Humane Society Silicon Valley Going the Extra Mile for Animals in Need

January 2011

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

Jacques, a one-year-old Papillon mix, was clearly a very sick puppy - not to mention a very scared one. Jacques had come to the Humane Society Silicon Valley (HSSV) in Milpitas, California, as a stray with a life-threatening heart condition. Moreover, he had significant fear issues; he spent most of his first few days at the shelter hiding under a blanket. He needed expensive open-heart surgery to save his life and intensive behavioral intervention to help him get adopted. Meeting just one of those requirements might have been more than many could handle. Fortunately for Jacques, HSSV is not one of those organizations.

A Focus on Saving the "Treatables"

These days, the focus at HSSV is on saving "treatable" dogs and cats. This term comes from a 2004 agreement (the Asilomar Accords) reached at a meeting of 18 animal welfare leaders at the Asilomar Retreat Center in Pacific Grove, California. The Asilomar Accords place shelter pets into three categories - healthy, treatable and unhealthy & untreatable - and defines what each term means.

A treatable animal has behavioral or physical problems that can be treated so that the animal at least has a satisfactory quality of life. A treatable animal who can be rehabilitated (TR) is one who can become healthy if given care like that provided to pets by reasonable and caring pet owners in that shelter's community. A treatable animal whose problems can be managed (TM) is one who will probably never become "healthy," but will probably be able to maintain a satisfactory quality of life if given the same care that a reasonable and caring owner in the shelter's community would give.

Depending on the standards of the community it serves, a dog like Jacques may or may not be considered treatable. But at HSSV, staff determined that health-wise he was a TR, and that behaviorally, he was a TM.

According to Chief Operating Officer Beth Ward, HSSV is now able to treat more of these special needs animals than ever before. "Most of the ‘healthy' dogs and cats in our county are being adopted, so the real need is in saving the ‘treatables'. This year, we will save about 20% more (40% of our total population) than we did last year. We will also save 5% of the animals with severe medical problems that fall in the ‘unhealthy & untreatable' category."

Nearly half of the animals that HSSV cares for - 47% - are strays like Jacques. The rest are either owner surrenders or come from other shelters. "Owner surrenders make up 25% of our total incoming," says Ward. "We take in dogs and cats from other shelters [in Santa Clara County] to make up the remaining 28%. We help our community by accepting owner surrenders and taking dogs and cats from our community partners who are filled to capacity."

Body and Mind

The kind of help that HSSV provides depends on what an individual animal requires. For Aggie, a physically healthy seven-year-old cat whose intense need for attention caused her to stop eating when she came to the shelter, help came in the form of veterinary monitoring, hand feeding (not just leaving food in Aggie's dish), and lots of one-on-one time with the shelter staff and volunteers. This no-holds-barred therapy helped Aggie recover from her depression and prepare her for a new life in a loving home. And soon enough, a special someone showed up: a cat-loving man who appreciates and responds to Aggie's intense desire to bond with a human being.

Then there's Dino. Unlike Aggie and Jacques, the four-year-old German Shepherd-Chow mix came to HSSV from another shelter. That shelter couldn't afford to pay the $7,000-plus required for the hip replacement surgery Dino desperately needed, and asked HSSV to step in. HSSV did just that, starting with arranging for the surgery and then placing Dino in a foster home for his multi-week recovery. Dino, now dubbed "The Bionic Dog," has recovered beautifully and has been adopted.

Jacques has recovered beautifully, too. HSSV contacted a veterinary cardiologist, who repaired the little dog's heart defect - thankfully at a steep discount. To help Jacques with his fears, HSSV contacted a trainer who specializes in helping dogs with troubled backgrounds. The trainer agreed to evaluate Jacques for three weeks at her own home, during which time she got to know and appreciate him, and determine how to help him adjust happily to a forever home. In fact, she's promised to give free follow-up behavior consultations to whoever adops Jacques.

How's, Who's and Where's

None of these accomplishments come about easily. It takes a goodly number of people working together to treat and find homes for these additional animals in need. What's remarkable, though, is that HSSV has been able to help so many animals with virtually no increase in paid staff. Where does the help come from?

The one-word answer: volunteers. "We've seen a growth in volunteers by approximately 20% in the last 18 months," says Ward. "And the real growth has been in partnerships with local vets and trainers."

Moreover, those partnerships have increased not only in quantity but also in quality. "We have historically had many supportive local vets and trainers, but now they are truly standing side by side with us, working directly on individual cases," explains Ward.

A case in point is Carly - a dog who has spent a year cycling in and out of care at HSSV. Although the dog has been adopted twice during that time, in both cases the adopters returned her to HSSV because she behaved poorly in her adopive homes. And although HSSV does its best to provide an environment in which its canine and feline guests can thrive, shelter staff recognize that some dogs need extra help to learn how to live in human households. "As hard as we try ... we knew we would never be able to teach [Carly] how to live properly in a home," says Ward. "So we reached out to our local trainers, and one stepped up to take her on in their home. And we now have a potential adopter who will continue to work with that trainer to hopefully make this last home Carly's ‘forever' home."

The complexities of preparing an animal for a successful adoption also figured into HSSV's plans to build its new shelter, a 48,000-square-foot facility that opened in April 2009. Not only is the shelter designed to minimize its impact on the environment; it also aims to provide animals with as home-like an experience as possible. The cage-less facilities for dogs, cats and rabbits help minimize shelter stress, which in turn helps the animals to be calmer and happier as they await adoption.

But while HSSV's new facility may seem like the shelter equivalent of a five-star hotel, planners never figured on animal guests settling in for long stays. "We knew that creating a physical space that was open and inviting to the public, home-like and easy to clean would help us to care for more animals," says Ward. "[But] we also had to ensure that we had clear and well-defined processes to ensure that animals would move through our care in a timely manner. ‘Warehousing' of animals is not a solution."

Home Sweet Home?

While Aggie and Dino have found a forever home and Carly may be close to finding one, at press time Jacques was still waiting for his. Ward acknowledges that finding homes for these special needs animals can be challenging - and that it takes more than simply sharing their stories once to find them the permanent homes they deserve.

"We have found that just telling the stories is not the answer," says Ward. "The story has to be told again and again in different forms, such as in blogs, magazines, newspapers, word of mouth, videos ...."

While telling the stories of the animals in their care may not always spur adoptions, they can help in other ways - especially by increasing supporters and fundraising. "I believe that stories about animals like Dino and Jacques help to connect readers to our mission," explains Ward. "It creates a drive for the reader to get involved, to make a personal difference. They join us in helping the helpless."

Those connections sometimes occur not only because of the animal's story but also because the reader has had an experience similar to that of the animal. For example, "We had people connect with Jacques because of his heart condition," recalls Ward.

Other connections may not be as obvious, but can result in a huge impact. "We had a reader in the state of Washington who connected with Dino," says Ward. "It affected her so much that she sent a sizable donation in Dino's name to help other animals like him."

It's a huge effort, starting from when an animal comes through HSSV's doors to the happy ending that occurs when that animal finds his forever home - but it's an effort that Ward and her colleagues make without hesitation.

"Every animal is an individual with something to offer, and if we push the limits of our abilities we can make opportunities happen," says Ward. "In 2003, only about 3 out of every 10 animals in a [Santa Clara County] shelter had a possibility of finding a home. We have doubled that chance in the last six years, and it is my hope that we will see a county-wide save rate of 70% at the end of 2010. We have to teach the people in our county how to see the benefit of opening their heart to an animal and how animals from shelters truly know how to pay it forward. Young or old, healthy or sick, confident or scared - they all appreciate the companionship of humans and repay you threefold with unconditional love."

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