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.”

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.

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.

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.

Fifteen minutes of fame.

Social media has created a new generation of people eager to get their fifteen minutes of fame; no matter how stupid they have too look to get it.  They take videos of them licking items in the grocery store and even licking toilet seats in airplane lavatories.  Social media has shown us just how stupid people can behave and they put it out for the whole world to see.  How dumb can you get.

There is something very reckless with this group of people, even dangerous; only to gain a small portion of notoriety.   We are witnessing the birth of a generation that has become unable to control their natural instincts; a clear proof that evolution has failed us.

The reason that I mention this is that you may be inviting volunteers into your shelter looking to be a social media sensation; he or she is on the constant lookout for something (anything) to receive social media notoriety.  These folks will see something in the shelter and instead of brining it to staff’s attention will likely post it on social media.  Let’s face it, some of your volunteers will use the relationship they have with their shelter to gain social media fame or to push their own agenda.

PETA

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) gained their early notoriety  with shock and awe tactics.  Their campaigns to end the use of animal pelts as articles of clothing revealed the naked bodies of many of their volunteers at public and private functions.  Obviously  it was an organization that you can get behind.

My first encounter with PETA was early in my profession when one our community’s pets mauled a young girl.  As the decision was being made as to what to do with the dog, I got a phone call advising me that if any harm came to the dog, I would be killed.  The caller identified himself as being from PETA.

I notified the local press, because I wanted to discredit the mentality of that caller so as to prevent any further foothold of people in my community to stand behind an aggressive dog over the life of a child.  The newspaper called PETA for their response.

I have  to admire Ingrid Newkirk for her response that PETA values all life and it is inconsistent with their mission to harm a human.  She advised the reporter that her organization has many volunteers who fail to follow strictly their organizational values.  In the years that followed, her words were a prophecy that I witnessed over and over with my own volunteers.

Over the years PETA has been criticized for their tactics that seemed inconsistent with their mission of doing no harm to animals.  Recently, I caught a CNN article claiming that they wanted to eliminate the term “pet.”

The Oxford Dictionary already includes animal in their definition of PETA’s new word for pet: “companion”.   PETA has declared the word “pet” as being derogatory.  Anyone who has ever cared for a dog will know that a dog isn’t debased by the term “pet”.  Cats, on the other hand, view humans as servants and being called a “pet” by our cat would be the closest thing to a kind word ever offered by a cat.  Lovers often call one another by pet names.

I understand where PETA is coming from; we live in a “woke” world and words have new meanings.  We have become a society in which words are used to declare our awareness of the plight of the world.  But the people who chain up their dog in their backyards are no where near being the woke people who PETA hopes that they are.

PETA’s latest adventure into the woke world is to believe that their plight in fighting for animals  is much like the plight of fighting against racisms.  Although I am not convinced that Black Lives Matter would agree.  One of PETA’s latest efforts is to make people woke on using animal names to describe  people.  For example: calling a person a “pig” is an injustice to pigs.  Of course people have tried to point out that pigs really don’t have any feelings about this.

I think PETA’s greatest accomplishment was getting people to rethink their behavior toward eating animals.  They made a great impact on creating a world of Vegans.  However, many vegans worry that PETA’s efforts to piggyback on every passing cause will only diminish the vegan cause due to the craziness of these side issues that PETA engages in.

Hospice Care

I recently read about a group of people condemning their shelter for failing to provide hospice care.  In a gentle world, it would be nice to have a group of homes that would care for animals during their last leg of their journey on earth.  The problem arises that there are damn few people who can perform hospice care.

The idea of providing hospice care is to allow an animal to live out its final days in the care of a loving home… allowing the animal to have a natural death.  The person performing this task should understand the process and provide gentile care as the animal drifts away.  But, those kind of people rarely exist; instead, you end out with people who freak out over every event and seem to forget that their job is to allow the animal to pass into death, instead of seeking every avenue to keep the animal alive (and constantly running the animals to a veterinarian)..  Having the wrong caregiver can be very expensive for animal shelter and it is understandable why an anima shelter would rather administer euthanasia than to place an animal into a home where the caregiver will only prolong the animal’s pain.  You usually find these people conjugated on a social media page, being led by their own ignorance and self importance.

In all of the years that I worked in this profession, I only found two or three people who I could count on to be a hospice care provider.  It takes a special person to be able to feel the animals pain and to accept the need to lead the animal home.

Washing Machine Incident

I recently came across an article about an animal shelter in my area purchasing an industrial washing machine to handle the needs of their shelter’s load of bedding for their animals.  Their volunteers were delighted.

This wasn’t the case in Roanoke, in which a local rescue organization was providing volunteers to our shelter and were told to complain about everything.  I suspect that they wanted the municipal contract to take over the sheltering operation.  So a lot of the complaints from our volunteers just didn’t make sense.  The biggest example was when we decided to start adopting animals directly from our shelter; the volunteers all walked out.

But, back to the washing machine.  We were attempting to use household washing machines and were constantly wearing out the machines and we had to continuely replace them.  It became clear to us that normal household washing machines could not stand up to the load of being used in an animal shelter.  I convinced our Board to allow us to buy an industrial washing machine and dryer.  The machines would allow us to run larger loads, less frequently.  It was a smart decision.

When the volunteers heard about us spending $20k on the machines, they went nuts.  They thought that any funds used in the shelter should go directly towards the animals.  There was no convincing them that the animal’s lives were improved by sleeping on clean bedding.  There was no convincing them of the fact that the industrial washing machines would save money by not having to be constantly replaced.

Roanoke is a reminder that in our business, every decision that you make in this profession is going to be second guessed.  Every action by your volunteers might be part of another agenda.  And that agenda might not be in the interest of your organization or of the animals.  Stay alert.

Identifying Dog Breeds

When I first started working in animal welfare, you could easily identify 99 percent of the dogs coming through your shelter with a good dog breed book.  Over the years dogs have been interbreeding to the point that I’ve been unable to identify the primary breed.  It is common to identify two distinct breeds, but eventually we began to see breed combinations that are no longer readily identifiable.

When I first stated in this business, I worked on an animal shelter management software tool.  The most common request that our users asked was to allow for them to distinguish the primary breed as unknown.  I recognized the problem of doing that when lazy shelter employees would identify all of the animals in the shelter as “unknown” breed.  It would have made record keeping impossible.

As time passes, I began to experience the same problem of identifying the various breeds contained in a dog.  For a long time, pitbull dogs were misidentified and many people took on the task of teaching staff how to correctly identify the breed.  Some shelters recognized the problem of calling a dog a pitbull and began calling them by other breeds, such as an “American Dog”.  I always believed in the integrity of my data.

The most common complaint from people was that most dogs were identified as a “pitbull mix.”  It wasn’t that we could not identify the breed, the fact was that pitpulls were being intentionally bred with other dogs.  My daughter just announced to me that she adopted a pitbull/poodle mix that was seized from a breeder in her community.  I don’t know if I should be critical of using a pitbull or using a poodle.

The fact that breed identification was so difficult, shelter staff is constantly asked to change a dog’s breed description so as to get the animal adopted.  I explained that it is pretty embarrassing for the owner of an adopted  pitbull puppy to be confronted by their landlord or veterinarian with the truth about their dog’s breed.  I have always insisted on the integrity of my organization.

I had a group of volunteers trying to convince me that a pitbull (American Staffordshire Terrier (I know, some people will claim that this isn’t a pitbull, but it falls into the group of dog breed groups that we call “pitbull”))  Under the pressure of this group, I started to see some Great Dane characterizes in the dog.  I could see myself caving on this issue.  My staff thought I was nuts.  I guess as you get older, you either try to compromise more or you begin to lose your vision.  I suggested that we send the dog’s DNA off for testing.  The dog came back 100 percent American Staffordshire Terrier.  I was proof that the longer that you stare at a pitbul the more it begins to look like another breed.

I recently read a news headline about forty new mixed breeds that people are crazy about… just what we need!  Animal Shelters are a constant battleground as to breed identification.  I fondly look back to the days when breeds would be readily identified.  When it came to animal identification, those were the good old days. Today,  it is okay to step back from a dog and shake your head and say, “I don’t know what it is.”

The Hazards of a Fostering Program

In the era of increasing live release rates, creating a fostering program is a no brainer… or is it?  Here are some of the problems associated with fostering:

People want to foster highly adoptable animals.   Placing the animal in to a foster home, removes the animal from finding a permanent owner.

People who want to “test drive” an animal.  People want to have an animal in their homes, without the cost of pet ownership.  If they can talk a shelter into fostering the animal to them, the shelter picks up the costs of food and medical expenses.

There are a surprising number of high maintenance foster homes.  In one of these homes, the foster parent will panic over small issues and run up large medical costs for the shelter.

Foster parents who refuse to relinquish the animal when adopters are found or want to interrogate the prospective adopters.