A city official said something to me a while back that got stuck in my head and has rolled around inside my skull like a rock for months. We were talking about the programs and services of the No Kill Equation which I view as the DIY solution to end the needless destruction of shelter animals. As I have written about many times, the genius of the Equation developed by Nathan Winograd almost 20 years ago is that it can be molded and shaped to fit the resources in, and challenges of, any community. We do not need Nathan to travel to every community to help elected officials change the culture in their tax funded shelters. Interacting with progressive shelters to learn from their methods certainly helps, but examination of each element of the Equation to determine how that element can be implemented in the community is the first proactive step towards animal shelter reform.
The city official said that he had kept all of the materials we had provided to him years ago about the No Kill Equation with the exception of the publication which talks about how No Kill animal sheltering is cost effective. He said, “I threw that one away years ago because it’s bullshit.” We were taken aback by his comment which probably made sense to him considering how much money had been spent on the shelter operation in recent years. The city had almost doubled the staff from the number of positions that existed when we began our advocacy a decade ago. The city had also spent close to 3 million dollars to renovate the shelter. Our response to him was that having more paid employees was not as important as supervision of those employees and the tasks they perform. We withheld our comments about the renovation of the building because most of the work was completed and us stating we thought money had been wasted would not have advanced the conversation in positive ways.
As a resident of Alabama, I do not lack for bad examples about which to write related to animal sheltering. Recent events related to the shelter that spent 3 million dollars on renovations and another shelter building that will soon be constructed reminded me about that rock rolling around in my head related to how money is spent related to shelter animals. This subject is separate from the subject about why saving lives using the No Kill Equation does not cost more about which I will write in the future.
What The City Did
It’s a given that many municipal shelters currently in operation were built years ago. Most were built to house animals temporarily as part of what we call catch and kill operations in which animals are housed for a limited period of time and are then destroyed. In many cases, it is a “first in, first out” method of operation. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a municipality or community building a new animal shelter that is more suited to progressive operations or renovating an existing shelter for the sake of modernization. Lake County, Florida, became a No Kill Community under the leadership of the county commission and at a time when the shelter was little more than a glorified pole barn. The county now has a new shelter of which it is proud as the county continues to lead the way in No Kill sheltering operation nationally.
But some shelter spending is not only unnecessary, it is wasteful. The shelter about which I (and other members of an advocacy group) met with the city official spent a million dollars to renovate the dog kennel area of the shelter. Additional kennels were constructed. The design is a double kennel for each dog; there are two kennel areas separated by a door that can be opened and closed by the staff. As a result of this renovation, the number of kennels in the shelter was actually reduced by 14 kennels. When the city announced the renovations to the community, it touted the changes as improving quality of life for dogs and making them happier. In one media report, it was said the dogs would be “stress free” (a claim we found absurd). The fact that it would easier for staff to clean the kennels was an added benefit to the double kennel construction.
The kennel renovation project was completed approximately three years ago, at a time when the dog live release rate at the shelter was 93%. As of the end of 2022, the dog live release rate had dropped to 87%. In 2022, almost four times as many dogs were destroyed for behavior as were destroyed in 2021 (which is almost as many dogs destroyed for behavior in 2019, 2020 and 2021 combined). So much for improved quality of life for dogs who would be happier and less stressed. Most of the dogs destroyed are very young; their brain development and hormones make them ill-equipped to handle the stressors of the shelter environment.
What the City Should Have Done (and still can do)
As I have marveled at the million spent by the city to renovate the dog kennels (without any apparent positive result) it made me think of how a fraction of that million dollars could have been spent. The shelter sits on a parcel owned by the city. There is a 10-acre rectangular-shaped rural parcel to the south of the shelter which is owned by the city and has been undeveloped for years. The city could easily have cleared an area in the middle of the parcel to construct 2 covered, outdoor kennel structures like the one built in a neighboring county which houses 30 dogs and which is protected by the weather using the same industrial curtains used in the local livestock industry and which roll up and down. The kennels could have been built from north to south and been surrounded by a simple cleared walking path for staff and volunteers to walk dogs during the day in a forest-like setting. At least some of the dogs housed in the shelter all the time could instead be housed outside during the day to provide them with fresh air and the mental stimulation of nature while avoiding the stress that comes from housing them in brick walled kennels inside the shelter. Total cost? Less than 200k for the buildings plus the cost of clearing an oval dirt walking path. For those who object to housing dogs outside, this would be housing during the day for the most part and many of the dogs who end up in the shelter either live outside or spend a lot of time outside unsupervised, which is how they end up at the shelter. And for those who believe outdoor kenneling during the day would require more staff, consider the fact that the staff has already doubled in the last ten years. This is not about more staff; it is (again) about how those people are utilized.
The city has already spent the million and more dogs are being destroyed now for behavior than at any time in the last eight years. Now is the time for the City to acknowledge that the spending benefited the staff by making the kennels easier to clean, but did not benefit the dogs. Considering how little it would cost to provide outdoor facilities to house dogs during the day, there is no reason the city cannot consider the outdoor kennel plan for the future. It is also long past time for the city to fully embrace the No Kill Equation and embrace recommendations made over a period of almost a decade to make the shelter hours more family friendly to remove barriers to reclaims and adoptions, to do community outreach to the areas in the city where most dog intake comes from (which is tracked on a map) to reduce that intake do more resource counseling to help people keep pets in existing homes and recognize that the sharp rise in the number of dogs destroyed for behavior is a situation of the city's making which could be avoided by accepting free help from subject matter experts and by changing the approach to dogs who do poorly in the shelter environment.
What The County is Doing
The county in which I live has never had an animal shelter even though one is required by state law. For years, the county got around the statute by housing impounded dogs at a veterinary clinic for a rate of $10 per dog per day. I tried to get local elected officials to pool funds to have a metro animal shelter to serve the county and all the cities in the county so people only have to go to one place to find a lost pet instead of doing to five places. I failed. When the county finally began making plans for its own facility before the pandemic, I met with elected officials to talk about how the facility would be operated as I again promoted the No Kill Equation. The drawings I was shown to renovate an old building the county had purchased had way too many kennels for the annual intake by the county and I said as much. I also implored the county to get help on how to run a new facility from a subject matter expert for which I offered to raise money to cover part of the cost. The answer was no. The commission chairman was proud of what he called the “No Kill” status of the county, said he did not plan to run for election again and that he considered the new shelter to be part of his legacy in the county.
Fast forward three years. The county continued to kennel dogs in the old building which has still not been renovated. It has also been kenneling dogs at a new location (this time a boarding facility) again at a rate of $10 per dog per day. I am told 30 to 40 dogs are housed this way and have been for months. The county has likely spent 100k in the last year just for that long-term boarding (which one elected official called “dog storage”), a situation which cannot be sustained financially. Because county officials say the unchecked spending has to stop, it has decided that any dog in the system 60 days will be destroyed beginning in May, regardless of the health status of the dog. I was told recently that the county will start with the dog who has been in the county system the longest which I’m told is 2 years. To be clear, keeping animals alive is not No Kill and never has been. I am not sure who is responsible for the decision to board dogs long-term but the consequences of that are obvious. Not only is that arrangement not financially sustainable, it creates behavior issues for those dogs, it prevents families from finding their lost dog and it prevents dogs from being adopted by the public. For shame.
I am also told the county has committed to spending more than 600k in COVID Relief funds to create a building that is primarily for administrative purposes with some housing for cats but no kennels for dogs. One elected official told me the focus of the building is more about people than about animals. When I asked about the plan to kennel dogs, he could not answer.
What The County Should Do
The county intends to spend more than half a million dollars of COVID Relief money on shelter operations. Reserving my personal opinions about the appropriateness of that spending, the money is available for use. I can envision no scenario in which it is appropriate to spend more than half a million dollars on a building that has very little to do with animals and nothing to do with the types of animals that make up the majority of the county’s shelter intake: dogs.
So what should the county do with that money? It’s a lot of money and the opportunities are endless. If I was an elected official in the county, these would be my recommendations:
Beyond the spending, the county should also stop using the phrase “No Kill” to mean “we are keeping animals alive.” County officials should learn about the programs and services of the No Kill Equation to help reduce shelter intake and increase shelter output moving forward so it is never in a position in which elected officials sees a mass euthanasia event as the only way to resolve problems of its own making.
I have extended an offer to my county commissioner and the animal control officer to begin their education about the No Kill Equation. Time will tell if they are willing to break away from the status quo and mistakes of the past to seek a better future for the residents of the county and the animals with whom they share their lives.
I am an animal welfare advocate. My goal is to help people understand some basic issues related to companion animals in America. Awareness leads to education leads to action leads to change.
image courtesy of Terrah Johnson