The Path Ahead Animal Shelter Consulting

The official blog of The Path Ahead Animal Shelter Consulting

Infrastructure building, Lifesaving programs, Management team support

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Better off dead

Recently, in a Northern California animal shelter, a local resident brought in an adult female cat, securely taped into a cardboard box. Customer service staff asked the woman some questions about the animal she was bringing in: Is this your cat? Where did you find it? What is the reason for bringing it to the shelter? The woman impatiently answered the questions, acting as if in a hurry and saying she wanted to "drop it off." This progressive shelter practices managed intake, a process which helps to keep animals out of the shelter who will not benefit from it. In this process, front desk staff try to determine if the animal is truly in need. Is it ill or injured? Is it a kitten too small to survive on its own? If so, can the finder keep it until it is old enough to go up for adoption? In this case, the woman admitted that the cat belonged to her elderly neighbor, but she believes the neighbor is unable to care for the cat. "Okay," answered the customer service staff member, as the cat tried to push open the box with her head, "let's get in touch with the owner to see if she wants to do an owner surrender."

The conversation deteriorated from there. The finder of the cat became angry and insistent that the shelter take the cat immediately. She raised her voice and tried to walk out the door, leaving the box on the counter. The manager was called, and the conversation resumed. As it turns out, the finder failed to tell the cat owner, her next door neighbor, that she had gone into her yard and taken her cat. The cat, who was friendly and the picture of health, did not need to be at the animal shelter, she needed to be returned to her owner immediately. When the manager explained this to the finder, plus the fact that she had trespassed and stolen property from her neighbor, she replied, "I'd rather you put this cat down than she starve to death outside."

If this sounds like a bizarre conversation ... it happens almost daily in animal shelters. People who claim they "mean well" and "just care about the animals" go from asking for help to wanting the animal dead in minutes. If the shelter won't take it they will shoot it or "throw it out in the street."

Why do they behave this way? We don't know. All we know is that it is a daily challenge for customer service staff in animal shelters, especially in today's world of positive change. Gone are the days of "dropping off" unchecked numbers of animals to an unknown fate. Perhaps the folks bringing them in or calling for an animal control officer believed that they would all be "adopted into a forever home" because that's what we've been telling them for decades. The reality is complicated even for shelter staff to grasp, let alone the public. Perhaps they really do mean well, but when they get an answer they can't understand, they project their feelings onto the shelter, blaming them for not being able to "solve the problem" and "find forever homes" for all these animals.

The thing is, this was never true, There are no easy solutions. There aren't unlimited numbers of "forever homes," and furthermore there is no reason to look for one if the animal already has a home. The community needs to work together as a whole to make their world a better place for animals, and they are never, ever, better off dead.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Cathedral thinking.

Back in the day before technology as we know it, large architectural projects took more than one generation to complete. The famous Notre Dame de Paris took 182 years to complete. Individuals involved in the project, whether designers or laborers, knew that they would likely not see the finished product in their lifetime. They worked not to satisfy themselves but to build the future.

In today's world of instant gratification, this is a foreign concept. 10 years ago, most TV commercials were 30 seconds long. Today, commercials other than those aired during the Superbowl are typically 15 seconds long. Even that proves too much for the smart phone and Facebook generation, accustomed to bright images and blurbs -- mostly with misspellings and poor grammar -- spinning past their field of vision at a dizzying rate.

What does this mean for animal sheltering? For one, it is more difficult than ever to hire young people who want to work. Instant gratification combined with the "every kid is an honor student" mentality has created a segment of the population who believe that they are entitled to what they want without earning any of it. These people are very hard to manage because they have no intrinsic work ethic, no desire to accomplish simply to see it done (or for that matter, done well), and no respect for anyone. If you're not that type of person, please come and help us in the animal sheltering world! We know you're out there, but you're sadly in the minority.

Another segment of the population, older but equally self-centered, are the nearly-retired government employees. You'll find many of these running the departments overseeing animal shelters. They may have 10 years to go, but they aren't going to do anything to rock the boat and disturb their chance at a $200,000 a year pension. These folks are also exceedingly difficult to work with, because they will usually not support the changes necessary for a shelter to succeed at lifesaving.

How does an enthusiastic new animal shelter director get anything done under these circumstances? It's not easy, that's for sure. Clear communication of expectations from the start are key. If superiors won't support the mission with the understanding that change is difficult, takes time, and comes with complaints and other complications, you're better off not accepting the job. If staff won't get with the program, they need to go. One wonders why anyone accepts a role as shelter director, but when things go well, a new future is built, a cathedral of lifesaving.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

World Animal Day

The mission of World Animal Day is "TO RAISE THE STATUS OF ANIMALS IN ORDER TO IMPROVE WELFARE STANDARDS AROUND THE GLOBE." On the web site are photos of animals in South America, Africa, and other locales. While there is no doubt that many parts of the world need help in caring for their animals, we need to turn the magnifying glass towards ourselves here in the U.S. and to the treatment of animals in our "shelters."

I'll never forget what an animal control officer said to me years ago when we worked together in a County shelter. Looking around the overcrowded room stuffed with cats in small cages, she said, "We do things here that I'd cite people for in the field." Day after day, unlimited animals were admitted to the shelter, which kept them in a perpetual state of overcrowding, stress, and illness. In time I was able to turn the place around, never forgetting what that ACO -- who took 38 cats home one year to treat them for ringworm, then adopted them out herself -- said. Nothing surprises me today, but back them I was surprised when, again and again, the powers that be over that shelter ignored my concerns, not wanting to limit intake because members of the public might get upset and complain.

All across the U.S. this drama plays out in shelters run by Counties, Cities, and private nonprofits. With intakes from a few hundred to tens of thousands, every day shelters accept dogs, cats, and other animals into their system. Without proactive programs to prevent unwanted births, missing pets, inability to care for pets, and identification of pets, this "system" grinds along every day without pause. When things don't go well -- stress, illness, behavior issues -- it is common for shelter staff, even those who are very compassionate and mean well, to blame the public. But it's not the public's fault, and it's time for shelter professionals to take responsibility for their actions, for the choices they make every day. Operating a shelter is a choice. Intaking animals is a choice. All that happens to those animals once in the shelter's custody is a choice. Will they receive vaccines and other necessary medical care? Will a photo and description be immediately posted online, giving the owner a chance to find them? Will rescue groups be contacted if the intake exceeds the shelter's ability to adopt?

Shelters implementing even one or two new best practices are seeing great improvements. Don't accept less. Don't make excuses. On World Animal Day, look right in front of you and ask yourself, "Are we doing what is best for these animals?" If not, seek out a new path, the path ahead.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Cognitive bias

Work in animal sheltering or rescue long enough and you'll develop what is known as cognitive bias. What does that mean? In the animal shelter and rescue world, it means that our minds create sides, good and bad, and we classify each person in black and white, on one side or the other. People surrendering their pets are "devils", people rescuing pets are "angels." As we experience different situations in our work, under this bias we ignore or misclassify what we see, choosing unconsciously to only recognize what fits in with our belief system. What is that belief system? That most people are unkind to animals, and that all animals ending up at shelters are neglected and abandoned.

It is human nature to believe that what one experiences is what everyone experiences, and that our individual everyday world is the whole world. Logically, we know this is false, but our minds don't always work logically. Take animal shelters. Most shelter workers believe that if they stopped doing what they are doing, their community would fall apart, that dogs and cats would roam the streets sick and injured, neglected and abandoned. Here's a newsflash: this is false. Why? Because animal shelters only see 1-5% of the animals in their communities. 1-5%, folks. Yes, what we do has a significant impact on the animals and people coming in our doors, but it has almost no impact on the community as a whole. Some of you will stop reading right now because you don't want to believe this. That's your cognitive bias talking, because we are saying something that doesn't fit in with your belief system, but beliefs can do more harm than good, so please keep reading.

Another harmful fallacy is that all animals ending up in shelters are unwanted. This belief leads shelter and rescue workers to make immediate assumptions. A cat walking down the street must have been dumped, a skinny dirty dog must have been neglected in the back yard. In reality, the cat was probably hanging out in his own neighborhood, and the dog was probably lost and on the run for a week or more. If you look at the facts instead of your beliefs, you will see a clearer picture.

Cat owner reclaim rates are a dismal 2% across the country for reasons we'll discuss in another blog post. Cats reclaimed from shelters are, in the vast majority of cases, "found" within two blocks of home; in fact, many were picked up next door or across the street from their owner's house. A belief that these cats need help causes them to end up in an animal shelter where they may be euthanized for space or because they develop medical and behavioral problems as a result of confinement and stress, or they may sit for weeks or months waiting to be adopted into a "forever home" ... when they already had a home. Dog reclaim rates are higher at 20%, although that is still a poor figure. Through our work in shelters and with Missing Pet Partnership we have learned two important facts: 1) that it doesn't take long for a dog to look bad and 2) that dogs quickly revert to wild behavior when on the run. A skinny, dirty, skittish dog could have been, and probably was, a beloved, well-groomed pet who became lost and displaced for any number of reasons and whose owner desperately wants him back home.

What's the harm in these biases? The harm is that they influence our decision making process. Instead of actively looking for a stray pet's owner, the finder will keep the animal, assuming that it is unwanted and all the above. This is harmful enough in a shelter environment, but at least animal shelters are public places where owners -- although not without difficulty -- can come and look for their missing companion. The harm is greater when private individuals or members of a rescue group find animals and take them home, choosing not to report the animal to the local shelter or in any public forum, believing the owner doesn't "deserve" the animal back.

Processing this new reality can be difficult for those entrenched in their beliefs. After all, for decades the shelter world has been blasting its members with rhetoric like "Until there are none, spay or neuter one," "Stop shelter killing, spay and neuter your pets," and "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." Start by questioning your assumptions, every time. Question everything, and seek facts. When a finder says the cat they picked up must have been abandoned by someone moving, ask why. Do they know for sure a neighbor has moved? Has a house recently been vacated? How do they know the cat was owner by that person? When a stray dog enters the shelter looking bad, check lost reports going back several weeks and in different areas. Unlike cats, dogs will travel far when they become lost, seeking food, shelter, and mates. Understand that your attitude, your approach to your work, is a choice. You have the power to influence the animals and people with whom you come into contact in a positive and progressive way.

What about the other 95-99% of animals in the community, the ones we don't see? It may come as a surprise to shelter and rescue workers that the majority of people are kind to animals and solve their own problems. We can help them continue to do so, as will be discussed in the next blog post, "Trust your community."

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Shadow of the leader

The "shadow of the leader" is a term often used in the corporate world to describe the influence that a director, manager, or other person in a position of power has over staff and over the organization's culture. This concept, like many others, has been ignored by the animal sheltering industry because, by and large, we don't see our agencies as businesses. This is a terrible mistake, because of course they are businesses and should be run as such ... that is, if we want them to be successful.

Walk into any animal shelter and observe the behavior of staff. What is your first impression? Is the office neat and tidy, are you promptly and courteously greeted, are staff quietly working? Is the office a mess, are you ignored while staff loudly complain about a previous customer, does no one seem to be working? While good practices in hiring and training can go a long way, it is not a coincidence when a group of staff, however large, all start to take on the same characteristics in their behavior at work. Why is this? Because the leader models this behavior, allows/encourages this behavior, or shows other behaviors that cause this reaction.

Leaders, what kind of shadow do you cast?

Do you instantly respond to any ping on your mobile phone, even when people are talking to you? This teaches staff a) that it's okay to not listen to others, b) that it's okay to be attached to your phone, even in front of customers, and c) that what they have to say is not important. When you really look at it, even seemingly small actions like this can cast a long shadow. Staff who don't feel heard will lose productivity, gossip, and even reach out to higher-ups or to the public if they feel their concerns are not addressed.

Do you work late every night, frantically trying to get just one more thing done? Your staff will, too, at the expense of their personal health and life. This is a dangerous practice to allow because, as a manager, you are probably on salary, but most workers are paid hourly, which means they are either working overtime or punching out and continuing to work on their own time. In addition to causing burnout, you could be in violation of labor laws.

Do you take animals home, overburdening yourself with nursing kittens, puppies, or "just one more" special needs animal? Yep, your staff will do it, too. You may wonder how this can be a bad thing, as our goal is to save as many animals as possible, right? No, our goal is to draw clear boundaries between work and personal life for ourselves and for our staff so that we can continue to do our lifesaving work for years to come. As I wrote about in a previous post, burnout is huge in this industry, with devastating results like depression, substance abuse, and even suicide.

An incompetent or insecure leader will cast the longest shadow. Controlling and fear-based leadership will ripple throughout the organization, creating a culture of low morale and productivity with little growth. Laissez-faire leadership will create a culture of bully rule, where the stronger personalities among staff will make decisions based on what they personally want, forcing other, weaker, personalities to comply.

On the other hand, a good leader will cast a short shadow. Staff will follow that person because they want to, because they feel confidence in the leader's ability and comfort in communicating. Rather than becoming clones of the leader, they will take the opportunity to learn and grow within the bounds of the organization's mission, thus helping them down the path to success.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Numbers are lives

"It's all about the numbers."

This is a complaint often heard from those who don't believe in their local shelter's lifesaving policies. Why would they say that, and what's wrong with numbers? Well, it's all in how you use them.

As the saying attributed to Mark Twain goes, "There are lies, damn lies, and statistics." Being data junkies ourselves, we understand the power of data to make a point, to illustrate the success or failure of a program, but ... to some extent you can make it say whatever you want. For example, one shelter managed to get a mandatory spay/neuter law -- disastrous in every community in which they have been implemented -- on the books in their city. After a period of time, they lauded its "success" by sharing data which showed a decrease in intake. This "proof" ignores the fact that most shelter intake is lost adult dogs and free-roaming cats, not puppies and kittens, so increased spay/neuter would have little impact on that population, especially in the first year. The shelter also forgot to mention that at the same time, they lost part of their jurisdiction, meaning those animals will go to another shelter and naturally their intake will be reduced.

Thanks largely to Maddie's Fund, many shelters now have systems in place to accurately track animal intakes and outcomes. These data systems are critical tools to show where improvements need to be made, where resources need to be focused. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, this important data collection has boiled down to one measurement lifted above all others: the Live Release Rate. Live release rate or LRR is the percentage of animals that make it out of the shelter alive. Shelters proclaim their success and no-kill status thanks to their 90+% live release rates. Now, while there's no doubt that these shelters are doing good things, let's take a closer look. If, as demonstrated in a recent University of Wisconsin Shelter Medicine class, you compare Shelter A with a 90% LRR and Shelter B with an 80% LRR, which shelter is more successful? Shelter A, right? But ... let's say Shelter A only takes in 100 animals a year, and places 90 of them, while Shelter B takes in 10,000 animals a year, and places 8,000 of them. Shelter B has saved 7910 more animals than Shelter A.

The point is that numbers are lives.

When we overly focus on averages and percentages, we ignore the fact that every tick, every hash mark, every number one, is a living being, and our goal in animal sheltering is to help as many of these beings as we can. We'll talk more about this in future posts, but for now, just remember that numbers are lives, and every life has value.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The perils of attachment

Every year in Northern California, over 320,000 animals enter shelters, most as "strays" or lost pets and owner surrenders, some as confiscations from arrests, hospitalizations, bite quarantines, and other sundry reasons. Some will be reclaimed by their owners, some will be euthanized, and some will go up for adoption. Reclaims and euthanasia will be topics for future blog posts, but today's post focuses on those animals in adoptions and the staff and volunteers who care for them.

Attachment happens without our knowledge. Each day when we, as staff or volunteers of an animal shelter, go in to work, we see the familiar faces of the animals who have been been there for more than a day or two. As time passes, we remember their names and habits, and we look forward to seeing them. We start to make special visits to our favorites, spend extra time with them. We start taking our favorite dogs to training classes, on offsite hikes, home for "sleepovers." This is good, right? Well, it all depends on your attitude. When attachment happens, we start to think of these as "our" animals, and to lose sight of our purpose in their lives.

A rescue friend once said, "We must remember that we are the stopover, not the destination." When we start thinking of ourselves as the destination, strange things happen. Suddenly no adopter is good enough. We start, unconsciously, discouraging people from adopting. We criticize them: they work long hours, don't have time, don't have a fenced yard. We play up the animal's flaws: she really shouldn't be in a home with children, she is too active for you, at her age she will require a lot of vet care. When the animal has a solid adoption possibility, we actually start to feel sad, and in doing so we put our own feelings of attachment and loss above those of the animal. When the animal is transferred to a rescue group or to another shelter where she has a better chance of being adopted, we worry, we call them, check the web site, want to visit to make sure the animal is all right.

So what's the harm? We just want what is best for the animals, right? No matter how you justify it, the harm is great. It's no secret that dogs and cats develop behavioral and medical problems as a result of confinement in a shelter. A great deal of research has been done on the subject with resulting recommendations for reduction in the length of stay (LOS). The shorter time an animal spends in a shelter, the better their chances of emerging mentally and physically healthy. Sadly, there are many cases of long-timer dogs finally being adopted and then returned due to psychotic behavior such as attacking their new owner or another family member. Also, what about all the other dogs and cats in need of help? In a high-intake shelter, keeping one animal in a kennel for months means that many others are put down, because even the best shelters have to consider "space" as a factor. In a low-intake shelter, the same situation means that many other animals are turned away, resulting in their being abandoned, taken to the high-intake shelter, or being given away unaltered.

Now what's the cure? On its face, there is nothing wrong with taking great care of the animals, including all the extra attention. What we need to change is our attitude. Our role is to get these animals adopted into forever homes as quickly as possible. There is nothing wrong with an adoption process and criteria, but we want to remove unnecessary barriers to adoption. There is nothing wrong with vetting rescue groups to make sure they are legitimate and have a history of quickly placing animals in quality homes, but we don't want to avoid transfers because we believe they are all hoarders or because we believe that no other shelter can do as good a job as we can.

Animals' lives depend on our ability to let go. After all, next year there will be another 320,000 in need.