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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

American Pets Alive Conference, Now Better Than Ever

Back in 2010, the city of Austin started making national news as its animal shelter neared the goal of reaching a 90%+ live release rate. A local non-profit named Austin Pets Alive! (APA) that worked with the city shelter was thrust into the media spotlight. APA was central to Austin’s No Kill effort, and people from all over the country started contacting them and asking about the lifesaving programs they had pioneered.

Dr. Ellen Jefferson, the executive director of APA, realized that they did not have enough staff to offer consulting to all the people who wanted and needed it, so she started the American Pets Alive! (AmPA) conference. From the first, this conference has emphasized tactics. Although concepts are discussed, the main emphasis has been to show participants how to do things. The conferences have been small, from 100 to 300 participants, which made this approach feasible. The conferences generate a lot of enthusiasm — this photo is from the 2016 conference:

The tactical approach has worked well in helping people solve specific problems they are experiencing in their communities. Jefferson recalls the story of one shelter director in a large city who was discouraged and on the point of resigning when he attended the AmPA conference. He had actually drafted his resignation letter. After the conference, he deleted the letter and decided to stay at his shelter and keep fighting. He was able to effectively present a new lifesaving plan to city officials, leading to the removal of roadblocks that had previously stymied progress. Today the shelter he headed is a success story, saving around 90% of intake. He says that the AmPA conference “changed my life.”

I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Jefferson about what’s new and different with the 2017 conference. This is the 8th annual AmPA conference, and it will be held in Austin on September 23-25. AmPA is making important innovations this year to make it even easier for people to get the tactical knowledge they need to save the largest possible number of animals in their community. The entire conference will be set up to help people identify the areas they need to focus on, then drill down in those areas using small-group consultations with experts.

Every person who attends a conference comes from a unique situation. Although there are issues that all shelters tend to have — such as getting buy-in from stakeholders to make changes at the shelter, finding resources for veterinary care and pet retention, dealing with community cats, or helping large dogs with behavior problems – the solution to each of these issues may be different from one place to another due to the starting situation. What works in one community might not be the right solution for another community.

The AmPA conference this year will feature a “gap analysis” on the first morning of the conference, right after the introductory presentation. The purpose of the gap analysis is to help each member of the audience identify what groups of animals are not safe in their community and why. Some cities might still be killing cats in large numbers, for example. A failure to have an effective community-cat program could be due to local ordinances, or opposition from bird conservation groups, or a lack of veterinary support. Another city might be doing well with community cats, but falling short in adopting out large dogs. The causes might range from inability to market the dogs to a lack of training resources to a lack of shelter enrichment programs. Yet another city might be losing a high percentage of neonatal kittens due to inadequate disease-prevention protocols, lack of a nursery program, or a lack of fosters.

When people come to a conference they sometimes choose sessions to attend based on their interests rather than their needs. For example, an attendee might have a great community-cat program in her city that is saving 95% of the cats, and her interest in that program might cause her to select sessions on community-cat programs. But the real need in her community might be large dogs. If the large-dog save rate is low, then there is a big gap in the community’s safety net that needs to be fixed, and her time might be better spent attending large-dog sessions. The AmPA “gap analysis” presentation can also help people identify groups of animals that they might not have even realized could be saved, like parvo puppies. The photo is of a puppy who was saved by APA’s parvo program.

After the gap analysis, conference participants will attend panel discussions with directors of successful No Kill shelters. Most of these directors are saving around 95% of intake, including pit bulls and owner-requested euthanasias. Shelters face different issues depending on the size of their communities, so this part of the conference features four panels, each representing a different intake level. The intake-level breakdowns are: under 2000, 2000 to 5000, 5000 to 12,000, and over 12,000. These panels will zero in on the critical factors that allowed the directors to attain their high save rates. This part of the conference is designed to help attendees understand what is possible in today’s best shelters, through partnerships with non-profits and through their own programming. The panels are also designed to help everyone, whether affiliated with a shelter or not, learn about the distinct needs that communities have based on their shelter intake levels.

In addition to presentations and panels, the conference has workshops and a brand-new type of session called “master classes.” The master classes are small groups, led by experts, designed to help people identify and solve problems that are holding them back. One issue with traditional presentations is that the problems and solutions discussed may not fit the specific situation of each attendee. The master classes deal with that issue by offering a very granular level of advice. For example, a participant might ask for help with a city council member who opposes return-to-field (RTF). If the “master” offers a suggestion and the participant says they tried that and it didn’t work, the master can ask follow-up questions and then suggest other ways to approach the problem. The AmPA conference this year will have ten master classes: fundraising; animal control in No Kill communities; political issues; saving large dogs; starting a lifesaving organization; bottle-baby kittens; marketing; volunteer and foster programs; dog behavior; and cat lifesaving.

In addition to emphasizing specific topics, the conference has several tracks. A new track this year is on the emerging issue of how to create a safety net that protects all pets in the community, not just the ones who come into the shelter. APA and the city of Austin have been successful at creating a No Kill city shelter, and now they are working on taking that lifesaving to the entire community. As part of this effort, animal control officers in Austin have a new way of measuring their performance based on their effectiveness in the community. They do town halls throughout the city, and bring resources to people who need them. The idea is to reach out to the community and stop problems from developing, not just deal with problems that have already developed. A community safety net must include robust pet-retention programs at the shelter too, of course, and the Austin city shelter has made its intake area into a pet resource center. Intake workers do a lot of counseling rather than just processing.

Maddie’s Fund has been a sponsor of the AmPA conference the last couple of years, and at this year’s conference they will offer presentations as part of the development track. Fundraising and marketing are important areas of focus at AmPA conferences, and Maddie’s Fund, as the recipient of many grant requests from shelters and rescue groups, has insights they can share on making effective grant applications. Maddie’s Fund will also be sharing success stories resulting from their “innovation” grants earlier this year. Best Friends is a sponsor as well, and will have representatives speaking in some sessions at the conference.

Maddie’s Fund is a primary sponsor of APA’s training academy. Dr. Jefferson sees the training academy as a logical next step for people who have attended the AmPA conference and want in-depth experience in some aspect of sheltering. Apprenticeships in the training academy, which are supported by Maddie’s Fund, offer 3 to 5 days of work on specific shelter programs. Examples are the Bottle Baby Nursery, Parvo Program, and Barn Cat Program. Maddie’s Fund also supports two fellowships, where future leaders in the shelter industry receive training from APA’s executive team and

Austin’s Chief Animal Services Officer, Lee Ann Shenefiel, and her executive team. It can be hard for a city to find good No Kill leadership, and these fellowships are designed to help solve that problem. One project by the current fellows is to write a whitepaper documenting how Austin’s public-private system works, with enough specificity that other cities can use it as a model.

Dr. Jefferson notes that the AmPA conference is designed from the ground up for people who have already made a commitment to save every savable animal in their community. To her, that means striving for a save rate well over 90%, and the conference provides the tools to do that. Although the conference in the past has generally not exceeded 300 attendees, they are expecting over 400 this year, and the venue can accommodate a higher number if needed. We in the No Kill movement are fortunate to have several yearly conferences that offer great networking and educational opportunities. It’s exciting to see the continued effort to find better ways to help people throughout the country who are creating No Kill in their communities.


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