Several years ago I visited the Elizabeth Animal Shelter. Upon arriving at the facility, which was open for a mere hour that day, I waited for 45 minutes for an animal control officer to show up and allow me in the building. Instead of keeping the shelter open for extra time, the ACO only gave me a few minutes to look at the animals before closing the shelter. The facility only housed a few animals despite serving the fourth largest city in New Jersey. When I inquired about a friendly pit bull like dog, the ACO said he didn’t like that dog and the animal must have something wrong with his head. When I offered to take photos of dogs to help increase adoptions, the ACO told me Elizabeth will not allow me to do so. As a result, I did not have a good experience with the Elizabeth Animal Shelter.
On June 5, 2014 the Elizabeth Animal Shelter illegally killed two young adult dogs on the day the animals arrived at the facility. At the time, the owner, Jennifer Arteta, left her two dogs, Daphne and Rocko, with her father while she visited her sick grandfather in another country. For whatever reason, the owner’s father brought the dogs to the Elizabeth Animal Shelter. Within 30 minutes of the two dogs arrival at the facility, the Elizabeth Animal Shelter killed the two dogs for being “sick and unadoptable”, but never provided any specifics on how they came to that conclusion. Even worse, shelter personnel denied ever seeing the two dogs when Ms. Arteta went to the facility two days later. Apparently, the shelter placed more value on the the leashes and collars of the two dogs since Ms. Arteta spotted them in the building. Only at that point did the shelter admit to killing the two dogs. By law, the shelter could not kill Daphne and Rocko for 7 days. Thus, the Elizabeth Animal Shelter illegally killed two dogs and tried to hide that fact.
Daphne’s and Rocko’s owner and other animal activists subsequently tried to reform the Elizabeth Animal Shelter. Ms. Arteta created a Facebook page called “Justice for Daphne and Rocko” and along with other animal activists demanded reform at several City Council meetings in June and July of 2014. At those meetings, you clearly could see most of the City Council members feeling public pressure to act.
Elizabeth and the shelter reform activists appeared to cut a deal. From what I could tell, the shelter reform activists ended their campaign in exchange for the shelter giving them unflattering photos of animals coming into the shelter. To facilitate this apparent agreement, the shelter brought in Darcy Del Castillo, who previously volunteered at Associated Humane Societies-Newark, on a part-time basis. Based on my understanding, Ms. Del Castillo works/volunteers on Thursdays, which is the day Elizabeth Animal Shelter accepts owner surrenders. While Ms. Del Castillo certainly did help animals as a volunteer at AHS-Newark, I found her often defending shelters, even bad ones, as shown by the following statement on her “Shelter Helpers” Facebook page:
“No one is to use this page to bash or harass a shelter
it is here for the animals only”
Furthermore, Associated Humane Societies Executive Director, Roseann Trezza, wrote a glowing recommendation for Ms. Del Castillo and even pointed out how well Darcy got along with upper management and didn’t intrude into the shelter’s operations. Roseann Trezza has run Associated Humane Societies since 2003 and held high level positions for several prior decades during the awful Lee Bernstein era. Additionally, Roseann Trezza’s shelter had numerous poor inspection reports in 2009 and 2011 and her shelter kills massive numbers of animals. Frankly, getting a letter of recommendation from someone like Roseann Trezza for an animal sheltering position is a huge red flag. Apparently, Elizabeth felt comfortable bringing in someone who would not rock the boat.
Around a year after the illegal killing of Daphne and Rocko and the related uproar, the Elizabeth Law Department put out a statement saying people, including city residents, could not volunteer at the animal shelter.
So the question is did Elizabeth Animal Shelter change for the better? How does it compare to other shelters?
Several months ago I obtained Elizabeth Animal Shelter’s intake and disposition records for each animal coming into the Elizabeth Animal Shelter in 2014 and through October 2015. Subsequently, I requested the rest of Elizabeth Animal Shelter’s 2015 intake and disposition records. Additionally, I requested all other supporting documents, such as owner surrender forms, adoption and rescue paperwork, veterinary records, veterinary invoices, euthanasia records, and any other documents pertaining to each animal for a few months of the year. My objective was to obtain a complete understanding of the job Elizabeth Animal Shelter is doing.
Statistics Show Mixed Results
The Elizabeth Animal Shelter’s 2015 statistics are summarized below. As you can see, the shelter has a moderately high death rate. Specifically, the overall death rate (animals killed plus dogs and cats that escaped plus animals that died at the shelter/known outcomes) was 22% for dogs and cats combined, 28% for cats and 16% for dogs. If we only consider animals requiring new homes (i.e. excluding animals returned to their owners), the overall death rate was 25% for dogs and cats combined, 29% for cats and 20% for dogs. Based on my review of a sample of underlying records, animals labeled as “Medical Release” left the shelter alive. Clearly, the Elizabeth Animal Shelter performs far better than the nearby Associated Humane Societies-Newark does for dogs and cats coming in primarily from animal control in the city of Newark. However, the shelter’s statistics reveal that Elizabeth is far from a no kill community.
Elizabeth Animal Shelter’s statistics for dogs are less impressive upon examining the data more closely. Specifically, 40% of the dogs coming into the shelter in 2015 were small dogs. Given small dogs are quite easy to place, the large number of these dogs inflates the dog live release rate. While pit bull like dogs make up a significant portion of the shelter’s dog intake, the actual percentage (38%) was lower than I expected for an urban shelter. Elizabeth Animal Shelter’s death rate for pit bull like dogs with known outcomes was 25% in 2015. As a comparison, the nearby Perth Amboy Animal Shelter reported 14% and 0% death rates for pit bull like dogs in 2014 and 2015. Similarly, large animal shelters, such as KC Pet Project, Salt Lake Animal Services, Austin Animal Center and Longmont Humane Society, have pit bull like dog live release rates of around 90% or higher. If we only consider pit bull like dogs Elizabeth Animal Shelter had to place (i.e. excluding animals returned to owners), Elizabeth Animal Shelter’s overall pit bull death rate was 30%. As a result, Elizabeth Animal Shelter still needs to significantly improve its performance with pit bull like dogs.
The Elizabeth Animal Shelter has had mixed results since the turmoil in 2014. In 2013, the shelter’s kill rates were 12% for cats and 39% for dogs. While the dog kill rate decreased 24 percentage points over the last two years, the cat kill rate increased 14 percentage points over this time. As a result, the Elizabeth Animal Shelter has made some progress with dogs, but went in the wrong direction with cats.
The Elizabeth Animal Shelter shelter has a very short average length of stay (“LOS”) for animals having positive outcomes. Reducing length of stay in a good way is critical for shelters, particularly space constrained facilities like Elizabeth, to save lives. Additionally, shelters with short lengths of stay have lower disease rates and fewer animals developing behavioral problems. Typically, returning lost pets to owners is the fastest way an animal safely leaves a shelter. Overall, the Elizabeth Animal Shelter’s owner reclaim rate (number of stray animals returned to owners/number stray animals impounded) for dogs was 36%. While that number isn’t very high, owner reclaim rates generally are lower in poor areas. As a comparison, Elizabeth Animal Shelter’s owner reclaim rate for dogs was higher than AHS-Newark’s reclaim rate for dogs primarily coming from animal control in Newark (10% in 2014) and about the same as Perth Amboy Animal Shelter’s rate for 2014 and the first half of 2015 (37%). Additionally, Elizabeth Animal Shelter’s average length of stay for animals rescued/adopted was 4.8 days for cats, 9.3 days for dogs, 12.3 days for pit bull like dogs and 5.3 days for small dogs. Thus, Elizabeth Animal Shelter quickly sent out the animals it got out of the shelter safely.
Rescues Save the Day
Virtually all non-reclaimed animals leaving Elizabeth Animal Shelter alive are saved by rescues. The Elizabeth Animal Shelter erroneously reports all of these animals as “adopted” in its “Shelter/Pound Annual Report” submitted to the New Jersey Department of Health and the supporting intake and disposition records. Based on my review of the underlying paperwork for 35% of these “adoptions”, rescues “adopted” at least 85% of these animals. In reality, I believe rescues make up a higher percentage of these “adoptions” since the shelter did not always list the rescue on the adoption forms. Thus, rescues are saving virtually all animals not reclaimed by owners who leave the Elizabeth Animal Shelter alive.
While many rescues saved animals from Elizabeth Animal Shelter, the following groups pulled the most dogs and cats per the paperwork I reviewed:
Elizabeth Animal Shelter has the ability to adopt out far more animals. Certainly, Elizabeth Animal Shelter’s small facility makes it difficult for the shelter to have enough time to adopt out large numbers of animals. For example, Elizabeth Animal Shelter only has around 9-13 days and 10-16 days to get each dog and cat out of the shelter on average before the facility runs out of room during most months. However, Elizabeth Animal Shelter could have adopted out 140 dogs (39% of dog intake) and would only have needed to send 120 dogs (33% of dog intake) to rescues using the model from my recent blog for dogs and the 2015 dog intake and disposition records. Similarly, Elizabeth Animal Shelter could have adopted out 206 cats (47% of cat intake) and only would have needed to send 188 cats to rescues (43% of cat intake) using the model from my recent blog for cats and the 2015 cat intake and disposition records. Furthermore, Elizabeth Animal Shelter could have rescued and adopted out an additional 21 cats during the lower intake months resulting in potentially 229 cat adoptions in 2015. As a comparison, Elizabeth Animal Shelter should have adopted out 369 dogs and cats, but only adopted out at most 75 dogs and cats or just 20% of the number they should have. Additionally, Elizabeth Animal Shelter could adopt out even more animals if it expanded capacity by creating a foster program as well as building additional animal enclosures on the vacant land around the shelter. Thus, Elizabeth Animal Shelter could adopt out far more animals than it does.
Elizabeth Animal Shelter’s almost exclusive reliance on rescues is not impressive. As I wrote in a previous blog, sending animals to rescues generally leads to no net increase in lifesaving in New Jersey. Specifically, rescues that pull from Elizabeth Animal Shelter cannot take animals from other shelters as foster homes are typically in short supply. While Elizabeth Animal Shelter certainly needs rescue assistance, the facility is requiring rescues to do all the hard work in finding good homes. Additionally, Elizabeth Animal Shelter does not spay/neuter its animals or provide vaccinations. Furthermore, the records I reviewed indicated Elizabeth Animal Shelter provides virtually no veterinary care whatsoever to animals other than a handful needing emergency medical care. As a result, Elizabeth Animal Shelter requires rescues to save its animals and bear almost all the financial costs.
Poor Policies Lead to Low Adoption Rates
Elizabeth Animal Shelter’s policies explain the facility’s low adoption rate. First and foremost, the shelter only adopts out animals for 2 hours a day on weekdays and for just a single hour on Saturdays. In fact, the shelter’s weekend hours violate state shelter law requiring the facility be open for two hours on the weekend for people to reclaim their lost pets. Second, the shelter currently has no animals listed on its adoption web site, Adopt a Pet. Third, the city allows no volunteers to help. Fourth, the shelter does not alter or vaccinate any animals prior to adoption. Even worse, the Elizabeth Animal Shelter threatens adopters that they must alter their pet within 30 days or face fines on the descriptions of the dogs they post on Facebook:
“AS PER CITY ORDINANCE ANY ANIMAL ADOPTED MUST BE ALTERED WITHIN 30 DAYS OR FACE FINES”
While New Jersey’s low cost spay/neuter program allows people to alter pets adopted from shelters for $20, many prospective adopters don’t know about this program and wouldn’t be willing to risk breaking the law. Furthermore, people often have to wait long periods of time to alter their pets through the program due to delays in funding. Frankly, Elizabeth’s refusing to take responsibility for the animals it adopts out while demanding adopters do the right thing is a clear example of chutzpah and hypocrisy.
Elizabeth Animal Shelter’s posting of depressing photos discourages adoptions. As Best Friends’ adoption guidance states, good photos are critical in getting animals adopted. Specifically, Best Friends recommends shelters take clear photos of happy animals where the pets are relaxed and not scared or anxious. As you can see in the following photos from the Elizabeth Animal Shelter, the pictures are of poor quality and the animals look stressed and unhappy. In fact, the photos look more like prison mugshots than something that would appeal to adopters.
Elizabeth Animal Shelter’s adoption profiles posted on Facebook also turn off adopters. Specifically, Elizabeth Animal Shelter usually fails to write appealing bios and often the profiles turn off adopters. Kristen Aurbach, the Deputy Chief of the no kill Austin Animal Services municipal shelter, recently wrote an excellent blog on the Animal Farm Foundation website explaining why shelters should use adoption bios to exclusively market animals and save all their perceived flaws for adoption counseling sessions. The profile serves to get someone in the door and build an emotional connection with the animal. Once that happens, the shelter discloses the full details of the animal during an adoption counseling session. An adoption profile is like a resume and no job seeker would ever expect to land an interview let alone a job if the person listed all their flaws on the resume. As you can see in the bio below, Elizabeth Animal Shelter is mixing marketing with adoption counseling and discouraging many potential adopters.
Thus, Elizabeth Animal Shelter poor adoption policies result in few adoptions.
Part 2 of this blog analyzes Elizabeth Animal Shelter’s compliance with New Jersey shelter laws, the shelter’s recent actions, and provides an answer to the question as to whether Elizabeth Animal Shelter still needs reform. You can read Part 2 at this link.