When you think about animal shelters, who do you presume is the best person to lead the shelter in terms of overall qualifications? Compassion for animals is a given in terms of prerequisites, but what about education and skills? Are some people better suited to manage the challenges of animal shelters from budgeting to staffing to leadership to animal care to interacting with the public? The short answer is yes.
I work in a city in which the shelter director, a city department head appointed by the mayor, is a veterinarian. She was appointed to that position by the prior mayor in the fall of 2002, more than twenty years ago. When I first interacted with her, I didn't think much about her role at the shelter beyond her qualifications as a veterinarian. I thought it must be a good thing to have someone specialized in animal care in charge of the department. I have been told numerous times by local elected officials over a period of two decades that they are certain the shelter director would not needlessly destroy animals. If animals die in the shelter, the logic goes, there must be no way to keep them alive.
I was talking with a contact of mine recently about the most important element of the No Kill Equation, the absence of which causes all the other elements to be less effective: compassionate leadership. I was reminded of a blog written by Mike Fry of No Kill Learning many years ago and about which he spoke at our 2013 No Kill Huntsville public workshop at the downtown library: core competencies for animal shelter leadership.
Mike has decades of experience in the animal shelter industry, but he also spent time working at the Center for Creative Leadership for Dr. Mike Lombardo and Bob Eichinger. Mike used scientific data about 67 leadership core competencies to apply that data to the animal shelter field. He surveyed dozens of people who were either successful shelter directors, board members who oversaw successful shelters, or other knowledgeable persons. Based on the feedback, he ranked the 67 competencies and listed the top 22 "must have" skills for animal shelter leadership. The 22 must have skills Mike ranked are:
As Mike wrote in his blog, many boards and municipal administrators select leaders using the wrong criteria and end up putting people in roles for which they are poorly suited. I could not agree more. I know some animal shelter directors with no advanced animal care skills who achieve wonderful results in their shelters and communities by balancing public safety with animal welfare to achieve tremendous life-saving success using contracted veterinary care. I know a particular shelter director who is well-thought of in the business world, is held in extremely high regard by the public and has a multi-million dollar budget, but who destroys about half of the animals in her facility. I attribute this to lack of some of the core competencies at the top of the list while at the same time having personality traits that make her more focused on herself and her public persona than on the lives of the animals entrusted to her care.
All animal shelters need to contract with or otherwise receive animal care services from a veterinarian. But "veterinary knowledge" is not one of the core competencies for animal shelter leadership. Does it help to have some fundamental knowledge of animal care that is acquired over time? Certainly. In the end, the job of a shelter director is administrative in nature. It is not a veterinary job. Job descriptions for shelter directors vary greatly, but many include the following key tasks:
I feel confident there are animal shelters led by veterinarians that function well. I would argue, however, those veterinary talents are wasted in what is an administrative position. I also believe there can be a downside to having a veterinarian manage a shelter that I call Snow White Syndrome. Think of the innocent animal lover frolicking in the woods being serenaded by birds as she interacts with animals of the forest. People presume that because veterinarians have chosen a profession related to animal care, they surely are focused solely on the well-being of animals and would not destroy healthy and treatable animals needlessly. As the saying goes, "this ain't no fairy tale" and there are numerous veterinarians who end the lives of healthy and treatable shelter animals every day. I'm not sure how they do it beyond the same type of rationalization that is used by shelter employees and volunteers which I consider a form of cognitive dissonance.
There is no "do no harm" oath for veterinarians, but they do take an oath to use their knowledge to protect animal health and welfare. The oath states:
Being admitted to the profession of veterinary medicine, I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health and welfare, the prevention and relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge.
It has been argued that veterinarians who manage shelters where healthy and treatable animals are killed (or which contract with shelters to kill healthy and treatable animals) have violated that oath. Dr. Patty Khuly wrote a blog on this very subject in 2015 which I have shared many times. She stated:
Killing healthy animals violates our oath. Therefore, we shouldn't do it. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that veterinarians who are directly involved in the shelter death of healthy animals should do so at the risk of losing their license to practice veterinary medicine.
As I continue to advocate for shelter reform in the city where I work, my personal experience is that having a veterinarian manage the animal shelter has been an obstacle to change. People want to assume that a veterinarian would never needlessly end lives. But for many, many years, she did just that. Thousands of healthy and treatable animals were destroyed. The good news is that the loss of life slowed temporarily and the live release rate rose dramatically as a result of political advocacy, intervention by other city officials and demands by the animal loving public. If the shelter director had the core competencies required to effectively run the animal shelter - and was truly committed to the life-saving process - the progress achieved would be sustained. The bad news is that the progress has not been sustained and the city is now backsliding to a degree while rationalizing that decline. The reasons for the decline are varied but many relate to the futility of doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result. Numerous recommendations have been made for years to help reduce shelter intake and increase shelter output, most of which would cost nothing at all, yet most have been ignored. This has caused me and the members of my local No Kill advocacy group to seek a local Companion Animal Protect Act to codify some of the shelter operations and standards in an effort to hold the line against further regression. Time will tell if we succeed. If we do not, the city will have made a choice regarding future operation of the animal shelter and will have decided that better is good enough under the current leadership. This process is made harder when the elected officials with whom we interact state now, as has been stated many times over a period of almost 20 years, that as a veterinarian, surely the shelter director would not end the lives of animals needlessly.
For more information regarding the role of veterinarians related to animal shelters, I encourage you to read this recent Substack article by Nathan Winograd called "Who Decides?" For information regarding decisions related to euthanasia in animal shelters, please refer to this Animal Evaluation Matrix.
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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