Get “Crazy”

An Open Letter to Managers at Pounds Across the Country

I am one of those individuals you have dismissed as “crazy” for daring to suggest that you end the killing and you do it today. I have spent years and traveled across the country to show why ending the killing of animals is not only possible, it isn’t even that complicated. I did it as head of an open-admission animal control shelter. I have helped others do it. And many communities—from California to New York, from Nevada to Virginia, from Minnesota to Kentucky—have done it, also. In short, it is far from “crazy” as you suggest. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume it is “crazy.” My response to you is: So what? Embrace it. Because it is time to get “crazy.”

Mitch Schneider runs Washoe County Regional Animal Services. I once made the mistake of calling him a “former marine.” As he barked at me, “Once a marine, always a marine.” He is definitely not what you would call “soft and cuddly.” But if you were a dog or cat and you found yourself entering animal control, he’s the guy you’d want as the head of the facility. Combined with the open-admission Nevada Humane Society, Washoe County shelters take in about 15,000 dogs and cats per year, that’s about 35 dogs/cats per 1,000 people, a per capita intake rate seven times higher than New York City. As a function of the population, Reno has a “bigger” problem than New York City, Los Angeles, and Houston. But in 2010, 91% of animals were saved. It wasn’t always like that.

In fact, the Washoe County municipal shelter had two staff members whose job it was to kill animals every day; 15 barrels full. Every day those barrels would be emptied, and every day they would be filled up again. When I first met Mitch, I told him that the Nevada Humane Society hired me to help overhaul their shelter. Mitch is very quick to point out how much he loves Reno and surrounding communities, especially since he is an avid poker player. But this is what Mitch had to say about it:

I didn’t believe it could work, at least not in Reno. I did the math and remember thinking that maybe it would work in a more affluent community but we had a more transient population and a high intake rate.

His skepticism was not a problem, because he also had an open mind:

No matter what any of us believes, we ultimately won’t know if we don’t try. On top of that, if in fact No Kill failed, I didn’t want it to be because our agency refused to think outside the box or because I didn’t like the term. Even if we didn’t achieve the ultimate goal, I knew it could still be better than now. We could save more animals. And that would make thousands of animals pretty happy, and it would make thousands of animal lovers pretty happy.

As Mitch notes, you have to be willing to take risks. If you are to succeed, you have to try new things. Even “crazy” things. When San Francisco became the first community in the nation to take animals offsite, rather than wait for people to come to the shelter to adopt, the Humane Society of the United States was quick to condemn the “crazy” program as “Sidewalk giveaways,” claiming it would lead to impulse adoptions. HSUS was essentially arguing that the animals were better off dead because offsite adoptions would lead to a low-quality home. But twenty years of data has proved them wrong. Many good, caring people will not visit a pound which kills the bulk of its occupants. Getting them to adopt the animals facing death means taking the animals to them. And even if it does lead to impulse adoptions, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. People are capable of many good and noble impulses. What started as a “crazy idea”—rather than wait for people to come to the shelter, let’s take the animals to the people—has not only saved tens of thousands of San Francisco animals, it is saving animals across the country.

When cat lovers began implementing the “crazy idea” of Trap-Neuter-Release programs for free-living cats, rather than trapping and having them killed at the local pound, HSUS not only condemned it as “subsidized abandonment,” they asked a criminal prosecutor in a North Carolina community to arrest the cat lovers and charge them with cruelty, an offense that carried a jail term. Today, municipal shelters, health departments, communities, even entire states are encouraging and embracing TNR as a humane alternative to killing.

When North Shore Animal League went “crazy” and waived adoption fees altogether in order to place more animals, once again, groups like HSUS, the ASPCA, and other champions of killing quickly condemned them for “reducing the quality of adoptive homes.” Recently, a multi-state study confirmed what true animal lovers running progressive shelters already knew: reducing or waiving fees does not reduce the quality of the home but it does increase the number of animals getting adopted. Indeed, when the Nevada Humane Society did a “pick your price” adoption event, not only did more animals get adopted compared to a typical week, but the average donation exceeded the standard adoption fee.

In 1974, HSUS, the American Humane Association, and the ASPCA decreed that all animals under the age of six weeks should be killed as a matter of policy. In fact, a former HSUS staff member once claimed that “foster care is a sham that just delays killing.” Not too long ago, the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria in Virginia fired staff and volunteers for fostering underaged kittens and puppies. The director, a darling of HSUS who sat on their national animal sheltering committee which advised HSUS on policy, did not want a foster care program despite years of proof that saving the lives of underaged animals was more difficult, if not impossible, without it. Tired of seeing them killed, volunteers and staff decided to take matters in their own hands and take them home at their own expense, bringing them back when they were ready for adoption. When the director found out, she fired them—for saving lives. What was the “crazy idea”? Sending them to temporary homes to bottle feed them, socialize them, treat them, and care for them, until they are old enough or well enough to be adopted.   That director is no longer there. And that “crazy” idea—foster care—has saved countless animals in communities across the country.

In the early 1990s, when rescue groups asked shelters and pounds to partner with them, HSUS condemned that too, saying “shelters” should not work with rescue groups because the transfer would “stress” the animal, even though the alternative was death. Working with rescue groups was considered “crazy.” But not only were they ignored, in 1998, over HSUS objections, the State of California made it illegal for a pound to kill an animal if a rescue group was willing to save the animal. That has saved tens of thousands of animals every single year since. In just one of California’s 58 counties, the number of animals rescued went from zero to 4,000 a year. That is why in 2010, the State of Delaware also passed a similar law. And now, New York, Minnesota, and Rhode Island are trying to also. (Earlier this year, Texas was considering similar legislation, but HSUS and its pro-killing colleagues succeeding in killing the legislation, effectively sentencing tens of thousands of animals to certain death.)

All of the programs of the No Kill Equation, the programs that have revolutionized sheltering and brought death rates to all time lows were once dismissed as “crazy” by groups like HSUS. (Ironically, HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle now takes credit for many of those programs in his book, The Bond, his new work of historical revisionism and fiction; but as we saw in Texas, he continues to fight against them when asked to do so by his killing colleagues.)

When San Francisco landlords would not rent to people with pets because they were concerned about damage to the apartments and homes, the San Francisco SPCA had the crazy idea that it would pay for any damage above and beyond security deposit caused by an SF/SPCA adopted pet. The end result? A doubling in the number of “cats ok” rental units and a 35% increase in the number of “dogs ok” units. The cost? Zero.

People won’t come to the shelter? Do offsite adoptions. People won’t come to the offsite adoptions? How about “Dial-A-Cat,” where people can phone in their cat orders which are delivered to their homes? Thankfully, we are not out of “crazy” ideas yet, and those ideas are going to make the differences between where we are today in the most progressive communities and where we hope to be years from now.

In Austin, Texas, Austin Pets Alive allows people to adopt out sick and injured animals where they can treat the animals at home, rather than in a shelter. When appropriate, these animals are even taken to offsite adoption events. In Jacksonville, animal control will not allow unsocial, free-living cats to come through their doors; TNR is the only option. In Austin, it is illegal to kill animals if there are empty cages in the shelter, and Animal Ark is not only trying to make that state law in Minnesota, they want to make it illegal to kill animals if they can also share cages or kennels with other animals.

And sanctuary and hospice care will become the next two programs of the No Kill Equation so that we not only save all healthy and treatable animals (upwards of 95% of all intakes and about 98% of dogs), but zero out the killing altogether.

As Mitch Schneider says, “We’ve always done it this way” never justifies anything. And if a staff member complains that, “Everyday I come in something’s changed,” he reminds them that it takes a desire to be better today than you were yesterday to run a caring and committed program that is responsive to the needs of the animals, animal lovers, taxpayers, and the community at large. Washoe County’s success is a result of a willingness to embrace “continuous process improvement,” which requires not fearing change. If all you’ve ever done is all you ever do; then all you’ll ever get is all you’ve ever gotten.

What will you accomplish? What’s your crazy idea?


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