Contracting for Animal Shelter Services

Animal shelter budgets are one of the most precarious budgets found in city/county budgets. The battle is between whether the city/county administration wants money to go to animals when budgets are thin for humans. In one Florida county, I was faced with a Country Administrator whose mission it was to slash our animal control budget. He made it clear to me that the fight was between helping animals or helping babies. Of course, the battle wasn’t that simple. Every budget cycle I would be asked to prepare budgets with various reductions. Our County Administrator didn’t recognize the our support with the County Commission. The Commission saved our budget each year.

Many local governments look for ways to save money and usually the concept of contracting out their animal control services will arise. It is not uncommon for the government to contract with their local humane society to provide for animal shelter services. During the pressure years of the No Kill Movement, many humane societies failed under the new pressure that was placed on them to save the strays.

I was hired twice to oversee the takeover of a humane society’s operation of the “pound.” In the first incident, a group of animal rescue organizations came together to bid against the humane society for the contract because the humane society didn’t play well with rescues and seemed satisfied with a ninety percent euthanasia rate (which was common in public animal shelters at that time). The humane society would cherry pick (picking the best) animals for adoption and kill the rest. The group of rescues were awarded the contract and I was asked to oversee the newly formed organization.

I would get phone calls from the humane society’s board of directors telling me that I was putting the community at risk for adopting out dangerous dogs. Oddly, they actually believed that only 10% of impounded stays were worthy for adoption. They were committed to the belief that a 90% euthanasia was acceptable. And would boast of their fine adoption record.

In the second incident, the humane society had boasted of being a No Kill organization with a ninety percent adoption rate while having a ninety percent euthanasia rate in the “pound” side of their operation. Basically, the community didn’t buy their story of the fact that they could call themselves no kill by ignoring half of their operational deaths. The humane society wanted to rid themselves of the stigma of being a “kill shelter” and asked to give the contract up. I was hired to retake the shelter and bring it under government control. We were able to reach a 90% save rate by working closely with animal rescue groups.

The dynamics were perfect for us, in that the community became so vocal against the humane society that local jurisdictions did not baulk at our request for more funding for veterinary services. If you want to see your adoptions increase, cover the medical expenditures (including sterilization) for rescue groups accepting your animals.

The reason that governments wish to contract out their animals shelter operations is that it is a pain to run them. I once had a county commissioner tell me that he got more complaints about animals than any other issue. Given the uproar of the killing of animals in shelters, animal shelters have become more expensive to run. It is no wonder that government look for someone else to run their programs. They figure that a nonprofit could get donations to supplement the operational expenses of running an animal shelter. The costs of maintaining animals longer so as to increase adoptions is often beyond many shelters financial means and the contract falls apart.

I worked in one public facility in which the administration would not let us conduct fundraisers because it gave the appearance that we were not properly funded. Which we weren’t With this kind of mentality, it is no wonder that governmental administrations wish to surrender their animal shelters to other entities.

The benefit of contracting out an animal shelter operation to a humane society is lower costs. The problem with contracting out to a humane society is that they frequently under estimate their budget needs and generally do not work well with other animal rescue organizations. As such the animals do not get the care or adoption opportunities that they should.

Many animal control/shelter operations fall under the jurisdiction’s police department. Wtih recent public demands to defund the police, the animal control portion of the police budget becomes even more at risk as police are forced to reduce their budgets. The issue becomes making the decision to have animal control officers on the street picking up stray animals, or police officers fighting crime. There will probably be an increase in outsourcing the shelter’s operation. In a few years, when budgets stabilize, the shelter’s contract will likely return to government control.

A pet license is an insurance policy.

I frequently tell people that pet licenses are an insurance policy.  Animal Control Officers are frequently dispatched to injured animal calls.  The Officer has to make a decision as to whether the injuries are within the allotted cost of their organization’s budget.  If the animal is wearing a current license, that makes the officer’s decision easier.

Additionally, many animal shelters choose to increase the holding period for animals wearing licenses.  Although you can’t expect a license to be a free ride home for your loose pet, it usually affords you a free call home for your pet.

Under Control

One of the most difficult concepts in Animal Control Ordinances is to get pet owners to understand what it means to have their animal under control. In many ordinances, the concept of being under voice command is the same as being under control. Anyone who trains dogs knows that once a dog is off-leash, the handler never maintains 100% control. That control jumps to 0% if a rabbit jumps up in front of the dog. In Eugene Oregon, we provided for verbal control if while in one of the city’s parks if the owner could call their dog and have the dog leashed within 20 (or so) seconds. Many dogs, distracted by ducks and geese, demonstrated that their owner had no control over them.

So, most ordinances claim that to be under control requires a leash. But a leash is not sufficient. If you have ever watched a child walking a large dog on a leash, you can clearly see that the child has no control and probably won’t for another several years. Thus, ordinances have to indicate that the person on the other side of the leash is competent to restrain the dog. I was approached by a guy walking his Saint Bernard dog the other day, and that dog decided that it needed to sniff me. I could see that the guy didn’t have the ability to stop the dog’s actions. He appeared competent, but he had little physical control of his dog.

So, in addition to being on a leash, the ordinance must indicate the person’s competence and ability to maintain physical control. When those things don’t exist, the dog has the ability to be unconstrained by his own desires. If that Saint Bernard dog had decided to bite me, I could make a case that although on a leash the dog was not under control.

Most of the problems associated with pet ownership is the inability of owners to keep their pets under control. Although a cute puppy or baby snake is fun when they are small; does the potential owner consider what the animal will be like in five or ten years. Possibly, one rule of thumb is to never purchase an animal that can one day become larger than you. Before you horse owners start to jump down my throat, keep in mind that horses only become a problem when they are not kept in agricultural areas. And don’t get me started on pigs.

Why didn’t you put my dog back into its yard?

A pet owner frequently asks why their lost pet wasn’t placed back into their yard when the animal is found running loose.  After all, that is an expected outcome for a pet that is wearing an ID tag or license.  The problem arises that when an Animal Control Officer picks up a loose pet, he or she becomes responsible for that animal.   The dog owner would be the first to blame the Officer if the animal was returned to its yard and got out again only to be hit by a car.  After, all it escaped from the yard in the first place.

Social Media

The best that I can describe society is that we are dimwits. We are just discovering that social media is destroying society and I have been preaching that truth for years. Social media allows the voice of one to sound like many. People will align themselves behind any cause, whether the cause is real or imaginary. The problem has never been the fault of social media itself; it is the idiots that blindly follow anything that they read or hear. It isn’t that we don’t have the capability to research an issue, we just don’t want to be proved that our cause isn’t real. We are not lazy, we just want to be a part of a crowd that believes the same way that we do. They don’t seem to care if it is righteous. To them, the cause is its own truth. Finally, people are seeing social media for the first time and understand that they have been lied to the whole time. Well, it is about time. Maybe we can get back to being a society that can think on its own.

User Interface

The best computer software is of no value unless it has a user interface that a person can figure out how to use the program.  User interface testing is the final, and usually the most important aspect of software programming. Too often, we become so focused on our mission that we forget that others might not be able to figure out how to communicate with us.

People like to communicate in four ways: directly, by phone, by text, by email. I recently ran into a problem in which a company emailed me and I replied to that email, not knowing that no one checks that email account. I discovered later that they preferred phone conversations because they were less likely to be documented.

In order to cater to our clientele, we need to understand how they wish to be communicated to and figure out a way to accommodate that method. In the animal welfare business, it is best to communicate with your clients in a manner that can be recorded. But, whatever way your clients choose, attempt to accommodate them.

If you are a government organization, keep in mind that any communications that you have will fall under the records retention laws. It becomes most difficult to maintain text messages under these laws.

Most government IT Departments have software that automatically copies every email for the sole purpose of keeping a record for someone who requests information under the Freedom of Information Act. If you collect any records, you can be sure that at some time, someone will want access to them.

Although phone calls can be recorded. It is very difficult to search through phone records for specific messages or keywords.

Although you want to accommodate your community, keep in mind how you’ll deal with recording their dealing with you. If you prefer to talk to them on the phone, make sure you have someone that answers your incoming calls. And in my case, if someone emails you, make sure you respond to replies or clearly state in the message how you must communicate back.

Telephone Etiquette

When hunting down the owners of lost pets, the telephone is our primary tool. There are plenty of websites that offer information as to the etiquette of answering the phone, but few on placing calls.

The first rule is to determine when to call. It is usually safe to call between 9 AM and (9 PM) but to be cautious, I always placed my calls between 10 AM and 8 PM. It is important that when given the opportunity, you should leave a message on the answering machine and document the exchange in your records.

If after multiple attempts, it becomes necessary to extend the attempts of contact the (possible) owner outside your usual times in case the person works shifts. You may need to try odd hours. You would be surprised at the number of people that I had to reach late at night or very early in the morning (they were surprised as well). Let’s face it, we now live in a time where we try to avoid calls, even if they are to report a found pet.

Keep trying to contact the owner several times a day until the stray hold is up. Documenting each attempt to reach the owner is critical because owners seem to mysteriously come forward days after their pet becomes available for adoption or after it is adopted. The documentation is necessary because pet owners never seem to understand their role in failing to reclaim their pets.

Night Drop Boxes

One of the issues that have plagued our profession is the use of night drop boxes for animals to be left at the animal shelter after hours as opposed to people tying them up at the first available fencepost.

The biggest issue with drop boxes is that the animals rarely come with any background history that you would usually obtain at the time of surrender during regular shelter hours.   It is nice to know whether the animal is owned or stray.  This makes a huge difference in holding time.  If the animal is being surrendered by its owner, we can obtain medical and behavioural information.  If the animal is a stray, we can learn as to the area that it was captured.

There are a multitude number of problems that face drop boxes.  In Salt Lake County, we had drop boxes that were built into the side of our building so that in the winter, the animals would be warm.  We had locks on the doors that would secure the animals from being removed.  It would have appeared that we thought of everything; except owners would come in at night looking for their lost pet and open and close each dropbox.  Once closed, the boxes became useless to anyone else wanting to drop off an animal.  The police would call out our animal control officer to come in and reset the locks.  It was a real pain.  Our drop boxes became a place for the homeless to sleep.  And a neighboring animal control shelter used our drop boxes to dispose of their surplus animals.  It is a great way to reduce your euthanasia statistics by dropping off your animals at another shelter at the end of their stray hold period.

There are reports of people “setting free” the animals from drop boxes.  In Florida, we had an incident in which the released animals were hit by passing cars.

Given the problems that faced using drop boxes, most shelters stopped using them; they became more of a liability than a public service.


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.

Gators in the Roadway

I found myself driving across the country many years ago listening to the truckers talk on the CB radio.  I overheard them talking about “gators in the roadway.”  I couldn’t imagine how gators would find their way to a highway system, but as an animal control officer, I began creating a checklist of items that I had in my car to safely remove a gator from the roadway.

I knew that the gator’s tail and mouth were of issue.  Gators have more power in closing their mouths than opening them, so the only means that I had to keep a gator’s mouth closed is Duck Tape.  Duck Tape is a universal helper, but a gator is the only animal that I would consider using the tape on.

I’ve always had ketch-poles in my car.  Although nearly five years retired, there are two ketch-poles, a snake grasper, and a snake hook.  I suppose I will be buried with them.

By the time that I came up to the milepost where the gators were reported, it dawned on me that the truckers were referring to the tire tread that is thrown from trucks are what they call gators.

It was a good mental exercise and now I know that I am prepared to handle tire treads in the future.