Mission Conflicts

Many organizations create a mission statement.  Some reduce the mission statement down to a few-word motto.  Like the police, “to protect and serve.”  In the animal welfare business, I used the motto, “protecting pets and people.”  Over the years, that motto has taken on different meanings.

Early in my career, our mission was clearly weighted towards protecting people from the dangers of animals and protecting animals from cruelty.  In that mission balance, people were given first priority.  Our primary mission was to remove stray animals from our streets.  It was a common practice to euthanize animals when the shelters became overcrowded.  We accepted that as necessary.

Our mission began to change during the no-kill movement.  Animals started becoming our first priority and, in an effort to become a no-kill shelter, many shelters stopped patrolling the streets for stray animals and eventually began refusing to accept animals at their shelter, just so that no animals were killed.

Once animal shelters had met the definition of no-kill, by reducing their euthanasia death to 10%, the shelters were pressured to go beyond 10%.  Animal shelters were pressured to keep alive animals that were clearly not adoptable.  Shelters began keeping animals for much longer periods of time.  Animal shelters were no longer able to provide their animals quality care.

Then the pandemic struck.  People started abandoning animals at a higher rate, and shelter staffing hit an all-time low.  Overcrowding became commonplace and the quality of care dropped further.

Anyone who has ever seen the layout of an animal shelter will realize that shelters were never constructed for long-term care.  The cages are too small to preserve the spacing needed to keep an animal sane.  I recently saw an animal shelter come under fire for failing to put dog beds out for their animals.  Pictures of the kennels clearly show that a dog bed would take up the entire floor space of the kennel.  Shelters were constructed back in the time when animals were kept only for days, not months.  Now with overcrowding, many animals have to be doubled up in those small kennels.  It is surprising that more shelter managers are not charged with animal cruelty.

Following the pandemic, we were hit with inflation.  With the rising costs of caring for an animal, we are witnessing an ever more increase in shelter overcrowding as people abandon their pets because of an unsure future.  All the while, the shelter mindset is still to preserve the life of every animal even while the quality of care continues to further erode.  It is a time in which we have lost our ability to protect either pets or people.

As a profession, we have given up on the notion of managing our shelter population.  We are in the era of managing our shelter overcrowding.

It is necessary that animal shelter management make difficult decisions and stop being afraid to do the right thing for the animals in our care.  The bullying that shelters take to save all of the animals is putting those same animals at risk.  You have to ask yourself; can you save them all?  If you said, “Yes”, then you need to ask yourself, at what cost?

Dangerous Dog Laws

Recently, I was confronted with two issues concerning dangerous dog laws; the first was President Biden claiming that the Secret Service is lying about his dogs biting them and the other was an article that I ran across claiming that animals are not adequately represented in current dangerous dog legislation.

Having worked in the animal control business for most of my life, Biden is like every other pet owner who thinks the victims are to blame for getting bit.  It is owners who fail to take responsibility are the ones that necessitate the need for dangerous dog laws.

Concerning the article: DANGEROUS DOG LAWS: FAILING TO GIVE MAN’S BEST FRIEND A FAIR SHAKE AT JUSTICE .  The writers are correct, dogs don’t get a fair shake when accused of presenting harmful behavior toward people.  They can’t tell their story, so we have to act on their behavior.   Behavior that a responsible pet owner would keep in check.

Most dangerous dog laws seem to fall on the notion of one free bite.  After that bite, the owner has full knowledge of the propensity of the dog to be potentially dangerous.  Unfortunately, like the parents of an unruly child, people fail to recognize the behavior long after it is too late.

Dangerous dog laws are like other laws that remove potential hazards from society.  That’s what we have jails for.  But there are no long-term facilities for dogs.  In the old days, judges used to run dogs out of town.  Some probably still do.  So that they can become a problem for another jurisdiction to deal with.  I am guilty of warning the animal control officers of the jurisdiction in which one of my dogs was vanquished to them.

Dogs are considered personal property.  As such, the dog owner must be afforded due process.  However, this particular piece of property has its’ own mind and may act against the owner’s desires.  The purpose of dangerous dog laws is to protect society.   When an owner cannot control the behavior of his pet, the animal may be headed down the path of euthanasia.  Is it fair, of course not, but it is the only mechanism that we have to deal with the problem; because responsible pet owners are in such short supply.

The bottom line is that dogs have to live in our world.  That is why they have owners.  When owners fail, dog laws begin.

 

 

First Adoption Rights

In rare occurrences, an animal will come into the animal shelter that becomes the battleground for first adoption rights. It is incumbent on shelters to create adoption policies that minimize adoption conflicts.

Finders

To encourage finders of a lost pet to surrender a found animal to the animal shelter, animal shelters will award first adoption rights to them. The reasoning is simple: a pet owner is more likely to find their lost pet in the animal shelter than in the home of the person who found the pet on the streets. If a finder is interested in keeping the pet, giving the finder first adoption rights might aid in the finder coming forward to report the pet found.

Shelter Staff and Volunteers

Most shelters operate on a first come first serve bases for pet adoptions. Animal shelter staff has an advantage because they work at the shelter and will know about the animal when it first comes into the shelter. You might wish to give your staff the same access to pets as other members of the community, but you must ensure that shelter staff does not take advantage of their position as employees of the animal shelter.

Animal Shelters should require their staff and volunteers to undergo the same adoption screening as any other potential adopters and place a limit on the number of pets that they can adopt from the shelter. If you require home checks prior to adoption, then your staff should be required to undergo the same check. You do not want your staff to undergo public attention when it is discovered that one of them is an animal hoarder or is selling pets out of their homes.

Other Animal Rescue Organizations

Many “rescues” will want to pick the most adoptable animals because the highly adoptable animals are the ones that draw potential adopters to their organization. It is not uncommon for people to complain that their animal shelter only has pitbull dogs available for adoption because the rescues are selecting the best animals for their organizations. If the animal shelter wants people to come to their facility to adopt, you are going to want to keep a couple of these desirable animals to draw people in. Although you want to encourage animal rescues to come to your shelter; you do not want to discourage your community from coming because the rescues have taken all of your choice animals.

If you are adopting the first come first serve adoption policy, you’ll need to decide when you will start gathering names of potential adopters. I would suggest that you begin when the animal first comes into your possession. Although the animal isn’t available for adoption, that doesn’t mean that you can’t start taking names. I worked in a shelter that wouldn’t take the names of potential adopters until when the animal became available for adoption. Due to that policy, people were sleeping in their cars at the animal shelter waiting for the doors to open when an animal came available for adoption. After getting your list of potential adopters, you need to decide how long you will give a person to adopt the animal before moving on to the next person on the list.

Owners

You might be asking yourself why I would put a section for owners. Murphy’s Law applies to pet owners. It is a common occurrence that pet owners will show up sometime during the application process for their lost pet. Even with stray hold times that exceed 10 days, an owner will begin looking for their lost pet on day eleven. In dealing in these situations, I have always allowed the owner to reclaim their pet IF the adoption process has not been completed. If I have transacted the adoption then the pet is no longer mine to decide. The pet legally belongs to the adopter.

You can make the owner’s plea to the adopter, but the decision is theirs. If the owner asks for the adopter’s contact information, you should treat the request as a Freedom of Information request and consult your local policies in processing the request. Since contact with a previous owner can be volatile, you should contact the adopter to advise that you have been required to give out that information. It is the right thing to do so that the owner just doesn’t unknowingly appear on their doorsteps demanding the dog back.

If you are in the position to allow the dog owner to reclaim their pet, keep in mind that you ARE Not adopting their pet back to them, you are allowing them to reclaim their pet. It is very rare that I would ever waive any of the fees, including boarding fees, in such situations.

It becomes more difficult when the animal has been handed off to a rescue organization. Keep in mind that when you completed the paperwork for the animal, the animal is no longer the property of the shelter. Most rescue groups do not share my feelings about returning a pet to the owner who has been so severely negligent. The rescue has the property rights to the animal and the decision is theirs to make. If you earnestly believe that the animal should be returned to the owner, then the only tool at your disposal is to offer a sweetheart deal for some future rescue as an incentive for the organization.

Legal Note

Under most jurisdictions, lost pets are treated as property and come under laws that govern lost property. It has always been a contentious issue as to when a person takes possession of a lost pet and when that pet becomes their own property. It is quite possible that the animal never becomes their property by law. Only animal shelters can lawfully take possession of an animal following their prescribed stray holding requirements.

The short of it is that if an owner appears years later, that only an animal obtained through an animal shelter gives the person legal status as the owner that overrides that of the previous owner. These laws are not well known but few people go to court to battle over a long-lost pet.

Why didn’t you put my dog back into its yard?

A pet owner frequently asks why their lost pet wasn’t placed back into their yard when the animal is found running loose.  After all, that is an expected outcome for a pet that is wearing an ID tag or license.  The problem arises that when an Animal Control Officer picks up a loose pet, he or she becomes responsible for that animal.   The dog owner would be the first to blame the Officer if the animal was returned to its yard and got out again only to be hit by a car.  After, all it escaped from the yard in the first place.

Telephone Etiquette

When hunting down the owners of lost pets, the telephone is our primary tool. There are plenty of websites that offer information as to the etiquette of answering the phone, but few on placing calls.

The first rule is to determine when to call. It is usually safe to call between 9 AM and (9 PM) but to be cautious, I always placed my calls between 10 AM and 8 PM. It is important that when given the opportunity, you should leave a message on the answering machine and document the exchange in your records.

If after multiple attempts, it becomes necessary to extend the attempts of contact the (possible) owner outside your usual times in case the person works shifts. You may need to try odd hours. You would be surprised at the number of people that I had to reach late at night or very early in the morning (they were surprised as well). Let’s face it, we now live in a time where we try to avoid calls, even if they are to report a found pet.

Keep trying to contact the owner several times a day until the stray hold is up. Documenting each attempt to reach the owner is critical because owners seem to mysteriously come forward days after their pet becomes available for adoption or after it is adopted. The documentation is necessary because pet owners never seem to understand their role in failing to reclaim their pets.

What is it like being an Animal Services Director?

Most people would think that the job of being an Animal Services Director is a day filled with playing with pets.  In reality, the job is about preparing for worst-case scenarios:

Owner surrendered Pets:

Due to shelter overcrowding, many shelters make the decision to euthanize owner-surrendered pets upon intake.  This is a big mistake because family fights might lead the most ignorant member of the family (usually the husband) to surrender the family’s pet out of anger.  Usually one of the reasonable family members will go to the shelter to reclaim the pet.  Animal shelters should provide a two or three hold so as to not be faced with telling the family that their pet is dead.

Drop Dead Dates:

After “hounding” a pet owner to reclaiming their pet, many shelters will issue a deadline as to the last day that the owner can reclaim their pet.  It has been my experience that pet owners do not under deadlines and I have had many pet owners coming to reclaim their pet two or three days after being given a deadline.  It is usually a good idea to NOT hold firm to your own deadlines.

Potentially Dangerous Dogs:

Most animal shelter volunteers think that the primary purpose of an animal shelter is adopting dogs.  The primary purpose of an animal shelter is to protect the community.  Shelter staff and volunteers frequently fight over the adoptability of a particular animal.  My motto is that it is better to have a volunteer mad at me than explaining why I adopted a dangerous animal into a family with children.  Public safety should always come first.  Trust me, I have worked with plenty of volunteers that don’t understand that.  It is not uncommon for your own staff to side with the volunteers because they fear social fallout.

Working with Rescue Groups:

A rescue group can be the best thing that ever happens to an animal shelter.  It can also be the worst.  When working with a rescue group, maintain constant vigilance over the group to make sure that they are acting responsibly and are maintaining the correct numbers of animals.  Our seizure of nearly 700 cats in Florida is evidence of a group that had gotten sorely out of control.

Always tell the truth:  

In my career, I have only lied once, by omission.  There are a lot of anti-vaccine pet owners.  I came across one in Portland Oregon that refused to allow his pet to be vaccinated for rabies.  Our ordinance required that dogs and cats had to have a current rabies vaccination prior to being reclaimed by the owner.  Fortunately, like every ordinance, after the stray holding time, his animal became the property of our county.  Once the animal became our animal, I vaccinated it and called the owner to come to reclaim his dog.  I let him believe that I had let him win.  If he had asked me straight out, I would have told him what I had done.  Of course, we didn’t give him a copy of his rabies vaccination certificate, but the record was in our system.  Integrity is one of the most important traits that we must keep.

Always hold the line:

In our business, we are under constant pressure to surrender some of our integrity or put the public at risk.  You have to be prepared to lose your job over your beliefs.  Being fired isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you; giving up some of your integrity is.

At the time, I didn’t feel that getting fired was a badge of honor; but in reflection, getting fired was the best thing that ever happened to me.  I have been fired a few times:

    • I was first fired over disputing a citation quota system demanded by our Finance Director.
    • I was laid off when the Department Director was looking to fill slots for his friends in the Sanitation Department.  Boy was that a big mistake.
    • I was fired when a single long-term employee refused to accept that opening the shelter to rescue groups and volunteers was the next step in the shelter’s evolution.  The Board of Directors didn’t want to impinge on the long relationship that they had had with this employee.
    • And finally, I was fired because my Board of Directors could not face the social media surrounding the euthanizing of two dangerous pitbulls that the volunteers insisted should be adopted.

Being an Animal Services Director is more than just preparing for the worst-case scenario, but it is about doing the right thing.

Creating Your Own Hazmat Kit

It is not uncommon in our profession to be called upon to enter a house that presents environmental concerns. After visiting your first house, you will quickly decide that you need to prepare for your next.

Your first consideration is clothing. You will want disposable coveralls, shoe covers, and gloves. Most homes that will require your hazmat kit will be rich in fecal matter. You’ll want to get as little of that on your clothing as possible.

You may be going into a methane/ammonia-rich environment and a facemask will become necessary. You’ll need to decide if you want a full facemask that covers your entire face or a half mask that just covers your mouth and nose. It is important that you get the right size mask. You’ll want the methane/ammonia cartridge on your mask. If you find it hard breathing with a facemask, you can opt for a forced air respirator that takes the burden off of your lungs when trying to suck air through your cartridge filter.

You might consider purchasing a methane detector. The detector can give you the probable cause to enter the house and proved the health department the ability to condemn it. Some of the most successful operations I have experienced are working with my local law enforcement and health department. It doesn’t hurt to have your fire department’s hazmat team available. Although, I have been at locations where the hazmat teams refused to enter the home.

The most important item that you’ll want to have is flea spray when you exit the home. You may want flea spray as a regular item in all of your animal control trucks. Maybe two or three cans. You’ll be glad that you did.

Don’t forget the Duct Tape for taping the wrists and ankles of your overalls. And keep garbage bags available so that you have a way to dispose of your disposable garments when you are finished.

Each incident that you become involved with will aid you in deciding what items need to be added to your hazmat kit. The key to your kit is to keep you safe.

Use of Force

One of the worst things for the public to see is the use of a catchpole on a dog that has never been on a leash. Even the most experienced Animal Control Officer will receive criticism on a perfect capture.

One of the animal trainers from another humane society complained to me about the excessive force used by one of our Animal Attendants. As things usually go, the complaint found its way to our Executive Committee. Fortunately for us, we had cameras throughout the facility that allowed us to show the incident for all to critic.

This incident showed that the animal trainer was looking for an excuse to criticize our organization. Although the criticism was unfounded, we still had to ask ourselves if it is necessary for that particular animal to be walked on a catchpole, rather than a leash.

The decision to use a catchpole is dependant on the person’s experience and training, as well as the potential behavior of the animal. Although I hate seeing animals on catchpoles, I know that animals can be unpredictable and the safety of my staff comes first.

When you decide to use a catchpole, you should always be alert to the amount of pressure of the noose. Nothing will freak out an animal more than being choked. The noose should be only sufficiently tight enough to prevent the animal’s escape. If an animal begins fighting at the other end of your catchpole, you should not fight the animals, but rather use the animal’s movements to herd the animal to your truck. Once at your truck, position the animal muzzle away from you so that with your free hand you can lift the animal up into your truck. At this point, the catchpole is to be used to safely position the dog to prevent you from being bitten.

It is generally never a good idea to attempt to use a catchpole on a cat; however, sometimes you might be faced without the proper equipment. Always try to place the noose around the neck and one leg. Attempt to keep the cat on the ground until you can scoot a carrier or place a net to further secure the cat.

We live in a world of cell phones. If you think that your capture is going to look bad, call for additional help. Having additional assistance will aid you in a humane capture. After each capture, critic yourself. Each capture will help you decide if you are properly equipped to handle your next capture.

Reoccurring Theme with Dog Bite Incidents

A recent incident of dogs attacking and killing a New Jersey child causes me dismay as the dogs’ owner failed to heed previous warnings about the danger his dogs presented to the community.  These cases continue to arise because pet owners are not held accountable for their dog’s actions and as such are not properly charged with reckless endangerment or homicide.  Prosecutors need to understand that simply having the animals euthanized is insufficient justice.  The animals had to pay the price for bad owners; now the owners need to feel the hand of justice for the terror they unleash upon their community.

Who Do You Serve?

One of the greatest challenges that you’ll face is the constant question as to who do you serve?  Many people getting into the animal welfare profession will tell you that they are “here for the animals.”  That is a noble cause, but are animals all that you serve?

When you start your job, you are going to find competing demands as to who you serve.  You’ll have to have some loyalty to the bureaucrats who hired you, after all that in addition to the salary that they pay you, they control the purse stings for your organization.  You will find it critical to your cause to quickly respond to commission or council members.  Having friendly folks on your commission/council will be advantageous at  budget time.  I had a County Manager in Florida who wanted to drastically cut our budget; fortunately we have several “friends” on the Commission who stopped him and in the end our budget was increased.

Do not forget that you have your community to serve.  Don’t worry, there will be plenty of them to remind you that they pay your salary.  No matter how demanding that they can become, they are your primary responsibility.  Every thing that we do much insure the safety of your community.

Your volunteers may expect that they become your primary focus.  In Virginia we had volunteers that wanted to “drive the boat.”  They wanted animals to supersede our mission to keep our community safe.  They were very vocal  in our community.  In previous posts, you will see that this was a problem for many shelters in Virginia.  Too many shelters gave in to the forces that wanted them to adopt potentially dangerous dogs.  Many of them later faced lawsuits for failing in their duties to protect the public.

Above all else, you have to serve yourself.  You have to protect your personal and professional integrity and that of your organization.  I got into a lot of hot water with my Board because they didn’t like condescension caused by volunteers not getting their way.  Sometimes even your Board of Directors forget who they are supposed to serve.  You must be willing to risk your job in order to keep your community safe.

The most important factor in your career is to constantly maintain the balance to those who you serve.  “Be true to thy own self.”