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.

Euthanasia Discussion

A few weeks ago, Dave Perry wrote an opinion piece, “End the euphemism for killing unwanted dogs and cats; it’s not euthanasia.”  The point that Mr. Perry was trying to make is that the word euthanasia comes from the Greek meaning “good death.”  Many definitions go further to suggest that the word means to perform this good death to alleviate pain and suffering.  It connotates being a good thing that we administer.

There is nothing good about the fact that we must kill animals because they are born into a world that doesn’t want them.  I know, I know, the no-kill world claims that there is no pet surplus; but, they are idiots.  The surplus of animals differs from community to community.  It is an indicator as to a community’s sensitivity to responsible pet ownership that includes spaying and neutering their animals.

Mr. Perry focused on the usage of the word.  But the act of euthanasia or “killing” takes an emotional toll on the animals and on shelter staff.  Performing this act speaks to the failure that we, as humans, deal with a problem that is caused by us.

I have to agree with Mr. Perry that there is nothing good about the killing of adoptable animals in our shelters.  We can attempt to soften the blow by finding a fancy word to describe our actions, but in the end the animals is dead.  All we have done is to bring the least painful method to killing an animal that is stuck in a small cage.  Those of us who have worked in animal shelters know that the longer an animal sits in a small cage, the more inhumane the confinement becomes.  So the question is to the length of time that an animal must  be held in a cage so that you can justify claiming that you are relieving the animal’s pain and suffering to call its death euthanasia.  The question that is always asked is how long is too long to hold an animal while calling its confinement humane?  That differs from animal to animal and it depends on the enrichment programs that are offered to the animal during its confinement.  The fact that we keep an animal in a cage for two years before it begins to become cage crazy and the animal is “euthanized;” we have to ask if we should look back and claim if holding the animal for such a long period of time, only to be euthanized is humane?  Probably not, but we are always hopeful for a positive outcome.

The no-kill movement doesn’t want us to blame the people responsible for causing the pet overpopulation problem; but, they want to blame the ones who must clean up the mess.

Free Cats

A couple of the animal shelters in my area are hoping to reduce their overpopulation of cats by offering them free for adoption.  One of the advantages of living in the northern States is that we experience one less breeding cycle due to extreme cold weather.  That benefit does not seem to hold for this winter.  It is odd to see infant kittens entering the shelter in the winter months in which it gives a reprieved to shelters dealing with the excess cats in the community.  But, it appears that the cats are adapting.

Many communities face the problem of surplus cats and the cause is a result of our own good intentions.  We see a hungry cat at our door, we feed it.  As I have always said, “If there is sufficient food, cats will breed.”  Well, we must be feeding the hell out of cats.

Every time an animal shelter starts offering “free cats,” someone will come out of the woodwork exclaiming that by doing so, we are devaluing cats.  A free cat sends the message that cats have no value and people will treat the cats as having no vlaue.  I have never witness anyone mistreating a cat because the cat was free.  Animal Shelters face the problem of people giving away free kittens in front of shopping malls.  An Animal Shelter would be smart to compete and fill the community with spayed and neutered kittens than to push their community to the free unsterilized cats offered for sale by irresponsible cat owners.

The fact that Animal Shelters are offering cats for free is evidence of the following:

  •  The No Kill Movement is lying to us that there is no pet overpopulation.
  •  Low cost spay/neuter programs are necessary to curb the overpopulation problem.
  •  Trap, neuter and release (TNR) programs are a critical component of reducing the feral cat problem in our communities.
  • The community needs to understand their role in creating this problem.

I wish the shelters well in their efforts.

 

No-Kill Confusion

I recently watched a YouTube video that demonstrats the confusion that people have about no-kill.   The author of the video, Kitten Lady, wrote, “Did you know that baby kittens can still be killed in a “no-kill” shelter? Watch my video to learn about how the standards in the Asilomar Accords fail to protect the tiniest and most vulnerable felines. It’s important for the public to know that even in “no-kill” communities, kittens still need our help and protection! ”

For the most part, Kitten Lady was right on about the struggles that animal shelter faces in trying to find homes for all of their animal guests, but she really missed the boat with she described the Asilomar Accords as an insurance policy.  The Asilomar Accords is a system to describe the health of an animal at intake and disposition.  Its intent is to provide a better understanding of decisions that are made toward an animal.  The shelter makes its euthanasia decisions based on the animal’s health, as well as overcrowding conditions and resources.  As I mentioned in the previous post, kitten season, the decision to euthanize kittens is the result of all of these factors.  The Asilomar Accords only provided a definition as to the kitten’s health condition at the time.  Being no-kill has little to do with whether an animal shelter kills kittens; it is about reducing their euthanasia to 10% of their total intakes.  Many shelters have programs that provide for the fostering of infant kittens.  Many kittens pasted through my home and I’ll be damned if anyone was going to euthanize them.

I suspect that video bloggers “stretch” their story to get people to watch their videos.  If they stretch it far enough, it becomes fake news.  It may also be a teaser for an new book that she is writing.

Kitten Season

The onset of kitten season is one of the most dreaded times for animal shelters.  Kitten season is one of the greatest factors that makes or breaks an animal shelter calling itself a no-kill shelter.   And demonstrates the nasty side of mother nature by flooding the animal shelter with kittens two to four times each year, many of the kittens being neonatal (unable to eat without assistance).  Factors that regulated the severity of kitten season are access to food, climate, and communicable diseases.

Although population is the primary limiting factor in are area’s carrying capacity, providing an additional food source will extend the carrying capacity beyond its natural limits.  As long as there is an adequate food source, cats will breed.  People who are feeding outside cats are providing the cats with incentive to continue to reproduce.

The northern states are more likely to have fewer breeding cycles due to harsh weather.  Freezing temperatures serve to discourage a breeding cycle or kill any young offspring.   The fewer breeding cycles provide the shelter with few incidents of shelter overcrowding.

Communicable diseases (usually feline panleukopenia) will usually kill off many kittens shortly after birth.  The disease also presents a major risk to the animal shelter as the community and local animal control officers bring in diseased cats at a time when the shelter is at its greatest capacity.  It is not uncommon to read new reports of animal shelter having to euthanize their entire cat population to rid the shelter of potential vectors while the shelter undergoes a disinfecting process.

All of these factors will cause the increase in euthanasia at the animal shelter.  If the number of euthanasias drive the number of total deaths over ten percent, the shelter loses its right to call itself no-kill.

When Going the Extra Mile is Not Enough

I have had the opportunity to participate in the evaluation  of animal sheltering over the past 30 years.  We migrated from index card record keeping to computer systems that post photos of lost pets on the Internet.  I have always encouraged my staff to go the extra mile in getting a pet back to his or her owner.

The evolution of the pet owner has evolved to recognizing the importance of spaying and neutering (in most of the country); but pet owners have not become better a vaccinating their pets or taking the initiative to look for their lost pets.

Animal Shelters are receiving less annual intakes due to spay/neutering efforts.  Shelters are not less crowded because animals are being held longer in hopes of finding them a new home.  Pit bull dogs are the greatest problematic breed because the breed occupies 50 percent of the kennel space in shelters.

When I first got into the business of animal welfare, a university veterinary professor told me the best way to control disease in an animal shelter is to not overcrowd the shelter.  Overcrowding causes stress to the animals and the maintaining a large number of animals will likely introduce disease.  As a result of the no kill movement, shelters are maintained in a state of overcrowding and as such shelters are frequently battling disease outbreaks.  If pet owners had previously vaccinated their pets, we would see fewer disease outbreaks.

The most notable issue that we see in animal shelters is the failure of pet owners to look for their lost pets.  The usual excuse is that, “He is always getting out and eventually comes home.”   The most important factor in being a pet owners is that the own should be smarter than their pet.  Pet owners should be able to create an escape proof yard.  I suspect that many pet owners are just too lazy to go looking for their lost pet, in many cases pet owners report they learned about their dog being in the shelter through a friend or social media.

In most of the country, animal shelters maintain a three day holding period.  Most reasonable people would realize that their pet is missing in three days and go to the shelter.  The three day period is sufficiently short that the animal is unlikely to breakout with a disease by coming into the shelter unvaccinated.  The owner can deal with the symptoms when they get home.

In an effort to cater to local communities, some shelters extend the holding periods up to 10 days.  Even with the longer holding periods, many pet owners find the time too short.  The problem with longer holding periods is that an unvaccinated pet may start showing symptoms of disease during day 5 or 6.   The animal shelter is then faced with treating the animal’s disease and becomes a risk to other animals.

Nothing is more upsetting than to have an animal owner reclaiming their sick lost dog on day nine and blame shelter staff for the animal’s illness.  It is easier to announce how dirt the shelter is with disease infested animals, than to admit that the owner didn’t see the importance of vaccinating their pet.

Due to the nature of animal shelters, there will ALWAYS be animals with diseases in them.  If you are not going to vaccinated your pet, then you should make sure that your pet never ends up in an animal shelter.  The only way to keep disease out of an animal shelter is to shut its doors to incoming animals.

Most animal shelters recognized the deficiency of pet owners in vaccinating their pets, so they vaccinate the pets on intake.  The problem with vaccinations is that they don’t begin to take effect for six to seven days and it is minimal affect at that.  So why do we bother vaccinating?  It is all part of going the extra mile for the animal.

Now it is time for pet owners to start going the extra mile for their pets.  They can begin by placing identification on their pets and begin looking for their lost pet within the first 24 hours.  The shorter the time an animal spends in an anima shelter the safer the animal will be from disease.

No Kill Announcement

One of the greatest desires of an animal shelter is to announce that they have met the criteria to call themselves No Kill.  It is a feel good moment for the shelter.  But there is often a backlash to such public declarations.

Many years ago, a shelter in northern Florida announced that it had gotten to the place where all healthy (without medical or behavioural problems) animals were being adopted.  The public misinterpreted this to mean that the shelter was no kill.  This misinterpretation lead to an increase of owner surrendered animals.  Owners are relieved of their guilt my surrendering their pets to a no kill facility.  We became overwhelmed.

The City of Austin experienced problems early on when they announced that they were no kill and all of a sudden they were being overwhelmed by people bringing in animals from surrounding countries.  So the tax payers in the City were taking on the expense for animals that were coming in from outside their jurisdiction. 

Sometimes we are so eager to announce a joyous occasions that we forget to prepare for its impact.  Many animal shelters announce that they are having an adoption event and frequently they will intake more animals than they adopt because people see an adoption event as a good time to surrender their pet guiltfree. 

The Cost of No Kill

There are many costs associated with no kill:

The definition of no kill

The term “no kill” is misleading.  Many people believe that the term means that every animal at an animal shelter is saved from death.  A rational person would realize that shelters deal with critically sick and injured animals and that a humane euthanasia is necessary.  In the early days of the no kill movement, organizations accepted a ninety percent live release rate as acceptable; so, any shelter releasing over ninety percent could call itself no kill.

Today, there is more pressure to increase the live release rate to something near one hundred percent.  So, the meaning of “no kill” is not clearly defined.

Financial costs

The no kill leaders contend that there are no costs associated with no kill.  Austin Texas is a good example as to proving how wrong they are.  Austin wanted to be the first major no kill city in American.  Austin had to build a new shelter and each year has had to contribute more funding for staff.  Volunteers are now complaining that the shelters are too full and that the staff cannot maintain humane care, so they are faced with another dilemma as to whether they have sufficient funds to build another shelter.

The cost to public safety

As the no kill movement progresses, more and more media is directed at animal shelters ignoring public safety.  Reports of animal shelter workers mauled by dogs in their care and adopters facing a reality that shelter staff failed to report aggressive tendencies of their new pet.  Many areas of the country are facing raising concern about the integrity of adoption organizations providing false information about the previous aggression that a dog has shown.  It became such a problem in Virginia that the Commonwealth had to create laws to make it illegal to lie about an animal’s history of aggression.  So another cost associalted with no kill is the loss of integrity of adoption organizations. 

Programs like managed intakes is a method shelters used to force owners and people finding stray animals from surrendering the animals to the shelter.  As a result many of them turned away from the shelter just release the animal to run loose in the country.

Lies, damn lies, and shelter statistics

Speaking of a shelter’s integrity, the no kill movement has led shelter managers to manipulate their intake and disposition statistics to make the shelter appear to have a higher live release rate.  The idea is that if a shelter cannot attain no kill status in real life, maybe they can on paper.

One shelter in Florida received national recognition for taking the domestic cats that they receive and returning them back into the community as stray cats.  The debate is whether it is better for the animals to have a chance at living or if they are creating a way that the animals will slowly starve out on the streets.  Either way, it is a great boost to their no kill statistics.

Public relations

It is interesting that an animal shelter director was taking heat in one locality for putting the public at risk, only to be hired by another locality to further their cause towards no kill.

The public is very vocal, but the public is not always right.  Shelter directors are always under pressure to have the highest live release rate.  That pressure causes them to make bad decisions.  As those bad decisions become worse, shelters are being sued for endangering the public (another financial cost).

It is becoming increasingly more difficult for animal shelter directors to make the decision to protect the public because the public demand seems to stop euthanasia.  We are a community of people seeking something to be enraged about, stopping euthanasia has all of the makings of being a good cause; except, it is based in ignorance. 

Cost to the animals

The initial cost of no kill is finding space for all of the animals.  Space is a constant.  Some shelters seek methods to keep animals out of their shelters (see the blog on managed intakes).  Most shelters just stockpile them.  I suspect that is the present concern with the Austin shelter.  Once a shelter begins stockpiling animals, more animals suffer abuse either through attacks by other dogs or lack of care.  It always becomes an issue of humane care.

More and more shelters are forced to take in animals from the same folks who have been rescuing for them.  Shelters and rescues seem to be unable to understand their maximum capacity.  As the number of animals increase, the stress to those animals increase.

I have always found it odd that the no kill movement leaders keep claiming that there is no pet overpopulation.  They tell us that it is a myth.  That folks like me are fabricating the myth to justify euthanasia.  After all, we can always make room for one more… can’t we?

Cost to the Five Freedoms

The purpose of animal welfare is to protect animals from unnecessary suffering:

  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst by ready access to fresh water and diet to maintain health and vigor.
  2. Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
  3. Freedom from pain, injury or disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
  4. Freedom to express normal behavior by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
  5. Freedom from fear and distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering

As shelters strive to become no kill, many times they have to compromise on our pledge to hold to their five freedoms.  It is very noble to try to save all of the animals in our shelters, but it should not be at the expense of the loss of humane care.

Social Media, the Back Story

It is no secret as to my feelings about social media.  I see it as a medium to turn normal people into bullies; to provide a soapbox to liars.

I have to give the no kill movement credit for turning me against social media.  The movement turns animal shelters into battlegrounds when the leaders of that movement encouraged volunteers to turn against the shelters that they volunteered for.

Volunteers are told that they were protected when speaking out against euthanasia as a first amendment right.  They are told stories of how volunteers speaking out made the difference.  They are told to take control of their shelter.  The movement’s intent is to turn animal shelter volunteers into no kill activists.

Most stories of volunteers “getting out of control” begins with the euthanasia of one or more animals.  Due to longer holding periods, it becomes more and more critical for animal shelters to provide enrichment programs to keep animals calm.  Those programs (like walking the dogs) work on most animals, but some just don’t respond to being caged for long periods of time.

Volunteers bond with the animals while taking dogs for walks.  The dogs bond with the volunteers.  In rare cases, a dog will only accept the volunteer; while aggressive to others.  When a dog becomes aggressive to animal shelter staff, a decision needs to be made concerning the dog.  If the decision is to euthanize the dog, the volunteer will not understand and might lash out at the people making that decisions.

In lashing out, the volunteer will garner support from other volunteers and create petitions, create narratives on social media, go to the local media and may even organize protests.  Their intent is to demonstrate to shelter management that volunteers should be feared.

The no kill movement has a motto that if you can put enough pressure on a shelter manager, they will leave.  If you go through enough managers, eventually you will get one that you like.  One who will place animals before people.  One who will ignore aggressive warning signs in dogs to adopt them out to families.  One who will do everything that he/she is told to do by the volunteers.

It appears that I am not alone.  A NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that 57 percent of Americans believe social media sites do more to divide the country and 55 percent said that the sites are more likely to spread lies and falsehoods.  The poll said that 61 percent thought that social media did more to spread unfair attacks and rumors against public figures and corporations.

Managed Intakes

Many animal shelters continue to fight their statistics to reach or maintain their status as a no kill shelter.  Most shelters that reach a 90% live release rate is considered no kill; but, there is a movement afoot to demand a live release rate of over 90%; many (uninformed) individuals believe a 100% live release rate is possible.  To attain higher live release rates shelters would have to adopt critically ill or injured animals as well as vicious animals.

The live release rate is controlled by intakes and dispositions.  Intakes are controlled by the number of people delivering animals to the shelter and those animals impounded by animal control officers on the streets of your community.  In some communities, animal control officers provide taxis service to people claiming that they have no transportation to take their pets to the shelter; even though a new model automobile is sitting in the drive way (they just don’t want to get the upholstery dirty.

Dispositions are the various outcomes that remove animals from the animal shelter’s inventory.  Dispositions include euthanasia, which is the disposition that most people object to.  Animal shelters have gotten good at explaining the justification for euthanasia, but shelters face those who armchair quarter back those decisions.  The primary way to reduce euthanasia is to control intakes through a mechanism called “managed intakes.”

People have gotten used to being able to dump their pets at the animal shelter for the most ignorant reasons: granny is coming for a visit, the pet doesn’t match the furniture; but mostly, the pet is too much work.  In order to maintain the flow of pets into the shelter, people are asked to wait for an opening.  I believe pet owners should play a role in the surrendering of their pet; but I do not believe that people finding stray animals should have to be placed in queue to turn in a stray.  This is happening fairly frequently at shelters.  Pet owners and people finding strays are left with few options in dealing with strays and problem pets.

One of the rules with animal adoption agencies is that an adoption agency will always accept back a failed adoption.  In Roanoke Virginia, our local humane society would use a process to force people into long wait times to return a pet that was not working out; they would direct the person to the public shelter to surrender the pet.  Once surrendered to the public shelter, at the humane society’s convenience, they would determine if they would “rescue” the pet back.  It was a contentious issue because the public shelter was always at capacity and the humane society operated at half capacity.  But, I digress…

With the high influx of animals coming into a facility, shelters devived a mechanism to bring the flow to a trickle and called it Managed Intakes.  For the first time, pet owners were forced to see the impact of their decisions and were told to wait for a better time.  During the waiting period, pet owners would be encouraged to find a different solution, maybe even take their pet to training to solve behavior issues.  Mostly, pet owners just called animal control to report their pet as a stray.

There are a few success stories as a result of shelters using this tactic, but due to the nature of people, Managed Intakes just push your intakes on to other organizations.  When people make up their minds that they have to get rid of their pet, there is usually no changing their minds.

Communities that are dealing with high euthanasia, the solution may not be an issue of poor shelter management; something else in the community could be impacting the situation.  The no kill movement is not concerned as to how your shelter has gotten to the place of high euthanasias, they just want to blame the shelter staff.  Shelter staff are now pushing the problem on through new mechanisms to manage their intakes; sometimes exasperbating the problem of stray running loose in your community.