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A Paradigm Shift to Reduce Shelter Kill Rates

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from the No Kill Advocacy Center:

Every year, millions of dogs and cats escape from their homes and are never reunited with their families. The entire burden of finding and recovering a displaced dog or cat rests solely on the shoulders of the owner, who, in most cases, is not trained in how or where to search. They are not equipped with or trained in how to use animal capturing tools like humane traps. We offer every imaginable service under the sun for our companion animals but when they become separated from the families who love them, we leave lost pet recovery up to grieving people who are discouraged, overwhelmed, and untrained.

With everything working against them, people who lose their beloved dogs and cats need all the help they can get in order to achieve a successful reunion. Lost dogs and cats that are not returned to their families take up valuable space in our animal shelters. Through a new approach called Missing Animal Response, there are various services that shelter workers can offer to help reunite lost pets with their families, thus reducing the number of strays that will enter their facilities.

One of the most overlooked areas for reducing killing in animal control shelters is "owner" reclaims. Most progressive shelters looking to improve save rates tend to focus all of their efforts on providing spay/neuter services, developing foster care programs, and increasing rates of adoption. Clearly these are important and should be done, but how much attention is paid to the issue of reuniting lost pets? Sadly, besides having pet owners fill out a lost pet report, very little effort is made in this area of shelter operations. This is unfortunate because doing so--primarily shifting from passive to a more proactive approach--would have a significant impact on lifesaving.

In a typical shelter, 1-2% of cats are redeemed by their families, while roughly 20% of dogs are. Those rare communities who have systematized their approach and become more proactive have more than doubled this. Washoe County Animal Services in Nevada , for example, reclaimed 6% of cats and 54% of dogs despite taking in over two times the number of animals per capita than the national average.

Take, for example, an animal control shelter that impounds 10,000 stray dogs per year. In that community, only 2,000 dogs will be redeemed and, given rates of non-rehabilitatable illness and aggression in dogs, another roughly 700 will be truly "not savable" (sick, ill or aggressive with a poor prognosis for rehabilitation) and killed outright. That leaves 7,300 stray dogs, above and beyond the owner surrendered animals, the shelter must find a home for annually to avoid killing them.

Now, take that same community with Washoe County level success. In that community, 5,400 of the 10,000 dogs will be redeemed. That reduces to 3,900 the number of stray dogs it must find a home for. (Add other programs such as pet retention efforts and the number could drop to around 2,700). Needless to say, this is a world of difference.

The difference between the average community and Washoe County is striking, but even more so because this latter community was only scratching the surface of what could be accomplished. Some communities have achieved a nearly 65% reclaim rate for stray dogs and even higher outside of the United States, and the reclaim rate for cats can-and should-match these, rather than remain at deplorably low current averages.

A Failed Paradigm

In the United States today, most shelter workers blame "irresponsible" people for high numbers of stray animals and low reclaim rates. This is part of the traditional sheltering paradigm that puts the onus on the pet owner. Under this approach, if someone has lost a pet, it is their responsibility to come down to the shelter to look for and hopefully recover their missing companion.

It is believed that if that pet owner cared enough about their missing dog or cat, they would make the effort to drive down to the shelter daily. This thinking further assumes that if they don-t show up, then they don-t deserve the animal. The prevailing viewpoint says that under these circumstances, the shelter is doing a service to the animal by finding a different home or even killing him/her. It is a flawed paradigm which costs too many animals their lives.

With a national return to owner rate of only 20% for dogs and 2% for cats, existing policies are obviously not working! Nonetheless, shelters continue to needlessly kill these animals by shifting the blame to others and wrongly dismiss all of these deaths as the fault of an irresponsible or uncaring public. In reality, the reasons why reclaim rates are low are more complex. On the pet owner side: improper search techniques, searching the wrong shelter, grief avoidance, transportation problems, logistics, finances, confusion or ignorance about shelter locations, conflicting schedule, poor customer service, and/or limited shelter hours all contribute to the number of stray dogs and cats who are never claimed by their families.

On the shelter side: poor -lost and found- matching techniques, filing lost pet reports but not matching them with animals in the shelters, lack of diligence, killing animals too quickly before a match can be made, providing erroneous information about animal behavior, and giving the public a false assurance that once the report of a lost pet is made, the owner will be called when the animal is recovered.

Beyond scanning animals for microchips, most shelters do very little to help people recover their lost pets. Worse yet, most shelter workers and pet owners have absolutely no idea how lost pets behave, the typical distances that they travel, and the best techniques that should be used to recover them. The result is that people get discouraged because they are using incorrect search techniques that fail to produce results. People who are discouraged lose hope. People without hope give up searching. The result is that lost pets are not recovered. Instead, they are absorbed into feral, stray, and shelter populations. The end result has been high kill rates. It is this broken system that dominates sheltering in the United States today. And it is time for a new approach.

Missing Animal Response

Rigorous, comprehensive, and proactive lost pet services offered by trained individuals are needed to help reunite lost dogs and cats with their families before they have a chance to enter stray or feral animal populations, or be killed in shelters. The "Missing Animal Response" (MAR) paradigm puts the onus on the shelter to reunite lost pets with their families, a trend of accountability increasingly being demanded of shelters as part of the larger No Kill movement.

The philosophy of MAR is that lost pet assistance should be offered whether the public asks for it or not. It should be the expected standard. This is not to say a truly neglectful or abusive person should be allowed to keep their companion animals. They should not. But what needs to change is the erroneous mentality of shelter workers who make blanket decisions on what people "deserve" based on bias and false assumptions. In other words, a shelter worker should not have the power to refuse to assist people because they do not feel that person deserves it.

What MAR demands is the same principle of how law enforcement, fire departments, and ambulance services operate. Approaching the issue of reuniting lost pets from a public service platform will actually save the lives of more animals than shelters are currently saving. That is because expecting grieving, broken-hearted people who are untrained and unequipped to search for their missing pets and who easily give up hope (because there are no resources to help them conduct a thorough search for their lost companion) simply does not make sense.

And without the proper understanding, support, and resources which should be provided by animal shelters, these owners give up. By the time the animals end up at the shelters, it is too late, the owner has lost hope. Shelter staff fail to make a match because effective systems are not in place to match lost and found animals, or the animal is assumed to be abandoned. They are then killed, while shelter workers continue to blame an "irresponsible" owner, who in actuality, is at home grieving that everything they tried failed to bring back their beloved companion and thus erroneously concluded that some harm (other than shelter killing) likely befell the pet.

People need--and as taxpayers who pay the salaries and expenses for these facilities deserve--help in finding their lost pets; and by directly assisting these people, shelters will be saving the lives of animals. Lost pet services will prevent strays from entering feral cat colonies, rescue groups and shelters and will ultimately reduce shelter kill rates. And just as importantly, it will free up shelter cage space for the animals who truly need to find loving, new homes--those animals relinquished by their owners.

Looking Towards The Future

What would happen if all pet owners who have lost a dog or cat were offered comprehensive hands-on assistance, while volunteers or staff conducted an aggressive physical search to help them recover their missing pet?

Instead of passively waiting for pet owners to show up at the shelter, what if a paradigm shift took place and shelters went out into the community to look for the rightful owner of found strays?

How much would kill levels drop and how high would return-to-owner rates soar if aggressive efforts were put into returning found "stray" dogs and cats to the families from which they first escaped?

How many animals- lives and how much money would be saved?

MAR is an important component of the No Kill Equation. And one that will help pave the way toward a No Kill nation.

Please note: This blog was excerpted from the full article on building a MAR program written for the No Kill Advocacy Center. To read the full article, including why most lost strays are not recovered, proper vs. improper search techniques, how to improve the odds of finding a missing pet, and how to implement a MAR program at your local shelter, see the enclosed.

Kat Albrecht is a former police officer, field training officer, police detective, and K9 (police bloodhounds and cadaver dogs) trainer. She is the author of two books on recovering lost pets and the Director of the Missing Pet Partnership.

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