From the Arms of Angel
How ASPCA negligence, corruption, and indifference led to the death of a little dog named Nyla and the emotional torment of Angel Hueca, the young woman who rescued her.
From the first notes of Sarah McLachlan’s heartbreaking and haunting melody in the well-known American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) commercial, Americans throughout the nation brace themselves to be moved, as their hearts then wallets open-wide. That commercial alone has filled ASPCA coffers with tens of millions of dollars donated by animal lovers who believe what that commercial tells them: that their generosity will be leveraged for its intended purpose — to shield animals from harm — because when animals come to the ASPCA, they are, in McLachlan’s words, “in the arms of an angel.”
But for a little dog named Nyla and her rescuer, a young woman named Angel Hueca, the ASPCA would not live up to its lofty, though highly profitable, rhetoric. Like so many other animals before her, Nyla would find no comfort in the arms of the ASPCA, but negligence, suffering, and an untimely death; a death whose heartbreak would be compounded for Angel by the cruelty she would subsequently suffer at the hands of callous, even emotionally abusive, ASPCA employees.
This is their story; a story that, like the other animals the ASPCA has betrayed before and since, shows the startling disconnect between reality and the ASPCA’s promise to millions of animal-loving Americans who have made the ASPCA not just one of the wealthiest animal charities worldwide, but one of the wealthiest charities overall.
In the arms of Angel
On March 28, 2016, a then 19-year-old Angel was told of a dog who needed a home. She went to meet the dog and immediately saw that Nyla was not being well-cared for. She took her home. “I couldn’t leave her there,” she said. Angel socialized Nyla, taught her the meaning of trust, of joy, of what it means to be loved.
Three years later to the very day Nyla came into her life, Angel entrusted her to the ASPCA to get spayed. Angel met the ASPCA transport van at the agreed upon pick up location in the Bronx so that Nyla could be taken to the ASPCA clinic in Manhattan for sterilization. When it pulled up, however, Angel immediately felt uncomfortable. She was expecting a van that had built-in cages for dogs, a true medical transport vehicle. Instead, she says, the ASPCA was using a low-budget transport van — the type that delivers vegetables to restaurants or newspapers to the bodegas — empty inside except for two loose dog crates. Although the crate was ultimately attached to the van with a cord after Nyla was put inside, Angel’s foreboding grew when the ASPCA staff member removed Nyla’s leash, then collar, and handed them back to her, for how would Nyla be restrained upon arrival? But she said, she saw the ASPCA logo on the van and thought, “It’s the ASPCA. They know what they are doing.”
The death of Nyla
An hour later, the phone rang. It was the ASPCA. Her sense of doom rising, Angel answered the phone. On the other end was the same ASPCA employee who had taken Nyla from her and whose first words were neither an explanation for the call, nor an apology, but rather a warning that Angel needed to “relax.” There would be no “I am sorry,” no “I have some tragic news,” no “We’ll do whatever it takes to try and make this right.” Instead, the call began with an admonition to Angel not to get hostile, as if she had done something wrong. Only then was she told her dog was hit by two cars and was in critical condition. “I’m not sure she’ll make it,” the woman said.
On the news that her beloved dog had been severely, perhaps mortally, injured, Angel became upset. “How had Nyla escaped?” she asked. After initially blaming the dog, the woman stopped answering questions and hung up on Angel. When Angel called back, the woman refused to answer the phone. Panicking and desperate for information about her dog, Angel called back again and again and again until finally, the ASPCA representative picked up the phone. “Are you ready to talk correctly to me?” the woman demanded, one of many ASPCA employees who would subsequently mistreat her.
After rushing to the ASPCA hospital to be by Nyla’s side, Angel received no welcome and no update on Nyla’s condition, but was instructed to take a seat in the lobby. Ten excruciating minutes went by. Then 20. Angel was made to wait for nearly half of an hour. When she was finally allowed to see Nyla, the injured pup was lying on a metal table, restrained. She had blood coming out of her mouth and what was believed to be a severed spine.
The paperwork she was ultimately given said the prognosis over the short-term was guarded, though Nyla would not likely recover use of her hind limbs. Long term, there was a high probability of complications. Angel wanted Nyla to be treated and believed the ASPCA should pay for it because they caused Nyla’s injuries, but though Nyla was injured on their watch, and though she was already lying in a veterinary hospital run by the ASPCA — an agency funded by over 250 million dollars a year in donations — staff at the richest animal shelter in the world told her the ASPCA would not provide any further medical care for the dog. Instead, they shifted the blame to Angel, telling her that the dog was suffering and that she should allow them to put her down.
When Angel asked for details as to how Nyla was allowed to run into the street, ASPCA reps blamed the dog, an explanation Angel refused to accept, “She was their responsibility. How dare they allow this to happen. They failed to supervise and protect her.” They were supposed “to secure a safe and loving environment.” When Nyla asked to talk to a supervisor, she was told that “She can’t see you.” When Angel refused to take no for an answer, they relented, though the supervisor, too, not only stopped answering questions, referring her to the ASPCA legal department, but ultimately demanded that Angel leave the building.
With the ASPCA placing the burden on her: holding her responsible for Nyla’s suffering, and no treatment in sight, she relented. Nyla was injected with barbiturates and died. A year later, Angel cannot tell this story without crying. She says that she feels destroyed; that she will never forgive herself. But it was not her fault. In the face of people who were supposed to love animals, supposed to be the experts, supposed to be their protectors, have all the power, what chance does a 22-year-old stand? “We are their voice” is, after all, the ASPCA motto.
Business as usual
For those of us who have been tracking the ASPCA’s sordid history of thwarting the cause they were formed to promote, the story of Angel and Nyla is heartbreaking, but not surprising. In fact, the use of inadequate, dangerous transport vans, negligent animal care and handling, refusal to leverage their considerable wealth for the benefit of animals, and the mistreatment of people and animals are nothing new for the ASPCA.
Just two months after Nyla died, the ASPCA transported 20 dogs from Mississippi to Wisconsin for adoption. It was over 90 degrees in Mississippi at the time, but the dogs were packed tightly in crates (secured with bungee cords) in the same kind of cargo van used to transport Nyla. There was no climate control, no ventilation, and no one checked on the dogs during the 700 mile journey. When ASPCA transporters arrived in Wisconsin and opened the cargo door for the first time, all 20 dogs were dead.
ASPCA employees have allowed dogs to starve to death. They have killed abused animals despite rescue groups willing to save them. They have helped put hundreds of thousands of animals in early graves by lobbying to kill, year after year, legislation to protect these animals from other, equally regressive “shelters.”
They have refused to spend money to treat animals, instead dropping them off at New York City’s notorious pound, knowing they would be killed.
And, several years ago, when an ASPCA veterinarian kicked a man’s dog to death — a dog he spoon fed as a baby and loved for 10 years — the ASPCA covered up the crime.
In 2017, the ASPCA took in roughly $263 million. That same year, ASPCA CEO Matt Bershadker — the man who was in charge when Nyla was hit by two cars and 20 dogs died during ASPCA transport — had take home compensation totaling $852,231 (almost a million dollars a year). Yet the ASPCA refused to spend the $15,000 it would have cost to equip their transport van with climate control and other protections, including secure, built-in cages like the kind Angel expected to see — a fraction of Bershadker’s salary and only 1/200th of 1% (0.006%) of total revenues for that year. They did, however, spend the $5,000 it cost to wrap the vehicle with their name on it in order to promote themselves; the same ASPCA logo Angel saw that caused her to defer to their “expertise.”
“They don’t feel the way most of us feel about animals”
Despite repeated requests, the ASPCA refuses to answer questions about their killing of the 20 dogs and they would likewise not answer questions about their killing of Nyla:
Why was Nyla not appropriately restrained?
Did the ASPCA launch an investigation? If so, what were the results?
What is the ASPCA doing to ensure this does not happen again?
And given that Nyla’s injuries occurred while in their care and custody, why did they refuse to treat her?
There are, of course, other questions. Was the ASPCA transporter reprimanded for failure to protect the dog? For verbally mistreating Angel and hanging up on her? Was the supervisor who expelled a distraught Angel from the building reprimanded for her treatment of her? But they refused comment. That, too, is another pattern at the ASPCA: failure to answer questions. Failure to take responsibility. Failure to learn from past conduct. Transparency, accountability, and improvements, after all, are hallmarks of caring — and the ASPCA does not care.
Angel may be young, but she is no longer naive. As I apologize for what happened to her dog — an apology that should have come from the ASPCA transporter that allowed her dog to escape and then verbally abused her before hanging up and from Bershadker himself — she says to me through her tears, “They don’t feel the way most of us feel about animals.” In this realization, she is not alone. Sooner or later, everyone who has contact with the ASPCA learns this tragic lesson; some, like Angel, in one of the most lasting and painful ways of all.