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 We did so only after we had hit a wall in our efforts to get the city expert and confidential help to end the outdated practice of destroying healthy and treatable shelter pets.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 matter 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
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image courtesy of Terrah Johnson