Yesterday’s visit to Maury County and the Williamson County shelters was an opportunity to set a bar. I wanted Ian to see a typical municipal shelter. Today we will drive 2.5 hours west to see a ‘city pound’ and a rescue that is trying desperately to help the situation.
Maury County, thankfully, was much changed from the last time I was there. That was clear from the faces on the dogs. You can see more of these images on our Facebook and Instagram pages.
I met with Jack, the new director and Maily, a volunteer leader; both are new to Maury in 2019. Both are having a positive impact on the place.
When I visited Maury last fall I spoke with the woman who handled intake. She told me that while she sometimes asked why they were dumping their animal, she had no choice but to take the animals when people arrived to drop them off. Now, while still an ‘open-intake’ shelter, people must make an appointment to surrender their pet, and that appointment is usually a week or two away. Similar to a waiting period for buying a gun, this gives them time to reconsider and possibly find another way to rehome their pet rather than dump it at the shelter out of frustration or desperation.
Instead of barren kennels and isolation, now the adoptable dogs have filled Kong toys and other toys, blankets, and as many as three walks/playtime with volunteers each day. Maily created a huge well-laid out whiteboard that includes information about the dogs, places for comments from volunteers, and directions for all the volunteer jobs so that anyone who shows up can get right to work without the direction of the volunteer coordinator or the director. (when my photographer gets the picture of the board ready, I’ll post it here and on the facebook page)
The board keeps volunteers from wasting their time, gathers more information about individual dogs, and ensures that dogs are getting equal attention. There were bins of Kongs waiting to be filled and big jars of treats available to be given out – that was such a change from my last visit!
All of the dogs on the adoption floor are spayed/neutered, microchipped, and up-to-date on shots. They are ready to walk out the door with an adopter that day. Jack doesn’t want someone to choose a dog and then have to wait a week or more to pick it up (many will get tired of waiting and never show up for their new pet). There were about a dozen or so dogs in Adoption, but we visited on a Monday after a busy adoption weekend. The majority of the dogs we saw were in the ‘Stray Hold’ area where dogs are legally required to be held 72 hours before they can be adopted, pulled by rescue, or destroyed. Dogs in Stray Hold are kept there until they are reclaimed by owners or have had the necessary vet and behavior attention needed to move them to Adoption.
When I visited last fall, dogs were lingering in Stray Hold for months and months, stressed and neglected.
Now, they are still back there far longer than is good for them, but efforts are being made to not only move them up to adoption faster, but to ensure they have exercise and attention while they are waiting. It’s a bit of a struggle because before volunteers can handle the dogs, they must be evaluated by a trainer and staff; and before they can go to adoption, they must be spayed/neutered, shots updated, etc. None of that can happen until the 72-hour hold is up.
Maury does not have a vet on staff and relies on vets that come in on Wednesdays. In a shelter this size, that inevitably means a backlog. It means dogs will wait in Stray hold. Jack has to juggle his desire for dogs to be immediately adoptable for an impatient public with the importance of moving dogs out of Stray Hold as quickly as possible. He’s working to get more veterinary help, knowing it is the key. Hopefully, those efforts will continue so that dogs don’t spend too much time waiting and stressing.
Many municipal shelters utilize inmates to do much of the work. While from the public standpoint (and the budget standpoint) this may seem like a good plan, however, shelter staff have no say in which inmates are assigned and no knowledge of their ability with animals. One of the most important jobs of a shelter employee (or volunteer) is to follow a strict cleaning and handling protocol to ensure that infected animals do not spread diseases like parvo, ringworm, and a host of others to the general population. Using inmates makes this difficult to enforce, so Jack has moved much of the work and most of the animal handling over to staff. He also invited an outside group to evaluate staff compensation and determined that a raise was in order for shelter employees.
The most powerful key to changing the culture of a shelter and saving more dogs is leadership. I’ve seen this again and again in shelter after shelter. One positive, motivated person can make the difference between a shelter that is a community partner, saving dogs and educating the public and one the public eyes as a place to dump the animals they don’t want to deal with.
When I visited before, it was hard to pin down the LRR (Live Release Rate), partly because the director did not show up to meet with me. To be honest, I never know for sure what that numbers mean because there are many different interpretations of it. Is it the number of ‘treatable, adoptable animals’ that make it safely out of the shelter through return-to-owner, adoptions or rescue? Or is it just the number of animals that come to the shelter for any reason that make it out alive? And what is ‘treatable, adoptable” and who makes that judgment?
One big difference between then and now is that Jack seems willing to be transparent about just about everything. He’s been in shelter work for over twenty years. He’s seen a lot. He’s learned a lot. He agreed that LRR is very open to interpretation. He didn’t know the numbers off the top of his head, but later he sent me an email that said Maury has euthanized 108 of the 1096 animals they’ve taken in since January 1, more than half of those he said were very sick kittens (they had a virus come through, a strain I’ve never heard of). That puts their LRR somewhere around 90%, if you consider the sick kittens ‘treatable’. Not a terrible number as far as municipal shelters go, but not nearly as good as Williamson County Shelter, just thirty minutes away.
To be fair, though, as we drove into Williamson we couldn’t help but notice it is smack dab in some of the poshest suburbs you’ll encounter. There is money and volunteers and community support to spare at Williamson. There is a large staff, a well-equipped building (with ‘catios’ and a full veterinary suite), a full-time vet (and two techs), a full-time volunteer coordinator (to organize the plethora of volunteers we were literally tripping over). This creates an atmosphere that is positive and bustling with activity. Williamson’s LRR is somewhere around 97%, and Chris, the kennel manager who gave us a tour, told me that they really stress that last 3%.
Williamson is an example of all a shelter can be – engaged in its community, caring expertly for its animals, and saving every possible animal they can save. I asked Chris if their numbers were going up or down in terms of intake and without hesitation, he said, “Up.”
So a great building, full staff, veterinary access, and lots of money still don’t stem the flow of unwanted animals. I asked Jack at Maury what he thought the problem was and while he told me that was complicated, many-pronged situation, he thought the biggest thing that had to happen was a ‘paradigm shift’ in terms of how people think about animals. I think he’s right. And that thought was only echoed at our experience today in Greenfield, TN.
“This is a work in progress,” Jack said to me many times on our tour, and he’s right, Maury still has a ways to go in terms of care and in terms of shifting that paradigm, but so does this country. That much is still clear.
More to come (and pictures too!) There is so much to see and so much to say. Thanks for following!