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.

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.

The Curse that Comes with Working in the Animal Welfare Profession

If you ever cross paths with a person in the animal welfare profession and you ask them what they do, you might face a rather long pause before they answer you.  The pause gives them time to decide if they are going to tell you their real profession or if they are going to make one up.

For some reason, announcing that you work with animals causes people to think that they want to hear about all of the stories associated with their pet.  People in our profession drown in pet stories.  Pet owners are more likely to tell you about their pets than to tell you about their children… probably because the pet is better trained.

It isn’t that we don’t want to hear about your pet, but after working day in and day out with pets, we already know all about pets and what your pet does is really no different that what any other pet does.  So the next time you come face to face with an animal shelter worker, instead of telling them about your pet, tell them about your last fishing trip… it will be greatly appreciated.

So you want to Surrender your Pet

People have all kinds of reasons for surrendering their pets to their local animal shelter.  We have heard them all, well most of them anyway and they are usually bad reasons that come down to the pet either taking too much of your time or costing you too much money.  If you feel guilty about giving up your pet, you should.

Many animal shelters will try to talk you out of your decision, not because they think you can become a better pet owner, but because they are over crowded and may have to kill another pet to make room for your pet.  I want you to feel guilty as hell, so that you will do the right thing.  When pet owners come to the decision to give up their pet, they usually don’t back down from that decision.  An animal shelter will attempt to talk you out of your decision and they think they made a breakthrough when you walk away with your pet.  But, most of you will just drive to another shelter and try different answers when undergoing the next interrogation.

If you are going to give up your pet, then give your pet a fighting chance at getting adopted.  Many pets do not make it to adoption because their previous owners were too negligent to provide basic veterinary care.  Well in advance of surrendering your pet (usually 30 to 45 days) have your pet examined by your veterinarian and have the pet given all of the regular vaccinations.  Explain to your veterinarian that the dog may be in a long term kennel environment.  Giving your dog the vaccinations and giving the vaccines sufficient time to become effect in the dog will increase the dog’s chances of staying healthy in the kennel.  The only thing that might diminish the dog’s chances is that if the dog is a pitbull breed or a history of aggression.  Having your pet first sterilized (spayed or neutered) will earn good points with the animal shelter.

Pitbull are not necessarily a bad breed, it is just that the breed makes up half of the dogs in any animal shelter and many, if not most, apartment managers restrict the breed.  Many home insurance policies exempt pitbulls as well.  Due to the problems associated with the breed, an owner of a pitbull is a fool to not have the animal serialized.   There are FAR TOO MANY pitbulls and they are difficult for animal shelters to find new homes.

Finally, to increase the chances of your pet getting adopted, offer to pay the adoption fees for the new owner.  This little financial encouragement might be the driving factor of a person picking your dog over another.  Offer to share puppy photos, so the new owner knows that the dog had a real family and was not just picked up as a stray.

If you decide that the time is right for another pet… make sure that it is the right thing to do and that you intend to keep the animal the rest of its life.

 

Climate for Dogs

I have worked with a bunch of animal control officers who believe that dogs like to live at the same temperatures as their owners. To a small degree they are correct, but they are mostly wrong.

Northern breed dogs like colder temperatures.  My dog’s favorite temperature range is just above freezing.  Cold weather finally makes use of the dog’s fur and allows them to finally cool down from the summer months.

Some dogs, like Chihuahuas seem to never find temperatures warm enough for them.  Every dog is different and it is important as a responsible pet owner to research the temperature range that is best suited for your breed.  Veterinarians are a handy resource.

Just because you own a northern breed dog, doesn’t mean that the dog should be kept out all winter.  Dogs need socialization just as much as they enjoy the cold weather.  A rule of thumb is that if your dog’s water freezes, then it is cold enough for the dog to be indoors, not because it is too cold, but that the dog needs a constant supply of fresh water.  In the winter months, animal control officers prosecute the majority of animal neglect cases due to the owner failing to fresh (unfrozen) water.

Pet ownership is all about people using commonsense.  People make life long careers in animal welfare because commonsense is not abundant in our communities.