Lifesaving soars with new shelter practices

Green cart holding a litter of five black and white puppies
Lehigh Valley Humane Society celebrates reaching a 90% save rate for the first time in its 117-year history.
By Liz Finch

When a fluffy orange cat named Lincoln landed at Lehigh Valley Humane Society (LVHS) in Allentown, Pennsylvania, a few months ago, he probably didn’t think he’d won the lottery. After all, he was now sitting in a cage in a strange place full of foreign smells and frightening sounds.

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But Lincoln was quite lucky indeed because he arrived at LVHS following a significant change in the way the shelter handled cats. After 117 years, the shelter no longer considers every cat who arrives in a trap or appears fractious to be unadoptable. After more than a century, instead of euthanizing most cats like that, the shelter is committed to finding a happy outcome for them. It doesn’t matter if they show up in a trap or are perched atop a fluffy bed inside a carrier — if they hiss and swat or purr nonstop.

“I’ve worked here for eight years, and my heart has always gone out to the cats,” says Jackie Folsom, LVHS director of development. “Think about what we've asked of them: They’ve landed somehow in a place with 1,000 smells and the sound of dogs barking, been poked and prodded and vaccinated, and we expect them not to be afraid? It's a huge ask for them to be chill after such a frightening process, even the friendly ones.”

The new practices in place at LVHS mean those cats who are happy and healthy living outdoors get spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and returned to the neighborhoods they call home (a practice known as trap-neuter-vaccinate-return, or TNVR). And every cat relinquished to the shelter gets the benefit of a 48-hour decompression period, which gives them time to adjust to the surroundings and show staff their true personalities. For Lincoln, those 48 hours were a literal lifesaver.

“Lincoln is a very friendly cat who loves people, but he didn’t seem that way at first,” Jackie says. “Things would have turned out very badly for him because of his aggression not so long ago. Instead, he got the time he needed to relax and open up to us. He’s up for adoption now, and it makes me so happy to see that. Cats like Lincoln have long deserved the time to show us who they are; now we can finally give it to them.”

Primed for change

Even prior to this most recent change, LVHS was long overdue for a hard look at how the shelter served the community.

“Prior leadership of the shelter was not open to change or friendly with other organizations, and we had justifiably earned a negative reputation with the public,” Jackie says. “Five years ago, when Hal Warner came on as our new CEO and president, he felt the most important thing was to turn around public opinion. LVHS has had a huge transformation since he arrived.”

[Helping small animal shelters has a big impact]

Chief among those new practices was an overhaul of the lengthy adoption processes, which were also marked by an old-school mentality where staff treated the public with suspicion. But LVHS has worked hard to make people feel welcome by eliminating unnecessary barriers to adoption. The shelter also underwent a facelift and added an affordable veterinary clinic on site to help people struggling to afford care for their animals. The impact of these changes is evident when reviewing the overall save rate from recent years, which ticked up from 61% in 2021 to 68% in 2022.

There was still plenty of room for growth as of September, however, which is when Best Friends East Coast Regional Director Audrey Lodato showed up at the shelter one day bearing a tray of cupcakes (her signature move when approaching a new organization).

“When I first got in contact with LVHS after seeing they had one of the lowest save rates in the state, the list of ‘never have I ever’ was long,” Audrey says. “They’d never worked with a national organization, never did a transport, and never explored doing TNVR. They didn’t have a lot of reference points for national best practices, but they welcomed me with open arms. They were primed for change.”

Clearing hurdles to cat lifesaving

Like many shelters, LVHS’ biggest challenge in terms of lifesaving was related to so-called community cats. Such felines typically carve out a niche for themselves in areas with ample access to food, water, and shelter, resources that are frequently provided by people who love having cats around. Not everyone in the neighborhood may feel the same way, however.

“Typically, people who call animal control to complain are unhappy about nuisance behaviors like urine spraying, fighting, and having litter after litter of kittens, all of which are common in cats who aren’t spayed or neutered,” Audrey says. “The entire industry long believed the correct response was to remove such cats by trapping them and taking them to shelters, where few ever left alive. We have known for more than a decade that this approach doesn’t work. What does work is a comprehensive community cat program based around TNVR.”

[Transformative changes for cats at York County SPCA]

Once Audrey introduced herself to LVHS with that tasty cupcake offering, she wasted no time getting them signed up to be a Best Friends Network Partner. That gave the shelter access to resources such as one-on-one mentoring to revise the city ordinance that stood in the way of doing TNVR.

“Best Friends also trained our staff virtually on how to run a successful community cat program at the same time,” says Jackie. “That way once we cleared the legal hurdles, we could start doing TNVR immediately.”

Just as immediately, lifesaving for cats soared as countless felines were returned to their neighborhoods and to the people anxiously waiting for them to come back home. The cat save rate in March was 90%, and in April it jumped even higher to 96%.

“We’ve only been doing our community cat program for a few months, and we are so excited to continue growing and improving,” Jackie says. “I can't wait until it feels like a well-oiled machine.”

Giving dogs their due

Compared to the number of components required to pave the way for increased cat lifesaving, Audrey says helping LVHS’ dogs was “an easy fix.”

“They had a great dog behavior person on staff already, so Best Friends National Shelter Support Specialist Tierney Sain gave them some additional mentoring,” she says. “She focused on helping them start play groups and adjusting the way they viewed assessing the dogs, and the save rate for dogs reached more than 90% right away.”

Just as Jackie cites the story of Lincoln when asked what change looks like at LVHS, Director of Operations Teisha Jones turns to the tale of one particular dog when asked the same question.

“Nana was this little, stray pit bull terrier who cowered in the corner of her kennel,” Teisha says. “When people approached, she would blow up like a puffer fish to scare them away, barking and trying to run away at the same time.”

With the help of LVHS’ trainer and advice from Tierney, Teisha took Nana into a play yard, so they could spend time getting to know one another. Afterward, she decided to take the dog into her office and give her a break from the commotion of the kennels. It didn't take long for Nana to overcome her fear.

“Her cowering turned to wiggles, and her barks turned to loving licks,” Teisha says. “She just needed a different environment to be the best version of herself. We got her into a foster home with one of our very dedicated dog walkers, and she blossomed so much the woman has decided to keep her. Just like Lincoln, however, if Nana had come in a few months earlier the outcome would have been very different.”

Achieving no-kill — and staying there

Cats like Lincoln and dogs like Nana are far from the only animals who have had positive outcomes since LVHS and Best Friends began working collaboratively last fall. In the past six months more than 1,000 animals have gone into new homes, been reunited with their owners, were transferred to rescue groups, or went back to their neighborhoods through TNVR.

“LVHS has been so open to doing different things,” Audrey says. “If they think something is the right thing to do, they’ll do it.”

Seeing such enormous improvements from the days when fewer than 50% of animals at LVHS has a positive outcome triggered an epiphany for Teisha and Jackie.

[Animal shelters work smarter to save more lives]

“I was over the moon that we achieved something that just months earlier felt impossible,” Teisha says. “I was so proud of my team for all their hard work and dedication because saving more animals is not easy. It takes a commitment to stay on course even when the path to lifesaving may not yet be clear. What shocked me were the intense feelings regarding all the lives that had been lost in the past. I always grieved the loss of life, but I did not expect the wave of grief that overcame me. I decided to honor those who have been lost in the past by continuing to save as many lives as possible.”

And now they know exactly how to do so.

“We felt powerless for so long under previous leadership to institute any real change,” Jackie says. “Today we understand there is a better way, a different way. Even if you feel like you don't know where to start or it's too big of a challenge to take on, Best Friends makes it feel possible.”

This article was originally published in the July/August 2023 issue of Best Friends magazine. Want more good news? Become a member and get stories like this six times a year.

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