The City Hall press conference had broken up. Mayor Bloomberg walked out, and the invited guests started to mingle. Then, finally, reporters got the sound bite they were waiting for: "ruff, ruff, ruff!"
It was Brandy, a spirited beagle who apparently wanted to play when a photographer got a bit too close. She was one of nine special guests clad in "ADOPT ME" vests who joined the mayor in announcing that New York had set a goal to become a "no kill" city within the next decade.
It would make New York the largest - and one of the very few - cities in the US that provides homes for all healthy animals in shelters and euthanizes only those that are vicious or suffering from serious illness.
To help to it succeed, Maddie's Fund, the nation's largest pet-rescue foundation, has given the city a record grant of $15.5 million. The money will go toward increasing animal adoptions as well as providing subsidies to help low-income New Yorkers spay and neuter their animals.
"New York is going to be the lead in terms of creating what we call the no-kill city, which is an endeavor which will take about 10 years to save all of the healthy and treatable animals," says Richard Avanzino, president of Maddie's Fund. "It's our biggest project and we're excited about it, but there's a lot of interest in it around the country because people don't like to see dogs and cats die."
Only a handful of other cities have reached no-kill status, most notably San Francisco and Ithaca, N.Y. Maddie's Fund is hoping that New York, with its size and visibility, will spur more cities to follow suit. The mayor, who opened the press conference reminiscing about his boyhood dog Candy, a cocker spaniel mix he brought home from a neighbor's house, said the grant and overall effort will help New York become a more humane city.
"This will help the city move closer to that wonderful day when we will no longer have to euthanize any homeless cats and dogs," he says. "By reducing the number of homeless animals, this grant will also allow us to redirect more of our resources toward rescue, care, and control initiatives."
New York City is already home to some of the nation's most chic doggy spas, one of the first "pooper scooper" laws, as well as a wide array of dog amenities - from special-breed meet-ups such as those at Pug Hill in Central Park to cafes specifically designed for well-coiffed pooches and their equally manicured owners. The city has also made great strides in fostering adoptions. Just a year and a half ago, it was euthanizing more than 150 dogs and cats each day. Now, it has cut that by more than two-thirds, to about 40 animals a day. That already puts New York in a leading position nationally, according to Animal People, a leading investigative journal on animal protections.
Back in the 1970s, the US was killing on average 115 dogs and cats per 100,000 residents. It was about then that a movement started urging homeowners to start sterilizing their pet dogs, according to Merritt Clifton, editor of Animal People. By about 1980, some 70 percent of homeowners were sterilizing their dogs.
That brought zero population growth for pet dogs and a push to start neutering pet cats as well. By the 1990s, their growth rates were in hand, and activists began targeting feral cats for sterilization. Those three movements combined to produce the sharp drop in the number of animals that need to be killed.
"Then you work on starting to reduce unnecessary turnover such as surrender of dogs because they misbehave, they [mess] in the house, or whatever, and the surrender of cats because people don't know how to accommodate their needs in a house or an apartment," says Mr. Merritt.
Over the past 15 years or so, rescue societies have also worked to find appropriate geographic locations for dogs. For instance, if a pack of beagles is surrendered in South Carolina, where big dogs are popular, rescue groups may send them north to a shelter in New York City, where small dogs are preferred.
In 2002, New York created the Mayor's Alliance for NYC's Animals, which is a coalition of 65 rescue groups and shelters in the city. Based on a model pioneered in San Francisco, they work together to find as many homes as possible for adoptable animals within the city and surrounding areas. Its success prompted the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to give the city a $5 million grant, which was then used to leverage the larger grant from Maddie's Fund.