I’m taking a detour this week from the series of pieces following our “Year in Review” post to recognize some great news announced by our fellow animal welfare group, Animal Rescue League of Berks County. A recent article in the Reading Eagle tells of their plans to review their operations model with the goal of reaching broadly agreed upon “no kill” save rates of 90% or better.  That is fantastic news and I can tell them from our experience that making this shift in thinking is transformative.

Humane Pennsylvania- or at that time, Humane Society of Berks County- broke the old mold of animal sheltering well over a decade ago. It’s the reason that we were able to end the killing of healthy and adoptable animals for space for the first time in the last quarter of 2007 and we never looked back.  Historical context is crucial and it’s important to remember that in 2007 HSBC was still fully engaged in animal control services and held the contract for Reading and many other municipalities.  Yet we still achieved what was considered impossible.

That was also around the time that we stopped killing feral cats by the hundred, embraced TNR, and were the first shelter in the region to open our clinic to a regional TNR group in full partnership and support of the concept. We even paid for the group’s 501c3 formation costs to help strengthen them as a stand-alone force.  We announced our desire for a comprehensive Feral Cat Initiative (around 2007?  I’m looking for the old paper newsletter) but unfortunately local governments weren’t yet on board and refused to work with us.

In 2006 we won a national American Humane Association award for our ground breaking Free to A Great Home emergency adoption program.  We did this at a time when adoption reductions, let alone free adoptions, got you hate mail from people and even other shelters insisting it was dangerous and that only worthless poor people would adopt.  Adoption reduced, free, or differentials are now standard practice across the nation, and right here in Berks.  We weren’t the first, but we were probably the first to brand it and do it unapologetically.  We were definitely the first to track the data to show it was safe and effective.

We greatly expanded or created new adoption relinquishment prevention programs over the past dozen years. PetNet, founded in 2000 with local veterinarian Dr. Lee Pickett to provide foster services for pets of victims of domestic violence, was expanded to include pets of people with personal or health crisis.  It was recognized for its innovation by the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.  We created the Ani-Meals On Wheels program, one of the very first pet food banks that went out into the community in the nation at the time.  Giving away pet food got us hate mail, too.  At least until the recession hit.  It’s now being expanded to become Spike’s Pantry (more on that soon!).

The most effective relinquishment prevention program, and the one which I will unabashedly say we are truly a, if not the, national leader, is our community veterinary hospital model. When we started our clinic in 2007 we had lawsuits threatened and legislation threatened to prevent us from serving the community under a non-profit model.  Since then we became the first (and third) AAHA accredited non-profit hospital in Pennsylvania and only the 19th (and 21st) in the entire country (and we helped the 2nd/20th , Women’s Humane in Bucks, get accredited so we can be happy about that, too!).  The other 18 had organizational budgets that ranged in size from $5 million to $100 million a year.  Our “little shelter that could” barely broke a million dollar budget the year we opened.  It wasn’t about how much money we had it was about what we did with it.

From being the founding agency in Berks to create the Berks County Animal Response Team before Hurricane Katrina, to establishing partnerships with local, state, and national governments, agencies, and organizations, to providing emergency management services, consulting services, nationally recognized and accepted training certifications, and more, the lists goes on and on. We kept trying new things.  When they worked, we kept and expanded them.  When they didn’t, we moved on.  Where we could learn from others we did, where we could steal great ideas and programs, we did (although we always made sure to give credit where credit was due), and we based success of some very simple factors:  How many animals did we save?  How many did we kill?  How many did we keep safe and sound at home rather than in our shelter?

We kept having better outcomes. We post our numbers online, for all to see, and we have since 2005.  When I started we killed over 60% of all cats and 40% of all dogs.  Then we broke the 80% save rate barrier for cats and dogs.  Then 85%.  Now over 90% for cats and 95% for dogs.  Some years we go up, some down, but overall, the trend is going up.  It gets harder and harder with those last few percent because they are the toughest to save, fix and adopt.  But our prior success informs us that we can do the hard, sometimes even the seemingly impossible, work.  ARL can do it, too, and we are here to lend our applause and our support to them.  And we can assure them they can do it without closing their doors to animals.

This brings me to the fact checking. Someone brought it to my attention that the claim was made that there is only one open admission shelter in Berks County, and that it was not us.  Some people are under the misconception that because we have actually achieved amazing save rates, above the “no kill” percentage, that we must be a restricted access shelter in Berks. That is simply false. Although the Lancaster Humane League facility was a heavily restricted access shelter when we merged, and still has some soft barriers to entry, Berks has been and remains an “open door shelter”.  Our policies are posted online for everyone to see.

We have a suggested- not required- $25 donation for surrendered pets, like most shelters do. We do charge a flat $50 fee for pets coming from out of county, but we think that’s fair since our county is now taking that responsibility is on.  But even then, we consider every animal case by case and never let money stand in the way of doing the right thing.  Personally, I don’t think making someone from out of county pay a small fee is closing the door any more than a restaurant could be considered denying you service because you walked in and told them you don’t intend to pay your bill after your meal.  We even have some animal control intake contracts these days, both in Berks and Lancaster Counties.  In fact, this year 43% of the cats and 23% of the dogs we took in were strays.  It may seem like a small thing but we are very proud of our success while remaining an open door shelter.  It only seems fair to set the record straight.

There has been a sea change in animal sheltering in America in the last decade. The no kill agenda had much to do with it.  In fact, I always say that no kill won the battle, even if it hasn’t won every war.  I still don’t buy the simplistic “it’s about the math” mantra, because it’s demonstrably false.  But the mindset that animals don’t have to die and that it’s my personal responsibility- and yours– to find ways to make sure they don’t was not the mindset that dominated shelters when I started professionally 25 years ago.  It is now.  It is here.

And it appears that now it will be across all of Berks. I could not be more excited about what this means for all our animals, and their humans.

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As promised in the 2018 State of Humane PA post, I’m posting a series of more detailed weekly follow ups on the bullet point list provided there.  Keep checking back or subscribe to the feed to get updates! 

2017 was one of the best years for animals in the 117 year history of Humane Pennsylvania (and Humane Society of Berks County and Humane League of Lancaster County). Using modified Asilomar reporting, we had a success rate- out alive- of 97% for dogs, 94% for cats, and 100% for small animals!  That’s as good as we’ve ever done for dogs and small animals, and better than we’ve ever done for cats.

But it was (probably) Mark Twain who said, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. Anyone who claims stats like that better be prepared to defend them.  And I’m just the anyone to do it.  After all, how can we say we saved 94% or more of animals when 1,092 of the 4,642 animals who entered our shelters didn’t leave us alive?

First, I better explain what we mean by “modified Asilomar” reporting. Asilomar reporting is the closest thing to an industry standard as there is for reporting intake and outgoing figures in shelters.  Using Asilomar, a shelter establishes four categories of animals.  Health & Adoptable, which as the name implies, means happy, healthy animals. Treatable, which is further broken down into Rehabilitatable (can be made Healthy) or Manageable (has a chronic issue such as diabetes or manageable behavioral issue).  The last group are the ones determined by community standards to be deemed Unadoptable.  We are very by the book about what makes it to these groups and you can read our detailed matrix for deciding here.  Our reporting is modified because we are a bit stricter in our interpretations and designations than Asilomar allows for (for example, ASPCA says that animals under eight weeks (!!!) can be deemed unadoptable under Asilomar.  That is batsh*t crazy talk).

Where shelters get into trouble is often to shove everything into the “unadoptable” group, but we are very transparent about our thinking and reporting. If an animal is Treatable, even up to the point of pretty heroic measures, we put it in Treatable.  The animals that go into Untreatable are animals that either are obvious (you’ll see what I mean in a second) or animals which reasonably belong there.  For example, of the 1,092 animals which are reported as “failures”- i.e. they didn’t leave alive- 609 of them (56%) came to us already dead for disposal or cremation (139), so injured that they actually died under veterinary treatment (50), or were brought to us by their owners specifically to be euthanized for valid reasons (420).  Most reasonable people would grant us that these are animals which we shouldn’t count against our adoption numbers, because they had no chance of being adopted.  We can’t raise the dead.  Yet.

Of course, it goes without saying but I will say it anyway, we don’t euthanize any happy, healthy animals and we haven’t since 2008. Let me repeat that:  all healthy animals get adopted.  Full stop.

But that’s a lot of ground in between those tow groups, fully 483 animals or about 10% of our intake. Those last 483 are the ones we struggle with, some more than others. A small number (6) run afoul of state rabies regulations and have wounds of unknown origin that require a level of quarantine we can’t provide.  Some animals (10) come in with such a history of serious bites we don’t even consider adopting them.  Some feral cats (10) were euthanized this year because we can’t safely house them and we didn’t have an alternative rescue placement, despite our extensive partnerships with feral cat networks.  When I started 13 years ago we euthanized a 1,000 feral cats a year.  A 99% decrease isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty close.  3 dogs came in that were so old it wasn’t humane to keep them.  14 extremely young kittens were euthanized, also drastically lower than past years because we have pioneered giving a kitten nursing kit  to people for free.  Thanks to this program we saved 90 kittens who came to us but went home with finders or fosters. 23 animals that came were euthanized because of serious bites to humans, either in the community or in our shelters, and fell into the rabies concern issue, as well as safety concerns.  1 cat escaped.  98 animals were euthanized for aggression that rose to a level that made our staff and managers decide that there was not a safe placement option.  Animals which we would fear to have in our homes with our families should not be at home with your family.

These are all animals which did not leave us alive. But each of them was considered individually, treated with compassion, and ultimately it was the most appropriate decision for each of them.  I will be honest when I say bluntly, these are not the ones I lose sleep over.

The ones which I lose sleep over are the ones in two groups: animals euthanized for behavioral issue and sick animals. These are our clearest failures and the ones which we always second guess ourselves.  If we had more resources, more staff, more time, more space, more, more, more….could we have saved them? There were 88 animals with such severe behavioral issues that we were unable to find an adopter or did not feel it was best for the animals to languish in a shelter, never adopted. 131 animals were euthanized that came to us profoundly sick but not terminally ill, and 86 became ill while in our care and were euthanized.  To be fair, we used to kill thousands of animals just because they sneezed, so this number is a victory by comparison.  But if you ask those animals, they won’t pin a ribbon on us.

These are the toughest failures because we have gotten so good at saving animals. We are now the go-to shelter for animals with major problems.  That makes it harder and more expensive than ever, and while we do better than ever, we don’t succeed every time.  We do literally everything in the playbook.  Hell, we wrote the playbook for many of these programs.  We were the first nationally recognized organization to pioneer free adoption programs as standard practice.  We have been groundbreaking in our veterinary services to the shelter animals and the community.  We work aggressively with rescue groups.  We don’t block adoptions for stupid reasons.  We do everything in our power to get these animals out alive.

When I started 13 years ago we took in 7,000 animals and we killed about 4,000, excluding dead animals and owner requested euthanasia.  Now we take in 4,649 and we kill about 400 treatable animals, albeit profoundly sick or behaviorally compromised.  If they weren’t real lives, this would be level of success that we would never shut up about.  But for those 400, our best year ever was still a failure.  Sorry to be a Debbie Downer about it, but it’s true.  Our staff is second to none.  This year’s success was second to none.  You, our supporters, are second to none.  But it still wasn’t enough.  It wasn’t perfect.

I apologize to you and to every single animal we could not save for not being perfect, even if that’s not realistic. And that’s why we have big plans for this year.  We can bring these number down even more, we can finally say we can achieve a “target zero” without being utter liars.

We’ve never done better, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to try like hell.

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My fellow Humane Pennsylvanians, I am honored to report to you that the state of Humane Pennsylvania is strong!

Each year I try to give a report on the prior year, the coming year, and the general state of Humane Pennsylvania. It’s time for your update and as I somewhat facetiously noted above, it’s been a great past year, is shaping up to be a great coming year, and we have never been stronger as an organization.  Below are some bullet point highlights.  About once a week for the next many weeks, I’m going to post a more extended blog about each of these bullet points.  I hope you keep checking back.

  • First and most importantly, we did great work for animals last year! Our “live out” rates remained extremely high and even grew, with 97% of dogs, 94% of cats, and 100% of critters being adopted (please refer to our stats page for a detailed breakdown and explanation of the categories we use). Those are great numbers even for a restricted intake shelter, like the Humane League was when Berks Humane merged with it three years ago. But they are spectacular numbers for an open door shelter like we have in Berks- and even more spectacular when you consider that in Lancaster this year we opened that closed door much more widely on our way to transitioning back to fully open door. We also entered into a new stray intake service contract with two local municipalities in Lancaster. In fact, we took in more stray cats than surrendered cats for the first time since we stopped providing animal control intake services in Berks and Lancaster Counties- and we still achieve these stunning success rates!
  • Our veterinary hospitals continue to expand and grow. We are actively seeking additional veterinarians (up to three) to fill the needs of the community. Last year was especially exciting for the vet services department because a $75,000 grant from the Giorgi Family Foundation allowed us to provide free and reduced cost services to hundreds of animals in need, with a focus on pets of owners enrolled in our PetNet programs. These services saved lives and prevented animals from being surrendered and could be provided regardless of ability to pay. If you don’t know about our AAHA accredited (the first in PA and two of only 21 accredited non-profit hospitals in the entire US!) public animal hospitals, you should check us out. We can be the vets for your pets! We can also be where you work! If you are a vet who wants to break new ground in the best of both worlds (private practice and community veterinary care), learn more here.
  • Speaking of PetNet services, our expanded AniMeals program, with its new partner service, Spike’s Pantry, has also been growing by leaps and bounds. We are very excited at a pending partnership with a major grocery chain and a major international pet food manufacturer which will allow us to combat food insecurity for pets in our service areas. More to follow as we finalize this exciting service expansion.
  • Speaking of expansions, both shelters are growing and changing in 2018! Thanks to a multi-year, $500,000 grant from the Culliton Family Foundation, we are making some much needed improvements and upgrades to the Lancaster shelter. This will include returning cats to the main shelters building in a new cat adoption center and expanding the veterinary hospital capabilities.
  • But we aren’t stopping there. We are finally returning to the planned vision for a new state of the art adoption center at our 11th Street location in Reading. Half the building will be leveled and rebuilt, the other half fully renovated. It will be the shelter of the next 20-40 years and will have everything it needs to be to give the animals the shelter they require and deserve, the staff the tools the needs and deserve to do the best possible rescue work, and vastly expanded high volume community veterinary resources to allow us to take on the battle against preventable animal suffering in our communities.
  • And we fully intend to take that battle on until we win. That’s big talk, I know. We will be announcing a detailed and comprehensive plan to bring an end to preventable animal cruelty in our communities through a five prong attack. This plan has grown out of the combined work and innovation of the past few years and is built on what we do best, as a shelter and as a society. There is still work to be done to line up the needed funds and partners, but this plan is on a short timetable and we hope to have some major announcements in the next four to eight weeks. If you want a sneak preview, call me.
  • The Berks Canine Exercise and Training Center (capitals makes it sound fancy!) has begun its transformation. We had hoped to have a completion before December 1 but the need to coordinate tree planting with the repaving of the parking lot and a slow receipt of a major donation meant the asphalt plants shut down for the winter. The needed fencing has already been installed so the space is functional, but the second the ground thaws it will also be pretty. Flowering trees, benches, a koi pond, human rest areas, signage, and a shining, flat new parking lot that doesn’t rip the bottom of your car out are scheduled in just about eight weeks from now (weather permitting). Many thanks to the Baldino Family for their generosity and patience. It will be worth the wait!
  • Last but not least, three of our four major special fundraising events are getting new homes this year! The Art for Arf’s Sake Art Auction returns to the old Raja Theater (Santander Performing Arts Center, Reading). The theme is West World. We’ve done robots. Everyone has done cowboys. The obvious option: Robot Cowboys. Save the date cards coming soon! The Walk for the Animals also returns to its old home, First Energy Stadium, home of the Fighten’ Phils in Reading! Bigger, better, barkier than ever. Keep following for details. And finally, Pints for Pups will be making a jump to Lancaster County this year. The location is still being worked out, but fingers crossed for a perfect venue! Announcement to follow. If you are interested in helping with any of these events, please reach out.

Like I said, it was a big year and will be an even bigger one coming up. It would not be possible without our exceptionally great staff, our phenomenal volunteers, and our amazingly generous donors.  As you have read we have been blessed with some pretty amazing gifts this past year.  Whether you have given your time, a dollar, or a half a million dollars, though, it’s combined to put us on the strongest footing of our 118 year history.  It’s allowing us to not just react to the sufferings of animals but to break the fundamental foundations of preventable animal suffering.  You have helped us make that happen.

Your support and confidence in us allows me to say that the state of Humane Pennsylvania is strong and growing stronger! God bless the animals and God bless Humane Pennsylvania!

(Now start humming “Hail to the Chief” for full effect…Da, da, dada, da, dada, dada, dada, da….)

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While it seems like the focus in the effort to combat animal cruelty would be at the State legislative level, local elections give animal advocates a chance to make a difference in this off year election. On Tuesday, November 7, Pennsylvanians can cast votes for offices which can have a very direct impact on animal welfare policy.  Municipal officials, school board directors, and even local Judges of Elections might hold the key to bringing about changes at a state and local level.

When it comes to actually implementing new anti-cruelty laws, it’s often local offices which can ensure they are taken seriously. Municipal Council, Township Supervisors, and local Mayors oversee local police departments and set the tone and enforcement direction for communities.  They often direct local wildlife management policy.  If these office holders view animal welfare as important and as part of ensuring a good standard of life in their community, animals will benefit.

School boards make curriculum choices which can sometimes involve use of animals. Many schools still do “egg hatches” in elementary school and dissect animals in high school.  Some use euthanized cats which are sourced from animal shelters.  Little Johnny may be dissecting someone’s dead pet in Biology.  And although Pennsylvania mandates “alternative” assignments if requested by students, often those alternatives require extra out-of-class work.  This is an obvious disincentive to students who might otherwise wish to opt out.  That’s why pro-science but anti-needless cruelty school board members can make a difference by ensuring that the intent of the law is followed and that high quality alternatives are considered.

And all those obscure offices, such as Judge of Elections or local Auditor, can have an impact, too. Fair elections are critical to making sure good, animal friendly candidates have a fair shot at winning.  Just how much does your municipality pay to have feral cats rounded up and killed?  A Township Auditor might be able to take a look at that number.  When these small local offices turn over, they apply upward pressure to the county political parties and they have a voice in choosing future candidates for office from the inside.  That includes future candidates who will run in 2018 State elections and who will be able to pass meaningful animal welfare legislation.

Laws are only as good as the enforcement they receive and prosecutions only as good as the trials they receive. Don’t forget to do your research on the District Magistrates, Commonwealth Court, and Supreme Court Judges running this November 7.  They decide these cases, both in first round trials and on appeal.  One of the biggest barriers to prosecuting pigeon shoots under current law is the result of a decision by just one Commonwealth Court judge in Berks County decades ago.  Judges matter.

You can change things for animals this Tuesday, November 7, by choosing local and judicial candidates who share your belief that animal welfare matters. Do your research now (you’re reading this on the internet- use it!).  Ask candidates where they stand and make an informed decision.  Make a plan to vote November 7 and do it.

Passing good laws is up to our legislators. Electing pro-animal welfare candidates is up to us.

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Animal welfare is as much a realm of rumor as any industry. There is a rumor swirling around right now that the State Legislature and Executive Branch–or at least some in them–are considering a change in who provides initial and continuing education for Humane Society Police Officers (HSPO) in Pennsylvania.  Since the inception of the HSPO law, this training has been provided through a partnership of major universities (including Penn State) and Federated Humane Societies of Pennsylvania, a volunteer professional affiliation group made up of representatives from over 50 animal welfare organizations across the state. Disclosure note:  I am on the board of directors of Federated Humane, and Humane Pennsylvania is a member agency.

Not So Hot For Teacher.

According to the unsubstantiated rumors, the idea is to grant the training contract to a new entity and an existing individual entity, rather than a collective of organizations like Federated Humane or a major dissociated entity, like Penn State. In other words, instead of a coalition of organizations representing all types of communities ranging from rural to suburban and urban; and all types of missions ranging from brick and mortar shelters for companion animals to farm animals; and a wide range of mission beliefs and approaches, the training could be in the hands of just one organization.  One organization, representing one viewpoint, one region, and one approach. In my opinion, this is a profoundly bad idea, for a number of reasons.

  • Trust: The choice of a major university and a membership group representing organization from every corner of the state to be responsible for training was no accident. It is reasonable to expect some lack of trust from country folk or city folk, or eastern PA or western PA, etc. (and vice versa) because it is reasonable to think that there may be less understanding of these specific communities. Federated Humane had members of every size, from nearly every county, and could speak credibly to the views of a broad spectrum of organizational and local priorities. A single agency will not engender that same breadth of representation and may be viewed with suspicion in some quarters. Any out of state advocacy organization, such as HSUS, will unequivocally face suspicion from the agricultural community. This may be undeserved, but it will be a fact.
  • Continuity: Penn State or a big university isn’t going anywhere. Federated Humane Societies or a similar group made up of and serving a large group of agencies of all sizes and types is self-perpetuating and less subject to major swings of capacity. The same cannot be said about individual organizations. The past decade has seen animal shelters growing or dramatically shrinking, some divesting themselves of shelters, other radically changing mission approaches. Some, including Humane Society of Berks County and Humane League of Lancaster County, chose to drop their legal rolls in cruelty law enforcement for a variety of reasons. In the case of the Humane League of Lancaster County, it literally collapsed as an organization and dissolved to be taken over by another organization in the matter of only a couple years. Placing all the training eggs in one basket is dangerous.
  • Credibility: It is far easier to call into question the credibility of any agency which stands to personally profit from taking on training. Penn State makes little if anything on providing training and even if it did, it’s a drop in the bucket of their billions. Federated Humane is a volunteer organization that provides training supports at a loss using volunteers. Will an individual organization answering to its own board, donors, and operating budget needs be able to say the same? Will its own financial history be called into question and raise doubts about every price increase or change to the curriculum or training location? That’s a rhetorical question. The answer is, of course it will.
  • Politics: Granting one organization the power to provide all training is also an invitation to turning already latently political issues and processes into openly political ones. If any legislator thinks partisan politics are bad, try wading into animal politics. As soon as it appears that one organization will benefit directly and exclusively, it is a sure bet that other organizations will question why they should continue to support the efforts that are imbalanced in favor of one of their peers, especially one which may not even be in its community, or is bigger or better resourced already. Why would they continue to exercise their influence on local representation over statewide issues if they no longer have a voice in decisions?
  • Moderation: Because of the current university and member organization control of training, there has been a moderating influence on all groups. For example, I serve on the board of Federated Humane and my organizations don’t provide direct cruelty enforcement any longer. But I know this is important to the member organizations which I am supposed to represent as a board member. It may make no difference to me and Humane Pennsylvania who does what, but it matters very much to scores of our members. That makes me fight on their behalf and it also obligates me not to unilaterally strike out on our own for our own political agenda. This moderating influence will be lost if training is placed in the hands of a single organization.
  • Fairness: Let’s also be honest. If there is a change, especially if any sort of contrived crisis is allowed to occur, someone is likely to walk away with money that isn’t on the table right now. It is entirely unfair to organizations who have been providing services to the state for free for 25 years to relinquish that role–only to have a new comer profit from it. It is also unfair if all organizations who have been doing the work have been excluded from any discussions about the any changes which may be coming down the pike. If only one or two organizations or individuals are “in” on plans that will impact every community in PA, it is flatly unfair.

Maybe the rumors are false. I hope so. But if they aren’t it means that behind the scenes discussions are being engaged in that could radically change how HSPO training is delivered in Pennsylvania and it will almost certainly result in a lack of trust, continuity, credibility, moderation, and fairness.  And that’s bad politics.  It could also be very bad for animals if the changes don’t go swimmingly.

I sincerely hope that the legislature and the executive’s office thinks long and hard before taking any action which could turn Pennsylvania into an animal welfare free-for-all.

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Hurricane Maria Gets Personal

September 27th, 2017 | Posted by Karel Minor in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

I wrote in a recent post about how hurricanes and far away disasters can impact us locally.  Usually, it’s an economic impact as donors rightly extend their compassion and their donations to the people and animals in these hard hit areas.

Stephanie Desiderio helping animals and her community at a free vaccination and microchip clinic in Reading this year, made possible by the Giorgi Family Foundation.

But Hurricane Maria has now had a direct impact on Humane Pennsylvania and one of our own. Several of our staff members are natives of Puerto Rico.  One, Stephanie Desiderio, a certified veterinary technician at Humane Veterinary Hospitals Reading, took vacation time to travel to Naranjito, Puerto Rico before the storm to help her grandparents prepare for Hurricane Maria.  Unfortunately, once the storm took direct aim for the island, she couldn’t leave and is now one of millions of people stuck, with no electricity, no access to food, fuel, and (now, finally) only limited cell phone service.

Stephanie is a top notch vet tech, and as pleasant a person as you will meet. Just to give you a sense of what she is like, I’ll share one of the first things I remember about her:  Not long after she was hired I was walking through our hospital and heard a couple of people singing.  It was Stephanie and one of her coworkers, joyfully doing their jobs.  It was infectious, and that’s the kind of person Stephanie is–infectiously joyful.  That’s the only kind of infection you want in a veterinary hospital.

Thankfully, Stephanie and her grandparents are safe and sound, to the extent you can be in these conditions. Until the last day or two we couldn’t even reach her to make sure she was OK.  We know that this story is repeated for thousands of families in Reading and Lancaster, which both have large Puerto Rican communities.  It is nearly unimaginable that this many people–this many United States citizens–could be facing such a challenge and that we are helpless to assist someone in our own family.

We are doing what we can. We were finally able to speak to her in person today and I told her that we would keep her on payroll and insurance for as long as it takes to get her safely back.  I hope she will forgive me for sharing this, but when she heard this she began sobbing.  Like so many people, loss of a few days’ salary, let alone weeks’ salary, could result in personal catastrophe.  Humane Pennsylvania won’t let that happen to one of our own.

But I asked her to do something in exchange for this assistance. I asked her to help any animal she could, find any local group who was helping animals and help them, and to be ready to help any groups who we know of working in her area.  She, of course, said yes, because she has devoted her life and her work to helping animals.  We are proud to have such a representative of our organization available to help people and animals in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico in its time of need.

Naranjito, Puerto Rico, before.

We will share any news we get from her. She says the situation is terrible, that she has not seen a single dog or cat, and that she fears many or most drowned due to widespread flooding.  Survivors will need help, and we couldn’t ask for a better person to be there. (UPDATE 9/28/17:  Stephanie has a confirmed flight out October 8 and may have an earlier humanitarian flight for her with one of the several groups we are working with to provide assistance in Puerto Rico.)

This begs the question that has been asked again and again (and again and again).  Are we ready here in Pennsylvania, in Berks and Lancaster Counties, for “The Big One”?  Quite simply, the answer is no.  Despite our work since before Hurricane Katrina as the leader of the Berks County Animal Response Team, and our partnerships with the State Animal Response Team to support response in Lancaster County, despite our repeated sheltering deployments in our and surrounding counties, and despite being asked to support rescue efforts across the nation in the past ten years, the scale of our capability is small.

Naranjito, Puerto Rico, after.

We can count on helping tens, scores, maybe a hundred animals at a time in an emergency. But what about hundreds, or a thousand at a time, as we see happening in major catastrophes?  Can we–should we–count on big outside groups to get to us?  Or should we be prepared on our own?

I believe the answer is clearly the latter. We will want all the help we can get, but we should be able to deliver services on a large scale on our own in our own community.  Imagine the unimaginable.  Limerick Nuclear station has problem and tens of thousands of nearby residents are evacuated.  Or a local chemical plant has an accident, or massive fires break out, or a terrorist attacks, or massive flooding causes destruction due to a hurricane (remember Agnes in 1972)?

It can happen here and it will happen here, at some point. Humane Pennsylvania is currently working on expanding our emergency resources and I will be sharing those plans with you over the next year.  Until then, please remember that when disaster hits, we are here (and sometimes elsewhere, with folks like Stephanie). We can only be here with your help. Keep us strong, keep us prepared, and keep us ahead of the next catastrophe.  Please make a donation today.

Give to them. Then give to us.  Thank you.

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You might not think that a Gulf coast hurricane or New York City terrorist attack would have a direct negative impact on animal shelter operations here in Berks and Lancaster Counties. You’d be wrong.

After the 9-11 attacks, the animal shelter I worked for previously did not receive a check in the mail for 30 days. It was an unprecedented financial set back, and had it not been a fairly wealthy shelter with a few spare million in the bank, it could have been seriously damaging to our work.

Twelve years ago when Katrina ripped through the South, we saw a similar temporary drying-up of donations as people rightly turned their attention and compassion to people and animals in the storm zone. We understood this and we supported this giving by our supporters- with the reminder that they needed to keep supporting us because we are here doing our job every day.  In both these cases, and Hurricane Sandy and many others, we caught up as people remembered the local animals in need and made up for the lull in giving.

One thing we have never faced was a timing like we have right now, with first Hurricane Harvey and then Hurricane Irma. Past events occurred during periods of “general giving” or direct mail appeals.  These can be made up through later donations or the timing of mailings shifted.  Right now we are in the peak registration period for the Walk for the Animals.  More than half of our registrations come in during the three weeks prior to the Walk.

The “usual dip” in donations doesn’t get made up for when it comes to an event like this, because the event comes and goes. Just like in prior disasters, we are seeing the temporary impact.  Registrations dipped exactly as images of the hurricanes and displaced pets and people flooded the airwaves and internet.  Our registration numbers for the Walk are well below our usual numbers two weeks out (the Walk is Saturday, September 23).

It’s the Walk’s 40th Anniversary! The Walk for the Animals is one of the oldest animal charity walks anywhere and has grown from raising $12,000 13 years ago to raising around $100,000 a year now. It’s a critically important fundraiser for us!

Hurricane’s Harvey and Irma may have hit Texas and Florida, but they could potentially devastate us by bringing us up short on our Walk fundraising goals.  We don’t have millions in the bank to fall back on.  If we are a couple hundred registrations short for the Walk, as well as all the pledges those Walkers bring in, it’s a lot of very real money needed for very real animals, right here at home.

We are repeating what we’ve always said following disasters: give to local shelters in Florida and Texas, they need it.  Give to the national groups who are able to go in and set up big temporary shelters and transport animals who need it.  They need it, too.

And give to us or your local shelters where you live, because we always need it.  We are always here and we have work to do every day.  We will be the people who help take in displaced animals from these disaster areas.  And we are the folks who will handle disasters that happen here – if we remain strong with your support.

If you are already registered for the Walk, thank you! But please help us right now by getting a friend to register, by upgrading to a VIP Walker level, and by raising pledge support from friends, family, and coworkers.  Our FirstGiving fundraising page even makes it easy to ask for support from friends around the country.  As little as $10 each from five friends would make a huge (YUGE!) difference! These simple things would not just catch us up, it could put us ahead.

If you aren’t registered for the Walk, join us!  You can be a part of ensuring that we are here and ready to help animals today and tomorrow.  I hope to see you there!

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The Five Freedoms are a set of conceptual guidelines created in Britain in the 1960’s. They are periodically in vogue as guiding principles by many animal welfare organizations.  The American Humane Association refers to them as the “gold standard”.

The Five Freedoms are unique from most animal welfare standards laid out in the law because they are not specific directives, such as “a dog’s cage must be X feet long and Y feet wide.” Instead, they allow for an evaluation of the impact of the care, keeping, and housing on an animal’s state of physical and mental wellbeing.

The Five Freedoms are:

  1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst: By ready access to fresh water and diet to maintain health and vigor.
  2. Freedom from Discomfort: By providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
  3. Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease: By prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
  4. Freedom to Express Normal Behavior: By providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
  5. Freedom from Fear and Distress: By ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.

In an animal sheltering environment, the first three should be givens. We are supposed to feed the animals, we keep them warm and dry and give them a blanket, and we vaccinate them and keep them healthy.  Good animal shelters should be able to manage that or they shouldn’t be in the business.

What about the last two? What do they mean and can they even be truly addressed in a shelter environment?  In food production, “expressing normal behavior” for a cow might mean running around in a field with other cows, being free from “fear and distress”.  Right up until they run you through a cattle chute and pop a bolt in your brainpan.  But I’m here to talk about dogs and cats, I’ll leave that oxymoron to a vegetarian to argue.

In shelter settings addressing the last two freedoms has increasingly meant fancier and more palatial shelters. Bigger cages- sorry, kennel suites- and couches to lie on instead of blankets, maybe a water feature!  Dogs get to play in high-end play group yards.  Cats get indoor/outdoor “catios” (Get it?  It’s like a patio.  But for cats! So crazy.).  Space, “proper” facilities, company of their own kind.  Check, check, check.

The combination of the first four presumably leads to the final: freedom from fear and distress. This is the one that always leaves me suspect.  How much or how little mental suffering are we talking about?  None?  Do we, can we, ever make an animal in a shelter, no matter how spectacular the shelter, free from mental suffering?  I’m not sure we can.  We can make an animal suffer less.  We can feed it well, make it completely comfy, have veterinarians on call 24/7, and play with it till it drops from exhaustion.  But it’s still in an animal shelter and not in a home.  Since these are domestic companion animals, can they ever “express normal behavior” if they are any place but in a home?  Without a home can they ever be free of some level of mental suffering?  I don’t know.

There are many in the animal sheltering world who truly feel most animals are better off in a shelter than in many of the homes in our communities. It’s almost hard to argue considering some of these gorgeous shelters we see around the country.  What home has the amenities and care provided to the animals as some shelters?  Most pet caretakers can’t provide five walks a day, regular Reiki massage sessions, and high end nutritional programming.  If they can’t provide that, why not better off in a shelter?

And if these caretakers provide even less, they can’t afford recommended vaccinations every year, perhaps the food is lower quality, perhaps the exercise is being turned out into a yard and not a half mile walk with hugs, perhaps these animals really should be in a Five Freedoms shelter until they can be adopted into a new and superior home.  After all, if we presume that Freedoms One through Four lead to Freedom Five, freedom from mental suffering, shouldn’t default to the place that can best provide for the animal?

I don’t think so. I think we have turned the Five Freedoms on their head with our assumption we can ever truly provide what a domestic companion animal needs.  Because we can never actually be its home.  What if, instead of thinking we can achieve freedom from mental suffering in a shelter, we decide we can’t.  What if we apply our belief that the first four freedoms lead to the fifth, but only in a home?  What if we put all our efforts for most animals into helping the caretaker of every pet provide freedoms one through four in their own home?

But some people are crappy caretakers you may say. Maybe.  But we’ve all seen a dog that runs back to the owner that isn’t a good owner.  Even the one who abuses it.  Animals want to be in a home, even a crappy one.  What if we could make the home better?  Maybe not as great as an uber-rich, swanky animal shelter, but better.  Food in the dish, basic vet care, a comfy pillow to sleep on. Freedom One, Two and Three?  Check, check, check.

Then let’s assume that “providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind” means a being in a real home. Check.  And let’s assume that an animal’s mental state will always be better in that home, assuming it is fed, comfy, healthy, and it’s not being abused.  That the quality of life in always better at home than it is in a shelter, any shelter.  That means an animal entering a shelter is a failure on our part, not just the owner who gives up their pets, because we know we aren’t doing what’s best for that animal.

Maybe you’re willing to play along with this mental exercise but the fact that not every person can or does provide all those basic requirements is nagging at you. Me, too.  However, I firmly believe, and research backs it up, that the vast majority of people would provide properly for their pets if they could, if they had the resources, or the access, or the knowledge.

“But they don’t,” you might say. “What if they did, what if we gave it to them?” I would ask.  “But we can’t,” you might say.  “Why not?” I would ask.  Why couldn’t we give every pet caretaker food if they ask for it, basic vaccinations, even sterilization, if they ask for it?  Or any of a myriad of other supportive services.  It would be hard and expensive.  But there is a dollar amount that could be applied to these efforts.  There is a man hour estimate that could be applied.  It’s possible to estimate how many animals need medical care who don’t get it, how many animals are food insecure.

We could figure out exactly what it would cost, what it would take, and do it for every animal. I mean: Every. Single. Animal.  We could flip how we pursue the animal welfare model and break from the 150 year old shelter based model and build a home based model.  Welfare for animals.  Sure, why not?  We don’t penalize kids (OK, we aren’t supposed to) because they were born into a poor family.  They still get CHIP and public school and free lunch.  That’s because we would never pretend that the average poor kid is better off in an orphanage or foster home.  But we often say that about animals.

We will always need shelters and they should always be palaces that strive to attain the Five Freedoms for all pets. They should also be the last option after we’ve done everything possible to ensure that an animal has everything it needs in its own home, that a caretaker knows how to obtain the basics to keep an animal in its home.

Humane Pennsylvania is looking at what it would take to do just that in Berks and Lancaster Counties. We are tired to stealing victory from the jaws of a defeated animal welfare model that doesn’t help animals until they’ve already been utterly failed.  This might have been a fantasy exercise ten or twenty years ago and it might still be one in many parts of the country today.  I don’t think it’s crazy in our community.

We are put a price tag on helping every animal in every home.  If we choose not to do it as a community, maybe it’s time to stop pretending we really give a damn about animals at all.

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No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

September 6th, 2017 | Posted by Karel Minor in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

Have you ever spent an hour on 2,000 words of dripping sarcasm just to decide it was 1,910 words too many?  I did and decided I could leave it at this:  Libre’s Law was a very good, if not perfect bill.  It did not change the status of pigeon shoots in Pennsylvania.  Humane Pennsylvania and I are happy to have played a small role in gathering the support needed to obtain near unanimous passage.  And Plymouth Rock is missing a Puritan.  It must be tiring.

Look at that, only 90 words.

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Mom and kittens rescued from Willow St. in Reading during major flooding in 2006, one of our first Berks CART activations.

Twelve years ago, I was in South Carolina attending a training with several staff and volunteers when Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. I remember watching the news coverage and seeing the first picture of a dog on a roof and texting back to the staff at Humane Society of Berks County:  They are going to start showing the animals, get ready for calls.

I was right. Coverage of the animals facing peril became almost as ubiquitous as the coverage of people.  It was clear that no plans had been made to help animals, or even people with animals.  Stories were told, perhaps apocryphal but probably not, that people had drowned because they refused to be evacuated without their pets or were turned away from shelters because they refused to abandon their pets.

And we received calls from our local and regional press, asking what planning we’d start doing in the event of a natural disaster or similar emergency.

What planning would we start doing?  Brother, we were way ahead of them.

The year before Katrina, the Humane Society of Berks County had already established the Berks County Animal Response Team (CART), which operates under the Pennsylvania State Animal Response Team.  We brought together our staff, volunteers, and local partners to begin the preparations for emergencies that impact pets and people.  These teams were very new at the time.  I believe only three states had state teams and there were only a few Pennsylvania Counties with CARTs.

CARTs are semi-autonomous volunteer response teams that operate under the umbrella of the State Animal Response Team, which in turn is activated by the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Administration (and in our county, Berks CART is activated by our Berks County Emergency Management Office). It is a highly effective and efficient private/public/government partnership that allows first responders to focus on people, while animal professionals and trained volunteers focus on animals.

Humane Society of Berks County was (and Humane PA remains) the only animal welfare agency in the State which took on direct control of their County CART. We felt it was an obvious fit- we had the resources, the knowledge, the trained volunteer base, and paid staff who we could assign to respond.  We also felt it was our obligation to be prepared for the animals in our community.

So when we were asked what we would do, we pointed to what we had already done, because we have always tried to look ahead to the next crisis we may face, not just deal with past problems.  Since the formation for Berks CART in 2004, we have been activated several times for storms, snow, and major flooding events.  We’ve operated shelters for animals and pioneered co-located shelters as standard practice (housing pets with their people instead of in separate shelters).

We’ve run shelters in other counties when their own county response was missing. Our volunteers and staff have been called to assist and manage response efforts following Katrina, the Joplin tornadoes, and Hurricane Sandy.  We’ve been asked to present our model to other shelters at the Humane Society of the United States national conference (coincidentally in New Orleans on the 10th anniversary of Katrina).  Our staff has served on other counties’ CARTs and planning bodies and we have served on the Board of Directors of the Pennsylvania State Animal Response Team.

As a result of Katrina, plans and protocols are already in place to aid animals and people in the Gulf Coast today. New Federal laws were passed requiring animals to be considered in emergency planning.  We’ve been quietly responding and preparing in our neighborhood, as well as helping in other regions.  We’ve built a stockpile of emergency materials, caging, fans, heaters, generators, food, and supplies.

But the enormity of Hurricane Harvey is a reminder that “the big one” could hit us and even with our preparations and experience, we will be woefully under-resourced. This is something we shouldn’t be quiet about.  Humane PA is currently in the middle of major organizational planning for next year, and years beyond that.  We have been discussing how we can undertake what we are referring to as preparation for a generation.  This means laying the groundwork to address the needs of animals for the next two decades.  The needs of today and the needs that will come down the pike tomorrow, next year, the next decade.

Emergency response is one of those needs. I hope that you will begin thinking about your emergency plan.  I hope you will support the organizations working to save lives in Texas by donating, such as GreaterGood, which is flying out animals from flooding shelters, thanks in part to the work of our good friend and PA’s own Denise Bash.  And I hope you will remember that being prepared means having strong local organizations like Humane Pennsylvania serving our Lancaster and Berks County communities- and beyond- and you support us as well.

We will be sharing our needs and plans very vocally in coming months. Until then, give, share, and volunteer.  And remember that we’ve been here, ready to help because of your support, all along.

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