It turns out that most people are terrible at self-assessment and have a superiority bias.  Across populations a person’s IQ falls on a very neat bell curve with half of the population being on one side of the curve’s average or the other.  But if you ask 100 people if they are above average or below average, most will estimate themselves to be above average when in reality one in two should select below average.  The same pattern shows up in assessing if we are above or below average in our leadership skills or virtually any other measure put before us.  It reflects a flawed self-assessment and demonstrates an illusion of superiority.

That’s why animal shelters and those in animal welfare should not feel too bad when they do the same thing when evaluating their shelters, their efforts, and their successes and failures in our field.  Like IQ, we can be expected to think we are better at our jobs than we are.  We think the work we are doing is more effective than it is.  We think our shelters are superior to the one next door.  If we want to know how what our IQ is we can be tested and know precisely where we fall on the bell curve.  However, that’s something we can’t do in sheltering.

Even when we are shown evidence of falling short or being on the below average side of the animal welfare curve, we come up with reasons for those shortcomings which are intended to mitigate our responsibility for our under performance.  We kill more than them because we take harder to place animals than they do, or they have more resources, or they lie about their numbers.  It’s not us, it’s something else.  It must be something else, because we’re so damn good at what we do.  It is kind of like saying, “My IQ isn’t below average, that IQ test was just really hard.”

Until we recognize, identify, quantify, compare, and evaluate our own efficacy in animal welfare, both within our own walls and across the field, we will remain the instituitional equivalents of churches.  Having a faith based world view is fine when it comes to religion but our work to prevent unnecessary euthanasia of animals in our shelters requires science, not faith.  Faith and belief tell us why we should do the work we do.  How we do the work to save lives needs to be grounded in fact, data, and science.  You don’t get to the moon using scripture.

Animal welfare “scripture” is the basis for too much of what we do in in our shelters, when we should be using the scientific method.  The church used to believe that the sun and moon revolved around the Earth until scientists proved it did not.  That didn’t disprove the existence of God, it just disproved an unfounded belief in our physical world.

In the same way, we can disprove many of the beliefs in animal welfare- pets as gifts have a greater failure rate, black cats adopted at Halloween get tortured, Disney movies cause massive spikes in breed intake, big black dogs face disproportionate euthanasia odds, that reaching No Kill in the real world is as easy as arithmetic or completely impossible- but that doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t be careful giving pets as gifts, some people torture cats, black dogs get euthanized, or that No Kill is neither desirable nor attainable.

We can still believe and we can still worship our animal welfare scriptures and tenets, but if we want to get to the moon, if we want to reach 90%, 95%, 100% save rates everywhere, we need to put away the animal welfare bibles, stop turning to the animal welfare prophets, and stop praying for an end to the flow of animals coming through our doors.

We need to start breaking out the calculators, spreadsheets, statistical models, the analytical and testing tools, and do the critical thinking required to get us to our goals.  We can’t all be great or we wouldn’t all still be here doing what we are doing.

Believing something can be done is easy.  Proving it can be done is tough.  Doing it is hard as hell.


“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”  John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962

In a recent Facebook post about pet relinquishment intervention programs, designed to keep pets from entering shelters by offering owner support, someone made the observation that they were good ideas but they were hard.  The person was absolutely correct.  These programs are hard.  They are harder than the easier alternative of simply taking the animal in.  They are hard enough that most shelters don’t try.  They may say it’s because they don’t have the resources but, really, it’s more likely that it’s simply hard and they just don’t know how to do it.  It may not be rocket science but even simple math is tough if you’ve never been taught it.

For a couple decades “reaching No Kill” has been little more than jingo.  It’s more often than not been a slogan for people who have either not had to actually deal with the animals at the door, had the luxury or will to refuse animals at the door, or it’s been a fundraising tool.  Somewhere along the way some hard working people actually started making the slogan a reality.  No Kill shelters worked in partnership with Open Door shelters across broad regions to start approaching the goal of being true no kill communities.  High kill open door shelters started to work hard and become medium kill and then low kill and then start to crack the 90% save rate that used to signify “no kill”, but now is just a stop on the way to 91%, 93%, 98% save rates.

Unlike the jingoist crowd who said this would be as simple as 2 + 2 = No Kill, it’s been hard, hard as hell.  But as JFK pointed out, sometimes we should do things because they are hard and challenging.  There is no longer any excuse not to accept this challenge, no matter what kind of shelter we are, what size, what location.  The days of spurning the fantasy of deeply feeling but partly deluded Pollyannas need to be over.  We need to take up the challenge of saving every animal, every place, not because it’s easy but because we can.


At long last animal shelters are starting to do the real math when it comes to the cost of preventing intake at shelters.  Every year a shelter might spend hundreds of thousands to take in, care for, and adopt or euthanize thousands of animals.  Yet relinquishment prevention programs might receive only a sliver of that funding.  Until recently programs designed to keep animals from darkening our doorsteps have been viewed as an expense, not as a savings over the true and full cost of taking in an animal.

owner and fosterHSBC has been making significant investments over the past decade in order to better balance our efforts between intake prevention and outflow efforts.  We believe this new approach is working, and it started with the recognition of the true costs of caring for an animal in our shelter.  After years of telling people that the average animal cost X hundreds of dollars to care for, depending on how you calculated the “true” cost, we decided to take our own number seriously.

If the “true cost” (staff, overhead, treatment, food, care, adoption, euthanasia, was $250 per animal, wouldn’t it be a smart decision to spend up to $249 per animal to keep an animal out of our shelter?  We could save money and the animal doesn’t have to sit in a cage.  This new view of our expense was the fiscal justification for our expanded veterinary services, community vaccination and wellness programs, expanded foster and PetNet services, AniMeals On Wheels, CART, and other programs which are not free or even cheap, but are not necessarily more expensive than the alternative of accepting ownership of an animal.  It’s why we ask everyone who brings us a pet to surrender if there’s anything we can offer which will help them keep it.

I’ve covered the benefits of high quality, affordable vet care and how it helps keep pets at home, but proving the negative is sometimes hard to do (just ask President Obama how well the “jobs saved” argument works with skeptics).  But we also have programs which can be shown to keep animals from entering the sheltering system, such as our PetNet program.

PetNet was created more than a decade ago to provide temporary foster care for the pets of victims of domestic violence who were trying to escape an abuser but could not take a pet to a shelter.  We would foster the pet and return it once the owner was settled and safe.  Nine years ago we expanded the program to include people facing extended hospital stays, personal or natural disasters, and other acute crisis of limited duration.  We now use PetNet and similar programs to assist with hundreds of animals each year, animals which would otherwise be homeless and surrendered to our shelter or others.

petnet owner

With the stroke of a pen, Lucy is returned, not surrendered.

Animals like Lucy.  Lucy’s owners were faced with a choice when their apartment was condemned in the middle of winter.  Through no fault of their own, they were suddenly homeless.  Yes, our shelter and other were here to take Lucy from them and find her a new home but why should saving an animal mean tearing her from the arms of a family who loves her?  PetNet allowed us to provide immediate housing for Lucy in our shelter, then in a foster home.  Lucy received a full veterinary work up and treatment for minor medical conditions during her foster for free.  And when her family had a new home, she was returned to her family.  No adoption.  No euthanasia.  No weeks in shelter care.  Just foster and return.

Yes, PetNet is more logistically and labor intensive but certainly no more than keeping Lucy in a kennel, and the cost was no more.  Thanks to PetNet we can point directly to Lucy and to so many others and say, “That animal was saved and is at home with their family because we invested in keeping her there, rather than here.”  How many lives and how many thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of dollars could be saved each year if all shelters made that effort every time?

Looking at the math that way we might even wonder what the intake impact might be if we invested $250,000 a year to provide free, on demand sterilization services to 5000 animal a year in our county for a few years.  The first year we had a reduction in intake by 1,000, wouldn’t we be breaking even on the expense based on our cost of care estimates?  What about free food, training classes, medical care?  What else could we spend money on which would prevent the flow of animals rather than addressing it after the fact?  Relinquishment prevention programs work.

As a side note, Lucy’s experience also highlights the value of HSBC’s pending merger with HLLC.  We didn’t have an immediately open foster home in Berks but there was one in Lancaster.  Our collaboration is bringing many more caring people into the lives of animals who need them, without looking for some arbitrary county line to delineate our “territory”.  Collaboration, partnership, and mergers work, too.  More on that soon.



I can be pretty hard on the professional sheltering world.  I think as an industry we often create our own problems, refuse to see and implement solutions within our grasp, and wear our “tough jobs” as a badge which should protect us from criticism and scrutiny.  Being paid to do our jobs, we deserve a little extra scrutiny into our motives and the differences between what we say and what we mean or do.

By the same token, being an unpaid volunteer or “lover of animals” doesn’t make a person a saint, a blind arbiter of animal welfare, or beyond scrutiny of motives.  That doesn’t stop many of them from thinking it does.  Just as there are shallow clockers in shelters, there are shallow animal welfare dilettante volunteers out there, too.  They can be just as selfish and mean spirited, damaging to progress, and dishonest with themselves and the community about what their true motives are as any bad shelter worker.

I see this self-delusion quite a bit when I speak with boards and volunteers from other organizations, specifically struggling organizations.  I’ll be asked for advice or assistance, listen to the usual tales of woe, and hear the list of things this unpaid and above reproach volunteer wants for their organization.  “I just want our animals to get better treatment and care in our shelters, I just want to save more lives, get all the pets sterilized before adoption, or have better qualified staff.  I just want to be able to raise more funds and find more resources to be the shelter I know we can be or to build the shelter I know we should have.  I just want this or that or the other thing for the animals, not for me.”

Most of these volunteers and board members mean it, just as most sheltering professionals mean it, too.  But I’ve taken to asking a question of them all.  What if you could have all of that, everything you say you want, but the condition was you have to resign from your positions of power in the organization?  In the long pause that follows, the volunteer and I both get to reflect on the divide between what you say you want and what you actually want, but are not saying.

What most of us, professional or volunteer, actually mean when we say we just want some something is that we want to be the person who does it.  It’s not, “I want all the animals saved in this shelter,” it’s, “I want to save all the animals in this shelter.”  That is a vast difference.

As a director, a consultant, and a volunteer board member, I’ve been in many situations in which I’ve had to face the reality that a well-meaning staff member who really wants something good for the mission they are paid to serve needs to be told, yes, we can do that thing.  We just can’t do it with you, because you are not up to the job or you, despite your best intentions, are part of what’s stopping us from accomplishing this goal we share.

That’s a tough conversation, made tougher by the reality of the livelihood you are denying that person if you make that decision, and one reason that well-intentioned but terrible employees choke our industry.  It’s just really hard to fire a good person, even if we know it’s best for the mission.  That’s why it’s my job as a paid professional, with the responsibility of looking out for over 60 employees and their families, to be really honest when I say, “I just want to do this list of important things for animals and I want me and my staff to be the ones to do it!”

Some volunteers have trouble with that “and” when it comes to them.  But sometimes the change that needs to come requires a volunteer to step back or give up control or play with the rest of the team in consensus.  Sometimes the team reaches a different consensus and the volunteer needs to decide to find a new team.  Sometimes the volunteer needs to reflect upon their own role in an organization’s shortcomings.  At all times, we need to acknowledge our own ego and our own human and sometimes selfish desires.  Yes, we want something good to happen and, yes, we want to be in control of it, too.  That’s just fine.

I got to thinking about all this because of an interesting experience I had recently with a volunteer group at an organization I work with.  There has been a long standing, if a bit loose, partnership and the volunteers asked, jokingly, for something that seemed like a lot.  We often express what we actually want when we think we are joking.   I thought about it and decided it made a lot of sense and went on to ask if they could have anything, what would they want?  The list was rattled off. I thought some more and said, “Yes.”

They could have everything they wanted and I’d even pay for it.  Tens of thousands of dollars would be the cost to make capital purchases and capital improvements but, yes.  They could have total autonomy and we’d exert no control over their program.  Yes.  The partnership would give the organization I was working with something we really wanted to accomplish, even if it involved spending our funds and giving up control- and I love’s me some control, buster, so don’t think I didn’t have to put some thought to that.

They could have everything they said they wanted, everything on their wish list, in exactly the way they wanted it, and someone else would pay for it. Yes.  They thought about it for a few days.  And they said, no.  They gave no reason, just which they were opting for a different direction.  A different direction than getting everything they said they wanted.  Huh.

My guess is that they experienced the fear that comes with accomplishment and the fear that being given what we want is a trick or the fear that allowing anyone else to do something for us somehow controls or diminishes us, but who knows?

All I know is that we need to be very careful in animal welfare to recognize the difference between what someone says they want and what they actually want.  We’d also be better off if we examined that chasm in what we tell ourselves we want.


The “adopt them out and cross your fingers” approach is still the dominant one in many shelters.  Trust that you made a good match and leave the success in the hands of the adopter, who we can conveniently blame for any failure.  As mentioned in the last post, for those shelters trying to actually exert some control over their adoption destinies, an adoption health guarantee can help keep pets from returning by fixing foreseeable health issues.

Be our guest! Put our service to the test by adopting Kimmy!

Be our guest! Put our service to the test by adopting Kimmy!

Another way to keep adopted animals at home is simply to do some basic adoption follow-up calls.  Why wait to ask, “Why are you returning this pet?” over the counter, when we could ask how things are going on the phone and offer assistance if there seems to be a problem?  Any level of follow up is a good idea to me but, of course, I’d like to see it be driven by data, just like we used our adoption return data to create the structure of our 30 Day Adoption Health Guarantee.

HSBC uses a 3/3/3 Adoption Follow-Up program.  We call adopters three days, three weeks, and three months after adoption.  The choice of these windows was not arbitrary.  When I arrived at HSBC as executive director a decade ago, we had a high return rate, as high as 16% in just the first few weeks.  That meant that nearly one in five of our adoptions were coming back and nearly one in ten of our total intake- and if you do that math you’ll see we also had a high euthanasia rate then, too- were our own animal coming back to us.  Why and, as importantly it turned out, when?

When we did spreadsheets on the dates of returns we saw that they were clustered at a few critical times following adoption.  Adoption returns peaked at about one week, one month and  to a lesser extent, four months following adoption.  Sometimes the returns were simply because we made a bad match.  That happens, and that led to a focus on better matching of clients with pets, which helped bring down returns overall.  Many of the returns were for behavioral issues or for health issues.  The health issues could be addressed with our 30 Day Adoption Health Guarantee, and that also brought down the return rates.

But behavioral issues, especially if combined with a bad job of matching or health issues, or simply inexperience with pet ownership or adoption, or any combination of these, can lead to a decision to return a pet and once that decision is made, it’s extremely difficult to put the genie back in the lamp.  The best way to avoid is to intervene and you can only do that if you know you need to.  And that’s as simple as asking, “How are things going with your new pet?”

By calling at three days, we head off some of the one week returns.  By calling at three weeks, we head off some of the one month returns.  By calling at three months, we head off some of the four month returns.  And we’ve found that if we can keep a pet in the home for four months, it has no greater chance of being returned than any pet has to be brought to our shelters for any reason at all. It’s as simple as a few phone calls by staff of volunteers (who can redirect the call to staff should there be a problem).  A little more work, yes.  But less work than bringing back pets unnecessarily.

OK, lots of big talk about how effective these programs are.  You probably want me to show you the money.  Ten years ago HSBC’s return rates were as high 16% for dogs and about 8% for cats within the first 30 days.  Today our return rates are 2% for cats and 4% for dogs in the first 30 days- a 75% decrease in adoption returns.  In the first 120 days following adoption that rate is still only 4% for cats and 8% for dogs.  Our program work now is to decrease this longer term return even further.

Are we satisfied with 2% and 4%?  Absolutely not, but it’s a damn sight better than it was before and we did it by looking at hard data, not by “gut checks” and we did it in a way which was not expensive or out of the reach of our then nearly bankrupt shelter.  We are excited to bring this 3/3/3 Adoption Follow-Up program to Humane League of Lancaster County to help bring their already low return rates (4% cats/9% dogs) to record lows, too.  Adoption follow up and counseling programs work.


I’ve been on a bit of a Debby Downer tear about what doesn’t work in sheltering so I thought I’d turn to a couple things which do work!  Over the next few days I’ll focus on effective programs.  A couple of these target the dirty little secret of the animal adoption world: adoption returns.

Clearly, not every adoption will work out when half of all marriages fail eventually.  However, anything we can do to reduce the likelihood of a pet being returned helps the pet, helps the adopter, and helps our shelter by reducing incoming numbers.

We can either minimize the likelihood of adoption failure before the animal is adopted through high quality adoption counseling and excellent matching or we can minimize the chances of failure once the animal is at home by addressing identifiable reasons for adoption returns (better yet, we should do both).  One area of post adoption failure which can be addressed is related to the health and wellness of adopted pets.

Many years ago at Berks Humane we crunched the numbers and saw that there were both specific windows for adoption returns (more on that tomorrow) and specific reasons associated with those windows of returns.  Health related issues topped the list for animals returned in the first month following adoption and the type of health issue was directly related to the time window of return.  Finding a way to prevent, avoid, or treat the health issue offered an enormous opportunity to boost early adoption success in that first critical month.

Shelter have touted that the best defense against an adoption return is a veterinarian.  That’s why we’ve all tried to work with local vets, to greater or lesser success, to provide a “free” vet exam for adopted pets.  Those “free’ exams tended to come with a laundry list of costs associated with vaccinations, testing, flea products, not to mention the extra costs should the animal come down with one or more of the common post adoption ailments like upper respiratory infections, kennel cough, or digestive upset.  Most of these ailments are stress related and treatable, but that doesn’t mean they won’t cost the adopter a few hundred bucks on top of the “free” exam.

What if there was a way to offset that cost?  Many years ago, VCA Animal Hospitals came up with just such a program and began offering partnerships to shelters near VCA hospitals which would provide a 14 day adoption health guarantee.  If used in the first 14 days, they offered free exam, discount of diagnostics, and free treatment of typical post adoption illnesses.  For many shelters this is a great program and it certainly helps VCA obtain new clients, so it’s good for them.  For any animals which get treated and don’t get returned, it’s really good, too.

Berks Humane enrolled in this program many years ago but had mixed success. One problem was that the 14 day window did not line up with the windows of failure we had demonstrated through our data crunching.  The program was pretty good but the timing was bad. We wondered if we couldn’t offer the same benefits but make them fit the health issues and time windows we knew we faced.  It turned out we could and thus was born the HSBC 30 Day Adoption Health Guarantee!

All animals adopted at HSBC- and now Humane League of Lancaster County– get a free exam, too, if using our veterinary services in the first 30 days following adoption.  We will also treat a long list of illnesses and conditions which can be common in shelter pets due to the stress of adoption or from a sometimes unknown health background.  If your new pet comes down with an upper respiratory infection, infectious tracheobronchitis (kennel cough), diarrhea or vomiting of infectious origin, intestinal parasites, common skin disorders, ear and eye infections, or a urinary tract infection, our vets will treat it for free.  If you’ve had a pet with any of these common ailments, you know who much treatment for them can cost.

Why do we do this?  First, if we can save one adopter a couple hundred bucks on treating a simple ailment and keep that animal safe in its new home, we have a happy pet, a happy adopter, and one more open space in our facilities for another animal.  Second, if the animal was returned, we’d end up treating it anyway, only in a more stressful environment- our shelter as opposed to a home- where recovery is less likely, so it’s cost effective for us.  Third, when our clients see what a great job our vets do, they may consider sticking with our vet services in the future, which is great for our charitable bottom line.  Every dollar they spend in the future is a dollar we can apply to other adopted pets’ health guarantees and to treat sheltered animals.

I know this is where vets start to grumble but I say, hey, you could offer this to your clients, too.  We’ll even tell every adopter and give them your card.  Anyone?  Anyone?  OK, so stop grumbling and let us go back to helping our animals stay in a new home.

These programs can be provided at some level or scale by any shelter with a veterinarian on staff.  We worked up to our full, comprehensive program but we started in a more limited fashion when we just had one vet and one little exam room.  This is where some shelters start grumbling about not being “lucky” enough to have a vet on staff.  To you I say, hey, stop whining and hire a vet.  If you don’t have one in the 21st century it’s because you are choosing not to.  It’s your job as a director to find the resources and make it happen.

I am excited that we are expanding this lifesaving program into Lancaster County, and that we are expanding and upgrading the services provided under this program in Berks and Lancaster Counties over the coming year.  This program is good animals, it’s good for people, and it’s good for our shelter.  Adoption health guarantees work.