Jacki Moss and Diane Finley believe that every “shelter,” no matter how bad it may be, can be No Kill. They also believe that “shelters” can be forced to become No Kill, even if the leadership there doesn’t care enough to want it. And they believe that with constant, relentless pressure and organized strategies, in some shelters it can be done in six months (but tell you to persist no matter how long it takes). Their optimism is not pie in the sky; it is grounded in blood, sweat, and tears.

In their own community, the local dog pound had a 13% live release rate when they got involved–nearly nine out of 10 dogs went out the back door in garbage bags. Last year, it was 97%. What happened in their small, rural Southern community that caused the live release rate to climb almost 650% and achieve No Kill for dogs? Jacki and Diane and others in their group happened.

Along the way, they were threatened with incarceration, banned from the shelter, and emotionally assaulted (there’s no other word to describe it) via the retaliatory killing of dogs with rescue groups on the way. Nevertheless, they persisted.

Now, Jacki and Diane have published a book, Reform Your Animal Shelter Now: The Citizens’ Guide to Shelter Reform, that lays out how they did it in their community and why and how you can, too.

In its 145 pages — which they offer for sale on Amazon for only $5 (the ebook is 99 cents; as they tell me, “We are charging the least price Amazon would allow, to get the book in as many hands as possible, in hopes of saving as many lives as possible”) — they cover a lot of ground: the importance of persistence, the kinds of retaliation you’ll be subjected to, how to respond to it via your legal rights as a rescuer, volunteer, and citizen-activist, legal tools at your disposal, crafting a battle plan, the use of traditional and social media, getting out from behind your computer and into public meetings, meetings with officials, and even onto the streets in protest if need be, and more. It’s a quick read, full of good, practical advice for people new to activist politics, and while I did not agree with everything they wrote, it is hard to argue with their results.

I spoke to Jacki and Diane about how far their community has come, why they wrote the book, and what they hope to accomplish.

Nathan Winograd: When you started, only 13% of dogs were adopted or returned to their families at the local dog pound before you set out to change things. But numbers — as dreadful as they are — don’t tell the whole story. What was it like at the beginning?

Jacki Moss: The animal control officer grabbed dogs off the street and took in owner surrenders. They immediately killed owner surrenders, and held others for the mandatory three days, then killed them. They killed on average 750 dogs a year, and paid the local vet $15 per kill.

There was little or no food given, since they were just going to kill them. The kennel areas were ankle deep in feces and urine. There were “gang cages” with usually 15 – 20 dogs packed in them, fighting and killing each other. No medical attention was given, since they were “just going to be killed anyway.” The smaller cages were bare chicken wire that cut dogs’ feet and allowed some feces and urine to drop to the floor or cage below. The dogs slept in their own feces and had open wounds that were infected.

There was no heating or cooling in the kennel area that was wide open to the elements on one side. When they would decide to hose out the cages, they would do so with the dogs in the kennels and cages. In the winter, dogs froze to death, and literally froze to the concrete and wire cages. One male dog’s testicles froze to the floor and ripped apart when he tried to move. He was given no medical care.

In essence, it was a hellhole.

NW: I understand that you weren’t the first to try and change things there, although you were the first to be successful because you learned from others mistakes. What did they do wrong? And what did you do differently?

Diane Finley: There had been numerous attempts by local citizens to reform the shelter over the past twenty years, with no success. The local population said that it could not be done, because so many had failed before us. They said that we would just make it worse. They said we were wasting time and looked like fools…

Unfortunately, their previous attempts at reform consisted of mostly being angry and abusive toward the people in charge. The local government simply didn’t consider the pound or the animals any kind of priority, and certainly had no appetite to spend money on it. Screaming at them didn’t change their minds, and reinforced their position that the “crazy dog women” were being unreasonable and unrealistic. They became even more secretive about their actions, totally snuffing any information to outsiders about it. The pound wasn’t even adequately staffed so people could come look for their dogs or call and ask if it was there. The Animal Control Officer was rarely at the shelter during work hours — we guess he was picking up dogs — and he certainly wasn’t there after work hours, on weekends, or on holidays. The shelter was in essence closed to citizens. There was NO information coming out of there.

A small group of citizens, including [ourselves], decided that we would not give up until the shelter reformed, and decided to take a more professional, organized, strategic approach. By 2010, a couple of local women had already managed to be allowed to at least place a few dogs on Facebook in hopes owners could be found, but that was the extent of exposure for the dogs. It was still a hold-and-kill pound, so we started by trying to save more dogs. That was a fight, but it was a beginning.

JM: We simultaneously implemented a professionally executed PR, media, and public pressure strategy to expose the cruelty, and gain the citizens’ support for reform. I have a background in PR, media, and writing, so I developed the strategy and gathered large followings on Facebook. We were very aware that government officials and their plants lurked on our page and tried to disrupt and poison our actions, so we made sure to feed them information that they would go tell people in charge, such as about Section 1983, successful lawsuits against pounds, and the economics of saving animals versus killing them.

DF: We also hit them with … FOIA requests, forcing them to show us their numbers, and to account for missing dogs… We attended public meetings and committee meetings, armed with facts and figures, not just accusations and screaming like in the past.

NW: I understand things got worse, before they got better. What happened?

JM: After a few weeks of non-stop pressure, the government officials realized they were at some legal risk for their behavior, and they saw that citizens were becoming alarmed at what was going on at the shelter, because we were exposing them. Their response was to ban us in particular from the shelter, as well as all volunteers. We were no longer allowed to save any dogs. That’s when we had nothing to lose by pulling out all the stops. Dogs would be killed forever if we didn’t. There is nothing as dangerous as someone who has nothing to lose. We implemented a massive social media, boots-on-the-ground, and media campaign to expose the pound, and get citizens behind us.

DF: Granted, only about six of us did the real work, but the government realized it was bad PR and they were risking lawsuits for them to continue in the same manner. They never admitted defeat, but decided to allow volunteers to come back in and help clean the pound and maintain the dogs. They required a signed gag-order Volunteer Agreement, which we aggressively fought.

NW: In your book, you tell people that they’ll be retaliated against for trying to reform the local pound which I think is important. People need to know that going in so they can be prepared for it and ready to protect their rights as you also lay out. What kind of retaliation were you subjected to?

JM: They threw everything they could at us including threats to sue me and to lock me up, banning volunteers from the shelter, and threatening us in public government meetings. They even [killed] fourteen dogs in the pound that they knew had rescues coming for them in a couple of hours in retaliation for us going to the media. They said they would continue killing dogs if we didn’t stop our reform efforts. We knew that those dogs would be killed anyway, and every dog forever after if we gave up. We cried our eyes out, but persisted. We turned every hateful tactic they did against us back on them by exposing it, showing citizens how their tax dollars were being used and how their government officials were acting.

NW: That theme — to never give up — comes across loud and clear in your book. Not only, as you say, because it means animals will be killed forever if you gave up, but you also note that it emboldens them and makes it harder for others down the road to reform the shelter. And you proved that persistence pays off. Describe the shelter now.

DF: They decided to enclose the kennel area and add heating and cooling. Next, they allowed volunteers to man the shelter so citizens could come by. Then they allowed volunteers to help find homes and rescues for the dogs. It only improved from there.

Now four years later, it is a point of pride for the government and city. The building is totally renovated, there is a professional staff, the animals are well cared for, volunteers are welcome, and the live release rate is about 98 percent, with none killed for space or time. There is a spay-before-release policy, and relationships with rescues across the country. It is a model, little government-run shelter.

NW: That’s fantastic. So that takes us to your book. This is going to sound obvious, but tell me why you wrote it.

JM: We forced the government to do the right thing… There are many people who want to force reform, but don’t know how to do it. They are scared and overwhelmed. They are heartbroken and depressed. They feel defeated before they start. They are outraged, but don’t know how to effectively channel that rage into positive change. They start, fail, and give up before the job is done.

We wrote this book detailing how we did it, so other citizens would have knowledge of real-world, effective strategies to help them reform their pound. We don’t propose to have the answer, but we provide various tactics, and how to implement them. The most important thing we offer is hope. The most important piece of advice is persist.

Hope. Persistence. And results. For the dogs of their community, it has meant a life and death difference.

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