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California Sheltering Report recommendations

This is the third in our series of posts diving into the details of the California Sheltering Report. The report stands to have some far-reaching implications on shelter policies not just for California, but also for the entire nation. Our goal with this series is to simply highlight different pieces of the report. We will be providing a full summary with our recommendations and position prior to the deadline for providing feedback to the group responsible for delivering the final recommendations to the California governor.

Here are links to part one and part two of the blog posts in this series.

This is pretty dry stuff, but the fact that shelter policy in our most populous state is being evaluated based on lifesaving effectiveness should be enough to flavor the conversation with excitement.

In this installment, I’d like to touch on two important recommendations by the stakeholders group.

The first recommendation is for an appointment-based owner-surrender shelter policy. Analysis of the data revealed that 30 percent of the California shelter population is the result of owner surrenders. Appointment-based surrender, which has been employed to great benefit in the no-kill community of Reno, Nevada, and elsewhere, addresses two critical issues. First, it allows shelter staff to have a conversation with the owner regarding the reason they want to give up their pet. Experience shows that 25 to 30 percent of the time, the reason for surrender is a minor issue that can be easily sorted out by a surrender coordinator. Sometimes it’s a financial problem – vet costs, pet food or fence repair that can be easily addressed. Sometimes it’s a question of arranging training or behavior-management support.

The other shelter management issue that appointments address is to moderate the number of animals entering the shelter on a given day to better accord with available cage space so that an unforeseen rush doesn’t increase pressure to kill an animal for space considerations.

Despite the common sense nature of this owner-surrender recommendation, there will be those in opposition, so get ready to hear cries of alarm and red herrings, such as, “This will encourage pet abandonment.” Well, it hasn’t had that effect where it is employed, and there is no reason to expect it in California.

One finding that I believe will be more controversial is the white paper’s recommendations with regard to shelter hold times for stray dogs and cats who don’t have an owner ID either in the form of a tag or a microchip.

The Hayden Law extended hold times for pets to four to six days, depending on the circumstances within a particular shelter. The additional hold times have been found to be reimbursable, unfunded mandates and are one of the items that have been frequently suspended for budget considerations as they are now. Extended hold times have been regarded as critical to boosting return-to-owner (RTO) rates and saving more lives.

The analysis of 15 years of shelter data revealed some surprising RTO stats. For cats, RTO rates in California have been a consistently dismal 2 percent. That means that for every 100 stray cats, with presumed owners, only two of those 100 cats are claimed by an owner who searched the shelter. There is no data related to cat owner behavior that might provide a reasonable explanation for this other than that people don’t care about their cats, which I know is not true.

The truth is that a reasonable explanation relates to a combination of cat and cat owner behavior. If a cat is allowed outdoors, it is not uncommon for him or her to go missing for a day or two and then show up again. So, a cat’s person might not get alarmed for a few days and then might just start by looking around the neighborhood and putting up signs. There is a good chance that they don’t even know where the local shelter is.

As for cats who are not allowed to roam, sneaking out an open door can be a frightening experience. This type of cat usually goes to ground pretty quickly and simply hides in the nearest available nook, cranny, or crawl space. The concerned owner is likely to visit the shelter, post signs and do all the right things as the cat remains in hiding with possible peekaboo appearances after dark and before sunrise until hunger and/or thirst drives them to search for food. When they do emerge, a well-meaning neighbor will take the kitty to the shelter, but the owner has already done the shelter visit. And so it goes.

The recommendation that the stakeholders offer is understandable but surprising. Given that only 2 percent of stray cats are returned to owner via the shelter, the stakeholders suggest that cats who arrive in the shelter without identification be made immediately available for adoption, essentially eliminating mandatory hold times for strays with no ID.

The picture for dogs is less grim, but not particularly encouraging. RTO for dogs rose just 3 percent over the 15 years following enactment of Hayden, from 16 to 19 percent, but the report recommends the same remedy: Dogs arriving with no ID could likewise be offered for immediate adoption or placement with rescue. The same goes for puppies who arrive in groups of three or more from the same address.

This proposed “zero” tolerance for lack of identification on a pet dog means that a cute young mutt, who normally wears an ID tag, but slips a collar or escapes from a bathing session with the kids, or any one of numerous imaginable scenarios, might well lose his family.

These “get them out the door ASAP” ideas are intended to eliminate some of the issues that cost lives and drive up shelter costs. In some communities, shelter overcrowding is a legitimate concern. Extended shelter stays expose animals to diseases and increase stress. More time in the shelter also costs shelters money, which is in short supply, and, it is reasoned, could be better used to focus staff time on adoption and other proactive lifesaving duties.

Personally, I think this will not fly with the public or their elected representatives as it will be easy to portray such measures as punitive to the public who are not breaking any laws in not chipping a pet. Imagine, for example, an owner of three indoor-only cats. The well-meaning owner believes the cats to be safe at home, so none of the cats are microchipped or collared with ID tags. One of the cats darts out the front door one day, and is taken to the shelter by a Good Samaritan who finds the friendly kitty in their front yard. The cat has no ID, but is highly adoptable and immediately put into the adoption area of the shelter. Before the owner has had a chance to find their pet, a new family takes the cat home. It is easy to portray this as disproportionate punishment for an owner who neglected to microchip.

It also cuts across one of the few shelter activities that the public likely expects and supports. It is a legitimate “sheltering” activity, and in our idealized no-kill future, where animals are not being killed in shelters to make room for the next wave of unfortunate strays, we will want animal shelters to be temporary safe havens for homeless pets in need without the concern that an otherwise well-meaning, loving owner will lose their pet if they are not up to snuff on all of their obligations.

The proposals are intended to empower communities committed to no-kill to expedite adoptions. Public buy-in is another matter.

Response to this from the rescue community has been largely positive. However, I think the pet-loving public will view these hold-time recommendations through a different set of lenses.

What do you think? Should hold times be reduced as recommended in the report? We’d love to hear your thoughts, and any stories you may have from working in the field. Leave them below in the comments.
Francis Battista, Co-founder, Best Friends Animal Society Francis Battista
Co-founder
Best Friends Animal Society