Veterinarians

One of the most difficult task in running an animal shelter is hiring or contracting with a veterinarian.  Either they cannot face limited budgets, or working set schedules, or just cannot deal with the volume of patients.  Finding a suitable veterinarian is just a difficult task.

In order to be cost efficient, it is necessary for a veterinarian to perform a large number of spay/neuter surgeries.  During the interview process, I usually ask what the usual time that the candidate needed to perform a surgery.  When they claimed that they needed two or three hours, it became clear that you cannot afford the person.  Good high volume veterinarians are hard to find.  Sometimes you might find someone who can perform surgeries quickly, only to deal with constant suture failure after the surgery.

If you hire a luxury veterinarian, you need to explain the notion of limited resources.  Veterinarians coming from the luxury practises usually have few patients and plenty of resources.  To some, the act of providing just basic veterinary services is a slap to their profession.  In the long run, you won’t be able to afford them because they demand the best of everything.  Working in an animal shelter is an act of constant compromise.

The biggest issue facing a shelter veterinarian is placing a value on the services provided.  Does it make sense treating a critically injured animal, only to have the animal later euthanized for lack of an adopter.  It is a difficult balance; I have had veterinarians too quick to want to euthanize, but most are too slow.  After all, we would take on animals that were surrendered by their owners because the owner could not afford medical care.  Too many factors play in to the decision and I found it easier to relieve the veterinarian from those decisions.  Many times the decision is based on cost.  My last board of directors placed a $3,000 allowance on an animal; pretty generous by any standard.

If you live near a veterinary college, you will find it a wonderful resource for difficult injuries or illnesses.  If one of your animals is in horrible condition, the chances are good that the college will take the animal as a learning experience for their students.  Don’t expect the animal to be returned to you; usually one of their students will fall in love with the animal during its treatment.

Infant Spay/Neuter, a Necessary Evil

In the early days, one of the most difficult tasks that we perform was trying to get adopters to comply with their spay/neuter agreement.  We probably spent more time on that task and all of our other tasks combined.

When infant spay/neuters were being first performed, there was a lot of controversy about administering early surgery.  Over the years, the surgery became more accepted and better techniques were devised.  But we need to be clear that we were not performing the surgery for the sake of the animal.  In fact, the animals would be better off if the surgery was delayed so that the animal’s internal organs had more time to develop.  We performed the surgeries because we can’t trust adopters.

The problem remained in our memories as to the difficulty of bringing about compliance.  We just don’t live in a time that we can trust people.  And attempting to force compliance takes up too much of our time.  We have a pet overpopulation problem and it would be foolish on our part to allow our alumni to add to the problem due to an ignorant owner.

Originally, I bought in to infant spay/neuter surgery because I could adopt out an animal knowing that it could not breed.  My first concern was when I fostered a group of dogs in Jacksonville Florida and decided to adopt one of the dogs.  I witnessed immediately Frodo’s ability to urinate had changed, it was as if he had to force it, rather that just allow it to flow.  The problem never resolved itself.  I’m not a veterinarian, but I believe we neutered the dog before his urinary tract had fully developed.

The incident with Frodo always stayed with me and if the opportunity arose that I could delay a surgery, I would agree to it.  I don’t think Frodo was harmed, I just think he would have been better off delaying his surgery.  There are many veterinarians who would prefer to wait to perform the surgery, it is just too bad that we live in a world in which waiting doesn’t work.

Effectiveness of Behavior Evaluations

Animal shelters submit animals to behavior evaluations so as to provide an predictor as to an animal’s fitness for adopted.  The evaluation process places the animal into various situations to test the reaction of the animal’s response.  At best, the evaluation becomes an “educated” guess as to whether the animal will pose a risk when released for adoption.

Many animals fail the evaluation process and are often transferred into rescues groups who claim they can work out behavior issues; but, I am afraid that many of the rescues just have a lower behavior standard and move forward to adopt out the marginal animals.

The main problem with behavior evaluations is that they rarely put the animal in real life situation tests.  Tests performed at the animal shelter puts the animal off balance; the dog is not on his own turf.  Dogs on their own turf will act differently than one is an area unknown to the dog. 

We are frequently asked, “How is the dog with children?”  No animal shelter in its real mind would perform behavior tests with children.  Child Protective Services would have a field day with putting children at risk of being bitten.

The most important factor is the evaluator.  Dogs sense the confidence of a person.  There is an old saying, “It travels down the leash.”  A dog being evaluated by a confident person will evaluate differently that a person that is unsure of themselves.  Most potential adaptors do not exhibit the confidence of shelter employees.

The good news is that most adoptions go fine.  People adopting large powerful dogs should think twice about the results of the shelter’s evaluation.  Many shelters will give a large dog the benefit of the doubt because those are the breeds hardest to place.  I have frequently witnessed evaluators showing a bias while performing their evaluations; for this reason, an observer is in the room to monitor the evaluation process.

It has been my observation that most adoptions fail because the adopter begins training in bad habits into their new pet.  You can first glimpse the problem during a family meet and greet, when the room fills with a bunch of unruly children. 

Initiative

In each organization that I ran, I encouraged initiative.  I attempted to teach my staff how to make the right decisions.  I carefully walked through each thought process in hopes of creating a staff who could respond to every situation.  I failed.

I had very smart people working for me, they just were not prepared for the flack of making a bad decision.  Animal welfare is a tough profession and mistakes can be tragic.  You are frequently put in positions of making life or death decisions on sick or injured pets.  In each case, you could have been relieved of that decision process, if the owner had only placed identification on their pet.

Too often medical decisions become so costly that the owner chooses to not reclaim their pet and your animal shelter has to cover those expenses.  Employees just don’t want to have those decisions hanging over them.  The cost of working in such a volatile field is that I was frequently called at home to make a decision.  The staff needed someone they could point to deal with the potential fallout.  Too often, failing to ask the right question led to the wrong decision.  It is easy to screw up… too easy, even when you are working with correct information.

Often, a person will bring in an injured animal into the shelter.  After a careful medical screening we try to make the decision that is right for the animal and cost effective for the shelter.  So often we decide that we cannot cover the medical cost and make the decision to euthanize an animal.  Soon after, the person who surrenders the animal returns and becomes upset that their pet was killed.  The person could not afford medical treatment themselves and thought that the shelter could fund those expenses and they could return later to adopt the animal back into their family.  Making decisions become more difficult because of the misinformation that we have to work with.

For some reason, many pet owners wait until the expiration of their pet’s holding time before looking for their lost pet.  No matter how long the hold period is, an owner will wait until it is too late.  I have yet for find an owner who recognizes his or her negligence for failing to look for their lost pet; for some reason they believe that shelter personnel would realize that eventually an owner would come forward; they do not consider the fact that their pet could be sitting sick or injured, or that there is no kennel space for an animal showing aggression.  When the owner finally arrives, they want an explanation and that is the reason that employees do not want to make decisions.  As they always say, “That is the reason that you make the big bucks.”

The Problem with No Kill

It is a noble cause to find homes for the homeless pets in our communities.  I would never attempt to hinder the adoption of adoptable animals.  In the completion between animal shelters to declare their organizations as no kill, we have created hostilities between organizations.  The No Kill Movement has caused an isolation between adoption organizations.

The dynamics of becoming no kill is quite simple: increase adoptions or decrease animal intakes.  In Florida, our humane society wanted to declare that they were no kill, so as to access grants that are only available to no kill organizations.  In order to accomplish their no kill status, they chose to stop taking in stray animals.  The intakes increase at the public shelter at a time that the shelter was already beyond capacity.

The No Kill Movement is ineffective unless it is viewed from a big picture view.  One organization in a community claiming to be No Kill is worthless if all of the other organizations in that community are overwhelmed.  I am always amazed at the criticism that a public shelter receives from local no kill shelters that refuse to accept animals.

The admission status of a shelter seems to get lost in the condemnation that public animal shelters receive.  It is easy to be a no kill shelter when you can control what animals that you are willing to accept.  It is more difficult to be an open admission shelter in which you are expected to accept any animal that shows up (at any time).  It is easy to become overwhelmed in an open admission shelter.

The pressure on open admission shelters is great and has caused many of them to try no kill tactics.  The most common tactic is to attempt to reduce animal intakes.  They first started by trying to reduce owner surrendered animals.  Pet owners soon saw that in order to give up their pets, they would need to claim that their pets were strays.  Shelters then began to require that people had to make an appointment to surrender an animal.  When appointments were weeks or months out into the future, people saw that it was unreasonable to even attempt to surrender a stray pet.  People were left with releasing the pets in the parking lot of the shelter. 

This strategy takes an odd turn.  Although the shelter refused to accept the animal, they would quickly prosecute an person releasing the animal in their parking lot, charging them with animal abandonment.  All the while, the animal shelter views themselves as the good guy.  The purpose of a public animal shelter is to house stray animals, to keep them from being a nuisance or a danger to the community.  The No Kill Movement has caused communities to have more animals running loose.  It is a sad day when animal control officers have to turn a blind eye to the stray dog that runs out in front of their vehicle, because there are no open kennels in the shelter.

The No Kill Movement has forced people to turn a blind eye to the community problems that created public animal shelters in the first place.  Up until now, the No Kill Movement has only pitted one shelter against another.  The Movement is ineffective until it can announce that an entire community has become No Kill.  However, becoming a No Kill Community is not the end game; when the City of Austin announced it had gained no kill status, all of the surrounding communities began to flood Austin’s shelters with animals from adjacent countries.  Our end game is to become an No Kill Nation.

Organizational Change

During my career, I had the opportunity to manage operations undergoing major organizational change.  Both cases involved humane societies ending their contract of managing the local public animal shelter.  Both had their own private shelters and used their contract to pick the best animals from the public shelter for adoption in their private shelter.  No adoptions were occurring in the private shelters.  The animals that were not moved to adoption were euthanized.  Both organizations refused to work with outside groups to ease the high euthanasia rate at their public shelters.

The first shelter was in Georgia.  A group of rescues joined together to approach the county to rebid the animal control contract.  With a 90 percent euthanasia rate at the public shelter, something had to change.  I was hired by the rescue groups to oversee the transition.  I was amazed at the phone calls I would get from the board of directors of the humane society claiming that stray dogs are just not suitable for adoption.  They had to feel justified in their management style of the public shelter.  That style lead to outside organizations wanting to colaberate and take over the public animal shelter.

The second shelter was in Virginia.  The humane society was taking critisim because they claimed to be no kill, but failed to calculate in the euthanasias performed through their contract with the local jurisdictions.  They treated each entity as a separate organization, reporting separate statistics: their private shelter had great statistics, but their public shelter had horrible statistics.  They too, had shut the door to outside groups because they saw those groups competing for the best animals and donors.  Trying to maintain positive organizational PR can be a fickle thing.

Both organizations were so busy trying to make themselves look good, that they missed the big picture.  In their effort to “appear” to look, like a progressive no kill organization, they discovered that their communities were a lot smarter than they gave them credit for.  They had become arrogant in their public image and lost out on a large source of public revenue and public good will.

It is a hard game for private rescue groups to stay viable.  In addition to the local competition for donor funding, they have to deal with the constant television ads from national organizations asking for money.  The fact is that people are more likely to donate to an organization that calls its self no kill, and many people have the false assumption that their donations to the national organizations will funnel to their local humane society.  It is easy to see why a local humane society might “stretch” the truth about their live release rate.

It has been my experience that major organizational change occurs when the organization is caught in a lie.  Organizational integrity is the foundation of any organization; if you weaken it, you will loose the support of your community.  It isn’t enough to appear good, you must be good. 

Pet overpopulation is still a real thing in our country.  The solution requires multiple hands in the pot.  I spent most of my career on the public side of running an animal shelter, because I wanted to focus on how I was going to get my animals into new homes and not worry about where the money was going to come from.  I attribute my successes to seeing the benefit of working with rescue groups, even the ones that were difficult.

Societal Evolution

I have always believed that a person’s integrity was one of the most important attributes of a person’s character.  I learned my value system at a young age and by the time that I had become an Eagle Scout, my value system was fully formed.  I was constantly dismayed at seeing the corrosion of our societal norms.

It should come as no surprise to you that I felt that social media corrupted good people.  Everyone wanted to be “center stage” and self-embellishment led to flat out lying.  Lying became so commonplace that I believe people began believing their own lies.  Lying just became a way of life.

News organizations no longer reported the news, but created the news and no one cared if the facts were right, as long as they fought for higher ratings.  Fake news became a commonly used term and news sources became a forum for reporters to push their own belief system.

One of my biggest failures, as pointed out by one of my employees, was that I placed too much trust in people, I always gave them the benefit of the doubt.  He was right.  I wanted to believe that people treasured their integrity.  I think I cared more for their integrity than they did.

I witnessed people going out of their way to fabricate lies.  I witnessed staff scheming against their supervisor in an effort to bully the supervisor into looking the other way to overlook their own incompetence.  I was dumfounded in getting a call from our HR Department in which staff wanted to draw attention to their supervisor by calling anonymously to HR, claiming that their supervisor(s) returned from lunch with alcohol on their breath; just to make the life of their supervisor miserable.  The claims were obviously false.  I was further dismayed that HR protected these troublemakers by claiming protection under whistleblower policies.  We are becoming an ugly society and societal norms protected these people under First Amendment Rights and Whistleblower policies.  We began to lose our organizational vision because we were constantly putting out infighting fires caused by hateful people.

It is discouraging to watch the daily news to see that we have become a society of over-reacting children in desperate need of parental guidance.  Animal welfare and politics seem to have so much in common.  We daily watch the confrontations that occur and wonder if anyone is going to step up and be the adult. 

This evolution of the degradation of society has taken its toll on me.  Although I have always been an introvert, I’ve now become a recluse.  I keep hoping to see the rise of role models to lead society back to honoring personal intregrity. 

Diplomacy

Managing an animal shelter demands the greatest diplomacy.  It is not a career in which your personal feelings on issues is welcome, nor is it safe to express them.  You have to hold it in until after you retire.

Even the most constructive words will find offense.  We live in a word in which everyone is hunting for an excuse to be offended.  By some freak of nature, I was passed along the genetic code that made me a “white male.”  To some, those phenotypic characteristics will earn me some labels that are not earned, deserved, or wanted.  So, diplomacy becomes even a greater concern.  To many, the fact that you look a certain way will cause people to shutdown to what you are saying and disreguard your words.

Along with diplomacy, balance is necessary.  Animal welfare is a fringe entity where people live on the outer boundaries.  As much as we try to maintain our footing in the middle, we will be constantly pulled to one fringe or another.  I think it is important to have a basic understand of another person’s position when looking for the proper diplomatic words; you can find it in an overview.

From the above overview animal control and animal welfare sits in the middle of the continuum as animal abuse and animal rights sit on in the fringe.  This fringe will become the groups that you will mostly deal with and communications will become the most difficult.  As you carefully select your words, keep in mind that these folks will not give you any benefit of the doubt and will search our words to find offense. 

This is what makes your career so exciting.  To stay out of trouble during your career, guard your words.  As I mentioned earlier, if you have to “let it out,” write a blog AFTER you retire.  Those of you who are in the profession or thinking of getting into the profession, my guiding words to you is to treat all communication as if it might be on the front page of your local newspaper or circulated on social media, because they probably will.

Giving Credit Where Credit is Due

Volunteers and staff are the backbone of any animal shelter program; however, an animal shelter usually has a single person who believes that their work, behind the scenes, is responsible, in one way or another, for all of the shelter’s achievements.  They can make this claim from the comforts of their home computer.  Social media provides this person a stage from which to perform.

The person generally has a pretty large social media following, but tends to do more harm than good.  I have found that if I want to find the source of our local misinformation (fake news), I have to look no further than our very own “Barbara.”  She thinks that reporting false information about an animal or shelter issue, is acceptable if the information brings about an adoption or facilitates a change at the shelter that she supports.

People like this so frequently upset the organizations that they are associated with, they are often cast out of the organization to find another organization to undermine.  Eventually the person has no one left to work with and is left only with social media followers who are filled to the brim with misinformation.  The Barbaras that exist in each organization is evidence that social media follows are unable to think for themselves and blindly follow that one person that claims that they the single mover and shaker in their community. 

Social media has such wonderful potential, it is too bad that destructive people find it an effective wrecking ball.  Social media is an effective tool to get information out immediately.  It frequently is a path of false information; as such, many government and nonprofit organizations find themselves writing policies to deal with social media use.  Abusers of social media claim that their right to broadcast (mis)information is a Constitutional right

The Politics of Working with Rescue Groups

A successful animal placement program has always been a key feature of any animal shelter.  Working with rescue groups plays an important role.  In an ideal world, rescues take animals that the animal shelter are finding difficult to place.  But in reality, many rescues want the highly adoptable animal, leaving the hard to place animals at the shelter.

The greatest difficulty with animal groups is that “animal people” are not people friendly.  Maddie’s Fund used to provide grant money to communities to increase adoptions, but they required that all of the rescue partners get along with one another.  They eventually found that in most cases rescues could not work together, even when being paid.

In Gainesville Florida, we had one of the most successful Maddie’s Fund grant because we were one of the few places in the country in which the rescue groups could see the benefit of working together.  As a result, we were given grant extensions.  It was truly amazing what we were able to accomplish.  It is too bad that other organizations across the country could not have enjoyed the same success.

I faced the other extreme when a local rescue organization started undermining my organization of the first day of my arrival in Roanoke Virginia.  I believed that they wanted our shelter to fail so that they could push community officials let them run the animal shelter.  Many of their volunteers worked at the animal shelter to aid in undermining the shelter’s operation.  Those volunteers all quit when I implemented an adoption program at the shelter.   Adopting animals is a good thing, it was the right thing, but by engaging in adoptions, our shelter became less of the bad guys.

In many communities animal rescues are more about their image than about saving animals.  The good thing is that saving animals plays well with a good public image.  But shelter personnel should be on the constant lookout for people who provide fake news to make your shelter look bad and their operation to look good.  This type of tactic is what killed many national grants.

One of the biggest problem with working with rescue groups is their demand for the designer pets.  To keep them happy, I usually gave them those animal as a good faith gesture in maintaining our relationship.  Although they would claim that they “rescued” the animal, we all knew that we could have easily adopted it. 

We had such an overpopulation of animals that we worked with a Petsmart Charities grant to transport many of our dogs to northern states that were enjoying a shortage of dogs.  As we were frantically shipping our dogs out, our local Humane Society was shipping designer dogs in.  We were not able to meet their need for small dogs.  So a culture developed of moving animals around the country until they could find placement.

One of the biggest risk that animal shelters take is working with home-based rescues.  These are the groups that are mostly likely to take on more animals than they can properly care for.  In Fairfax Virginia, I conducted an inspection in which we found 114 cats in a townhouse.  None of the rescues who dumped cats on this lady ever followed up to see what was going on.  She was discovered when her air conditioning went out and she opened her windows; and then, her neighbors became aware of the problem.

Unless you constantly monitor your home-based rescues, you stand to risk of your own shelter becoming overwhelmed when you are forced to seize those animals for lack of care.  Try to imagine how we felt when we had to step in and seize nearly 700 cats from a local sanctuary in Alachua County.  You begin to see the problem when groups fail to monitor the folks that they dump their animals on.  Imagine the logistics in trying to take in that many cats.  I cannot praise the Humane Society of the United States enough for their assistance.

Working with animal rescue groups are a good thing, but you have to learn the politics of game.