Embracing change saves more pets at Arizona shelter

Monster the senior pug, smiling with tongue out
Best Friends is helping city officials in Bullhead City transform the culture of its animal shelter to better serve the community and increase lifesaving.
By John Polis

The people who brought in Monster — a cute, diminutive black pug — said he was incontinent. Taking care of the little guy, whose friendly demeanor seriously belies his given name, would be difficult. After all, he was 17 years old. They felt it was his time to go.

Not so fast, said Monster, whose spirited barking and wiggly persona made it abundantly clear to the staff at the Bullhead City (Arizona) Animal Shelter that he had something to say about the situation. Alyson Harms, shelter manager, took note. It seemed like the little fellow still had plenty of life left in him. There had to be another way.

Indeed, the municipal shelter — located about an hour’s drive from Las Vegas on a common border that touches Arizona, Nevada, and California — has found many new ways of doing things in the past 12 months, thanks to support from Best Friends Animal Society. Working with individual shelters is one of the ways Best Friends collaborates with shelters and rescue groups across the country to reach no-kill by 2025.

Assessment leads the way

“They needed training, support, and general mentoring,” says Tammy Jo Hallman, who led an initial assessment of the shelter in December 2022 at the request of Bullhead City officials. “We worked on improving basic shelter protocols. Plus, we did training on animal behavior, enrichment, microchipping, and vaccines. They were very receptive and put many of them into practice immediately.”

The timing was right for the assessment. Responsibility for the municipal facility was being shifted from the police department to human services. “We needed a road map,” says Jeff Tipton, director of human services, who was new to animal welfare. “With all the (departmental) changes and the fact that we wanted to change the culture of the shelter, we said come on in, and if there is something wrong, let’s change it.”

Jeff was also tasked with appointing the new shelter manager. Alyson had served for eight and a half years as a city animal control officer in addition to working in the shelter since 2011. “It was a huge change for me,” she says. “I was more of a boots-on-the-ground person doing work in the field. I had to change from being the person who goes and does stuff to being in the office, writing emails and running a budget.”

[Amazing progress at Brownsville animal shelter]

So far, so good: Since the start of the Best Friends-Bullhead City collaboration last year, lifesaving has been on the upswing. The benchmark for reaching no-kill is at least a 90% save rate (the percentage of animals who leave a shelter alive) over a 12-month period. The city shelter’s save rate was just 56% in November 2022 when it started working with Best Friends. In September 2023, the save rate was more than 92%. And the average save rate during the 11-month period was 82%. Things are getting better.

Ever since the assessment, Tammy Jo and Tierney Sain (another Best Friends staff person) have been consulting and guiding Alyson and her team. Regular phone calls serve as question-and-answer and problem-solving sessions. Helping the shelter change its cleaning protocols and adopt a full range of best practices in all phases of animal care have been areas of emphasis — “mentoring them on it, walking them through it, talking them through it,” says Tammy Jo.

“Tammy Jo and Tierney have become like family,” says Alyson. “They are helpful in so many ways. If I have a bad day, Tammy Jo is always there to talk me off the ledge. I give her a call, and she tells me to breathe. She’s priceless.”

A road map for cultural change

Beyond protocols, Jeff says people are committed to making even more dramatic changes in Bullhead City. “We want to completely change the culture,” he says. “And we want to change the way people think about our shelter. For many years the shelter was more focused on enforcement of local laws. We want to direct that focus more toward customer service.”

That has meant a whole host of changes designed to make the shelter more customer friendly. One striking change is switching the uniform of shelter employees from police uniforms to hospital scrubs. “We wanted to soften the image of the shelter,” says Jeff.

Shelter hours have been expanded to make it easier for the public to adopt animals and conduct other shelter business. From just one volunteer on the roster, the shelter now has about a dozen volunteers to help with all sorts of duties. Alyson and Jeff have begun getting out into the community with speaking engagements with the local Kiwanis and Rotary.

Building partner relationships

“We’re trying to find more sponsors in the community to work with us,” says Alyson. We’re very visible on Facebook. We put out monthly updates on what’s going on at the shelter, including publicizing individual animals for adoption and just generally bringing attention to the shelter. By posting pictures of animals picked up by animal services officers, the shelter has been much more successful in reuniting families with their pets.

Events are much more a part of the shelter’s regular activities. “Since we’re near the Nevada border, we’ve worked with one of the casinos, and we’ve had adoption events at health fairs in Laughlin, Nevada. We’re in the process of signing an agreement with PetSmart to make some of our animals available for adoption in the store.”

The shelter has received several grants from Best Friends for various projects, including reduced-fee or free adoptions. And Alyson received a scholarship for leadership training through the Best Friends Management Leadership Certification program, which she completed in December 2022.

Monster: From down and (almost) out to toast of the town

We’re happy to say that Monster is alive and well. Brought into the shelter for owner-requested euthanasia, he’s become somewhat of a community celebrity in a life that’s truly come full circle.

“We took one look at him and broke down,” she says. “We just couldn’t do it. The dog was so full of life. Our staff was playing with him. So in a long conversation with his (person), I asked if we (the shelter) could adopt him as our hospice dog. After three days they agreed, saying they couldn’t say no. They were confident we would do what’s best for him.

[Kansas animal shelter staff sees dogs in a new light]

Fast-forward: Monster is a big part of the Bullhead City Animal Shelter family. He makes appearances at many city functions, shows up in photo shoots, and has starred in online videos. He loves to go to school and teach children how to pet dogs and be safe with animals.

“Best Friends taught us that animals are not just a piece of property, even though the law says so,” Alyson says. “Now I refuse to euthanize any animal because the animal’s person can’t find a new home or they are moving. We are working to empower citizens to rehome the pet. And we hand out resources to help them find solutions for their pets before taking them to an animal shelter.”

Monster, who’s quite comfortable in his role as Bullhead City’s first canine celebrity, couldn’t agree more.

Let's make every shelter and every community no-kill by 2025

Our goal at Best Friends is to support all animal shelters in the U.S. in reaching no-kill by 2025. No-kill means saving every dog and cat in a shelter who can be saved, accounting for community safety and good quality of life for pets. 

Shelter staff can’t do it alone. Saving animals in shelters is everyone’s responsibility, and it takes support and participation from the community. No-kill is possible when we work together thoughtfully, honestly, and collaboratively.

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