Shelter… Pound… what’s the difference?
If you fail to understand the distinction between a government-operated Animal Control facility and a true Animal Shelter—one run by individuals, partnerships, a board of concerned citizens, a nonprofit corporation, or other non-government organization—you’re likely to hold unreasonable expectations of AC. Those of you bashing and trashing ACs all across the country and screaming for them to become no-kill shelters are missing the distinction altogether and believing—incorrectly—that AC directors have the freedom to become no-kill leaders, just by saying, “Today, we stop putting animals down!” if only they’d choose to. They do not have that freedom. An instantaneous policy change like that would get them fired and replaced by someone who’d maintain the status quo. Local governments aren’t known for creative thinking or quick lane changes. AC facility vs. shelter: you’re comparing not just apples to oranges, but apples to aardvarks. It makes no sense to attack a pound for being a pound.
By the way, as I climb on to my soapbox for today’s sermon…. For those of you who view no-kill advocacy for companion animals as a calling, and Redemption author Nathan Winograd as the messiah for this cause, please take note: nowhere in Redemption does Winograd espouse either verbally or physically attacking Animal Control directors, officers, staffers, or volunteers. The “attack advocacy” (an oxymoron: advocacy is speaking for, not against a cause) apparently came later as a virulent outgrowth of attaining a following, and it’s the main reason—in addition to his basic false premise, “pet overpopulation is a myth.” and the constant bashing of PETA, the HSUS, the ASPCA, and essentially any other group that won’t acknowledge the absolute truths of his cult—that I don’t support Mr. Winograd’s movement, twisted statistics, tactics, or opinions (which he calls “facts”), or tolerate the verbal abuse (and sometimes spurious lawsuits) his followers like to dish out to anyone and everyone who disagrees with or questions them. Those of you originating, or jumping on the bandwagons for, screaming, cursing assaults on non-government shelters and government ACs alike on Facebook and via other social media are totally missing the “no-kill” movement’s point; you’ve perverted what began as a peaceable, thoughtful, and progressive-thinking cause into a form of ugly, judgmental advo-terrorism. That is another ten topics altogether, however, and not the focus of this essay.
Those of us who care about homeless cats and dogs, believe their lives have value, promote rescue/adoption and loving, responsible lifelong caregiving of them, and who volunteer for rescue groups, sanctuaries, pet adoption centers, local or regional Humane Societies or Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (note that these last two names are generic: state and local groups calling themselves HS or SPCA have no affiliation with or oversight by the national nonprofit advocacy groups HSUS and ASPCA)… and for the local Animal Care/Animal Control facility, often use the term “shelters” to describe all of these structures and their backing organizations manned by people who are charged with the task of caring for companion animals while they are “locked up” and lack homes. Here’s something to remember, and there’s more involved than mere semantics or nuances of the meaning of the term shelter. Government-run animal control or animal care facilities—and not just the high-volume ones or those here in the South—are not shelters in the sense that we think of as “places of ad infinitum safety or refuge” (like a homeless shelter or a battered women’s shelter). They really are simply impounding and holding facilities. They’re places to store—short-term—unwanted, lost, or stray animals until they are reclaimed, adopted, rescued, until their humans’ court cases are settled, or until they are killed when the facility becomes overcrowded for lack of anywhere else to go. They are warehouses and, as defined by the municipal, county, and state governments charged with overseeing them, their primary mission is not adoption or the preservation of lives at any cost—it’s “animal control,” pure and simple, sad as that may be. You cannot change that fact by wishing, expecting, or ranting.
We use “shelter” as a term of convenience, but the word implies a level of care, responsibility, and concern that most of these animal control facilities don’t include as part of their mandate. A lot of them don’t focus on adoption or rescue at all, and some don’t permit either. Some AC departments have no physical shelter to accommodate visitors or volunteers. They may have a few cages in the back of the sheriff’s office, or a trailer manned by a single officer who spends much of his time driving the truck that picks up throwaway pets. The AC department may have to house impounds at a local vet clinic, and that clinic may be unable or unwilling to host a stream of daily visitors and/or volunteers, much less to house unpaid boarded animals indefinitely. Understaffing, underfunding, and undersized facilities are real blockades to progress and saving lives. And yes, some AC staffers are quite simply uncooperative, backward-thinking, apathetic, and unconcerned with saving lives…. They ban visitors throughout the facility, especially in the kennel area, do not cooperate with nonprofit rescue groups, allow no volunteers, and don’t adopt animals to the public. Sadly, many staffers are not paid enough to care, and some are even hired because they don’t care. Good attitudes or bad, welcoming or unwelcoming, ritzy or shoddy, ACs are still ACs, not shelters. Sheltering implies caring for an animal—continuously—until he or she finds a good home, foster home, sanctuary/hospice, or other better, more permanent situation. Sheltering, to the semantic purist, does not imply deadlines, mandatory hold periods, kill-after dates or “euthanizing” animals to make room for more animals.
“Euthanasia” or “good death”—there’s a term that’s been co-opted and corrupted by both non-profit animal welfare groups and animal control directors and “kill shelters.” Convenience killing is not mercy killing. Kill shelter is yet another phrase that’s an oxymoron: if it’s killing, it’s not sheltering, so don’t bamboozle people with a meaningless pejorative, designed purely to get people’s hackles up.
Animal Control is just that—a department to control animals that are lost, unwanted or somewhere other than where they’re supposed to be: in control (or better yet, in responsible care) of their families.
“No-Kill” is an admirable, desirable goal for all non-government animal welfare groups.
The no-kill mandate and the goal of saving all healthy, adoptable, unwanted or homeless companion animals’ lives and getting them into forever homes or sanctuaries is the Holy Grail for all of us who love and advocate for cats, dogs, and other “domesticated” creatures. Even those who are not healthy or adoptable at their moment of impound deserve chances at objective evaluation and rehabilitation so they may become healthy and adoptable. But “no-kill” is the province of privately or corporately run SHELTERS, whether for-profit or charitable—Humane Societies, SPCAs, animal leagues, not-for-profit rescue groups, independent or volunteer fosters and adoption specialists, animal hospices, and lifetime sanctuaries. Because they can raise funds through many different channels and—most importantly—may self-govern, these groups can create the means to accommodate and shelter the unwanted animals originally taken in by Animal Control agencies, then released from government custody after their legally mandated hold period at AC is over. Government animal control agencies can preserve lives long-term only by turning over the animals in their facilities to other, non-government agencies. You want to save their lives? Keep them OUT of the pound, and if they’re in there, get them OUT the minute their “hold” is ended. An Animal Control entity can only consider this life-preserving goal—and can only make it a priority—if so sanctioned by the government body that operates it, and if adequately funded by public tax revenues. Try living in a red state—a politically, socially, fiscally conservative area—and convincing anyone that local tax monies should be reallocated or taxes increased so that their local AC pound can keep stray or unwanted pets alive and well-accommodated for months, years, lifetimes, or however long it takes for them to find real homes.
What’s the obstacle for government-run facilities with no private animal care contracts or partnerships?
WE—the citizens—elect our government, right? They’re supposed to do what we want. Yes. But that makes our influence on animal control departments indirect and representative. And, as with government at all levels in this country, at the city/county level there’s tons of bureaucratic red tape and downright smelly bull-manure to wade through, which often seems designed to keep us from using our voices for change efficiently. The general animal-loving public can effect change in government-run animal control through lobbying (for example, letter-writing, e-mail, and calling campaigns, or petitions to city councilmembers and county commissioners and mayors, their state legislators, and their state’s department of agriculture), and also by voting and paying taxes in their particular county or state (see end of previous paragraph regarding convincing conservative citizens to fund pound improvements with more tax dollars). We cannot achieve government shelter reform, for a state that needs it statewide, or a country that needs it at the federal level, by launching personal attacks on AC directors, officers, staffers, or volunteers. None of these individuals have full autonomy to dictate how their facilities are run, and they are often understandably fearful of losing what authority they have. You’ve read Redemption, yes? Remember that Nathan Winograd’s no-kill success examples are non-governmental organizations. They succeeded only by cutting governmental-contract ties and operating independently—in short, by eliminating “animal control” as a mandate.
Crap. No autonomy—REALLY? That sucks. As an example, I’ll cite the Athens-Clarke Co., Georgia Animal Control facility where I’ve volunteered for several years. In their job definitions, AC staff are not engaged to find new, better, permanent homes for dogs, or to run an adoption center, daycare, spa, or sanctuary. They are not sanctioned on the job to educate the public by evangelizing for better pet care, spay/neuter, and refraining from backyard breeding for profit (although they can and do answer the public’s questions about these matters, and do make available in the facility’s lobby numerous flyers, business cards, and educational literature from private advocacy groups that cover all these topic; I seem to be the only person who reads these items). By state and local law, the AC staff, who are government employees, may not fundraise for their employer, a government organization. The exchange of money between a member of the public and a public servant constitutes corruption, bribery, an attempt to buy influence. The staff are paid for animal-related public safety and health: to get unwanted, lost, stray injured, nuisance, or otherwise homeless pets (and wildlife, to some extent) off the streets and away from other places they aren’t supposed to be, to get them out of dangerous situations (like cruel and abusive homes or the filthy hands of dogfighters, perverts, and puppy mills), to help report and control communicable animal diseases, and to investigate and enforce animal ordinances for the city and county (the requirements under Georgia’s animal welfare laws for adequate food, water, and shelter, the city/county’s no-chaining law, the statewide mandate for rabies vaccs, and the compliance with the state of Georgia’s sadly puny animal cruelty laws). Like many government pounds in Georgia, my AC is not allocated funding for emergency impound medical care, full vaccinations, heartworm testing, spay/neuter… or even basics like petfood, litter, treats, bedding and toys. All of that must come from community business partnerships, private donors, and volunteers. The staff and director of the average county or municipal AC have NO autonomy or authority to change their own mandate or to redefine their own job descriptions—that has to be done by a chain of command including the mayor, county/city commission, and the head of whichever department includes AC. Here in Athens it’s the director of Central Services who is the AC director’s boss; in many Georgia counties, AC falls as a division of the city police or county sheriff’s office or “public safety” department, or it may be an entirely separate department; this is not the case in Athens. The AC director is hired by someone – the Central Services director, or perhaps by the Sheriff – who’s an elected official. The Central Services director is hired (or appointed in some places) by the city council or county commission (in the case of Athens, city and county combined their governments in 1990 and became known as Athens-Clarke Co., or ACC). The ACC government bigwigs overseeing the whole show are the mayor and the commission. And to whom are the mayor and commission accountable? The local citizens: voters and taxpayers. To get though all these levels of bureaucracy, concerned community members have to lobby, vote, and be willing to pay taxes in order to influence the AC’s policy, and by going through the three bureaucratic authorities mentioned above. Change to a government entity cannot be enacted by complaining and cursing the individuals employed therein on social media sites, by nasty phone calls or e-mails, by death threats and bullying the AC staff, by protesting outside the pound’s front door, or by pressure and harassment from militant, loud-mouthed activists outside that particular county’s or city’s jurisdiction. It is local residents—registered voters and taxpayers—who make the call for change, and only then by jumping through the proper bureaucratic hoops.
Some government-run facilities do a pretty good job at saving the lives of unwanted companion animals by cooperating with rescues and encouraging the community to come in and adopt and/or volunteer. Many are proactive at trying to return lost pets to their owners (microchips and rabies or ID tags help this goal; it’s unfortunate than in a high percentage of cases, the owners don’t want their pet back, and this is not the AC’s fault). Both statistically and in my personal experience, Athens-Clarke County Animal Control is one of the best in Georgia, because the staff are proactive and cooperative. The “save” rate at ACCAC has held steady at 90% or better for five years. ACCAC staff work to return lost animals and make unclaimed ones available for adoption or rescue transfer. They beg for volunteers and open on weekends for visitors. But we need to remember in the end that any government pound is a far cry from a private or nonprofit animal shelter in the true sense. If we think of county or municipal ACs (such as some of the ones that online animal advocates complain about, like Floyd, Robeson, Cobb, Mahoning, Miami-Dade, Downey or Lancaster, NYACC, and far too many others that have at one time or another come under the armchair quarterbacks’ microscope on Facebook) as shelters, we’re expecting far more of them than they were contracted, built, staffed, and funded to be… and certainly more than they expect of themselves. We’re giving them credit and responsibility for being something they’re not. You know what’s really sad? The thousands of AC facilities around the country who do try and do work hard to get their impounds out on a leash are seldom recognized. The crummy ones get all the attention, and that often-hysterical hue and cry over the bad ones makes people assume that all ACs suck. Labeling all officers, workers and volunteers at AC pounds “killers” or “kill-apologists” is bigotry, no different than saying. “all women/Southerners/gay people/people of color/people of a particular religion are ______ (insert slur here).”
Summing up the AC-vs-shelter comparison
So all this information is for newcomers to the companion animal advocacy stage, and a refresher for you strident, rabble-rousing disciples of groups like No-Kill Nation, No Kill Coalition, No Kill Advocacy Center, and the various other groups who capitalize “No Kill” in their names as if it were a brand name or a religion. Those who love staging verbal assaults, screaming and cursing IN ALL CAPS on social media sites and under other writers’ editorials, targeting government-run Animal Control facilities (particularly in Georgia, since that’s where I am and where I have to field attacks on the staff of the better-than-average facility where I volunteer) and thinking these hateful tactics designed to turn people against ACs are not just warranted, but helpful and effective. Who exactly are you “helping” by slamming those who don’t buy your beliefs lock, stock, and barrel? How many animal lives are you saving by encouraging adopters and rescues to avoid and boycott “kill shelters”? If you think you’re going to eventually turn all government-run pounds into no-kill shelters: this is only going to happen by changing state laws and individual county/city laws regarding the roles and goals of Animal Control—with lobbying, votes and tax revenues—not by you cursing, denouncing, and abusing these facilities and their staff (or volunteers, like me).
Think before you rant. “Animal Control” is exactly that—it’s not a “shelter” in the sense that animal lovers define the term: “a structure that provides privacy and protection from danger (implicitly without deadlines).” Independent, non-governmental shelter directors and staff can choose to take the lead in pursuing a no-kill mandate… and should do so! Mr. Winograd is absolutely right that those who run private, non-profit animal shelters should be proactive community leaders in promoting the saving of lives rather than killing for convenience. But government-operated ACs cannot do so without public lobby, votes and tax dollars, without approval from their overseeing governmental authority, and, most of all, without HELP—that is h-e-l-p, not hindrance and public crucifixion—from the community as a whole.
Want to reform your local animal control or improve their “save” numbers? Lobby your local officials, and keep lobbying even when they ignore you. Recruit as many local companion-animal lovers as you can to help. especially those with influential voices. Ask your public officials to make animal control open and accessible for visitors, volunteers, rescues, and adoptions. Insist that all healthy and adoptable “out-of-time” animals be made available for transfer. Volunteer yourself, and do it with an agreeable, respectful demeanor and the intent to help, not impede the staff’s jobs or undermine their limited authority. Donate pet food and supplies. Don’t ask for or expect services that will cost taxpayers more money or take a bigger bite out of the city/county budget. In today’s economy, that ain’t gonna happen. If you want every homeless animal at AC to be held and cared for until they find homes—as long as that takes—then build your own private or incorporated nonprofit shelter nearby, and make sure it’s open-intake: you take in each and every AC impound who hasn’t found a home by the time that pet’s hold date ends. YOU are responsible for saving lives and finding good homes for displaced and unwanted pets. The pound is only the pound. It’s not and never will be a sanctuary.
An unwanted soul who DID get a second chance. Photo: Ellen Graben
Footnote: I am not an apologist for a broken nationwide “Animal Control” system that condones and perpetuates killing homeless animals for mere convenience. Convenience killing is obviously a screwed-up and morally wrong mindset. I’m not telling you how things should be…. That’s a no-brainer: there should be no killing of healthy, adoptable pets, period. I’m telling you how things actually ARE in a practical, realistic context. Reforming a broken system and a disposal-centered mindset are essential. Expecting county and city pounds to take the lead in reform is irrational. True “no-kill” is the province of the private sector and of the people who bring dogs and cats into the world, not those charged with “dealing with the surplus,” at the local government level.
You are certainly free to disagree with each and every point I make here. But bear in mind, I have a no-bashing rule. My blog is not the op-ed page of the Times. Telling me I’m stupid and cussing me out or calling me names will not help save the life of one single homeless dog or cat. Trashing me under a blog post I originated because you disagree will get you blocked. Write your own blog and say what you wish.