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. 

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.