Honesty and Transparency in Animal Control

2006 by Tara Derby

Audience: Executive Leadership, Foster Caregivers, Public, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers, Veterinary Team

Recently, in the field of animal welfare, many experts have begun to speak of the need for animal shelters to be forthright about their operations. More specifically, many leaders have used the terms "honesty" and "transparency" to describe a philosophy that should guide the operations of animal shelters across the nation. Why this push for truthfulness and candidness from animal shelters? During a time when corporate executives in the private, for-profit sector have come under great scrutiny for deception, is this push in our industry that deals with animals simply a by-product of too many news stories and popular culture hype? The answer is no. Just as there is a justifiable and righteous need to be transparent in regard to business dealings that affect the retirement plans for hundreds or thousands of workers, there too is a justifiable and righteous need to be honest about our operations in our agencies, which are responsible for the disposition of hundreds or thousands of animals' lives. And while this need to be honest and transparent in all animal shelters must be recognized and adhered to, perhaps nowhere is it more important than within the agencies that usually perform the majority of the killing: animal control.

Rocky and the Kitten

It was the beginning of July in the City of Philadelphia. It was a hot and terribly humid day, and it was difficult for any living creature to escape the oppressive heat. Most people were not spending time outdoors, other than to perform necessary tasks - work, shop, or eat. For the City's unwanted and stray animals, their primary destination was the municipally-funded Philadelphia Animal Care and Control Association (PACCA). The small waiting room in the large retrofitted warehouse was completely packed. Two lines of people stood before two clerical staff, half with animals to surrender and the other half waiting to see what animal they might adopt into their homes. It was just after midday, and PACCA had already received 55 cats and kittens and 18 dogs since the beginning of the morning shift of its 24-hour, 7-day per week operation.

I walked into the front office, surveyed the overflowing lobby, and walked past the intake counters to the back of the office where I spoke with the clerical supervisor about the need to expedite services and get people into the adoption office. It was the second week of employment for one of the staff performing intake, and she was still learning standard operating procedures. As we were talking, the new clerical worker turned from the front window and asked her supervisor in a clear and resounding tone, "What are the chances that an injured kitten will be adopted here?" I immediately felt my heart sink to my stomach and my blood start to boil - these simultaneously feelings of despair and anger are common during the summer months at PACCA, where we average 100 daily intakes. I knew what the answer was, and so did the clerical supervisor. She looked at me, and knew I was going to answer the question.

I walked over to the front window and spoke privately with the new clerical worker. I asked her if she had explained to the person surrendering the animal that we were full, and that we had no space in the shelter. She indicated that indeed, she had explained this. I asked her if she had followed the intake script, in which personnel are to state, "Because our shelter is full, the cat will likely be killed." She indicated that she had not done this, and that she was having difficulty saying this to the public. When I asked why, she explained that some people did not like receiving that information, and they became very sad and upset. I told her that it was imperative that we be honest with the public about what we can and cannot do, and what the likely disposition of animals received will be. She indicated she understood, and asked me to help her explain this to the customer.

I returned to the front window with her, and saw a young man holding in his hands a 6-week-old, gray tabby kitten. I looked past him and saw at least 15 other customers with cats waiting to surrender them to the shelter. In that moment, as I watched one cart full of 8 baby kittens and 4 adult cats enter through the doors to go to a fully packed receiving room, knowing we were on-pace to kill at least 70 cats and kittens that day, I made the following announcement: "Thank you all for waiting, we understand that our shelter is very crowded today and the wait may be long. For those of you who are surrendering animals, you should know that our shelter is completely full. For cats, we are beyond capacity. Any cat surrendered will be killed upon intake. If you have any other options other than surrendering to the shelter today, please consider these. If you wish to explore alternative options, please wait to speak to a staff person who will be with you shortly." The young man holding the terrified kitten looked at me and exclaimed, "No! I don't want this cat to be killed! I found him and I want to help him." I asked him to tell me his name. He looked at me with a pained expression and said, "Rocky." I explained to Rocky that we could not adopt the cat, and we had limited capacity to provide treatment beyond basic medical care. I told him that if he was willing to wait, we could have a member of the clinic staff examine the animal, and tell him if the kitten needed to go to a veterinary hospital. Rocky said that he wanted to wait, because he wanted to see if he could save the kitten's life.

I quickly called for a staff member from the clinic. I told the staff person that I wanted to be kept informed of the outcome of the situation. I went to my office, and fifteen minutes later, there was a knock at my door. It was the clinic staff person and Rocky, who still had the gray tabby kitten. The kitten was okay. He had appeared to be injured, but he was simply terrified and refusing to move due to immense fear. I looked at Rocky and asked him what he wanted to do. He told me he wanted to save the kitten, and he didn't want him to die. I briefly explained foster care to him, and instructed the clinic staff member to work with the manager of the foster care program for Rocky and the kitten. Rocky later left as a new PACCA volunteer and with a new PACCA foster kitten.

The following week, I was walking down the hallway and saw a volunteer who I hadn't seen before helping families with adoption. When I approached the volunteer, I saw that it was Rocky, the same young man who had come to the shelter the previous week with the terrified kitten. I was surprised, and happy to see him. I inquired about the kitten, and he indicated that he was "coming around" and doing much better. I wished him luck. The next day, I saw him again. Two days later, he was back at the shelter, helping to clean cages and socialize animals. The following week, even though he had a night job, I saw him four days in a row working with customers and caring for animals.

On the fourth day, when I asked Rocky how things were going, and was he enjoying his volunteer experience at PACCA, he replied, "It's hard to see so many animals coming in, but there is such great opportunity to save so many lives. All of these souls need help, and I want to try and help them the same way I helped the kitten I am fostering." I smiled, thanked him for his invaluable service, and encouraged him to keep helping in any way he thought he could.

As I returned to my office, and sat at my desk, I thought about what Rocky said, and how this excited volunteer became a part of our team at PACCA. Although it was tough to make it plain and speak the truth, being honest and transparent on that day provided the catalyst for immediate and long term lifesaving through cultivation of a dedicated volunteer. Without acknowledging our reality - that we could not save the lives of additional cats entering our shelter on that day - that kitten, who has since been neutered and adopted, would have been killed and sent to a landfill. And for the many adoptions that Rocky has facilitated as a volunteer, and for the dogs and cats that have been cared for and socialized as a result of his volunteer service - all this is owed to his compassionate heart, and our honesty and transparency at animal care and control.

A Formula for Success

While there are effective shelter directors that are dedicated to being honest and transparent, it is unfortunate that many in our industry still believe in the efficacy of "half-truths." Historically, animal sheltering professionals have been very successful at "shielding" the public from euthanasia. In fact, there are many shelters that pride themselves on the fact that they are always able to offer the public "hope of adoption." But what hope of adoption truly exists in a shelter that saves less than 50%, 40% or 30% of its animals? How likely is it that the litter of kittens surrendered in the middle of August will make it out of the shelter alive? The bottom line is that withholding the truth, making promises that cannot or will not be met, or simply lying does no one any good. It is a guaranteed recipe for disaster. Eventually, the truth will be exposed, and a shelter that has been less than forthright will be perceived as incompetent, uncaring and cruel by the majority of the citizens in any community across the nation. Killing animals unnecessarily is something the public will not tolerate. Killing animals and not telling the truth about it will also not be tolerated by any community, in anywhere USA.

In order to gain community support for animal control agencies and departments, the formula for success, in terms of the big picture or the "bottom line" is simple and features a two-pronged approach:

  1. Embrace and employ a lifesaving philosophy and programs for your agency, and establish accountability standards by which to measure your lifesaving progress.
  2. Tell your story to the community, no matter how good or how bad your progress is. If you are doing most of the killing in your community, you should be the loudest voice in the choir.

As leaders in animal control, as leaders at any animal shelter, our job is to protect the enterprise. In animal control, this means providing public health and safety services for the citizens of our cities and towns, AND providing compassionate lifesaving services for the animals under our care. In this modern day and age, these are the fundamental components of animal control. Even if the contracting municipality or the administration refuses to pay for lifesaving endeavors, I believe we must be dedicated to implementing lifesaving programs and fighting for them because they are what the community wants, and most importantly, they are what the animals deserve.

How and Why It Works

PACCA is a good example of how and why utilizing an honest and transparent philosophy to guide agency operations has proven successful, both in terms of lifesaving and community mobilization. First, it must be established that these two concepts are dependent upon one another. That is, lifesaving cannot be achieved without community mobilization, and the community will NOT mobilize and support a shelter until and unless it believes that shelter administrators, staff, and board members are doing everything within their power, each and every day, to save lives.

In 2004, in a series of disparaging articles, PACCA was described as a mismanaged "House of Horrors." Rife with nepotism, devoid of accountability and operating systems, and killing 73% of the animals that entered its doors, the agency and the City of Philadelphia quickly came under fire by local media and the concerned citizens for its treatment of companion animals. In response to community outcry, City Council held public hearings to review the state of the agency and its operations. Following an assessment of the agency's operations conducted by No Kill Solutions, PACCA hired a new administration. In April 2005, I began my tenure at PACCA as the Chief Executive Officer. Soon thereafter, I hired a management team that was experienced in animal care AND animal control, and this team was and remains focused to our dual purpose of protecting public health and safety and saving lives. The team is key, all of the great work that has been accomplished during the last 15 months is a direct result of a unified team of managers invested in nothing but goals and objectives, and a staff that began to change in terms of personnel and cultural perspective.

The first days, weeks and months at PACCA were challenging at best. We inherited an agency that was broken at its core, and required significant repairs and long term maintenance. We began the repairs by training, restructuring and replacing staff. We continued to provide the "fixes" by implementing accountability standards and lifesaving policies. For example, nearly 95% of the animals adopted from animal control during September 2002-March 2005 were adopted out unaltered. We decided this was unacceptable and intolerable. We, an animal shelter, were contributing to overpopulation. How could this be? It could not be, at least not any longer.

We knew that due to a paucity of resources, we couldn't immediately go from spaying and neutering virtually no animals, to sterilizing every animal we adopted out, particularly when we were setting goals to increase live exits by tripling our adoption and transfer rates. At the same time, we knew we had to reach a day when we would achieve 100% pre-release sterilization for adopted animals, and we needed to get there quickly.

By December 2005, PACCA achieved a 100% pre-release sterilization policy for adopted animals. We did what some would say is impossible within an 8-month period. My response is that it is nowhere near impossible to achieve this goal. First, animal control shelters have to decide it is not only a worthy goal, but a goal that must be upheld as a mandatory best practice by all those involved in the animal care and animal sheltering community.

Getting there was not easy, but how we did it was - on my first day at work, we made a commitment to achieve 100% pre-release sterilization for adopted animals. Period. There was no discussion, no explanation, and no justification as to why we wouldn't be able to achieve this goal. We simply had to do it and there was no other alternative if we were truly invested in saving lives.

Every decision made from then on - from the staff we hired, to the supplies we purchased--was couched within the context of the importance of our reaching this goal. Seeing pregnant cats returned to PACCA after being adopted, or killing entire litters of cats and kittens due to lack of space served as the perfect catalyst for us to keep our eyes on the prize.

Knowing we couldn't do it all at once, we had to find a starting place. Cats. Our first implementation step to achieve our goal was to sterilize all cats and kittens prior to adoption release. By hiring a staff veterinarian, we achieved this milestone by August 2005.

Our continuing strategy was to get the community to work with us in order to achieve 100% pre-release sterilization. We knew we couldn't do it on our own, at least not with our current funding situation. In meeting after meeting, and phone call after phone call, we engaged key community stakeholders. The state Veterinary Medical Association and the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine supported our call for help by promoting pro bono work for veterinarians. We worked diligently to build relationships with local veterinarians, and our consistency has paid off. Today, we have at least 5 days of surgery scheduled per week, and we are proud to be the implementation site for the University of Pennsylvania's Shelter Animal Medicine Program.

Executing these lifesaving programs has been made possible because we have engaged our community members and partners. We have asked for their help in our battle to save lives, and we have made every effort to build solid collaborative partnerships. In 2004, PACCA was killing at least 7 out of 10 of every animal that entered its doors. The prior administration hid from accusations of mass killing and closed its doors to many rescue groups and shelters. Our philosophy is different. We embrace the community, our partners in animal care, and we tell the truth, no matter how harsh it might seem.

In December 2005, PACCA achieved a milestone of saving more than 50% of the animals that entered the facility. We sustained a 50%-60% lifesaving record through April 2006. As soon as we saw the tide beginning to change with more animals entering the doors and an inability for us to sustain live exit rates due to sheer intake volume, we turned, once again, to the community for help.

One day last April, as the number of animal intakes began to drastically increase and we knew we would hit a wall by the end of the month, we made a decision not to kill animals for space that day. We made the decision, and then we asked the media to help us reach our goal. In one day, we went from being faced with killing over 150 cats, to sending 125 home via adoption and foster care. How did we achieve this? We called the media, told them we had too many animals and that we were going to kill them. We needed their help to get the word out to the community to help us save lives. That day, three major networks shot live from the shelter, and the community responded. No animals were killed for space in April 2006. By the end of May 2006, we were faced with the same situation, and we did kill 16 animals for space. This number increased in June, and as we hit the 50 mark, we received a desperate call for help.

On a Thursday morning in June, I was doing an on-camera appearance promoting foster care with our Chief Operating Officer, Susan Cosby. Right before we went on air, we received a tearful call from our Clinic Services Manager. She entered the shelter that morning and found more than 75 cats in receiving. She had at least 50 spayed and neutered kittens that had nowhere to go, and she was faced with one alternative: euthanasia. She called us in tears, and begged us for help. "Can't we do SOMETHING," she asked. Susan and I spoke, and we made a decision to implement a strategy that we had planned on using later in the summer. We decided to defray the costs associated with bringing a new pet home by lowering the adoption fees for cats and kittens to one dollar for the weekend. We made the announcement on the network television station, and waited for the response to our call for help.

Never did we imagine that the response would be so enormous. The adoption promotion was covered by newspapers and all major network television stations, and the community responded in full force. More than 1,000 people came to the shelter that weekend, and more than 400 cats and kittens were adopted as a result of the lifesaving promotion. Volunteers and staff worked around the clock, some for 16-18 hours on end to make sure the shelter stayed clean and the animals were spayed and neutered before going home. By the end of the weekend, there were no cats available for adoption. Cages were empty, if only temporarily, and no healthy or treatable* cat was killed in June at PACCA for a 5-day period. This level of lifesaving is unsustainable at PACCA during the summer months, today. In the future, we are confident that we will reach our goals of sustainable lifesaving, little by little, and one day at a time.

As we approach the month of August at PACCA, there is unfortunately not a very happy story to tell. August through September, and perhaps the beginning of October will be difficult, if not miserable. Our intakes are at peak capacity and we will begin to see days of 150+ intakes per day. The save rate of 50%-60% is not sustainable, for the time being, during these warmer months, and we are hovering around a 45% save rate. The situation for cats at the shelter is far worse than for dogs, hence our focus on cats and kittens. Most of our euthanasia is for treatable cats and kittens, many of whom enter our shelter with conditions such as ringworm or upper respiratory infections, and a significant proportion of these cat and kitten deaths occur due to onset of URI while at the shelter. Our partnerships with other shelters and rescue groups mean we transfer out most of our highly adoptable (i.e. desirable) dogs, and many of the dogs that we work to adopt out are larger breeds, pit bull and pit mixes. We do adopt out pit bulls and pit mixes, and we also kill pit bulls simply because of their breed. It is an issue of hour by hour inventory selection for adoption rows, what space is available, and what types of dogs are already in the adoption program.

Light at the End of the Tunnel

Despite all of the challenges that lie ahead, there is light at the end of the tunnel, and a silver lining behind the cloud. This year, our annual budget was increased by City Council, the Mayor, and City Officials by $600,000.** Although we are still under funded, this additional funding identifies a strong commitment on the part of the City to homeless animals and the public safety of its citizens. This support will enable us to hire additional field services and shelter staff to perform our dual responsibilities for the two legged and four legged citizenry. We have an unprecedented number of volunteers joining our team at PACCA, many of whom are students at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. Their partnership with PACCA is unmatched, and their generosity and commitment to lifesaving is laudable. We will achieve higher rates of lifesaving during the colder months, and this year, we will implement strategies to improve our lifesaving records. Our board of directors, led by highly competent individuals committed to saving lives and performing our municipally-funded responsibilities, is working to develop exciting fundraising strategies to implement initiatives that will focus solely on lifesaving strategies. Our staff have begun to implement public vaccination clinics and next year, we will begin low-cost public spay and neuter clinics to stem the tide of unwanted litters of kittens and puppies that flood our system every year.

Embracing and employing lifesaving programs guided by honest and transparent principles is challenging, but well worth the effort. The amount of literal blood, sweat and tears that goes into this work is unquantifiable. When the obstacles appear too great to overcome, and when it feels like it may be time to give up and walk away, the satisfaction gained by saving lives is all one needs to stay focused and firm.

*PACCA defines healthy and treatable animals as follows:

Healthy: All dogs and cats six weeks of age or older that, at or subsequent to the time the animal is taken into possession, have manifested no sign of a behavioral or temperamental characteristic that could pose a health or safety risk or otherwise make the animal unsuitable for placement as an adopted pet, and have manifested no sign of disease, injury, a congenital or hereditary condition that adversely affects the health of the animal or that is likely to adversely affect the animal's health in the future.

Treatable: All dogs and cats who are not healthy but who are likely to become healthy if given medical, foster, behavioral, or other care equivalent to the care typically provided to pets by reasonable and caring pet owners in Philadelphia. These animals include those who would otherwise have been made available for adoption if we were able to overcome a behavior problem or diagnosis that the shelter may not necessarily have the resources to treat or manage. Examples of treatable conditions include, but are not limited to: neonatal kittens, upper respiratory infection, ringworm, kennel aggression, kennel stress, and other behavior and medical conditions that have a better than poor prognosis for recovery.

**The PACCA budget in FY 2006 began at $2,353,628. It has increased 25 % to $2,953,628. Total budget for FY 2007 is $3,278,628.

Tara Derby

Tara Derby is Chief Executive Officer of the Philadelphia Animal Care and Control Association (PACCA). As a Founding Member and former President and Chair of the Alliance for Philadelphia's Animals, Tara has worked extensively with community stakeholders to help make Philadelphia a no-kill city within the next decade. A graduate of Temple University, Tara is a former public health professional with 10 years of experience in non-profit management, research and evaluation, program design, and grant making.

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