• Mike Fry

From Complexity to Clarity: Erasing Confusion in Animal Shelter Statistics with New Online Tool

People who run animal shelters are, in my opinion, generally compassionate, honest people. Yet, for a host of reasons, they end up misleading their donors and the public, sometimes inadvertently. That is why I have previously written about the importance of auditing animal shelter statistics. At issue are the complexities of running animal shelters and most people's poor relationship with math.

The fact that many people (even most) hate math is not surprising. We do a terrible job teaching it. Math is very much an activity that uses the right side of the brain, because it is filled with interesting patterns and repetitions, like music, another very right-brained activity. But, we teach math using very left-brained (i.e. linear and logical) approaches that do not work very well. It is therefore no shock that a lot of people mentally check out as soon as the subject of math comes up.

Animal shelter statistics is where the complexities of animal shelters and mathematics collide and that is probably why many people don't want to talk about animal shelter statistics, which are often presented as whole pages full of numbers in boxes that look like an accountant's spreadsheets. That leaves many opportunities for people to misunderstand animal shelter statistics, and for people wanting to misrepresent them to get away with doing just that.

Take, for example, a simple data point: an animal shelter's Live Release Rate or LRR. It is arguably one of the most important measures of an animal shelter's performance. Stated in the simplest way, it is the percentage of animals that came in alive that left alive. Because LRR is a simple concept, the math for computing it correctly is also simple. It is the total number of live outcomes divided by the total outcomes. That is how you compute the percentage of any part of a greater whole, you divide the part by the whole.

To calculate a shelter's LRR it should be as simple as calculating the percentage of the dots in the attached image that are green. There are 18 green dots and 36 total dots. 18/36= 0.5. Therefore half, or 50% of the dots, are green.

If the dots were animal shelter outcomes and the green dots were the live outcomes and the blue dots were the outcomes where the animals ended up not being alive, then the LRR would still be 18/36, the part divided by the whole. Naturally, you still end up with 50% whether we are talking dots or dogs and cats. Yet, somehow, some animal shelters have tried to convince is that is not true. They do so by obscuring the important numbers and burying them in a pile of other numbers, so that doing this really simple math gets harder.

They use other tricks, too, to try to make the simple math more complicated, by sub-categorizing the green and blue dots into smaller groups so they don't have to count all of the dots in the final math. Effectively, they turn the dots all different colors so that it is harder to see the green and blue ones so you can't tell they aren't really counting them all.

For all of these reasons I made an online Live Release Rate Calculator several years ago, a simple tool that lets you enter an animal shelter's (or rescue group's) raw statistics and then it computes the LRR for you. If I do say so myself, it is pretty darn spiffy!

Recently, I migrated my backend database technology to a new service and gave the Live Release Rate Calculator a pretty significant upgrade. It now generates a simple report card for the shelter and lets you share it on social media. It is a perfect tool for Board members at animal shelters who want to double check to make sure their directors are being completely honest with them. It is also a great way for animal advocates to keep their shelters honest.

I encourage you all to check it out and to enter your shelter's statistics into it. Shelters that have been transparent and that are performing well will love the validation their report card gives them. Shelters that need to do better will, hopefully, be inspired to do so. I have updates to it planned for the near future, too. Because, while complex, math is also like magic. Those who follow String Theory know that the entire existence of the Universe and everything that happens in it can be explained in one long mathematical formula. While the LRR Calculator won't be able to do that, it will be able to do some amazing things by seeing the patterns in shelter statistics. Everything from projecting needed budgets to capacity planning and more can be generated from those pages of numbers. Coming very soon, it will do just that. Stay tuned.