Good news reported recently for local animals in parts of Alameda and Contra Costa Counties - shelter reform has taken hold in the former - and it now has a shot in the latter. The lives of Fido and Sylvester are being made significantly more secure, especially if they find themselves placed at the mercies of two of our local shelters.
First, Contra Costa County has finally concluded a protracted (one year+) search for its new Director of Animal Services (ASD). She’s Beth Ward, a careerist in the animal welfare movement, who was most recently in management at the Humane Society of Silicon Valley. It is notable both that she comes from the non-profit sector, and that she’s been primarily engaged in the humane rehoming end of sheltering.
Too often and most recently, CCC Animal Services’ leadership has reflected the enforcement and policing emphases of a bygone era. Shelters were traditionally a policing and disposal function, and dismal survival prospects of impounded animals ensued. Field Services remains important, but as County Administrator David Twa noted in announcing Ms. Ward’s appointment, "there is a greater community expectation in terms of the role of the animal services department, … to reduce euthanasia and to provide adoptive homes for the animals that are brought to a shelter."
This change of emphasis reflects a nationwide ‘evolution’ in perspectives among humane organizations. The big national organizations – notably ASPCA and HSUS – traditionally condoned shelter killing as inevitable, blamed an uncaring public and focused on excusing and supporting those consigned to do society’s dirty work. Spurred, grudgingly, by the demonstrated successes of the misnamed “No-Kill” movement, however, both “the A” and “the H” have more recently embraced strategies that put shelter pets top-of-the-mind to become folks’ new best friends.
As noted elsewhere in these columns, CCC ASD has operated for many years at a so-called “live-release” rate of around 70%. That’s better than a few shelters in the region, but the best ones operate in the 90s – Alameda finished last year at 97%, Berkeley at 91% and Reno, NV is routinely in the mid-90s% on up-to-16,000 in-taken animals/year (all these comparison operations are open-admission, meaning that they take all-comers). In candor, CCC ASD’s rate is only as good as it’s been grace of the remarkable, sustained dedication of its volunteers – it has taken tireless, merciful commitment to keep bailing the boat when no one was fixing its leaks.
For the record, Contra Costa takes in about 11,000 animals/year – such that the distinction between 70% and 90% is fully 2,300 dogs and cats destroyed by the difference, and indifference, Every year. Ward spearheaded formation of a coalition among five South Bay shelters that are expected to hit 90% this year.
Ms. Ward started work last week in Martinez and has called for an end to the routinely contentious relationship between shelter personnel and its critics. "It's possible to save more lives by working together," she says. She wants to focus on expanding spay/neuter and trying to keep animals out of the shelter, via several different species of community collaboration.
It’ll be a big job. On her third day of work, “Diego,” a lively 11-month old Jack Russell terrier blend got the needle as a family was in the process of adopting him. Now, all euthanasia orders must be specifically approved by the Director – standard operating procedure elsewhere, where pet lives matter. Of course, had she been hired six months ago, more than 1,000 other Diegos might’ve found their ways out the front door, on their feet.
The job won’t be made easier by the following sentiment from Administrator Twa, as reported in the LaMorinda Weekly: ‘Twa said that since the county shelter is public, and must receive all animals in need, it would not work to set what he called an arbitrary number as a percentage save rate objective.’
Yikes. There is nothing – Nada – the least bit ‘arbitrary’ about setting humane objectives based on the demonstrated experience of other open admission shelters. ‘Save’ or ‘live release’ rates are the common language of sheltering, according to the so-called Asilomar Protocols promulgated nationally more than a decade ago – for the very purpose of gauging, comparing and improving humane performance.
Two relevant axioms come to mind: “That which gets measured, improves” and conversely, “if you don’t care where you’re going, any map’ll do.” The management objectives set for the CCC ASD in recent years were activity-based (vs. results-based) and non-quantified; its mediocre humane outcomes on the actual numbers are thus unsurprising, and individually tragic.
The other bit of good news lately comes from Oakland Animal Services. After one year of capable operation under its new Director Rebecca Katz (really), abetted by able and creative volunteers, OAS has turned-around its own save rate from the high 60s% to fully 85%. No magic, smoke or mirrors – just a Lot of hard, smart work, with all eyes on the non-arbitrary prize. Take heart, Beth Ward!
Finally, I don’t want to ignore the Pleasanton environs, which also need a lot of help. The East County Animal Shelter on Gleason Drive in Dublin reported 2014 statistics of around a 66% save rate. Right here, at our modern facility in Dublin, with East Bay SPCA, Valley Humane and TVAR all in the vicinity.
As the CCC ASD and Oakland OAS experiences demonstrate: these fundamental, life-or-death stats don’t get better on their own. They can get better though, much better, with the right effort, passionately applied to the problem.