Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Join us for Dia de Los Muertos in Mesilla Plaza

I'd like to interrupt my regular blog postings to talk about an event we are having this weekend in Mesilla Plaza. As part of the Calavera Coalition's Dia de los Muertos celebration, the Humane Society of Southern New Mexico (HSSNM) is leading the charge in building an altar to honor and welcome the spiritual visits from our beloved pets who have passed on as well as the thousands of homeless animals we still put to death each year in our community. All the animal-welfare groups are invited to participate, as well as the general public.

We will build the altar this Friday, starting at 4 p.m. I have not written my high-volume spay/neuter blog this week because I am busy making candles and other items to decorate the altar. I want it to be as authentic as possible, but animal calaveras are hard to come by.

For those unfamiliar with this Mexican holiday (also celebrated in other cultures as well in different ways), we believe that the souls of our loved ones visit us one day each year, and we build altars to remember them, honor them, and offer their favorite things to them as well. Nov. 1st, also known as All Saints Day, welcomes children who have died, and Nov. 2nd, also known as All Souls Day, welcomes the adults who have died.

Traditional altars are decorated with various folk art pieces that depict skeletons (calaveras), also called muertos, engaging in celebration or other enjoyable activities as well as actual pictures and other momentos. (See the calavera cat at left, enjoying itself in front of the fireplace). Depending on who you are honoring with your altar, you make sure that those visiting have all of the things they used to love, from their favorite food and drink to items that represent their hobbies and pasttimes, etc.

For our pet altar this year, we are honoring our personal pets that have passed away as well as all our homeless animals that have been put to death. We are including items such as fresh water, dog food, cat food, toys, treats, leashes, brushes, etc., and we invite the public and other groups to bring items to add into the altar. We also would like the various animal groups to bring literature we can hand out all weekend.

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is one of my favorite celebrations. It may seem morbid, but that is not its intent. It strives to give us a healthy outlook toward death, which is an inevitable part of life for us all. It gives us hope that we live on somehow in spirit and can actually visit our loved ones and come back to see how they are paying tribute to us. To me, it shows that death is the greatest equalizer in that no matter what you look like, no matter how much money you make, no matter your gender or the color of your skin, when we die, we are all calaveras underneath it all. On one hand, you honor and remember those you loved and reminisce about good times with them, and on the other hand, you mock death and come to terms with it.

So, come join us for this wonderful celebration. Bring pictures of your dearly departed pets, write a tribute poem or two to them, bring offerings to the homeless animals who are gone, or just stop by to pick up literature and buy a muerto candle or candle holder that myself and my boss have been busy handmaking this year (thanks Charlotte!). All money collected for these items will be donated to the participating animal-welfare groups.

The Calavera Coalition is also asking for canned good items for HUMANS -- to be donated to various women's and children's groups in town. So, you can give something to all of those less fortunate in our community. There will be other altars up as well as crafts being sold and food and music and more.

I hope to see everyone there. Myself and other HSSNM volunteers will be at the pet altar both Sat. and Sun. from about 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and we will break down the altar on Sunday.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Sorry my blog has gotten off-track

I want to apologize to the readers of this blog; I think I have been talking too much about philosophy and No Kill and putting the cart before the horse. I understand how confusing these two words are, and it is hard to grasp the difference between killing for population control and euthanasia, and we all use the words interchagably. I know, too, that as a community we are stuck in a mindset of punishing and stopping irresponsible people from what they do. Believe me, if I could wave a magic wand and change people, I would! I honestly think some people can change, as I have seen in my own life and personal relationships, but I also think others will never do so, and the best thing they can do is just not have any pets!!

However, my initial intent for this blog was to first talk about all of the No Kill Equation in detail, offering advice and ideas and examples from around the nation of how--when you fully and vigorously implement all of these programs which I'm sure most of us support (save for those not in favor of TNR)--you can work toward replacing killing for population control with saving more and more lives and work hard to send euthanasia and its application back to its dictionary definition.

The research myself and the Las Cruces No Kill Study Group are doing right now will give us even more information from which to draw, but there are ideas that the best in the business also share readily. I only wish I was in Las Vegas this coming week, for example, for the Best Friends Animal Society's No More Homeless Pets Conference, where the motto is that in this case, what you learn in Vegas you should not leave in Vegas!

And, next May, I plan to attend THE conference where all my heroes and sheroes will be in one place ... the No Kill Advocacy Center's conference in Washington, D.C. Some of my animal-welfare colleagues and I are going to attend, and I'm sure we'll be chock-full of ideas and momentum after hearing from the likes of progressive sheltering partiarch and Maddie's Fund president Richard Avanzino, no kill's tireless leader Nathan Winograd, 2007 Shelter Director of the Year Bonney Brown, and others.

My next blog postings promise to talk about each of the items on the No Kill Equation list with ideas of how we can work on these programs here with what we have available (even at our funding levels) and what it will look like when each is fully implemented, and then I'll be hoping that all of the people in this community--who want to reduce the intake at our shelter and increase live exits to second chances/good homes and enrich shelter animals' lives when in our care--can get together and brainstorm about how we can work together to make this a reality. Let's fundraise and launch programs and find ways to get our shelter to partner with us instead of all the distrust and friction that exists now. Surely, we can get past this and find a better way.

I think we all want the same things, but we word it differently or come at it differently or misconstrue what we are each saying and read our own judgements in between the lines. After all, if we love animals, we want to save as many of their lives as possible. We'd like to enrich their lives with their current owners or rescue them from bad owners. We'd love to get to a day when we decrease the shelter's intake enough to give those that are medically or behaviorally challenged an opportunity to rehabilitate and get a second chance in a new home, fight against prejudices that hurt some kinds of animals more than others, and work toward individual, equitable assessment of each cat and dog.

When you look at these programs and services, that's what they are about. At the same time, we all agree that animals should be free of neglect and suffering at the hands of bad owners, and we try our best to help those that we see suffering and hope that our law enforces do their jobs from a perspective of animal care and control, which do not have to be mutually excusive. We can be in favor of all of it--punishing and deterring the bad people AND partnering with the good to save more lives.

I'm going to start some of my own efforts in helping people and their animals by launching a pet help line under the Humane Society of Southern New Mexico by the end of November/beginning of December. I am working on a comprehensive resource booklet, I am working on a help line caseworker handbook so that volunteers can help me answer calls and e-mails from people, and I will post helpful behavior tips and other pet retention information via the HSSNM website. We will be trying our best to help people deal with their legitimate pet guardian issues. After all, dogs and cats don't come with manuals, and there are times when people are at their wit's end and truly don't know what to do, and we want to try to help them keep their animals instead of give up on them. We will also be looking into dog and cat food banks for those in our community that are struggling in these harsh economic times to feed their animals on top of the high expenses for themselves and their children.

So, it's time to start talking programs and exploring ideas and ways to implement them. No Kill will just happen as a result one day, or at least lower and lower kill until we get there, and it will surprise us all and inspire us to keep working in that forward direction. Just as negativity begets negativity, so do good things and good experiences and success stories beget more of the same.

Next posting: How do we work toward high-volume spay and neuter in our community? I think that is the most important place for us to start. Right now, we can fully support our local no- and low-cost programs--SNAP and FSNP. By the way, SNAP is having their big gala this Sat. night; I hope to see many of you there.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Why "tough love" is not the answer

Joint City/County meeting today gave a shelter update

The City Council and County Commission gathered today to talk about the Animal Services Center of the Mesilla Valley and other "joint" topics, and the theme of the day as far as our animal shelter is concerned, if I can so boldly summarize, is that they are all in favor of a "tough love" approach to animal sheltering. On the one hand, I can understand all of us getting caught up in wanting to punish the bad and irresponsible pet owners out there and obsessing over them. Yet, only focussing on that blocks so much good that we could be doing if we only had some compassion for human beings and didn't punish the good people for the bad. The cornerstone of No Kill is this: don't worry about the bad people (you will change few of them or force few of them to become good and laws are in place to punish them NOW, so enforce those and move on). Instead, concentrate on networking and working with the good people for the sake of the animals in your care. Lucky for us and for our animals, we the good far outnumber the bad. We just need inspiration and an open, welcoming environment in which to thrive.

It seems like a simple concept and makes good business sense, but more and more, I am seeing how hard it is to overcome the culture of negativity and defeatism that we face in animal sheltering and that is so deeply embedded in our collective psyches (including those of our current leaders). It is very frustrating for advocates of No Kill who finally "get" it and cannot find apt words to explain the subtle differences of which we speak. The negative, defensive attitude we still have at our shelter is THE biggest hurdle we have to overcome, and we need the general public's help in doing so.

More need to speak out

Ironically, our shelter's management and oversight consists of people preaching tough love for the public but not being open to ANY constructive criticism that may come their way. The lack of respect for and accountability to the public is palpable (especially toward any animal-welfare advocate), and I hope that impunity does not last forever and changes when the new oversight board is in place.

For example, some of our leaders today had the audacity to not only ignore recent incidents that fly in the face of the law or show total lack of integrity on our shelter's part--such as killing a cat before its legal 72-hour holding period was up and defending that decision or shrugging off a dog becoming pregnant in the shelter and whose pregnancy was aborted very late-term when this was reported to our leaders--but we were told our criticisms via e-mail take up too much of their precious time. Part of this was that age-old deflection move where you are told that the time they have to take just reading about your issue could be time spent toward real (i.e., important) work. Since the issues are not fully nor responsibly addressed, it is not like much time is wasted on those efforts.

I'm sorry, ladies and gentlemen of our City Council and County Commission, but you are elected public officials, and our shelter is run and operated on our tax dollars and serves the public as well. We have every right to report legitimate, often well-documented incidents to you that should be greeted professionally and handled responsibly, and you, in turn, should all be ashamed of yourselves for not doing so in many cases. Your distaste for hearing things from the public that are blunt and truthful is unfortunate, but even those of us you consider "animal wackos" and dismiss without honestly listening to a word we say will not simply go away and relinquish our rights. Many of us take our work seriously, and we are advocating for things in which we strongly believe and in which we put many hours of our own precious time into as well.

Along with that, I am urging everyone in the public to speak up and tell it like it really is, too. Don't be unfair, and don't stoop to any low levels. But, do it when it warrants the complaint,and do it to send a loud and clear message that we deserve better -- better service and some respect, too. Any of us that walk into the shelter for whatever reason, even to relinquish an animal we no longer want to care for, deserve better, too. In addition, so do our homeless animals.

On the path of irony still, if it were not for annoying advocates like myself and others in this community who have been working hard at change for much longer, we would not have many of the few improvements we are seeing at our shelter today. If no one speaks up, then it is assumed all is well. When all is not well, then it behooves our homeless animals to speak up. If you or your pet is a victim of some sort at the hands of our shelter or other animal-welfare pubic service, you have every right to seek accountability from our leaders about your complaint or issue. Transparency and accountability are a big part of No Kill as well, and we are far from that place today, as we are also far from fully implementing 8 of the 10 programs and services of the No Kill Equation as claimed today, especially not the progressive philosophy behind No Kill.

As for this horrible problem in our area that we seem to think is so unique--that there are bad and neglectful pet owners who consider animals throw-aways--well, that's a sad given and always will be and is a given in our entire nation. And, that's what animal-welfare groups and shelters are here for ... to care for the poor creatures abandoned by these people and not, in turn, throw the majority of them away themselves. Our system treats them as throw-aways the majority of the time, too. Saving lives should be our main goal. We need to stop complaining about this important work that is put before us and start approaching it and thinking of it differently. If you look at the whole of the human-animal relationship, the good outweighs the bad. That's what we need to brainwash ourselves with--that truth--to expunge the negativity from our own minds because it clouds our vision and stops us from approaching these issues creatively, progressively, proactively, positively, etc.

As for tough love, that is not progressive or new. For decades, we have created countless animal laws and legislation that try to punish the bad into being good, but there is a dark side to this as well (follow the link from this blog's title to read more about that). When this leads to a defensive, negative attitude that permeates all dealings the shelter has with the public it serves and the volunteer help it has access to, it closes many doors and ideas and opportunities to save more lives. This is especially true because the vast majority of us good people who could lend our service and expertise don't do so or are thwarted when we try to do so, and the waters are poisoned for those wanting to just adopt an animal or go find a pet that might have gotten away from us because no one is perfect.

Troubling issues with today's presentation

Trying to get on the No Kill Equation bandwagon, our shelter director reported that they are administering 8 of the 10 programs and services of the no kill model now. That the shelter's management is making this erroneous claim shows just how ignorant they are of what the full programs and services are about. For example, we are nowhere near having the kind of PR programs and presence in place that we need. We do not use the Internet or websites to their fullest capability and have no shelter website of our own, and our shelter has been working on their website for months with nothing to show for it yet. We do little pet retention and have no formalized programs for it, etc. In other words, simply dabbling in these programs and services, which most shelters do, is not full implementation of them. I suggest they read more of the details behind each before making such false claims.

Also troubling in the presentation were the statistics for our shelter shown that were entirely different from the ones handed to animal advocates just a few weeks ago (of which I have copies). The stats for the last few months, and the kill rate often repeated by shelter staff in the last few months, showed that rate at 70+% for all this time, yet the stats shown yesterday showed rates in the 50% region for some months. Which is it? And, how can we trust the integrity of the statistics in light of this huge discrepancy? If our shelter is truly looking at working toward No Kill, it needs to adopt standard sheltering statistical examples as well as full, equitable assessments of each individual animal that feed these numbers from the national experts, such as the Asilomar Accords model or the No Kill Adovcacy Center's Lifesaving Matrix model.

There were other areas of misinformation as well. No Kill advocates do make comparisons to communities based on the level of services and programs and especially the business-like, welcoming atmosphere that most progressive shelters put forth, as opposed to the "us against them" atmosphere of failing shelters. Shelters in our nation truly following the No Kill Equation model are having success, and not just small communities like Tomkins County rural NY, which our shelter loves to point to because their intake numbers are low and they say we can't compare to them in size alone. Well, Reno, NV in Washoe County is the comparison I think fits our community better because their intake numbers are similar, their growth rate is similar, and it shows that even a community with high homeless pet numbers like our own can turn things around rather quickly. Just their program that incentivizes people fixing their pit bulls has shown great success, and they have many programs like this in place. Look to their website for all the programs and services they have:

I shared their director's "How We Did It" document in my last blog posting, and her description of changing to a more customer-service orientation and utilizing/training hundreds of volunteers to help with the programs and services is key. Our shelter's director yesterday said we are struggling to train and hold just 100 volunteers "accountable" or to a set schedule, but maybe our shelter needs to look to iself for that failure--its lack of training, organization, empowement, ability to delegate, etc. For one, the hour-long volunteer orientation given now is not formalized training, and our shelter has yet to put formalized, documented training into place for staff, much less volunteers.

That's why we cannot say we are THERE and administering all these programs. We have a LONG way to go. The volunteer program alone is key because we don't have enough funding to hire the staff to fully implement all of these programs from within the shelter alone, and we need to use the expertise from the public and partner with and empower these stakeholders to help in meaningful ways. Many of us are out here and willing to help, and I started from this standpoint and mindset in the beginning with our new shelter's management ... sharing resources and ideas ... offering to help in meaningful ways that played into my strengths and talents ... I think many have done the same and been ignored or outwardly thwarted.

That's what I mean by "tough love" not being the answer ... for the mistakes of the irresponsible public, we are all made to pay in the eyes of the shelter (even volunteers). We cannot progress from that negative, defeatist standpoint.

Aside for Barb Lunn and Buddah

I guess most people think they are perfect; they never speed or never get caught and get tickets; they never make mistakes. It is inherent in our culture to tear down others in order to feel better about ourselves, too, a sad testament to our American culture and a past-time we all engage in one time or another. Sometimes, this is taken way too far.

As an example of this lack of compassion and quickness to judge others harshly, I was very surprised and shocked to see that a story that ran in the paper yesterday about a family cat that was killed within hours of being in our shelter garnered more online comments in outrage against the cat owner than the shelter ... both broke the "law" ... and, in callous statements made and quoted in the paper, the shelter's director contradicted her own logic in this decision at least three times and said if that cat hadn't given them a reason to be put down then "something else would have been euthanized instead" (that's not a throw-away mentality toward animals at all, is it?) Yet, not too many people were outraged over this and the incident itself -- only a handful.

There is a system in place to punish lawless pet owners, and that family legally had three days to go get their cat back and pay heavy fines and receive their punishment for breaking the cat leash laws, and they went to the shelter three times in one day trying to do just that. So, where is the accountability and punishment for the system that failed and broke its own laws? Where is the apology to this family as well?

I hope that Barbara Lunn does look into her legal options in this case and follow wherever that may lead ... not for revenge, but to honor her cat that she loved and had for 11 years and to get retribution for her loss. I would be livid if it was one of my pets, who are considered members of my family. Buddha should not have died in our shelter the day he was brought in, and there is no way we can assure this does not happen again to another cat or dog in this system unless someone challenges it. I urge Barbara to do so if she can afford to. I know many people do not have the means to do that, but you can still speak up, still file complaints, and call the newspaper to tell them your story as well.

Just as pet owners have to pay for breaking the law, then the shelter should have to pay the price that it deserves--no more or no less--for this mistake or any others it makes. The right thing to do, and the No Kill approach, would of been to admit you made a horrible error, apologize for it, make amends for it, and talk about the system changes you are going to put in place to make sure that never happens again (i.e., you won't kill any animal before its alloted hold time is up). Instead of taking a defensive stance, which is an attitude that is chosen, there are other, more positive, more sincere, and more professional ways in which any situation can be handled.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

No vigilantes here!

It never ceases to amaze me how three tiny letters--a mere abbreviation--can lead to so much vehemence and backlash (usually based on untruths and unfounded myths) as the letter string of "TNR".

Nothing in what I wrote when I invited people to our Las Cruces No Kill Study Group tonight suggested we are forming some kind of masked, lawbreaking wacko group out to do TNR on the sly in a community in which it is outlawed at this point in time. Luckily for us and other communities in this unique nation of ours, local ordinances are not laws written in stone and which are never changed for the better. And, we have every right as anyone else to push for changes in the law to support a program we believe is the most humane and sensible and successful in homeless/feral cat popoulation control--much more so than the "catch and kill" option that has failed for decades, much to the chagrin and misfortune of us all.

I respect all animal life--cats, dogs, pigs, cows, birds, etc. No one more than myself wishes all cats were spoiled and living in the lap of luxury, out of harm's way and not out to harm any other living creature. Sadly, that is not reality for our cats or for wildlife in general. Anyone that has other innovative ideas about feral cats is welcome to share their views, but we are researching and will lobby for the best solution to this issue at this time in our history, which I strongly believe is trap-neuter/spay-return to where they live and care for them until attrition slowly ends each colony. We will do so professionally and legally and will address this issue the correct way.

Our No Kill TNR group is going to base any arguments and lobbying for ordinace change on careful research and models of successful TNR programs in our nation, of which there are many -- one right here in Las Cruces on state land (our college campus); many in other communities in New Mexico; and even more so in progressive communities saving more than 90% of their homeless dogs and cats instead of killing them like we and others do.

In our shelter, statistics from this year alone show that cats categorized as "feral" are killed to the tune of 200+ a month, and we will report how much that system costs us as well (it is not as cheap as some would believe). This also adds to our high, overall kill rate, which is currently 70+%--higher than the national average. Plus, there are serious issues about how our shelter system assesses, routes, and ultimately kills most cats that are brought in.

In a recent incident reported to me by reliable sources, one family's cat was trapped by a neighbor and picked up by the City Animal Control, only to be killed at our shelter within an hour of arriving. That is against our laws, which require ANY homeless, stray animal be held for 3 days if they lack identification or 5 days if they do have identification of any kind--so that owners can have an opportunity to reclaim their family pet and so that the system can charge and collect hefty impound fees that add to our shelter's yearly "revenue" and slap pet owners on the wrist as well.

Needless to say, this one family is devastated by this incident and the loss of their cat. That they broke cat leash laws is not being argued here, yet it does not mean this family did not love their cat and value his/her life. They went directly to the shelter to reclaim their cat, which is something most irresponsible cat owners don't even bother to do.

Even if this cat was acting wild in the cage in which it was trapped when it arrived at the shelter, it is Sheltering 101 to deal with this issue and correctly hold, assess/route each individual animal equitably. That's why shelters have special animal handling gloves and feral cat boxes for cages--the tools of the trade. Many a tame family cat can behave badly in stressed situations--you should see my usual Mellow Milo turn into Cujo the Cat at the vet's office--and that's why it is difficult to determine whether a cat is "wild" or not. Cat Behavior 101 also shows that most cats take days to weeks to get used to any new situations, and some adjust better and faster than others.

Cats are not simple creatures, which is what makes them interesting and also hurts them as well. They are a rare species that truly domesticated themselves and that can survive and thrive on their own, unlike dogs. Because of their unique nature, they deserve unique solutions and options at the hands of human beings.

Other communities and TNR caretakers and caregivers have faced TNR opposition at some time or another. And even the HSUS, which used to be strongly opposed to TNR, changed their official stance on feral cats in 2005 because of success after success in proven programs that ultimately help to curb the numbers of homeless/feral cats, which is a plus for all of us and for all wildlife, too. New studies emerge every year that show human beings taking over more natural habitats and filling them with windows and wires and pesticides injure and kill millions of all species of birds each year, yet we still point to feral cats as the biggest culprits.

I can assure everone that any and all work the Las Cruces No Kill Study Group engages in will seek to be fair and above-board and exemplary. I would not have it any other way. It's what our community deserves, and it is what our homeless animal population especially deserves.

That said, tomorrow (Oct. 16th) is National Feral Cat Day. Visit for the latest information about feral cats and ways you can help spread the word that the days of simply catching and killing these creatures are slowly but surely coming to an end.

No Kill Study Group Meeting Tonight at 7 p.m.

Come join the Las Cruces No Kill Study Group, where one set of people is already working on a plan for TNR for which we'll receive an update and where we will discuss our next step regarding the other parts of the No Kill Equation: contacting successful shelters and gathering some research about them.

If you are interested in learning how No Kill success has been implemented in varying areas of the U.S., join us tonight. We'll be in the foyer of the Unitarian Universalist Church, 2000 S. Solano, from 7 p.m. to about 9 p.m.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Leadership is the key to No Kill success

Comment from Red

I want to first address a comment I received on my last posting, asking for my personal experience in the areas of business management and shelter management. I have personally supervised and organized others in a large company in the private sector, acted as a managing editor for a busy weekly newspaper that was family owned and operated, and now work for the Department of Defense and have seen how different that level of government operates in the areas of human resources and budget allocation.

However, I have never managed an animal shelter myself, and most of what I write about in this blog is from an activist's point-of-view about a subject I am passionate about on a personal level and which I have studied extensively. All my work in the animal-welfare world has been as a volunteer. I do dedicate much of my free time to this work.

The way I see it, fund expenditure and management of all resources within an animal shelter should directly tie into that facility's mission and vision statements. If you are working hard toward the goal of No Kill, for example, managing all resources and allocating all funds from that perspective will lead you to responsibly manage the budget and avoid any abuse or waste. After all, incorrectly managing both your human resources in staff/volunteers and monetary resources in terms of budget, grants, fee revenues, and fundraising directly ties to how many lives you save or not.

Do I think that I have the professional, organizational, and leadership skills to handle such a high-pressured environment? I personally think that I do and that many other professionals without shelter management experience do as well. Anyone with a business sense and a passion for saving lives would be way ahead of the curve--even more so than directors that come from years of operating shelters in the same old way. At our shelter, we have had directors come here with 20+ years of experience, and we have had the same systemic issues for many years, even when the shelter was operating under contract with a humane society instead of the municipality it is today.

Successful shelter directors of the past decade

Part of the work of my Las Cruces No Kill Study Group is going to be contacting and interviewing some current successful shelter directors to find out how they have achieved their goals. Many of these directors do not have a long history in the sheltering industry.

Richard Avanzino, the father of No Kill and the first to create the most safe place for homeless animals in the U.S. at that time--the San Francisco SPCA in the late 90s--took that shelter over when it was months away from bankruptcy and killing most of the animals entering the building (in 1976). Avanzino is a pharmacist and lawyer by trade, working as a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry at one point and the mayor of his hometown in a different lifetime. He led that humane society to become one of the richest in the nation, and he implemented many new ideas that at the time were unheard of and for which he faced ridicule, roadblocks, and derision at every turn, such as the idea of holding off-site adoptions, altering animals prior to adoption, and trying to save the lives of those deemed "unadoptable". He also turned the shelter around in the eyes of the public by treating people better, offering great customer service, and simply making it easier for people to do the right thing.

When Avanzino departed to become president of Maddie's Fund in the late 90s, the San Francisco SPCA reached further No Kill success under the leadership of Nathan Winograd, Avanzino's protege. That's when they started saving lives of sick and treatable animals, too. Winograd is also a lawyer by trade and hails from Standford Law School, where he was instrumental in their TNR success at the campus. Since Winograd departed the San Francisco SPCA to show No Kill could be duplicated in a rural setting (in 2001), the humane society has been backsliding in recent years in its No Kill success and no longer uses that terminology as well. They have gone from 90+% save rates to low 80% these days, which is happening because some of the programs and services implemented by Avanzino/Winograd have been cut in recent years and because their current management is more old guard. This goes to show how important leadership is in No Kill success.

Winograd went on to show No Kill success at the Tompkins SPCA in New York, which is still No Kill today under new leadership. When Winograd left Tompkins, he went back home to California to found the No Kill Advocacy Center and write and publish "Redemption". In just over one year, the impact of his book and work has been phenomenal. He has toured hundreds of shelters in the past year, and he helped create plans of action for the Charlottesville SPCA and the Nevada Humane Society, both which have been very successful. Other areas that have hired his No Kill Solutions to review their shetlers have not followed the No Kill Equation, and they are not having much success at this time (such as in Philadelphia).

At the Charlottesville SPCA, which has saved more than 90% of its dogs and cats for years now, Susanne Kogut is another director that was a lawyer in her previous life. At the Nevada Humane Society, director Bonney Brown has a varied background as well. She was first in the retail industry, and then was COO at Best Friends Animal Society, and worked in 2005 with Alley Cat Allies, personally leading a team to rescue cats and reunite them with their owners after hurricane Katrina.

What all these successful directors have in common is none operate out of false assumptions and the culture of defeatism that plagues the animal sheltering industry across this country, with our area being no exception. What these communities have in common is that they, too, were once failing their homeless animals but looked to new, progressive ideas for change instead of accepting their high levels of killing as them simply doing the public's dirty work. Some did bring in Winograd to do a full review of their shelters and help search for a new director and create a detailed plan for how to start working toward No Kill from Day 1. However, the key is not simply getting an assessment; it is following through with the suggested plan, and again, this cannot happen without strong leadership in that direction.

Some of the other communities the No Kill Study Group are going to contact are in the beginning stages of the No Kill transformation. It will be interesting to hear that perspective as well. And, I will be writing a full report on what our research yields and will present it to our City and County leaders as well as make copies available from this blog.

I think the most important element of No Kill success is not whether the leaders in charge of animal welfare hail from a long history in the animal-welfare industry or not ... it all hinges on the ability to look critically at your operations and realize that it makes sense to change if you are failing at the most important aspect of your job, which should be saving as many lives as you possibly can. It makes sense, too, to implement many lifesaving efforts and programs at the same time in order to save more lives and enrich the lives of companion animals and their guardians.

For more reading about what makes an ideal shelter director, follow this link:

For Bonney Brown's "How We Did It" report, follow this link:

A good question any leader should ask themselves

When I was watching one of the presidential candidate debates recently, one of the questions posed was deceptively simple: "What don't you know, and how will you learn it?"

Neither Senator Obama nor Senator McCain answered this question very well, and I cannot think of a harder, more challenging position than to be the leader of the most powerful nation on Earth. There must be so much neither of these men knows, and that applies to any of us.

I think the answer to this question can be posed to any leader in a difficult industry, and social services of any kind definitely apply.

If it were me, I would admit to what I don't know and actively look for the things I don't know so I can learn all I can to get up to speed quickly, and it would be my responsibility to keep up with my own industry. Also, I strongly believe in a protege/mentor model.

Usually, we think of mentors as those rare people we happen upon in our professional lives that take us under their wing and teach us everything they know so they can move onto other challenges. However, in the absence of a mentor, it is incumbent on any leader to seek them out and proactively learn what they need to know (as an active protege, in other words).

I can see where this applies very much to the animal sheltering industry, which is ever-changing. The more we want to save and enrich lives, the more we have to learn.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

To our leaders: Change is in your hands

How does our-animal welfare system lead to high kill rates?

There are so many issues in our local system, I can imagine it is hard for any of our leaders and the shelter's management to figure out where to start and what to concentrate on first. After working for a time as an advocate here, I realize there is a lot of "common knowledge" among us that the general public is completely unaware of. And, even most animal-welfare advocates shrug their shoulders at the daunting challenges and sad circumstances we face.

Though it is true we have a long road ahead to change and progress, it is no excuse to let that stop us from beginning that progress. That's what our taxpayer dollars go toward, and that's what we should expect out of our system. There is also no excuse for some of the things that have been occurring nor for the lack of problem-solving initiatives.

There are issues unresolved now that were issues months ago--that, if resolved--could help us save more lives starting TODAY. For example, for a shelter that takes in 1,000+ plus animals a month, along with animals from hoarding busts mostly out of the County, it is egregious that we are still without a veterinarian on staff and that this has been the case since April of this year.

How does a lack of a vet lead to more killing?

The answer is simple and can be followed from the way animals are handled at intake to the time they reach a table where they are put to death, many needlessly so. From the time an animal comes in, they should be kept or zoned away from the general population, vaccinated hours within intake, and tested/observed before being moved in with other animals. This is not happening. So, it ultimately leads to disease spread and subsequent death for even treatable illnesses like tapeworms, kennel cough, upper respiratory infections, etc.

Without a vet on staff, there has been a "work-around" in effect at our shelter of local vets having to alter animals post-adoption. These animals have to be held at the shelter until they are fixed, taking up space incoming animals could use. Moreover, this means most of the animals housed at our shelter are unaltered, which has led to other issues as well, especially in an environment of high stress and multiple animals per cage/kennel. The pendulum has swung from a time of mostly empty cages and kennels to what we have now, and it is up to our leaders to ask themselves if the pendulum has swung too far and what the happy medium might be. After all, the bottom line is still the same -- we are still putting down most animals and only saving a few.

There have been some verified and unverified accounts made to myself of disturbing circumstances at our shelter in the past few months that either directly or indirectly relate to a lack of a vet and/or too many animals brought under one overtaxed roof--such as one dog getting pregnant within our shelter's walls by her kennel mate of more than a month and the puppies being aborted near-term after this circumstance was discovered; a couple of dogs fighting in kennels overnight when no staff was there to supervise and the dogs getting put down the next morning, after the animals spent hours suffering with wounds; animals malnourished or too-nourished as a result of the dominant dog in a kennel eating all the food, leaving none for the rest; and animals escaping and running into the highway and getting hit by cars, etc. What is true and what is misconstrued from all these accounts? That is for our leaders who are in charge of our shelter to investigate and determine and appropriately address. I pass on any verifiable information I get in hopes it leads to protocol/process change to avoid such errors in the future.

However, is it any wonder that the chaos our shelter is in at the moment is leading to consequences, and those that pay the highest price are the animals? I am not shocked or surprised by what is happening; I am disheartened and saddened by it all.

One fact is something I can personally attest to. The veterinarian who is interested in working at our shelter today, and who has not been hired yet because of battles our leaders are having amongst themselves over the pay rate he is asking for (which is standard shelter vet pay any HR department could verify), has been interested in working at our shelter since April of this year. I know because I personally spoke to him and passed on his information and availability to our City staff and leaders back then, and I gave it to our new director when she started as well. He has experience working on spay/neuter vans and is completely capable of handling many surgeries in one day, and though that is all I personally know about him, I'm sure his other credentials checked out because he has been in the process of being hired at our shelter the past month or so but has not been hired yet--despite the shelter's budget having been raised recently.

This is what I mean by a system that is set up to kill and complacent in the killing. Despite what our leaders say about wanting to help our "four-legged friends," that is just lip service until these kind of issues are resolved with the urgency they deserve.

Where can the animals go?

Logically, if you've got high intake numbers as we do, a shelter's management should first be concentrating on high live release numbers instead of solely relying on justified euthanasia and killing for population control. And, make no mistake that there is a difference between both these terms--euthanasia and killing.

I speak for the need constantly of a shelter to be an opening and welcoming place for people who just want to visit, for adopters, for rescues and other shelters/sanctuaries, and for those that give their free time to volunteer and share ideas and offer help. Unfortunately, from my experience in the past and present, this is still not the atmosphere at our shelter now, and this also plays a role in high kill rates.

For example, one recent policy implementation that is a big turn-off for the public who go to adopt is the need to fill out an application before even seeing any available animals. For a shelter killing at the rate recent statistics show (70+%), this policy is ridiculous. There are differing reasons for this policy, from management claiming it is to catch animal thieves to staffers saying it is a pre-screening process. Instead of pre-screening in the ways needed, to offer good adoption counseling and sound adoption matches, this policy is used to reject people at the door after a cursory look at the application and for ridiculous reasons. Some people turn away and don't even fill out the full information, which asks for personal contact information, history of pets in the family, etc. In this day and age of identity theft, I don't blame people for not wanting to fill out and leave their information behind on the office counter.

I don't have hard numbers on how many potential, decent adopters this policy turns away, but I have received several complaints first- and second-hand. Also, I have some shelter statistics that show that animals missing or stolen are statistically so small, a policy to address this supposed issue is obviously more about pre-judging people and discouraging them from looking at animals than anything else.

In March of this year, 1 animal was missing/stolen vs. the 791 euthanized/killed; in May, 2 were missing vs. the 829 killed; in June, a whopping 8 were stolen/missing vs. 937 killed; and in July, 1 was missing vs. 1092 that were killed. One wonders if some of those "missing" are not attributable to clerical error at times as well, but even if they were puppies and kittens put into a purse or hidden in a jacket and taken, it is still a very small number to worry about in comparison to the numbers we are killing.

Since this is just one blog posting, I cannot go on and on at this point, but I hope this highlights some ways in which the entire system works toward killing more than lifesaving.

What can be done to start working toward change?

The following are just a few ways to start making a shift toward change:
  • There is Capital Outlay funding of $280K laying around that our shelter has had access to for building improvements from 2006/2007/2008 that has not been utilized. Use it to first fix the long-problematic ventilation system (at an estimated $50K), which will help alleviate disease spread; then, use the rest to build holding areas/exercise areas for these hundreds of hoarding-case animals being brought in or for other building needs (isolation areas, cat colony rooms, etc.)--using the goal of saving more lives to lead your decision-making.
  • Hire the veterinarian NOW and a new vet tech; get them to start as soon as they can; and update the surgical suite so we can get back to offering spay/neuter services to lower-income families as well as low-cost vaccinations
  • Change the atmosphere the shelter projects to the public as well as volunteers; make it welcoming and shift the emphasis away from punishing the bad to embracing the good. Empower people to help save more lives, and they will show up in record numbers to help when given a genuine chance.
  • Start exploring ways of creative problem-solving; reach out to all politicians and stakeholders to help find solutions and ways to expand animal services; build the infrastructure within our AC departments to not only investigate and bust cases of cruelty, neglect, dog fighting, hoarding, etc., but to also care humanely for these animals while they are under our care or to fast-track cases so animals from these cases are not suffering at our hands nor taking up space our homeless animals need while they are helped along to a live exit and new home.
  • Instead of announcing No Kill goals we cannot meet with the simple, 3-step plan described or the lack of infrastructure, abandon the rhetoric, apologize to the public for making such erroneous claims, and work toward building the programs and services needed in order to be able to make such a lofty claim in the future (see the No Kill Equation at left).
Who is ultimately accountable in our community for the state of our animal-welfare system?

We all are.

It starts with the general public and with us animal advocates. We need to keep demanding better of our system and getting our leaders to see that this issue is as important to us as others. Speak up when you see or hear of something that is wrong in the system. Let your local leaders know that expansion and improvement of our animal-welfare system and sheler is just as important as the building of multi-million dollar aquatic centers, new parks, etc. Only when our leaders hear the message over and over again may it start to sink in.

And, ultimately, the state of our animal-welfare system is on the shoulders of our leaders. It is up to them to make the shift and change in attitude that it is important to care better for our homeless animals. They need to understnad we can and should do more than offer these creatures a supposed humane death. As more communities in the U.S. start modeling other ways to deal with the issue of "pet overpopuluation," the public will come to demand the same changes even more.