The BCG Report on Dallas Animal Services – A Watershed Moment for No Kill?

The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) is a prestigious, full-service consulting firm with international reach. The city of Dallas, TX, hired BCG a few months ago to make recommendations for reform of the city shelter, Dallas Animal Services (DAS). BCG just issued the report, and it could be a game-changer for No Kill reform efforts, especially in large cities.

Dallas has had complaints for years from people who live in South Dallas about large numbers of free-roaming dogs. The city’s media took up the cause, pointing out that South Dallas was an impoverished area with a high minority population, and arguing that the residents of South Dallas were being ignored by the city. Complaints of people being harassed and bitten by stray dogs continued to grow. Then, in May of  this year, a woman was attacked by a pack of dogs in South Dallas and bitten more than 100 times. She died of her injuries.

After the woman was killed, many other horror stories were publicized, including one of a woman who was walking her small dog when she was attacked by two free-roaming dogs. She heroically held her small dog up over her head while the two strays bit and scratched her. Finally the owner of the dogs arrived and called them off. The victim had to be driven home because she could not walk. A photograph of her after the attack shows what appears to be an 8- or 10-inch gash on her upper arm and several other scratch or bite marks. Another story was of a grandmother who had to use her cane to keep a dog from attacking her pregnant daughter and 4-year-old granddaughter.

The dogs of South Dallas suffer too. Many are killed by cars. There are so many dead dogs that certain areas of South Dallas have become known as dumping grounds for dead and injured dogs. Most cities got their stray-dog populations under control in the years from 1970 to 2000 by means of spay-neuter and leash-law campaigns. In a few cities, like Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, those efforts never took hold, and some parts of those cities still have large numbers of stray dogs roaming the streets.

It was in this context that Dallas hired BCG to analyze the situation and come up with recommendations to reform DAS. When I heard about this, I felt that BCG would probably develop a strategic plan that was long on enforcement (“catch and kill”) and short on shelter lifesaving. After all, BCG is a mainstream group. The consultants who work for BCG understand very well that the primary duty of local governments is to exercise the police powers that are delegated to them by the states. Local governments, first and foremost, have a duty to keep people safe. And that duty extends only to human beings, not animals. In any contest between the safety of a human and the life of an animal, a local government is required by its delegation of powers to put the safety of the human first.

Even if BCG was favorable to shelter lifesaving and wanted to make lifesaving a priority, I thought it was unlikely that they would talk to the right people about how to do that. Relatively few people today understand how large cities make No Kill transitions. Indeed, there are some prominent No Kill leaders who do not seem to understand that public-private partnerships have been key for almost every large city that has gone No Kill. I was afraid that even if BCG talked to No Kill leaders, they would talk to the wrong ones and come away thinking that No Kill was not ready for prime time.

For all those reasons, I was shocked to see that BCG’s final report, which was just released, puts shelter lifesaving on an equal footing with public safety. The commitment to shelter lifesaving in the report is not just lip service. The report prominently states that the goal is to “increase the number of positive outcomes for Dallas dogs, euthanizing only the sickest animals.” It specifically targets a 90% live release rate. This high-profile report, prepared for a major American city by a prestigious mainstream consulting firm, says unequivocally that the goal of No Kill is just as important as the goal of public safety. That is extraordinary.

What makes the BCG report a watershed event, though, is that it provides Dallas with a detailed roadmap and a step-by-step plan of exactly how to get to No Kill, without busting the budget. The report sets out the usual things that we’ve all heard — increasing adoptions, better online marketing, increasing shelter hours, preventing surrenders by helping owners with pet problems, increasing volunteer hours, etc. Any No Kill advocate could list those things in their sleep. But the report provides details of the research it did to back up those recommendations, the details of exactly how and when and to what extent they should be implemented, and the cost and number of animals expected to be affected by each program.

For example, the report doesn’t just say “start a spay-neuter program.” Instead, the drafters of the report counted the dogs in South Dallas, figured out how many of them would have to be sterilized to keep the population down, and researched how the program could be structured to make it effective. They came up with a recommendation to provide 46,000 low-cost spay-neuter surgeries per year for three years. To increase adoptions, one recommendation is that the city open a second offsite adoption center, either using its existing arrangement with PetSmart Charities or with a similar organization. The report estimates the cost for this added venue and the number of additional adoptions the new venue would produce. The report even goes into detail about the order in which things should be implemented, with the goal of keeping lifesaving high at the same time enforcement is being stepped up.

The BCG report goes beyond the usual No Kill cookbook, though, and includes two things that I thought it would surely miss. One is the critical importance of a large, private-sector partner for the city shelter. We have seen this arrangement work spectacularly well in many cities. The two major cities that, to my knowledge, have the highest sustained live release rates in the nation today — Jacksonville and Austin — both have municipal shelters that work closely with a large non-profit. This arrangement has also been key in San Antonio, which has recently been running at a 90% live release rate. The BCG report recommends that Dallas enlist such a partner for DAS, and spells out the benefits that will provide for the shelter.

The second thing I thought the BCG report would surely overlook is the highly important issue of the authority that the shelter director has within city government. Far from missing this issue, the report zeroed in on it and set out a string of recommended changes. The report proposes that DAS become an independent department within the city government, that DAS should be exempt from the civil service hiring recommendations, and that the city should provide adequate funding (spelled out in detail, with dollar amounts) to meet the goals.

Having DAS as an independent agency is key, because that gives the shelter director more power and flexibility. We’ve all noticed the phenomenon of shelters improving dramatically after being taken over by a private, non-profit No Kill contractor, as happened in Atlanta and in Kansas City, Missouri. With DAS as an independent agency, the DAS director will be on a par with the directors of private organizations in terms of ability to make and execute policy. The changes to hiring will be an important part of that increased power and flexibility. So often the directors of municipal shelters are hamstrung by layers of bureaucracy that can restrict even small things like reducing fees for an adoption special or what can be posted on social media. The BCG report recognizes that problem and proposes radical and effective fixes.

Some people in Dallas think that the director of DAS, Jody Jones, should be fired as part of the reform process. I think that would be a big mistake. Jones has been criticized as weak on animal control, but in most cities the size of Dallas the executive director does not personally manage animal control. The public safety part of the BCG proposal is technically the easiest part, and could be carried out by a person specifically hired for that type of expertise, if a new hire is necessary. Shelter lifesaving is far harder to do well, and in that area Jones has expertise. Moreover, because of the limitations imposed on her by the city’s bureaucratic structure, Jones has not previously had a chance to show what she can do. In a time of great change, her familiarity with the system could be an important point of stability.

Some people within No Kill have already criticized the BCG report because it recommends increased enforcement. I think this reaction is short-sighted and harmful. The report provides a roadmap for how the city can quickly increase lifesaving at the same time it increases enforcement. If implementation is done as BCG recommends, there will be no need for more dogs to die in Dallas. And the long-term problems, including the serious public safety issues and the suffering of dogs on the street, will be solved.

It would be counterproductive for No Kill advocates to ignore the very real threat to public safety caused by the free-roaming dogs in Dallas. I myself have advocated for community dog programs analogous to community cat programs. But that idea is a non-starter in Dallas because of the numerous attacks on people that culminated in a woman being literally torn to pieces by a pack of dogs. Public safety is a serious issue, and if we as No Kill advocates refuse to admit that public safety must be taken into account, then we risk marginalizing ourselves and losing any ability to be taken seriously and influence the debate. The BCG report has handed us a huge gift by making lifesaving equal in importance to public safety. We should welcome the report and work hard to see that it gets implemented.

It is possible that the city of Dallas will implement the public safety part of the recommendations and fail to implement the lifesaving part. But if the No Kill movement offers help and support with the lifesaving recommendations, the chances of Dallas implementing the entire report will be much improved. If the No Kill movement instead stands on the sidelines and throws rocks, that just makes it more likely that the lifesaving proposals will fail to be implemented.

And that would be a tragedy. The BCG report could be a watershed moment for the entire country, not just for Dallas. If Dallas succeeds in putting shelter lifesaving on a par with public safety and turns around a very bad situation for its residents while at the same time increasing shelter lifesaving to 90%, then all the other cities that have not yet succeeded in getting to No Kill will have a roadmap that their leaders have to take seriously. BCG is about as prestigious and as mainstream as you can get. If we as No Kill advocates blow this opportunity, we will blow the best chance we’ve had yet to make No Kill a default aspect of good city government.

Getting the street dogs of Dallas into good homes may not be easy, because Dallas seems to have many dogs who have been living rough for a long time, and some who are apparently feral. A lot of these dogs may require rehabilitation before they can become adoptable. Standing ready to help these dogs would perhaps be the most crucial role that the No Kill movement could play in making the BCG recommendations a success. If every No Kill shelter and organization in the country could take in just a few of these dogs, they could all find safety.

The BCG report concludes by stating that Dallas has the opportunity to both improve the quality of life for Dallas residents and “to rescue animals and treat them with dignity and care.” We should make sure that opportunity is not lost.

No Kill Mentoring

Have you noticed that No Kill communities tend to occur in clusters? Take Austin, which achieved a 90%+ live release rate in 2011. Williamson County just to the north achieved No Kill around that same time, and in the years since then we’ve had the nearby towns of Georgetown, Pflugerville, and Taylor all going No Kill. And San Antonio, a big city about an hour away from Austin, has gone No Kill along with its nearby town of Kirby.

Then there’s Jacksonville, which has helped other towns and counties in the First Coast region. Charlottesville, Virginia, has seen an explosion of No Kill neighbors, including Lynchburg just to the south, which in turn has been helping its neighbors. The shelter serving Duluth, Minnesota, made Superior, Wisconsin, a No Kill city. On the west coast, San Francisco has helped Stockton to dramatically improve its live release rate. The Nevada Humane Society in Washoe County has made nearby Carson City into a No Kill community. Brother Wolf in Asheville is reaching out to other communities. And in what may be the most dramatic example of all, South Carolina shelters are embarking on an ambitious plan to make the entire state No Kill by setting up five hubs that will offer No Kill help throughout the state.

The assistance that No Kill communities offer their neighbors takes many different forms. Dr. Ellen Jefferson helped San Antonio with the creation of San Antonio Pets Alive!, which was modeled on Austin Pets Alive! The San Francisco SPCA pulls at-risk animals from the Stockton shelter and finds homes for them. Jacksonville includes its neighbors in its gigantic mega-adoption events. Personnel from Charlottesville and Jacksonville have become successful shelter directors in Lynchburg and Tampa, respectively.

Other factors may be at work too in spreading No Kill. When a city goes No Kill, government officials in nearby communities will take notice. It’s much easier to commit to an idea that has already been proven successful by your neighbor than it is to be the first one to try it. It’s natural to trust a neighbor more than someone from hundreds of miles away. If a nearby neighbor has gone No Kill, it tends to take away the excuses that climate, terrain, or community demographics make No Kill too difficult or impractical. Defeatism is replaced with the idea that “if they can do it, we can do it too.” And in purely practical terms, boots-on-the-ground help is much easier from one neighbor to another since travel is not a problem.

Mentors can help with one major problem that shelter directors face in trying to go No Kill, and that is taking the plunge. Animal shelters are fast-paced, working organizations. They are like a police department or a hospital in that they have to function every day. A director cannot just shut the shelter down for a couple of weeks to retool. A traditional shelter director may be afraid to institute managed admission for fear of creating chaos, or reluctant to try a community cat program for fear it will take too much time or money, or cause complaints. An experienced No Kill director from a neighboring city who is there with step-by-step guidance and encouragement can make all the difference in getting those programs underway.

Most traditional shelter directors these days seem to be interested in shelter reform, but they may be reluctant to take advice from No Kill advocates who do not work or volunteer at the shelter and have little hands-on shelter experience. Shelter directors may resist engaging with local No Kill advocates because they have heard of cases where shelter directors have been unfairly attacked by advocates. If a traditional shelter director gets to know a neighboring No Kill director as a person, they can build trust that can lead the traditional shelter director to a more sympathetic consideration of new ideas.

Even shelter directors who do not have any nearby No Kill neighbors can get help, but they may have to take the initiative in finding it. National conferences provide a great way to network. There are more and more shelter consultants, and they are becoming more specialized and effective. Consultants may work in teams that can include a building specialist, a behaviorist, a community cat expert, etc. Most consulting organizations have access to a wide variety of specialists who can be called on as needed.

Animal shelter federations may be an under-used opportunity for No Kill mentoring. These federations are usually at the state level. Although historically the federations have been conservative, things are changing. Virginia is an example of a state federation that actively offers help to its members. Since animal control is in most respects a state function, with delegation to the local level, the state federation is a natural place to look for regional mentoring.

There are no doubt many more stories of No Kill shelters helping their neighbors than we know about. It’s an exciting trend that holds great hope for the future.

Purist or Pragmatist?

There are two types of No Kill activists. Those of you who have been around for a while know exactly what I mean. For people who don’t, here’s a summary:

Purist No Kill Advocate:

  • Believes that shelters should find live dispositions for all savable animals.
  • Sees No Kill in moral terms and makes statements like “I have no problem holding my local shelter to high standards because animals continue to die.”
  • Does not work or volunteer inside a kill shelter, believing that would be too painful or would help enable killing; instead, works or volunteers for a No Kill shelter or rescue, or carries out activism on social media or by writing or lobbying.
  • Believes that all shelter directors could stop killing quickly if they chose to, and when they don’t it’s because of laziness or ineptitude or because they like killing.
  • Believes that governments have a duty to save the lives of shelter animals and that political pressure must be used to force governments to hire No Kill shelter management and to enact laws forbidding shelter killing.
  • Uses the term “No Kill” a lot.
  • Believes that every animal, or almost every animal, can be saved.

Pragmatist No Kill Advocate:

  • Believes that shelters should find live dispositions for all savable animals.
  • Sees No Kill in utilitarian terms and makes statements like “we should all work together toward the No Kill goal.”
  • Works in and with kill shelters to help them reform, including volunteering in a traditional shelter, forming a non-profit to work closely with the shelter, or winning a contract to run the shelter.
  • Believes that getting to No Kill is a complicated and sometimes lengthy endeavor that requires marshaling resources and building cooperative networks and infrastructure.
  • Does not spend much time trying to lobby local government or pass laws, is willing to assume responsibility for creating no kill without waiting for government to do it.
  • May use the term “No Kill” rarely or not at all because it alienates the traditional shelter officials the pragmatist is working with.
  • Thinks that the proportion of animals who can be saved depends on the available resources and the mix of intake that a particular shelter gets.

As you can see, the first bullet point in each description is the same. Both purists and pragmatists believe that shelters should find live dispositions for all savable animals. This is very important, because it shows that both groups are starting from the same place with the same goal. Where they differ is in how to get there. In general, pragmatists are willing to engage with the traditional shelter system directly and take personal responsibility for change. Purists believe that the traditional shelter system must be smashed and rebuilt and that it is the job of government to do the rebuilding.

There are far more purists than pragmatists. This is not surprising, since being a pragmatic advocate requires a lot of work inside traditional shelters and a lot of literal blood, sweat, and tears. In spite of the much larger number of purist advocates, what I see in city after city where a successful transition to No Kill has taken place is that pragmatists have been central to the change. It is rare for No Kill change to happen without considerable boots-on-the-ground intervention by pragmatists. That makes sense because at some point the actual work has to be done, and who is better able to do the work of No Kill change than No Kill advocates.

Although pragmatists are essential for No Kill change, purists also have an important role to play. Every movement benefits by having a lot of debate and a lot of discussion of ideas. The purists provide this, and it may serve a function in keeping the pragmatists from getting too pragmatic. Another reason that purists may be essential to No Kill is that the moral clarity and black-and-white presentation of issues by the purists is good for drawing people in, and some of those people, as they get more involved in No Kill and come to understand the complexities, will become effective pragmatists.

No Kill as a movement has a serious problem in the relationship between purists and pragmatists. Some purists regard the pragmatists as kill enablers, because the pragmatists are willing to work with people whom the purists see as the enemy. In some cases purists have deliberately tried to silence or discredit pragmatists by trying to shut them out of the debate or bullying them. And some purists have undercut the work of the pragmatists by demonizing and threatening the traditional shelter officials that the pragmatists are trying to work with. This is why many pragmatists have stopped identifying themselves as No Kill advocates. Few people within the purist faction have spoken up to condemn the behavior of the bullies.

The pragmatists, for their part, have not done a good job of communicating with the purists. The purist group contains many new advocates who do not have a deep understanding of how shelters work or the complexity of reforming shelters. Pragmatists often see the purists as a distraction rather than as people they need to engage and educate. And pragmatists, who tend to be cooperative by nature and do not want to criticize others in the movement, have failed to push back against those purists who are bullies.

One way in which the pragmatists have failed to communicate with the purists is by failing to make the case for private action in shelter reform rather than government action. Many purists have mistaken beliefs such as that shelter animals have a right to life, or that government has an inherent obligation to provide live outcomes for shelter animals. Purists may overestimate the number of voters who are willing to make their electoral choices solely on the issue of change at the shelter. These mistaken beliefs encourage purists to spend their time hectoring public officials instead of creating change themselves. Demonstrating by case histories and statistics that No Kill change in most cities has occurred with the participation of the private sector would go a long way toward helping purist activists understand the advantages of pragmatism.

The traditional shelter industry is starting to build its own internal momentum for lifesaving change, and that will go on regardless of what No Kill advocates do. But the process of shelter reform will go a lot faster and a lot smoother if the No Kill movement can begin to coalesce around approaches that have the best track records.

Cory Booker, U.S. senator from New Jersey, is an animal advocate who has done as much for animals as any legislator in the country. In his speech last night to the Democratic convention, he said words that could apply to the No Kill movement – when we work as a team “we will rise.” Let’s get out of our silos, have respect for each other, make the effort to understand each other, and rise together.

No Kill: Programs and Models

We hear a lot about No Kill programs, and very little about No Kill models. That’s too bad, because the programs are only one aspect of getting to No Kill. What are the programs, and what are the models?

A No Kill program is any particular initiative or technique that a shelter uses to increase lifesaving. Many of the most important No Kill programs were developed by Richard Avanzino in the years from 1976 (when he was hired as president of the San Francisco SPCA) to 1989. The San Francisco SPCA during those years had a contract to do animal control and sheltering for the city. The programs Avanzino developed included a foster network,  integrating volunteers into most shelter operations, offsite adoptions, pet retention, behavior training, creative marketing, engaging the public, etc.

Avanzino did not develop all of the programs that we think of today as part of No Kill operations. Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) for feral cats was developed back in the 1950s in England and the 1970s in the United States, independent of the shelters. The concept of open adoptions was pioneered by people in the traditional shelter industry in the 1990s. The low-cost spay-neuter movement started in the early 1970s. And in just the last three years we’ve had a revolution in cat sheltering with the new community cat paradigms. Many of the programs are common sense, and people in the 1980s and 1990s like Bob Rohde in Denver and Bert Troughton in New Hampshire independently developed foster, volunteer, and other programs for their progressive shelters. But even though Avanzino did not develop all of the programs himself, and even though others worked on similar initiatives, Avanzino was the one who first advocated at the national level for shelters everywhere to put a comprehensive group of lifesaving programs into practice.

So that is a short history of No Kill programs. What about No Kill models? Avanzino realized early on when he started work at the San Francisco SPCA that full implementation of lifesaving programs was being hampered by the SPCA’s contract with the city. The SPCA was responsible under the contract for both animal control and sheltering, but the amount of money the city paid was not enough to do the job correctly. Every year the SPCA had to make up the difference out of funds donated by the private sector. Finally, in 1989, the SPCA ended its contract with the city over the funding issue. In the years from 1989 to 1994 Avanzino built a new model for No Kill – a public-private model that charged the city with carrying out its responsibilities of animal control and the private sector with serving as back-up for shelter lifesaving.

The model that emerged in San Francisco consisted of two agencies, the San Francisco SPCA and a new city shelter. The new city-run shelter was responsible for animal control and return-to-owner, and also did many adoptions. The San Francisco SPCA pulled at-risk animals from the city shelter, did medical care and behavior training as needed, and adopted them out. This arrangement was formalized in 1994 in the famous Adoption Pact, in which the SPCA guaranteed to take any healthy animal that the city shelter could not place through its adoption program. The SPCA also worked toward taking all treatable animals, although it did not reach that goal in the 1990s. The public-private model freed the SPCA to spend more resources on spay-neuter, TNR, and other lifesaving initiatives while the city concentrated on the core functions of animal control and basic sheltering.

The model worked extremely well, and by the time Avanzino left the San Francisco SPCA at the end of 1998 to head Maddie’s Fund, San Francisco as a community was saving roughly 70% of its shelter animals. That is not a great percentage by today’s standards, but it was extraordinary in 1998. The average live release rate for the nation as a whole in the year 2000 was on the order of 25-35%. Shelter medicine, which is so critical to high rates of lifesaving, barely existed in the 1990s. In fact, the first class in shelter medicine was not held until 1999. Under the conditions of the time, the San Francisco SPCA’s live release rate in 1998 was a stunning success.

Not every community requires a complicated model to succeed. No Kill programs by themselves, put in place at a city or county shelter, have worked in some communities, particularly small communities with adequate resources. But on the whole shelters seem to be able to get to No Kill faster and to sustain higher rates of lifesaving if they are part of a public-private network of some type. Lots of cities have successfully used the San Francisco model, and we can think of that as the classic approach – the city shelter that works with a large private organization that is dedicated, first and foremost, to pulling at-risk animals from the shelter. This classic model, combined with a third large agency that deals primarily with feral and community cats, has produced extremely high live release rates in Jacksonville and Austin and, importantly, has proven to be sustainable.

The classic San Francisco model is not the only one that works. There are other approaches, such as coalitions across jurisdictional lines (the Portland and Denver metro areas are examples), and New York City’s model of a rescue consortium that works with the city shelter through a non-profit umbrella agency. We also have examples (Atlanta, Kansas City MO) of cities where private organizations have bid on the contract to run the city shelter and are making it work with little or no help from other large, non-profit animal organizations. It is my impression that when larger cities use a contract model where the contractor has little outside help they struggle more than cities that are using the San Francisco or coalition models. Smaller cities, however, can do extremely well with the model of a local non-profit doing animal sheltering by contract with just rescue support – Charlottesville and Lynchburg, both in Virginia, come to mind.

One thing that seems to be common to the most successful public-private models in large cities is that the public shelter, instead of trying to work with 50 or 100 or 200 individual rescues, is working primarily with one or a small number of partners. In Austin, it’s Austin Pets Alive. In Jacksonville, it’s the Jacksonville Humane Society and First Coast No More Homeless Pets. City shelters have limited time to devote to networking, and it greatly helps their efficiency and their willingness to work with the private sector when they have one or two large, well-organized non-profits to deal with rather than a myriad of individual groups.

The bottom line from all this is that experience shows that for a large jurisdiction to succeed at getting to No Kill and sustaining it we need to think about both programs and models. A large city is not likely to achieve No Kill simply from implementing programs. The idea that all you have to do to get to No Kill is to hire a good director for the city shelter and implement a few programs is greatly oversimplified. The frequent failure of this approach when it has been tried without any consideration for the model being used has resulted in a lot of confusion, discouragement, and angst on the part of advocates when their “proven” programs fail to produce the desired result. The answer to this problem would appear to be that advocates should, from the beginning, think about how they are going to supply the public side of the partnership. If no suitable private organization exists, will they need to build one in order to succeed?

When I have proposed this idea to advocates in the past I’ve gotten a lot of pushback. It’s much more complicated for advocates to think about forming a non-profit and building it into a large organization than it is to just complain to city leaders about the shelter. Complaining can be done from the comfort of home, while building an organization takes a lot of work and requires shouldering some risk of failure. The great majority of No Kill leaders today realize that the public-private model is a key to success, as you can see from simply looking at where the large national organizations are putting their money and on-the-ground support. But are they articulating this realization in a way that is getting to advocates? Are they making an effective counterargument to the people who maintain that all you need is a new director and a few programs for No Kill to happen overnight anywhere?

For advocates who are not willing to do the work of building large non-profits from scratch, there is another possible route to take in some cities. Many cities have large humane societies or SPCAs that have been around for decades – in some cases since the 1800s. These organizations are often not doing much to help the city shelter. Instead of pressuring the city shelter to reform (which, without the necessary resources, can be like telling a person to pull themselves up by their bootstraps) advocates could work with the legacy humane societies to encourage them to start pulling at-risk animals from the city shelter. Too often I see advocates who are all over the city shelter but are ignoring the large legacy humane organization that might be just a couple of blocks away.

The need for more attention to No Kill models is why I was glad to see Brent Toellner’s recent blog post (link is here) that provides a thoughtful look at various models. Toellner makes the very important point that the public-private model is not an end in itself. Instead, it is a way to make sure that the shelter has the resources it needs to do its job. In San Francisco, the resources available for shelter lifesaving essentially doubled when the city set up its own shelter operation and the San Francisco SPCA took the role of backup. Getting to a 90%+ live release rate requires having the resources for medical treatment and behavior rehabilitation. Resources can also allow a city to have a modern shelter in a good location rather than an animal warehouse next to the city dump. And resources can greatly help with recruiting talented people.

There are many things to think of in making an effort to get a city to No Kill. This blog post, long as it is, covers only a fraction of the relevant considerations. A great place for advocates to start is talking to people who have made No Kill happen in a city of relatively the same size, with similar conditions. Mentoring may be as important as programs and models, but that will have to be the subject of another post.

Clear The Shelters

The Clear the Shelters adoption event is coming up on July 23, 2016. Last year, in its first year as a nationwide event, almost 20,000 animals were adopted out. Adoption fees were waived. This event has the potential to develop into a major step forward for No Kill.
Clear the Shelters is a project of NBC and Telemundo television stations. It appears to have a somewhat loose organizational structure at this time, with local television affiliates offering publicity for shelters that sign up. Last year roughly 400 shelters participated. Support for the event appears to be coming from a variety of organizations depending on the location.
The beauty of this arrangement is that it is enlisting traditional shelters as well as No Kill shelters. This makes sense since the event offers free publicity, and most traditional shelters are accustomed to looking to local media for publicity. The event can be a way for shelters that have been reluctant to participate in discounted adoption events to take the plunge.
Another huge benefit of this event is that volunteers are being drafted to be adoption counselors for a day. This gives volunteers at these shelters something to do beyond walking dogs and socializing cats, and gets them involved in shelter marketing. When volunteers see the effects of adoption specials, they will be motivated to try new methods of marketing.
And not to be ignored is the importance of the timing. July is one of the highest intake months for shelters, if not the highest, due to kitten season and an increase in stray intake. The Clear the Shelters event can be carried on for more than one day in cities that are having particularly high summer intake. Dallas Animal Services, for example, is carrying on the event for the entire month of July.
The event started in 2014 in northern Texas as the brainchild of Corey Price, director of the City of Irving animal shelter. Irving is a city of about 230,000 people and is part of the Dallas metro area. That first year, in 2014, the event was known as “Empty the Shelters,” and 33 shelters in northern Texas participated.
A map of participating shelters for 2016 shows that so far participation has been primarily in northern Texas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, northern Georgia, North and South Carolina, central Ohio, Chicago, Minneapolis, Buffalo, Miami, and the northeast corridor. But there is no reason that the event could not spread to virtually any community with a local television station, which is virtually all communities.
Kudos to Corey Price for her great idea of using local television stations to serve as a focal point for recruiting shelters and promoting the event. This event, with its synergy between shelters and local media, could eventually rival Home 4 the Holidays in the number of lives saved.

What Happened in Moore County

Moore County, North Carolina, is located about an hour southwest of Raleigh and is known for its golf courses. Two years ago Moore County did a nationwide search for a new shelter director after problems surfaced with the old management. They hired Brenda Sears, who had a good track record as a shelter official in Asheville. (For those of you who are not familiar with the Asheville shelter, it is a tremendous No Kill success story in North Carolina.) In the two years since Sears was hired she has made progress at the Moore County shelter. According to North Carolina state statistics the save rate for cats went from 19% in 2013 to 44% in 2015 and the save rate for dogs went from 44% to 77%. Those save rates are still bad, but if the rapid upward trend continues Moore County will be at or close to No Kill within a couple of years.

At a meeting last Tuesday the chairman of the board of commissioners for Moore County brought up the subject of personal attacks they and Sears have been experiencing from animal advocates who feel that progress is not being made fast enough. A recent news report described an onslaught of insults and even threats that county employees have been receiving from animal advocates. County officials are frustrated that the substantial progress they have made has not made any difference in the criticism, except possibly to make it worse. The county chairman expressed his frustration in very plain language:  “ISIS doesn’t talk about Americans the way some of these people talk about our animal control director,” he said.

This is unfortunately not an unusual situation. A new director comes in and starts making progress, but criticism by advocates continues because they think change is not fast enough. The critics not infrequently wish bodily harm on the shelter director or shelter workers. In general this appears to be social media venting, but it is understandable that officials find it upsetting.

What happened next, though, was unusual. The Moore County chairman asked the county manager to explore getting out of the animal sheltering business entirely. It wasn’t because they were unhappy with Sears’ work – they believe she has been doing a fine job. It was because of the criticism. As the chairman said: “If we can’t solve the problem, let’s give the problem to them. Make sure we find a place for the employees, who do a good job, other employment, and get out of the animal sheltering business and let the private sector handle it.”

The county would save $800,000 per year by doing only the things that are required by state law, which (as described to the council by an expert) are rabies control and management of dangerous dogs. As for everything else, which would presumably include accepting owner surrenders and housing and rehoming unclaimed strays, as well as veterinary care and behavior rehabilitation, the chairman said: “Maybe this is something the private sector needs to do and let them take care of it. Then if they make a mistake, they can talk with themselves.” The commissioners are studying the issue and will decide this fall whether to retrench shelter operations and possibly even shut down the shelter.

Moore County unfortunately appears to have every right to get out of animal sheltering and do only minimal animal control as required by state law. Animal control, defined as protecting people from dangerous or nuisance animals, has been recognized as a core function of state governments since the 1800s. States generally delegate that function to the cities and counties, and that is why communities have animal control officers who have police powers. Once animals are off the street and not threatening or annoying humans, it is not a core function of state or local governments to make sure that those animals find new homes.

Some states have passed laws requiring local governments to maintain some shelter functions. In Virginia, for example, each city or county is required to maintain a shelter for confinement of dogs running at large without tags. States may have other rules, such as requiring humane methods of euthanasia, or requiring veterinary care for sick animals within a certain time frame. State legislatures can strengthen or weaken such requirements as they choose, but there is no state in the country where the law provides that animals have an inherent right to life. Every state has provisions making animal cruelty a crime, and enforcement of animal cruelty laws is often delegated to animal control officers, but anti-cruelty laws do not provide animals with a right to life.

Animals are property under the law. The duties of government run to persons, not property. This is why anti-cruelty laws have often been justified not on the ground of averting harm to animals, but on the ground that people harm themselves when they engage in animal cruelty. It’s easy for a state to justify laws about traffic safety, restaurant sanitation, licensing of doctors, etc., because those laws are all designed to benefit people. It’s difficult for legislators to justify laws requiring preservation of the lives of homeless, unclaimed shelter animals, because there is no obvious benefit to the public in spending tax dollars to maintain the existence of property owned by the state that has negligible monetary value.

Some No Kill proponents compare advocacy for shelter reform to social justice movements such as the historic fights for racial and gender equality. However, such comparisons are false in the eyes of the law. Social justice movements are about achieving equal treatment of various categories of human beings, who are universally recognized in our legal system as having fundamental rights of personhood. Animals, since they are not “persons,” have no fundamental rights. In order to make the analogy to civil rights movements meaningful, we would first have to change our law to recognize a legal personhood for animals.

Perhaps some day in the future our legal system may make a seismic shift and confer fundamental rights on animals equivalent to the legal status of personhood. But don’t hold your breath. If fundamental rights were conferred on animals there would be no more bacon and eggs, no leather shoes, no horseback riding, no zoos, and no more testing of medical therapies on animals. Many No Kill advocates (myself included) are animal-rights supporters and vegans, and we would like nothing better than to see an amendment to the federal constitution conferring the fundamental rights of personhood on animals. But if we took a vote on it right now in the United States probably 99% of people would vote against extending fundamental rights to animals.

The lesson from what has happened in Moore County is that advocacy efforts that focus solely on forcing local governments to change the way they operate public shelters can backfire. And that is because the primary duty of local governments is to protect people from animals, not to find live outcomes for unclaimed shelter animals.

The fact that government’s core duty is animal control and not animal sheltering is the reason why public-private partnerships are so common in animal shelter operations. There is great synergy in having private shelters work with government animal-control operations. In those partnerships the local government operates (or funds) at least the core functions of animal control and return-to-owner. The private organizations do all the lifesaving functions that local government does not do. The very first animal shelter in the United States was founded by a women’s SPCA in Philadelphia in 1870 for the purpose of replacing a cruel city animal control system. The women took over both animal control and sheltering and were reimbursed by the city for the animal control costs. One of their first tasks was to fight and defeat the medical establishment of the city, which wanted the right to take unclaimed dogs for medical experiments.

Today we see variations on the Philadelphia model (minus the fight with vivisectionists) in many of the large cities that have achieved and sustained No Kill. A private organization may contract with a county to do animal sheltering while the county does animal control, as in DeKalb County, Georgia. Or a private organization may do both animal control and sheltering and be reimbursed by the local government for part of the costs, as in Fulton County, Georgia. Another very successful public-private model is for a city-run shelter to do both animal control and sheltering, but to arrange with a large non-profit rescue partner to pull at-risk animals. This is possibly the most common model we see today in large cities that are sustaining very high rates of shelter lifesaving, such as Austin and Jacksonville. It is also the model used in the first major No Kill community, San Francisco. In this model the city agrees to go beyond its core functions and fund part of the lifesaving operation by having its own adoption facility and doing at least some veterinary care and rehabilitation. Public-private partnerships exist in small towns and rural counties as well as big cities, but the partnership is usually more informal and consists of rescues pulling at-risk animals.

Quite often we see people complaining that their local public shelter is increasing its live release rate by increasing the number of animals it transfers to rescues rather than increasing its adoptions. This complaint has been made about New York City, San Antonio, and many other city shelters. The critics argue that the shelter should be doing its own adoptions rather than “dumping” animals on rescues, and that government shelters that rely on rescues for lifesaving are not doing their job. These critics fail to realize the limited scope of a local government’s duties to homeless animals. They also fail to understand that if the private sector assumes some or all of the responsibility of rehoming, that can free the local government to do a better job on its core functions of animal control and return-to-owner.

There are cases where a public shelter is treating the animals in its care with negligence or cruelty. And sometimes local governments arbitrarily refuse offers of help from volunteers and rescues. Those situations usually seem to occur in rural, less progressive, low-income areas where the local government is not functioning very well at anything. Such situations do not appear to be common, but there are thousands of public shelters in the United States. If even one out of fifty of those shelters is abusive or refuses outside help, that adds up to a lot of shelters. A fast way to improve such shelters would be for the private sector to step in and take animals as soon as the hold period is up, and offer veterinary help for animals who need it during the hold period. The problem is that in resource-poor communities the private sector is typically just as impoverished and lacking in skills as the local government. Often what we see in such cases is a few volunteers who have tried to help the shelter but who do not have the resources to offer a true partnership.

No Kill advocates tend to see shelter reform as a difficult struggle, and it is. But No Kill is in a much better position to make progress than other animal-rights endeavors such as the effort to improve conditions for farm animals. We are not in the position of factory-farm opponents who have to fight the power of a gigantic, wealthy, politically connected industry. There is no industry that has a financial stake in shelter animals dying rather than going to good homes. All we have to do to achieve No Kill is to reform shelters, and offers from the private sector to pay for and carry out shelter lifesaving are generally met with little resistance. We are very fortunate that the power to help shelter animals is in our own hands. We may not have the power to force local governments to do the work of shelter lifesaving, but we can do it ourselves and very often local governments will help us.

No Kill: Are We Running As Fast As We Can?

We all want the United States to get to No Kill as fast as possible, but institutions take time to change. Given the inherent lag time that seems to be built into every human endeavor, are we making No Kill change happen as fast as we can? I think there’s a good argument that the answer to that question is “yes.”

No Kill has two aspects, operational and philosophical. The operational aspect of No Kill was primarily developed from 1976 to 1989 by Richard Avanzino at the San Francisco SPCA. The philosophical aspect was developed by Ed Duvin in the late 1980s. The 1990s were a time of further innovation in No Kill, growth of a movement, and tremendous progress in reducing shelter intake through sterilization programs. By the year 2000 all systems were go for No Kill.

Municipal shelters in several small, progressive communities reported live release rates of 90% or more in 2000, including Otsego County in Michigan and several towns in Colorado. The success of these small communities was important for the morale of No Kill advocates, but it was still unknown whether No Kill could work outside of the context of small communities with lots of resources.

There were a number of big cities where No Kill efforts started in the years just before and after the millennium, including Austin and Richmond in 1997, Jacksonville in 2001, and New York City and Atlanta in 2002. The timeline for No Kill success in large cities proved to be very different from the quick success in the progressive small communities. In Austin it took 14 years to get to No Kill, and in Jacksonville it was 12 years. Richmond was No Kill on and off throughout the 2000s, and New York City and Atlanta are very close today but not quite there yet.

Why did it take so much longer to get to No Kill in big cities? Large cities are always a heterogeneous mix, meaning that the shelter population will include more animals who need intensive help. In some wealthy small communities in Colorado, for example, upwards of 90% of stray dogs are reclaimed, whereas that percentage might be more like 30% in a heterogeneous big city. A typical big-city shelter might get 50% of intake needing medical care or rehabilitation, while the wealthy, progressive small town can turn around 80% of its intake immediately.

Today we know that a highly successful model for No Kill in a big city is to have one or more large, private non-profit organizations in the city dedicated to taking at-risk animals from the city shelter. Non-profits can raise money more easily than a municipal shelter for medical and behavioral cases. They are not bound by union and social media rules that can hamper the efficiency of a city shelter. And having a partner can help the city shelter cope with massive influxes of animals in times of natural disaster,

Recognition of the synergy of the public-private partnership has greatly sped up the timeframe for No Kill transitions in big cities. San Antonio, a city in the deep south with high shelter intake and a large stray population, is one example. San Antonio’s city government adopted a plan in 2011 that included the city recruiting and subsidizing high-volume rescue partners. The results have been stunning, and San Antonio has recently been running at nearly a 90% save rate for its shelter animals. No Kill transitions in other cities that do not have the level of challenges that San Antonio faced should happen even faster if the public-private model is embraced from the beginning.

Today, of the twenty largest United States cities, ten have either achieved No Kill or are getting close. Several of the remaining ten have No Kill efforts underway. We are on track to have the great majority of our large cities either at No Kill or with a serious effort underway by 2020. This is excellent progress considering that No Kill did not really become feasible in most communities until around the year 2000. A twenty year period is not bad at all for reform of an institution that was as neglected and backward as the twentieth-century animal shelter. We can always do better, but we are running toward No Kill at a pretty good pace.

Open Adoption

Open Adoption – it’s a topic that’s sure to start a lively discussion among shelter people. But what, exactly, is it? One misconception about Open Adoption is that it is primarily a No Kill program. Although the Open Adoption concept has strong ties to No Kill, the program also has strong ties to the traditional shelter industry.

The North Shore Animal League in New York, in addition to being the first major shelter to use the term “No Kill,” was also the first to re-think traditional adoption criteria. The people at North Shore in the 1970s, including Alex and Babette Lewyt and Mike Arms, were on a mission to push puppy mills out of business. They transported puppies on the kill list of southern shelters to North Shore and then adopted them out, luring people away from pet stores. North Shore pioneered using advertising to promote adoptions, and they were not afraid to adopt out pets on holidays. Mike Arms used to tell his staff that if someone flew in on a broom on Halloween, they could not have a black cat. Otherwise, all systems were go for holiday adoptions. By the 1990s North Shore had also worked out a method of having adoption counselors talk to people to try to find a good fit for each animal, instead of relying on a lengthy and intrusive written application as most shelters did at the time.

The North Shore model was very successful at increasing adoptions, but it was not imitated by other shelters because it was seen as too heavily weighted toward marketing. One of North Shore’s marketing techniques back in the 1970s was to give away a free watch to adopters. That technique was designed to draw people in to the shelter and it did not mean that everyone who walked in would be allowed to adopt. It was nevertheless viewed with horror by the animal sheltering community, who saw it as the equivalent of handing puppies and kittens out on the street corner.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) published guidelines in the 1990s recommending strict adoption criteria. The guidelines recommended that the adoption application ask for two personal references, a veterinarian reference, and information about previous pets, with the goal of learning “as much as possible about the potential adopter’s lifestyle and knowledge of responsible pet ownership.” Shelters were advised to verify an adopter’s identity and check for a criminal record, bar adoption of dogs to homes that lacked a fenced yard unless the adopter could prove that the dog would get adequate exercise, and prohibit adoption of puppies and kittens to homes with children under six years of age. All renters had to provide proof that their landlord would allow pets, and people who were temporary residents in the community were barred from adopting. Adopting a cat to someone who wanted a barn cat or mouser was prohibited. If you wanted to adopt a pet as a gift for someone, you were out of luck – it was prohibited.

The application was just the first hurdle to adoption. HSUS also recommended an interview to “objectively and carefully screen[] potential adopters,” and a home visit with all family members present in cases where there was “any question about the suitability of the new home.” The guidelines recommended that the adoption contract include a requirement that the animal must be returned to the shelter if the adopter ever had to give it up, and a requirement that the animal wear a collar and identification. The contract also included a clause allowing the shelter to inspect the owner’s premises and repossess the animal at any time if the care, handling, or housing of the animal was found to be inadequate.

Why did the traditional shelter industry have such restrictive adoption criteria? Throughout most of the 1900s the United States had a severe pet overpopulation problem. In 1970, for example, it is estimated that shelters had some five times the intake per person that shelters today have. Traditional shelters developed the idea as early as the 1950s that since there were so few homes relative to the number of homeless animals, only the healthiest and best-behaved animals should be put up for adoption. And only the most responsible people should be allowed to adopt. Most shelters could not afford to spay and neuter every animal, and shelter staff feared that if irresponsible people could adopt pets then the endless litters of puppies and kittens would continue.

But conditions began to change. Sterilization techniques were perfected and began to be widely recommended by veterinarians in the 1970s, and in the 1990s effective mass low-cost spay-neuter programs became widespread. Pediatric spay-neuter became available. In the 1970s and again in the 1990s shelter intake plunged as spay-neuter rates soared.

By the late 1990s shelter intake in several areas had declined to levels where the situation no longer seemed hopeless. Richard Avanzino’s success with the Adoption Pact in San Francisco led some people within the traditional shelter industry to start re-thinking adoption criteria. A few studies on various facets of shelter operations were conducted in the 1990s, so that hard data was available for the first time on issues like pet relinquishment.

All these factors led to increased interest in reforming the adoption process. This interest culminated in the American Humane Association (AHA) holding a forum on Open Adoption in 1999. The goal of the forum was to determine if Open Adoption could increase the number of adoptions without increasing the number of relinquishments. The forum’s report noted that in most shelters adoption policies had not changed in 30 years. After making a list of common adoption criteria, several forum participants realized that they themselves would be barred from adopting at many shelters, notwithstanding the fact that they were prominent leaders in the animal welfare profession.

Forum participants wound up questioning most of the common adoption restrictions, finding that there was little consistency in requirements from one shelter to another and little evidence that the criteria increased the likelihood of success of an adoption. In addition to questioning restrictive criteria, they developed ideas for increasing adoptions. One idea was that perhaps a conversation with an adopter could be more effective than a written application or a formal interview. A second AHA forum in 2003 built on the first forum and went beyond looking at adoption criteria to look at programs as a whole.

Today, Open Adoption is one of the increasing number of issues where No Kill and the traditional shelter industry are in agreement. HSUS and the ASPCA are both now promoting Open Adoption. The Open Adoption process is considered key to establishing a trusting relationship between the adopter and the shelter, so that the adopter will be likely to ask the shelter for help if any problems arise. The acceptance of Open Adoption by the leadership of both No Kill and the traditional shelter industry is another hopeful sign that before long the last remnants of the old divisions between the two may be stamped out.

Meet the Directors: Bonney Brown and Diane Blankenburg of Humane Network

Today I have a guest post written in conjunction with Bonney Brown and Diane Blankenburg about their consulting organization, Humane Network. Brown and Blankenburg are well known in the animal shelter world for their work in leading Nevada Humane Society (NHS) for several years in its transition to achieving and sustaining a community-wide live release rate of 94%. NHS had (and still has) a partnership with Washoe County Regional Animal Services (WCRAS) in providing animal control and sheltering for Washoe County, Nevada, which contains the cities of Reno and Sparks.

Their success in Washoe County was an especially important milestone in shelter lifesaving because it was not a progressive or wealthy community. Almost all successes in community-wide lifesaving before Washoe County were in resort or college towns, or progressive places like San Francisco and New Hampshire. Reno was a more typical city, with economic challenges and a very high rate of shelter intake. So when Washoe County achieved a live release rate of over 90% it was proof that high save rates could be achieved anywhere.

Bonney BrownIn 2013 Brown and Blankenburg decided to take the next step in their journey by becoming shelter consultants, and they left NHS to launch Humane Network. In addition to their own expertise, they have a team of experts they can call on. Mitch Schneider, who has a long career in animal services and headed WCRAS while Brown and Blankenburg were leading NHS, is on the Humane Network team. So are Lisa Lane, formerly of the Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA, and Kelley Bollen, a certified animal behavior consultant.Diane Blankenburg

As Brown says, when a community is trying to increase their live release rate “the devil is in the details.” The basic best practices for lifesaving shelter operations were developed back in the 1970s and 1980s, and in the last few years some important new programs have been added. The issue for shelters that want to increase their live release rate is not so much deciding what programs need to be put in place to increase lifesaving – that is pretty well standardized today – but how to implement the programs. There are a myriad of large and small “how to” issues in getting from here to there, and that’s where Humane Network can help.

For example, everyone knows that having a foster program is important for lifesaving. What isn’t so obvious is how to set up a foster program, how to recruit the foster caregivers, how to recruit the right person to run the program, what training the foster parents need, what level of support they should have, and what documentation is needed. What about liability? What about the foster contract? What does a foster do if an animal gets sick in the middle of the night? Who pays for routine expenses like food? What procedures should be in place to protect animals in foster? What will the program cost and how will funds be raised to pay for it? Is it sustainable?

In addition to helping shelters with the myriad details that come up in the implementation of lifesaving programs, Brown and Blankenburg have found that one of the most important keys to success is follow-up. Even when shelter staff are given a detailed road map to institute a best-practice program, follow-up is important to provide moral support, make sure that the roadmap is understood, and answer the additional questions that so often arise.

In some cases shelters have already achieved a high live release rate at the time Humane Network is called in, but they are not doing it in a sustainable way. They are burning themselves out by working long hours, or spending the organization’s endowment, or relying on frequent emergency pleas to the community. In those cases a consultation can help the organization get to a point where it can maintain its success long-term. The Humane Network team can also help organizations with applying for grants, including, in some cases, grants to pay for the consultation process itself.

Helping communities get lifesaving programs up and running is only one part of what has been keeping Humane Network busy for the last three years. Another service they provide is helping organizations recruit the right leadership. Leadership is one of the most critical needs for any animal shelter because so many different talents, including business and people skills, are required. But recruiting executives to run animal welfare organizations can be challenging because the pay is often not competitive with other fields and the level of public scrutiny can be daunting. Brown and Blankenburg help organizations sort through what qualities are critical for success, and then help them find suitable candidates.

People who work in the private sector in business management, marketing, human resources, and related areas generally receive training in various aspects of management and leadership, but that type of training is unusual in the animal shelter industry. Brown points out that animal shelter administrators often promote people on the basis of how well they have done at the operations level rather than looking at whether they possess the necessary management skills. When this lack of experience in management is combined with a lack of training in leadership skills, the new shelter manager does not have the tools to succeed. He or she may not know how to give feedback, resolve conflicts, or delegate, and may not realize that part of delegation is following up to make sure that things get done. The Humane Network team can advise on what gaps in knowledge or experience are fixable with mentoring and should not be disqualifying.

The challenge that shelters and animal welfare organizations face in recruiting and training good leadership is one reason that Brown and Blankenburg started a certificate course in Lifesaving-Centered Animal Shelter Management at the University of the Pacific. They believe that the certificate program can help people from outside the shelter industry get hired, and can help people who have risen through the ranks within the industry to fill gaps in management skills and leadership training. Enrollment in the certificate program has grown to the point that courses will now be offered year-round.

Another issue with reforming a shelter is that it has to be done on the fly. Shelters are not like a manufacturing business that can just shut down for two weeks to retool. Reforming a shelter is more like replacing an escalator while it is in use, or operating on a beating heart. The animals will not stop coming in the door, and part of reform has to be keeping the shelter functioning as changes are being made. This difficulty can sometimes make directors leery about taking the initial leap to start reforms. In cases like this Humane Network can break the logjam by providing a strategy for getting it done. It helps for a consultant to have a track record of actually running a shelter and creating a sustainable lifesaving program, because the consultant has probably experienced many of the same problems faced by the shelter director.

In addition to consulting with community-based shelters and animal welfare organizations, Humane Network has been working with some of the large national organizations on program development. Humane Network has done projects with Maddie’s Fund, Best Friends Animal Society, Petco Foundation, and Alley Cat Allies. With Alley Cat Allies, for example, they have developed a series of “toolkit” guides. One of them is a 90-page workbook on how to set up a foster program for cats and kittens (“Saving Cats and Kittens with a Foster Care Program”). The length of this brochure, 90 pages on 8″ by 11″ paper, illustrates how important it is to show shelters each step in the process rather than just telling them to “start a foster program.” In addition to working with the large national organizations, Humane Network sometimes works with other consultants. For example, they worked with the shelter medicine program at UC Davis on a project they did for the Animal Foundation in Las Vegas.

The demand for their consulting services has been high, and Brown and Blankenburg have been going non-stop since they launched Humane Network. In the future they hope to have time to do more work on the big-picture question of the next steps for our movement. Stay tuned.

Criticism: Constructive and Otherwise

There has been a lot of discussion on this blog’s Facebook page over the last month or two about the role of public criticism of local shelters in getting communities to No Kill. Pretty much everyone agrees that criticism has a role. The difference of opinion is on the issue of when criticism is helpful and when it is counterproductive and hurts No Kill progress.

This is not a simple question because it gets into the whole issue of how to bring about change in local government. The answer to the question is going to be different depending on the circumstances. In a small town, all it may take to reform the shelter is an offer to foster kittens and hold adoption events. In New York City, however, you have a local government that has been doing animal control since 1807 and has a whole bureaucracy built up. Getting a city government like that to change can be a major undertaking and requires a lot of political skill.

Another consideration with the use of criticism is that once you start making attacks on the local shelter director you have burned that bridge forever. If you make attacks in the name of “No Kill” you have just created a shelter director who hates the very sound of “No Kill.” So before launching attacks on the shelter director, local advocates should consider whether a sincere and determined effort to help the shelter improve has been made and has failed.

Making an effort to help the shelter before criticizing it is a no-lose proposition. If the effort succeeds then all is well. If it fails, that failure will turbocharge a reform effort made up of volunteers who have been prevented from helping the animals. When you have 10 or 20 volunteers who have been forced to stand by while animals are needlessly killed, you have the nucleus of a group that will have both knowledge and determination.

Once a decision to publicly criticize a failing and recalcitrant shelter has been made, what type of criticism is helpful? That depends on the audience. Criticism of a shelter based on its statistics and practices may be very effective when directed at a city council or county commissioners, but it must be accompanied by constructive and specific recommendations for change. A shelter director from a nearby No Kill community, or a No Kill consultant, may have more of an effect on community leaders than local advocates could have.

If the audience is the general public, criticisms based on statistics and best practices may convince a few people but most people will not pay attention. And a shelter director can deflect that type of criticism by saying that the critics do not understand the unique circumstances of the shelter, that the shelter’s intake is different from other shelters, etc. Most people will buy those excuses.

No Kill advocates can take a lesson here from the fight against factory farming. Several years ago the Pew Research Center put out a report that was a blistering indictment of the factory farming industry on every front – harm to the environment, harm to public health, cruelty to animals, putting small farmers out of business, and negative health effects on workers. That report was chock full of facts and statistics, but it had nowhere near the effect on the public that the clandestine videos taken by organizations like Mercy for Animals had around that same time. A video of a calf being beaten, or a baby chick being thrown alive into a grinder, has more effect with the public than all the statistics in the world.

It’s the same with the local shelter. Arguing that a 50% live release rate is below the industry standard may not  get you very far with the public. A photograph of a mother dog and her litter of puppies killed by mistake while a rescuer was on the way, or a pet killed because its microchip was not scanned, will get headlines and make a deep impression on the public. You can’t get that kind of documentation, though, unless you are involved with the shelter.

What I’ve said so far applies to a failing shelter that will not change voluntarily. Once a city or county government or shelter director decides to make a sincere effort to get to No Kill, then criticism becomes a whole new ballgame and different considerations apply. When a credible No Kill effort is underway, criticism becomes a balancing act. Every word of public criticism against a shelter while it is trying to get to No Kill will hurt the effort, because it will have a tendency to decrease the number of volunteers, the amount of money donated, and the goodwill of the community. The more effective and on point the criticism is, the more it will hurt the effort. So the advocate has to make a decision whether the criticism will do more harm than good, and has to think about how to phrase the criticism so that the constructive aspect is emphasized and the destructive aspect is minimized.

The advocate in this circumstance must be sure that he or she knows the shelter system thoroughly and is competent to balance the harm the criticism will cause against the benefits. A good example of constructive criticism of an ongoing No Kill effort is this blog by John Sibley on the subject of New York City’s nightly kill list. Sibley has dealt with the NYC shelter system for a long time and is thoroughly familiar with it. The criticism acknowledges all the progress that has been made, and it discusses the reason why the kill list was started and the fact that it has been effective. Then it discusses the downside of the list and argues that today, the harm outweighs the good.

An example of unproductive criticism of an ongoing No Kill effort would be an analysis made by someone who has never been to the shelter in question and never talked to the director, where the analysis was made based only on statistics and current practices and only skims the surface. This type of criticism can hurt the shelter but not help it. Very typical of such criticisms are statements like: “The shelter should be open longer hours,” or “they need to institute a TNR program,” or “they should be having off-site, free adoption events each weekend.”

A shelter director who is making a sincere No Kill effort is likely to be thoroughly familiar with the advantages of longer hours, TNR, and off-site and reduced-cost adoption events. And if by some chance the director doesn’t know about those things, a private communication would be sufficient. But No Kill programs often have barriers that are not obvious to a bystander. An advocate who did some research might find out, for example, that a local ordinance forbids TNR and the city council doesn’t want to overturn the ordinance because they are concerned about bird kills. With that knowledge, the advocate could write something constructive that used facts to help persuade city leaders that TNR is good for cats and birds.

Why do we have such a problem with unhelpful criticism by No Kill advocates, i.e. pointless criticism of shelters that are in the process of transitioning to No Kill or have achieved No Kill? A good deal of it is no doubt because killing animals, even when it is true euthanasia, is a very emotional subject and people tend to write about it reactively rather than strategically. Another reason may be the effect that some No Kill leaders have on their audiences. Most No Kill leaders today are convinced that cooperation works and that divisiveness is counterproductive. There are some leaders, however, who seem to encourage advocates to look at all but a handful of shelter directors as enemies who cannot be trusted. We should not be surprised when the followers of those leaders conclude that shelter personnel are routinely faking statistics and just waiting for chances to kill animals. If we have No Kill leaders who mock cooperation and say that fighting is the only way forward, or who say that a shelter director who is not saving 98% just doesn’t care enough, then we can expect No Kill advocates to conclude that no-holds-barred criticism is a good thing regardless of the context.

The idea that No Kill advocacy always requires confrontation and that cooperation is useless traces back to the mindset of the 1990s. There was a time some 15-20 years ago when many elements of the traditional shelter industry fought against No Kill, and the fights were often bitter. I can understand how No Kill advocates who were active back then find it hard to forget. But that was then and this is now. Today it is not an exaggeration to say that No Kill practices are generally recognized as industry best practices. We still have people in the shelter industry who dislike the term “No Kill,” but that is usually because of the divisiveness associated with No Kill, not because of No Kill’s ideas about the best way to run a shelter.

Criticism based on that old “white hat, black hat” divisiveness is destructive because that world no longer exists. That doesn’t mean we all have to love each other and sing Kumbaya. It does mean we need to focus on what is happening today, not what happened in 1996, or 2006. In fact, No Kill progress has been moving so fast that events of even five years ago are ancient history. People who cannot keep up with this change would do us all a favor by retiring from the movement.