First Adoption Rights

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

Finders

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

Shelter Staff and Volunteers

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

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

Other Animal Rescue Organizations

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

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

Owners

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

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

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

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

Legal Note

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

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

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.

What is it like being an Animal Services Director?

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

Owner surrendered Pets:

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

Drop Dead Dates:

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

Potentially Dangerous Dogs:

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

Working with Rescue Groups:

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

Always tell the truth:  

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

Always hold the line:

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

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

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

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

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.