Inside the plan to revolutionize animal shelters

Good News Notes:

In the spring, when it became clear that COVID-19 was going to dramatically alter society for the foreseeable future, many people went to the pound. Animal shelters across the United States saw adoptions rise and unexpected numbers of people sign up to foster animals in their homes. Pets became the go-to salve for a time of great uncertainty.

For animal shelters, this sudden interest caused a moment of reckoning. ‘We’re looking at the situation now and saying, “Wait a minute, were all of these foster homes available prior to this?”’ says Peter Wolf, research and policy analyst for Best Friends Animal Society, a nationwide animal welfare nonprofit. ‘Somehow, because we were clinging to old assumptions, we weren’t taking advantage of this. So now there’s this whole big conversation going on around community-supported sheltering or community-based sheltering.’

Animal shelters and the people who run them are now rethinking the way the shelter system looks and operates. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, U.S. shelters take in about 6.5 million animals annually; of those, 1.5 million are euthanized. While saving animals is most shelters’ main goal, most of the work turns out to be holding those animals in cells. This has led to the creation of Human Animal Support Services, a network of people working in animal shelters around the United States and Canada who believe now is the time to dramatically alter what animal shelters do. The initiative was organized by American Pets Alive!, an Austin-based national education program, and volunteers from around the country are now developing what they believe will be a new model for operating animal shelters in communities. The model focuses on rethinking 12 key areas of sheltering, including getting lost pets home more quickly, providing need-based medical care, fostering and partnerships that help with everything from mending fences to finding pet-friendly housing. More than 30 shelters have pledged to implement these concepts. Eighteen are putting these practices in place right now.

‘It was really a statement by so many of us that things need to change,’ says Kristen Hassen, one of the cofounders of HASS and the director of Pima Animal Care Center, a county shelter in Tucson, Arizona. ‘So many animal shelters, particularly government shelters, are still working off a model that started 150 years ago, which was to treat dogs and cats as nuisances that need to be taken off the streets and impounded, and that the ones that aren’t reclaimed are disposable.’

Hassen says animal intake at shelters has become too transactional. ‘We’ve trained communities that if you find a stray animal or you can’t keep your pet you bring it to the shelter. We have really taught the public that’s how you help,’ Hassen says. She knows firsthand. Her facility took in 19,000 animals last year. For a county of 1 million people, she says the per capita rate is far higher than other counties.

HASS is trying to reeducate communities to avoid bringing animals to the shelter unless necessary, giving animals in the shelter more space and freeing up funding to provide a wider range of services and support. ‘So if you find a stray dog today, instead of just driving it to the shelter, we ask you to call the shelter, we get all the information, and we ask you if you’re able to hold the animal for a couple of days to give the owner time to get it home,’ Hassen says. ‘And we do the detective work.’ Instead of taking in the animal and doing the typical cleaning and medical checks, the shelter staff can focus on tacking down the animal’s microchip information and contacting the owner, or posting the animal on social media.

Another way the HASS model focuses on keeping animals out of shelters is by reducing the reasons people have for surrendering their pets, whether due to financial hardship, medical emergency, or housing challenges. Hassen says more shelters are creating food and supply banks where people can receive free pet food, leashes, and crates. HASS shelters are partnering with grant-making organizations to offer need-based medical treatment for pets that would otherwise be euthanized. Some partner with nonprofit organizations that focus specifically on building and fixing fences to prevent dogs from running away and ending up in shelters.

Shelters that have long been focused on finding homes for animals are now working to find homes for people. ‘Probably one of the most significant issues facing animal welfare over the next decade is the lack of pet-accessible housing,’ Hassen says. Her shelter works with landlords to change leases to allow pets, and offers lists of pet-friendly housing options to people who are moving. ‘It actually costs us less time and money to do that,’ she says. By reducing the overall number of animals coming into shelters, funding is able to be diverted to providing these kinds of services.”

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