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.

Ignorance of Breeding

There are two breeds that of their own volition would pose a threat of overbreeding animal shelters:  the poodle and the pit bull.  Let’s face it poodles are likely to breed with anything.  Fortunately they mostly choose to mate with a pants leg; that generally does not spawn offspring. 

Pit bulls, on the other hand seems to be attracted to anything on four legs.  Animal shelter employees do not wish to call an animal a pit bull mix because that term diminished the chances of the animal getting adopted, but the phenotypic broad forehead of the breed seems to identify itself within the genetic make of most dogs entering an animal shelter.

Since poodles present little risk of overpopulation in an animal shelter, pit bulls do present a risk.  I have always been in favor of creating an ordinance that demands the sterilization (spaying or neutering) of any breed that causes the greatest risk of overwhelming an animal shelter.  In today’s age, that would be the pit bull.  The pit bull is the hardest breed to place and for that reason they take up the largest portion of our shelters.  One of the biggest complaints that we hear at the animal shelter is that there is no selection to choose from, “All the have are pit bulls!”

Pit bulls originally became a problem because they attracted the worst kind of pet owner.  The fact that pit bulls remain a problem is that the breed is still attracting owners who refuse to take actions to stop the reproductive potential of their pet, whether by sterilization or by isolation.

It is easy to point out ignorant people at the intake side of an animal shelter, these are the folks that think they are giving you a gift when they are dumping their litter of puppies (or kittens) on you.  Every shelter experiences a group of their citizens that like clockwork deliver their litters to them.  All of the explaining in the world cannot breach that thick layer of ignorance that surrounds these people.

The Plight of Backyard Dogs

Our pet’s love for us shows no bounds.  I know this because I have carved a career in animal welfare due to the reckless manner in which people treat their pets.  Let’s face it, if people were responsible pet owners, their would be no need for animal shelters and animal control officers.

Winter is the time that pet owners show their greatest ignorance towards their pets.  A recent article out of Dallas Texas demonstrated this when their local media reported that Dallas was seeing an increase in calls concerning pets being left out in the cold.  It is rare that any of our southern states could become cold enough to impact outdoor pets.

Dogs are social animals, so I am opposed to dogs living outdoors, not because of the effects of weather, but due to meeting their need to socialize with the pack (our household).  Most of my dogs preferred cold weather, after all they have been wearing a coat all year.

I used to have staff freak out about temperatures get down to forty degrees, when many of the animals preferred that temperature.  It is difficult to determine rules as to the temperature range for each animal because they are different.  Most “northern breed” dogs prefer colder weather.  And many shorthaired breeds appear to be cold when it is eighty degrees.

If it is possible, pet owners should show commonsense when dealing with their pets and the weather.  If it is cold enough for your dog’s water to freeze, then it is probably too cold for your dog to be outdoors.  I have lived in many areas that hot weather became an issue and we had to limit the time that an animal could be confined in an animal control vehicle.  If the temperature got to eighty or ninety degrees, we required that the animal be transported directly back to the animal shelter.  If an immediate transport could not be made, the officer was to pull over in the shade and hose down the dog to keep the dog cool.

Most dogs prefer to live in temperature ranges that are cooler that what we humans like, but that is no reason to leave them out in the cold.

Selling vs Adopting

This year, California will ban the selling of pets in pet shops.  The belief behind this legislation is that with the over population of pets in our shelters, pet shops should not be adding to the problem by selling animals that they obtain from puppy mills and backyard breeders.  The problem that they create by enacting these laws is that they fail to serve people wanting designer pets. 

Sure, animal shelters have designer pets following a puppy mill bust or an out of control backyard breeder, but those animals go quickly and the animal shelter is back to having only (mostly) pit bulls available for adoption.  Not everyone wants a pit bull.

Twenty years ago, we were approached by a pet shop owner who wanted to stop buying animals from puppy mills and asked if our animal shelter would become his supplier.  It was very innovated thinking and I am not sure that, at that time, we were prepared to make that decision.

In our business, we have become so arrogant in thinking that only through our grueling adoption process will we make the perfect placement.  During my career, the animal welfare movement has undergone several cycles that questioned the effectiveness of our adoption processes.  Many “innovated” shelters reported that their adoption return rate was unchanged when they relaxed their adoption policies.  Although they don’t want to admit it, their adoptions became no different than those of a pet shop.

Animal Shelters only hold the high ground because they largely try to adopt animals that are not widely sought after.  They would be wise to increase their placements by getting past their arrogance and do what is right for the animals.  The shelters in California have a wonderful opportunity before them; they might consider making the pet shops their adoption partners.

Shelter Construction

Many of the animal shelters that I have worked were built by contractors that know nothing of shelter construction and as a result make life miserable for the shelter personnel who later come to work in those facilities.

Disease Control

Due to the fact that many pet owners fail to vaccinate their pets, many pets become sick from the first virus that hits them in an animal shelter.  Although most shelters vaccinate an animal at intake, the vaccine is ineffective for several days.  Shelters should be built to reduce the potential for viruses to spread.

Many animal shelters have holding pens in which they place animals at intake so as to not have them interact with the shelter’s general population.  If an animal is going to break with a virus, it will usually within the first three to five days.

Instead of holding animals in large rooms, it is better to maintain the animals in smaller wards so that if disease breaks out, it will be contained to a smaller group of animals.  So as to keep from spreading disease from one ward to another, it is generally a good idea to limit the cleaning of the ward to one specific person so as to not cause cross contamination.  A shelter might have one person clean one cat ward and then clean one dog ward and stay away from the other wards.  Most important is to prevent the public from carrying disease from one ward to another while looking for a lost pet or finding a new pet.  It is surprising the number of people who cannot stop themselves from touching one animal after another as the go down a row of cages or kennels after being warned not to touch the animals.

To avoid cross contamination, it is important to construct the shelter so that suspected diseased animals have a straight path to the quarantine area without taking the animal down common hallways that are used for the general shelter population; for example, animals brought in from the field should not be walked through general population areas.

The air exchange system is very important for disease control.  If air is pulled from within the building, it should be sanitized through filters and UV lights before being blow back into the shelter.  An improperly installed HVAC system could be the primary cause of contaminating and recontaminating your shelter guests.  Many shelters opt for only outside air intake, which can be very expensive on hot or cold days.  If you live in areas of high humidity, make sure the system supports sufficient drains under the condenser coils. 

If your shelter can afford it, each ward should be zoned separately when providing air conditioning and heating.  Some shelters incorporate self-contained fans that use filters and UV lights to sanitize the air during a disease outbreak.  Use Ozone generators sparingly as Ozone is hard on an animal’s lungs.

Although not a construction issue, it is important to disease control that volunteers and staff do not use the same leashes to walk all of the dogs or the same cat toys when socializing cats.  As animals stay longer periods of time, staff and volunteers need to make sure that they are not unintentionally exposing animals when engaging in enrichment programs with the animals.

Play yards are another area of concern.  Creating play groups for animals and the play surface can be areas that spread disease.  Play groups should consist of animals that have been in the shelter a sufficient length of time for the animal’s initial vaccination to begin to take hold.  Play surfaces should be make of a material that allows for disinfecting.  Dirt and grass surfaces is an excellent way to spread the Parvo virus.


Having an effective drain system will reduce the workload of your kennel staff.  My experience is the T-Kennel system drain is the best system.  The system allows for the attendant to push animal waste to the back of the kennel, this front to back cleaning allows for faster cleaning.  Most shelters have a single circular drain in the middle of the kennel; with this system, staff has to scoop up the animal waste and return to mop the kennel.

The T-Kennel system usually has a large catch basin where it catches chew toys and blanket material.  On rare occasions, the catch basin might stop an infant animal from being washed down the drain (great care must be taken when holding mothers with infant animals).  The drain pipes should be constructed so that the system contains no sharp turns.  The first time you have to tear up your concrete floors looking for a long nylon chew toy that is clogging your system, you will understand the need for either limiting the toys that animal chew or create ways to prevent the toys from going down into your waste system.  Anytime that the waste system has a sharp turn, a cleanout should be installed to access that point.

Adopters in Harms Way

A current trend to increase adoptions is for animal shelter personnel ignoring the aggressive behavior of an animal as reported by the animal’s owner or keeper.  Shelter personnel wish the animal to have a clean slate and treat the animal as having no background information; they are confident that their own evaluations are sufficient to determine the animals fitness for adoption.

It is not uncommon for various factions in a shelter to view an animal in different light.  One of the most common problem that my last shelter faced was our volunteers posting glowing comments about animals on social media that were not consistent with the staff’s evaluations.  The volunteers felt that they knew better because of the behavior that they witnessed when walking the animal, even though the previous owner and staff assessed the animal differently.  They didn’t realize that they were observing the animal from a very small window.  People would come in to the shelter and discover that the volunteers lied to them so as to facilitate the placement of the animal.  Fortunately for the community, our shelter staff had the integrity to report the correct information or refuse to accept the adoption application.

This trend of passing marginal animals or animals with aggression in their history is getting animal shelters in trouble.  I frequently read about cases in which an adopter is subject to a serious incident and then finds that the animal’s history of aggression was not shared with them.  It became so commonplace in Virginia that laws were drafted to force adoption organizations to give out the animal’s history, good or bad.

Many shelters have placed their animal placements ahead of public safety due to the pressures of being no kill.  Not only have people been harmed, but many shelters have been sued for their callous actions.

No Kill Equation

Those associated with the No Kill Movement have created a number of elements that they have identified as necessary for an animal shelter to become no kill.  They view this as an all or nothing arrangement; you either commit to every element or you will be declared as a lazy uncompassionate shelter director.

The equation is pretty simple: to reduce euthanasia at your shelter, you must reduce animal intakes and provide for more positive outcomes.  But, getting there becomes a little more complicated.

Reduce Animal Intakes

The first order of reducing the pet overpopulation is to reduce the breeding of pets through low-cost sterilization programs.  As the number of unwanted pets in the community are reduced, fewer will find their way into your shelter. 

Pet retention programs provide resources to pet owners to show alternatives to the dumping of their pet on the shelter when they lack financial resources to care for their pet or wisdom to deal with behavioral problems associated with their pet.

A few shelters are so committed to becoming no kill that they have resorted in shutting their doors to the intake of animals.  People finding stray animals are force to keep the stray until such time as it is convenient for the shelter to receive the animal.

Increase Placements

In my experience, I have found that creating rescue partners is the most successful avenue for the placement of pets in the shelters that I have directed; however, it is critical that a watchful eye is on those rescues to prevent them from getting into a hoarding situation.

Mobile adoptions are a project for volunteers.  The idea is to take animals from the shelter and deliver them to a highly visible area of your city to be viewed by the public.  Petsmart is always open to using their stores for adoption events.

Adoption Ambassador programs allow foster parents to screen potential homes for the animals in their care.  The main problem with this program is similar to a foster to adopt program where the animal is in a permanent home, but is on the shelter’s records so the shelter has to flip for the medical expenses on the whim of the person keeping the animal.  Also, people who foster animals tend to have stricter standards for giving up their “babies” to a new owner.  Be prepared for a lot of complaints from potential adopters that want a foster animal.

When all else fails, you can offer free adoptions.  Since people purchase on impulse, you should create strict guidelines for those who adopt a free pet.  It is critical that person has sufficient income to support day to day care for the animal and necessary medical needs of the animal.

Rabies Vaccinations

Keeping your pets vaccinated is a key element of being a responsible pet owner. Years ago, veterinarians decided that the rabies vaccination was the only vaccination that should only be maintained and administered by a licensed veterinarian. Pet owners could purchase and vaccinate their pets with rabies vaccination from a farm store, but their pet would not be considered legally vaccinated. Unless a Titer test is given to the animal, the animal would be considered unvaccinated if it were to bite another animal or a person.

There are two reasons why veterinarians give the rabies vaccination: pet owners cannot be trusted and veterinarians need the business. The second thing that comes out of a pet owner’s month when their pet bites someone is “Don’t worry, he’s vaccinated.” When the dog is running towards the person, the pet owner will first exclaim, “Don’t worry, he won’t bite.” If the owner lied about the first thing, the owner probably lied about the second. Without a vaccination certificate from a licensed veterinarian, the pet owner could just print out a blank certificate on-line, complete it and then present it as proof of vaccination. Rabies is serious stuff and causes a horrible death; pet owners just cannot be trusted to do this on their own.

Rabies vaccinations keep veterinarians in business. The simple way to confirm whether your veterinarian uses the rabies vaccination as a business tool is to look at the rabies expiration date. The Compendium of Animal Rabies Prevention and Control 2016 provides approved rabies vaccination for 1 year and 3 years for adult animals. Most veterinarians worry about over vaccinating a pet and will administer the 3 year vaccination. I have encountered veterinarians to use the 1 year vaccination to “force” the pet owner to return for annual examinations; pressuring the pet owner to be more responsible for their pet (to get them in for the pet’s annual vaccinations (that are not required by law)).