In 2001 Rebecca Guinn, like most people, was not aware of the issues facing homeless pets. She was a successful criminal-defense attorney in Atlanta with a caseload including high-profile white collar criminals, and that was more than enough to occupy her time and attention.
Then one day while she was at home she heard loud howling. She went out to investigate and found a stray dog on a neighbor’s property with his paw trapped in a fence. Guinn did what most people would have done – she called animal control and asked them to come help the dog. Animal control officers arrived and were able to free the dog. Then they loaded him on a truck to take him to the shelter. Guinn asked what would happen to him and was shocked when they told her that if no owner claimed him within his 5-day stray hold period he would be killed. She felt remorseful thinking that she had taken an action trying to help the dog, only to find that it might result in his death.
Guinn called the shelter and asked them to allow her to adopt the dog if his owners did not reclaim him. They told her if she wanted to adopt the dog she had to come to the shelter in person and write her name on his card. So she made time in her busy day to go to the shelter to do what easily could have been done over the phone. When she walked into the shelter she was overwhelmed to see hundreds of dogs, several to a cage. She found “her” dog, wrote her name on his kennel card, and arranged to come back to pick him up as soon as he was off stray hold. That was on a Friday and she was told she could pick him up on Monday.
When Guinn returned on Monday afternoon, she walked into a nearly empty shelter. They had just finished killing, and almost all the dogs she had seen on Friday were dead. As she stood there in the shelter looking around at the empty runs, she was devastated. In that moment, she decided that what she was seeing was wrong and that she wanted to change it. Her dog, one of the few left alive, was waiting, and she went through the adoption procedure with him. She left the shelter determined to do something to stop the slaughter.
Guinn began to educate herself about animal shelters, and one of the things she did was attend the 2002 Best Friends conference. She met the leaders of Best Friends there and was inspired by their ideas and encouragement. Soon after, she formed a non-profit, LifeLine Animal Project, to put some of the things she had learned into practice. One of the first LifeLine initiatives was Catlanta, a TNR program for feral cats. Best Friends continued to offer assistance and mentoring, and she even worked for Best Friends at one point. It wasn’t long before she quit her job, took a giant pay cut, and started working on LifeLine full time.
LifeLine started a private shelter that took in cruelty cases and special-needs animals needing rehabilitation. Their first spay-neuter clinic, founded in 2005, provided reduced-cost and free sterilizations. They offered vaccination clinics. Guinn’s philosophy was to work with the existing institutions in the community, and she tried to help the local shelters in any way that she could. In 2010, LifeLine opened its second spay-neuter clinic. That same year saw passage of a law Guinn had helped draft that banned gas chambers as a method of shelter killing in Georgia.
The Atlanta area has a county-based shelter system, with each county having its own shelter. Most of Atlanta is located in Fulton County, with a small part in DeKalb County. The combined population of the two counties is about 1.7 million people. In Fulton, various non-profits had contracted to run the shelter over the years, and in DeKalb the county ran the shelter. Guinn and LifeLine worked primarily with these two shelters. In 2012, Fulton had a live release rate of about 35%. As Guinn put it, she had been working to support the shelter for 10 years doing everything she could, and yet had seen it go the wrong way. DeKalb was better at about a 55-60% live release rate, due largely to LifeLine having partnered with the shelter to run a feral cat program.
Guinn decided to put in a bid to run the DeKalb shelter, not knowing if the bid would even be considered, much less granted. Shortly thereafter, the Fulton contract went up for bid, and LifeLine bid on that as well. Time went by and Guinn had not heard on either bid. Then, in January 2013, she was notified within the space of two days that LifeLine had won both bids. LifeLine took over in Fulton on March 15, 2013, and in DeKalb on July 1, 2013.
The last two years have been a whirlwind for Guinn and the LifeLine staff, but it has been time well spent. The live release rate for Fulton County in 2014, in their first full year of running the shelter, was 76%, an increase of over 40 points, and in DeKalb County it was 80%. Intake at the two shelters was over 15,500 animals in 2014. Right now, going into kitten season, both shelters are running at a rolling live release rate in the mid-to-upper 80s. They have accomplished this in spite of the fact that both shelter buildings are old and outdated.
LifeLine has made many improvements at the Fulton and DeKalb shelters in the last two years. These include a cat room and adoption area, pet retention programs, and a streamlined adoption process, The Fulton County contract includes animal control, and the officers can now check for microchips and return animals in the field. The shelters treat the treatables, spending about $10,000 per month on animals who are sent to private veterinarians. LifeLine transports some animals to the north. It is continuing its anti-cruelty, pet health, and spay-neuter efforts in the community, and has sterilized over 80,000 animals.
Rebecca Guinn is an example of the “do it yourself” ethic that we are seeing more and more in No Kill sheltering today. In both Fulton and DeKalb counties, outside pressure had made officials aware of the problems with the shelters. It seems very unlikely that significant positive change would have happened in either county, though, without LifeLine stepping up and making proposals to run the shelters. The do-it-yourself approach allows people who do not have a background in traditional animal shelter management or animal control to take over leadership of large city and county shelter systems. If someone with a non-shelter background applied for a job as a shelter director through the usual municipal-government process, that person would probably not be seriously considered. As the head of a non-profit with a track record of actively assisting the shelter, though, such a person is in a good position to bid on a shelter contract.
The Atlanta community has been very appreciative of what Guinn and LifeLine have done. Guinn was selected as the recipient of the 2013 Leadership DeKalb’s Sue Ellen Owens Award “for creating a permanent and positive legacy of initiative and vision in the community.” Guinn defines No Kill as saving every savable animal, and she has a goal for both shelters to meet that standard in 2016.
This is the first in an occasional series of blog posts on successful shelter directors.