Getting into their Heads

As animal control professionals, we spend a lot of time trying to get into the heads of the animals that we are preparing for adoption.  When we are not inside the heads of animals, we are inside the heads of their previous owner.  All of this “head time”  frequently leads us down the wrong path.  We often mistake signs of behavior problems to incidents of abuse.  It is much easier to excuse an animal’s behavior, if we wish to believe that the animal was abused.

Claiming an animal is abused frequently helps us on the adoption front whether or not the animal was actually abused; the animal could simply be stubborn.  A prospective adopter would be more willing to accept an abused animal into their household than accept a stubborn one.  We live in a society in which people are in constant search for public praise, so posting to social media that they “rescued” an animal carries more points that claiming they “adopted” an animal.  More points are given to those who take in an “abused” animal.

Shelter staff recognize this social media obsession with “likes” and we feed into that that.  We are quick to post that an animal has been adopted on our Facebook page and even post a photo of the person leaving the shelter with their new pet.  This social media posting does two things: it celebrates one fewer animal in our shelter and it sets the stage of making it more difficult for the new owner to return  the animal.  For a society that seeks praise, we have a low tolerance for people disliking our actions.  Believe me, people can be pretty cruel to other people when their adoption doesn’t work out.

To understand a failed adoption, we have to get inside the minds of an adopter.  Social media has created a group of people who rescue animals in order to receive public praise.  Only in actually adopting an animal does the person find that caring for an animal requires more than praise, it means work; more work than is  necessary for posting on social media.

Too many people adopt animals for the wrong reason and when they find out that they are not ready to bring a new pet into their family, they have to face the wrath of their social media “friends” for turning the animal away.  This social media craze makes it all the more important for adoption screening; but the earnest desire for public approval will cause the worst candidate for adoption to appear as one of the best.  Adoption screening is more necessary than ever and adoption staff needs to look beyond moving an anima out of the shelter to making sure that they are placing animals into the best homes.  Our screen process must consider the possibility that the adopter’s purpose is only to seek out the public approval that the adopter is desperately seeking; these people generally make poor owners and then have to later face a public beating.

Shelter Photos

One of the most important aspects of an animal shelter’s operation is the quality of the photos that are taken of the animals entering your shelter.  It speaks volumes of about your public image: some people will equate the quality of the animal’s photo to the actual care you take of the animal in your care.

I would get frequent complaints about animal control officers photographing cats through livetraps or the plexiglass doors of feral boxes.  Let’s face it, a photo on your website sometimes determines if an animal will be found by its owner; many owners will not make the effort to look for their pet at the animal shelter.  Pet owners will always have an excuse to not search for their pet; today’s pandemic has finally given them a good excuse.

When an animal first enters the animal shelter, a photo should be take of the animal’s head and body for the purpose of identification.  If you cannot safely get a good photo, then describe why in the animal notes and go the extra mile in writing the animals physical description and where the animal was found.   Once the animal has settled down, you’ll want a better photo to encourage the animal’s adoption.

Getting the glamor shots is a good job for volunteers.  Most volunteers will take the animals out on bright sunny days so as to set the  camera’s exposure to gain the greatest depth of field.  Active animals will require the brighter days so as to catch them at a faster shutter speed.  On gloomy days, many shelters will set up studio lights in the shelter to photograph the animals under the better lighting conditions.

Photographing animals can become a contentious issue with volunteers; as they compete against one another for first “photo” spot.  I have had incidents in which the volunteers become hostile against one another.  The purpose of the photos is to improve the chances of an animal being found by its owners or getting adopted; the best photos that you post on your website should depict the animal’s best side and not who took the photo.

Getting Media Attention

This morning, I read a “Lost Dog Finds a New Home” article from a major news outlet.  Animal adoptions occur in our animal shelters every day.  So it is incumbent on animal shelters to be available to your local media on a slow news day.

The media is always looking for news.  If you don’t  provide it to them they’ll make it up.  You can take advantage of slow news days to bring heart warming stories to your community about your animal shelter.  I worked in an area where government officials were fearful of the local media.  I believed that developing a positive relationship with the media would help in times when things go bad.  Since I was the only government official in my county that maintained a good relationship with the media, it was not uncommon for me to sit next to a local reporter during county commission meetings.  The commissioners noticed.  Knowing that I had a good relationship with the media may have helped my organization during budget meetings.

Anytime you are contacted by a reporter concerning a story at your shelter, groom them to see if they are an “animal person.”  Reporters want you to be their go to person when they are looking for a story.  You need to groom them into becoming your go to person when you are seeking media attention.

I’ve always wanted to provide warm and fuzzy stories to the media, but hard luck stories seem to have the greatest impact.  It is okay to report that your shelter is at capacity; it might cause a family that is on the fence about adopting an animal to come to the shelter.  However, announcing an adoption event will bring out people who think adoption events are a good time to surrender their dogs.  I’ve experienced times when we received more animals than we adopted at an event.  You need to be prepared for that.

Always make your stories educational.  When reporting about an animal being hit by a car, let the community know the importance of confining their pets and that having a current license on their pet might make the difference in whether emergency medical treatment is provided at the scene of an accident.  It is always difficult to decide if a critically injured stray dog should received treatment costing several thousands of dollars only to never get adopted; but, if the dog is found with a known owner, it is much easier to send the dog off to the emergency veterinary clinic.  Pet owners need to be constantly reminded that pet ownership is like being a parent; they need to reminded of their responsibility to keep their pets safe.  If you decide to take a chance on an unidentified stray dog, use the media to make a plea for financial assistance; I have never had an incident in which the cost of medical care was not covered by donations.

It has been my experience that new reporters are easiest to approach, they want to make a name for themselves and are eager to be your go to person for their station.  People like pets stories, but it is a lot of work to maintain a good impression.  Always make sure your kennel is clean and fresh smelling (yeah I know).  You want the media and potential adopters to feel good about animals and bad smells and piles of poop distract from that good feeling.

Many animal shelter work out a deal with local television stations to bring an adoptable pet on the morning news.  Well mannered pets are always adored by the cast and crew.  Make sure you take the time to bath a dog in advance; you don’t want the cast to cover their noses during a live taping.  Putting a bow or scarf on the pet is a good touch.  Make sure the pet is tolerant of people’s attention; it is not a good time to test a feral cat with people.

The media can be your friend, you just have to make the effort to maintain that relationship.

Spammer and Hackers

If you have left any footprint on the World Wide Web, you have experienced unwanted emails and phone calls.  The spammers are really worried that I have allowed my automobile warranty to elapse.  In is interesting that each time they call me, they have spoofed a new phone number in my area code.  Spoofing is when the spammer is calling, say from a foreign country, and the caller ID is showing that it is a local call.  I block each number as they call, but spoofing gives them assess to an unlimited number of phone numbers.

I once got a call from someone who claimed that I had just called the.  I had to explain to the guy that spoofing provides spammers any number of phone numbers and my phone number just came up on their list.  He was smart enough to recognize the truth of the matter.  That is why it is fruitless to attempt to return a spammer’s call.  Just let it go.  If the call is important, the caller will leave a voicemail message.  Many people who refuse to leave voicemail messages are faced with a similar crowd that blocks any number that doesn’t leave a message.  If you cannot get through to your friends, you might be blocked.

Those of us who have websites should know that our domain registration is available to the public, unless you pay the extra fee to make the registration private.  Many of the spamming attempts that I have received is a result of my domain registration.  As such, the spammer knows my name, my phone number, and the name of my domain host.  It is not uncommon that I receive emails telling me that I must click on a link to preserve my domain password.  The nice thing about emails is that spammers have no concept of visual arts; all spamming emails look like they were created by five-year-olds.   However, lately, I’ve received phone calls from a person claiming to be from my domain host.  The idea is to try to convince me to upgrade my subscription  or to add new services.  This has a higher chance of being successful because, as I mentioned above, they have my name, my phone number, and the name of my domain host.  My little brother like to talk up a storm with spammers, just to waste their time as they have wasted his; but, I am not on an unlimited cellphone plan and simply say, “If you have any expectations that at the end of this phone call that I am going to give you my credit card number, you are wasting your time.”  That statement is a call killer.  I  had one caller get upset with me for wasting his time by saying anything.  He said that he is just used to people hanging up on him, anything beyond that is a waste of his time.  Poor guy!  Also be on the alert for people claiming to be website developers.  Keep in mind that we didn’t create our websites to allow someone else to take over them.

Almost every animal shelter has a website.  If you are a nongovernment shelter, you probably have created your own website.  Be on the alert for spammers who will attempt to use your domain registration information to fool you into giving them more information, like a credit card number.

The Wild West

I previous blogged about an incident in which a young lady came into the animal shelter carrying a gun on her hip as a means of intimidation to get her dog released.  We are seeing more incidents of public intimidation as people carry AR-15s to protests.  The worst part of that intimidation is that people are looing for an excuse to shoot someone.

We are entering a world of gunfighters; people going from town to town to stir up trouble and test their shooting skills against other gunfighters.  This world is also becoming short tempered.  We are seeing more and more incidents of aggressive behavior on our roads and in our shopping malls.  Unfortunately, people with short tempers are the first ones to purchase a handgun.

I recently saw a You Tube video in which a guy claims he saw the guy in the next car with a gun, when the car pulled in front of him,   He started shooting at the passing car.  He clearly wasn’t smart enough to realize that his own windshield was in the way.  People who shoot out their own windshields should not be allowed to own guns.

Anger, self-entitlement, and guns don’t mix.  As part of any animal shelter disaster plan, your staff needs to know in advance as to how to act in an active shooter in your shelter.   Develop a relationship with your local law enforcement so that they become familiar with the layout of your shelter.  We live in troubling times and you need to prepare for it.

Maintaining Shelter Standards

When I began in the animal welfare profession euthanasia rates were over 90 percent.  35 years later, we are experiencing placement rates at 90 percent.  We have come a long way and there are plenty of people wanting to claim credit for our success.  Many animal shelters have euthanasia rates under 5 percent.

Ten years ago, Delaware created a law that prohibited a shelter from having any empty kennels; I was opposed to Delaware’s law, it created a crisis every time that an Animal Control Officer brought in a stray animal, because there were no empty cages.  Experience teaches every shelter manager to know the number of cages that must be empty to accommodate intakes.  In addition to the number of animals that are delivered by officers, the public is at your front door delivering animals.  No one is going to ask a person to hold on to the animal until someone can go back and “make space.”

Colorado decided to go further, animal shelters cannot euthanize, even if they lack cage space.  Since no  kill has become a moot issue in our shelters as the reach or exceed 90 percent placement rates, politicians are eager to move shelters to the next evolution of animal sheltering:  for the shelter to become a “socially conscious shelter.”   A shelter that does not concern itself with the practical side of animal sheltering but look only to the needs of the animals.  On the surface, this sounds like a great idea.  A socially conscious shelter doesn’t have to worry about cage space.  Whether or not there is cage space, you find a spot for the animal.  And then, try to provide care.

The concept of “just one more animal,” is the premise that starts every animal hoarding situation.  I had to oversee a seizure of 700 cats in which the organization started with just a few and just kept accept “just one more” cat.

The politicians like to get their faces in the media showing their support for saving the animals.  When they are done, they leave one more unfunded mandate and leave the local jurisdictions responsible for administering the mess that they have created. Every community is difference; they allocate different budgets and enjoy different mores.  Due to the uniqueness of communities, they should be allowed to enact their own laws.

What role will the State of Colorado have when they have to deal with shutting down rural animal shelters for either failing to comply with the new law or that they have become hoarders and have insufficient funds and staffing to care for the newfound burden placed on them by the State.

Animal Shelters have a responsibility to care for the animals that come to them.  Forcing them to start hoarding animals is going to diminish the general care that they can provide.  Under the right circumstances, this new law will have unintended inhumane consequences as animal shelters are force to hold  animals beyond their capacity of space and staffing.

Covid 19 and Animal Sheltering

Animal shelter personnel have always had to face the danger of passing diseases throughout their shelter.  We know that the most likely transmission of diseases between animals is through human contact.  The worst offenders are our staff and volunteers.  Some of our staff are just predisposed to kissing each animal that they come into contact with.  During the Covid 19 outbreak, this practice has to stop.

We need to remind staff that their duty is to care for the an animal until the animal’s owner comes forward to reclaim the animal.  It would be horrible to find out that shelter staff is the cause of spreading the Covid 19 virus from them, to the animal, and then to the animal’s owners.

Once an animal is made available for adoption, the risk of infection becomes greater in that multiple people will come into contact with the animal as it is presented for adoption.

As we have always concerned ourselves with the spread of disease within our animal shelter, we must now take further measure to in sure that we don’t let our guard down in spreading disease outside our shelter.

What do you do when your pet is missing?

Let face it, even the most careful person might find themselves faced with looking for their lost pet.  Losing a lost pet can be an emotional disaster.  So, we should prepare for losing our pet as we would any disaster:

Always keep a current photo of your pet on your cell phone.

Keeping an image close will later help in creating flyers and showing people what your pet looks like.  With the interbreeding of animals, breed descriptions are becoming less and less helpful in describing a pet.  We live in times where most pets are described as “pitbull mix.”

Microchip your pet.

As much as I dislike microchipping as a means of identification, it might be the main course of action in getting a pet returned.  When you move, make sure you update your registration with the microchip company.  Always remember that a microchip is invisible to anyone who might find your pet.

Always keep a collar and identification on your pet.

Identification on a pet is the surest method of getting a pet returned.  Having spent many years working in an animal shelter, I know that very few pets are picked up wearing any form of identification.  Make sure the information is current.  Do not depend on the dog’s license alone, many City Clerk maintain ineffective records.

If your pet becomes lost:

Immediately call your local animal control/shelter. 

They can field calls that come in, if someone calls them about finding your pet.  One of the biggest mistakes that most people make is never going to their local animal shelter to look for their lost pet.  Many finders of lost pets will take the pet to the shelter to register that they found the pet.  So if they don’t surrender the pet to the shelter, they will have provided a record to shelter personnel that they have found the pet.  Those found reports are frequently posted on a bulletin board in the lobby of the animal shelter.  Visit your animal shelter daily.

Check lost and found boards on the web.

Many animal shelters will post on their website images of the animals that have been delivered to them.  Many manage a lost and found board where people can post finding a lost pet.  Many communities get carried away with lost and found websites, so check with your shelter to see if there is more that one in your area.  It is not uncommon to have a half dozen websites serving a community and you’ll need to check each one.

Post lost flyers in your neighborhood.

You are more likely to find your cat in posting within a block of your home.  Dogs travel greater distances.  Many grocery stores provide an area in which people can post announcements. Fliers can be found online, here is a random one that I found.

Notify people.

If your pet is microchipped, notify the microchip  company that your pet is lost and use that call to confirm that your contact information is up to date.  Most to animal Facebook groups in your area that your pet is lost.  Notify area veterinary clinics of your missing pet.  The classified section of your local newspaper will have an area to post for lost property (animals).  Many animal shelters have software systems that will  allow you to register your microchip with them, so in the even that your pet is ever brought in, you will be recognized as the owner.

Never give up.

There are countless incidents in which a lost pet is returned weeks, month, or years later.  Don’t give up hope.

Why is the most simple solution so complicated?

I once lived in a small town bordering Canada. We were a close knit community. Except when it came to the local dog. My neighbors would get so angry when the dog was out chasing deer through the community. Some of them talked of killing the dog. The dog’s owner knew how everyone felt, but he just could not find it in himself to make any effort to control his dog.

This is the common theme that we deal with as animal control officers, we see the same people committing the same infractions. It isn’t the dog’s fault, but try convincing the owner of that fact.

Owners seem to be more upset with you impounding their dog, than to appreciate their role in the chain of events. I have encountered numerous times in which the owner just throws up his (or her) hands and just decide to teach the dog a lesson and let the dog sit in the pound (I know, I hate that word too), “to teach it a lesson.”

I have had the opportunity to write a lot of city/county codes on animal ownership and one of my favorites is the ability to charge a person with animal abandonment for failing to reclaim their pet at the shelter. Some people cannot find it in themselves to do the right thing, so government has to force the issue.

The longer that I have been in the animal welfare profession, the more that I questioned if pet ownership is a net gain for the pet. We hear about all of the ways that pets are good for us, but how effective are we in being good for the pet? Especially when we cannot bring ourselves to do the most simple thing of keeping our pets out of trouble.

Working in an animal shelter, you will see incidents of a pet showing such devotion to their owner while their owner abuses them. You will see incidents in which owners will decide that it is easier to kill their pet than to provide basic care. You will see these things and ask yourself, “How did we become the dominant species.?”

God wanted us to be good stewards of our world. It is hard to find a single area in which we followed that directive.

The Risk of Pet Socialization.

One of the greatest gift that you can give to your animals is providing socialization with humans and other animals. We generally refer to this as providing enrichment. However, this can become one of the best ways to pass diseases from one animal to another.

All of the policies and procedures for volunteers and staff to follow between returning one animal and getting another will be insufficient. “Fomites” is the word that we use to describe the problem presented by disease passing from one animal to another  through our clothes, utensils, or furniture. Let’s face it, no volunteer is going to undergo bathing, an exchange of clothing, and sanitation of the room and toys between each socialization event. We had a struggle getting volunteer to wash their hands and change out a leash between walking dogs. That still doesn’t account for any virus left on the volunteer’s clothing.

Disease aside, another issue is dogs bonding to one or two volunteers, only to become aggressive towards everyone else. We had a group of volunteers rebel when the decision was made to euthanize a couple of dogs who became too aggressive for staff to handle. The dogs could only be handled by the two or three volunteers who daily socialized with the animals; the dogs clearly became a threat to everyone else. As more and more shelters try to move to no kill, they are finding that their extremely long holding times are causing a mental deterioration to their dogs or as we call it, “going crate crazy.” Enrichment programs are intended to prevent or delay this mental deterioration.

I am not suggesting that you stop socializing your animals; I am saying that you have to accept the risks. It is critical that we make the time, that an animal spends in our care, as less stressful as possible. You can minimize some of the risks by making sure every animal is vaccinated at intake and that volunteers engage with staff when they are socializing an animal. Whenever possible, staff should take a moment from their busy schedules to socialize with the animals showing the most stress. And monitor each animal to guarantee that insure that every volunteer and staff is protected from a potentially dangerous situation.