Sunday, February 8, 2009

No Kill Misconception & Future Challenges

About Public Irresponsibility

One accusation lodged against No Kill advocates is that we don't believe in public irresponsibility. That could not be further from the truth. The fact that many in the public are irresponsible at best and neglectful/abusive to companion animals at worst is the very reason why shelters exist in the first place. Just because we lodge some tough love at shelter management for doing more killing of lives than saving of lives does not mean we don't acknowledge why animals got there in the first place. What we are saying is that to hide behind that public irresponsibility instead of look closely at the way you do business is irresponsible in turn.

We also think that irresponsible pet owners are FAR outnumbered by those that are responsible and that the vast majority of those in the public respect animal life in the least and downright love animals at most. We say that because those of us who do love animals outnumber those who do not, we have a vast and great ability to save more lives if we put our minds to that task and if we let go of the way things have always been done to explore new ways they could be done, and if we work together and communicate better as well.

Nathan Winograd answered this accusation in better words than I can muster in a recent blog posting off his website; he wrote the following:

"I have long stated that while irresponsibility sends animals to the shelters, what happens when they get there depends on the shelter. The fact that someone allows a pet to give birth to a litter doesn’t mean a shelter doesn’t have to put in place a foster care program to avoid killing those little ones. It doesn’t give the shelter the moral absolution to order their killing because they refuse to put in place a targeted program to stop it. Shelters exist to be a safety net for animals who are victims of irresponsible people, for homeless animals, and for animals when people have no where else to turn. But too many kill, rather than save animals. In fact, too many shelter directors refuse to implement alternatives to killing, acting irresponsibly themselves. And that is what I am critical of. While people surrender animals to shelters, it is shelters that kill them and one does not necessarily follow or excuse the other."

In my years of volunteering for shelters, I have noticed how stifling it can be to assume nothing can be done except kill most of the animals that enter the door. If you operate from that mode, what efforts will you make to look for or implement other options? Will you look at your operations with a critical eye to see what you could be doing to save more lives? If you assume that most people in the public represent irresponsible owners--even those who are going to your facility to adopt a new pet or look for a lost one--what impact does it have when you start each conversation from that point-of-view?

What hurts regressive shelters even more is their bunker mentality of "it is us against the world". This cuts all attempts to communicate with the public and with those who could offer assistance, such as other animal groups and even animal advocates who can sometimes be critical but who usually do so from a genuine interest in finding improvements when issues are discovered. Very few people who love animals operate from a malicious standpoint, yet shelters and their staff put up a wall that is hard to penetrate or get around in any form or fashion, and this hiding from the rest of the world makes it so that the networking needed to save more lives is not happening.

Lastly, the fact that public irresponsibility is to blame for all the animals under one roof should not provide political cover for shelters that are not following basic standards of care, are not administering modern sheltering medicine practices to mitigate disease, are not providing the kind of social interactions animals need to be healthy and happy while they are in the shelter, and are not being transparent and welcoming with the public. Many times, even those with legitimate complaints or observations are shot down without even a dignified nor intelligent conversation about the actual issue.

Ultimately, operating a shelter the same old-fashioned way hurts those whose welfare shelters are supposed to be putting first. Instead, it seems like human selfishness and pride always win out.

Long Road Ahead For Us All

After attending all of the public meetings last week, I realize that we have a long, tough road ahead to get to a time when we start to reduce our community's kill rate. The City Council working meeting where SNAP funding was discussed turned into a strange, melodramatic spectacle about choosing to help poor, downtrodden people vs. helping animals. This came about because a mistake was made last year, it seems, when the SNAP funding came out of an incorrect pool of monies (those designated for health and human services). So, in a nutshell, the council decided to cut SNAP's funding from this source, and now it is up to the City to see if it can provide even a meager amount to SNAP from another fund. They may not realize that low-cost spay/neuter non-profits must be supported by local government to be eligible for big, national grants.

Then the new oversight board for the shelter met for the first time. It consists of three voting members from the County (Sheriff Garrison, Commissioner Krahling, and Commissioner Vasquez-Butler) and three from the City (Councillors Silva, Small, and Connor) as well as two non-voting members, the city and county managers (Mrs. Moore and Haines).

They have a long way to go to learn more about the details behind every animal sheltering practice and the industry in general, and I hope they come up to speed very quickly. Some of the financial information presented at that meeting was alarming ... in the past year, our shelter has spent more money than ever before and is already over its allotted budget. The most spending seems to be from costly contract vet care and salaries for personnel. Yet, we are still in the same boat concerning the bottom line of how many animals were taken in and many were killed/euthanized. We are still killing about 1,000 a month, sometimes more, and about 200 of these are feral cats. An average of 200 are being adopted per month, and a recent try at reducing adoption rates had little effect--which goes to show that price alone is not what helps increase adoptions.

These statistics are averages from reports I have gotten verbally; I have yet to get ahold of the actual statistics for April 2008 to December 2008, though I have asked for them many times and re-submitted a formal request via the City Clerk's office. This information should be public information, and besides being a barometer for how the shelter is doing, it is an indication for many of us who volunteer countless hours a month trying to save lives to see if we are even making a small dent in the overall numbers--and I never forget that each and every number represents one dog or cat (or sometimes another kind of animal)--not a simple number.

Lastly, the kick-off meeting for ACTion Programs for Animals was the last meeting in a whirlwind week, and there were not too many people in attendance. So, I can see it is going to take more PR and more effort to attract people to this coalition and to explain its intent. We need a large group of people willing to lend their skills and some time and effort in order to start helping the sad situation in meaningful ways.

Needless to say, we have our work cut out for us as a community. Still, I for one am not giving up. There are many challenges ahead, and the smartest thing to do at this time is face one thing at a time and work collectively so that our efforts do start to make a difference on the bottom line.