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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

Target Zero’s Kentucky Initiative

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Sara Pizano and Cameron Moore, the principal consultants for Target Zero (TZ). A lot has happened since I last spoke with them a year ago, including a very exciting new project in Kentucky that is already showing encouraging results.

TZ’s business plan is to help open-admission shelters adopt best practices that will allow them to save all of their healthy and treatable animals. TZ is donor-supported, which allows it to offer shelter consulting at no charge. TZ received a grant not long ago from Maddie’s Fund for $750,000 over three years, and they also receive additional funding from other organizations. Consultations are designed to increase live release rates for both dogs and cats, but in many cases Pizano and Moore find that shelters need more help initially with cats.

TZ is a strong supporter of the “community cat” method of dealing with healthy cats. In this method, healthy cats found outdoors who have no identification are spayed or neutered, given a rabies vaccination, and returned to where they were found. This type of program has become very popular. Scientific studies have shown that lost cats are 13 times more likely to be reunited with their owners if they are left alone than if they are taken to a shelter. And many unowned outdoor cats, both feral and tame, have adequate sources of food and shelter and are doing very well on their own. The last thing they need is to be impounded.

There is quite a demand for TZ’s services. In fact, so many shelters want to consult with TZ that Pizano and Moore are currently booked until August. They are hoping to bring an additional consultant onboard soon to avoid an extended backlog. In order to help the maximum possible number of animals with the resources they have, Pizano and Moore ask managers of smaller shelters who are interested in consulting to recruit neighboring shelters to participate in a regional effort. Their work in Kentucky is an example of this approach. It has shown not only better efficiency, but also tremendous synergy arising from cooperation among stakeholders in the communities.

Kentucky has been slow in making progress with shelter lifesaving. The state has a shelter-standards law setting minimum levels of care, but a recent study showed widespread violations of the law. Shelters in the state commonly have problems placing all the animals they receive, and many shelters rely on transports to other states. The new TZ effort is possibly the most ambitious attempt yet to change that picture and bring best practices to Kentucky shelters.

Two years ago TZ did a spay-neuter assessment for northern Kentucky. The study was for both cats and dogs, but when they analyzed the results they realized that one of the fastest ways to improve outcomes in the region would be a community cat program. The Joanie Bernard Foundation, which makes grants to feline-welfare organizations within 100 miles of Cincinnati, Ohio, was a potential source of funds for a community cat program, but  there was no obvious way to disperse a grant to the entire area that needed to be served.

Kentucky has county-based regional development districts that range from 8 to 15 counties each and are run by county representatives. One of them is the Northern Kentucky Area Development District (NKADD). Until recently, NKADD was solely devoted to providing services for helping humans in its eight counties. Animal shelters were not on its radar screen. That all changed when Target Zero got involved.

Pizano and Moore knew that the NKADD had a non-profit arm. They came up with the innovative idea of having the NKADD be the recipient of the grant money and then make the money available in the counties for the community cat program. The parties readily agreed, and the Joanie Bernard Foundation granted $500,000 dollars to the NKADD’s non-profit arm.

Of the eight counties in the NKADD, four — Kenton, Boone, Grant, and Campbell — have open-admission county shelters that take in both cats and dogs. The other four — Carroll, Gallatin, Owen, and Pendleton — have county shelters that take in only dogs. Grant County has had a live release rate of over 90% for some time, but the other county shelters had a wide range of live release rates, some of them quite low. The new community cat program had to be designed to deal with the situation in each of these counties.

One of the first challenges was making sure that legal barriers to the community cat program were removed. Boone, Kenton, and Campbell had ordinances that prohibited some aspects of the community cat program. Local ordinances are unfortunately a barrier to modern cat programs in many places. Pizano and Moore often face this situation and are accustomed to dealing with it. Within a month after starting the Kentucky project, they had succeeded in getting the three counties to update their ordinances.

Pizano and Moore have been successful so far in all 12 of the communities where they have tried to update ordinances, and they are now working on their 13th ordinance, in Lafayette, Louisiana. Their approach is to demonstrate to local leaders that the new community cat paradigm has been widely accepted by major animal-welfare organizations like ASPCA and HSUS, and represents current best practice. They provide local governments with data to show that community cat programs are not only good for cats, they are the most fiscally responsible way to deal with outdoor cats.

In Kentucky, once local governments were on board, ordinances were updated, and funding was in place, the last piece of the puzzle was to recruit clinics and veterinarians who could carry out the NKADD community cat program. The United Coalition for Animals (UCAN), headquartered in Cincinnati, has a spay-neuter clinic for dogs and cats. Another Cincinnati organization, Ohio Alleycat Resource & Spay-Neuter Clinic (OAR), provides many services for cats, including a spay-neuter clinic for cats only. Both UCAN and OAR agreed to participate, as did several private veterinarians. The plan went into effect on October 1, 2016, and if you go to the NKADD site you will see a page on its new cat program.

The three categories of cats eligible for the program are community cats, cats owned by low-income people, and indoor cats whose owners do not qualify as low-income. Community cats are diverted from the shelter in the four counties where the shelter takes in cats. In the counties with dog-only shelters, cats are brought to the service providers by people in the community. Services are free for community cats and low-income pet owners. For owners of indoor cats who do not qualify for the free service, a provider is allowed (although not required) to charge $20. So far, in its first five months, the program has met its target number of surgeries every month. In the first four months the program did 2,262 surgeries.

The effect of the program can be seen in the live release rates for cats at the three county shelters that take in cats (the fourth shelter that takes in cats was already at a 90%+ live release rate when the program started). Comparing the live release rates for cats in those shelters for the first nine months of 2016, before the program started, to the first four months of the program from October 2016 through January 2017, live release rates for cats increased from 82% to 88% in Boone, from 42% to 71% in Kenton, and from 49% to 83% in Campbell.

We will not know the full effect of the program on the Boone, Kenton, and Campbell shelters until we have statistics that include kitten season, but the program is certainly off to a good start. An indication that the program may be strong enough to withstand kitten season is that two of the counties were able to deal with large cat-hoarding cases between October and January while still reducing cat deaths. In addition to increasing live release rates at the shelters that take in cats, the community cat program will hopefully lead to a gradual decrease in the number of unsterilized outdoor cats in all 8 counties.

Success breeds success, and the success of the NKADD program has caught the notice of officials in other districts in Kentucky. Pizano was recently invited to make a presentation about the program in Frankfort, the state capitol, to the directors of all 15 state districts. Seven of the districts are interested, including the district that contains Louisville, which is one of TZ’s newest Fellows.

Pizano and Moore have other projects that involve regional and state level work. A project in Georgia covers three counties. TZ has four Fellowship shelters in South Carolina, and they network with a statewide No Kill effort that is under the aegis of No Kill South Carolina. Pizano feels that regional projects can set up a dynamic where there is good-natured competition among jurisdictions. People see a neighbor’s success and want to have the same level of success or even more at their own shelter.

One thing I admire about TZ is that they have shown a willingness to go into places like Kentucky, Louisiana, and South Carolina that have traditionally been seen as tough venues for shelter lifesaving. Pizano and Moore seem to be very good at finding sparks in those areas that can be fanned into flames. We all know what needs to be done to enable a shelter to save its healthy and treatable animals. The trick is to put the programs into practice. Every community is different, and can present challenges like ordinances that need to be changed, funding that must be found, non-profits that must be recruited to help, and local leaders who must be educated. Consultants like TZ can identify the hurdles and find ways to get over, under, or around them.

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