Consultants Redux

There’s an article about Target Zero (TZ) in the most recent issue of Animal Sheltering (the HSUS magazine). The article has a pretty good discussion of how TZ developed its program and how it has been implemented in Waco and Baton Rouge. It got me thinking about the different ways that No Kill programs can be implemented.

First of all, I should state at the outset of this discussion that I disagree with one of TZ’s basic premises, which is that reducing intake is more important than increasing live releases. I think they are both equally important. The article states that TZ has relied on Peter Marsh’s research for the conclusion that reducing intake matters more. I’ve read Peter Marsh’s research, and as far as I can see it relies entirely on data from traditional shelters — shelters that have low live release rates. With shelters like that, it’s true that the only thing that lowers shelter killing is lowering intake, but the reason for that is that those shelters do not have modern, marketing-based adoption programs. So of course their adoption rates aren’t going to be very high. Yet TZ has used Marsh’s research to justify putting adoptions low on its priority scale.

But it’s possible that Marsh’s approach will work well in some cities — cities like Waco and Baton Rouge. The methods for reducing intake (as opposed to increasing live releases) tend to be low tech — things like TNR, having appointments for surrender, charging a surrender fee, targeted spay-neuter programs, returning animals in the field, updating city ordinances, etc. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recruit veterinarians or manage any of those things. Methods for increasing live releases, on the other hand, tend to require creativity and marketing and people skills. Having a successful mega-adoption event is not easy (I know this from personal experience, it’s amazing all the different skills needed). Implementing an effective shelter marketing program takes just as much skill, in my opinion, as directing a political campaign or running a big disaster-relief program. Not a place for amateurs.

One of the sticking points for getting to No Kill in many, many places has been leadership. We see it happen over and over again that a city or county hires a new shelter director, hopeful that the director will take the local shelter to No Kill, but it doesn’t happen. To implement all the programs that will both decrease intake and increase live releases requires a lot of particular skills, and it may be that there just aren’t that many people who are in the market to be shelter directors who have that particular skill set.

So, getting back to TZ, I’m wondering if they have hit upon something, which is that if you are in a city with a high-intake, high-kill shelter and shelter leadership that is willing but does not fall into that small category of people who have the skill set to be No Kill rock stars, perhaps the best thing you can do is to pick the low-hanging fruit. Get intake down by the easy methods that anyone could do, start the city and the shelter on the road to success. As they get the intake under control they will be inspired to start working on the harder stuff such as a neonatal foster program and mega-adoption events. Yes it’s very tempting to say the city should just fire the current director and somehow find a No Kill rock star, but in a lot of cities that’s just not going to happen, and meanwhile time goes by and animals keep dying.

Another important point is that there may still be places in the country where there is a lot to be gained from increasing spay-neuter programs. The average spay-neuter rate for owned pets in the United States is 85% or more, which means there must be a lot of communities where we’ve pretty much maxed out the benefits to be had from low-cost spay neuter. There must be lots of communities where people have gotten the message and they are very responsibly spaying and neutering their pets. But in some places with high intake, there still might be a lot to be gained from spay-neuter. If that’s the case, then it makes sense to push spay-neuter as one of your initial programs, because it’s easy to implement and easy to fund in most instances.

TZ seems to be tailoring its program recommendations to the different situations in the different cities it works with. In Huntsville, for example, it helped the shelter put on a mega-adoption event that was very successful. Rick DuCharme, who is a senior consultant to TZ along with Marsh, has put on many successful mega-adoption events in Jacksonville, so it’s not like TZ doesn’t have the skills on board to advise about adoptions.

Finally, TZ seems to emphasize collaboration. This is a hot-button issue with some No Kill advocates, who believe that collaboration just slows things down. Again, though, perhaps there are are places where collaboration is the fastest way to get to the goal.

I’m still very much on the fence on the issue of whether TZ is on the right track or not. I still disagree with the conclusions Marsh draws from his research. But I believe the TZ approach is something that bears thinking about and discussion. Maybe the TZ program isn’t right for every city — certainly Kansas City Pet Project proved that it’s possible to implement intake reduction and live-release-increasing programs at the same time and do it very successfully. But it might be that one-size-fits-all isn’t a good approach, and that the TZ methods have a place in cities and counties that are starting with very little.

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