Mike Fry, the owner and proprietor of No Kill Learning tells me a story that is illustrative of how quickly a shelter can dramatically increase its live release rate by taking simple steps.
A Pennsylvania Story
A small shelter in Pennsylvania was in trouble. Reports had surfaced that the shelter was killing stray animals who had simply gotten lost and actually had homes. In a two month period of time, two cats and one dog had died at the hands of the shelter. One of the dogs had an ID tag and one of the cats had a collar with identification. None of the animals had been held for the mandatory seven day holding period. During the political fall out from this, the director resigned.
An interim director was installed and he had no experience with animal shelters. However, he didn’t want to kill the animals at the shelter. Mike Fry made contact with him in the course of his ordinary “sales cycle.”
Since the director was obviously overwhelmed, Fry wanted to give him simple actionable steps that could immediately increase life saving. He advised the director that staff should be required to come to him and he needed to sign off personally on the euthanasia of any animal in the shelter. However, before the staff could even approach him, they had to try take three simple steps.
Promote the animal on social media to see if anyone would adopt it.
Contact local animal rescues to see if the animal could be placed with them.
Find placement for the animal outside the shelter with a foster family.
The interim director went back to the shelter and held a meeting. He informed the staff of the new chain of command and of the steps they were to take before they even approached him with an animal they wanted to euthanize. The staff listened to him and agreed to the new procedures.
The very next day the staff came to the new director with a list of six dogs that they wanted to kill. The director asked them if they had followed the new procedures and they said no. The director redirected them to actually follow the steps he had outlined. After they did this, none of the dogs were euthanized.
At this shelter, the habit of killing had become so ingrained that even when staff were directed to look into other options, they simply followed the old pattern. What may be shocking to many people is that this shelter is hardly unique.
Shelter Management and Protocols
Mike Fry’s approach to No Kill is all about the protocols he has developed that are based on Nathan Winograd’s No Kill Equation. This series of strategies encompasses just about everything a shelter can do in order to save all healthy and treatable animals.
Many animal shelters that are considered “high kill” have ad hoc management styles. Almost anyone can make the decision to kill an animal for whatever reason that they think is important. “When I ask shelter directors what kinds of protocols they have in place to decide on the euthanasia of an animal, they tell me they have none,” he says. Given that municipal shelters are government agencies and the government is notorious for red tape, there is surprisingly little of it when it comes to killing an animal. Sadly, the more the staff kills, the more desensitized they become and the cycle continues.
The No Kill movement, first officially launched in the 1990s has made inroads into these entrenched habits. The number of animals being killed each year is declining. Fry feels that No Kill has been adopted by sympathetic shelters, (the “low hanging fruit”) and now “its just the die hard shelters that are left.” That still leaves about over 5,000 animals a day dead and in the trash.
Animal Shelters Under Pressure Cook the Books
As No Kill takes hold, the resistance some shelters puts up starts to take new forms. Since the Assilomar Accords in 2004, shelters are encouraged to collect data and increase the rate of animals that leave the shelter alive. Still, for the majority of animal shelters, there is no legal requirement to report anything. Depending on the community, the shelter may feel pressure to save over 90% of the animals, or no pressure at all.
However, some shelters appear to buy into this system of data collection but end up “cooking the books.” At one shelter where Fry worked, staff used a trick of having people sign off on “owner requested euthanasia” when they surrendered the animal. The animal’s owners were given the impression that they were only authorizing euthanasia it if it was necessary. In reality, the shelter took this as a literal license to kill.
When Fry challenged them about the practice, they said, “But this is how we make our numbers look better.” For a shelter trying to present a more positive image to the public without changing much of its actual practice, “owner requested euthanasia” gives the shelter cover to kill the animal and claim it is not their decision.
The Loophole in the Assilomar Accords
The Assilomar Accords, signed in 2004, were the first effort by the sheltering profession to standardize data collection about animal outcomes and promote life saving. Unfortunately they actually allow for this practice with a kind of loophole. Shelters are allowed to omit animals that either died at the shelter or that were “euthanized” at the request of the owner from their calculations of the percentage of animals released alive (Live Release Rate). Shelters have figured out that they should put as many animals in this category as possible. Fry says he has seen various forms of this practice at different shelters around the country.
Success at Lake County, Florida
One of Fry’s most recent success stories is Lake County Florida. Lake County is a stark example of how quickly a shelter can turn around when the right people take control of the shelter management
This shelter went from a Live Release rate of 50% to over 90% literally overnight, with the help of the protocols from No Kill Learning and a staff ready to implement them. Let’s hope that he is able to assist many more shelters to follow in the footsteps of this remarkable shelter.