A number of years ago, I was the director of a Milwaukee animal shelter and had to face the fact that the dynamics of a city plays an important role is the success of animal shelter programs.
Six years ago I began researching the factors that play into one shelter’s success over another shelter’s failure in becoming no kill. Although this data is several years old, the information holds true that many factors play a role in an animal shelter’s success. I found it interesting that many of the factors that are used to determine crime rates equally played a role in households being responsible pet owners.
No kill advocates have a problem of comparing different organizations, without looking to see if they are making “apples to apples” comparisons. I wrote this over five years ago and much of the information still holds true today:
Dynamics of a No-Kill Community
By David R. Flagler
Recently, a no-kill advocate decided to compare the Milwaukee kill rate against two recognized no-kill communities to demonstrate that if those two communities could become no-kill, there was no reason that Milwaukee could not become a no-kill city as well. Although Milwaukee was actively engaged in following many of the no-kill elements, their progress was slow. In this article, I attempt to show that other social and economic elements play a role in the rate that a community can move to a 90% placement rate.
According to the no-kill advocate, the only thing that is necessary is the will to become no-kill. They miss entirely the other factors that place upon the movement. Many no-kill advocates believe that pet overpopulation dose not exists and that if the leadership of the local animal shelter had sufficient compassion, the leadership could stop the killing of animals in a community. Nationally we were seeing a decrease in shelter intakes, but then the downturn in the economy caused a temporary increase in shelter intakes as people found they could not afford pet ownership.
In spite of their best efforts, Milwaukee has been unable to reduce their shelter intakes. What are the dynamics of this city that has become an obstacle of becoming no-kill?
When Milwaukee is compared against Reno or Austin, Milwaukee had comparable animal intakes and human population, but only half of the budget. Funding is necessary to provide community education programs and offer low cost spay/neuter services. Preparing an animal for adoption does not come cheap, with the cost of vaccinations, medical tests and spay/neuter surgeries.
In order to compare funding between organizations, a person can divide the budget of an organization against the population. In comparing Austin’s budget of $7,612,186 to Milwaukee’s budget of $3,071,090 and the population of Austin of 830,611 and Milwaukee of 952,532, the math shows that Austin pays $9.16 per person for their animal control services and Milwaukee pays $3.22.
Milwaukee has the number 2 spot in poverty in the United States. Many of Milwaukee’s citizens are struggling to survive; making spay/neutering their pets is very low priority. A few of their citizens even believe that breeding their pit bull dog might add a little revenue to their family income.
There are two cultures that you must address in your community: the culture of the animal shelter and the culture of the community. Shelter personnel must be willing to commit to the success of finding homes for animals, but the community’s culture defines the community attitude toward animals. In every communities, there are people who are simply opposed to neutering their pets. This particular problem hinders the progression of a city being able to do the right thing for their pets. In order to become a humane community, you have to have a community that cares about their pets; a community willing to live up to their responsibilities as responsible pet owners.
The funding priority of local governmental officials is a critical element in providing the necessary resources in moving toward no-kill. No-kill costs money, in spite of what the no-kill advocates say. The cost of preparing an animal for adoption is expensive and only a portion of those funds are returned in adoption fees. Austin is a good example of the high cost of no-kill, in order to maintain their no-kill status, the City of Austin had to add a million dollars to the budget each year to keep no-kill alive.
In recent years, many city councils and county commissions publicly declare that their communities will become no-kill; in a belief that if a community values its pets, it is evidence that they have taken care of their poor. Many of these communities have jumped the gun; in that they do not understand how the dynamics of their communities will affect the outcome of their public statements. The good news is that in stating their support for the no-kill cause, they will now become obligated to provide the necessary funding to make their cause a success.
Pet overpopulation occurs in two places: within the community and within the shelter.
No-kill advocates do not believe that there is a pet overpopulation. In some communities, that is true, but it is not universally true for every city. Pet overpopulation is the result of uneducated people possessing pets. Over the years, people have become more responsible as pet owners and many cities are seeing a decline in the number of animals going into their local shelters. Over the past decade, shelters have learned to spay/neuter their adopted pets; it is hard to believe that at one time, we used to adopt fertile animals to the public. People are learning that it is better to adopt a stray pet than to buy one from a pet store. Our evolutionary process is driving down the pet overpopulation in many communities; however, some communities are just lagging behind.
In our shelters, we find that shelter overpopulation is controlled by the number of animal intakes, the length of time that is required to hold the animal, the type of animals held and the success an organization has in finding new homes for the animals. The shelter’s intake numbers are driven by the community pet overpopulation, in which surplus animals are taken to their local animal shelter to remove them from the streets. The longer the holding period, the greater opportunity exists for overcrowding at the animal shelter waiting for an owner to figure out that their pet is missing. Most cities have a three-day holding period, believing that any responsible pet owner would realize that their pet is missing within the first day and still have two more days to visit their animal shelter. Many communities believe longer holding periods are necessary for irresponsible pet owners or for pet owners who go on vacation and need additional time to return from vacation and look for their lost pet. Most animal shelters will hold animals that are wearing some form of identification longer until they have exhausted every lead in looking for the owner.
The popularity of the pit bull dog has increased over the years. In the past, it was the breed that attracted the worst pet owners; that resulted in the breed getting a bad name. Because the breed still attracts bad owners, many jurisdictions have banned the breed in their communities; the jurisdictions believe that they cannot trust the dog owners to be good pet owners so they just ban the entire breed. The reason that I bring this up is that the pit bull breed is the most predominant breed at the animal shelter. In areas of the country that have breed bans, it is pretty hard to adopt pit bull dogs. Most shelters realize that the placement of pit bulls require three to four times more effort than adopting small breed dogs. Milwaukee has a shortage of small breed dogs and some rescue organizations reach out of the state to fill their small breed needs. Pit bulls just sit in the shelter and take up space, the space that could be used to adopt out three or four smaller breed dogs. In Milwaukee, pit bulls make up 40% of the dog intakes and represent 70% of the dogs euthanized. Simply by stopping the breeding of pit bulls would immediately turn Milwaukee into a no-kill community.
And finally the ability of the shelter to place animals into new homes; which is driven by their adoption process and the shelter’s relationship with local animal rescue organizations: the greatest resource that any community has is in the form of the rescue groups that come forward to help their local shelter deal with the pet overpopulation problem.
Although mentioned only briefly above, the holding period plays a major role in the successful placement of pets. Most of the animals that enter the animal shelter are the result of poor pet ownership and as such, the majority of those animals are unvaccinated. An animal shelter is the worst place in the world for an unvaccinated pet. Animal Shelters cannot control illnesses that fester in animals that come into their shelter; although most shelters vaccinate animals upon entry, vaccinations take weeks to build immunity within an animal. Many factors play a role in the onset of symptoms: stress of confinement, stress to the immune system (even giving the initial vaccination can stress an animal’s immune system), and even the spay/neuter surgery preparing the animal for adoption. Usually the onset of illness occurs 6 to 10 days after being exposed to the virus. The longer that an animal is held, the greater risk of the animal getting sick. The City of Austin has a 3-day holding period, Reno has a 5-day holding period and the State of Wisconsin requires a 7-day holding period. These holding periods play a major role in the health of animal being prepared for adoption and contributes to the overcrowding conditions at the shelter.
It isn’t enough to look at a shelter’s intake to determine the overcrowding that an animal shelter experiences, you must look as well at the length of the holding period. When you compare Austin’s intakes of 23,000 animals to Milwaukee’s intakes of 12,547 you think that Austin has double the number of animals in their shelter, but when you factor in the additional 4 days that Milwaukee has to hold their animals, you begin to see that Milwaukee’s shelter population is greater than Austin’s numbers as a result of the addition holding time. When you factor in the holding times, you can see that Austin has a budget of $110.32 to spend on each animal every day, while Milwaukee has only $34.69. Clearly budgets and holding time are hugh factors in becoming no-kill.
Since animal shelters have limited space, as the shelter reaches capacity, shelter personnel have to make space to accommodate the additional animals coming into their shelter. The ideal way to do that is to adopt the animals out; however, if they cannot accomplish that, they are forced to make space by euthanizing animals. To further complicate the space issue, frequently animal shelters must give space to animals awaiting court action. At the time of this article, one kennel ward at the Milwaukee shelter is reserved for animals waiting for their owners to be called to court. Some of those animals have been waiting for over a year. As much as it is hard on the animals to be confined for such a long period of time, it is hard on the shelter to be forced to give up so much kennel space that is desperately needed for stray intakes; further upsetting the overcrowding at the shelter.
As stated above, the more educated a person is, the more likely he or she will spay/neuter his/her pet. In addition, educated people are more environmentally sensitive and are more likely to adopt a “recycled” pet than buying one from a neighborhood breeder. Smart people know the relationship between fertile pets and pet overpopulation.
Small communities with large colleges have a high percentage of highly educated people who make for a good culture to create a no-kill environment in that community.
A stable home life is more likely to create an environment that is less likely to have a pet running the streets of the neighborhood. With parental guidance, fewer teen boys will be out in the street fighting their pet.
What the no-kill advocates do not understand is that every city is unique. The broad brush that they paint the no-kill plan cannot be evenly applied to every city. Every animal shelter can do more to end the killing of pets, but the dynamics of a community will determine whether no-kill can be reached in the short term or the long term.
In order to reach the goal of 90% save rate, an animal shelter must reduce animal intakes and increase live outcomes. In order to accomplish that goal in the short term, shelters have made it more difficult for pet owners to surrender their pets and have provided greater incentives to people who are adopting pets. Although this strategy works in the short term, people find ways around the system and begin surrendering their pets as strays.
Sometimes a longer-term solution is necessary to change the culture of a community by teaching humane education to the youth of the community. The current generation is lost to us, so the next generation must carry forth the values of responsible pet ownership and learn the value of life for all creatures and show respect towards those around them. Some communities have mandated the spay/neutering of pets in their communities in an effort to solve the pet overpopulation crisis in their communities.