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.
[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.