Animal shelters work smarter to save more lives

Smiling person standing with two dogs outside
How Best Friends shelter assessments help organizations move closer to no-kill 
By John Polis

When Bowie, a beloved 1-year-old pup, went missing from his backyard in Hesperia, California, a mother whose daughter depends on the dog for emotional support was understandably distraught. Not only did she fear that they’d never see Bowie again, but there was much work to be done: putting up lost dog signs, regular checks with the local shelter, and scouring the neighborhood to see whether anyone had seen him.

Thank goodness for the staff at Hesperia Animal Services (HAS), which knows its local neighborhoods and the people and pets who reside in them. Less than 48 hours later — no worse for wear — Bowie was picked up. And thanks to HAS making it a priority to find where animals belong right away rather than take them to the shelter, Bowie was returned straightaway — directly into the arms of a tearful, relieved mother and daughter.

That quick solution came about in part following a three-day shelter assessment conducted by Best Friends that resulted in HAS making a number of changes, including streamlining the process of how to handle free-roaming dogs in the community. Shelter assessments are one way that Best Friends is working toward the goal of all shelters in the country reaching no-kill by 2025.

Working smarter to save lives

“Shelters ask us to do assessments to help them improve, not give them more work,” says Scott Giacoppo, director of national shelter support for Best Friends. “We help them reshape the way they do things, all with the goal of saving more dogs and cats’ lives.”

It starts with the need. Best Friends focuses on shelters that have a lifesaving gap — the difference between the current status of lifesaving in a shelter and achieving the no-kill threshold of a 90% save rate. But there also must be a desire to close that gap and reach no-kill.

Assessments are free to the organizations receiving them, and they are intensive. It means sending Best Friends staff to work alongside the shelter staff for several days and then writing up a detailed report on their findings.

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“At the beginning of an assessment, we want an initial snapshot of where an organization is with respect to its overall lifesaving efforts,” says Nick Walton, national shelter support senior manager. “Once we have that snapshot, we can create for them a roadmap for making small or more substantial adjustments, with the goal of bringing that shelter closer to no-kill.”

To date, the team has done assessments for 98 shelters across the country. Often, the first item on the assessment agenda turns out to be cats, and it’s no wonder. Cats are killed at a 2-1 rate over dogs in shelters.

“And with many communities, dealing with free-roaming cats is challenging, but it’s something Best Friends deals with every day,” says Nick. “If it turns out that an organization already has a trap-neuter-vaccinate-return (TNVR) program, then we might start with something else: volunteers, fostering, or adoption programming.”  

Reviewing the basics

Assessments include a review of shelter basics: cleanliness, animals’ access to food and water, a comfortable place to sleep, enrichment, playgroups, exercise, and veterinary care. Assessing these factors means Best Friends staff members working right alongside shelter staff. “We’re right in there helping the animal care staff clean kennels,” says Nick. “Not only do we get an idea of their regular routine, but this also helps us build a relationship with the shelter’s staff.”

Beyond the basics, the team looks at marketing and social media, hours of operation, and other areas that many shelters don’t have the time, budget, or personnel to implement but are crucial to lifesaving.

Following assessments, the shelter gets a report that includes a list of recommendations that can cover any area of a shelter’s operation. But that’s only the beginning. “If they need help implementing the recommendations, we are ready to help,” says Scott.

Trying new things in Hesperia, California

Leaders at Hesperia Animal Services were looking for change when they became involved with Best Friends in 2018. “We identified a few areas where we felt the shelter could improve,” says Scott. “We began with one-on-one coaching with program supervisors. We provided manuals, invited them to webinars, sent them training information, and started them on their journey toward growing those individual programs.”

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For example, they had been thinking about a trap-neuter-vaccinate-return program, and it finally became a reality with guidance from Best Friends. “All we had was a barn cat program that wasn’t very successful,” says Osbaldo Montes, the shelter’s field services supervisor. “Best Friends introduced us to TNR. We brought it up with the city council and put it on our Facebook page. The community really embraced it — so much so that we actually had to slow it down a few times. We have a whole host of regular people out there who run our TNR program. It’s been an awesome program for the entire community.”

They also implemented a program for volunteers to help care for orphaned kittens. “We’ve always wanted to have foster care kits that we could hand out to families with kittens,” Osbaldo says. “But it wasn’t until Best Friends came in that we were able to do something like this. They had everything we needed. Our kittens got out of the shelter and into foster homes, where they could be taken care of, loved on, and then brought back with great social skills and be adopted.”

Small changes solve big issues

While recommendations can cover a wide range of topics, sometimes (as in Bowie’s case) a simple change of approach can make a big difference. Instead of taking dogs back to the shelter for identification, HAS field officers carry equipment with them to check IDs and microchips the moment they pick up an animal.

Another simple change at HAS involved adjusting the hours of operation for families to be reunited with pets. “Their lost dogs could only be reclaimed from Monday to Friday between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.,” says Scott. “That meant if a dog was picked up on Friday over a long weekend, a family couldn’t reclaim their dog until Tuesday. Now they have hours so that animals can be picked up anytime someone’s in the building.”

They have also taught volunteers how to help people reclaim their lost pets. And if someone comes forward to reclaim a pet after hours, one of the office staff can be dispatched to the office to assist them. It leads to pets spending less time in the shelter or never landing there in the first place.

In the end, it all boils down to saving lives. And Osbaldo points to the fact that the HAS save rate has improved from 62% in 2018 to 88% at the end of 2022.

There’s still work to do in Hesperia, especially when it comes to sustaining success. But the future is bright, says Osbaldo, and keeping an open mind on processes and procedures — a big piece of the puzzle — may be the shelter’s strongest asset going forward. “We are always looking for new programs and new ways of doing things,” says Osbaldo. “And we are dedicated to implementing new processes and programs to benefit animal care and the community.”