• Susan Houser

Not All 90%+ Save Rates Are Created Equal

We tend to think of a 90% or higher live release rate for a shelter as indicating that the shelter is doing its job successfully. That’s not always the case. Here is a look at two open-intake municipal shelters that, although they have similar live release rates, are very different in performance.

The first shelter has a 92% save rate so far in 2014. Out of its total live releases this year it has adopted out 25%, returned 16% to owners, and transferred 59% to rescues. The second shelter had a 91% live release rate for 2013. It adopted out 67% of its live releases, returned 16% to owners, and transferred 17%.

The thing that really leaps out at you from those numbers is that the first shelter relied heavily on transfers to achieve its high live release rate (59% of total live releases) and adopted out only 25%. Those percentages were very different with the second shelter, which relied heavily on adoption (adoptions were 67% of its live releases) and transferred only 17%.

The first shelter is essentially being propped up by rescues in the community. There is nothing at all wrong with a shelter looking to the community for support, and in fact the most successful communities I see are ones where there is lots of community support. But the shelter must do its share. It is possible for a community to carry a bad shelter to a 90% or higher live release rate, but it is a monumental struggle, it takes a lot longer than it needs to, and it is less sustainable. When a community has to carry the shelter on its back, you wind up with a lot of exhausted and angry rescuers.

When you look at social media for the rescuers in the first community you see a constant stream of statements such as: “Mary found this dog but cannot keep it and does not want to take it to the shelter! Please help!,” or “This cat is on the shelter kill list for tomorrow! Needs a rescue commitment,” or “This puppy has a skin condition which means the shelter might kill it – she needs a foster!”

With the second shelter things are very different. Rescuers are not overworked and are not being asked to do the shelter’s job for it. The second shelter is in a high-intake area and it struggles, but when it calls for help the community knows the need is real, and the community is able to respond because they are not already stretched to the breaking point. Most of all, with the second shelter the rescuers in the community look at it as a partner and friend, not an enemy.

So does this mean we cannot trust shelter statistics to tell us whether a shelter is doing a good job? Not at all – but we have to look at statistics in the context of the community. If we see a high transfer rate for a particular shelter, is that because it has an established partnership with a high-volume adoption partner (a good thing)? Or is it because the shelter is simply not making an effort at adoptions and is putting the responsibility off on local rescues? A good live release rate is the threshold requirement that a shelter should meet, but how it got to the high live release rate is the next question.

By the way, I’m not at all opposed to transports, where a shelter in an area with little demand for shelter animals sends dogs to an area with higher demand. I think transports are great because there are now areas of the country that have a shortage of dogs. But there is a difference between moving animals around the country to equalize supply and demand, and the shelter making local rescuers do its job for it.