Inside the Plan to Revolutionize Animal Shelters

In the spring, when it became clear that COVID-19 was going to dramatically alter society for the foreseeable future, many people went to the pound. Animal shelters across the United States saw adoptions rise and unexpected numbers of people sign up to foster animals in their homes. Pets became the go-to salve for a time of great uncertainty.

For animal shelters, this sudden interest caused a moment of reckoning. “We’re looking at the situation now and saying, ‘Wait a minute, were all of these foster homes available prior to this?’” says Peter Wolf, research and policy analyst for Best Friends Animal Society, a nationwide animal welfare nonprofit. “Somehow, because we were clinging to old assumptions, we weren’t taking advantage of this. So now there’s this whole big conversation going on around community-supported sheltering or community-based sheltering.”

Animal shelters and the people who run them are now rethinking the way the shelter system looks and operates. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, U.S. shelters take in about 6.5 million animals annually; of those, 1.5 million are euthanized. While saving animals is most shelters’ main goal, most of the work turns out to be holding those animals in cells. This has led to the creation of Human Animal Support Services, a network of people working in animal shelters around the United States and Canada who believe now is the time to dramatically alter what animal shelters do. The initiative was organized by American Pets Alive!, an Austin-based national education program, and volunteers from around the country are now developing what they believe will be a new model for operating animal shelters in communities. The model focuses on rethinking 12 key areas of sheltering, including getting lost pets home more quickly, providing need-based medical care, fostering and partnerships that help with everything from mending fences to finding pet-friendly housing. More than 30 shelters have pledged to implement these concepts. Eighteen are putting these practices in place right now.

“It was really a statement by so many of us that things need to change,” says Kristen Hassen, one of the cofounders of HASS and the director of Pima Animal Care Center, a county shelter in Tucson, Arizona. “So many animal shelters, particularly government shelters, are still working off a model that started 150 years ago, which was to treat dogs and cats as nuisances that need to be taken off the streets and impounded, and that the ones that aren’t reclaimed are disposable.”

Hassen says animal intake at shelters has become too transactional. “We’ve trained communities that if you find a stray animal or you can’t keep your pet you bring it to the shelter. We have really taught the public that’s how you help,” Hassen says. She knows firsthand. Her facility took in 19,000 animals last year. For a county of 1 million people, she says the per capita rate is far higher than other counties.

HASS is trying to reeducate communities to avoid bringing animals to the shelter unless necessary, giving animals in the shelter more space and freeing up funding to provide a wider range of services and support. “So if you find a stray dog today, instead of just driving it to the shelter, we ask you to call the shelter, we get all the information, and we ask you if you’re able to hold the animal for a couple of days to give the owner time to get it home,” Hassen says. “And we do the detective work.” Instead of taking in the animal and doing the typical cleaning and medical checks, the shelter staff can focus on tacking down the animal’s microchip information and contacting the owner, or posting the animal on social media.

Another way the HASS model focuses on keeping animals out of shelters is by reducing the reasons people have for surrendering their pets, whether due to financial hardship, medical emergency, or housing challenges. Hassen says more shelters are creating food and supply banks where people can receive free pet food, leashes, and crates. HASS shelters are partnering with grant-making organizations to offer need-based medical treatment for pets that would otherwise be euthanized. Some partner with nonprofit organizations that focus specifically on building and fixing fences to prevent dogs from running away and ending up in shelters.

Shelters that have long been focused on finding homes for animals are now working to find homes for people. “Probably one of the most significant issues facing animal welfare over the next decade is the lack of pet-accessible housing,” Hassen says. Her shelter works with landlords to change leases to allow pets, and offers lists of pet-friendly housing options to people who are moving. “It actually costs us less time and money to do that,” she says. By reducing the overall number of animals coming into shelters, funding is able to be diverted to providing these kinds of services.

Shelter facilities are also being changed or redesigned to shift how services are provided. Heather Lewis leads the HASS building and facility working group to develop concepts for how shelters can physically adapt to achieve the initiative’s goals, and she’s also an architect whose firm, Animal Arts, specializes in animal shelters, veterinary hospitals, and equine facilities. “Traditionally animal shelters have been essentially warehouses for animals,” she says. “We’ve learned over the years from shelter medicine experts, we’re giving animals far too little room. And once we move past this warehousing mentality, we can actually completely revolutionize how we’re housing these pets, and give them better housing and less stressful housing.”

A new shelter Lewis’s firm designed for Seattle Humane shifted space from housing animals to providing medical and community services. It’s helped reduce animal stress and illness, and made it easier for community members in need to access supplies, according to Dr. Jessica Reed, chief of shelter medicine at Seattle Humane.

“Our previous building was very old and outdated and cobbled together. Really the spaces were not great for animals or for staff,” says Reed. Overcrowded kennels and chain-link dog runs led to disease problems, such as “kennel cough,” Reed says. “They just used to spread around in our old shelter like wildfire.”

The new facility has space for just over 300 dogs and cats, and includes a large clinic with two operating rooms, areas for radiology, dentistry, and intensive care, and enough examination space to provide a training hospital for veterinary students from the nearby Washington State University. The animal spaces have also been expanded, creating what Reed calls dorms for dogs. Other areas have become food and supply banks, and Reed says staff has been able to develop a network of 2,000 foster families able to take in animals as needed.

Though Seattle Humane is not officially part of the HASS initiative, Reed says the facility has adapted to provide better care to animals and more services to the community. “Like lots of other shelters, we are realizing that the best place for pets is in their homes, if they can stay there, and the best place for animals who do end up in a shelter is probably a foster home versus a physical shelter,” she says.

Animals will still end up in shelters, though. Lewis says there’s a growing movement in shelters beyond the HASS initiative to improve the spaces shelters use to house animals, especially by giving them more space. One simple solution for cats, she says, is the addition of a portal, or a small circular passageway between two cat enclosures that creates more room and a healthier separation of litter areas. The lowered shelter populations during the pandemic have created the opportunity to put these portals in place. “Now that you need half of your housing, you can cut the hole between the two cages and your cats can have a litter box area and a food area, and those cats magically are healthy again,” Lewis says. One anti-euthanasia shelter reform nonprofit, the Million Cat Challenge, has an ongoing campaign to donate plastic portals to shelters around the country called Portalmania 2020. So far, they’ve distributed portals to more than 100 shelters.

Much of the progress in shelters is made possible through these kinds of grant-making organizations and nonprofits, but the HASS initiative aims to make its reforms possible by reducing spending in other areas.

“On average, a dog entering the shelter costs us about $400 as a government agency,” says Hassen, of The Pima Animal Care Center. “The hope is that we can repurpose that money by housing more pets in foster and by keeping more pets in their homes and communities. Utilizing resources that we would have used on feeding and cleaning and institutionalizing pets, we can actually put those back into the community and back into helping people.”

Wolf compares the transition underway to what’s happened with libraries. Once simply places to get books, many libraries have turned into community centers with access to services, events and education, as well as books. He says shelters are moving past the stereotype of being little more than jail for animals. “You’re knitting together a vital community service with the people in that community,” he says.

For many in the shelter community, the work HASS is pursuing is as much about people as it is about animals. “People care deeply about cats, dogs and other pets,” says Hassen. Making it easier for people to help animals and keep them in homes is better for everyone, she argues. The HASS model is one way to start making that change. “It’s no longer that animals are disposable or that they can just be treated like garbage,” she says. “It’s up to us who run government shelters to finally catch up to where the rest of the world is.”

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