Whose reality tells all in this rescue story?
Aren't there always three sides to the coin?
For ‘Animal Precinct,’ Reality Subject to Dispute
By GLENN COLLINS“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 City.
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 animals.
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 years.
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 yet.
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 people.”
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 choose.”
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
Let nature guide your actions and you will never have to worry if you did the right thing. ~ crow_noir
The pet world excels where the human world is lacking; sterilization and adoption. ~ crow_noir
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