A little serious, a little satire, and all opinion on animal welfare.
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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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Many non-profits have a pathological fear of anything political.  The excuse is often some misplaced notion that anything associated with politics is off limits due to our tax exempt status.  More often, I suspect it’s a desire to not actually take a position on anything, or intellectual laziness on the part of organizations which will actually have to move beyond reacting and identify a legislative effort which will allow us to pro-act.  I will freely, if abashedly, admit to have engaged in both in the past.

I love's Me Some Politicians!  The Humane Society Phoenixville's grand opening with Senator Dinniman (center)

I Loves Me Some Politicians! The Humane Society Phoenixville’s grand opening with Senator Dinniman (D- center)

However, these days HSBC is actively engaged in advocacy on all governmental levels and I think we are better, stronger and more effective as a result.  It turns out that there can be an awful lot of “politicing” done by non-profits, as long as it’s issue related.  We can’t say,  “Vote for X, he likes dogs,” but we can say, “We should do this for dogs and X agrees, thank him for his support,” or “X voted against this, ask him to change his mind,” or “As a candidate for office, what do X and his opponent Y think about dogs?”  It’s not about the candidate, it’s about the dogs (or whatever animal is your thing) and the issues and legislation and policies which impact them.

Sometimes we choose not to take up advocacy positions in non-profits because we have to face the fact that our personal political side is on the wrong side for animals.

For example, I am a die-hard political partisan in my personal life.  In my 26 years as a voter I’ve never missed an election or primary, I give money to my party, I’ve served on my party’s county committees, I’ve walked in parades for my candidates, and I’ve canvassed.  The odds of me voting for anyone outside my party are slim to none in a general election, regardless of their position on animals.  If HSBC has a position which my personal candidate in the general election is opposed to, can I still advocate for it without being a traitor to my side?  Of course!

As we all know, today’s elections are decided in primaries and that’s where a little information can go a long way.  I’ve written in the past about the need to make animal welfare issues a new third rail in politics, one which no one on any side will want to touch.  You think guns and grandma get politicians scrambling?  Let’s add puppies and kitties to that list in both major parties, and the minor ones, too.  An educated public can ensure that all their candidates in the party of their choice are good on animal issues so no matter who wins in a primary, all candidates will be on the right side of animal issues.

Then in the general election we can choose either party’s puppy hugger based on really important issues, like whether we want seven or thirty bullet ammo clips.

Pick a party, any party!  Everyone is welcome at HSBC events- as long as they will listen to our concerns.  HSBC Walk with Former State Rep. Dave Kessler (D) and current US Rep. Jim Gerlach (R).

Pick a party, any party! Everyone is welcome at HSBC events- as long as they will listen to our concerns. HSBC Walk with Former State Rep. Dave Kessler (D- left) and current US Rep. Jim Gerlach (R- center).

Being a non-profit does not silence us on issues which are vital to our missions and constituents.  It merely means we must approach our speech differently.  This can be very freeing.  I shake hands with any politician of any party, regardless of who I will personally vote for, because HSBC serves animals in their districts and they need to know what their constituents think about animals.  HSBC invites every elected official and every candidate to every event have so they can hear directly from us and our supporters- their voters- about animal welfare issues like tethering legislation, pigeon shoots, dog law reform, and more.  We directly ask our supporters to directly contact their elected officials in support of animal welfare legislation.  We ask no supporter to vote a particular way, just that they be informed and that if animals are important, they make it clear to the candidate of their choice.

Increasingly, we are seeing the fruits of these efforts.  In a recent Senatorial contest in Berks, both major party candidates were equally solid on animal welfare positions.  You and I might have cared who won on a slew of other issues, but on animals, both were good.  Animal issues have begun to get bi-partisan support…yes, I’ll wait while you look up that little used term….and elected officials are actually finding common ground on animal bills when they can find little else to agree on.  Candidates are showing up at animal events to kiss dogs the way they used to kiss babies.

And laws are being passed that languished for years.  The gas chamber ban stalled for decades when the primary advocates were gas mask wearing looneys on the Statehouse steps.  But when animal shelters across the state started advocating and asking their tens of thousands of supporters- voters- to call their elected officials, it finally passed and now gas chambers are history in PA.  The recent Cost of Care bill, another long time stalled effort which provides for the cost of care for animals seized in cruelty cases, passed in large part to the dozens of sheltering organizations who personally advocated for the bill to their elected officials.

This success not only helps animals, it strengthens organizations.  Those who raise their voice get noticed and they get supported by donor and volunteers.  And stronger organizations can do more for animals and people.

So be careful and be informed.  There are definitely red lines you need to be aware of and regulations which must be complied with.  And lawyers who need your money, so consult one if you have questions about the rules.  But don’t be afraid of raising your voice in support of the issues your organization feel are important.

There is nothing to fear, the politician is your friend.  In some way they are like dogs: They require lots of positive reinforcement, training can sometimes take a while, and sometimes they growl.  But mostly, they want to please their masters, the voters.  Help them to do that by teaching them what we like when it comes to animals.

If you help a politician please his master, you’ll have a lifelong friend.  And so will Pennsylvania’s animals.

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My wife and I work in two very different worlds.  I’m in animal welfare and she’s in education (no jokes about children being little animals, please).  Despite that we find ourselves having the same conversations about how to make progress in our two industries and we find rather bizarre parallels.  Dogs or kids, we are both in sectors which tend to be dominated, despite all claims to the contrary, by emotion, tradition, and personal preference rather than by analytics, innovation, and best practice.

Schools and kennels are still built on models created 100 years ago which are more about controlling our charges and ease of management than to benefit the animals or kids.  Our worlds are populated by self-righteous saints who insist that they are here for the animals/kids so how dare anyone question their motives, techniques or performance.  Both our industries are based on outcomes- learning or save rates- yet both industries fight against efforts to quantify our successes or failures and are loath to share that data with the world.

Both worlds seems stuck in self-reinforcing loops of failure where all point the finger at someone else for our shortcomings, rarely take personal responsibility for our role in our failures, and even more rarely actually focus on the things which bear the brunt of failings and should be the singular reason we are in our jobs: the children and animals.  City schools whine against accountability because suburban schools have it easier, just the way open admission shelters whine against no-kill shelters.

And it’s true!  The children of entrenched poverty are a more challenging population to show success if compared against a Main Line population, just as the animals of an animal control facility are more difficult to adopt successfully compared the Golden Retrievers of DVGRR.  Or are they?  How will we know if we don’t actually look at our data, share our data, and hold ourselves accountable?  And shouldn’t we also have an honest conversation about what success is, depending on the school or the shelter?  Isn‘t it a total red herring to say we must not track and test students in a poor school because they don’t match up against a rich school? Just as much as it’s equally unreasonable to say we expect equal outcomes immediately for both schools and equal adoption rates for two types of shelters?  But does that mean we should expect nothing and no progress because we can’t match someone else’s success?

The animal welfare industry hates showing their numbers and evaluating their own performance because we know that most of us have accepted a status quo which results in dead animals.  We are defensive because some in the industry who don’t face our challenges make moronic, simplistic claims about math saving the day.  But the fact that some suburban dilettante volunteers at a shelter which restricts admission to only the most adoptable pets and has vastly more resources to ensure 100% placement for adoptable animals does not mean that we are off the hook for the open admission, low resource shelters we may run.

If we kill half our dogs, shouldn’t we strive to kill at least one percent less than half our dogs?  Two percent? Five percent?  Shouldn’t we use our data to figure out which populations we can save so we do better and better?  Shouldn’t the 100% no-kill shelter strive to extend that 100% rate to a greater number of animals and not just stop at a percentage? Without that data, without using our heads in support of our heart based missions, we are merely churning through animals the way some schools churn through kids.  We are not here simply to have animals pass through any more than schools are a place for kids to pass through.  We’re supposed to actually do something for them to improve their lives and their outcomes.

Schools teachers fear testing and data will be used punitively, and sometimes it will be and sometimes it should.  The same is true for shelters and the staff and directors which run them.  But the world not knowing you aren’t doing as good a job as you could be doing doesn’t mean you are actually doing a good job.  It just means you can tell yourself you are, that you are so big hearted, and no one can contradict you with any facts.

My wife and I both use the same criteria for approaching our jobs.  We look at a dog or a child we are responsible for and we ask. “What would I expect to be done if this was my child or my dog?”  Not in the abstract, but literally, if that was my child’s class or my dog’s kennel, would it be good enough?  In both our experience the answer is almost inevitably, no.  We would want more for our child or pet.  We would want someone held accountable for failing our child or pet.  That is what our hearts demand.

Our heads tell us that it’s the data that makes it happen.  If a child falls back under a teacher, there is a problem and it may just be the teacher, administrator and school, not the child.  If a happy, healthy dog can’t find an adoptive home, it might just be kennel tech, executive director and shelter, not the fact that it’s a pit bull.  If no one is keeping track, how can we know if we are succeeding, let alone failing?

I welcome the day of mandatory reporting of shelter statistics, just like schools have to publish their data.  I welcome the day all shelters have staff meetings where they are pouring over spreadsheets, not petting dogs.  I welcome the day that donors actually ask, “What exactly are you doing with my money which will actually save more animals?” instead of just sending Sarah McLachlan a tear-stained check.  Hard work and hard questions?  You bet.  But the alternative is failing the animals we are all here to help and that is a far heavier burden for us to bear.

When we start using our heads more, our hearts wills be lighter.

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I hear veterinarians level the claim of “unfair” competition again and again- and again.  I’m starting to feel like Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride.  “You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”

"Hello.  My name is Inigo Montoya.  You killed your credibility.  Now prepare for your industry as you know it to die."

“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed your credibility. Now prepare for your industry as you know it to die.”

The Reading Eagle Business Weekly section recently featured an article (9-24-13, “Veterinarians have their hands full”) about how competition is bringing “change to pet docs”.  I read it with interest for two reasons.  First, as a CEO of an organization providing veterinary services, I know a little bit about the market.  Second, I wanted to see how long it would take a veterinarian to level the claim of “unfair” competition against non-profit veterinary providers.  I got a two-fer when I saw that it wasn’t just non-profits generally which were vilified, the Humane Society of Berks County was specifically named as offering “unfair” competition.  Better yet, we didn’t even get a chance to respond to the false claim in the article.  I guess if a vet says it, it must be true.

Are non-profit veterinary practices competition?  You bet!  As in every industry, veterinary medicine is competitive.  What makes it a little unique is the effectiveness with which private practice veterinarians have functioned as a cartel and blocked competition by any other model than their own, decades old and faltering, model of the independent practice model.  They say the mere fact we are a non-profit corporation instead of an llc. or plc. corporation is inherently unfair and act as if it’s unseemly and unheard of.  One need only look around to see how wrong they are.

People like to refer to their pets as kids, so let’s look at child care.  There are for-profit and non-profit providers for daycare fighting it out in the market place.  Veterinary medicine is medical service for animals, so let’s look at human health care.  There are for-profit and non-profit hospitals, insurance companies, and doctor’s offices and practices.

Across all sectors of our economy there are a variety of corporate and business entities providing service from sole proprietorships to limited liability corporations to professional corporations to publicly traded companies to government entities.  Does Exeter McDonalds complain about the municipally owned Reading Country Club horning in on its burger business right across the street?  Is it competition?  Yes.  Is it “unfair” competition?  No.

Even within the vet industry, there have been complaints about for profit competition.  Banfield, owned by the Mars candy company, operates out of PetSmart.  VCA is a publicly traded company.  Vets complain about them, too.  VCA can use its billion dollar plus annual billing to obtain better pricing on its drugs and supplies than the local one owner vet practice can.  They can use their Antech diagnostics division to give themselves preferential pricing and use the resources of that company to fund the purchase of additional practices.  They have a wall of lawyers who help them get around the laws in states where private practice vets have managed to block corporations like VCA from buying practices directly- instead they run complex professional management services for their own practices.  They have a single marketing department.  Is this completion?  Hell, yes!  Is it “unfair” competition?  I don’t think so but I’m sure our little HSBC vet practice offer far less competition of any sort to our competitors.  After all, there are three VCA’s in spitting distance of our practice.

On an aside, I wonder why VCA didn’t get mentioned specifically by that vet in the article?  Perhaps because he sold his own prior local practice to Los Angeles based VCA years ago?

What exactly is our non-profit advantage, by the way?  We pay payroll tax, like the vets.  We have all the same facilities and operations and staff and carrying capacity costs as the vets.  We don’t pay tax on our stuff, but neither do the vets since they are tax exempt for all business related purchases, just like us.  Most vets draw a salary so they pay income tax, not corporate tax, and so do we.  Non-profits don’t pay property tax, but if we lease a building we still have that cost passed along, just like a vet, and let’s be honest, trash and sharps collection cost a practice as much as most property tax bills.  In short, our base costs are essentially identical to a for-profit vet practice.

So, what would be “unfair” competition? What would be unfair would be if we were able to find a way to use whatever paltry tax benefit we get and use it to unfairly undercut other vets in pricing.  That would be unfair.  But we don’t.  We peg our rate to the middle of the market, meaning that at least half the private practice vets in town charge less that we do and less than the other half of the vets in town, which charge more than we do.  Are they “unfair” because the charge less than we do?

Perhaps the vets think we have some unfair heart tugging capacity that brings in clients.  I sure hope so.  Because we need every single one to help us recoup the costs for the hundreds of thousands of dollars in free and reduced cost services we provide to stray and homeless pets in our care and to the thousands of low income clients we assist each year because they have no place else to turn.  Certainly not to the private practice vet who often asks for a credit card in advance of service.  Is that fair to us?  Yes, it is, because we chose to help those people.  It’s our mission, which is why it’s not only fair, it’s legal.  Just ask the University of Pennsylvania Ryan Veterinary Hospital, which is a non-profit hospital that somehow avoid mention by the vets.  Veterinary services help animals stay healthy and stay in homes.  And stay out of shelters.  Period.

The reality is any private practice owner could become a non-profit corporation any time then choose to take advantage of the same so called “breaks” we get.  But most don’t because they know it’s not some silver bullet which will help them save their practices from the economic march of time.  The same march that crushed the family doctor under foot.  Or the Sony Walkman.  Or the haberdasher.  Fair?  Yes.

To the private practice vets who feel the strain of the economy:  I feel your pain and I have sympathy for you, but your pain and my sympathy can’t change what’s coming.  It isn’t HSBC or UPenn Vet or Atlanta Humane or San Francisco SPCA causing you this pain or is bringing an end to your storied monopoly of services.  To end on another quote, this time by Joe Strummer, “It’s just the beat of time, the beat that must on.  You who have been crying for years- we’ve already heard your song.”

We’re here.  We’re non-profit.  Get used to it.

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Cartel (noun): An association of independent businesses organized to control prices and production, eliminate competition, and reduce the cost of doing business (1). Also called a trust (2).

(1) Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. US Department of Defense 2005. (2) Collins English Dictionary, 2003.

There’s been a long lull in blogging this summer, mostly because I’ve been busy doing a lot of things which will annoy the private practice veterinary community.  We’ve expanded HSBC’s own veterinary services and have just received final approval for our new community veterinary hospital, to break ground this fall.  I’ve presented workshops at the nation’s largest animal welfare conference highlighting and promoting the new wave of non-profit based veterinary hospitals springing up across Pennsylvania and the United States.  We’ve helped other shelters add or expand their own veterinary resources to better fulfill their humane missions.

However, during that time I’ve also had a bit of an about face in my rhetoric due to meeting several veterinarians from around the country.  If you follow this blog, you know I’ve stated many times that non-profit vet services are presented as the boogey man for every problem facing small, private practice vets.  This is especially the case for private practice vets who are struggling in the face of very real, but completely unrelated, negative market forces.

I’ve pointed out the private vet practice has been in decline for decades in the face of these other economic drivers and, in my opinion, is going the way of the human health care industry.  There will be more consolidation, non-profit practice, corporate practice, with only the most capable private practices surviving.  I’ve pointed out that the vets themselves facilitated a glut of new graduates who need jobs and these new graduates like animal shelters, are charitable, and don’t want to buy in to the old, debt ridden, practice purchase model.  Many of them want only to work as a shelter vet or desire a non-profit practice, as long as the practice of medicine is high quality.

I’ve talked about the way non-profit practices like ours can provide better than industry standard care at market rates for those who can afford it, at reduced rates for those who can afford less, and for free for those who can afford nothing.  This approach is deeply rooted in mission, since there is now a growing body of evidence that having a strong veterinary relationship decreases relinquishment of pets to shelters.

Whether the old timer vets like it not, the world is changing and their model of practice is coming to an end.  Given the new models of service rising, I think this is for the best for animals, for people, and for veterinarians.

I’ve also been pretty vocal in my feelings that the private practice veterinary community across the nation, and sometimes with the active support of their state vet boards and veterinary medical associations, attack non-profit veterinary practices and seek to keep them from opening or close them down.  If this was any other industry, and the economic bullies weren’t able to hide behind a white lab coat and stethoscope, we’d call it a cartel.  I have called the thugs of the veterinary industry- and it is a multibillion dollar industry, make no mistake about it- a cartel.

But this year I had a bit of an eye opening.  I realized that it wasn’t just non-profit practices who were falling victim to these attacks.  It was also other veterinarians and other practices feeling the heat.  I’ve been meeting vets from around the country who want to turn the model I promote- non-profit missions driven by veterinary services- on its head.  They are trying to have veterinary practices which embrace major non-profit, mission driven goals to better serve animals and people.  And their own consciences.

Vets who have opened full adoptions programs in their hospitals and have even applied for 501c3 status for that work.  Vets offering charity clinics and sliding scale fees for poor clients.  They are starting to look like us!  And now they face opposition from their own community, sometimes even from their own partners.

Am I mad they are stealing our “market share”?  Do I pretend to fear the quality of their charity isn’t as good as ours?  Am I suspicious of their stated motives and suspect its really just some plot for more profit?  No!  Hell, I know they aren’t getting rich giving away services, that they aren’t stealing clients from other vets or from us, that they aren’t undermining the quality of care industry wide- and so does every other vet, just like they know we aren’t doing that either.  They are simply professionals who care about animals and people and are doing what they think is best for them, for their own practices and for themselves.

800px-There's_no_cabalJust like me and the vets who work for and support the mission of The Humane Society.

I called the vet industry a cartel and I was wrong.  A cartel implies a broad coalition, a monolith in support of a monopoly.  But I see cracks in the monolith now and I see the very bricks which constructed it- the very vets these assailants of non-profit practices claim to represent- pulling themselves from the mortar to build a new foundation for the future of veterinary medicine.  So, I don’t think it’s a cartel any more.

I think it’s become a cabal.

Cabal (noun): A small group of people who work together secretly united in a plot.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2013

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You’d think the argument over whether free or reduced adoption fees are a good or bad idea- they are a good idea- would be long over.  However, it’s come up again so I thought I’d repost a prior blog, as well as a new article and study on the topic.  If you know any naysayers who are still living in the 80′s on this subject, please try to convert them!

Read: Damaging Beliefs, Damaging Traditions

Check out this Maddie’s Fund article and study on fee-waived adoptions.

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As more and more shelters move away from the tradition “unrestricted access” model, it’s becoming more common to find the old “no kill/open admission” arguments cleaving into smaller and smaller slivers.

You may have even noted the snotty, passive aggressive slogans of some shelters which imply that they are more open access than the place down the road.  The place which takes animals every day but Thursday is more “open” than the one which is closed every Wednesday and Thursday.  Meanwhile, the other one up the road which is open a half day on Thursday is trumpeting their greater accessibility.

The reality is shelters do and have always had some barriers to admission based on policy, belief or preference.  No identification?  No surrender.  Pet bit someone in the past ten days?  No surrender.  Husband or wife not with you?  No surrender.  Or maybe it’s just Thursday and the shelter is closed.

Ultimately, the arguments over who makes it easier to accept animals are predicated on a basic belief.  It’s the belief that animals are better off, are safer, in a shelter than they are any place else.  There is just one problem with this premise.  It’s frequently false.

For years sheltering organizations have based this belief on coincidence and adjacency, just as people do with any superstition.  A baseball player wears a pair of socks and wins.  He keeps wearing them and wins.  Then he loses but he keeps wearing them, just in case.  Shelters have been basing a world view on seeing the worst possible outcome for animals without realizing that they have a unique and unrepresentative window on the world.  It would be like a cop assuming everyone on earth was a criminal because that’s who she meets most at work.

We see the likelihood of a terrible outcome because we’re the places where the terrible outcomes arrive.  And when we get evidence to the contrary, like the baseball player, we just choose to ignore it.  We have events where thousands of awesomely happy pet owners show up.  But our adoption policies reflect that we assume the worst because of the comparative handful of horrible pet owners we see.

Until recently it would just be one world view against another.  The optimist against the pessimist.  Who could say which is right?  If only there was some way to tell, perhaps a study…

Well, the studies are starting to come in fast and furious and it turns out that things are not what they seem.  It turns out the most dangerous places animals can be are in America’s animal shelters.  If you are a pit bull in a shelter, you are as likely- or more- to be euthanized.  Stray or surrendered cats?  Way over 50/50 in most places.  Feral cats?  Almost 100%.  If an animal is healthy, it has a good chance of getting sick once in a shelter, and then being euthanized for illness.

But, you may ask, isn’t that where they get adopted?  No.  A recent study showed that shelters are a distant third when it comes to being a source for adoption for cats.  In second place is getting a cat from a friend and first place is adopting a stray directly from the streets.  That’s right, there is an increasing argument a cat has a better chance of being adopted and certainly a lesser chance of facing euthanasia in two, seven, or ten days running around as a stray than being in a shelter!  Some might say, and they do, that these animals might be better off dead than living the life of a feral.  As a friend pointed out to me once, what do you think the cat would choose?

I’m not advocating for shuttering shelters or turning out every animal on the street.  HSBC has a few hoops we make people jump through to surrender but we take what’s given us and we do euthanize some of these animals.  We screen adopters and don’t just hand them out the window like a drive-through.  This means some animals may not get a home.  We deal in tradeoffs like every shelter based on what we think is right and best.

But we also make every effort possible to find ways to keep animals in homes where they will be safer than they will if they enter our shelter.  Need free food?  No problem.  Need vet care?  We’ll try to provide it.  Just need someone to talk to and ask advice?  It’s yours.  Fight a law that leads to needless death and suffering.  Count on it.  And maybe a couple of hoops might just slow you down enough to get the help we have to give, not just to dump your pet off where it may have a worse chance than if you had dumped it on the street.

But I do think it is time for all of us to be very careful of what we take as sheltering dogma and be willing to look at new research and new successes- and failures- and be flexible.  Maybe we should pay attention to studies and real life experiences about old taboos like gift adoptions, free adoptions, black cats at Halloween, all of which have been debunked as real concerns.  And we should be a lot less proud that we strive to take in every animal, any animal, regardless of whether it means it will be more likely face an unnecessary death.  Maybe we should check our pride and enthusiasm for trying to beat up others for not being as willing a repository for unwanted pets, often a final repository.

Someday soon, more and more people are going to stop asking why a shelter isn’t taking everything that walks through their door.  They are going to start asking why some shelters do.

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Cartel (noun): An association of independent businesses organized to control prices and production, eliminate competition, and reduce the cost of doing business (1). Also called a trust (2).

(1) Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. US Department of Defense 2005. (2) Collins English Dictionary, 2003.

When we think of cartels, we tend to think of OPEC, the organization of oil producing countries that sets the price of oil.  Or we think of Mexican drug cartels, which control the supply of imported drugs to the US.  Or we think of Teddy Roosevelt’s Trust busting of robber barons controlling the market access to beef, sugar and the railroads.

But there is a good chance you have been subject to a cartel system personally once or twice this year.  You’ve willingly paid the market rates which are not set by competition but by cartel control.

That cartel is the one owned and operated by your neighborhood veterinarian.

SnidelyDid you know that there are states in which a veterinary hospital may not be owned by anyone but a veterinarian?  That if a vet dies, his or her surviving spouse is forced to sell the practice to another licensed vet at fire sale rates because he or she is prohibited by law from owning a practice?  Did you know that Alabama recently tried to make it illegal for an animal shelter to employ veterinarian by trying to pass a regulatory requirement that no veterinarian could have her work schedule set by anyone but another vet?  Do you know who generally makes and enforces these clearly anti-competitive rules?  That’s right, the veterinarians themselves.

Across the nation, Boards of Veterinary Medicine set rules and advocate for regulations and laws, either directly or through their State and National Veterinary Medical Associations, that have nothing to do with the quality of veterinary medicine being delivered.  They have to do with keeping control of the veterinary market.  Yes, there is great insistence that it’s about quality of care, but these protests ring hollow.  After all, who is the corporate owner of a practice or whether it is filed as a Limited Liability Corporation or a Professional Corporation or a 501c3 Charitable Corporation wouldn’t seem to have any bearing on what sort of treatment Fluffy gets in an emergency.  No matter who pays the electric bill at a practice, it is still a licensed veterinarian who is practicing medicine.

Medical doctors are regulated under state law to ensure delivery of quality medical care.  Yet no one claims that a medical practice or hospital must be wholly owned by a doctor.  If you live in Berks I’ll bet you money that there is a better than even chance your doctor works for either St. Joseph’s Hospital or Reading Hospital, both charities.  Do you think you got bad care because of the corporate entity which paid the electric bill or bought the medical supplies used at the practice? Or paid the doctor or set her work schedule?

There are regulatory controls for hair stylists, auto repair shops, and television stations.  Do these businesses have to be owned by stylist, mechanics, or news anchors?  Of course not.

For decades veterinarians have been moaning about non-profits having an unfair competitive market advantage.  They have tried to put up barriers to animal shelters even providing sterilization services and vaccination clinics, let alone full public veterinary services.  Never mind that these generally service a clientele that would not otherwise seek service at a “real” vet practice.  But what is the unfair competitive advantage a non-profit animal hospital has?  At most, it’s that there is no property tax burden.  In Reading, that “burden” for HSBC would be about $5,000.  Do vets really think charitable organizations are not providing more than $5,000 in reduced care to balance that out?  What if non-profits offered to pay property taxes on their hospitals?  Would they stop complaining then?  No, because this is about controlling competition under the guise of “quality of care” concerns, nothing more.

What is comical is that the real death knell for the standard model veterinary practice came decades ago in the form of major corporate veterinary companies such as VCA, a publicly traded company, and Banfield, which operates out of PetSmart stores and is privately owned by the Mars candy corporation.  Why don’t vet boards go after these interlopers to their old, doctor owned vet practice model?  Maybe the billion dollar revenues and fleets of lawyers all that money can buy.  We don’t hear about vets going after the ASPCA or San Francisco SPCA, which have major public veterinary hospitals.  They only have about a hundred million dollars, but that’s still enough to hire plenty of lawyers.

Instead, they go after animal shelters in Alabama who are just trying to stop the never ending death in shelters because of a lack of access to sterilization and vaccination services.  Or they try to get shelters with practices audited by the IRS, like recently happened in Idaho.  That non-profit hospital passed with flying colors.  It turns out the federal government doesn’t seem to have a problem with non-profit hospitals.  They certainly pay enough out to humane ones via Medicare and Medicaid.  And I’m guessing it is only a matter of time before someone decides to go after the non-profit veterinary which are springing up across Pennsylvania right now.  A wild guess is they’ll start with the one with the biggest mouth.

It’s important to point out that all is not lost.  Most of the vets sitting on State Veterinary Medical and Veterinary Medical Association Boards likely went to school and earned their degrees not just before there were Shelter Veterinary Medicine tracks at vet schools, but they did so before it was common for animal shelters to even have a vet on staff, let alone operate a non-profit vet hospital.  There are waves of vets leaving vet school seeking to work for non-profit hospitals and animal shelters, with no aspiration to work for or buy a private vet practice.  There are more and older vets who have chosen to leave the production driven world of the private or for-profit veterinary practice.  How do I know?   Because we have hired them at Humane Society of Berks County and we get resumes from others like them weekly.

It is time for the veterinary cartel to wake up to reality.  Their business model has been slowly dying for years.  If it’s not the non-profit practice killing the model they’ve clung to for decades, it will be the bigger interstate corporate practices.  And if it’s not that, it’ll just be the economics of the marketplace and the expectations of their clients.  As Michael Corleone said, it’s not personal, it’s just business.

I have some sympathy for them.  Just like I’d have some sympathy for OPEC when someone invents viable solar cars or the next fuel source which makes petroleum obsolete.  But just like that will be good for consumers and the environment, a new market driven veterinary service delivery model will be good for consumers and their animals.

They shouldn’t worry.  There will be an animal shelter or mega-corporate practice nearby looking to hire.

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As easy as it is to offer a “rapid response” for every little slight, lie, or inaccuracy said or written these days thanks to technology, we’ve learned that less is more.  A short lie requires a very long rebuttal and it starts to sound like a he said/she said which imparts a sense that there may be validity to both sides when there is not.  Often, one side is lying, the other is not.  Plus, what a waste of time which could be used doing something constructive.

Occasionally, however, something comes to your attention that is so full of-…what’s the best word?…hmmmmm.  Wait, I know: bulls***- that a detailed reply is called for.  Such a time is now.

A friend of Humane Society of Berks County forwarded this little love diddy posted on Facebook by someone who really, really does not like HSBC.  The fact that the person is a disgruntled former employee has nothing to do with it, I’m sure (that, kiddies, is what we call a “full disclosure”).  Since this screed is simultaneously so wrong and lets the cat out of the bag about really big upcoming news, I thought I’d take the time to defenestrate the “errors” and share some details.  In one fell swoop we will address the fallacies and impart some closely held and very exciting news!

Here is the post, in toto, with the name of another organization omitted since this post was not written on their behalf :[All sic] “TIME TO VENT AGAIN!!! I just read an article in the Reading Eagle, 2/28/13, Section B10, which states the Humane Society at 1801 N 11th St in the City of Reading, is planning a 7,900 square foot expansion to include expanding the kennels???? and adding 14 off street parking spaces. As I always educate everyone, the Humane Society of Berks County does not hold any contracts with the County at all including the City contract. The *** takes in 99% of all the animals in the County. The Humane Society takes in NO stray dogs or cats and they pick and choose what owner dogs & cats they take in. They have been bringing dogs in from other counties!!!! while the *** stays packed with dogs and cats. The *** needs funds to fix their kennels and the Humane Society is adding them????? Give me a break, PLEASE IF YOUR GOING TO DONATE, GIVE TO THE THE ***. PEOPLE IN THE COUNTY NEEDS TO KNOW!!! AND CROSS POST PLEASE.”  Yawn.

OK, here goes, one lie, sorry, line, one line at a time at a time.  Grab a cup of coffee, this is going to take a while.   TIME TO VENT AGAIN!!! I just read an article in the Reading Eagle, 2/28/13, Section B10, which states the Humane Society at 1801 N 11th St in the City of Reading, is planning a 7,900 square foot expansion to include expanding the kennels???? and adding 14 off street parking spaces.”  I will not dispute this person’s incessant need to vent, ability to read, the section of the paper, or that we are building a 7,900 foot expansion, including kennels.  And, yes, off street parking.  My response:  Isn’t that totally awesome?!

Humane Society of Berks County will soon- soon, as in ground breaking this spring if we stay on schedule- be finishing the renovations of our Lindy Scholar Center which started in 2006 with the Cat Adoption Center, followed by the LaVigna Dog Adoption Center, both of which were groundbreaking examples of how a small shelter like ours could deliver mega-shelter quality and vision for its animals and adopters.  We had hoped to do it sooner but a little recession intervened.  I will save the real nitty gritty for future announcements but the basics include new kennels, cattery, a nationally accredited community veterinary hospital, and more.  Stay tuned, kids, more to come.

“As I always educate everyone [Author’s note: insert big eye roll here], the Humane Society of Berks County does not hold any contracts with the County at all including the City contract.”  Again, no dispute.  And I appreciate the restatement of this fact which appears all over our website and in every press release we put out five years ago when we very publicly ended our contracts with local municipalities to provide dog catcher and euthanasia services for them.  Actually, I have a small clarification.  We do have contracts with several municipalities in Lancaster and Lehigh Counties to accept strays following their stray holding period, we are listed with the Department of Agriculture as a kennel authorized to accept strays, and we hold a contract via our management services company with another shelter in an adjacent county though which we oversee countywide animal control service delivery for that organization.

The *** takes in 99% of all the animals in the County.”  Finally, chance for a meaty rebuttal!  OK, so HSBC directly housed about 2,744 animals last year (in addition to the 12,000 vet patient visits and surgeries, Ani-Meals on Wheels, emergency deployments to other counties and states, and managing more than that number for another entire county, but these apparently don’t count).  Let’s take maybe 248 off the top which came in as emergency or adoption transfers from other counties and states- or even other shelters from within Berks County, including ***- and get it down to just a Berks intake number 2,468 animals.  If another group is taking in 99% and we are taking in 1%, someone else must be taking in 246,114 animals a year!  That doesn’t seem right.

OK, maybe this person means someone else takes in 99% of strays.  Let’s look at that.  Last year HSBC took in 648 strays from Berks County alone or about 23.6% of our total intake.  That would mean that some other place took in 64,152 strays alone.  Well that seems pretty wrong, too, given that the total number of animals, strays and surrenders, entering the two largest shelters in Berks has historically fallen in the 10,000 to 13,000 range combined.  While I can’t say that I know for sure how many animals came into other Berks shelters last year since we are the only organization in Berks which openly posts its intake numbers, I’m guessing we’d have heard the news if the total had jumped to 65,000 or 250,000.  To be clear, I’ve never heard the unnamed other organization cited making this claim so our friend appears to be wrong for both our organizations.  A two-fer!

“The Humane Society takes in NO stray dogs or cats and they pick and choose what owner dogs & cats they take in.”  We’ve already established that nearly one in four of the animals we take in are strays, and that doesn’t include adoption transfers from other organizations, including those in Berks, so Part A is a fabrication.  Part B is equally wrong.  HSBC takes in any animal presented to us, as is stated prominently on our website.  However, we do require a couple things and we offer a couple options.  First, we require that the person presenting an animal make a $25 donation since we do not receive any municipal or state funds for the service as other shelters do.  If the person does not have the money, we allow payment within 30 days.  Spoiler alert!  The worst kept secret in the world is that we don’t ever collect on that promised money.  We just hope the fact that the person ripped off a charity makes him lose sleep.  The third option is that the person may volunteer three hours at our shelter or any other charity, church or government organization.  Surprising to some, lots of people choose to do that, even if they have the $25.  We like these options.  They share the cost with the public and they give a community service alternative to just handing over some cash.

We also try to help people not have to give up a pet so everyone is offered other services.  Would free food, behavior classes, vet care, foster care, or any other assistance help keep that pet at home?  If so, we try to provide it and that effort keeps a lot of animals from entering our shelter.  The real bug of our friend’s butt, however, is that we also tell anyone with a stray that there is another organization which gets paid take in strays from Berks County.  If they’d prefer to avoid our intake requirements, they may seek services elsewhere.  Guess what? Lots of people choose to bring strays to us anyway.  But the fundamental thing is we do not gate keep based on breed, health, age, or anything else.  Our intake rules are across the board.  We are not a restricted access or No Kill shelter.  And the fact that we do not have a 100% live release rate is a shameful testament to that fact.

“They have been bringing dogs in from other counties!!!! while the *** stays packed with dogs and cats.”  Yes.  Other counties, even other states.  And even from other shelters right here in Berks County.

“The *** needs funds to fix their kennels and the Humane Society is adding them????”  The needs in the animal welfare community are as long as my arm.  And HSBC has needs, too.  Our older kennels and cattery are frankly an embarrassment to me and have been for the eight years I have served as executive director.  It is long overdue that we finish the renovation we started in several years ago, and fulfill the dreams of the executive director who served before me, Lindy Scholar.  My only apology is to the animals for not having an economy which allowed me to do it sooner.  HSBC helps lots of other organizations as much as we possibly can and not as much as we’d like to.  To be fair though, we are not responsible for the state of any organization but our own.  That’s a big enough job.  I don’t think it’s fair to also put the well-being of another organization on us, too.

Also, we aren’t “adding” kennels.  We are blessedly demolishing the old ones and replacing them with awesome new ones.

Give me a break, PLEASE IF YOUR GOING TO DONATE, GIVE TO THE THE ***. PEOPLE IN THE COUNTY NEEDS TO KNOW!!!” As mean spirited, and grammatically incorrect, as this is, I won’t even argue this point.  All charities need support.  We encourage everyone to give as much money and time as they can to every charity which they feel is doing work they believe in.  We don’t feel the need to encourage people to pick us over others when we hope you’ll support all.  But we also know that some people just prefer one charity and its vision over another’s.  If that’s the case, any support in our common mission to improve animal welfare is better than no support at all.  We don’t begrudge anyone else’s success.

And finally, “AND CROSS POST PLEASE.”  I guess if you really feel you need to, go ahead.  I’ll be happy just knowing that you now know how vapid and meaningless this person’s post was.

The cat is out of the bag.  At long last the facility the animals and people of Reading and Berks County deserve is on the way.  We are proud to bring it to you and proud that you have helped to make it possible.  I’d like to have announced it publicly in a different way and we will do a proper job of it later.

Oh, yeah, one last thing.  Name calling and propaganda don’t do anyone much good.  They detract from public discourse and confuse the conversation.  Occasionally, though, a little name calling can have a certain curative effect so I understand why this unhappy person might choose to tear down one in an effort to build up another.  That being said, the person who made this post is a poopyhead.  In my opinion, of course.

What do you know?  I do feel better!

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