Several years ago the Perth Amboy Animal Shelter was in a crisis. Under the control of future Helmetta Regional Animal Shelter Director and Assistant Director, Michal Cielesz and Richard Cielesz, the shelter lacked community support. In 2010, which was the Cieselzs’ last full year at the shelter, the facility killed 25% of its dogs and 58% of its cats. Furthermore, the Perth Amboy Animal Shelter only adopted out 2 dogs and 10 cats for the entire year in 2010. During 2011, the Cieselzs’ left Perth Amboy Animal Shelter, but the facility still killed 14% of its dogs, 42% of its cats and 49% of its other animals. (i.e. rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, etc). As a result, the Perth Amboy Animal Shelter was a high kill shelter with a poor reputation.
City Hires New Animal Control Officers To Transform the Perth Amboy Animal Shelter
The city government oversees and has ultimate authority over the animal shelter. As is typical with municipal animal shelters, a department of city government, the Police Department in the case of Perth Amboy, controls the animal shelter. The city hires animal control officers to run the animal shelter and make day to day decisions. However, the Police Department has to approve new policies. Additionally, the Perth Amboy City Council may also have to approve significant new initiatives at the animal shelter. As a result, a successful animal shelter in Perth Amboy requires a supportive Police Department and City Council.
During the middle of 2012, Perth Amboy hired current Head Animal Control Officer, Christie Minigiello, to work at the animal shelter. The city hired Christie based on a recommendation from her Kean University Animal Control Officer Training program professor. Other than a very short stint at another animal control agency, Christie was new to animal sheltering. Prior to this, Christie worked in the dental field, operated a crafts business and was a passionate animal advocate. For example, several years ago Christie sent a dog, who we considered adopting before choosing another long-stay dog, to a reputable sanctuary after the shelter decided to euthanize the dog for alleged aggression. Thus, Perth Amboy decided to hire a competent person with a passion for saving animals.
Perth Amboy subsequently hired two additional compassionate animal control officers. In 2013, the city hired Joe Lipari to work at the animal shelter. Previously, Joe volunteered at the Woodbridge Animal Shelter. Joe is known as the “Pit Bull Whisperer” among Perth Amboy Animal Shelter’s staff based on his ability to train and understand large dogs. Perth Amboy hired Jackie Rivera in 2014. Jackie volunteered at the Perth Amboy Animal Shelter prior to becoming an ACO at the facility. Thus, the city hired compassionate ACOs to run the animal shelter.
Perth Amboy Animal Shelter is not an easy place to save lives. 24% of Perth Amboy’s population lives below poverty level compared to New Jersey’s average of just 10%. Perth Amboy’s poverty rate exceeds the levels found in Jersey City, Elizabeth and East Orange. In 2013, the city only spent $281 per dog and cat on animal control and sheltering compared to the high kill and dreadful East Orange Animal Shelter’s budget of $345 per dog and cat. While Perth Amboy Animal Shelter’s budget thankfully increased in 2014 and 2015, the budgeted amount per animal is still significantly lower than the amounts of many high kill shelters. Furthermore, few dogs coming into the shelter have microchips or licenses, which is likely due to the relatively low socioeconomic status of many of the city’s residents. Based on the facility’s small capacity and the number of dogs impounded and returned to owners in 2013 and 2014, I estimate the shelter only had 24-32 days in 2013 and 35-45 days in 2014 to get dogs out of the facility before no room was left to house these animals. Thus, Perth Amboy is not an easy city to achieve no kill.
Christie, Joe and Jackie dramatically improved the shelter. In 2012, when Christie was only at the shelter for half the year, the euthanasia rate decreased from 14% to 7% for dogs and from 42% to 25% for cats. Undoubtedly, the euthanasia rate was much lower in the latter half of the year after Christie started working at the shelter. In 2013, the Perth Amboy Animal Shelter saved 97% of its dogs and 93% of its cats. In other words, only 3% of dogs and 7% of cats were euthanized or died at the shelter. Based on the facility exceeding a 90% live release rate, the shelter achieved no kill status in 2013 and was recognized by Saving90.org as being a role model shelter.
Detailed Data Shows Perth Amboy Runs a Highly Successful Shelter
In order to better analyze the shelter, I obtained detailed animal intake and disposition records for 2014 (except for one month for dogs and two months for cats) and the first six months of 2015. These records included the date the animal arrived at the shelter, species, breed, outcome (i.e. adoption, returned to owner, rescued, euthanasia, etc.) and outcome date. I tabulated this data to calculate the live release rate, average length of stay and other metrics to analyze the shelter’s performance. One slight methodological difference in my calculations verses the figures above is I counted outcomes occurring in a subsequent year as happening in the year the animal came to the shelter. For example, an animal arriving at the shelter in December 2014 and adopted out or euthanized in January 2015 will count towards the 2014 live release rate and average length of stay figures.
In 2014, the shelter continued to do an incredible job saving its dogs. The outcome statistics and average length of stay figures for dogs arriving at the Perth Amboy Animal Shelter in 2014 are detailed in the table below. 95% of the 135 dogs coming into the shelter were saved. In addition, rescues only pulled 4% of the dogs indicating Perth Amboy Animal Shelter was able to save almost all of these dogs on their own. Furthermore, dogs only stayed 26 days on average at the shelter and only took 31 days to get adopted. Thus, Perth Amboy Animal Shelter saved almost all of its dogs on its own and those dogs did not spend a long time at the shelter.
Perth Amboy Animal Shelter also did an excellent job with its pit bull like dogs. While Perth Amboy Animal Shelter does take in a large number of small dogs, which are easier to adopt out, 27% of the shelter’s dog intake were pit bulls and pit bull mixes. The outcome statistics and average length of stay figures for pit bull like dogs arriving at the Perth Amboy Animal Shelter in 2014 are detailed in the table below. The shelter saved 86% of pit bulls in 2014. Perth Amboy Animal Shelter’s 2014 pit bull live release rate was the same as two of the nation’s best no kill animal control shelters, Kansas City’s KC Pet Project (2013) and Austin Animal Center (2014). Additionally, the shelter’s pit bull like dogs only stayed at the facility for 66 days and were adopted out on average in 82 days. Furthermore, rescues only pulled a small percentage of these dogs. Thus, Perth Amboy Animal Shelter saved a very high percentage of its pit bulls in 2014 and got these dogs out of the shelter in a reasonably short time period.
The shelter performed even better with dogs in 2015. Through the first 6 months of 2015, Perth Amboy Animal Shelter saved 98% of dogs who had outcomes. In fact, the shelter only euthanized one dog who had a broken back and leg and was hopelessly suffering. Additionally, dogs stayed at the facility one day less in 2015 verses 2014 despite the uptick in the live release rate. Even more impressive, the shelter saved 100% of its pit bulls through the first half of 2015. Additionally, pit bulls stayed at the facility on average 18 days less in 2015 verses 2014 and adopted pit bulls’ average length of stay decreased by 30 days in 2015. In fact, Perth Amboy Animal Shelter adopted out its pit bulls in roughly the same amount of time as the benchmark animal shelter, Tompkins County SPCA, I use to grade New Jersey animal shelters. Thus, Perth Amboy Animal Shelter has done a fantastic job with all of its dogs.
Perth Amboy Animal Shelter’s dog performance for the combined period (2014 and the first half of 2015) was excellent. 96% of all dogs and 90% of pit bull like dogs made it out of the shelter alive. In other words, Perth Amboy Animal Shelter achieved no kill for all dogs, including pit bulls. Additionally, the average length of stay for all dogs was just 26 days and a respectable 60 days for pit bulls. Thus, Perth Amboy Animal Shelter achieved no kill for its dogs and was able to place those dogs relatively quickly.
While Perth Amboy Animal Shelter’s cat live release rate slipped a little in 2014 and 2015, the shelter still does a pretty good job with cats. Based on the facility’s 2014 Shelter/Pound Annual Report submitted to the New Jersey Department of Heath, the shelter only euthanized 9% of the cats who had outcomes during the year. However, the live release rate drops to 82% if we count cats who died at the shelter during the year. Sadly, cats do die even at very good animal control shelters. For example, KC Pet Project had a cat live release rate of 83.5% in 2013. Similarly, the Lynchburg Humane Society only had cat live release rates of 74% and 83% in 2013 and 2014. Both KC Pet Project and Lynchburg Humane Society were considered among the nation’s best shelters during this time period, but these organizations’ older facilities made it more difficult to eliminate disease despite diligent cleaning. Thus, Perth Amboy Animal Shelter’s cat live release rate in 2014 was still pretty good taking into account these other factors.
Perth Amboy Animal Shelter also did a reasonably good job getting cats out of the shelter quickly. In order to do a proper analysis with enough data, I combined 2014 and 2015 cat intake and disposition statistics in the table below. Over this period, the shelter had an 81% cat live release rate. As with dogs, Perth Amboy Animal Shelter did much of the work based on cat adoptions exceeding the number of cats sent to rescues by an 8 to 1 margin. While I target a lower average length of stay for cats in my recent analysis of the state’s shelters, an average length of stay of 61 days for cats (75 days for cats who are adopted out) proves the shelter does not have to hoard cats to save a large percentage of them.
Finally, the Perth Amboy Animal Shelter saved 100% of all the other animals coming into the facility during 2013, 2014 and 2015. These animals include rabbits, guinea pigs, ferrets, etc.
Perth Amboy Creates a Welcoming Looking Shelter
Recently, I visited the Perth Amboy Animal Shelter and toured the facility. Immediately, you can see the ACOs created a very welcoming atmosphere with flowers and friendly decorations on the shelter’s front door:
Additionally, during Easter the shelter added holiday festivities to the area near the entrance to create a positive and welcoming atmosphere:
Inside the shelter, the ACOs and volunteers took the depressing looking shelter and made it look happy. They repainted the dog and cat areas with inviting colors and added cute pictures of animals enjoying themselves:
At the beginning of the kennel area, visitors are greeted by a pretty hanging basket of treats. This encourages adopters to interact with the dogs and increases the chance of dogs and adopters connecting with each other. Also, I really liked the positive vibe they created in the meet and greet room for adopters:
Even the bathroom, which is a very scary place in most shelters, got a complete makeover and looked beautiful:
Thus, the ACOs created an inviting shelter where adopters can have a positive experience adding a new member to their families.
In addition, the shelter was extremely clean despite being full due to a large number of dogs coming in just before my visit. The ACOs regularly checked the shelter and cleaned up throughout the day. As a result, the shelter did not have that typical animal shelter smell which helps make it a welcoming place for adopters.
Strong Leadership Creates a Successful Animal Shelter
In order to run a highly effective shelter with a relatively small budget, the ACOs use a number of local high school students to clean the shelter and socialize animals during the week when many adult volunteers work. The students help out at the shelter as part of their required volunteer service to graduate from high school. Not only does this program help run the shelter at a lower cost, but it also helps the community connect with the shelter. For example, families of the students or friends of those families may choose to adopt animals or donate to the shelter. In fact, on the day of my visit a group of grade school students helped plant flowers outside the building:
The ACOs also implemented key programs that help dogs, particularly pit bulls, safely get out of the shelter more quickly. While the facility is small, the shelter has a fenced in yard where dogs can go out and run. Additionally, social dogs can play with other dogs. Playgroups are essential to keeping high energy dogs happy and healthy at shelters and are a common denominator among the nation’s best shelters for pit bull like dogs. Additionally, the ACOs started a foster program for all types of animals that allows animals to leave the shelter sooner. If I calculate the average length of stay based on when dogs left the shelter to go to foster homes rather than their final adoption date (i.e. after going to a foster home), the average length of stay for all dogs and pit bulls would decrease by 3 days and 7 days since the foster program began. Thus, Perth Amboy Animal Shelter created some very positive programs for pit bull like dogs.
Christie clearly demonstrated a passion for what she does and an initiative to improve. During my visit, Christie shared innovative ideas on how she could add space to a pretty small facility. In addition, she told me that the shelter wants to help neuter and release feral cats to assist local TNR advocates in the future. Finally, Christie talked to me about a planned program to allow children to read to shelter animals. Reading programs reduce stress in animals and may help kids gain confidence to speak in front of groups of people.
While I do have some different opinions on tactical strategies to saving lives, the ACOs have an unwavering passion to do the same. In addition to being the Head ACO, Christie runs the shelter’s Facebook page. On her day off recently, she helped catch a dog that was lost for 9 months. Also, Christie, Jackie and Joe often come to volunteer at the shelter on their days off. Most striking was how appalled Christie and Jackie were when I told them how other shelters used frequent killing as a method of population control. Thus, the ACOs clearly have a passion for saving animals and will do what it takes to make sure that happens.
Additionally, the City of Perth Amboy deserves a lot of credit. The Police Department, which oversees the shelter, has been very supportive of the ACOs and their efforts. Similarly, the local government also has stood behind the ACOs as well. The city keeps the facility open more hours than other similarly sized shelters, 10 am – 4 pm weekdays (shifting these hours a little later, say from 1 pm – 7 pm, would make the facility more convenient for adopters who work) and 10 am to 3 pm on weekends. Also, the location is near a commercial area with lots of foot traffic. Thus, the combination of supportive government officials, and competent and passionate ACOs helped turn the shelter around and make the city a role model for others.
Many other people noticed the positive change at the shelter as well:
People Should Volunteer to Make the Shelter Even Better
While the Perth Amboy Animal Shelter is doing wonderful things, more volunteers can take the shelter to the next level. For example, additional fosters can help get cats out of the shelter more quickly to reduce the number of cats dying and raise the cat live release rate back over 90%. Similarly, volunteers can create a nonprofit to help fund some higher cost care, such as expensive veterinary procedures requiring specialists or a behaviorist for certain dogs needing extensive rehabilitation. Thus, more volunteers can help the shelter raise its live release rate even further.
Volunteers can also help Perth Amboy Animal Shelter save the lives of animals in other communities. To the extent Perth Amboy Animal Shelter can reduce its average length of stay, the facility can contract with additional communities currently served by high kill shelters. For example, if Perth Amboy Animal Shelter’s average length of stay decreased by 50%, the shelter would have the space to handle twice as many animals. Volunteers can help get animals adopted more quickly by taking excellent photos, with a professional photographer being ideal, or creative videos. Similarly, volunteers can help with off-site adoption events or better yet, a satellite adoption center in a Petsmart, Petco or PetValu store. Additionally, volunteers can foster more animals to create more space for the shelter to take in more animals. Also, volunteers can train dogs that stay longer at the shelter to reduce their length of stay. Thus, more volunteers can help the shelter save more animals in many ways.
Volunteers should donate their valuable time to organizations where their contributions will be valued. Clearly, Perth Amboy Animal Shelter is run by passionate and highly skilled animal advocates. In my opinion, this is the type of shelter where volunteers can do more good. Sadly, volunteers at other shelters often have to fight management to save lives. Luckily, central New Jersey has an excellent shelter and people should volunteer at this facility to make a real difference.