I've used a lot of beach metaphors related to my advocacy for shelter animals. I have written of drawing a line in the sand which is a reference to animal shelters proclaiming that they will no longer destroy healthy treatable animals under any circumstances. I have written about animals in need being like starfish on the beach and that it's not enough to save just that one; we have to figure out where all those starfish are coming from to keep them from washing up on the shore and we need to figure out how better to help them if they do end up on the beach. Now that summer has arrived and our world is in crisis, it is time for another beach metaphor. The sands of the animal sheltering world in the United States are shifting and they're shifting very quickly.
If you've kept up with me at all you know that I am an unapologetic proponent of something called the No Kill Equation which was developed by Nathan Winograd in 2007 and first published in book form for all to see. I support the Equation as an animal shelter philosophy because it works, because it can be molded and shaped to fit any community and because it is not about spending more money – it is about culture and leadership. It is dual purpose in nature because it serves to reduce shelter intake and it serves to increase shelter output. The Equation focuses on animal shelters because that is where animals die using our tax dollars. Having said that, it is not just about the shelter itself. The Equation works because it helps people make better personal choices which affect shelter intake and because it helps people see shelter animals as worthy of their time, attention and love. In spite of my long-term support for the Equation, I fully recognize that there are other philosophies and methodologies “out there” which also save the lives of shelter animals. I don’t care what you call it, who developed it or how far removed from the status quo progressive programs are; saving lives should be something we can all agree upon.
The pandemic has revealed many things about our society and changed many aspects of how we function personally and collectively. In terms of animal sheltering system in the United States, the pandemic has revealed the true colors of shelters funded by our tax dollars. Shelters that were at least nominally progressive before the pandemic have risen to the challenge. They have become creative as they have adopted new programs in ways to engage with the public to keep animals alive. They have worked incredibly hard to get animals back home, to keep animals in existing homes, to get animals adopted out or to get animals into foster homes (which does miraculous things toward helping those animals be adopted). Animal shelters that were regressive and which used excuses to kill animals in the past have added the pandemic as just one more excuse to kill those animals. Many have stopped adoptions, have ceased interacting with the public, and killed countless animals because they continue to do intake while doing nothing to get animals out of the building. These facilities (I refuse to call them shelters) have refined the catch and kill model as animals come in one door and go out in body bags.
As our society has changed over the last 3 months, there has been what I consider an awakening on the part of the public when it comes to animal shelters. For the first time in my lifetime I heard well known people in mainstream media talking about shelter animals and the need to foster and adopt shelter animals. With more people staying home, fewer animals have run loose which has led to reduced shelter intake. When lots of people were working from home (many of whom still are), more people were willing to foster animals to either prevent them from entering shelters or to get them out of shelters, making it much, much easier to pair them with potential adopters. Many of those people returned to work, but now see how easy it is to foster an animal for a short period of time to make a huge difference.
During the course of these changes, a new approach to animal sheltering has emerged. It is called the Human Animal Support Services model which is being led by Kristen Hassen (Director of Pima County Animal Services in Arizona), Dr. Ellen Jefferson (Executive Director of both Austin Pets Alive! And American Pets Alive! in Texas), Gina Knepp (national Shelter Engagement Director for the Michelson Found Animals Foundation), Lisa LaFontaine (President and CEO of the Humane Rescue Alliance) and Bobby Mann (the Maddie’s Fund Director of Human Animal Support Services). HASS describes itself as “an international coalition of animal services leaders and more than 30 pilot organizations transforming the traditional sheltering system to serve the entire community in supporting the human-animal bond.”
The HASS is what the name sounds like – it is a model that focuses on helping people related to animals who end up in shelters. There are currently 26 working groups working on shelter concepts in subjects like marketing and communications, behavior support, community engagement, fostering, volunteering, fundraising, shelter education and outreach, ecosystem mapping, and research (just to name a few). There are 12 elements to the HASS model which include getting pets home, keeping families together, self-rehoming, intake-to-placement, core functions of the physical shelter, animal protection and public safety, remote help, foster, telehealth, case management, volunteers and partnerships.
There are currently 12 tier 1 pilot communities working to implement the HASS model immediately. There are 15 tier 2 pilot shelters that will implement programs based on lessons learned from the tier one animal services organizations, one of which is in my state.
Call me skeptical as well as moderately annoyed. The primary reason is that I think that this model presumes a level of commitment to life-saving which does not exist in many places across the country. My opinion is that the shelters and communities most likely to consider and implement the model are those which were already progressive when the pandemic hit and which doubled down on their commitment to life-saving. Those places are a step ahead because their culture already provides the foundation for progress to continue through innovation. Shelters and communities which do not already save the lives of animals in need for whatever reason, regardless of resources, are not as apt to make the leap from a catch and kill model to a human animal support model. My annoyance is caused by the fact that the focus seems to be external to the shelter and may put too much pressure on the public to do too much. In many states shelters are statutorily required to take in animals found running loose. This is a public safety issue. We have heard that some shelters are no longer taking in healthy animals found running at large which is mind boggling to me. What exactly is the shelter staff doing with all that free space and all that time on their hands if only a handful of animals are in the building? I'm all for keeping animals out of shelters whenever possible or getting them out quickly. But the notion that a shelter would simply stop doing intake of healthy animals running loose is exasperating to me. Do the intake, vaccinate them, put them in the system, and then put them in a foster home. But don't expect the public to become behaviorists, veterinarians or animal control personnel for the community. And don't put people at risk. Dogs behave in unpredictable ways when they feel fear. We need trained personnel dealing with those dogs, not people who may end up injured just because they tried to do the right thing.
I have long promoted municipal accountability for the use of tax dollars related to animal sheltering and care. As much as I would like to think the animal shelter system can be reformed, now is not the time to take the burden off of shelters and put it on the public or on rescue groups with many people paying attention for the first time ever. Now is the time to keep the public engaged as we really focus on programs proven to work and to push public officials to do their jobs consistent with public values when it relates to keeping people safe and keeping healthy and treatable animals alive. Now is the time to supercharge those programs which have proven they may be the most important during times of crisis - pet retention programs, proactive redemptions, foster programs, comprehensive adoption programs, and community outreach/public relations. Now is not the time to take the focus off of a shelter system which exists in most places not for animal welfare but for public safety. I think you need a foundation of a commitment to life-saving first; killing healthy and treatable animals for no good reason is a betrayal of the public trust which continues unabated across the country. Once we end that outdated model, that is our foundation upon which we can build a new and better future.
Perhaps I am being short-sighted. My opinion matters little in the big scheme of things in any event. The view is just a whole lot different from the weeds of Alabama than from the streets of Texas. I would love to be proven wrong and would love to see all of my concerns put to rest.
I understand that the HASS model is a pilot program to see if the ideas work. Much like shifting sands, it is not engraved in stone. It is a series of idea which may or may not have have universal application. I would love a future in which the shelter in any community is a safe haven for the animals most in need of help, in which shelters are seen as places of hope and support, and in which there are interactions between the shelter and social services agencies or community stakeholders to help people who most need help so we keep pets where they belong - in existing homes.
Back to my beach metaphors, I am but a grain of sand on the beach of animal sheltering and welfare. I have worked hard for many years to affect change in my own area with some degree of success in a few places and with dismal failure in another areas. My plan is to watch what happens around me and write about it to keep people informed to the extent that I can keep up. I will keep promoting the No Kill Equation in the meantime because it works now, it works anywhere, it’s about leadership (not money) and it includes many of the same elements being contemplated by the HASS model.
It is possible that we have arrived at a tipping point in the history of our society which may result in a complete change in how animal shelters function and interact with the public being served. Dare to dream. My hope is that if we really want to change our society related to animal sheltering, some large national animal welfare organizations which have routinely operated with millions of dollars in the bank from a view of thirty-thousand feet while writing position statements and holding seminars will realize it’s time to land their planes, put boots on the ground and use that money in the communities that need their help. Ideas are great. Actions are better.
I also hope that those who are promoting the HASS model are not blinded by an information silo created by their own progress. Austin, Texas, is nothing like Anniston, Alabama. Tucson, Arizona is nothing like Toledo, Ohio. I wish the HASS founders well. They have much more time to devote to this subject than most individual advocates like me and they are much smarter than I am to be sure. A day will come when the destruction of healthy and treatable animals in our nation's shelters will end. How quickly we arrive at that new "normal" is up to all of us. Is HASS the path to that future? Time will tell.
Stay tuned. See you on the beach.
NOTE: Since the time I wrote this blog, I have learned that some shelters are using the HASS Model as a reason to stop providing services to the public. In El Paso, the shelter is refusing to pick up and house healthy animals running at large in spite of the legal public safety obligations of the city and the shelter there. El Paso is a Tier 1 location in the HASS program. This is completely unacceptable. If you live in a place where the municipal animal shelter, or one funded by tax dollars, is refusing to provide public services, contact your local elected officials and demand better.
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