Broken People

Broken people are those who fail to meet societal norms.  They make up many of the hoarders and homeless people of our nation.  They live beside us and provide little impact to our society; until, they drag other species into their nightmare.

In every community that I have served, my staff and I have had to deal with animal hoarders.  It is the condition in which these animals are kept that force the need for our intervention.  Before responding to the residence of a hoarder, it is necessary that animal control officers have access to the proper equipment upon enter the house.  The equipment should include latex gloves, foot covers, disposable coveralls, face mask (with the ammonia/methane cartridge), and lots and lots of flea spray.  It doesn’t hurt to carry a methane detector to give you probable cause to enter the residence.

In Gainesville Florida, we came upon a hoarding case in which the fire department’s hazmat team refused to enter the house, even in their protective suits.  Sometimes it gets that bad.  Also in Gainesville, we had to deal with one of the largest cat hoarding cases in the United States in which we had to seize nearly 700 cats.  Yes, it gets that bad.

In Salt Lake County, we had quite an effective system in dealing with hoarding cases.  We would arrive on scene with law enforcement personnel and health department personnel.  Hoarders can give you a difficult time accessing their residence, unless you have a health department official condemning the property.  The health department takes lead in returning the house to “living conditions,” that includes removing animals.

In Salt Lake County, I had to deal with a guy living in a delivery truck with five dogs.  The conditions inside that vehicle we not fit for man nor beast.  I tried to use the guys dogs as leverage to get help for him and his dogs.  I could not break through his mental illness.  I eventually was forced to seize his dogs and he dedicated his life to calling me every five minutes to condemn me for my actions.  He was one of the few people that I encountered that I could find no work arounds.  People are allowed to be like him, but laws are in place to prevent him from taking his pets down that path.

The animal welfare profession is a career of working with pet owners to make the lives of their pets better.  Because we are working with people, we are going to encounter broken people who  will show that they are not capable of taking care of themselves, let alone another animal.    It is important to prepare for broken people and their pets.

Washing Machine Incident

I recently came across an article about an animal shelter in my area purchasing an industrial washing machine to handle the needs of their shelter’s load of bedding for their animals.  Their volunteers were delighted.

This wasn’t the case in Roanoke, in which a local rescue organization was providing volunteers to our shelter and were told to complain about everything.  I suspect that they wanted the municipal contract to take over the sheltering operation.  So a lot of the complaints from our volunteers just didn’t make sense.  The biggest example was when we decided to start adopting animals directly from our shelter; the volunteers all walked out.

But, back to the washing machine.  We were attempting to use household washing machines and were constantly wearing out the machines and we had to continuely replace them.  It became clear to us that normal household washing machines could not stand up to the load of being used in an animal shelter.  I convinced our Board to allow us to buy an industrial washing machine and dryer.  The machines would allow us to run larger loads, less frequently.  It was a smart decision.

When the volunteers heard about us spending $20k on the machines, they went nuts.  They thought that any funds used in the shelter should go directly towards the animals.  There was no convincing them that the animal’s lives were improved by sleeping on clean bedding.  There was no convincing them of the fact that the industrial washing machines would save money by not having to be constantly replaced.

Roanoke is a reminder that in our business, every decision that you make in this profession is going to be second guessed.  Every action by your volunteers might be part of another agenda.  And that agenda might not be in the interest of your organization or of the animals.  Stay alert.

Defining your core values

The core values of an organization is what keeps the  committed to driving your boat in the same direction.  It gives meaning to the work that you perform.  Being united in the same value system keeps your organization on track and together.  It is critical that you hire employees that share your same organizational core values.

The core values are just as important and your organization philosophies, mission statement, and statement of purpose; it is the foundation of your organization.  Here are some links to aid you in creating your core values:

18 core company values that will shape your company.

Defining your company’s core values: The Complete Guide (with Templates).

You would be surprised as to how the development of your core values will bring your staff together for a common purpose.

Shelter Diets

Each budget cycle you may be faced with determining if you are providing an adequate food source for the animals in your care.  Although you are in the business of short term care, your decision on what you feed your animals will determine the stools that your staff will face and the complaints from owners reclaiming their pets.  I have always resorted to using mainstay products like Purina and have found that in most cases the food that I was feeding my shelter animals were in all likelihood better than they had been receiving at home.

But, before we start hitting the store shelves, lets see what the experts say.  The problem with most animals are that they have delicate constitutions and any change in their diet is going to result in diarrhea.  It will usually take a few days for an animal to adjust to a new diet and by that time their stray hold is up and it is time to move the animal into a new home, where they will once again undergo a dietary change.  Smart shelter will send home a bag of food that the animal is used to and suggest that the owner stay on that diet.  It is a common issue that people take an animal home only to discover their animal has diarrhea and believes that the animal is sick and not as a result that they changed the animal’s diet..

There are several pet food companies that offer products for animal shelters:  Hill Pet Food and Purina are the two most common.  I have not used these plans because Hill Pet Food demands that you use only their food and that prescription food recommended by your veterinarian has to be approved by their corporate office.  It is my responsibility as to what I feed the animals in my shelter and I felt that the Hills program bullied their oversight on us.  If you are a municipal organization, your city/county attorney might question their contractional demands.  The Purina program only offers their Pro Plan in which the food is more expensive.  Both programs seem to fail to recognize the fact that animal shelters work with limited budgets and it is silly to be offering premium food to our pets when in a few days the animal will return home to their usual diet.

You many not be able to afford premium food, but it is a mistake to buy the cheapest food.  There is a lot of bad food products out there and having a shelter full of animals with dietary problems will impact your staff’s cleaning time and cause potential adopters to look for a pet at another shelter, thinking that all of your animals are sick.  Your food choice can give your organization a bad name.

Animal Limit Laws

Our species is unable to live a life of moderation.  For that reason, laws are made so that our lack of moderation does not adversely effect the quality of life for our neighbors.  Pet limit laws are a good example.

Barking dogs is an area in which a pet owner can be in possession of one or more noise nuisance animals and the owner just ignores the adverse effect that their dogs have on their neighbors.  Clearly the more uncontrolled animals that a person owns makes the conditions untenable for the neighbors.  The fact that pet owners care so little for their neighbors requires that communities create laws that limit the number of animals per household.

The formula is different for each community.  Many communities will allow more animals per household if the animals have been spayed or neutered.  We’ve even allowed fostering of animals from the local animal shelter to be exempt from the animal count at a specific household.

The formula becomes even more complicated when you are looking at single family housing verses multifamily housing.  Exceptions are made for underaged animals, so that infant animals can remain with their mother until such time as they are eating on their own.

Kennel licensing is a method in which you throw out your pet limit law to allow people to house greater numbers of animals.  The issuing of kennel licenses are frequently the case of neighborhood disputes.  Animal Control Officers should use great care in determining if a person is able to care for a large number of animals without impacting their neighbors.

I have frequently found that in dealing with animal complaints, people who have lived in the neighborhood the longest seem to believe they have more rights than people who have lived in the neighborhood the shortest period of time.  They are always shocked to learn that their seniority offers no perks over that of their neighbors.

Animal ownership is one of the major factors that limit the livability of a neighborhood.  The more callous the pet owner, the greater need for laws.   If pitbull owners had proven themselves more responsible, breed bans would not be considered in communities.  It is unfortunate that a few bad pet owners make things harder on everyone else.

Compassion or Stupidity

Colorado wildlife officials urge people to not pick up wild animals after a Colorado Springs woman picked up an injured bobcat and placed the animal in the backseat with her child.  This is one of those incidents where an act of compassion throws out simple commonsense.  Fortunately no one was injured, but someone desperately needs to call child protective services on this woman for placing her child at such risk or, at least, demand that she be prevented from having more children.

When I was a fledgling animal control officer, I got a call to help a guy remove a badger from the trunk of his car.  When I arrived on scene, he told me that he had accidently hit the badger and wrapped up the animal and placed it in the trunk of his car.  When he got to his destination, he opened the trunk and found the badger sitting on his spare tire spitting fury.  It is easy to armchair quarterback a person’s decision when you are looking at teeth and claws.

Wild animals have a genetic history that aids in their survival to be wild.  I had an assistant once working on infant coyotes that found that all of the socialization that the pups received in their youth failed to domesticate the animals and yet, we life in a society in which people desire to own wild animals.  In many cases, the decision to own such a creature is later proven to be a poor one.

Because commonsense isn’t as common that we would like to believe, we have to create laws so that these people do not inadvertently impact society.  Most people will agree that it is a good idea to restrict certain (crazy) people from owning guns.  In the field of animal welfare we constantly see people who should be restricted from having children or pets.  A good rule of thumb is that if a person purchases a wild animal. that person is not fit to make good decisions; all of their pets and children should be taken from them.

Downfall Mistakes

I like to research the circumstances that make job announcements available to those seeking employment in public animal welfare.  Many of the vacancy openings are the result of mistakes by the director.  These mistakes almost always center around decisions that are made as they relate to the euthanasia of a pet.  The following accounts are intended to rethink your euthanasia decisions.  Once euthanasia is carried out, there is no “do overs.”

Court order euthanasia — Most communities have laws the sentence dogs to death for being vicious.  When you are issued an order from a judge to euthanize an animal, please do not forget the owners appeal process.  Too often you hear about a dog being euthanized while the dog owner is seeking an appeal.  In cases like these, you should always be slow to follow the judges order.  Even when giving a specific date by which to execute the order, wait.  There is nothing worse than to have a judge reverse an order after the dog has been euthanized.  I was once told by a judge that I would never be held in contempt of court if I delayed his order to perform euthanasia.  You should always delay a sufficient length of time to insure that the appeal period has expired.  Work with your city/county attorney to watch clerk of the court filings to make sure nothing gets past you in the complicated court process.

Aurora Colorado had a case in which the owners of a dog were charged with animal cruelty for having sex with their dog.  This case demonstrates the problem with dogs being held for trial.  I have had cases that required a dog to be held for over two years while the owners kept delaying the court proceedings.  Court ordered custody of an animal is never in the best interest of the animal.  While an animal is in custody, the animal undergoes such protection that it limits the animal to social interaction.  It is not uncommon that the animal will begin displaying aggression as it sits in a cage day after day.  When the dog is finally handed over to the animal control department for disposition, they are faced with an animal that fails to meet their adoptions standards.

Keep in mind that the community has been watching this case on the news for months as the case went through the court system.  People would naturally take a vested interest to see that this dog have a good outcome.  Aurora animal shelter staff did not recognize this investment when they decided to euthanize the dog.  To them it was just another unadoptable dog that needed to be kept off the streets.  They quickly recognized their mistake; but, as always with euthanasia, you cannot undo your mistake.

Here is how I would have handled the situation:  I would contact all of the animal behaviorist/trainers in the community and ask them to submit a bid as to how they would turn the dog’s behavior around.  These folks would be begging for an opportunity to get their names in the news as they worked with the dog.  Most would be willing to provide their services at no charge because of the media attention that they would receive.  I would give the trainer as much time as they needed to make the dog adoptable.  Even if the effort failed, you could show the amount of work that you performed to a favorable outcome for the dog.

I know that you are constantly dealing with overcrowding in your shelter, but sometimes it just makes sense to think slowly when it comes to making the hard decision.



Do you really have to own a pet?

It is not uncommon for those of us who might interview for a job in animal welfare to be asked, “Do you own a pet?”  It is a falsely held belief that if you don’t own a pet, then you are not fit to work in the animal welfare profession.  This is a very narrowminded belief.

There are many reasons that a person might not live with a pet and none of them have any impact of a person’s fitness for a job in our profession.  In our profession, we encounter a large portion of our community that really should not own a pet, but they don’t have the sense to give up their pet.

I currently do not own a pet and yet I have fostered countless infant kittens.  But, for some reason, people will raise a skeptical eye at an animal shelter director who doesn’t own a pet.  For some ignorant reason, people will claim that any director that doesn’t own a pet is unfit to make decisions concerning the strays that enter our shelter.

Many of the stray pets that have entered my shelter were, in fact, given a better life once they got away from their previous owner.  Lets face it, there are many bad pet owners and having a pet does not necessarily make you more compassionate.

For many people, owning a pet is a selfish act.  Knowing that your lifestyle would be unfair to a pet is a good reason to not own them.  Besides, many of us who do not have pets at home have plenty of room for the pets we care for in our shelter.  Many of us treat the animals in our care as being our own.

Police Officer Shootings

Recently, in the news, a police officer shoots a dog running at large.  The officer claims that the dog, a pitbull, came at him in an aggressive manner.  We’ll never know what the dog was thinking.  The problem with a pitbull dog is that when they are running at you in a friendly way looks the same as if they are attacking you; it isn’t until the reach you that you determine their intent.

This particular officer has previously kill three other dogs in the line of duty.  Since the dogs cannot give their story, we will never know if this is the result of an over zealous police officer.

The local media is demanding the police department’s  “policy” of dogs running at large.  They believe that if there is no policy that allows for a police officer to kill an attacking dog, then that isn’t an option for the officer.  The request is pretty stupid.  Any rational person would understand that if the police officer feels he is in danger or feels that he needs to protect another person, then a rushing dog might as well have a target painted on it.

When an officer’s first response is to reach for his or her firearm, then they have failed the part of their training that teaches the escalation of force.  Pepper spray works most of the time on dogs and a taser is effective, if the officer can hit a small moving target.  Because the officer’s first thought is to reach for his gun; if I were his Chief, I would order him to take more training.

The real lesson to learn here is about training police officers.  It is about getting dog owners to accept their responsibility of keeping their dogs properly confined.  If I lived in a community in which loose dogs are shot, I would probably keep my dog safely indoors.

As I have always preached, all dogs have the potential to bite.  Even if your dog is friendly, some people have a fear of dogs and that fear is shared by a lot of police officers.  Unless you are looking forward to a law suit or your dog being shot, a smart dog owner keeps their dog under control AT ALL TIMES!   The problem is that we just don’t see enough smart dog owners., as demonstrated by the dog owner in this incident in which she is more concerned about the police department’s policy towards shooting loose dogs than accepting her role in allowing her dog to run loose.

Formulas don’t lie. Or do they?

Every budget cycle, animal control directors are faced with the task of justifying the number of personnel needed to run their operations.  I was reading one such justification recently in which the director was making the case for a new animal shelter and the necessary staff to run the shelter.

The “go to place” to find formulas that will over estimate your needs is the resource center for the National Animal Control Association.  Don’t get me wrong, the Association is a wonderful organization but their formulas are grossly out dated by twenty years.  The calculations that were created for shelter staff  are wrong because we as a society have evolved into better pet owners.

In the document that I was reading, that was presented three years ago, the paper predicted that the shelter would have an intake of 25,000 animals, based on the city’s current population.  But based on the current statistics, the actual intake was 5,000 animals.  We are seeing a decline in our intakes because more and more people are spaying or neutering their pets.

The only pet demographic that is giving us trouble is that of pitbull owners.  By far, the owners of pitbull dogs are less likely to spay or neuter their dog.  For that reason, the pitbull breed is taking up over 50% or our kennel space in animal shelters.   The good news is that with declining intakes, animal shelters have more kennel space, which are needed because pitbulls require more time to get them adopted, if at all.

Anytime some one is using a “national statistical formula” to justify increasing their budget, you should ask yourself if the numbers are real.  In order to determine that, you have to observe the shelter’s activities over time and see what influences the intake numbers.  One method to increase your intake numbers is to announce that you have become no-kill and your intakes will increase with surrenders from your jurisdiction and all of the surrounding jurisdicitons.