I visit a lot of animal shelters. If there is one problem I see more than any other at open admission shelters under significant stress, it’s operating beyond their capacity to house animals. Sometimes it’s more animals than the existing staff can handle. Sometimes it’s more than their facility was built for. Usually it’s both.
When I ask if they know they are overcrowded, they say, yes, of course they do. When I ask why, they say it’s because they are saving lives by packing animals into every available cage, kennel, crate, and spare room. When I tell them that, at best, they are doing exactly nothing to save animals, and at worst, they are killing more animals and adopting fewer as a result of overcrowding, they usually look at me like I’m insane.
Only, I’m not. They are the ones suffering from a delusion which is increasingly common in shelters reacting to demands from the community to save more and more animals. That delusion is the idea that keeping more animals means you are saving more animals.
Let me pose a logic/math problem for you: Two people each have a bucket they have to carry around every day without spilling a drop. One is a one gallon bucket and one is a five gallon bucket. Both are full to the very top, to the point of over flowing. Each day, one cup of water is emptied out of each bucket and two cups of water are poured into each bucket.
How much water overflows from each bucket? Exactly one cup. Does it matter which one is one gallon and which one is five gallons? No, when a bucket is full, it overflows at the same rate.
Now, which one of these buckets is harder to carry, and which one is most likely to have water sloshing out of it because it’s just so damn heavy? It’s pretty obvious that the one gallon bucket is easier to carry, and carry carefully, without unintended loss, than the five gallon bucket.
This seems like a pretty easy concept. Now, let’s say that two shelters are housing animals. One houses 100 animals, the other houses 500 animals. They each have exactly the same adoption rate and euthanasia rate (we are talking about open admission shelters which operate at full capacity). Each day, three animals leave the shelter because of adoption. Six animals enter the shelter as strays or owner surrenders.
How many animals will each euthanize because of space? Exactly three. Three went out, six went in. Just like one cup went out and two cups went in. It doesn’t matter than one had 500 and one had 100. Their turnover rate is the same. Their euthanasia rate is the same.
So, what is different? To start, one had to “carry” an extra 400 animals. They had to clean up after, provide medical treatment to, feed, love, care for, and walk all those extra animals. That’s a mighty heavy bucket. In sheltering, the unintended sloshing overflow isn’t water, it is illness, behavioral problems, and aggression, induced by stress and overcrowding. It’s unnecessary death.
What’s the other difference? The shelter with 500 animals can probably claim that they didn’t kill any “healthy or adoptable” animals “just for space”. That’s because it’s a certainty they can find a really sick cat or a dog that tried to bite, and they can wait for the new, healthy animals to stay long enough to get sick, behave badly, or become aggressive.
The fact is, if the shelter with 500 animals took its holding number down to 100, they could spend five times as much time on each animal. Five times the medical care, five times the training, five times the love and adoption efforts, with the same staff and resources they already had. Their animals would almost certainly be healthier and happier, and present for adoption better and have a better chance at adoption and maybe get adopted faster. At worst, there is zero change in adoption, euthanasia, and intake rates. These things have little or nothing to do with carrying capacity, but they have everything to do with quality of care.
When I explain this I usually employ a prop. A bucket, sugar packets, pennies, anything to show that this works every time, in every numerical configuration, 100 animals, 500 animals, 167 animals, if you are at maximum. Unlike the “no kill equation”, this is math that has nothing to do with human nature, or whether people want to adopt pit bulls, or old dogs, or mangy cats. This equation counts on everyone being just as good or as bad as people already are.
Some will say, and this is what almost everyone says, “But if I can make space, I don’t need to kill those three animals.” Correct, and this is where the slippery slope into hauling around heavy buckets comes in.
Let’s say that you have one hundred animals in your shelter and you decide if you put two dogs and two cats in each cage and run you can “save” two hundred animals. Let’s keep the same outflow of three and intake of six, leaving three animals to face death. And you put those three animals in double up cages that day. And the next day, and each day for one month- or 33 days more exactly. After just one month you have saved exactly one hundred additional animals. And on day 34 you are out of space in your doubled up cages and three animals go out, six come in and you have to kill three animals.
What if you triple up? OK, one more month. And now you are caring for two hundred, three hundred, more, animals, with the same resources you had been using to care for one hundred animals. You are increasing your burden and negatively impacting everyone one of those animals and your employees and volunteers and adopters.
This is the point where the “no kill” readers out there will say, “The secret is to get more adopted, keep more from coming in the shelter.” Yes! Point up that mountain to the pinnacle you believe they can attain, the no kill goal of 90% or even 100% save rates. I actually agree. Most of these shelters also have amazingly outdated policies which should be brought into the modern era and they should make the trek up that hill.
But how the hell do they do it carrying such a heavy load? They can’t. That’s why shelters that are overflowing should bring their carrying capacity down as swiftly as possible. Whether they want to make the journey up the mountain or just want to keep doing things as they are, having fewer animals in their shelter will allow for happier, healthier animals. Happy and healthier animals get adopted faster. Maybe instead of three going out, four go out. And the euthanasia rate that day goes down that day by 33%.
It requires discipline, it requires understanding the underlying principal, and it requires a commitment to the concept. What it doesn’t require is one day killing off half your animals. First, it doesn’t have to be half. It could start with fifty, ten, five, one fewer. But it has to stay at that reduced level. It can be done in January, when the population is low on average. It could be done on a national adoption weekend so when you clear out half your shelter, you keep it there. You can ask other shelters and rescues to help, all at once, all one week, to get the numbers down.
Once you catch your breath from carrying that weight, then you can start working on getting more animals out the right way, fewer animals in. Then the outside can complain if you don’t. But if you have healthier animals which are getting better care and getting a better chance at adoption, maybe there won‘t be so much to for those “crazies” to complain about. Even if they are utterly ignorant of the reality of sheltering, and most people are, you will know that you are actually doing the best for your animals, not doing less than the best because you’re trying to do the most.
We’ve done it. We’ve seen others do it. We know it works. Not all math is a trick. Sometimes the weight you bear is the weight you choose to carry.
(If you would like assistance in making a transition in your shelter or establishing carrying capacity levels for your facility and available resources, contact Animal Welfare Management Services. They can help.)