• Susan Houser

Keeping Our No Kill Directors

Getting to and sustaining No Kill is more difficult in some places than others. If I were looking for the easiest place for a No Kill transition, I would pick a small town with a lot of educated or wealthy people – maybe a ski resort or a college town. The town should be in the northern part of the country, the colder the better, and preferably in a mountainous area. The shelter should be owned and managed by a humane society, preferably one with an endowment or income stream that can help fund the transition to No Kill. And it would be a great bonus if the town had a veterinary college nearby with a shelter medicine program. No Kill in those circumstances would probably be easy to achieve and sustain.


On the other hand, think about a job as director of a municipal-owned shelter in a big southern city, in a place that has warm weather for most of the year and a long kitten season, with a population that has average or less-than-average levels of wealth and education, and with no subsidized access to advanced veterinary care. That would be tough. There are people who have succeeded in creating No Kill in such circumstances, but it’s hard work.


Until the last few years the great majority of No Kill communities have more closely resembled the scenario described in the first paragraph than in the second. But recently we have seen an explosion of cities with live release rates over 80%, in places where it would have seemed impossible just five to ten years ago. We have seen shelter directors taking on No Kill projects in big cities in the south and the midwest, including in states like South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Missouri. Even Mississippi has a No Kill shelter now.


That’s great news, but unfortunately some No Kill advocates are not making the distinction between the little resort town in Colorado and the giant metropolis in the south. There have been several reports of shelter directors saving 98%, 99%, or 100% of animals in little county shelters in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, or in wealthy small towns in mountainous areas of Colorado, or in college towns in the northeast, and some advocates seem to have gotten a skewed idea of what is possible in places that look more like average America. Actually, the 98% to 100% save rates seem to be pretty rare even in the small northern towns. Even in those places 90% to 97% yearly save rates are probably more common.


The result of the high expectations has been that some shelter directors who are revolutionizing shelters in the south and saving tens of thousands of lives every year are nevertheless being criticized because so far they are “only” at 80% or 85% or 89% instead of 98% to 100%. And the criticisms are not gentle. I was talking to one such shelter director recently who said she and her staff have been called “SOBs” and “murderers.” And those are the printable epithets. This director and her organization stepped in to save a dysfunctional shelter system in a large southern city, and they are raising the live release rate very rapidly. They are working under extremely difficult conditions, with virtually no establishment support, and they are practically killing themselves doing it. The director told me that she had just recently taken her first vacation in five years, and that all she did was sleep. I would defy any of her critics to give up what she has given up to do this work, and I would defy any of them to do a better job. And yet there is a segment of our own No Kill movement that thinks that she and her team are not good enough!


Similarly, in another large southern city that has seen many failed past attempts to raise live release rates, the current director of the municipal shelter is slowly and steadily raising live release rates. It’s looking good for his shelter to have a live release rate in the 80% range for 2015. Will he ever get to 90%? I don’t know, but the year before he took over the shelter didn’t even get to 50%. Yet he was the subject of relentless criticism from some local advocates before he even had a chance to get started.


In another southern city some local No Kill advocates have been criticizing the shelter even as it has reached and exceeded the 90% standard. They disapproved of the program that shelter management chose to use, because there is a different program that they like better. And in a northwestern city a group of No Kill advocates have been pillorying a No Kill shelter that reports live release rates of over 90%.


None of the shelters in the cities and towns I mentioned above are perfect, and criticism can be a good thing when it points out real flaws and urges even better performance. But undeserved criticism can be draining for shelter directors. And calling out shelter directors who are rapidly improving their live releases but are not up to 80% or 90% yet can actually cause harm and slow their momentum by undermining the support and engagement of the community.


Unreasonable critics are only part of a larger problem, though, which is that good shelter directors working in the tougher cities are often not seeing enough rewards for a job that can be incredibly difficult and draining. When we fail to appreciate good directors we risk losing some of our best leaders to burnout. Burnout may not be a big problem in the case of directors of small shelters in wealthy northern towns, but it is potentially a problem for the new generation of shelter directors who are taking on tougher challenges. Just offhand, I can think of several No Kill stars who have left positions as municipal shelter directors in recent years. Most of these people have gone on to other important work on the national stage in No Kill, which is a good thing, but we have lost them from the front lines.


So what can be done to combat burnout and keep great directors on the job? First, we need to make sure that directors have the help they need. No Kill advocates, instead of standing on the sidelines and demanding that the director work miracles, can get involved themselves. They can approach the city or county government (in a reasonable, respectful way, after doing their homework and keeping in mind that governments have many important priorities) and seek more resources for the shelter, including higher pay for good performers. They can work on revising ordinances, an important task that is often overlooked.


Perhaps most of all, No Kill advocates can either start their own organizations to assist shelters, or work on reforming local legacy humane societies that are not doing their part. It is hard to overestimate the importance of supporting organizations in getting to and sustaining high live release rates. For example, two large cities in the south that have live release rates around 95% have been able to reach that level in part because in each of the two cities there are three large organizations that help each other in the No Kill effort. But in some cities there are unhelpful legacy humane societies that are sucking up the lion’s share of local donations and mostly using them to put on a happy face and keep their payroll up. I’m speaking here about some local organizations, not the national organizations. In the last few years the traditional national organizations, with one notable exception, have become very supportive of No Kill and they are now doing some innovative stuff. Both the HSUS and the ASPCA, for example (along with other national organizations that have always supported No Kill), were early supporters of the new cat paradigms, and have used their enormous national influence to gain increasing acceptance for what otherwise could have been a hard sell.


Legacy humane societies that haven’t really changed the way they operate in the last 20, 30, or 40 years are a problem. Imagine the difference it would make for the municipal shelter director, on the morning of a puppy mill bust when 40 dogs in poor condition are being impounded, to get a call from the local humane society with an offer to take in the 25 sickest dogs. That type of help from local organizations goes a long way to preventing burnout, and it is really what every municipal shelter director has a right to expect. It might behoove local No Kill advocates to ask what the local humane societies are doing before they go after the municipal shelter director.


The work of a No Kill municipal shelter director has a lot of intrinsic rewards. It is important work. It is life-saving. No Kill shelter directors know they are making the world a better place. But a person who has the managerial and people skills and the work ethic needed to succeed as a shelter director in a typical American city is someone who has talents that would be rewarded with a lot more pay and status and a lot less stress in another profession. If we are going to retain our stars and attract other stars to the profession, we need to appreciate them and try to support them rather than make their jobs harder.

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