Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Numbers tell only part of the story

Misleading headline & comparisons

Today's headline in the daily paper says that the animal shelter is "filling up rapidly." I was confused by this because there hasn't been a time in recent or past history that the facility that is now our municipally-run animal shelter has not been packed with animals. In fact, the overall 2009 anticipated intake is no more than it as been in the past decade, and our community outgrew the current facility not long after it was built in the late 1980s.

In other words, it is not new news that the animal-shelter facility has not kept up with the human population growth of the county that it services. This issue has been long overlooked by our local leaders who are ultimately responsible for the long-standing inferior state of our animal-sheltering infrastructure and services. Our shelter has had a handful of scathing reviews and reports in the past few years from various groups and agencies, including the Humane Society of the United States. Each is almost a repeat of the last.

Our animal shelter is not suddenly filling up and not suddenly sub-par in terms of its ventilation system and other structural issues. In fact, NM capital campaign funds have been allocated for use in years past to fix the most glaring issues, but these were never leveraged before they expired.

The responsibility of both the facility's management/daily operations and the facility's repair and upgrades rests solely on our local City and County leaders. The funds needed to upgrade our sheltering facility and services to the community are also their responsibility to find and allocate. Other communities do it all the time -- build new animal-sheltering facilities and clinics, etc. Why can't we? The answer is simple: animals are not important enough to our local leaders. So, why are we surprised that there are some in our community who are neglectful/abusive to animals or don't put animals too high on their priority lists either? We need, as a community, to lead by example--from the top down. This has to start with the leadership shown by our municipal shelter and its management as well as both our animal control departments.

In today's article as well, comparisons are made between Dona Ana County and El Paso County and the City of Albuquerque. These communities and counties are far larger in human population as well as boast greater resources for animal welfare (human population is well over 750,000 for El Paso County and more than 500,000 for Albuquerque). Both have multiple shelters run by their municipalities and several nonprofits. In El Paso, two new multi-million dollar facilities for both the Animal Services of El Paso County and the Humane Society of El Paso were built right next to each other in a secluded part of the Northeast part of the city just a few years ago. Ironically, these new, state-of-the art facilities and the more room that they created have done little to curb the number of animals coming in nor the number of animals being killed/euthanized in our sister border community. Their statistics for most of this decade have been an intake of 23,000 to 27,000 and kill rates in the high 70 to 80% range--with 17,000 to 22,000 animals put down each year. In the City of Albuquerque, they fair a little better statistically than Las Cruces and El Paso; they report their statistics to Maddie's Fund, and their average intake is 26,000 with kill rates at 45 to 50%--about 11,000 to 12,000 animals put down each year.

However, there are other cities and counties more like Las Cruces in terms of growth and yearly animal intakes that--with strong no-kill and progressive approaches and leadership to animal welfare--have turned the killing tide around, such as the recent success since 2007 in Washoe County, NV. That community's approaches are what we should be studying and adopting here, especially since that community and county mirrors our own more in terms of human population and animal homelesses.

What this shows is that money alone and new facilities alone will not change the outcome for homeless animals in any community, much like punitive laws alone or stronlgy enforced by AC rarely lead to change. What changes the state of animal welfare in a community is approaching animal control and animal sheltering in a more modern, progressive way and with multiple, targeted support and services for the human population at the root of the animal-welfare issues. See the No Kill Equation again; doing all of these steps and doing them well makes the most sense of all.

Dona Ana County Human Population Growth & Animal Sheltering Statistics

Back in 1900, the human population of Dona Ana County (DAC) was 10,187. Fast-forward to 1990, and that human population was 135,510. By 2000, the human population was 174,682. Our last U.S. Census data put the population above 200,000, and according to Dona Ana County records, the growth estimate is 4-6% in the next 20 years. By 2015, our population will be approximately 300,000.

Any municipality that is seeing such growth has to grow its infrastructure to meet the resulting challenges. This growth plan should include animal-welfare facilities and services, but these topics are pretty absent from the vision and growth plans and statements put out by DAC and the City of Las Cruces. This goes to show that animal-welfare rates very low on the priority list for our leaders, which is why we are stuck using an animal shelter facility built to meet the needs of our community more than two decades ago.

Our animal shelter statistics are as follows for the past two decades; these are from statistics reported by the Animal Services Center of the Mesilla Valley since its operations were taken over by the City/County in 2008 and from the statistics provided by the Dona Ana County Humane Society, which operated the shelter under contract for many years. Bear in mind that statistics such as these are only as good as the agency keeping them and the method/system they are using to record the statistics and the honesty with which they are kept. As a nation, there is no standardization for recording or reporting animal shelter statistics, though powerhouses such as Maddie's Fund are trying to influence all shelters to follow their model and to report their annual statistics to them for a truer national picture.

DAC Animal Shelter Statistics
2009 projected statistics: ~15,000 intake, ~9500 killed/euthanized (63%)
2008: 15,523 intake, 10,387 killed/euthanized (67%)
2007: 15,743 intake, ~11,000 killed/euthanized (70%)
2006: 17,112, 12,311 (72%)
2005: 15,355 , 11,451 (75%)
2004: 15,639, 11,547 (74%)
2003: 15,436, 10,994 (71%)
2002: 14,673, 10,692 (73%)
2001: 14,891, 10,578 (71%)
2000: 14,690, 9828 (67%)
1999: 14,386, 11,147 (77%)
1998: 13,105, 10,026 (77%)
1997: 13,157, 10,208 (78%)
1996: 12,075, 9399 (78%)
1995: 12,074, 9606 (80%)
1994: 11,476, 8795 (77%)
1993: 11,290, 8442 (75%)
1992: 10,779, 8090 (75%)
1991: 11,262, 8894 (79%)
1990: 11,130, 8933 (80%)
1989: 10,721, 8762 (82%)

Numbers alone show that numbers are not the whole story. Why, when our shelter's intake was 5,000 less each year than it is today, was the kill rate 20% more? The complex answers to these questions are sometimes unknowns or just areas we have not explored. Even those who work in animal welfare sweep issues under the carpet with generalizations. Our community has yet to start the hard work of data collection, data analysis, and figuring out how to proactively tackle the issues this data reveals. We also have yet to research and compare ourselves to areas experiencing success and finding ways to mimic that success here. We erroneously believe all the answers are in dollars and cents. But, what we do when we get those dollars and facilities is equally as important. How it is run is just as important as the building in which it is run. This is as true for animals sheltering as other industries.

Impound fees are not the answer

Oftentimes, both our local leaders and some animal-welfare advocates will talk about how raising fees for impounded animals can help raise the funds needed to improve our facility. What we don't see is these fees are sometimes a big part of the issue and why we kill too many animals, and what they raise is also never enough.

That's not to say that fees should not be farily imposed, but if a person can pay a speeding or other type of ticket or fee in payments when deemed necessary because of their income, allowing people to do the same at the animal shelter to reclaim their pets would be one way we could start reducing our kill rate today. Those fees, such as speeding tickets, should not be seen ONLY in terms of the income they draw. The other side to that coin needs to be looked into as well -- how many needless deaths do they lead to, or what are the consequences of these fees?

This is where many in animal welfare will repeat the old, tired cliche that if a person cannot afford a pet, they should not have one. Progressive approaches do not look to the wallet of a pet guardian as the sole proof that person can be a loving provider for their pets. Just because someone on a fixed income cannot come up with a hundred dollars within a few days to save the animal they love does not mean they don't "deserve" to have that animal.

These knee-jerk reactions and judging books only by the cover are a big part of the reason why we still kill too many animals in our community. It's because we operate from an animal control perspective instead of a care and control model that seeks to find ways to save and enrich lives of animals and the lives of their caregivers.

There is usally more to a story than the black-and-white picture we paint in our minds. If we can start looking at the gray areas and the colors and start to work outside of the lines and ideas we have drawn on for too long, maybe we can start to change our community for the better in terms of our care and processing of unwanted, homeless animals.

Friday, November 13, 2009

System Woes & Muerto Momentos

Week's biggest woe: Scott case dismissed and dogs going back to their abusers

Today's headline about the Scott dog fighting case being dismissed was not unexpected news, but this case highlights many issues with our animal control and welfare systems that must be addressed for the future. It is very clear that for a mere technicality, these dog abusers have not only gotten off, they now have the ammunition to attack the very system that should have protected their dogs FROM them. The brothers also supposedly have a chance to redeem their names and reputations. Lastly, and worst of all, the dogs remaining from this case are beign returned to their abusers.

This case has enough twists and turns to make one sick and dizzy -- too many twists and turns to address in one blog posting. I personally saw many of the Scott pit bulls during my volunteer work with the animal shelter and out at a remote holding area where they were being cared for, sometimes in pretty bad conditions by definition of that care and the facilities involved. Overall, the dogs were loving to humans and very needy of TLC, but they were obviously trained to attack other dogs. In another system, many could have been salvaged and placed into homes.

One thing is crystal clear: Don't doubt that these dogs were used for fighting and suffered at the hands of the Scott brothers. That was painfully obvious, so any attempts to say these men were legitimate breeders is a joke. Some of the dogs were bait ones that were used to train the other dogs, and they had the horrific scars to prove it. And, without attempts to rehabilitate these dogs during their tenure in the system, most will still go after each other when given the chance. So, what is going to happen to the ones that are left over and being given right back to their original abusers?

It's a sad day indeed, but the day they are returned will be even sadder ... or, will it? What was the alternative at the hands of our animal-welfare system? Being locked up for years in a 10 x 10 kennel at our animal shelter, going literally crazy until the case was resolved? Being locked up for years in a slightly bigger outdoor kennel with little shelter from the elements and little enrichment or socialization? Who cared for these dogs better? Why are there no better alternatives for all victims of animal abusers?

Usually, when cases such as this are resolved, the choices are still few. The animals either go back to the owners they were taken from (such as in this case) or the entire group is systematically put to death by the animal-welfare system that says they cannot be saved or made ready for new homes (this assumption is being disproven in many cases in the U.S. now, and each individual animal deserves an equitable assessment to determine if this is true). For victims of these crimes, none of these choices is a good one.

In this case, some of the dogs died by mistake at our shelter. Some of them died during their tenure at the remote holding facility. All the ones that have survived have endured hell, and now they are going back to the men that started that hell.

If this case doesn't show the many issues we have in our community, I don't know what else can. Many of these issues do lie square on the shoulders of the leaders that run our animal control and welfare systems. We have to keep pushing the system to come up to an animal CARE and control standard and model that does better for victims of abuse. That's what our community deserves, and that's what the victims of these cases deserve as well. It is no longer good enough to simply go after the perpetrators and make them pay for their crimes (which they seldom do anyway). We need to push the system to find alternatives to systematically killing victims of these crimes or housing them in equally cruel ways. The victims and their care should be at the top of the list of priorities.

LOST and FOUND woes

Some months ago, I was helping trying to find the owners of a lost puppy in a neighborhood in the East Mesa. I went around the neighborhood plastering signs and flyers, which is the common advice given to those who lose or find pets. The Missing Pet Partnership experts give even better advice: post big posters at major intersections of the neighborhood where the pet was lost or found so that those passing in their cars can see them -- simple posters with big lettering, such as "LOOKING FOR LOST BLACK LAB; please call 555-5555". For some of their other great search tips, see their website at http://www.missingpetpartnership.org/.

So, the next day I was passing through the neighborhood to find all of my posters and flyers were gone. It had taken me hours to create, print, and post these notices, and I had every intention of going back to take them down a few weeks later. When I saw that this was done, I went around and posted the flyers to all the mail boxes in that neighborhood (probably also against the law), and within a day, I reunited the lost puppy with his family because they saw the flyer and called me. He had been taken from his own gated yard and left to wander loose in the neighborhood, and his family was very upset to find him gone.

I was never called by a City codes person, but I figured out that day that posting flyers is against the law here. You cannot post them on public property (such as light posts), and you must obtain permission to post them on private property. So, what is a pet guardian supposed to do? Yes, you can file your LOST reports at the animal shelter and with the newspapers, and you can go check the shelter each day, but the person that may have found your beloved pet may never check these resources and will probably also assume the worst of you. Your best bet is still putting out posters for those in the area to see to reach that person, show you care, and show how much you want your companion back.

Recently, Suzy lost Mugsey in the District 5 area of Las Cruces; the dog is an Australian Shepherd (pictured at right). Suzy loves her dog dearly, and she was distraught to find the dog missing from, again, her own gated yard. Suzy spent time and money posting more than 300 flyers. She was soon called by a codes person, telling her she had to go remove them all. And, Suzy has still not found Mugsey, and the dog has been missing for more than a month. Suzy has the added unpleasant task of taking stray tours at our shelter all the time, but she is vigilant and keeps looking.

The City and County codes people will tell us this law was put in place to reduce trash. That is legitimate. However, why can't the law be modified to allow these postings and require that the person who posted them return a few weeks later to remove them and dispose properly of them? A date of post could be required, and most good pet guardians would comply with the law. That will take care of most of the trash issue this causes. This is also not our biggest trash issue!

After all, what is more important -- trash or saving lives? In a community that kills 12,000 animals a year at our municipal shelter, it seems that supporting those in the community who are not turning animals over to the shelter would be a good thing to do. Helping to find the homes of animals should be a top priority. We can figure out the trash issue somehow.

Some progressive animal welfare agencies in the U.S. are working with groups such as the Missing Pet Partnership on stepping up their efforts at finding the homes where loose animals belong. The Washoe County AC officers leave signs themselves in areas where they pick up loose pets. This has increased their redemption rates for both cats and dogs - not an easy feat for cats, especially.

For us that find or lose animals, one of the mantras of Missing Pet Partnership is "think lost, not stray". Too many times, because of our work in animal-welfare or just because it's always easier to think the worst, we are poisoned against anyone whose animal gets away. We always forget that the majority of pet guardians in our community love and cherish their pets. We punish even the Suzys of the world, who are frantically looking for the pets they dearly love and care well for. And, we forget there are many legitimate ways animals can become lost and separated from a home where they were dearly loved. We also mistake all xenophobic (fearful, nervous) animals for abused ones, etc. Because of these cumulative mistakes, many animals are not reunited with their loved ones.

So, the next time you can make it to a City Council or County Commission meeting, speak up about this lack of support for pet guardians trying to do the right thing. There has to be a way to keep the trash in our community down without sacrificing lives to do it.

Muerto Momentos

This goes out to all my fellow animal-welfare compatriots. I know that because of the work we do, our views get skewed much of the time. Our worlds become dark because that is the only part of the animal world that we see on a daily basis (the bad people). I like to remind myself every day that that is not the majority of pet guardians (not even in our community), and I make it a point to notice the good ones, too.

At APA's pet altar at the Dia de los Muertos event at Mesilla Plaza a couple of weeks ago, more than 75 people filled out momento cards to pets they have lost. Here are some of the messages written to these beloved family members with fur. I leave you with these thoughts so you can remember the ones you have loved and lost and so that you don't lose complete faith in the human-animal bond.

"Wilmo - You were a great dog. I know I'll see you in the next life. XXOO"

"Teddy - I love you - wherever you are. I hope that you are happy and in a beautiful place. P.S. Thanks you for sending me Ursa cat to love."

"Spirit - Even though you lived with us a short time, we loved you much! Love, Dad and Mom."

"Hi, Mikey - I miss you and your sweet, cute face. Please know you are loved. Dear Lord - Please watch over all the sweet souls in the animal spirits that bless us. Thank you for our time here."

"To Balou - The sweetest and "baddest" dog ever. I'll never forget you."

"To Renard. You were "mine" only for a short time, but I loved you so much. R.I.P., dear. - HL"
"To Skipper, my friend, who left too soon. To Cody, who taught me about cat ways and opened the door for the rest. To all my fosters wherever they are."

"To my Tiger. You always lit up my world and day when I was sad. I love you!"

"In loving memory of my buddy, Scruffy. You had the softest nose and ears. I miss you."

"Missy, we still miss you after more than ten years. - Diane and Hank"

Monday, November 2, 2009

Spread the word about animals in need

There is a new page on the ACTion Programs for Animals website called Animals in Need. Any messages that are sent to animal-welfare advocates about animals that are lost, found, or needing a new home are posted on this page. Also posted are any requests for specific kinds of animals that people may want.

Please check the page and forward this resource to your contacts. These are animals that are not in any animal shelter or rescue system so are not listed on adoption sites such as PetFinder. Most of the animals needing rehoming come from someone who has cared for them temporarily after being found or someone that has to rehome for whatever reason. This is an opportunity to help keep an animal out of the shelter system as well.