The Role of Community Dynamics in Becoming No Kill

A number of years ago, I was the director of a Milwaukee animal shelter and had to face the fact that the dynamics of a city plays an important role is the success of animal shelter programs.

Six years ago I began researching the factors that play into one shelter’s success over another shelter’s failure in becoming no kill.  Although this data is several years old, the information holds true that many factors play a role in an animal shelter’s success.  I found it interesting that many of the factors that are used to determine crime rates equally played a role in households being responsible pet owners.

No kill advocates have a problem of comparing different organizations, without looking to see if they are making “apples to apples” comparisons.  I wrote this over five years ago and much of the information still holds true today:

Dynamics of a No-Kill Community

By David R. Flagler

Recently, a no-kill advocate decided to compare the Milwaukee kill rate against two recognized no-kill communities to demonstrate that if those two communities could become no-kill, there was no reason that Milwaukee could not become a no-kill city as well. Although Milwaukee was actively engaged in following many of the no-kill elements, their progress was slow.  In this article, I attempt to show that other social and economic elements play a role in the rate that a community can move to a 90% placement rate.

According to the no-kill advocate, the only thing that is necessary is the will to become no-kill. They miss entirely the other factors that place upon the movement.  Many no-kill advocates believe that pet overpopulation dose not exists and that if the leadership of the local animal shelter had sufficient compassion, the leadership could stop the killing of animals in a community.   Nationally we were seeing a decrease in shelter intakes, but then the downturn in the economy caused a temporary increase in shelter intakes as people found they could not afford pet ownership.

In spite of their best efforts, Milwaukee has been unable to reduce their shelter intakes. What are the dynamics of this city that has become an obstacle of becoming no-kill?

Funding

When Milwaukee is compared against Reno or Austin, Milwaukee had comparable animal intakes and human population, but only half of the budget. Funding is necessary to provide community education programs and offer low cost spay/neuter services.  Preparing an animal for adoption does not come cheap, with the cost of vaccinations, medical tests and spay/neuter surgeries.

In order to compare funding between organizations, a person can divide the budget of an organization against the population. In comparing Austin’s budget of $7,612,186 to Milwaukee’s budget of $3,071,090 and the population of Austin of 830,611 and Milwaukee of 952,532, the math shows that Austin pays $9.16 per person for their animal control services and Milwaukee pays $3.22.

Poverty

Milwaukee has the number 2 spot in poverty in the United States. Many of Milwaukee’s citizens are struggling to survive; making spay/neutering their pets is very low priority.  A few of their citizens even believe that breeding their pit bull dog might add a little revenue to their family income.

Culture

There are two cultures that you must address in your community: the culture of the animal shelter and the culture of the community. Shelter personnel must be willing to commit to the success of finding homes for animals, but the community’s culture defines the community attitude toward animals.  In every communities, there are people who are simply opposed to neutering their pets.  This particular problem hinders the progression of a city being able to do the right thing for their pets.  In order to become a humane community, you have to have a community that cares about their pets; a community willing to live up to their responsibilities as responsible pet owners.

Political Will

The funding priority of local governmental officials is a critical element in providing the necessary resources in moving toward no-kill. No-kill costs money, in spite of what the no-kill advocates say.  The cost of preparing an animal for adoption is expensive and only a portion of those funds are returned in adoption fees.  Austin is a good example of the high cost of no-kill, in order to maintain their no-kill status, the City of Austin had to add a million dollars to the budget each year to keep no-kill alive.

In recent years, many city councils and county commissions publicly declare that their communities will become no-kill; in a belief that if a community values its pets, it is evidence that they have taken care of their poor. Many of these communities have jumped the gun; in that they do not understand how the dynamics of their communities will affect the outcome of their public statements.  The good news is that in stating their support for the no-kill cause, they will now become obligated to provide the necessary funding to make their cause a success.

Pet Population

Pet overpopulation occurs in two places: within the community and within the shelter.

No-kill advocates do not believe that there is a pet overpopulation. In some communities, that is true, but it is not universally true for every city.  Pet overpopulation is the result of uneducated people possessing pets.  Over the years, people have become more responsible as pet owners and many cities are seeing a decline in the number of animals going into their local shelters.  Over the past decade, shelters have learned to spay/neuter their adopted pets; it is hard to believe that at one time, we used to adopt fertile animals to the public.  People are learning that it is better to adopt a stray pet than to buy one from a pet store.  Our evolutionary process is driving down the pet overpopulation in many communities; however, some communities are just lagging behind.

In our shelters, we find that shelter overpopulation is controlled by the number of animal intakes, the length of time that is required to hold the animal, the type of animals held and the success an organization has in finding new homes for the animals. The shelter’s intake numbers are driven by the community pet overpopulation, in which surplus animals are taken to their local animal shelter to remove them from the streets.  The longer the holding period, the greater opportunity exists for overcrowding at the animal shelter waiting for an owner to figure out that their pet is missing.  Most cities have a three-day holding period, believing that any responsible pet owner would realize that their pet is missing within the first day and still have two more days to visit their animal shelter.  Many communities believe longer holding periods are necessary for irresponsible pet owners or for pet owners who go on vacation and need additional time to return from vacation and look for their lost pet.  Most animal shelters will hold animals that are wearing some form of identification longer until they have exhausted every lead in looking for the owner.

The popularity of the pit bull dog has increased over the years. In the past, it was the breed that attracted the worst pet owners; that resulted in the breed getting a bad name.  Because the breed still attracts bad owners, many jurisdictions have banned the breed in their communities; the jurisdictions believe that they cannot trust the dog owners to be good pet owners so they just ban the entire breed.  The reason that I bring this up is that the pit bull breed is the most predominant breed at the animal shelter.  In areas of the country that have breed bans, it is pretty hard to adopt pit bull dogs.  Most shelters realize that the placement of pit bulls require three to four times more effort than adopting small breed dogs.  Milwaukee has a shortage of small breed dogs and some rescue organizations reach out of the state to fill their small breed needs.  Pit bulls just sit in the shelter and take up space, the space that could be used to adopt out three or four smaller breed dogs.  In Milwaukee, pit bulls make up 40% of the dog intakes and represent 70% of the dogs euthanized.  Simply by stopping the breeding of pit bulls would immediately turn Milwaukee into a no-kill community.

And finally the ability of the shelter to place animals into new homes; which is driven by their adoption process and the shelter’s relationship with local animal rescue organizations: the greatest resource that any community has is in the form of the rescue groups that come forward to help their local shelter deal with the pet overpopulation problem.

Although mentioned only briefly above, the holding period plays a major role in the successful placement of pets. Most of the animals that enter the animal shelter are the result of poor pet ownership and as such, the majority of those animals are unvaccinated.  An animal shelter is the worst place in the world for an unvaccinated pet.  Animal Shelters cannot control illnesses that fester in animals that come into their shelter; although most shelters vaccinate animals upon entry, vaccinations take weeks to build immunity within an animal.  Many factors play a role in the onset of symptoms: stress of confinement, stress to the immune system (even giving the initial vaccination can stress an animal’s immune system), and even the spay/neuter surgery preparing the animal for adoption.  Usually the onset of illness occurs 6 to 10 days after being exposed to the virus.  The longer that an animal is held, the greater risk of the animal getting sick.  The City of Austin has a 3-day holding period, Reno has a 5-day holding period and the State of Wisconsin requires a 7-day holding period.  These holding periods play a major role in the health of animal being prepared for adoption and contributes to the overcrowding conditions at the shelter.

It isn’t enough to look at a shelter’s intake to determine the overcrowding that an animal shelter experiences, you must look as well at the length of the holding period. When you compare Austin’s intakes of 23,000 animals to Milwaukee’s intakes of 12,547 you think that Austin has double the number of animals in their shelter, but when you factor in the additional 4 days that Milwaukee has to hold their animals, you begin to see that Milwaukee’s shelter population is greater than Austin’s numbers as a result of the addition holding time.  When you factor in the holding times, you can see that Austin has a budget of $110.32 to spend on each animal every day, while Milwaukee has only $34.69.  Clearly budgets and holding time are hugh factors in becoming no-kill.

Since animal shelters have limited space, as the shelter reaches capacity, shelter personnel have to make space to accommodate the additional animals coming into their shelter. The ideal way to do that is to adopt the animals out; however, if they cannot accomplish that, they are forced to make space by euthanizing animals.  To further complicate the space issue, frequently animal shelters must give space to animals awaiting court action.  At the time of this article, one kennel ward at the Milwaukee shelter is reserved for animals waiting for their owners to be called to court.  Some of those animals have been waiting for over a year.  As much as it is hard on the animals to be confined for such a long period of time, it is hard on the shelter to be forced to give up so much kennel space that is desperately needed for stray intakes; further upsetting the overcrowding at the shelter.

Education

As stated above, the more educated a person is, the more likely he or she will spay/neuter his/her pet. In addition, educated people are more environmentally sensitive and are more likely to adopt a “recycled” pet than buying one from a neighborhood breeder.  Smart people know the relationship between fertile pets and pet overpopulation.

Small communities with large colleges have a high percentage of highly educated people who make for a good culture to create a no-kill environment in that community.

Family stability

A stable home life is more likely to create an environment that is less likely to have a pet running the streets of the neighborhood. With parental guidance, fewer teen boys will be out in the street fighting their pet.

What the no-kill advocates do not understand is that every city is unique. The broad brush that they paint the no-kill plan cannot be evenly applied to every city.  Every animal shelter can do more to end the killing of pets, but the dynamics of a community will determine whether no-kill can be reached in the short term or the long term.

In order to reach the goal of 90% save rate, an animal shelter must reduce animal intakes and increase live outcomes. In order to accomplish that goal in the short term, shelters have made it more difficult for pet owners to surrender their pets and have provided greater incentives to people who are adopting pets.  Although this strategy works in the short term, people find ways around the system and begin surrendering their pets as strays.

Sometimes a longer-term solution is necessary to change the culture of a community by teaching humane education to the youth of the community. The current generation is lost to us, so the next generation must carry forth the values of responsible pet ownership and learn the value of life for all creatures and show respect towards those around them.  Some communities have mandated the spay/neutering of pets in their communities in an effort to solve the pet overpopulation crisis in their communities.

Maintaining Herd Health

Most veterinarians will tell you that the best way to keep your shelter animals health is to keep your animal population low.  In today’s world of No Kill, people don’t want you to euthanize any animal, even aggressive animals, if you have open cage space.

Some foolish States created laws preventing the euthanasia of shelter animals if open cage space is available.  The people creating those laws did not have the common sense to understand that open cage space is necessary to provide for incoming animals.  Without open cage space, every new animal intake would create a crisis: do you force the doubling of animals in cages or quickly euthanize an animal to make space on every intake?

Maintaining an animal shelter at full capacity creates stress on the animals.  Animals under stress are more likely to get sick.  A shelter full of sick animals is a shelter’s worst nightmare.

Even shelter maintaining the proper population balance will hit a crisis when animals are dumped on them from natural disasters or hoarding cases.  Usually longer holding periods will be required during natural disasters in hope of the pet’s owner returning home.  Hoarding cases often require holding periods to get the owner through the court process; these holding periods could easily exceed months.

The business of animal sheltering frequently forces shelter management to move from one crisis to another.  When tough decisions are made to manage the overpopulation at an animal shelter, the No Kill folks will be first to criticize the those decision when they see an empty cage.

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.

Volunteers

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.

Moral Obligations

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.

Community Cat Programs

The biggest problem that communities face with community cat programs is that no one takes responsibly for the medical needs of the cats. It is one thing to feed a neighborhood cat, but quite another to take on the responsibility to sterilize and vaccinate those cats. Many cat owners don’t do that for their own cats, let alone cats running loose in the neighborhood.

Although feeding these neighborhood cats is a humane act; that food creates at artificially high carry capacity for the neighborhood and triggers breeding. Within a few years the neighborhood population of cats explode, resulting in complaints to animal control. Generally, animal control doesn’t care about cat problems until complaints arise and then they set about to reduce the population to zero: resetting the population for the cycle to begin again.

A few communities have active Trap, Neuter and Release (TNR) programs to attempt to bring about community wide population stability. Those programs are only as successful as the staff and funding to constantly trap fertile cats. Feral cat colonies exist within communities to attempt to maintain a population stability in small pockets; however, cat owners see those colonies as a dumping ground for their own pets when they decide to abandon them.

You might imagine that finding homes for these “wild cats” might be the biggest issue for animals shelters; but, the disease that they bring into the shelters is the biggest problem. These unvaccinated cats become stressed by trapping and relocation to the shelter that trigger the expression of disease.

It is not uncommon to read about disease outbreaks of Feline Panleukopenia in local animal shelters. These outbreaks are usually the result of animal control personnel loading the shelter with feral cats. The disease is quite contagious and will spread quickly, when people come into the shelter wanting to touch every animal.  In 2016/17, my shelter would get one outbreak under control, only to have animal control bring in more infected cats; we lived from one outbreak to another.  Having animal control and the animal shelter under one department helps the two organization into moving in the right direction.

Most people, including TNR folks, are only worried about rabies, so the other contagious diseases are not addressed in the community. People who allow their cats to go outside should vaccinate their cats as directed by their veterinarian.

Many animal shelters vaccinate animals on intake, but the onset of protection is too slow to prevent an outbreak within the shelter.  Control of shelter disease must start in the community.  A good strategy for people wanting to surrender their pets is to request that the animal is fully vaccinated 30 days prior to surrender.

No Kill: What Could Go Wrong?

On the surface, no kill seems to be the right thing to do. Under the surface, we begin to understand that most shelters do not have the cage space to humanely house animals long term, until they are adopted. Many animals cannot hold up to long term confinement.

The best way to see how No Kill can fall apart is to go to: https://www.peta.org/issues/animal-companion-issues/animal-shelters/no-kill-policies-slowly-killing-animals/. PETA has been monitoring the failures of No Kill.

When an animal shelter makes the announcement that they are going No Kill, the first impact it that people considering the surrender of their pet feel they can down give up their pet guilt free. Animal shelters begin to see an increase in intakes. With a new No Kill shelter in the area, people from outside the area will make the drive to the shelter to surrender their pet.

The most effective way to go No Kill is to reduce intakes. With increasing intakes, the shelter will either be forced to throw funds into increasing cage space, or find ways to decline intakes. The City of Austin Texas, had to spend millions of dollars in an effort to try to maintain their No Kill status. Other shelters begin to turn people away due to overcrowding. Most shelters are obligated to take in stray animals, so pet owners report that their own pets are stray so as to surrender them.

The worst part of No Kill is forcing animals to remain in cages for long periods of time. It is tragic that volunteers will put countless hours into trying to maintain the socialization of an animal, only for the animal to become eventually cage crazy and be euthanized.

The pressure to become No Kill is so great, many animal shelters have been accused of doctoring their disposition statuses to give the appearance of a higher live release rate.

The natural evolution of society is sending us down the path to lower intake rates.  We are eventually going to become a humane community.

No Kill and Volunteers

The No Kill movement has discovered shelter volunteers as the new infantry for its army to bully shelter employees. The first salvo is launched when shelter volunteers create clone Facebook pages that so closely mimic that of the animal shelter, that people querying the animal shelter is likely to bring up the clone site. Since Facebook provides no regulations as to who can create Facebook pages, it is likely that one or more additional Facebook pages could exist for the animal shelter without the shelter knowing who created them.

Usually the fake Facebook page will begin highlighting the animals that have been euthanized and attempt to shame shelter staff for having committed those deaths. When the pages first appear, they give the appearance that they are a support arm of the shelter and then they begin their slow trend to turn the community against the shelter.

Even though a shelter can have a high release rate, the volunteers running those clone Facebook pages decide what live release rate is necessary to satisfy themselves… it is usually much higher than that of the shelters.

The Facebook pages will create false narratives of the animal’s behavior that unsuspecting people will think that shelter personnel are killing perfectly healthy and adoptable animals; not knowing that most of the animals have health or behavior issues that prevent a sound adoption.

Balance

The greatest challenge facing animal shelters is the balance that must be made to protect people and to protect pets. Animal shelters must face the decision to put people first or to put pets first. In 95 percent of the time, it isn’t an issue. But in those remaining 5 percent, it becomes the battleground that creates the most media carnage for animal shelter personnel.
Should animal shelters release potentially dangerous dogs back into their community? On the surface this seems pretty simple, until you begin to fight the battle as to what determines a dangerous our an aggressive dog. Dog held for long periods of time can become aggressive as a result of their long confinement. Where along that process does a dog move from being adoptable to being unadoptable?
Is it worth euthanizing one “potentially” aggressive dog to prevent a future worry of the dog injuring a child? This is the constant worry that all animal shelters face. Many shelter personnel take the easy road and don’t question the adoptability of an animal: if the animal has a potential home, then let it leave the shelter. Many shelters that have taken this road become faced with the lawsuits of their careless actions.
Many dogs that have displayed aggression in the shelter eventually reassimulate into society to become perfect pets. We cannot look into the eyes of these animals and determine their behavior in the environment that we are sending them. Every adoption is based on a gradient from low risk to high risk.
The community that we serve seems to see only in black or white. Many people claim that we should give EVERY animal a chance and many believe that NONE of the high risk breeds should ever be released to the public. Although animal shelters conduct behavior tests, the tests run the failure of the bias of the evaluator. But the biggest hazard is the adopter.
No matter how much adoption staff empathizes the need for responsible pet ownership, the greatest failing point is the pet’s owner. It is amazing the number of new pet owners who call to report that their new pet ran away during the period of the car and the house because the owner didn’t think the dog should be on leash. One of the most common phases from dog owners prior to a dog bite is, “Don’t worry he won’t bite.”
When pet owners fail to act responsibly, it furthers the risk of a failed adoption. When an animal gets into trouble as the result of a bad pet owner, it is usually the animal shelter that gets into trouble for failing to have the foresight in seeing a bad combination of a questionable dog and a bad adopter.
Many shelters have taken a beating in the media as a result of not being physic. Every adoption presents a risk. The shelter is forced to decide if they will weigh the balance toward protecting people or saving a pet. Wherever you find that balance, you can be sure that someone will be under constant pressure to move that line one way or the other.