Thursday, October 22, 2015

If You’re Looking to Save Lives, Ask the Advocate

There’s a phrase that goes something along the lines of, "if you want something done, go ask the busy person." The meaning is pretty simple. Busy people are doers. If you want to get something accomplished quickly and accurately, it’s better to go to that doer than it is to someone who is not busy and who may very well lack the commitment and focus to perform the task. The busy person will carve out time to help because that’s part of who they are.

In animal welfare circles, the most important phrase which comes to mind of late is equally simple:

if you’re looking to save lives, ask the advocate

Let me explain.

There are a host of huge, multi-million dollar organizations which tout themselves as being focused on animal welfare. We often call them the alphabet soup of animal welfare: PETA, the ASPCA, the HSUS, BFAS and TZ. For those of you not familiar with some of those, I’m referring to organizations going by the names People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Humane Society of the United States, the Best Friends Animal Society and last, but not least, a newcomer on the scene called Target Zero.

Common sense may dictate that large organizations with national exposure and millions in the bank would be in the best positions to advance the causes of animal welfare toward not only saving more animals, but toward helping our society as a whole make better choices related to spay and neuter, adoption and general animal care. It may also make sense that these same organizations would be at the forefront of educating the American public on key issues like shelter killing, puppy mills, free roaming cats, breed bans and chaining of dogs. The presumption is that the people running or working for those organizations must surely be the most dedicated and the most knowledgeable and therefore in the best positions to affect change in our society.

Not so fast.

I will not provide my laundry list of what is wrong with each of these organizations. There are a lot of people a whole lot smarter than me who have already done that or are actively doing that. What I will say is that if you do a little homework, you will quickly learn that the alphabet soup is not all that great after all and that most of these organizations exist in order to remain in existence. One of these organizations routinely destroys the vast majority of animals in its care. Another is really just a single office building in New York as opposed to some national organization with offices and centers across the country. Yet another organization routinely spends only single percentage points of the millions donated by the animal-loving public on animals or animal welfare while using the rest for marketing and salaries. The newest of these organizations is going around the country, touting itself as providing expert animal shelter consulting services toward creating no kill communities when the people who lead the organization have never created a no kill community anywhere.

The bad news and the good news about animal welfare is that the people who are in the best position to help save the lives of more animals in any community, thereby changing our society, are the grassroots advocates. These are the people who work each and every day not only to help animals but to share what they know and have learned freely and without reservation. They don’t have millions. You may never see them on a television commercial. Most work full-time jobs in addition to their advocacy and it is a way of life. There are no days off. These are the people with the know-how and the smarts and the passion. They are the doers of the animal welfare movement who have learned from trial and error and research and networking, all for the sake of their belief system which says we can and must do better for companion animals in our society.

So I say again: if you’re looking to save lives, ask the advocate.

(image courtesy of Nathan Winograd)

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Cost of Pride: Just Too High

I have been an animal welfare advocate for years. More years than some, not as many years as others. I had an epiphany in 2006 when I discovered that shelter pets die not because they are suffering or because we have too many of them, but due to an industry steeped in defeatist attitudes which is meant to serve the public but blames that very public for being put in a position where people are "forced" to kill animals as some form of Orwellian public service.
In 2009, I began speaking out very loudly about the killing which takes place in the city where I work. I tried to be diplomatic. I tried to be empowering. Encouraging. It did not work. I kept hearing, "but I don’t want to kill animals," and "but you just don’t understand that we can’t stop putting them to sleep tomorrow," and "getting to no kill takes time and time and more time." The words came across as heart-felt and appeared to be sincere. They were just that. Words.
I go to sleep thinking about shelter pets. I dream about conflict with the shelter director. I wake up thinking about what I can do today to try to make a difference now that the diplomacy has done so little good and I am still hearing the same words more than six years on. I asked some of my contacts to join with me a few years ago in hopes we could find common ground and speak with one voice to try go bring change to our community. We hope to make ourselves irrelevant in time. We hope that our local leaders will realize that our shelter is not an island and our community can, and must, learn from people in other parts of the country who are saving the vast majority of shelter pets. Insisting on using our own ideas to the exclusion of proven methods has obviously not worked well.
I’m often asked by people outside of animal welfare circles why it is so difficult to try to bring change to an area where thousands of animals have been destroyed over a period of years when there are proven methods being used across the country to save them. Our region is progressive, smart and creative. We support the space program and the Bubba Factor just does not apply here. My answer is pretty simple: pride.
If you run a kill shelter and are told that there are programs being used across the country to save lives and you refuse to fully embrace them, I am left with no alternative but to believe that your pride is more important to you than the lives of the animals entrusted to your care. You are too proud to say your answers are not the only answers. You are too proud to admit that someone in some other place may know things you do not. You are more focused on your own image of yourself than you are with making the world a better place for pets, the people who love them and the people who pay for your shelter to operate in the first place. Which is actually quite illogical. If you did embrace change, you could potentially save thousands of animals and then your image would be even more sterling in the community that you perceive it to be at this very moment.
Don’t tell me we all want the same thing. I want the killing to stop. If you did to, you would put that pride on a shelf, roll up your sleeves and say, "let’s do this." Now. Not in a year and not in five years. The cost is just too high.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Why You Should Care About What Happens at Your Municipal Animal Shelter

I had a conversation with someone recently about the municipal animal shelter in the city where I work related to the number of years I have spent advocating for change here. I have invested thousands of hours and thousands of brain cells toward trying to bring this region into the 21st Century in terms of how we view and treat shelter animals.  The person I was speaking to considers himself an animal lover. He knows in kind of hazy terms what takes place at our shelter, but really does not think about it much because he doesn't feel personally affected by what takes place at the shelter.  Which leads me to share my observations about why people should care about what happens at municipal animal shelters. Perhaps you can apply these ramblings to your own community.

Local government can be a lot like air and gravity. It is just there and we expect it to work. We normally only think about it when something either goes really wrong or really right. That is also the case with our municipal animal shelter which is run by the city with the county as a paying customer. Unless you have had reason to interact with the shelter, you may not even know where it's located. 

So. Why should you even care about our shelter? We could talk about this for hours, but here's a couple of reasons why.

Because of our values. Most people who live and work here are proud of our area. Yes. We have some issues to work out. But we are viewed as atypical of our state and region and we have a lot of wonderful things going on here. The City just announced a new master plan initiative called "The Big Picture," and we seek to be named a Compassionate City. Part of how we view ourselves - and are viewed from other areas - includes our values. Not just how we function day-to-day, but also in the choices we make which demonstrate what is important to us. 

If we ever want to be considered a truly great place to live and work, we need to make our community a safe place for the people who live and work here and for the animals we say we love. Some of our local issues are complex. This one is not. Since there are proven ways to save shelter pets being used across the country, we need only learn from those places and then implement successful programs here. This can be done by balancing animal welfare with public safety.

Because of our money. It costs money to impound, house and then destroy animals. Although some may think that becoming a no kill community comes with a hefty price tag, it really does not. Many of the programs we support are actually cheaper than the costs spent to destroy healthy and treatable pets. When we destroy savable animals, that is entirely revenue negative; we have cost output with no gain. When we save those same animals, that process is revenue positive. Even if we waive adoption fees for approved adopters and give animals away, those living animals will require food and veterinary care at the very least. They may be groomed, boarded, trained, kenneled or go to a local day care facility. We may buy them treats or toys or vehicle harnesses or a host of other things to keep them safe and happy. We may enter them in local contests put on my nonprofit groups. You get the point - we spend money on them and a lot of that money is spent here. We can either continue to spend money to destroy them or we can use that same money (or less money) to save them and help our local economy.

Is your community still destroying healthy and treatable shelter animals? If so, ask yourself why you tolerate it if it is not in keeping with your community values and considering the fact that you are paying for it.

(image courtesy of Lisa Vallez)

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Target Zero or Doing Zero; My Perspective as an Animal Welfare Advocate

I am the founder of an advocacy group called No Kill Huntsville which seeks to make Huntsville, Alabama, a no kill community: a place where healthy and treatable animals are no longer destroyed in our municipal shelter using our tax dollars. I became an animal welfare advocate nine years ago after stumbling across the functional equivalent of a “snuff film” on the website for the local animal shelter. The video showed an otherwise healthy, happy Beagle being led to a room to be destroyed because, as the shelter director later told me, “no one wants Beagles these days.” I have advocated for shelter reform here personally for more than six years. I formed No Kill Huntsville in early 2012 because I was making little progress on my own and I felt that if I could form a coalition of advocates, we could achieve more by speaking with one voice.

The seven members of No Kill Huntsville are no kill shelter directors, rescuers, business professionals, authors and educators. We have always advocated for implementation of the no kill programs which make up the No Kill Equation. We believe that of all the methods being used to end the outdated practice of destroying savable animals, the equation presents the best way to reduce shelter intake and increase shelter output by allowing any community to mold and shape the equation to fit the resources in - and challenges of - the community. We do not need to reinvent the wheel; we need only follow what has worked in other places and network with the people who have taken this path before us.

The City of Huntsville operates Huntsville Animal Services and holds the county contract with Madison County; the shelter is a municipal operation which is operated by the city with a per animal/per day fee paid by the county for “county” animals. The budget for the last fiscal year was not quite two million dollars. The shelter is led by a licensed veterinarian who is currently paid $104,000 a year and who is provided almost $20,000 in benefits. The shelter has a total staff of 28 people. 

Since the time we formed our coalition and first took our subject to the public, the municipal shelter has made progress. The path to this point has been incredibly difficult as we face opposition at almost every turn and reluctance by city officials to consider the proven programs we promote. We would like to think that at least some of the progress is due to our outspokenness for the greater good.  The phrase “no kill” is now on the community radar.  When we formed our coalition in 2012, the live release rate was 34%. By the end of 2014, the live release rate had risen to 73%.

In May of 2014, we learned that the City of Huntsville had sent a member of the shelter staff to Jacksonville, Florida, to visit an organization there to talk about community cat TNR programs. We later learned that the city was engaging in talks with what was then called the Target Zero Institute. We had heard of this organization before, but knew little about it. Once we began to research the key players in the organization and their experience in creating no kill communities, we became very concerned. We shared our concerns with city leaders, but they were overlooked. In September of 2014, representatives from Target Zero visited Huntsville. In January of 2015, the city signed a three-year contract with Target Zero.

I have prepared this document for use by others who may have concerns about the presence of Target Zero in their own communities. The information contained here is based on my personal knowledge and experience. I leave it to anyone reading this document to take it at face value. This document is current as of the date below.

I was personally devastated when I learned that the city planned to engage with Target Zero. I had been advocating for shelter reform for years and was certain that having Target Zero come here would make much of that advocacy irrelevant and take the city off course. It was ultimately beyond the ability of my advocacy group to prevent this from happening and now there is nothing we can do about it. Our research and attempts to help this city have been cast aside as the city has chosen instead to engage with this Florida-based consulting group. Time will tell if my personal fears and the fears of my coalition are unfounded. I would like nothing more than to be proven wrong and to have to reconsider my position about this consulting group.

        Target Zero is actually a nonprofit called First Coast No More Homeless Pets which is based in Jacksonville, Florida.  The name of the organization has flip-flopped in the last few years but it was last changed from Target Zero to FCNMHP in May of 2014; it has received numerous grants over the years, two of the largest being from the Best Friends Animal Society (a 2012 grant for $340,000 and a 2013 grant for $280,000).

        Target Zero is funded by some philanthropists (billionaire Jeff Walker and actor David Duchovny) and some large animal welfare organizations (the HSUS, the ASPCA and Best Friends).  A former Target Zero website page about Partnerships has been removed from the website, but it is logical to presume that financial support is still being provided by these large, national organizations.

        Target Zero offers services to cities and counties in one of two ways. A location can either be offered an opportunity to be considered a “Fellow City” (in which case consulting services are offered for free) or a “Partner City” (in which case there are fees for the consulting services).  Although Fellow Cities are offered services for free, the recommendations of Target Zero often include large capital projects (such as expanding existing physical locations or financing new animal shelters).

        Target Zero focuses on a 90% save rate as the benchmark of success, rather than focusing on a culture in which all healthy and treatable shelter animals are saved.  This reliance on a statistic as opposed to a shift in culture provides implied permission to meet a standard and then possibly destroy animals for convenience or space after that benchmark is reached.

        The founders of Target Zero have not made their own communities no kill communities. Rick DuCharme is from Jacksonville and leads FCNMHP. While he has done wonderful things with FCNMHP, he does not run an open admission no kill shelter and Jacksonville is not yet a no kill community. Peter Marsh is from New Hampshire. He has been known to say it is a no kill state but no proof of that is available. The senior leadership also includes Dr. Sara Pizano, the former Director of Miami Dade Animal Services.  Miami Dade never achieved a high live release rate under her leadership and she left the organization following a period of much public criticism about her performance.

        Target Zero has no proven track record of success.  Target Zero is active in three other locations it calls Fellow Cities. (At the time we first learned about Target Zero, there was a fourth Fellow City - Pensacola, Florida - which is now a Partner City). Some of those places have been working with Target Zero for years and have still not become no kill communities.


Start Date
Target Date for 90%
Last Known Status
Time to Reach Current Status
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
3 ½ years - 2017
63% shelter save rate as of July 2015
2 years
Indianapolis, Indiana
3 years - late 2016
80.8% shelter save rate as of July 31, 2015
1 year, 8 months
Waco, Texas
2 1/2-3 years end 2015 to early 2016
88.50% shelter save rate through August 2015
2 years, 8 months

        Target Zero claims it is against mandatory spay/neuter legislation but was active in Waco, Texas, when a mandatory ordinance was enacted by the city. According to media reports, Target Zero co-founder Rick DuCharme hailed the law, even saying the ordinance in Waco should be introduced country-wide. Mandatory spay/neuter has historically led to more shelter intake and is opposed by most national animal welfare organizations (the AVMA, ASPCA, HSUS, Best Friends Animal Society and No Kill Advocacy Center.)

        Target Zero was in Huntsville in early September of 2014.  We found out in early March of 2015 that the City had signed a contract with Target Zero on January 15, 2015.  When I contacted Cameron Moore of Target Zero in March of 2015 to inquire about plans moving forward, I was told that a Town Hall meeting would be held at some point. Beyond that, there were no specific plans shared with me during our hour-long phone conversation. When I expressed the opinion of our coalition that the city should make a commitment to become a no kill community in order to obtain an in-kind commitment from the public, I was told this position is “silly.”

        In April of 2015, I inquired about the Target Zero plan to resolve issues with large numbers of dogs being destroyed in the shelter for behavioral issues. (Approximately 80% of the dogs destroyed each month are destroyed after having been labeled as fearful, aggressive, having behavioral problems or as being deemed a public safety risk).  I explained to Cameron Moore that we had recommended the city have the shelter staff trained to a standard in order to more fairly evaluate dogs (while minimizing liability to the city for allowing a truly dangerous dog to leave the shelter). I was told that the focus should be on spaying and neutering large dogs and on getting more rescue groups to pull at-risk dogs from the shelter (as opposed to steps being taken inside the shelter to change how and where dogs are evaluated by whom).

         Huntsville actually has a higher live release rate than cities where Target Zero has been active for many years. The recent live release rates are:

        January 2015      82%    (the month in which the contract was signed)
        February 2015    85%
        March 2015        85%
        April 2015          82%
        May 2015           91%
        June 2015           92%
        July 2015            89%
        August 2015       92% (not confirmed)

        Target Zero has yet to become visible in this community, to hold a Town Hall meeting here or to otherwise inform the public of how it plans to make ours a no kill community. The shelter has said nothing further about plans to work with Target Zero moving forward. It is as if the contract does not exist.  Although we are sure that the city has remained in ongoing contact with Target Zero, there has been no publicity about the contract and there has been nothing shared publicly about the Target Zero plan to help this community.

        We know from media coverage that Target Zero has made recommendations regarding adoption rates, promotions and events which we have been making for many years but which were largely ignored when the suggestions came from our group. We believe that the focus of Target Zero related to change is more on modifying public behavior than on the shelter taking on a leadership role in the community using public funds and helping the public make better choices. This focus on outside forces as opposed to internal cultural change provides an easy “out” to blame the public if progress cannot be sustained long-term.  The city will easily be able to say, “if only the public would do ____________,” we would be saving more animals.

        We have learned that Target Zero is using the progress made in our community to try to market themselves in other locations. This conduct is both disingenuous and deceptive.  Target Zero lists this city on its website. It is not engaged with this community, has done very little of which we are aware - other than to make recommendations we have been making for years or which we do not support at all - and is now using progress achieved through local advocacy to try to sell itself to other cities.  Target Zero is, in effect, presenting itself as being qualified to guide other cities to achieve our same level of progress when it has not played a role in that progress.


While I must presume that the people who both fund Target Zero and lead Target Zero think they are doing good work and have the best of intentions, I find their presence in our community disruptive.  We were making a degree of progress with city officials when Target Zero came on scene.  Now that Target Zero has the attention of city officials and are offering “free” help, our coalition has become irrelevant for the most part. They have unlimited finances from which to draw to promote their organization, they push for a statistic benchmark as opposed to a standard, they are using cities like ours to promote themselves and they essentially provide political cover for a location to take years to achieve progress.

Since no Fellow City has yet to become a no kill community, in spite of years of engagement with Target Zero, I am left to rely on the old adage that you get what you pay for. I do not think it is possible for any consulting group to take a city or a county to a place it has not been itself and I find it disingenuous for the leaders of Target Zero to say they are qualified to help a community like Huntsville become a no kill community.  I think it is entirely possible that our city has hit a plateau beyond which it will do no better under the guidance of Target Zero. We can all be glad that animals have a better chance of leaving our shelter alive than at any time in the history of the city, but animals are still at risk.  Animals will continue to be at risk until the city is willing to admit that it is responsible for using taxpayer dollars to balance both public safety and animal welfare and that the only way to reduce shelter intake and increase shelter output is to follow proven no kill programs which are working in existing no kill communities across the country.

Aubrie Kavanaugh
September 10, 2015