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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

Changing the Culture

We now have some solid evidence that managed intake is a better policy for public animal shelters than open admission. Read on for two case studies.

In this blog, I’ve documented well over 200 communities that are highly successful at saving shelter animals. Many of these communities have shelters that unconditionally take in any animal that an owner wants to surrender (generally referred to as “open admission”), but many others have instituted a Help Desk, appointment system, or waiting list for owner surrenders (which are aspects of managed intake). In this post are two statistical case studies of communities that have changed their owner surrender policies, and the outcome of the changes. Both of these case studies involve public shelters that are responsible for taking in strays in their jurisdictions. One of the communities instituted an appointment system, and the other adopted a waiting list. Then they kept statistics to see what happened.

  1. CASE STUDY #1: LYNCHBURG, VIRGINA. Lynchburg is an independent city in Virginia. It is bordered by three counties — Amherst, Bedford, and Campbell. In October of 2009, the Lynchburg Humane Society instituted a policy that owners who wanted to surrender a pet to the shelter had to make an appointment. The shelter makes exceptions to the policy for people who need to surrender a pet immediately. The Lynchburg shelter director, Makena Yarbrough, contacted the shelters in the adjoining counties and told them if any person from Lynchburg showed up at their shelter with an animal to surrender, the Lynchburg shelter would come get that animal immediately. It has proven to be very rare for Lynchburg residents to try to surrender pets in the surrounding counties; for example, in 2012 the Lynchburg shelter was contacted only 3 times to come pick up a Lynchburg animal. Nor does the data show an increase in strays. In fact, the data show the opposite — for Lynchburg and the three contiguous counties, the number of strays impounded dropped from 4524 in 2009 to 4410 in 2010, the first full year of the new policy (Virginia Department of Agriculture statistics).

  2. CASE STUDY #2: DOUGLAS COUNTY, NEVADA. The Douglas County Animal Shelter (DCAS) has a waiting list (subject to exceptions in emergency situations) and the shelter has for years now kept track of what happens to animals on the list. The DCAS statistician told me that 86% of people who were on the waiting list had placed their pets in new homes themselves on follow up. He talked about how the world of animal sheltering is being revolutionized by social media. In the old days costly and seldom-read newspaper classified ads were the primary way for an owner to publicize a pet, but today people use Craigslist and Facebook, where photos and a description of a pet can be seen by hundreds of people. I asked whether there were any instances of people abandoning pets after being placed on the waiting list. He said that has happened in an occasional case over the years, but because of their record keeping they have been able to identify animals who are abandoned and refer the cases to local officials. I asked if there was any possibility that owners who wanted to surrender animals were taking them to Carson City (an independent city north of Douglas County) rather than DCAS, and he said that the Carson City shelter checks identification and only accepts animals from their jurisdiction.

The case studies above are relevant to one of the biggest controversies in shelter management today — open admission versus managed intake. The argument made in support of open admission is that if shelters refuse to take in animals upon presentation, most owners will dump their pets in the street where they will be killed by cars or suffer from hunger and neglect. Conversely, supporters of managed intake argue that the great majority of people will not abandon their pets if they are asked to wait until the shelter can help them, and that managing the flow of intake allows shelters to avoid overcrowding and gather information about each pet. Managed intake also allows the shelter to work with the owner to solve problems such as vet bills, finding pet-friendly housing, or behavior issues that have led the owner to want to give up the pet, and thus head off surrender entirely in a large number of cases. And many owners have been happy to rehome pets themselves when helped to do so by the shelter, because then they have the satisfaction of helping to select the new home for their pet.

The two case studies presented here provide some strong evidence to support the conclusion that pet owners are responsible and are willing to help the shelter help their pet. There is another reason that shelters should adopt managed intake, though, and that is that shelters actually shape community expectations of responsible ownership by the policies they adopt. If we expect people to abandon animals at the drop of a hat, and we design owner surrender policies with that in mind, then we are actually encouraging abandonment because we are establishing it as a cultural norm.

Our cultural expectations for how parents behave toward their children is illuminating on this issue. We expect parents to continue to care for their children even if the parents lose their employment, lose their house, or have a child who is sick or difficult to deal with due to behavior problems. Pets aren’t children, but if we want pet owners to feel more responsibility toward their pets, then it behooves us to to compare society’s treatment of parents with the way we treat pet owners.

Society has two ways to encourage parental responsibility. First, there is a diversified network of social services — a “safety net” — to help parents keep their children. Subsidized health care, housing, and nutrition are all available to families in difficulty. The social safety net is far from perfect, but it is rare in our country for a parent to be forced to give up a child due to not being able to provide the basics of life. Second, there are strict laws against child abandonment, and those laws are enforced. Assistance to struggling parents and penalties for child abandonment both serve to reinforce the societal expectation that parents will provide care for their children in spite of any difficulties they may face. The safety net for parents and the penalties for abandonment serve to strengthen and reinforce what parents already want to do, which is care for their children as best they can.

Instead of encouraging responsibility in pet owners by providing a safety net and prosecuting animal abandonment, society has traditionally done the opposite and encouraged irresponsibility. The social message conveyed by open admission shelters is that taking a pet to the shelter is the right thing to do when an owner is having difficulty financially or the pet has behavior issues or for any other problem. Every time someone walks into a shelter and says “I want to surrender my pet” and the shelter says “OK, hand him over, goodbye,” the shelter is encouraging owner irresponsibility. It’s a vicious circle — open admission policies encourage people to be irresponsible, and then shelter officials claim that open admission is necessary because people are irresponsible. Traditional shelters go even further toward encouraging irresponsibility by hiding their statistics and not telling people how likely it is that their pet will be killed. They allow the owner to walk away thinking that the shelter will find their pet a good home.

Can we change society’s expectations for pet owners to more closely match society’s expectations for parents? The two case studies above indicate that not only is the answer “yes,” but that the public is already way out ahead on this issue. The great majority of pet owners, just like the great majority of parents, want to be responsible. All the shelter has to do is help them.

A substantial percentage of people who bring their pet to a shelter do so because of financial, health, housing, or behavior issues. A Help Desk or an appointment system can identify those people and provide help for them to keep their pet. Shelters can recruit volunteers to run their social safety net programs and the programs can be funded by donations or grants. These programs are money savers because they can sharply reduce intake. When shelters decide to adopt managed intake policies, they should at the same time institute a Help Desk or interview procedure to identify cases where intervention can help the owner keep the pet.

Another way to encourage owner responsibility is to ask owners to help place their pets. Every shelter should have a marketing program in place, including a presence on social media. Shelters can publicize animals that owners want to rehome, and also show owners how to network for the animal in their own contact lists. Good shelters usually have volunteer professional photographers, and these volunteers can take photos of pets. Shelter marketing volunteers can help the owner write up an accurate and appealing description. In essence, the pet’s owner becomes a foster home for the pet until placed. Douglas County’s finding that 86% of owners find new homes for their pets, mostly through social media, is impressive evidence that social media works.

A third way for shelters to encourage owner responsibility is to network for the pet with local rescues. Here again, the shelter’s expertise and knowledge of the local situation can be invaluable. In the interviews I do for this blog it’s becoming more and more common to hear shelter managers say that one way they manage intake is by diverting owner surrenders to rescues.

Turning to enforcement, shelters can encourage owner responsibility by monitoring their appointments lists and waiting lists to keep tabs on the animals. This will allow the shelter to identify cases where abandonment is suspected and refer them to law enforcement. Douglas County has shown that it’s possible to track animals and refer cases of abandonment for prosecution. People often refer to animal abandonment as “owner irresponsibility,” but in reality animal abandonment is a crime, and it should be regarded as such. The proper answer to animal abandonment is not to say “people will be irresponsible and therefore we have to have open admission to accommodate their irresponsibility,” the proper answer is to treat abandonment as a serious crime and enforce the laws against it. Douglas County has shown that not only is such enforcement practical, but also that the need for it is rare.

Managed intake at animal shelters is just one part of the great wave of change that is occurring to transform public shelters from places where most animals are killed to places where 90% or more leave by the front door. Shelter managers should not be afraid to adopt managed intake, because (1) it is the right thing to do from an efficiency and management aspect, (2) it is the right thing to do in terms of shaping cultural norms about an owner’s duty to a pet, and (3) the statistics we have so far show that pet owners respond in a positive way.


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