This is the fourth in my “Meet the Director” series of blogs about successful No Kill shelter directors, and I’m beginning to see a pattern. All four of the people I’ve featured so far had professional careers in other fields before they got into animal sheltering, and all four gave up those careers because they were eager to be a hands-on part of shelter reform. I’ve often heard the theory that some of the best shelter directors are people who come to sheltering from other fields, and that certainly seems to hold true for our No Kill directors.
Kerry Moyers-Horton’s previous career was as an art director. She got a degree in graphic design and went to work in her home town of Chattanooga. Before she went to college, though, she had become interested in rescue work through meeting a group of people who did adoptions at a local pet store. The group was grass-roots, simply trying to help make things better in their corner of the world, and Kerry worked with them for several years. By 2002 Kerry was the leader of her rescue group, and when Best Friends held its national conference in Atlanta that year Kerry decided to attend.
Kerry’s group had been using an adoption listing service provided by Rebecca Guinn’s LifeLine Animal Project in Atlanta. Kerry got better acquainted with Rebecca at the 2002 conference and also had her first contact with the national No Kill movement. She was impressed with the people she met from all over the country who were working on innovative ideas to save more shelter animals. Kerry had always tried to give her rescue work the same time and attention that she gave her day job, but after the conference she came to the realization that she no longer wanted her life to be divided in two. She wanted to be able to do animal welfare work without distraction. Giving up her job as an art director was not an easy choice, but she felt sure it was the right decision for her.
Kerry admired the work that LifeLine was doing, and asked Rebecca to let her know if a paid position became available. Soon after that Rebecca opened the LifeLine “Dog House,” which was a short-term boarding facility where rescue organizations could hold dogs who were waiting to go into foster care. This was a natural for Kerry, with her years of rescue work, and Rebecca offered her the job of manager. Kerry worked for LifeLine from 2003 to 2008, and the Dog House added a Kitty Motel and then developed into a rehabilitation center. Kerry loved the work and never regretted her career change.
In 2008 a group in Chattanooga started an ambitious No Kill project that included a state-of-the-art shelter building. Kerry wanted to be a part of this new effort, and she moved back to Chattanooga to work on it. The No Kill effort was successful, and Kerry moved on to serve as executive director of a humane organization near Chattanooga. Then in early 2013 she got a call from Rebecca. LifeLine had just won the contracts for animal sheltering in both Fulton and DeKalb counties, serving over 1.5 million people, and Rebecca was calling in the troops for the historic task of making Atlanta a No Kill city. She asked Kerry to come help, and of course Kerry said yes. Kerry initially supervised several programs at the Fulton County shelter, but earlier this year she moved to the director’s position at the DeKalb County shelter.
I visited the DeKalb County shelter a couple of weeks ago and got to meet Kerry and tour the shelter. The shelter was built in the early 1980s and is typical of shelters built at that time. It is next to a railroad track, and was built on a landfill. It has little natural light inside. The administrative offices were built with both heat and air conditioning, but the kennels had no built-in air conditioning system. In the old days during hot weather fans had to be used to provide a little relief to the animals. Today, the kennels have air conditioning through a jerry-rigged system that uses what looks like giant balloons. The dog runs were built with grates instead of flooring, and built in such a way that retrofitting with solid flooring would be prohibitively expensive. The only good thing about the building is that it is fairly large, so it has sufficient space for current needs.
One would think that operating a municipal shelter in a large, rapidly growing southern city that is financed by the county government and housed in a badly outdated building would be quite a challenge, and it is. What surprised me during my visit, though, is how smoothly everything seems to work. A large part of that is because of Kerry’s management style. Like other LifeLine managers she has an open-door policy and stresses that they work as a team. She encourages staff and volunteers to come to her with their ideas and concerns, and relies on them to develop new approaches. The shelter has volunteer coordinators, rescue coordinators, and a trained photographer who helps each pet put its best foot forward on social media. The photographer takes amazing portraits of animals looking for homes:
LifeLine right now is running at about an 85% live release rate at both the Fulton and DeKalb shelters. They are no-kill for cats, and the biggest challenge for them in continuing to raise their live release rate is dogs who are not suitable for a typical adopter. The rescue coordinators work with dozens of rescues to try to get these dogs into a situation where they can be trained and given the time they need. LifeLine is working very hard to achieve a 90% or better save rate, and they hope to be there by 2016.
As with all private organizations that have a contract to run a municipal shelter, LifeLine does not have any guarantee of what will happen in the future. DeKalb County could decide not to put the shelter contract up for bid again when the current contract expires, or it could grant the contract to another organization. Another layer of uncertainty is that DeKalb County is building a new shelter in a nearby location. The design for this project was already in process when LifeLine got the contract, so while Kerry is hopeful that the new building will be an improvement she is not expecting it to be a panacea.
With all the difficulties and problems, and even though No Kill in Atlanta is something of a high-wire act, the feeling I got from Kerry and from everyone associated with LifeLine is that they are quietly confident in their ability to do this. What we have seen with other cities that have achieved No Kill is that the citizens really like it and that over time more and more supporters join the effort. I think the future for No Kill in Atlanta looks very bright, thanks to the efforts of Kerry and the whole LifeLine team.