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.

1 comment:

Red said...

Michel,
Curious. What is your experience in managing an organization, business, animal shelter or budget?