Preparing for Hurricanes

One of the nice things about Hurricanes is that you see them coming.  But, in spite of the advanced notice of its arrival, we see emergency personnel rescuing pets that were abandoned by their owners who had evaluated.  This is clear evidence that the pet’s owners had no emergency plan.

Emergency plans are pretty simple, you plan early and you plan for your pets.  With all of the websites available to assist pet owners in making a plan, there is no excuse.  Disasters are rough on pets, especially the ones who have been left behind.

Preparing for Disasters

One of the greatest outcomes of Hurricane Katrina was FEMA recognizing the importance of pets during a natural disaster.  FEMA opened the door to the creation of pet friendly shelters.  People like the idea of being sheltered with their pets.

Often preparation is the most important aspect of disaster preparedness; but cleanup after a disaster will aid in being allow back.  I was never able to make headway in opening pet friendly shelters in a county in north Florida because one previous attempt was made, years before my arrival, in a public school.  Whoever organized the sheltering of animals in the school left the cleanup to school personnel.  School administration never forgot that.

It is an important reminder that cleanup after a disaster could be the most important aspect of preparing for your next disaster.  In the Boy Scouts, we always had a rule to leave a campsite better than we found it.  It is a good rule to follow when closing down a pet shelter following a disaster.

No Kill Statistics

I happened to see an article about an ex-employee, from one of the organizations that I ran, running to the media to be a whistle blower about how statistics were doctored to report higher live release rates.  With so much pressure being placed on shelter managers, the risk is high that statistics could be doctored to make the shelter look like it has a higher live release rate that it does.

Often, animal shelters might document that the relinquishing owner has surrender the animal for euthanasia because the animal is sick.  In most cases, the city/county will investigate and find nothing wrong; unfortunately time and effort has to be spent responding to a disgruntled (ex-) employee.

Due to people like this, it is becoming more and more important to track changes to animal intake records to show who is making changes after the fact.  When purchasing an animal shelter software tool, asked about change reporting within the software.

If changes are made to the software entry, they usually occur at the time of disposition (when the decision is made to euthanize the animal).  The intake entry is changed to justify the euthanasia.  Change reporting will track who made any changes to the animal’s record and when.  This reporting ability is equally important to show that no such change occurred.


I grew up in a profession that believed that our volunteers were the life blood of our organization.  Our volunteers could give our animals the special attention that we didn’t have time to provide.

I continued to believe that throughout my career until I ran into a group of volunteers who believed that their service to the organization gave them justification to have the right to direct the operation of the animal shelter.

It was the first time in my life that I believed that our volunteers were a detriment to the organization.  Sure, they were providing valuable care to the animals, but they became a force of demanding staff to overlook the behavioral problems associated with dogs, so as to push the aggressive animals into adoptive homes.

The volunteers were quite effective.  They complained to the right people, made their plea to the media.  There purpose was to undermine the mission of the animal shelter staff to protect the public.

To some degree the volunteers were success in getting the power players to question the decision of staff.  But, mostly these players didn’t like to be embroiled in conflict.  They saw the volunteers as representing a caring community, instead of their role as inflicting their special interest.

This was a problem that was being experience State wide to such a degree due to the high frequency of aggressive animals being released from animal shelters back into the community, the State had to step in and enact laws to force shelters to tell the truth about the behavior of the animals in their care.

Volunteers have special interest, the care that they provide the animals makes them biased towards those animals.  Many volunteers will try to force a shelter to ignore the shelter’s mission to protect the community.  Our elected overseers should have the foresight to recognize this dynamic.

Advisory Committees

The animal welfare profession is a very volatile profession.  So many things can and will go wrong.  For this reason, many communities will attempt to provide guidance through citizen committees.  These committees are given birth to help the animal shelter avoid mistakes by assisting the shelter in making policy decisions that reflect the morays of the community.

The hope is that the community members will reflect the values of the community.  Like most communities, people are appointed to these communities after volunteering to be placed on the committee.  Many communities have not figured out that the desire to serve on a committee is evidence that a person has a special agenda that may not represent the will of the community as a whole.

In one organization, it was so rare to have someone volunteer to sit on a committee, that County Commission members selected the first person to come along who wanted to serve.  The Advisory Committee became a group of special interest people wanting to steer the animal shelter in a direction that may not have been in the best interest of the community.

It is no wonder that in recent years that organization became a place in which unreasonable chances were taken in trying to adopt aggressive dogs.  Staff were placed at risk trying to care for these animals.

For the most part, advisory committees are a feel good thing.  In order to keep the committee effective and providing a service to your community, it is important to know the motivation of the people wanting to serve on your committee.

Dog Breeds

When I was developing software for animal shelter management, one of the most common requests from our users was to all them to use “mixed” as a primary breed indicator.  I refused, knowing that using that term was just an excuse for the user to not identify the breed.

I still feel that way; however, I have to admit that in my early days breed identification was much easier.  Something happened since then to cause pet owners to randomly breed dogs into new breeds that were difficult to determine the original breed that they arose from.

One unfortunate outcome arose that most of the dogs had phenotypic characteristics of a wide, thick head of a pitbull, thus exasperating the problem in which half of the shelter’s animals were described as pitbull mixes.

At this time, sterilization is still the best answer to pet overpopulation.  Pitbulls have led the way in the problem of shelter overpopulation.  I’ve always believed that any breed that overwhelms a shelter should be identified as the breed that pet owners would be forced to spay/neuter.

What is in a Breed?

Due to the restrictions placed on pitbulls, and the fact that pitbulls are in the largest numbers in animal shelters, many shelters have stripped dogs of their breed so as to disguise the pitbull dogs among the other dogs.  The shelters see this as giving pitbulls a chance at adoption when potential adopters cringe an the notion of adopting an aggressive breed dog.

This behavior of disguising the breeds of dogs in animal shelters make it more difficult for owners of lost dogs to find their pet.  The breed of an animal is the greatest descriptor for identifying an animal.

The fact that an animal shelter disguises the breed of an animal makes you wonder what else they are hiding.

Owner Requested Euthanasia

Many animal shelters provide euthanasia services for pet owners.  I have had some pet owners give horrible reasons for wanting their pet euthanized; such as, “He is my puppy and I do not want anyone else to own him.”  For that reason, when I have worked in an animal shelter, I allow the owner to surrender the pet to the shelter.  Once the shelter takes ownership of the pet, we decide if the euthanasia request is reasonable.

I have had owners wanting to argue with me.  I have explained that they have the option to take their business to their own veterinarian.  Although my shelter exists to service the community, I felt that I had an obligation to protect pets from outrageous owners.

I’ve always tried to maintain a holding period for pet owners to cool off or time for other family members to become aware of the surrender and be able to reclaim their pet that was surrendered in anger.

Controlling Disease

One of the greatest challenges that we have is to control disease in our animal shelter.  The problem begins with a community that fails to vaccinate their pets and allows them to roam to deposit or collect viruses in the community.  The animals are then brought to the animal shelter.

Most animal shelters vaccinate pets on intake.  The problem is that it takes weeks for the vaccine to take effect.  In that time, the animal can be exposed to other pets entering the shelter to spread of collect disease to or from those animals.

The greatest vector for disease in the shelter is people.  If staff does not take the proper precautions, they may spread disease from animal to animal while cleaning or feeding their animals.  Allowing the public to come in and view animals is the greatest mechanism for spreading disease throughout the shelter; no matter how we instruct our citizens to not touch the animals, they cannot control themselves and feel the need to touch one animal after another, becoming the greatest vector for spreading disease within a shelter.

I often encourage people wanting to surrender their pets to wait until their pet has been fully vaccinated for 30 days, so as to allow the vaccinations to take hold and offer the animal some protection from entering the shelter.

It is a good idea to not move animals around within the shelter.  There is nothing worse that to experience an outbreak in your shelter to find that the carrier of the disease had been moved previously throughout the shelter exposing other animals.  Outbreaks are the most common in shelter that operate at capacity or beyond capacity.  Managing the shelter population aids in managing disease.

How long do you hold an animal.

Early in my career, I worked out a deal with the local newspaper to accept my photographs of animals that I had in the shelter.  It was not uncommon for me to run the same animals week after week in hopes of finding a home for that animal.

I was approached by the Police Chief claiming that one of the City Council had noted that he was seeing animals listed week after week; he saw that as evidence that I was not “cleaning house.”  The Chief ordered that I euthanize any animal that had been in the shelter over two weeks.

Today, people get upset if your are thinking of euthanizing an animal that has been in the shelter months or years.  Clearly things have changed.  The decision to hold an animal depends of many things: your holding space, the chances of adoption for that animal, the mental and physical condition of the animal, the ability to provide diversions for the animal (long walks, socializing, etc.).  Just as it is inhumane to kill an animal prematurely, it is just as inhumane to keep an animal caged its entire life.