No Kill advocates rarely address financial issues in animal control and sheltering. That’s natural enough, because we believe that the primary reason shelters should want to save animals is that it is the right thing to do. When we do address finances we tend to look at it by comparing the revenue of kill versus No Kill shelters. Again, natural enough, because that is the most direct way of looking at how much No Kill costs.
But there is another way of looking at animal shelter finances, and that is to ask what incentives are created by the method of funding. Although outcomes can have a big effect on the funding of private animal shelter organizations, outcomes may be having little or no effect on the funding of their municipal counterparts. And that is the problem we have to attack when dealing with municipal shelters.
Municipal animal shelters and dog pounds started out back in the 1800s with payment for the employees based on the number of animals they impounded. This payment system has persisted up to today in many places, with cities funding animal control and sheltering entirely or in part based on the number of animals impounded. Outcome for the animals impounded is not a consideration in funding in these cities. Since space in shelters is limited, this funding method creates a very powerful and direct motive for shelter directors to have as much turnover in the shelter population as possible.
That means getting animals out the door as quickly as possible. Killing is the fastest way to get an animal out the door, since an animal can be killed as soon as the hold time is up, and another animal put in its place. If funding is entirely based on intake, then the shelter director does not care if the shelter loses money on the disposition. The holy grail for a shelter funded on intake is to keep length of stay as short as possible, regardless of how that is done.
We as advocates have been stressing the fact that it can be cheaper to adopt out an animal than to pay the cost of killing it and disposing of the body, and that the cheapest thing of all is to keep animals from coming in the door in the first place. Those arguments are not going to impress a shelter director who is paid based on intake numbers, though. That shelter director is not going to care whether he or she makes money on each animal “transaction.” The only thing that matters is intake, because the cost effectiveness of disposition does not affect the money they receive from the municipality.
When a shelter is funded based on intake, the director has a very powerful incentive to oppose any measure that would reduce intake. Help desk? No way. Diverting cats to a community cat program? Not going to do it unless they can be impounded first. Returning animals in the field? Forget it. Spay and neuter? Shelter directors will give lip service to spay and neuter, but how enthusiastic will they be about it when a successful spay and neuter program will reduce their funding?
Funding a shelter based solely on intake is also a motive to label as many animals as possible “unadoptable” due to bad temperament. If an animal has a bad temperament it will be killed as soon as the hold time is up. Then the shelter can take in another animal and make more money. When I first started looking at shelter statistics, I thought the ridiculously high number of “behavior” killings in traditional shelters was just a way to disguise killing for time or space. It is that, but it is also a way to institutionalize a short length of stay.
All the incentives connected with funding shelters based on intake are wrong. We advocates wonder sometimes why traditional shelters are so reluctant to change. Maybe we should be looking at the incentives that are in place due to the way the shelter is funded. Private, non-profit shelters, even those with contracts to run municipal shelters, are not as subject to these bad incentives because they do not need to rely solely on the municipality for their income. They have an incentive to save as many animals as possible because their ability to fundraise depends in large part on how well they do at saving animals. This is one reason why so many No Kill communities today have their animal sheltering done by a non-profit.
So, how to fix this? I think we need to consider whether the way we as advocates have approached the issue of finances is the best approach. We have tried to argue that No Kill is cheaper, but we have done so on the basis of what amounts to anecdotes and best-case scenarios. City officials are not going to be swayed by slick brochures prepared by advocates. Before they will believe that No Kill is cheaper than catch-and-kill they would need to see professionally audited comparisons prepared by neutral auditors, and I’m not aware that any such audits have been done. There are so many moving parts to No Kill transitions, and cities are so different, that I’m not sure such audits even could be done in a meaningful way.
Personally, I think we should be arguing based not on whether live releases are cheaper, but on what the tax payers want. The evidence I’ve seen, based on the success of ballot measures to support better animal sheltering with tax dollars, is that people overwhelmingly want their local shelters to save animals and they are willing to pay for it. Another sound argument is that there are intangible benefits to No Kill that are not captured by a dollar-and-cents analysis. This argument is supported by the fact that the best cities in the country are overwhelmingly either already No Kill or working on getting there.
Local advocates who are trying to reform shelters might want to make record requests to educate themselves on exactly how the local shelter is funded, and do surveys on what local people would be willing to spend in tax dollars on life-saving sheltering, before approaching city officials. Instead of berating traditional shelter officials for being evil people, we should look at the incentives they are working with, and try to change those incentives when they are bad.
One final note – a very quick way to change the incentives is for local advocates to start their own non-profit to take over the municipal sheltering contract or pull large numbers of animals from the shelter. A non-profit animal shelter that is supported in part or entirely by public donations makes money by saving animals’ lives and does not have to deal with the perverse financial incentives that afflict city shelters. This approach can work even in a city where tax payers are not willing to pay for a better municipal shelter, where current shelter management is so bad that it’s abusive, or where city officials turn a deaf ear.