P1070462I was recently interviewed about the remnants of Pennsylvania’s puppy mill industry.  In 2008, Governor Rendell signed into law the Puppy Mill bills and their meager regulatory improvements and mandates for commercial dog breeders.  But meager proved to be enough for the majority of puppy millers, who were barely scraping by on the profits drained from the miserable lives of their breeding stock, profits which were only possible if they allowed them to live in squalor.

Giving them the most basic “lifestyle improvements”- such as heat and enough ventilation they didn’t suffer ammonia burns to their eyes- put many, perhaps even most, commercial kennels out of business and removed Pennsylvania from the top tier of dog torturing puppy mill states.  It wasn’t all, but we’ll take what we can get.

The article was about the possible resurgence of the back yard breeder in an effort to fill the vacuum of puppies left by the exit of so many commercial kennels from the market.  I say possible resurgence because it’s hard to tell if this is actually happening.  Small and backyard breeders, only subject to licensing if they have 26 or more dogs in a year, are about as well regulated as a Colorado militia in a movie theater.  Which is to say they are not.  But the issue of the lack of dogs people actually want- specific breeds and puppies- is the topic of past and future posts.

The reporter wrapped up by asking me why I thought Pennsylvania had such a clinging- dogged?- attachment to its dog breeding industry.  I think it’s because Pennsylvania still worships at the altar of Agriculture.

Ask any State Rep or Senator what the biggest industry in Pennsylvania is and they will probably instinctively answer “Agriculture!”  They’d be wrong, but this is the most repeated semi-truth in Harrisburg.  OK, maybe it’s second/third to “The budget impasse is his/their fault!” right now.  But it’s high on the list.

In reality, only by the most convoluted of measures is agriculture number one.  By employment, the top sectors are administration and sales, with agriculture in as 22 out of 22.  By GDP, agriculture is 19 out 19, with manufacturing number one.  By other measures, government and non-profits- such as Humane Pennsylvania- are by far the leading “industries” in Pennsylvania.  Only by trying to utilize the old “from farm to fork” impact model, where you count everything that is touched by agricultural products along the way, including the fork you eat the salad with, do you get anything close to agriculture dominating.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love food.  And farms and farmers.  My family has agriculture in its veins going way back.  Although, to be fair, odds are so does everyone who has been in America more than a few generations.  But I also love dogs and they pay the price for Pennsylvania’s blind obsession with the idea of agriculture without recognizing the reality of its impact on our companion animals.

The Department of Agriculture in PA exists to promote and grow the business of agriculture.  They pay lip service to food and consumer safety, but that is not their primary function.  The economic growth of the Ag sector and the protection of farmers from pesky rules which might hold them back economically, like animal protection laws, is their primary function.  Most people are stunned to learn that dogs are viewed as agricultural production animals in Pennsylvania.  The Office of Dog Law Enforcement is under the Department of Agriculture. As are Dog Wardens, kennel licensing, and the control of Human Society Police Officers (HSPO’s).  Dog Wardens oversee kennel inspections for licensed kennels but are prohibited by law from enforcing the cruelty code.

Take a moment to think about that.  Puppy mills are inspected by the same agency which is supposed to promote the very industry it is supervising.  Imagine if restaurant safety inspections were done by a political entity or economic development agency which was supposed to have as many restaurants as possible open and whose success was determined by how many restaurants were open.  Could you count on that inspector to give a failing grade to a dirty restaurant?  Of course not.  That’s why we solve that conflict by having public health and safety agencies determine if restaurants are up to code, not economic agencies.

But in Pennsylvania dog are considered farm animals and the Department of Agriculture exists to grow farms, not protect animals.  If you want to know why we have a reputation for leading as a puppy mill state, it’s because we place the supposed primacy of agriculture and farming above the wellbeing of our companion animals and we leave the enforcement in the hands of those who have a mission conflict- the Department of Agriculture- or those without the resources to fully enforce existing laws but are the only ones stuck doing the job- the charitable animal shelters.

We can have it both ways, though.  By removing the responsibility of inspection of commercial kennels from the Department of Agriculture and placing the job under a health and safety department or under state law enforcement, we can have our cake and eat it, too.  The Department of Ag can support farmers and promote farming, like they should.  And when that promotion results in puppy farmers abusing animals in the name of “standard agricultural practice” the Heath Department or the State Police can prosecute and shut them down, like they should.

Agriculture is important in Pennsylvania but it’s not the only or the most important thing.  It certainly shouldn’t be granted some nearly religious place in our government and be provided indulgences that come at the expense our companion animals.


Because non-profit veterinary services are often under attack, generally from a power base of veterinarians with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, I’ve spent a great deal of time talking about why charities have the right to practice non-profit medicine and why vets who attack us are wrong. Sometimes this defensive response leads to spending more time on what we are against than what we are for and why.

enzo examHumane Pennsylvania, and growing numbers within the animal welfare community, are for the delivery non-profit veterinary services, and for reasons that have a direct bearing on our central mission of helping animals and their people.  Assuming everyone on any side of this issue will concede that veterinary care is generally a good and desirable thing for pets, exactly why should non-profits take the lead in delivering these services?

We are proximate to the need. We know that many people simply don’t have access to veterinary care, high quality or otherwise.  For a variety of reasons, animal shelters are often located in areas of high need, often very population dense urban centers or population sparse rural areas.  These are also areas which are least likely to offer veterinary hospitals because the traditional economics of for-profit veterinary hospitals don’t lend themselves to enticing private practices to open in these areas.

In the same way that there are food deserts in cities and the local Dollar General may be all that passes for a “grocery store” in the rural communities, there are veterinary deserts. Many people in these areas cannot afford market rate comprehensive veterinary care and benefit from free, reduced, or subsidized care.  Many can afford market rates; they simply don’t have as ready access to services as those in the suburbs graced seemingly with a vet on every corner.  Combining an animal shelter’s proximity to the need and the available market with an ability to provide needed care can ensure these services reach a population which is underserved (more on “Veterinary Deserts” in an upcoming blog).

Veterinary care keeps animals out of shelters. Although I am not aware of a study which has looked specifically at the correlation between quality and quantity of vet care and the likelihood of a pet being relinquished (if you know of one, please share), a couple of the better pet relinquishment studies out there do address this issue tangentially and it does appear that more animals lacking a history of comprehensive vet care enter shelters than those receiving it (authoring that study is on our 2106 “to do” list).  That might seem like a no brainer.  No or less vet care logically equals potentially poorer health, diminished behavioral interventions, and greater complications arising from injury and accidents.

As is the case with most health care, pre-emptive care is the easiest and cheapest, and in the case of pets, it prevents avoidable points of no return that lead to pet relinquishment. The cat which sees a vet and benefits from nutritional counseling might not eat poor quality food, which leads to urinary health issues, which leads to peeing on the owner’s couch and bed, which leads to a surrender of the cat to a shelter.  The early dental assessment of a dog might prevent the tooth decay which might lead to discomfort and crankiness, which could lead to an avoidable bite, which leads to that dog being surrendered to a shelter.  It may be hard to prove which of these surrenders are prevented by veterinary interventions, but seeing the steady flow of surrenders for preventable causes make it certain that regular, high quality vet care could be preventing animals from entering shelters.

Even for those which are brought to shelters, the ability to offer services to clients at the time of relinquishment makes a difference. Most people would prefer to fix the problem with their pet than give the pet up, perhaps to be killed in a shelter.  Often, the mere ability to get a frustrated pet owner to pause for a minute, an hour, or a day, before handing over a pet to a shelter can allow for a rethinking of the decision and that pet staying in the home.  A bad day doesn’t need to end up being the end of the relationship.  Of the many types of transactional friction which can be employed to allow for that “pause to think it over”, offering a positive, beneficial option, such as a veterinary intervention when appropriate, is one of the best possible for the relationship between pet and caretaker and the public perception of our organization.

Veterinary care keeps adopted pets from being returned to shelters. A significant percentage of animals adopted from shelters are returned within one year, for a variety of reasons.  In some cases, it may be as minor an issue as a feline upper respiratory infection (URI).  This stress related illness can almost be counted on occurring in some percentage of adopted cats, regardless of the quality of the shelter, and treating it is relatively simple.  However, as we all know, simple treatment doesn’t always equate to inexpensive treatment.  It is not uncommon for a basic kitty cold to lead to a retail vet care bill of a couple hundred dollars or more, sometimes much more.

Not every adopter will be able or willing to sink hundreds of dollars into a new pet, especially when many modern for-profit practice models are based on income derived from extensive and expensive diagnostic testing and high markup treatment. Faced with a large bill, adopters may return the cat to the shelter and now the shelter, which already invested hundreds of dollars in care, vaccinations, sterilization, and the adoption process, must face spending more money to get the cat adopted again.  Most shelters face the reality and cost of euthanizing and disposing of a cat which the public may view with suspicion as an “adoption return”.

Providing veterinary services allows a shelter to provide direct treatment for the illness, either free or at reduced rates, in order to cure the animal and to ensure it remains in its new household. Providing this care for free, at cost, or for a reduced fee is certainly cheaper than going through the adoption process all over again, and is certainly a better and usually cheaper alternative to killing it.  In the case of more extensive conditions, veterinary care can have an even greater impact on driving successful adoptions.

Some illnesses, such as diabetes, were almost certain death sentences for shelter pets in the past, assuming the disease was even diagnosed. However, diabetic pets are routinely adopted at Humane Pennsylvania shelters now because we can offer long term, reduced or free coverage for costs associated with treatment of the disease.  Many people are willing to take on the work of monitoring their pets and providing in-home treatment, but it can be very expensive.  If we can provide blood sugar testing, insulin, and supplies for free or at cost for the life of the cat, we can get it adopted at little or no cost.  This approach helps more and more “problem” adoptions succeed.

Veterinary service delivery fits our mission statements like a glove. All charitable animal shelters have a mission statement and they range from very sweeping, like our current one, too very specific, like the our previous one.  Many vets will point to these mission statements and say they make it clear that our missions are not to provide veterinary care, because many don’t explicitly state it.  But a mission statement is a declaration of what we do, not how we do it.  Veterinary services are one crucial means by which everything we have ever done or ever will do, can be achieved.

Our old mission statement was very explicit and included, “education and outreach in the community, medical services for needy animals, humane investigation, safe shelter for homeless animals and strong adoption programs to ensure that every companion animal lives in a safe, loving and secure home,”  and is typical of many shelter mission statements.  How do public veterinary services fit into this old statement?  Let’s review.

  • Among the most effective education and outreach to the community we have ever provided is done by our veterinary staff. It is the highest level of Humane Education. Check.
  • Medical services for needy animals? Well, our sheltered animals certainly need it, and since we have established the myriad of ways vets keep animals out of shelters, whether you are rich or poor, we view every animal as needing access to high quality vet care. Check.
  • Safe shelter for homeless pets? That definitely involves access to medical security in our shelters and that is best and most efficiently delivered by our dedicated veterinary hospitals. Check.
  • Strong adoption programs? Once again, I have covered how pre-adoption vet care gets animals adopted and post adoption vet care keeps them from returning. Check.
  • Ensure every companion animal lives in a safe, loving and secure home? Everyone would- or should- agree that being healthy and having access to treatment when a pet is not is a foundation of a safe and secure home. We can’t make someone love a pet, but we can make it a lot easier by keeping that pet happy, well behaved, and healthy. Check.

Veterinary services, both within our shelters, to at risk populations, and to the general public at large, even those who can afford market rates, is central and integral to the work we do on behalf of animals. They save lives and relationships, they enhance the standard of living in our communities, and they improve public safety.  Delivery of veterinary care is not the singular domain of private practice, for profit, or corporate veterinarians.

We’ve established our economic right to deliver these services. We’ve established how our model mirrors the human health care market, which is dominated by non-profit services.  We’ve established that it makes financial sense for our organizations, our animals and our supporters.  We’ve established that we can do it as well or better than any competition by offering great service from great vets in accredited hospitals.  But these are all the numbers and rules of what we do.

More importantly, we believe we have an obligation under our mission statements to provide veterinary care to the community. This care is a right of all pets, access to this care is right of all pet owners, and the our delivery of this care by non-profits is a right- at least in Pennsylvania and most states- provided we comply with State and Federal law and the standards of our profession, just like any other vet practice.  Unlike other vet practices, however, for animal welfare organizations these services are also explicitly and implicitly our mission.  We should and will embrace that mission because lives depend on it.

Click here to learn more about Humane Veterinary Hospitals Reading-Lancaster


So, today a lady comes into the shelter and wants to adopt a cat. She seemed like an OK person, I mean, she wasn’t “from the city”, if you know what I mean.  She filled out the forms and said all the right things so I decided she could go back to adopt a cat.  When I asked her which one she wanted, she said, “The black one.”

witch and catI was like, whoa, hold on there. We don’t adopt out black cats this close to Halloween.  You know, people do crazy things out there.  After all, this is 1985.  She was all, “Do I look like a Satanist?” and I was all, lady, I don’t know you from Adam and why are you so interested in a black cat?  She gets in my face with this whole, “I just want to save a cat, you kill them all anyway don’t you?”

Let me tell you, I let her have it. I told her that we save cats.  We save them from the streets and from wackos like her that want to sacrifice them, like someone I know told me they saw on 20/20 once with those kids in a basement, or something.  I said that we don’t kill cats, we euthanize cats (I didn’t mention that last month we “euthanized” 85% of the cats we “saved” from people like her) and that those cats were better dead than hit by cars or tortured and how does she know anyway, did she ever have to spend the day killing a hundred cats and crying like I do and the people who work here do?

Then, you wouldn’t believe it, the bitch has the nerve to cuss me out and walk out the door!  It gets better.  The guy who was there the whole time this was going on muttering and shuffling about how long all this took- it only took an hour to do the pre-screening- and whining about the staff smoking like he was the Queen of England and asks if he could look at a dog.  Can you believe that?  We were closing in half an hour! He starts saying that since he wants to adopt the dog, maybe we could stay open a little longer.  Stay open!?  Would he ask Sears to stay open? So then he asks if we can hold him till tomorrow and I’m, like, no way, it’s first come, first served.  So then he flips me off and slams out the door.

That’s OK, there was something wrong with that guy. I’m not sure what he was, Puerto Rican, Arab, or what, but he wasn’t strictly white.  I’d have had to run a records check on him to make sure he owned his house like he claimed and tomorrow is Saturday anyway so the Courthouse would be closed.

Speaking of weirdos, did you hear that there is a man managing the shelter next county over and he’s black?  I don’t know what that board is thinking.  I hear he sells pit bulls out the back to dog fighters, but keep that between you and me.

I don’t know what’s wrong with all these people. They make us take all these animals from them and then won’t do the simplest things we ask of them to adopt pets out, like bring in a copy of their mortgage and rental agreement and let us call the landlord just to make sure it’s the real lease paperwork , come to the office during our convenient hours between 11:00 AM and 3:45 PM weekdays, not adopt around Christmas, bring in vet records for every pet they ever owned, and bring the entire family in- I don’t care your oldest is 20 and at Harvard except on holidays, if she’s in the house, she has to meet the dog, and don’t go throwing around that you’re rich to impress me, just because I never went to college doesn’t make me less educated than you!  That’s not too much to ask to save these lives so they don’t have to be killed- I mean, euthanized.

What was I talking about? Oh, right…No, we don’t adopt black cats at Halloween!

Replies the Year 2015 to the Year 1985: OK, OK, I understand…just settle down…there you go.  Do you want a Fresca and for me to put on the Rockford Files?

[Whispered aside to the Year 2014]: Don’t even bother, it’ll just wind 1985 up for no good reason.  The last time I told 1985 that we had been adopting out black cats at Halloween and pets as Christmas presents for years, even to blacks, Hispanics, renters, and college students, and that euthanasia and shelter relinquishment were plummeting to an all-time low, and that shelters across the country were routinely saving 85% of animals instead killing 85% of them, 1985 started coughing so hard I thought it was going to have a heart attack.  Better leave 1985 be.

Replies the Year 2015 to the Year 1985: You comfy, 1985?  Good.  I’ll just be over here saving animals based on facts, not stereotypes and anecdotes.  What?  Nothing, I didn’t say anything.  Just drink your soda and tell me what shenanigans Rockfish gets himself into this time…

*All years appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real years, past or present, is purely coincidental.



October 21st, 2015 | Posted by Karel Minor in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

In the shelter world, “open access” shelters tend to complain that “no kill” shelters make it too hard to give up a pet.  “No kill” shelters tend to say “open access” shelters make it too easy to give up a pet.  The general public usually faults both for making it too hard to adopt a pet.


This link has nothing to do with the post. But it is an awesome song of the same title by the legendary band, Television.

One thing is certain: all shelters employ hurdles, intentional or not, in front of certain aspects of their operations.  In some cases, it’s flat out barriers.  If this is not your personally owned animal, you cannot surrender the pet.  If you are a college student, you cannot adopt this pet.  Regardless of the logic behind them, these are clear barriers that utterly block the process.  This is the equivalent of stopping your car by running into a wall.

Most of the hurdles in place, however, can be driven over.  They aren’t barriers as much as they are speed bumps or friction in the process.  It doesn’t stop the process, but it slows it down, or reduces the quantity of the transaction.  Process friction is the equivalent of hitting the breaks to slow down or stop your car.  The presence- or absence- of this procedural friction has a major impact on things such as the number and type of animals accepted at a shelter, the number of animals adopted, the success rate by breed or species, and even the perception of the public.

Where, how, and when we apply friction can have intended consequences, such as ensuring pets get good homes, or it can have unintended consequences, such as creating a structural imbalance between intake and adoption.  When the latter is the case, we usually tell ourselves we meant to apply that friction or that the friction applied is out of our control- or, “their fault”.  This is especially a problem when friction is applied heavily at one point in the process and not applied at all in other parts of the process.

An example of equal friction might include a shelter which has extremely stringent adoption standards.  Home visits, proof of home ownership, entire family must be present for adoptions, waiting periods, etc.  This will still permit adoptions, but will also clearly slow down the process and diminish the quantity.  If this shelter applies equally high levels of friction at the intake of animals, such as screening to accept only the most adoptable animals and only accepting as many animals in as it adopts out, it reaches a “friction stasis”.  This is pretty much the definition of many “no kill” and “limited admission” shelters.

When a friction imbalance happens, animals tend to pay the price.  A no kill shelter which has high adoption process friction but less or no intake friction quickly becomes overcrowded.  That is why effective limited admission shelters, as well as breed rescues, must understand their organizational capacity and work within those bounds.  To do otherwise renders them hoarders.

This is also what occurs in open door shelters which euthanize animals as required for space, or for health or behavioral reasons.  As long as they accept anything that comes in, when friction is slight or non-existent at intake, they will generally face some level of euthanasia as an inevitability.  That’s because unless they are just dumping animals out the back door as fast as they come in the front and have absolutely no adoption standards, they will almost certainly get more animals in than they send out due to back end process friction.  Even when no adoption process friction is applied, human nature provides its own friction in the form of adopter preference.  This is made even more certain if they have a limited admission shelter in the area, since that shelter has “frictioned out” at least some less adoptable animals by refusing to accept them and they end up at the open admission shelter.

But is it always out of the open admission shelter’s power to do anything about this frictional imbalance?  Is euthanasia inevitable in all, most, some cases?  Absolutely not.  It is vital that open admission shelters take friction imbalance into account to ensure that they are not greasing the wheels in one area while applying the breaks in another, when the imbalance leads to  more inflow than outflow.

Open admission shelters often make surrendering a pet the easiest option for the public.  The first, easiest, and most readily available option offered to the public is generally the option the take.  If this option is coupled by high friction policies on the outflow end, the adoption end, such as high adoption fees, overly stringent or lengthy adoption process, policies which disproportionately impact certain populations (read: home ownership checks for people of color that are waived for white folks), waiting periods for sterilization, cut and dry rules like fenced yards, etc., the result is a bottle neck in the process.  Incoming animals pile up behind this bottleneck.  Space runs out or behavior and health declines.  Animals are euthanized.

Is it the shelter’s fault people are giving up their pets?  No.  Except when it is.

When I started at Berks Humane, we had a friction imbalance.  We provided full animal control services so we didn’t just accept a stray animal, we would go out and pick it up, 24 hours a day.  We would take any animal, seven days a week, presented to us over the counter, as long as someone had ID.  That requirement would seem like some friction.  Except we also had an overnight “drop room” intended for strays brought in by police.  But it was open to the public, too, and at least half the animals dropped there had no information and were really just owner surrendered pets.  We didn’t just have no friction, we lubricated the process to make the easiest choice giving up a pet to a place that killed at least half the dogs and three quarters of the cats entering it.

We made matter worse on the adoption end by having restrictive adoption policies.  Entire families must be present for all adoptions, limited adoption hours, vet references, renter barriers, home ownership checks, inflexible adoption fees, and unpleasant staff.  And if you were brown, the grit on the sandpaper applied to you was very much coarser.

Starting on the outflow side to minimize friction was easy in many cases.  Eliminating informal Jim Crow adoption policies and ushering out staff who seemed to take particular glee in applying them was an immediate response.  Improving access to adoption services, adoption hours, streamlining the process, eliminating silly rules (does your senior in high school really need to come in and meet the cat you want to adopt?), decreasing the adoption fees for older and harder to place animals and eliminating it for animals with challenges or special needs or during high euthanasia seasons, and sterilizing animals prior to adoption all made a difference in our ability to decrease friction on the outgoing side and helped balance our live/dead equation.

However, we also put equal thought to how we could add friction on the intake side.  While we were still doing animal control we told out contracted municipalities we would only pick up stray during the day, not 24 hours a day, unless it was to directly assist a police officer.  As a result, we had a decrease in the number of strays entering, not because they were taken elsewhere or dumped back on the street, but because those extra few hours of being held meant the owner was able to reclaim their pet directly from the finder in many cases.  Slight friction, slight decrease in intake, minimal inconvenience.

We closed our overnight drop cage room.  That had a substantial impact on intake.  People could no longer dump their pets there because they were too embarrassed to bring them in the building.  Surrendered animals could be adopted sooner because they didn’t have to be held a strays for two or three days simply because their owner left them with no paperwork.  People with actual strays still had to hold them until we opened, but we had already established this would allow some owners to reclaim the pet before it came in.

We added more friction at intake by simply offering to help people and asking them in more detail why they were bringing in a pet.  Lost your job and can’t afford it?  What if we gave you free food?  Later, when we opened our vet practice, we’d offer vet care for injured or sick animals.  That may not seem like friction, but it is.  We placed something between the owner and us just taking in the animal, no questions asked.  We added support and services which increased friction for intake but decreased friction for keeping their pet.

Because of small things like these, and bigger ones, eventually our bottle neck shifted to the point where we had to seek out animals to enter our shelter for adoption from other shelters and we even decreased some of our new friction because we were adopting faster than we were taking in animals.  In fact, please stay tuned because we will soon be announcing a major decrease in friction at Humane Pennsylvania.

We all choose to insert friction into our work and that is why it is no more reasonable for open admission shelters like ours to say it’s out of our control than it is reasonable for restricted admission shelters to pretend they are not passing the burden on to open admission shelters by way of the extremely high levels of friction they impose.  It is up to all of us, regardless of our sheltering model, to own up to the barriers and friction we impose.  We need to more wisely apply it and more judiciously remove it, as appropriate and as effective to save lives.

No animal should face death because the easiest option available is entering a shelter or because adoption is made harder than it needs to be.


*A credit due note:  I first heard the term friction used at a cat workshop at HSUS EXPO and I don’t recall the name of the organization or the woman using the term.  But it’s a great one and I stole it from her.  If she knows who she is, I’d love to credit her!


I visit a lot of animal shelters.  If there is one problem I see more than any other at open admission shelters under significant stress, it’s operating beyond their capacity to house animals.  Sometimes it’s more animals than the existing staff can handle.  Sometimes it’s more than their facility was built for.  Usually it’s both.

Lemon-the-farm-hand-dog-helps-out-by-carrying-a-bucket-of-wate-517211When I ask if they know they are overcrowded, they say, yes, of course they do.  When I ask why, they say it’s because they are saving lives by packing animals into every available cage, kennel, crate, and spare room.  When I tell them that, at best, they are doing exactly nothing to save animals, and at worst, they are killing more animals and adopting fewer as a result of overcrowding, they usually look at me like I’m insane.

Only, I’m not.  They are the ones suffering from a delusion which is increasingly common in shelters reacting to demands from the community to save more and more animals.  That delusion is the idea that keeping more animals means you are saving more animals.

Let me pose a logic/math problem for you:  Two people each have a bucket they have to carry around every day without spilling a drop.  One is a one gallon bucket and one is a five gallon bucket.  Both are full to the very top, to the point of over flowing.  Each day, one cup of water is emptied out of each bucket and two cups of water are poured into each bucket.

How much water overflows from each bucket? Exactly one cup.  Does it matter which one is one gallon and which one is five gallons?  No, when a bucket is full, it overflows at the same rate.

Now, which one of these buckets is harder to carry, and which one is most likely to have water sloshing out of it because it’s just so damn heavy?  It’s pretty obvious that the one gallon bucket is easier to carry, and carry carefully, without unintended loss, than the five gallon bucket.

This seems like a pretty easy concept.  Now, let’s say that two shelters are housing animals.  One houses 100 animals, the other houses 500 animals.  They each have exactly the same adoption rate and euthanasia rate (we are talking about open admission shelters which operate at full capacity).  Each day, three animals leave the shelter because of adoption.  Six animals enter the shelter as strays or owner surrenders.

How many animals will each euthanize because of space?  Exactly three.  Three went out, six went in.  Just like one cup went out and two cups went in.  It doesn’t matter than one had 500 and one had 100.  Their turnover rate is the same.  Their euthanasia rate is the same.

So, what is different?  To start, one had to “carry” an extra 400 animals.  They had to clean up after, provide medical treatment to, feed, love, care for, and walk all those extra animals.  That’s a mighty heavy bucket.  In sheltering, the unintended sloshing overflow isn’t water, it is illness, behavioral problems, and aggression, induced by stress and overcrowding.  It’s unnecessary death.

What’s the other difference?  The shelter with 500 animals can probably claim that they didn’t kill any “healthy or adoptable” animals “just for space”.  That’s because it’s a certainty they can find a really sick cat or a dog that tried to bite, and they can wait for the new, healthy animals to stay long enough to get sick, behave badly, or become aggressive.

The fact is, if the shelter with 500 animals took its holding number down to 100, they could spend five times as much time on each animal.  Five times the medical care, five times the training, five times the love and adoption efforts, with the same staff and resources they already had.  Their animals would almost certainly be healthier and happier, and present for adoption better and have a better chance at adoption and maybe get adopted faster.  At worst, there is zero change in adoption, euthanasia, and intake rates.  These things have little or nothing to do with carrying capacity, but they have everything to do with quality of care.

When I explain this I usually employ a prop.  A bucket, sugar packets, pennies, anything to show that this works every time, in every numerical configuration, 100 animals, 500 animals, 167 animals, if you are at maximum.  Unlike the “no kill equation”, this is math that has nothing to do with human nature, or whether people want to adopt pit bulls, or old dogs, or mangy cats.  This equation counts on everyone being just as good or as bad as people already are.

Some will say, and this is what almost everyone says, “But if I can make space, I don’t need to kill those three animals.”  Correct, and this is where the slippery slope into hauling around heavy buckets comes in.

Let’s say that you have one hundred animals in your shelter and you decide if you put two dogs and two cats in each cage and run you can “save” two hundred animals.  Let’s keep the same outflow of three and intake of six, leaving three animals to face death.  And you put those three animals in double up cages that day.  And the next day, and each day for one month- or 33 days more exactly.  After just one month you have saved exactly one hundred additional animals.  And on day 34 you are out of space in your doubled up cages and three animals go out, six come in and you have to kill three animals.

What if you triple up?  OK, one more month.  And now you are caring for two hundred, three hundred, more, animals, with the same resources you had been using to care for one hundred animals.  You are increasing your burden and negatively impacting everyone one of those animals and your employees and volunteers and adopters.

This is the point where the “no kill” readers out there will say, “The secret is to get more adopted, keep more from coming in the shelter.”  Yes!  Point up that mountain to the pinnacle you believe they can attain, the no kill goal of 90% or even 100% save rates.  I actually agree.  Most of these shelters also have amazingly outdated policies which should be brought into the modern era and they should make the trek up that hill.

But how the hell do they do it carrying such a heavy load?  They can’t.  That’s why shelters that are overflowing should bring their carrying capacity down as swiftly as possible.  Whether they want to make the journey up the mountain or just want to keep doing things as they are, having fewer animals in their shelter will allow for happier, healthier animals.  Happy and healthier animals get adopted faster.  Maybe instead of three going out, four go out.  And the euthanasia rate that day goes down that day by 33%.

It requires discipline, it requires understanding the underlying principal, and it requires a commitment to the concept.  What it doesn’t require is one day killing off half your animals.  First, it doesn’t have to be half.  It could start with fifty, ten, five, one fewer.  But it has to stay at that reduced level.  It can be done in January, when the population is low on average.  It could be done on a national adoption weekend so when you clear out half your shelter, you keep it there.  You can ask other shelters and rescues to help, all at once, all one week, to get the numbers down.

Once you catch your breath from carrying that weight, then you can start working on getting more animals out the right way, fewer animals in.  Then the outside can complain if you don’t.  But if you have healthier animals which are getting better care and getting a better chance at adoption, maybe there won‘t be so much to for those “crazies” to complain about.  Even if they are utterly ignorant of the reality of sheltering, and most people are, you will know that you are actually doing the best for your animals, not doing less than the best because you’re trying to do the most.

We’ve done it.  We’ve seen others do it.  We know it works.  Not all math is a trick.  Sometimes the weight you bear is the weight you choose to carry.


(If you would like assistance in making a transition in your shelter or establishing carrying capacity levels for your facility and available resources, contact Animal Welfare Management Services.  They can help.)


Cruelty Porn

September 16th, 2015 | Posted by Karel Minor in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

The recent 9-11 anniversary, and its wall to wall reshowing of the images of the horrific crimes committed that day, sparked some discussion among staff at Humane Pennsylvania about the appropriateness of the imagery.  You couldn’t avoid it on TV, newspapers, the billboards of a local advertising company, or even on radio, where NPR spent the day verbally drawing us mental pictures.

smile-kitten-largeFor me, this image assault is very much like what I call the “cruelty porn” tendency in my own animal welfare industry.  I don’t mean the “crush videos” that occasionally get dragged out by a concerned politician (but are actually about as common as roving hordes of Satanists sacrificing cats, which is to say, essentially non-existent).  I mean the tendency of animal shelters and their Facebook pages to insist upon posting images of abused, tortured, and dead animals.

There is often the same mantra and justification we heard recently:  Never Forget.  We must see the carnage so that we never forget it and are ever vigilant in our opposition to a repeat of said horrors.  Let me ask you, if you never saw a picture of the burning towers again, would it erase the memory of the feelings they conjure up?  I doubt it.  By the same token, seeing a picture of a dog that was doused in gasoline and lit on fire isn’t necessary for me to appreciate that act of cruelty or desire to prevent it.  It isn’t necessary for me to want to support the organizations which I know are there to care for animals who face cruelty and work to strengthen cruelty laws.

So why do we show these images?  Perhaps the better question is why do we look at them?  Is it the same impulse that makes us slow down and look at a nasty car accident?  That’s my impulse, I’ll admit it.  But I think there is a difference between wanting to see something in the immediacy of an accident or a terrorist attack or a witnessed incident of animal cruelty and wanting to replay the images again and again, in a way that seems somewhat emotionally masturbatory.  For me, that difference is respect.

I oft repeat a story about something that took place on the very first day of my tenure as Executive Director of the Humane Society of Berks County.  When you walked into the lobby there was one wall with a bulletin board chock full of happy pictures of adopted pets.  Then you walked past it to come to another wall with bulletin board lined with pictures of animals which had been shot with arrows, starved to death, lit on fire, beaten bloody.  I asked why we had that bulletin board and was told (I paraphrase), “So people know what happens, what we see and do, and so they never forget.”

I was appalled.  No one who walks into our lobby needed to be assaulted or made to feel bad that we have a tough job sometimes.  That’s why they are there- to help us do it by adopting and donating their money and their time.  And in the off chance that some sociopath did come in, what would these pictures accomplish for a person who doesn’t feel anything in the first place?  It was utterly ineffective and only served to create a hostile, painful, fearful mental environment, not a sympathetic one.  Not a respectful one.

That was the moment I met one of my very favorite people on Earth, then volunteer and later board member, Scott Yoder.  I grabbed him and asked him if he would mind taking it down and I believe he said something like, “With pleasure.”  He understood.

Some members of the staff went, bluntly, apeshit.  People need to know!  What they were really saying is that I need to share my anger and grief over what I see with everyone else to make them share my pain.  I understood.  But I wasn’t going to facilitate it.  And I settled on a way to express the reason for removal of these images that was at the core, for me, why they needed to come down and one which seems to resonate effectively with the staff:  The pictures were disrespectful and perpetuated the crime against the animals.

If we were a shelter for victims of domestic violence, would we hang photos of battered women in the lobby?  If we were a shelter for victims of child pornography, would we post images of their rape on the wall?  Of course not.  It is a perpetuation of the violence they have already experienced.  It is wrong for us to use their suffering to make some point about our job with a public we apparently think to be too thick to appreciate the magnitude of the crime.  The fact that it happened is enough, must we make others experience a slice of that pain to make ourselves feel better?

And what of the off chance the owner of one of those animals was there to see it?  Do we run drunk driving ads with the pictures of decapitated teenagers to drive home the “reality” of the problem?  No, we would say that it is morbid and unnecessary, and unnecessarily cruel to the family of the victim.  Yet we post images of the exact moments of the crimes which took the lives of 3,000 people for their families to see run over and over, out of respect and remembrance.  What must it be like for those families to be subject to so much of our respect?

It is perhaps a somewhat smaller matter, for most people, to be presented with the image of a tortured dog.  But it is no less respectful of its suffering and crime committed against it.  It is no more needed to make us know that vicious animal cruelty exists and that we must do something about it or help the organizations which do.  I travel to a lot of other shelters and I still see these bulletin boards of horror in some of them.  When I do, I tell my bulletin board story and share my analogies of the abused children, because hits home, and with any luck those boards will come down.

There is a reason Humane Pennsylvania and our partner organizations don’t resort to using shocking images such as these.  We don’t need to.  We trust you.  We trust you pay attention without having to be gore enthralled into it. We trust that you will never forget.  We also know showing these images are disrespectful and wrong.


With the announcement of Michael Vick’s signing by the Pittsburgh Steelers, the self-righteous social media screeching which he perpetually leaves in his wake has once again reared its smug head. The moderate among of his well-wishers predict his sure descent into Hell. The worst offer to send him there. The kindest of the bunch tend to focus on his victims. Never forget his victims.

It might be a good idea to introduce you to the very first victim in the dog fighting saga that has become Vick’s life. Before there were the dogs he tortured and killed as a professional dog fighter, there was another victim of animal cruelty, one as lacking in culpability as any dog and one who is universally ignored.

mike-vick-childhoodIt’s Mike Vick, the child.

Before the wailing begins that I’m an apologist for his actions, I will make it clear I am not. His actions were vile. He deserves every bit of punishment he received, and more. I don’t believe the NFL should be hiring him to any position. Since he’s going to a town which cheers an alleged serial rapist, perhaps Vick is a moral improvement in their eyes.

However, the faux humane concern for “all” the victims, buttressed between calls that Vick be tortured and killed just like his dogs were, ignores that this is not a man who woke up one day and decided he was going to bash dogs heads in and drown others in buckets. This is a man who was a product of victimization himself, a man who was crafted and molded into being a sadistic abuser of animals.

Yes, the dogs were victims. But so was Mike Vick when he was a young child being taken by the adults around him to witness and participate in dog fights. As a child, he had no more control for his participation in dog fighting than did the dogs. As a young male child, likely taken there by older males in his life, he probably had the added burden of having to prove himself and show his acceptance and enthusiasm. As a poor child, he also likely did not have the kind of social environment that wealthier kids might, with housing and food stability, regular checkups and the local pediatrics practice, pets who saw a vet regularly for checkups and health care.

Granted, most people, nearly all, in fact, who were poor and lacked these things don’t grow up to be violent criminals. From what I’ve heard he didn’t have it much worse off than I did for stretches of my childhood, but I grew up to work in the animal welfare industry and he grew up to be a mediocre quarterback who spent time in prison for slaughtering companion animals for fun and profit. And while I acknowledge that I had the benefit of probably being a fair amount smarter than him, if utterly lacking in athletic ability, and, let’s face it, way whiter than him in a world were that matters, I didn’t make the choices he made.

Before I can proudly beat my chest at being better than Vick and pointing out that lots or most people don’t succumb to their bad upbringings to the extent he did and that many people with zero exposure to violence do turn out to be sadistic horrors, I must also acknowledge being exposed as he was increases the odds of offending in like ways. In the case of violence and boys, there can be a significant increase in the odds. Not all wife beaters saw it in the home but the boys who did are vastly more likely to beat their wives if they saw their dad beat their mother. What are the inclining odds if your dad or uncle took you to a few dog fights?

That is why recognizing Vick’s victimization while also condemning him as a victimizer is so important. If we want to stop dog fights, we can and should keep railing against them and have lots of cops prosecuting them. If we want to bring an end to dog fighting culture, we have to save boys like Vick before they become men like Vick. There is a cycle of violence. It is real and we have to support ways to intervene to keep kids from being a part of it and help them not become inculcated in that cycle if they are a part of it.

Socially, maybe ensuring that kids don’t have to move constantly because of housing insecurity, can always know that there is healthy food and plenty of it in the kitchen, have an economy which pays living wages so parents can work just one job- and be lucky enough to have one job- and come home to help their kids with their homework, homework assigned at great schools will make the difference. Maybe those schools could put as much emphasis on being smart and getting great grades as they do on creating the next generation of unaccountable self-entitled jocks who grow up to be another crop of loathsome criminals hired by the NFL Maybe those kids can see great doctors because they have health insurance. And maybe even access to high quality veterinary care for their pets so they can see that the right and normal thing to do with pets is keep them healthy and happy and in the home.

Unfortunately, I’ll have to leave making that happen to the brain trust running for President right now (fingers crossed!). What I can do is what we have pioneered at Humane Pennsylvania. We can offer high quality, affordable veterinary care to the community. We can invite in everyone with a pet to get the care they need without being disrespectful to them because they don’t look like us and call their pets “fur babies” like we do. We can show families who have never been able to provide stable, ongoing vet care for their pets how to do it and make it easy, and invite their kids in, too.

Traditional “humane education” has been an abject failure. People do what they know and they do what is the norm. When the norm is seeing the pediatrician regularly, graduating high school and going to college, not getting in trouble, taking Fluffy in to the vet a couple times a year for checkups, that’s what most people do and it’s what they pass on to their kids. When normal is none of these things, when normal is knowing that dog fighting is just around the corner every Saturday night, that’s what you accept. And when you grow up to be a rich football player, it’s what you carry with you.

Our veterinary hospitals have real potential for breaking this abuse cycle, not by preaching in schools to kids with bigger problems facing them, but by making the right thing to do the easy, available, affordable option for their family. We can make abuse the aberration by offering an alternative.

Our Humane Veterinary Hospitals in Lancaster and Reading aren’t just neat ideas, they combat cruelty today and tomorrow. They keep pets in homes and out of shelters. They offer an alternative which doesn’t exist for many families. By getting national AAHA accreditation (our Lancaster hospital is the only non-profit accredited vet hospital in Pennsylvania and the new Reading Hospital will be the second when completed later this winter) we also ensure that we aren’t offering at risk pets and families sub-par care, we offering the best. Just like their pets, and yours and mine, deserve.

When I see an eight year old kid holding his dog’s leash, waiting to get him in for his check up and vaccinations, I can’t help but wonder if that’s the next Michael Vick who will never be. I also can’t help but feel a little pity and more than a little shame that those of us in my humane industry who weren’t there to save young Vick from being the man he is today.

(You can support our work by making donation in support of our shelters’ adoption programs, cruelty intervention programs, and veterinary services.  You can even bring your pet to our excellent practices- we have vets for your pet, too!)


It is really hard, in a complex world, to provide the one word or one sentence answers we might like to. Animal Welfare is rich with this paradox and with answers that are Yes, No, and ten minutes long, all at once.


How many roads must a man walk down?

I just had a call with a shelter to discuss a new operations model they are considering. One of the committee members politely admonished that he was quite capable of processing one word or one sentence answers. And I love giving them, when it’s possible. But this committee member was asking questions about operations models that were akin to, “What is the meaning of life?” or “Does bleu cheese smell bad?”

Sometimes the answer is extremely complex and require a “Yes, but….” And the “but” requires a LOT of explaining. Sometimes the answer is dependent or qualified. “I like the smell of bleu cheese, but others do not, it’s a matter of taste.” It smell good or bad is too simplistic an answer.

Animal shelters have begun more effectively grappling with complex issues. For example, when I started over twenty years ago, the answer to whether pit bulls should be put up for adoption was a flat, “No”. One word answer, all day long. The false choice offered was that the only alternative to “no” was “yes”. In fact, this is the choice still offered by many on both sides of the answer.

Of course, the answer is, “It depends. It depends on the dog, the adopter, the family, the history, the community, the competence of the adoption technician….” That’s also the complex answer for whether Labradors or Chihuahuas should be adopted. It’s a gray, verbose world.

When asked, “Couldn’t we just apply management model X to the current operations instead of making an investment in future operations that are different,” My answer was both yes, no, and long, with multiple analogies. There we a lot of moving parts and when you are talking about millions of dollars and thousands of animals, a one word answer is the wrong answer to give.

I will admit that I also tend to answer what will or should be the next question while answering the first or answering the question that should have been asked. That can probably be annoying. But why waste time and language on an incomplete answer or an answer which doesn’t really move things along? We’ve got words, we should use them.

When someone asks, “Is that Pit Bull up for adoption?” I’m going to continue to answer the question they are really asking: “Can I adopt this Pit Bull?” Well, that might be a completely different answer.

And when someone asks me if I can distill complex, highly variable outcomes based on diverse inputs and expectations, I’m going to give them the long answer it deserves. Unless I give them the short answer it deserves. No. I can’t do that.

But if you want the long and correct answer, listen carefully, and try to keep up. Because I’m quite capable of processing and transmitting complex and comprehensive ones.


One of the things I think Humane Pennsylvania is pretty good at is recognizing when it’s time stop doing something when a program or effort has run its effective course, its practical lifespan, or can be done better some other way. It doesn’t always make the decision easy, especially when we have an emotional and historical attachment.

The former Holly Miller Center for Animal Welfare, Douglassville

The former Holly Miller Center for Animal Welfare, Douglassville

That’s the case with our recent decision to that it was time to close both our Holly Miller Center in Douglassville and our Deska Center in Phoenixville. Both of these locations were created to address vital needs: getting more animals adopted (especially cats) and to get our new veterinary service model out to the community. However, following the merger of Humane Society of Berks County and Humane League of Lancaster County, we’ve been able to do that some much more effectively and efficiently, in vastly greater numbers and at much lower cost, then we are able to using these satellite locations.

The toughest decision is certainly the Miller Center closure. When it opened in 2008 it was our first satellite location and it helped lead to our first milestone year of not euthanizing a single happy, healthy animal, and we never did again. The thousands of cats, dogs, and small animals which have been adopted as a result of the capabilities offered by this ground breaking facility have helped us move to being an organization that now manages to save over 90% of our animals, healthy and sick and injured.

We couldn’t have made the transition to our new lifesaving model without Douglassville. We couldn’t have made Douglassville a reality with the generosity of George Miller, who made a generous donation in memory of his wife, Berks County native Holly Miller. We are all deeply appreciative of the gift- and the woman who inspired it- to take our first steps toward breaking new ground in saving animals.

Phoenixville was always intended to be a short term endeavor, so while we will miss the wonderful Phoenixville community, we knew this day would come. The location was planned and leased just prior to our merger. It was intended to provide adoption and low cost veterinary outreach to an underserved community and was, in part, a recognition that the primary organization serving animals in Chester County was struggling and unable to serve all of their communities. Fortunately, there is new leadership in Chester County so the need for our presence is less acute.


The former Art Deska Gallery and Adoption Center, Phoenixville

We were able to provide no cost veterinary and adoption services to hundreds of animals and we were able to partner with and assist other local groups, like the Spayed Club. We will continue to work in the community to provide no and low cost veterinary care to at risk pet owners through our Humane Veterinary Hospitals of Reading/Lancaster programs and staff, and we will continue to offer mobile adoption services in the area.

What is it about the merger which makes shutting down these operations the right decision? Everything. One of the major goals of the merger was to be able to reduce the costs of helping animals through increased capacity so we could help even more animals for the same charitable funds raised. We also wanted to be more effective at helping the animals we were not able to help in the past. We have done exactly that.

Last year we saw a 40% increase in the number of cats entering one of our shelters because other area shelters unexpectedly began turning away cats. We were able to absorb every single one of those cats and increased our adoptions to match the influx. In fact, we achieved a live out success rate of 87%, our highest ever, of not just healthy and happy cats but treatable and manageable sick, injured, and behaviorally challenged cats, too. This year our rate so far is 94%. Without closing our doors to animals we have achieved what is considered a no kill success rate for cats. It’s a stunning success.

Dogs and small animals have fared even better, with a 97% and 100% success rates. That’s because even though we may have received more, and increasingly receive sick, injured and challenging pets thanks to our great reputation for adoptions and having the only accredited, public non-profit veterinary hospitals, we are fixing the ones which couldn’t be fixed before, we can move animals to where they are most likely to be adopted, and we have the space to work with animals who need that extra bit of care and attention to become adoptable.

But the success at our primary shelters and hospitals just made it clear that the investment at the Deska and Miller Centers didn’t offer the same return. We may be doing better than ever, but we don’t have money to waste and if we can get four times the results for every dollar spent, we had to make the tough decision that it was time to stop. So while we know many, many folks liked these locations, many volunteered at them, and they were a part of the local communities, we hope everyone understands that our job is first and foremost to do what helps the most animals, most effectively, with the money donors entrust us with.

We have some plans for the Miller and Deska names, because we don’t want the generosity they shared with us to be lost just because it was time to change course on our facility plans, and I’ll keep you up to date. Thank you to everyone who adopted, volunteered, and donated at these locations. Know that even bigger and better things which will help even more animals and people are happening right now, with much more to come.

In the words of Tom Waits, a little rain never hurt no one.

In the words of Tom Waits, a little rain never hurt no one.

It’s always nice to have perfect weather for one of our special events but sometimes spectacularly, memorably bad weather adds a charm of its own. The downright Biblical deluge we had last Saturday in Lancaster for the first of our 2015 Summer of Ska Pints for Pups events will not be one to be forgotten soon.


Despite the two inches of rain, being crammed under tents (and that’s why you always get tents!), and the pruney feet, I think we had one of the most fun and entertaining Pints ever (check out pix here). The beer selection was fantastic, with an especially good batch of Pennsylvania craft beer and a heavy presence of less common Euro imports. The entertainment was spectacular, featuring Washington, D.C’s legendary Pietasters (who have played with James Brown!). They were tight, into the crazy weather and venue, and even featured a guest player from the Mighty Bosstones, for good measure.

Our ever fabulous and ever smiling events manager, Sarah Valentine.

Our ever fabulous and ever smiling events manager, Sarah Valentine.

Most notable for me was the dedication and good cheer of our amazing event volunteers who got a little more than they bargained for this time but poured with smiles on their faces like the champs they are. Of course, the staff was stellar as usual, the local breweries who joined us had their usual friendly and knowledgeable reps (please see our beer list on the website so you can visit their locations and buy their beer as a thank you), and our sponsors who underwrite these events- both business and individuals- helped ensure that we didn’t just have fun, we generated vital funds for our mission.

If you missed it, you have your chance to join us at the next two Pints events in Reading and Pottstown in July and August featuring The Hempsteadys and The Snails and some new beers. If you were there, you should join us again, and bring some friends who are new to our events and our great mission work helping animals and people.

Woodstock had nothing on us, baby.

Woodstock had nothing on us, baby.

What’s the hardest working animal welfare organization in the business? Humane Pennsylvania! Now we’ll take you to the bridge!  Use your funk, stay on the scene!  We’re an animal saving machine! Ha!