For the third and final day, I devote my blog to an extended interview with Robin Starr, CEO of the Richmond SPCA (see part one and two). Robin has worked tirelessly to drop euthanasia rates in Richmond, with the goal of providing homes for all healthy and treatable dogs and cats in the community. In this large and ethnically diverse southern community, Robin has demonstrated tangible and measurable progress. Her operational model is one to emulate, and there are others out there moving in the same direction. In addition to what Robin and the staff of the Richmond SPCA have accomplished, I’ve been personally inspired by growing live-release rates for so many other shelters—Bob Rohde and his colleagues at the Denver Dumb Friends League, Barbara Carr at the Erie County SPCA, Sharon Harmon at the Oregon Humane Society, and so many others too numerous to mention here. In fact, the newly formed National Federation of Humane Societies, comprised of dozens of major shelters throughout the nation, has established a goal to eliminate euthanasia of healthy animals by the year 2020, at the latest. I was proud to be a founding member of this organization, and just delighted to see this goal embraced. Groups including the ASPCA and Best Friends also share the goal to solve this problem.
Bill Petros/The HSUS
Sadly, the broader goal that these people and many others all strive to achieve—placement of all healthy and treatable animals—has been hindered by a few rancorous voices, who ceaselessly attack shelters, embellish or fabricate their supposed personal “success” stories, and sit on the sidelines fomenting strife within our movement. Ironically, these self-righteous bystanders reach their greatest audience only when the Center for Consumer Freedom, a leading pro-cruelty organization that exists only to provide a platform to the true enemies of animal protection, publishes their attacks on humane colleagues. These people hurt our cause, and the serious-minded among us should reject their vitriol and fabrications.
In contrast, Robin and other progressive leaders are bringing our movement together, every day and in every way. Their goal, the one all of us at The HSUS share, is to strive to do better and to save lives. We stand with every shelter in the nation—private and public, large or small, rural or urban—that wants to do better and turn the situation around for homeless animals. Isn’t that the point of our work—to eliminate the euthanasia of healthy and treatable dogs and cats?
Wayne Pacelle: Achieving a no-kill community can be particularly difficult for agencies with animal control responsibilities and a requirement to accept all animals. Some agencies have a desire to just “flip the switch” to no-kill, but, without a solid infrastructure, that can fail. What advice would you give an agency—particularly those with animal control responsibilities—to ensure they’re successful?
Robin Starr: I agree that it is harder for private agencies that have taken on animal control responsibilities. The most desirable arrangement is for there to be one or more private organizations partnering with an animal control agency that is a unit of the local government. I think this works best because I have never seen a private organization doing animal control duties by contract that is being paid adequately for the services that it is performing for the local government. Usually, they are not paid enough at the start of the contract and then, as years pass, the locality resists ever increasing the amount paid while the private organization feels locked into continuing to provide the services. These organizations end up using their charitable resources to supplement what should be the work of the local government and so must sacrifice some of what they could otherwise be providing their community in services and programs.
There are, however, some private organizations with animal control responsibilities that have been successful in achieving no-kill or adoption guarantee. What is crucial is that the essential programs and services that I outlined in the answer to a previous question are being provided to the community. If an organization can perform animal control functions and still provide their community with these essential programs and services, then it can be done. Our organization has never had a contractual obligation to perform animal control functions for our city although, when I came here in the late 90s, we were providing a number of those services without any contract to do so. When we made our changes in 2001 and 2002, we ceased doing those jobs that are properly the roles of government, and that has allowed us to eliminate duplication of services and concentrate on providing those essential programs and services to our community that are crucial to achieving a no-kill community and that local government is not likely to provide.
WP: What special challenges might shelters face in becoming no-kill? For example, the handling of aggressive dogs in light of disagreements about their suitability for adoption.
RS: I believe that developing and consistently applying a valid health and behavioral matrix for your own community under the terms of the Asilomar Accords is crucial for two reasons. Such a matrix will clearly define what specific conditions and behaviors fall into the healthy, treatable rehabilitatable, treatable manageable and unhealthy/untreatable categories. Those definitions should reflect the care that a reasonable and responsible pet owner in that particular community would provide for his pet. Our matrix was developed with the participation of our staff, the staff of Richmond Animal Care and Control and several local veterinarians, and is updated annually. The second reason such a matrix is important is that it permits completely transparent statistical reporting to the community allowing everyone to see how close or how far the community is from achieving an end to the deaths of healthy animals and treatable animals. With the consistent use of a matrix, a humane organization can know that they are being both internally consistent and consistent with the standards of their community in their evaluation of the animals in their care.
WP: The no-kill issue has caused internal debate within our movement, but how do we bridge this gap and work together to combat the crisis of euthanasia of healthy and treatable animals?
RS: I believe that the first step needs to be for people on both sides of the debate to stop questioning the motives of those on the other side. There is nothing more paralyzing to any thoughtful discussion of issues than engaging in character assaults and accusing others of bad motives. Our organization has come to expect that, anytime we propose a new approach or undertake a new program, it will be met with vitriol from people within the field of animal welfare. We have come to ignore what is said by these people and that is why this sort of behavior is just alienating and ineffective.
It is essential that all of us respect the hard work and dedication of our peers who may not share our viewpoint and recognize that what we all do share is the wish to end the loss of life of the animals we all love. We must have real conversations with each other and take the time and patience to actually ask questions and listen to the answers. It is also important that we recognize that partnering with others is pretty much always better than not partnering with others. There is almost always some common ground that may be found.
Lastly, as I have said but it bears repeating, we need to be willing to try new ways, especially ones that have demonstrated success in other communities. They may or may not work in your own community, but trying something new may lead to a big advancement or, at a minimum, will make your organization more flexible and nimble.
WP: As we keep moving forward, what are your thoughts on community engagement? What can readers do to help reduce the number of homeless animals in their community and move toward becoming no-kill? And how do you at the Richmond SPCA include the community in your work?
RS: There is absolutely no way that any of us will accomplish an end to the loss of life of healthy and treatable homeless animals without the engagement of our communities. The problem with highly traditional models and why they usually achieve low live release rates is that they typically take a negative and distrustful view of human nature and require all of the work to get done by the public and private humane organizations. We must learn to first educate our community and to then trust our community. It may take some patience and a little prodding but most people will do the right thing by animals if we clearly show them how. People with wrong ideas about animal care should not be turned away but should be educated in a respectful manner. What people can do to help is to encourage everyone they know to spay and neuter their pets, never to buy from a pet store or a breeder but rather adopt from a shelter, utilize available resources to resolve issues with their pets without relinquishing them, become foster care volunteers and to give to the extent of their means to support humane organizations.
At the Richmond SPCA, we try to use every tool at our disposal to communicate with our community. We have an active and engaging website, blog and Facebook page and we report our statistics and results promptly and openly in those venues. We use Twitter and send emails to our constituents to let them know of what we are doing and how we need their help. These approaches have allowed us to communicate with tens of thousands of people and to mobilize their assistance when we need it.
For example, this year we decided that we were going to take on the goal of saving the life of every neonatal kitten in the City of Richmond that was not seriously ill. To do so, we needed to vastly expand our foster care network to meet the huge demand in the spring and summer kitten season months. We broadly communicated that need, responded quickly when people offered help to us and removed every roadblock possible to getting kittens out to a huge number of foster care homes. We gave them training and trusted them to care. The result was that we saved the life of more than 500 neonatal kittens in 2009 (which was every one that was not seriously ill) and have had about 800 animals in foster care in that same year.
The members of our community are the most important partners we have. Without their participation, we will fail and, with it, we will get to our goal sooner than we ever could have imagined.