We have not blogged on our website for almost two years. We have been in a monitoring mode during that period now that the city has changed the culture at Huntsville Animal Services, more lives are being saved than ever before and our advocacy is no longer necessary on a daily basis. This blog is a look back at what has happened a the shelter and in our community over a period of years leading up to the end of 2021.
We seek shelter reports from the City Attorney's Office monthly and have for many years. The monthly and yearly shelter reports are here (and link from here). We share the euthanasia reports on our Facebook page. We took at look back at the data we have to develop a list of highlights for our followers. Huntsville Animal Services provides services to both the City of Huntsville (now the largest city in the state) and Madison County, but not the City of Madison.
Saving the lives of animals is a responsibility which falls to all of us as a community. We applaud the progress made by the shelter, hope some of our recommendations to city officials will be seriously considered in the coming year and we encourage everyone to become personally invested in the shelter operation. We simply cannot go back to a time when 10k animals entered the building each year and 2/3 of them were destroyed. That is not who we are. We can continue to improve and continue to be the Star of Alabama we call ourselves.
As we begin another year, it’s time to share our Year in Review for 2019. We use this review to hit on the highlights of the year and to express our hopes for the future operation of Huntsville Animal Services.
Live Release Rate
Huntsville Animal Services ended 2019 with an overall live release rate above 90% for the fourth year in a row. This is good news. The Huntsville/Madison County area is now one of the safest places in the state for companion animals. We fully recognize that saving the lives of animals is incredibly hard work every day. We would like to see a higher live release rate for dogs, an issue that is an ongoing challenge for our area (see below about Dogs Destroyed).
Foster and Sleepover Programs
The shelter really ramped up focus on foster programs in 2019 toward getting animals out of the shelter and learning more about their personalities to find them homes faster. People can do a Foster-To-Adopt plan to try an animal in their home to see if the animal is a good fit. The shelter also worked hard to promote a Sleepover Foster Program which encourages people to foster animals over weekends and during holiday periods to help reduce the number of animals in the shelter and to help market animals using information from foster homes. There is now a website dedicated just to foster placement of animals. Foster programs like this are vital toward keeping the community engaged, reducing the number of animals in the shelter at any given time and helping potential adopters know more about the personality of animals outside the shelter environment, which is often nothing at all like how animals behave inside the shelter.
The year brought more partnerships between the animal shelter and local organizations toward marketing shelter animals in the community. The shelter held events at the Space & Rocket Center and Huntsville Botanical Gardens. It also partnered with the Historic Preservation Commission and the Huntsville-Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau for holiday photos of adoptable dogs which show their personalities and to demonstrate that ours is a pet-friendly destination when people travel with their pets.
The shelter began developing a community cat diversion program a few years ago and the city code was changed in November of 2018 to reflect changes in how cats are handled. The city now allows TNR and engages in SNR.
“TNR” stands for trap-neuter-return. It refers to programs where animal advocates, either individuals or organizations, humanely trap free-roaming cats, have them altered, vaccinated, and ear-tipped, and return them to their habitats. “SNR” stands for “shelter-neuter-return.” It refers to a program where healthy free-roaming cats brought to the shelter by community members are referred to established TNR programs when available, or the cats are neutered, vaccinated, and ear-tipped and then returned to the area from which they were taken by the shelter itself. Cats can also be released as barn cats, provided they are suitable for a barn cat program due to their health. TNR and SNR are both designed to keep large numbers of cats from being destroyed in shelters which is what happens in most places. This article from Nathan Winograd, the founder of the No Kill Equation we promote, explains both TNR and SNR.
In our recent communications with a campaign called The Million Cat Challenge, we were told that Huntsville Animal Services is one of the most widely recognized success stories in the animal sheltering community. By participating in the Million Cat Challenge, the euthanasia figures have plummeted year after year and the turnaround “has been incredible to witness.” Huntsville is considered a great example to other communities and Dr. Sheppard is considered a “dedicated leader” who is “highly engaged” on the topic of saving the lives of cats who would have been destroyed using old methods.
(this image is from a presentation by Dr. Kate Hurley, Director of the UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program, Million Cat Challenge. To view the presentation, click on the image)
The Huntsville Animal Services Director is Dr. Karen Sheppard, a licensed veterinarian. While it may seem to make perfect sense for a veterinarian to run an animal shelter, the director job is more of an administrative role than a veterinary role. The city is in the process of recruiting and hiring a second veterinarian to perform spay/neuter surgeries at the shelter in addition to providing veterinary care. The city tells us this will save money in the long run. Although we cannot possibly place a value on the services provided by the North Alabama Spay and Neuter Clinic to our community (it is one of only four non-profit clinics in the state) we recognize that the city has the right to explore more cost-effective functioning moving forward. Hiring a second veterinarian is not a cheap proposition; we remain hopeful that this new position will pay for itself over time in dollars saved.
When we learned of this plan, we asked the city to consider hiring a contract behaviorist to help at-risk dogs and to also hire a programs employee to focus on surrender counseling and adoption counseling. Our argument was that if the city could afford a second veterinarian, perhaps there was a way to spend a little more money for increased life-saving.
Website and Marketing
The shelter has a reworked website which is engaging and informative. The shelter staff and volunteers continue to do an excellent job of marketing pets using Facebook and the city’s website. It is now much easier to find information about the operation of the shelter than in years past. There are regular adoption promotions and programs which are creative and which keep the public engaged toward adopting or fostering a shelter animal. Fee-waived adoption specials are promoted regularly which serve as an incentive to encourage people to adopt sooner rather than later. Volunteers take engaging photographs of shelter animals which are positive and which make people feel good (which work much better than depressing photographs of scared animals in kennels).
The shelter is undergoing a renovation project years in the making. The first part of the project is the Cat World area which was completed in December of 2016. The shelter is now improving the kennel area for dogs. The city stresses that it is not adding to capacity for dogs, but is making the living area for dogs larger to reduce stress. Each dog will have a “bedroom” kennel area and a “bathroom” area, making it easier to keep kennels clean and reducing stress for dogs who are particularly fearful. The construction is expected to be completed by April 2020. Adoption fees for all animals are waived until the construction ends.
The shelter continues to have issues with destroying dogs for behavior, particularly dogs over 40 pounds. Dogs are destroyed each month who are deemed a public safety risk either because they are considered dangerous to people or other animals. March of 2019 was the worst month for dogs. Thirty-one dogs were destroyed for behavior in March, almost half of whom came from one owner who had never socialized the dogs to people. In most months, the number of dogs destroyed for behavior ranges from 15 to 20 dogs. We believe this number is high. The shelter website says the following about this issue:
Large dogs over 40 pounds that are aggressive to cats, other dogs, and people are considered a public safety issue by Huntsville Animal Services, and if they are accepted into the shelter they will be humanely euthanized. At this time our community does not have the needed resources to humanely and safely modify these large dog’s behaviors.
We are told the shelter takes in a lot of dogs who have never been properly socialized to people or other animals which creates issues with their placement. We acknowledge that to be true. There are most certainly dogs who may require more work or longer foster placements to resolve problem behaviors and to get them out of the shelter where they may degrade over time. Some dogs have cognitive issues which make them genuinely dangerous and who cannot be adopted out into our community.
We have recommended for a period of years that the city hire a contract behaviorist to address the needs of the dogs most at risk of death in our shelter for behavior. Shelters are incredibly stressful places for all animals and the lives of dogs should not be ended just because the shelter environment itself causes them stress. If the city can afford to hire a second veterinarian, our argument is that it can also afford a behaviorist not only to keep more dogs alive but to keep the community safe. The community may currently lack the “needed resources” to care for the dogs, but can work to acquire those resources over time.
Datasets of Note (which relate primarily to factors outside the control of the shelter)
Owner Requested Euthanasia (ORE). Huntsville Animal Services provides euthanasia services to people upon request for a fee and upon request. It is understood that some people lack the resources to have their own veterinarian euthanize a pet who is suffering. Having said that the ORE numbers have gone up drastically over the years. In 2015, 4 animals were destroyed at the request of owners. That number hit a high of 60 animals in 2017 and was down to 51 in 2018. In 2019, the number was 71 (67 dogs and 4 cats).
This rise in ORE is troubling due to the spike in numbers. It is possible that people simply did not know that the shelter provided this service in the past and are now taking advantage of the service now that they are aware of it.
Animals Running at Large. The number of animals found running at large each year has remained essentially the same for the last five years. It was 4,542 in 2019 (up about 300 animals from 2018). We see this as a failure of the public to keep pets contained, ensure pets can be identified if lost, and go to the shelter to look for lost pets. Having said that, the shelter does make it somewhat difficult to find lost pets due to limited operating hours – the shelter is primarily open when people are at work and serves a large geographic area where it can take a while to travel to the shelter. We are told that most of the animal intake comes from known areas of the city and county. We feel it is up to the shelter to take steps to address “problem areas” and not just hope that the situation will improve. We feel strongly that proactive community outreach can go a long way toward modifying public behavior to lower the number of animals found running at large.
Owner Surrenders. The number of owner surrenders has been cut almost in half due to a process called managed intake. The surrender number in 2019 was 546 (it was 1,029 in 2015). Managed intake is a process by which people who seek to surrender an animal are provided with information and counseling to find alternatives to surrendering the pet. Although many people think the shelter is obligated to take owned animals, it is not. The shelter does work with people to try to find alternatives as a first choice, but then will take owned animals when space becomes available in an effort to find the animal a new home.
Transfer to Rescue Groups. The number of animals transferred to rescue groups has dropped drastically from a high of 1,065 animals in 2015, to 556 animals in 2018, and now to 619 animals in 2019. We see this as symptomatic of the progress at the shelter. Because rescue groups view animals in other shelters as being more at risk of death, they focus more on outlying areas to save animals housed in kill shelters. We hope local rescue groups will find ways to balance their life-saving efforts between Madison County and other counties in 2020. The role of rescue groups in removing animals from the shelter is key to continued progress.
Return to Owner. The number of animals returned to owners has remained about the same in the last five years. It was 729 animals in 2015 and was 785 animals in 2019.This is a result not only of people failing to ensure their pets can be identified, but also failing to go to the shelter to look for them if they are lost. The shelter’s limited operating hours do not help this process because many people cannot get to the shelter while it is open. Having a pet microchipped is an inexpensive way to ensure pets can be identified and get back home not only if lost, but also if stolen. To help pets be identified, we will promote our annual “Chipathon” in March, thanks to Dr. Eric Hulsey at Bentley Animal Hospital. Chipping will be provided for $20, including the registration, as has been the case in years past for this event.
We applaud the progress made by the City of Huntsville, the shelter leadership, shelter staff, volunteers, adopters, fosters, donors and the community to make Huntsville Animal Services a place of hope and new beginnings. This is not an “us v. them” situation. It is a we situation. In order for our shelter to maintain the progress achieved to date, we must all make better personal choices which affect how the shelter operates. Although many people do not give the shelter operation much thought, decisions about pet containment, spay/neuter, microchipping, socialization and resolving problem behaviors at home absolutely affect the level of service the shelter provides to us all.
We hope the city will continue to work to improve the live release rate by fine-tuning programs and continuing to keep the community engaged. We recognize that the city has to work hard to keep the shelter in the public eye on an ongoing basis. We will continue to seek media coverage for the shelter whenever we can to applaud progress, promote programs or notify the public of issues which require their attention and assistance.
We do hope that the city will give serious consideration to hiring a part-time behaviorist or acquiring some other resources to keep more dogs alive in the future. We are told by Dr. Sheppard that the shelter has hopes of implementing the Pets For Life Program promoted by the Humane Society of the United States. This is a program that helps people who face financial challenges care for their pets and keep them in existing homes. This type of outreach may help people make better choices which prevent pets from entering the shelter at all.
Absent the city hiring a behaviorist, we are hopeful one of our existing rescue groups will decide to make saving at risk dogs in the shelter a priority in the coming year by devoting some resources to just those dogs who are most at risk in the shelter environment. This may involve placement in foster homes for longer periods of time and may require consultation with a behaviorist or trainer to prepare those dogs to be adopted into loving homes.
Stay tuned! We think 2020 will be a great year for Huntsville Animal Services!
No Kill Huntsville formed in January of 2012. The original group was a couple dozen nonprofit shelter leaders, nonprofit leaders, rescue group leaders and animal advocates. The mission of the organization is, and has always been, to encourage the City of Huntsville to adopt progressive animal shelter programs and to end the archaic practice of destroying healthy and treatable pets using tax dollars. We had no idea if we would succeed when we first met, but we knew we had to try. A number of us had been working independently of each other to seek change and we felt we would do better by combining our efforts. There were numerous places across the country where the lives of shelter animals were being saved and we knew Huntsville could do the same.
Prior to the formation of No Kill Huntsville, the live release rate at Huntsville Animal Services had been incredibly low for a very long time. Although most city officials and members of the pubic presumed the shelter would not needlessly destroy animals, that is (unfortunately) exactly what happened for many years. The animals being destroyed were not just those who were suffering or irremediably ill, but animals who were perfect healthy and treatable.
We spent approximately a year preparing to make our pitch to the City of Huntsville to adopt the programs and services of the No Kill Equation which we still promote to this day. We had contacts across the country who had used the equation to reform their own communities and we knew the same methods would work here. The equation is a series of programs which work in concert with each other to both reduce shelter intake (what we call “keep them out” programs), to increase shelter output (what we call “get them out” programs) and which both reduce intake and increase output. The genius of the equation is that it can be adopted in any community regardless of resources and bring about change not in years but very fast. Some places have become No Kill Communities literally overnight by using the equation. We realized it would take some more time in Huntsville simply due to the number of animals who had been destroyed over a period of years and due to prior resistance on the part of city officials to embrace the programs themselves and without the need for our political advocacy.
We hit some high walls and some big speed bumps along the way. In early 2013, the shelter leadership was offered free help by subject matter experts which we would have paid for. This would have been confidential, hands on help inside the shelter to examine policies, procedures and programs in order to determine how to implement the equation quickly by building on current operations. This help was refused. It was only when we hit that wall that we had no alternative but to take the subject to the public and began our public information campaign which continues to this day. We held a free public workshop, we used the media to reach people, we paid for Lamar billboard space around town to introduce people to the concept of No Kill, we showed a documentary film at Lee High School, we used social media and our fully developed website to reach more people and we engaged in a series of meetings with city officials.
Our group became smaller over the years; a core group of 6 members remain to this day. We had a lot of opposition and much of it came from a surprising source: people in the rescue community. It was not easy and we lost friends along the way, something we were told would happen. At one point a shelter employee set up a hate page on Facebook which was encouraged by people in the rescue community as well as members of the shelter staff. The page was ultimately removed with the help of the city. Things began to change quickly in 2014 when we met with newly appointed City Administrator John Hamilton. He was on board with the No Kill Equation from our first meeting with him in March of 2014 and for that we remain incredibly grateful.
Due to a combination of animal welfare advocacy, city leadership and public participation, the live release rate at the shelter began to improve over a period of time. It reached the 90% benchmark in 2015 and has remained essentially at that level for the last three years.
In April of 2016, we began promoting a CAPA – a Companion Animal Protection Act – which we later called the Huntsville Animal Protection Act. We promoted the HAPA in earnest during 2018 in meetings with city council members and candidates for city council. For us, the HAPA is about maintaining legacy to ensure that the shelter does not go back to the old ways of functioning no matter who leads the city or who runs the shelter. The HAPA would have set measurable standards for the shelter to achieve and would have required certain standards for animal housing, care and placement and prior to euthanizing animals. Because work was already taking place to revise the entire animal code for the city, the city chose to not implement the HAPA and to instead incorporate much of the spirit of the HAPA into the revisions to Chapter 5 of the City Code. This was not the outcome we had hoped for, but it is the outcome chosen by the city. We are left with no alternative to accept the city’s decisions and celebrate the aspects of the ordinance used to change the city code which reflect the intent of the city moving forward and expectations regarding the operation of Huntsville Animal Services. The City's statements of intent are here. The City's expectations of the shelter policies are here.
In light of the revisions to the city code, we have suspended our promotion of the HAPA for the foreseeable future. Should a time come when we feel the city is open to codifying more of the aspects of the shelter operation, we will consider promoting the HAPA again.
We will continue to maintain our website and obtain copies of the shelter statistics and euthanasia reports from the City Attorney’s Office each month to ensure the city does not back slide and to continue our work monitoring the number of dogs destroyed for behavior and kennel stress. We will also promote Chipathon events twice a year (in March and July) to encourage people to have their pets microchipped to prevent them from entering the shelter (or to get them back home quickly). We will no longer maintain our Facebook page; it is a 7-day a week platform. It will go dormant unless a time comes when we see the need to use it to reach people. Any questions or comments about our group, the No Kill Equation or the state of animal welfare in Huntsville and Madison County can be addressed to us using our website and our email account.
There is still much work to be done in Huntsville and city officials are the first to acknowledge that fact. We hope you will join us in congratulating city leaders on the progress made to date. We also hope you will join us as we continue to hold the city accountable while stepping back into the shadows for now. We are told that the shelter will continue to develop policies and programs which promote life-saving in our community and that we are not limited by the 90% benchmark which ordinarily is an indication of progressive programs. We hope a time comes when the city decides that it can call itself a No Kill community and will do so with pride.
We have written before about the balance public between public safety and animal welfare, particularly as it relates to decisions to destroy dogs for behavior. We last wrote on this topic a couple of years ago when we had concluded that otherwise healthy and treatable dogs were being destroyed at Huntsville Animal Services for space and not for reasons of behavior as had been presented by the city. We were pleased back then that the city retained Kelley Bollen of Animal Alliances to train the shelter staff and volunteers on evaluating dogs in the shelter environment. Kelley trains on a method she developed at the Cornell School of Veterinary Medicine and which we felt would serve the shelter staff well. The training was held in March of 2016.
In September of 2017, we were told by City Administrator John Hamilton that the city had not destroyed any animals strictly for space in three years. Although we had concerns about dogs being needlessly destroyed for reasons of behavior, even following the March 2016 training, we took his statement at face value. Just a few days after our meeting with Mr. Hamilton we learned that the number of dogs destroyed in September was double what it had been in prior months. When this continued for a few months, we knew something had gone wrong. We offered the city free training on evaluating dogs in a shelter environment from a shelter expert. Our offer was refused. The city decided to bring Kelley Bollen back to train the staff again in April. We are currently doing a fundraiser to offset the costs of that training as a show of good faith.
We have worked exceedingly hard to be diplomatic in our dealings with city officials. If we are too critical of the city, we run the risk of making it sound like nothing the shelter staff does will ever be good enough for us. Being hypercritical in the face of much progress does not serve the animals well. Having said that, our role is the same now as it was when our coalition was formed in January 2012. We exist to hold the City of Huntsville accountable for how the municipal animal shelter operates using public funds. We are the voice for the animals who cannot speak for themselves and we remain boat rockers for change. It is part of our mission to encourage the city to do better, but it is also our responsibility to call out the city when it fails to meet what we consider basic standards or otherwise use common sense.
We want the city to stop destroying so very many dogs for behavior. We genuinely do not believe that the number of dogs who end up in the shelter and who pose a public safety risk are as high as the number of dogs being destroyed for behavior-related reasons each month. Yes, we know some dogs have cognitive problems or are so under-socialized or traumatized that they really are dangerous and cannot be allowed out in our communities. But the occasions when euthanasia for behavior is warranted should be taken incredibly seriously to ensure that good dogs are not destroyed. The subject matter expert we had hoped to retain to help the city has since offered to help the shelter director by email and phone for free. Another shelter director in Colorado who has an incredibly high save rate for dogs has offered to do the same. Both offers have been communicated to the shelter director and she has failed to reach out for help.
On February 24, 2018, this post was found on the Facebook page for Huntsville Animal Services. It simply added to our level of concern about the dogs being destroyed in the shelter for behavior-based reasons.
There is a lot of information on the Internet related to dog bites, dog bite fatalities and about the role of breed in those subjects. We rely upon data compiled by the National Canine Research Council. The data used is not based on media reports and is based on science and verifiable facts. Some other the sources of information, however, are completely unreliable and are considered “junk science.” Websites managed by Merritt Clifton, Colleen Lynn and Jeff Borchardt are based on fiction and emotion and not on science. Merritt Clifton has a long standing bias against pit bull type dogs and has been called an academic imposter. Colleen Lynn is a web developer who was once bitten by a dog and has since been on a campaign to eliminate pit bull type dogs entirely. Jeff Borchart’s son was killed by his babysitter’s two pit bull type dogs and has developed a platform which is based on his inherent bias against pit bull type dogs. We do not discount that some dog bite fatalities have involved pit bull type dogs and that those instances are incredibly tragic. But science has shown that breed alone is not the reason for attacks.
The fact that our shelter director, Karen Sheppard, who is a veterinarian, would “study” a website as inaccurate as Dogsbite.org tells us a lot about how she makes decisions about which dogs in her facility will live and which dogs will die. It is both alarming and shocking that she would rely not on data and science, but on sensationalized content which is driven by an agenda not meant to serve all dogs equally.
In 2009, Dr. Sheppard asked a member of our coalition to write a white paper advocating adoption of pit bull type dogs. She said she needed it to use with some members of her staff and with the city attorney’s office so she could adopt out more pit bull type dogs. “Forsaken No More” was first published in 2009 and was shared with Dr. Sheppard. It appears on the Animal Law Coalition website and has been used nationally. When the author, Aubrie Kavanaugh, saw Dr. Sheppard on the news in late 2013, lamenting problems adopting out pit bull type dogs, the research paper was revised. The paper itself is found here and the research for the paper is found here. The paper was reviewed by Karen Delise of the National Canine Research Council and by Ledy VanKavage, the senior legislative analyst with the Best Friends Animal Society. The paper continues to be used nationally and by advocates seeking to educate elected officials, public officials and the public about the truths related to pit bull type dogs.
It is unfortunate that the person who asked that the paper be written in the first place either did not read it or has just chosen to rely on junk science as a source of information. Not to mention failing to take advantage of networking with her peers (which costs nothing) who can help her save more dogs.
Every single dog which enters our shelter deserves to be treated as an individual and given the maximum opportunity to make it out of the shelter alive. Think about your dog would behave in a shelter environment which is nothing like your home. Would he or she be scared? Fearful? Would he or she cower in the corner of a kennel or bark non-stop? Would he or she get along with other dogs and even cats in that environment? How dogs behave in a shelter environment says more about the shelter than it does about the dogs which is why shelter evaluations have been described as no better than a coin toss.
We are hopeful Kelley Bollen’s visit in April will lead to more dogs’ lives being saved. There appears to be bias at work which has not diminished with time.
(image courtesy of Molly Wald and the Best Friends Animal Society)
As we wind down 2017, No Kill Huntsville takes a look back at the year as a whole to hit on some of the highlights which have taken place like we did last year.
The Bad News
• The city has yet to make a public declaration of intent that it will no longer destroy healthy and treatable animals. We were told by City Administrator John Hamilton during a September 2017 meeting that the city has not destroyed any healthy and treatable animals purely for space in three years. Based on this milestone, we see no reason for the city to delay in making a commitment to the No Kill model moving forward. Although the city faced some challenges in 2017 and did not quite match the level of success achieved in 2016, it is in an ideal position to make a public commitment and say that Huntsville is a No Kill Community in both culture and in spirit moving forward. We believe that the city can in good faith commit to a standard and live up to that standard.
• We believe that otherwise healthy and treatable dogs are destroyed in the shelter having been labeled as a aggressive or a public safety risk when there may be ways to avoid destroying them. We realize that many dogs do not do well in a shelter environment. We also realize that some dogs are broken and really do present a public safety risk. The National Canine Research Council has stated that, "shelter evaluations may tell us as much or more about the effect of the shelter as they do about the individual dogs. Shelters are noisy, alien environments, filled with strange smells, unfamiliar people, and dogs they may hear, but not see. We should not be surprised that some dogs may. . behave differently when confined in a shelter, with its barrage of stressors that the dog cannot control, than they will in the safe, secure, predictable environment of a home, cared for by people with whom they are able to form positive attachments." We took our concerns about this issue to the city and we offered to pay for a subject matter expert to help the city for free. Our offer was declined. The city has instead decided to retain an expert of its choosing to help train the shelter staff. This training will take place in April. We are hopeful the training will result in fewer dogs being destroyed each month for behavior issues (which are categorized as fearful, aggressive, public safety and high arousal). We will be promoting a fundraiser to help offset costs of the training.
• The shelter still has yet to fully embrace the No Kill Equation and develop programs which will serve to both reduce intake and increase output. Many of these programs cost nothing and some actions take very little time. We have included the list of things we have recommended to the city in the Looking Forward section of this blog below. We genuinely hope they will be considered in 2018 or that the shelter leadership will network with national organizations with which they are aligned to seek assistance to fine tune programs. Only when all of the programs of the No Kill Equation are fully embraced with the shelter be able to save more animals.
The Good News
• The city continues to do an impressive job saving the lives of animals as compared to those saved during the years before we took this issue to the public. We fully realize that saving the lives of animals is incredibly difficult and challenging work and that it is an ongoing struggle. The statistics for 2017 were not quite as good as for 2016. The highlights from our analysis are as follows:
• Plans to improve the shelter building are progressing. The first phase of shelter renovations happened last year with the opening of Cat World. We were told by Mr. Hamilton that renovations will be made to the dog housing area this year which will help reduce the number of dogs getting sick after they enter the shelter and which should also reduce some issues with negative behavior. The kennels in which dogs are housed are currently separated by low walls and fencing. We are told that the renovations will fully enclose each dog kennel. This will allow for dedicated air exchange for each kennel (to avoid the spread of disease and bacteria). This will also reduce the level of stimulation dogs experience from seeing and hearing other dogs to the extent they do now.
• Huntsville Animal Services is now active on Petfinder. For a period of time there was no way that someone looking for a pet from the shelter could go to one location to see what pets are available. Some were on a Pet Harbor website and some were on Facebook. We asked the city to consider posting all of the animals on a single website and recommended Petfinder because it is considered the gold standard when people are looking to adopt a pet and want to view pets online. We are hopeful that in the months to come, all of the shelter pets will be shown on Petfinder whether they are in the shelter building or are in foster care.
• More pets in our community are microchipped. We held a Chipathon over the summer to promote microchipping and hundreds of pets were microchipped. We are promoting another Chipathon for the month of January of 2018. The goal of these events is to get more pets microchipped so they can be returned home quickly and spend either no time in the shelter or less time in the shelter.
• The shelter now has a sound system just for the animals. A Facebook group called Lost and Founds Pets of Huntsville/Madison County, led by Jeananne Jackson, promoted a You Caring Fundraiser to get a sound system installed in the shelter to help calm the shelter animals. The system was installed in July at no cost to the city. It plays soft rock during the day and classical music at night. Studies have shown that shelter animals show signs of reduced anxiety and anxiety-related behaviors such as barking, scratching, pacing and whining when exposed to music.
No Kill Huntsville has been in a monitoring mode of sorts during this year and we plan to continue in that capacity in 2018. We look forward to the facilities upgrades which are being planned and we look forward to the training which will take place in April to help the shelter do a better job of evaluating dogs toward keeping more of those dogs alive.
We have made a number of recommendations to the city regarding community outreach and program development. Although we have been told that our suggestions are considered after those of employees and volunteers, we hope the shelter leadership will consider implementing those programs which do not cost more, which take very little time and which would not require additional staffing. Some of our recommendations are listed here. If you support any of our recommendations, we ask that you communicate that support to Mr. John Hamilton and to Dr. Karen Sheppard.
• Hold monthly community outreach meetings in the city council districts and county commission districts (one meeting a month in a different location) to address issues in those geographic areas to help reduce shelter intake while increasing adoptions through direct contact with the public being served. Many people don’t think about the shelter operation or how it is affected by their personal behavior. Community outreach can be used to educate the public to make better choices while making it clear what services the shelter does and does not provide.
• Consider enacting a Companion Animal Protection Act like that enacted recently in Muncie, Indiana and which has also been acted in places like Austin, Texas, St. Paul Minnesota and the State of Delaware. A CAPA would be an ordinance to codify some of the standards for the shelter, regardless of who oversees the shelter. Enacting a CAPA would serve to preserve the legacy of Mayor Battle and other city leaders moving forward by ensuring the shelter does not destroy animals when there is open kennel space, by ensuring the shelter does not destroy animals without first networking with rescue groups and by ensuring the live release rate does not fall below 90% (among other provisions).
• Improve the method by which adoption surrenders are handled so there is a mechanism for adopters to return animals within a set period of time rather than having them go to rescues for help or otherwise feel compelled to abandon them (which is illegal).
• Improve surrender counseling to work harder to keep pets in existing homes and establishing a waiting list for owner surrenders (as opposed to just turning people away).
• Hold periodic off site adoptions at city parks in various locations to interact with a wider segment of the public and make it easier for people to adopt a shelter pet. (An off-site event was held on December 29th at Big Spring Park and a small number of dogs were adopted.)
• Stay open late one more night a week (in addition to Tuesday night) to make it easier for owners to find lost pets or adopt.
• Implement Pets for Vets and Seniors for Seniors programs to reach certain segments of the population and to place larger dogs and older animals.
• Implement a Pet Help Desk managed through a combination of email and phone using volunteers to help augment the staff in order to help people keep pets in their homes and out of the shelter.
• Enact city anti-chaining and humane tethering ordinance similar to the one enacted in Arab last year to reduce problems associated with resident dogs who are not properly socialized to people or who may be subject to abuse and neglect (causing them to end up in the shelter).
No Kill Equation Report Card
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.
What a Difference Four Years Makes
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)
No Kill Huntsville
Keep up with our updates and latest news regarding Huntsville becoming a no kill community.
image courtesy of Terrah Johnson