perform nearly identical
duties, albeit on a much smaller scale, with 10 agents and an $860,000
budget. They make one arrest for about every eight cruelty
investigations, versus one for every 40 in New York.

An A.S.P.C.A. spokeswoman questioned whether the comparison was fair
because the two agencies are so different in size and have different
jurisdictional boundaries.

Critics, however, say the A.S.P.C.A. needs to be more energetic.

Garo Alexanian, executive director of the Companion Animal Network, an
18-year-old New York City advocacy group, said the officers were not
active enough in inspecting the stables used by Central Park carriage
horses, or monitoring them on hot and cold days. The society, which
has a dedicated officer for those efforts, denies both charges.

Patty Adjamine, the director of New Yorkers for Companion Animals, a
Manhattan rescue group, said she happened to be on Lexington Avenue
one day in March when a man got out of a car and began capturing
pigeons with a net. Fearing he meant to use the birds for torture or
target practice, she said she called the A.S.P.C.A. to provide the
man's license plate number. Her call, she said, went to voice mail at
3 in the afternoon.

"The A.S.P.C.A. never even called me back," she said.

A.S.P.C.A. officials said they could not find a record of Ms.
Adjamine's call.

"Please note," said a spokeswoman, Anita Kelso Edson, "that we don't
call back every person who calls us with a complaint. They're welcome
to contact us again, but we don't have the resources to return every
complaint call."

Small Part of the Approach

The police unit, with a budget of $3.6 million, is actually one of the
largest of its type in the nation and has peace officer powers under
state law. In the past five years it has gained three officers, $1.8
million in financing and a new headquarters in Queens. Though no one
covers the overnight shift, or answers the cruelty hot line after 6
p.m., officials said most complaints were assigned to officers within
two hours.

But with cruelty on a pace to increase again this year, are 18
officers enough?

"I don't believe they are overwhelmed," Mr. Riedel said. "I believe
that we are asking much more from them."

The A.S.P.C.A. responds to cruelty in a variety of ways, and the
Humane Law Enforcement division represents just a small part of its
approach. Critics, though, say the budget shortchanges a program that
is at the heart of the society's mission.

Its Communications Department, for example, which handles advertising
campaigns, operates the Web site and creates member publications,
received $6.3 million in 2005, nearly twice as much as Humane Law
Enforcement, according to the society's tax return for that year, the
latest available. The A.S.P.C.A. said its 2006 return was not ready

The rest of the budget goes toward, among other things, financing a
respected animal hospital, making grants to other groups, educating
people about animal welfare, increasing pet adoptions and lowering
euthanasia rates.

Stephen Musso, the society's chief of operations, said that the
organization listened to its critics but was satisfied that it had set
reasonable priorities.

"We wish we were perfect," he said. "We can't be all things to all

Claims and Counterclaims

An officer who left the agency several years ago, John Lopez, said one
enforcement problem was that efforts are sometimes tailored for the
show, whose crews routinely accompany officers in the field.

"If it's not exciting, not a great case, they put it on a back
burner," he said.

Mr. Riedel denied that. "The film crew chooses what they want," he
said, adding, "We investigate all the cases, but they pick and

Last month, a judge found that an A.S.P.C.A. officer had played for
the cameras in pursuing cruelty charges against two Staten Island men
for neglecting their pets. The men, Kevin Lewis, 58, and Barry Leo
Delaney, 68, denied the cruelty allegation and offered veterinary
records, but they were arrested and some of their dogs and cats were
seized at their home in October 2005.

Judge Matthew A. Sciarrino Jr. of Criminal Court ruled that the
A.S.P.C.A. officer, John De La Torre, "in an effort to play the
starring role," improperly took the animals after going to the door
with a camera crew shooting from the sidewalk.

The judge said that the officer did not have a warrant and that Mr.
Delaney had been improperly urged to come outside his house to benefit
the cameras.

"He wanted to arrest this defendant, as this would make for 'better'
television," said the judge, who dismissed the case.

"An officer who may behave one way with no camera present may behave
differently with a television crew following him," he wrote.

Discovery Communications, which owns "Animal Precinct," ultimately
decided not to use the segment. A spokeswoman declined to comment on
the dispute.

The A.S.P.C.A. said it remained convinced its officer acted correctly.
A spokesman for the Staten Island district attorney's office said it
was "reviewing our options" in the case.

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