The Good, Bad, & Ugly Side of Leadership

The Good, Bad, and Ugly Side of Leadership

Leadership. A passion for saving lives. And a commitment that what must be done, will be done. It is the single most important element of the No Kill Equation. It is what causes communities to achieve No Kill. Lack of leadership is why communities fail. As a recent No Kill Advocacy Center study showed, there are communities spending $1.50 per capita on animal control with 90 percent save rates. And there are communities, like Collier County (FL) below, spending $8.50 and failing miserably. The difference is leadership.

As we shall also see below, shelters will threaten to kill animals claiming they can’t afford food because of “the economy,” while other shelters—like those in Nevada and Minnesota—will push fundraising and/or lifesaving rates to all-time highs in the same economic climate. One community will celebrate its first No Kill year. Another, like the City of Los Angeles, will abandon any pretensions to it at all. And it all comes down to leadership.

The ASPCA will give you ten reasons why they aren’t capable of leadership. And Indianapolis will give you 153 reasons why they may yet prove to be.

But here’s the rub: There are over 100 million of us animal lovers, and only a few thousand of them (regressive, kill-oriented shelter directors and their equally regressive, kill-oriented national animal welfare apologists like those at HSUS.) They will have to change; or they will be swept aside. It’s a numbers game. And the numbers are clearly on our side. As they are in terms of how many animals are entering shelters; and how many people are looking to adopt. And to capitalize on those numbers, all it takes is leadership.

L.A.’s Latest Act of Desperation

Despite a promise by the Mayor of Los Angeles that the City of Los Angeles would become the “most humane city in America,” his administration has done very little beyond empty rhetoric and photo ops to make it a reality. Indeed, the agency has been rocked by controversy during his administration involving mismanagement, poor care and unnecessary killing. And last year, it passed a punitive law that gave officers the power to impound and kill animals who are not sterilized, while his General Manager turned around and cancelled the low-cost spay/neuter voucher program (since reinstated).

While other communities are seeing death rates plummet and lifesaving at all-time highs, 3,029 more cats were intentionally killed in Los Angeles city shelters compared to the year before, an increase of almost 33%. Dog killing has also increased significantly. And more animals are dying in their kennels than ever before.

All of this occurred under the tenure of General Manager Ed Boks who resigned following a vote of No Confidence by the City Council. Not only did he fail to achieve No Kill as promised, death rates skyrocketed, disease rates skyrocketed, and cronyism remained rampant. While the departure of Boks offered the Mayor a chance to make good on his promise, he appears intent not to.

Boks’ last act in office, with the apparent blessing of the Mayor, was to sign off on a five-year strategic plan for the future of the agency that sacrifices the animals to bureaucratic indifference. According to L.A. Animal Watch, there is,

not the slightest mention of radically reducing the number of animals killed or [increasing the] animals adopted. It does not even mention no kill. Doing a search on the five year plan, I could not find, “no-kill,” “save rate,” “euthanasia,” “kill rate,” or even “adoption rate.” I see two goals in my brief reading which have any real numbers: a goal to have New Hope partners adopt an additional 264 animals in 2009 vs. 2008, and a goal to reduce returns by 10%. That’s it. All the rest is about award dinners, New Hope Partner awards, building outreach programs, giving employees input on the department website, etc. This plan is filled with empty words, meaningless program outlines that have no attached real goals in terms of anticipated increases in save rates or reduction of killing.

In fact, rescue groups and No Kill advocates did not participate in the drafting of the plan. Instead, the plan was concocted by those running the agency, most resistant to progressive change, and who have overseen the systematic killing of the animals. Outside input was received by the Bureau of Sanitation, which might explain why Los Angeles Animal Services continues to treat animals like nothing more than yesterday’s trash: kill them and throw their bodies away.

The department claims it wants to “End Pet Overpopulation” as one of its core goals, but there is only one problem with this goal: There is no pet overpopulation. The City of Los Angeles has a per capita intake rate of 16 dogs and cats per 1,000 people. That is almost three times less than Washoe County, NV at 39 dogs and cats per 1,000 people which is saving nine out of ten dogs and cats and pushing toward its No Kill goal. The City has 1/3rd the problem but killing is going up precisely because of its antiquated policies and underperforming staff, which the plan does not address.

In fact, even if there was pet overpopulation, the plan does not talk about implementing or expanding any of the programs of the only model which has created No Kill communities in the U.S.: comprehensive implementation of the No Kill Equation, including expanding affordable and free spay/neuter to reduce the numbers of animals being impounded. The only exception is a call for a paltry increase of 5% in placing animals through rescue groups. Since it uses Boks’ disastrous 2008 year as a benchmark, however, the new future goal is still less than the 2007 level. It also talks about creating “Compassionate, skilled, hard-working employees” but none of the action plans call for an increase in accountability or lead to the termination of those like the supervisor below, captured using profanity against animal lovers while L.A.’s finest look on:


LAAS Supervisor “flips off” citizens asking for less killing at shelters they fund with their tax dollars.

Instead of goals like: eliminate the deaths of neonatal kittens by expanding the foster care program so that it replaces killing entirely, increase the number of lost animals reclaimed by establishing a proactive Missing Animal Response plan, and double adoptions through a volunteer-led daily offsite adoption program—none of which are in the plan—the five year plan has “Develop and implement an Employee Recognition Program,” and “Develop reliable and uniform procedures for handling and keeping track of building repairs.”

Instead of expanding lifesaving opportunities, LAAS is considering suggestions such as the creation of “a ‘booster’ committee to schedule activities such as Birthday Club, holiday parties, sports leagues, and field trips” for employees. So while kittens are being killed and dogs are wallowing in their own filth because of underperforming employees, the department is going to celebrate a staff member’s birthday with a field trip at taxpayer expense!

Boks left Maricopa County and was fired in New York City after failing there as well. Each time, he promised he’d create a No Kill community in five years, and each time he left an agency in disarray despite public claims to the contrary. His legacy to Los Angeles is not only increased killing, but it is the end of hope for No Kill in the near future.

As the strategic plan makes clear, it is no longer on the agenda, even though it has not even been attempted with integrity. By hijacking the language of No Kill and then allowing things to descend into chaos, he has single-handedly falsely convinced people who were interested that No Kill really does mean rampant disease and increased deaths in kennels and that it really is impossible. His tenure has been marked by a campaign of distortion that gave the public the illusion of progress and a commitment to No Kill but in reality did little to foster its actual implementation. And when the “effort” fails, as it did in Los Angeles, the public grows weary of unmet promised goals and erroneously concludes that No Kill is simply not achievable. That is what is happening in Los Angeles. The irony here is that if Boks spent as much time implementing the needed programs and holding his staff accountable as he did pretending to in his blogs, he would have succeeded.

Indianapolis Goes a Different Route

While Los Angeles City shelters were closed, Indianapolis Animal Care & Control (IACC) remained open on the 4th of July and did a big holiday promotion. Since holidays are a time when families are together and able to visit the shelter, IACC stayed open and adopted out 150 dogs and cats (and an additional three guppies) in a single day—153 animals in all—an all-time record.

Move to Act, a long-time critic of regressive shelter policies and a champion for No Kill policies in that community, wrote that,

There was not only a sense of excitement with the IACC staff today, but also a sense of hope: that the agency is beginning to turn the corner for better helping the animals get out alive. The long, winding drive from Harding St to the IACC parking lot was cars parked bumper-to-bumper on both sides of the drive. People were at the facility who had never been there before, and if they didn’t find who they were looking for, they were planning on returning in the future.   There were more people than animals available.

How many animals did LAAS needlessly kill by being closed? It is not a rhetorical question. Given population comparisons per capita, LAAS could have potentially adopted 645 dogs and cats. Doing that once a year for five years would mean additional adoption of 3,225 animals, saving more lives than all items in the strategic plan combined.

Add the other holidays to the mix, add adoption marketing and promotion, and the number of lives saved would be in the tens of thousands. But that is not going to happen under this Mayor and with this staff. So they’ll get their birthday parties for employees, and they’ll have their employee recognition award banquets, and they’ll hire the “Facilities Czar” to oversee building repairs, they’ll continue to consult with the trash department for policies affecting live animals, and animals will continue to die.

The Inmates are Running the Asylum

Literally. I reported earlier that despite being in an incredibly wealthy county and having a per capita budget that is the envy of shelter’s nationwide ($8.46 per capita compared to the mean of $3.95 and some shelters saving 90 percent of the animals on a $1.50 per capita budget), Collier County Animal Services still kills at an astonishing rate, while maintaining animals in dilapidated and cruel conditions. Blaming the economy rather than their own incompetence and failure to hold staff at the shelter accountable, the County Commissioners were considering eliminating the adoption program to save money. A public outcry stopped that plan only to have them decide to allow jail inmates to take over the program instead.

Collier County 170

Cats lie dead at Collier County Animal Services following a mass killing ordered by the shelter’s then-uncaring and incompetent director, despite a per capita budget that is the envy of shelters nationwide. Commissioners promise more of the same or worse using inmate labor.

I’ve visited shelters running by criminals, who like in many shelters, are inadequately supervised. I’ve found filthy conditions, animal neglect, animal cruelty, and high rates of killing. At one inmate staffed shelter, not only did cats freeze to death because they were left out in the cold with no shelter of any kind, but when animal advocates complained, several other animals were found dead. Many activists believed this was retaliation for their going public with concerns about unnecessary killing and poor care. A necropsy showed antifreeze poisoning. Only the staff/inmates had access to these animals.


Filthy conditions in a shelter reliant on inmate labor. Is this in store for Collier County FL?

I know, let’s put the inmates in charge of the local retirement home, orphanage and hospital. That will save money also. Oh wait, we can’t do that. Those places have vulnerable populations who depend on high quality, compassionate, skilled, and professional care and it would be too risky to allow criminals to care for them.

Fire the Lot of Them

A Henderson County, TX shelter threatened to kill animals because they claimed they are running out of food to feed them, blaming the economy for increased surrenders and reduced donations. The real culprit once again is nothing more than incompetence by shelter leadership. The reality is that while the economy offers some challenges, it has become the new excuse for managers who want to avoid accountability and their own failed leadership. Add it to the list after “pet overpopulation,” “irresponsible public” and “unadoptable animals.”

In fact, not only can many shelters get all their food donated, but shelter feeding programs by pet food companies allow shelters to feed their animals for just over $1 each for their entire stay. Under those programs, the pet food manufacturer supplies free food for shelter animals, with the shelter only paying shipping costs. To feed the shelter’s 140 animals would have cost the shelter roughly $1.50   or so per animal.

Meanwhile, shelters in economically hard hit areas run by progressive directors are finding ways to either run more efficiently while increasing lifesaving (such as Reno, NV which increased lifesaving again this year despite 11% unemployment and a foreclosure crisis in the county) or are finding ways to make up the shortfall in donations through creative fundraising and marketing (such as Animal Ark in Minneapolis, MN).

This confirms a new study by the No Kill Advocacy Center which proves that saving lives has less to do with funding rates and more to do with compassionate, committed, and effective leadership—which Henderson County clearly does not have.

Don’t Look to the ASPCA for Leadership

They bill themselves as a national leader, but over the years, the ASPCA has proven that this claim is more “hoax, than fact.” Drawn from an article they first published in 2000, they recently reposted to their website their “top ten ways to help your local shelter.” It’s not just a list of ten things you can do. It is a list of the “top” ten things.

In it, there is no mention of all the programs and services of the No Kill Equation. No talk of helping the shelter by fostering kittens and puppies, trapping feral cats for spay/neuter, or volunteering to do offsite adoptions. While two of the ten are worthy (socializing dogs and cats, which combined leaves nine more for other worthy help such as those above), the bulk of the list is filled with gems like these two:

“Design a Computer Program. If you’re a techie, consider customizing a management program that can help adopters select the right pet for them:”

Program one from scratch? Really? Wouldn’t it just be easier for the shelter to download one of the many free programs that exist? Or just buy one if they want something with more bells and whistles?

“Let’s Make It Legal! Shelters always seem to be in need of volunteers with professional legal skills. Dixie Dixon, a corporate lawyer who joined the board of the Pennsylvania SPCA, got started by reviewing copyright notices:”

Review copyright notices? That’s a top ten way to help your shelter?

They also want you to take out your hammer and nails and build additions to the shelter and host a super bowl party. Oy!

Here’s one that should have made the cut: Ignore the ASPCA’s top ten lists.

American Dog Magazine

But there is good news. Washoe County, NV’s save rate climbed again and is pushing 90 percent for both dogs and cats. On a per capita comparative basis, it puts Washoe County death rates at 1.8 dogs and cats per 1,000 human residents, very near if not the lowest in the nation. Shelby County, KY just celebrated its first year with 90 percent-level save rates. And communities across the country are joining the No Kill club: in California, Kansas, Colorado, and elsewhere. In fact, we are closer than ever.

Read my article in American Dog Magazine by clicking here.