No Kill Down Under

September 21, 2009 by  

There will be no blog updates until mid-October.

In addition to my recent work in Houston, a project in the Northeast, the upcoming holiday release of my new book, and another book project I am working on, I am taking a long overdue break.

This week, I am also leaving for Australia as part of the Australian invasion of the No Kill Equation. I softened the ground by sending 800 free copies of my book Redemption to virtually every rescue group on the continent, and will be giving four presentations at their national summit.

What Australia is seeing is the same sort of blame-shifting and lack of accountability in its pounds and shelters as we have historically seen—and still see in too many communities—in the U.S.: focus all culpability on the public, a near total enforcement orientation (animal control) that relegates lifesaving (animal welfare) to a mere afterthought, lack of responsibility on the part of shelter managers for how the actions or inactions of the pound itself impact killing rates, a labyrinth of punitive laws, lack of transparency in data and operations, lack of comprehensive implementation of key lifesaving programs, and an eradication campaign against free roaming cats.

While I discuss the American experience, I do not make the claim that pet overpopulation is a myth in Australia (as it is in the United States) because I am not intimately familiar with the data. Nonetheless, there is enough evidence to show that the “animal management” centers can and should be doing more to increase adoptions and reduce intakes and thus save more lives, and more and more voices down under are demanding that they do. The message I will take is there are alternatives to killing that Australian shelters are not implementing but should, and that makes the volume of killing unnecessary. The further message I will take is that despite the efforts of the large self-proclaimed leaders in the U.S.—groups like the Humane Society of the United States—to prevent and/or limit its success, the No Kill paradigm’s triumph here is virtually assured. And that can only mean good things for its prognosis in Australia. As I write in my upcoming new book: The cat is out of the bag and is NEVER going back in.

Speaking of books, don’t forget to visit my bookstore by clicking here.

The Mighty San Francisco SPCA Has Fallen

September 15, 2009 by  

From “Scathing New Editorial Breathes New Life to S.F. No Kill Reform Effort.” Reprinted with permission from the

An exposé calls the San Francisco SPCA a “shell of its former self” and blames the agency for killing in city shelters; Animal commission takes up the call for shelter reform legislation.

A scathing cover story in Northside San Francisco magazine ( chronicles the decline in the San Francisco SPCA’s commitment to the No Kill initiative. According to the exposé, “How the San Francisco SPCA let us down,” the SPCA has begun killing savable dogs and cats after 20 years of not doing so, has abandoned the goal of a No Kill San Francisco, turns away dogs with treatable illnesses despite marketing the $30 million state-of-the-art veterinary clinic as a way to save more homeless dogs and cats in San Francisco, saves less dogs than local grassroots rescue groups despite taking in over $20 million last year, and because of this, “animals are dying” needlessly in San Francisco’s city shelter. And it alleges that only 14 percent of dogs being rescued by the San Francisco SPCA actually come from the city shelter; that it is importing hundreds of dogs a year from outside of San Francisco, even as local dogs are being killed.

According to Northside San Francisco,

While the SF/SPCA took 122 dogs from ACC in 2007-08, independent rescues took far more. Grateful Dogs Rescue, which gets 80 percent of its dogs from ACC, took 141 in 2007, and 146 in just the first three quarters of 2008. Rocket Dog Rescue, which … deals with the toughest cases (pit bulls, medical issues), took 111. Other groups also stepped in – Muttville takes older dogs, Wonderdog takes a lot of small dogs. The 122 taken by the SF/SPCA represents just 14 percent of the total dogs they took in 2008.

In a shocking revelation, the article alleges that the San Francisco SPCA took in over $20 million dollars in contributions in 2008, has nearly $70 million dollars in assets, and now has the second largest veterinary hospital in North America—the size of two football fields—but it is turning away dogs for trivial reasons, such as dry eyes and flea allergies. Without rescue group intervention, these dogs are killed at the city pound. Northside San Francisco’s investigation is a look at the decision by SPCA leadership to deliberately, though tragically, move away from the nuts and bolts programs responsible not only for the meteoric rise in lifesaving in San Francisco, but from the No Kill movement it spawned.

The story breathes new life into the efforts of animal activists working to pass shelter reform legislation. Following the release of the story, the Commission of Animal Control & Welfare in San Francisco (Commission), which has spent the last several months hearing from disgruntled activists and animal lovers about the deterioration of the safety net for shelter animals in the city but which appeared intent on sidestepping the issue, reversed course and began consideration of shelter reform legislation that would require all San Francisco shelters, including the SPCA, to commit themselves to saving the City’s homeless animals.

A One-Dimensional Treatment*

To truly understand the situation—and choice—San Francisco faces today, however, it is not enough to show how the San Francisco SPCA has tragically and deliberately moved away from the nuts and bolts program which once brought San Francisco’s death rate to national all-time lows (and also spawned the No Kill revolution). The SPCA isn’t the only agency which appears to have betrayed the trust the animals (and the people who love them) put in them. In reality, the city shelter deserves the brunt of the blame for the killing still occurring in San Francisco. Unfortunately, Northside San Francisco makes some fundamentally flawed assumptions regarding the roles and responsibilities of the city’s Department of Animal Care & Control (ACC), based on a misreading of history, and by ignoring its long, sordid history in blocking the San Francisco SPCA’s call for greater lifesaving.

The article, for example, repeatedly suggests that animals are being killed at ACC because of the SPCA’s refusal to take them into their own adoption program:

  • “ACC was overflowing and the SF/SPCA declined to take them”;
  • “ACC doesn’t have the money or the staff to work with dogs”;
  • “[T]he main reason is that the SF/SPCA takes so few”;
  • “ACC does not adopt out kittens under eight weeks of age (and the SF/SPCA won’t take them)”; and,
  • The SPCA’s refusal to take animals “made ACC pull the trigger.”

In reality, the city shelter has a budget roughly equivalent to $3.75 per capita, just shy of the mean of shelters nationwide. At the same time, however, it takes in a fraction of the national average of dogs and cats and the lowest of any major city in the United States. The San Francisco SPCA further subsidizes city taxpayers when it takes in some of these animals, thus transferring the cost of care from public to private philanthropy.

In addition, several years ago, Maddie’s Fund, the national foundation now headed by former San Francisco SPCA President Richard Avanzino, approached ACC leadership and offered a grant that was worth up to $2 million to ACC, the SPCA, and local rescue groups.

While ACC claims it is resource deprived and the article parrots the claim that “ACC doesn’t have the money,” Maddie’s Fund offered ACC $20,000 to publish their numbers in a very specific format when Friedman was in charge, but he refused. Maddie’s Fund also offered the interim director $40,000 to do so, but she also has historically not done so. Finally, they offered an additional minimum of $700,000 and up to $2,000,000 (depending on various factors) to be shared among ACC, the SPCA, and even the rescue groups as a lifesaving award. It has been “under consideration” for over a year, although Maddie’s Fund indicated that it has been jumpstarted following a public admonition of ACC about this at a Commission meeting a few months ago. Not only has inaction by ACC taken money away from rescue groups and away from the SPCA, it has taken it away from the animals at ACC that depend on it. Consequently, ACC can and should do more to save the animals themselves, but it appears content holding the animals hostage by threatening to kill them if the SPCA did not take them.

There is nothing stopping the pound from saving the animals themselves. There are animal control shelters in the United States taking in up to five times the rate of dogs and cats than San Francisco that are spending less per capita, even while saving in excess of 90 percent of the animals. It is not a situation where “ACC doesn’t have the money or the staff,” but where ACC would rather spend money on other priorities, rather than expanding lifesaving opportunities.

It is admittedly tragic and unnecessary that the SPCA won’t take underaged kittens into a foster care program, but it is equally tragic and unnecessary that ACC simply kills them rather than create a foster care program itself. Simply stating that “ACC does not adopt out kittens under eight weeks of age” leaves a gap in the public’s understanding of why these kittens are being killed. They are being killed because the San Francisco SPCA won’t accept them into their foster care program and they are being killed because ACC leadership finds killing them easier than doing what is necessary to stop it: creating a foster care program themselves as animal control shelters in other, more progressive cities have done. The reason ACC is “overflowing” is because the San Francisco SPCA “takes so few,” and because ACC has spent years expanding a quasi-police force of animal control officers, rather than expanding adoption and owner-reclaim programs. Other animal control shelters save them, why doesn’t San Francisco’s city shelter?

For example, when the California Legislature expanded the duties of caring for animals in shelters under the 1998 Animal Shelter Law, ACC leadership used that as an excuse to ask the Board of Supervisors for a budget increase. They did not, however, use the allocated funding for the law’s intended effect: to increase adoptions and the level of care animals received in the shelter. They used it to hire more field officers.

When challenged on decisions such as these, then-director Carl Friedman would often respond that ACC’s mandate was public safety, not lifesaving. However, Friedman would also highlight the lifesaving when it suited him, even though the animals would have been slaughtered under his watch but for the San Francisco SPCA. In other words, he wanted it both ways: focusing on lifesaving when convenient (and it could earn accolades), and downplaying that role when it wasn’t (when others expect more from him). Moreover, public safety and lifesaving are not mutually exclusive over 90 percent of the time, as truly progressive animal control shelters have proven.

Carl Friedman’s Anti-No Kill Legacy

Friedman, however, was long a stalwart defender of the status quo and an opponent of the San Francisco SPCA’s reform efforts under Richard Avanzino. Back in 1993, Avanzino approached Friedman to sign a memorandum of understanding to help achieve a No Kill San Francisco. Under the terms for such an agreement, the SPCA would guarantee to take every healthy dog and cat the city shelter could not place and would find them all homes. The SPCA would also take thousands of sick and injured animals as well, working to eliminate their deaths entirely also. The SPCA would take on all the costs and responsibility. In return, city shelter staff would not kill these animals, and the animals would be saved. It should have been easy to come to this agreement. But ACC turned out to be a roadblock.

Friedman claimed an adoption guarantee would lead to increased pet abandonment because the “threat of a death sentence was what kept pets in their homes” and that “people would think pet overpopulation was solved and would no longer spay or neuter their animals.” In other words, ACC leadership argued that they should continue to kill animals so people will be scared to surrender them to the shelter and continue to spay/neuter—a patently unethical position.

Undeterred, the San Francisco SPCA appeared before the Commission proposing an “Adoption Act,“ a law that would make it illegal for ACC to kill an animal if the SPCA was willing to save him/her. Ironically, every Bay Area shelter director sided with Friedman in opposition, fearful that if it was successful it would bring public scrutiny to their own failures to save lives. Unwilling to choose sides, the Chair of the Commission told the leadership at both ACC and the SPCA to come to a voluntary agreement. After several delays and the SPCA’s threat of a public initiative, ACC backed down and signed an agreement that has come to be known as the Adoption Pact.

But Friedman did not embrace it in the full spirit of partnership. In fact, as director of ACC, Friedman continuously denigrated and downplayed the potential for lifesaving of Avanzino’s No Kill initiative. What made Friedman’s misleading attacks especially disturbing is that they were disseminated in newsletters paid for by taxpayers. By way of contrast, imagine hypothetically a Department of Social Services director attacking a private soup kitchen or homeless shelter for not having enough beds or serving enough meals, meaning the department itself has to feed or house the remainder. Every homeless person the private soup kitchen feeds or houses is one less homeless person for which city taxpayers are required to provide care. Our hypothetical director would be grateful and thankful for the private support. As a private agency, the soup kitchen or homeless shelter does what it can. The mandate to care for homeless people, by contrast, belongs with the city department. In San Francisco, however, Friedman, the director of a government agency mandated to take in San Francisco’s homeless animals, used taxpayer dollars to downplay and arguably denigrate the efforts of the private non-profit San Francisco SPCA.

As Avanzino explained,

Many times I’ve heard the statement made that No Kill shelters can exist only because someone else down the street is doing the killing. The implication is that No Kill shelters are derelict because they refuse to kill animals.

Ironically, Friedman seemed to be blaming the San Francisco SPCA for not killing, a claim a rescuer repeated in the Northside San Francisco article when she stated that: “For years the SF/SPCA held the gun to the animal’s head and made ACC pull the trigger. They were the wonderful no-kill place, and ACC was the villain.” It is not the job of a private humane society to kill animals on behalf of government. But it does not also follow that ACC had to kill these animals. If the perception was and is that they are “the villain” because they choose to kill animals they do not have to, it is a stigma they invite for themselves.

In a misreading of history, for example, the article states that,

Avanzino asked ACC’s then-director, Carl Friedman, to exempt [Pit Bulls] from the [Adoption] pact. Because so many pit bulls were being euthanized, Friedman took the matter into his own hands, and in 2006 created a mandatory spay/neuter ordinance for all pit bulls in San Francisco.

In actuality, Friedman and his team systematically put to death every unreclaimed Pit Bull-type dog as a matter of department policy. It was Avanzino that lobbied Friedman to undo the policy of automatic destruction. Friedman resisted, but Avanzino persisted. And, as he had when he forced Friedman to sign the Adoption Pact, he forced ACC to back down on the Pit Bull ban. Avanzino then launched an adoption and public relations effort to rebrand these dogs “St. Francis Terriers.”

Unfortunately, ACC did not implement the change in good faith and began to define as “adoptable” (ACC preferred the term “available”) dogs who were, in fact, aggressive. In one case, a dog described in ACC notes as “scary” with a “strong prey drive” was classified as adoptable, but ACC refused to put the dog up for adoption itself, threatening to kill the dog if the SPCA did not save him. After several dogs were adopted and returned for aggression, Avanzino sought to reevaluate the approach. Together, the two leaders could have worked out a lifesaving solution. But ACC did not negotiate in good faith. ACC managers considered the SPCA an adversary and believed they finally had Avanzino over the proverbial barrel. Tragically, personal agendas appeared to take precedence over the best interests of the animals being killed by ACC.

The Northside San Francisco article does chastise ACC for following poor protocols in temperament testing dogs and for inaccurate notes on the dogs, using examples of dogs who were classified as aggressive or unadoptable and turned out to be loving dogs with a little affection and socialization when rescue groups saved them. But this amounts to a mere slap on the wrist for an agency that deserves a full flogging.

And though it does cite the “the dismal prison-like conditions” at ACC, along with the “dank rooms full of cement and chain-link smell of feces, and the endless barking of anxious, frightened dogs is deafening,” it does so only to chastise the SPCA for not saving the dogs from what it intimates are inevitable conditions at ACC. This is truly disheartening as the “dismal prison-like conditions” at ACC were not imposed on them from outside. That is how the City to chose to build the facility in the late 1980s, when no one required them to do so and they could have chosen to erect a building that was a fitting monument for a pet loving, progressive city named after St. Francis, the patron saint of the animals. They chose not to.

The fact that the shelter is traditional in its design also doesn’t mean it has to “smell of feces,” or that the dogs have to be “frightened.” Washoe County Animal Services in Reno, Nevada is of traditional design. Dogs are housed in cement kennels with chain link fences and cats are housed in traditional cages. But the shelter is clean and it doesn’t smell. There is nothing preventing ACC from holding staff accountable to clean facilities, odor control, and socializing of animals so they aren’t frightened. In fact, a socialized animal will not bark as often as dogs who are repeatedly frustrated by continuous confinement and inability to interact with other dogs and people. In the lexicon of animal sheltering, this is called “barrier frustration” and it is common in underperforming shelters, which ACC has long being guilty of.

Furthermore, the contrast with the SPCA shelter “where dogs and cats are housed in sunny, glass-walled ‘condos’ with furniture and TV” is indeed startling. Maddie’s Pet Adoption Center at the San Francisco SPCA was designed and built by Avanzino to keep animals healthy and happy, and to move them through the system as efficiently as possible. Avanzino’s vision for the adoption center cut length of stay, increased adoptions to over 5,000 per year, and allowed him to save more San Francisco dogs and cats than ever before, bringing the city death rate to all-time lows, and at the time, the lowest per capita rate in the U.S. The first of its kind, it also revolutionized sheltering facility standards around the country. As Northside San Francisco correctly suggests, that the current leadership of the SPCA is not leveraging it to save the animals at risk in San Francisco’s city pound is indeed, tragic, especially when the dog and cat loving public is donating  tens of millions of dollars for that intended purpose.

The Ball is in the Commission’s Court

Tragically, combined, the two large shelters spend over $25 per capita in San Francisco and still kill savable animals, while other communities have achieved No Kill on far, far less. San Francisco can be No Kill today—if leadership at the San Francisco SPCA and ACC want it to be. But they apparently do not. And, because of that, the animals continue to die. Both the SPCA and ACC deserve blame and condemnation, as this injustice continues to cost the animals their lives.

The Northside San Francisco article is a strong indictment against a failure in leadership at the SPCA. It describes animals being turned away from a state-of-the-art hospital marketed as a way to save more shelter animals, and the deaths that result because of it. (Although not mentioned in the article, it is worth noting that Avanzino allowed people to “wash the dishes” if they couldn’t afford the care at the former San Francisco SPCA hospital. It was not uncommon for clients to pay with donations of tennis balls for the shelter dogs in lieu of paying their veterinary bill. In fact, under Avanzino, subsidized and free hospital services for the poor, including free lifetime care for the pets of San Francisco’s homeless population, exceeded those of any shelter nationwide.)

And more importantly, the article has reignited hope among those trying to reform the broken system in San Francisco. By understanding the sordid role ACC also plays in killing animals needlessly, the next step becomes obvious: Pass legislation which would force all shelters in the City to save lives. Thankfully, the Commission is considering draft legislation put forth by one of its members but modeled after the Companion Animal Protection Act written by and in consultation with animal lovers, veterinarians, and animal lawyers nationwide.

Unfortunately, the Commission version eliminates the private right of action in the model law version which would allow any citizen to enforce it in a court of law: that provision would have given a citizen the right to file a lawsuit asking a court to force the SPCA and ACC to follow the law. According to one of the Commissioners, this would lead to frivolous lawsuits and is unnecessary because the City Attorney can enforce the law.

But this is simply inaccurate. First, the private right of action is modeled after environmental laws in the United States, and the 1998 California Animal Shelter Law, none of which had led to a rash of frivolous lawsuits and all of which are credited with ensuring that these laws are followed. Second, filing a lawsuit is not an inexpensive proposition and since the law only provides for declaratory relief and not money damages, there is no incentive to file it based on a personal grievance. Third, California rules of court allow for sanctions (including money damages) against individuals and their attorneys if they file frivolous lawsuits, including awarding attorney’s fees for the defendants. Finally, the provision will ensure that the law is followed. Given that the interim ACC director comes from the City Attorney’s office and that ACC is a city agency, it is doubtful that the City Attorney’s Office will really enforce the law against that agency. In fact, ACC has a long history of failing to enforce laws on the books including the state law against cruel practices in San Francisco’s Chinatown markets.

Enough is Enough

For the past 20 years, the animals and people of San Francisco have had to endure an animal control shelter abdicating its responsibility to save lives, and at one time, fighting the SPCA’s progressive and responsible attempts to do so. They have also had to endure an ACC which still refuses to innovate and modernize its operations as other more progressive animal control shelters have done across the country. Now, they also have to endure an about face by the very agency which once led the charge to build a better future for the animals of San Francisco: the SPCA squandering their philanthropic dollars and parroting excuses earlier leadership had rejected –and proven false–in order to justify totally unnecessary killing.

The leaders of these agencies have proven themselves unwilling to do that which they have been entrusted by the public to do: faithfully represent the best interest of animals and effectively put their tax and philanthropic dollars to work in order to achieve a No Kill San Francisco. Instead, the animal loving citizens have had to witness other cities achieve this goal with far less resources and far more animals, while volunteers and activists working for reform have had to endure the obscenity of watching perfectly wonderful dogs and cats be executed for no legitimate reason. Because leadership at SPCA and ACC have abdicated their responsibility by refusing to take very basic and common-sense measures to save the animals they currently kill, the animals and people of San Francisco deserve the protections afforded by law which will force them to do better.

While the history which got San Francisco to where it is today is tainted by revisionist interpretations, the way forward is not nearly so obscure: The Commission has a duty to pass shelter reform legislation and to do it now. Or, they too, must bear the responsibility for the continued killing occurring on their watch, while they endlessly debate issues which are both clear cut and intolerable. It’s that simple.

* Except for one or two sentences, the feature focuses exclusively on dogs, while cats are most at risk of being killed in San Francisco shelters (aside from other species such as rabbits, mice, chickens, and others which have long been killed in astonishing numbers). In addition to limiting how many dogs it accepts from the city shelter, the San Francisco SPCA has also eviscerated advocacy and rehabilitation programs to save feral, shy, underaged, older, and unweaned cats.

Post Script: When the San Francisco SPCA was the crown jewel of the No Kill movement, both the ASPCA and HSUS launched propaganda campaigns to discredit and attack it. Now that it is once again grounded in killing, they both defend it against animal lovers working for lifesaving reform. The ASPCA sent representatives to a San Francisco Commission meeting asking the City not to embrace No Kill; and HSUS sent a personal letter from Wayne Pacelle lying to them by stating that No Kill equals hoarding. For more information, see “It’s Deja Vu All Over Again.”

Around the World in Soundbites

September 4, 2009 by  

Nevada Humane Society does a personal best 969 adoptions in August! Join their team!

Lynchburg (VA) Humane Society, which operates the pound, hires new director committed to No Kill (the former number 2 person at the No Kill Charlottesville animal control shelter) who cuts the death rate by 68% virtually overnight

Beverly Hills (CA) defies the trumped up anti-cat propaganda of the local Audubon Society chapter and passes pro-TNR ordinance.

The Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare edited by University of Colorado Biology Professor Marc Bekoff with a foreword by Jane Goodall, has been updated after ten years and will be released in November. It has been expanded to two full volumes and now includes a chapter on the No Kill movement written by…. (drum roll, please) me!

The PBS No Kill documentary, Fifteen Legs, which features extended commentary by me and follows rescuers in the South and New England states, will soon be for sale on Amazon and elsewhere.

The ASPCA in New York City does a welcome flip-flop on Michael Vick thanks to our pressure and now condemns the NFL reinstatement. It’s still weak and some of the sentiments are misguided, but only HSUS still embraces the most notorious animal abuser of our time.

The Michigan Humane Society has a great marketing campaign for cats.

I interview University of California Los Angeles Law Professor Taimie Bryant about the Hayden Law.

This Sunday, I’ll talk with hosts Beth and Mike about adoption standards: Are we loving them to death? on the Twin Cities based Animal Wise Radio.

HSUS lies at a Baton Rouge (LA) forum of animal groups saying No Kill has never been achieved. Ahem, I would beg to differ.

I’m heading to Australia in a couple of weeks as part of the No Kill Equation invasion of Oz.

And Best Friends asks me to talk about adoptions, as well as shelter reform, in Las Vegas. If you go to the No More Homeless Pets conference, I’ll have a table at the exhibitor hall. Come by and say hello and I’ll give you a free first edition copy of Redemption.

O.K. not quite the world, but want more? Follow me on twitter.

Forcing Transparency

September 1, 2009 by  

Using State Public Records and Freedom of Information Laws to Get Records & Statistics from Animal Shelters

Guest blog by Kate Neiswender, Attorney At Law

Getting records and statistics from public entities is supposed to be easy – we are a nation that prides itself on open government. We are a democracy, and – in theory at least – the people are the government, and have a right of access to all public records.

In practice, it’s a little different. Many public agencies have a reluctance to release records to the public or they make it unduly difficult, as if they have something to hide. This is antithetical to good government. Thankfully, it is also against the law. Every state in the nation has some version of a Public Records Act, or Freedom of Information Act. These laws are designed to insure public access to all data and documents held by a public entity, with limited and narrow exceptions.

If you are trying to get information from your local animal shelter, such as statistics, policies, or information on particular animals (such as the circumstances surrounding an animal who was killed, why the animal was killed, who made the decision to kill the animal, and who actually killed the animal), most of that should be available to you without argument. This guide will provide the basic information on how to go about getting the documents you want. But first, it is important to remember that while these laws apply to government shelters, and not private shelters, they often apply if the private shelter is contracting for animal control. Many courts have held that government cannot avoid their “open government” requirements simply by contracting the function to a private organization.

Step One: Finding the Pertinent Law

Every state has a different law, so you will need to look up the exact law that exists in your state. There are a number of excellent websites to help you get that information:

  • The First Amendment Center has a good general overview of the process by clicking here.
  • The Reporters Committee For Freedom of the Press will help you generate a public records request, and even tailor it to your state by clicking here.

If you are doing a web search, you can also type in “Freedom of Information Act,” “Public Records Act” or “Sunshine Act.” These will result in links to public records act search information, as well as overviews of the law, and specifics for various states.

Step Two: Drafting the Request

Once you have an idea of what your state’s laws are like, it’s time to write your request. The request should be complete, but not too complex. At the beginning of your letter to the agency, cite to the law of your state. For example, “Pursuant to the California Public Records Act, Government Code §6250 et seq,* I am asking for the documents described in this letter. Under that Act, you have ten days within which to respond.”

If your local shelter is city or county run, you might want to call and find out who the public information officer is and get their fax or email address. Many larger cities now provide for public information requests to be sent to this person, rather than the individual agencies like the animal control department.

If your state has a law that requires record keeping, use that law to help enforce your request. In California, the Food and Agricultural Code mandates each animal shelter to maintain certain types of records. Therefore, in enforcing your records request, you can cite to that law in support of request.

There is a tendency to write a request so that it covers every possible angle. Instead of writing a really long sentence, simply ask for the items you want in separate numbered requests. For example, if you want all records, for both cats and dogs, use separate requests. On the other hand, if you want records that would logically be kept together, ask together. For example, this would be a request concerning cats:

Any and all documents and records, whether in electronic form or otherwise, for all cats impounded for the calendar year 2009, which records show date of impound, date of disposition, condition at time of impoundment, and whether the animal was impounded as a stray, an owner relinquished animal, or taken in in some other fashion. The records should be those which specify the date the animal was taken in by the Animal Services Control Division, the breed designation listed by Animal Control personnel, and whether the animal was taken in alive, injured or deceased.

It is important to ask for both paper records and electronic records, because most agencies keep some of both. The Chameleon computer software system is used in a number of agencies, and Chameleon can keep all the data you need on one screen. Unfortunately, it can also be edited. Ask for everything you think might be included in a computer record. If you know for a fact that the agency uses computer software, reference the system in your request, like this:

The agency uses the Chameleon computer software program to maintain records on the animals under its care. Therefore, we ask for all information stored in the system for cats for the calendar year 2009, including date of impound, date of disposition, condition at time of intake … (and et cetera).

It is sometimes helpful to know about the personnel at the shelter. For example, in some states, there is required training. You can ask for information on the shelter personnel, but you need to do it in small pieces. Some personnel information is going to be privileged, such as their personnel file, with any written complaints or reprimands. So ask for distinct bits of information, and you may get more, such as:

Any and all documents and records showing the final disposition of each animal listed in response to Request No. 1, above, including the name of the person who killed the animal.

Then follow up that request with:

For each person who acted to kill an animal for the Animal Services Control Division for the calendar year 2009, proof of any and all training provided to that person in the killing of animals.

With this, you should be able to determine if the staff member who killed an animal had actually been trained to do so. In some states, training is required by law, and failure to train can require a staff member to be relieved of duty.

Use of “euthanasia” drugs is often an issue as well. These drugs are controlled substances under federal law, and the federal government has very strict requirements governing use and storage. The local agency must also file reports with the federal government on the amount of drug used.

If you are concerned about the use or disposition of these drugs, you may want to ask for records. You can ask the agency, and if you still have issues, consider making a Freedom of Information Act request (which is the federal version of the law insuring the public’s right to records) to the federal agency. For the local jurisdiction, you can draft a request that says something similar to this:

Any and all documents and records, whether maintained in electronic form or otherwise, for the calendar year 2009, records showing the type of euthanasia drugs used by the Animal Services Control Division, the manufacturer of each drug listed, any documents showing the amounts of the drugs utilized, and any written policies provided to Animal Services Control Division personnel concerning the use, storage, and record keeping for euthanasia drugs.

As noted, agencies may claim privilege and refuse to release certain types of information. Often, that includes the name of the adopting party. If they refuse to provide it, and you do not have the ability to challenge their denial (see Step Three below), you might also try to find other ways in which to get the information you need. If you are simply looking for people who had interaction with the agency, in order to find out how they were treated or the health of the adopted animal, try other methods of outreach, including internet postings (such as twitter, craigslist, face book, and other social marketing websites), newspaper ads, community bulletins, and other public forums.

Often, you will want to determine the ability of the agency to properly care for the animals within its care. Asking for medical records is one option. This is one example of such a request:

Any and all documents and records, whether maintained in electronic form or otherwise, showing a description of any medical care provided to any of the animals listed in response to Request No. 1.

If you have a specific concern, list the animal in question by impound number, date of impound or other identifying information.

You will also want to get whatever stated policies are in effect at the shelter. Ask for:

Any written policies, procedures and guidelines promulgated by Animal Services for the operation of any animal shelters maintained by Animal Services Control Division for the period January 1, 2000 to the present.

You will notice that each request has a time period associated with it. Ask for the time period you need, plus a little on both sides. If you need the month of July, ask for June, July and August. Be careful about asking for too much, because you will most likely have to pay for copies, and you don’t want to pay for copies that won’t help you.

Each jurisdiction is slightly different, and the problems at each shelter will be slightly different as well. Figure out what you need to know, and then draft the request to match the need. If you need to know why the save rate is so low, you might need to find out whether the holding periods are being honored, or whether medical care is being provided. You might need to find out if volunteers are allowed in the shelter to help in re-homing, or whether the shelter is scanning for microchips or calling names or numbers on an animal’s tags. Figuring out what to ask for is as important as drafting a good request.

In your request to the agency, make sure you provide all of your contact information, including an address, phone number, and email address (if available). Keep in mind that a “reasonable” charge can be imposed for copies that are provided. You may want to include a statement at the end requesting them to inform you of any charges for copies so that payment can be promptly made. Usually, if a lot of documents are not required to be provided, there is no charge. If you think the charges are unreasonable, your state law usually has a method for challenging the charges. Follow up with the agency in the time period indicated in the law. For example, if your state’s law says the records must be provided within 15 days, and you haven’t heard anything back within 20 days, call or write another letter.

The agency may reply by providing you with thousands of individual kennel cards. In such a case, you will likely have to go to the agency and review the documents in person, because the cost of copying the documents will be too much. Under those circumstances, there should be a provision in your state’s law which requires the agency to allow you the time and space to review the records. They cannot tell you that they are too busy to allow you access to the records, or that they don’t have the space. The law will say something along the lines of, “The public shall be allowed access to the records,” and you need to tell them that following the law is not optional, and does not depend on their perception of what is important and what is not.

Step Three: Enforcing the Law

Even where the law is clear, however, an agency may ignore your request. There are a lot of reasons for this. Sometimes, they are not aware of the law. Other times, they have something to hide and are waiting to see if you will force the issue. As a first step, you should send another letter, reminding them that the deadline for replying has passed and asking them to reply immediately.

If that doesn’t work, call the attorney representing the agency. That might be a county staff attorney or a city attorney’s office. Explain as reasonably as you can that you are having difficulty obtaining records under a public records act request, and you were hoping for their assistance. Offer to provide them with a copy of your request, and be prepared to explain in detail what was given to you, and why specifically it does not meet the parameters of your request. Sometimes, these attorneys will be able to slice through the objections of the agency, and get you the records you need.

If they still will not respond, contact your State Attorney General’s (AG) office. Some AG’s are authorized to enforce public-information acts. Often, a letter to the entity from the AG may be all that is required to get the information you need. And in some states, for example, the AG may file a lawsuit on your behalf to require the animal control agency to reveal public information.

If none of that works, your final step is to file a lawsuit against the agency under the Public Records Act of your state. The details of such an action are beyond the scope of this paper, and you should probably contact a local attorney to discuss it. Because this is a Public Records Act issue (and not an animal issue), you should find someone who is experienced in suing public agencies or who specializes in Constitutional law.

If you are unable to afford an attorney, contact groups like the ACLU, your local or state legal aid office, local animal protection groups, or a group like the Animal Legal Defense Fund for a pro bono referral.

Remember to start with the law of your state. That provides the template for moving forward. Then figure out the problem, then draft the request to give you the data you need to solve the problem. Use the websites provided for additional tips on getting the information from your agency. Most of all, remember that the government is run by the people, for the people. You have a right to this information.

For a sample Public Records Act request, click here.


* The term “et seq” means “and following,” so it is used to simplify citation to a series of code sections. Rarely is an act, such as the Public Records Act, contained in a single code section. Normally, it would be in multiple sections, so you cite to the first section of the Act, then add “et seq” to indicate you are referencing the full Act.

Kate Neiswender is an attorney specializing in land use, business litigation and environmental law.  In 1999-2000, Kate was the Chief Consultant to the California Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Wildlife, working for Senator Tom Hayden.  As a result, she became involved with enforcement of the “Hayden Law,” California’s landmark 1998 Animal Shelter reform legislation, the nation’s first law making it illegal for shelters to kill animals if rescue groups are willing to save them.