Standing Tall in Washoe County

Washoe County Regional Animal Services is responsible for running the municipal shelter for all towns and municipalities of Washoe County, Nevada including Reno. As a tourism-based economy, Reno and its surrounding communities have been very hard hit by the economic downturn. Loss of jobs and loss of homes are at all-time highs. In fact, the state of Nevada has the highest unemployment rate in the nation. As a result, WCRAS takes in four times the per capita intake rate of Los Angeles, five times the rate of San Francisco, seven times the rate of New York City, and over two times the national average.

If there was ever an agency which should have a high rate of killing according to traditional sheltering dogma, indeed if there was ever a community where No Kill could not work, it is Washoe County. But it is working. Year-to-date, WCRAS has a stunning 95% rate of lifesaving.

Mitch Schneider, the WCRAS director, is one of the “few and proud” heads of a municipal facility with a better than 90% save rate. He is proud of his staff, proud of his relationship with community groups, and proud of his community. But “few and proud” are not surprising for Schneider, an ex-marine, who likes to remind you that “once a marine, always a marine.”

This past weekend, both Schneider and I were presenting at the Building a No Kill South Florida conference put on by No Kill Nation. I caught up with him in Ft. Lauderdale and sat down to talk to him about his conversion from skeptic to No Kill advocate.

What was Washoe County like when you first started?

We euthanized [killed] thousands of animals each year. In fact, we had two full-time staff members doing that most of the day. That meant a freezer full of dead pets—fifteen barrels full. Every day, a renderer came to empty the freezer, and every day we filled it up again. As terrible as that was for the animals, it was also very hard on the staff. We had tremendous staff burnout.

When the Nevada Humane Society Board of Directors first brought me in as a consultant, and before we recruited Bonney Brown to run the shelter, you and I had a conversation where I told you that the Nevada Humane Society wanted to make Washoe County a No Kill community. What did you think?

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.

I remember your skepticism well, but I also remember you said “if you think there is a better way of doing things than we are doing in Washoe County, I am willing to consider it.” Why were you willing to try something new when you didn’t believe it was possible?

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. It would also make the taxpayers happier. It would reduce staff burnout and turnover, which would reduce costs for human resources for hiring and training new staff, and it would increase our image in the community.

Were you open to all the changes after making the decision to at least give it a try?

I’ve always been committed to process improvement, but I’ve been in this business for 20 years and I found myself having to check my traditional thinking and responses a lot. But I also knew that many people go their whole lives never making a difference, but we can, if we choose too. And I wanted to make a difference in the lives of animals, a difference in the lives of people who care about them, a difference in how our community sees itself.

I love Washoe County and if we could achieve No Kill here, it could become a source of collective pride. So while I might dislike the term No Kill, I hate the term dog catcher even more and you are what you act like. Act like a dog catcher, then you are a dog catcher.

Given the high rate of intakes, conventional wisdom would say people in Washoe County are especially irresponsible and that should also translate into a low percentage of lost animals being reclaimed by their families. But you reclaim about 65% of dogs, three times the national average. You also reclaim about seven times the national average for cats. How did you make that happen and prove conventional wisdom wrong?

Some animal control agencies will pick up a stray dog and even if they pick up the dog in front of the dog’s home and they know it, they’ll still take the dog to the shelter. That’s how a dog catcher acts. But we stopped doing that. If we know where that dog lives, we’ll drive the dog home. It’s good business practice, it is good public relations, and it is the right thing to do.

By returning the dog home, we don’t stress the dog, we don’t stress the dog’s owner, we don’t stress the staff at the shelter, and we don’t stress the other dogs in the shelter. Everyone wins. Even the taxpayers win: we spend less of their money. It may be a little more work in the field, scanning for microchips, calling the number on tags, knocking on doors in the neighborhood to see if anyone knows where the dog lives, but it reduces a lot of work back at the shelter. Plus it makes two parties very, very happy: the dog and the person that dog belongs to.

Some animal control agencies think they have to punish people whose dogs are found at large. Why do you not share that view?

We have a public safety mandate and we would never do anything to compromise that, but that doesn’t mean we abandon common sense or compassion. Accidents happen, so we treat the dogs and their owners the way we would want our pets and ourselves to be treated. If the person is truly irresponsible, we’re going to issue citations, but we aren’t going to threaten to kill their dogs or make it more likely that their dogs will be killed. If the dog is not dangerous, you don’t have to do that to protect public safety.

What do you have to say to other animal control directors who refuse to embrace this kind of innovation?

When I hear people in other communities refuse to embrace change because they say “We’ve always done it this way,” I can’t help but be disappointed. That doesn’t justify anything. If you aren’t saving animals doing things a certain way, if you have a poor public image doing things a certain way, if you are wasting taxpayer money doing things a certain way, it means it is time to embrace change. Most resistance to change is just laziness. People want to go through the motions without having to really think about why and what they are doing and how to make it better.

What are some of the changes that have helped increase the save rate at WCRAS?

As I said, we work very hard to return animals to their owners in the field. One day one of my officers said to me, “I had a good day today, I impounded six dogs.” And I said to her, “How is that a good day for the dogs and the dog’s owners?” And she said, “I took five of the dogs home in the field.” I said, “that is a good day.” When we actually bring five of six wandering dogs home, rather than bringing them into the shelter, I know we are doing the job entrusted to us by the people of Washoe County. We’ve also embraced TNR for feral cats, have a great relationship with the Nevada Humane Society, and work with lots of different rescue groups. In other words, we work well with others, even if we aren’t in agreement with each other on everything. In some ways, I see part of my job as getting out of the way of people who want to save lives.

How has your staff responded to all the changes and especially to the results?

When I hire someone, I look for the kind of employee that is not averse to continuous process improvement. That is why we have a good team. Our staff morale is high. But we’re also people, so we have good days and bad days. And when we change a policy to better serve the people and animals of our community, sometimes one of our staff members may complain that “every day I come in, something’s changed.” But all I have to remind them is that it takes a desire to be better today than we were yesterday to get them over that hump. Plus, if we do things better, they get lots of positive feedback from the community. People write our officers and thank them for bringing their pet home. How can that not make an officer feel good?

Is there one thing that you would credit with your tremendous lifesaving success?

Our success is a result of a willingness to embrace continuous process improvement, which requires not fearing change. That, in turn, requires understanding that you can’t solve the problem with the same thinking that created the problem. You can’t get a different outcome if you keep doing the same thing.

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