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  • Mike Fry

The 'Division' in Animal Sheltering and What it Means for the Coming Year



Even as some people involved in animal sheltering complained about a growing divide in the industry, 2015 turned out to be a year of exciting changes in US animal shelters as No Kill continued to advance. A growing number of animal shelters embraced reforms and have experienced record-level life saving this year. Even in places like Huntsville, Alabama, where the director of their animal control shelter had, not that many years ago, a Live Release Rate (LRR) of just over 30%, the LRR has now exceeded 90%.

A few years back the director of Huntsville Animal Services (HAS) said doing much better than 30% would be nearly impossible. They were, she said, doing everything they possibly could. Doing better was, she said, simply not possible.

Fortunately, animal advocates who work under the name No Kill Huntsville, didn't agree. They brought forward a years-long public debate. It was not unlike the one that occurred in Austin, Texas, prior to that community achieving No Kill a half decade ago.

In both communities, the public debate brought about a change in leadership at the shelter. In Austin, the change was an actual change of the person in charge. The shelter director was reassigned, and the City achieved No Kill before a replacement was even found. In Huntsville, the shelter director had a change of practice or a change of mind, and began (though often times belligerently) enacting many of the programs and services advocated by No Kill Huntsville. The dramatic improvement in outcomes is the result.

These two stories are hardly unique. All over the USA shelter leaders are changing their minds about No Kill. In other shelters, leaders who won't change their minds are being replaced in order to bring about more life-saving.

The net result of all of this change in leadership is a record number of communities in the USA saving 90% or more of their shelter animals, and an equally large number who have progressed over the 80% mark. (Note: for a variety of reasons, I know of several communities whose shelters are saving more than 90%, but which are not listed here. Communities, for example, whose shelters are individually all reporting save rates of more than 90%, but which do not report a collective, community-wide save rate can take a while to get on the list.)

Another sign of great progress in No Kill nationally is the fact that 2015 was also a year when the conversation about No Kill changed a bit. This year I noticed a general shift in the talking points put forward by opponents of No Kill. An increasing number of them stopped making statements like "No Kill can't work" and "No Kill is impossible in our community." Instead, they have been complaining that No Kill has caused "a huge division in the world of animal shelters." And, increasingly, they have complained that No Kill should be called something else, because the term causes too many negative emotions.

Well… I am here to say that I believe we should be celebrating this “division” they speak about. Let me explain why…

Most critically, it is important to point out that stress, struggle and conflict are inherent parts of any kind of change. People generally tend to resist change, for a variety of reasons. On an individual level, people usually believe their past actions have been justified, and that they are good people. Therefore, convincing them that something needs to change is often difficult.

And, face it: Change at the social level is even harder, even when it involves ending an abhorrent practice, like animal shelters routinely destroying healthy or treatable pets. How long did some people fight the end of slavery? Near as I can tell, some people still are.

Whenever something in a society or industry changes there are those who quickly adapt to the new paradigm. There are also those who cling to the old one. This is universally true. Simply put: it takes time for new ideas to move through a population because different people adapt to change at different paces. This automatically generates some stress and conflict, as some people embrace the new model and others cling to the old. Hence, change creates division, even when it is for good.

The tension between the early adopters of the No Kill paradigm and those who can’t quite mentally get there yet is the current “division” about which No Kill opponents complain. Thankfully, it is a sign of the progress being made by the No Kill movement.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that the relative lack of disagreement about killing in animal shelters prior to the 1990’s was a clear indicator that the animal sheltering industry had, in effect, become stagnant, and had been for decades. Too many animal shelters were far too comfortable killing 30%, 40%, 60%, or, even in some cases, 80% or more of the animals they took in. Rather than taking responsibility for the killing it was doing, it was an industry that blamed “the public” for it. Animal sheltering was an industry badly needing a shake-up. The No Kill movement has delivered that shake-up well.

No Kill is effectively separating the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. It is identifying the shelter leaders who hold true to the vision and purpose of an animal shelter (i.e. saving animals) and separating them from those who won’t. It should go without saying, but that is critical distinction and goes right to the central core of why animal shelters even exist. For far too long, it was a distinction that was not being made. Now that the distinction is being made, some shelters are clearly uncomfortable about it.

Throughout the United States (and beyond) there are talks going on about spay/neuter programs, TNR, adoption hours, adoption screening criteria, behavior programs and more, all with the purpose of increasing live outcomes. These are all critical discussions and important programs. However I would argue that the most important conversations animal shelters need to have right now is about by whom and how they will be led. Will the leadership (including management, executives and board members) cling to old paradigms? Or will they embrace the new? Will the leadership spend its time wringing its hands about the “division” in the industry, or the semantics of killing? Or, will they be the change-agents needed to create and sustain an organization committed to saving lives? If that decision is made well, and progressive leadership is put in place, the rest of the questions pretty much answer themselves.

For all of these reasons, in 2016, No Kill Learning will be increasing its emphasis on leadership development, including its leadership, community and shelter assessments. Additionally, on January 6, 2016, No Kill Learning will begin a new online class called Growing Leadership. A few seats are still available.

As with any division that takes place in any industry, the one currently observed in the world of Animal Sheltering will, I predict, eventually disappear. Shelters currently clinging to the old model will change and accept the new one. It is really up to them how much stress or struggle will be required before they decide to do so.

For today, when opponents of No Kill complain about the “division” in the industry, I will simply smile and nod, understanding that since this division has been made, shelters have a clear choice to make. That is not scary or bad. A clear, obvious choice is a good thing. And, the choice between killing and No Kill is, or at least should be, on the radar of every shelter in the USA. How to achieve and sustain it should be a discussion for every Board of Directors, every City Council and every County Board.

In 2016, I predict a growing list of shelters and municipalities will be staring into that divide and then choosing the No Kill side.

#nokill #history #huntsville #Austin #leadership