UPAWS: Doing It

This is the story of the Marquette Co Humane Society in MI – but it could be your local shelter’s story too.  During the period from 1999-2006, the private open-admission shelter was killing 60% of the pets in their care.  Their administrator had been in place for decades and was very resistant to change.  The shelter operated under policies rooted in myths and fallacies.  Numerous complaints were brought before the Board.  In the summer of 2006, they were very close to ceasing operations when a longtime volunteer introduced the Board to Nathan Winograd’s book Redemption.  The Board decided to implement some major changes to the shelter and things started to improve dramatically.  From a recent letter sent by the Board President Reva Laituri to the No Kill Advocacy Center:

Although we were still fearful, the results spoke for themselves and we realized we could save lives and do it without condemning animals to fates ‘worse than death” as we had been routinely warned. As more animals went into homes instead of garbage bags, the direction we had chosen to take was validated and many of the fears and premises we had based our policies on were proven to be invalid.
The letter outlines the changes at the shelter over a 2 year transition period (2006-2008).  During that time, the Board began investigating complaints and made greater use of volunteers.  The shelter torched their blame-the-public philosophy, replacing it with a let-us-help-you-find-the-right-pet, adopter friendly attitude.  The administrator and some staff members who could not get on board with the changes were replaced by people dedicated to saving lives.  A new manager expanded shelter hours as well as the foster program.  Rescue groups were welcomed, Petfinder and social media sites were utilized, offsite adoption events were held and interactions with the public were significantly improved.

For the past two years, the shelter has continued and expanded upon their new programs.  They have reached out to the business community for partnerships and kept an open line of communication between the shelter and the public.  People in the community are quick to respond to special needs cases because they want to be part of the effort to save as many pets’ lives as possible.   Another change was the name of the shelter – from the Marquette Co Humane Society to the Upper Peninsula Animal Welfare Shelter (UPAWS).  I asked Reva Laituri the reason for the name change and she explained there was a widespread misconception “that we are a part of, or in some way affiliated with The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).  This leads to two problems.  First, they think we receive funding from our “parent” organization and second, they believe we subscribe to all the same views and stances taken by HSUS.  Neither of which is true.”  UPAWS included the community in the selection of a new name by taking suggestions from the public.

But the best news of all about the past two years at UPAWS comes in numerical form.  93 to be exact.  UPAWS has saved over 93% of the pets coming through the doors of their open-admission shelter for the past two years.  Goodbye myths and resistant-to-change shelter staff, HELLO LIFESAVING!

I asked Ms. Laituri about any doubts or fears the shelter staff experienced during their transition period:

[S]ome of us were afraid remote adoptathons would result in impulse purchases and that many of the animals would be returned or dumped someplace.  That didn’t happen.  We were terrified that reducing adoption fees would result in a loss of income that we could not afford.  What happened is that people wanted to start sponsoring pet adoptions to supplement the lost income from the fee reductions.  This happened spontaneously.  People loved being able to see their dollars at work and know they helped a particular animal find a home.  We then feared that the people who began sponsoring adoptions were just re-directing their donations.  They weren’t.  These sponsorships went over and above what they had been giving before.  Everybody won.  Animals found homes.  The shelter gained good PR, more supporters (through happy sponsors and adopters), and the sponsors felt good, seeing their dollars at work.  And donations, in general increased as people started seeing the changes.  And surprisingly, the results started showing up pretty quickly.

Two things reinforced our belief we were headed in the right direction.  The first was our stats.  You can’t ignore that fact that with each change you made, big or little, more lives were being saved.  The numbers stared us in the face every day.  The second was the feedback from the community – both in word and deed.  Donations increased, adoptions increased, more people wanted to volunteer at the shelter or foster home pets, we began hearing about what we were doing right instead of what we were doing wrong (it was so nice not having to defend indefensible policies!), and people wanted to connect with us again and be part of these life-saving programs.  Adopters were no longer driving past our shelter to go another 100-150 miles to visit another shelter.

In addition, she shared challenges that she personally faced as the shelter went through major changes. I think her candor will touch many of you involved with your local shelter:

[T]wo things I found difficult were first, accepting there was a ideological chasm that was widening between me and our Executive Director who I had considered a friend for over 20 years, and facing the reality that like her, I had been so indoctrinated with the whole idea that euthanasia was necessary and in fact, even the preferred alternative, that I had subscribed to, and condoned so many deaths.  I know she deeply cared about animals and couldn’t understand why she couldn’t see that in setting impossible standards for both the animals and people to meet, instead of saving their lives, it was costing them.  I love animals, always have.  And I have had to accept that I had a hand in killing so many of them needlessly because I didn’t question the accepted practices and blindly accepted everything I was told.  Euthanasia is necessary because of irresponsible pet owners.  If people can’t meet our standards they shouldn’t own a pet.  Pets put up for adoption shouldn’t have any behavioral or medical problems.  The best thing for an old pet was to euthanize it because they couldn’t adjust to a new home. And on and on.  False premises based on I-don’t-know-what.

I also asked Ms. Laituri how UPAWS is doing financially now that they are saving so many pets instead of killing them:

Financially, we have no bills in arrears and in fact, have set aside three months operating reserves and are working at building that up to six months.  We are looking toward the future in terms of building a new shelter.  A big reason for the financial turnaround is because of a couple of bequests.  However, I can’t help but wonder if we would have gotten those bequests had we been operating the way we were.  In addition to the bequests, we have seen significant increases in memorial donations and honorariums.  For as long as I can remember, donations have traditionally drastically declined during January and February as well as again in June and July.  That hasn’t happened the last couple of years.  Even during these last few years of a bad economy, we have held steady, and even improved.

As chair of the fundraising committee, I have also noticed that more and more people want to do third party fundraisers for us, including businesses who want to set up programs that would donate portions of their proceeds from events or products to us.  And if we have a special need – like a new furnace, a storage building or an animal needing expensive surgery, we put it on our website and typically have the money in 1-3 days (animal needs the quickest).   Although I’ve now seen this happen many times, it still amazes me how quickly people respond.
So much for no kill costing too much money.  So much for the irresponsible public.  So much for needless killing.  UPAWS proves shelters can save lives, involve the community and remain financially sound.

I’m hoping to have a second post about UPAWS next week with input from additional shelter staff members.  Stay tuned.

16 thoughts on “UPAWS: Doing It

  1. What a lovely, lovely story. Shelter directors should be required to read this.

    Our local shelter is a death house for animals. The director sets impossible standards. I knew a couple who spent thousands helping their dog with cancer. After he died they wanted to adopt a shelter dog and pass the love on. The shelter called the vet to check on the previous dog’s vaccine record, which was not up to date because, you know, CANCER. The vet explained that the couple were wonderful pet owners but they still were denied adopting, even with a vet vouching for them. Heartbreaking and just plain stupid.

  2. Yea, yea, yea, and YIPEEE! What a great Christmas gift. Thank you.

    There will always be stories of those doing it wrong, but I’m just going to bask in this tale of somebody doing it RIGHT…for a while anyway!

  3. What a fantastic example of proving the old killing ways should be forever gone. They have showed that the old myths are myths that have no point in reality.

    I like the idea of changing the name to get away from the HSUS as people are finding out what they really are.

    1. I would just like to add that we did not change our name just because people thought were affiliated with HSUS; they also thought we were either subsidized or a department of our local county government. A few people even thought we were affililiated with Michigan Humane. We wanted to get away from the words “county” and “humane society” in our name.

  4. Everyone wants to be a part of a SUCCESS story.. and this.. well.. THIS is ONE.. wow.. it brought tears to my eyes. to read this.. IT CAN BE DONE.. homes instead of garbage bags.. wow.. what a statement…this is what can happen when people actually see good things happening.. They want to be a part of THAT GOOD THING.. sorry for all of the caps.. but really.. how inspiring.. thank you

  5. Thank you for very much writing about our shelter. I am on the UPAWS board of directors and have been volunteering since 1997. It was getting so bad – I planned on walking away in 2005. Thank goodness I did not. As Reva puts it, we had a “perfect storm” and changes for the better were ahead of us. It was scary at first, as I was in the mindset of, “OMG, if we loose our Executive Director, we are really doomed”. Boy, I feel like a fool — I’m just glad I stayed and was open to “thinking outside the box” – and staying for the animals. I couldn’t leave – I loved helping them find homes. I am the chair of our Community Relations Committee (a NEW Committee that was established after we changed). I plan to email more for the second half of this wonderful blog. But for now, if anyone is interested in seeing more about UPAWS – please view our website http://www.upaws.org. Our current newsletter is also available online through our website links (links on the right). Thank you for caring and for all you do for the homeless animals who can not speak for themselves.
    Ann Brownell

  6. My goodness, no sock puppets from HSUS or PETA have dropped by yet to tell us why this is really a terrible idea? They must be taking the day off. They’ll log in by tomorrow.

    In the meantime, this is a WONDERFUL, WONDERFUL, encouraging story that should be required reading for shelter volunteers and directors. At least a few would be inspired.

    1. Sock puppets – love it! I read a blog last night that was the Voyage of The Damned. Those were no sock puppets, they were warty little trolls!

      I love this story. All the way through I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. You know, where everythin gfell apart and the apologists had to come in and save the day. Thansk for the “and they lived happily ever after” ending!

      Ann and Reva, please look at this overview and see if it revs up your engine even further, okay? You’re one of the few shelters in the country poised to grasp the significance of this model. I know you’ll love it!

      Link = http://tinyurl.com/36mnkfw

      Merry Christmas to all of us – thanks for the gift, Shirley!

      1. Actually, we are just starting to look toward the possibility of building a new shelter. Our Manager attended a conference in Milwaukee and was very impressed with their design – sounds like the kind of adoption center you are talking about. She said what really stood ou to her was the fact that dogs weren’t barking in the the kennels – they didn’t have all the stress they do in cages. Without even seeing one in person, that sold me! So in looking at the possibility of building, if we can’t do it the right way, I would rather wait until we could.

  7. Thanks for the Christmas Gift, Shirley. And thank you to UPAWS for sharing this story in such great detail.

    I find when these stories are shared, the revenues are always a bit vague. UPAWS is clearly not afraid to talk about the financial aspect – nor should they be, as a shelter director, it’s a huge part of the equation. It’s important that other shelters and general naysayers get those nitty gritty details so there is no back room talk about “while I bet care is compromised” because finances must be so difficult, blah, blah, blah.

    Way to go UPAWS – not only for the animals you’re saving at your own shelter, but for all the animals your EXAMPLE will save.

  8. Maybe they could produce a step by step detailed before and after for each of the 11 steps of the “No Kill Equation”.This could be used by other areas to help convince communities that no kill is possible.We want shelters to produce their animal statics perhaps it’s time for no kill to produce their own stats on TNR before and after L/N cost S/N before and after number of behaviour rehabs performed before and after number of animals entering shelter before and after etc. Until and unless there will be a lingering perception that no kill is more smoke and mirrors than reality.

    1. Are there similar financial stats for kill shelters (i.e. cost for rounding up and killing feral cats, cost for enforcing MSN – if applicable, amount of money received selling dead cats to specimen companies, etc.)? I can’t think I’ve seen anything like that and I’d be very interested in reading these kind of detailed numbers.

    2. I have wondered if the “famous” no kill shelters thrive due to national donors who do not have local options for donations.

      I would like to know for a fact that is not the case, that local shelters everywhere can operate with local support.

      And there seems to be ample proof of that with successful smaller shelters.

      So I think some open discussions of finances using common metrics such as opreations costs would be helpful.

      I also think good shelters get more community attention and volunteers.

  9. You might also be interested in John Hobhouse, who was pushing for something very much like no-kill in the 1950s


    The two critical things seem to have been firstly that he was operating a completely separate home that took all the dogs whose time was up at the municipal shelter and secondly that he could “sell” it to to council on the basis that they’d save the money they would have paid to get a vet to put the dogs down.

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