How long do you hold an animal.

Early in my career, I worked out a deal with the local newspaper to accept my photographs of animals that I had in the shelter.  It was not uncommon for me to run the same animals week after week in hopes of finding a home for that animal.

I was approached by the Police Chief claiming that one of the City Council had noted that he was seeing animals listed week after week; he saw that as evidence that I was not “cleaning house.”  The Chief ordered that I euthanize any animal that had been in the shelter over two weeks.

Today, people get upset if your are thinking of euthanizing an animal that has been in the shelter months or years.  Clearly things have changed.  The decision to hold an animal depends of many things: your holding space, the chances of adoption for that animal, the mental and physical condition of the animal, the ability to provide diversions for the animal (long walks, socializing, etc.).  Just as it is inhumane to kill an animal prematurely, it is just as inhumane to keep an animal caged its entire life.


We frequently prove ourselves as an ignorant species.

I read recently about a Michigan man being bit by his pet cobra.  I am reminded about the number of venomous snakes that we had to deal with in Milwaukee.  I believe that people who own such animals have the deleterious gene for stupidity.  We usually discovered the hoard of reptiles after the owner gets bitten.  Then there is a frantic call for anti – venom that is in short supply.  We need that anti-venom for zoo workers.

It is quite an experience for animal shelter workers when they are forced to house these reptiles, and that is not a good experience.  You would be amazed as to the number of people who keep snakes and the number of venomous ones they choose to call pets.

The bottom line on this issue for me is that we are dealing with natural selection.  Smart communities ban the ownership of such animals because some people are not born with the sense to know that venomous snakes are not pets.

What is it like to run an animal shelter?

Working in animal welfare is a very volatile profession.  I found it much more stressful than working narcotics on the Mexican Border.  At least on the border I could forget about work when I came to the end of my shift.

In animal welfare, you worry about the condition of animals coming into your facility, you worry about animals getting sick in the shelter, you worry about your staff using bad judgment, causing injury to an animal.  While you are worrying about all of that, you then have to worry about your volunteers or animal advocate “friends” looking to find something wrong, so they can report it to the media.

You are in a constant state of worrying about whether you should self-treat an animal or run it to a veterinarian.  I spent much of my time taking animals home, so that I could watch them overnight.  Someone is always in the background wanting to second guess your medical decisions.  No one ever second guessed a narcotics seizure.

You never come to realize the stress that you face running an animal shelter until you have had time to decompress from it.  You cannot imagine the relief that I feel waking up every morning and not worrying about what happened the night before at the shelter.


There is an old saying, “There are three kinds of lies: “lies, damn lies and statistics.” Our profession is one that lives on statistics. When someone is looking at your shelter, they want to know the live release rate, even if they don’t know what that means. The people that we work for want to know how we compare to the shelter in the next town.

Municipalities became so concerned as to comparing statistics, that in Florida they created the Benchmarking Consortium so as to compare apples to apples when looking at the size and structure of organizations. I was tasked to provide benchmarking for the animal services area.

The easiest way to benchmark is to compare statistics to the population size of your community. It is one thing to say that you had 1,000 adoptions for the year compared to the 500 in the next town, but if your population is double that of the next town your statistics are the same. So in comparing intakes and outcomes by population, you begin to see a better picture as to how communities compares to another.

Benchmarking is a great way to present budgets for under budgeted organizations. City/County Managers are always looking to cut budgets and the animal shelter is on top for cuts. It is easier to show that your budget at $1.23 per capita is low to your neighboring city’s budget of $4.67.

When your local advocates are screaming at you for not doing more, you can use benchmarking to show that you are doing just as well (or better) as anyone else in your area or that you have budget constraints that hinder peak performance. Statistics can be your friend.

Helping the Helpless

We live in times in which people complain that government is too big, but the problem is that people are becoming more and more helpless and ask government to do more for them. The pioneer spirit, that made our country so great, is being replaced by needy people.

People don’t want to spend the energy to find a new home for their pet, so they dump it at the “pound.” Fearing that people will think ill of them for surrendering their pet, they turn the animal in as a stray. So, instead of immediately trying to find a new home for the pet, the animal shelter is forced to spend the first few days looking for the animals owner.

It is not uncommon that we find that surrendering pet owners are not only callous, but also stupid. When surrendering a pet, the owner will forget that they had adopted the pet from the shelter and the pet had been microchipped prior to adoption.

Animal Control Officers will get calls from citizens asking for assistance to help the owner catch his/her own dog. The owner has developed such a poor relationship with their pet, that it is more likely that a stranger will be able to catch it.

One summer in Virginia, we had a problem of pet sitters surrendering the animals in their care. They would get tired of caring for the pet and surrender the animal to the shelter as a stray. They would not even bother to let us know that an owner will be returning from vacation to look for their pet.

But the biggest problem that we faced is people adopting a new pet and losing the pet before getting the pet inside their home. Even after all of the instructions that we provided, people would choose to drop the leash to let their new pet run to the front door on their own. Hey, guess what? After being caged for a long while, being off leash opened opportunities for new adventures for the pet.

The good news is that the few people who have access to money can pay others to help them be good pet owners. Doggie Day Cares exist to exercise and socialize and you can even hire people to come out and clean up the poop in your yard.

Minimizing the Effect of Euthanasia on Staff

Performing euthanasia is the most stressful aspect of being an animal shelter employee. I witnessed a couple of work burnouts as a result of euthanizing animals that I had become fond of. The problem is greatest for smaller operations.

When I started out in this profession, I handled every aspect of an animal’s cycle through my shelter:

  • I was the Animal Control Officer, responsible for responding to complaints and impounding animals in the field.
  • I was the Animal Attendant, responsible for the daily care of the animals.
  • I was the Vet Tech, responsible for maintaining the daily health of the animals.
  • I was the Shelter Manager, responsible for deciding which animals needed to by euthanized due to shelter overcrowding.
  • I was the Euthanasia Tech, responsible for the euthanizing and disposal of the animals.

Although euthanasia, at any level, is stressful, compartmentalizing each aspect can reduce the stress that is experienced by any one individual.  The greatest stress reliever is to insure that the euthanasia process is handled well; by competent, caring staff.  By relieving stress on the animal, helps relieve stress on those performing the task.

The last moments of an animal’s life should be performed with the greatest compassion.

Hiring New Employees

You would think that having a love for animals would be sufficient to work in an animal shelter; however, much of the work we deal with involves working with people. A high school level of education is sufficient, but I have watched employees struggling with simple math.

I would suggest that you offer an examination that tests applicants on people and math skills. It is not necessary that a person loves animals to be in our field, they just need to appear that they love animals in all that they do.

I always told my staff that when dealing with a person, pretend that they are talking with the Mayor. When dealing with an animal, pretend that they are dealing with my pet.

No Room for Mistakes

This afternoon, I was reminded that as humans, we are susceptible to making mistakes.  Arriving home from a drive thru, I was shorted medium size tatter tots.  Most mistakes are innocuous and cause little or no harm.

One of the greatest stresses of running an animal shelter is that you’ve entered a profession that has little room for mistakes.  Mistakes can throw off drug counts, cause the over (or under) vaccination of an animal and can even cause the death of an animal.  You cannot “undo” many of the mistakes that are available to us in this profession.  As an old carpenter would tell you, “measure twice, cut once.”  It doesn’t hurt to have three eyes on everything that you do.

There is nothing worse that to accidently euthanize an owner’s pet.  For that reason, I would not allow any animal to be euthanized until I looked at the animal and checked it against our records.  We live in a business in which there exist so many similar looking animals, that you can NEVER be too careful.

Moral Obligations

With increasing pressure to maintain high release rates, many animal shelters will fail to report prior dog bites to prospective adopters.  This became such a problem in the Commonwealth of Virginia that a law had to be enacted to force shelters to come forward with an animal’s previous aggressive history.

I experienced this myself, working in Virginia, in which volunteers would attempt to bully me and my staff into ignoring the behaviors that we witnessed, so as to keep the animal on track for adoption.  Because I felt I had a higher calling to protect the public from aggressive animals, the volunteers pushed for my removal.

I am dumbfounded by the thought process that would hide such information from a perspective adopter.  Commonsense should have prevailed in warning a person about a pet’s previous behavior.  But, when it comes to saving animals, commonsense is not so common.  Animal Advocates believe that the life of an animal is a higher priority that the safety of a person, family, or the community.

I find it extremely troubling that it was necessary to force a moral obligation on animal shelters; however, I applaud the Commonwealth for making it necessary for shelters to do the right thing.  Think of the legal ramifications and potential loss of life if shelters were allowed to continue pushing aggressive animals to people.