by Merritt Clifton
LOS ANGELES, NEW YORK CITY–Why do animal control shelters claim they lack space to hold dogs and cats longer before killing them, yet have empty kennels and cages when rescuers visit?
Why are animals killed at night, if not to conceal the numbers being killed?
The Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care & Control and the New York City Center for Animal Care & Control are each killing fewer dogs and cats per 1,000 human residents than ever before in their histories–under 5.0 in Los Angeles, under 1.0 in New York, on average over the three years 2013-2015. Each city is well below the current national average of 8.6.
Yet both agencies, and many others, are perpetually under exponentially more activist scrutiny now than 40 years ago, when U.S. shelters killed six times more animals–and even as they rehome more animals through partnerships with rescuers than ever before.
Forty-odd years ago, many shelters concealed their statistics, from fear of adverse public response. Indeed, most animal advocates, and certainly most of the public, 40-odd years ago had little or no idea what shelters did, or why, or how.
Shelter statistics are now rarely a secret: most shelters publish their data on their web sites. And more rescuers and volunteers visit shelters or work in shelters now than ever before.
But many advocates and volunteers still have very little idea why shelters do things the way they do. Many jump to wildly erroneous conclusions whetted by Facebook scuttlebutt, instead of simply asking shelter personnel for procedural explanations.
Then, all too often, advocates and rescuers publicize allegations which cause shelter staff to become defensive, building mistrust which leads to information actually being withheld, shelter personnel dismissing volunteers and rescuers, and misunderstandings becoming public meltdowns, leading to more animals rather than fewer losing their lives.
This was brought into focus for me by rescuer complaints reaching me from Los Angeles and New York in February 2008, only days apart. The complainants detailed issues which may have included instances of animal control personnel failing to observe good shelter practice. The complaints focused, however, like many others received from other cities in recent years, on finding empty cages and kennels on morning visits, after animals were killed the night before.
The common element may be simply that agencies have insufficiently explained to rescuers how shelter space is allocated.
An animal control shelter, by definition of the job it exists to do, must maintain open kennels at all times for immediate impoundment of dogs arriving due to emergency, including situations in which multiple dogs arrive at once. Examples include cases in which a person or animal has been attacked by a pack; a suspected rabies case that may have exposed other animals to infection; the discovery of starving animals in a home where someone living alone has died; traffic accidents involving people traveling with multiple pets; and unexpectedly finding aggressive dogs at the scene of an arrest.
The trick, for animal control shelter management, is to have adequate capacity to handle whatever crisis comes. This is often complicated because many animal control shelters are too small for their communities––even with more nonprofit humane societies, no-kill sanctuaries, and shelterless rescues helping to house impounded animals than ever before. The total capacity of every dog and cat shelter and rescue in the U.S. today is under 500,000. Total shelter arrivals run close to eight million, 16 times the available cage and run space.
Older shelters not built for cats
Even if an animal control shelter today serves exactly the same human population that it did 30, 40, or 50 years ago, which is rare, shelters of that vintage and older were often built for agencies that did not yet handle cats. Impounded cats today, like dogs, usually must be held somehow for several days to allow for possible reclaim by their people, if any, before they can be rehomed, transferred to adoption shelters, or released into neuter/return programs.
Shelters built before 1966 predate the five-day holding period recommended by federal Animal Welfare Act. Though not binding on shelters that do not sell animals to laboratories, the five-day hold has been the U.S. norm since 1966.
Shelters built as recently as the 1990s were often built without isolation and quarantine areas, because prevailing belief–now known to be incorrect–was that most animals would be killed before they could infect others with any diseases they carried.
Calculating space allocation
Even shelters built since the advent of no-kill advocacy are often just half the size that would today be considered ideal, now that animals who are believed to have good adoption prospects are typically kept for 10 days to two weeks, or even longer.
If an animal control shelter serves a city of one million people, who keep 200,000 dogs, with an impoundment rate of about one dog in 20 per year, all close to the current U.S. norms, the shelter would take in about 10,000 dogs each year, or 27.4 per day, normally fluctuating from about nine on a slow day up to as many as 80 on days when multiple or really big emergencies occur.
Having emergency capacity at all times equal to the slow day intake is usually considered minimal. At the start of each day it is also necessary to have space available equal to the anticipated normal intake.
Animal control directors usually estimate “normal” traffic from a crude average of comparable dates. “Normal” traffic in summer is often twice the average volume in mid-winter. Usually more dogs arrive early in the week, because more dogs are lost or dumped on weekends. “Normal” for a shelter with average daily dog intake of 27.4 might be 40 on Monday, but only 20 on Thursday.
Cat intake tends to be heaviest on weekends, when more people surrender cats to shelters or deliver trapped feral cats.
Shelter space is usually allocated based on “cage days.” A “cage day” is a day on which a cage or kennel is occupied. If a shelter impounds 10,000 dogs per year, who are held an average of five days before disposition, the agency needs kennel space enough to provide 50,000 cage days. This would require about 150 kennels, including minimal excess capacity for emergencies.
The same ratios would apply to average annual impoundment of 10,000 cats.
Opening enough space each night to house the anticipated intake the next day is standard procedure for two reasons. One is that if a shelter is obliged to kill animals, the job tends to be less stressful for both the animals and the staff if done during the quiet hours. The other is that killing animals at the same time as processing new arrivals is practically a prescription for confusion, escalating the chance that cage cards will be mxed up and the wrong animals will be killed by mistake.
Shelter staff typically hope to partner with angelic rescuers who each evening will take out whatever the necessary number of dogs and cats for fostering and adoption, so that no animals need be killed.
Reality is that animal control agencies today kill an average of about 26 dogs and 30 cats per day per million human residents of their service areas–and this is the lowest rate of killing recorded since the first shelter data was collected in 1950.
About 60% of the dogs killed will be pit bulls and close mixes who have bitten someone or have flunked temperament screening. Nearly 40% of the dogs arriving at animal control shelters in the second decade of the 21st century have been pit bulls and their close mixes.
Triage procedures have changed immensely since the beginning of no-kill advocacy circa 1995, when most shelters did little more than checking the dates on cage cards. Suspected dangerous dogs back then were killed on receipt, unless quarantined for observation of possible rabies symptoms after biting someone. Shelters usually did triage just once per day.
Now most shelters do formal temperament assessment of dogs, usually a day after the dogs arrive, to give them “settling down” time, and in effect have multiple triages. First comes the preliminary temperament screening. Then, after the requisite holding time expires, rescuers take the dogs and cats they want. After that, the shelter staff may do further triage as anticipated space need indicates.
Preparing for weekends is especially difficult. Shelters often try to have the largest possible abundance of adoptable animals on hand to adopt out over the weekend. But weekends also bring heavy drop-off traffic, and then comes the Monday influx of animals found at large. Therefore, to go into a weekend with full kennels and cages is to gamble that adoptions will be high.
Dog breed balance
In 1993, when I first surveyed the U.S. shelter dog population, about 25% were purebreds. The balance were mixed breeds, with large dark dogs predominant. If an animal control agency offered 140 dogs for adoption on a Saturday morning, among them would have been 35 purebreds and 105 mixed breeds. In a city of one million people, these 140 dogs would have been approximately equal to three days’ intake.
The typical breakdown today still includes 25% purebreds or deliberately bred “designer” mixes, plus 60% pit bulls. Large dark dogs are still predominant among the mixed breed remainder.
Of 140 dogs on hand on a Friday night, 35 are purebreds or “designer” mixes, 95 are pit bulls, and 10 are mixed breeds, equal to about five or six days’ intake at the present intake rate.
If the most dangerous two dozen pit bulls are culled before the shelter opens to the public, only 116 dogs may be offered for adoption–but because shelters are receiving just a fraction as many animals, and are rehoming far more, with much rescuer help, the total number of dogs killed is much less than back when all of the cages were always full.
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