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.
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
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)
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 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.
For those of you who have come to our website and are wondering if we still exist, yes. We are still here.
Late last year we made a collective decision to change our engagement in the community as a result of the fact that Huntsville Animal Services had made quite a bit of progress in saving animals. Although we still have some concerns regarding program development and sustainability, there is little to be gained by repeating ourselves for the sake of emphasis. We have made a number of recommendations regarding our concerns and have been told that the city "is and will continue to engage with industry experts in shaping the policies and procedures used in the shelter. We are extremely pleased with the progress. . .over the last couple years and confident that conditions are being set to continue that progress."
We are essentially in a holding pattern while we wait to see what happens in the months to come. A recent post by the Huntsville Animal Services on Facebook indicated that during 2015, the shelter "housed right at 3,218 dogs and 1,973 cats (5,191) releasing alive right at 2,738 dogs and 1,812 cats (4,550) and having still 287 pets in our shelter and foster home program." We have requested statistics for the year and have requested copies of records related to dogs destroyed in the last three months of the year so we can continue our analysis of the reasons why dogs are destroyed. Once we have those records, we will post them on our website.
We understand that there are many people in our community who are still angered by or unhappy with our advocacy. Some of them are with local rescue groups, some of them are shelter volunteers and some of them have chosen to go on the attack against us personally for our advocacy. As much as we find this type of behavior unproductive (and in many cases libelous) there is little we can do to stop it and we simply will not be baited by it. We have much better ways to spend our time than to try to engage in discourse with people who attack the messenger while completely losing sight of the message. We did not relish having to come together to seek better for our community in the first place. We are all incredibly busy and advocacy takes a toll in terms of time, money and emotional energy. There are no days off.
We have no regrets for having been the boat rockers for the sake of the lives of companion animals and the people who live and work here. We would ask those who find our advocacy too outspoken to consider this one fact: if local officials had chosen to embrace no kill philosophies years ago and on their own after having been introduced to those philosophies, our coalition never would have been necessary in the first place. As the saying goes, "we didn't start the fire."
We hope you will stay tuned in the months to come as we sit back, watch what happens and continue in our role of keeping the city honest. Will we become a no kill community in 2016? We certainly hope so.
When our coalition first formed in January of 2012, we had one goal in mind: to speak with one voice toward making ours a no kill community - a place where healthy and treatable shelter animals are not at risk and are not destroyed using our tax dollars. We developed a Facebook presence in April of 2012 in order to reach more people in the community and share our vision of Huntsville as a no kill community. We have always sought to become irrelevant not because of lack of interest, but because we simply are no longer needed in this particular advocacy role.
The City of Huntsville is nearing the end of the most successful year of animal sheltering in the history of the city. The numbers for the entire year have yet to be calculated; we presume that the live release rate will be near 90% and may even exceed that percentage. The city has openly stated that it hopes to do even better in the coming year and city leaders are clearly energized about the public’s response to calls for community involvement in saving shelter pets. As we begin the new year, we have moved away from Facebook and reverted to our primary means of communication which is our fully developed website. We will be blogging from our website periodically in order to keep supporters posted on news of interest and the latest local developments.
We remain hopeful that the progress achieved by city officials to date can be sustained. We look forward to a time when the city makes a public declaration that it plans to become a genuine no kill community and that healthy and treatable shelter animals are no longer at risk in our municipal shelter under any circumstances. We still have some concerns about program development, but we can envision no circumstances under which the city would revert back to the old ways of functioning.
We hope you will stay tuned as we begin a new and exciting chapter in the history of Huntsville and Madison County and as this community demonstrates to the entire region what can happen when we have faith in the compassion of the animal-loving public. The next logical step following a public declaration of intent is for the city to codify the manner in which the municipal shelter operates so that progress can be sustained not just for the short-term, but for years to come by enacting a Companion Animal Protection Act. More information on this and other programs that sustain the progress and can better serve the animals and the public can be found on our website.
Will 2016 be "the" year we become a no kill community? We have faith in those who lead us and in our community to do just that.
When city officials were first introduced to the no kill programs we promote in equation form in late 2008, the live release rate at our municipal shelter was 25%. Three out of every 4 animals were destroyed regardless of health or disposition. When we formed our coalition in early 2012, the live release rate had risen to 34%. We consider this a dismal number and are truly glad it is now just part of the past
The live release rate at the municipal shelter was over 96% in the month of October and we suspect the November numbers will be similar, This is a stellar achievement and one which should be a great source of pride for local elected and appointed officials, city employees, rescuers, volunteers and the animal-loving public. Just a few short years ago, many in our community felt we just could not do better for whatever reason. Time has proven that position to be wrong. As has been the case in many communities brave enough to try something new, time has proven that we are, in fact, capable of change and that our community is, in fact, compassionate enough to make better choices. More than 100 shelter animals were adopted out in a single day on November 30th. When a bed drive was launched to help shelter dogs, the goal of 80 beds was met in less than 4 business days. Those facts alone say a lot about our community and the capacity for greatness.
The road to change is never easy. It comes with conflict, lost sleep, hurt feelings and in the case of the no kill movement, it often results in a great deal of opposition. This may seem illogical to many of you. As we were asked at our no kill workshop in the summer of 2013 at the downtown library, "who could possibly object to saving the lives of homeless pets?" Exactly.
If someone had told the members of our group in January of 2012 that Huntsville would achieve live release rates above 95% but that it would take us being made out to be the bad guys in the process, each and every one of us would have signed on for those terms. Because, you see, this has never, ever been about us as individuals and has always been about pushing for better for our homeless pets and our community. Whether you think our coalition has had anything to do with change here or not, the reality is that we are now a much different community than we were four years ago in terms of how many shelter pets are saved.
As we near the end of 2015, we remain hopeful the shelter progress achieved to date can be sustained. We challenge city officials not only to keep the live release rates close to those achieved in recent months, but also to make that final push and commitment to make ours a no kill community by publicly declaring that healthy and treatable shelter pets are no longer at risk under any circumstances.
We invite all of you to learn more about what is taking place in our community related to the municipal animal shelter, about your your own behavior affects what happens in the community and about what you can do personally to be part of making ours the no kill community we know we can be.
No Kill Huntsville
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image courtesy of Terrah Johnson