Customer Service

I recently contact my local animal shelter to make a donation.  This experience reminded me as to why I made the policies for communication with my own staff.

I wanted every communication (email, social media, telephone calls) returned within 3 hours; 24 hours if they were slammed.   I made sure that I kept to the same rules.  The only exception was weekends, holidays and vacations.  If they were going to be out for longer that 24 hours, their email or phone message should reflect that.

I also insisted that the doors of the shelter open 5 to 10 minutes before the scheduled time.  Customer service is one of the most important things that we have to offer; unfortunately too many staff see that customer service equates to work and they want to avoid both.

Many of us are government workers.  That doesn’t mean that we have to act in the way that citizens think of us.  We should always go the extra mile.

The first shelter I contacted for the donation never contacted me.  The second shelter responded as soon as staff came to work.  Guess where all of my future donations will go?

Pet Photos

Technology has made us lazy. People do not venture out of their homes when they can have their home needs delivered to them.  For this reason, animal shelters need to put policies in place to photograph incoming animals as quickly as possible and post the photos on their website and social media sites to alert these home-bound pet owners.  If the owner is found, the next trick is to try to get them out of their homes to reclaim their pet; I have had many owners of lost pets ask for home delivery (most do not want to dirty their car with pet hair).

Although some animals on intake are like trying to photograph a two-year-old child, they will be constantly on the move and will attempt to bite you. When dealing with such animals, shelter personnel will be tempted to be safe and photograph the animal through a cage, on a catchpole, or through the window of a feral box.  Photos like these are the ones that your viewers will complain about most.  The only reason for a poor photo is staff safety.

Consider your audience when photographing animals. In every animal shelter that I have worked, I always had a group of people who trolled our website looking for pictures that they could complain about.  But, in fact, they were usually right; staff would be too quick to take a photo and post it.  The problem with hastily taken photos is that you capture the animal in a pose that not even the owner would not recognize.

The “first” photo that is taken of an animal should be one that can recognize the animal for the owner. If you cannot handle the animal, then explain why and provide as much detail in the description of the animal.

If an animal is unclaimed, it becomes time to take additional photos of the animal; we call these the glamour shots. Hopefully the animal has calmed down enough to capture natural photos of it.   Some shelters create space to set up a small studio with lights and backdrops, while other shelters have volunteers walking the animals take photos of animal on their walks.  These images are key in “selling” the animal to a potential adopter.

The Emu Caper

Over a decade ago, people were convinced that emus were the next generation as a meat source and were purchasing emus to ranch the species.  The caper proved to be a scam and the emu ranchers found themselves with birds that they could not sell.

Animal Shelters began filling up on these flightless birds as these would be profiteers began abandoning their herds on the streets of their communities.  Animal Control Officers were learning to become emu wranglers.  Once captured, the Officers were delighted to find that the birds had been microchipped and efforts were started to find the people who had abandoned the animals.

Knowing that the market had dropped out on emus; actually the emus market never caught on; the breeders reported that the microchips had never been registered, so as to prevent prosecutors from tracing the microchips to the animal’s owners.

For a short time in the history of local animal shelters, emus became fairly common forcing those shelters to educate themselves on the housing and care of this unique species.

“Perception is Reality.”

I’ve heard the phase, “perception is reality” too often at executive meetings, indicating that if someone has a specific perception, it is their reality.  In some way, there was an expectation that we manage people’s perception; even though they created the perception to manipulate reality.  Let me explain:

Only in the realm of politics do we see greater misuse of manipulation to manifest a false reality.  Our generation will be known as the keepers of fake news.  We live in a world in which people create their own reality my falsifying  the events around them to drive their own agenda.

Fake news for animal welfare began with the no kill movement and was fuled by social media.  Social media became the number one place to obtain false information.  People pushed fake news either for attention or to bully.  Unfortunately, the ploy was fairly successful.  Organizations were bullied into making decisions that were not in their own best interest to mollify the social media noise.

Evidence of those bad decisions are documented on PETA’s website:  No Kill Policies.  It saddens me to see what shelter managers are going through as a result of caving to the outrageous demands of a few people.   My mantra was to “do the right thing.”  Today, the “right thing” is different for every person.   I always believed that keeping the community safe was the right thing.  Now there is an expectation that shelters should save every animal.  Saving animals is a good cause, but shelters must not compromise the safety of their community or the care of those animals in that effort.

The officials who oversee the operation of their community animal shelter are frequently more concerned about what people say on social media than they are worried about the safety of their community.  They want to cater to those who make the most noise.  It has never been a more difficult time to manage an animal shelter due to the competing demands and unreasonable expectations.

Health Condition

Fifteen years ago it became clear that the only statistic that people were interested in was the number of animals that left the shelter alive.  It was clear the people did not understand the dynamics as to how shelters work.  Euthanasia was frowned upon from a statistical point of view; after all, we were dealing with living creatures.

All animals were grouped the same, so an animal shelter would be criticized for the animals surrendered by their owners to be euthanized for medical, behavioral and age related conditions.  Even today, animal shelters will refuse to take animals from owners so as to not have to deal with  the criticism that goes along with having a high euthanasia rate.

It became clear that keeping sick, injured, or old animals alive for statistical purposes was not humane, so in 2004 a group of people gathered together to create the Asilomar Accord: a way to classify an animal’s health condition at intake and at outcome.

Animals fell into four health categories: healthy, treatable, manageable, and unhealthy.  The classification gave a better window into the dynamics of a shelter’s statistics.  The classification system also aided shelters in their evolution to becoming no kill.  Shelters could focus on saving all of the healthy animals, and then move on to saving the treatable and manageable animals; leaving only the unhealthy (untreatable and unmanageable) animals to deal with.

An interesting aspect of the classification system was that animals could change health conditions during their stay at an animal shelter.  Sick animals abandoned by their owners could be nursed back to health and later adopted.  Healthy animals could develop behavioral problems associated with long confinement.  It became necessary to assess the animal’s health condition at the time of disposition.

If an animal’s condition degraded, the new health condition was recorded.  If the animal’s condition improved the animal’s health condition was unchanged, so that shelters could show statistically the role they played in helping unhealthy animals find new homes.

At the time that the Asilomar Accords was created animal shelters were not dealing with the overwhelming population of pitbull dogs in shelters.  In some cases the pitbull breed represented over seventy percent of dogs in a shelter.  We entered a time when the shelters were full of healthy dogs, but the community had ruled the breed as too great a risk with breed restrictions in rentals and insurance companies refusing to insure the animal.

In order to avoid euthanizing a healthy animal, shelters were forced to keep the dogs until such time as they displayed behavioral problems associated with their confinement.  Shelters then created enrichment programs that would delay the onset of confinement related behavioral problems in hopes of one day finding a home for the animal.  It became normal for animal shelters to hold animals over six months as dogs learned to cope with their confinement.

Understanding Roles in Database Connections

From the very beginning of the introduction of database software in animal welfare, the primary demand made by animal shelter personnel was to keep it simple.  You can’t imagine the number of requests made to allow for the primary breed to be “mixed.”  Simple requests like that tend to make the software useless.  Data descriptors and roles are what pulls the information together.

Animals play multiple roles within an incident: they can play the role of stray (unowned), owned, previously owned, suspect,victim, etc.  In any incident, an animal can carry multiple roles.  These roles paint a picture of the animal in any incident.

As with animals, people play roles in incidents: owner, previous owner, adopter, suspect, victim, caretaker, harborer, etc.  People roles become very clouded in that multiple people can claim the same roles: such as a household where a family of people came the role as owner.  This becomes further clouded when one family member surrenders an animal to the shelter against the wishes of other family members.

Address play an important role as they become the location of owners and incident locations.

It is easy to see how complex relationship are in tracking data.  For this reason, a perfect software tool has yet to be created.  Each tool makes compromises to keep the data manageable.  The software tool has to be simple enough to be used by shelter personnel, but complex enough to gather sufficient data to understand the incident at hand.

The Role of Community Dynamics in Becoming No Kill

A number of years ago, I was the director of a Milwaukee animal shelter and had to face the fact that the dynamics of a city plays an important role is the success of animal shelter programs.

Six years ago I began researching the factors that play into one shelter’s success over another shelter’s failure in becoming no kill.  Although this data is several years old, the information holds true that many factors play a role in an animal shelter’s success.  I found it interesting that many of the factors that are used to determine crime rates equally played a role in households being responsible pet owners.

No kill advocates have a problem of comparing different organizations, without looking to see if they are making “apples to apples” comparisons.  I wrote this over five years ago and much of the information still holds true today:

Dynamics of a No-Kill Community

By David R. Flagler

Recently, a no-kill advocate decided to compare the Milwaukee kill rate against two recognized no-kill communities to demonstrate that if those two communities could become no-kill, there was no reason that Milwaukee could not become a no-kill city as well. Although Milwaukee was actively engaged in following many of the no-kill elements, their progress was slow.  In this article, I attempt to show that other social and economic elements play a role in the rate that a community can move to a 90% placement rate.

According to the no-kill advocate, the only thing that is necessary is the will to become no-kill. They miss entirely the other factors that place upon the movement.  Many no-kill advocates believe that pet overpopulation dose not exists and that if the leadership of the local animal shelter had sufficient compassion, the leadership could stop the killing of animals in a community.   Nationally we were seeing a decrease in shelter intakes, but then the downturn in the economy caused a temporary increase in shelter intakes as people found they could not afford pet ownership.

In spite of their best efforts, Milwaukee has been unable to reduce their shelter intakes. What are the dynamics of this city that has become an obstacle of becoming no-kill?

Funding

When Milwaukee is compared against Reno or Austin, Milwaukee had comparable animal intakes and human population, but only half of the budget. Funding is necessary to provide community education programs and offer low cost spay/neuter services.  Preparing an animal for adoption does not come cheap, with the cost of vaccinations, medical tests and spay/neuter surgeries.

In order to compare funding between organizations, a person can divide the budget of an organization against the population. In comparing Austin’s budget of $7,612,186 to Milwaukee’s budget of $3,071,090 and the population of Austin of 830,611 and Milwaukee of 952,532, the math shows that Austin pays $9.16 per person for their animal control services and Milwaukee pays $3.22.

Poverty

Milwaukee has the number 2 spot in poverty in the United States. Many of Milwaukee’s citizens are struggling to survive; making spay/neutering their pets is very low priority.  A few of their citizens even believe that breeding their pit bull dog might add a little revenue to their family income.

Culture

There are two cultures that you must address in your community: the culture of the animal shelter and the culture of the community. Shelter personnel must be willing to commit to the success of finding homes for animals, but the community’s culture defines the community attitude toward animals.  In every communities, there are people who are simply opposed to neutering their pets.  This particular problem hinders the progression of a city being able to do the right thing for their pets.  In order to become a humane community, you have to have a community that cares about their pets; a community willing to live up to their responsibilities as responsible pet owners.

Political Will

The funding priority of local governmental officials is a critical element in providing the necessary resources in moving toward no-kill. No-kill costs money, in spite of what the no-kill advocates say.  The cost of preparing an animal for adoption is expensive and only a portion of those funds are returned in adoption fees.  Austin is a good example of the high cost of no-kill, in order to maintain their no-kill status, the City of Austin had to add a million dollars to the budget each year to keep no-kill alive.

In recent years, many city councils and county commissions publicly declare that their communities will become no-kill; in a belief that if a community values its pets, it is evidence that they have taken care of their poor. Many of these communities have jumped the gun; in that they do not understand how the dynamics of their communities will affect the outcome of their public statements.  The good news is that in stating their support for the no-kill cause, they will now become obligated to provide the necessary funding to make their cause a success.

Pet Population

Pet overpopulation occurs in two places: within the community and within the shelter.

No-kill advocates do not believe that there is a pet overpopulation. In some communities, that is true, but it is not universally true for every city.  Pet overpopulation is the result of uneducated people possessing pets.  Over the years, people have become more responsible as pet owners and many cities are seeing a decline in the number of animals going into their local shelters.  Over the past decade, shelters have learned to spay/neuter their adopted pets; it is hard to believe that at one time, we used to adopt fertile animals to the public.  People are learning that it is better to adopt a stray pet than to buy one from a pet store.  Our evolutionary process is driving down the pet overpopulation in many communities; however, some communities are just lagging behind.

In our shelters, we find that shelter overpopulation is controlled by the number of animal intakes, the length of time that is required to hold the animal, the type of animals held and the success an organization has in finding new homes for the animals. The shelter’s intake numbers are driven by the community pet overpopulation, in which surplus animals are taken to their local animal shelter to remove them from the streets.  The longer the holding period, the greater opportunity exists for overcrowding at the animal shelter waiting for an owner to figure out that their pet is missing.  Most cities have a three-day holding period, believing that any responsible pet owner would realize that their pet is missing within the first day and still have two more days to visit their animal shelter.  Many communities believe longer holding periods are necessary for irresponsible pet owners or for pet owners who go on vacation and need additional time to return from vacation and look for their lost pet.  Most animal shelters will hold animals that are wearing some form of identification longer until they have exhausted every lead in looking for the owner.

The popularity of the pit bull dog has increased over the years. In the past, it was the breed that attracted the worst pet owners; that resulted in the breed getting a bad name.  Because the breed still attracts bad owners, many jurisdictions have banned the breed in their communities; the jurisdictions believe that they cannot trust the dog owners to be good pet owners so they just ban the entire breed.  The reason that I bring this up is that the pit bull breed is the most predominant breed at the animal shelter.  In areas of the country that have breed bans, it is pretty hard to adopt pit bull dogs.  Most shelters realize that the placement of pit bulls require three to four times more effort than adopting small breed dogs.  Milwaukee has a shortage of small breed dogs and some rescue organizations reach out of the state to fill their small breed needs.  Pit bulls just sit in the shelter and take up space, the space that could be used to adopt out three or four smaller breed dogs.  In Milwaukee, pit bulls make up 40% of the dog intakes and represent 70% of the dogs euthanized.  Simply by stopping the breeding of pit bulls would immediately turn Milwaukee into a no-kill community.

And finally the ability of the shelter to place animals into new homes; which is driven by their adoption process and the shelter’s relationship with local animal rescue organizations: the greatest resource that any community has is in the form of the rescue groups that come forward to help their local shelter deal with the pet overpopulation problem.

Although mentioned only briefly above, the holding period plays a major role in the successful placement of pets. Most of the animals that enter the animal shelter are the result of poor pet ownership and as such, the majority of those animals are unvaccinated.  An animal shelter is the worst place in the world for an unvaccinated pet.  Animal Shelters cannot control illnesses that fester in animals that come into their shelter; although most shelters vaccinate animals upon entry, vaccinations take weeks to build immunity within an animal.  Many factors play a role in the onset of symptoms: stress of confinement, stress to the immune system (even giving the initial vaccination can stress an animal’s immune system), and even the spay/neuter surgery preparing the animal for adoption.  Usually the onset of illness occurs 6 to 10 days after being exposed to the virus.  The longer that an animal is held, the greater risk of the animal getting sick.  The City of Austin has a 3-day holding period, Reno has a 5-day holding period and the State of Wisconsin requires a 7-day holding period.  These holding periods play a major role in the health of animal being prepared for adoption and contributes to the overcrowding conditions at the shelter.

It isn’t enough to look at a shelter’s intake to determine the overcrowding that an animal shelter experiences, you must look as well at the length of the holding period. When you compare Austin’s intakes of 23,000 animals to Milwaukee’s intakes of 12,547 you think that Austin has double the number of animals in their shelter, but when you factor in the additional 4 days that Milwaukee has to hold their animals, you begin to see that Milwaukee’s shelter population is greater than Austin’s numbers as a result of the addition holding time.  When you factor in the holding times, you can see that Austin has a budget of $110.32 to spend on each animal every day, while Milwaukee has only $34.69.  Clearly budgets and holding time are hugh factors in becoming no-kill.

Since animal shelters have limited space, as the shelter reaches capacity, shelter personnel have to make space to accommodate the additional animals coming into their shelter. The ideal way to do that is to adopt the animals out; however, if they cannot accomplish that, they are forced to make space by euthanizing animals.  To further complicate the space issue, frequently animal shelters must give space to animals awaiting court action.  At the time of this article, one kennel ward at the Milwaukee shelter is reserved for animals waiting for their owners to be called to court.  Some of those animals have been waiting for over a year.  As much as it is hard on the animals to be confined for such a long period of time, it is hard on the shelter to be forced to give up so much kennel space that is desperately needed for stray intakes; further upsetting the overcrowding at the shelter.

Education

As stated above, the more educated a person is, the more likely he or she will spay/neuter his/her pet. In addition, educated people are more environmentally sensitive and are more likely to adopt a “recycled” pet than buying one from a neighborhood breeder.  Smart people know the relationship between fertile pets and pet overpopulation.

Small communities with large colleges have a high percentage of highly educated people who make for a good culture to create a no-kill environment in that community.

Family stability

A stable home life is more likely to create an environment that is less likely to have a pet running the streets of the neighborhood. With parental guidance, fewer teen boys will be out in the street fighting their pet.

What the no-kill advocates do not understand is that every city is unique. The broad brush that they paint the no-kill plan cannot be evenly applied to every city.  Every animal shelter can do more to end the killing of pets, but the dynamics of a community will determine whether no-kill can be reached in the short term or the long term.

In order to reach the goal of 90% save rate, an animal shelter must reduce animal intakes and increase live outcomes. In order to accomplish that goal in the short term, shelters have made it more difficult for pet owners to surrender their pets and have provided greater incentives to people who are adopting pets.  Although this strategy works in the short term, people find ways around the system and begin surrendering their pets as strays.

Sometimes a longer-term solution is necessary to change the culture of a community by teaching humane education to the youth of the community. The current generation is lost to us, so the next generation must carry forth the values of responsible pet ownership and learn the value of life for all creatures and show respect towards those around them.  Some communities have mandated the spay/neutering of pets in their communities in an effort to solve the pet overpopulation crisis in their communities.

The Curse that Comes with Working in the Animal Welfare Profession

If you ever cross paths with a person in the animal welfare profession and you ask them what they do, you might face a rather long pause before they answer you.  The pause gives them time to decide if they are going to tell you their real profession or if they are going to make one up.

For some reason, announcing that you work with animals causes people to think that they want to hear about all of the stories associated with their pet.  People in our profession drown in pet stories.  Pet owners are more likely to tell you about their pets than to tell you about their children… probably because the pet is better trained.

It isn’t that we don’t want to hear about your pet, but after working day in and day out with pets, we already know all about pets and what your pet does is really no different that what any other pet does.  So the next time you come face to face with an animal shelter worker, instead of telling them about your pet, tell them about your last fishing trip… it will be greatly appreciated.

Pet ID Tags

It has always amazed me at the lack of identification that is found on pets running loose.  Pet owners go out of their way to make it impossible for animal shelter workers to locate them.  Although most jurisdictions require that pets (mostly dogs) wear a local pet license, few owners actually place the license on their pet.

In an effort to keep pets out of local shelters, many shelters provide free identification tags so as to return an animal back to its owner.  Even with free tags, it is amazing the number of pets that repeatedly return to the shelter without identification.  Fortunately, shelters have staff with good memories and can recognize a repeat customer.  But given the volume of pets that pass through the doors of an animal shelter, it is unreasonable for owners to expect staff to remember their pets… that is why ID tags are so important.

Cats are a different story.  Most shelters only return 11 or 12% of the cats coming into the shelter to their owners.  Cat owners just don’t go looking for their lost cats.  Like dog owners, they choose to not place identification on their pets.  But unlike dog owners, cat owners generally do not begin the search of their lost pet until way after the hold time expires at the animal shelter, so the cat is either adopted or euthanized by the time the cat owner begins the search.

Microchips are a partial solution, but cats that have been trapped by a neighbor are so freaked out inside the trap that the cat appears feral.  Most shelter personnel will only make a cursory scan so as to prevent the loss of their fingers.  It may be several days before the cat calms down enough to attempt another scan for a microchip.

Many shelters have only a 72 hour holding period for stray pets.  That isn’t much time to figure out that your pet is lost, if you are not paying attention.  This short timeframe is a perfect reason to keep visible identification on your pet at all times.

Every city and county that I have ever worked has the cleanest pets in the world.  The excuse for a pet not wearing a collar or tags is that “I just gave him (her) a bath.”  That excuse is getting old.  Very old.  And to be honest, judging by the mud on your pet, we don’t believe you anyway.

Race to No Kill

The live release rate has become the number one statistic that governmental elected staff use to evaluate the performance of their animal shelter.  These folks are deaf to the obstacles that prevent a 90% live release rate, like their citizens breeding their pets like crazy.

One path to No Kill is to get your elected folks so worked up about saving all of the animals that you get them to make a declaration of No Kill.  That commitment now opens all of the doors to fund a solution.  Austin Texas is a good example as to declaring its intent and then being forced to build a new shelter and add new personnel to maintain their No Kill status.  They even experienced the side effect of citizens from neighboring cities and counties bringing their pets to Austin.  After all, if your want to feel good about abandoning your pet, take the pet to a no kill facility.

Most communities cannot afford to keep throwing money at their animal shelter to boast of being No Kill, so an alternate solution is to begin training your citizens to become responsible pet owners: to encourage pet licensing and spaying and neutering.

Pet laws should be geared to impacting the owners who allow their fertile pets from running at large.  Some shelters offer programs that reduce the reclaim rate of bailing your pet out of the shelter if the owner allows the pet to be sterilized.  Those shelters frequently demand that owners who continuously allow their pets to run loose without identification must microchip their pets.  The purpose of these laws are to force bad pet owners into taking responsible measures for their pets.