If I could distill the reasons for the success of Humane Pennsylvania and the animals we serve have enjoyed over the past 13 years in one word it would be “differentiation.”
Differentiation stands in complete opposition to the way most sheltering organizations view the world and the problems we face. Our industry tends to think in terms of broad generalities and in the plural. It thinks of animals, people, and breeders. Humane Pennsylvania has long focused on the animal, the person, the breeder.
Why does this matter? It matters because animals, people, everything, are not the same and how one handles them and their needs vary widely. A cat is not a dog or a boy and a golden retriever is not a chihuahua and a house cat is not a feral cat. Yet most animal advocates still try to take our work down to the broadest, most common denominator.
For example, at Humane PA 13 years ago (then The Humane Society of Berks County), we had a “cat problem.” We took in 4,000 cats, we killed 3,000 cats. Broadly, that was a problem for cats that seemed insurmountable. But we began to differentiate. Of those 3,000 doomed cats, 1,000 were deemed “feral” and that was not something we could handle, so they were killed.
1,000 seemed like a lot of feral cats to those of us who were new to HSBC, so we further differentiated. What did we mean by feral? It turned out that we meant cats that hissed, clawed, and were nasty, and maybe truly feral, too. Truly feral cats were, in fact, pretty much impossible for us to handle at the time so we set aside that group for the moment and looked at the nasty ones.
Why were they nasty and what could we do about it? We gave all incoming cats a 24 hour cooling off period. The result was nearly four out of five cats demonstrating themselves to be simply unhappy cats, not ferals. With a little time those cats were happy. We reduced euthanasia of supposedly feral cats by 800, literally overnight.
That left us with 800 extra cats for the adoption pool. We didn’t look at them as generic “cats” we broke down the population to those most in danger of being killed. This included cats who would be killed just because we ran out of space. We created what was then a groundbreaking, controversial, and largely unheard of practice of simply giving cats away when we ran out of space (Free to a Great Home Program). If our goal was to not kill cats, why not simply choose to not kill them?
It worked. We only gave away about 200 cats that first summer of 2006 but the extra space allowed us to avoid killing any for space the entire rest of the year. We won a national best practices award, our first time on the national stage. And we gathered the data to show that these adoptions were actually more successful long term than normal adoptions. Fee waived adoptions are now common practice across the country.
We then extended the practice to special needs cats; cats that had been with us more than 90 days, then 60 days, then 30 days; and older cats. Then dogs. By the last quarter of 2007 we killed our last animal for space and we haven’t looked back. Euthanasia rates of 75% turned into live outcome rates of 85%, 90%, and higher. Now we have even found ways to handle feral cats successfully.
We did it one, two, ten, one hundred animals at a time. We did it by seeing the trees that made up the forest, not just the forest. We have tried to extend that to everything we do. Our events are tailored to provide as many opportunities to give for as many people as possible. We create services that target as many groups and pockets of people and animals in need as possible. We differentiate.
Is it easy? Hell, no, it’s way harder. But it’s way more successful and it’s the only way to get that last, hard to place group of animals adopted, or hard to serve humans served, or hard to hook donors giving.
Shelters want to know how to save them all? Stop thinking about them all. Differentiate.