When Fools Dive In

I was browsing the news feed for Google when I saw a headline: “Saving a dog from the dogcatcher.”  The feed was from reddit where people owning a laundry posted a sign (I am printing it as it reads): “NOTICE ‘STRAY DOG’ INSIDE THIS LAUDRY SHOP.  We are currently saving this innocent dog from the dog catcher since they will be put to SLEEP/KILL if they’ve been caught.  We understand that you will feel uncomfortable with this situation and you are welcome to go to another laundry.  Thank you!”

This bothers me on several fronts.  The store owner is making several assumptions: the owner of the dog will just happen to go inside this laundry and identify his dog, and of course the obvious, the animal shelter should be the first place a person goes to find their lost dog.  I am not even going to address the idea that all stray dogs are put to sleep, I don’t know where this is; but it is unlikely.

I’ve always hated the terms “dogcatcher,” and “pound” until I moved to places that have it formally written into their code.  The words commutate meaning that may and may not exist.  At some point we just have to get over it.

I would have felt better about the posting if the dog’s finder had done more that post a sign (with commentary) on their door.  We have other ways to communicate: call the animal shelter, post a found ad in the newspaper, and even post on Facebook (I know, it is a shock that I would suggest that, but we are trying to get a dog home), and you can post flyers in the neighborhood.

Anytime something like this happens, I also post the negligence of the owner who has no exterior identification showing.  Let’s face it, most people are not smart enough to take a dog to a veterinarian or the shelter to have it checked for a microchip.  I always have called microchips the worst secondary form of identification.  They are better than nothing, but just barely. 

Just as there are responsibilities of pet owners to keep their pet from getting lost, there are responsibilities of people finding pets.  It is not enough to take in a dog and make little or no effort to find the dog’s owner.

Volunteers Gone Wild

I used to think that volunteers were the best thing that could ever happen to an animal sheltering organization; then I moved to southwest Virginia.  I understand the vested interest that volunteers have in the success of an adoption program; but, I found a place where volunteers thought that they should drive the organization.

It all started when one of the local animal welfare organizations infiltrated our shelter with their own volunteers.  One of their volunteers sat in a County Commission meeting on the first day of my arrival to lament me being hired.  This same volunteer would sit in on many County Commission meetings, using her status as a volunteer (as being in the know), to misrepresent information about our euthanasia rates.

This is the first organization that I have ever directed that did not have an adoption program.  All animal were placed through other rescue groups and that is the way that everyone wanted it.  We could be the bad guys and they could be the good guys.  Well, that was going to change. 

I decided to start adopting animals from my shelter.  The volunteers that came from the other rescue organization all quit.  They staged a walkout when we started adopting pets.  What a stupid thing to protest.

We started seeing an immediate increase in our placement rate.  Dog adoptions were over 92 percent.  We had an incident in which  a couple dogs that were loved by a few volunteers started showing aggression to staff and visitors.  I have a rule that any time a dog starts trying to eat the hand that is feeding it, it is time for that dog to go.

The two dogs were euthanized and the remaining volunteers decided to organize a protest by picking the shelter and bullying us on social media.  They brought in the local media and wanted to show the shelter staff the trouble they can cause if we don’t do what they tell us to do.

Although the volunteers would never be able to bully us to adopt out aggressive dogs, they were successful with those who oversaw our organization.  They didn’t like drama and they felt that giving in to the volunteers would decrease drama.  From my view point, they were more concerned about keeping the drama to a minimum than protecting the public.

I am sharing this story to show  you that in the animal welfare business, you can be on the right side of an issue and still lose.  Throughout my career, I always said, “If you are going to get into trouble, get in to trouble doing the right thing.”  In this business, your first priority is to protect your community.

For a volunteer program to be successful, it is important that your volunteers are on the same page that you are one.  Feelings can run high between organizations, understand the motivation for those that claim to be your friends. 

Staff Training

The best gift that you can give your staff is training.  There are not many opportunities for training animal welfare staff, so it is important that you follow when and where the training occurs.

In a few days, The Humane Society of the United States’ Animal Care Expo will begin in New Orleans (April 15 – 18).  This is the premiere conference for our profession and the attendance can be overwhelming.  It is a good place to pickup new ideas.

There is more time to prepare for the National Animal Care and Control Association’s Conference in Orlando on October 9th – 12th.  The conference topics have not yet been prepared.

If sending staff off to conferences is outside your budget, providing Animal Sheltering magazine is a good alternative.  I would suggest getting a subscription to the magazine for each member of the staff and extras for your volunteers.  When you are seeking grants for your shelter, consider obtaining training grants for your staff.

No Kill Announcement

One of the greatest desires of an animal shelter is to announce that they have met the criteria to call themselves No Kill.  It is a feel good moment for the shelter.  But there is often a backlash to such public declarations.

Many years ago, a shelter in northern Florida announced that it had gotten to the place where all healthy (without medical or behavioural problems) animals were being adopted.  The public misinterpreted this to mean that the shelter was no kill.  This misinterpretation lead to an increase of owner surrendered animals.  Owners are relieved of their guilt my surrendering their pets to a no kill facility.  We became overwhelmed.

The City of Austin experienced problems early on when they announced that they were no kill and all of a sudden they were being overwhelmed by people bringing in animals from surrounding countries.  So the tax payers in the City were taking on the expense for animals that were coming in from outside their jurisdiction. 

Sometimes we are so eager to announce a joyous occasions that we forget to prepare for its impact.  Many animal shelters announce that they are having an adoption event and frequently they will intake more animals than they adopt because people see an adoption event as a good time to surrender their pet guiltfree. 

Grants

It comes as no surprise to animal shelter workers that they operate on a marginal budget. During budget time, we constantly hear from elected officials that they have to decide between pets and children; making the point that the shelter should prepare for budget cuts.

One of our saving graces is grants.

The Cost of No Kill

There are many costs associated with no kill:

The definition of no kill

The term “no kill” is misleading.  Many people believe that the term means that every animal at an animal shelter is saved from death.  A rational person would realize that shelters deal with critically sick and injured animals and that a humane euthanasia is necessary.  In the early days of the no kill movement, organizations accepted a ninety percent live release rate as acceptable; so, any shelter releasing over ninety percent could call itself no kill.

Today, there is more pressure to increase the live release rate to something near one hundred percent.  So, the meaning of “no kill” is not clearly defined.

Financial costs

The no kill leaders contend that there are no costs associated with no kill.  Austin Texas is a good example as to proving how wrong they are.  Austin wanted to be the first major no kill city in American.  Austin had to build a new shelter and each year has had to contribute more funding for staff.  Volunteers are now complaining that the shelters are too full and that the staff cannot maintain humane care, so they are faced with another dilemma as to whether they have sufficient funds to build another shelter.

The cost to public safety

As the no kill movement progresses, more and more media is directed at animal shelters ignoring public safety.  Reports of animal shelter workers mauled by dogs in their care and adopters facing a reality that shelter staff failed to report aggressive tendencies of their new pet.  Many areas of the country are facing raising concern about the integrity of adoption organizations providing false information about the previous aggression that a dog has shown.  It became such a problem in Virginia that the Commonwealth had to create laws to make it illegal to lie about an animal’s history of aggression.  So another cost associalted with no kill is the loss of integrity of adoption organizations. 

Programs like managed intakes is a method shelters used to force owners and people finding stray animals from surrendering the animals to the shelter.  As a result many of them turned away from the shelter just release the animal to run loose in the country.

Lies, damn lies, and shelter statistics

Speaking of a shelter’s integrity, the no kill movement has led shelter managers to manipulate their intake and disposition statistics to make the shelter appear to have a higher live release rate.  The idea is that if a shelter cannot attain no kill status in real life, maybe they can on paper.

One shelter in Florida received national recognition for taking the domestic cats that they receive and returning them back into the community as stray cats.  The debate is whether it is better for the animals to have a chance at living or if they are creating a way that the animals will slowly starve out on the streets.  Either way, it is a great boost to their no kill statistics.

Public relations

It is interesting that an animal shelter director was taking heat in one locality for putting the public at risk, only to be hired by another locality to further their cause towards no kill.

The public is very vocal, but the public is not always right.  Shelter directors are always under pressure to have the highest live release rate.  That pressure causes them to make bad decisions.  As those bad decisions become worse, shelters are being sued for endangering the public (another financial cost).

It is becoming increasingly more difficult for animal shelter directors to make the decision to protect the public because the public demand seems to stop euthanasia.  We are a community of people seeking something to be enraged about, stopping euthanasia has all of the makings of being a good cause; except, it is based in ignorance. 

Cost to the animals

The initial cost of no kill is finding space for all of the animals.  Space is a constant.  Some shelters seek methods to keep animals out of their shelters (see the blog on managed intakes).  Most shelters just stockpile them.  I suspect that is the present concern with the Austin shelter.  Once a shelter begins stockpiling animals, more animals suffer abuse either through attacks by other dogs or lack of care.  It always becomes an issue of humane care.

More and more shelters are forced to take in animals from the same folks who have been rescuing for them.  Shelters and rescues seem to be unable to understand their maximum capacity.  As the number of animals increase, the stress to those animals increase.

I have always found it odd that the no kill movement leaders keep claiming that there is no pet overpopulation.  They tell us that it is a myth.  That folks like me are fabricating the myth to justify euthanasia.  After all, we can always make room for one more… can’t we?

Cost to the Five Freedoms

The purpose of animal welfare is to protect animals from unnecessary suffering:

  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst by ready access to fresh water and diet to maintain health and vigor.
  2. Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
  3. Freedom from pain, injury or disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
  4. Freedom to express normal behavior by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
  5. Freedom from fear and distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering

As shelters strive to become no kill, many times they have to compromise on our pledge to hold to their five freedoms.  It is very noble to try to save all of the animals in our shelters, but it should not be at the expense of the loss of humane care.

Social Media, the Back Story

It is no secret as to my feelings about social media.  I see it as a medium to turn normal people into bullies; to provide a soapbox to liars.

I have to give the no kill movement credit for turning me against social media.  The movement turns animal shelters into battlegrounds when the leaders of that movement encouraged volunteers to turn against the shelters that they volunteered for.

Volunteers are told that they were protected when speaking out against euthanasia as a first amendment right.  They are told stories of how volunteers speaking out made the difference.  They are told to take control of their shelter.  The movement’s intent is to turn animal shelter volunteers into no kill activists.

Most stories of volunteers “getting out of control” begins with the euthanasia of one or more animals.  Due to longer holding periods, it becomes more and more critical for animal shelters to provide enrichment programs to keep animals calm.  Those programs (like walking the dogs) work on most animals, but some just don’t respond to being caged for long periods of time.

Volunteers bond with the animals while taking dogs for walks.  The dogs bond with the volunteers.  In rare cases, a dog will only accept the volunteer; while aggressive to others.  When a dog becomes aggressive to animal shelter staff, a decision needs to be made concerning the dog.  If the decision is to euthanize the dog, the volunteer will not understand and might lash out at the people making that decisions.

In lashing out, the volunteer will garner support from other volunteers and create petitions, create narratives on social media, go to the local media and may even organize protests.  Their intent is to demonstrate to shelter management that volunteers should be feared.

The no kill movement has a motto that if you can put enough pressure on a shelter manager, they will leave.  If you go through enough managers, eventually you will get one that you like.  One who will place animals before people.  One who will ignore aggressive warning signs in dogs to adopt them out to families.  One who will do everything that he/she is told to do by the volunteers.

It appears that I am not alone.  A NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that 57 percent of Americans believe social media sites do more to divide the country and 55 percent said that the sites are more likely to spread lies and falsehoods.  The poll said that 61 percent thought that social media did more to spread unfair attacks and rumors against public figures and corporations.

Managed Intakes

Many animal shelters continue to fight their statistics to reach or maintain their status as a no kill shelter.  Most shelters that reach a 90% live release rate is considered no kill; but, there is a movement afoot to demand a live release rate of over 90%; many (uninformed) individuals believe a 100% live release rate is possible.  To attain higher live release rates shelters would have to adopt critically ill or injured animals as well as vicious animals.

The live release rate is controlled by intakes and dispositions.  Intakes are controlled by the number of people delivering animals to the shelter and those animals impounded by animal control officers on the streets of your community.  In some communities, animal control officers provide taxis service to people claiming that they have no transportation to take their pets to the shelter; even though a new model automobile is sitting in the drive way (they just don’t want to get the upholstery dirty.

Dispositions are the various outcomes that remove animals from the animal shelter’s inventory.  Dispositions include euthanasia, which is the disposition that most people object to.  Animal shelters have gotten good at explaining the justification for euthanasia, but shelters face those who armchair quarter back those decisions.  The primary way to reduce euthanasia is to control intakes through a mechanism called “managed intakes.”

People have gotten used to being able to dump their pets at the animal shelter for the most ignorant reasons: granny is coming for a visit, the pet doesn’t match the furniture; but mostly, the pet is too much work.  In order to maintain the flow of pets into the shelter, people are asked to wait for an opening.  I believe pet owners should play a role in the surrendering of their pet; but I do not believe that people finding stray animals should have to be placed in queue to turn in a stray.  This is happening fairly frequently at shelters.  Pet owners and people finding strays are left with few options in dealing with strays and problem pets.

One of the rules with animal adoption agencies is that an adoption agency will always accept back a failed adoption.  In Roanoke Virginia, our local humane society would use a process to force people into long wait times to return a pet that was not working out; they would direct the person to the public shelter to surrender the pet.  Once surrendered to the public shelter, at the humane society’s convenience, they would determine if they would “rescue” the pet back.  It was a contentious issue because the public shelter was always at capacity and the humane society operated at half capacity.  But, I digress…

With the high influx of animals coming into a facility, shelters devived a mechanism to bring the flow to a trickle and called it Managed Intakes.  For the first time, pet owners were forced to see the impact of their decisions and were told to wait for a better time.  During the waiting period, pet owners would be encouraged to find a different solution, maybe even take their pet to training to solve behavior issues.  Mostly, pet owners just called animal control to report their pet as a stray.

There are a few success stories as a result of shelters using this tactic, but due to the nature of people, Managed Intakes just push your intakes on to other organizations.  When people make up their minds that they have to get rid of their pet, there is usually no changing their minds.

Communities that are dealing with high euthanasia, the solution may not be an issue of poor shelter management; something else in the community could be impacting the situation.  The no kill movement is not concerned as to how your shelter has gotten to the place of high euthanasias, they just want to blame the shelter staff.  Shelter staff are now pushing the problem on through new mechanisms to manage their intakes; sometimes exasperbating the problem of stray running loose in your community.

Funding Animal Control

In an ideal world, an Animal Control program would be funded by the people who cause the need for the program to exist.  For that reason, communities create pet licenses to help offset the cost of controlling pets; the licenses also place a form of identification on the pet to facilitate their return to their owner.

The problem with using pet licenses are a funding source is that pet owners are horrible and licensing their pets.  In most communities, 20% licensing is considered good, but insufficient to fund a program.  Animal Control works like the police department, no one expects criminals to fund police patrols.  Any animal control officer will tell you that the bulk of the complaints that they receive are from neighbors of pet owners; so, the non-pet owning public is benefited by animal control services.

Animal control is a public safety organization and as such usually receives funding from the tax rolls.  I have always wanted to see a tax on pet food and pet products to fund animal control programs.  People who do not obtain pet licenses still have to feed their pet.  However, it isn’t an easy thing to tax specific products at the local level, as proven by States that offer animal themed license plates for vehicles.  Distribution of the funds become problematic. 

One option is to increase the fines associated with bad pet behavior.  The problem with penalties is that people who allow their pets to run at large are usually the ones who will abandon their pets when the are picked up; so now you have a shelter full of pets and no money to feed them.

The greatest battle that we wage is trying to prove that our services are necessary; it is a hard battle at budget times.  You will hear people saying that funding for animals take programs away from children.  So many times I have seen City/County Administrators offer up budget cuts to animal control before cutting anywhere else.  During those times, you have to hope that you have served your City/County Council well and they will protect your from your bosses.

Humane Balance

It is not uncommon in our profession to see a person taking on a “lost cause.”  These are the animals that under, most considerations, would be euthanized.  Some people have a knack for these causes; however, with these causes comes risk.

One of the offices of the State Attorney’s Office had a close relationship with a local animal welfare organization.  An attorney from that office decided to make an example of a board member of another organization by prosecuting that member for failure to provide adequate care of one of  those lost causes. 

Looking at the animal, one might agree with the assessment that the animal was beyond care, but anyone knowing the amount of medical care given to the animal would ever conclude that the animal was not being provided adequate care.  This is a common charge against animal rescuers.  The animal was seized and euthanized. 

Fortunately the Courts exercised good judgment and the board member was found not guilty.  I think the judge recognized the conflict of interest by the attorneys, but no one could undo the killing of that animal.  Reasonable minds might say that the euthanasia was a kindness to the animal due to its condition.  We’ll never know if the medial treatment could have turned the animal’s condition around.

Incidents like these are at the heart of our profession: making life and death decisions based on observations, veterinary advice, and availability of funds.  We find ourselves constantly questioning the decisions that we are forced to make and there will be a gallery of people wanting to armchair quarterback those decisions.