Sunlight and Disclosure

January 30th, 2018 | Posted by Karel Minor in Uncategorized - (2 Comments)

“Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants…” Former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis made this observation and it is as correct now as it was in 1913.  People and organizations keep things hidden or secret for a variety of reasons, sometimes sinister, sometimes not.

The animal welfare community has always been notoriously secretive. Never more so than when it comes to releasing animal intake and disposition data.  Generally, the places which are the most happy to share their data with the public are the ones with the best outcomes.  This makes sense.  If you are a restricted access, “no kill” shelter that only accepts the happiest, healthiest, and most adoptable pets, why not brag about your 100% adoption rate?

Shelters which aren’t as successful rarely think it’s a good idea to share outcome data. Usually they use the excuse that “people wouldn’t understand”.  It’s a fair excuse because most people won’t and don’t understand what goes to create these numbers.  Many of these shelters will come up with clever ways around reporting hard numbers.  They will use percentages or comparisons which allow them to find the best possible comparison or avoid the weakest performing metric.  They will leave out whole populations of animals served which negatively skew the numbers.  More often than not, they just don’t report them at all.

When I started at Humane Society of Berks County 13 years ago, we were in that camp. We didn’t report our numbers out of fear.  We report them now, and they are pretty darn good, although not perfect.  But in 2004?  They were awful.  We killed about two out of every three cats and nearly half the dogs entering our shelter.  It wasn’t for lack of trying, although the effort then was clearly not up to the task.  When we decided as an organization that we were going to change those numbers for the better, being “no kill” or even achieving “no kill” save rates of 90% or more weren’t even on our radar.  It seemed like an impossibly absurd goal.

We simply tried to save more. We didn’t really say we were doing it, we just did it.  One here, ten or a hundred there.  We changed our approach, our policies, our operations, and our staff.  It ended up working.

But do you know what the very first thing we did was? We posted our raw animal intake and disposition data. Not percentages or comparisons or bar graphs with vaguely identified axis.  We listed the raw numbers.  Species, intake type and number, outcome type and number.

And it was ugly. Our board didn’t want to do it but they let the staff post the numbers on our website for all to see because we knew that we couldn’t change the outcomes if we didn’t know exactly how bad things were.  We couldn’t get the public to buy in to our changes if we weren’t honest with them.  The community couldn’t solve a problem together if it didn’t know what the problem was.  And we couldn’t expect them to just give us a pass because we said, “Trust us.”

Someone else said, “In God we trust. All others bring data.”  We shared the data.  I believe we were among the first, if not the first open door shelter that published its full raw numbers online for all to see when we started.  Since then, many more shelters have begun to do this as standard practice.  But not all.

Humane Pennsylvania, as we’ve become since then, has been a vocal supporter of mandated reporting of shelter statistics because we agree with Justice Brandeis. The sickness of unnecessary euthanasia in shelters is best rooted out through public awareness of the scale and specifics of the problem.  We’ve seen states like Virginia, which have comprehensive mandatory reporting and searchable databases, improve their statewide save rates by stunning margins over the course of a decade.  We’ve seen the pressure public reporting puts on underperforming shelters.  It becomes fair to ask the question:  Why are your numbers so much worse than others?  Then we can ask how we can change that, together.

It doesn’t matter to me what a shelter’s motivations for posting numbers may be. Whether it is because they want to brag, because they believe it is right, or because some harsh sunshine shone down and forced them to be more transparent, it’s just good to have this data out there for all to see.

There are a lot of ways to improve outcomes for animals. Arriving at “no kill” numbers is a journey of a thousand programs, services, facilities, and people.  Transparent reporting is not one of the steps to get there.  It is the first, critical step in getting there.


It’s time to return to our series of more detailed follow up to our annual 2018 State of Humane Pennsylvania post!  This week’s topic:  Our continued expansion of community veterinary services via our Humane Veterinary Hospitals locations in Reading and Lancaster and through our shelter veterinary services.

For those who don’t know- which is hard to believe anyone couldn’t since I never shut up about it- our two hospitals are open to the public (yes, your pet!), are nationally accredited by the American Animal Hospital Association, and support both the community at large and the animals we shelter!

Open to you and the public: HVH Reading and Lancaster are high quality, public veterinary hospitals.  They provide over 10,000 client visits annually to pet caretakers and are here to serve you and your pet!  For those who can afford regular veterinary services, we charge fair, market rates for all your animal health needs from wellness care, to sterilization services, surgery, dentals, and even acupuncture!  If you are new to the area, are between vets, or just want to support a hospital where your bill helps pay to help needy animals, check us out!

But what really sets us apart from the rest of the for-profit veterinary community are our special assistance programs. We provide free or heavily discounted services to our adopted pets after they go home.  The sniffles after an adoption of a cat or dog are almost to be expected.  But a $500 vet bill to pay to treat a simple upper respiratory infection isn’t.  By providing our unique 30 Day Adoption Health Supplement program, we keep pets in their new homes.

For those who need a little more help, our standard sliding scale services can take 20% or more off the cost of services for those on social security, with limited income, or other have special circumstances. We provide first responders, and others who give back to the community, standard discounts.  We also work hard with clients to find payment options or flexibility that will allow animals to get the care they need and allow us to provide service without going broke.

About one third of our clients are from the general public, one third are adopters, and one third are sliding scale services. And, of course, there’s the whole other group of nearly 5,000 sheltered animals which receive treatment and services from our hospitals and vets.  The value of those services is over a million dollars!  By being a client, you help make that possible.

Nationally accredited by the American Animal Hospital Association:  Only about 15% of the estimated 35,000 for profit veterinary hospitals in the US have this accreditation, which rates a practice on 900 points of operation. It is a recognized mark of quality.  But our accreditation is even more impressive (IMHO) because of even that small number AAHA reports only 21 accredited non-profit hospitals in the US- and we have two of them!  Our HVH Lancaster was the first accredited non-profit hospital in Pennsylvania to be accredited and our HVH Reading location was the third, and we helped a peer shelter in Bucks County get theirs to be the second.  We are proud of this accomplishment because it means that no one can ever say, “They mean well, but their facility isn’t up to snuff.”  We mean well, do well, and we have top tier facilities, staff, equipment, and services.  That AAHA logo proves it!

On a side note: Are you a veterinarian who’d like to join our amazing team? We are hiring! Please check us out at our employment link.  We are unlike anything else out there.  The best of private practice facilities, equipment, benefits, and compensation, with the satisfaction of helping a wide range of people and animals.  We’d love to talk to you and give you a tour!

Helping the community: Some folks need more financial assistance than we can usually offer.  Even with our unique sliding scale and other assistance programs, there are times when we don’t have the resources to help some animals who come to our shelters or hospitals.  We were fortunate this year to get a very generous $75,000 grant from the Giorgi Family Foundation and a $15,000 gift from Quaker Maid Meats allowed us to provide free and reduced cost services to 1,495 of animals in need, with a focus on pets of owners enrolled in our PetNet programs and residents in economically distressed Reading neighborhoods. These services saved lives and prevented animals from being surrendered and could be provided regardless of ability to pay.  It also allowed us to test some new holistic approaches to service offerings which we didn’t have the luxury to testing in the past.  These new models have led to some exciting new approaches which we will be rolling out over the coming months (and I’ll be writing about in coming weeks).

When we started making a major shift to seeing veterinary services as being core to our animal welfare mission, programs, and approaches, we knew it would be a good idea and help animals. We had no idea just how true this would be.  It has been good for our animals and animals in the community.  It has been a fiscally prudent approach, allowing us to do more for less, and to lose less as a charity operating in working class counties which don’t have mega-wealth of some of the Philly ring suburbs.  And it’s served as a model for shelters in Pennsylvania and around the nation, who figure if some small town dummies like us can do, so can they.

More, better, cheaper. That makes for happy animals and people.


I’m taking a detour this week from the series of pieces following our “Year in Review” post to recognize some great news announced by our fellow animal welfare group, Animal Rescue League of Berks County. A recent article in the Reading Eagle tells of their plans to review their operations model with the goal of reaching broadly agreed upon “no kill” save rates of 90% or better.  That is fantastic news and I can tell them from our experience that making this shift in thinking is transformative.

Humane Pennsylvania- or at that time, Humane Society of Berks County- broke the old mold of animal sheltering well over a decade ago. It’s the reason that we were able to end the killing of healthy and adoptable animals for space for the first time in the last quarter of 2007 and we never looked back.  Historical context is crucial and it’s important to remember that in 2007 HSBC was still fully engaged in animal control services and held the contract for Reading and many other municipalities.  Yet we still achieved what was considered impossible.

That was also around the time that we stopped killing feral cats by the hundred, embraced TNR, and were the first shelter in the region to open our clinic to a regional TNR group in full partnership and support of the concept. We even paid for the group’s 501c3 formation costs to help strengthen them as a stand-alone force.  We announced our desire for a comprehensive Feral Cat Initiative (around 2007?  I’m looking for the old paper newsletter) but unfortunately local governments weren’t yet on board and refused to work with us.

In 2006 we won a national American Humane Association award for our ground breaking Free to A Great Home emergency adoption program.  We did this at a time when adoption reductions, let alone free adoptions, got you hate mail from people and even other shelters insisting it was dangerous and that only worthless poor people would adopt.  Adoption reduced, free, or differentials are now standard practice across the nation, and right here in Berks.  We weren’t the first, but we were probably the first to brand it and do it unapologetically.  We were definitely the first to track the data to show it was safe and effective.

We greatly expanded or created new adoption relinquishment prevention programs over the past dozen years. PetNet, founded in 2000 with local veterinarian Dr. Lee Pickett to provide foster services for pets of victims of domestic violence, was expanded to include pets of people with personal or health crisis.  It was recognized for its innovation by the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.  We created the Ani-Meals On Wheels program, one of the very first pet food banks that went out into the community in the nation at the time.  Giving away pet food got us hate mail, too.  At least until the recession hit.  It’s now being expanded to become Spike’s Pantry (more on that soon!).

The most effective relinquishment prevention program, and the one which I will unabashedly say we are truly a, if not the, national leader, is our community veterinary hospital model. When we started our clinic in 2007 we had lawsuits threatened and legislation threatened to prevent us from serving the community under a non-profit model.  Since then we became the first (and third) AAHA accredited non-profit hospital in Pennsylvania and only the 19th (and 21st) in the entire country (and we helped the 2nd/20th , Women’s Humane in Bucks, get accredited so we can be happy about that, too!).  The other 18 had organizational budgets that ranged in size from $5 million to $100 million a year.  Our “little shelter that could” barely broke a million dollar budget the year we opened.  It wasn’t about how much money we had it was about what we did with it.

From being the founding agency in Berks to create the Berks County Animal Response Team before Hurricane Katrina, to establishing partnerships with local, state, and national governments, agencies, and organizations, to providing emergency management services, consulting services, nationally recognized and accepted training certifications, and more, the lists goes on and on. We kept trying new things.  When they worked, we kept and expanded them.  When they didn’t, we moved on.  Where we could learn from others we did, where we could steal great ideas and programs, we did (although we always made sure to give credit where credit was due), and we based success of some very simple factors:  How many animals did we save?  How many did we kill?  How many did we keep safe and sound at home rather than in our shelter?

We kept having better outcomes. We post our numbers online, for all to see, and we have since 2005.  When I started we killed over 60% of all cats and 40% of all dogs.  Then we broke the 80% save rate barrier for cats and dogs.  Then 85%.  Now over 90% for cats and 95% for dogs.  Some years we go up, some down, but overall, the trend is going up.  It gets harder and harder with those last few percent because they are the toughest to save, fix and adopt.  But our prior success informs us that we can do the hard, sometimes even the seemingly impossible, work.  ARL can do it, too, and we are here to lend our applause and our support to them.  And we can assure them they can do it without closing their doors to animals.

This brings me to the fact checking. Someone brought it to my attention that the claim was made that there is only one open admission shelter in Berks County, and that it was not us.  Some people are under the misconception that because we have actually achieved amazing save rates, above the “no kill” percentage, that we must be a restricted access shelter in Berks. That is simply false. Although the Lancaster Humane League facility was a heavily restricted access shelter when we merged, and still has some soft barriers to entry, Berks has been and remains an “open door shelter”.  Our policies are posted online for everyone to see.

We have a suggested- not required- $25 donation for surrendered pets, like most shelters do. We do charge a flat $50 fee for pets coming from out of county, but we think that’s fair since our county is now taking that responsibility is on.  But even then, we consider every animal case by case and never let money stand in the way of doing the right thing.  Personally, I don’t think making someone from out of county pay a small fee is closing the door any more than a restaurant could be considered denying you service because you walked in and told them you don’t intend to pay your bill after your meal.  We even have some animal control intake contracts these days, both in Berks and Lancaster Counties.  In fact, this year 43% of the cats and 23% of the dogs we took in were strays.  It may seem like a small thing but we are very proud of our success while remaining an open door shelter.  It only seems fair to set the record straight.

There has been a sea change in animal sheltering in America in the last decade. The no kill agenda had much to do with it.  In fact, I always say that no kill won the battle, even if it hasn’t won every war.  I still don’t buy the simplistic “it’s about the math” mantra, because it’s demonstrably false.  But the mindset that animals don’t have to die and that it’s my personal responsibility- and yours– to find ways to make sure they don’t was not the mindset that dominated shelters when I started professionally 25 years ago.  It is now.  It is here.

And it appears that now it will be across all of Berks. I could not be more excited about what this means for all our animals, and their humans.


As promised in the 2018 State of Humane PA post, I’m posting a series of more detailed weekly follow ups on the bullet point list provided there.  Keep checking back or subscribe to the feed to get updates! 

2017 was one of the best years for animals in the 117 year history of Humane Pennsylvania (and Humane Society of Berks County and Humane League of Lancaster County). Using modified Asilomar reporting, we had a success rate- out alive- of 97% for dogs, 94% for cats, and 100% for small animals!  That’s as good as we’ve ever done for dogs and small animals, and better than we’ve ever done for cats.

But it was (probably) Mark Twain who said, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. Anyone who claims stats like that better be prepared to defend them.  And I’m just the anyone to do it.  After all, how can we say we saved 94% or more of animals when 1,092 of the 4,642 animals who entered our shelters didn’t leave us alive?

First, I better explain what we mean by “modified Asilomar” reporting. Asilomar reporting is the closest thing to an industry standard as there is for reporting intake and outgoing figures in shelters.  Using Asilomar, a shelter establishes four categories of animals.  Health & Adoptable, which as the name implies, means happy, healthy animals. Treatable, which is further broken down into Rehabilitatable (can be made Healthy) or Manageable (has a chronic issue such as diabetes or manageable behavioral issue).  The last group are the ones determined by community standards to be deemed Unadoptable.  We are very by the book about what makes it to these groups and you can read our detailed matrix for deciding here.  Our reporting is modified because we are a bit stricter in our interpretations and designations than Asilomar allows for (for example, ASPCA says that animals under eight weeks (!!!) can be deemed unadoptable under Asilomar.  That is batsh*t crazy talk).

Where shelters get into trouble is often to shove everything into the “unadoptable” group, but we are very transparent about our thinking and reporting. If an animal is Treatable, even up to the point of pretty heroic measures, we put it in Treatable.  The animals that go into Untreatable are animals that either are obvious (you’ll see what I mean in a second) or animals which reasonably belong there.  For example, of the 1,092 animals which are reported as “failures”- i.e. they didn’t leave alive- 609 of them (56%) came to us already dead for disposal or cremation (139), so injured that they actually died under veterinary treatment (50), or were brought to us by their owners specifically to be euthanized for valid reasons (420).  Most reasonable people would grant us that these are animals which we shouldn’t count against our adoption numbers, because they had no chance of being adopted.  We can’t raise the dead.  Yet.

Of course, it goes without saying but I will say it anyway, we don’t euthanize any happy, healthy animals and we haven’t since 2008. Let me repeat that:  all healthy animals get adopted.  Full stop.

But that’s a lot of ground in between those tow groups, fully 483 animals or about 10% of our intake. Those last 483 are the ones we struggle with, some more than others. A small number (6) run afoul of state rabies regulations and have wounds of unknown origin that require a level of quarantine we can’t provide.  Some animals (10) come in with such a history of serious bites we don’t even consider adopting them.  Some feral cats (10) were euthanized this year because we can’t safely house them and we didn’t have an alternative rescue placement, despite our extensive partnerships with feral cat networks.  When I started 13 years ago we euthanized a 1,000 feral cats a year.  A 99% decrease isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty close.  3 dogs came in that were so old it wasn’t humane to keep them.  14 extremely young kittens were euthanized, also drastically lower than past years because we have pioneered giving a kitten nursing kit  to people for free.  Thanks to this program we saved 90 kittens who came to us but went home with finders or fosters. 23 animals that came were euthanized because of serious bites to humans, either in the community or in our shelters, and fell into the rabies concern issue, as well as safety concerns.  1 cat escaped.  98 animals were euthanized for aggression that rose to a level that made our staff and managers decide that there was not a safe placement option.  Animals which we would fear to have in our homes with our families should not be at home with your family.

These are all animals which did not leave us alive. But each of them was considered individually, treated with compassion, and ultimately it was the most appropriate decision for each of them.  I will be honest when I say bluntly, these are not the ones I lose sleep over.

The ones which I lose sleep over are the ones in two groups: animals euthanized for behavioral issue and sick animals. These are our clearest failures and the ones which we always second guess ourselves.  If we had more resources, more staff, more time, more space, more, more, more….could we have saved them? There were 88 animals with such severe behavioral issues that we were unable to find an adopter or did not feel it was best for the animals to languish in a shelter, never adopted. 131 animals were euthanized that came to us profoundly sick but not terminally ill, and 86 became ill while in our care and were euthanized.  To be fair, we used to kill thousands of animals just because they sneezed, so this number is a victory by comparison.  But if you ask those animals, they won’t pin a ribbon on us.

These are the toughest failures because we have gotten so good at saving animals. We are now the go-to shelter for animals with major problems.  That makes it harder and more expensive than ever, and while we do better than ever, we don’t succeed every time.  We do literally everything in the playbook.  Hell, we wrote the playbook for many of these programs.  We were the first nationally recognized organization to pioneer free adoption programs as standard practice.  We have been groundbreaking in our veterinary services to the shelter animals and the community.  We work aggressively with rescue groups.  We don’t block adoptions for stupid reasons.  We do everything in our power to get these animals out alive.

When I started 13 years ago we took in 7,000 animals and we killed about 4,000, excluding dead animals and owner requested euthanasia.  Now we take in 4,649 and we kill about 400 treatable animals, albeit profoundly sick or behaviorally compromised.  If they weren’t real lives, this would be level of success that we would never shut up about.  But for those 400, our best year ever was still a failure.  Sorry to be a Debbie Downer about it, but it’s true.  Our staff is second to none.  This year’s success was second to none.  You, our supporters, are second to none.  But it still wasn’t enough.  It wasn’t perfect.

I apologize to you and to every single animal we could not save for not being perfect, even if that’s not realistic. And that’s why we have big plans for this year.  We can bring these number down even more, we can finally say we can achieve a “target zero” without being utter liars.

We’ve never done better, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to try like hell.


My fellow Humane Pennsylvanians, I am honored to report to you that the state of Humane Pennsylvania is strong!

Each year I try to give a report on the prior year, the coming year, and the general state of Humane Pennsylvania. It’s time for your update and as I somewhat facetiously noted above, it’s been a great past year, is shaping up to be a great coming year, and we have never been stronger as an organization.  Below are some bullet point highlights.  About once a week for the next many weeks, I’m going to post a more extended blog about each of these bullet points.  I hope you keep checking back.

  • First and most importantly, we did great work for animals last year! Our “live out” rates remained extremely high and even grew, with 97% of dogs, 94% of cats, and 100% of critters being adopted (please refer to our stats page for a detailed breakdown and explanation of the categories we use). Those are great numbers even for a restricted intake shelter, like the Humane League was when Berks Humane merged with it three years ago. But they are spectacular numbers for an open door shelter like we have in Berks- and even more spectacular when you consider that in Lancaster this year we opened that closed door much more widely on our way to transitioning back to fully open door. We also entered into a new stray intake service contract with two local municipalities in Lancaster. In fact, we took in more stray cats than surrendered cats for the first time since we stopped providing animal control intake services in Berks and Lancaster Counties- and we still achieve these stunning success rates!
  • Our veterinary hospitals continue to expand and grow. We are actively seeking additional veterinarians (up to three) to fill the needs of the community. Last year was especially exciting for the vet services department because a $75,000 grant from the Giorgi Family Foundation allowed us to provide free and reduced cost services to hundreds of animals in need, with a focus on pets of owners enrolled in our PetNet programs. These services saved lives and prevented animals from being surrendered and could be provided regardless of ability to pay. If you don’t know about our AAHA accredited (the first in PA and two of only 21 accredited non-profit hospitals in the entire US!) public animal hospitals, you should check us out. We can be the vets for your pets! We can also be where you work! If you are a vet who wants to break new ground in the best of both worlds (private practice and community veterinary care), learn more here.
  • Speaking of PetNet services, our expanded AniMeals program, with its new partner service, Spike’s Pantry, has also been growing by leaps and bounds. We are very excited at a pending partnership with a major grocery chain and a major international pet food manufacturer which will allow us to combat food insecurity for pets in our service areas. More to follow as we finalize this exciting service expansion.
  • Speaking of expansions, both shelters are growing and changing in 2018! Thanks to a multi-year, $500,000 grant from the Culliton Family Foundation, we are making some much needed improvements and upgrades to the Lancaster shelter. This will include returning cats to the main shelters building in a new cat adoption center and expanding the veterinary hospital capabilities.
  • But we aren’t stopping there. We are finally returning to the planned vision for a new state of the art adoption center at our 11th Street location in Reading. Half the building will be leveled and rebuilt, the other half fully renovated. It will be the shelter of the next 20-40 years and will have everything it needs to be to give the animals the shelter they require and deserve, the staff the tools the needs and deserve to do the best possible rescue work, and vastly expanded high volume community veterinary resources to allow us to take on the battle against preventable animal suffering in our communities.
  • And we fully intend to take that battle on until we win. That’s big talk, I know. We will be announcing a detailed and comprehensive plan to bring an end to preventable animal cruelty in our communities through a five prong attack. This plan has grown out of the combined work and innovation of the past few years and is built on what we do best, as a shelter and as a society. There is still work to be done to line up the needed funds and partners, but this plan is on a short timetable and we hope to have some major announcements in the next four to eight weeks. If you want a sneak preview, call me.
  • The Berks Canine Exercise and Training Center (capitals makes it sound fancy!) has begun its transformation. We had hoped to have a completion before December 1 but the need to coordinate tree planting with the repaving of the parking lot and a slow receipt of a major donation meant the asphalt plants shut down for the winter. The needed fencing has already been installed so the space is functional, but the second the ground thaws it will also be pretty. Flowering trees, benches, a koi pond, human rest areas, signage, and a shining, flat new parking lot that doesn’t rip the bottom of your car out are scheduled in just about eight weeks from now (weather permitting). Many thanks to the Baldino Family for their generosity and patience. It will be worth the wait!
  • Last but not least, three of our four major special fundraising events are getting new homes this year! The Art for Arf’s Sake Art Auction returns to the old Raja Theater (Santander Performing Arts Center, Reading). The theme is West World. We’ve done robots. Everyone has done cowboys. The obvious option: Robot Cowboys. Save the date cards coming soon! The Walk for the Animals also returns to its old home, First Energy Stadium, home of the Fighten’ Phils in Reading! Bigger, better, barkier than ever. Keep following for details. And finally, Pints for Pups will be making a jump to Lancaster County this year. The location is still being worked out, but fingers crossed for a perfect venue! Announcement to follow. If you are interested in helping with any of these events, please reach out.

Like I said, it was a big year and will be an even bigger one coming up. It would not be possible without our exceptionally great staff, our phenomenal volunteers, and our amazingly generous donors.  As you have read we have been blessed with some pretty amazing gifts this past year.  Whether you have given your time, a dollar, or a half a million dollars, though, it’s combined to put us on the strongest footing of our 118 year history.  It’s allowing us to not just react to the sufferings of animals but to break the fundamental foundations of preventable animal suffering.  You have helped us make that happen.

Your support and confidence in us allows me to say that the state of Humane Pennsylvania is strong and growing stronger! God bless the animals and God bless Humane Pennsylvania!

(Now start humming “Hail to the Chief” for full effect…Da, da, dada, da, dada, dada, dada, da….)