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Do Animal Shelters Serve People or Pups?

Most have evolved toward a no-kill policy but lack the money or resources to keep every animal alive and well.

One of the challenges in many government agencies is that leaders are expected to fulfill multiple missions, which sometimes conflict with one another. Consider departments of motor vehicles: They are required to keep the waiting lines moving fast while also ensuring accuracy. Similarly, social services agencies want to reach more eligible people even as they are under tremendous pressure to save dollars.

It all makes us think of an editor we once had who would place the following marginal note at the top of our copy: “Tighten this, and loosen it.” We never quite got what she really wanted, and our inclination was just to make some random changes, hoping they fell into the category of tightening while loosening.

We’ve come across an unfortunate example of this phenomenon in the departments of animal care and control. The big issue is whether these departments have a primary purpose of serving the community’s people or its animals. In the 1960s and 1970s, the animal control function prevailed. “Animal Control Services were built just to do a short impoundment,” recalls George Harding, executive director of the National Animal Care and Control Association. “The animal was to be held for a short amount of time and then adopted or euthanized.”

Slowly but surely public sentiment has evolved toward a “no-kill” policy for the animals in shelters. What that means is that the shelters are more orphanages than temporary way stations on the route to a new home or the crematorium. Shelters today, Harding says, “are bipolar in terms of their overall missions, and there is a tension as they move toward the middle.”

Notwithstanding the humane appeal of a no-kill policy, it’s a very expensive one, and all the more difficult to deliver in times of economic stress. “When you’re competing for limited resources, animals don’t necessarily get those resources,” says Corrie Stokes, auditor of Austin, Texas. Stokes knows whereof she speaks. Her office recently completed a thorough audit of the city’s animal care and control function.

Austin shelters have a goal that 90 percent of their animals will live. In other words, the city anticipates that nine out of 10 creatures that enter its shelters will stay on their own four legs indefinitely. But according to the audit, “animal services do not have sufficient facilities and resources allocated to meet the goal.” One older facility in the city, for instance, failed inspections in 2013 and 2014, with problems including structural deterioration, infestation and asbestos.

Around the country, there’s a disconnect between shelter mission and the dollars needed to manage it. Some shelters are forced to make hard decisions. Orange County, Calif., has recognized the conflict, but with inadequate infrastructure and not enough revenue to build a new shelter, it has had to euthanize animals.

New York City, like many others, appears to have traded extension of life for quality of life. The city’s goal is to achieve an 80 percent live-release rate. That may be why its large Manhattan shelter is poorly maintained and overcrowded, according to a recent audit. Some animals are housed in inadequate kennels along the hallways. What’s more, the shelter is understaffed, with single employees assigned to several functions when those tasks should be divided among individuals. “Animal Care and Control is running an operation that could make your stomach turn,” said New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer in an April news release.

Fortunately New York has awakened to many of these issues, and according to Stringer, since his office’s audit of Animal Care and Control, “the city has committed a significant amount of additional money to [Animal Care and Control] to help improve its facilities; we have also been working with them to bring change so they can become a model for how other cities treat animals without homes.”

One of the big problems in funding the trend toward using animal shelters as maintenance facilities is one of political leverage. While there’s certainly a powerful thrust of support from the community dedicated to the kind and fair treatment of animals, animal control shelters simply don’t have the political backing that other cash-poor agencies do.

Better governance of animal control centers might be one route to alleviating some of the problems. The Office of the New York Comptroller has recommended its animal services emulate the work done through the Central Park Conservancy, which has been able to tap private-sector resources and know-how in substantially reforming the park over the course of years.

That may be one good idea. Meanwhile, there still appears to be an epidemic of management problems in many places, with audit after audit complaining about lack of internal processes, inadequate computer systems, inefficient use of available staff and ineffective controls over outsourced services.

This isn’t good news. But it does offer opportunities. When basic management functions—like population projections, long-range facility planning, and careful monitoring of policies and procedures—are adequately performed, government agencies can often come up with effective means for performing a service with fewer resources. It’s hardly a sure thing, but it would be a good start to a currently frustrating situation.


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