90% “live release” mandate failed catastrophically in less than 90 days
PUEBLO, Colorado––“You can’t manage an animal shelter to a number,” Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region president Jan McHugh-Smith told Pueblo Chieftan reporter Anthony A. Mestas, hours after her organization returned to running the Pueblo Animal Services shelter on April 9, 2019, after a catastrophic three-month absence.
In the interim, a 40-year-old local no-kill organization called PAWS for Life tried to take the shelter to no-kill, under the name Community Animal Services of Pueblo, following the “No Kill Equation” popularized since 2004 by Nathan Winograd, founder of the No Kill Advocacy Center in Oakland, California.
“To describe what happened at the shelter during the first three months of this year as a train wreck is probably being too charitable,” editorialized the Pueblo Chieftan the same day.
“After the Humane Society spent 16 years as the shelter’s operator,” the Pueblo Chieftan explained, “the Pueblo city council made the decision to turn the contract over to PAWS, which had no previous experience running a public animal shelter. The Pueblo county commission reluctantly went along with the council’s choice, which was heavily influenced by a small but vocal group determined to have the local governments operate a ‘no-kill’ shelter.
“PAWS failed spectacularly during its three months on the job,” the Pueblo Chieftan editors summarized, “sparking a state investigation and creating an environment in which some animals suffered needlessly. City and county leaders should be thankful that the Humane Society of Pikes Peak Region has been gracious enough to accept this assignment, after being unceremoniously shown the door. Critics relentlessly attacked them on social media as part of an effort to get PAWS the contract, some even threatening the safety of shelter workers.”
Back on the job
The Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region resumed management of the Pueblo Animal Shelter under 90-day contracts with the Pueblo city and county governments, pending negotiation of long-term agreements.
The Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region returned to the Pueblo Animal Shelter only after the Pueblo City Council at an emergency meeting unanimously repealed an ordinance called the Pueblo Animal Protection Act [PAPA], passed in 2018 by demand of PAWS for Life supporters. The ordinance had required the Pueblo Animal Shelter to maintain a 90% “live release rate.”
The new contract “stipulates that the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region will not only operate the shelter, but also run enforcement of local animal control ordinances,” noted Pueblo Chieftan reporter Mestas.
“Live release rate is not what we call socially conscious”
“We’ve always been here for the people and the animals,” McHugh-Smith said, “and now we get to be coming back to provide the services that this community really needs and deserves. Our partners from the Denver Dumb Friends League are helping us with staffing and getting the building ready for operation.”
“Animal sheltering is very complex, and I think that’s what our elected officials have learned,” McHugh-Smith finished. “It takes many, many different things to look at to measure the care of the animals. Just having one focus on a live release rate is not what we call socially conscious sheltering.”
What McHugh-Smith and others call “socially conscious” sheltering, ANIMALS 24-7 calls simply “responsible sheltering,” and “responsible rescuing,” for animal rescuers working outside a shelter environment. ANIMALS 24-7 hopes that the key concepts, by any name, will soon catch on.
McHugh-Smith was early no-kill advocate
A 35-year veteran of humane work, almost entirely in Colorado, McHugh-Smith was among the first U.S. animal shelter directors to embrace the goals of the “no kill movement,” as those goals were originally stated, early in her 12-year tenure as executive director of the Humane Society of Boulder Valley in Boulder, Colorado, 1995-2007.
McHugh-Smith left Colorado in February 2007 to head the San Francisco SPCA, which through a 1994 agreement with the San Francisco Department of Animal Care & Control called the “Adoption Pact” claimed to have made San Francisco the first U.S. “no kill city.”
Frustrated at having had to make steep budget cuts due to budget overruns left by her predecessors, McHugh-Smith returned to Colorado in March 2010 to become executive director of the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region.
Original no-kill movement emphasized methods, not numbers
The “no kill movement” jumped off to a promising start, marked by the first “No Kill Conference,” held in Phoenix, Arizona, in September 1995.
The sixty-odd attendees had mostly been introduced to each other’s existence only a few months earlier by the first edition of The No Kill Directory, published annually for several years by a long defunct organization called Doing Things for Animals.
Doing Things for Animals, in partnership with the North Shore Animal League America, also organized the first “No Kill Conference” and ten more annual teaching and training conferences that followed.
Though those eleven conferences, animal shelter directors around the U.S. and the world learned what were already time-tested, yet surprisingly little-known techniques for promoting high-volume dog and cat sterilization and increasing adoptions.
Who invented no-kill?
The North Shore Animal League America had developed the now almost universally used approaches to adoption, beginning when the late Alex and Elisabeth Lewyt took over the shelter management in 1969.
Veterinarian Marvin Mackie had pioneered high-volume dog and cat sterilization surgery at clinics funded by the city of Los Angeles since 1973, training Jeff Young, DVM, among many others, who have in turn trained several more generations of spay/neuter surgery specialists.
Borrowing ideas from both North Shore and the Los Angeles spay/neuter clinics, the San Francisco SPCA began putting them together under one roof, as part of an integrated program, soon after Richard Avanzino became president in 1976.
Progress in Pueblo
By the dawn of the 21st century, the U.S. animal shelter death toll had fallen by half in barely 10 years.
Progress in Pueblo was especially rapid. The Pueblo Animal Shelter reportedly killed 5,700 dogs and cats in 1999, a rate of 35.7 per 1,000 of human population.
By 2016 the shelter was killing barely 1,000 dogs and cats per year, a rate of 6.25 per 1,000 of human population, about 60% of the rate for the Rocky Mountains region and half the rate for the U.S. as whole.
The initial threshold for achieving no-kill animal control was set at killing fewer than 5.0 dogs and cats per 1,000 of human population, based on the reality that about that many animals will be irrecoverably sick, injured, or dangerous.
Running through the red lights
The front cover of every edition of the No Kill Directory included this definition, drafted by ANIMALS 24-7 editor Merritt Clifton and ratified in 1995 by all of the original No Kill Conference sponsors and organizers:
“Implicit to the no-kill philosophy is the reality of exceptional situations in which euthanasia is the most humane alternative available. Those exceptional situations include irrecoverable illness or injury, dangerous behavior, and/or the need to decapitate an animal who has bitten someone, in order to perform rabies testing. They do not include ‘unadoptable, too young, or too old,’ or lack of space.”
From almost the beginning, unfortunately, Avanzino, then-SF/SPCA staff attorney Nathan Winograd (who does not appear to have attended any of the first 11 No Kill Conferences), and the founders of the Best Friends Animal Society, who soon started their own breakaway No More Homeless Pets conference series, argued that the No Kill Directory definition of “no kill” was too complicated to fuel the “no kill movement” as they envisioned it.
Dumbed down the formula
Also of note, only Avanzino had significant experience in open admission sheltering or on the law enforcement side of animal care and control, and his experience was long behind him. Animal care and control was a a job the SF/SPCA had done for 100 years, but Avanzino handed it off to a newly formed city agency in 1984. While the transition was phased in over five years, it was completed before Winograd was hired.
Avanzino left the SF/SPCA in 1998 to become first chief executive of the no-kill advocacy organization Maddie’s Fund, backed to the tune of $350 million by PeopleSoft founders David and Cheryl Duffield.
Much of that money has been put behind promoting a “new” no-kill formula, in alliance with the Best Friends Animal Society. The “new” formula is simply the old “euthanasia rate” statistic, often used in the late 20th century, turned upside down and called the “live release rate”
Why “live release rate” kills
Shelters using the “live release rate” are considered “no kill” if they simply rehome 90% of their animal intake, regardless of what that intake is.
In other words, a shelter that kills fewer than 5.0 animals per 1,000 of human population, as the San Francisco shelters did during the last five years of Avanzino’s SF/SPCA tenure, might not be considered no-kill, if it promotes spay/neuter and responsible animal care so successfully that intake comes to consist mostly of sick, injured, and dangerous animals.
Yet that shelter can still get the no-kill label, a huge advantage in fundraising, if it rehomes 90% of the sick, injured, and dangerous animals it receives, irrespective of risk to the public and other animals––or just keeps them in cages until their deaths of “natural causes.”
Achieving the coveted 90% “live release rate” is even easier if a shelter simply refuses to accept sick, injured, and dangerous animals. Many shelters have taken that approach, but many others have tried to remain “open admission,” even though this often leads to taking chances with animal and human health and safety.
Pursuing the 90% “live release rate” has since 2007 contributed to the deaths of 35 humans by 61 rehomed dogs, 44 of them pit bulls; to about 40% of the U.S. pit bull population languishing in shelters and sanctuaries because they cannot be rehomed; to dozens of “no kill” shelter failures each and every year, with as many as 40,000 animals housed in substandard “no kill” facilities at any given time; and to many of the deadliest disease outbreaks in U.S. animal sheltering history.
Gamble failed in Las Vegas
The worst disease outbreak of all came at the Lied Animal Shelter in Las Vegas in February 2007.
Originally handling only Las Vegas animals, the Lied Animal Shelter opened in February 2001. The Lied management almost immediately came under intensive criticism for purportedly killing incoming animals too quickly, after an incident in which a child’s dog was euthanized by accident. The shelter was expanded two years later to also hold animals impounded from Clark County, surrounding Las Vegas.
A decade later the shelter tried to go no-kill––prematurely. Outside personnel were eventually brought in to help euthanize more than 1,000 of the 1,800 animals in custody.
About 150 of the animals were ill, and 850 were believed to have been exposed to both parvovirus and distemper among the holding kennels for incoming dogs, and panleukopenia among the incoming cats, along with a bacterial infection never previously found in shelters that caused a fatal hemorrhagic pneumonia.
Similar episodes have occurred around the U.S. and Canada since then, but with fewer casualties, chiefly because the afflicted shelters have served much smaller communities, therefore taking in fewer animals.
“We have a responsibility to prevent & relieve suffering”
“As veterinarians, we have a responsibility to prevent and relieve animal suffering,” Colorado Veterinary Medical Association president Will French, DVM declared in response to the Pueblo Animal Shelter meltdown.
“The idea of the no-kill movement is misleading, and often increases animal suffering with unintended consequences,” French continued, hammering home a point often made by ANIMALS 24-7 since our first feature article, Why we cannot adopt our way out of shelter killing, originally posted in April 2014, updated in November 2015.
That point has most successfully been made by Colorado spay/neuter veterinarian Jeff Young in a July 2017 guest column for ANIMALS 24-7 entitled We cannot adopt, warehouse or rescue our way out of dog & cat overpopulation!, now read by more than 170,000 people.
“Strongly supports socially conscious animal sheltering”
The Colorado Veterinary Medical Association reinforced French’s words with an April 9, 2019 resolution stating that it “strongly supports the socially conscious animal sheltering movement and opposes the no-kill movement in animal welfare.
“The socially conscious animal community movement strives to create the best outcomes for all animals by treating them respectfully and alleviating suffering,” the CVMA resolution explained, defining as fundamental goals of socially conscious animal sheltering that there are “community commitments to:
- Ensure every unwanted or homeless pet has a safe place to go for shelter and care;
- Place every healthy and safe animal;
- Assess the medical and behavioral needs of homeless animals and ensure these needs are thoughtfully addressed;
- Align shelter policy with the needs of the community;
- Alleviate suffering and make appropriate euthanasia decisions;
- Consider the health and wellness of animals for each community when transferring animals;
- Enhance the human-animal bond through thoughtful placements and post-adoption support;
- Foster a culture of transparency, ethical decision-making, mutual respect, continual learning, and collaboration.”
“Causes every veterinarian supports”
These “are causes every veterinarian supports,” the CVMA resolution said. “Policies and legislation that remove professional judgement and knowledge in animal welfare and public health are counter to those causes; we cannot and will not support them.
By contrast, the CVMA resolution charged, “The no-kill movement increases animal suffering and threatens public health with unintended consequences:
- Animals in need are turned away from shelters because shelters are not able to meet required live release rates if they are admitted.
- Animals languish in cages until they die to avoid euthanasia.
- Dangerous dogs are placed in the community or remain indefinitely in shelters because of release requirements.
- Shelters can no longer accept lost or homeless animals from the community because cages are full of behaviorally or medically-challenged animals who cannot be placed in homes.
- Animal welfare is at risk because shelters are beyond capacity-of-care.”
Finished the CVMA resolution, “The CVMA believes a socially conscious sheltering approach provides greater benefits for animals and for the community; as such, we strongly support socially conscious sheltering and oppose the no-kill movement.”
How the Pueblo debacle unfolded
The Community Animal Services of Pueblo shelter debacle became public, recounted Pueblo Chieftan reporter Mestas, when “On March 15, 2019, authorities executed a search warrant at the facility,” after a March 6 inspection found problematic conditions, “as part of an ongoing investigation by the Colorado Department of Agriculture. Word of personnel changes followed, including the suspension of shelter director Linda Mitchell and the exits of staff veterinarian Joel Brubaker and the most experienced of the shelter’s animal control officers.”
SoCO Spay and Neuter Association executive director Lisa Buccambuso agreed to replace Mitchell on an interim basis, but resigned only two days later, while PAWS For Life surrendered its state-issued license to operate the shelter.
“I quickly witnessed that the need was greater than what I could offer, and that immediate intervention needed to take place,” Buccambuso told media.
A cat named River & a dog named Luna
That evening, March 27, 2019, KOAA News 5 reporter Tom Kackley revealed many of the Colorado Department of Agriculture findings.
“Inspectors said a cat named River was brought in by a person who said the animal had not been fed for a month when brought in on February 16, 2019,” Kackley began. “According to the inspection form, records showed the cat didn’t see the vet until February 25.”
Severely dehydrated, River died on the exam table.
“A dog was brought in,” Kackley said, “when the owner couldn’t pay for treatment of a broken pelvis. According to the documents, the dog was not seen by the vet for four days and was still not given the vet-recommended medications. Inspectors said the dog was found more than a month later lying on the surgery room floor ‘listless and unable to stand.’
Another case,” Kackley continued, involved a dog named Luna, brought in on January 12, 2019 after possibly having been hit by a car.
“According to the state, records showed a vet didn’t see Luna until January 24,” Kackley said.
Stepping in it
“In the surgery room,” Kackley summarized, “investigators found ‘all rooms in need of cleaning and sanitization.’ The surgery table had hair from ‘multiple animals.’
“Inspectors said a paralyzed Chihuahua had ‘free roam’ of the main surgery room and had urinated all over the floor. Other animals also were roaming the surgery room and were observed vomiting during the inspection.
“According to the documents,” Kackley said, “the exam room was in a similar condition. A back room was full of puppies with diarrhea and the floor had fecal matter ‘throughout the room, making it difficult to enter and access other animals without stepping in it.’ There was fecal matter on the puppies themselves as well as their bedding and blankets.”
Further, Kackley reported, “Documents show the shelter initially refused to provide the euthanasia log, medication log, and access to the area around the surgery room to investigators.
“Inspectors said a staff member walked a dog who had been impounded for biting a child through a customer service area, where the dog almost bit a customer service representative in the face. According to the documents, records showed the dog was not current on rabies vaccinations.”
Unaltered female & male cats housed together
Further, the Colorado Department of Agriculture inspections “found healthy animals were sharing the same space with animals being treated for illnesses, or who were visibly ill,” Kackley said. “A female and male cat were housed together, without either of the animals being spayed or neutered. Inspectors observed the cats appeared to be six months old,” old enough for the female to become pregnant.
“Multiple medications were found to be expired, some from as far back as 2006,” Kackley finished. “Other medications were specifically made for horses and cattle, which are not housed at the facility. Inspectors said they also found some labels on the medications had faded away and some medications were not labeled at all.”
Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region was ousted over euthanasias due to dangerous behavior
The campaign to oust the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region from the Pueblo Animal Shelter and bring in PAWS for Life appears to have gained momentum in April 2017 after activists objected to the scheduled euthanasia of a five-month-old pit bull.
The pit bull’s “behavior since it arrived has been extremely high arousal, really won’t calm down, very frontal, very controlling. This is all behavior that’s concerning in an adult dog, and even though this dog is five months old, it concerns me even more that this puppy is showing this behavior at that young of an age,” then-Pueblo Animal Services director Julie Justman told Danielle Kreutter of KKTV.
The pit bull puppy was eventually rehomed.
That fracas had barely settled when an organization called Reform Pueblo Animal Services initiated a media campaign in response to the May 2017 euthanasia of a five-year-old border collie mix who had repeatedly demonstrated aggression toward other dogs at the shelter, and had flunked several behavioral assessments.
“Perfect storm of events”
After PAWS for Life relinquished operation of the Pueblo Animal Shelter, the PAWS for Life board of directors in an April 10, 2019 social media statement blamed their failure to run the shelter successfully on a “perfect storm of events,” and complained of having “been forced to sit quietly while being vilified and threatened by individuals both privately and publicly and through social media, much of the hatred fostered by state and national organizations that have a far different agenda than what our vision was for the shelter.”
The apparent PAWS for Life choice to take over running the shelter was the Humane Society of Fremont County, headed since 2014 by Doug Rae. The Humane Society of Fremont County had not bid on the Community Animal Services of Pueblo sheltering contract, but Rae indicated before the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region returned to the shelter that his organization might be interested in it, if PAWS for Life withdrew.
Why Doug Rae?
Founded in 1951 by Hazel and Ralph J. Wann, the Humane Society of Fremont County currently handles about 3,000 animals per year, mostly as the animal control housing contractor for Fremont County, the cities of Cañon City and Florence, and the towns of Coal Creek, Rockvale, Westcliffe and Williamsburg.
Rae arrived at the Humane Society of Fremont County after brief and often controversial animal shelter management stints in Phoenix, Maryland; Philadelphia, Indianapolis; and Warren, Rhode Island.
Rae in a 2009 interview credited his interest in humane work to having met No Kill Advocacy Center founder Nathan Winograd at a Best Friends No More Homeless Pets conference in 2002.
Rae was not among the eight co-signers of a March 28, 2019 joint statement entitled “Front Range shelter leadership responds to Community Animal Services of Pueblo conditions and closure.”
Opened that statement, “The suffering that happened at Community Animal Services of Pueblo (CASP), operated by PAWS for Life, is unacceptable. In an effort to adhere to a damaging local ordinance, it appears animals were allowed to suffer and die from their illnesses and injuries rather than being humanely euthanized. The animal welfare community’s priority is to ensure these animals are properly cared for and that they are protected from situations like this in the future.
“Upon the closure of CASP, animal shelters across the front range worked together to respond to this critical situation and collaborated to help the animals in Pueblo. Animal welfare organizations who either assisted in efforts to transport these pets, accepted animals from Pueblo or are on standby to accept them, include the [Denver] Dumb Friends League, Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region, Foothills Animal Shelter, Denver Animal Protection, Humane Society of Boulder Valley, Larimer Humane Society, Longmont Humane Society, Aurora Animal Shelter, Adams County Animal Shelter, Humane Society of Weld County and Intermountain Humane Society.
“This is a regretful example of how the ‘no kill movement,’ when taken to the extreme, preys upon compassionate people’s desire to protect animals,” the joint statement finished. “Animals deserve respect, nurturing, support, and it is never acceptable to allow them to suffer. Our entire community is deeply saddened by this situation.”
The co-signers included McHugh-Smith, Denver Dumb Friends League president Apryl Steele, Larimer Humane Society chief executive Judy Calhoun, Denver Animal Protection director Alice Nightengale, Humane Society of Boulder Valley chief executive Lisa Pedersen, Longmont Humane Society chief executive Liz Smokowski, Intermountain Humane Society chief executive Richard L. P. Solosky, and Humane Society of Weld County executive director Elaine Hicks.