New Policy Saves all Healthy and Treatable Shelter Pets

2004 by Joe Cannon

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

Q. Where is Jacksonville and what is your community like?

A. Jacksonville is in Duval County, which is on the East coast of Florida, almost at the very top of the state. The County population is 821,338. Duval County has several military bases, several small universities and a very large community college, and is one of the fastest growing counties in the nation. There are six shelters in the County including Animal Care and Control and several rescue groups. The intake of all County shelters in 2004 was about 29,000, including approximately 2,000 out of County animals. The Jacksonville Humane Society serves the northern portion of two additional counties. The number of animals euthanized County-wide is about 22,500, or 75% of all animals that enter our shelters.

Q. The Jacksonville Humane Society started a no-kill policy on October 1, 2005. What prompted the change?

A The Board realized a long time ago that it was no longer acceptable to continue to euthanize one animal simply to make room for another, and they seriously started planning for this transition about two years ago. One Board member has long been a no-kill proponent. She started talking to others about it, and then several Board members heard Robin Starr (Chief Executive Officer of the Richmond SPCA) give a lecture at a No More Homeless Pets Conference. The interest in no-kill dovetailed with the Board's need to create a new long range plan. I was contacted at about that time. I had recently retired from many years as a corporate executive, and had started a consulting business for non-profits. A major focus of my work was the development of long range plans. I was also very interested in animal welfare and in the No-Kill Movement. Right after I retired, my wife and I drove across country in an RV looking at various animal shelters and studying the successes and failures of the No-Kill Movement. I started my consulting business upon our return and subsequently spent a year working with the Jacksonville Board pro bono as they discussed their shelter's future direction. As part of that discussion, members visited several shelters. The entire Board flew to Richmond, Virginia to meet with Robin at the Richmond SPCA.

Q. Were there major concerns about transitioning to no-kill?

A. The big question was, if we go no-kill, what will happen to the animals we don't take in? Will they just get killed at animal control or get dumped on the street to fend for themselves?

I did a lot of research on this issue. I called folks in San Francisco, Richmond, and other cities that have made the same transition. What I found really surprised me. They said that there was a slight increase initially in city shelter admissions but that it soon leveled and then went down. (Total dog and cat shelter intake in San Francisco, a city and county with the same population as Duvall County, is approximately 6,500. The SF/SPCA takes in an additional 1,200 pets from out of county). They also told me that the animals didn't end up abandoned on the street and didn't wind up in other county shelters.

Q. How did they explain such a positive outcome?

A. It seems that if you make it harder for people to abdicate their responsibility for the animal and put a support system in place to help, pet guardians will live up to that responsibility. If you ask people to help solve the problem, and give them the resources, most will. For example, we ask people to make an appointment to surrender their animal. The appointment is actually an extensive interview that gives us a chance to discover why they want to surrender the animal and to counsel them on whatever problems they might be having. If they need help with behavior, we talk about how to solve various behavior problems. If they need a place to live with their companion, we offer listings of pet friendly rental housing and so on. After the counseling, about 40% decide to keep their pets.

Q. Was your shelter staff supportive of going no-kill?

A. Prior to the new policy, we had monthly meetings with the staff to go through the reasoning behind the transition and the operational changes we planned to make. There was total buy-in from all but four or five staff members, and those folks eventually quit. The Executive Director at the time was not convinced that it was the right thing to do, and she ultimately resigned. I became Interim Director and have agreed to stay on for a while longer. I want to get the organization settled and positioned in such a way that this new policy can be sustained in the years ahead.

Q. How did the other animal welfare groups in the community feel about your decision?

A. We spent fifteen months meeting with the other organizations. We wanted to let them know why we were changing our policy, and share our research about making such a transition. We actually got a lot of support from the other groups, largely I think because we see this as the first step in a process of making our entire community no-kill. I think the idea of no-kill would have been divisive if it hadn't been for this aspect. We also used the meetings as a platform for coalition building. We hope to formalize a coalition in February. Finally, the Chief of Animal Care and Control for Duval County, David Flagler, is a big proponent of building a no-kill community, stemming from his experience working with No More Homeless Pets in Utah.

Q. Your plan, then, is to partner with Animal Care and Control?

A. Yes. Right now, the Jacksonville Humane Society has an informal agreement with AC&C to take a portion of their animals. We will put a more formal plan in place in 2006 that will reserve a minimum of 25% of our cage space for AC&C animals. The goal is to steadily increase this from 25% to 50%. And as I said, we hope to eventually have a community collaboration which includes AC&C and many other animal welfare organizations.

Q. What did you do to inform the community about your change in policy?

A. I contacted the editor of our newspaper, talked with the veterinarians in our community, held a press conference, spoke at numerous civic organization meetings, and spoke at length with David Flagler to be sure he and I were on the same page.

One of the first things we wanted to do was surface the issue - to talk about euthanasia community-wide. We have one of the highest euthanasia rates in the nation per 1,000 residents, and we have to get that out to the community so they can help us solve the problem. It can't be a dirty little secret anymore. We want to publicize our numbers and tell people how we got here, and where we're going, and to speak positively about the fact that working together, we can create a no-kill community.

I continue to speak about building a no-kill community at Rotary, and Kiwanis and other civic organization meetings - wherever I can get an invitation. I also stay in close touch with city officials and other animal welfare organizations in Northeast Florida.

Q. How is Jacksonville Humane directing its programs now?

A. As we see it, overpopulation is the symptom of the problem. We want to work on the root of the problem, people's attitude towards their pets. To that end, we feel it's necessary to have what I often refer to as a "three-legged stool":

  1. Education - teaching the community about animal behavior, about our responsibility to our companion animals, and about the importance of spay/neuter.
  2. adoptions through aggressive adoption and foster care programs.
  3. Spay/neuter.

Early next year, we're planning to start a spay/neuter clinic targeted at pets of low-income guardians. Working with AC&C, we have found that most calls and stray pick- ups take place in three or four zip codes, which also happen to be in the lowest income neighborhoods. Transportation, as well as money for surgery, is a big issue for these folks. We're looking at the Humane Alliance in Ashville, North Carolina, as a possible model for our program.

Q. If a shelter came to you for advice about transitioning to no-kill, what would you say?

A. The Richmond SPCA mentored us through the process, and this was an enormous benefit. Having made the transition successfully, Richmond was able to help us avoid pitfalls and show us how to set up programs to maximize our chances of success. In exchange for their help, we have agreed to pay it forward. Once we're stable, we'll help another shelter do this, just like Richmond helped us. So the first thing I'd suggest is, ask for help from a shelter that's already done it. Another very important action is doing your homework. Call and visit shelters that have made this transition. Ask a lot of questions and then check the facts. Understand what worked and what didn't and try to discover why. Finally, make certain that your Board members fully understand what this is and what it is not. Then, make sure that all the Board members sign on for the journey!

Q. How are things going so far (or is it too soon to tell)?

A. We have been operating as a no-kill shelter for only a short time, but the public acceptance has been very good. We have also noticed an increase in giving, with several people stating that they wouldn't give money to an organization that euthanized animals but they would begin supporting us now that we have converted. We did not experience any of the negative publicity that some other shelters experienced when they converted. I feel that is due to our careful communications for months prior to the actual change.

The Jacksonville Animal Care & Control organization has experienced an increase in admissions but the Chief of that agency, David Flagler, has stated that it was less than he expected. We are going to that facility at least once a week to bring animals to our shelter for processing and adoption. We are also working with AC&C to see if there are other ways we can help them. I am pleased with where we are at this time, and I am confident we will be successful in helping transform this part of Florida to no-kill!

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