CNN’s “Insight Man” featuring Morgan Spurlock, who is best know for his “Super Size Me” documentary, aired a show this week about the Animal Rescue League of Berks County, Pennsylvania (“Berks ARL”). The program had Mr. Spurlock volunteer at this shelter and showed various aspects of its operations. Berks ARL and Mr. Spurlock should be commended for bringing the shelter killing issue to a large audience. Unfortunately, this documentary perpetuated the myth that open admission shelters have no choice in killing and the killing is the irresponsible public’s fault. No kill shelters were falsely labeled as only being no kill by significantly limited admissions.
Berks ARL serves Berks County, Pennsylvania which has a population of around 413,000 people. The shelter claims to kill more than half the animals it takes in. Based on the shelter’s claimed intake of around 9,000 – 10,000 dogs and cats, this equates to a per capita intake rate of 22-24 dogs and cats per 1000 people. This per capita intake rate is significantly lower than many no kill open admission shelters, such as Washoe County Animal Services – Nevada Humane Society (36 dogs and cats per 1000 people) and Williamson County Regional Animal Shelter in Texas (38 dogs and cats per 1000 people), which save 90% plus of their impounded animals. Both shelters boast extremely short length of stays despite these 90% plus save rates. For example, Williamson County Regional Animal Shelter’s dogs and cats stay on average 11 and 15 days at the shelter.
Shelter Policy on Impounds and Adoption Show Misguided Priorities
Berks ARL makes surrendering animals easy, but adoption difficult. During the episode, Berks ARL revealed the shelter has an after hours “drop-off” area. Apparently, Berks ARL views pets value so low that the animals should be discarded like a piece of trash in the middle of the night. Similarly, their animal control officers are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to pick up animals. On the other hand, the shelter is closed for adoptions on Wednesdays and Sundays and is only open from 11-3 on Saturdays. As a result, the shelter is only open for four hours on weekends, which is the busiest adoption time, but allows people to surrender pets anytime. Additionally, the adoption process involves all sorts background checks, such as veterinarian calls, verifying homeowner and landlord information in databases, as well as having all children and other household dogs present. Also, don’t think about adopting an animal if its 15 minutes before closing time either. Additionally, a dog adopted during the show was not altered which forced the adopter to come back a second time to pick the animal up after surgery. While the shelter does bring dogs to occasional events for “meet and greets”, offsite adoptions are apparently not generally done. As a result, people who do not want to visit an animal shelter because it is sad or otherwise unpleasant can’t usually adopt from Berks ARL. The adoption procedures contrast sharply with KC Pet Project, which made Kansas City’s outdated open admission shelter no kill in a year and a half. Thus, Berks ARL makes surrendering an animal easy and adopting one a pain.
Berks ARL should manage intake if it cannot adopt out the animals received fast enough. Mainstream animal welfare groups, such as Humane Society of the United States and the ASPCA, advocate managed intake for shelters who would be forced to kill animals to make room for others. Managed intake serves many useful purposes for shelters. For example, pet owners who must make an appointment or wait a week may reconsider their decision. Additionally, that time could be used to implement solutions provided by the shelter through a pet owners surrender prevention program. Also, these programs ensure animals are vaccinated before intake, which reduces disease at the shelter, and manages the flow of animals to reduce costs and increase save rates.
Berks ARL also impounds cats at will and killed 4 out of 5 of them during the 2010 kitten season. As the mainstream animal welfare groups proposed, shelters should not impound stray healthy cats unless TNR is done. Apparently, Berks ARL’s former Board President did not hear of this strategy in 2010 as he provided no other viable solution at the time. Now, perhaps the shelter’s viewpoint has more recently changed, but I doubt cat save rates are very high now (I cannot find the shelter’s recent cat statistics anywhere). During the show, one of the shelter’s staff had a very lackadaisical attitude about Morgan Spurlock taking a newborn kitten home to foster. Unlike many shelters which have robust kitten foster programs or nursery wards which save 90% of neonatal kittens, the Berks ARL staff member nonchalantly stated its “50-50” he survives the night and gave the highly vulnerable kitten to Mr. Spurlock who never fostered a kitten before. Not surprisingly this kitten eventually died, but this was after Mr. Spurlock got the kitten through that first vulnerable night. Additionally, the shelter apparently only refers people to other organizations for trap, neuter, release and such programs are apparently done on a small scale. Thus, Berks ARL is not doing the right thing with feral cats or their kittens.
Frightening Evaluation Used to Kill a Dog
The shelter’s behavioral evaluations were done under unnatural conditions. During the show, the canine evaluator took a grey pit bull from his cage into a room literally a few feet away. Speaking as someone who has done many behavioral evaluations, I would never evaluate a dog without taking them for at least a 5 minute walk. Behavioral evaluations in stressful shelter environments often provide incorrect results. Taking a dog straight from the cage and into an adjacent room is not an accurate way to gauge an animal’s behavior in more normal circumstances. Another pit bull was taken straight out for a face to face meeting with an “aggressive” dog. While this pit bull passed the dog to dog evaluation, that is no way to introduce dogs, particularly ones stressed out in a shelter environment.
Berks ARL’s canine evaluator displayed a warped mindset on adoptability. Most interestingly, the canine evaluator never did a formal evaluation. She just observed some body language and felt the dog was neglected and labeled him unadoptable. The dog was killed during the documentary, but the killing was not shown. In a blog post by the shelter, they claimed they did their duty by holding the dog the legally mandated 48 hour hold period and the dog “displayed aggression.” The type of aggression, and the possible reasons (such as temporary stress, health condition, specific trigger) were not mentioned. While this dog may have been unadoptable, the time devoted to and efforts at rehabilitation were virtually nonexistent. Even the ASPCA states their SAFER test, which Berks ARL says is part of their behavioral testing protocol, should be used to develop a plan for rehabilitation and not a thumbs up and down life or death test. Given shelters taking in stray dogs under animal control contracts/adoption guarantee agreements, such as Animal Ark in Hastings, Minnesota, and UPAWS in Marquette, Michigan save 98%-99% of animals, behavioral euthanasia should be quite rare. Similarly, Austin Animal Services, which has a lower overall save rate, only reports around 4% of adult dogs euthanized for behavioral reasons.
Berks ARL used other questionable adoptability criteria. Dog park safety is apparently one of their criteria for “adoptability” per their blog post which likely relegates a large segment of the nation’s dog population to death if they end up at Berks ARL. Additionally, the dog evaluator stated on the show that resource guarding and animal aggression may also lead to killing. Given that research finds 50% of resource guarders in shelters don’t display such behavior in a home environment and most owners don’t care about it, using food aggression as a make or break adoption criteria is highly questionable. Additionally, a very large percentage of dogs display some animal aggression, whether it is towards other dogs, cats, rabbits, etc. Simply using that as an excuse for killing is unacceptable. Clearly, Berks ARL are using temperament tests as a reason to kill.
“Overwhelming” Number of Animals Due to Berks ARL and Not the “Irresponsible Public”
Berks ARL must take responsibility for the “overwhelming” number of animals entering their shelter. Based on the documentary, Berks ARL typically houses 170 dogs and cats (presumably its capacity) and takes in 9,000 -10,000 dogs and cats which equates to animals needing to get in and out of the shelter within 6-7 days. However, Berks ARL’s per capita intake of around 22-24 dogs and cats per 1000 people is far less than many open admission shelters who achieved no kill status. This tells me the shelter over contracted for its capacity and that is the shelter’s and not the public’s fault. No one forced Berks ARL to contract with nearly every municipality in Berks County. If the number of animals coming in under those contracts is too much, they should do some or all of the following:
1) Enter into less contracts so they can service their contracts properly (i.e. save lives and not take them)
2) Build enough kennels and cages to house animals long enough to get them adopted (the shelter has 10 acres of property)
3) Get rid of overnight drop off area which encourages pet abandonment
4) Stop impounding stray cats unless they do TNR and/or implement a robust barn cat program
5) Build a large foster program to expand effective shelter capacity
6) Do offsite adoptions in multiple high traffic locations each day
7) Start large scale dog playgroups where nearly every dog participates to enrich dogs lives and increase adoptability
8) Animal control officers should search lost pet reports, ask people in area about impounded pets, post fliers and scan microchips in the field to increase owner redemptions
9) Develop appointment system and pet surrender prevention programs to manage intake and help owners solve fixable problems
10) Work with local and national animal welfare groups to get volunteers to effectively target high impound areas with free spay/neuter, identity tags, microchips and pet owner retention efforts (Beyond Breed, Downtown Dog Rescue, and Spay/Neuter Kansas City are great examples)
11) Conduct behavioral evaluations properly to solve issues instead of looking for reasons to kill
12) Fully implement all other parts of the no kill equation to reduce length of stay
If Berks ARL wants to stop the killing, it will need to enact these changes instead of complaining about “pet overpopulation” and “not enough homes.” The data shows enough homes exist and other large open admission shelters ended the killing with much greater challenges. The question is does Berks ARL have what it takes to end the killing or will they use CNN’s Inside Man to rationalize the killing?