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.

1 comment:

Bill said...

Wow - Outstanding article, with many suggestions and ideas. How does one go about gathering animal populations, statistics, such as how many animals are killed due to in-bound fees, etc. Until these types of questions are available, a realistic plan cannot be implemented for our animals. Understand Vets are required to forward rabies certificates to the animal control or shelter. These could be counted on a yearly basis to give some idea how many animals are in the community. In addition, if a ordnance was passed requiring Vets to forward along with the rabies certificate a form indicating whether the pet is licensed or vetted would be a big assess in collecting licence fees and statistics on pets not vetted.