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
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