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  • Writer's pictureMike Fry

Flipping the No Kill Switch in Lake County, Florida

Photo: The Bell of New Beginnings hangs in the lobby of the Lake County Animal Shelter. Each time an adoption occurs, staff there ring the bell. The bell is a symbol of a new beginning for each new pet adopted. It is also a representation of a whole new beginning for this shelter.

On January 15, 2017 new leaders took the keys to the municipal animal shelter in Lake County, Florida and walked into the building with a new staff and a new mission: save the lives of every healthy or treatable pet, thus converting the facility to a No Kill operation by fulling embracing the No Kill Equation. They took the mission to heart, and killing in the shelter stopped immediately--like flipping on a light switch. Beginning that day, euthanasia was reserved exclusively for animals that were irremediably suffering. The numbers tell the story quite well. From January 15, 2016 - August 10, 2016, the shelter "euthanized" 1,018 animals. In 2017, for the same time period, euthanasia dropped by 837 animals to only 181 animals. At the same time, positive outcomes jumped. More returns to owners; more trap, neuter and release. Adoptions increased during that period from 1,228 in 2016 to over 1,800 in 2017. Additionally, while some people in the community, in advance of the transition, feared the change to No Kill would leave more animals abandoned on the streets or worse, none of their fears have actually materialized.

Some in the rescue community in Lake County, for example, feared that the shelter's change to a managed intake policy for owner surrenders would result in fewer owner surrenders and more animals being picked up as strays. In fact, the opposite occurred. From January 15 - August 10 in the prior year, the shelter took in 581 animals that were brought in by their owners. For that same time period in 2017, the shelter accepted 887 animals owned by Lake County residents, an increase of 306 animals. The number of stray animals taken in declined by about 100 animals, likely because many people are unwilling to surrender pet to shelters with high kill rates. In emergencies, they are more prone to turning their pets loose to fend for themselves, rather than face the stress and likely death at an animal shelter.

Other measures improved, too. The foster program grew exponentially, there are more volunteers doing more jobs than ever before and improvements to the facility have begun, meaning fewer animals are getting sick while in the shelter's care. It has been a remarkable accomplishment made possible by a dedicated and hard working staff and effective leadership from the Lake County Board of Commissioners, the County Manager and other departments within the County. It is the largest, open-admission animal control shelter to successfully transition to No Kill literally overnight. Animal advocates who used to be the shelter's largest critics are now some of their biggest champions.

Success in Spite of Challenges

I would by lying if I said this success was easy. Opportunities for failure were everywhere that could have been used as excuses for not achieving the goal. For example: Lake County is a geographically large and largely rural county of about 300,000 people, with a higher than average per capita intake rate of 23.33 animals per 1,000 residents. The national average intake per 1,000 residents is only about 14. This year, the Lake County Animal Shelter is on track to take in more than 7,000 animals in a facility not designed for all of the work currently being done there. It is, in effect, a poorly-designed, glorified pole-barn with no functioning HVAC system. Additionally, the shelter had been chronically understaffed and poorly maintained for years prior to this transition.

One section of the Lake County Animal Shelter dog kennels.

Additionally, immediately upon achieving No Kill status, many of the area's rescue groups began taking more animals from shelters outside of the county while taking less from the Lake County Animal Shelter. Their rationale for doing this is understandable: they want to save animals most at-risk. And, while that thought process is understandable, the net result is that there are now more animals needing rescue in Lake County because more animals are coming into the county from other locations, including other states.

Multiple leadership changes also occurred during this effort. In March, County Manager David Heath, who led the transition team, announced his retirement. Shortly after that, Brian Sheahan, the head of Code Enforcement for the County, which oversaw the shelter, also announced his retirement. Other leadership and staffing changes occurred during this time period as well.

Any of these, or other challenges faced, could have been used as excuses for abandoning the No Kill mission. Instead, at each opportunity, dedicated staff and leadership re-committed to the effort, resulting in one of the largest, fastest and most inspiring transitions to No Kill I have ever seen.

How Lake County Did It

Earlier, I said that achieving No Kill in Lake County was like flipping a switch. In one sense that is true. The keys to the building were turned over to new staff under the leadership of the Lake County Board of Commissioners on January 15, 2017 and the killing stopped. In another sense, it is a gross over-simplification, because the events that led up to flipping that switch were complicated, with different agencies overseeing the shelter at different times. Each of the agencies made small, incremental improvements along the way. Throughout that process, local No Kill advocates continued to pressure County officials to transition the shelter to No Kill. Getting the commitment to No Kill was a 5-year effort of education, outreach and political action. Late in 2016, changes to the County Board, along with strong leadership from County Board members, made the commitment to No Kill possible.

In October of 2016 a transition team was set up to prepare to take control of the shelter, with the projected transition date being January 15, 2017. The team involved key staff from several County departments, including Human Resources, Communications, the County Attorney's Office, Facilities, Code Enforcement and others. Existing shelter practices and standard operating protocols were reviewed and revised. New staff were hired and trained. A list of facilities emergency stop-gap measures to address issues such as disease contagion and quarantine, sanitation and traffic flow was created and a plan for implementing them was put into place. Weekly meetings of the team over a roughly 2.5 month period ensured preparations for the hand-off of the shelter were all complete.

In short: getting the commitment to No Kill in Lake County took about 5 years of active, dogged and vocal advocacy. Once the commitment was made, preparations to flip the No Kill switch to the "on" position took a little less than 3 months. The actual flipping of the switch was instantaneous, though has required months of follow-up program expansion and development, that will likely continue in a new culture of continual process improvement that is now in place.

Many of the challenges persist. They are still under staffed. They are still operating in the same poorly designed facility. But, here it is - the end of the busy summer intake season - and Lake County Animal Shelter has yet to resort to "euthanasia" as a means to manage their animal population and they have maintained a year-to-date Live Release Rate (LRR) in the 90% range or more, in spite of a particularly large and early and challenging "kitten season," and in spite of some large-scale rescues (including multiple animal hoarding cases and another situation that involved the surrendering of more than 100 farm animals). I am exceptionally honored to have been part of the team that worked on this effort and am thankful for all of the people there who did the real work, from the County Commissioners to the County departments and the shelter staff. Their work and dedication has inspired me and it should inspire others in other communities to follow their examples. One thing we can all learn from this is that the hardest part is simply making the commitment to not kill healthy or treatable pets. Once that commitment is in place, achieving No Kill can be as quick as flipping the No Kill switch to the "on" position.

#LakeCountyFlorida #openadmission #NoKill #transitioning #leadership

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