We Can Do Better – Lake County Needs Animal Shelter Reform, by Guest Writer Marilynette Cox

The following is the first in a series of articles we will be publishing regarding the movement to bring awareness and shelter reform for the homeless animals of our community.

We Can Do Better

“We can do better”, a recent comment from a high ranking government official  about the Lake County Animal Services shelter in Astatula, and anyone involved with the shelter in recent years would agree. Our shelter has been a hot mess for quite some time – when it was under the Lake County Commission and more recently under the direction of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office. So what’s the story out there, what is the real truth of the fate of the homeless animals who find their way into our county shelter?

The term animal shelter would seem to mean a place where animals go when they are homeless or lost from their owners – a place where they will be cared for – fed, watered, taken to do their bodily functions – a place of refuge until they are reunited with their owners or adopted. Sadly, in Lake County that is not always the case.  In the last 22 months, 3,638 dogs, cats, puppies and kittens did not make it out alive, an average kill rate of 27%. And for some people, just over a quarter of the animals entering the shelter being killed, may be okay with that percentage, but we can do better – much better. How about only 5%?

There can be a lot of finger pointing on this subject – who did what, who failed to do the things they promised or should have done, and who exactly is responsible for getting us into the place we are in today. While accountability is hugely important in moving forward, and that can and must be addressed, it serves no real useful purpose for the animals who will find themselves at this shelter in the coming months and years.

There will be people who will quit reading this article right now.  For some, it is simply too sad and they don’t wish to think about it. For others, it will be the notion that there is nothing truly that can be done, that there are simply too many animals so some must die.  But wait – what if it could be shown to you there is a model, there is a plan, and it is one that is working in numerous cities and counties all over this country that proves all of the above can be changed?  Would you be willing to listen?

This plan – this model – is the No Kill Equation. Let’s stop right there and clarify one fact. While the name may be No Kill, everyone acknowledges that it is pretty near impossible to have a totally no kill shelter.  There are animals that are too sick or injured and must not be allowed to suffer and there are some who, at the hands of man, have been mentally damaged and can no longer be a suitable companion animal, and their suffering must end as well.  But, for the most part, these dogs and cats are not unlike the animal that may be lying at your feet, or snuggled on the couch, or even cuddled up in bed, as you read this.

So how does this work? The No Kill Equation consists of 11 well thought out and proven steps necessary to transition to a no kill community.  They are:

I. Feral Cat TNR Program

Many communities throughout the United States are embracing Trap, Neuter, Release programs (TNR) to improve animal welfare, reduce death rates, and meet obligations to public welfare.

II. High-Volume, Low-Cost Spay/Neuter

Low cost, high volume spay/neuter will quickly lead to fewer animals entering the shelter system, allowing more resources to be allocated toward saving lives.

III. Rescue Groups

An adoption or transfer to a rescue group frees up scarce cage and kennel space, reduces expenses for feeding, cleaning, and improves a community’s rate of lifesaving. In an environment of millions of dogs and cats killed in shelters annually, rare is the circumstance in which a rescue group should be denied an animal.

IV. Foster Care

Volunteer foster care is crucial to No Kill. Without it, saving lives is compromised. It is a low cost, and often no cost, way of increasing a shelter’s capacity, improving public relations, increasing a shelter’s public image, rehabilitating sick and injured or behaviorally challenged animals, and saving lives.

V. Comprehensive Adoption Programs

Adoptions are vital to an agency’s lifesaving mission. The quantity and quality of shelter adoptions is in shelter management’s hands, making lifesaving a direct function of shelter policies and practice. In fact, studies show people get their animals from shelters only 20% of the time. If shelters better promoted their animals and had adoption programs responsive to the needs of the community, including public access hours for working people, offsite adoptions, adoption incentives, and effective marketing, they could increase the number of homes available and replace killing with adoptions. Contrary to conventional wisdom, shelters can adopt their way out of killing.

VI. Pet Retention

While some of the reasons animals are surrendered to shelters are unavoidable, others can be prevented—but only if shelters are willing to work with people to help them solve their problems. Saving animals requires communities to develop innovative strategies for keeping people and their companion animals together. And the more a community sees its shelters as a place to turn for advice and assistance, the easier this job will be.

VII. Medical and Behavior Programs

In order to meet its commitment to a lifesaving guarantee for all savable animals, shelters need to keep animals happy and healthy and keep animals moving through the system. To do this, shelters must put in place comprehensive vaccination, handling, cleaning, socialization, and care policies before animals get sick and rehabilitative efforts for those who come in sick, injured, unweaned, or traumatized.

VIII. Public Relations/Community Involvement

Increasing adoptions, maximizing donations, recruiting volunteers and partnering with community agencies comes down to one thing: increasing the shelter’s exposure. And that means consistent marketing and public relations. Public relations and marketing are the foundation of all a shelter’s activities and their success. To do all these things well, the shelter must be in the public eye.

IX. Volunteers

Volunteers are a dedicated “army of compassion” and the backbone of a successful No Kill effort. There is never enough staff, never enough dollars to hire more staff, and always more needs than paid human resources. That is where volunteers come in and make the difference between success and failure and, for the animals, life and death.

X. Proactive Redemptions

One of the most overlooked areas for reducing killing in animal control shelters are lost animal reclaims. Sadly, besides having pet owners fill out a lost pet report, very little effort is made in this area of shelter operations. This is unfortunate because doing so—primarily shifting from passive to a more proactive approach—has proven to have a significant impact on lifesaving and allow shelters to return a large percentage of lost animals to their families.

XI. A Compassionate Director

The final element of the No Kill equation is the most important of all, without which all other elements are thwarted—a hard-working, compassionate animal control or shelter director not content to regurgitate tired clichés or hide behind the myth of “too many animals, not enough homes.” Unfortunately, this one is also oftentimes the hardest one to demand and find.

Forty-seven percent (47%) of all dogs killed since October 1, 2014 have been labeled unadoptable due to aggression or with severe behavioral issues.  The following statement was obtained from a public records request:  Lake County Sheriff’s Office Internal Investigation Disposition Form, Policy Violation:  General Order 27 C2- Conduct Unbecoming of an Employee. Signed January 20, 2015 by Division Major Wayne Longo.

“Ms. Ferguson stated that she had a set of guidelines she referred to in order to determine the dog’s behavior.  Ms. Ferguson stated that these tests included pulling the dogs tail to see their response, testing the animal with food, pulling its ears, or pushing down on its back. Ms. Ferguson stated that she uses the aforementioned guidelines to determine if the animal is adoptable.”

I don’t know about your dog, but all of mine would fail.

The oversight of Lake County Animal Services will either continue under the direction of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office as it currently stands or it could possibly be returned to the Lake County Board of County Commissioners.  Either way, decisions made by the following candidates or elected officials will be crucial to the welfare of these animals.

Displaced pets in a Texas shelter
Displaced pets in a Texas shelter

Lake County Sheriff:

Charles “Chuck” Broadway ceebway@gmail.com

Peyton Grinnell pcg547@aol.com

Lake County Commission District 1:

Tim Sullivan BGTiS53@gmail.com

Lake County Commission District 3:

Wendy Breeden wrbreeden@comcast.net

Lake Couty Commission District 5:

Josh Blake joshuajwblake@gmail.com

Coming up next week – Part Two: No Kill Success Stories


Marilynette Cox, Guest Writer