The pandemic has revealed both the tremendous progress we have made in animal sheltering practices and exposed some alarming deficiencies. Many communities rose to the challenge by embracing ingenuity, a “can do” attitude, and technology to save the animals, and, as a result, “placed record numbers of dogs, cats and other animals.” Others turned their backs on animals by closing their doors.

The former includes communities like Rosenberg, TX, which continued operating as an essential service and found itself empty for the first time in its history: “Big dogs are leaving, behavior cases, cats with special needs… No one is being left behind by our community.”

The latter includes the San Francisco, CA, city pound which stopped doing adoptions, stopped taking in “owned” animals, and even stopped taking in stray kittens, telling people to handle it themselves, turn them loose, or leave them on the streets.

In Broward County, FL, volunteers claimed that the pound killed hundreds of dogs and cats in March and April, including those with rescue commitments, and that “many potential adopters were turned away, the gates firmly locked.”

Similarly, “The Austin [TX] Animal Center is accepting very few healthy stray animals right now and Austinites are being encouraged to leave the animals on the street in the hope they’ll wander home, or take them in themselves.

Even more alarming, an April e-mail written by Don Bland, the head of the Austin shelter, proposed making some of the changes permanent. Specifically, Bland called for “not accepting strays at the shelter” even after the pandemic is over as a way to limit intakes. According to a local news report, “Those plans include turning away strays, and only taking in sick and injured animals and those with serious behavioral problems.”

Bland, representing Austin Animal Center, was initially part of a working group that included Austin Pets Alive, Maddie’s Fund, and others. The group hoped to capitalize on some of the positive changes brought on by the COVID-19 epidemic, including vastly increased numbers of animals adopted, fostered, and rehomed without entering the shelter, and hoped to see that continue post-pandemic.

Admitting that “People are already starting to complain about lack of infrastructure to support lost and found and abandoned pets during COVID,” the working group hoped to implement changes quickly in order to prevent return to the pre-pandemic system of most animals entering and getting lost in the shelter, rather than being rehomed outside of it, by selling it to officials in Austin (and elsewhere) with promises of “an eventual reduction in municipal shelter operating budgets.” The effort did not succeed, however, over disagreements with Bland. When asked about Bland’s plan, they stated that shutting down intake of healthy strays was not part of theirs (although their own vision included an objective of “No kennel space for rehoming, stray hold or intake”). As such, Austin Animal Center is no longer part of either their working group or in consideration to be a pilot city for its vision.

FixAustin, the group that originally spearheaded the 2010 No Kill Plan, writes that, they “don’t even know whether the April e-mail reflects Director Bland’s current thinking on the issues or his plans for Austin Animal Center.” But when a shelter manager was asked about it by a local reporter, he responded that the proposal, though very recent, is “outdated” and no longer reflects current thinking.

Likewise, the working group’s vision for reimagining intakes also no longer seems to represent eliminating “kennel space for rehoming, stray hold or intake.” Instead, it is a renewed effort at embracing the No Kill Equation, specifically pet retention, proactive redemptions, and foster care. Or in their words: “Helping struggling pet owners access resources to keep their pets,” “Getting stray pets home quickly without them having to enter the shelter system,” “providing food and medical assistance,” and “Housing more pets in foster homes,” with some new technology thrown in to the mix.

Working harder to get strays home without their having to come into the shelter and working to rehome animals without having to bring them into the shelter is certainly worth doing and doing better. I argued that in an essay “It Takes a Village” back in the late 1990s and its been part of the No Kill Equation since its inception. Indeed, some communities have been doing it successfully for decades. In one community I worked with, roughly 6,000 wayward animals were returned home in the field instead of being brought to the shelter and 59% of people who wanted to surrender their animal, but agreed to assistance either in solving challenges or rehoming animals themselves, still had their pet after one year and no longer wanted to part with him/her. (It is also true that free-roaming, healthy cats who are not lost but are taken to the shelter by well-meaning people who think they are become lost in the process.)

As one critic of Bland’s plan noted,

Expanding foster networks and [pet retention] programs is an obvious and desirable, though not revolutionary, undertaking. Leaving homeless dogs homeless, on the other hand, is not, and license to do so is sure to be eagerly embraced and misapplied by regressive shelter directors.

To these directors, “community sheltering” is a euphemism for no sheltering, putting the onus on others to do the job they are paid to do, at a time when the future of animal sheltering should be the exact opposite: having the local shelter play a more central role for a community’s animals, not only as a safety net for stray and community pets, but by expanding them across a wide range of animal welfare issues (as explained in my ignored plea to the ASPCA Board of Directors when they were hiring a new director in 2013).

Moreover, that any changes to sheltering practices will come with “an eventual reduction in municipal shelter operating budgets” supports the troubling implication that the important needs prior generations founded animal protection organizations to address somehow no longer exist. Such a claim can be placed in sharp relief when considering a similar scenario in a different context. Imagine a public service agency tasked with caring for other vulnerable populations in a community — such as the homeless or orphaned children — encouraging local governments to reduce funding for their own agencies and to instead trust the public to handle such pressing public interest concerns without government intervention.

That those wearing the mantel of “animal protection” would call for less money for animal services in their communities, a concomitant lower profile for the agencies that are supposed to care for and represent the most vulnerable of animals, and with these changes, less innovation in our responsible stewardship of animals instead of more, is not only self-defeating; it represents both a failure of leadership and imagination.

And that such a retreat should occur at this moment, when the American public has shown itself more enthusiastic and generous in its embrace of animal welfare than ever before, adds to the tragedy of wasted potential inherent to such an approach. Just as our fellow Americans are standing up, there are those within our movement who would have us stand down.

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