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 31, 2014

New Year's resolutions for animal shelter professionals.

You've heard them all before, and probably made a few yourself. Among the top ten most common New Year's resolutions are: lose weight, quit smoking, save money. While these are all great ideas, they are soon tossed aside, but why? Lifestyle. One doesn't overeat, smoke, and spend money for no reason; if that were true, these habits would be easy to break. Instead of resolving to change symptoms, take a look at your life.

Burnout is huge in our industry. HUGE. In no other profession do people spend every waking moment working or thinking about their work. So many of us spend all day at an animal shelter with all its stressors: the endless rows of barking dogs, the cats reaching out of the cage bars crying, the emotional members of the public, the euthanasia, the impossible decisions that must be made every day. But it doesn't end there. Many shelter professionals go home and continue on the phone, email, and social media, networking animals in need of rescue into the wee hours of the morning. Days off? Those are spent transporting animals to rescue and spending personal funds paying for vet bills or buying supplies that the shelter can't afford. Day, week, month, year after year this continues without a break ... or, until you break. Depression, addiction, and suicide are dis-proportionally high in animal shelter professionals (including volunteers and rescue workers). Please, stop and take an honest look at yourself, reach out to those you trust -- because your family and friends will probably say you are neglecting them -- ask for help before it's too late.

Make a New Year's resolution to take care of you. Go to the movies, visit friends, take a bike ride, do anything not involving animal rescue for a day. Do it for yourself, but also for the animals. See, the best people are the ones who burn out, and we don't want to lose you.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Location, location, location.

As the Realtor quip goes, "What are the top three factors in choosing a property? Location, location, location." There are many other factors of course, but all things being equal, location is of paramount importance. Why, then, are animal shelters in categorically the worst possible locations? Raise your hand if your shelter is located next to: 1) the sewage treatment plant, 2) the jail, or 3) the dump. Slightly better but still poor locations include the airport, an industrial area, and out in the middle of nowhere. Zoning plays a big part in these unfortunate locations, but the historical approach to animal sheltering cannot be discounted. Over the last 100 years, animal care and control responsibilities have been passed from department to department in both city and county governments. In some cases, that responsibility has been handed over to a shelter's volunteer group, including a $1 lease on the property, or to another nonprofit or government agency with an existing shelter. Animal care and control is, it would seem, the redheaded stepchild of government agencies, and for good reason. It's costly, troublesome, and doesn't support itself. Some agencies provide the bare minimum in funding, while others spend millions, only to have the same number of complaints from the public calling them incompetent killers. Is it any wonder when department heads become discouraged and look for a way out? Nowhere in all this turmoil is anyone -- except for some nonprofits with new leadership, which we'll discuss in a future post -- looking at animal sheltering as a business, and making decisions based on sound business principles like location.

Why is location so important for this type of business? Because shelters are in out-of-the-way places, most people don't know where they are. Animal shelters aren't like grocery stores -- you don't go there every week, in fact you may have never gone there in your life. Many animal shelters are low budget, which means they don't do a lot of advertising, or any. Surrounded by industrial warehouses, water treatment ponds, or open fields, shelters get no foot traffic. What this adds up to is a very poor customer base, customers being the owners of missing pets, potential adopters, and potential donors. Further complicating the situation are the facts that some shelters are not located in their own jurisdiction, so an animal found across the street must be brought to another shelter, potentially 20 miles away, and that some have animal control contracts with as many as ten cities, as far away as 50 miles. This system is confusing for people who work in it, let alone for the public, especially the distraught owner of a missing pet. Regarding adoptions, studies have shown that, despite what we believed for so many years, impulse adoptions are often successful, and well-planned adoptions are not always successful. What this means is that shelters need to be there when folks are ready to adopt, and they may decide they are ready the moment they walk by and see the "doggie in the window." Whatever your adoption process and requirements may be, if you're not where the people are, the adoptions won't happen.

This is not an easily remedied situation, as new shelter facilities cost millions and zoning laws in your area will likely prohibit an ideal location in any case. If a move isn't in your shelter's future, focus on advertising. If you're by the freeway, a banner -- be sure to check local laws regarding signage -- or large sign is invaluable. "Freeway frontage" is something business owners pay big bucks for, so use it to your advantage if you have it. If a move is in your shelter's future, be very careful about choosing the new location. Some shelters have been in their less-than-ideal locations for 50+ years, so many people in the community DO know where they are and will return as adults to the place where they adopted a pet as a child. If the new location is no better than the old, you're better off staying where you are. While taking on animal control contracts brings needed revenue, think about proximity to the jurisdiction. Owner reclaims tend to be lower the larger and more spread out the service area, so all those unclaimed animals will start to cause overcrowding and all the resulting problems. If you're planning for a new facility or making the best of the one you have, we can help.

Friday, December 26, 2014

What's in a Name? Part Two.

Success. When asked about their goals, animal shelter leaders will say, "We want to be successful," but what does that mean? What does success look like to you? Is it a high live release rate, more adoptions, less euthanasia? Does it mean that staff do their jobs efficiently, that the public is supportive? Is it to be "cutting edge" or "as good as" other shelters? Does it mean no one ever complains and there are never any problems? Is it the most unattainable goal of all, that "everyone is happy?" One can see that each of these interpretations of success will require a completely different approach, and that some are doomed to disappointment, so the first step in making a plan of improvement is to study the current situation and to set goals that are specific and realistic. As I said in Part One, to survive is to adapt, and as an industry we have not adapted well. We want things to change, but we don't want to change. Imagine if auto repair shops were run like animal shelters, and mechanics continued working on vehicles the same way they did in the 1950's. Fuel injection, anti-lock brakes, computers? No, we don't do that. Soon customers would stop patronizing these shops and they would struggle to stay open. Would they then change? No, they would blame the public for driving vehicles that can't be repaired, then put out a desperate call for donations to keep the business open. Sounds absurd? It's exactly the way most animal shelters are being operated today. Make a plan. Set goals. We can help you to achieve success, Animal Shelter Success.

Monday, December 22, 2014

What's in a name? Part One

What's in a name? Everything, really. The Path Ahead represents the journey all shelter folk are on together, and have been for many decades. Since the days of the pound and the dog catcher, we have all walked the same road and drunk from the same cup. From Coast to Coast, we trudged, walked, ran, sometimes in view of one another but mostly alone, siloed, isolated. Together we cheered as animals were spayed or neutered, adopted, rescued ... together we wept in the endless black sea of euthanasia. Generation after generation, we swelled in hope and fell in hopelessness, believing that things would never change, and that belief ensured that they did not. But not everyone felt that way, and one by one, people started questioning decades-old practices: veterinarians, shelter management and staff, volunteers, started asking the question, "What if? What if we stopped doing that? What if we tried this? What if we change?" As new ideas were tried and new levels of success measured, hope arose in our fraternity, but also fear and resistance. It is human nature to fear change, but to survive is to adapt, and as an industry we have not adapted well. Now, many agencies want to grow and improve, want to increase lifesaving and provide better service to their communities, but because they have stagnated for so long, they don't even know where to start. We can help. It's time to venture out onto a new path, The Path Ahead.