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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

Catching Up with Humane Network

In the last few years we’ve seen a welcome and much-needed increase in the number of shelter consultants. We now have a wide variety of consultants — everything from individuals who do consulting on an ad hoc basis, to organizations with several people who provide a range of services, to firms that can do large-scale projects. We have specialists such as shelter-medicine and shelter-building consultants, and generalists who offer a complete shelter makeover. Some consultants do a one-time appraisal, while others may offer formal or informal arrangements with shelters to help shepherd them through making changes. There is enough variety in consultants to fit every situation.

Humane Network is a mid-size consulting group that provides a wide range of services. Not long ago I had a chance to chat with Bonney Brown, president and principal consultant of Humane Network, and catch up with her on the organization’s latest activities. One exciting project they recently completed, funded by Maddie’s Fund, was a study for shelter lifesaving in an entire state.

Statewide shelter reform is a noteworthy recent trend. We have such efforts underway today in Utah (led by Best Friends), South Carolina (led by the Charleston Animal Society), and Delaware (led by the state Office of Animal Welfare and Brandywine Valley SPCA).

One of the first steps for Humane Network in their evaluation of the statewide lifesaving project was a feasibility study. Humane Network consultants identified the relevant organizations in the state, including non-profit shelters and animal-control agencies, and did 71 interviews. According to available statistics, the state’s shelters are currently saving over 80% of dogs and 60% of cats. There are some gaps in services. Some parts of the state have no private-practice veterinary clinics that handle small animals. A few counties have no animal shelter, and several have no rescues with an online presence.

Uneven distribution of services is an issue for shelter reform in many states. Often the most urbanized parts of a state have a good level of services for shelter animals. In rural counties, though, the lack of basic institutions such as shelters, small-animal veterinarians, and rescues presents a major challenge to lifesaving. Part of Humane Network’s evaluation was to develop ideas to help counties that currently have little to build on. Bonney believes that MASH-style clinics and mobile units could be part of the answer for the lack of veterinary services in under-served counties. Additionally, they are recommending the creation of a robust statewide network of volunteers with the goal of developing a shelter-less safety net for animals in rural areas.

Humane Network has been working on a dizzying array of other projects in addition to the statewide feasibility analysis. A common complaint among animal-shelter administrators is that it is hard for shelters to recruit top talent for leadership positions.

Bonney and Diane Blankenburg, CEO and principal consultant of Humane Network, are addressing that situation by teaching a certificate program in Animal Shelter Management at the University of the Pacific. The program, which was launched in 2013, currently has several animal shelter directors (nonprofit and animal services) enrolled, along with shelter staff, rescue group leaders, and people seeking to break into the field.

This will be their largest graduating class yet, with over 50 people enrolled. The certificate course recently received help from Maddie’s Fund to expand to year-round, so that students can start the course series in either the spring or the fall. Maddie’s is providing scholarships for current students and internships/externships for graduates.

Humane Network also works with individual shelters to increase their live release rates. Humane Network was called in for ongoing consulting on El Paso’s ambitious shelter-reform program, for example. Sometimes individual shelters can obtain grants to defer the cost of consulting. Petco Foundation, Alley Cat Allies, Maddie’s Fund, and the Banfield Foundation have supported recent consulting projects for shelters.

Shelters may retain Humane Network for specific purposes short of a full consultation. Bonney says that shelter assessments and training are probably the most common issues for which shelters seek consulting. Executive recruitment is another common issue. Humane Network is sometimes called on to help ensure that reform efforts are sustainable. And last year Humane Network worked with multiple humane organizations, including Alley Cat Allies, when Louisiana was devastated by flooding. The photo is of Wendy Guidry of Feral Cat Consortium of Louisiana, Clay Myers of Alley Cat Allies, and Diane Blankenburg helping out in Louisiana.

In addition to Bonney and Diane, Humane Network offers the services of several people who have expertise on particular issues. Those people include Mitch Schneider, former manager of Washoe County Regional Animal Services, and Kelley Bollen, who is an animal behaviorist. Other key people are Laurie Daily-Johnston, who assists with research and is the teaching assistant for the online shelter management course; Don Jennings, who assists organizations with fundraising and program development; Dr. Linda Harper, who provides training on compassion fatigue; and Julie Snyder, who manages research and logistics. Denise Stevens (at Nevada Humane Society), Abigail Smith, and Tiffany Barrow work with Humane Network on an ad-hoc basis.

Bonney has been involved in shelter lifesaving and reform since the early 1990s, and I asked her how she sees the historical arc of progress. She answered that she believes the principles behind the movement to save all healthy and treatable animals have now been widely adopted, and that most animal-protection professionals believe in the goal and believe it is achievable. She characterized this as a “dramatic” change since the early 1990s, and says that today everyone is “so busy working that we don’t always stop to take a look at that and appreciate how really far things have come and the great progress that’s been made.”

One perennial challenge to improving shelter lifesaving is the large dog with behavior issues. Bonney likes a concept suggested by Aimee Sadler for regional rehabilitation organizations that could pull such dogs from shelters. Hyper-energetic, hard-to-train, or fearful dogs who might deteriorate or not get the consistent attention they need in a busy shelter environment could be handled and prepared for adoption much more effectively in training centers devoted solely to their needs. The often-chaotic conditions in a busy municipal shelter can undo any progress made in a training session as soon as it is done, because the environment cannot be controlled. In a well-designed facility dedicated to rehabilitation this would not be an issue. An added benefit would be that staff at a specialized rehabilitation center would have more time to interact with potential adopters, instruct them in how to keep up a successful training regimen, and serve as a support system for the new owner.

In winding up our conversation, Bonney observed that one of the reasons consulting is important is that the situation of each shelter is different. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. One shelter manager may be dealing with high intake, whereas the major problem for another shelter might be lack of a good marketing program. The manager of a county shelter might be coping with reluctance on the part of county management to consider alternative ways to deal with feral cats. A consultant can look at the entire situation and tailor a plan that allows the shelter to find additional resources and to use its existing resources more efficiently. Humane Network also emphasizes the importance of providing tool kits and templates to their client organizations to make change easier and more sustainable.

Humane Network is staying very busy these days, and that is a good sign. The popularity of consultants is evidence that the shelter industry is embracing change. Consultants can help animal-protection organizations and individual shelters see the big picture and stay in the forefront of progress.



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