Facing Impossible Tasks

One of the duties I had in Fairfax County Virginia was finding a way to manage the deer population in the County.  The County was entirely urban, without sufficient open space to provide for safe hunting.  The greatest predator of deer were automobiles.

I’ve always believed that intervention by humans always made a mess; however, clearly the deer population exceeded the carrying capacity of the area.  The deer had eaten all of the  vegetation within their reach and citizens were reporting that the deer were trying to eat plastic plants in their yards.  It was clear that the deer population was slowly starving.

At the time, chemical sterilants were not practical for free ranging animals.  Implanting IUDs was not being done and still might be considered impractical for a large free ranging species.  With our current technology, it came down to a kill option.

The local bow hunters had decided that the only option available to me was creating a group of bow hunters to walk through the neighborhoods and kill the deer.  For some reason they came to believe that I supported such an option.  Even an outdoor magazine printed an article about our plight and my support for bow hunters to come to the rescue.  I don’t know what I feared most, starving deer or deer walking through neighborhoods with arrows sticking out of them.

I knew that presenting a kill option would have the humane groups running me out of town; but, to present no option was not an option.  I was friendly with the Editor of the Fairfax Journal, who asked me how I could deal with a no win option.  He later quoted my answer a few months later: “When given a no win option, always have another job waiting.”

Much to my dismay, I suggested that we establish feeding sites that would draw deer into neighborhood parks and have police sharpshooters exercise “population control” from tree stands, so as to prevent overshot into neighboring houses.   A group, Hunters for the Hungry, would dress the deer to be given to people in the homeless shelters.  As you can imagine, that recommendation was hated by humane groups and sportsmen alike.  My solution made everyone angry.

It wasn’t until a local school teacher was killed in a deer/auto collision that the County Commissioners moved forward to their own plan of driving police sharpshooter through parks at night to shoot deer from the roadway.   Although effective, I worried about the officers seeing a safe backdrop in the dark.

Fairfax County still wrestles with deer population control.  Although technology has improved over time, lethal solutions have become the primary means of control wild populations.  Dealing with wildlife is a large part of providing animal control services to communities.  To avoid dealing with wildlife, many organizations place the word “domestic” in their name to show that they do not want to deal with wild species.

Breaking Up Dog Fights

One of the greatest risks to employee safety is breaking up two dogs fighting.  Dog fights are most likely to occur in the shelter, but recent designs to animal control vehicles place employees at risk while transporting animals.  In order to accommodate various size dogs, animal control vehicle box designers have created removeable walls to adjust the size of the cage compartments.  Those walls are an extremely weak point in the design in which an aggressive dog can breach the wall and attack a dog an adjacent cage.

I have found that the most effect way to break up a dog fight is to use a CO2 fire extinguisher.  The blast from the fire extinguisher is sufficient to shock the dogs from fighting briefly.  One used, the extinguishers can be recharged to be used again.  The extinguishers should be in every animal control vehicle and placed throughout the animal shelter.

Police and EMT might consider using the extinguishers to access an injured person who is being guarded by the person’s dogs.  Although tasers are effective, they may be unnecessary  if emergency personnel prepare in advance for such incidents.

My Dream Job

Sometimes it is easier to remember the downside of a job and we need to be reminded that many jobs have a upside.   My favorite job was working for the ASPCA redesigning an animal shelter management tool called, PetWhere.

During the redesign of PetWhere, we spent much of our time helping the folks who were using the older version of the software.  PetWhere had some interesting quirks that would imbed data from other programs into the database, if it crashed.  So, if you were working on a Word document while using PetWhere, it would insert parts of the Word document into PetWhere’s database.  This quirk forced us to spend a lot of time helping animal shelters clean up their database.

I enjoyed playing the role of saving the day.  One of the nice feature of PetWhere was the ability to open the software data files in a spreadsheet program and you could scroll through the data and easily find the corrupt data.  It felt good to recover the data when the shelter staff believed that their data was lost for good.

I would have loved to spend my entire career digging through data, but funding for the redesign was exhausted because we tried to fix too many things in the first version.  Sometimes it is just better to stay with baby steps.


Southern Comfort

I have had the experience of working in “the South” four times.  I have discovered that the South still resents the outcome of “the war” and resents northerners.  I had heard rumors that the South was different and I eventually found out for myself.  When I accepted my first job working in the South, someone approached me and told me that while I worked in the South, I should hang on to my Northern ethics.

My first exploration into the South was along its northern border of Fairfax Virginia.  Here I discovered that everyone is important and deserved special treatment; everyone was a congressman, worked for a congressman, was a friend of a congressman, or walked the congressman’s dog.  It was obvious that everyone thought they should be treated as royalty.

My next exploration was Atlanta; it was here that I discovered that I was white.  I had never given it much thought, but the Atlanteans sure had.  I discovered the bigotry was a two-way street.  The fact that I was white was never an issue until I came to work in the Atlanta.

Next, I moved to the southern border of the South, Jacksonville Florida.  It was in Jacksonville that I was first called a carpet bagger.  One of my employees was upset that a Yankee had interviewed for the top dog position and my qualifications took the job away from one of the locals.  I don’t think he ever considered that he lacked the necessary job skills or education.

Jacksonville was the first place that I ever worked that had an Ethics Office.  I found that odd because I believed that ethics is the core value of a person’s integrity.  Apparently, ethics was a problem in government and they needed someone to keep reminding them of the right thing to do.  Eventually, the Mayor got tired of being corrected and eliminated the Office.  It is in Jacksonville that I impacted with the good-old-boy system of doing things.  My core value is to treat everyone the same, but I kept getting calls from the Mayor’s Office as to how I should treat his friends.   In discovering this dual system, I regretted the loss of our Ethics Office.  Once you moved south of Jacksonville, you find yourself back in the north again.  I guess the influx of Yankees retiring in Florida changed the culture.

Jacksonville had the largest population of people claiming that they were disabled.  These folks thought that claiming that they were disabled would entitle them to a free service animal at the shelter or reduced impound fees for their dog running at large.  The City had a large segment of people trying to scam the system.

Jacksonville is the first place that I discovered the abuse of our Americans with Disability Act: people were claiming that their pets were service animals to get around pet policies in their rental agreement.  The abuse was wide spread.

Jacksonville had an ongoing issue with Cities north of Jacksonville giving their homeless population bus tickets to Jacksonville.  Instead of dealing with homelessness locally, their solution was a free bus ride to Jacksonville.

My employment came to an end in Jacksonville when the City was undergoing a reduction in force (RIF).  Animal Control’s management was eliminated to make openings for sanitation workers who were friendly with our department director.  Within months, animal control began to experience problems and the University of Florida was called in to determine what was wrong.  The problem was that the organization was being run by unknowledgeable  people.  One good benefit that came out of this mess was that the City was pressured into building a new animal shelter.

My final resting place was Roanoke Virginia.  Although deeply Southern, it lacked the gentile nature that the South is so well known for.  I encountered some of the meanest people of my life in Roanoke.  The people had such a love for animals and a hated for people.  One animal organization spent a majority of its time trying to undermine the public shelter.  It was hard to recognize the good they were doing through the smoke screen of being mean.  I discovered how people could be persuaded by social media to take up a torch based on lies.

It is tempting for an animal welfare professional to want to go where they believe they can do the most good,  Taking a job in the south would be tempting.  When moving from place to place, it is important to realize the effect of changing cultures and prepare for it.  Every place is different and many places won’t measure up to your ethical standards or your humane values.

Changing Technology

When home computers were first coming on to the scene, I found a niche of helping animal welfare professionals to embrace this new technology.  I wrote several articles in the National Animal Control Association Newsletter explaining this new technological era.  I gave classes at conferences and used computer advertisements to test the attendees with their new found skill; like the difference between RAM and ROM memory.

As with any technology, computer designers must have been competing to design computers with multiple ports.  There is Com (communication) Ports used to connect joy sticks, Serial Ports to connect computer peripherals, and Parallel Ports for connecting computers and VGA Ports to connect monitors.  Later, Firewire Posts connected hard drives and video equipment.  Because the industry had not settled down, it was critical to buy a computer with as many different kind of ports to connect to any future device that you might wish to purchase.  It was a relief to finally have USB ports that have hung around for a while.  Many of them might go away with Bluetooth connectivity.

The early computers came with 10, 20, or 30 Megabyte hard drives.  I member salesmen claiming a person could NEVER fill up a 30 Megabyte hard drive.  The first disk drives used 5 inch disks and then 3.5 inch disks became the standard.  Many of use had to keep two different disks drives as technology evolved.  Installing software was a great chore.  When installing Microsoft Office, you would have a stack of 20 disks that you installed one right after the other.  For some reason, when you completed the installation of all of the disks, the computer would asked for you to reinsert disk number one.  I guess it was a test to make sure that in a rage that you didn’t throw out the disks after inserting them.  Installations became much easier with the advent of CDs and DVDs, then the Internet changed all of that; with a high baud rate, software can be downloaded in seconds.

Home computers opened the world to us with their 300 baud modems.  These slow modems were the making of later war stories like how we had to walk to school in three feet of snow as children.  It might take us hours to watch a photo slowly materialize on our computer monitor.  Everything was slower then, but somehow we had the patience for it; not like today were people are upset with 5 meg/sec download speeds.

All of this technology came at a price.  I used to provide technical support for an animal shelter management software tool called PetWhere.  The software required constant babysitting.  It was on the phone with clients that I discovered how many shelter workers were unprepared for this technology.  I once got so frustrate with a guy who could not distinguish his left mouse button from his right.  After an hour, I asked him to stop a minute and go out into his lobby to see if there was a child that he could find that I would walk though the solution.  There was no getting around it, in order to use a computer, you needed to know your right from your left.

Computers have made our lives so much easier and yet teaching our staff to use our animal shelter management system software frequently becomes one of our hardest tasks, even in today’s age.   In an era of telling staff to put away their smartphones and get back to work, many of them still find using computers difficult.  I think they are waiting for the day that they can conduct their data entry with their smartphones.


Father’s Day

I have been blessed with a wonderful family.  Along the way, after my children began their own families, I found a niche of caring for orphan animals.

In each animal shelter that I worked, my staff would discover my weakness for orphan animals.  I was fortunate that my wife became a participant as a foster mother.   There is no shortage of foster parents, so we always had puppies or kittens underfoot.

It is easy to fall in love with those under your care.  My wife and I had a group of infant puppies that we kept in the bath tub… what a wonderful place for caring for infant animals.  We documented their growth.  One of the litter was a butthead and we eventually adopted him because no one else could love him like we did.

As the puppies got adopted, I made a deal with each owner that if they would share a photo as the puppy grew, I would pass on a baby picture of their new pet.  Tragically, none of the new owners were interested in those baby pictures.  I’ll just have to believe that they had good lives.

My staff in Virginia were unrelenting; they had me taking home kittens all of the time.  It was always a big deal with our dog to see new kittens arrive home.  The cats were not so thrilled, I think they worried that I was bringing home their replacements.  I look back at taking care of my foster animals as a gratifying part of my life.

On Father’s Day, I will remember all of my children.

Working for Bureaucrats

An article out of White County Illinois tells of a story of an Animal Control Officer being fired.  My best guess is the County Commissioners attempting to punish the officer for social media abuse; a frequent problem in our profession.  As with many bureaucrats, they puff out their chests and proceeded to do the wrong thing.

This particular Animal Control Officer started extended the hold time for animals to get them adopted and asked volunteers to come in to provide socialization with the animals.  The local bureaucrats wanted all of these programs aborted.  Their actions hit a nerve with me, not just for the callousness toward the animals, but it sparked an old memory.

While going to college, over 30 years ago, I was the animal control officer for Pullman Washington.  I worked under the Police Department.  I had a good relationship with the Washington State Veterinary College and local media.  Relationships that every animal shelter operator treasures.

The shelter was a small shelter and the adoptions were slow.  I convinced the local newspaper to run a weekly pet of the week and show all of the animals at the animal shelter.  One of the local councilman began following the pet list and discovered that many of the pets had been listed and relisted in the column.

The Police Chief paid me a visit and demanded that I stop holding  animals and ordered me to euthanize every animal that was over its five day stray hold period, much like what is happening in White County.  I was so angry.  I returned to the animal shelter, had a good cry, and followed my orders.

I believe that the order was immoral, as are many mandates from bureaucrats.  I had arranged for all of the shelter’s food be donated and the only cost to the City was the time I spent cleaning cages.   Did I continue holding animals?  Of course, but I knew that I had to be smarter.  I would make small changes in the appearance of the animals in the newspaper article, so that the busy body councilman would not see the same animal listed twice.

The problem with many bureaucrats is that they fail to see that the animals in our care represent a life and all life is precious.  Not a tool to bully their animal welfare staff and demonstrate their own self importance.

When Going the Extra Mile is Not Enough

I have had the opportunity to participate in the evaluation  of animal sheltering over the past 30 years.  We migrated from index card record keeping to computer systems that post photos of lost pets on the Internet.  I have always encouraged my staff to go the extra mile in getting a pet back to his or her owner.

The evolution of the pet owner has evolved to recognizing the importance of spaying and neutering (in most of the country); but pet owners have not become better a vaccinating their pets or taking the initiative to look for their lost pets.

Animal Shelters are receiving less annual intakes due to spay/neutering efforts.  Shelters are not less crowded because animals are being held longer in hopes of finding them a new home.  Pit bull dogs are the greatest problematic breed because the breed occupies 50 percent of the kennel space in shelters.

When I first got into the business of animal welfare, a university veterinary professor told me the best way to control disease in an animal shelter is to not overcrowd the shelter.  Overcrowding causes stress to the animals and the maintaining a large number of animals will likely introduce disease.  As a result of the no kill movement, shelters are maintained in a state of overcrowding and as such shelters are frequently battling disease outbreaks.  If pet owners had previously vaccinated their pets, we would see fewer disease outbreaks.

The most notable issue that we see in animal shelters is the failure of pet owners to look for their lost pets.  The usual excuse is that, “He is always getting out and eventually comes home.”   The most important factor in being a pet owners is that the own should be smarter than their pet.  Pet owners should be able to create an escape proof yard.  I suspect that many pet owners are just too lazy to go looking for their lost pet, in many cases pet owners report they learned about their dog being in the shelter through a friend or social media.

In most of the country, animal shelters maintain a three day holding period.  Most reasonable people would realize that their pet is missing in three days and go to the shelter.  The three day period is sufficiently short that the animal is unlikely to breakout with a disease by coming into the shelter unvaccinated.  The owner can deal with the symptoms when they get home.

In an effort to cater to local communities, some shelters extend the holding periods up to 10 days.  Even with the longer holding periods, many pet owners find the time too short.  The problem with longer holding periods is that an unvaccinated pet may start showing symptoms of disease during day 5 or 6.   The animal shelter is then faced with treating the animal’s disease and becomes a risk to other animals.

Nothing is more upsetting than to have an animal owner reclaiming their sick lost dog on day nine and blame shelter staff for the animal’s illness.  It is easier to announce how dirt the shelter is with disease infested animals, than to admit that the owner didn’t see the importance of vaccinating their pet.

Due to the nature of animal shelters, there will ALWAYS be animals with diseases in them.  If you are not going to vaccinated your pet, then you should make sure that your pet never ends up in an animal shelter.  The only way to keep disease out of an animal shelter is to shut its doors to incoming animals.

Most animal shelters recognized the deficiency of pet owners in vaccinating their pets, so they vaccinate the pets on intake.  The problem with vaccinations is that they don’t begin to take effect for six to seven days and it is minimal affect at that.  So why do we bother vaccinating?  It is all part of going the extra mile for the animal.

Now it is time for pet owners to start going the extra mile for their pets.  They can begin by placing identification on their pets and begin looking for their lost pet within the first 24 hours.  The shorter the time an animal spends in an anima shelter the safer the animal will be from disease.

Dog Sitters

One of the greatest difficulties when planning a vacation is finding a dog sitter.  Sometimes, family members or neighbors are pressured into the task of caring for a vacationer’s pet(s).

While working in Roanoke Virginia, I was shocked at the number of incidents in which pet sitters began turning in the pets (in their care) as strays.  In many incidents the pet sitter got tired of the task or just felt bullied into the job.  In most cases, the owner decided to take an extended vacation without consulting their pet sitter.  In many of the cases, the pet sitter did not make the owner aware that their pet had been turned in to the shelter.

Surrendering a pet as a stray, the shelter staff conclude that the owner is unknown and will eventually discover their pet missing and will start the search for their lost pet.  If the owner is unaware of their pet sitter’s deeds,  It is possible, even likely that the animal could find a new home prior the to owner’s return.

The lessons to be learned here are:

  1. Make sure your pet sitter wants the job of caring for your pets and that he/she is reliable.
  2. Leave clear instructions with your pet sitter as to how to handle any emergency.
    1. Someone to call as a back up pet sitter.
    2. Which veterinarian to use.
    3. Your phone number.
  3. Although I am not a fan of microchips, microchip your pet.  If the pet sitter is thinking of abandoning your pet, he/she will likely take off a collar.
  4. Leave a description (with photo) of your pet with the animal shelter prior to going on vacation with contact information.  It would not hurt to introduce your pet to the shelter staff and the front counter so that they might recognize your per should it arrive “as a stray”.
  5. Check in periodically with your pet sitter and discuss any changes to your return date.
  6. Have a neighbor confirm that the pet sitter is on the job.

One of the best ways to ruin a vacation is to come home and find that your pet is living in another home.  When planning your vacation, plan for your pet as well.

The Hazards of a Fostering Program

In the era of increasing live release rates, creating a fostering program is a no brainer… or is it?  Here are some of the problems associated with fostering:

People want to foster highly adoptable animals.   Placing the animal in to a foster home, removes the animal from finding a permanent owner.

People who want to “test drive” an animal.  People want to have an animal in their homes, without the cost of pet ownership.  If they can talk a shelter into fostering the animal to them, the shelter picks up the costs of food and medical expenses.

There are a surprising number of high maintenance foster homes.  In one of these homes, the foster parent will panic over small issues and run up large medical costs for the shelter.

Foster parents who refuse to relinquish the animal when adopters are found or want to interrogate the prospective adopters.