Recently, a number of people and organizations in the no kill movement slammed animal advocates for demanding shelters save more animals. Susan Houser, who is the author of the Out the Front Door blog and Facebook page, repeatedly denounced animal advocates for criticizing regressive high kill shelters that allegedly were improving. Ms. Houser has also claimed strong advocacy was driving good leaders out of the shelter industry resulting in potentially less lifesaving. Best Friends Co-Founder, Francis Battista, wrote an article comparing President Obama’s recent statement on getting things done in a democracy to no kill movement tactics. While the article denounced people who say nasty things about high kill shelters, it also criticized people who act with “moral purity” and call out those regressive facilities. In a nutshell, Mr. Battista stated people should shut up and not try to win over hearts and minds with principled stands and instead try to work with bad actors.
Does strong advocacy that is highly critical of shelters reduce or increase lifesaving?
Each year, licensed animal shelters in the state submit animal shelter data to the New Jersey Department of Health for the previous year. For the last several years, I’ve tabulated this data and calculated various metrics. You can view the 2015 data at this link. After compiling the 2015 data, I compared the results to the 2014 statistics I tabulated last year.
2015 Statistics Show Significant Increase in Lifesaving
All dog statistics significantly improved in 2015 verses 2014. While an approximate 3% decrease in the dog kill and death rates may not seem huge, this is a large decrease considering the prior kill and death rates were relatively low. For example, a 2.9% decrease in the 2014 kill rate of 13.5% represents a 21% reduction. As a comparison, in 2014 the kill rate based on intake was 0.1% higher than the 2013 figure and the death rate based on outcomes was only 0.7% lower than this measure in 2013. Given saving the last 15% of animals is more difficult due to animals having more medical and behavioral problems that require treatment, this result is very good. Additionally, the larger decrease in the death rate for non-reclaimed animals indicates the kill rate decreased even more for dogs shelters actually had to find new homes for. Finally, the larger decrease in the maximum local death rate indicates shelters had less unaccounted for animals and this may indicate even fewer animals lost their lives in the state’s shelters in 2015 verses 2014.
The cat statistics improved even more than the dog statistics in 2015 verses 2014. As you can see in the table below, the kill rates and death rates decreased by approximately 7% and 8% in 2015 compared to 2014. As a comparison, the cat kill rate based on intake and the cat death rate based on outcomes only decreased by 3.9% and 3.8% in 2014 verses 2013. Even more impressive, the maximum local death rate decreased by around 10% in 2015 compared to 2014. Thus, New Jersey animal shelters became much safer places for cats in 2015 than in 2014.
Dog Kill Rate Decreases Due to Lower Intake and Shelters Saving a Greater Percentage of Impounded Animals
The table below summarizes the changes in the dog statistics in 2015 verses 2014. Based on the changes in the metrics used moving in a similar direction, I anlyzed the kill rate based on intake below. As you can see, both dog intake and dogs killed decreased significantly while positive outcomes decreased much less. In particular, dog adoptions barely decreased despite shelters receiving 1,870 fewer dogs in 2015 compared to 2014.
Data from prior years indicates positive outcomes along with lower intake drove the improvement in the dog kill rate in 2015. While lower intake can theoretically increase live release rates due to shelters having more time and space to save animals as well as having more resources per animal, this does not always work out in the real world. For example, shelters may kill with empty cages and hoard money instead of spending it on animals. In 2014, dog intake decreased by more from the prior year (2,821 fewer dogs impounded), but the number of dogs reclaimed by owners, adopted out and sent to rescues decreased by almost as much (2,292 fewer positive dog outcomes). Therefore, the kill rate for dogs based on intake actually increased despite lower intake due to fewer positive outcomes. This indicates the decrease in the dog kill rate in 2015 was not only due to shelters taking fewer animals in, but shelters also finding more positive outcomes for the dogs coming into their facilities. In fact, this latter conclusion is consistent with my finding that New Jersey shelters have plenty of space to save their dogs and many others from elsewhere.
The table below details which shelters contributed most to the decrease in the dog kill rate in the state during 2015. As you can see, this list mostly represents large shelters that have high kill rates (i.e. shelters with high kill rates have more room for improvement).
The following table showing the change in data at each shelter in 2015 verses 2014 highlights the pattern of shelters saving a greater percentage of animals they took in during 2015. As you can see, the reduction in dogs killed made up a large percentage of the drop in intake while positive outcomes decreased by much less or actually increased in some cases.
Atlantic County Animal Shelter and Liberty Humane Society deserve specific recognition for achieving greater than 90% live release rates for dogs in 2015 (i.e. often considered no kill status). The kill rate at Atlantic County Animal Shelter decreased from 19% in 2014 to 8% in 2015. Liberty Humane Society’s kill rate decreased from 21% in 2014 to 5% in 2015. These results are impressive as both shelters serve some very poor areas of the state. Atlantic County Animal Shelter’s kill rate decreased due to a combination of lower intake and adopting out more dogs and sending more dogs to rescues and other shelters. On the other hand, Liberty Humane Society’s kill rate decreased due to lower intake resulting from implementing a pet surrender prevention program and an appointment system for owner surrenders. While I’m not thrilled that the shelter has a “significant wait period” for owner surrenders, I much prefer this system over killing healthy and treatable dogs.
Cat Kill Rate Decreased Due to Shelters Increasing Positive Outcomes
The table below summarizes the changes in the cat statistics in 2015 verses 2014. In contrast to dogs, New Jersey shelters impounded more cats during 2015 as compared to 2014. However, the state’s shelters significantly increased positive outcomes.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to determine how much of the increase is due to TNR. Generally speaking, many more communities embraced TNR in 2015. However, the “Shelter/Pound Annual Report” shelters fill out does not provide TNR as an outcome. In practice, some shelters may place TNR cats in the return to owner (RTO), adopted, sent to rescues or other categories. Montclair Township Animal Shelter wrote in the number of their TNR cats in 2015 and 2014 and Edison Animal Shelter did so in 2015. I included these cats in the TNR category. Additionally, approximately 500-600 of the increase in cats returned to owners likely represents TNR based on this article and Bergen County Animal Shelter’s increase in cats returned to owners listed below.
The table below details which shelters contributed most to the decrease in the cat kill rate in the state during 2015.
The following table showing the change in data at each shelter in 2015 verses 2014 documents the increase in positive live releases. All shelters except for Jersey Shore Animal Center, which stopped serving as an animal control shelter in 2015, significantly increased the number of cats adopted out and/or sent to rescue. As indicated above, approximately 500-600 more cats were neutered and released at Bergen County Animal Shelter in 2015, and were likely included in the RTO category. Therefore, the increase in the cat live release rate was largely due to shelters increasing the number of positive outcomes.
Advocacy Efforts Coincide with Increase in Lifesaving
Obviously, people working with animals, such as shelter staff, volunteers and rescuers are directly responsible for the increase in lifesaving. However, advocacy efforts can create the climate where those people are allowed to save lives in a more effective manner. For example, public pressure can force a shelter to start a kitten foster program, do off-site adoption events, and act more rescue friendly.
Statewide shelter advocacy efforts began to grow in 2015. While this blog and my related Facebook page started in early 2014, readership increased significantly in 2015. Additionally, I started analyzing and grading each of the state’s animal shelters at the end of 2014 which I think put pressure on many facilities to improve. In the past, no one really knew what went on behind closed doors. Also, a number of local advocates have told me the ideas expressed on this blog and my Facebook page inspired them to take action. Several advocates also told me that exposing poorly performing shelters they were fighting helped their cause. Thus, I do think this blog and my related Facebook page helped create a climate where local advocacy efforts could be more successful.
The Reformers-Advocates for Shelter Change in NJ group also likely positively contributed to the increase in the state live release rate in 2015. This no holds barred animal advocacy group grew out of the movement to reform the Helmetta Regional Animal Shelter and started having a significant impact in 2015. The Reformers use the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), powerful messaging and relentless public pressure to bring bad actors to justice. While this group employs much different tactics than I use and sometimes has different views on things than me, they have been wildly successful at exposing the NJ SPCA, pet stores, disreputable rescues, poorly performing animal shelters and even facilities with high live release rates. Love them or hate them, no one can deny the positive impact this group has had on New Jersey animal welfare. In fact, many regressive shelters truly fear this group and that alone may change bad behavior.
Local advocacy efforts seem to have increased in recent years. While I can’t quantify this phenomenon, I do see these campaigns increasing and getting more media exposure. Ultimately, local advocates on the ground are the key actors in forcing change.
Finally, the professional advocacy efforts by groups like People for Animals and the Animal Protection League of New Jersey have played a key role in convincing municipalities to implement TNR. These groups bring well-thought out plans that provide compelling cases, for fiscal, public health and humane reasons, to convince towns to adopt TNR.
Clearly, confrontational shelter advocacy efforts have played a positive role in New Jersey animal welfare. If shelter killing can decrease to this extent during the same time a no holds barred group like the Reformers have actively inserted themselves into the state’s shelter issues, then that pretty much proves the argument that confrontational shelter advocacy efforts work. While I favor a less in your face approach more akin to Ryan Clinton’s campaign in Austin, I do believe we must honestly call out shelters that needlessly kill and not brush that killing under the rug for the sake of collaboration. Personally, I have great respect for the work Best Friends has done to create no kill communities, and do not oppose collaboration when appropriate. In fact, I have often advocated that shelters should work together to save lives in New Jersey. However, Best Friends and Susan Houser should not make bold assertions about confrontational animal advocacy efforts without having solid data to back those claims up. As the data in this blog shows, Best Friends and Ms. Houser are dead wrong about confrontational shelter advocacy efforts, at least in New Jersey.
Speaking as someone who for years did just the things Mr. Battista is arguing for, I found his remarks perplexing. As many of us who have worked and volunteered within our broken sheltering system know, most regressive shelter leaders and animal unfriendly politicians have little interest in saving lives. At the same time, we know the public at large wants to save animals in shelters and is unaware of just how bad most of our shelters are. Naturally, making the public aware of what is really going on in shelters and calling for action puts pressure on those elected officials and shelter leaders. This pressure in turn improves the negotiating position of those animal advocates engaging elected officials and shelter directors.
In the political world, we have opinion columnists, think tanks, and special interest groups that change public opinion to make negotiations more favorable for their causes. Whether you like the National Rifle Association or not, no one can deny how effective their “moral purity” stances have been in blocking laws they oppose and passing ones they support. Thus, advocates arguing on principle help other advocates doing the negotiating for change.
Unfortunately, New Jersey animal shelters still kill too many animals and do not save nearly as many pets as they should. In future blogs, I’ll address the current state of New Jersey animal shelters. Clearly, New Jersey shelter reform advocates have much work to do, but at least for a moment, they can feel good about the recent progress made.