Idealism: The Fight to Save Fluffy

IN A PEACH WRAP TOP, khakis and espadrilles, her dark hair pulled cleanly back, a pager at her waist, 32-year-old Tara Derby-Perrin doesn’t look like a woman who’s about to kill a dozen cats. But as the new head of the Philadelphia Animal Care and Control Agency, or PACCA, she’s taking a turn today at the “pulls,” clearing cage space for the arrivals now streaming in, at 8:30 a.m. Kittens wrapped in blankets, dogs led on leashes, they form an endless parade past reception, through the double swinging doors, down a long corridor and, too often, into a tiny, windowless room that smells of what one euthanasia technician calls “fear piss.” It’s a simple equation: too many animals, not enough cages, nor people to adopt them. Some 150 cats will come in the door on this day in the height of kitten season. PACCA will have space for 80. Derby-Perrin and her staff have to sort through the difference, and decide which to put down.

The route from waiting room to a garbage bag typically involves an interim stop: a stay in the kennels, a warehouse-like space that was once a boiler-making plant. The largest area is for big dogs — barking, howling, crying dogs — with 12 rows, each about 10 cages deep. Past that are two other rooms for small dogs and cats. It’s in the cat room, its double-stacked cages already heating up on this June morning, that Derby-Perrin begins her task with signature efficiency, and speed. “This one, this one and this one,” she says, flipping over cage tags, the signal to kennel workers that the cats are to be stuffed into smaller blue plastic crates and rolled to the “e-room,” where they’ll be killed with two separate injections, one to knock them out, another to stop their hearts.

But don’t confuse her dispatch with dispassion. This isn’t easy for her — far from it. Derby-Perrin, a public health worker by trade, volunteered two years ago with a newly formed group of fellow animal lovers to sponsor pet adoption fairs. From there, well, it was obvious that somebody new, somebody outside of city patronage, somebody outside the inbred world of competing and weirdly idiosyncratic animal rights activists — the picketers who couldn’t stomach Barclay Prime’s foie gras cheesesteak, for example, or the boo-hooers claiming that the Philadelphia Zoo was hiding an elephant — was desperately needed to run PACCA. Derby-Perrin’s been on the job for just two months, but driving her little black Nissan Sentra from her home in Southwest Philly through a gritty stretch of North Philly to PACCA on Hunting Park Avenue this morning, all she kept thinking was, Just make it to fall. Just hold on till then. In another three months, at least we’ll be at the end of kitten litter season.

Then again, it’s people, not pets, who seem to be causing the new boss the most trouble at the moment. Accepting the helm of an agency dubbed a “house of horrors” by one city columnist, complete with a staff heavy on the prior director’s family and friends, Derby-Perrin swiftly fired 10 union workers in her first two months. She didn’t tell her husband about the second death threat she received for that. She didn’t tell her mother about it, either. She claims the security detail following her around in the afternoons and evenings is just a precaution.

But for the moment, moving down the row as kittens climb over each other or scale the wire doors of their cages to try and touch her with outstretched paws, Derby-Perrin goes into “detach mode.” “This one looks just like my cat,” she says, clipped and staccato, continuing down the line. “I can’t pick those. Someone else has to pick those.” An orange tabby has thrown up in its cage, something that normally would spell its doom. But for reasons of her own, Derby-Perrin can’t bring herself to choose that one. “Let’s give you a little more time, sweetie,” she says. The shelter’s new vet steps in to relay the news that respiratory ailments are spreading through the maternity ward, then brings up one of the bite cases. By law, it must be held for 10 days to check if rabies develops. But given all the kittens coming in, Derby-Perrin wants the animal killed now to free up a cage. Flip. “We can override with a decap,” she says — meaning they’ll send in the head to be tested.

It might be getting to her. She understands when her husband, a systems analyst at
Urban Outfitters, says she has to stop bringing the job home with her, pager or no. Is she sure she wants to do this? Because he’ll support her, but she should be sure. And she can’t keep coming home and snapping at him about the dishes. She’s working on it. Being a better wife is on her list, right up there with introducing the most radical change in our city’s treatment of animals since 1869, the year the newly formed Women’s Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (now known as the Women’s Humane Society) decreed that cops should stop beating dogs to death, and drowning them in the Schuylkill.

IF DERBY-PERRIN IS FACING a nightmarish balance sheet — the city still puts to death around 15,000 animals annually, including more than 9,200 cats and 5,100 dogs — she represents the first tremor of hope in the agency’s brief but troubled past. In what’s considered the birthplace of the animal welfare movement, animal control was long handled quietly by the Women’s Humane Society. That changed in 1978, when the city, overwhelmed by the 78 dogs it found after storming the MOVE compound, turned to the Pennsylvania SPCA for help. That nonprofit accepted the contract to provide animal control for Philadelphia, but gave it up in 2002 because, as longtime executive director Erik Hendricks puts it, “It was just psychologically too much for our staff to have to put down so many animals.” The city dragged its heels and finally, later that year, started to put together the mess it called PACCA.

The new director, George Stern, hired his relatives, his friends, the friends of his relatives. There were shocking tales of a lack of hygiene and sanitation, suspected thefts of purebreds. There were reports of cages hosed down with animals still in them; a story about the “nine-minute dog” — one family’s beloved lost mutt killed less than 10 minutes after entering the facility. Along with those, Derby-Perrin heard of other problems from animal rescue groups, a population that shares gossip faster than dogs trade kennel cough. Dead dogs in the hallway. Animals leaving PACCA sicker than when they got there. A lack of vet care for suffering animals. PACCA making it difficult for outside groups to come in and take animals out.

All of that was bad enough, but what really got to Derby-Perrin, what led her to upend her life — trading a comfy job running an HIV awareness program for a crazy one killing and saving and killing animals, swapping weekends with friends for very little weekend at all — was something that sounded quite optimistic, and orderly, and absolutely do-able. Right now. By her. At least, that’s what she was thinking as she sat at the Valley Forge Sheraton one weekend in 2003, at a conference on the national “no kill” approach to running city shelters. As shelter managers and other advocates took to the podium to discuss how specific, coordinated efforts by a handful of cities — combining things like spay-and-neuter programs and public/private adoption efforts — had led to dramatic drop-offs in the overall numbers of animals killed, Derby-Perrin felt her public-health-school-trained heart race. “I tend to be very attracted to the process,” she says. “And they were talking about a bottom-line way of looking at things. It was all very disciplined and dealt with measurable results, which was language I was used to hearing.”

Better yet, compared to her experience in public health — with its theory upon theory and model upon model — these folks seemed to know exactly what had to be done. To get started, she just needed, in her evenings and weekends, to get a handful of her new friends to create an alliance between the city and private rescue groups and shelters, to combine their disparate efforts into one cohesive whole, with a single goal: to stop, within 10 years, the killing of any “adoptable” animal. From there, they’d nail down who would handle which piece, and figure out how the public would get involved, and look for outside funding — and she’d need stationery, and a website, and a meeting space, and a “memorandum of understanding” from the city.

None of that was the hard part. None of that really took into account that many of the groups she needed to work together currently weren’t speaking to each other. Wouldn’t, necessarily, agree to sit in the same room. Are passionately devoted to rescuing pugs (and only pugs) or Jack Russell terriers (and only Jack Russells), or to finding homes for “feral and unsociable cats.” Want not only to inspect your electrical outlets and the height of your fence, but to get a read on your personality — and interview your other pets, too — should you decide to try and adopt one of their golden retrievers.

But Derby-Perrin dove in. And phone call by phone call, lunch by lunch, meeting by meeting, she listened to each group’s concern, or gripe, or condition, and then, over and over, returned to her pitch: They all shared the goal of trying to save animals. They could work together at least on the big picture, and temporarily put aside their differences as to how, exactly, to screen new adopters, or on who was taking in their share of harder-to-place pets and who was not. She also reached out to groups like vets who hadn’t previously been linked to the rescue effort.

By last winter, Derby-Perrin had also personally wooed city officials — the same Council members who’d just wrapped up hearings into PACCA’s well-publicized failures — to issue an official declaration of support for the alliance’s agenda. For a city then putting to death around 25,000 animals a year, this was something of a leap. And Derby-Perrin paid $16,000 to hire the nation’s foremost “no kill” expert, Nathan Winograd, to provide an extensive evaluation of the agency. Here last winter, Winograd noted that while his recommendations might guide change, whoever led the agency would “make or break animal welfare in Philadelphia.”

AS I SHADOWED Derby-Perrin over the summer, the more pressing question seemed to be whether the job would break her. The same girlfriend who told me that Derby-Perrin could “sell crap to a dog” also spoke of her friend’s agony over putting animals to sleep, and worried, early on, about whether or not she’d be able to handle the job emotionally. And who wouldn’t question her staying power? Just 15 minutes in PACCA’s waiting room is hard to stomach. It’s tough to watch a 50-something woman bring in her six-month-old golden retriever puppy and, through her tears, tell the clerk that she’s staying with her daughter right now, and her daughter won’t let her keep him. It’s sadder still to watch the puppy wag its tail and trot with the kennel worker almost to the swinging doors before it realizes something’s not right. It’s hard to see that dog hunker down in panic, and look back pleadingly — literally smelling its future — just as a mutt does when its owner nonchalantly hollers, “’Bye, Dollar!” as the animal is dragged toward the back.

Yet Derby-Perrin knows that along with the rescue groups, the public can be her greatest allies for change, and she tries to err on the side of giving people the benefit of the doubt. So on that June day, after doing the pulls, she takes an extra step, leaving messages for the owners who claimed they might return for their cats. One ends with “Your cat will be euthanized today,” and as Derby-Perrin puts down the receiver, she wonders aloud if she sounded sufficiently nice about it.

Nice or not, the message doesn’t sit so well with one owner, who calls back later that morning. Despite having signed the forms that spell out PACCA’s policies, the caller can’t seem to grasp that she left her cats at a shelter that is now about to kill them. “It’s an issue of inventory, and of giving each cat their own fair chance at getting adopted,” Derby-Perrin says fast, trying to get off the phone.

And now, great, the woman is crying. She recently lost a job, it turns out, and didn’t really want to give up her two cats. Derby-Perrin softens. “Listen, Melissa — Marisa. Listen to me. What are their names? Prince and Princess? Okay, can I have the number you’re at?” Slamming down the receiver, Derby-Perrin runs — openly regretting the choice of high-heeled espadrilles — through the waiting room, the double doors, down the hall and back to the cat room. There, she starts scanning cages, and searches through the animals already loaded onto the cart that will wheel them into the e-room. She doesn’t have time for this. She has personnel issues to deal with, a meeting with the health commissioner to prepare for. And besides, it would be far too difficult to convey to this woman the matrix of rules that limits choices about which animals PACCA gets to kill when. Stray dogs must be held for 48 hours, cruelty cases must sit in a cage until the abusers’ court dates, bite cases for those 10 days. But a pet surrendered by its owner, friendly though it may be, faces no such restrictions. So when space is tight, it may be the first to go.

Derby-Perrin finds Prince and unloads him from his tiny blue plastic carrier. But she can’t find Princess. “Where’s Princess? Where’s Princess?” she says, searching through the cage tags, then logging onto a computer in a nearby office to access intake notes describing the cat. Meanwhile, a jumpsuited worker announces there’s a water leak in the small mammal area. The room has grown stuffier in the midmorning heat. A cat carrier in the corner spells out something you’d normally expect on a cross-stitch: “Pets are such agreeable friends. They ask no questions. They demand no answers.” Derby-Perrin scans more cages: Princess, Princess … Princess! She opens the cage and lifts the cat, which is as docile and calm as if it had been discovered lounging on a living room couch. “Let’s get you out of here,” she says.

ON A RAINY NIGHT last February, Nathan Winograd, a bespectacled Stanford Law School grad and founder of “No Kill Solutions” in San Clemente, California, spoke to a standing-room-only crowd at City Hall and delivered the prophecy. It was the same one Derby-Perrin had heard at that conference, the one that changed her life. Power point by power point, he described the relative animal utopias he helped create in San Francisco, and then in less affluent Tompkins County in central New York. In four years there, he’d transformed a $150,000 annual deficit into a $23,000 annual surplus, raised enough private funds to build a state-of-the-art pet adoption and surgery center, and decreased the number of animals killed by 75 percent. And that meant finding homes for — and this is where it got kind of irresistible, if slightly farfetched — “second chance” pets like the ones that now paraded overhead: A pit bull with ringworm. Five blind cats. A one-eyed, 14-year-old dog. A 12-year-old cat with two fractured legs. A dog that wears diapers. The message, delivered to the strains of “I’m a Believer,” was that Philadelphia could do it, too. At the time, it sounded slightly over the rainbow. Especially given the mess here.

Yet by last fall — the season that, midsummer, Derby-Perrin thought might never arrive — PACCA was a different place. After her first five months on the job, it looked, and smelled, cleaner. More to the point, 15 percent fewer dogs and cats were being put to death. PACCA’s new vaccination program had led to private rescue groups getting involved, and Derby-Perrin had pushed for more adoptions — partly, it was as simple as setting up new shelter hours, with more volunteers to show off the animals, and pushing off-site adoption at places like PETCO stores. Spaying and neutering efforts — a more long-term, but critical, part of the “no kill” plan — were also coming together; by December, the shelter had nearly reached its goal of 100 percent pre-release sterilization. And the alliance Derby-Perrin had founded, under its new president, Anne Trinkle, was operating mobile neutering clinics around the city. Derby-Perrin estimates that while “no kill” is still 10 years off, in five years PACCA should be able to save 70 percent of the animals that come in the door.

That level of success, though, hinges on factors such as building a centrally located adoption center to augment PACCA’s North Philadelphia warehouse. Ideally, the new facility would be located in Center City, where the public could more easily view and interact with animals. Such an outpost would nudge the city toward one of Winograd’s end-phase tactics: mass optimism. As he tells it, the public shuts down in the face of filthy shelters and mass killings. But take away the horror, and who doesn’t want to feed or walk (or maybe even adopt) a puppy or kitten, especially if you can do it on your lunch hour?

Short of the windfall to make that happen, Derby-Perrin and her staff of 56 plug along. On one September Saturday, PACCA joined a variety of rescue groups and shelters in a shopping center parking lot off Roosevelt Boulevard, setting up cages and tables under a big white tent. Making a dent in the problem like this — one dog and one cat at a time — is far removed from Derby-Perrin’s end game, but she can’t help herself. She has to keep pushing.

A mom, her teenage daughter, and the girl’s aunt are ogling a tall gray feline, who’s signaling his friendliness by standing close to the cage door. He’s beautiful, they say, so handsome, but how would he do with other cats? Derby-Perrin, in the soothing voice she adopts with animals, stresses what a great temperament he has. Such a sweetie. She provides advice: Keep them in separate rooms for a few days. Let them exchange scents. Give it a few weeks. They’ll do just fine, she says. The women nod and chat some more, until finally one says, sounding entirely too chipper, “Well, we better skedaddle before we break down and adopt him!” And they’re gone. The cat remains, settling into a corner of its cage. And like him, in the face of a long and unseasonably hot day, with so few animals adopted, so many facing a bumpy ride back to an overcrowded shelter, Derby-Perrin remains calm and composed. “People talk themselves out of it,” she says. She’s used to it. Over it. On to the next.