There is an old saying, “There are three kinds of lies: “lies, damn lies and statistics.” Our profession is one that lives on statistics. When someone is looking at your shelter, they want to know the live release rate, even if they don’t know what that means. The people that we work for want to know how we compare to the shelter in the next town.
Municipalities became so concerned as to comparing statistics, that in Florida they created the Benchmarking Consortium so as to compare apples to apples when looking at the size and structure of organizations. I was tasked to provide benchmarking for the animal services area.
The easiest way to benchmark is to compare statistics to the population size of your community. It is one thing to say that you had 1,000 adoptions for the year compared to the 500 in the next town, but if your population is double that of the next town your statistics are the same. So in comparing intakes and outcomes by population, you begin to see a better picture as to how communities compares to another.
Benchmarking is a great way to present budgets for under budgeted organizations. City/County Managers are always looking to cut budgets and the animal shelter is on top for cuts. It is easier to show that your budget at $1.23 per capita is low to your neighboring city’s budget of $4.67.
When your local advocates are screaming at you for not doing more, you can use benchmarking to show that you are doing just as well (or better) as anyone else in your area or that you have budget constraints that hinder peak performance. Statistics can be your friend.
We live in times in which people complain that government is too big, but the problem is that people are becoming more and more helpless and ask government to do more for them. The pioneer spirit, that made our country so great, is being replaced by needy people.
People don’t want to spend the energy to find a new home for their pet, so they dump it at the “pound.” Fearing that people will think ill of them for surrendering their pet, they turn the animal in as a stray. So, instead of immediately trying to find a new home for the pet, the animal shelter is forced to spend the first few days looking for the animals owner.
It is not uncommon that we find that surrendering pet owners are not only callous, but also stupid. When surrendering a pet, the owner will forget that they had adopted the pet from the shelter and the pet had been microchipped prior to adoption.
Animal Control Officers will get calls from citizens asking for assistance to help the owner catch his/her own dog. The owner has developed such a poor relationship with their pet, that it is more likely that a stranger will be able to catch it.
One summer in Virginia, we had a problem of pet sitters surrendering the animals in their care. They would get tired of caring for the pet and surrender the animal to the shelter as a stray. They would not even bother to let us know that an owner will be returning from vacation to look for their pet.
But the biggest problem that we faced is people adopting a new pet and losing the pet before getting the pet inside their home. Even after all of the instructions that we provided, people would choose to drop the leash to let their new pet run to the front door on their own. Hey, guess what? After being caged for a long while, being off leash opened opportunities for new adventures for the pet.
The good news is that the few people who have access to money can pay others to help them be good pet owners. Doggie Day Cares exist to exercise and socialize and you can even hire people to come out and clean up the poop in your yard.
Performing euthanasia is the most stressful aspect of being an animal shelter employee. I witnessed a couple of work burnouts as a result of euthanizing animals that I had become fond of. The problem is greatest for smaller operations.
When I started out in this profession, I handled every aspect of an animal’s cycle through my shelter:
- I was the Animal Control Officer, responsible for responding to complaints and impounding animals in the field.
- I was the Animal Attendant, responsible for the daily care of the animals.
- I was the Vet Tech, responsible for maintaining the daily health of the animals.
- I was the Shelter Manager, responsible for deciding which animals needed to by euthanized due to shelter overcrowding.
- I was the Euthanasia Tech, responsible for the euthanizing and disposal of the animals.
Although euthanasia, at any level, is stressful, compartmentalizing each aspect can reduce the stress that is experienced by any one individual. The greatest stress reliever is to insure that the euthanasia process is handled well; by competent, caring staff. By relieving stress on the animal, helps relieve stress on those performing the task.
The last moments of an animal’s life should be performed with the greatest compassion.
You would think that having a love for animals would be sufficient to work in an animal shelter; however, much of the work we deal with involves working with people. A high school level of education is sufficient, but I have watched employees struggling with simple math.
I would suggest that you offer an examination that tests applicants on people and math skills. It is not necessary that a person loves animals to be in our field, they just need to appear that they love animals in all that they do.
I always told my staff that when dealing with a person, pretend that they are talking with the Mayor. When dealing with an animal, pretend that they are dealing with my pet.
This afternoon, I was reminded that as humans, we are susceptible to making mistakes. Arriving home from a drive thru, I was shorted medium size tatter tots. Most mistakes are innocuous and cause little or no harm.
One of the greatest stresses of running an animal shelter is that you’ve entered a profession that has little room for mistakes. Mistakes can throw off drug counts, cause the over (or under) vaccination of an animal and can even cause the death of an animal. You cannot “undo” many of the mistakes that are available to us in this profession. As an old carpenter would tell you, “measure twice, cut once.” It doesn’t hurt to have three eyes on everything that you do.
There is nothing worse that to accidently euthanize an owner’s pet. For that reason, I would not allow any animal to be euthanized until I looked at the animal and checked it against our records. We live in a business in which there exist so many similar looking animals, that you can NEVER be too careful.
With increasing pressure to maintain high release rates, many animal shelters will fail to report prior dog bites to prospective adopters. This became such a problem in the Commonwealth of Virginia that a law had to be enacted to force shelters to come forward with an animal’s previous aggressive history.
I experienced this myself, working in Virginia, in which volunteers would attempt to bully me and my staff into ignoring the behaviors that we witnessed, so as to keep the animal on track for adoption. Because I felt I had a higher calling to protect the public from aggressive animals, the volunteers pushed for my removal.
I am dumbfounded by the thought process that would hide such information from a perspective adopter. Commonsense should have prevailed in warning a person about a pet’s previous behavior. But, when it comes to saving animals, commonsense is not so common. Animal Advocates believe that the life of an animal is a higher priority that the safety of a person, family, or the community.
I find it extremely troubling that it was necessary to force a moral obligation on animal shelters; however, I applaud the Commonwealth for making it necessary for shelters to do the right thing. Think of the legal ramifications and potential loss of life if shelters were allowed to continue pushing aggressive animals to people.
Since the onset of social media, staff management has become more difficult. Social media can be so vicious that shelter staff wish to maintain a positive social media presence. Fringe groups will recognize this need for shelter staff to be accepted that they will use social media pressure to turn the staff into warriors for their group.
Prior to hiring new employees, take a look at their social media posts to see if the applicants are more concerned about doing their job, or being social media friendly. It doesn’t hurt to be social media friendly, as long as it does not place the community at risk.
A number of years ago, we had a dog come into the shelter wearing a dog tag; the tag was a welcome sight because very few animal wear them. The tag proved to be nearly untraceable.
The tag was from Jefferson County and failed to have the area code with the phone number. It is amazing the number of Jefferson Counties that exist.
Please, anytime you are printing an identification tag, include sufficient information, in the event that the animal is found several States away. At a minimum, include the State and area code. Please take a critical look at your tags to see if they contain sufficient information to get the animal returned home. The tag might be the only identification on the animal and animals are known to travel with their owners over great distances.
The first thing removed from the budget during lean times is staff training. It is probably the last place funds should be touched. The best way to invest in your organization is through decent salaries and staff training. A few days ago, the newspaper picked up on a story that animal control staff returned from a conference and wanted to implement TNR (Trap, Neuter and Release) program. The newspaper talked like this was something new and our community would be cutting edge by trapping cats. Communities have been performing TNR for years. The fact that our community is starting it now only means that we are just catching up. If we had invested in staff training years ago and had the will to manage our community cats, we would be further along to become no kill. Conferences are the place where our staff catches up with the rest of the world. It is important to send our best staff to training. If you were to pick a single conference to attend, I would suggest the Animal Care Expo. The best gift that you can give your staff is training. There are not many opportunities for training animal welfare staff, so it is important that you follow when and where the training occurs.
When sending your staff off to training opportunities, it is a good idea to remind them that they are ambassadors of your organization. I have encountered incidents in which a few staff saw training as a party opportunity and embarrassed themselves and our organization. Depending on your staff, you might consider always sending a member of your management team who has the authority to send the offending member of your staff home.
If sending staff off to conferences is outside your budget, providing Animal Sheltering magazine is a good alternative. I would suggest getting a subscription to the magazine for each member of the staff and extras for your volunteers. When you are seeking grants for your shelter, consider obtaining training grants for your staff. Inhouse training can be supplemented by contacting organizations, like Animal Control Training Services (ACT), to conduct various levels of training as needed by your staff. Usually these services discount training costs for the organization that will host the training event. ACT’s website has many resource materials for those looking for a specific need or wishing to create a new form. Another “ACT” is Animal Care Technologies that provides training for shelter staff and volunteers in animal care and veterinary services. If found this online training particularly beneficial in scheduling animal care training to new animal attendants and volunteers.
COVID-19 put a real crimp on annual conferences, but it opened the door to national organizations rethinking their approach to providing professional development to their members. The National Animal Control Association saw that their annual national conferences were no longer viable in today’s pandemic world, so they created online courses. The online courses cannot make up for the peer to peer contact with others in their profession that makes conferences so great, but they provide an economic training opportunity to animal control staff who would not ordinarily be able to attend training.
If you think that staff training is unimportant, remember that much of the problems that the police face is that many of their officers have clearly demonstrated their lack of training when arriving on the scene. As a result, many cities are cutting police budgets when they should be throwing more money towards better staff training. The same is true of giving your staff the equipment they need to perform their jobs correctly. As with the police, the more nonlethal equipment that you give to the officers, the more tools the officer has to bring a peaceful resolution.
For years, American Humane’s Operation Guide series was the “go to place.” Here is a link for publications associated with animal sheltering: https://www.americanhumane.org/publication-type/animal-shelter-operational-guide/.