“Invasive” Feral Cats Aren’t So Bad After All

These days, almost everyone involved with trying to increase live release rates for cats supports Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) and Return-To-Field (RTF) programs for community cats. The barriers still in the way of TNR and RTF include old-fashioned ordinances in a lot of localities, and bird conservationists. Advocates for cats are chipping away at the ordinances, but the conservationists are stubborn. Many of them argue that all cats should be kept indoors and that any cat found outdoors should be captured and killed.

One of the arguments made by the conservationists is that cats have no place in the outdoors in the United States because they are an “invasive” species (also called “non-native”  or “alien”). Cats first came to the Americas in ships from Europe many centuries ago. The conservationists argue that non-native species such as cats destroy native wildlife because the native wildlife species have not evolved ways to protect themselves from the invaders. The idea that invasive species are bad is deeply ingrained in conservation biology, and it has been a difficult argument for cat advocates to address.

A new book by science journalist Fred Pearce calls the traditional thinking about invasive species into question. The book, “The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation” (Beacon Press, 2015), uses the term “green xenophobia” to refer to what Pearce considers to be an overblown concern about damage done by invasive species, and a failure to appreciate their value and their place in nature. He argues that the success of roaming species can be seen as a positive counterweight to environmental destruction caused by humans.

One of the non-native species that Pearce mentions is the cat. He challenges a cost-benefit analysis made by one scientist that purported to show that cats cost the United States economy $30 for every bird they kill, or $17 billion total each year. The $17 billion number itself is questionable, but Pearce points out that the considerable benefits to the economy that are provided by cats, including rodent control and the documented health benefits to people who have pet companions, were not weighed against the $17 billion figure.

Pearce has an interesting discussion of the unintended consequences of efforts to control invasive species on Macquarie Island, a remote island between Australia and Antarctica that is a nesting place for seabirds. The first invaders on Macquarie Island were rats who had stowed away on sealers’ ships. Then cats were brought in to control the rats, and rabbits were brought in for food for the sealers. Many years later the rabbits were eating a lot of the island’s vegetation, so conservationists wiped out most of the rabbits by introducing a disease. But then the cats, with few rabbits to hunt, started killing the birds. The cats were shot, and then the rats, with no cats to control their population, ate the birds. Meanwhile, the remaining rabbits, with the cats no longer there to keep them in check, began to multiply again. (Today the invasives are thought to be gone, but how long will that last?)

Much of the evidence that conservation biologists cite in an attempt to prove that invasive species cause damage to native species comes from islands like Macquarie. It is true that there have been some dramatic examples of bird extinctions caused or aided by non-native species on islands. Pearce notes, however, that new studies indicate that plant diversity of ocean islands usually rises after “invasions” by alien species, even in cases where the number of birds declined.

Moreover, what happens on islands cannot and should not be generalized to mainlands. Cat advocates for years now have been pointing out the weaknesses in the argument made by conservationists that cats are doing damage to birds at the species level on the United States mainland. This important new book supports the arguments that have been made by advocates, but it goes beyond them in arguing that the success of invasive species is an example of the power of nature to change and adapt. Something to be welcomed, perhaps, rather than feared.

Houston’s Problem

According to a 2005 mayor’s task force report for the city of Houston and Harris County, animal shelters in the area killed 80,000 animals in 2004. The 2005 report gave total intake for the city and county’s 5 shelters as almost 120,000 animals in 2004. These numbers do not account for inter-shelter transfers, and the coverage area of the shelters may not coincide exactly with the boundaries of Harris County. And we do not know how much has changed since 2004, or exactly what was included in the 2004 intake numbers. But if the 2004 intake numbers still hold true today (as many local advocates claim), then with the county’s human population of 4.1 million there is shelter intake of about 29 per 1000 people. This is near the top of the estimated average range of 15 to 30 for shelter intake expressed as pets per thousand people (PPTP).

There are communities in the United States with intake of 30 PPTP or above that manage to save all their healthy and treatable animals, but none that I know of that are as big as Houston and Harris County. The size of  the city is important because larger, more densely populated urban areas tend to have proportionally fewer housing units that allow pets, and therefore their adoption potential per thousand people is lower. The largest community I’m aware of that manages to maintain a high live release rate at a high PPTP is Washoe County, Nevada, which has a population of about 420,000 people and PPTP of 36. “No Kill” large cities generally have substantially lower PPTP than 30. Austin, for example, with shelter intake of about 17,000 last time I checked, and population of about 900,000, has a PPTP of about 20. Fairfax County, Virginia, in 2013 had a PPTP of 3.5. The Portland metro area has a PPTP of about 15. Atlanta is about 10. Even San Antonio appears to have had intake of only 23 PPTP recently. The state of Colorado, which was at a live release rate of 89% in 2013, had intake of 32 PPTP. The Colorado figure is not comparable to the large cities cited, however, since it includes intake from some private rescues as well as many small towns.

In addition to the high shelter intake, there may be another factor at work in Houston, and that is the permanent stray population. The Houston shelters admit that they are not able to take in all the homeless animals in the city. When there are a lot of homeless animals in a city that are not being picked up and impounded, they compete with shelter animals for homes. If someone has three or four neighborhood cats hanging around, that person may be just as likely – or more likely – to take in one of those cats as to go to the shelter to adopt. If a rescue takes in a pregnant stray dog from the street and finds homes for her and her five puppies, that will be six less potential adopters at the city shelter. Thus, when we are trying to figure out how many animals a shelter in a particular city can adopt out, we must include the number of permanently homeless strays in with shelter intake, since all those animals are part of the pool of animals that potential adopters have available.

How bad is Houston’s stray problem, and can it really be bad enough to seriously hamper the city’s effort to improve its live release rate? In the 1970s there was a nationwide pet overpopulation crisis, with shelter intake on average estimated as being some 5 times higher than it is today, plus a large number of dogs and cats in the environment who were never taken into shelters. A survey of mayors in 1974 showed that animal control issues were the number one complaint of citizens. Public health officials were concerned with the zoonosis threat from the large numbers of strays. Animal advocates reacted with a huge grassroots effort to get people to sterilize their cats and dogs. The effort was very successful, and animal shelter intake plummeted from an estimated 26 million nationwide in 1970 to 7 million in the year 2000. The number of animals killed in shelters during that time period dropped from roughly 23 million to 5 million.

But there are still some places that never managed to fix their pet overpopulation problem. One of the people who is central to San Antonio’s No Kill effort told me that he had heard an estimate of 150,000 stray dogs in the city. Based on the number of dead dogs picked up by animal control in San Antonio my guess would be closer to 50,000 stray dogs, but whether it is 50,000 or 150,000, the city is not going to be a safe haven for all animals until it solves its stray problem.

The estimate that you usually hear for Houston is that it has from 600,000 to 1.2 million stray dogs. At least one effort is ongoing to better quantify the number of strays. Sometimes estimates of strays are wildly overblown, and that may well be the case in Houston. The estimated numbers are not outside the bounds of possibility, though. In the early 1970s a respected scientist, Alan Beck, did an ecological survey of the free-roaming dog population in the city of Baltimore. He estimated a stray dog population of as many as 1,690 free-roaming dogs per square mile in one neighborhood and an average of up to 750 per square mile for the city as a whole, including wealthier neighborhoods with few strays. Houston has 600 square miles of land area according to the US census bureau. If Houston did have 1.2 million stray dogs that would be 2,000 strays per square mile. The lower end of the estimate of stray dogs in Houston of 600,000 would be about 1,000 per square mile. It may be that Houston’s lack of a zoning code (it is unique in this regard) and its geography, with four major bayous and their tributaries running through the city, have produced an environment that will support a large number of stray dogs.

I suspect that the true number of stray dogs in Houston is less than 1.2 million, and perhaps even less than 600,000, but the higher number does not appear to be completely impossible given what was found in Baltimore in the 1970s. More importantly, the fact that the 1.2 million estimate may be overblown should not cause us to throw the baby out with the bathwater. All indications are that Houston does have a serious problem with a permanent homeless dog population. We cannot simply say that because the 1.2 million number may be overblown, therefore there is no stray crisis and the shelters are just making up an excuse to kill. On the contrary, whether the number of stray dogs is 1,200,000 or 600,000 or even less, it is still a serious problem that cannot be ignored in the city’s effort to reduce its kill rate. Look at it this way – even if the number of non-impounded stray dogs is only 120,000, that number is enough to crush the city’s animal sheltering system. If all of those stray dogs were impounded in one year, the PPTP for the county would be 59. No community I’m aware of has achieved a 90%+ live release rate with a PPTP of 50 or higher, except in a few cases of small communities that exported a large percentage of their shelter intake to other jurisdictions. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t see how any shelter director on earth, no matter how talented, could achieve No Kill in a jurisdiction the size of Harris County at an intake rate of 59 PPTP per year. At least not without transferring tens of thousands of animals out of the jurisdiction each year.

So what can be done? In cities where owned dogs have a high sterilization rate the number of feral and permanently stray dogs declines almost to zero. It appears that the reproduction rate for stray dogs (unlike community cats) is not high enough to sustain a high stray population, given the hazards of cars and shelter killing, without input from unsterilized owned dogs. In cities with high rates of sterilization of owned dogs, almost all of the “stray” dogs that come into the shelter are not permanently homeless street dogs, but instead are lost or recently abandoned dogs. In Boulder, Colorado, for example, some 90% of stray dogs are returned to their owners. Houston’s apparently high population of permanently homeless street dogs may be an indication that unsterilized owned dogs are seeding the population of strays. In other words, Houston may be one of the few cities in the United States that has never fully dealt with the pet population crisis of the 1970s. It may be that the reason the number of stray dogs in Houston today is reported to rival or exceed the number of stray dogs in Baltimore in the 1970s is that Houston is still back in the 1970s in terms of spay-neuter rates for owned pets.

Houston has recently made an agreement with Emancipet in an effort to get a large sterilization program going. This is a great step in the right direction, but the question is whether it will be enough. In the short term, until the stray problem is conquered, the city may need to redouble its efforts to transfer dogs out of the city to places that have a more manageable PPTP number. Houston already has a transfer program to send dogs to Colorado, and maybe they need to seek out other transfer partners as well. As for cats, BARC has joined the Million Cat Challenge, and if BARC fully implements the program that will go a long way toward reducing the rate of cat killing. There are four other shelters in the area, though, that do not appear to be implementing the Million Cat Challenge program.

Only a few years ago the southern part of the United States was the place where No Kill hopes went to die. In the last five years we’ve had large jurisdictions like Austin (and nearby Williamson County), Atlanta, Jacksonville, and Tampa either getting to a 90%+ live release rate or making major progress. With Houston (and perhaps other cities in the south), however, we seem to still have the lingering problem of large numbers of strays, apparently being seeded by the owned-pet population. It’s a problem that needs to be fixed, both figuratively and literally, before Houston can truly be No Kill. And it is a problem that the entire community needs to tackle, not just the city, and not just the shelters. The shelters need to take responsibility to do the best they can, including full participation in the Million Cat Challenge and seeking out more opportunities for transfers, but the shelters are going to keep being overwhelmed as long as their intake is so high.

News of the Week 08-16-15

The Humane Alliance of Western North Carolina, located in Asheville, has provided low-cost spay-neuter in the area since 1994, and reports that it has sterilized 350,000 animals. The Humane Alliance has long been recognized as a national leader in high-volume spaying and neutering, and many veterinarians have trained in its techniques. Now comes word that the ASPCA has acquired the Humane Alliance. The ASPCA has supported the Humane Alliance in the past, and the new arrangement is expected to provide additional ASPCA funding.

Site plans for Brother Wolf’s future sanctuary in Asheville are on view today at the city’s VeganFest. In addition to being a leading city for No Kill, Asheville is also one of the most vegetarian- and vegan-friendly cities in the United States. Brother Wolf founder Denise Bitz believes that the vegan lifestyle shows a commitment to compassion for all animals.

The Weatherford/Parker County animal shelter in Weatherford, Texas, has announced that it has had a 90%+ save rate for the past year. The shelter participated yesterday in the national Clear the Shelters event.

Washington, DC’s cat cafe, Crumbs & Whiskers, continues to get publicity on important mainstream news sites. It was featured in an article on Vox recently, and then a few days ago it was featured in an online article on the WTOP website. It is somewhat unusual for the DC press, which is generally full of political news, to take as much of an interest in a pet-related phenomenon as they have shown in Crumbs & Whiskers. The WTOP article reports that reservations for time with the kitties are in so much demand that they are hard to get on weekends, and even on week nights. The cats at Crumbs & Whiskers come from the Washington Humane Society, and they are fostered at the shop until they are adopted. In seven weeks, the cafe has adopted out 16 adult cats and a couple of kittens. That is a rate of about 135 cats per year, not to mention the publicity for the shelter.

The Animal Care Centers of New York City (formerly Animal Care and Control) are getting a new adoption partner. Best Friends will open an adoption center in the SoHo neighborhood in early 2016.

Broward County, Florida, commissioners will consider a measure on September 10 to amend county law to allow the release back into the community of sterilized feral cats (scroll down to “other action” in the link). This could be a big step in the right direction for Broward County’s flailing No Kill effort.

Here’s an article from someone who is concerned that the “crazy cat lady” stereotype may be hurting the adoption chances of cats. The stereotype is certainly offensive, but is it affecting adoption rates for cats? I tend to doubt it. The effect, if it exists at all, must be very small because I don’t recall it ever turning up in research on why people do or do not adopt.

The 2015 Veterinary Behavior Symposium, put on by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, was on July 10th this year, the day before the AVMA’s yearly convention. Steve Dale offers a brief look at some of the presentations at the symposium in this article. One of the presentations addressed how leashed dogs may interact differently in dog greetings than unleashed dogs, and how this may have a bad effect on some dogs’ social skills.

There has been a lot of interest lately in the health and behavior effects of spaying and neutering (see this roundable as one example), with studies suggesting that there may be both good and bad effects from the procedures. The discussions are especially pertinent to early-age sterilization. This is an important topic for animal shelters, as there is no way to guarantee that adoptive owners will sterilize their pets if it is not done before the pet leaves the shelter. And before pediatric sterilization became accepted in the 1990s, shelters were sometimes reluctant to adopt out puppies and kittens less than 6 months of age (the traditional minimum age for sterilization surgery) because so few adopters followed up on sterilization, even when it was free. So shelters have a big stake in pediatric sterilization. A 2014 study provides some favorable news for early-age sterilization, finding that cats did not show behavior differences based on whether they were sterilized early or at 6 months. Follow up was for 2 years.

There has been renewed interest in chemical sterilization in recent years, driven mostly by the expense and invasiveness of traditional surgical sterilization, but also to some extent by concern with the side effects of surgery. This article in Cat Watch provides a summary of where we are with alternatives to the traditional surgical methods of sterilization.

Animal shelters and rescues transport animals all the time, and at last we have a study on the safety of crates and carriers in accidents. The bad news is that most of the crates and carriers tested failed to meet the successful-outcome standard for the test. The good news is that some did. More good news is that standardized tests like this will no doubt encourage manufacturers to make safer crates and carriers in the future.

The Animal Compassion Team (ACT), a No Kill group in Fresno County, California, that currently runs a No Kill shelter, is expected to be approved soon to take over the contract for animal control and sheltering for the county. Brenda Mitchell, who is the director of ACT, says that achieving No Kill for the county will not happen overnight, but she is optimistic for the future. The county badly needs a new shelter, and a county supervisor says one may be constructed within two years.

Animal Rescue Rhode Island is helping to make a South Carolina shelter No Kill with its Bark and Ride transportation program. Since the program started it has saved over 700 dogs.

Canine flu (H3N2 variety) has appeared in Atlanta. Vaccines against the flu are being developed. The appearance of the H3N2 virus, which is thought to have originated in Asia, stimulated this article about dog importation in the Clinician’s Brief. The author of the article appears to be unaware that the number of homeless dogs in the United States is rapidly coming into balance with the number of homes available. Even so, the article is a timely reminder that, if rescuers are going to increase importation of homeless dogs from other countries in the future (as I believe we should), we need to pay very careful attention to quarantine and vaccinations to make sure that imported dogs do not pose a health risk to dogs in the United States.

A New Jersey shelter that had its water cut off asked the community for help and the community literally lined up to answer the call. Problem solved.

Humane Network Initiatives

Readers —

I’m sure most if not all of you know about the great work that is being done by Humane Network, which is headed by the No Kill movement’s own Bonney Brown and Diane Blankenburg. They have two important current projects that may interest you:

1. The University of the Pacific Lifesaving-Centered Animal Shelter Management Certificate Program is starting up for its third year in only 19 days. It’s an online program, and there is still time to register. Here is a link to the course information:

Animal Shelter Management Certificate – Lifesaving-Centered

2. Humane Network is conducting a survey for Maddie’s Institute to help inform their potential development of training resources for foster care programs. Links are:

Survey for Individuals

Survey for Organizations

Note: Humane Network is seeking feedback from those individuals and organizations that have participated in fostering and those that have not, so they would appreciate you filling out the form even if you do not foster!


News of the Week 08-09-15

The Association of Shelter Veterinarians (ASV) has removed its draft statement on No-Kill terminology, which was in a comment period. Thank you ASV for listening to people’s concerns.

PetSmart Charities has issued an in-depth report on how San Antonio went from killing 90% of shelter animals 10 years ago to saving almost 90% today. The turnaround happened in several steps, including a planned effort to get all the animal welfare organizations working together, removing legal barriers to TNR, finding high-volume rescue partners, establishment of an adoption center, and massive spay-neuter efforts for owned pets. San Antonio was one of the few cities that in 2005, ten years ago, still had a serious problem of permanently homeless dogs roaming the streets, not to mention lots of community cats. Thanks to spay-neuter and TNR, the populations of free-roaming cats and dogs are down. Still, the San Antonio organizations handle a lot of animals – adopting over 24,000 cats and dogs and transferring more than 13,000 a year. The community also spays or neuters 58,000 dogs and cats per year. An important part of the story has been funding, which has come in part from the San Antonio Area Foundation, Best Friends, and PetSmart Charities. San Antonio is an amazing No Kill success story, and kudos to PetSmart Charities for providing this analysis.

The Humane Society for Tacoma and Pierce Counties, in Takoma, Washington, wants to change the image of free-roaming cats. Instead of calling them “feral” they have moved to using the term “community” to describe free-roaming cats. They hope this change will help people realize that not all free-roaming cats are wild. The humane society is also trying to change the reputation of stray cats, stressing that they control rodent population. In addition to the new image for community cats, the shelter has a TNR program for them that has resulted in decreased intake.

In Pima County, Arizona, the local No Kill group is partnering with the shelter to get special-needs animals adopted. No Kill Pima County, in collaboration with the shelter, has created a website to feature adoptable animals who might otherwise get overlooked because they are older or have handicaps.

Hank’s Flights, a volunteer-pilot transport group based in Montgomery County, Texas, has transported 183 dogs and 20 cats since it started up in October 2014. Hank’s Flights is run by two families, and the pilots are brothers Howard and George Turek. They also volunteer with an organization that provides air transport for veterans.

More good news from Baton Rouge, where the Companion Animal Alliance is continuing its efforts to make the city No Kill. Local rescue groups have stepped up their efforts to recruit fosters for animals at the city shelter, and it has paid off with 245 dogs and 86 cats going into their foster programs in the first quarter of 2015. One foster family has provided a temporary home for 15 dogs in the past year.

The Stockton, California shelter continued its effort to reduce shelter killing recently with a free adoption Sunday. The Stockton shelter is running at a 79% live release rate for the first 6 months of 2015, compared to 75% for all of 2014 and 50% for all of 2013. The big improvement from 2013 to 2014 was primarily due to support from the San Francisco SPCA. Since the first 6 months of the year includes the worst part of kitten season, it is possible that the Stockton shelter will be over 80% for the year. Intake for the first 6 months of 2015 was 5,643 dogs and cats. A new director, Phillip Zimmerman, started at the shelter in January.

The board of the tiny Alger County Animal Shelter, which is No Kill, unexpectedly fired director Kathy Glish recently, and some local residents are not happy. All but one board member of the shelter resigned after the backlash to the firing, so perhaps a reconciliation is still possible.

Here is a nice feature about the Palm Springs Animal Shelter, and their turnaround from saving under 50% of intake four years ago to over 95% today. The key has been a public-private partnership between the city and the Friends of the Palm Springs Animal Shelter.

NBC and Telemundo are hosting a Clear The Shelters day on August 15th. Quite a few large cities are participating, including over 30 local shelters in the Chicago area and over 40 shelters in the San Francisco Bay area.

Capacity for Care

The reaction to my August 2nd blog post about the Association of Shelter Veterinarians (ASV) draft position statement on “The Use of ‘No-Kill’ Terminology” has unsurprisingly centered on what many people, myself included, feel is a hijacking of the concept of “capacity for care.” The draft position paper says “euthanasia of healthy and treatable companion animals is sometimes utilized in order to maintain a shelter’s capacity for humane care.” To those of us who care about shelter lifesaving, the concept of capacity for care is not an excuse for killing – instead, it means that animal shelters should take action to ensure that they are a “shelter” to the animals they take in, not just a way-station on the trip to the landfill.

In the old days, traditional animal shelters took the view that they were simply passive recipients of whatever animals came in the door, and that they had no choice but to kill when they ran out of time or space. That concept developed back in the bad times when we really did have a pet overpopulation problem in the United States. In the 1970s, animal shelters took in 5 times as many animals per capita as they do now, and there were large numbers of homeless dogs and cats in the environment who never came into the shelters at all. The tragedy of pet overpopulation overwhelmed animal shelters, and created a culture of passivity and killing in the face of the onslaught of homeless animals. Fortunately, there were leaders in the 1970s like Phyllis Wright, who figured out that the way to fix the problem was to fix the pets. She and others started a massive spay-neuter campaign. The turning point came when private veterinarians signed on and began recommending spay-neuter to their clients in the early 1970s. The number of animals coming into animal shelters cratered. In the 1990s when veterinarians began doing pediatric spay-neuter and volunteering their time for TNR, shelter intake plummeted again. By the year 2000, the great majority of communities in the United States had almost no feral or truly stray dogs, and in many communities the numbers of feral cats were stable or declining. It was a different world.

This different world was what allowed No Kill to take off as a movement, starting in 1989 with Ed Duvin’s publication of his ground-breaking essay “In the Name of Mercy,” and with Richard Avanzino setting in motion his plan for making San Francisco No Kill. Since then, shelters nationwide have gone from killing some 90% of intake circa 1975 to killing 40% or less today. With shortages of dogs today in many areas, and the new Million Cat Challenge paradigms for community cats, there is no reason why that 40% cannot shrink to the 10-20% range in the next 5 years. We can, within the next few years, be a country where all healthy and treatable shelter animals are saved. This is not a crazy, visionary idea. It is something that has been happening, and is happening, and anyone who does not see it simply hasn’t been paying attention. Every credible national organization, including Maddie’s Fund, Best Friends, the ASPCA, and the HSUS, would agree with what I’ve said here about what has happened up until now.

So, what does all this have to do with the draft ASV statement on No Kill terminology? Notice that veterinarians had a huge role to play in getting from the 90% average shelter kill rate of the 1970s to the 40% rate today. It was private veterinarians who guaranteed the spectacular success of the spay-neuter campaign of the 1970s and 1980s, by beginning to recommend routine spaying and neutering to their clients. It was veterinarians who perfected pediatric spaying and neutering and began to recommend it in the 1990s. It was veterinarians who volunteered their time for TNR efforts, or did TNR at cost, beginning in the 1990s. It was veterinarians who started the specialty of shelter medicine in 1999, and who created the ASV and won acceptance for shelter medicine as a specialty in an amazingly short time. It is veterinarians who have been critical in the remaking of the animal shelter, transforming it from the concrete-block death warehouse next to the town dump to the “summer camp” for dogs and cats that is a bright and welcoming community center of today. It was veterinarians who created the most innovative lifesaving effort of the last few years, the Million Cat Challenge. And finally, it was veterinarians, specifically shelter veterinarians who are members of the ASV, who perfected “capacity for care” programs that allow shelters to measure and control intake so that killing of healthy and treatable animals is unnecessary.

For all these reasons, I was stunned when I saw the ASV draft on No Kill terminology a few days ago. I felt like I had been yanked back into the 1970s, when the only thing shelter workers could do was work hard on spay-neuter and hope that the future would be better. I felt that there must be some mistake – that the draft was just a product of carelessness and that the drafters could not possibly have really intended to say what they had said. Not the ASV. Not the group of veterinarians, more than all others, who are leading the charge for lifesaving! Surely they could not have meant to take the term “capacity for care,” which stands for a shelter’s power to control its destiny by managing its intake, and twist that life-affirming term back into the mold of the old, hopeless, “we are helpless victims of circumstance who have to kill for time and space.”

I have heard from people who do not believe that this draft was just a careless mistake. They think that there is a faction within the ASV that still believes that shelters are helpless victims when it comes to their intake, and that shelters cannot take effective steps to manage intake and length of stay. In other words, that there is a deliberate effort to co-opt and warp the term “capacity for care” and use it as an excuse for killing. The ASV is allowing comment on this document until August 15th. A person from the ASV committee replied to my August 2nd blog post, so they are on notice of the issues. If the draft was just a horrible, careless mistake, then they have had that pointed out to them. Now we will have to wait to see what they do.

ASV – please do not ruin the reputation for caring about lifesaving that so many of your members have painstakingly built up by their life’s work. Please do not undermine the phenomenally successful Million Cat Challenge by co-opting one of the terms that is central to its program – capacity for care – and turning it into an excuse for killing rather than a program for life. Please do not throw a wrench into the work of saving shelter animals by offering an excuse for shelters that still take a passive approach. Tear up that draft, and write one that reflects what your best and most creative members are doing. We will all be waiting and hoping that you hear us.

NOTE: Readers, please review the blog’s Comments Policy (in the “Contact” tab) before submitting comments. I appreciate and welcome comments, but will not approve comments that do not comply with the policy.

The ASV’s Draft Position Paper on No Kill Terminology

The Association of Shelter Veterinarians (ASV) has a series of position statements that it has promulgated on various issues such as TNR, pediatric spay-neuter, pound seizure, etc. Right now, the ASV has a draft position statement called “The Use of ‘No-Kill’ Terminology” that is open for member comment until August 15th. You can read the draft here. I’m not a veterinarian or a member of the ASV, so my vote does not count, but if I had a vote on this draft position statement the vote would be “no.”

The draft is three short paragraphs. The first paragraph seems pretty harmless other than requiring the reader to negotiate through two sentences of poorly written committee-speak. It isn’t quite word salad, but almost. I think the idea of the paragraph is that animal shelters should always put the needs of animals first, regardless of whether the shelters call themselves “No Kill” or not. I don’t disagree with that sentiment, although it seems so obvious that I wonder why it is necessary to spend one-third of the position statement on it.

Moving on to the second paragraph, the ASV draft says that “No-Kill” terminology is unclear because it can be used to refer to any of a series of euthanasia policies along a “spectrum” that ranges from (I’m paraphrasing here for brevity and clarity) (1) not killing for time or space, (2) not killing healthy animals, (3) not killing treatable animals, and finally (4) not killing animals at all. The paragraph ends by stating: “As such, the ASV discourages the use of terminology that defines an organization based on euthanasia practices.”

I agree that the term “No Kill” is ambiguous and means different things to different people, but it seems to me that the ASV is throwing the baby out with the bathwater in saying that, because the term “No Kill” is ambiguous, shelters should not define themselves based on euthanasia policy. If the problem is the ambiguity of the No Kill term, the solution is to use other terms that are clear, not to stop talking about euthanasia. In fact, that last sentence in the second paragraph could be taken to recommend against a shelter adopting any euthanasia policy at all. Surely the ASV cannot have intended to come to that conclusion. I think what the ASV is trying to say in the second paragraph is that shelters should not label themselves “No Kill,” but it’s disappointing that a paragraph that takes No Kill to task on the ground of ambiguity is itself so ambiguous.

But it gets worse. The third paragraph is the doozy. The third paragraph argues that shelters, in addition to sometimes needing to euthanize animals who are untreatable or are public health threats, should have the option to kill animals for time or space (they call it exceeding capacity for care). Specifically, the draft position paper says, apparently with approval, that “euthanasia of healthy and treatable companion animals is sometimes utilized in order to maintain a shelter’s capacity for humane care.” Yikes.

This is no longer dealing with just “terminology,” which is the ostensible subject of the draft. Instead, the third paragraph has veered over into substantive policy by stating that capacity issues sometimes require shelters to kill animals. Did the ASV really mean to stick this gigantic policy conclusion into the third paragraph of a position paper that is supposed to be about what words we use? There are currently shelters all over the United States – open admission municipal shelters – that deal with time and space (aka capacity for care) issues without either killing healthy and treatable animals or allowing them to suffer. There are ASV veterinarians who work in such shelters and have been a very big part of their success. Surely the ASV does not really mean to endorse what this draft paragraph says.

I strongly advise the ASV Position Statement Committee and ASV board to ditch this document and start over. First, figure out what you want to say. Do you oppose No Kill terminology because it is ambiguous, or because it is divisive, or both? Or do you oppose No Kill itself as a substantive matter because you believe that shelters should have the option to kill for time or space? These are all separate topics and should not be mushed together, as they are in the logical hash that is this draft position paper.

If you oppose No Kill terminology because it is ambiguous, it does not logically follow from that alone that organizations should not define themselves based on euthanasia policies. If a term is unclear, it makes perfect sense to recommend that the term not be used at all, or not be used unless it is clarified by context. It does not make sense to conclude that the whole topic that the ambiguous term refers to (in this case, euthanasia policies) should be declared off limits.

If you are opposed to No Kill itself as a substantive matter (rather than just the terminology) because you believe that shelters should have the option to kill for time or space — honestly, that is not the kind of thing that you can toss off in one short paragraph in a position paper, especially a position paper that is ostensibly about terminology. And especially without any explanation of why you have decided that capacity issues cannot be dealt with by means other than killing. That third paragraph says something that I can’t believe you really meant to say.

The question of whether shelters have to kill for capacity reasons is the most important issue in animal sheltering today. You don’t need to poke this metaphorical elephant, because everyone knows that it is a complicated issue that we are all wrestling with. Taking the attitude that it is a fit topic for a throwaway sentence in a position paper that is ostensibly on another topic is incomprehensible. If you are determined to address this topic, you owe it to your profession not to do it in the careless, poorly written, poorly organized, logically incoherent, ambiguous, and superficial way embodied in this draft.

Shelter medicine in general, and the ASV in particular, are critically important to shelter lifesaving. A great deal of the progress that has occurred in shelter lifesaving since 1999 is directly due to shelter medicine. ASV veterinarians are at the forefront of some of the most effective innovations in lifesaving that are being made in sheltering today. Everyone who supports shelter reform, whether they call it “No Kill” or something else, has a stake in seeing the ASV succeed and grow. Don’t embarrass yourselves by adopting this deeply flawed document as a position statement of your organization.

The Astonishing Rise of the Cat Cafe

By now you have probably heard about “cat cafes,” which are the latest rage in the cat world. Cat cafes are coffee shops with cats. To keep public health officials happy they are often divided into two rooms, one where you buy coffee and pastries and the other where you can mingle with the cats. In some places, depending on local regulations, the cafes can have the food and drinks and cats all in one space by serving only drinks and packaged snacks. There is usually a small cover charge. This article describes one person’s experience with the cat cafe in Washington, DC, which is called Crumbs and Whiskers. Cat cafes generally select outgoing cats who are not stressed by interactions with people, and they have one or more areas where cats can retreat to get away from the patrons if they are not feeling social. The cafe may rotate cats so they don’t get burned out by too much human contact.

The cat cafe concept originated in Asia, and reportedly goes back to Taiwan in 1998, which had a cat cafe called the Cat Flower Garden. Cat cafes really took off in Japan starting about 10 years ago. Most apartments in Tokyo do not allow pets, and the idea behind the Japanese cafes was to allow apartment-dwelling young professionals to have some time with cats without actually owning them. Neko no Mise (“Cat Shop”), which opened in Tokyo in 2005, was reportedly the first cat cafe in Japan. Today Tokyo has so many cat cafes that there are guides to the most notable ones. Cat cafes have spread to London, Lithuania, Singapore, and Budapest, among many other places.

The cat cafe phenomenon did not reach the United States until last year, but when it finally got here it was an instant hit. The first permanent cat cafe in the United States, Cat Town Cafe in Oakland, opened on October 25, 2014. It was followed by Planet Tails in Naples, the Denver Cat Company , and Meow Parlour in New York City, which all opened in December 2014. Since then we have had so many cat cafes springing up that it is hard to keep track. Recently established or planned cat cafe locations include Sacramento, Chicago, San Jose, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Asheville, San Diego, and Lincoln, Nebraska.  Montreal gets credit for the first vegan cat cafe in North America.

Not all cat cafes are permanent – some are temporary pop-ups, likes ones that opened in New York City (way back in April of 2014) and Los Angeles. The idea behind the pop-up cat cafe, as with any pop-up restaurant, is that it can showcase the concept without the type of investment needed for a permanent establishment. Los Angeles also had a Pup-Up Cafe.

Cat cafes in the United States are designed to promote adoptions, and the kitty residents are generally from local shelters or rescues. Cat cafes are similar to offsite adoption venues in that they bring adoptable animals to places where the people are, but they serve a somewhat different function. Offsite adoption venues tend to attract people who have already decided to adopt or are thinking about possibly adopting, whereas cat cafes appeal to everyone who likes cats. The cafes can raise the profile of the shelter and help with fundraising and volunteer recruitment. Even people who never visit the cafe will hear about it and the shelter.

The way the cat cafe phenomenon has taken hold and spread is little short of amazing. It is less than a year since the first permanent cat cafe opened in the U.S., and already it seems like there is a new one every week. We may soon catch up with Japan, which reportedly has about 100 cat cafes.

News of the Week 07-26-15

The headline this week is that the Million Cat Challenge hit 250,000 cats saved under their program – 1/4th of the way to their goal of saving 1 million cats. Since it’s a five-year goal, they are looking very good to hit the goal early. The way it works is this. When a participating shelter signs up, their progress is measured against the baseline year (2012) by the greater of two numbers – reduction in cat euthanasia or increase in cat live releases. By having the alternatives, a shelter can get credit for for pet retention or diverting cats to TNR or RTF programs, as well as for increasing adoptions. The program has Five Key Initiatives, and a shelter can choose which ones it wants to implement. The Million Cat Challenge now has 263 participating shelters. That’s pretty good for only a little more than 6 months in existence. There is a lot more going on from this effort than can be gleaned from just looking at the website. Many large jurisdictions in the country (and in Canada) have started to implement the ideas behind the five initiatives. These concepts were considered revolutionary when some of them were endorsed in the California draft whitepaper less than two years ago, but they have rapidly been accepted and supported by the leadership of the shelter industry and are well on their way to becoming mainstream. It’s very possible, in my opinion, that in the 4+ years remaining in the Challenge, we will see not just 1 million, but all healthy and treatable shelter cats saved by these methods.

The cat cafe phenomenon hit a new high this past week with an article on Vox about the DC cafe, Crumbs & Whiskers. For DC residents and many people in other parts of the country Vox is a must-read, so this is great publicity.

A related idea to cat cafes is to get cats into workplaces, as with Seattle’s popular Kitty Hall program. The Humane Society of Broward County in Florida has rolled out a program called Office Cats that sends adoptable cats and their luggage to small businesses in the area.

Neighborhood Cats is offering a “see-through” rear release door for cat traps, for those wily ferals who say “no thank you” to regular traps.

The ASPCA Cornell Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Conference is being held from July 31 to August 2 at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Dr Stephanie Janeczko, one of the presenters, has tips for transporters, including the critically important health requirements you need to know before taking transport animals across state lines.

Baton Rouge has been struggling to go No Kill since 2011. The early efforts were not as successful as people had hoped, but the community kept at it and progress has been made. Now the Companion Animal Alliance (CAA), which runs the city shelter, has announced that a state-of-the-art new shelter building will have its groundbreaking next year. The new shelter will be located on land leased to CAA by Louisiana State University, near the LSU veterinary school. The architectural firm that was selected to design the shelter visited Portland, Oregon, to get ideas for the new building, and CAA officials have visited other shelters as well. The cost for the new building will not be known until the design is finished, but the fundraising campaign is scheduled to begin this fall.

The Waco, Texas, effort to go No Kill has been very successful so far (the city shelter is running at an 88% live release rate for 2015), and now the shelter building is getting a $2.5 million makeover. The city has supplied $1 million of the cost and the rest has been raised by private donations. Since this is a renovation and rebuilding on the site of the current shelter, officials will have to accommodate the animals currently in residence and coming in the door, in spite of temporarily reduced space. The shelter is asking for fosters to help tide it over during the renovation. The new building will be set up for better animal care and disease prevention and will also have a new adoption center, a veterinary clinic, and play areas.

Maddie’s Fund’s essential blog, Chew On This, has been relocated. The Maddie’s blog may be the single most useful blog going for people who are actually running shelters and want practical, professional guidance they can use.

Speaking of Maddie’s Fund, it has now made 2013 statistics available for the shelters that report to it under the Asilomar Accords format. The data is in the form of a comparative database.

Here is a nice feature about Colorado Animal Rescue and the Aspen Animal Shelter, two of Colorado’s many No Kill shelters.

Steve Dale raises the interesting question of whether the veterinarian who allegedly shot a defenseless cat in the head with an arrow in Texas would have been indicted for animal cruelty if it had been a puppy that was killed instead of a cat.

Delaware state and local officials are rallying and discussing how to handle animal control and sheltering after the First State Animal Center and SPCA dropped a bombshell last week with their announcement that they are getting out of their contracts in September. The contracts cover animal control and sheltering for all three of the state’s counties and the city of Wilmington. First State made the decision to end its contracts early because it was concerned that its employees, who have been looking for other jobs since the state announced its intention to take over animal control, would resign and leave it without enough staff to service the contracts.

Guest Post: My New Best Friends: Thoughts and Experiences from the Best Friends National Conference, July 2015

by Mark Penn

OK, I admit it; I’m kind of a conference junkie. A bit of an introvert, so I don’t like to make myself very conspicuous, but I enjoy, in fact I thrive, on being in a room, a stadium, or even a closet with people who have deep convictions that are similar to my own. I’ve found that in the past five years, my convictions are more and more focused on the work of the No Kill movement. And I haven’t found a better place to draw energy from fellow No Kill advocates than the various conferences that are offered by some of our leading organizations.

My perspective on all of this comes from my position as a longtime board member for the Sonoma Humane Society in Northern California. We are a medium-sized private shelter, and our Board is somewhat hands-on, although only in certain areas. I was president of the board through some difficult times, including a transition of Executive Directors, a longterm financial crisis (now resolved, thankfully), and a current LRR of 97%. Now my interests as a board member focus most keenly on Advocacy. With this viewpoint, you might find my experiences to be very different from those of someone in a different capacity with a different organization. But when invited to guest-blog on my own impressions and experiences of the Best Friends National Conference, I was happy to spend the flight back across the country working on this chronicle.

I’ve been to three national No Kill conferences now – the first two were produced by the No Kill Advocacy Center and were held in Washington, DC. To put it bluntly, I fell in love with the movement at these events. Unfortunately Nathan has at least temporarily suspended those yearly events, and I have been feeling the loss – until I became aware of this year’s Best Friends annual conference. It was held in Atlanta this past week (7/15-7/19) and drew just under 1500 folks from around the country.

This conference was divided into several tracks, and we attendees could choose among them, and/or “cross-track” into any sessions from any area that was of interest to us. The track choices included No-Kill Components (I’m paraphrasing the titles here): Rallying the Community (Advocacy), Increasing Adoptions, Resolving Behavior Issues (animals, not people…), Animal Wellness, Fundraising, Marketing, and Leadership. Of course like most conferences, there were exhibits, mixing/networking sessions, ad hoc get-togethers, etc. Technology was running rampant at the conference, like it is most everywhere. One of the most useful tools we had at our disposal was a conference app that was very powerful, including an individual’s session planning, an easy way to keep personal notes which were also shareable if one chose to do so, session evaluation opportunities, messaging to conferees from the organizers and amongst ourselves, maps, and even a listing of nearby “veg-friendly” restaurants. Oh, and perhaps the best piece of all of that was the opportunity to download all of the powerpoints and handouts from any session, whether I attended or not, for my own reference. That part really eased my concern about not being able to get to two or more contemporaneous sessions without possessing the talent of being in two or more places at once. With this app tool, all I had to carry around with me was my smartphone. Very cool.

The conference was well-organized and moved smoothly, at least from my perspective. I heard a few mutterings a couple of times from some others who wished that some of the meeting/breakout rooms were larger, but I’m not entirely sure how conference organizers plan for that, in trying to read 1500 minds and where those minds will want to go every couple of hours. The cadre of volunteers who kept us flowing and timely did a great job, and I had to give kudos, even to the woman who wouldn’t let me in to what was originally a men’s room but had been hijacked for the ladies (since we males were highly outnumbered at the conference). She was nice enough to help me find a “real” men’s room – or perhaps that should be a “real men’s” room – before things became emergent.

Although the conference appeared to kick off with the Thursday afternoon sessions, there was a “pre-conference” talk available in the morning. It seemed at first odd to me that the organizers chose to begin with a session that focused on burnout (“Hearts Larger Than Hands: Creating Balance in Your Life to Save More Animals”) but as it progressed, the light went on for me – it was almost like the Catholic requirement of making confession before taking communion (if you’ll pardon the religious reference) – and I found the session to be cleansing and a great preparation for what was to follow later that afternoon and through the weekend. Clearly, if we don’t take care of ourselves in this bloody battle to stop shelter killing, we will drain ourselves of the juices necessary to save as many animals as possible. It makes sense that we are often in a cyclone of “must-do’s,” but it makes even more sense that giving ourselves a break will, in the long run, lengthen our own worklife and by extension, the number of animal lives that we can save over that longer and more efficient period of time. As a quick shout out to the excellent presentation by the session leaders, I want to mention their latest book, “The Power of Joy in Giving to Animals.” I’m looking forward to reading it.

Thursday afternoon’s sessions allowed us to dive right in to the subjects at hand, and I chose to attend the sessions titled “Advocacy 101: Successful Lobbying for Community Cats,” followed by “Working the System: Understanding Good Policies and How to Get Them in Your Community.” My thirst for Advocacy was getting a good slaking right off the bat. I also have to tip my hat to the presenters. All of the sessions that I attended were well-prepared and the presenters knew their subjects while managing their audiences as well as they handled their material. I did not attend the after-hours social and networking events that were offered, as I needed an occasional recharge to absorb as much of the session information as possible, and as I said, I’m not exactly the type that bounces around the ballroom anyway.

Friday began with an all-conference and enthusiastic welcome session which might have been a bit too rah-rah (from my curmudgeonly perspective), but did include interesting commentaries from several Best Friends bigwigs and ended with an engaging talk by a woman named Asha Curran, director of the Center for Innovation and Social Impact for the 92Y institution in New York. We heard about the importance of innovation and keeping up with current trends – even keeping ahead of them. The late morning session allowed us to choose one of eight highlighted No Kill communities and learn about how they achieved their success, along with some of the lessons they learned along the way. Boy, it was hard to choose – and if I had any complaint at all about the conference, it would be that I would have loved to hear several of these presentations, rather than have them presented all at the same time. After lunch there were two more sessions with several options; I selected “The Data Dance: Your No Kill Best Friend” and “Rallying the Troops: How to Engage Your Community to Save More Lives.”

Saturday morning’s first event was basically a send-off and salute to Rich Avenzino, the retiring president of Maddie’s Fund, who will step down this summer. It was an informative and touching tribute to someone who clearly was behind the No Kill movement’s birth and development. The second morning session’s choice for me was “Engaged: Effective Community Messaging,” and after lunch I hit “Special Delivery: Transporting Pets to New Homes” (I’m an avid transporter; there’s nothing like having a pair of puppy eyes – or 20 pairs of them – staring at you while making a beeline down the freeway… oh yes, along with the smell of lots of poop). I confess that I missed the big “Save Them All Celebration” in the late afternoon, in favor of a little of that recharging I mentioned earlier.

Sunday was a half-day affair, as the conference was officially ending before lunchtime, although it was followed in the afternoon by a separate Animal Law Symposium. As an advocate I was sorry to miss the symposium, but my airline seat was beckoning me to get home to my own fur family. I did squeeze two final sessions in on Sunday morning though: “It’s a Win-Win: Friends of Animals Programs” and “Committed Partner Outreach: The Power of Best Friends Network Partners.” As I exited that final session, of course sorry to leave the fountain of information and inspiration, the mood around the conference center was definitely more quiet and unwinding, but understandably so, and it actually gave those of us who were there until lunchtime a little bit of reflection and perhaps the beginning of a gentle letdown for our journey back to the reality of home.

Now, the challenge is to take all of this terrific stuff and figure out how to use it locally. My shelter and my community would use it very differently than one somewhere else. But that, I think, is part of the beauty of all of this – the 1500 of us who descended on Atlanta leave that one single place, on 1500 different roads home, that will all hopefully bring us to one single destination: a No Kill nation. As Best Friends would say, we truly can “Save Them All.”

Along with all of this “serious” stuff, I noticed that No Kill conferences must be THE most fertile ground for the collection of fascinating T-shirts. The number of organizations represented at these conferences, combined with the innovation, creativity, and convictions/missions that they bring with them, have produced some great mottos, missions, and T-shirts!

Next years’ Best Friends Annual Conference will be held in Salt Lake City, July 14-17, 2016. If you are a No Kill enthusiast, or even questioning the meaning of it, and you enjoy the camaraderie of hundreds of other committed warriors, I highly recommend these endeavors. There’s nothing like a fully charged battery when it comes to this work that so often drains us of so much. Do it for yourself and for your community’s animals.