Friday, November 13, 2015

Putting the Cart Before the Horse

A bill has been currently introduced into  the Wisconsin State Legislature that seeks to reduce the required stray hold for found animals from the current seven days to only four days.  The main intent of this bill (AB487) is to improve the outcome for seized dogs (often called Court Case dogs)  which of course is a very good thing!  Unfortunately,  the Wisconsin Humane Society (WHS) and the Milwaukee Area Domestic Animal Control Commission (MADACC) who helped draft  the bill have also included a paragraph that reduces the stray hold for all animals (dogs AND cats).  These are two entirely different issues and should be treated as such, not combined together in one bill.

They have also published a set of Frequently Asked Questions to put their spin on the issue and are trying to convince the public that a reduced stray hold is a good thing.  The WHS and MADACC have not taken into consideration how seriously flawed our current system is. They have not taken into consideration that this is a large state and there are issues that need to be addressed everywhere (not just in Milwaukee County). Here are some of the current problems:

  • There is no centralized database being used by shelters in Wisconsin for reporting lost and found pets.  (There is a database available, that is completely free to use called Helping Lost Pets, but stray holding facilities are not making use of it). Stray holding facilities can include large shelters, vet clinics, boarding kennels, police departments, town offices, or individual contractors who may hold the dogs in their garage on their property.  These facilities do not cross-communicate making it very difficult for an owner to locate their lost pet.  Unlike car keys, that usually stay where you lose them – dogs and cats can easily wander and cross jurisdictional borders  ending up in a stray holding facility many miles from where they went missing.
  • Many Wisconsin stray holding facilities do not post photos of found animals on line, which requires  the owner to visit the facility in person to check. This is often time consuming and costly, and many owners do not even know all of the places they should check. I wrote about this previously here in Annie's Story. 
  • Many Wisconsin stray holding facilities have exhorbitant fees and fines to reclaim a lost pet. Owners often need a few more days  to come up with the money to reclaim their pet. It is not uncommon for reclaim fees to be in excess of $200.
  • Many Wisconsin stray holding facilities have not embraced the changing demographics of our state and do not offer bilingual assistance to owners who have lost their pets.

For more information on the problems with the current system please click here.  I have also written about this in: Navigating the Maze of Stray Holding Facilities

Instead of working to correct the current broken system and to ensure that owners have every possible opportunity to be reunited with their lost cat or dog, WHS and MADACC have put the cart before the horse.

A few points to consider:

* MADACC had only a 29% return to owner rate for dogs in 2014.  Instead of working to improve that and bring it up into the 50% or better range that other shelters  (such as the Washington D.C. Humane Society) are achieving, their knee jerk reaction is to reduce the stray hold and claim that people aren't looking for their dogs.

* Return to owner rates around the country for cats are low for many reasons - but not because a cat's owner loves them any less than a dog's owner.  It has more to do with the number of feral cats entering shelters, the lack of uniform terminology to describe cat's coat color,  and the number of indoor/outdoor cats that may take a day or two for owners to worry about them.  A reduced stray hold will be especially harmful for scared lost cats and community cats because it will enable the shelters and stray holding facilities to kill them on Day 5 if they are deemed "unadoptable" because they are showing stress in the shelters.  Instead of working to create a new progressive Trap Neuter Vaccinate Return (TNR) ordinance for Milwaukee County, which other counties could follow,  WHS and MADACC have chosen to draft and support a bill that will allow the quicker killing of cats in shelters.  We have many shelters in the state that already have a very high kill rate for cats.  This gives those shelters the power to kill quicker.

* WHS and MADACC's FAQ tries to imply that there is a correlation between length of stray hold and save rates.  Ironically, although no mention has ever been made by WHS or MADACC that they aim to make Milwaukee a No Kill community - they imply that if they had a shorter stray hold, they could do better, like Austin and Kansas City which are true No Kill communities.  In fact, there is no correlation between short stray holds and save rates. You can find plenty of shelters with short stray holds and horrific kill rates.

* WHS and MADACC are saying that shelters don't "have to" comply with the shortened stray hold. They can keep an animal as long as they want. But of course, shelters like Sauk County Humane Society in Baraboo,  whose director believes that "killing is kindness" will kill animals on Day 5.

*WHS and MADACC use the example of a black cat being hard to identify as a reason to not support requiring shelters to post photos of found pets or use a centralized database. Of course, there are some breeds and animals that tend to look alike. But discouraging the use of a centralized database and online photos  by using the "black cat" example is utter nonsense.  Thousands of animals have been reunited with their owners because their picture was recognized on a database, a website or social media.

*WHS and MADACC say that impound facilities have a legal obligation to keep records regarding euthanasia.  Unfortunately, getting these records are next to impossible in Wisconsin from most shelters that are private organizations holding public contracts.  Wisconsin Humane Society's  - Ozaukee and Racine locations are two examples of shelters in Wisconsin who do not make their records publicly available. So making "guesstimates" about Return to Owner and euthanasia numbers are simply that - guesstimates.

It would have been nice to see WHS and MADACC work towards fixing the problems to make sure  ALL Wisconsin shelters and stray holding facilities comply with minimum standards to improve their return to owner rate by doing things like:

* using a centralized database like the free system,
* posting photos of impounded animals online
* scanning every animal for a microchip at least twice with two different scanners using best practices for scanning (including not scanning them on or near a metal exam table or metal door)
* putting signs up where the dog or cat was found
* using volunteer pet detective groups to help match lost and found reports and track down dead end microchips
* reducing or eliminating high reclaim fees
* requiring shelters to microchip or provide an ID tag for all adoptable animals (many Wisconsin shelters do not microchip adoptables, where in Illinois it is required by law) and offering low cost or free microchip clinics (including enrollment) to pet owners.

Example of a sign put up by an animal control officer to indicate where a dog has been found. 
Photo courtesy Donna Watson - Help Find Rudy

The ASPCA has also recently come out with some very strong guidelines regarding what shelters should be doing to help reunite lost pets with their families. You can read them by clicking here. 

WHS and MADACC have hijacked the Court Case dog bill to serve their own needs.  This is a shame - a shame for the Court Case dogs and a shame for the lost pets and their owners who need the help and support of an efficient return to owner system in our shelters and stray holding facilities.

Preserving the owner/animal bond should be at the heart and soul of every animal shelter's core mission.  Lost pets don't need a new home. They just need to go home.  Let's work together to fix our broken system.

Until one has loved an animal, a part of one's soul remains unawakened. ~Anatole France 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Audit of Cook County, Illinois Department of Animal and Rabies Control Released

(L to R) Susan Taney, Lost Dogs Illinois; Becky McKinley Monroe, author, advocate and blogger
(I took the picture!)

On a very snowy day in January 2015, Susan Taney, Becky McKinley Monroe and I took the train into Chicago to attend a Cook County Council meeting at Chicago City Hall. We entered written testimony to the County Council about the dysfunctional lost pet recovery system at Cook County Animal and Rabies Control.  You can read more about this here  and here on the Lost Dogs Illinois website.

Change is often agonizingly slow when it comes to government.  But thankfully, the animals of Cook County have a champion on the Board of Commissioners, Commissioner John Fritchey.  He had already been hearing complaints from his constituents and also had a personal bad experience with the department.

John Fritchey requested an audit of Cook County Animal and Rabies Control and the findings were released on Friday, August 23, 2015.  You can read the entire fifteen page report at this link. I have reproduced my favorite section below:

Will this bring about change? Will more lost pets make it back home and less be killed in the shelters that contract with Cook County? Time will tell. But at least, there is now some documentation and recommendations to work from.  Going forward, the citizens of Cook County will need to hold the Department's feet to the fire. They will need to hold their government accountable and make sure that the changes recommended are implemented.

Advocacy is boring. And it's slow. And it's frustrating.  But the animals can't do it for themselves.

So please go ahead. Make that call to your local representatives. Write that email.  Find that champion on your local council.  Attend council meetings and introduce yourself. Shake their hands. Ask them to listen to your concerns.  It is never in vain.

On that slow train ride home we never would have dreamed that in such a short amount of time, such a comprehensive report would be released.

Thank you to Susan Taney of Lost Dogs Illinois for the countless hours you devoted to making this happen.  You are my hero.

In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins - not through strength but through perseverance. - Author Unknown

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Tax-Payer Funded Animal Control is Everybody's Business

I was listening to the Jeff Wagner talk show on the radio on Friday.  He was discussing the terrible story of the 82 year old Milwaukee woman who was knocked to the ground by a stranger and sexually assaulted after she got off a bus near her home.  The Milwaukee Police Department took THREE HOURS to respond. (here is a link to the story if you didn't hear about it). Jeff was quick to point out that he didn't feel it was the fault of any individual police officers (most of whom are really good people) but it was the fault of the system as a whole. Milwaukee has a dysfunctional police department with many problems that are causing rampant crime in the city.

I listened carefully to the callers who called in.  They were outraged.  They showed compassion for the woman and were angry that their tax money was funding such poor performance. I never heard one of them say that if people only stepped up to volunteer or donate to the police department that all of it's problems would be solved. I never heard one of them blame the woman for her attack. I never heard one of them attack Jeff, saying that he had no right to criticize the police department because he didn't work there or volunteer there.

There is a real disconnect when it comes to government-funded animal control services.  Any attempt to shine light on shelter operations or the dysfunction within are met with the usual tired old phrase:  "Adopt, volunteer, donate and foster".  And if you don't do those things - well, you don't have the right to have a say in how your tax dollars are spent. And besides, it's all the public's fault anyways, that the shelter is killing animals.  It doesn't matter if  citizens work two jobs or  volunteer their time elsewhere, perhaps at their church, or school or another animal organization.  If they aren't at the shelter scooping poop and walking dogs they have NO RIGHT to expect the shelter to do any better.

But  that is wrong. Just like we have the right and responsibility to expect excellent police protection, or fire protection, or garbage services, or snow removal - we have the right to expect excellent animal control services.  It's time to lay the old mantras to rest. And it's time for us all to demand excellence.  Our animals deserve it.

I loved this quote from No Kill Huntsville this week :   "There are many in our community who tell us that we are too critical of the city; that the city has made a lot of progress and we should just be satisfied with that and move on. To those people we would ask this question: but what if it was your dog who was destroyed? What if it was your cat?"  The link to the entire text can be read by clicking here. 

I wrote on this same topic in May 2011. - The Right to Criticize - Mine, Yours and Everyone's 

Monday, June 29, 2015

Joni's Story: Another Good Dog Dies

Spot Joni! He's snuggled in a pile of stuffies. 
Joni (left) playing well with another dog.

Joni (right) resting after a fun day's play. 

I haven't blogged in awhile. Not because of a lack of things to blog about though (the stack of potential stories on my desk is high!).  It's mostly due to a lack of time.  I apologize. I apologize to my readers but most of all I apologize to the good animals that are still dying in Wisconsin. Progress is being made - yes. But good animals are still dying. Good dogs are still dying. Dogs like Joni (sometimes spelled Jonnie or Johnni in the paperwork).

I've received information from lots of people with stories to tell about good dogs (and cats) that have died. But Joni caught my attention for a couple of reasons. As you can see by the pictures, he was a good dog whom the system failed.

Milwaukee Area Domestic Animal Control Commission (MADACC) is a taxpayer funded agency.  Therefore, they are required to provide documentation and information when requested.  This is called different things in different states, but is often referred to as a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act), even though this is the term used by the federal government.  In Wisconsin, it is called the Public Records Law (Wis. Stat. 19.31 - 19.39) and is sometimes referred to as an Open Records Request.  The intent of these laws are to provide effective oversight of government offices and employees and they are an important part of a democratic government.  Agencies are allowed to charge a reasonable fee for locating, copying and mailing the records.  The costs of copying and mailing must not exceed the actual cost incurred.  The cost of locating the records must reflect the hourly wage of the lowest paid employee capable of doing the task.

What caught my eye about Joni's story was that the cost for the 38 page record request was $58 (most are between $3 and $5).  The records were picked up in person so no mailing costs were incurred. This exhorbitant price is obviously an attempt by MADACC to thwart attempts by the public to find out what is going on and I would hope that if any of you meet this or any of the other resistant tactics they have tried (ignoring requests for records, requiring that you pick them up in person, etc.) that you file a complaint with the Wisconsin Department of Justice - Office of the Attorney General, who is responsible for oversight of Wisconsin's Public Records Law.  More information can be found at this link.

Now on to Joni's story.

Joni was a one year old, white and tan mixed breed dog brought to MADACC as a stray on June 25, 2014.

An owner was found but from the notes in the file it sounds like the cost to reclaim him was beyond the means of the owner. Even though MADACC lowered the intial reclaim fees, it must have been too much, because the owner made the decision to not reclaim him.   As a side note, consider how much money and heartache could have been saved, if the reclaim fees had been waived entirely.  As Mitch Schneider (former head of Washoe County Animal Services in Reno, Nevada) says:

But unfortunately Joni didn't get to go home. Instead he was evaluated, given a good evaluation (shown below), neutered, vaccinated, and placed for adoption.

 A very nice family adopted Joni and took him home in late July 2014. They renamed him Odie.  He got along well with the other dog, cat and two small children. (see pictures above).  But their other dog was 10 years old and Joni was a bit much for him. Out of respect for their older dog, they made the difficult decision to return Joni, hoping that he would find a better match with another younger, active dog in the household.

Joni was adopted again in September. The adopter took him home but also felt that he wasn't a good match for her other dog, so he was returned again.

Fast forward to the "Empty the Shelter" event in October. Joni was adopted a third time to a man from West Allis.  It would be hoped that the shelter staff made sure it was a suitable match for Joni and that this third time would be the home he desperately needed - an active loving home that would be just the right fit for such a wonderful, energetic young dog.

Joni was brought in as a "stray" on March 16, 2015.  According to the notes, the owner's phone number attached to the microchip was temporarily out of order so MADACC sent a letter to the residence. He was not reclaimed.

On March 19, 2015 - the note says that Wisconsin Humane Society evaluated him and gave him a poor evaluation.  (see the note in the Comment section on the upper right hand corner of the document below:  3/19/15 Poor eval per WHS. L.S. (Lorraine Sweeney) ) Joni was killed at MADACC on March 24, 2015. Reason given was Behavior Observed.    He was never placed on the transfer list or offered to the rescue groups. He was never given another chance at a home. He was killed one day after his stray hold was up.

Important to note is that there was absolutely no written behavior evaluations included with Joni's documents. In fact, it seems that written behavior evaluations are not being done at all at MADACC which goes against the recommendations of the Association of Shelter Veterinarian's 2010 Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters.  Their recommendations  on page 33 state: "A standardized behvaior examination form should be used and each evaluation should be documented.  Formal behavior evaluation should not necessarily invalidate information provided by the owner or observations made during staff interactions with an animal.  An overall assessment must include all of the information (history, behavior during shelter stay, and formal evaluation) gathered about the animal."

I have not seen documented behavior evaluations attached to any of the Open Records Requests in the last two years.

Rest in peace, Joni. You were a good dog. And as long as good dogs continue to die, I will continue to write about them.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Effective Leaders Empower Volunteers

National Volunteer Week is drawing to a close. The average value of a volunteer in America is at it's highest level ever in America. The estimated average value of a volunteer's time is $23.07 per hour with Wisconsin running just slightly under the average at $22.24 per hour.

I am blessed to have  many wonderful volunteers in my life.  Lost Dogs of Wisconsin and Lost Dogs of America are entirely volunteer run.  At Lost Dogs of Wisconsin our volunteers have helped reunite over 600 dogs so far in 2015.  Wisconsin Voters for Companion Animals is also made up entirely of volunteers.  Since 2010 we have had helped repeal or reject Breed Discrimination in 15 communities. We also have several other areas of focus and although legislative progress can feel as slow as molasses sometimes, we are still making forward strides.

Look around you. Is your local shelter empowering their volunteers to save lives? How many volunteers are in positions of leadership at your local shelter? How many volunteers go on to become board directors? How many volunteers lead teams of other volunteers?  If your answer is "few" or "none" then your shelter is missing out on a tremendous opportunity.  I can guarantee that there are talented people just waiting to be empowered. If they aren't challenged to use their talents and knowledge to save lives, their focus and energy will soon become frustration and negativity when they see things they would like to fix but aren't empowered to fix them.

It's time to stop worrying about "losing control". It's time to stop micro-managing. It's time to start embracing and empowering your volunteers. A very wise friend once said "Don't worry about losing control.  You never really had it anyways."

Hats off to volunteers everywhere.  You are making a difference. You are making the dream of a No Kill Nation a reality. You are driving the change in America's shelters. You are saving lives.

"One of the first lessons of leadership is that one person cannot do everything.  But everything that needs to be accomplished CAN be accomplished through recruitment, training, and empowering of others. - Stan Toler"

Saturday, March 14, 2015

It Isn't Personal

I had an interesting conversation with a killing apologist/shelter defender recently who accused me of "despising" Shelter Director xxxxxx.   Hmmm.... I don't think so.  I don't despise xxxxx or any other person for that matter.  I despise shelter killing.  Big difference.  Personality conflicts and drama are a big waste of energy that I don't have time for.

Shelter directors are just people. With strengths and flaws and personalities and baggage.  Shelter directors come and go. They retire, get fired, move, change jobs or professions, have babies, or burn out and lose interest in saving lives.

What we need in America are laws and policies that protect our nation's shelter animals regardless of who is in charge. We need laws that will require shelter management to implement programs that will save lives rather than end them.   Almost weekly we hear of a shelter that quickly starts to regress or improve with a change in management.  We cannot blindly trust shelter management  to always have the animals' best interests at heart. They may be gone tomorrow and we'll be back to square one.

This is why we need strong laws like CAPA (Companion Animal Protection Act) to pass in every state.   To protect our community's animals.  Regardless of who the director is.

Currently the following bills are moving through the legislature. If you live in one of these states please take action by clicking the links below:

Florida HB497 Saves Shelter Animals Lives

Maryland Companion Animal Protection Act HB0876 

Virginia Senate Bill 1381

It might be more worthwhile if we stopped wringing our hands and started ringing our congressmen. ~Author Unknown

Monday, February 23, 2015

Newsflash! The Genie is Out of the Bottle

If you pay any attention to social media posts on animal welfare issues you will have noticed that in the last couple of months there has been a flurry of activity regarding freedom of speech and volunteer rights.  Everything from watching an ex-employee spill the beans on the goings on behind the PETA killing machine, to the volunteer handbooks trying to stymie free speech and volunteer's rights, to a court decision in Maryland that protects the rights of volunteers to speak out when they see something wrong. 

Social media has made it increasing easy for people to share their concerns and opinions. Social media has also allowed the general public to access the most current information available. The information is being shared amongst interested parties with the click of the button. We now have volunteers who may know more about life-saving methods than shelter staff, management and board members (I recently had a conversation with a shelter director who had never attended an animal welfare conference or picked up a magazine to read an article.  She was in a time warp, still operating in her 1980's model of animal sheltering). 

We also now have volunteers and members of the public who understand that they have a right to know where their tax dollars and donations go and are demanding statistics and information by filing Freedom of Information requests.  They are then distributing the information they acquire through social media. Pretty much a good thing isn't it? The more that we can expose the under performing shelters, the more lives that can be saved. 

I have to say that I find it more than mildly amusing to watch micromanaging shelter directors trying to stuff the genie back in the bottle. Changing volunteer handbooks, trying to stymie free speech, not permitting photos (even to the point of not allowing volunteers to bring their cell phones to the shelter).  Yes, let's treat our volunteers like toddlers. That's a good way to motivate them. 

Their first attempt to stuff the genie back in the bottle is to discredit a volunteer's concern by labelling them "disgruntled" or "troublesome".  Are there truly "troublesome" volunteers and employees? Of course there are. But they are a very small minority. I don't think anyone can deny that 99% of people that sign up to volunteer in animal welfare do so because they want to help animals. When you hear the same complaints from more than one or two people, it's a big red flag that something is wrong. 

The second attempt to stuff the genie back in the bottle is a shelter director who tries to  to make the volunteers feel guilty about voicing their concerns by saying "This isn't helping the animals.  We all need to work together to achieve our goals."   

So what's a shelter director to do?  Here's my advice. Poof! Let it go. The genie's out of the bottle. Don't waste time trying to stuff it back in. Don't waste time trying to keep control. Focus on saving lives. Focus on being the most transparent, compassionate, volunteer-embracing shelter possible. Listen to your volunteers. Ask for their input. Acknowledge their concerns. Listen to their ideas. Empower them to take leadership roles.  And then see what happens. You might be pleasantly surprised!

The following quote is from a little book that I keep on my bookshelf called Minute Motivators for Leaders by Stan Toler.  His words sum it up nicely: 

"The greatest barrier to effective leadership is the desire to control others.  Tight control breeds low morale and ineffective performance among team members.  Micromanagement stifles the creativity and natural ability that teammates bring to a project.  Good leaders know that more is accomplished by empowering others than by commanding them. ... Motivation, encouragement, inspiration, support - these are the weapons of the greatest generals.  They don't rigidly manage their troops. Instead, they motivate them to achieve the mission.  Leaders give power to the people."