Failed Programs

Throughout my career, I wanted to put my name on a couple of innovative programs. I have listed below a few disappointments in the process.

As a new fledgling in Pullman Washington, I wanted to praise people for being responsible pet owners. Back in those days, you could actually find them. So I started ACO looking for RPOs. The acronyms didn’t catch on. I had to keep explaining that it said “Animal Control Officer looking for Responsible Pet Owners.” Again, that didn’t catch on. While on patrol, I would stop a person walking with their pet to check for the obvious: a license tag, a poop pickup baggy, and the general good health of the animal. If they met those requirements, I had a bag of goodies, even a signed certificate from the Mayor. I think most people didn’t like being loaded down with those goodies while walking their dogs. Oh well.

My most disappointing project was helping battered women in Salt Lake County. In the program, I worked with the local police, the community services program, and the women’s shelter. The idea was that many women wouldn’t leave an abusive situation because the option of leaving the situation forced leaving a pet behind. So, we would take in the woman’s pet while she sought a new life. The first woman had two dogs. Once her dogs were secure in the animal shelter, she then went into a women’s shelter. After a few days, we couldn’t reach her. Her friends later claimed that “she climbed into the cab of the first truck driver that came through town.” She had dumped her dogs on us. In the following months that we worked the program, we had only helped one woman. What was left was all of the abandoned pets that were left behind in the shelter. In many cases, I think the pet would have been better off being left with the woman’s partner. I am afraid that many women take the pet away from their partner just to be mean. This program had all of the makings of being a wonderful program and to this day, I am still upset over how it played out.

One of the biggest problems we face in picking up stray animals is the large number of pets who roam the streets without identification. Twice, working with the National Animal Control Association, I was given a grant to buy an ID engaging machine for use in Milwaukee Wisconsin, and again in Roanoke Virginia. The idea was to ensure that every pet leaving the animal shelter was wearing a new collar and identification tag. This program proved that the only ones interested in seeing pets with identification were the shelter staff. Over and over again we witness the same pets being picked up without ID, returned to their owner with new identification, and picked up again with no ID. It felt like the pet owners were going out of their way to keep identification off their pets. This was such an eye-opening experience for me that anytime I had a chance to facilitate an ordinance change, I would make it mandatory for any pet that came to the shelter three or more times without wearing identification to be microchipped.

Probably the biggest failure that we experienced was dealing with an ordinance in Portland Oregon that required anyone selling puppies to be required to have a “selling permit.” The notion was to identify the folks who were filling up our shelter with the puppies that they couldn’t sell so that we could encourage them to spay/neuter their breeding animals. The newspapers were “supposed” to include the pet permit number in the new paper ad. None of the newspapers complied because they felt that we were overstepping our authority. The ordinance did little to stop the overcrowding in our shelter. Let’s face it, people will breed their pets to get a few dollars for a couple of puppies in the litter and then abandon the rest of the litter; they would continue to do this year after year after year. The worst part is that when the animals are dumped on us, the owners act like they are doing us a favor. In the animal welfare business, you have to suffer more than your share of idiots.

Another major failure was offering a deferred payment plan so that people could bail their pets out of the shelter without having to pay the full amount of the impoundment fees. We kept seeing incidents of people walking away from their pets when faced with the cost of paying a fee to get their pets out. I thought that allowing a 60-day deferment would offer up an opportunity to get the dog home (let’s face it, people mostly don’t come looking for their lost cat) and offer them some time to make payments.

It turns out that once the pet is back home, lost are the thoughts of ever making good on the payment plan. I only remember a few (I mean I can count on two fingers) the number of people who honored their agreement. Collections companies claimed that there was too little incentive for them to go after the owners because pet owners were the most stubborn people they ever had to deal with.

Keep in mind that the recidivism rate for these dog owners is high. So little time goes by that the dog is once again in the shelter. Of course, the idea of offering a deferment plan goes out the window and the owner is now faced with past and present fees. You are once again giving the owner a chance to abandon their pet at the shelter. I have to admit that some owners angered me so much that I wanted to charge them with animal abandonment for walking away from their pets.

In case it just dawned on you that you were missing a tool in your toolbox, there is a problem with charging people for animal abandonment when dumping their pets on you. The major provision of animal abandonment is to abandon an animal without any provision of providing adequate care. Hey, animal shelters provide “adequate care.” Unless you have a specific ordinance of dumping an “owned animal” at the animal shelter, my earlier suggestion of charging the owner is BS. But that doesn’t prevent you from writing the ticket and seeing if it changes the mind of the owner. In my mind, there should be a law, but animals are considered property and a person can disown their property at any time.

The only place in which the deferment plan had any hope of working was in Virginia where I worked with county tax collectors to treat pets as property. People paying their property bills would see an added charge for the deferred payment. I know what you are thinking, “So what do you do with renters?” Good question, in Virginia, they also tax your vehicle as property. So the renters are covered (if they own an automobile) as well. I know, it is a mean way to deal with the issue, but it kept people honest. But now, looking back, I see that integrity is a concept that belongs only to a few people that I have encountered.

Running an animal shelter has its share of disappointments, but that doesn’t mean that you should give up. Your job is to care for every animal that comes into your shelter, even if that means that you have to deal with their owners. The animal side of the business is very rewarding. The people side of the business rewards you with war stories that you can later share with your friends.