Lions, Tigers and Bears; OH MY!

Having spent a career in animal control, I have frequently asked the question: “How did we become the dominant species.”  I have witnessed so many of my species with the deleterious gene for stupidity.  Part of my duties were to write ordinances because left to our own devices, we would put ourselves and other at risk.

I first encountered a liger at the Salt Lake City zoo.  It was the only lion/tiger hybrid in existence.  Shasta was a major draw for the Hogle Zoo.   My next experience was in the backyard of a home in the Portland Oregon area.  It appears that someone thought it would be profitable to breed and sell these animals without understanding that anyone who would want to put one of these in their backyard is probably too stupid to have the skills to keep the animal confined.  A young girl was injured as a result of this act of stupidity.

Having worked for government organizations, I had to monitor my word selection.  Retirement and old age has loosened my tongue to call it what it really is.  Every time we performed a rewrite of our ordinances, we had to update the list of animals that were not safe to own in our jurisdiction.  Why?  You are right, stupidity.  If we didn’t list every animal, someone would figure out that they could legally own it.  And worse, there was someone out there that could provide it.  It is amazing the number of dangerous animals that are shipped through our mail carriers.

I’ve seen videos of delivery drivers mishandling packages.  Most people think that is horrible because something in the package could break; I worry that something in that package might get angry and burrow out of the package.

During the old drug trade, police officers would encounter verminous snakes.  The snakes were a deterrent for the officer to search the cage for the drug dealer’s stash.  Animal Control officer became the first line of defense at drug busts; either the dealer would sic their dog(s) on the officers, or some other creature protected the stash.

I witnessed more people keeping dangerous reptiles in Milwaukee, than I did while working in Florida.  Fortunately, many of the exotic species did not hold up well during a Wisconsin winter.

It is surprising that more reptiles are not found loose.  Most snake hoarders keep their animals in small plastic containers.  The cruelty that is inflicted on these animals should be left for another rant.

Customer Service

I recently contacted my local animal shelter to make a donation.  This experience reminded me as to why I made the policies for communication with my own staff.

I wanted every communication (email, social media, telephone calls) returned within 3 hours; 24 hours if they were slammed.   I made sure that I kept to the same rules.  The only exception was weekends, holidays and vacations.  If they were going to be out for longer that 24 hours, their email or phone message should reflect that.

I also insisted that the doors of the shelter open 5 to 10 minutes before the scheduled time.  Customer service is one of the most important things that we have to offer; unfortunately too many staff see that customer service equates to work and they want to avoid both.

Many of us are government workers.  That doesn’t mean that we have to act in the way that citizens think of us.  We should always go the extra mile.  I tell my staff to treat each person as if you are dealing with the Mayor.

The first shelter I contacted for the donation never contacted me.  The second shelter responded as soon as staff came to work.  Guess where all of my future donations will go?

Pet Photos

Technology has made us lazy. People do not venture out of their homes when they can have their home needs delivered to them.  For this reason, animal shelters need to put policies in place to photograph incoming animals as quickly as possible and post the photos on their website and social media sites to alert these home-bound pet owners.  If the owner is found, the next trick is to try to get them out of their homes to reclaim their pet; I have had many owners of lost pets ask for home delivery (most do not want to dirty their car with pet hair).

Although some animals on intake are like trying to photograph a two-year-old child, they will be constantly on the move and will attempt to bite you. When dealing with such animals, shelter personnel will be tempted to be safe and photograph the animal through a cage, on a catchpole, or through the window of a feral box.  Photos like these are the ones that your viewers will complain about most.  The only reason for a poor photo is staff safety.

Consider your audience when photographing animals. In every animal shelter that I have worked, I always had a group of people who trolled our website looking for pictures that they could complain about.  But, in fact, they were usually right; staff would be too quick to take a photo and post it.  The problem with hastily taken photos is that you capture the animal in a pose that not even the owner would not recognize.

The “first” photo that is taken of an animal should be one that can recognize the animal for the owner. If you cannot handle the animal, then explain why and provide as much detail in the description of the animal.

If an animal is unclaimed, it becomes time to take additional photos of the animal; we call these the glamour shots. Hopefully the animal has calmed down enough to capture natural photos of it.   Some shelters create space to set up a small studio with lights and backdrops, while other shelters have volunteers walking the animals take photos of animal on their walks.  These images are key in “selling” the animal to a potential adopter.

Video Catch-Pole

During my career overseeing animal rescues, I have encountered situations in which new inventions were necessary.  Below is a link to an invention that I crated to retrieve animals that fallen down holes that were beyond the reach of our longest catch-poles.

Video Catch-pole

The Emu Caper

Over a decade ago, people were convinced that emus were the next generation as a meat source and were purchasing emus to ranch the species.  The caper proved to be a scam and the emu ranchers found themselves with birds that they could not sell.

Animal Shelters began filling up on these flightless birds as these would be profiteers began abandoning their herds on the streets of their communities.  Animal Control Officers were learning to become emu wranglers.  Once captured, the Officers were delighted to find that the birds had been microchipped and efforts were started to find the people who had abandoned the animals.

Knowing that the market had dropped out on emus; actually the emus market never caught on; the breeders reported that the microchips had never been registered, so as to prevent prosecutors from tracing the microchips to the animal’s owners.

For a short time in the history of local animal shelters, emus became fairly common forcing those shelters to educate themselves on the housing and care of this unique species.

“Perception is Reality.”

I’ve heard the phase, “perception is reality” too often at executive meetings, indicating that if someone has a specific perception, it is their reality.  In some way, there was an expectation that we manage people’s perception; even though they created the perception to manipulate reality.  Let me explain:

Only in the realm of politics do we see greater misuse of manipulation to manifest a false reality.  Our generation will be known as the keepers of fake news.  We live in a world in which people create their own reality my falsifying  the events around them to drive their own agenda.

Fake news for animal welfare began with the no kill movement and was fuled by social media.  Social media became the number one place to obtain false information.  People pushed fake news either for attention or to bully.  Unfortunately, the ploy was fairly successful.  Organizations were bullied into making decisions that were not in their own best interest to mollify the social media noise.

Evidence of those bad decisions are documented on PETA’s website:  No Kill Policies.  It saddens me to see what shelter managers are going through as a result of caving to the outrageous demands of a few people.   My mantra was to “do the right thing.”  Today, the “right thing” is different for every person.   I always believed that keeping the community safe was the right thing.  Now there is an expectation that shelters should save every animal.  Saving animals is a good cause, but shelters must not compromise the safety of their community or the care of those animals in that effort.

The officials who oversee the operation of their community animal shelter are frequently more concerned about what people say on social media than they are worried about the safety of their community.  They want to cater to those who make the most noise.  It has never been a more difficult time to manage an animal shelter due to the competing demands and unreasonable expectations.

Perception

Dog owners have the worst case of perception.  For that reason, I have found employment in the animal control field for over thirty years.  Neighbors, on the other hand have finely tuned perception.  There is nothing worse than a dog owner maintaining one or more aggressive dogs behind a flimsy fence.  Commonsense would dictate that the dog owner would want to keep his neighbors safe.  My career has been founded on the lack of commonsense that is found in many dog owners.

The problem with perception is the legal aspects associated with whether a person’s perception is real or imagined.  Until the aggressive dogs break through the fence and mauls a neighborhood child, the perception is imagined.  It is most unfortunate that a child has to suffer to prove the perception real.

People who choose to own aggressive dogs are evidence of a fracture of our society in which these folks believe their rights are greater than the risk they place on their neighbors.  I have witnessed neighborhoods in which owners of (perceived) aggressive dogs are turned loose.  I have seen the same neighbors begin to carry means of protection from the dogs.

The problem with pet ownership is that there is no examination that proves a person fitness to be a pet owner.  The fact that people like myself have made careers in this field is evidence that we live in a world of unfit pet owners.

Parents should constantly watch their children because they are usually the litmus test when determining the intent of a dog’s actions.

Health Condition

Fifteen years ago it became clear that the only statistic that people were interested in was the number of animals that left the shelter alive.  It was clear the people did not understand the dynamics as to how shelters work.  Euthanasia was frowned upon from a statistical point of view; after all, we were dealing with living creatures.

All animals were grouped the same, so an animal shelter would be criticized for the animals surrendered by their owners to be euthanized for medical, behavioral and age related conditions.  Even today, animal shelters will refuse to take animals from owners so as to not have to deal with  the criticism that goes along with having a high euthanasia rate.

It became clear that keeping sick, injured, or old animals alive for statistical purposes was not humane, so in 2004 a group of people gathered together to create the Asilomar Accord: a way to classify an animal’s health condition at intake and at outcome.

Animals fell into four health categories: healthy, treatable, manageable, and unhealthy.  The classification gave a better window into the dynamics of a shelter’s statistics.  The classification system also aided shelters in their evolution to becoming no kill.  Shelters could focus on saving all of the healthy animals, and then move on to saving the treatable and manageable animals; leaving only the unhealthy (untreatable and unmanageable) animals to deal with.

An interesting aspect of the classification system was that animals could change health conditions during their stay at an animal shelter.  Sick animals abandoned by their owners could be nursed back to health and later adopted.  Healthy animals could develop behavioral problems associated with long confinement.  It became necessary to assess the animal’s health condition at the time of disposition.

If an animal’s condition degraded, the new health condition was recorded.  If the animal’s condition improved the animal’s health condition was unchanged, so that shelters could show statistically the role they played in helping unhealthy animals find new homes.

At the time that the Asilomar Accords was created animal shelters were not dealing with the overwhelming population of pitbull dogs in shelters.  In some cases the pitbull breed represented over seventy percent of dogs in a shelter.  We entered a time when the shelters were full of healthy dogs, but the community had ruled the breed as too great a risk with breed restrictions in rentals and insurance companies refusing to insure the animal.

In order to avoid euthanizing a healthy animal, shelters were forced to keep the dogs until such time as they displayed behavioral problems associated with their confinement.  Shelters then created enrichment programs that would delay the onset of confinement related behavioral problems in hopes of one day finding a home for the animal.  It became normal for animal shelters to hold animals over six months as dogs learned to cope with their confinement.

Understanding Roles in Database Connections

From the very beginning of the introduction of database software in animal welfare, the primary demand made by animal shelter personnel was to keep it simple.  You can’t imagine the number of requests made to allow for the primary breed to be “mixed.”  Simple requests like that tend to make the software useless.  Data descriptors and roles are what pulls the information together.

Animals play multiple roles within an incident: they can play the role of stray (unowned), owned, previously owned, suspect,victim, etc.  In any incident, an animal can carry multiple roles.  These roles paint a picture of the animal in any incident.

As with animals, people play roles in incidents: owner, previous owner, adopter, suspect, victim, caretaker, harborer, etc.  People roles become very clouded in that multiple people can claim the same roles: such as a household where a family of people came the role as owner.  This becomes further clouded when one family member surrenders an animal to the shelter against the wishes of other family members.

Address play an important role as they become the location of owners and incident locations.

It is easy to see how complex relationship are in tracking data.  For this reason, a perfect software tool has yet to be created.  Each tool makes compromises to keep the data manageable.  The software tool has to be simple enough to be used by shelter personnel, but complex enough to gather sufficient data to understand the incident at hand.

The Problem with Databases

One of the greatest challenges for any animal shelter is selecting the mode by which you will maintain your data.  Before you start, you need to recognize that there is no perfect mechanism to record and maintain your data; when you finally make your decision, you’ll discover that it is all about compromise.

The first decision is that whether your records will be paper based or computer based.  Obviously a paper based system is the simplest method of recordkeeping, but it is a horrible system to query.  It is also doesn’t stand up well to the elements.  However, a computer based system is only as effective as the backup systems in place.  For example, I worked with a Houston shelter to recover their database files.  Their shelter staff faithfully backed up their data every evening onto a tape backup system without thinking that they should replace the backup tapes from time to time.  After years of using the same backup tapes, over the years they were backing up their data onto worn out (worthless) tapes.

Since a paper based system requires no explanation, I’ll jump into computer based systems.  The simplest computer systems use a flat file system; eventually an electronic paper based system.  Think of it as a paper based system on a computer.   Like a paper based system, it is easy to use and it allows you simple queries.   A flat file system is the easiest system to train your staff on, but it isn’t much help for driving statistics.  It is a good system for very small shelters or rescue organizations.

Anyone who has been in animal shelter for any length of time, you know that animal records are all about relationships.  A relational file system is the most common system used in maintaining animal shelter records.  But, those relationships can be confusing and so far there is no database system that you can purchase that can capture all of those relationships.

But, before you can decide on which relationships are necessary for your shelter, you need to decide if you want your data to focus on the animal or the incident (or event).  What will be the chief cornerstone of your data gathering?  Do you want to make the animal or the incident the center of your data gather.  In every occurrence, both will play a role.

The most common example is an animal intake.  The intake or impoundment is the incident and the animal is the other half of that equation.  Since most shelters wish to maintain monthly statistics, incidents (or events) become the cornerstone of their data gathering.  From that cornerstone event, other relationships begin to unfold.  And this begins the journey as to the complexity of a database program.  It is also the place where your eyes begin to glass over.

Usually a database is broken into data areas: animal, people and events.  In each incident, relationships paint the picture of what has occurred.  As with the intake incident described above: the animal has a relationship to the incident as “impounded.”  When the owner is found, the animal has the relationship as “owned.”  If an owner does not claim the animal, then the animal hopefully gains the relationship of “adopted.”  As so on…

To make the data easier to use, most software engineers eliminate obvious relationship to prevent the use from becoming overly frustrated.  For example:  Most database programs fail to recognize the association of household units.  People and animals belong to a household and households have relationships to addresses.  Failing to recognize those relationships, various household members could bail out their pet from the shelter without the shelter personnel realizing that the animal had been impounded multiple times.  It is a problem that exists when  shelter personnel allow their computers to do all of the thinking.

No animal shelter management software tool is perfect, in fact to make this tool work for you, you’ll have to create numerous workarounds to meet your needs.  When test driving an animal shelter software tool, look for data fields that seem to serve no purpose; those are the fields that you can later use when you need a workaround.