“There is sorrow enough in the natural way

From men and women to fill our day;

And when we are certain of sorrow in store,

Why do we always arrange for more?”

-Kipling

 

There are a thousand reasons the public dislikes, mistrusts, and avoid animal shelters. Most are unfounded and unreasonable, yet, for some reason, we keep creating our own reasons to hate us.  Saturday, I found myself on the public end of an animal shelter interaction and got a reminder of why all of Humane Pennsylvania’s partner organizations and all our staff need to be keenly aware of how our policies and rules are perceived by the public.

My wife received a call from a work acquaintance who serves on the board of a private dog rescue.  One of their foster dogs had run away from its foster home and ended up in a shelter in another county (from us, not from the family).  When they figured it out, they called and were denied the dog until at least Monday when “a manager was in” to authorize them to give the dog back to an “unknown rescue”.

There might be some reasonable policies behind this so I asked a few questions of this acquaintance.  Did you provide proof of ownership?  Yes, the shelter was given the relinquishment form of the previous owner (and that form was emailed to me).  Check.  Are you a legitimate rescue?  Now, to honest, that doesn’t really impact ownership, but there are some shady faux rescues out there and shelters can sometimes be cautious.  Yes, they presented their federal 501c3 paperwork.  Check!  So why wouldn’t they release the dog?

I offered to email (I was out and didn’t have his phone number in my contacts or I’d have called) the organization’s executive director, who I know and work with in other organizations and I suggested our acquaintance make use of a tool known round the world: name drop.  Call them back, mention my name, that I was contacting their boss directly to straighten this out, and that I’d appreciate some help.  Maybe that would allow for phone service in this old timey location where managers are inaccessible on a Saturday afternoon (maybe they could modernize and buy a pager).  She did and still no go.  So I called, because I’m annoyed now.  Why would a shelter choose to keep a dog?

I spoke to the person in charge who was in charge to be the person I needed to speak to but apparently not in charge enough to make a decision.  She said that, yes, she had seen all the paperwork proving ownership and the legitimacy of the rescue.  But the dog still had its prior dog license on it so they needed to verify with the original owner- despite the signed paperwork.  Now, that’s dumb of the rescue, and I told them that, but it did add a layer of confusion to be worked out.  OK, since that now made a little sense I asked, did they call the prior owner?  Yes.  Did the prior owner tell them they had given up the dog?  Yes, months ago.  But for some reason they still would only release the dog to the prior owner, for “legal reasons”.

Here’s the kicker, the person who gave up the dog to the rescue was the elderly wife of the actual registered prior owner- who had died.  That’s why the elderly woman relinquished the dog.  She didn’t want it back because she was old and couldn’t care for it.  If they wanted the registered prior owner to collect the dog, it would be a long wait because I hear the commute from Heaven on a Saturday is a total bitch and if his ghost did show up, I bet he’d be pissed.

The wouldn’t give back a dog to the current legal owner because the dog had a dog tag registered to a dead person, whose wife told them she gave up the dog months ago, and the paperwork showing her signature was presented, and they couldn’t anything until next week when a “manager was working”.

This is why people hate us.

I used my scary voice of authority on the woman a little bit- OK, I kind of yelled at her- about professional courtesy and asked her to call the executive director- she could not- then asked her to call any manager who undoubtedly had the executive director’s phone number and ask them to call him.  She’d see what she could do.  She was the most efficaciously unhelpful desk person imaginable.

Apparently she got through to someone who got through to their boss who said I or someone on my staff- gee, thanks for the professional courtesy- or the head of the rescue could pick up the dog, but not the foster family.  This is presumably because they were so irresponsible as to have their foster dog run off.

Here is the other reason people hate shelters: We provide a service and when it is made use of we hold use of the service against the person using it.  Do we accept surrendered pets?  Yes!  Yes, we do you elderly old lady scumbag giving up the pet we said we’d take.  Do we take in strays?  Yes!  Yes, we do, you irresponsible pet owner.

Incongruously enough, animal shelters who use the Asilomar Accords reporting structure get a total pass for animals which are “lost” from a shelter because even shelters, packed to the brim with staff and volunteers in locked, gated facilities lose animals from time to time.  But God forbid a nice family trying to foster the dog of an elderly widow until it’s adopted, a family keeping that dog from entering a shelter as a surrender in the first place, should have the irresponsible audacity to lose that dog.  And then to actually immediately seek it out at the shelter who voluntarily took it in to try to reclaim it.  Shame on them!

There are enough policies and regulations which shelters have to abide by for legal and reasonable policy concerns which already place burdens and annoyances on the public.  We can explain those and we have to live with those.  But when we create barriers, when we choose not to be helpful to well-meaning people, when we choose a course of action which serves only to keep animals in our shelters instead of sending them out, we are handing an already jaded and suspicious public yet another reason to hate shelters.

The next time you hear a shelter professional whining and wondering why more people don’t adopt from us or support us, you can wonder, as I do, with so many burdens already placed upon us, why do we insist on creating our own?

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So, I know this blog can seem like a litany of complaints or “who or what I’m pissed of about right now” but after attending tonight’s Humane Society of Berks County’s Pints for Pups in Reading, I just wanted to take a moment to share with you that Humane Pennsylvania and its partner organizations have the best staff, volunteers, board, and donors, anywhere.  Ever.  Period.

They are nice, talented, generous, do amazing work, are a damn good looking crew, and I am very lucky to have them working with me and supporting the cause and mission we all share.  Thank you seems inadequate, but thank you is the best I can manage, less than they deserve, and more than I know they seek.

If you think some other place has better staff, volunteers, board, and donors, we will have to agree to disagree. That’s just because you probably won’t agree that you are wrong.

Thank you to everyone who works so hard to do so much good as part of Humane Pennsylvania.

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I received a call from a reporter today who, he said on his message, had been called by a volunteer upset over the euthanasia of a dog at the Humane League of Lancaster County (HLLC) recently and who claimed HLLC was no longer “No Kill”.  I left him a message but while I await his call, I thought I’d take a few minutes to share some details on our intake and save rates, as well as our policies on euthanasia.

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We also help animals by offering free community vet care clinics like this one last weekend in Phoenixville, Chester County, with HLLC super-vet, Dr. Misha Neumann and our phenomenal vet staff. Not on topic, just really, really awesome.

I would normally start with a discussion of way we use the term “Adoption Guarantee” as opposed to “No Kill” but I know when you start with “what the definition of ‘is’ is”, it seems like you are dodging the numbers.  And our numbers are so great, that the last thing I want to do!  So let’s dive into numbers…

Since October 1, 2013, when Joan Brown, HLLC’s former President retired and handed over daily operations to me to begin the process of the merger of HLLC and Humane Society of Berks County (HSBC) to form Humane Pennsylvania, HLLC has taken in 692 dogs and 433 cats.  As an Adoption Guarantee shelter since February 1, 2013, we should expect damn great save rates- and we have them.

Since October 1, 2013 five dogs and seven cats have been euthanized.  This means our live out success rate for dogs is 99.3% and for cats is 98.4%.  You don’t have to know much about animal shelters to guess those are stellar save rates.  But in case you don’t, I’ll sit for a minute while you Google the average save rates in the United States, as well as what most No Kill advocates consider the “No Kill Threshold”…….…OK, spoiler alert, that’s usually over 90%.  Do you know what’s over 90%?  99%.  So our save rates are vastly above the level that most No Kills advocates even strive for.  So, yes, pretty damn great numbers.

But five dogs and seven cats are still twelve living, breathing animals out of 1,125 cats and dogs which we have taken into HLLC’s shelter in the past nine months and two weeks.  Why were those twelve animals euthanized?  Here are the reasons:

Dogs euthanized since October 1, 2013: 5: Three for aggressive bites (not “play bites” or “accidents”) which broke the skin.  Two of those bites occurred in our shelter, including the one the volunteer is upset about, one was post adoption and the dog was returned.  The remaining two were euthanized for severe behavioral issues involving overtly aggressive behavior.  One was adopted prior to displaying this behavior and returned for lunging and snarling at the adopters with no identifiable trigger.  The other dog demonstrated severe cage aggression and resource guarding (this dog was a transfer from a shelter which had already slated it for euthanasia for the same reasons and we unsuccessfully attempted to rehabilitate it).

In all five cases- .07% of the dogs in that period- our staff made the tough decision that euthanasia was the appropriate course of action, and one which was the correct one based on our Asilomar Accord protocols (more on this below).

Cats euthanized since October 1, 2013: 7: One 12 year old stray with uncontrolled diabetes, severe diarrhea, and emaciation; 1 kitten brought in after being hit by a car and diagnosed with a broken back and body wall hernia leading to extreme suffering and poor prognosis for survival; and five kittens under three weeks of age ranging from three to nine ounces (as an example the “average” eight week old kitten is 24 to 32 ounces), who were sick and non-responsive to treatment. These seven cats (1.1% of our cats in that period) were suffering and the veterinary recommendation and the one which we think represented the “reasonable community standard” as defined by Maddie’s Fund, was humane euthanasia.

So which is it?  Is 12 euthanasias out of 1,125 a great number or a terrible number?  It’s both.  Compared to any other measure and benchmark in animal welfare and shelters- open admission or no kill- these numbers are spectacular.  But for those twelve animals, no matter whether they were the “right” choice or the “safety minded” choice or the “reasonable community standard” choice- it was a choice to end their lives.  For them, for the staff who have to make the decision and follow through with the consequences of that decision, and for the volunteers who donate their time and love for all our animals, it’s not one to be happy about.  We failed those 12 animals.  Period.

But not every failure has success as a real alternative.  There are times when the only option is some version of failure.  Let the broken back cat live and you succeed in that but fail in its never ending suffering and ultimate death.  Keep an openly aggressive, biting dog alive and you succeed in that at the expense of it going insane in a kennel for the rest of its life because you also can’t also fail by adopting it- assuming you can find an adopter- who it will maul.  Some equations have no solution, they are unsolvable axioms.  Some situations can’t be reprogrammed to change the rules like the Kobayashi Maru test (if you’ve got your Star Trek nerd hat on).

And that’s why the language we use matters.  That’s why HLLC and Humane Pennsylvania have adopted the standardized language of Maddie’s Fund and the Asilomar Accords.  We didn’t change our policies, rules, or choices, we changed the two words to describe them.  The Maddie’s Fund/Asilomar Accords industry standard name for shelters like HLLC is Adoption Guarantee, and that’s what we are.  That doesn’t mean, as “No Kill” implies to some, that no animal is killed.  It means that no healthy or treatable animal is killed, based on a set of defined national and community standards and transparency.  These national and community standards explicitly recognize that some animals will be euthanized for extreme health reasons or for being a danger to staff, adopters or the community.

Those are the right benchmarks to use.  No animal should suffer torment, just to make some philosophical point or achieve some pyrrhic victory.  No one, no staff member, no community member, no child, should risk bite, mauling or death from an animal we have serious safety concerns about.  Those are the right standards, we employ them in our shelter and we stand by them.  And for 99.3% of dogs and 98.4% of cats these standards work.  Our job- my job- is to work harder to also make them work for that remaining .7% and 1.6%, respectively.

We should also be extremely clear of how nearly all Adoption Guarantee shelters like HLLC achieve those stunning save rates.  We do it by restricting which animals we take in in the first place.  Most adoption Guarantee shelters only accept health and happy animals.  Most don’t take animal control intake.  HLLC has a pretty extensive pre-intake screening protocol and many animals are rejected and sent to other shelters, such as Open Access shelters without an Adoption Guarantee, such as our other Humane Pennsylvania Shelter Partner, HSBC (which, by the way, still maintains an industry leading save rate for open access shelters of 80+% for cats and 90+% for dogs).

In fact, if you took out the animals which did not go through the HLLC screening process, the ones which came in with known health and behavioral problems, which we took from a Good Samaritan or from another shelter who begged us to try to succeed where they had already failed, every cat euthanasia would not be included in the numbers above and three of five of the dog euthanasias would not (three of the five dogs were taken from other shelters with known behavior problems we tried to fix, as we do for dozens of other dogs successfully each year).

While I’ve been typing I had a chance to speak to reporter and share this with him.  If there is any story here, it’s that the staff and volunteers of HLLC are doing a remarkable job.  But the one question, implied or stated, is that the change of the wording from “No Kill” to “Adoption Guarantee” and the change of management from the last President to the current one, me, has resulted in some change or some difference in the amount of euthanasia.  I will be perfectly honest- there has been a change:  The numbers have improved.

From February 1 to September 31, 2013, the period from when HLLC stopped doing animal control intake and changed to “No Kill” and the period immediately preceding the change in management, the euthanasia rate for cats was 7.2%, not 1.6% (an 88% improvement), and for dogs it was 1.1%, not .7% (a 47% improvement).  I hope you’ll forgive us for not apologizing for saving more animals than ever before.

I don’t mean to be flippant and I don’t want to minimize the concerns of a volunteer or the lives of 12 very real animals.  But I do want us to view them in a realistic context as the successes- and failures- they are.  When I started in animal welfare twenty years ago millions more animals died in shelters each years, thousands more right here in Pennsylvania.  90% or 99% save rates were a crack head fantasy then.  Now they are a reality.  That means I have to believe that those last ten, two, one percent goals to reach 100% can be reached.

Twenty years ago in Lancaster 100% would have meant saving thousands.  Since October 1, it meant trying to save just twelve.  Somehow that last twelve feels more galling to me.

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This is a little late but the Independence Day holiday always brings up one of the most commonly used set of bad statistics in animal welfare.  This year I received it in a product promotion email and it led to a nice exchange with the sender, who ended up modifying the copy and being very nice about it (because we know how much people like being wrong).  The statistic used was this one:

dogs-scared-of-fireworks-300x211“Over the 4th of July holiday, more than 30% of pets go missing and only 15 % find their way back home.”

It’s common knowledge that pets run away during fireworks and that shelters are flooded with pets on July 5, right?  Go ask anyone at a shelter and they’ll confirm this.  But like most “common knowledge” this may be based more in lore than in fact.

Do some additional pets enter shelters because they are frightened by fireworks?  Certainly.  But do 30% of pets go missing and only 15% find their way back home on July 4?  Absolutely, unequivocally, no.

Let’s take the low end estimate of the number of 140 million owned cats and dogs in the United States (2011, APPA survey).  If 30% of dogs and cats ran off at the sound of booming fireworks this year, it would mean that 42 million pets ran away.  Since only 7.6 million pets enter animal shelters all year long (ASPCA estimate), that means 35 million pets should be running around the streets of America on July 5.  Did you see hordes of confused canines and felines on your road?

And is only 15% of those lost pets find their way home, it means of that of those 42 million lost pets, 35.7 million pets don’t make it home.  That’s 25% of the total pet population in the US.  It also means that on July 5, one in four pets in America is lost forever.  If you are reading an animal blog like this you probably have four pets.  Was one missing ten days ago?  Did every 4th pet owning house on your block start posting missing signs for Fluffy?  Probably not.

So what gives with this oft reported statistic that the simplest of math shows to be clearly false? It is another great example of when a little data starts to play whisper down the lane.  The problem is in the misreading and misstating of facts.  The sender directed me to this website which presented the following information:

 “PetAmberAlert….The stark numbers illustrate what a devastating time of year this can be for pets and their owners: 30% more pets are lost between July 4th and 6th than any other time of year.

Founder Mark Jakubczak explained, Sadly, only 14% of lost pets are returned to their owners, according to nationwide statistics. And worse, 30-60% of lost pets are euthanized…”

Aside from the marketing histrionics of using a term like “Pet Amber Alert” for lost pets and loaded words like “stark” and “devastating” and then going for the jugular with unsupported rehoming and euthanasia statistics (Microchip your pet now- NOW!!!!- before Fluffy gets the NEEDLE at a shelter…aaarrgh!!!!!), we can actually see that the 30% statistic is used to claim an increase in strays on or around July 4th, not to say that 30% of all pets stray.  That’s a world of difference.

And when I say a world of difference, I mean a world of difference.  What started as 42 million strays becomes a mere blip on the statistical radar.  If we accept the ASPCA estimate that 7.6 million pets enter shelters each year and two thirds of them are strays (a reasonable estimate in my experience), then about five million strays enter shelters each year.  For ease of discussion, let’s say that strays enter shelters evenly throughout the year- they don’t, but let’s say they do- then every day 13,698 stray cats and dogs enter shelters.  If 30% more run off on July 4, that’s an extra 4,109 strays entering shelters nationwide on July 5.  Taken against the entire owned pet population of 140 million, that is .00003% of pets, not 30%.  What a difference several decimal points can make.

Of course these numbers are broad brush and animals enter shelters as strays at different rates throughout the year and not all strays enter shelters, blah, blah.  However, I think you’ll agree that 4,109 fireworks strays is closer to zero than to 42,000,0000 fireworks strays.

Pet identification and microchip companies use statistics like these to scare the bejeezus out of pet owners so we’ll buy their products.  Shelter workers use these statistics to bemoan the idiot pet owners of the world and show what great martyrs they are to the cause.  But the facts don’t back up the claims and we don’t need the hysterics to know we should have ID on our pets and that there are strays in shelters.

As long as we spend our time worrying about and repeating “common knowledge” with no basis in reality, whether its fireworks strays, big black dog worries, or black cat Halloween adoptions, we aren’t paying attention to the very real and very solvable problems really facing animals in our nation’s shelters.

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