New Hope for Los Angeles

The tenure of Ed Boks as General Manager of Los Angeles Animal Services (LAAS) has been marked by an agenda of punitive legislation and enforcement that saw dog deaths increase 24%, while cat deaths increased 35%. It has also been marked by (thankfully failed) efforts to abolish the low-cost spay/neuter voucher program and to institute cat licensing—which would have increased the killing rate even further. His resignation offers the Mayor an opportunity to move in a new direction, as the single biggest factor for lifesaving success or failure is who runs the shelters in any given community.

Despite taking in over three times the number of animals per capita than the City of Los Angeles, Washoe County, NV is now saving 90% of dogs and 86% of all cats. This followed the hiring of new directors passionate about saving lives and committed to implementing the programs and services which make it possible. In addition, a new director at Washoe County Regional Animal Services is working with community stakeholders to increase their already impressive 60% “return to owner” rate for stray dogs and 7% for stray cats.

For that level of success to come to Los Angeles, the job description must be as inclusive as possible. Rather than prior experience running a shelter, the job description should list skills which can be transferred to the shelter environment. Too often, prior experience running a shelter means a history of killing.

Second, the job announcement/description must put saving lives on at least equal footing with public health. If Los Angeles wants a new General Manager who is compassionate, dedicated to improving animal care, and committed to reducing killing, it must demand those characteristics in its recruitment.

Third, the Mayor must remember that while he is the elected steward, the shelters do not belong to him. Municipal shelters are doing what they are doing in our name: they are doing it with our taxes, with our donations, as agencies representing us, and they are even blaming us (and our neighbors) for doing it by claiming they have no choice because of the public’s irresponsibility. In short, they belong to the people. It is therefore incumbent on the Mayor to convene a committee of animal welfare advocates in the city to interview and help select the next candidate. The Committee must include a broad—not hand-picked by the Mayor—cross section of the animal protection community to interview candidates and recommend the next General Manager. When I was hired in Tompkins County, I was not just interviewed by those in power. I was also interviewed by volunteers, by rescue groups, by critics of the shelter. And that is what Los Angeles requires as well.

Fourth, although we are picking up the tab and these shelters are supposed to (but often fail) to reflect our values, we are not paying the ultimate price. That is being paid by the animals who are unfortunate enough to enter U.S. shelters and lose their lives as a result. And so any job description must include a commitment to the No Kill philosophy and a commitment to implementing the programs and services which make it possible.

Fifth, the Mayor must give the General Manager the authority to renegotiate a union contract that currently and unacceptably makes it incredibly difficult to fire those who harm animals and consistently underperform. No longer should the City Attorney have sole authority to negotiate (read: rubber stamp) union contracts for animal services, which are deemed less important than for those of other city services.

Finally, I’ve said this before but it bears repeating until someone in the community champions it. In order to achieve and sustain No Kill, we must move past a system where the lives of animals are subject to the discretion and whims of shelter leaders or government bureaucrats. Currently, No Kill is succeeding in those communities with individual shelter leaders who are committed to achieving it and to running shelters consistent with the programs and services which make it possible. Unfortunately, such leaders are still few and far between. And when that leader leaves, the vision can quickly be doomed.

For No Kill success to be widespread and long lasting, we must move past the personalities and focus on institutionalizing No Kill by giving shelter animals the rights and protections afforded by law. Every successful social movement results in legal protections that codify expected conduct and provide protection against future conduct that violates normative values. We need to regulate shelters in the same way we regulate hospitals and other agencies which hold the power over life and death. The answer lies in passing and enforcing shelter reform legislation which mandates how a shelter must operate.

Otherwise, activists in Los Angeles will be back to square one if the candidate the Mayor chooses is not progressive, but even if he or she is, if they then later choose to leave for other opportunities in the not-too-distant future.

Success Comes to the San Francisco Bay Area

Speaking of No Kill success, the communities of Albany, Berkeley, Emeryville and Piedmont, California are the first in California to save all healthy and treatable animals. According to recent press releases:

In spite of the fact that many of the animals awaiting adoption at Berkeley Animal Care Services are pit bulls and pit mixes, and that as many as 40-50% of the animals at Berkeley-East Bay Humane Society and Home at Last Animal Rescue are elderly, FIV positive, in need of extra socialization or have other treatable conditions, the live release for the coalition is 93%.

Success Comes to Kentucky

And for all the “San Francisco is unique, it can’t happen here” naysayers, I just received an exciting letter from Kentucky which reads,

I am pleased to be writing you to let you know that May 27, 2009 will mark the one year anniversary that the last adoptable animal in Shelby County was [killed] due to space. Shelby County Animal Shelter, like most animal shelters with open door policies, had a high [killing] rate.

After getting the right people on the bus, they decided to take that bus in a whole new direction. Using the programs model of the No Kill Equation, nine out of ten animals are leaving the shelter alive—a save rate of 89%. And No Kill advocates are working on increasing redemption rates and saving feral cats to raise it even higher.

Rethinking Our Approach to Adoption Screening

A recent adoption ad in Animal Sheltering, HSUS’ shelter magazine, tells potential adopters to put up with a list of questions which might seem invasive, but in the end are merely a method for the quality of the home to be screened. While I agree that there is nothing wrong with adoption screening, while I had adoption screening when I ran shelters, and in general, while I am an advocate of adoption screening, the ad nonetheless reveals a disturbing lack of vision at HSUS.

First of all, support for adoption screening is not absolute. When shelters, like Los Angeles County’s Department of Animal Care & Control or King County Animal Care and Control, neglect and abuse animals, I’d rather the animals have a chance with open adoptions where abusive staff does not have power to deny adoptions.

Second, too many shelters treat people as “guilty” until proven “innocent,” rather than the opposite, especially since these people are making an effort to “do the right thing” by adopting, despite the fact that many shelters are out of the way, lack public access hours, keep animals standing in their own waste, smell, are dirty, and have poor customer service. We can’t continue to sanction policies where people are treated like the enemy, turning away good homes because the questions are invasive or the policies draconian.

Here are some adoption policies currently in place around the country, while animals die:

  • “We don’t adopt out large dogs to families with children”
  • “We don’t adopt out dogs to people who do not have a doggie door installed”
  • “We do not adopt out dogs to people without fenced yards”—even though the dog is going to live in the house
  • “Do you have kids? Think again. Rabbits aren’t good with kids”
  • “Cohabitating couples who have not married need not apply to adopt our pets”
  • “Puppies and kittens under 6 months old are only adopted to families with children over 6 years old”

Third, while four million animals are needlessly killed, we need to rethink our approach. This does not mean lowering adoption standards, it means actively seeking out good homes through:

  • Offsite adoption events
  • Public access hours
  • Greater visibility in the community
  • Working with rescue groups
  • Competing with the pet stores & puppy mills
  • Adoption incentives
  • Marketing
  • Good public image
  • Thoughtful adoption policies
  • Thoughtful adoption screening

That is what Animal Sheltering should promote. Instead, despite all the pretty rhetoric, we get HSUS ignoring that while there is a nationwide crisis of uncaring, it is the shelters—not the public—which are the primary perpetrators. And thus we get HSUS continuing to ignore an irreconcilable contradiction: shelters will say “you are not good enough for these animals” and then turn around and treat the animals like garbage themselves: by allowing them to stand in their own waste, failing to provide adequate care, allowing them to suffer, turning adopters away, and/or then killing the animals before throwing their bodies into a landfill.

Like this not uncommon complaint I received from Philadelphia:

I tried to adopt from my local shelter, but they weren’t open on the weekend, it was almost impossible to reach them on the telephone and when I did, I was treated rudely. Nonetheless, I raced down there one day after work, and the place was so dirty. It made me cry to look into the faces of all those animals I knew would be killed. But I found this scared, skinny cat hiding in the back of his cage and I filled out an application. I was turned down because I didn’t turn in the paperwork on time, which meant a half hour before closing, but I couldn’t get there from work in time to do that. I tried to leave work early the next day, but I called and found out they had already killed the poor cat. I will never go back.

People might think I am picking on HSUS with this one. Like other Wayne Pacelle inspired gimmicks, the words may sound pretty, you might read it and say “it’s not that bad,” or even agree with its premise on first read. Nor is it my intent to ascribe to HSUS, the draconian policies of other shelters.

But the ad provides political cover and legitimacy to those draconian policies. And instead of giving shelters yet another tool to refuse to revisit failed models and policies, how about pushing them to rethink their approach? And, of course, I am left wondering why HSUS continues to choose for itself the role of defender of poorly performing shelters (and apologist for mass killing) as they have in places like Eugene, OR, Kings County, WA, Paige County, VA, Randolph, IA, Tangipahoa Parish, LA, and Wilkes County, NC? Regardless of the reasons, I am not willing to settle for crumbs. And from the largest, best funded animal protection organization in the country, we must continue to expect and demand more.

Update: With Maddie’s Fund spending millions of dollars an on ad council campaign to drive more adopters to shelters, HSUS should be at the forefront of trying to reform adoption practices if we are to maximize the potential that ad campaign promises to provide, not providing tools and gimmicks to defend them.

Further Update: I received this comment from a shelter director, which I found to be very compelling:

I read your blog and thought that you were charitable about that ad. One look at the image, which looked more like an interrogation room in Iraq than an animal shelter, and you would want to run the other way! If you want to build a defense for adoption screening, the answer lies in customer service — you know the pets in the shelter and are trying to find the best possible fit for them and for the animals. It says something approaching that far down in the ad, but who would make it that far after hearing that your privacy was going to be invaded and that they do think you are a good person but they are not going to treat you like one — but you should be the bigger person and not take it personally, because after all, an animal is counting on you!  Yikes! We are so eager to protect the animals that we are killing them. And does HSUS really think that if you turn them down that they are not going to be able to get a pet anywhere else? The adoption process should be focused on providing educational information about the animal and their care, explaining how the organization is there to help, etc.  I did find your examples to be very compelling. That quote from Pennsylvania — tragic.  And HSUS is producing an ad to help these shelters hide behind their own failures. Amazing.

No Kill Conference: Bringing Sheltering into the 21st Century

Next weekend’s No Kill conference promises to break new ground in our quest for a No Kill nation. In addition to some of the most innovative and shelter managers, No Kill advocates, and animal lawyers in the country, the event has received broad support from a diverse group of sponsors including Best Friends, Maddie’s Fund,, and many others.

Speakers include yours truly, Bonney Brown, Mitch Schneider, Susanne Kogut, Abigail Smith and other current and former shelter directors who have saved at least 90% of incoming animals in open admission/animal control shelters. They include shelter managers who are turning their communities and states upside down. And they include a broad section of lawyers, activists, and other professionals who are helping revolutionize sheltering in the U.S. Richard Avanzino, the Father of the No Kill movement, and I will be giving the opening keynote.

To read an article about the conference, click here.