Performing euthanasia is the most stressful aspect of being an animal shelter employee. I witnessed a couple of work burnouts as a result of euthanizing animals that I had become fond of. The problem is greatest for smaller operations.
When I started out in this profession, I handled every aspect of an animal’s cycle through my shelter:
- I was the Animal Control Officer, responsible for responding to complaints and impounding animals in the field.
- I was the Animal Attendant, responsible for the daily care of the animals.
- I was the Vet Tech, responsible for maintaining the daily health of the animals.
- I was the Shelter Manager, responsible for deciding which animals needed to by euthanized due to shelter overcrowding.
- I was the Euthanasia Tech, responsible for the euthanizing and disposal of the animals.
Although euthanasia, at any level, is stressful, compartmentalizing each aspect can reduce the stress that is experienced by any one individual. The greatest stress reliever is to insure that the euthanasia process is handled well; by competent, caring staff. By relieving stress on the animal, helps relieve stress on those performing the task.
The last moments of an animal’s life should be performed with the greatest compassion.
You would think that having a love for animals would be sufficient to work in an animal shelter; however, much of the work we deal with involves working with people. A high school level of education is sufficient, but I have watched employees struggling with simple math.
I would suggest that you offer an examination that tests applicants on people and math skills. It is not necessary that a person loves animals to be in our field, they just need to appear that they love animals in all that they do.
I always told my staff that when dealing with a person, pretend that they are talking with the Mayor. When dealing with an animal, pretend that they are dealing with my pet.
This afternoon, I was reminded that as humans, we are susceptible to making mistakes. Arriving home from a drive thru, I was shorted medium size tatter tots. Most mistakes are innocuous and cause little or no harm.
One of the greatest stresses of running an animal shelter is that you’ve entered a profession that has little room for mistakes. Mistakes can throw off drug counts, cause the over (or under) vaccination of an animal and can even cause the death of an animal. You cannot “undo” many of the mistakes that are available to us in this profession. As an old carpenter would tell you, “measure twice, cut once.” It doesn’t hurt to have three eyes on everything that you do.
There is nothing worse that to accidently euthanize an owner’s pet. For that reason, I would not allow any animal to be euthanized until I looked at the animal and checked it against our records. We live in a business in which there exist so many similar looking animals, that you can NEVER be too careful.
With increasing pressure to maintain high release rates, many animal shelters will fail to report prior dog bites to prospective adopters. This became such a problem in the Commonwealth of Virginia that a law had to be enacted to force shelters to come forward with an animal’s previous aggressive history.
I experienced this myself, working in Virginia, in which volunteers would attempt to bully me and my staff into ignoring the behaviors that we witnessed, so as to keep the animal on track for adoption. Because I felt I had a higher calling to protect the public from aggressive animals, the volunteers pushed for my removal.
I am dumbfounded by the thought process that would hide such information from a perspective adopter. Commonsense should have prevailed in warning a person about a pet’s previous behavior. But, when it comes to saving animals, commonsense is not so common. Animal Advocates believe that the life of an animal is a higher priority that the safety of a person, family, or the community.
I find it extremely troubling that it was necessary to force a moral obligation on animal shelters; however, I applaud the Commonwealth for making it necessary for shelters to do the right thing. Think of the legal ramifications and potential loss of life if shelters were allowed to continue pushing aggressive animals to people.
Since the onset of social media, staff management has become more difficult. Social media can be so vicious that shelter staff wish to maintain a positive social media presence. Fringe groups will recognize this need for shelter staff to be accepted that they will use social media pressure to turn the staff into warriors for their group.
Prior to hiring new employees, take a look at their social media posts to see if the applicants are more concerned about doing their job, or being social media friendly. It doesn’t hurt to be social media friendly, as long as it does not place the community at risk.
A number of years ago, we had a dog come into the shelter wearing a dog tag; the tag was a welcome sight because very few animal wear them. The tag proved to be nearly untraceable.
The tag was from Jefferson County and failed to have the area code with the phone number. It is amazing the number of Jefferson Counties that exist.
Please, anytime you are printing an identification tag, include sufficient information, in the event that the animal is found several States away. At a minimum, include the State and area code. Please take a critical look at your tags to see if they contain sufficient information to get the animal returned home. The tag might be the only identification on the animal and animals are known to travel with their owners over great distances.
The first thing removed from the budget during lean times is staff training. It is probably the last place funds should be touched. The best way to invest in your organization is through decent salaries and staff training.
A few days ago, the newspaper picked up on a story that animal control staff returned from a conference and wanted to implement TNR (Trap, Neuter and Release) program. The newspaper talked like this was something new and our community would be cutting edge by trapping cats.
Communities have been performing TNR for years. The fact that our community is starting it now only means that we are just catching up. If we had invested in staff training years ago and had the will to manage our community cats, we would be further along to become no kill.
Conferences are the place where our staff catches up with the rest of the world. It is important to send our best staff to training. If you were to pick a single conference to attend, I would suggest the Animal Care Expo.
For years, American Humane’s Operation Guide series was the “go to place.” Here is a link for publications associated with animal sheltering: https://www.americanhumane.org/publication-type/animal-shelter-operational-guide/.
The most effective way to become no kill is to reduce your shelter intakes. One method is to find a way to get animals back to their owners BEFORE they come into the shelter. Let’s face it, very few animals running loose on our city streets are wearing any form of identification; it is the one thing pet owners fail at. Miserably!
At several locations, I obtained a grant through either the National Animal Control Association or PetSmart Charities to purchase an ID tag machine, tags, and collars. A medium sized operation can ask for $10k to $15k to last your program several years.
It is important that if you engage in an ID program, that you make sure that you place the tag on the animal prior to leaving your shelter. Experience had taught me that you cannot trust the owner to do that; they get home and put the tag on the dresser or the tag may never leave the automobile.
The purpose of the ID tag program is to give finders of lost pets a chance to call the owner prior to making the call to have the animal picked up. By reducing the intakes of owned animals, you can leave more cage space open to allow animals a longer stay for adoptions.
The tag for impounded pets should be provided free upon reclaim; otherwise, you can charge $3 to $5 per tag for additional animals. I allowed each of my staff a free tag to learn how to use the tag machine. This is an effective way to decrease shelter intakes.
Stray holding time is the length of time required by law for an animal shelter to legally hold a stray animal for the animal’s owner. That length of time is usually between 3 to 10 days.
Most believe that a responsible pet owner will discover that their pet is missing and go to the animal shelter within 24 hours. The truth is that even with lengthy hold times, many pet owners do not go to the shelter within the hold period. It is extremely frustrating for staff to deal with people who show up after the hold period; to deal with pet owners whose pet has been adopted or euthanized. The frustration is further exasperated by the owners failing to recognize their role in the incident, blaming shelter staff for the failure of the owner to timely find their lost pet.
With crowded animal shelters, lengthy stray hold times burden the shelter into keeping an animal from adoption. The fact that many people surrender their pets as stray further compounds the overcrowding of the shelter while the animal is needlessly held.
Many shelters offer a two tiered holding period: one for animals with obvious signs of ownership (tag, collar, fresh grooming) and one for animals that have no indication of ownership. The most reoccurring problem that animal shelters face is owners failing to keep identification on their pets.
Many of the animal shelters, in which I worked, provided a free ID tag for animals upon reclaim. But, providing that identification appeared useless for some pet owners; we had to adopt a policy that if animal was impounded three times without identification, we would require the microchipping of the animal. We realized that the faster that we can alert an owner as to the location of their pet would help us reduce the time in which an animal is kept at the shelter and to provide additional time of other strays needing sheltering. It is tragic that even though we provided free identification for a pet, the owner seemed to remove the identification when allowing their pet to run loose.
In one shelter, we had a three prong holding period:
- 3 days for an animal without evidence of ownership.
- 5 days for an animal with evidence of ownership.
- 7 days for an animal wearing a current license (actually we would hold an animal beyond the 7 days until we make contact with the owner). Additionally, an animal with a current license would be guaranteed medical treatment, if hit by a car while running loose. With this three tiered system, we could boast that a current license was an insurance policy for the animal.