Accusations leveled at the Cattaraugus County SPCA call for an immediate investigation, if not a complete housecleaning.
That's what it will take to guarantee the safety of the animals there.
Morgan Dunbar, director of Animal Allies of Western New York, recently accused the SPCA of mistreating animals. She went as far as to charge that this is not a no-kill shelter but a "slow-kill shelter."
Strong words from Dunbar, but past criticisms of the Niagara and Wyoming county SPCAs turned out to be well-founded. Board Chairwoman Kris McDonald called Dunbar's accusations a witch hunt, telling a News reporter that the no-kill shelter since 1985 has had issues it is trying to address, but doing so on $1,000 a day isn't easy.
McDonald is correct in that a thousand dollars a day to run an animal shelter does not go far. But signs point to deep and prolonged problems at the shelter, long a topic of discussion among animal lovers who could see a building in need of repairs and animals with signs of health problems.
Animals waiting to be adopted should not be left to live in cages for months or even years. The truth can be determined only through an investigation on all levels - from how animals are cared for to maintenance and management of the shelter.
Dunbar said she first went to the Cattaraugus County shelter to learn whether its "no-kill" policy could be adapted to the SPCA of Niagara. While there, she said, she found sick animals and a lack of medical care.
But Dunbar's assertion certainly won't be the last word. Many agencies have some jurisdiction and should be ready to step in.
The state attorney general, in his role of supervisor of charities in the state, oversees such shelters. The job of the Department of Agriculture and Markets is to inspect animal shelters that contract with municipalities. In addition, the Inspector General's Office has a role and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals could assist.
If the shelter is as well-run as officials maintain, they should welcome efforts to clear the cloud of suspicion.
But if there is evidence of mistreatment, the Cattaraugus SPCA will have to follow the model of the SPCA of Niagara. There, after allegations of mistreatment surfaced early this year, the director was fired and a totally new board of directors was elected.
The gold standard of animal shelters, the SPCA Serving Erie County, helped greatly with the reforms in Niagara County. While the Erie SPCA certainly has plenty on its plate, if asked it should be ready to help out again in Cattaraugus County.
The larger issue here is the lack of standards for shelters in New York State. The only rules are those that have to do with the 501(c)3 tax-exempt status that the state provides. Officially, the state cares more about how money is collected and spent than it does about animal care.
The State Legislature needs to set minimum standards for shelters across the state. Those standards should be written by professionals in animal welfare and shelters, not by veterinarians, legislators or animal rights advocates. Then there must be the willingness to enforce those standards.
Officials at the Cattaraugus County SPCA say they are committed to the welfare of the shelter's animals. It's time for them to prove that they are carrying out their mission, and it's time for the community to demand accountability and any necessary changes.