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State laws on SPCAs fall short

Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals the name is so ubiquitous, you might have thought it was a national organization.

It's not.

You might have thought there was a set of rules and regulations for those that use that title. You might have thought there was clear oversight of all animal shelters in New York State.

There isn't.

That may be the root of the problem.

The vast majority of SPCAs do good work. But when they fall into trouble -- as we've seen in recent weeks in Niagara and Wyoming counties -- things can go horribly wrong.

What's so troubling about this situation is that it's not just some nonprofit organization that has let us down. We expect that those who take on the responsibility of rescuing animals from horrific conditions have special authority in their work.

They do, and this is where New York is inconsistent when it comes to SPCAs.

State criminal procedure law recognizes that SPCAs do special work when it grants officers or agents "of a duly incorporated society for the prevention of cruelty to animals" the ability to obtain peace officer status. Those officers, with state-approved training, can carry guns, issue tickets and make arrests.

Not every SPCA has peace officers, and the Niagara County SPCA did not. It's not clear whether the Wyoming County SPCA had any on staff. But the fact that SPCAs in the state are eligible for this special power is recognition that they do unique work.

They're trusted with the care and responsibility of defenseless animals, yet the state's patchwork of laws that relate to SPCA facilities falls short.

They have unique work, but not unique oversight. That's what State Sen. George Maziarz found when he started asking questions about who oversees the Niagara County SPCA, which falls within his district.

The Attorney General's Office and the Department of State have oversight over nonprofit organizations. The Department of Agriculture and Markets inspects animal shelters that contract with municipalities. If there are peace officers on staff, SPCAs must also report to the Division of Criminal Justice Services.

It's a mishmash of oversight, and clearly some SPCAs are slipping through the cracks. Where one state agency's responsibility "begins and ends is a very gray area," Maziarz said.

Take the Wyoming County SPCA, where hundreds of cats were removed last week after authorities found them living in "deplorable conditions."

The shelter was not subjected to annual inspections by the Department of Agriculture and Markets because it did not hold a contract with a municipality, department spokeswoman Jessica Ziehm said. Regular inspections might have prevented the situation from degenerating to the point that it did.

But as Maziarz points out, a state inspection of the Niagara County SPCA in January did not find the troubling problems uncovered just a few weeks later by an independent evaluation completed by staff of the SPCA Serving Erie County.

The problems aren't just in Western New York. Look downstate, where the Yonkers SPCA was shut down two years ago after the State Attorney General's Office found it had granted peace officer status to 16 people despite not doing any animal cruelty work.

Talk about an oversight.

The fact that each SPCA organization works independently only exacerbates the problem. Good intentions can deteriorate quickly with poor management and little oversight.

Some SPCAs do great work -- the SPCA Serving Erie County is one -- and any new regulations would have to strike a balance to allow them to continue their efforts. But it's time all are held to the standards their name implies.