Deep in the Trenches

In previous posts, I mentioned the risks involved in working in the field of animal welfare. Those risks included getting fired. I have been fired. Multiple times. I hold them as trophies for doing the right thing or for just being pigheaded. You decide.

I was the animal control officer for a neighboring town while completing my degree. With a diploma in hand, I began my job hunt.

Lane County, Oregon: I was hired as the Field Supervisor. The job required that I work 11 or 12-hour days and then handle all of the emergency calls at night. It is amazing how quickly a new job can wear you down. Animal Control fell under the Finance Director. You can imagine that the only interest he had was numbers. And so it was. He placed a citation quota on all of the animal control officers and only those who met his quota of 40 citations a month would see promotions or offered the new trucks or equipment. I was opposed to this. I think we should use more than one tool in dealing with pet owners. My boss disagreed. I lasted three months. I remember the sense of joy that overwhelmed me when I realized that I didn’t have to go back to working there.

Lesson learned: sometimes it is better to be fired when you are not smart enough to leave.

In my next job, I was hired as the Chief Field Supervisor serving Portland Oregon and the gal who hired me claimed that having been fired from Lane County was a very big mark in my favor in getting the job.

Jacksonville Florida: Jacksonville Florida was in the middle of major layoffs. Animal Control was under the Environmental Services Department. We shared that Department with Sanitation Services. The Sanitation folks were undergoing the greatest number of layoffs, so our boss decided to lay off the entire administrative staff of Animal Services to make room for his buddies in Sanitation. If it is any consolation, the Sanitation folks discovered they were unprepared for working in Animal Control and I got to watch my old organization tank in the media. Working in the South forces you to face the dynamics of the “Good-Ole-Boy” system. Although located in Florida, Jacksonville is the southern end of the old South. Coming from the North, sometimes the old South is a hard pill to swallow when you believe that the laws should be distributed evenly for everyone.

Lesson learned: You’re either a good old boy or you are not. Stay away from working in the South. And as I once was told, “maintain a firm grip on your Northern ethics.”

Milwaukee Wisconsin: At some point in my career I wanted to take on a challenge. I had spent years enjoying our adoption successes in Gainesville Florida and wanted to turn a high-kill shelter around. Milwaukee claimed that they wanted to experience an evolution in their policies and wanted to become more progressive. I started bringing in rescues and volunteers into the shelter only to have been met with resistance by a couple of employees. One of the employees had worked there for 30 years and he fought every effort to improve the place. Clearly, I could not get around this obstacle and found myself unemployed. Again!

Lesson learned: Sometimes your ego prevents you from seeing a bad situation. Don’t be fooled by organizations that claim to want to evolve when they are impaired by immovable forces within their organization.

Roanoke Virginia: I call this “out of the pan and into the fire”. One of the local private animal shelters in Roanoke was trying to get me fired before I set foot in the county. I remember an early meeting that this group called to discuss the animal shelter; when I arrived they would not let me attend the meeting. I think the only time I was ever invited to their shelter was when they wanted to lynch me. In the previous post, I talked about turning this shelter around from having a 10% live release rate to over 90%. We were adopting out all of our adoptable animals, but that wasn’t enough for our volunteers. They were demanding that we release dangerous dogs out for adoption. Not on my watch! The people that I worked for were all peacemakers; I had to go. Let them deal with damage control. I came to meet some of the nastiest people working in the animal rescue field here. But, despite their behavior towards humans, they made up for it, in their efforts towards animals. Even dangerous animals.

Lesson learned: I am old-school animal control; where I believe my primary obligation is to protect the community that I serve. There is no place for us old guys because the profession is evolving in which the animals come before the community. I’d rather be fired than have to work in a place that considers placing potentially dangerous animals out for adoption. Didn’t I warn myself about working in the South?

So there you have it. The whole purpose of my blog is to prepare people who want to get into the animal welfare profession. It isn’t all about playing with kittens all day. But, those kittens come in handy on a stressful day.

I enjoyed my career and I count my terminations as trophies. I have to live with myself and I feel like I did my part in keeping each community that I worked for safe. And to think that I studied Wildlife Resources in College so that I could man a fire watch tower and enjoy the beautiful scenery. Either way, in both professions I would have had to deal with ticks.

The Evolution of the Animal Shelter Profession

I was once called “old school.” I guess they meant that I am stuck to the old ways of the profession when the responsibility of being an Animal Control Officer was to serve and protect the public. Our profession has evolved, and to be honest, I am glad that I am now retired because I can’t stop being old school..

The No Kill Movement started the evolution. Our professional focus turned to the plight of the animals in our care. I have to admit, it was very fulfilling to see euthanasia rates decline. Shelters with a live release rate of 10% started seeing more animals getting adopted and eventually many shelters saw live release rates over 90%.

The problem was that many claimed that a 90% live release rate was still too low and that decisions had to be made to place animals that were not considered adoptable. Pit bulls became the poster breed for this cause. Organizations were attempting to convince the public that pit bulls were the breed to own. Even ones that had a history of aggression.

Recently, in my community, a woman was killed by a pair of pit bulls. The Newspaper, along with the local Animal Control organization wrote an article assuring the public that pit bulls are a maligned breed and that you should ignore the deaths caused by the breed. After all, “all breeds are the same.” Don’t let another pit bull related death interfere with the adoption of these animals from the animal shelter.

The problem with this evolution is that it is making people stupid. Animal Shelters are so focused on adopting every animal that they fail to warn people about the genetic characteristics that control an animal’s behavior. Let’s face it, when shelters have a population of 70% pit bulls, they have quite a sales job to make. After all, their mission is no longer to protect people, but to have the highest possible adoption rate…. no matter what the cost.

Since this evolution has sucked so many animal shelters in, it might become necessary to outlaw the adoption of potentially dangerous animals. The Commonwealth of Virginia outlaws the holding back of information about a dog’s previous behavior problems to potential adopters. I used to think that keeping adopters in the dark was a Southern thing, but it appears that it has spilled over into the rest of the Country. Maybe communities should reenact some old school philosophies.

I’m not suggesting that some breeds should be banned; I just think that animal shelters should get back to the days of full disclosure when adopting animals. An era of integrity and respecting the mission that people must come first.

Shortcuts to No-Kill

Disclaimer: Although this blog is intended to be a joke, it doesn’t mean that animal shelters have not used these techniques.

Never announce your plan to become no-kill. The City of Austin is a good example of being too eager to announce to the world that they’ve become no-kill. When the word got out, pet owners from surrounding counties began delivering their pets to them. Austin had to throw tremendous resources out to maintain their no-kill status and eventually had to build a new animal shelter to meet the new demand.

I’ve seem incidents in which the announcement of having an adoption event created the problem of pet owners seeing your adoption efforts and decides that this is the best time to surrender their pet to their animal shelter. The best way to keep your animal shelter free of guilt-ridden pet owners is to constantly remind them that you are “a kill shelter.”

The formula for becoming a no-kill animal shelter is that your live outcomes have to equal or exceed your live intakes. Obviously, dead intakes don’t count. If you are one of the few remaining animal shelters that do not sterilize your animals before adoption, you might as well give up on becoming a no-kill shelter. The spaying and neutering of animals is the primary tool towards no-kill. Of course, if you don’t spay or neuter before adoption, you probably are not so progressive to be thinking no-kill anyway. Sure sterilization costs money; but you cannot trust adopters to shoulder the responsibility to perform this task on their own. Sending a shelter pet out to reproduce more animals is just insane.

Years ago, we were going to put a State initiative out to require animal shelters to sterilize pets prior to adoption. The jurisdictions with the greatest populations were all for it. The smaller jurisdictions claimed that it would require higher adoption fees and thus reduce adoptions. We passed the law based on the “class of the city.” It was a worthless law because the larger jurisdictions were already sterilizing their animals and it appeared that the smaller jurisdictions would not. They were blinded by the fact that they were just adding to the problem in their communities.

Create a policy that you’ll only allow intakes when you have an open cage. Of course this means that your animal control officers will be unable to pickup stray dogs. I remember reading about the outcry of citizens in a large Texas city that complained about packs of dogs were running their streets because their animal control officers were ignoring them. Fortunately, Texans are not opposed to carrying guns for their own protection.

Delaware was one of the first States to ban euthanasia for space. The reasoning was that as long as cage space was available, euthanasia was unnecessary. The didn’t have the foresight to realize that banks of open cages would be necessary for animal control officer to drop off animals. It didn’t make sense that animals would have to remain out in the trucks until space was made for the animals. This is the mistake that politicians make listen to animal rescue groups who don’t have a clear picture as to what the real world is really like.

Forgive me, I am now going to go off on a tangent. It’s my blog, so? Politicians in Utah were convinced that pet liability insurance should be the same for all animals. They were convinced that the cost of Pit Bull insurance should be the same as Poodles. They turned a blind eye to the fact that one breed was outweighing the insurance costs of other breeds. So, if you live in Utah, you will have to pay more for pet insurance to cover the cost that result from Pit Bull ownership. I guess you could liken it to the cost of groceries in which we have to pay more as a result of those who cater to thief. Okay, I got that out of my system…. let’s move on…..

Delay responding to dogs hit by car (HBC). The animal will either die or possibly picked up by a good Samaritan. Although there is a risk that the good Samaritan might think to bring the animal to the animal shelter. Put up the Closed Sign and hope for the best.

Destroy your night drop off cages. Night drop off cages are a great way to increase your intakes; you don’t want that. I worked at a location that we placed a camera to record the nightly drop offs. We witnessed an animal control truck, from another jurisdiction, dropping off animals. I have no idea as to how they report that in their monthly statistics. We once pulled out a homeless man from the same cages; which were protected from the weather. Fortunately for us, the guy walked off; I have no idea how we would have reported him on our statistics.

Require appointments for animal surrenders. This was one of the first “go to” policies when no-kill became a thing. The policy stopped last minute notions of people wanting to get rid of their pets; but saw an increase in the number of people turning in “a stray” animals. Policies frequently backfire.

So…. require an appointment to turn in a stray dog! Of course, that causes an increase in the number of dogs abandoned in the community or tied to the front door of your building. But, as I suggested earlier, don’t patrol for stray dogs.

Let’s not forget about cats. Cats make up one of the largest groups that lead to euthanasia. Many shelters started limiting their intakes to “domestic dogs.” I guess they were worried about some non-domestic dogs showing up.

I think you are now catching the drift: stop any process that takes in live animals that will render them dead. You can start with stopping the euthanasia service you offer to pet owners. Veterinarians provide this service as well and don’t have to report it as a statistic. Due to the notion that pets are personal property, many pet owners believe that they can have their pet killed on a whim. I always had a policy that pet owners could surrender their pet to the animal shelter, but could not demand the euthanasia of the animal. I would explain that in order for my shelter to kill an animal we had to own the animal. As the new owner of the animal we would decide the animal’s fate. This stops the notion that a person can demand that they pet be killed so that no one else could have it. I know, this sounds crazy, but it has happened many times. I am not going to kill a puppy because the owner doesn’t want anyone else to own it. Now, if the puppy has eaten a couple family members, I might reconsider.

Keep in mind; I am not suggesting that you do any or all of these things; I am just reporting options that are available to you. After all, we have a reason that we call this dark humor.

One of the problems that I’ve faced with animal control officers is that many of them prefer to impound an animal rather that return the animal back to the owner with a ticket. I hate to say that I’ve had these officer working for me and I did everything that I could do to get rid of them. The problem is worse when the animal control officers are not employed by the animal shelter, but are employed by the local police department. This is quite common and poses quite a problem. One of the last places that I worked, the animal control officer intentionally over stressed the animal shelter by identifying colonies of sick cats and delivering them to the animal shelter. Obviously, it hurts your statistics when you have to euthanize the animals as well as it impacts other healthy animals in your facility. I only bring this up to show that not everything is under your control. Outside forces will influence shelter statistics. As well as inside forces.

When I first started in the business, City Council members started noticing that I was listing animals available for adoption in the local newspaper. One of those members reported to the Chief of Police that I had listed the same animal multiple times. I got called into the Chief’s office and was told to euthanize any animal that was over its stray hold time even though space was not an issue. The lesson to learn is that if you work for a bunch of buttheads, give your animals new names when they are listed in the newspaper.

Probably the most effect way to move animals out of your shelter is to give rescue groups sufficient motivation to take your animals. The first step is to prepare the animal for adoption. Give the animal all of its vaccinations and perform the sterilization of the animal. If that isn’t enough to stimulate rescues to take your animals…. pay them.

Maddie’s Fund offered community grants in which they allowed us to pay our rescues to take our animals. Oddly, we may have been Maddie’s Fund’s only success story. Because Maddie discovered how difficult it is to get animal shelters to work with one another. It seems, for them, anything you got two shelters together, all they did is fight. Our group in central Florida was a different story. We overcame our issues to work together to get animals adopted. It was a noble cause and money flowed. Maddie’s Fund extended our grant numerous times because, I think, they liked to have a project that they could point their finger at that was successful.

It is too bad that more shelters couldn’t get along. One success story failed to keep that funding going. Maddie went off in other directions. Humane groups cannot seem to get along with one another even when money is at stake and animal’s lives are at stake.

Some of the national humane organizations provide funding for animal transport services. The notion is that if you can’t adopt animals in your community, maybe they would be welcome somewhere else. Unfortunately, Pit Bulls have pretty much saturated the country.

This is when I dust off my harebrained ideal of forcing pet owners to sterilize their pets. I think that anywhere an animal shelter is overcrowded with 50% or more of a specific breed that the community should force the owners who have that breed to sterilize their pet. People who are selling the breed should be forced to sterilize the dogs that they sell.

Let’s face it. Pit Bull owners are still some of the most irresponsible pet owners around; otherwise, why are they still being bred when our animal shelters are overwhelmed with them?

So? You have a shelter full of Pit Bull dogs and they are hindering your efforts to maintaining your No-Kill status. You begin paying a rescue from another State to come rescue your dogs. Let’s say that the rescue that you are using has a very poor live release rate. So in fact you are paying a rescue to come in and euthanize your dogs. In hind sight, I always looked at the live release rate of rescuers that I worked with; but that doesn’t mean that others do as well. The whole point of being No-Kill is that of your own statistics. No one really looks at the statistics of the rescues that you use. Well, until the news finds out about it.

Let’s face it. There is so much pressure on shelters becoming No-Kill that it is easy to see the shelter’s administration making stupid decisions. Many of those decisions become obstacles to the primary mission of the public animal shelter to protect the people of their community.

One of the risks that you face is that even when you meet the status of being a No-Kill shelter, volunteers will cause an uprising when you refuse to adopt animals that clearly would put the public at risk. The people who determine your employment might hold the volunteers in higher esteem than protecting the public. I’ve always said that doing the right thing frequently puts your job at risk, but keeping your community’s children safe is a higher goal than keeping your job.

Sorry, that must have hit a nerve with me.

Every shelter should do whatever it takes to find homes for the animals in their care, but you should not take that goal so far as to put the community at risk. Currently, animal shelters are full of unadoptable animals that remain in cages because the shelter is worried about its statistics. At some point, someone must point out that keeping an animal in a cage for the rest of its life is inhumane.

No Kill Defined

I was recently reading an article in the local newspaper where one of our resident rescue organizations was enlightening the media and local residents that the term “no kill” was used incorrectly. It dawned on me that the term no-kill has been around so long that few of us remember when the term was first drafted. So let us go back more than a few years when the term didn’t exist.

Euthanasia used to be the end-all solution to animal shelter problems with keeping communities safe from dangerous dogs and surplus pets. Most animal shelters reported that they euthanized 70% of their animals. Even back then, it was a dismal statistic. For those who don’t remember kindergarten math, that is a 30% live release rate.

Someone suggested that shelters should stop killing animals. As much as that had a good sound to it; the question was raised as to how do you deal with dangerous, sick, injured, or aged animals? It was obvious that a 100% live release rate was impractical. So after many years of discussion, it was decided that a 90% live release rate was a wonderful number to strive for. It is the number that still exists today. So? Is no kill practical? Or better yet, is no kill the correct term to use? The answer is: It depends.

Through the years animal shelters’ mission got lost to the no-kill movement. We stopped caring about keeping our communities safe or providing a humane shelter environment; we cared only for our no-kill status. Above all else, we had to stop killing animals. We performed that duty by adopting aggressive animals into homes with children and introducing overcrowding into our shelters. Our mission was to keep animals alive at any cost.

Today, the 90% live release rate is more commonly reported in shelters. We reached that goal through poor adoption practices, shutting our doors to intakes, and pet sterilization programs. We successfully stopped providing a service to our communities and focused solely on our statistics; a noble cause to be able to call ourselves a “no-kill shelter.”

The people who object to 90% are the private rescues who don’t take in animals from the public. They don’t have to deal with the people who surrender their pets because medical costs are too high to save their pets. They don’t take in pets who have been hit by cars and are in pain. They don’t live in the reality of what it is like to be a public animal shelter.

I’ve always thought that we should have done away with the no-kill term and stop providing for pets as individuals and go back to our original mandate to serve our communities by providing safe streets and humane TEMPORARY sheltering.

There is a reason that I make a point of saying that shelters should provide temporary shelter. Looking at the size of cages and kennels, it is clear that animal shelters were not designed for the long-term holding of one animal, let alone three or four. And yet, we began stockpiling animals in inhumane cages.

We should celebrate the no-kill status of our shelter, but we need to look at the cost to the health and well-being of our communities and the animals themselves. Every time I hear about someone lambasting no-kill as being a lie, I want to ask them what they are doing to keep the lie alive.

The truth of the matter is that animal rescue groups find advantages in having a public animal shelter killing animals in their community. They have someone to point at with the notion of claiming that they are better than that shelter; you just need to donate to us. It is not uncommon for a rescue group to bring their sick and injured animals to the public animal shelter so that they can claim that they were not the ones that euthanized that animal. All the while still pointing that finger of disgust at them. It didn’t take long for the no-kill movement to make ugly monsters of animal rescue groups. The fact is that someone has to kill animals and the public animal shelter takes on that task so that the rescue groups in their community don’t have to. And yes, taking on that task hurts our statistics.

So, the next time someone starts pointing a finger at the public shelter’s no-kill rate, it is that way because the shelter takes in injured animals from their owners and the public. They decide that a dead dangerous animal is better than an adopted dangerous animal. They decide that the kennel space is too small for one animal, let alone three or four. They do it because it is still the humane thing to do.

To compound the issue, rescue groups like to “rescue” the most adoptable animals in public animal shelters, leaving the marginal ones behind. When I left the profession, I was directing an animal shelter in which 70% of our dog population were pit bulls. More than any other breed, pit bulls are one of the hardest to get adopted. Our neighborhood humane society felt it was necessary to bring in dogs from out of State because we didn’t offer an acceptable variety of adoptable breeds. I can’t blame them; they too were worried about their statistics and couldn’t care less for the pit bulls that remained in the public shelter.

So, one of the most contentious issues was about that 10%. Questions arose as to whether they were “adoptable animals.” It became necessary to “grade” the animals. That grading came about as the Asilomar Accords. I decided to cheat and asked an AI to explain what the Accords were:

“The Asilomar Accords are a set of guidelines and principles that were developed in 2004 by a group of animal welfare leaders in the United States. The purpose of the Asilomar Accords is to promote collaboration and transparency among different animal organizations and to reduce the euthanasia of healthy and treatable dogs and cats in shelters.
1. The Asilomar Accords provide standard definitions for categorizing the health and behavior of shelter animals, as well as a common format for reporting shelter statistics and calculating live release rates.
2. The Asilomar Accords are voluntary and not legally binding, but many animal shelters across the country have adopted them as a way to measure their progress and impact on saving animal lives.”

So, the notion was to keep healthy and treatable animals off of the euthanasia list. The Asilomar Accords were an important part of record keeping and were used widely by organizations dishing out financial grants.

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?

A Great Misperception

One of the greatest misperceptions in the world of animal welfare is that one size fits all. The No-Kill Movement is the best example of this. A community decides that ending the killing of animals in their local animal shelter is a good idea. It just feels good.

They look to no-kill animal shelters and decide to mimic them. So many people believed that the easiest way to end the killing of animals is to just stop killing them. It is this philosophy that caused the current overcrowding crisis in animal shelters today. It was easy for humane societies to become no-kill; they just closed their doors to animals coming in and let the local public shelter take the strain of the pet overpopulation. The humane society could be the good guys while the public animal shelter takes the grief for killing animals.

So? Why can’t a shelter just stop killing animals? The simple answer is space. Once you have filled up all of your kennels and foster homes, space becomes an issue. That seems simple enough; so, why not adopt them? Again, the issue comes down to space; you run out of potential homes or you find that many people don’t want to adopt a pitbull. Pitbulls or their mixes make up the largest percentage of animals in the shelter.

You can say what you will that pitbull dogs are like any other breed, but they are not. In a world of irresponsible pet owners, pitbulls demand the most responsible of owners. Most people cannot live up to that responsibility. The fact that seventy percent of any animal shelter is filled with pitbulls is a testament to the irresponsibility of their owners.

But, let us get back to our original misperceptions. Every community wants to be no-kill, so why can’t ours? The City of Austin Texas is a good example. They were able to reach no-kill status (which is a euthanasia rate lower than ten percent) by throwing money at the problem. It worked for a short time but failed when they ran out of money and people in neighboring communities began dumping their animals on them. Eventually, all of their money went to waste and Austin just found that the pet overpopulation just grew to fill their increased shelter space. Most communities don’t have the funding that Austin dished out to solve their problem and, in the end, to keep their no-kill status, they had to start restricting intakes.

So, it comes down to this: if the community animal shelter is a public service to provide protection from stray animals running in the streets; does closing your doors to accept those strays end the public protection that was your original mandate? It does. The No-Kill Movement is not a public safety protection program. Not only does it put the public at risk, but it places sheltered animals at risk. Each community has to judge for itself as to how humane it is for an animal to be caged waiting for an adoption that never comes.

Is there a solution? You bet, but it demands a mandate to force every pet owner to spay or neuter their pets. Breeding pets are the cause of shelter overcrowding. Breeding pets is the result of irresponsible pet ownership. The first step is to demand that all pitbull and pitbull mix dogs are sterilized, since they are the predominant problem of shelter overcrowded. Let’s face it if we could get the pitbull problem under control, it would be a big step in a community becoming no-kill. If the percentage of pitbulls in an animal shelter would drop below ten percent, then animal shelters would experience a tremendous boost toward ending the needless killing of animals.

Is that even possible? Not likely. Pet owners cannot be legislated into sterilizing their pets. Even if it is for the good of the community. To many pet owners, having a fertile pet is right up there with 2nd Amendment Rights. It is funny to see men come into the shelters to explain that their virility is linked to their dog’s testicles. But there are workaround solutions. A community can make it infeasible to allow a fertile dog to run loose. In Alachua County (Florida) owners of fertile animals were charged a higher impound fee if their pet was picked up. After all, it is these fertile pets running loose that are the problem. We would give the owner two choices, to pay the higher fee or to pay no impound fee if we were allowed to sterilize the animal. The problem is those pet owners found an alternate solution and abandoned their pet at the shelter. At least, in our hands, the pet could hopefully find a new home and not contribute to the pet overpopulation problem.

Too many people, including the No-Kill folks, blame shelter euthanasia on shelter staff. The killing starts at home; with the reckless breeding of unwanted animals. It is like blaming the sanitation workers for filling up your landfill.

The Problem with Long-term Dogs

With the advent of the No Kill Movement, animal shelters began holding animals much longer so as to facilitate positive outcomes.  Animals were no longer kept for days or weeks but held for months or years.  We began to see new dynamics arise within our walls.

Animals do not respond to long-term confinement the same.  Some accepted their fate, but others did not.  We had to begin wondering if the decisions to hold an animal were in the animal’s best interest.  We called it, “cage crazy” when an animal becomes more aggressive the longer that we hold the animal.

Cage crazy comes in many varies.  In Roanoke, we witnessed several dogs acting aggressive toward our staff but were gentle toward a couple of volunteers who walked them.  The dogs were too aggressive for adoption.  The decision to euthanize the dogs created an outcry from the volunteers.  Our decision to euthanize the dogs was a good decision, but our mistake was not videotaping the dogs to support that decision.

The pressure to hold dogs, even aggressive dogs, forces animal shelters to make bad decisions.  Those bad decisions put animal shelter employees at risk when public safety should be our primary focus.  When shelter staff can no longer safely interact with an animal, the quality of care for that animal is greatly diminished and we have to ask ourselves if we are providing humane care.

The decision to hold an animal should be based on a shelter’s ability to meet the needs of that animal and insure the safety of its staff.  The decision should not be made so as to keep a couple of volunteers happy.   We need to keep reminding ourselves that the primary mission of an animal shelter is to protect the community.  When animal shelters switch their priority to insuring that every animal gets adopted, it then places its community at risk.

I have mentioned previously that in Virginia, it became so common for shelters to lie to potential adopters about an animal’s past behavior that the Commonwealth had to create a law that prohibited lying.   Shelters were willing to give up their integrity so as to claim that they were a No-Kill Organization.  The fact is, that it was actually better for potential pet owners to avoid getting their pet from an animal shelter in Virginia because you couldn’t trust what they told you.  On top of that, the adopters were criticized on social media for returning the aggressive animal back to the shelter.

The fact is, that few shelters know the past history of an animal.  The people who know are the ones that turned in their pet as a stray.  If animal shelters decide to commit to long holding times for animals, then they must be willing to share what little knowledge that they have gained about the animal.  Many jurisdictions have created Pet Lemon Laws that protect an adopter from purchasing a pet from their shelter.  We have learned that what people imagine in their minds as to what it is like to be a pet owner often doesn’t meet the reality of bringing a pet home.

In recent years, animal shelters were sued because they thought it was more important to adopt an animal than to keep the children in a family safe.  Being truthful about an animal should be an animal shelter’s only option.

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.”

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.