Sometimes you can get more done by being more efficient. Sometimes you need to get bigger to get more done.  And we’ve just gotten a little bigger!  Our Humane Veterinary Hospitals (HVH) Reading welcomed Dr. Linda Womer to the family this week.

Dr. Womer is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and Penn State (We are…you know the rest) and has been practicing for over 20 years. She brings a wealth of knowledge in a wide variety of veterinary approaches, including veterinary chiropractic, holistic and acupuncture, and rehabilitation.  As we expand our services and capacity in Reading to help even more animals in the community, Dr. Womer will be a great asset and partner!

Last week we also welcomed Lindsay High as our new Director of Marketing. Lindsay, who has deep roots in Lancaster County, has extensive experience in non-profit and corporate marketing, branding, and communications.  As we continue to expand and roll out new programs and initiatives, Lindsay will guide to process and content you’ll be seeing.  We are really excited to welcome Lindsay and Dr. Womer to the Humane Pennsylvania family.

They are coming on board at an exciting time for Humane Pennsylvania (see last week’s teaser!). We are about to try some new things and some old things in new ways to test a hypothesis.  We think we can show that when you give animals and animal caretakers in a community everything they need to be healthy and well, we won’t need traditional animal shelters any more.

Nobody ever said on their deathbed that they wished they had though smaller.


An End to Animal Suffering

March 30th, 2018 | Posted by Karel Minor in Uncategorized - (1 Comments)

A while back I reached the conclusion that the “No Kill” Contingent (capital N, capital K) essentially had it right when they philosophically paraphrased Ronald Reagan: Animal shelters aren’t the solution to our problems, they are the problem.

The once radical premise that shelters aren’t to be pitied, let alone applauded, for being the ultimate doom of millions of animals, fundamentally changed our approach to animal welfare. Shelters and their management became personally responsible for the lives in their hands and could no longer point a finger at “society.”  Shelters that did not save enough were failures.  The ones that did, were successes.

Humane Pennsylvania is a success. Over ten years ago we killed our last healthy animal for space.  Over the past ten years we’ve diminished the number of animals killed in our shelters so that even sick, injured, and behaviorally challenged animals now have over a 90% chance of leaving alive.  By the arbitrary “No Kill” formulas, we are a success.

But an organization which claims to be an “animal welfare” agency declaring victory because most animals leave its cages alive is like a prison claiming success over social ills because it has a high prisoner release rate. Prisons and shelters are the response to failure.  Our claims of success are like a chef who serves tainted meat and then wants to be congratulated for getting you to the hospital before you died of botulism.

The animal welfare world has tip toed around targeting the causes of animal intake at shelters over the years. Humane education was supposed to make people love their pets.  Increased cruelty law enforcement would stop animals from being abused.  By far, the most successful has been sterilization campaigns and the change in public attitude about having litters of puppies and kittens.  To a lesser degree (the first two) and greater degree (the last), efforts like these were targeted at stopping animals from entering our shelters in the first place.  That is true success.

In the past decade there has been an increased focus on relinquishment prevention. These are too often based at the front counter and assumes that there has already been a breakdown in the pet/caretaker relationship which has resulted in the animal coming to a shelter, even if it is successfully returned to its home with targeted counseling and supports.

Humane Pennsylvania began focusing on some core reasons for the break in the pet/caretaker bond back in 2006, by targeting preventable health issues and delivering affordable, high quality vet care to at risk communities. Yes, before there was HSUS’ Pets for Life, there was us.  This approach worked and it has changed the lives of thousands of animals and their families in our communities.  We believe it will prove to be the most successful “humane education” program ever because children in families who never experienced animal health care services as a normal part of life now see it as the proper way to care for pets.  They will grow up to believe, rightly so, that animals need and deserve that care, and they will know how to access it.

Despite this, we know that we are still receiving animals, as are other shelters in our communities. Can’t we take the lessons we learned about getting animals out of our shelters successfully by targeting approaches to suit specific populations (different breed, species, feral, stray initiatives) and merging that approach with intake prevention efforts?  Isn’t it time to have a goal where no animal enters our shelters because no animal needs to?

Too lofty a goal? So was a 97% save rate for healthy and treatable dogs 13 years ago, but we did that.

If we break down intake by shelters by major cause in our region (these causes vary around the country) we see some specific groupings:

  • Kittens
  • Stray cats and dogs without identification
  • Young adult dogs with health and behavioral issues
  • Animals with acute injury or illness, or mere hunger, which pose a financial burden on caretakers
  • Animals needing temporary short to medium term housing that are relinquished because caretakers can’t find an alternative
  • Lastly, animals entering because of the need of appropriate end of life euthanasia support

Just these six intake categories account for 80-90% or more of shelter intakes. How much more successful would we be if we could eliminate the causes and stop these animals from entering our shelters?  What if we could very nearly eliminate litters of unwanted kittens by providing universal, on demand sterilization for every cat in our community?

We can.  We don’t, but we can.

What if we provided every single cat and dog in our community with microchip identification so that strays could be identified in the field and returned to caretakers without coming to a shelter? Or if they did come to us, they’d get returned immediately?

We can.  We don’t, but we can.

What if every pet caretaker could receive all medically appropriate vaccinations, sterilization, and veterinary engagement and guaranteed access to a proper diet, which we know decreases the likelihood of current and future health and behavioral problems?

We can.  We don’t, but we can.

What if we had a means of providing emergency short term foster care for all animals, during a disaster or just for a week while someone is in the hospital or between houses?

We can.  We don’t, but we can.

Community expectations have changed. Demographics for companion animals have changed nationwide.  Wanting to be a “no kill shelter” is a laudable goal but, it’s not only easily possible, it’s fundamentally not enough.  Even declarations of being a “no kill community” are hollow. Not dying isn’t a good enough yardstick to measure ourselves against.

We need a no suffering animal community. We need a 100% thriving and safe animal community.  We need to build it brick by brick and the time to do it is right now.

I listed a string of things that we could do but don’t do. Humane Pennsylvania intends to start doing them.  We are going to build the very best community in which to be an animal and an animal caretaker anywhere.  Period.  We are going to show that it can be done anywhere.

And we are about to announce how, where, and when. Watch this space….


Whew, it’s just under the wire but I have kept up my New Year’s Resolution of sticking to a weekly posting schedule! And I’m sticking to my “State of Humane PA” detail follow-ups this week (don’t worry, I’m sure there’s a tirade post in the near future). This week: Update on our events!

Let me start with some background on what our events are supposed to accomplish. We define events as being successful is they are good at raising funds, friends, awareness, or level of mission delivery. We use this as a yardstick to decide what works and what doesn’t. If an event doesn’t get us a lot of at least one of those, it doesn’t stay on the calendar. For example, 13 years ago we used to do a fundraising yard sale. It was a ton of work, it didn’t have anything to do with mission, and it might have raised $1,000 in a good year. Bad return on time, effort, mission, and money. So we scrapped it to put our effort into better returns.

That’s how we ended up settling onto out four major special events: Art for Arf’s Sake Auction, Walk for the Animals, Pints for Pups, and Tailwagger’s Trick-or-Treat. These each serve(d) a particular purpose. The Walk for the Animals raises a lot of money (about $100,000 annually), gets us our biggest crowds (thousands) and has a low barrier to entry (low registration fee and open to the public if they just want to check it out. I am super excited to announce, again, that the Walk will be returning to First Energy Stadium in 2018 on September 15! The Walk will return to its City origins, will be expanded to return it to its Walktoberfest full glory, and will have an additional focus on mission, with a developing (stay tuned) community pet health fair component. The revitalized Walk will check off all four boxes of funds, friends, awareness, and mission!

The Art for Arf’s Sake Auction is also switching things up by returning to the old Rajah Theater in Reading, currently known as the Santander Performing Arts Center, on May 19. The return to the theater will allow us to open the doors to more attendees. The Reading Museum was a blast, but it had a hard limit on attendance and we hated turning away friends who wanted to join us (and give us their money). The Auction is an event which has a smaller friend raising potential but it also raises about $100k each year and it allow us to share important news and plans with a few hundred of our best and most financially capable friends, and that allows us to build our mission capacity. Again, all boxes checked. This year’s theme is Westworld. I know, weird. But we do weird well.

The Tailwagger’s Trick or Treat is a newer event that grew out of having two Walks to manage when Berks Humane merged with the Humane League. The Humane League’s Walk was not as big in attendance or in revenue. So we decided we’d scrap the money motive entirely and just make it an event about introducing people to Humane PA and raising awareness of our work. A true “friend-raiser”! And although it is free and open to the public, thanks to sponsors and voluntary donations it still raised over $12,000 last year! It is growing and we hope that it can become a major community event open to all, and bringing together lots of partners who share our love of animals and our humane ethic for society at large. This year we will return to Buchanan Park in Lancaster on October 13, which helps keep a solid anchor event among our Lancaster family!

Now for the big change in 2018. Pints for Pups grew out of a one year anniversary party thrown by the old Legacy & Reading Brewing Company as a benefit for the animals a decade ago. It went from a couple dozen people to a hundred to as high as 500. It was a good intermediate fundraising event with a modest admission cost and it brought in some new friends. It was a good event to have one on one time with donors over a beer, but it wasn’t great for sharing news with a whole crowd. It was always on the weaker end of the check boxes. Modest financial, attendance, and awareness returns, and zero mission. It was also a LOT of work for the staff. As much work than the walk for a financial net that was only a quarter the return. It was also very subject to finding a good host, which was always tough due to the booze aspect, or the weather when we had it outdoors- last year tornadic thunderstorms and the year before sweltering heat. This year, we just couldn’t find the perfect venue.

Which is why we are announcing that Pints for Pups as we know it is evaporating, like foam on a draft beer. Awww, I know, bummer, right? Don’t worry! We wouldn’t leave you high and dry! We are announcing the creation of a Mini-Pints for Pups series! Bigger than our Yappy Hours, smaller than a full blown PfP. It will be a variety of events at different breweries and restaurants around Lancaster and Berks County! We have confirmed our first two (Stoudt’s Brewing Company In Adamstown and Union Jack’s Inn on the Manatawny) and we will have more to come. The new model will be more cost effective by a mile, won’t kill the staff, and will give everyone a chance to attend a Pints (or four) near them. We will be putting details out soon. There will still be sponsorship opportunities, tees, glasses, and beer, lots of sweet, flowing beer. It just won’t all be on one day. That means we improve our chance to make new friends and share our mission across our service area.

And, of course, we still have all our mission and awareness focused events. We have a slew of adoption days, community event participation, veterinary service delivery community events, and more in the works. These are all the ones we do with a strict focus on the mission, awareness, and friends.

Speaking of which, we always need volunteers to represent us at these events. They are fun, low impact, and flexible ways to help the animals of Humane PA. Trained event volunteers help us share our important work with the community at large. Consider learning more and joining us in this important volunteer role! Click here for more information about volunteering.

And if you want to join us for any of our events or learn how to be a sponsor or patron, visit our events page here. Your support makes our work possible and events are a way to support us and have a little fun, too!


Well, enough preaching! Let’s get back to the 2018 State of Humane Pennsylvania follow-up posts!  One of the very biggest and best things that happened to Humane Pennsylvania in 2017 was to be honored with an amazing gift from a long-time supporter of the Humane League of Lancaster County.  Carol Culliton-Metzger, husband Richard, son Adam, and grandson Charlie, have made a multi-year, $500,000 commitment to the Humane League and our animals and programs!

If that name rings a bell, it should. Carol previously donated $150,000 to get our nationally accredited Humane Veterinary Hospitals Lancaster operations up and running.  Thanks to that support we were able to expand veterinary services, purchase all our major medical equipment, and receive the first accreditation of a non-profit animal hospital ever in Pennsylvania (and only one of 19 in the nation!).  As a result, we have been able to increase the amount of services provided to animals six fold, providing 6,000 client visits a year, plus all medical services- about a half million dollars in care value- for our sheltered animals.

But the need didn’t stop there, so Humane PA and the Culliton Family didn’t stop there, either! We developed a plan that would double or triple our service delivery over the next three years, increase our organizational efficiency, improve the quality of animal care, and get more animals adopted.  Like all great plans, we had to pay for it and the Culliton Family embraced our vision and made the single biggest gift to that date from a living donor to the Humane League!

This gift will allow us to make some major and much needed changes. First, cats will be returning to the primary adoption center.  HLLC’s cat adoption center was dreamed up when the shelter housed 10,000 animals a year and built when it housed 7,000 animals a year, nearly two decades ago.  The sheltering world has changed since then and HLLC now houses fewer than 3,000 animals a year thanks to our relinquishment prevention programs, veterinary services, and changes in shelter intake demographics in the United States.  Having a separate cat building actually serves to decrease the number of adoptions and also increases the cost of operating our adoption centers.  Creating a dedicated cat adoption center in our primary building will save more lives and direct more resources to our animals.

We will also be creating new, dedicated dog adoption meet and greet spaces and making general improvements to the facility to make for a happier, brighter shelter space. This will help get more dogs adopted and improve the working conditions for our great staff and volunteers!

The space that is opened up by the creation of a new dedicated cat adoption center will allow us to expand our public veterinary hospital. Right now we are maxed out on space and staff.  More space and exam rooms will allow us to add additional vets and support staff and that will allow us to help even more animals!  Our goal is to at least double services provided to the community over the next three years (and tripling isn’t out of the question!).

All this will be taking place in stages over the Spring and Summer (and maybe Fall since some of this will require building permits, etc.) and we will keep you up to date with our progress. If you’d like to support these awesome upgrades, Brian Pinto, our spectacular Chief Advancement Officer, would love to talk to you ( and maybe arrange a tour with us.


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.

*Please see a note at the end of this post.

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.


Sometimes you have a bad enough week to write 1,100 depressing words that culminate in an off color joke.  Sometimes you also have enough sense to delete those words and just include a couple comments minus all context.

Here is one: “There’s 106 miles to Chicago, we’ve got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses.”

Here is the other:  “Cheeseface” and can one blackmail their way to success?

If you can’t laugh, all you have left is crying.  There.  Only 93 words and I feel much better!


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.