Outdated policies prevent shelters from partnering with the public to save lives
It’s no secret that a number of shelter policies and practices exist that have long served as barriers to lifesaving, but it’s not the case that they were intended for that purpose. Many standard practices are in place because we thought they would protect the animals in our care and encourage responsible ownership.
But that’s not what has happened. Animals still lose their lives daily because we’ve created a system that isn’t built on a mission of doing anything and everything in our power to keep animals and people together.
The truth is that we need our communities as much as they need us, and that means trusting one another a heck of a lot more than we currently do. It’s time to change the following common practices or tendencies that are standing in the way of saving every life possible.
Distrust of the public
We all have stories about conversations we’ve overheard between shelter staff and the public that have made us cringe. Luis Quintanilla, executive director of Humane Society of Harlingen (HSH), recalls listening to a staff member talking people out of adopting a pit bull.
“They were asking questions like, “Are you sure you’re ready? Do you have enough acreage? Do you have a sturdy door? The staffer was operating from the perspective of whether the adopter was good enough and all I could think was ‘Is our freezer better? Because that’s the alternative.”
“Do not adopt” lists
Let’s face it: we’ve all seen awful situations and people in our line of work and that often leads us to develop a bunker mentality. We end up believing that people aren’t good enough to trust with our animals. In some cases, when a person returns a pet to a shelter because it’s not the right fit for their home, we can see this as proof that we shouldn’t have trusted them in the first place.
That mentality leads some organizations to develop “do not adopt” lists where people who return or relinquish a pet to the shelter for any reason can never adopt again. How about instead we help those people find the right animal for their family? How about we use the information they have about how the returned pet acted in their home to make a better match for the dog or cat next time?
Brent Toeller, senior director of national programs at Best Friends, recalls how he knew they had the culture right (at the time) at Kansas City Pet Project (KCPP) when he met a man who had returned an adopted dog and was able to immediately adopt a new one.
“He had adopted one and needed it to be cat-friendly, and the shelter thought it made the match well, but then the dog got into his home and had a pretty serious chase drive,” he says. “It created an unsafe situation for their family and the resident cat. He returned the dog thinking he'd never be able to adopt again and KCPP adopted him another dog and were like ‘our bad, you knew what you needed and we didn't make the match.’”
Reluctance to change policies
The idea that we need to guard our animals against the community also contributes to resistance to intake diversion efforts. Shelter staff have long been taught that shelters are here to provide a service, which means they feel they can’t say “No” to the public about anything. Officers are expected to come out and “fix” every problem with an animal, mostly by hauling that animal away.
“We’re here to provide a service but we need the public to help us, too. Animal services are not an entitlement,” Luis explains. “And 95% of the people we talk to want to help. When shelter staff and animal control officers are empowered to not accept an animal and instead offer ways to help people keep their pets or convert finders of strays into fosters, they have overwhelming success.”
High reclaim fees are another outcome of this mentality. We think by charging penalties in addition to daily care fees, we are teaching people a lesson about responsible ownership. Instead we make it impossible for people with limited economic resources to get their pets back.
People learn not to trust the shelter, they get another animal from elsewhere, and if that pet is lost they are less likely to come in looking for it because of how they’ve been treated in the past. As Luis points out, our goal should be to save as many animals as we can and activate as many people as possible to make that happen. Staff should be empowered to reasonably waive or reduce fees so that a pet can go home.
Night drop boxes
I have never seen the point of having a night drop kennel. We aren’t the garbage dump. These are living animals whose stories deserve to be told and who don’t deserve to be discarded overnight into an environment that is unsafe, unsanitary and terrifying.
By giving people an anonymous way to get rid of pets, we lose the chance to try and help them keep their animals. Without addresses connected to community cats who are dumped, we lose the opportunity to return them to their neighborhood homes. And if those animals left in drop boxes exhibit signs of neglect or abuse, we lose our ability to prosecute the owners.
And while a certain number of people will dump their animals on the property regardless of the system in place, there’s no reason to think drop boxes help. In fact, in the shelters I’ve worked with that have shut down the drop kennels, the numbers of abandoned pets didn’t increase.
Misuse of field surrenders
There is a legitimate need to get some people to surrender their animals to officers in the field. Primarily, it’s a way to immediately get animals out of truly dangerous situations of cruelty or neglect. We can also get custody of the animal legally and move them along to rescue instead of having them sitting in a stressful environment waiting on the often-lengthy process of going through the courts.
The system can easily be misused, however. Say an officer is called out to a complaint about a dog that keeps getting out of a yard through a broken fence or barks non-stop. To make things easy, the officer negotiates with the owner to relinquish the dog and avoid a citation. But that doesn’t solve the problem of a hole in the fence or a dog that needs enrichment, and a few weeks later the owner goes out and gets another dog. Meanwhile the first dog is becoming neurotic from being kenneled at the shelter.
We shouldn’t remove this option, but it needs to be used more judiciously and in combination with an approach that focuses on solving the root problem. Officers should have access to fencing materials, Kong dog toys, collars and leashes—really any kind of tools they can offer the owner to enhance their pet’s life and adequately address the initial complaint.
Pet licensing laws
When I started off in animal welfare, I believed that a license not only gave us data about pet ownership in the city, it was a dog’s ticket home. I presented it to people as if it was their insurance policy. But if the dog isn’t wearing his collar and tag, it’s useless.
Citation costs for not having a license also led to so many people getting caught up in a legal system that was set up to defeat them from the beginning. Not to mention, the costs of running such a program mean there is often little to no return on the investment.
For communities where there is not a lot of compliance, some shelters have staff who go around to the various neighborhoods issuing citations. How bad are the optics with that? If officers are out knocking on doors, it should be to give out resources, not look for violations.
Pet limit laws
Laws that limit how many pets an individual can own are arbitrary and ineffective. It’s true that a home with multiple pets may lead to disputes with neighbors over issues of noise or odor, but the same holds true for homes with one pet. We all know people who can easily take care of more than four cats without issue, while we also know of that owner with one dog that barks at all hours of the night and wakes up the neighborhood. If there are issues, we should deal with those, but not use arbitrary limits to do that.
Such limitations also made it onto the books in many cases to combat hoarding situations. As someone who dealt with countless hoarding situations during my 12 years as a state police-commissioned animal cruelty investigator, I can tell you that these laws are useless. Even when hoarders are successfully prosecuted under such limits, there is 100% recidivism with these individuals. Often, hoarders whose animals are removed just go get more the next day.
This system ends up punishing people who can care for more animals than legally allowed, and the strain on a shelter’s resources when they must confiscate dozens of pets is enormous.
Limited open hours
Shelters that are run by the government tend to adhere to government-type working hours. But when a member of someone’s family has been impounded, that’s not a nine-to-five, Monday through Friday deal.
I did an assessment at one shelter where I pointed out that if a dog was picked up on Friday at 4 p.m., the owner—who likely worked until five—wouldn’t be able to pick up their pet until Monday under the shelter’s current policy. And they’d have to take off work to do so. The shelter had never thought about that—but now they have an officer on-call who can do reclamations after hours.
The same issue applies to adoptions. If shelters close at five during the week, have extremely limited weekend hours and are closed on holidays, when does the public have a chance to come in and take home a new pet?
Change takes courage
Things like a third-degree adoption interview or fees that make it impossible for caring owners to retrieve their pets don’t just prevent positive outcomes, they break down relationships with the community. In the end, no one wins.
It’s daunting to think about analyzing and overhauling problematic practices, but the shelter system is something we created and it’s up to us to undo it. There are plenty of shelters out there who have proven that making the changes outlined here isn’t as hard as you think. And the positive outcomes for staff, the public and the animals are worth the pain of learning new ways of doing things.
Director, national shelter outreach
Best Friends Animal Society