Proven Strategies

Black dog in the grass with tennis ball in mouth

ACOs Lead Change for Shelters

During the past few months, the pandemic has forced many animal control agencies to close their doors to the public and limit ACO services to emergency calls only. But that hasn’t meant that calls about barking dogs and owner surrenders have stopped. So ACOs have had to figure out a different way to help people and animals in their community.  

Many ACOs are no longer picking up healthy community cats, writing citations or responding to non-emergency stray dog calls in person. In fact, much of what many officers are now doing routinely are things they were reluctant to do before COVID-19. Now the focus is on letting pets stay where they are and connecting people to resources that let them keep their animals or rehome them on their own. Impoundment is an absolute last resort. 

And the great thing is that many officers are finding they can still provide quality services to the public and the public in turn is not reacting with anger as many had feared. On the contrary, the public is welcoming the changes along with them.  

Getting ACOs on board  

The first step towards enacting changed processes and practices was to get ACOs on board and I’m hearing that wasn’t so tough to do in a lot of places. Take the City of Baytown Animal Services. Brand-new animal services manager April Moore had been trying to make changes to operations since she started there in mid-January. Though it was a bit too-much, too-soon for city leadership a few months ago, the same can’t be said today.  

“Suddenly, I was given a lot of leeway to build a plan for leading into the shutdown of the shelter that involved scaling up our initial action plan and condensing it all into a short timeframe,” April says. “And the ACOs have really embraced all the shifts in their work. All the field services staff had the mindset that they wanted to be good public servants, but they didn’t have the freedom or the empowerment to connect to people. When presented with the opportunity to reunite pets with families or help a family keep or rehome one, they embraced it.” 

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Animal Care and Control (CMACC) in North Carolina already had 100% ACO support for these kinds of progressive changes before COVID-19, but the pandemic has helped with community buy-in. Or as Dr. Josh Fisher, director of the animal care and control division, puts it: “the urgency of keeping pets out of the shelter isn’t just a proven practice in animal welfare; it’s a nationally recommended practice for health and safety. This crisis formalized that for us. Now we can move ahead with the social services model.” 

Gaining community support  

I’ve also been hearing phenomenal stories about how the public in communities of all shapes and sizes are embracing these changes. Laurie Johnson, an animal control officer at Fulton Animal Services/Lifeline Animal Project in Georgia, tells me her community has really taken the ball and run with it when it comes to finding owners of lost animals. They also found fosters for most of the animals that were at the shelter at the start of the shutdown. 

“Community empowerment has been an incredibly essential part of our activities,” Laurie says. “More than ever, our success as a shelter is based not on what only staff can do, but rather how our staff can inspire and provide tools to the community. We are all in this together and the more hands we have on board, the more impact we can have.” 

And Ann Barnes, manager III of Dallas Animal Services (DAS) field services, has been surprised that they haven’t had pushback from no longer picking up pets from people simply because they do not want them anymore.  

“This has been an opportunity to see if we provided resources, would they keep the animal,” Ann says. “And we have been pleasantly surprised with the response they are OK with scheduling appointments.” 

Using technology to streamline practices  

While some shelters are certainly seeing an impact of no-tech approaches (like CMACC, where officers saw a tremendous decrease in people walking their dogs off-leash once they started parking their trucks within view), others have harnessed new technology to streamline their work. 

DAS has begun using Microsoft Teams to manage morning detail meetings and found it to be incredibly useful. 

“Communication is hard when the officers are going in every different direction. Now that we have found Teams, officers can go directly to their vehicles in the morning and that gets them in the field so much quicker,” Ann says. “Then they can pull over for five minutes for updates or check-ins. And they are communicating better than when they are standing in the same room! Microsoft Teams is definitely going to be our friend for a long time.” 

They are also handling certain bite cases that require home quarantines entirely virtually. Officers don’t even have to go to the residence; they can take the info over the phone and the investigator can use Teams to see the environment where the dog will be living.   

“It saves time because there is no reason to go into people’s houses,” Ann says. “We never even thought of that until COVID. The pandemic has made us think about things in a totally different way.” 

Facing the future  

With some states rolling back shelter-in-place orders, there are concerns about whether people will start expecting things to go back to the way they were. Since we currently aren’t picking up loose dogs, will they have an expectation that we will return to that practice? That’s the million-dollar question, but shelters shouldn’t let fear push them backwards.  

Josh advises shelters not to be afraid to push their communities outside of what we have long assumed is their comfort zone.  

“A lot of what we are seeing is that people don’t even necessarily notice when we shift our practices,” he says. “This is our world and we become so entrenched, but this is a tiny piece of the world for Joe Citizen. Animal sheltering does not have a significant-enough impact on most people’s daily lives that it causes a negative reaction.  

“We have a few people who complain about things like people letting their dogs run off leash, but having a few people get upset isn’t reason to change things.”  

And Laurie points out that, although this event has been devastating to most aspects of our lives, coming in to the shelter and seeing so many empty kennels will never get old.  

“The ‘norm’ is comfortable and easy, but with policy changes we can harness this wave for an entirely new way of sheltering,” she says. “Just as important as the shift to low-kill shelters, a shift to heavy community engagement and outreach could help us accomplish goals we could never do on our own.” 

We’ve been preaching for years that the best place for pets is a home not a shelter, and this has given us a chance to show that there are alternative ways to find positive outcomes other than “adopt, adopt, adopt,” as Josh says.  

COVID-19 has pushed many of us to make dramatic changes very quickly to our field services operations. And many of those have proven to be a positive for the communities and pets. We should embrace those positive changes. We can't turn back now.  

Scott Giacoppo 
Director, National Shelter Outreach 
Best Friends Animal Society

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