Huntsville and Huntsville Animal Services have come a long way.
When No Kill philosophies were first shared with city officials in November of 2008, the Live Release Rate at our municipal animal shelter was 25%. Three out of every four animals entering the building were destroyed. When we formed our coalition in January of 2012 and began our research phase, the rate had risen to 34%. Some progress had been made, but it was incredibly slow and thousands of animals continued to die each year. When we took our topic to the public in the summer of 2013, the rate had risen to 41% and by the end of that year it had reached 47%. Again, progress had been made but it was slow. More than half of the animals entering the shelter building continued to be destroyed not because anything was wrong with them, but because that was just what had been done for so long. Those who lead the shelter felt they were doing the best they could with limited resources, felt they were doing a great job and were happy with the progress which had been made in a few short years.
We, as a coalition, have always sought one thing: for the destruction of healthy and treatable animals in the shelter to end. We have always promoted the No Kill Equation to achieve that goal because it has been proven to work everywhere it has been fully embraced. Some elements of the Equation serve to keep animals from entering the shelter at all. Some serve to move animals through the system quickly if they do end up in the shelter. Some elements serve both purposes. The genius of the No Kill Equation is that it is a DIY type solution to changing how an animal shelter operates. It is very important to learn what has worked well (and what has failed) in other communities, but the No Kill Equation can be examined element by element and then implemented using the resources available in any community. When we first began interacting with the newly appointed City Administrator, John Hamilton, about our No Kill purpose and vision, he said, "you had me at hello." He listened to our input about use of the Equation and even took the elements of the Equation to create his own diagram which looks similar to the Parthenon in Greece. It did not matter that he viewed the elements in different ways. What mattered is that he understood how they worked together and still does to this day.
The City of Huntsville and Huntsville Animal Services is about to mark a milestone and we think it is incredibly important to share it not only with the people who live and work in Huntsville, but with those across the country who have watched our progress and who may look to our community for guidance.
No healthy and treatable animals have been destroyed in our municipal shelter strictly for space since September of 2014. That means that it has been almost 3 full years since the city engaged in population control killing.
We have written before about issues with dogs being described as aggressive and then destroyed for public safety purposes. We fully realize that dogs who may be dangerous to people cannot be adopted out into the community and risk having someone injured or, worse yet, killed by a dog. We believe that for a period of time following September of 2014, some dogs were destroyed after either having been labeled as aggressive (when they were simply scared or traumatized) or after having deteriorated behaviorally from being in the shelter too long. Having said that, we know that the shelter leadership has taken steps to better evaluate dogs in the shelter environment (by having staff and volunteers trained by subject matter experts). We also know that the shelter leadership has developed enrichment programs for dogs to prevent them from deteriorating while in the shelter environment. We have also seen social media posts which clearly state that a certain dog is not doing well in the shelter as a means to market that dog more aggressively to get him or her out of the shelter in order to save a life.
We know that there are still issues to be fine tuned at Huntsville Animal Services. We met with Mr. Hamilton on September 15th to talk about some of those issues and to offer some suggestions which may help the city. This is truly a work in progress and there is no such thing as being "done" with improving the shelter. Saving the lives of shelter animals is incredibly hard work and there are no days off. It takes committed city leaders like Mayor Tommy Battle and City Administrator John Hamilton. It takes a passionate Shelter Director like Dr. Karen Sheppard. It takes energized and educated shelter staff like Karen Buchan and Will Roberson. And it takes a huge number of volunteers, fosters, adopters, donors and supporters to help us maintain the current level of progress so that we never, ever go back to the way it was before. This is not an Us and Them solution. It is a We solution.
Congratulations to the City of Huntsville and to Huntsville Animal Services. We look forward to continued improvements in the shelter building and in program development. You have much to be proud of and we are incredibly pleased to have played a role in this process.
Stay tuned. Things just get better from this point on.
A significant event took place on July 29, 2013, in Huntsville, Alabama, regarding the animal welfare advocacy of our No Kill Huntsville coalition. It was the date of our No Kill Workshop which we held at the downtown branch of the Huntsville/Madison County public library. It was the first time that we took the phrase "No Kill" to the public and used it in an event to reach more people in our region; not just those people who attended the event, but those people who heard about the event in the media. We held the event to reach the public because we felt the time had come to seek public support for shelter reform in our area. We don't talk about it much now - because it is not our focus - but we went public with our issue only after the city declined free help from subject matter experts three months earlier. We felt we had hit a wall in our efforts to communicate effectively with city officials so we asked those same experts to address the public instead.
The room we reserved at the library was standing room only. The audience was a mix of animal rescuers, animal advocates, members of the public and even some opponents of our vision who said in advance that they opposed our philosophies and planned to cause a scene. Most in attendance likely did not notice the police officer we hired who stood in the back of the room to keep the peace if anyone got out of hand. Before the event started, we briefed him on our worries that some would cause a disruption and explained that he had been hired as a precautionary measure. He knew nothing about our topic, but picked up on the issues pretty quickly. "Why in the world would anyone oppose saving the lives of more animals?" he asked. Exactly, Officer Newby, exactly.
Our workshop speakers were Mike Fry and Kelly Jedlicki. Mike was the award winning director of Animal Ark in Hastings, Minnesota who now leads an organization called No Kill Learning. Kelly is a pediatric nurse by day and also leads an advocacy group called Kentucky Pets Alive. Both did a wonderful job of explaining the phrase "No Kill" to our public and helping them understand some of the elements of the No Kill Equation which we have supported and promoted from the time our organization formed in early 2012. The workshop was scheduled to last 4 hours and could easily have gone on for 8 or 10 hours instead.
We write a lot about our promotion of the programs and services of the No Kill Equation as a means to end the destruction of healthy and treatable animals in our municipal animal shelter. We refer to the equation elements which serve to reduce shelter intake as "keep them out" elements. We refer to the elements which serve to increase shelter output as "get them out" elements. Some elements are dual purpose in nature. Our workshop fell under the element called "Community Involvement and Public Relations." It was intended to put the phrase "No Kill" on the public radar and it did just that.
We see the 2013 workshop as one of a series of factors which led to change at the animal shelter. We had a meeting with city and county officials the next day, including Mayor Battle, and our workshop speakers were present. It was after this meeting that the shelter director (who did not attend the workshop) reached out to a member of our coalition to talk about making changes. The progress in the ensuing months was limited, but it was progress and the conversation was changing. We worked hard in the months and years after the workshop to keep the No Kill topic in the public eye using billboards and the media as we engaged in a series of meetings with city officials to continue to promote the No Kill Equation we still promote to this day. We hosted a showing of a documentary film about the No Kill Movement at Lee High School. A few consultants came and went over time, some paid for by us and some who engaged directly with the city to help fine tune program development and give real world advice to overcome problems.
At the time we held the workshop in July of 2013, the live release rate at Huntsville Animal Services was 41%. Not quite 2 out of every three animals entering the building were destroyed. The healthy and treatable were destroyed along with the seriously injured and the suffering. By the end of 2014, the live release rate had risen to 73%, meaning that it practically doubled. At the end of 2016, the live release rate was 92%. The average monthly live release rate for the first months of 2017 is 95%. We were told by City Administrator John Hamilton recently that the city has not destroyed any healthy or treatable animals purely for space in almost three years.
We would be sugarcoating our process here if we were to say that the last 4 years were easy or have been without conflict. They have not. Our advocacy was a 7-day a week job for years and we found ourselves on the receiving end of a lot of criticism for having the audacity to speak out for the greater good. We were subjected to open hostility by many in the community, some of whom are rescuers, shelter supporters and shelter volunteers. We always went to extraordinary lengths to make our message one of municipal accountability and not one of personal attacks or blame, often arguing among ourselves on word choice in periodic letters to city officials in order to strike the right balance between constructive criticism and respect. That diplomacy was not always returned as some found it necessary to personally attack the messengers for the fact that the message was necessary in the first place.
Once the culture at the animal shelter begin to change dramatically and it took less effort to promote No Kill as a philosophy, we all agreed on one point. If someone had told us in early 2012 when we formed our group that the shelter would achieve and then surpass a 90% live release rate in a short period of time, but that we would end up battered, bruised and vilified in the process, we all still would have signed up for that. In a heartbeat. This has never been about us as individuals and has always been about saving the lives of shelter animals. It remains so today and we hope a time comes when we are no longer needed in this capacity at all.
Congratulations to the City of Huntsville, our city leaders, the animal shelter leadership and to all of the rescuers, supporters, fosters, volunteers, donors and adopters for the tremendous success achieved at Huntsville Animal Service. We are so very thrilled to know that our geographic area is now considered a safe haven for dogs and cats in need and is an example for other communities to emulate.
What a difference 4 years makes. Thanks, Mike. Thanks, Kelly.
(workshop crowd image courtesy of WHNT)
No Kill Huntsville has been in a monitoring mode since last year in the wake of tremendous progress made to save the lives of healthy and treatable animals at Huntsville Animal Services. Although we still have some concerns about program development and whether or not the progress achieved to date will prove to be sustainable, we genuinely commend Mayor Tommy Battle, City Administrator John Hamilton, Shelter Director Dr. Karen Sheppard and the shelter employees, volunteers, rescuers, adopters and donors in our community. The live release rate in 2017 has been 95% on average. That is a tremendous accomplishment and should be a source of community pride and support.
To show our support for Huntsville Animal Services and to help people in our community, we are proud to announce a July “Chipathon” to help people get pets microchipped at a drastically reduced cost. Almost every animal taken in by Huntsville Animal Services is or was owned by someone and just cannot be reunited with that person or family because the animal cannot be identified. When people have pets microchipped, it serves to: 1) keep them from entering our animal shelter at all, because they can be identified in the field; 2) get them out of the shelter and back home faster if they do end up in the shelter; 3) help local law enforcement officers get stolen animals back to their families; and 4) help local veterinary clinics and hospitals identify injured animals who have been brought to them for care. A microchip is not a GPS tracking device (although there are GPS collars available on the market). It is a small vial that is implanted under the skin which contains a unique identification code, much like a bar code. Animals are scanned for microchips and that allows authorities to determine the animal owner based on the registration data for the chip.
We hope everyone in our community will take advantage of this wonderful opportunity to have pets chipped and keep them from being at risk at local animal shelters. South Memorial Veterinary Services (inside the Pet Depot on South Memorial Parkway) is performing microchipping for $20 (which includes registration) for the whole month of July. You can have your pets chipped by appointment or on a walk-in basis. You MUST register the microchip for it to be of any value and you must keep the registration information current.
We are hoping to do this event every year as a way of helping reduce intake at Huntsville Animal Services and to shorten the amount of time lost animals are displaced from their families. If your pet is not microchipped, consider this: the cost is comparable to purchasing a large bag of dog food or a couple of large containers of cat litter. If your pet goes missing and cannot be identified, he or she may never make it home. You may spend hours trying to find your lost pet by physically searching for him or her and by making signs and interacting with people on social media. If your pet ends up in a shelter, he or she may be destroyed simply because of lack of identification. Animals are at less risk of being destroyed in Huntsville than at any time in the history of the city, but the city has not made a commitment to no longer destroy healthy and treatable animals for space. If your pet travels outside of the county and into a less progressive area, he or she is very much at risk of being destroyed before you can find him or her.
Why risk it? If you love your pets or they are important to you, there really is no excuse to not microchip them to improve their chances of getting back to the safety and security of home. And you.
(images courtesy of the City of Huntsville and Becky Lyn Tegze)
In March of 2016, we posted a blog called “Transparency and the Public Trust.” We were having some issues getting records from the City Attorney’s Office related to Huntsville Animal Services. Since that time, we have had periodic struggles getting records from the City.
The Alabama Open Records Act is pretty comprehensive in scope and provides for only certain exceptions which make records protected from public disclosure. It is our position that the only shelter records which may be subject to redaction prior to disclosure are those which contain personal information regarding the identities of people who surrendered animals to the shelter. All other records, whether kept in paper form or electronic form, are public records as set forth in Code of Alabama, Section 36-12-40 and are to be disclosed to anyone seeking them, regardless of where they live. The law states: “Every citizen has a right to inspect and take a copy of any public writing of this state, except as otherwise expressly provided by statute.”
We do an Open Records Act Request letter which we send to the city every month to seek both the monthly statistics and to seek a document called the “euthanasia” report which sets forth details regarding which animals were destroyed and why. We have received those records fairly regularly, although we often have to ask two or three times to receive them. When we sought copies of kennel cards for dogs destroyed in 2015 for issues related to behavior, we were told that the cards were not public record. When we pushed back, we were told months later that we could have the cards but that it would cost $5 to get each card because they had to be reviewed by an attorney. We disagreed with this process completely. It is not uncommon for advocates to seek and get kennel cards, none of which contain any confidential or proprietary information. We gave up on our pursuit of the cards (like the one shown below which is from Houston) due to cost and due to age; by the time the city agreed to produce them for a fee, the information was too dated to be of much value.
(click on the image above to view a pdf copy; this is an example from Houston)
As of today, the following requested public records regarding Huntsville Animal Services have yet to be provided to No Kill Huntsville or otherwise made available to the public:
-data regarding animal intakes and outcomes in 2016 specific to dogs (intake date, perceived breed, age, gender, outcome date and outcome type)
-data regarding animal intakes and outcomes in 2016 specific to cats (intake date, age, gender, outcome date and outcome type)
-monthly statistics for March of 2017
-monthly statistics for April of 2017
We can only speculate as to why this information has not been forthcoming. The city was doing a fairly good job of keeping the monthly statistics posted on the shelter website, but if you go there now, you will see the last reported month is February. Because we have obtained the euthanasia reports for each month going back to October of 2015, we know that the data on the monthly statistics forms often does not match the euthanasia reports. For example, the monthly report for February indicates that 17 dogs were destroyed. The euthanasia report shows that 16 dogs were destroyed. From November of 2016 through January of 2017, monthly reports show that 81 dogs were destroyed. The euthanasia reports, however, show that 74 dogs were destroyed. We cannot explain these discrepancies, but it is possible that we have not been provided the annual data we seek for dogs and cats for 2016 because the data has not been audited and there are more discrepancies to be found.
So. Why does any of this matter? There are two reasons.
The first reason is that the City of Huntsville has made claims about progress by relying on statistical data. As we have said numerous times before, we focus not on the math, but on the method. We honestly don’t care what the “stats” say as long as healthy and treatable animals are not being destroyed. That may result in a Live Release Rate of 98% one month and 88% the next month (if there truly were a lot of animals who were suffering and had to be euthanized or a large number of dogs who presented a genuine public safety risk, as opposed to just being scared or traumatized). The City has made a big deal out of having a Live Release Rate above 90%, a number which can be a positive indicator of progress. We recognize the progress that has been made and we continue to applaud that progress regularly. Animals in our shelter are now safer than at any time in the history of the city as other communities look to Huntsville in their efforts to reform their own shelters.
The second reason this matters relates to public trust. Put simply, in order to keep the level of public trust which has been established through positive change, the shelter operation must be completely transparent. There is a new phrase going around these days about whether or not there “is a there there.” We think it is entirely appropriate for the shelter to be fully transparent regarding its operations because it is a city department which is funded by tax dollars and because there really should be nothing to hide. The Live Release Rate in January was 94%. It was 96% in February. Absent some catastrophic event regarding shelter animals of which we are not aware, we presume that the statistics for March and April are equally strong.
The ASPCAs Position Statement on Responsibilities of Animal Shelters speaks to this very point:
Goal 4: Animal sheltering is increasingly transparent
The ASPCA strongly supports a requirement that key records and data be maintained by all shelters, both public and private, routinely reported to an appropriate central entity, and made available to the public. While much of this information, for public shelters at least, may already be considered a public record under various state laws, the ASPCA believes that standardizing the information that must be collected and extending these requirements to private shelters is not only an important step toward transparency, but also an effective way to gain a fuller picture of the community’s at-risk animals. When the only information available concerning intake and outcomes is that which must be provided by public shelters through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, the public is receiving an incomplete and perhaps distorted representation of these matters.
The shelter director herself blogged on the subject of transparency a couple of months ago in an article called “The Never Ending Challenge to Save Shelter Pets.” She spoke of the need for shelters to report data, stating, "The City of Huntsville has been sharing data since 2000, and we’ve become even more transparent. Now, there’s a fear and anxiety with being transparent, because you’re talking about taking the lives of animals. But being open is part of the process. . .It’s going to be painful when the data comes out, but shelters that do that will be surprised how quickly things can change because it helps them do their job better and it’s something to share with community leaders and elected officials to get more help." She went to to issue a challenge to all counties in Alabama to get "on board" to be transparent in record keeping.
We could not agree more. Now all that we ask is that the City of Huntsville and Huntsville Animal Services follow their own advice by posting the statistics for the months of March and April on the shelter website and by providing us with the data we seek for 2016 regarding intakes and outcomes.
If there is "no there there" the city should having nothing to hide and should share this data without hesitation as it demonstrates through actions that transparency is vital to improving operations and keeping the public engaged.
(images courtesy of the City of Huntsville)
As we wind down 2016, we wanted to take a look back at the year as a whole and hit on some of the highlights which have taken place. We’ve categorized them into "bad news" and "good news" categories.
The Bad News
• We are still not a no kill community as a philosophical way of functioning because the city has yet to make a commitment to no longer destroy healthy and treatable animals. When we asked for that commitment during a meeting with City Administrator John Hamilton in June, we were told "no. The city will not commit to that." We presume this decision serves to give the city an "out" should some crisis arise or should there be some collapse of programs which have led to the current level of progress. We still believe that the city is in a perfect position to make a commitment in light of the progress which has been made. We do believe that the shelter needs to develop a disaster plan in the event of a mass-intake event (from a collector, puppy mill or dog fighter), but we believe that the city can in good faith commit to a standard and live up to that standard.
• Healthy and treatable animals are still destroyed in the shelter. We honestly do not know how many savable animals were destroyed this year, but we have no doubt that this practice continues on at least a limited basis based on posts on the shelter's Facebook page and based on information we have from sources inside the shelter. We think that the number of healthy and treatable animals being destroyed is incredibly small compared to the numbers from the past, but the practice has not ended completely. The problem with this is that the shelter is reporting on euthanasia reports that animals were destroyed for reasons related to health or behavior. Not one "euthanasia" report we obtained this year honestly reported that healthy dogs were destroyed for space. The issue with this lack of transparency is that people presume ours is a no kill shelter when pets who are simply lost may actually still be at risk. Some would argue that we should not focus on individual instances of dogs being destroyed for space. Our counter to that argument is that it may not seem important until the dog destroyed for space is your beloved dog who simply got out of your fenced yard accidentally when you were out of town on vacation.
• Dogs continue to get sick after entering the shelter. The shelter has a history of dogs entering the shelter healthy and then acquiring upper-respiratory problems dating back many years. We have been told on multiple occasions that the inability to keep dogs healthy relates to the HVAC system. Our reply to that has been pretty clear: fix it. We see it as part of the ordinary functioning of any city department to seek and acquire funding for facilities upgrades. There have been no upgrades to the shelter related to the issue of sick dogs even though the problems have existed for years. Because the shelter is managed by a veterinarian, we know there is a public expectation that animasl will not get sick after entering the building.
• People from outside our community continue to revise history, doing so unfairly and to the detriment of communities like ours. We have blogged on the topic of our history a few times this year not so much for the benefit of Huntsville but for the benefit of other places. We are contacted on a regular basis by people from other states asking how Huntsville got to this point and what steps we recommend others take. Florida, Illinois, California, Hawaii. As grassroots advocates, we do our best to help people not only understand what steps we took to help ours work toward becoming a no kill community, but what mistakes we made along the way. As Ryan Clinton, the Founder of FixAstin once said, "it's important not to change history because then you learn the wrong lessons." An organization called Target Zero which was active here for less than a year (and in a remote capacity) has declared that it got Huntsville "to zero" in less than a year and they can do something similar for other places as it goes around the country seeking new clients and using our city as an example. Target Zero did play a role here. What Target Zero fails to tell people is that by the time they arrived at our airport for a 2-day visit, the live release rate had gone from 34% to more than 70% in less than a year, all without their involvement and after we took the no kill subject to the public and to a new city administrator. Change was already taking place. There will always be disagreement about what led to that change. We are absolutely certain that but for the advocacy of No Kill Huntsville very little would have changed at all and the city may still be destroying the majority of the animals in the shelter while being answerable to no one. We point this out not related to a desire to receive any type of credit. We really could care less about that. We talk about it because we don't want people in other places to think our history lacked conflict or think that Target Zero saved us from ourselves.
The Good News
• More animals are being saved than at any time in the history of the city. When we look at the statistics for the shelter for this year (through November), we cannot help but to be impressed. Although the numbers vary by month, the city has managed to keep the live release rate above 90% for all but one month and that month was just below 90%. While we do not agree that a live release rate of 90% = a no kill community (as some believe), we are sincere in our applause and congratulations to the shelter leadership and the city leadership in achieving this progress. As recently as 3 years ago, only half of the animals entering the shelter made it out alive. This progress demonstrates that the shelter culture has changed drastically. The shelter is no longer a place of despair and death and is now a place of hope and new beginnings.
• Dogs have a better chance of being evaluated fairly. We have been tracking data regarding dogs destroyed in the shelter for more than 2 years, using reports we seek and obtain through the Alabama Open Records Act. We saw some disturbing numbers related to dogs being destroyed for a variety of behavioral issues from aggression to fear to high arousal. After recommending to the city for some time that it engage the services of someone who could train the staff and volunteers on evaluating dogs in a shelter environment, that training happened in March of this year. The city secured a grant and was able to bring Diane Blankenburg -of Humane Network - back to town as well as Kelley Bollen of Animal Alliances who has a Master's Degree in Animal Behavior and who is the former Director of Behavior Programs for the Shelter Medicine Program at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. The shelter staff and volunteers were provided with 2 days of training on how to assess shelter dogs and members of our coalition were also invited to attend. We believe that the decrease in the number of dogs being destroyed for behavioral issues relates directly to this training.
• Cat World is open and the shelter is getting upgrades. Thanks to a grant from Petco, the shelter converted what was a classroom into an area called Cat World. The cats are now housed in new and better kennels and are no longer sharing space with dogs (which can add to their stress levels). The newly renovated space has its own ventilation system which will keep the cats healthier. Removing cats from the traditional shelter area also means that the city can proceed with plans to renovate the area where dogs are housed, hopefully taking positive steps to house dogs more safely and to prevent dogs from getting sick. We were told by John Hamilton earlier this month that the Cat World project was phase 1 of a series of phases to upgrade the building. Mr. Hamilton said, "we are currently working on design for the rest of the building and I would expect the next round of construction to start by mid-2017. In addition to better segregating and ventilating the dog spaces, we also need to address the veterinary space and the laundry/housekeeping spaces."
No Kill Huntsville has been in a monitoring mode of sorts during this year and we plan to continue in that capacity in 2017. We look forward to the facilities upgrades which are being planned and we look forward to the city embracing more programs of the no kill equation which can serve to both reduce shelter intake and increase shelter output.
There are some who say that becoming a no kill community isn’t possible. That it costs too much money or that it leads to institutionalized hoarding or lack of adequate care. Those naysayers need look no further than to Huntsville, Alabama, to see what happens when the public and municipal leaders come together and commit to doing better for the sake of the companion animals we value in our society. It can be done. Is it hard work? Absolutely. But we presume that those who lead our shelter, work in our shelter, volunteer at our shelter, donate to our shelter, foster our shelter animals and adopt from our shelter would say that every action taken to save a life is worth the struggle and is incredibly rewarding.
(images courtesy of the No Kill Advocacy Center, Bryan Williams and Peace and Paws Dog Rescue)
Let's talk about words today. More specifically, let's talk about one word: euthanasia. We read a number of media reports late last week about the fact that our shelter planned to euthanize animals for space if people did not come to adopt them. We fully understand that the shelter needs to communicate with the public about placing animals when the shelter is near capacity. In that regard, we encourage Huntsville Animal Services to be completely transparent about what is happening. We find improper use of The E Word related to population reduction to be both offensive and irresponsible.
The dictionary definition of euthanasia is simple: the act or practice of killing or permitting the death of hopelessly sick or injured individuals (as persons or domestic animals) in a relatively painless way for reasons of mercy.
When we destroy animals who are suffering or are irremediably ill, that is, in fact, euthanasia. Destroying healthy and treatable animals is not euthanasia. It is not merciful, it is not beautiful and it is not necessary. It is not "putting them down" or "putting them to sleep" or preventing "a fate worse than death." We use those phrases - and many use the word euthanasia - to sugar coat the reality of the act. And because we have allowed ourselves to become callous to, or complacent about, killing of shelter animals, we accept that word because it makes us feel better somehow, as if we did a good thing.
When we destroy healthy and treatable animals we are doing just that. We are destroying them and we are killing them. If you have ever made the heart-wrenching decision to euthanize a beloved pet which was genuinely suffering or so ill that any treatment would likely causer more pain or suffering, you know exactly what euthanasia means. To compare the euthanasia of your companion to the destruction of a healthy or treatable animal for space or convenience serves only to devalue both of those lives. And any person who ever lost a beloved pet to an "oops" killing at an animal shelter would not say their dog or cat was euthanized.
In No Kill communities, healthy and treatable animals are not destroyed. Period. They are saved. And words are used for what they mean.
Let's stop calling this anything but what it is. Once we do that, we can have a realistic conversation about what takes place in our shelter and we can take a look at why population control killing is still an option here even though many people believe that Huntsville is already a No Kill Community. It is not. When we met with a city official in early June to ask the city to commit to no longer destroy healthy and treatable animals, the answer we received was, "no. The city will not commit to that." We later wrote a letter to the Mayor and City Council to ask for a commitment. Our letter has gone unanswered.
As we have written about before, Huntsville is getting a lot of attention these days across the country as a result of the progress made at our municipal animal shelter which serves both the city and the county: Huntsville Animal Services. Shelter animals are now safer here than they have ever been in the history of the community as save rates have reached and then exceeded 90% of all shelter intake. Huntsville is being referred to as an example of what can happen in any community when a concerted effort is made to balance public safety with animal welfare. There are some aspects to our community which are not found in other places like the fact that Huntsville is a very progressive, high-tech military town which supports the space program. There are other local challenges which are faced in many other communities like the fact that we have a lot of pit bull-type dogs, many of which are not socialized to people.
We think everyone can agree that in spite of differences between communities, saving the lives of animals is more about a culture than it is about an exact methodology or a cookie cutter solution. Once everyone decides that saving the lives of healthy and treatable pets is a priority right now, that is really the first step toward change. We have always promoted the no kill equation as a methodology just because it can be molded and shaped to fit any community. Any city or county which genuinely wants to end the practice of destroying savable animals need only do some introspection on what is happening now in order to work on program development using existing funds and resources. In some places, change can happen virtually overnight. In other places, it takes some time, some planning, some coordination and a lot of effort to make it happen sooner rather than later.
We have been asked to help advocates outside our own community understand more about what happened here in order to help achieve similar results in their own community. We are more than happy to share in a lessons learned kind of way. We will not set out the specific history of what happened here chronologically; it took years for change to begin to happen and in the end, too much information is just that. We hope that reading about our activities in Huntsville will help other advocates develop a plan and work toward that plan while avoiding some of the mistakes we made here. We are not yet a no kill community as far as the members of our coalition are concerned. We see the measure of that as not one of numbers or percentages but a standard in which healthy and treatable pets are not at risk under any circumstances. But things have changed drastically here and we know we have been part of that change.
We also must acknowledge the drastic changes put into place by officials with the City of Huntsville and Huntsville Animal Services with the help of rescuers, volunteers, foster homes, adopters and the animal-loving community here. It takes a lot of courage to try new things and risk failure in the process. We are sure that working at Huntsville Animal Services is an entirely different experience than it was for the shelter director and staff a couple of years ago and we genuinely applaud them for the progress achieved.
We wish the very best to any person or any coalition which advocates to save the lives of shelter animals. Sometimes the only thing standing between animals and certain death is the voice of dissension which says loudly and clearly, "no. This is not consistent with our values and our culture."
Decide what you want. Ideally, you should be able to state your goal in a single sentence. You cannot fix our entire society or even an entire community in one fell swoop or through magic thinking. You cannot address issues related to companion animals, farm animals and wildlife at the same time. In our case, we wanted to push Huntsville to stop killing healthy and treatable animals in the tax funded shelter. We explained what we considered our vision on our website.
Do your research. If you don't know what you're talking about, you'll never make any headway because you'll have no credibility. You need to become an expert on your vision so you can speak intelligently about it from the hip. Learn the history of the issue you are working on so you know how our society got to this point. Make a decision on what methods you think work best to accomplish the goal, while being prepared to acknowledge that there are other methods which may have value. Network with people who have walked your path before you and whom are considered subject matter experts. You don’t need to be the smartest kid in the class as long as you know the smartest kids in the class. In our case, we promoted the no kill equation from the start. We did local research to learn what was already taking place in our animal shelter and in our community. We also networked with successful no kill communities across the country by phone and email to learn what they were doing related to specific no kill programs. The end goal was to share our research with the city, which we did.
Find a few like minded people to stand with you - but not too many. It is incredibly rare for a single person to be effective in an effort to make things better for animals and with no support when it comes to addressing systemic issues, particularly with local governments. It's just too easy for you to be dismissed as naive or as a zealot. You will likely be able to do more good if you find like-minded people who share your vision and are willing to join you to speak with one voice. Don't make your group larger than it needs to be for the sake of numbers. You run the risk of ending up with people who say they share your values but who truly do not or who talk but don’t do. Those people can be incredibly disruptive and take you way off course, wasting valuable time and energy. In our case, we began with about 30 members who were invited to participate. People either left the group or were removed over time for being disruptive and not sharing the same vision. We currently have 6 core members of our group and we do speak with one voice.
Try doing "the ask" at the very beginning. If you are trying to reform the way your local animal shelter functions, diplomacy and respect are key and you simply must take the high road even if that behavior is not reciprocated. We have heard many times that all advocates are abrasive and are too quick to engage in name calling and assigning blame from the start. We are just not that way at all because we felt it was just not productive. If you do not approach those who have the power to change the situation and simply ask them to consider doing so, you run the risk of offending them unnecessarily. Go straight to the source as your first step. In our case, one of our members paid for our shelter director to attend a No Kill Conference back in 2009 in hopes that she would proactively develop programs to save lives. After our coalition formed, we arranged for the director to receive free and confidential help from subject matter experts with us paying the expenses. The offer was refused at a time when the live release rate at our shelter was 41%. That refusal, unfortunately, set the stage for the next four years. Had the offer been accepted, much of our advocacy would not have been necessary at all.
Don't waste time or energy on someone who doesn't care or won’t listen. There is no polite way to tell someone "animals are being destroyed needlessly. Please stop." But anyone who is really interested in saving the lives of animals, as opposed to defending that outdated process, will quickly let you know that they are interested in learning other ways to function and are "all in" toward embracing new ideas, particularly if you can help them understand what methods have worked in other places. You cannot force someone to acknowledge your vision and to work with you if they are bound and determined not to do so. If you hit a wall, don’t keep banging your head against it. Find a way around it by involving the general public in your efforts. That is what happened in Huntsville. After the offer of free help from experts was refused, we took our subject to the public. We hosted a petition on Change.org which we augmented with signed petition pages and we held a free no kill workshop for the public to introduce them to no kill philosophies and programs. We had been told the shelter director would attend with her staff. She did not. The county animal control director did attend.
Make your message one about ethics, money and accountability - not about specific people. All animal shelters function with some oversight. In the case of municipal animal shelters which are operated by a city, county or by a contracted nonprofit, those shelters are funded by tax dollars. If your argument is that animals are being needlessly destroyed, you do better to argue that doing so is not consistent with American values, is not a good way to spend money and that those who oversee the shelter are accountable to the people who are paying for it: the public. Even if you believe that a shelter director should be removed, you won’t get far suggesting that unless some actionable form of abuse is taking place. You are better off focusing on the leadership as a whole. If the leadership makes personnel changes, so be it. In our case, we hosted a series of electronic billboards at different locations around town for a period of months using a series of empowering slogans like “we are progressive enough to be a no kill community” and “saving shelter pets reflects our values.” We also showed the documentary film “Redemption: The No Kill Revolution in America,” at a local high school in order to reach a wider audience with our topic.
Invite the public to participate in the process. Although most Americans love animals and want the best for them, many people feel powerless to do anything as individuals to bring about change. Studies have shown that the vast majority of the public believes that the destruction of healthy and treatable animals in animal shelters is unethical and should be illegal. It is important not just to advocate for animals yourself or as part of a coalition, but to bring the public to the table. A few voices may be heard to a degree or may be dismissed out of hand as naive or uninformed. When the voting public begins to speak out to officials about what they want done with their tax dollars, it can be much more effective. Even people who don't share their homes with animals or particularly like animals likely do not want their tax dollars used to destroy animals when those same dollars can be used to save them and bring about systemic change. In our case, we not only took out subject to the public using the media, billboards and periodic events (like our workshop and showing the no kill documentary film at a local high school), we also encouraged people to speak out as individuals to tell local officials what they want and why. We set up pages on our website to help them find contact information for those officials and we helped get them started with ideas on how to communicate in direct and respectful ways.
Don't listen to the haters, enablers or apologists. Although most people outside of animal welfare circles think that all animal welfare advocates are on the same page, we are not. There are people who advocate for animals solely for the benefit of those animals. They do not seek or want recognition and the act of having helped is their reward. Then there are people who advocate for animals so that they can say that they advocate for animals. Many of these people can be your worst critics. For them, this is more about people and not offending anyone than it is about saving lives. Detach from those people and don’t let them suck the life force out of you with their negative energy. When you are labeled the source of the problem because you took it on yourself to speak out, don’t get trapped by the tactic of putting focus on the messenger instead of the fact that the message was necessary in the first place. You cannot win with people who point the finger of blame at you while giving the people destroying animals a free pass. In our case, we were attacked on social media by rescuers and city employees. The shelter director participated in the behavior, leading us to file a formal complaint with the city about her conduct. We later learned that a shelter employee had set up the social media page used to attack us. We simply refused to engage with those people. We instead sought advice from an attorney who specializes in cyber-bullying and we took the issue up with officials at city hall who ultimately helped stop the behavior.
Keep the lines of communication open and be respectful. Seeking reform is about advocacy, but it is also about staying on message and about being respectful in communication. Once you begin your advocacy effort, it is important to communicate with those in positions to affect change regularly and be very specific about what you want or what you are recommending. Part of this process involves the art of diplomacy. While you should be clear and direct about what you want, you must do so with tact and respect in order to make any headway at all. Look for every opportunity to applaud cooperation or progress. Also keep your communication professional. Email is an overused form of communication and while it may be convenient for you, it is not always received in the same manner as would be a letter. Seek face-to-face meetings periodically in order to have open dialogue about what you want while listening to officials about challenges they are facing. In our case, we communicated with city officials regularly in order to applaud progress, express concerns, make suggestions and make it clear that we were not going away. We sent dozens of letters to city officials and we sought and attended numerous meetings with city officials to share our research, discuss program development, talk about progress made and to have an exchange of ideas about future and continued progress.
Be prepared to see it through. Once you begin an advocacy effort, the reality is that you can’t just stop if you get tired or discouraged. Be prepared to see it through, no matter how long it takes. Your efforts could take weeks, months or even years. Be prepared to stay on subject and stay committed to your beliefs, even if you are not treated with the same diplomacy you use to advocate for animals. In our case, we worked hard to remain in the public eye by using the media and social media. We shared our research with city officials during numerous meetings and helped city officials engage with people from whom they were willing to hear the no kill message and who had proven experience in developing no kill programs. We wrote numerous letters to city officials to offer both congratulations on progress and to offer observations about issues we felt still needed to be addressed. We began seeking, and still seek, public records using the Alabama Open Records Act so we can monitor shelter statistics and we can analyze data regarding the types of animals still being destroyed and the reason that is happening.
Our coalition was formed in January of 2012 and we first took our vision of Huntsville as a no kill community to the public not quite three years ago. We did so only after we had hit a wall in our efforts to get the city expert and confidential help to end the outdated practice of destroying healthy and treatable shelter pets. Although our website and social media presence had been on line for a while, our first public event was a free workshop we held at the downtown branch of the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library on July 29, 2013.
We have written before about the process which has led to present day functioning at Huntsville Animal Services and our role in that process. Although some from both inside and outside of our region have declared us "there" or "done," we are not yet a no kill community. Tremendous progress had been made and we look for every opportunity to applaud that progress.
Our coalition, and others like ours, are often seen in a negative light just because of our outspoken nature. Some may label us as purists who simply advocate from the sidelines and who are too set in our beliefs. That label really doesn't fit out group at all. Since the time we held the workshop, we have engaged in a series of meetings with city officials over the course of a period of years. We have shared our research and helped the city engage with organizations like Humane Network which provides on-site real world help based on experience. One of our many meetings was held on July 25, 2016, with City Administrator John Hamilton. We had asked for the opportunity to talk to him regarding our June 20, 2016, challenge to the city and to cover some of our compliments and concerns. In order to keep you informed, the highlights of our meeting are set out here.
"The Ask." We have challenged the city to commit to no longer destroy healthy and treatable animals using our tax dollars on more than one occasion over a period of years and we did "the ask" in person again. We were initially told that if we are looking for a promise that the city will never destroy an animal for space that no, the city will not agree to that. Rather than making an absolute promise, we asked again that the city make a public declaration of intent to the standard as a way of functioning moving forward and that it adopt a Shelter Disaster Plan to be ready for a mass-intake event at the shelter. Mr. Hamilton stated that he would take the issue back to the mayor for further consideration.
Compliments. We were very complimentary about the progress made by the city as reflected in the monthly shelter statistics. We do not believe that achieving some percentage should be the goal and we continue to be more focused on a standard of functioning. Having said that, those numbers are an indicator of progress and are to be applauded. We complimented the city on more effective use of the media and social media to connect with the public. We had long criticized the animal shelter for being disconnected from the public it serves by not engaging proactively. We mentioned the recent PSA in which Mayor Battle appeared to promote an adoption event on July 23d.
Concerns. We expressed concerns about the shelter becoming limited admission, as opposed to managed admission, and having times when it simply tells the public, "no. We cannot help you." We understand that intake must be managed to control it and that the city is not obligated to take owner surrendered animals. We suggested that instead of just saying, "no," that the shelter should still be willing to engage in pet retention counseling and pet surrender counseling. We also expressed concern over continued issues with dogs becoming sick after entering the building, with lack of "bread and butter" adoption programs to place animals between large adoption events and with the fact that the shelter's website is outdated. Our final point of discussion related to how the policies and functioning of Huntsville Animal Services is affecting other local shelters and rescue groups. There have been numerous times when people have had an issue with the city shelter and have turned to nonprofit shelters and rescues for help without really resolving the underlying issues. Because our local nonprofits receive no city or county funding and function solely on donations (and most with no paid labor at all) this reliance on them to be an extension of the city shelter creates a tremendous burden. All of our comments were well received and there was quite a bit of discussion on all points.
City Issues. Mr. Hamilton told us that the city's progress has led to some problems. Because people presume that Huntsville Animal Services is a no kill shelter, they are now bringing animals into the county from outlying counties expecting help. In some cases, people have been less than forthcoming about where they live. This will likely lead to a new policy related to owner surrenders where proof of residence will be required. We were told that the sick dog issue remains a concern and that it is likely some modifications will be needed to the existing building to house animals in different ways in order to resolve issues with air quality.
We remain hopeful that the city will make a public declaration of intent to make Huntsville a no kill community and will not simply be satisfied with doing better than most. We truly believe there is no better time in the history of Huntsville for our leaders to draw a line in the sand and declare proudly that ours is and will continue to be one of the safest places for animals not only in our state, but also in the entire region.
Stay tuned. We are not going away and we plan to remain on subject.
We consider the no kill movement a social movement. Although many people view what takes place in tax funded animal shelters as an "animal problem," it really is a "people problem." The reasons why animals have historically died in our shelters has everything to do with individual and collective behavior and the animals are simply the unfortunate victims of our poor choices and our poorly functioning shelter industry in our country.
Social movements are all about change. About reform. In the case of animal shelters, rare is the situation where a municipality or the board of an animal shelter engages in reflection and decides to stop destroying animals with no outside influence to do so. There is normally a tipping point which is reached due to outside influences of some kind. The path from Point A to Point B is often incredibly difficult and it involves a lot of struggle and conflict. Those who seek change on behalf of a community or in support of a cause very rarely do so seeking any form of recognition. The end goal is the focus and once that goal has been reached, they are simply grateful for the change and happy to be able to go on with their own lives.
It is an unfortunate reality in the no kill movement that people revise history and they do so to the detriment of our entire society. As has been said by Ryan Clinton, the Austin Attorney who played a key role in FixAustin, "when we rewrite history, we learn the wrong lessons. And the lesson from Austin is that it was a long battle." The same could be said about a host of other communities across the country, including Huntsville. It has been a struggle and a battle which has gone on for years and that struggle is part of our history.
So. Why is that important? It is important not because those involved in the struggle - the members of our coalition - seek any form of recognition for our efforts. This is not at all about credit or someone telling us what a good job we did or that we are doing. This has truly never been about us, it has always been about saving the lives of shelter pets and we honestly wish that our advocacy role had not been necessary at all. We wish the City of Huntsville had taken steps to stop killing animals back in early 2009 after learning about the no kill equation. Or that the city had accepted the offer of free and confidential help from subject matter experts back in April of 2013. Had either of those things happened, our coalition either would not have been necessary at all or we would have taken a completely different path in our efforts to help the City of Huntsville become a no kill community. We took this issue to our public only when we hit a wall in terms of cooperation and we felt we had no alternative but to go around that wall for the sake of the animals being destroyed needlessly using our money and in our name.
We get email messages, calls and contacts from advocates across the country wanting to know what we did in Huntsville and how it is that the city is now saving the vast majority of animals in our shelter. It is important not to rewrite history or to sugarcoat it in any way to take out the struggle because doing so sends the wrong message and teaches people the wrong lessons. Just like Austin, the lesson from Huntsville is that this has been a battle which has gone on for years. The city didn't just suddenly decide one day that it was a terrible idea to destroy perfectly savable animals in our shelter and to stop doing that on its own. We had to push the issue and we had to stay on subject, as we are now.
There are those who are revising our history here. Some of them are local and they are leaving out part of what has taken place either to make themselves look better or to make our coalition look like the bad guys for having had the audacity to say "enough." Others who are revising our history do not live or work here and are doing so in order to advance an agenda which either suits their message or which promotes a consulting organization which played a role here and which is now gaining new clients by making it sound like they came here and fixed what was broken.
If you live here or work here, our message to you is this: we are not yet a no kill community. Yes, the city is doing an incredible job and has made a lot of positive changes. The city has yet to commit to ending the outdated practice of destroying healthy and treatable pets and there are issues with program development. A clear sign of that is that the shelter adopted out 183 animals in a manner of days during a recent event and promptly turned around and claimed the shelter was full again and that no incoming animals would be accepted.
If you are not from here and you are trying to seek shelter reform in your own community, we encourage you to learn about the programs and services of the no kill equation. We encourage you to first reach out to local officials and try to work with them to save the lives of animals and that you do so diplomatically and respectfully. If that doesn't work and you are rebuffed, make a decision on whether or not this issue is important enough to you to potentially spend years speaking out about it, possibly to the detriment of your personal reputation and well-being. Even once you do speak out for change, we encourage you to focus not on individuals but on the leadership of the shelter. We also encourage you to remain respectful and diplomatic, even when that behavior is not reciprocated as was the case with us.
If you are not from here and you are rewriting our history to leave out parts of our story, shame on you. Doing so is both arrogant and irresponsible. You cannot possible know what has transpired in our community if you have not been part of this community and played a role in change here. You do a disservice to the very causes of animal welfare you claim to support by making this process seem like it was free of conflict and that it can be replicated in some other place just by hiring a particular consultant or by being "nicer" about the message.
Our story is still unfolding. We are not a no kill community and we may never be. That is entirely up Mayor Tommy Battle, the members of our city council, City Administrator John Hamilton, Shelter Director Karen Sheppard and the people who live and work here. It is entirely possible that for Huntsville, better is good enough.
But please don't rewrite our history. Doing so can have adverse affects far beyond our region and in the end, it's really a little too early to stand around and pat each other on the back as long as healthy and treatable pets are still at risk at 4950 Triana Boulevard Southwest in Huntsville, Alabama.
No Kill Huntsville was formed in January of 2012 when a group of local nonprofit shelter directors, rescue group leaders and animal welfare advocates decided to come together to speak with one voice with one mission: to seek a time when Huntsville becomes a No Kill Community. We had been working independently of each other on this issue for years and felt that we could accomplish more if we banded together. We felt that the City of Huntsville was not taking enough action with enough of a sense of urgency to save the lives of healthy and treatable shelter pets so we took on the responsibility of speaking out to seek better.
We have always sought to become irrelevant not because we are being ignored or have been dismissed as zealots, but because we are simply no longer needed in this capacity. Despite rumors to the contrary, we have also approached this issue as one of municipal accountability. We have taken great pains to make our communication with the city both respectful and empowering in spite of having been subjected to personal attacks against us for having the audacity to be outspoken. Change is hard and it makes people uncomfortable. We get that.
We have a page on our website called Our Vision which paints a picture of a time when Mayor Battle stands at a podium and makes a public declaration of intent that Huntsville will, in fact, become a No Kill community. Over the course of the years of our advocacy, we have done what is called “the ask” multiple times. The concept is simple: we have asked the city to draw a line in the sand and commit that from that point forward, savable animals will no longer be at risk in our municipal animal shelter. That every animal will be treated as an individual life with value and that we will not destroy healthy and treatable animals for space or convenience because doing so is just not consistent with our culture here.
The City of Huntsville has not yet committed to this standard. The city has absolutely made a lot of changes in the way our animal shelter functions and we have seen a shift in how the shelter is referred to. The mind set has gone from one being resigned to the destruction of animals to working hard to save those same animals and have the shelter be a place of hope and new beginnings. Some mistakenly believe that Huntsville is already a No Kill Community. It is not. Although the statistics for the shelter show marked improvement from a statistical standpoint, the measure of a No Kill Community is not achieving some numerical standard. It is a matter of saying “we just don’t do that any more” and ensuring animals are not at risk. That may mean that the “live release rate” for animals is 97% in one month and then 87% in the next month, provided that the decline was due to a large number of animals entering the shelter who were suffering, irremediably ill (as opposed to entering the shelter healthy and then becoming very sick due to being housed there) or genuinely aggressive to people and which constitute a public safety risk.
On June 20, 2016, we sent a letter to Mayor Battle and the members of the Huntsville City Counsel to again do “the ask.” You can read the letter in its entirety here. We also issued a press release on our challenge to the City on July 5, 2016. It is found on al.com and it was distributed to our local television stations.
As we state in our letter, we fully acknowledge the tremendous progress made by city officials to change how our shelter operates and how animals are cared for using our tax dollars. This has become a point of pride and Huntsville is being watched by people in other areas of the country who are hoping to make similar changes. We genuinely believe that the progress made to date demonstrates that the City of Huntsville is in the best possible position to make a public declaration of intent. Once it does so, this will encourage people who live and work here to become even more involved in the operation and success of the animal shelter than they are now and it will be a wonderful addition to our community resume when we talk about all the things which make this City great and make it the “Star of Alabama.:
Becoming a No Kill Community is a choice. It is an act of will. We have absolute faith that the City can do it. We just hope the City will share our opinion, draw that line in the sand and that the answer to “the ask” will be a resounding, “Yes.”
(image courtesy of Bryan Williams)
No Kill Huntsville
Keep up with our updates and latest news regarding Huntsville becoming a no kill community.
image courtesy of Terrah Johnson