There is a predictable progression in the lifecycles of many open admission animal shelters. They start off with the world view that says there is nothing to be done about the animals that die in their shelters. It is out of their control and everyone else’s fault, so they effectively stop trying. They adopt as many as that can, throw up their hands, and don’t think beyond today.
At some point these shelters often face some crisis of conscience. Someone in leadership just can’t take it any longer and tries to break the model. Or there’s bad PR, or a push from municipal contract holders who are getting yelled at by tax payers for spending their money on a catch and kill contract. When this happens, there’s usually two ways for a shelter to go.
The first is to actually make changes that do something concrete. This can range from changing programs, services, and direction, to changing the fundamental model they operate under. Perhaps they drop animal control or they become a restricted admission shelter. Usually once a shelter actually starts making changes and getting a positive result, they start progressing rapidly and drop the shackles of prior convention.
There is a common second model, however, and it’s been utilized for years. It’s the blackmail model. It’s often used in a variety of ways when a shelter recognizes it has a problem, but can’t quite bring itself to believe that it is the problem. These shelters still cling to the notion that the problem originates outside itself. It’s the community’s fault. It’s the bad pet owner’s fault. It’s someone else’s fault. The shelter can do better, but only if you and I do X, Y, or Z to make it possible for them.
This can manifest as the good old, “Fluffy has 12 hours to live unless you adopt her! If she dies, it’s your fault!” Facebook posts. Or cajoling the community that it’s their fault a shelter has a crummy building. Or doesn’t have proactive programs in place to save lives. If you’d just give, they’d be able to make the changes necessary.
This is a step up because at least it acknowledges that there is the possibility of improvement. But it is a continued abdication of the fundamental responsibility that starts with an animal shelter. Humane Pennsylvania’s consulting division travels around the country helping shelters of all sizes, kinds, and success levels. The ones that are the most successful are the ones most open to considering new approaches and implementing them now. Not when the community comes around to seeing things their way or when the money comes in, but now, with what they have, in any way they can.
We’ve seen tiny poor shelters that accomplished what big rich shelters don’t. And the common thread among failing shelters is that when they lament their failures and you suggest one, five, a hundred things they could do right now to improve things for one, five, a hundred animals in their care, they push back. They tell you why it’s not their fault and why it’s someone else’s fault. The community. The law. The donors. The shelter up the road who takes all their money so they can’t succeed. Someone else.
I’ve been there. We’ve been there. But then we moved to a new place. You know what? When you just do it, you find that you get the support you need. You start to get the volunteers, the foster families, and the money. And you get better at getting better. But the community shouldn’t ever be held hostage to any shelter that says, “We will do better as soon as you volunteer, you foster, you give us money.”
We try hard to constantly improve because it starts with us. It starts with me. Will your time and money help? Yes! Most of what we do can be done better and faster with money and people. But we hope you’ll give your support because you see that we would be trying to be better regardless. You aren’t ultimately responsible for our success, we are. And we are responsible for our failures and we can’t and don’t put that responsibility on you.
13 years ago we had a euthanasia rate as high as 70% seasonally. Since then we’ve brought it down to 2-8% for cats and dogs, if you exclude animals deemed “unadoptable”. But why stop there? This year we think we may reach the milestone of saving 90% or more of every animal who enters our shelter alive. Massively injured, profoundly ill, a raging Cujo. Every animal. This wasn’t even imaginable 13 year ago. But it didn’t mean we didn’t try. It didn’t mean we waited until we received the level of support we have now.
We started with next to nothing and next to nobody. Our success is what got us more resources and more people and even more success. Shelters are only held hostage to their own lack of imagination and willingness to start making a difference now.
*Post script: This post was written and scheduled prior to the latest school shooting. This is an image that I’ve used before, and always with a little trepidation because it’s in rather poor taste. But I use it because the reality of what animals face in shelters is worse than this picture. And the 17 dead people in Florida were killed by a real gun, not a picture. Ideas and images don’t kill people and animals, people do. And umbrage and offense don’t solve the problem, action does.