“Animal Precinct”, a reality show on Animal Planet channel, sheds the spotlight on the ASPCA police unit that specializes in rescuing animals victimized by cruelty in New York City. The show has given Americans new insight into animal abuse, raised money for the society and elevated the stature of their officers.
While there are many positive effects from the show, some animal welfare activists say it shows a level of enforcement that does not accurately depict what really happens on the streets.
The activists say that the ASPCA 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 societyâ€™s police force of 18 officers remains small, about 6 percent of the ASPCAâ€™s $58 million spending plan.
Some critics complain that the Humane Law Enforcement division is shortchanged. They say that this program is the heart of the mission but only receives a small part of the budget. They question why ASPCA spends more on marketing than the Humane Law Enforcement division.
The Communications Department, 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 societyâ€™s tax return for that year, the latest available. The ASPCA said its 2006 return was not ready yet.
Even though the ASPCA police force unit has grown in the past several years, officials do acknowledge that they still don’t 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.
â€œIf they are going to profit from the TV show, they should hire more officers,â€ 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 â€œanimal copsâ€ have never been more effective, that the unitâ€™s budget has been increased and that arrests are up significantly over prior years.
From New York Times (registration required):
Given its name and its status as the nationâ€™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.â€™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.
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 societyâ€™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 societyâ€™s animal hospital.
Beyond the klieg lights, though, critics say â€œAnimal Precinctâ€ resembles other reality shows that present overly positive views of police performance.
“You get the idea from the show that they are patrolling constantly,â€ 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.
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.
Stephen Musso, the societyâ€™s chief of operations, said that the organization listened to its critics but was satisfied that it had set reasonable priorities.
â€œWe wish we were perfect,â€ he said. â€œWe canâ€™t be all things to all people.â€