2017: A Year of Stunning Successes and Irreconcilable Differences in Animal Shelters
We recently celebrated the 2017 Winter Solstice, the shortest daylight of the year. And as the year comes to a close, the long nights and cold/cool temperatures outside make this the perfect time for some reflection on the year that just passed. Looking back at 2017 in animal shelters in the USA is insightful, inspiring and frustrating all at the same time. It was a year full of stunning successes worthy of celebration as well as challenging struggles that, unfortunately, persist. Animal sheltering news was so active this year that it is impossible to recount all of the major developments or the continuing struggles. However, there were key events this year that I believe are worthy of highlighting because there are things we can learn from them to make 2018 a bigger and better year than ever.
2017 began and ended with exciting news.
In January the municipal animal shelter in Lake County, Florida announced its plan to become an open-admission, No Kill facility. And, after years of rather public struggles with animal advocates there, they not only achieved the goal, they did it very quickly, almost like flipping the No Kill light switch to the "On" position. The light switch metaphor is particularly meaningful because prior to achieving No Kill in Lake County, things there were pretty dark. and local animal lovers had been pushing for change for years. In addition to the lives lost, there were other challenges, including a highly fractured animal rescue community. Once the killing stopped there, most of the community angst about animal rescue and sheltering disappeared. The commitment to and achievement of No Kill brought with it a sense of pride and a can-do spirit that captivated Lake County all year long. They were presented with some tough challenges throughout the year, including Hurricane Irma, which overwhelmed the shelter with animals, required the establishment of more than a dozen satellite animal-friendly shelters and caused extensive damage throughout the County. In spite of the challenges, the new can-do attitude inspired by the No Kill vision and commitment won the day. Animal advocates who were once the shelter's largest critics became its biggest cheerleaders. Some might say that the struggle disappeared. I like to say that the struggle changed, from one of fighting about whether saving all healthy or treatable pets was possible to doing the work to get it done. Because of strong leadership from the Lake County Board of Commissioners and the County Manager, and other staff at the County, the Lake County transition was the most dramatic and rapid transition to No Kill at a large, municipal animal shelter the US has ever seen. Therefore, to say that 2017 started off with a bang would be an understatement. It is also ending with some excitement. Just in time for the holiday season, the award-winning documentary film Redemption: The No Kill Revolution in America was released for free online streaming on Vimeo. Based on the book Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America, this inspiring film chronicles the history of the No Kill Movement and tells the story of three celebrated No Kill communities: Tompkins, County, NY, Washoe County, NV and Austin, TX. People I know from across the country are thrilled the film is now so easily available. You can now watch it in high-definition on nearly any device. I have embedded it for your viewing pleasure below. (You're welcome!)
The free streaming release of Redemption is really exciting. But, it was not even the only documentary film dealing with the plight of animals in animal shelters released online this year. An Act of Dog also made its TV and streaming debut this year, airing on Kentucky's KET PBS stations in December.
An Act of Dog is less about animal sheltering specifically than it is about one couple's awe-inspiring art project to give voice to the 5,500 dogs that are killed in animal shelters every day. It is a story of compassion, commitment, struggle, art and more. Imagine deciding to paint 5,500 paintings of dogs' faces, actual dogs that have been destroyed in animal shelters... how would you get the subjects? How would you manage to paint that many? Where would you store them? Where and how could you possibly display them? Imagine all of that and you will understand that An Act of Dog is the story of taking on an impossible task for entirely selfless reasons. It is a must watch for everyone with a passion they are pursuing, a story to remember during the difficult days when your hill seems too steep or the lifting too heavy. Muncie Passes Companion Animal Protection Act
In August, Muncie, Indiana made headlines for passing a comprehensive ordinance called the Companion Animal Protection Act (CAPA), which requires animal shelters reserve euthanasia for truly irremediably suffering or seriously dangerous animals. The move is being celebrated by No Kill advocates nation-wide and is already saving the lives of animals in that community.
Muncie's success is happening in the context of animal shelters, nationally, on average, improving their live release rates (LRR). Recent studies have indicated the national average LRR has climbed from about 50% a few years ago, to about 75% today. The overall trajectory for America's animal shelters is heading in the right direction.
Frustrating Struggles Persist
While the overall sheltering news was positive for 2017, it is also true that you can throw a dart at a map of the USA and still hit a community where a regressive animal shelter is resisting life-saving reforms. From New Jersey to California and all points in between grassroots advocates continue struggling to reform broken or dysfunctional animal shelter systems. Here is a short list of some of those places:
In Broward County, Florida, the shelter director resigned after he was caught cooking the animal outcome books.
In Sumter County, Florida (ironically, right next door to Lake County, Florida) an investigation is underway to look into a host of allegations involving misconduct at the shelter.
In Pennsylvania, an animal shelter has confessed to killing multiple owned pets, brought in as strays, before the required hold period.
In Alabama, the Greater Birmingham Humane Society has been embroiled in growing controversy over their shelter CEO misrepresenting their live outcomes.
Few shelters' struggles, however, could compare with that of the one going on at Associated Humane Society in New Jersey, which has continually failed state inspections for decades, and where the shelter director was recently charged with 8 counts of animal cruelty, though advocates there have been complaining - literally for decades - about cruelty and neglect at their state's largest sheltering system. As 2017 comes to a close, these, and other struggles like them in other places, continue. While that might seem like bad news, there is a bright spot in it, because in each of these places, inspired by the growing successes elsewhere, animal advocates are organizing, strategizing and getting active. They are demanding reforms while making clear to their elected officials that they are not going away. Everyday citizens in places like Pueblo, Colorado are stepping up to be the voice for homeless pets. They are attending and speaking at City Council meetings, writing letters to the editor, emailing their elected officials. They are documenting what is happening in their animal shelters and demanding change.
All of that, therefore, inspires me to believe that 2018 is going to be a great year for shelter animals in the USA.
As 2017 comes to a close, I am thankful for all of you working on behalf of shelter animals. To all of you: Joyous Holidays and Happy New Year.