The never ending challenge to save shelter pets

single-meta-cal March 22, 2017

Dr. Karen Sheppard has been Director of Animal Services for the City of Huntsville since 2002. She has seen the department evolve from euthanizing a majority of the animals to a 92 percent no-kill rate in 2016, saving every pet that wasn’t terminally ill or a threat. She recently attended the Regional Animal Welfare Summit in Atlanta, sponsored by Best Friends Animal Society. Here are her takeaways – and her goals – after the meeting.

One of the most important things talked about at the Summit was, if you’re saving your animals, you need to be reaching out to everyone around you in this business and helping them any way they need help.

Driving over to Atlanta, I had been thinking about how the last six months or so I’ve wanted to be involved in helping other agencies, especially in Alabama, to become no-kill shelters. So it was neat to hear all the ideas from other cities and how to go about it, and it’s made me more motivated.

They divide the country up into eight regions for these summits and they’re trying to evaluate what resources each region needs. Our region is Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida were well-represented. Sadly, I was the only one from the state of Alabama.

Best Friends’ goal is to have the whole country no-kill by 2025. That’s just right around the corner.

The first step is for shelters to report their data. In Georgia, 98 percent of their agencies report their data, which means they really know where their problems are. It means they can send in these teams that help them start life-saving programs.

The City of Huntsville has been sharing data since 2000, and we’ve become even more transparent.

Now, there’s a fear and anxiety with being transparent, because you’re talking about taking the lives of animals. But being open is part of the process. You could look at all our data and see this is what you need to do, this is what you need more help in. We executed the plan and – voila! – basically, in a year we arrived where we were saving the majority of the animals.

What was such a big game-changer for us was our low-income spay-and-neuter program. It took us from 10,000 animals to 5,000 in seven years. I’m sure every county in Alabama needs a similar program.

It’s going to be painful when the data comes out, but shelters that do that will be surprised how quickly things can change because it helps them do their job better and it’s something to share with community leaders and elected officials to get more help.

There’s a carrot on the stick, even though it’s a long stick. Best Friends has money, and they’re serious about that 2025 goal. Agencies like Best Friends, like the Humane Society of the United States, Maddie’s Fund, Petco Foundation, they’re willing to spend money to support the necessary programs, and that could be from $20,000 to $200,000. These smaller agencies need to know they’re not on an island. They don’t have to do it alone. Especially these counties that aren’t blessed with the tax base like we are.

My challenge is to get Alabama on board. We have 67 counties and it looks like we only have 12 municipalities or shelters that are reporting data. Florence and Lauderdale County do a good job reporting data, and I’m reaching out to the other counties, writing letters and making contact.

I’ve been here through the bad and the good, when we were euthanizing most of the animals to where we are now, when we’re saving all we can. It’s still a struggle every day. But I want to reach out and help other shelters make it through this journey. I want to help shelters that want to improve.

If I can help them get their resources and get through that difficult period that’s only two years instead of 12, wouldn’t it be great to save all those animals?

UPDATED on 3/28 at 2:55 p.m. to reflect an update to the name Humane Society of the United States. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated it took Huntsville Animal Services 2 years to reduce the animal population thanks to a robust spay and neuter program. This information has since been updated to reflect the correct amount of time, 7 years.