A little serious, a little satire, and all opinion on animal welfare.
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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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If you’re on HSBC’s email list, you probably got an invitation to The Humane Society Phoenixville’s First Friday art show this Friday.  It will be a blast and we hope you make it.  The art by Matthew Mazurkiewicz is really good.  Some of you might also have wondered, like the one email I received from a supporter did, what happened to Furry Fridays in Reading and why are they in Phoenixville?

We had hoped it would be self-evident by now why we weren’t having any in Reading at the Scholar Center because we had expected to have half our building demolished as we started construction on our new animal housing and nationally accredited community animal hospital.  Unfortunately, our planned start last Spring became a planned start of last Fall as we waited for construction approvals from the City of Reading.  As is always the case with best laid plans, things were delayed and we decided it would be smarter and safer to wait until this Spring to break ground.

Since shows have to be booked well in advance, it meant we had to decide not to host any shows in Reading while we wait.  But when one door shuts, another opens, and the door that opened was in Phoenixville.  Specifically, the door to our new cat adoption center and dedicated gallery space at The Humane Society Phoenixville & Art Deska Gallery.  The artists who had been so generous to offer their support through art shows were able to bring their work in support of newest effort to help animals, and in a setting which is made for art.  In fact, from April through October, the entire town shuts down on First Friday evenings just so we can have a showing.  OK, not just for us, but it’s a huge party and makes for a great and busy opening.

As always, the reason we have these shows at all is to introduce people to our mission, get folks in to see animals for adoption, remind people that our adoption centers are happy and inviting places, and to show our appreciation for the artists in the region who have done so much through the years to raise funds and awareness for our mission by making some of our animal welfare supporters aware of their fantastic art.  Since The Humane Society Phoenixville is new, it needs the attention.

By the way, what’s the deal with The Humane Society Phoenixville, anyway?  Glad you asked!  Well, HSBC has always known that the needs of animals don’t stop at some line on a map, that people will or can only go so far for adoptions and other services we provide, and that some of our locations can only provide so much.  That’s why we opened the County’s first free public dog park in Exeter, our first cat and small animal adoption satellite in Douglassville, put our mobile adoption and VetMobile on the road, and recently opened The Humane Society Phoenixville.

It has been a great way to get more cats adopted- our toughest challenge to adopt because of the sheer numbers flooding shelters- and to bring much needed program and veterinary support to the pets of underserved and at risk populations in the immediate Phoenixville area.  Funds raised at that location are dedicated to helping animals in that community, hence, its own unique name.  Of course, it is run with the same drive to help animals and focus on high quality and effective services.  It had the added benefit of being in a former art gallery so, duh, we had to have our artist friends involved.  More on The Humane Society Phoenixville soon, keep checking back.

So, to review: Thought we were building in Reading so we didn’t schedule shows but we got delayed; were lucky enough to have a new spot where we could have the art shows while we wait; we expect that we will finally break ground in Spring on our Scholar Center reservations- more on that soon, too; we love all the artists who have helped us be not only a great animal organization but a great arts organization, and we hope everyone takes a drive to Phoenixville to check out Friday’s showing.  Anything else?  Oh, right!  That merger thing we mentioned a while back is finally about to be final, allowing our new bigger organization to help animals in need right here at home and across SE Pennsylvania.  You can bet there will be much more on that later.  Whew.

Wow, we’ve been busy.

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At Humane Society of Berks County, we do pretty well on fundraising, especially compared to ten years ago when I started as Executive Director. We also do better than many of our peer charitable agencies in the region, both within animal welfare and in other fields, and have proudly earned Charity Navigator’s highest four star rating. But I am not the first person to say that Berks County is a tough row to hoe compared to neighboring counties when it comes to fundraising.

Please sir may I have some moreOf every contiguous county, Berks is at the bottom, second only to Schuylkill County, in both median giving and percentage of giving per capita. Those two stats are not about how rich or big the county is, they are about how generous Berks is when compared on an equal footing to other counties. Lots of people have asked why, but I think the reason HSBC has been doing better than average is that we have in part figured out the reason. It’s because Berks has been stuck in a culture of parochialism instead of one of philanthropy. And we’ve been stuck here because of the people doing the asking, not because of the people doing the giving.

We all talk about teaching children to be generous. We have community service requirements in our schools, we encourage Alex’s Lemonade Stands. It doesn’t matter what they are doing as long as they are contributing their time, service, and money to make a difference. But as soon as they grow up they get a different message in Berks County: We must give in this way, not that way. We must give to this group, not that one. Berks is oddly dichotomous. While focus tends to be singularly on Reading, there are two major hospitals close together and you are supposed to like one or the other. There are two major higher education institutions in town, and we should choose sides. There are even two competing billboard companies. Of course, there are also two major animal welfare organizations and for years we’ve all been expected to pick a side, like there are sides in saving animals’ lives.

HSBC has been very up front with one message for the past ten years. Please give. Please give to us. Please give to them. Please give to everyone. Don’t like us? Give to them. Just give. When you do give, we’ll say thank you. Whether it’s a dollar or ten thousand dollars. No bumper sticker, no free hotdog, just a thanks. And if you donated a painting forth $100 or gave a check for $100 or gave a check for $10,000, you get the same thanks because we know people give what they can. People have responded to that increasingly and I think it’s helped not just us, but other charities, too.

But the traditional model in Berks has been to look to the big money folks. Can we get Al Boscov to give us a million? It was the first question my board asked me ten years ago. My answer was, probably not, but I bet we can get a thousand people to give us a thousand dollars each. If we’re lucky, Mr. Boscov will take note and send a check, too. That’s what we’ve done. We’ve built a community of giving instead of holding our hands out to the top twenty philanthropists in town, which is unfair to them and to us. Unfair to them because the burden of giving falls on all of us and, based on our giving stats, we all fall short.

Unfair to us because when we hand that power over to a few, they use it as they see fit. When HSBC first considered a capital campaign we were told that we had to go hat in hand to get permission from the committee of the wealthy who would decide when we were allowed to ask our community for capital funds. Our local community foundation openly believes that charities can’t be trusted with large endowment gifts unless they are safe in their hands, not ours. When we hoped to ask our supporters to give to us through their United Way donations, we found that ours was one of the very few United Way agencies nationally which prohibits donors from directing their giving to a charity of their choice. You are required to pick from the list of a mere 32 charities they give you. These are great charities, to be sure, but why only these 32? HSBC gets donations from United Way chapters in nearly every county surrounding us and from around the nation, but not one penny from Berks County’s chapter.

Our community isn’t asked to just give. Please give to us; give to them; give to everyone. It is told how to give, when to give and to whom to give. HSBC and many other local organizations have simply been opting out of this parochial view of philanthropy. We ask for what we need, when we need it, and from whom we need it. We encourage giving and volunteerism on the part of anyone in support of whatever they wish to support because we know a rising tide floats all ships and giving is a habit that needs to be learned and fostered.  Until it becomes an addiction.

I recently saw a great example of just such a fostering in Lancaster County, which held something called The Extraordinary Give. It was a single day of giving in which everyone in the community was asked to give. All the money was given directly to any charity which registered, it wasn’t just put in the bank. Better yet, the big money crowd and the local community foundation matched the money given so that the average person was standing shoulder to shoulder with the wealthy in support of their common community. It made the giving something bigger than the gift, not something small or petty. Together the community raised $3.2 million dollars in one day and it is being swiftly and directly distributed to 260 local charities. Not a free hotdog in sight and no one telling us who deserves our gift.

If we want to know why we don’t give more in Berks County, let’s ask why we try so damn hard to control what is given? In this holiday of giving I hope you’ll give generously to HSBC. And to other deserving organizations locally, regionally, and nationally. No matter who you share your generosity with, I have one thing to say: Thank you.

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As  Humane Society of Berks County and Humane League of Lancaster County approach the official date of our intended merger, I’m putting a great deal of thought into what the final product will look like, do, and convey.  Because the final deal is subject to two boards of directors, county or state courts, and the Attorney General’s Office, like every significant non-profit merger is, I’ve been a little quiet publicly.  I know, right?  Me, quiet.

Les_Demoiselles_d'Avignon

Les_Demoiselles_d’Avignon

But an NPR movie review today and the reminder of the retirement of a great film maker and animator, Hayao Miyazaki, made me reflect on what we will soon craft in the non-profit and animal welfare world.  I think it will be something special, not because of what it will do, although that will be pretty awesome.  It will be special because of how we- the staff, board, donors, and volunteers- are viewing our new creation.  It won’t simply be a bigger, better charity.  It will be something beautiful.

Most people don’t look at a corporation, a charity, or service programs in esthetic terms, but I do.  It is probably the frustrated artist in me, the one which beats readers of this blog over the head incessantly with music quotes, film and art comparisons, and oft maudlin remembrances of those who inspired me via other forms of art.  As much as I appreciate and recognize great art and music, I can’t write a song, I can barely play an instrument, as a graphic artist I’m a derivative technician, and as a writer I can turn a long phrase but I will never turn out a masterpiece.  But I think I have a gift for artistry when it comes to crafting an organization and creating programs and services.  I want not only to have a product, I want it to be beautiful, unique, and inspiring, in a way that is more appropriately in line with an artist as opposed to an executive.

I think most corporate executives, non-profit or for-profit, are satisfied with their professional craft in the way that doesn’t reach inspiration. They are technicians.  Does it work, did it replicate something else, will it sell?  And that is important.  No one wants to be a professional Van Gogh and be the genius who never sells a piece or gets recognition for the organization until after he goes mad, cuts off an ear, and dies.  But the fact that great art is not always recognized now, doesn’t mean we should aspire no further than what sells, or worse, has sold in the past.

And it doesn’t mean that some derivation is not a good thing.  Picasso was brilliant in a way his compatriots were not but he stole the kernel of someone else’s idea routinely and then turned it into something so much better he might as well have thought of it on his own.  Les Demoiselles d’Avignon may have been inspired by Picasso’s introduction to African art, his cubist still lifes and landscapes may owe much to Braque, but they were so far beyond the works of others who may have inspired him that they established a whole new domain of excellence and originality.  You look at Picasso and say, “Oh, that is what they were trying to do.”

I think that the “non-profit artists collective” we have put together in Berks County and have partnered with in Lancaster County are in the process of doing that right now in the organizational and service realm.  We are in the middle of creating something in animal welfare which derives from the past one hundred years but is so unique and different that those who view it, work with us, and make use of our services will say, “Oh, that is what animal welfare has been trying to do.”

Yes, I just compared myself and my co-workers to Picasso, a man of small stature and giant ego.  But if you are not certain what you are doing is profound and important, why do it at all?  In an animal welfare industry which thrives on self congratulation and public self-martyring, we better believe we are doing something worth that self congratulation.  We do, or at least we are earnestly making the effort.  And I agree with Jim Collins’ book Built To Last.  Ego placed in the service of the organization is not a bad thing; it can be a creative and powerful thing.  Just ask Jack Welch or Steve Jobs.  Yes, I guess I also just compared us to Apple or GE.

When we unveil our new creation, it will seem familiar.  After all, it’s based on prior works.  It will be accessible.  After all, we want people to make use of it, not appreciate it for the concept but not be able to sit through all four sides, like some non-profit version of Metal Machine Music.  But we fully intend that as we introduce the newly sculpted organization those with the eyes to see will say, “Damn, now I get it.  That’s what a humane organization is supposed to look like.”  Of course, we hope everyone else will simply buy it.

Miyazaki’s final film is about the man who designed the Zero attack airplane, a thing which resulted in ugliness but of which the inventor said,  ”All I wanted to do was make something beautiful.”  The reality is that animal welfare can be ugly.  Animals get sick, die, and are killed.  We deal with the worst in humanity too often.  The nature of our work sometimes leads us to success defined by delivering the least possible failure.  Too often our own industry uses these facts to deliver more harm than good in the name of the ugliness we see daily.

We can choose to twist something beautiful, like so many in animal welfare do to our mission through despair, lack of creativity, or pettiness.  Or we can take something ugly or mundane and create something new and exciting and lovely, even if the medium is not paint or sounds but is instead corporate structure, program and service delivery, and operational protocols.  We choose the latter and I am so looking forward to sharing our art with you over the next year.

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LouReed_WarholMotion

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