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.