Monday, September 1, 2008

Busting TNR Myths & Shelters Needing Better Customer Service

TNR -- Let's try to approach this subject with an open mind

Like much of what all of us preach as "animal advocates", it was not not long ago that I held onto old myths instead of examining what has been proven to work in recent history--especially when it comes to the plight of today's homeless/feral cat. I tip my hat to any and all people who have worked hard at TNR (trap-neuter-return/release) programs for feral, stray cats amid its many detractors.

Just as pit bulls are the most misunderstood and discriminated against in the dog world today (even among animal lovers), the same is true for feral (wild) cats. We cannot reach no kill in our community if we continue to approach the feral cat problem with old-guard views and practices. That's why TNR is one of the top programs of the No Kill Equation.

The usual detractors of TNR point to cats needing a good home and warm lap to curl up in and that all cats deserve great, indoor homes. Well, I can't argue with that. In a Utopian cat world (and dog world, too, for that matter), all domestic animals would have the purrfect lap to curl up in. However, the reality is that many cats are truly wild and will never live that life, and many thrive and live long lives as the wild counterparts to our lap cats. What we have been doing for decades is trapping and killing these homeless cats to try to eliminate the numbers (population) that survive in these feral/wild conditions. This idea has NOT worked for decades. Cats continue to reproduce at a rate in which our catch and kill systems can never keep up with.

Winograd, in "Redemption", talks about the feral cat program at Stanford Law being his indoctrination to the world of companion animal welfare. He was part of a group of students and advocates who fought for the right to try TNR on that campus to prove it can work. What they accomplished was phenomenal. The estimated 1000 cats on that campus in the 80s/90s has now dwindled down to about 50 in number today. Yes, it takes time because you have to fix all the cats and let them die off naturally, but this is the only system that can work in the struggle to save millions of feral cats from having to meet an unhappy, sometimes painful and long demise at shelters across the country.

When it comes to cats, we must consider how different they are from dogs. The domestic dog of today cannot live and survive as a wild animal. Cats do and can. It might not be the perfect life, as is the case for all wildlife, but cats do survive and thrive. Some ferals, when taken in by humans and fed, can become semi-domestic, and their kittens can be rescued and raised as tame house cats. That's why cats have now overtaken dogs as the most popular pet in America. We all know someone who is feeding and has named an outside cat or two (or more!).

Other arguments against TNR are that loose cats sometimes are a nuisance to people and that they are responsible for killing and hurting birds and other prey. What these detractors don't think of is that only more birds and other prey will be saved in the long run with TNR efforts. That's why the Humane Society of the United States finally changed its position on TNR in 2004 (
The effort has been proven to work time and again, and this actually lessens the nuisance and population of cats and lessens the birds and other wildlife affected by feral cats.

As humans, too, who are we to talk about wildlife destruction? We kill off more wildlife than all feral cats combined when we take over natural habitats, fill them with pesticides, and then fill these areas with tall buildings and vehicles with windows and windshields, which hurt and kill more birds each year than do feral cats.

In our area, we are far behind the times on this subject matter--maybe because we don't keep up with the latest and greatest research and information from Alley Cat Allies and other national leaders on this subject--not to mention our own feral cat program at NMSU, which has shown much success over time ( If you haven't heard about this program, visit their website to learn more.

Many locals will point to our city and county ordinances (cat leash laws) as making it impossible to start legal and Animal Control supported-TNR programs. Well, this is true, but we can lobby for changes to these ordinances to start this important work. Laws should not be broken, but they can be changed to reflect our times and needs. We need to lobby our leaders at the City and County for these changes. Other communities have done this, so all we need to do is mimic their laws (no need for wheel inventions here).

When a TNR program is done well, it helps everyone--from people living in areas with feral cat colonies to AC officers to shelter staff having to kill less of these wild cats. No matter what anyone says, killing these cats is not a humame, pretty picture. And, if we think about it, no other group of wild animal is rounded up and killed in shelters this way or in these numbers.

Volunteers run these TNR programs and are caretakers for cat colonies in various areas, providing food and water, trapping and delivering the cats to and from vet offices for the surgeries, etc. This involves dispute resolution and sometimes having to release cats into new areas to avoid human conflicts. Luckily, feral cats rarely attack or bite human beings, but TNR also involves not just spaying and neutering cats but also giving them rabies vaccinations. Many communities have barn cat programs for cats that need to be relocated to new areas. I know I have personally heard from people in Dona Ana County wishing they had a feral cat colony in their barns to help control rodents. So, besides the local detractors, there are many of us in favor of TNR and ready to do the work on a full-scale, community-wide program.

When I was at the NM State Humane Conference last Monday/Tuesday in Albuquerque, I was happy to hear how much the attitudes and rhetoric about cats has become pro-TNR. The comments and questions were not detractors of TNR as they would have been a decade ago, but more along the lines of, "Are you doing TNR yet?" Many communities in our state are there now, and it would not take much for Las Cruces/Dona Ana County to get with the times. We actually have a successful, local model to build from at NMSU, so what are we waiting for?

A current shelter experience that screams for the need of better and more thorough customer service

Last week, an animal-welfare friend of mine called to ask me for help and advice. This person is a counselor, and one of her clients had just had a bad experience at our shelter and didn't know what to do. The client, whom I'll call Reba, had a chihuahua who had been picked up by Animal Control the day before. Reba has had this dog for five years, and this was the first time the dog had gotten away from her. He is a male, not neutered, and also not current on his rabies vaccination. Reba is a young woman living on limited means and much like the way I used to survive--which was check-to-check and completely broke a few days before getting paid. Needless to say, I could relate to Reba's predicament.

Reba was at the shelter the next day, identifying her dog in one of the kennels and wanting to know what she could do to get him out. She was told all the fees for the first day added up to $88, and she asked the person helping her if she could pay it in payments or if any other options existed. She was told no, and she was also told (or she understood) that if she didn't pay that amount by end of business that day, the dog would become the shelter's property and perhaps get "euthanized" the very next day. Reba was in a panic. She cried all that day and was throwing up at the thought of her dog possibly getting killed the next day. She loved the little guy, but she didn't have the $88 to pay the fees.

Lucky for Reba, she knew someone who volunteered in the animal world. When I got this call, I knew something was amiss. By law, the shelter has to hold onto any dog or cat that does not have ID for three days before he or she becomes the shelter's property. In Reba's case, when she ID'd the dog, then that dog should have had five days before he became shelter property. However, the fees would increase by day as well.

I agreed to meet Reba at the shelter that same evening before they closed, and it was my intent to see what was going on and act as an informed go-between with her and the shelter's office staff. Our shelter is broken up into two sections -- the office that deals with adoptions only and the RTO (Return-to-Owner) side, where people either report lost animals, claim their lost pets, or relinquish animals they found or no longer want. In the time I was there (about half an hour), two people claimed and took home their lost pets, and one man came in with a sick cat his kids had found. He wanted to keep the cat, but having two dogs of his own, he sincerely said he could not afford vet bills. He said he hoped his own dogs didn't get sick because he wouldn't know what to do.

Before I talked to the staff about Reba's dog, I looked at the sheet of paper the shelter gave her. On it was an itemized list of the impoundment fees, and it clearly stated that if that entire fee was not paid by the end of business THAT day (only the next day after the dog was brought in), then the dog would become the property of the Animal Services Center of the Mesilla Valley.

I was respectful and calm and asked for an explanation of the misleading paperwork given to Reba and the status of the dog. I clearly stated that I understood the laws in our system and that there was no way the dog could become the property of the shelter before his five days were up. The young lady at the desk (whom I know) was quick to say that Reba misunderstood and that the paper was simply a quote of the fees for one day, and this person stated she had no idea that Reba didn't understand her options and that she was sorry the young lady had been in distress over her dog all day. She thought Reba had the money to pay the fees and would be back to do so, but Reba said she did ask for payment options.

I tried my best to explain to the young lady at the counter that the paperwork itself was misleading as it clearly stated what Reba had gone away "misunderstanding"--that the dog would become their property by the next day. I also asked what the options were for low-income people who care about their animal but may not have the full fee up front ... Was there a payment option? Could the fees be frozen instead of increased each day the dog was held there, etc.? By asking the "right" questions, I was finally given more information. Yes, the fees could be frozen ... Yes, if Reba had asked to speak with the manager (the Director), she may have been given the option to pay in payments ... And, finally, if Reba paid to get the dog out, and if she used the vaccination certificate provided and got the rabies shot for free at participating veterinarians and got the dog neutered within 30 days, she could get the entire impound fee back. None of that had been explained to Reba before.

While I was there, I asked Reba why she had not gotten her dog fixed yet. She simply said she could not afford it, and knowing that most vets in this town are booked up past 30 days and that these surgeries now cost upwards of $100, I knew this was probably the case. I explained the no- and low-cost options in our community (SNAP & FSNP), both of which she had never heard of before, and I gave her all the numbers to call. I asked her if she'd be willing to get her little guy neutered and get him his current rabies shot, and I even told her that the shelter can microchip the dog for $20. She seemed elated to be able to afford to do all of the above, so I personally lent Reba the $88 in fees to get her dog out of there at that moment, and I trust she'll get all of this business taken care of. I told her she can pay me back in payments--or better yet--get the dog his shots and get him fixed, and then just give me the fee refund the shelter offers.

Reba was now smiling instead of crying, and I stayed to see the cheerful reunion of the dog and his owner. I drove off from the shelter behind Reba and her boyfriend and the chihuahua enjoying the fresh air through the car's open window. And, it felt good that I could be there to help her and her dog.

However, what this sadly points to is that the average person off the streets is not only getting poor customer service, but they are also not getting all of the pertinent information clearly explained to them nor are they given all of the information regarding resources available in our community for low-cost vaccinations and spay/neuter. How was Reba to know, for example, that if she had asked to speak to a manager, she might get to other options the regular staff is not authorized to approve?

Not an isolated incident (unfortunately)

This reminded me of something I witnessed at our shelter a couple of months back and how detrimental it can be to both animals and people when the shelter's staff makes negative, pre-judgements about people. I was there late one evening talking to our new director. Shortly before the shelter was closing, a family drove up and piled out of their car. It was a Hispanic family -- a husband, his wife, about three small children, and a couple of puppies they were towel-drying in the parking lot.

Before they even made it to the door of the RTO side of the shelter's offices, the staff was already assuming the worst ... that this family was there to give up the puppies like so many people do and had the audacity to bathe the dogs for this ... that the family was teaching their kids to treat animals like throwaway objects ... etc.

When the family finally entered the office, it turned out they were there to get low-cost vaccinations for the puppies, who they were intending to keep and care for. They were a happy family looking for assistance, and our shelter no longer offered this service to the community. I was not in the room to hear the exchange, so I am not sure if the family was given any other ideas or options for getting the low-cost vaccinations for their puppies and also advice about spay/neuter options. Also unfortunate as well, no one on the staff seemed at all embarrassed for assuming the worst and relying on myths and stereotypes for pre-judging this family.

This is what I mean when I say that reaching no kill takes alot of work -- not just to simultaneously implement all 10 progams of the No Kill Equation ... but also the hard shift in perspective, which costs nothing to change. If you don't run the facility from an arleady defeatist, judgmental, negative point-of-view, imagine how many scenarios a day could be played out differently? To be successful at no kill in any community, shelter staff have to have compassion and understanding for BOTH people and animals.

Coming soon: Pet Help Line and No Kill Study Group

Another part of the No Kill Equation is pet retention efforts, and I am happy to report that myself, along with some volunteers and the generosity of the Humane Society of Southern New Mexico, are soon going to launch a Pet Help Line to assist people in resolving issues with their pets in order to enrich the human/animal bond and try to mitigate some owner relinquishments at our shelter. Please wish us luck, and look out for the phone number and e-mail to call and write in to.

If anyone out there knows of anyone like Reba who needs help at our shelter, please write me at I am also available, especially on the weekends and my Fridays off, to meet potential adopters at the shelter to help you find your best match for a new dog or cat to add to the family.

Lastly, I will soon be calling the first meeting of my no kill study group, which I hope can focus primarily on research and reporting on the No Kill Movement and programs and success stories in our own state and nationwide as well.