NACA comes out in support of appointment-based intake
The practice of appointment-based intakes, also known as managed intake, has been steadily gaining traction even before COVID made it practically a requirement when shelters were closed to the public. While some shelters went back to “business as usual” as the pandemic subsided, the reality is that we are still in crisis. Industry-wide staffing shortages are limiting our ability to serve the community, and we are facing an increase in intakes of 4%.
We’ve been sharing content about the benefits of managed intake for several years, and recently the National Animal Care & Control Association (NACA) likewise has come out in support of the practice. Scheduling intakes in this way is not merely something to be done in a time of crisis, its multiple benefits to people and animals make the practice something every shelter should consider implementing.
Looking at positive impacts of a changed intake model
In December 2021, NACA released guidelines on implementing appointment-based intake, which cited a variety of negative impacts linked to the common practice of immediately accepting any animal brought in by the public. Those include “animals being unnecessarily impounded; families and pets being needlessly and often permanently separated; increased stress, disease, and death in shelter animals; poor customer experience; compromised staffing efficiency; and decreased organizational effectiveness.”
While some organizations see the benefits of an appointment-based intake process as indisputable, there are others who still have problems with changing the way they serve the public. In recognition of the fact that there is not 100% buy-in, NACA recently hosted a town hall to ask shelters and rescue groups about their experiences with appointment-based intake. Not surprisingly, the results were mixed.
“Some shelters see this approach as being limited, but it’s really not about saying, ‘No’ to the public; it’s about saying, ‘Not right now’ for many cases,” says Dr. Josh Fisher, president of NACA and director of animal services for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Animal Care & Control.
“It’s certainly not about turning away animals in need,” adds Kristen Hassen, NACA executive committee director and Maddie’s® director of American Pets Alive!. “If there is no immediate viable option, those animals still need to come into shelters. But the benefit of an appointment-based system is that it includes individual assessments and a case management approach for all non-emergency requests.”
|A poll taken at the start of NACA’s town hall to measure how many attendees were implementing the process found that 41% were doing it for certain populations in their organizations, whereas 36% were requiring appointments for all species. Another 16% have not started such intake policies but indicated they were interested, while 7% said they were not considering it or that it wouldn’t work in their area.|
NACA’s statement notes a variety of positive impacts thanks to the appointment approach, including having fewer animals in shelters, which creates healthier environments, and improved return rates of lost pets to their people. Brent Toellner, senior director of national programs at Best Friends, also points out that managing intake by appointment helps eliminate the chaotic atmosphere that can be so common in shelter lobbies today.
“Anyone who has had to stand in a long line waiting to be served, or who has been on the other side of the counter trying to help increasingly frustrated customers, knows that it’s a horrible experience,” he says. “Managed intake offers the public a far less stressful way to relinquish an animal – something that is already extremely stressful. It allows a steadier, more consistent workflow for staff. Managed intake increases the overall quality of service to the public. Not the opposite like many wrongly assume. It has huge benefits for everyone involved.”
Implementing managed intake successfully
For those whose experience with an appointment-based intake process was positive, they agreed it cannot be successful with a one-size-fits-all approach. Intake by appointment should be considered an option, not an absolute. Clearly, where there is no question that an animal is in critical need, they should come into the shelter immediately.
A scheduled intake approach needs to be balanced with the appropriate resources to match each situation. Someone struggling with their dog’s behavior issues should be given training resources while they wait for their appointment (NOT in cases of including dangerous behavior or a history of aggression). Consulting a trainer might not solve the problem or lead to the person keeping their animal, but it will mean that the shelter will be accepting a dog they know more about thanks to some professional input.
For found animals that are not aggressive, shelters should ask if the finder would be willing to hold onto them temporarily.
“No one picks up a stray because they don't like animals; they pick them up because they care. Otherwise, they would just leave them on the side of the road,” says Mike Wheeler, NACA board member and director of Cabot Animal Support Services in Cabot, Arkansas.
“Our data also indicates that most stray pets are picked up within a very short distance from where they live,” he adds. “Having the finder hang onto the animal vastly increases their chance of being returned to their family. It also avoids that animal having to enter the high-stress shelter.”
And a shelter’s job is not done once they send people home with a scheduled return date.
“You should offer any resources you have available during this waiting period to help the community member care for the animal and find their owner, or to rehome their own animal,” Mike says. “By giving a hard date and having the ACO/shelter working with them during this holding period, I have found that the community is much more understanding. In most cases, they are eager to help.”
Planning for transparent communication
Several attendees of the town hall noted how tough it can be to get the message out about their changed process and the rationale behind it. Taking the time to explain the “why” behind the change is important, and shelters need to start with staff and volunteers.
Pasadena Humane in California has been doing appointment-based intakes for all non-urgent cases since summer of 2020, and equipped staff ahead of time by creating scripts incorporating input from the organization’s veterinary health, wildlife and marketing teams.
“It took a lot of tweaks over time to make sure that we were explaining the change in a way that the community could understand and that supported our team’s goals,” says vice-president of programs Sara Muriello. “The scripting for our team serves as a guide rather than a rule for having meaningful conversations with community members.”
NACA treasurer Adam Leath, who is also director of Volusia County Animal Services in Daytona Beach, Florida, agreed that transparency with the public is nonnegotiable.
“We had one person who was facing eviction and we didn’t have the space to take her pet immediately,” Adam says. “We told her frankly that the only option for us would be to euthanize the dog, who also happened to have documented instances of aggressive behavior. Those are difficult conversations to have, but necessary ones.
“Staff then suggested places she could live temporarily with her dog as long as he was housed in a crate and had some behavior modification work (which we provided),” he continues. “That gave her time to look for a place to live that did allow dogs.”
Volunteers can also be a powerful source of support for the change in intake procedure. They can monitor Facebook groups and respond to complaints or questions with the correct information. One attendee even commented that volunteers were invaluable when people on social media were advising people to just take their pets to the shelter directly. Volunteers were able to re-route them into calling the shelter to set up an appointment, thus avoiding a trip altogether.
Gathering input from those on the fence
The town hall had some vocal opponents of appointment-based intake, several of whom pointed out that, as tax-funded agencies, shelters play a specific role in the community. For one, they noted that shelters are there to ensure public safety. Leaving strays on the streets has a direct impact on the community by increasing the risk of bite cases and traffic hazards.
“Assuming stray animals brought in by finders don’t end up back on the streets is overly optimistic as well as a neglect of duty,” said one attendee. “I see this as a ‘Hail Mary’ reaction to a difficult problem.”
Others noted that people may go to adjacent agencies and be dishonest about their situations. Some even cited experiences with such workarounds.
“Our shelter has experienced some impacts from other local shelters’ that give me and my staff pause,” says Corey Price, animal services manager for City of Irving, Texas. The Irving Animal Care Campus is considering implementing an appointment-only intake policy but is waiting for more information and data from shelters already doing it.
“We have been able to trace a number of animals back to other cities (about 40 in the past few months),” she adds. “Some are stray, some are surrendered by the adopter because they were allegedly turned away by the organization who adopted the animal to them. Since they are from the city, I have a duty to take them.”
Along those same lines, Corey notes that shelters have a duty to meet the expectations of the community and that a change in services as elemental as intake policy should require input from the public.
“Our community has expectations and a right to provide input (and a vote) regarding how they want to be served,” she says. “It’s up to us to provide a compelling explanation for why we are changing our service model. If we fail to get their support, then both the shelter and city council will hear about it. I don’t feel we have enough information about the successes of this model to provide that explanation and get their buy-in yet.”
The Irving shelter does have retention and resource conversations and tries to divert or delay intakes whenever possible, but Corey says it’s had limited success.
“We’ve had some people leave with their pets, only for our ACOs to pick them up as strays a few days later,” she says. “We are being transparent and providing the best service we can for every person and pet. We also are watching the shelters who are doing this and learning what is working and what isn’t so we can decide what path to take going forward. For now, I’d say we are a solid ‘maybe’.”
Focusing on the needs of the community
The overarching theme of the town hall and the details in NACA’s statement is that appointment-based intake is a flexible way to manage how shelters serve the public. It’s also increasingly seen as the next step towards community-supported sheltering.
“One of the hardest things for animal control officers and other animal welfare personnel to understand is that the majority of the people in our community are not the problem,” Mike says. “Sure, we deal with people who violate our laws/ordinances and provide poor care to their pets, but those are the minority.
“If my officers issue 450 citations a year, they are citing between 250 and 450 members of our community,” he continues. “If our community has a population of 30,000, then we’ve had a negative interaction with a little over 1% of our population. In fact, the people in our community are the solution and we should empower them to help us.”
Ed Jamison, vice-president for NACA and CEO for Operation Kindness, admitted that he struggled with the concept at first – especially considering the massive intake responsibility he had as executive director of Dallas Animal Services. However, he noted that he doesn’t feel it’s irresponsible to at least have the discussion.
“It’s not a mandate; it’s about expanding your thinking,” he said. “A decade ago, drop boxes were normal and the world didn’t come to an end when those went away. A couple minutes in the field or on the phone can save weeks of time in the shelter when it comes to staff resources.”
Kristen adds that what is also challenging about the thought of shifting to an appointment process is that it changes the course that shelters have been on for decades.
“We’ve taught the community to bring healthy strays to us, and to bring the pets they want to rehome to us,” she says. “We started that in a time when most people didn’t say pets are family; now most do. Appointment-based intake is our attempt to adapt to the current moment. The process is nothing new; talking about it openly is.”
For more info on appointment-based intake, check out the program spotlight Data Proves Power of Managing Intake, the podcast Managed intake programs, and the town hall Out With the Old, In With the New: Switching Gears to Managed Intake. Our website also has a Managed Intake Playbook with tangible info about how to implement a program at your shelter.
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