A little serious, a little satire, and all opinion on animal welfare.
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I can be pretty hard on the professional sheltering world.  I think as an industry we often create our own problems, refuse to see and implement solutions within our grasp, and wear our “tough jobs” as a badge which should protect us from criticism and scrutiny.  Being paid to do our jobs, we deserve a little extra scrutiny into our motives and the differences between what we say and what we mean or do.

By the same token, being an unpaid volunteer or “lover of animals” doesn’t make a person a saint, a blind arbiter of animal welfare, or beyond scrutiny of motives.  That doesn’t stop many of them from thinking it does.  Just as there are shallow clockers in shelters, there are shallow animal welfare dilettante volunteers out there, too.  They can be just as selfish and mean spirited, damaging to progress, and dishonest with themselves and the community about what their true motives are as any bad shelter worker.

I see this self-delusion quite a bit when I speak with boards and volunteers from other organizations, specifically struggling organizations.  I’ll be asked for advice or assistance, listen to the usual tales of woe, and hear the list of things this unpaid and above reproach volunteer wants for their organization.  “I just want our animals to get better treatment and care in our shelters, I just want to save more lives, get all the pets sterilized before adoption, or have better qualified staff.  I just want to be able to raise more funds and find more resources to be the shelter I know we can be or to build the shelter I know we should have.  I just want this or that or the other thing for the animals, not for me.”

Most of these volunteers and board members mean it, just as most sheltering professionals mean it, too.  But I’ve taken to asking a question of them all.  What if you could have all of that, everything you say you want, but the condition was you have to resign from your positions of power in the organization?  In the long pause that follows, the volunteer and I both get to reflect on the divide between what you say you want and what you actually want, but are not saying.

What most of us, professional or volunteer, actually mean when we say we just want some something is that we want to be the person who does it.  It’s not, “I want all the animals saved in this shelter,” it’s, “I want to save all the animals in this shelter.”  That is a vast difference.

As a director, a consultant, and a volunteer board member, I’ve been in many situations in which I’ve had to face the reality that a well-meaning staff member who really wants something good for the mission they are paid to serve needs to be told, yes, we can do that thing.  We just can’t do it with you, because you are not up to the job or you, despite your best intentions, are part of what’s stopping us from accomplishing this goal we share.

That’s a tough conversation, made tougher by the reality of the livelihood you are denying that person if you make that decision, and one reason that well-intentioned but terrible employees choke our industry.  It’s just really hard to fire a good person, even if we know it’s best for the mission.  That’s why it’s my job as a paid professional, with the responsibility of looking out for over 60 employees and their families, to be really honest when I say, “I just want to do this list of important things for animals and I want me and my staff to be the ones to do it!”

Some volunteers have trouble with that “and” when it comes to them.  But sometimes the change that needs to come requires a volunteer to step back or give up control or play with the rest of the team in consensus.  Sometimes the team reaches a different consensus and the volunteer needs to decide to find a new team.  Sometimes the volunteer needs to reflect upon their own role in an organization’s shortcomings.  At all times, we need to acknowledge our own ego and our own human and sometimes selfish desires.  Yes, we want something good to happen and, yes, we want to be in control of it, too.  That’s just fine.

I got to thinking about all this because of an interesting experience I had recently with a volunteer group at an organization I work with.  There has been a long standing, if a bit loose, partnership and the volunteers asked, jokingly, for something that seemed like a lot.  We often express what we actually want when we think we are joking.   I thought about it and decided it made a lot of sense and went on to ask if they could have anything, what would they want?  The list was rattled off. I thought some more and said, “Yes.”

They could have everything they wanted and I’d even pay for it.  Tens of thousands of dollars would be the cost to make capital purchases and capital improvements but, yes.  They could have total autonomy and we’d exert no control over their program.  Yes.  The partnership would give the organization I was working with something we really wanted to accomplish, even if it involved spending our funds and giving up control- and I love’s me some control, buster, so don’t think I didn’t have to put some thought to that.

They could have everything they said they wanted, everything on their wish list, in exactly the way they wanted it, and someone else would pay for it. Yes.  They thought about it for a few days.  And they said, no.  They gave no reason, just which they were opting for a different direction.  A different direction than getting everything they said they wanted.  Huh.

My guess is that they experienced the fear that comes with accomplishment and the fear that being given what we want is a trick or the fear that allowing anyone else to do something for us somehow controls or diminishes us, but who knows?

All I know is that we need to be very careful in animal welfare to recognize the difference between what someone says they want and what they actually want.  We’d also be better off if we examined that chasm in what we tell ourselves we want.

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The “adopt them out and cross your fingers” approach is still the dominant one in many shelters.  Trust that you made a good match and leave the success in the hands of the adopter, who we can conveniently blame for any failure.  As mentioned in the last post, for those shelters trying to actually exert some control over their adoption destinies, an adoption health guarantee can help keep pets from returning by fixing foreseeable health issues.

Be our guest! Put our service to the test by adopting Kimmy!

Be our guest! Put our service to the test by adopting Kimmy!

Another way to keep adopted animals at home is simply to do some basic adoption follow-up calls.  Why wait to ask, “Why are you returning this pet?” over the counter, when we could ask how things are going on the phone and offer assistance if there seems to be a problem?  Any level of follow up is a good idea to me but, of course, I’d like to see it be driven by data, just like we used our adoption return data to create the structure of our 30 Day Adoption Health Guarantee.

HSBC uses a 3/3/3 Adoption Follow-Up program.  We call adopters three days, three weeks, and three months after adoption.  The choice of these windows was not arbitrary.  When I arrived at HSBC as executive director a decade ago, we had a high return rate, as high as 16% in just the first few weeks.  That meant that nearly one in five of our adoptions were coming back and nearly one in ten of our total intake- and if you do that math you’ll see we also had a high euthanasia rate then, too- were our own animal coming back to us.  Why and, as importantly it turned out, when?

When we did spreadsheets on the dates of returns we saw that they were clustered at a few critical times following adoption.  Adoption returns peaked at about one week, one month and  to a lesser extent, four months following adoption.  Sometimes the returns were simply because we made a bad match.  That happens, and that led to a focus on better matching of clients with pets, which helped bring down returns overall.  Many of the returns were for behavioral issues or for health issues.  The health issues could be addressed with our 30 Day Adoption Health Guarantee, and that also brought down the return rates.

But behavioral issues, especially if combined with a bad job of matching or health issues, or simply inexperience with pet ownership or adoption, or any combination of these, can lead to a decision to return a pet and once that decision is made, it’s extremely difficult to put the genie back in the lamp.  The best way to avoid is to intervene and you can only do that if you know you need to.  And that’s as simple as asking, “How are things going with your new pet?”

By calling at three days, we head off some of the one week returns.  By calling at three weeks, we head off some of the one month returns.  By calling at three months, we head off some of the four month returns.  And we’ve found that if we can keep a pet in the home for four months, it has no greater chance of being returned than any pet has to be brought to our shelters for any reason at all. It’s as simple as a few phone calls by staff of volunteers (who can redirect the call to staff should there be a problem).  A little more work, yes.  But less work than bringing back pets unnecessarily.

OK, lots of big talk about how effective these programs are.  You probably want me to show you the money.  Ten years ago HSBC’s return rates were as high 16% for dogs and about 8% for cats within the first 30 days.  Today our return rates are 2% for cats and 4% for dogs in the first 30 days- a 75% decrease in adoption returns.  In the first 120 days following adoption that rate is still only 4% for cats and 8% for dogs.  Our program work now is to decrease this longer term return even further.

Are we satisfied with 2% and 4%?  Absolutely not, but it’s a damn sight better than it was before and we did it by looking at hard data, not by “gut checks” and we did it in a way which was not expensive or out of the reach of our then nearly bankrupt shelter.  We are excited to bring this 3/3/3 Adoption Follow-Up program to Humane League of Lancaster County to help bring their already low return rates (4% cats/9% dogs) to record lows, too.  Adoption follow up and counseling programs work.

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I’ve been on a bit of a Debby Downer tear about what doesn’t work in sheltering so I thought I’d turn to a couple things which do work!  Over the next few days I’ll focus on effective programs.  A couple of these target the dirty little secret of the animal adoption world: adoption returns.

Clearly, not every adoption will work out when half of all marriages fail eventually.  However, anything we can do to reduce the likelihood of a pet being returned helps the pet, helps the adopter, and helps our shelter by reducing incoming numbers.

We can either minimize the likelihood of adoption failure before the animal is adopted through high quality adoption counseling and excellent matching or we can minimize the chances of failure once the animal is at home by addressing identifiable reasons for adoption returns (better yet, we should do both).  One area of post adoption failure which can be addressed is related to the health and wellness of adopted pets.

Many years ago at Berks Humane we crunched the numbers and saw that there were both specific windows for adoption returns (more on that tomorrow) and specific reasons associated with those windows of returns.  Health related issues topped the list for animals returned in the first month following adoption and the type of health issue was directly related to the time window of return.  Finding a way to prevent, avoid, or treat the health issue offered an enormous opportunity to boost early adoption success in that first critical month.

Shelter have touted that the best defense against an adoption return is a veterinarian.  That’s why we’ve all tried to work with local vets, to greater or lesser success, to provide a “free” vet exam for adopted pets.  Those “free’ exams tended to come with a laundry list of costs associated with vaccinations, testing, flea products, not to mention the extra costs should the animal come down with one or more of the common post adoption ailments like upper respiratory infections, kennel cough, or digestive upset.  Most of these ailments are stress related and treatable, but that doesn’t mean they won’t cost the adopter a few hundred bucks on top of the “free” exam.

What if there was a way to offset that cost?  Many years ago, VCA Animal Hospitals came up with just such a program and began offering partnerships to shelters near VCA hospitals which would provide a 14 day adoption health guarantee.  If used in the first 14 days, they offered free exam, discount of diagnostics, and free treatment of typical post adoption illnesses.  For many shelters this is a great program and it certainly helps VCA obtain new clients, so it’s good for them.  For any animals which get treated and don’t get returned, it’s really good, too.

Berks Humane enrolled in this program many years ago but had mixed success. One problem was that the 14 day window did not line up with the windows of failure we had demonstrated through our data crunching.  The program was pretty good but the timing was bad. We wondered if we couldn’t offer the same benefits but make them fit the health issues and time windows we knew we faced.  It turned out we could and thus was born the HSBC 30 Day Adoption Health Guarantee!

All animals adopted at HSBC- and now Humane League of Lancaster County- get a free exam, too, if using our veterinary services in the first 30 days following adoption.  We will also treat a long list of illnesses and conditions which can be common in shelter pets due to the stress of adoption or from a sometimes unknown health background.  If your new pet comes down with an upper respiratory infection, infectious tracheobronchitis (kennel cough), diarrhea or vomiting of infectious origin, intestinal parasites, common skin disorders, ear and eye infections, or a urinary tract infection, our vets will treat it for free.  If you’ve had a pet with any of these common ailments, you know who much treatment for them can cost.

Why do we do this?  First, if we can save one adopter a couple hundred bucks on treating a simple ailment and keep that animal safe in its new home, we have a happy pet, a happy adopter, and one more open space in our facilities for another animal.  Second, if the animal was returned, we’d end up treating it anyway, only in a more stressful environment- our shelter as opposed to a home- where recovery is less likely, so it’s cost effective for us.  Third, when our clients see what a great job our vets do, they may consider sticking with our vet services in the future, which is great for our charitable bottom line.  Every dollar they spend in the future is a dollar we can apply to other adopted pets’ health guarantees and to treat sheltered animals.

I know this is where vets start to grumble but I say, hey, you could offer this to your clients, too.  We’ll even tell every adopter and give them your card.  Anyone?  Anyone?  OK, so stop grumbling and let us go back to helping our animals stay in a new home.

These programs can be provided at some level or scale by any shelter with a veterinarian on staff.  We worked up to our full, comprehensive program but we started in a more limited fashion when we just had one vet and one little exam room.  This is where some shelters start grumbling about not being “lucky” enough to have a vet on staff.  To you I say, hey, stop whining and hire a vet.  If you don’t have one in the 21st century it’s because you are choosing not to.  It’s your job as a director to find the resources and make it happen.

I am excited that we are expanding this lifesaving program into Lancaster County, and that we are expanding and upgrading the services provided under this program in Berks and Lancaster Counties over the coming year.  This program is good animals, it’s good for people, and it’s good for our shelter.  Adoption health guarantees work.

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People are often surprised to learn that many of the earliest animal welfare organizations formed in the US were also dedicated to the prevention of cruelty to the other innocent and helpless population in the world: children.  Somewhere along the way that duel approach ended and our application of “humaneness” has become reserved for animals.  For proof of this, one need look no further than how animal people respond to attacks on children by dogs and attacks on dogs by children.

little monstersWhen a dog bites a child, the cry immediately goes up that the child must have done something to earn or deserve the bite.  The child’s parents are at fault for allowing the child to be alone with the dog.  The dog must have had a history of abuse in its upbringing to cause it to behave aberrantly.  Basically, the dog as victim is the first schema for “animal people”.

When a child attacks an animal, animal people don’t apply the same humane sympathies to an individual which has about as much control over its upbringing and social circumstance as a dog.  Instead, the child is a “monster” who should be locked up and abused in jail- how humane is that suggestion?- to pay for his actions.

Just look at the recent viral Facebook video of a child abusing a dog which lead to much outcry and the arrest of the teen boy, who looked closer to 13 than 18, so I will stick with calling him a child.  I only watched it once, since I get the gist of my animal abuse porn in one showing and don’t need to watch it over and over the way some seem compelled to do with these things.

When the video popped up in my feed, I watched it and was disgusted and appalled.  The children were being monstrous to the helpless dog, which was being a credit to his breed by not viciously retaliating. There is clearly something very wrong with these children to take such pleasure in inflicting this pain on another living thing, and I felt terrible to see the suffering of the bewildered animal.  But I can intellectually and empathetically walk and chew gum at the same time so I also immediately wondered what had been done to these kids in their home, school and social life to make them behave this way and felt sympathy for them knowing that without some change or intervention before it’s too late, they are doomed to a life of violence and unhappiness.

You know, kind of the things we feel about a dog when we hear one mauled a kid.

But the responses to the video, now they were horse of a different color.  No empathy, no understanding, no wonder at what sort of abuse those children had suffered in their life, just vitriol and certainty that the acts weren’t merely monstrous, they themselves were, in fact, monsters.  More than that, they deserved equal abuse.  Has anyone ever suggested a dog be bitten in retaliation for a mauling, I wonder?  Beat them.  Lock them up and beat them.  Lock them up and rape them.  How so very humane.

The other notable thing was the language which was used in some comments when compared to the headshots of those making them, and don’t think my quip about being “a credit to the breed” was coincidental.  I’ve noticed that the use of the word “animal” seems to flow more freely when the child is black and the commentator is not.

Animal people must stop trying to have their cake and eat it, too.  We can’t be humane with animals and inhumane with people.  We can’t say a dog is always a victim but a child is always a perpetrator.  We can’t say that children are naturally humane if they just get some fluffy humane education class, when we really seem to be referring to rich, white children, since we know those poor brown ones are animals, and only two pit bulls away from a dog fight at any given moment.  For too many “animal people” compassion and empathy are reserved for a select species or breed of which Homo sapiens is not among the elect.

If we can rehabilitate abused animals, why not wish the same thing for a child?  If we know that behavioral modification to prevent escalating negative behavior is the goal for young dogs, why not for our children?  And if we can show some understanding for a dog which has done terrible things, while still recognizing it requires action and intervention to protect innocent victims, why can’t we do the same with a child?  Why can we separate the “monstrous” from the “monster”, but only for dogs?

Why?  Because I think many “animal people” are as broken inside and as needing of help as those monstrous boys in the video.

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It is with increasing amusement that I see the definition of No Kill sliding down the slope from what it sounds like it means, that you don’t kill animals, to what we probably suspect it always meant, you don’t kill healthy or treatable animals, to the newest definition:  you kill fewer than 10% of animals.

I know what you're thinking, Dog. You're thinking "did he save ten dogs or only nine?" Now to tell you the truth I forgot myself in all this excitement. You've gotta ask yourself a question: "Do I feel lucky?" Well, do ya, Dog?

I know what you’re thinking, Dog. You’re thinking “did he save ten dogs or only nine?” Now to tell you the truth I forgot myself in all this excitement. You’ve gotta ask yourself a question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya, Dog?

Or is that 10% of dogs?  Because often the righteous Facebook posts start with “animals” but then transform to dogs.  Which makes sense because we all know that cats are killed at double or more the rates of dogs in shelters and have a much harder row to hoe nationwide if they want to exit most shelters in a carrier rather than a bag.

Allow me to be clear on the fact that I have no problem with anyone defining terms as they see fit.  I believe our missions are defined by our organizations with the support of our boards, donors, and staff, and the approval of State and Federal regulators overseeing our work, claims and tax exemptions.  If you want to say you are No Kill at 90%, more power to you.  Just like I say we do not consider a 90% numeric value as counting as No Kill at our Lancaster shelter which has in practice much higher save rates as defining no kill.  Nor do we consider ourselves restricted access as opposed to open door at our Reading shelter just because we charge a $25 intake fee or require three hours of volunteer service to surrender a pet.  But some shelters do think that’s a substantive barrier. Que sera sera; you are what you is.

However, two things have come to mind as we integrate two shelter models, No Kill and Open Door, into our new organization in SE Pennsylvania.  First, we were getting so close to that 90% model in our open access shelters that if we were to combine the Berks numbers with the Lancaster numbers over the past year, it is likely that we would retroactively surpass a 90% save rate under our Asilomar reporting for dogs, and probably cats, too.  With one fell swoop of a spreadsheet cell, Berks will have become No Kill based on the more liberal “90% equation”, even if we didn’t actually improve at all.

We intend to reach that 90% mark independently within the Berks division of the organization either way, don’t worry.  But ain’t it fun what can be done with numbers?

The second thing that has struck me is how we use numbers to define acceptable levels of loss for others we’d never accept for ourselves.  90% saved.  That sounds pretty good in an industry where some shelters still barely break even on save rates- some because they face real hurdles, some because they just plain suck and deserve every sling and arrow thrown at them- and all shelters were historically terrible.  But apply that rate to you and me, and I bet it seems lacking.

The next time someone says that 90% or better equals “No Kill” numbers, ask him and nine similarly minded friends to line up against a wall and face a ten gun firing squad loaded with nine blanks and one live round of ammo.  I wonder if the one in ten on that wall is any more willing to accept themselves as proof of success when they catch the No Kill Bullet than the one in ten dogs who are “acceptable losses” in some people’s no kill model?

And don’t even get me started on the cats.  I think they get the same fun with numbers that blacks had being counted as 3/5 of a person in the new United States for over 100 years.

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One of the oft repeated wisdoms in the animal welfare world is that animals which are given as gifts or bought from breeders are more likely to end up in shelters than “responsibly sourced” pets.  This is presumably because the recipient did not have the strong guiding hand and depth of experience which can only be brought to you by an adoption counselor with no academic or vocational training in the field and who has worked in animal welfare for a year or two and makes ten dollars an hour, at best.  Also known as the average person handling pet adoptions in the United States.

puppy with bowBefore the letter bombs come, that also represents many of our organizations’ adoption counselors, who are wonderful, well-trained, and do a great job.  But it is a stretch for most organizations to believe that they have some unique and mythic ability to make a permanent and successful match between a animal they’ve known for three days and person they’ve never met.  But that doesn’t stop us from believing it anyway.

Shelters, organizations and websites routinely either directly malign the concept of animals received as gifts or imply it is a problem based on statistics which show that about one third of animals surrendered to shelters were gift pets.  It’s safe to say most shelters prohibit gift adoptions.  Why?  Because we know better, right?  You might be surprised to know that is wrong.

First, we must acknowledge that there is no agreement on the terms used, so some studies refer to gifts, some referred to pets obtained from friends, etc.  Mostly, I’ll just lump anything not found on the street, bought from a store, or adopted as a shelter, a gift, whether it came with a bow under the tree or from a friend.  Studies show that 1/3 of animals entering shelters were obtained from friends or as gifts.  Sound the alarms and ban gift adoptions, that’s horrible!  Now I see why we know that it’s so bad to get or give pets as gifts, after all one in three pets surrendered…

Except it turns out that 40% of pet owners have a pet which was given to them.

Clearly, merging together total household source polls with shelter relinquishment surveys is apples and oranges but it seems like maybe the explanation for three in ten  animals surrendered originally being gifts might have something to do with as many as four in ten animals in our homes were gifts!  If only there were a study which addresses this directly.

There is!  A 2013 study determined that not only are “gift pets” not the problem we’ve been told by everyone and their brother, they are less likely to be relinquished to shelters.  You heard it, less likely.  The study identified a bunch of other factors which had a larger impact on whether animals were given to shelters than where they came from.  It would appear our common sense on why animals enter shelters is based on fantasy, not on reality.

It simply turns out that more people obtain pets from friends or as gifts, buy them, or bring in strays, than adopt from shelters.  Now the call will rise, “Those people should be adopting and saving lives instead!”  Leaving out purchasing pets- and I’ll revisit that one soon- does this even make sense?  Where would those animals have ended up if they had not been taken off the street or taken from a friend who can no longer keep it?  To a shelter, of course.  So what’s the problem with getting it right from the source and freeing up shelter resources for other animals?  Because it will be relinquished at greater rates than an adopted pet?  Only it won’t, as we know from the 2013 study.

Where one obtains a pet may make virtually no difference to the success of that relationship.  There are many, many other factors both within and without of a pet and a pet owner’s control which will determine whether that animal stays in a home, and a magical adoption rescue source is not one of them.

Sheltering advocates and agencies need to stop pointing at shadows and focus on the real reasons pets are given up and die in shelters.

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After a century of working from the gut, animal welfare has now fully embraced a faux analytics to prove that everything our gut told us was, in fact, true.  The web, the source of all serious data, is full of claims based on research which allows us to continue believing precisely what we did before, but now based on facts.  Overpopulation is the problem, check!  People are bad and irresponsible, check!  Overpopulation is not the problem and every pet would have a home if people would just adopt, check!  Things are just as bad as they’ve always been, check, check, check!

A pooch who would have been surrendered because the family couldn't afford emergency surgery.  "Bad owners" who couldn't afford proper care or nice people who just needed some help to keep it at home?  Our vets performed the surgery and kept that dog from entering our shelter.  What if we approached every possible relinquishment this way?

A pooch who would have been surrendered because the family couldn’t afford emergency surgery. “Bad owners” who couldn’t afford proper care or nice people who just needed some help to keep her at home? Our vets performed the surgery and kept that dog from entering our shelter. What if we approached every possible relinquishment this way?

There is one particular set of studies undertaken by National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy which is used repeatedly online to tell us why animals are brought to shelters.  These studies are referred to and used again and again and again to explain, justify and berate, as suits the user.  I will say up front I’m ignoring the the original studies, as well as just looking dogs for the most part for no reason other than for ease of making my little point, and will just be addressing how the data as used to further the lies we tell ourselves in animal welfare.

Using data found on a Petfinder page, we are see that the top ten reasons for dog relinquishment are, by percentage: Moving (7%), Landlord not allowing pet (6%), Too many animals in household (4%), Cost of pet maintenance (5%), Owner having personal problems (4%), Inadequate facilities (4%), No homes available for litter mates (3%), Having no time for pet (4%), Pet illness(es) (4%), Biting (3%).

The majority of the surrendered dogs (47.7%) were between 5 months and 3 years of age and majority of dogs (37.1%) had been owned from 7 months to 1 year.  Approximately half of the dogs (42.8% of dogs) surrendered were not neutered. Many of the pets relinquished (33% of dogs) had not been to a veterinarian. Most dogs (96%) had not received any obedience training.  Those surrendering were found to be heterogeneous and representing all ethnicities, and social and economic classes.  Just the facts, ma’am.

Petfinder, to their credit, simply put this information out there, as is, and offers no conclusions.  Instead, they leave that to the commenting hoards with their torches and pitchforks who brand anyone interviewed as heartless bastards who should have known better and should be jailed or worse for abandoning their pet. Mostly, they just take the chance to tell us how saintly they are for not giving up their own pet.  Kudus to you.

Other websites opt to wade in with their own “obvious’ interpretations of the data.  I was surprised and disheartened to see that the American Humane Association website was among the most shallow and knee jerk, stating or implying that this data (and although they don’t identify where they pull their data, it is likely from this or a similar set of studies) is proof of “irresponsible breeding”, “disposable pets”, and people “choosing not to adopt”.  Summed up, people are very, very bad.

First, let’s remind ourselves that compared to the 1970’s there are twice as many cats and dogs in American homes yet it’s estimated that there are between one fifth to one third the number of animals being euthanized each year.  Seems to me like people are pretty good, or at least clearly getting better.  Maybe AHA just means that the people who are used for this study are bad, although they can’t seem to make up their minds about that, like many shelters.  But in nearly 1,200 words about the bad reasons for relinquishing a pet, a mere single line states that only “hundreds of thousands of pets are relinquished to shelters each year simply because they have become an inconvenience or because the owner did not consider the time and financial commitment required to properly train and care for them.”

Wait, what?  Three or four million a year are euthanized of the millions more surrendered, but for all the hue and cry on the AHA website and many or most others that bad people surrender pets, only a few hundred thousand make up surrenders which are not “absolutely necessary for an owner to relinquish a pet”?  So most pets are surrendered because of non-selfish and non-evil reasons?  But those stupid reasons from the survey are clearly crap!  We know those people must be lying about moving and cost and no time, the reasons which accounted for the majority of surrenders, right?

Why can’t it be both?

The top ten list for dog relinquishment makes no sense when taken in the context of the other data collected on age and length of ownership.  The reasons given would appear to be circumstances which should be extremely random.  People randomly move, loss jobs, run out of time.  One might even argue dogs could randomly bite or get ill.  If this is the case, wouldn’t we see a random distribution of age among the dogs left at shelters which reflects the population distribution of the community?  We don’t. Half the dogs are under three years.  This makes no sense unless the average lifespan of all dogs is six years, which we know it isn’t.

If we say that these people are just callous, shouldn’t we assume they are callous at any point in their pet’s life?  Shouldn’t they bring in their twelve year dog when they move as likely as they’d bring in their one year old dog?  Shouldn’t these random life events strike at any time in a pet’s lifespan?  Apparently they do not.  Why then would we see this slice of the pet population disproportionately represented in relinquishments and why would people say it’s because of all these various reasons which make no sense?

God forbid, might we want to consider that the reason animals are brought to shelters is because many of them are part of the actual problem?  Moving is a lot harder with a bad dog.  Working too much is harder with a dog that isn’t properly house trained.  A “new child” is a pretty good reason to bring in a dog that has been allowed to bite up to that point.  The obvious counterpoint is that these must clearly be poor pet owners.  You bet! We know that; heck, I bet they know that and might readily check a box on a survey that said, “I did a bad job raising this dog”.

But it raises an important set of issues which shelters have avoided addressing.  First, it is highly likely that these surrendered pets have very real and very significant health and behavior problems which- through no fault of their own- do make them tough to keep at home and tough to adopt once they’ve been surrendered.  Second, unless we are going to surrender to the notion that all the people giving up their pets are all heartless sociopaths incapable of caring or change, what are we doing to prevent and pre-empt them from bringing their pets to our shelters?  Are we saying we can’t keep pets out of our shelters or is that something which most shelters don’t even want?

Sheltering and animal welfare organizations are in the business of sheltering animals or hawking the notion of sheltering.  Like a surgeon cuts, a psychiatrist prescribes, and a hammer nails, we have focused on the thing we do.  We shelter.  And we have a vested interest as an industry in maintaining the status quo and perpetuating the myths, lies, and boogey men of the past.  Most do it out of ignorance, many do it out of misguidance, and some do it very cynically to fill coffers or boost egos.  But the old truths are no longer true, if they ever were, and by not recognizing that and finding new approaches and paradigms based on reality instead of fantasy, we are slowing the pace of progress and we are striving for an endgame which will never come.  Either because it can’t, or because deep down, our industry doesn’t want it to.

Yes, there is a crisis for animals in the US.  But it is quantitatively and qualitatively less severe than it was one, five, ten or twenty years ago and it is improving.  Yes, there are bad pet owners, but most are not intrinsically so.  There are great adoptable animals in shelters, but many are not.  There are also huge factors which are being utterly ignored in these statistics- one third of dogs relinquished had never seen a vet and 96% had no obedience training (more on that next time) and, yes, even breed- and which could, if addressed, have a much larger impact than focusing on handing people pet friendly apartment lists with a sneer.  My experience tells me most people wanted to succeed with their pet.  We failed them as much as they failed their pet.

Even a dummy like me who runs a couple dinky little animal shelters can see these numbers don’t add up.  So why is shelter after shelter, organization after organization, big and small, run by people at least as smart as me, still clinging to and promoting old ideas?

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Believe it or not, this question is being asked in animal shelters around the country.  It seems like a crazy question to be asking, since we know that about three million animals are euthanized in shelters each year nationwide and we hear the never ending chant of “too many animals, please save this one” every time we turn on the TV or open our Facebook page.

Meet Dutchess, the type of dog who wouldn't have had a chance twenty years ago.  Arrived at Berks with puppies, which are now in foster care, and is awaiting sterilization before being put up for adoption at Lancaster.  This length of stay, medical care, and attention was unusual, if not unheard of, twenty years ago in most shelters but is commonplace now.

Meet Dutchess, the type of dog who wouldn’t have had a chance twenty years ago. Arrived at Berks with puppies, which are now in foster care, and is awaiting sterilization before being put up for adoption at Lancaster. This length of stay, medical care, and attention was unusual, if not unheard of, twenty years ago in most shelters but is commonplace now.

But the reality is that the old chestnut of every shelter hoping to put themselves out of business is actually becoming true across huge sections of the nation, especially in the Northeast US.  Most animal shelters are seeing dramatically fewer animals, especially dogs, entering shelters and save rates are skyrocketing compared to recent decades.  If you walked into a shelter 20 years ago it was typical to see kennels bursting with animals.  Visit the same shelters today and you might scratch your head and ask, “Where are all the animals?”

In the 1970’s, when there were only 67 million pets in homes, it’s estimated that between 12 and 20 million pets were killed in shelters each year.  Today, when there are double the number of household pets, the number killed in shelters has declined to under three million.  That is a stunning decline.  It is also a stunning victory for animal welfare and one which is being built upon and improved upon every single day in shelters.  And it’s why in many regions and in many shelters, you can find nearly empty adoption kennels on any given day.

Of course there are reasons why some shelters have more or less animals or more or less euthanasia than others.  But these reasons aren’t as easy and clear cut as some would like us to believe.  No Kill advocates will insist every animal could be saved tomorrow and Open Door advocates, especially those in the animal control intake world, insist their euthanasia is unavoidable.  Neither is always, or ever, the truth and a quick reality check will bear that out.

Yesterday a board member told me she had just spoken to a friend who commented they had stopped by our shelter at the Humane League of Lancaster County and was shocked to find only a handful of dogs.  HLLC is a No Kill and limited intake facility, so the erroneous notion- and one even shared by some in the organization- was that it was because of the limited access, No Kill policy which restricted the number of animals.  But this board member pointed out that she had happened to personally stop by the local animal control, open access shelter that very day and there had been only six dogs available for adoption there, too!  Totally different intake models but identical adoption candidates.  What gives?

In fact, at open door shelters in our region, even those which accept animal control intake, there are empty kennels and staff fighting to find animals to fill them with.  Our Open Door shelter in Reading at the Humane Society of Berks County competes with Bucks (Open Door) and Delaware County SPCA (No Kill) for adoption transfers from higher population shelters!  In New Jersey, there is even a shelter which flies dogs in from Puerto Rico to fill the adoption void they face.

This is a result of our region seeing the same nationwide trend noted earlier.  In Lancaster County the shelter used to take in 15,000 animals a year, which dropped to about 6,000, and dropped further to about 3,000 to 4,000 when it ended its animal control contracts.  This is nearly identical to the intake declines in Berks County, and in Chester County, where I worked for many years.  No Kill shelters used to be outliers and fringe because there were too many animals for most shelters to be No Kill.  Now Open Door shelters are operating at close to or at No Kill save rates and No Kill shelters are openly moving toward life time sanctuary models!

Meet Drew, available for adoption at Humane League of Lancaster County!

Meet Drew, available for adoption at Humane League of Lancaster County! At six plus years, she might have been euthanized twenty years ago to make room for younger, “more adoptable” dogs. www.melodypetphotography.com

What is going on?  And what do we do when there are more shelters than animals needing adoption because our message of spay/neuter and being a responsible pet owner has actually worked?  That’s the issue facing shelters everywhere.  HLLC and HSBC are not just working toward that eventuality, we’re planning for the “What next?” steps.

Unfortunately, a lot of other people in animal welfare are not acknowledging that there has been a sea change over the past three decades.  They continue to operate on outdated and ineffective models, using old logic and misinterpreting old and new data.  Frankly, many are simply lying to themselves and to the public about the real problems facing animals in America in the 21st century.

I’m going to take some time to address these misconceptions and the changing landscape of animal welfare in the next few weeks in a series of blog posts.  I’ll look at relinquishment data, animal control trends, the cat/dog divide, relinquishment preventative approaches, breed issues in adoption, breeders, and other topics which are not always or no longer what they seemed to be.  I hope it will help explain why there are so few animals in our region’s shelters and how we can keep it that way.  Getting here might have been the easy part.  Staying here will be tough.

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I’m pretty down on the Veterinary Industrial Complex (capital V, capital I, capital C) and have been for the two decades I’ve worked in animal welfare.  While I believe most vets genuinely care about animals and a sizeable minority have been truly supportive and helpful to animal shelters in their area, as an Industry, it has been generally uncharitable, treated animal welfare professionals- even fellows vets in shelters- as second class professionals, and been aggressive in its efforts to block non-profits from encroaching on their industry.

Frankly, I think most of this has been driven by the fear of losing market share and income, not about concern for animals.  That’s why I became certain that the only way to save the Vet Industry was to destroy it, or at least to replace it with a non-profit corporate model akin to the human health care model, which is overwhelmingly delivered by non-profits.  I sometimes feel like the Johnny Appleseed of non-profit vet practices, crossing the country and spreading seeds in the hope they will grow.

Dr. Robin Shroyer

Dr. Robin Shroyer

Last year I met someone who has renewed my faith in the for-profit veterinary model a little and, over time, made me believe that there may be a middle way for private practices who want to stay as they are but also want to do more to help the community of pets and people in need or lacking the resources required to get a foot in the hospital door.

After delivering my sermon at a national animal welfare conference on the evils of the vet industry, preaching the salvation of non-profit practices, and employing my usual hyperbole to do so (“the vet industry is a zombie walking around gobbling up revenue and not realizing it is already dead”), a woman walked up and introduced herself as “one of the zombie vets.”  I thought, uh oh, I’m about to get yelled at for being a jerk.  It wouldn’t be the first time and wouldn’t be entirely undeserved.  The zombie line is one of the nicer ways I characterize the Vet Industrial Complex.

Instead she wanted to talk to me about how she was trying to do charitable work in her for-profit practice in a formalized way, the complete reverse of the model I advocate which is non-profits offering public services in a formalized way.  I am somewhat ashamed- or would be if there weren’t shamefully few private vets trying to do this- that it didn’t occur to me that a private vet would even consider this!  It set off a light bulb which has been burning brighter and brighter over the past year for me, since it represents an alternative to the all-out warfare between practice models and might save us from an end of days Armageddon battle between private and non-profit practices.

Her name is Dr. Robin Shroyer and she is a partner at Nipomo Dog and Cat Hospital in California.  She has been working with a local charity, Animals In Need Fund, to subsidize patients lacking resources to pay for the high quality care their pets need and would otherwise go without.  This not only helps the animal, I would argue it also helps her practice by increasing patient and cash flow and by building customer base in a sagging market.  And she’s doing it while maintaining her for-profit model.  While I know nearly every vet practice does some good works, I don’t know of any (and if you have one, please disabuse me of my ignorance*) which actually places a link to make a financial contribution to help provide charitable care on every single page of their website.  That’s good for animals, good for charity, and good for business.  Dr. Shroyer single handedly serves to remind me that, for all of my talk about a Veterinary Industrial Complex, there are still some plain old caring vets out there who don‘t fit my convenient mold.  It’s kind of the difference between farmers and factory farmers.  One needs to be specific.

Now when I go about harping on the evil vet industry which controls all the vet associations and the state vet boards, exerting control over its little non-profit brothers to keep a little more loot in their pockets and out of ours, I also remind everyone that there is a hybrid model and I point to my new unexpected inspiration on the west coast.  I am glad to have the exception to the rule to restore my faith in the ranks which, had I been a wealthier and better parented child, I’d likely have joined.

But it was so much easier when I could just paint with my big, broad brush!

*And the very first person to disabuse me was Dr. Robin herself!  She forwarded me a link to another California Foundation which supports vet expenses (http://www.birchbarkfoundation.org/resources).  Although, I’m not sure this is a practice based effort, but still a really good thing!

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“Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.” Matthew 7:6

Beggers can't be critics and apparently critics can't be generous.

Beggars can’t be critics and apparently critics can’t be generous.

A good artist friend forwarded me a Huffington Post article called The Career Benefits of Boycotting Charity Auctions.  Since Huffington Post is where I go for all my serious social commentary and Celebrity Side-Boob slideshows and I work for a charity which has helped tens of thousands of animals and people with the proceeds from our charity art auction, I read it, twice, with interest.

I decided the more appropriate title given the tone of the article is the one above.

Many of the points made by Mat Gleason, art critic- And, hello?  When did artists start listening to critics?- are absolutely valid and utterly true.  Many charity auctions do not provide a good Return On Investment (ROI) for artists.  In fact, they don’t give a good ROI for the charities in most cases.  That’s why most auctions are losers for everyone and why most charities don’t do much better when it comes to fundraising generally and getting the most out of every charitable donation.  This is, by the way, where I note that HSBC has earned a Five Star Rating, the highest, from Charity Navigator for the 5th year in a row.

But Gleason does not find fault with bad auctions and poorly run charities, he finds fault with the entire process of charity.  He rather fatuously lays the struggling artistic community’s woes at the feet of charity auctions.  Yes, before charity auctions artists couldn’t keep paintings on their gallery walls as they all were snapped up by a discerning public for asking price and then some.  Since he lives in this fantasy, he might as well cast artists as ungenerous arty robber barons who should view merely giving away their art for something as vulgar as helping their fellow man- or animal- as foolishness.  Give a man a painting and he has a painting today; teach a man to paint and he has paintings to hang in his cardboard box on the steam vent for a lifetime.

Gleason demeans artists, and by extension all who give to charities, by reducing the donation to a mere transaction.  The reality is if you are an artist who gives to the Art for Arf’s Sake Art Auction

to benefit the animals and programs of Humane Society of Berks County and you are seeking personal Return On Investment, it’s a really bad bet, and we know that.  And I venture to say so do our artists and other donors, but that’s not why we give.  We aren’t an investment portfolio.  We aren’t a newspaper or website one hopes is a good advertising platform.  We are a charity and we have ways in which people can come together to make a greater impact by pooling their resources, whatever those resources may be.

For an artist a painting may be the resource she has to give.  For a law firm, it may be a check.  For a volunteer, it may be the hours and hours spent working on the event.  For many, it may be all three, since we have artists who give artwork, become cash sponsors, and volunteer for the event.  All together, these efforts to combine to raise over $100,000 a year, nearly one million over the last decade, in support of our programs; something we couldn’t do without this collaborative charitable effort.  And cash is king when you need to feed a dog or keep the heat on or provide care in emergency ice shelters.

Gleason raises some good points, points which we have scrutinized hard over the years and the reason we have one of the most successful art auctions in the region, even though we are an animal organization.  We don’t treat artists like second class citizens.  We not only invite them to the auction, we invite the live auction artists to the preview reception so they can be thanked right alongside the big cash donors.  Their art is every bit as valuable to us as a check but a check deserves a little credit, too.  We give pricing guidance to artists so they have a “sweet spot” and don’t donate a piece which is beyond the likely bids for our audience.  We give write off suggestions if that’s important to the artist.  For example, if he’s so concerned about only being able to write off supplies while the auction purchaser can donate back for market value, why doesn’t he suggest artists gift each other their art, then donate to the auction?  Oh, right, he’s an art critic, not a charitable professional who should know these things.

Do some pieces sell low?  Yes, and that sucks.  Does that drive down the market?  Maybe, but I doubt it.  But some pieces sell insanely high.  We have on artist who sells unframed silk screen prints at our Art Deska Gallery and Adoption Center for $5.  Last year a framed print sold for $1,500 at the auction.  Did that drive up the market?  Sometimes people in the room just don’t pay what we think something is worth, whether it’s art or a golf package.

But it’s not about the sale price of one piece of art any more than a humane community is about how one person treats one animal.  It’s about the aggregate.  How does the entire effort come together to create something bigger and better?  That’s what a good auction does.  That’s what a humane community does.  That, Mr. Gleason, is what society is about.  If you want to reduce the art community and artists to mere purveyors of product in an Ayn Randian market society, feel free.  I will suffer the fault of hoping for the charity and kindness of artists who support our mission and our cause, who give because they choose to and want to and can, not for ROI.

Yes, our job is to make sure we are good stewards of their generosity.  Yes, some charities don’t live up to that ideal and, hell, even ours has stumbled on occasion and worked to ensure we are great partners to all our donors.  You say charity auctions demeans the art world while you demean artists and charities alike with your characterization of each as greedy.  A few pigs doesn’t make the entire world swine.

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