Sunday, February 21, 2010

No Kill does not take generations to achieve

This week's cover story in The Bulletin about the animal shelter is incorrect in its estimation of how long our community should take to reach No Kill. If this were truly the goal of our shelter and AC leadership (meaning our city and county leaders), we'd see many more strives by now than the small changes that have been made in the past couple of years since the Dona Ana County Humane Society lost its contract to run the shelter. The truth is, it should not take generations to accomplish major changes in a community's animal-welfare systems.

The assumption of our shelter's current leadership is that No Kill comes when the community is somehow transformed into 100% of its pet owners becoming responsible. Not only is this impossible, but communities that have achieved No Kill realize this is not necessary and that shelters, by definition, exist to help care for animals abandoned and abused by some people. The shelter and its leadership also do not take any responsibility for what has to be changed within the walls of the shelter to reach the goal. Other communities are making great strides by administering sheltering in a positive way instead of the negative way that simply wags its finger at the irresponsible public. As long as our leadership continues to solely look outward instead of inward, things will not change dramatically.

How did Reno, NV, go from a high kill rate community to one that now saves more than 90% of its homeless animals? It's not because there aren't irresponsible people in that community any longer. It's because a new shelter director came into the community with an explicit goal to make widespread changes and did so, and that community's sheltering system and animal control systems turned themselves around in a matter of a couple of years. They did so by teaming up to provide excellent services to the community and by working together toward the shared goal of lifesaving. (Read How We Did It by director Bonney Brown by clicking here.)

Looking to all of the programs and services that need to be in place (the No Kill Equation list at right), we can see how and why we are lagging so far behind. It's not about dabbling in any of there areas. It's about running them well and simultaneously.

Let's take this list of what is needed to achieve our goals and rate how we are doing at this point in time:

1. Feral cat TNR program--to this day, we are killing 80+% of the cats that enter our shelter, and both our AC departments are very regressive in the way they deal with free-roaming cats despite their own national association calling for a shift in the approach to one of trap-neuter-return. So, we still catch and kill the majority of loose cats. On top of that, those that enter our shelter receive no enrichment or care other than a staff person cleaning the cage. We are terribly failing our homeless cats, and our kill rate alone proves this. This is not just the public's fault when our leaders do not address the problem in more humane and effective ways.

2. High-volume, low-cost, and targeted spay/neuter--we are doing a bit better at this than in years past, but our volume is still not at the level it needs to be at to make a difference, and we are not targeting the efforts to areas that need it the most. To our credit, the county's spay/neuter van ran a few times in the past year, thanks to the SNAP program picking up the bill. And, the shelter is now offering low-cost spay/neuter services again. But, in order to make a difference, we need to UP these efforts considerably, and our city and county leaders need to see the need for vastly increased funding and targeted work in this area. We need not only one voucher program and a van running from time-to-time; we need to sterilize hundreds of animals each month to start with and offer the support to do so.

3. Rescue groups--we are doing a bit better in this area, from what I understand. The shelter does reach out to some rescue groups to come get animals out of the shelter, and they do ship some animals out to other locations. But, again, the level of this effort needs to be much higher, and there needs to be a good working relationship established with each and every animal group in the area and outside of the area, and this is not the case due to our shelter leadership's distaste for some individual people. That should never get in the way of lifesaving, but it is still a hindrance.

4. Foster care--again, we are doing a bit better in this area but not advancing to the level needed; those communities that are saving more lives are doing so by having hundreds of foster homes available to help in times of need, such as the recent puppy crisis at the shelter. We are not there yet; these efforts take more organization, more advertising, and more trust in the public that can do more good than harm. The shelter's new foster-to-adopt program needs to be administered well or not at all; it is incumbent on the shelter to ensure the animals leaving the facility are altered and vaccinated on a timely basis, or they need to go out there and recover the animals from people.

5. Comprehensive adoption programs--to my knowledge, the only stride we have made in this area is holding more frequent offsite adoptions at the usual places on one day each weekend, such as the Farmer's Market and PetCo. We need to get to the point when each day there's at least one offsite, and we also need better adoption policies and systems in place in the shelter itself. We need adoption counseling and counselors that can make sound adoption decisions based on common sense, not just a check-box list off an application. We also need to have special adoption promotions and invite the public to help out in times of need instead of blaming the public for what sometimes amounts to situations arising from Animal Control raids or the poor working relationship between AC and shelter leadership.

6. Pet retention--the shelter does not have a program in place at this time to help people work through issues with their pets instead of relinquishing them; to my knowledge, there is no pet help line in place at the shelter nor an interview of those wishing to give up an animal to find out the causes and possible solutions. We are sorely lacking in this area.

7. Medical and behavioral programs--our shelter still lacks equitable assessments of incoming animals as well as efforts to rehabilitate medical and behavioral issues. There is no behaviorist on staff, and animals are slated to be put down arbitrarily (i.e., shy dogs, decisions based on breed alone, scared cats, etc.). Cats are allowed no attention or enrichment from volunteers for supposed disease control despite this not being the standard in care suggested by industry experts because stressed cats get sick far more than enriched ones, and volunteers can easily be trained to mitigate disease spread as well as staff can. So, the horrible kill rate for cats reflects how badly our system is failing cats. Sadly, dogs do not fare too much better with a lack of daily enrichment for them as well.

8. Public relations/community involvement--though the shelter has been in the news more this past year than before, much of the message that comes out of the shelter is a negative one and a vague one as well. Communities that reach No Kill understand that this is not the way to approach the challenges of animal sheltering and that reaching out to the public with positive messages and approaches gets you much more ahead of the curve; it also pays to reach audiences with issue resolutions by using several means of PR--radio, TV, billboards, etc. You also need to involve all people who can and want to help the opportunity to do so. Simply blaming the evil public for all the killing is not going to work, but we are stuck on that broken record in our community and in our media outlets.

9. Volunteers--shelters that are making great strides toward No Kill are doing so with the support of hundreds of volunteers; our shelter is still operating with very few volunteers and very few opportunities for people to volunteer in ways that truly make a difference in lifesaving. There don't seem to be comprehensive volunteer programs and efforts at this time, as there weren't any in the past. This directly relates to the small strides made up to this point.

10. Proactive redemption--short of allowing people to post lost/found reports at the shelter, there are very little efforts on our shelter or AC leadership's behalf to help return animals to their owners or educate people about lost cat/dog behavior and what they need to do to help find their pets. Our city is also very negative in not allowing those looking for lost animals to post flyers or other information on public property such as light posts in neighborhoods, etc. We have a long way to go in this area as well.

11. Compassionate shelter director and AC leadership--compassion has to be toward animals and humans to make a difference. Plus, the leaders in all our animal-welfare systems need to establish good working relationships with each other as well. Instead, we have notorious infighting between some of these leaders, which only leads to more loss of animal life. Leadership also still runs in old-fashioned ways that lead to more killing. We also have very little compassion and understanding about the issues in our community and ways to start tackling these issues and helping more people become better pet guardians.

The bottom line is this: never has a community achieved No Kill by simply chastising the minority of those that are irresponsible in the public. Instead, transformation happens when you realize that the majority of people love and care for animals and should be invited to help make a difference by administering animal sheltering and control in a vastly different way. This is something our city and county leaders still do not grasp. Unfortunately, it is also something many animal loves still do not grasp as well.

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