The southeast part of the United States used to be a graveyard of No Kill hopes. Communities in the southeast have traditionally lagged behind in funding and supporting their shelters. The warm climate with lots of rain and vegetation provides an ideal habitat for feral cats. Practices such as keeping dogs confined and spaying and neutering pets have been slow to catch on. And cities in the southeast are not generally thought of as the most progressive in the country.
But recently a minor miracle has occurred. Now we have Atlanta, Tampa, Gainesville, and several other southeastern cities making rapid progress to saving all of their healthy and treatable animals. The southeast appears to be going through the shelter revolution that happened in the northern part of the country 10-15 years ago. Particularly noteworthy is Jacksonville, Florida, which in the past two years has exceeded the 90% live release rate goal.
The Jacksonville Animal Care and Protective Services Division (ACPSD) is a city-run department that handles animal control and sheltering for the city and Duval County. The combined population of the city and county is close to 900,000 people. The metro area has about 1.4 million people and is the fourth largest in Florida after Miami, Tampa-St. Petersburg, and Orlando. ACPSD accepts owner surrenders with no noted restrictions except for a small fee. It does not perform owner-requested euthanasia. People who request euthanasia for an owned pet are referred to a veterinary hospital, which can perform euthanasia if medically necessary.
ACPSD works closely with two large non-profits in the city. The Jacksonville Humane Society (JHS) takes in some strays and owner surrenders and pulls animals, including behavior and medical cases, from ACPSD. First Coast No More Homeless Pets (FCNMHP) is known for its spay-neuter and community cat programs.
There are three aspects of the Jacksonville coalition’s program that stand out as especially effective. First, the coalition makes every effort to keep pets in their homes. The city shelter has a help desk. JHS reports a 60-70% success rate for its pioneering “safety net” initiatives. FCNMHP operates a low-cost veterinary clinic that does not turn any pet owner away, even if they cannot pay, and JHS has a similar program at their clinic. Low-cost and free spay-neuter services are available at multiple clinics, with FCNMHP alone having performed almost 15,000 low-cost and free surgeries in the previous year. The FCNMHP food bank gives out over 200,000 pounds of pet food each year to low-income pet owners.
The second highly noteworthy aspect of the Jacksonville program is their cutting-edge approach to community cats. FCNMHP collaborates with ACPSD and Best Friends Animal Society in a program called Feral Freedom that has made Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) the default solution for feral cats in Jacksonville. And FCNMHP was one of the pioneers of the comprehensive approach to community cats that first appeared on the national stage in late 2013 and has been so successful in the Million Cat Challenge. This has been a revolution in cat management, and it’s hard to overstate the national importance of this new paradigm.
The third outstanding aspect of Jacksonville’s success is their mega-adoption events, which contribute to the coalition’s high adoption numbers. These events have become a way for Jacksonville to help its neighbors, with shelters from the surrounding areas invited to participate. Each year, neighboring jurisdictions place about 2,000 animals in adoptive homes at Jacksonville’s mega-adoption events. Nassau County, which is just north of Duval County and is an FCNMHP partner, achieved a live release rate of over 90% in its most recent reporting year. You can read more about Jacksonville’s programs in the playbook they presented at the 2014 Best Friends national conference.
Perhaps the underlying reason for Jacksonville’s success is the close working relationship that the three agencies have had for years now. They jointly promote events such as the mega-adoptathons that Jacksonville is famous for, and share resources. As Denise Deisler, head of JHS, says, “we are flying in formation towards the same goal.”
So now for the results. The combined statistics for ACPSD and JHS for the year ending in September 2015 show a live release rate, by the standard calculation, of 96%. The modified live release rate (including all deaths at both shelters) was 94%. These percentages might be very slightly lower if intra-coalition transfers were subtracted out, as I prefer to do, but it appears to me based on the statistics and information that were sent to me that subtracting out intra-coalition transfers would make a difference of less than one percentage point in the combined ACPSD and JHS live release rate.
Historically, ACPSD’s live release rate was 35% or less from the year 2000 up until Scott Trebatoski was hired as director in late 2008. The live release rate climbed to 50% in 2009, his first full year as director, then went to 74% in 2012 and 85% in 2013. Trebatoski left ACPSD in March 2014 to become director of the Hillsborough County (Tampa) shelter, and was replaced by Nikki Harris. Harris previously worked for the Nebraska Humane Society and FCNMHP before moving to ACPSD as shelter manager. Harris recently resigned from ACPSD and went to work for JHS, and the city is interviewing candidates to replace her.
I want to say a word about the recent allegations involving Nikki Harris. News reports about the number of complaints against Harris and the nature of the complaints have been somewhat confused, but apparently the main complaint comes from a former employee and alleges falsification of ACPSD records. The city investigates all such “whistleblower” complaints, and it is investigating this one. Euthanasia drugs are controlled substances and they are subject to strict reporting requirements. As far as I can tell from the media reports (the full substance of the complaints has not been made public that I’m aware of) there has not been any allegation that more euthanasia drugs were used than were accounted for. Under these circumstances, and given that ACPSD performance did not improve more than one would expect under Harris’ tenure based on previous trend lines, I think Harris is entitled to the benefit of the doubt while the investigation is proceeding. Moreover, Harris is only one small part of an effort that has been going on for many years in Jacksonville and encompasses several agencies. Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, the progress in Jacksonville is undeniable.