Tazewell County, Virginia, is in the Appalachian mountains in the far southwestern part of the state. Its median household income is very low at less than $31,000. In 2015 the Tazewell County animal shelter had an approximately 50% live release rate, with an intake of about 2000 animals. Now, in the first three months of 2016, the live release rate has been over 90%.
How did this transformation happen? A big part of it was a new shelter director. The current director of the Tazewell County shelter, Ginny Dawson, started in November of 2015. She is largely self-educated about shelter management. Before taking over as director she had been a county employee for several years. She studied new methods of sheltering and talked to lots of people for ideas. She remembers reading about managed admission on the ASPCA site, for example. Whenever she thought an idea made sense she would try to find out more about it.
The staff who worked with the previous shelter manager decided for various reasons to leave the shelter when he left in 2015, so Dawson and her supervisor were able to hire a new staff of three people. They looked for people with experience working with animals, but compassion for animals was “absolutely” a requirement. Dawson noted that you can teach best practices, but not compassion.
Soon after Dawson started as director they made Saturday an adoption-only day so that they could concentrate on adoptions and not intake. They take animals who are ready for adoption to an offsite location where they will get more exposure.
Another major initiative was managed admission. People who want to surrender animals are asked if there is anything the shelter can do to help them keep their pets. If not, shelter staff help them explore whether there are other possibilities for rehoming instead of surrender. They explain to people that the county shelter is open admission, with a limited amount of space. They have found that most people are very willing to delay surrender for a few days if the shelter is full, and some people are able to find a new home for their animal themselves.
Shelter staff have increased their use of social media for adoption promotion and for finding owners of lost pets. They started posting dogs and cats to Facebook immediately, without waiting for the stray-hold period to expire, to try to reunite animals with owners as quickly as possible.
They began to work more with rescues, which Dawson describes as crucial for their success. The Humane Society of Tazewell County works closely with the shelter and helps it in many ways, including transports. They have regular transports that go to the Pennsylvania SPCA, with funding from ASPCA, and the Richmond SPCA has also welcomed transfers from the shelter. Another group in the county, Tazewell ARC, has done transports as well as outreach to county officials.
A consulting organization, Target Zero, did a presentation to interested stakeholders in January, and Dawson and the other attendees are very interested in their program. Dawson put some of their ideas into practice immediately, including use of an owner surrender form to gather more information about intakes. A simple thing, but one that had not been done previously. Target Zero did a full assessment of the shelter earlier this month, and the county is considering whether to apply for a fellowship with them.
Another suggestion Target Zero made was for the shelter to sign up with the Million Cat Challenge and start implementing their community cat initiatives, including return-to-field. Dawson had heard of the Million Cat Challenge before Target Zero’s involvement, but the suggestion gave them the push they needed to sign up. Implementing the Challenge initiatives will be done in several steps, including coordinating spay-neuter efforts with local clinics and a strengthened managed admissions program.
Dawson’s goals for the future are to sustain the progress they have made and continue to improve. The county is renovating a building for a new shelter, which should help them in many ways, including disease control. High live release rates are harder to maintain during the spring and summer “kitten season” months, but Dawson hopes to weather the season with the new programs they have in place.
In just the last few years many new and effective programs have been added to the shelter operations toolbox, including managed admission, return-to-field, and transports. Today several organizations have extensive information online at no charge. Maddie’s Fund has webinars on demand that cover many aspects of shelter management. Best Friends Animal Society has presentations from its most recent conference, including “how we did it” playbooks from several successful communities. Consultants can help shelters with every aspect of a transition, including figuring out how to apply programs to their particular circumstances and how to finance changes. Tazewell County consulted with Target Zero, but there are other organizations, such as Humane Network, that also offer consultations.
The Tazewell County shelter is still facing some hurdles, but the odds for them to have a 90% or higher live release rate in 2016 look good. Dawson has made use of new ideas and the help that is available, including support from the community, and has turned her shelter around quickly.