The Path Ahead Animal Shelter Consulting

The official blog of The Path Ahead Animal Shelter Consulting

Infrastructure building, Lifesaving programs, Management team support

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.