As we wind down 2017, No Kill Huntsville takes a look back at the year as a whole to hit on some of the highlights which have taken place like we did last year.
The Bad News
• The city has yet to make a public declaration of intent that it will no longer destroy healthy and treatable animals. We were told by City Administrator John Hamilton during a September 2017 meeting that the city has not destroyed any healthy and treatable animals purely for space in three years. Based on this milestone, we see no reason for the city to delay in making a commitment to the No Kill model moving forward. Although the city faced some challenges in 2017 and did not quite match the level of success achieved in 2016, it is in an ideal position to make a public commitment and say that Huntsville is a No Kill Community in both culture and in spirit moving forward. We believe that the city can in good faith commit to a standard and live up to that standard.
• We believe that otherwise healthy and treatable dogs are destroyed in the shelter having been labeled as a aggressive or a public safety risk when there may be ways to avoid destroying them. We realize that many dogs do not do well in a shelter environment. We also realize that some dogs are broken and really do present a public safety risk. The National Canine Research Council has stated that, "shelter evaluations may tell us as much or more about the effect of the shelter as they do about the individual dogs. Shelters are noisy, alien environments, filled with strange smells, unfamiliar people, and dogs they may hear, but not see. We should not be surprised that some dogs may. . behave differently when confined in a shelter, with its barrage of stressors that the dog cannot control, than they will in the safe, secure, predictable environment of a home, cared for by people with whom they are able to form positive attachments." We took our concerns about this issue to the city and we offered to pay for a subject matter expert to help the city for free. Our offer was declined. The city has instead decided to retain an expert of its choosing to help train the shelter staff. This training will take place in April. We are hopeful the training will result in fewer dogs being destroyed each month for behavior issues (which are categorized as fearful, aggressive, public safety and high arousal). We will be promoting a fundraiser to help offset costs of the training.
• The shelter still has yet to fully embrace the No Kill Equation and develop programs which will serve to both reduce intake and increase output. Many of these programs cost nothing and some actions take very little time. We have included the list of things we have recommended to the city in the Looking Forward section of this blog below. We genuinely hope they will be considered in 2018 or that the shelter leadership will network with national organizations with which they are aligned to seek assistance to fine tune programs. Only when all of the programs of the No Kill Equation are fully embraced with the shelter be able to save more animals.
The Good News
• The city continues to do an impressive job saving the lives of animals as compared to those saved during the years before we took this issue to the public. We fully realize that saving the lives of animals is incredibly difficult and challenging work and that it is an ongoing struggle. The statistics for 2017 were not quite as good as for 2016. The highlights from our analysis are as follows:
• Plans to improve the shelter building are progressing. The first phase of shelter renovations happened last year with the opening of Cat World. We were told by Mr. Hamilton that renovations will be made to the dog housing area this year which will help reduce the number of dogs getting sick after they enter the shelter and which should also reduce some issues with negative behavior. The kennels in which dogs are housed are currently separated by low walls and fencing. We are told that the renovations will fully enclose each dog kennel. This will allow for dedicated air exchange for each kennel (to avoid the spread of disease and bacteria). This will also reduce the level of stimulation dogs experience from seeing and hearing other dogs to the extent they do now.
• Huntsville Animal Services is now active on Petfinder. For a period of time there was no way that someone looking for a pet from the shelter could go to one location to see what pets are available. Some were on a Pet Harbor website and some were on Facebook. We asked the city to consider posting all of the animals on a single website and recommended Petfinder because it is considered the gold standard when people are looking to adopt a pet and want to view pets online. We are hopeful that in the months to come, all of the shelter pets will be shown on Petfinder whether they are in the shelter building or are in foster care.
• More pets in our community are microchipped. We held a Chipathon over the summer to promote microchipping and hundreds of pets were microchipped. We are promoting another Chipathon for the month of January of 2018. The goal of these events is to get more pets microchipped so they can be returned home quickly and spend either no time in the shelter or less time in the shelter.
• The shelter now has a sound system just for the animals. A Facebook group called Lost and Founds Pets of Huntsville/Madison County, led by Jeananne Jackson, promoted a You Caring Fundraiser to get a sound system installed in the shelter to help calm the shelter animals. The system was installed in July at no cost to the city. It plays soft rock during the day and classical music at night. Studies have shown that shelter animals show signs of reduced anxiety and anxiety-related behaviors such as barking, scratching, pacing and whining when exposed to music.
No Kill Huntsville has been in a monitoring mode of sorts during this year and we plan to continue in that capacity in 2018. We look forward to the facilities upgrades which are being planned and we look forward to the training which will take place in April to help the shelter do a better job of evaluating dogs toward keeping more of those dogs alive.
We have made a number of recommendations to the city regarding community outreach and program development. Although we have been told that our suggestions are considered after those of employees and volunteers, we hope the shelter leadership will consider implementing those programs which do not cost more, which take very little time and which would not require additional staffing. Some of our recommendations are listed here. If you support any of our recommendations, we ask that you communicate that support to Mr. John Hamilton and to Dr. Karen Sheppard.
• Hold monthly community outreach meetings in the city council districts and county commission districts (one meeting a month in a different location) to address issues in those geographic areas to help reduce shelter intake while increasing adoptions through direct contact with the public being served. Many people don’t think about the shelter operation or how it is affected by their personal behavior. Community outreach can be used to educate the public to make better choices while making it clear what services the shelter does and does not provide.
• Consider enacting a Companion Animal Protection Act like that enacted recently in Muncie, Indiana and which has also been acted in places like Austin, Texas, St. Paul Minnesota and the State of Delaware. A CAPA would be an ordinance to codify some of the standards for the shelter, regardless of who oversees the shelter. Enacting a CAPA would serve to preserve the legacy of Mayor Battle and other city leaders moving forward by ensuring the shelter does not destroy animals when there is open kennel space, by ensuring the shelter does not destroy animals without first networking with rescue groups and by ensuring the live release rate does not fall below 90% (among other provisions).
• Improve the method by which adoption surrenders are handled so there is a mechanism for adopters to return animals within a set period of time rather than having them go to rescues for help or otherwise feel compelled to abandon them (which is illegal).
• Improve surrender counseling to work harder to keep pets in existing homes and establishing a waiting list for owner surrenders (as opposed to just turning people away).
• Hold periodic off site adoptions at city parks in various locations to interact with a wider segment of the public and make it easier for people to adopt a shelter pet. (An off-site event was held on December 29th at Big Spring Park and a small number of dogs were adopted.)
• Stay open late one more night a week (in addition to Tuesday night) to make it easier for owners to find lost pets or adopt.
• Implement Pets for Vets and Seniors for Seniors programs to reach certain segments of the population and to place larger dogs and older animals.
• Implement a Pet Help Desk managed through a combination of email and phone using volunteers to help augment the staff in order to help people keep pets in their homes and out of the shelter.
• Enact city anti-chaining and humane tethering ordinance similar to the one enacted in Arab last year to reduce problems associated with resident dogs who are not properly socialized to people or who may be subject to abuse and neglect (causing them to end up in the shelter).
No Kill Equation Report Card
Huntsville and Huntsville Animal Services have come a long way.
When No Kill philosophies were first shared with city officials in November of 2008, the Live Release Rate at our municipal animal shelter was 25%. Three out of every four animals entering the building were destroyed. When we formed our coalition in January of 2012 and began our research phase, the rate had risen to 34%. Some progress had been made, but it was incredibly slow and thousands of animals continued to die each year. When we took our topic to the public in the summer of 2013, the rate had risen to 41% and by the end of that year it had reached 47%. Again, progress had been made but it was slow. More than half of the animals entering the shelter building continued to be destroyed not because anything was wrong with them, but because that was just what had been done for so long. Those who lead the shelter felt they were doing the best they could with limited resources, felt they were doing a great job and were happy with the progress which had been made in a few short years.
We, as a coalition, have always sought one thing: for the destruction of healthy and treatable animals in the shelter to end. We have always promoted the No Kill Equation to achieve that goal because it has been proven to work everywhere it has been fully embraced. Some elements of the Equation serve to keep animals from entering the shelter at all. Some serve to move animals through the system quickly if they do end up in the shelter. Some elements serve both purposes. The genius of the No Kill Equation is that it is a DIY type solution to changing how an animal shelter operates. It is very important to learn what has worked well (and what has failed) in other communities, but the No Kill Equation can be examined element by element and then implemented using the resources available in any community. When we first began interacting with the newly appointed City Administrator, John Hamilton, about our No Kill purpose and vision, he said, "you had me at hello." He listened to our input about use of the Equation and even took the elements of the Equation to create his own diagram which looks similar to the Parthenon in Greece. It did not matter that he viewed the elements in different ways. What mattered is that he understood how they worked together and still does to this day.
The City of Huntsville and Huntsville Animal Services is about to mark a milestone and we think it is incredibly important to share it not only with the people who live and work in Huntsville, but with those across the country who have watched our progress and who may look to our community for guidance.
No healthy and treatable animals have been destroyed in our municipal shelter strictly for space since September of 2014. That means that it has been almost 3 full years since the city engaged in population control killing.
We have written before about issues with dogs being described as aggressive and then destroyed for public safety purposes. We fully realize that dogs who may be dangerous to people cannot be adopted out into the community and risk having someone injured or, worse yet, killed by a dog. We believe that for a period of time following September of 2014, some dogs were destroyed after either having been labeled as aggressive (when they were simply scared or traumatized) or after having deteriorated behaviorally from being in the shelter too long. Having said that, we know that the shelter leadership has taken steps to better evaluate dogs in the shelter environment (by having staff and volunteers trained by subject matter experts). We also know that the shelter leadership has developed enrichment programs for dogs to prevent them from deteriorating while in the shelter environment. We have also seen social media posts which clearly state that a certain dog is not doing well in the shelter as a means to market that dog more aggressively to get him or her out of the shelter in order to save a life.
We know that there are still issues to be fine tuned at Huntsville Animal Services. We met with Mr. Hamilton on September 15th to talk about some of those issues and to offer some suggestions which may help the city. This is truly a work in progress and there is no such thing as being "done" with improving the shelter. Saving the lives of shelter animals is incredibly hard work and there are no days off. It takes committed city leaders like Mayor Tommy Battle and City Administrator John Hamilton. It takes a passionate Shelter Director like Dr. Karen Sheppard. It takes energized and educated shelter staff like Karen Buchan and Will Roberson. And it takes a huge number of volunteers, fosters, adopters, donors and supporters to help us maintain the current level of progress so that we never, ever go back to the way it was before. This is not an Us and Them solution. It is a We solution.
Congratulations to the City of Huntsville and to Huntsville Animal Services. We look forward to continued improvements in the shelter building and in program development. You have much to be proud of and we are incredibly pleased to have played a role in this process.
Stay tuned. Things just get better from this point on.
What a Difference Four Years Makes
A significant event took place on July 29, 2013, in Huntsville, Alabama, regarding the animal welfare advocacy of our No Kill Huntsville coalition. It was the date of our No Kill Workshop which we held at the downtown branch of the Huntsville/Madison County public library. It was the first time that we took the phrase "No Kill" to the public and used it in an event to reach more people in our region; not just those people who attended the event, but those people who heard about the event in the media. We held the event to reach the public because we felt the time had come to seek public support for shelter reform in our area. We don't talk about it much now - because it is not our focus - but we went public with our issue only after the city declined free help from subject matter experts three months earlier. We felt we had hit a wall in our efforts to communicate effectively with city officials so we asked those same experts to address the public instead.
The room we reserved at the library was standing room only. The audience was a mix of animal rescuers, animal advocates, members of the public and even some opponents of our vision who said in advance that they opposed our philosophies and planned to cause a scene. Most in attendance likely did not notice the police officer we hired who stood in the back of the room to keep the peace if anyone got out of hand. Before the event started, we briefed him on our worries that some would cause a disruption and explained that he had been hired as a precautionary measure. He knew nothing about our topic, but picked up on the issues pretty quickly. "Why in the world would anyone oppose saving the lives of more animals?" he asked. Exactly, Officer Newby, exactly.
Our workshop speakers were Mike Fry and Kelly Jedlicki. Mike was the award winning director of Animal Ark in Hastings, Minnesota who now leads an organization called No Kill Learning. Kelly is a pediatric nurse by day and also leads an advocacy group called Kentucky Pets Alive. Both did a wonderful job of explaining the phrase "No Kill" to our public and helping them understand some of the elements of the No Kill Equation which we have supported and promoted from the time our organization formed in early 2012. The workshop was scheduled to last 4 hours and could easily have gone on for 8 or 10 hours instead.
We write a lot about our promotion of the programs and services of the No Kill Equation as a means to end the destruction of healthy and treatable animals in our municipal animal shelter. We refer to the equation elements which serve to reduce shelter intake as "keep them out" elements. We refer to the elements which serve to increase shelter output as "get them out" elements. Some elements are dual purpose in nature. Our workshop fell under the element called "Community Involvement and Public Relations." It was intended to put the phrase "No Kill" on the public radar and it did just that.
We see the 2013 workshop as one of a series of factors which led to change at the animal shelter. We had a meeting with city and county officials the next day, including Mayor Battle, and our workshop speakers were present. It was after this meeting that the shelter director (who did not attend the workshop) reached out to a member of our coalition to talk about making changes. The progress in the ensuing months was limited, but it was progress and the conversation was changing. We worked hard in the months and years after the workshop to keep the No Kill topic in the public eye using billboards and the media as we engaged in a series of meetings with city officials to continue to promote the No Kill Equation we still promote to this day. We hosted a showing of a documentary film about the No Kill Movement at Lee High School. A few consultants came and went over time, some paid for by us and some who engaged directly with the city to help fine tune program development and give real world advice to overcome problems.
At the time we held the workshop in July of 2013, the live release rate at Huntsville Animal Services was 41%. Not quite 2 out of every three animals entering the building were destroyed. The healthy and treatable were destroyed along with the seriously injured and the suffering. By the end of 2014, the live release rate had risen to 73%, meaning that it practically doubled. At the end of 2016, the live release rate was 92%. The average monthly live release rate for the first months of 2017 is 95%. We were told by City Administrator John Hamilton recently that the city has not destroyed any healthy or treatable animals purely for space in almost three years.
We would be sugarcoating our process here if we were to say that the last 4 years were easy or have been without conflict. They have not. Our advocacy was a 7-day a week job for years and we found ourselves on the receiving end of a lot of criticism for having the audacity to speak out for the greater good. We were subjected to open hostility by many in the community, some of whom are rescuers, shelter supporters and shelter volunteers. We always went to extraordinary lengths to make our message one of municipal accountability and not one of personal attacks or blame, often arguing among ourselves on word choice in periodic letters to city officials in order to strike the right balance between constructive criticism and respect. That diplomacy was not always returned as some found it necessary to personally attack the messengers for the fact that the message was necessary in the first place.
Once the culture at the animal shelter begin to change dramatically and it took less effort to promote No Kill as a philosophy, we all agreed on one point. If someone had told us in early 2012 when we formed our group that the shelter would achieve and then surpass a 90% live release rate in a short period of time, but that we would end up battered, bruised and vilified in the process, we all still would have signed up for that. In a heartbeat. This has never been about us as individuals and has always been about saving the lives of shelter animals. It remains so today and we hope a time comes when we are no longer needed in this capacity at all.
Congratulations to the City of Huntsville, our city leaders, the animal shelter leadership and to all of the rescuers, supporters, fosters, volunteers, donors and adopters for the tremendous success achieved at Huntsville Animal Service. We are so very thrilled to know that our geographic area is now considered a safe haven for dogs and cats in need and is an example for other communities to emulate.
What a difference 4 years makes. Thanks, Mike. Thanks, Kelly.
(workshop crowd image courtesy of WHNT)
No Kill Advocacy in Huntsville, Alabama (Our Advice for Others and Lessons Learned)
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.
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)
For those of you who have not kept score over the last few years, Alabama has been through an incredible battle related to the otherwise simple issue of nonprofit spay and neuter clinics. There are four such clinics in our state and we are fortunate to have one right here in Huntsville. It was no always so. The clinic here has been alternatively open and closed a number of times due to political issues related to the legality of nonprofit clinics in our state. Most people are confused as to why this is such a big issue and we won’t get into the details here other than to say that we are very pleased that our local clinic has weathered the storm and is now open for business. We cannot speak to the future of the other nonprofit clinics in our state, but are hopeful that the reopening of our clinic signals a change of attitude by the members of the state veterinary board which oversee all veterinary practices in the state.
As we explain in our information here about no kill philosophies, having high-volume/low-cost spay neuter alternatives are key to any community being able to reduce the number of animals destroyed in municipal shelters. By having low cost options which are not based on income or geographic area, we simply make it easy for people to do the right thing by having their pets spayed and neutered. From a community standpoint, the benefits of having animals altered are simple: fewer animals in any community leads to reduced shelter intake leads to increased life-saving. From a personal standpoint, having animals spayed and neutered can help them live years longer than pets who are not sterilized, helps them avoid many diseases and cancers and keeps them from roaming.
We hope you will share the great news about the reopening of the North Alabama Spay and Neuter Clinic. It is a wonderful resource for pet caregivers, rescuers and good Samaritans.
No Kill Huntsville
Keep up with our updates and latest news regarding Huntsville becoming a no kill community.
image courtesy of Terrah Johnson