February 2012 by Barbara Carr, Executive Director, SPCA Serving Erie County, NY

Audience: Executive Leadership

I had just completed delivering a workshop at a regional conference when I was invited to the bar of the hotel to have a drink with my hosts. Always happy to spend time with colleagues and chat about what was new in shelters, I immediately accepted the invitation.

When I arrived at the bar, there were several tables lined up with many familiar faces already seated. I joined some folks at the end of the line of tables and soon we were heavily engaged in conversation about cats and the many issues surrounding them in shelters.

I was holding forth on the successful cat initiatives at my organization when a woman called out from the far end of the table. I glanced her way, not recognizing her, and inquired as to what she had said.

"What about ferals?" she asked in an almost challenging tone.

I explained that I wasn't talking about ferals but domestic cats and the programs with which we had been having such success.

"Yeah, but what about ferals?" she demanded again.

I explained again that I was speaking about domesticated cats and that, in fact, my organization did not accept feral cats. I could have just stopped there, but I have a long history of delivering "the whole story." I went on to tell her that for years we had accepted feral cats with no known caretakers and always euthanized them, and that some people in the community had asked me to reconsider this position. As a result, I had my medical staff examine every feral cat that came to our organization for a year and found 73% to be in extremely good health.

Frankly, I was surprised, as I had been one of many who subscribed to the belief that ferals lived a treacherous and miserable life, that they were always unhealthy, riddled with parasites, and that it was a kindness to put them out of their misery. I don't remember when I first heard this or why I chose to accept it as truth, but I did and never really questioned it until I was questioned about it. With the data that we had gathered, it was clear that killing these cats, who were doing perfectly well on their own, was absolutely the wrong thing to do. All this I explained to the woman at the end of the table.

"You're wrong!" she exclaimed. "Ferals live terrible, short lives filled with misery, and if you won't help trap and kill them, you are a cruel person!"

I told her I was sorry, but the data just did not support the old claims of ferals living miserable lives. I also offered her other studies with data that people had gathered supporting what I was saying. Back and forth we went for a few minutes, when suddenly she rose from her seat, pointed at me and said, "Data-Smata, who cares about your data!"

It was one of those moments.

After 25 years in the animal welfare field, I fail to see how anyone that works in this line of work cannot be concerned with data. Yet I'm well aware of the many programs and protocols carried out every day that have no basis in fact. Our adoption rules are filled with examples: no pets to families with small children, no puppies to people who are old, no black cats at Halloween, no pets as gifts - it goes on and on. I can't imagine the number of homeless animals in this country that have missed the opportunity to be adopted because we have accepted as fact belief systems that have no data whatsoever to back them up.

Of even greater concern is the complete lack of data collection and analysis of data on animals in our care. There are still far too many organizations that have no idea how many animals they are admitting and what the condition of those animals are. Some shelters have no idea how many animals are adopted, or returned to their owners, or euthanized.

Without this basic information, how can an organization make any sort of plan to tackle the issues addressing them?

Transparency is the buzz word we use for sharing data and we all know if you're not transparent, you're hiding something. Some organizations do have good data but keep it secret. They are afraid of what might happen if the public knew the "truth."

A very unfortunate fact of life in this field is that there are far too many individuals and groups who would take information and use it to destroy animal shelters that are struggling to find answers. If shelters were middle schools, we would think of these folks as bullies.

If we are to make progress for animals, bullies simply can't rule us. We need to face them head on and take the higher road by sharing the truth, by being transparent. Certainly the public can't help a sheltering organization if they don't know there is a problem.

Collecting good data and then sharing it with your community is an opportunity that has great potential to help. It wasn't so long ago that the organization I work for had gone six months without euthanizing a single healthy animal. We watched our data carefully, noting every cat and dog who came to us, and the condition it was in at intake and at adoption. Every day we went without euthanizing a healthy animal was a great day, but when summer was fully upon us with cats and kittens arriving nearly faster than we could count, we hit the reality wall. There was no more room. The options available to us in caging, foster care and adoption promotions could not equal the onslaught of homeless cats, and we ended up euthanizing four cats.

I called the press and asked them to write a story about the fact that four healthy cats had died that day at the SPCA. Because we were always transparent and never hid behind platitudes and half-truths about our data good or bad, the press was able to write a straightforward story in which we were able to reach out to the public for help. And help we got. In fact, a donor came forward and put up enough funding for us to open a cat adoption center in our largest shopping mall. Since that day, not one healthy animal has died at our organization. It's been over three years since that day, and with our data, I am able to report to our community this wonderful news. I'm also able to report about what happens with every treatable and manageable animal in our care and identify exactly what keeps us from success in some areas. With this data we can make plans and we can tackle problems.

And, the public pays attention. They don't pay attention to attack us; they pay attention so they will know when we need help.

Struggling with the tremendous overpopulation of cats and dogs in this country is daunting. Managing this disaster can seem impossible. Yet isn't it within our capabilities to make strides when we can measure what we do, what we see, and how we do it with the collection of good data and the use of transparency to help others see the problems? These problems are not just our problems after all, but if we don't let the public in, if we can't show them what we know far too well, solving these problems will be so much more difficult.

So for those who might think, "Data-Smata," I say, "Data-Greata!"

Use it and make it work for the animals!

Bio photo of Barbara Carr sitting at a table in a burgundy sweater, smiling, petting a gray and white cat

Barbara Carr

Barbara Carr has been the Executive Director of the SPCA Serving Erie County for eighteen years. Previous to her position at the SPCA, she served as Executive Director of the Cocheco Valley Humane Society in Dover, New Hampshire, was President of the New Hampshire Federation of Humane Societies, and served on the Board of Directors of the New England Federation of Humane Organizations. She was also the Executive Producer of "Humane Perspectives," winner of a Cable Ace Award for the Best Education Programs.

During her tenure at the SPCA, Barbara has been responsible for: bringing surgery in-house; creating the Whisker Wag'n, the SPCA's mobile adoption unit; developing the SPCA's off-site adoption program; developing the Wildlife and Humane Education Departments; implementing a foster care program for young and sick animals; and renovating the dog kennels. In addition, Ms. Carr has served as an advisor to the Humane Society of the United States Companion Animal Division and in 2007 was appointed to a three-year term on the National Federation of Humane Societies' first-ever board of directors as President.

Barbara is a sought after speaker in the areas of innovative adoption strategies, humane education, and shelter promotions. She has provided seminars to shelters throughout the country. She has lectured as far away as China on the subject of humane education.

Through her vision and leadership the Erie County SPCA has become a recognized force in high standards, innovative programs, and progressive initiatives that have helped animals locally and influenced others in the country to adopt some of these initiatives to help animals in their communities.