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 thier dog in their backyards are no where near being the woke people who PETA hopes that they are.

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.

Euthanasia

The hardest part of our profession is administering euthanasia.  We do this mostly as a result of bad pet ownership.  Euthanasia is a two part process: determining which animals are placed on the euthanasia list and then administering the euthanasia.  This is an area of our profession where we are overwhelmed with arm chair quarterbacks.  It is a very volatile part of our business and as a result of the hostility that results in the decision process, I always made the final decision.

It is tough enough for the employees who have to kill the animals that they have cared for; it would be unfair that they have to suffer the consequences for having to decide which animals are selected.  Although people, including volunteers, think that the decision process is abritraty, it is really a thought out piece of engineering.

Euthanasia is the most contentious issue for animal shelters.  It frequently pits volunteers against staff.  At my last shelter, the volunteers went to war with staff over the decision to euthanize two dogs that had become aggressive over their lengthy stay with us.  The dogs would act friendly to a few volunteers, but show aggression to the staff caring for them.  Euthanizing the dogs angered the volunteers and they called into question our decision making process.  The went to board meetings to verbalize their anger.  The board put together a group to investigate our euthanasia process and issued a report.

Given the volatility of creating a euthanasia list and the tremendous number of things that can go wrong as a result of euthanasia, I have created a few rules that I followed in making the decision:

Always keep an animal two days beyond the date that the animal is “supposed” to be euthanize, especially if you are waiting for an owner to reclaim the animal.  I have encountered countless incidents in which an owner shows up to reclaim their pet after the stray hold time has expired.  Although they don’t care enough to timely reclaim their pet, they will blame you for not acting on their schedule.  So whatever arrangement that you make with an owner to reclaim their pet, keep the pet a few days longer because that is when they will likely show up.

Document the animal’s condition when the decision is based on medical or behavioral condition.  It is not uncommon for a pet owner to surrender their pet as a stray to you because of an animal’s medical condition and try to adopt the animal back after the animal has been treated.  Many times the animal may be beyond treatment and the owner will return claiming that he/she has been victimized by you failing to treat their pet.

Always make sure that you use competent and caring staff to perform euthanasia.  The last few moments of a pet’s life should be as stress free as possible.  Since you are using a controlled substance in performing euthanasia, you can save yourself a lot of grief by having employees who can perform simple mathematics.  You would be surprise as to the number of staff that I’ve had who could not subtract numbers with a decimals. 

Don’t ever get talked into adopting out an aggressive animal.  Many shelters have offered an animal a second (or third) chance, only to be sued and raked over the media for putting their community at risk for making a careless adoption decision.  The best community preventative for an aggressive dog is euthanasia. 

Do not allow anyone to bully the staff who preform euthanasia.  It is a tough task and no one has the right to bully them. 

Volunteers Gone Wild

I used to think that volunteers were the best thing that could ever happen to an animal sheltering organization; then I moved to southwest Virginia.  I understand the vested interest that volunteers have in the success of an adoption program; but, I found a place where volunteers thought that they should drive the organization.

It all started when one of the local animal welfare organizations infiltrated our shelter with their own volunteers.  One of their volunteers sat in a County Commission meeting on the first day of my arrival to lament me being hired.  This same volunteer would sit in on many County Commission meetings, using her status as a volunteer (as being in the know), to misrepresent information about our euthanasia rates.

This is the first organization that I have ever directed that did not have an adoption program.  All animal were placed through other rescue groups and that is the way that everyone wanted it.  We could be the bad guys and they could be the good guys.  Well, that was going to change. 

I decided to start adopting animals from my shelter.  The volunteers that came from the other rescue organization all quit.  They staged a walkout when we started adopting pets.  What a stupid thing to protest.

We started seeing an immediate increase in our placement rate.  Dog adoptions were over 92 percent.  We had an incident in which  a couple dogs that were loved by a few volunteers started showing aggression to staff and visitors.  I have a rule that any time a dog starts trying to eat the hand that is feeding it, it is time for that dog to go.

The two dogs were euthanized and the remaining volunteers decided to organize a protest by picking the shelter and bullying us on social media.  They brought in the local media and wanted to show the shelter staff the trouble they can cause if we don’t do what they tell us to do.

Although the volunteers would never be able to bully us to adopt out aggressive dogs, they were successful with those who oversaw our organization.  They didn’t like drama and they felt that giving in to the volunteers would decrease drama.  From my view point, they were more concerned about keeping the drama to a minimum than protecting the public.

I am sharing this story to show  you that in the animal welfare business, you can be on the right side of an issue and still lose.  Throughout my career, I always said, “If you are going to get into trouble, get in to trouble doing the right thing.”  In this business, your first priority is to protect your community.

For a volunteer program to be successful, it is important that your volunteers are on the same page that you are one.  Feelings can run high between organizations, understand the motivation for those that claim to be your friends.