Turn Your Shelter Upside Down

The Delaware SPCA, which operates two open admission animal control shelters in Delaware, is a new member of the club. I am, of course, referring to the club of caring shelters which have rejected the catch and kill policies of the era dominated by the Humane Society of the United States, and instead embraced the No Kill Equation model of sheltering.

In just under two years, the death rate has dropped 70%. According to their director Anne Cavanaugh,

In early 2008 the Delaware SPCA adopted a policy under which only animals that were too ill or injured to recover or were a danger to the public would be euthanized. The objective was to dramatically increase the ‘live release rate,’ which is the standard many shelters use to measure their effectiveness in terms of reuniting pets with owners, having them adopted to new homes, or transferring them to rescue groups.

Today, their save rate is 80% and climbing. I had the pleasure of meeting Anne when she just started at the SPCA as part of a seminar on Building a No Kill Community I held in her community. Anne inherited a shelter dominated by cronyism and mismanagement–and an $800,000 structural deficit on top of it.

How did she turn her shelter upside down? I could cut and paste from the experiences of Tompkins County, NY, Charlottesville, VA, Reno, NV, Porter County, IN, Shelby County, KY, or any of the others. In other words, the No Kill Equation. And, especially, the No Kill Equation’s focus on comprehensive adoptions. In fact, this is the same story that is occurring in Duluth, Minnesota where a shelter director has taken his community to an 88% save rate and climbing.

Not only is the No Kill Equation beyond reproach, the HSUS model of sheltering is experiencing a well-deserved demise. Of course, it is true that most shelters follow the latter. But no true animal lover in the nation still subscribes to it. It has no legitimacy. And even Wayne Pacelle, the Minister of Spin at HSUS, is trying to distance himself from it in obscure blog after obscure blog that wants to have it both ways: ‘we support No Kill but we don’t support No Kill,’ so as not to offend his catch and kill cronies, while acknowledging that the whole nation is moving in an exciting, more compassionate direction (that HSUS had nothing to do with and indeed fought a losing battle against).

We can adopt our way out of killing and in more communities across the country, we have. But that requires shelter leadership and staff willing to do so.   A number of years ago, I did an interview with Angel Tales magazine in Chicago. They asked me, “What’s the most critical step to take to build a No Kill community?” My response was as follows:

If you ask 100 animal welfare professionals this question, all 100 would say spay/neuter. But all 100 would be wrong. That is not to say that high volume, low cost sterilization services aren’t important, they are. In fact, they are crucial. But that is not why most dogs and cats are currently being killed in shelters. It isn’t “pet overpopulation.” What we are actually suffering from as a nation, what is actually killing a high number of animals, is an overpopulation of shelter directors mired in the failed philosophies of the past and complacent with the status quo.

We know how to stop the killing, but many shelter directors refuse to implement the No Kill model. As a result, a widespread, institutionalized culture of lifesaving is not possible without wholesale regime change in shelters and national animal protection groups, replacing them with compassionate leaders who reject killing as a method for achieving results.

That is only part of the story. The more comprehensive answer would have also added that once new leadership is brought in, that leader needs to bring in new staff. For years, we’ve been told that those who staff our nation’s shelters are caring and compassionate. For years, we’ve been told that the killing is not their fault. And in my first book Redemption, when I put the blame for killing directly on their shoulders—because they find killing easier than doing what is necessary stop it—I was attacked. “No one wants to kill,” shelter directors and staff who killed in the face of alternatives shot back. “Blaming shelters for killing is like blaming hospitals for patients dying,” said PETA’s killers and killing apologists. “Shelters are filled with hard working people doing their very best,” affirmed HSUS, the chief architect of the killing paradigm we live with today.

But here’s the rub. Shelter reformers are now better connected and have more access to information and we’ve managed to connect the dots—to see scandal after scandal at killing shelters which show, definitively, that too many of these people not only needlessly kill animals in the face of a readily available lifesaving alternative, but they also neglect and abuse the animals in the process. But of greater significance, we now have a number of No Kill communities, and in the case of places like Duluth, MN and Newark/Georgetown, DE, communities moving in that direction and very nearly there. The question, of course, is whether any of the communities with No Kill level save rates did so with the same staff and the same team that oversaw the killing?

In Redemption, I wrote about my own experiencing creating the nation’s first No Kill community in Tompkins County and the resistance to my efforts by the many staff members I inherited upon my arrival. I wrote that “Not all staff was supportive of the new order” as they appeared content to continue killing and pass the blame to others. “In the first six months, over half of all employees moved on or were fired, eventually replaced with new coworkers who shared a vision of a No Kill Tompkins County.” Before Susanne Kogut took over as head of the shelter in Charlottesville, she came to visit me in Tompkins County to see how we did it. After she got the job, she called me. I remember our first conversation. I asked her how many of her managers shared her vision for a No Kill Charlottesville. How many she could rely on to implement the spirit of that vision in her absence. And how many were working at cross purposes with her, trying to stall or undermine changes. The answer was pretty lopsided. I don’t recall the specifics, but it was somewhere on the order of all but one or two were decidedly against saving lives. I told her to fire them all and then call me back when she did. The rest, as they say, is history.

The reality is that I don’t believe it can be done any other way. And that is why, just as there are many communities who have achieved success and all of them did it by leadership and staff terminations, there are just as many communities—King County, WA and Los Angeles, CA to name just two—that have promised No Kill success, but failed to achieve it because leaders were not terminated, or new leaders would not do the necessary task of firing underperforming and non-performing staff.

People are the heart and soul of any organization. To succeed at the No Kill endeavor, staff members must be committed to the organization’s mission and goals, share leadership’s lifesaving values, and have a strong work ethic. That means termination of employment for some people. Admittedly, this is no fun for anyone involved, but it is a necessary step to move forward effectively.   It is always better to fire a bad staff member than to kill a good animal. Animal shelters should never become what, in fact, they have become in too many communities: a jobs program for people who are not employable in other agencies deemed more important by uncaring bureaucrats. In Los Angeles, if you failed out of the sanitation department (the trash collectors), you were placed in the animal shelter rather than fired. Until very recently in Houston, the Bureau of Animal Regulation & Care was where candidates who scored the lowest on city aptitude tests were placed. Is it any wonder that BARC has historically been beset by neglect, cruelty, and killing?

On the plus side, turnover in staff means you reward the hard workers. It means advancement for some employees. It means new people with a passion for saving lives get hired. It means the job just got a whole lot easier because when you have the right people on the team, a lot of things fall into place right away.

As noted above, in Tompkins County, 50% of staff was pushed out, resigned, or terminated within six months. The result was a 93% save rate which amounted to a 75% decline in killing, virtually overnight. In Charlottesville, almost every manager was terminated. The result was a 92% save rate the following year. In Reno, every manager resigned and only three of the original 60 staff members remain today. The result is a 90% save rate. Even in Philadelphia, when the now-defunct Philadelphia Animal Care & Control went from an 88% kill rate to a save rate of over 60% (and at one point got as high as 74%), it resulted from a 50% overall turnover—by firing union-protected shirkers. And what about Delaware and Duluth? The story is the same. Shirkers were removed in favor of passionate, hard working employees.   At the Delaware SPCA, 80% of Anne’s staff is new. According to Anne, “I try to raise the bar every time I hire someone new: it makes my life easier and we can accomplish so much.” And the results prove it.

I have never seen a shelter go from a culture of killing to a culture of lifesaving without turnover in managers and staff. That is why King County has so far failed. That is why No Kill has failed in both the City and County of Los Angeles. And that is why the long-term success of the No Kill plan in Austin is still up in the air. Recent events there suggest that the same leader who presided over an anti-No Kill campaign, backed by the ASPCA, and who has killed over 100,000 animals under her watch is not doing what it takes to save lives—and not holding her team accountable. That is why I have called for regime change in Austin.

No one likes to be the bearer of bad news. But here’s the truth. You want to go No Kill? Fire the lot of them.