And now for something completely different

“And now for a message from your friends at the Bureau of Weights and Measures.” How’s that for an exciting opener? It was a favored expression of one of our English founders to describe any tedious, socially responsible message that someone here might have cooked up, but that was too boring for anyone to absorb. I guess there is a bit of Monty Python in every Brit.

However, this blog actually is about the Bureau of Weights and Measures, or our version of it, and I think it’s really exciting because it will help us to save more lives.

As I wrote about in a blog post earlier this year, metrics are very important to our work here at Best Friends. In fact, we pretty much obsess over numbers. We’re constantly measuring the effectiveness of our programs to ensure that donor dollars are spent on programs and activities that save the most lives possible. The animal-loving public is better informed than ever, and demands and deserves accountability from the organizations they support.

That obsession, though, isn’t limited to just Best Friends programs. We firmly believe that we need to apply this same obsession to the national shelter statistics as well. The estimates on how many animals are being killed nationally are just that — estimates. There’s a significant difference between 2.7 million and 5 million — the low and high ends of the current “estimate spectrum.”

Random good works don’t necessarily line up with the achievement of a stated mission — in our case, helping to bring an end to shelter killing. The proof of the effectiveness of spay/neuter programs, for example, is not only in the number of animals fixed. More important is the effect of those procedures on reducing shelter intake, and there is not always a straight line between the two.

If we truly know how many animals are entering and dying in shelters (along with other measurable data such as what, where and why), then we can address the problems in an informed and targeted way. Of course, this kind of measurement isn’t easy and requires participation from a wide range of stakeholders. However, standardized reporting across every shelter and rescue group in the country is no longer just a dream.

Best Friends is proud to be a founding member of Shelter Animals Count (SAC), which has released the first phase of its results. The other founding members represent the leaders of a variety of constituencies reaching virtually every corner of the sheltering world. They include PetSmart Charities®, the ASPCA, the National Animal Care & Control Association, the Humane Society of the United States, the National Federation of Humane Societies and Maddie’s Fund, to name a few. Truly, this is a collaborative effort.

National metric efforts certainly have been tried before (Asilomar Accords and Naked Data, for example) and, individually, many of these organizations (Best Friends included) have been working on city-level data reporting projects. While few of the national efforts succeeded, a lot was learned and that information has helped shape the direction of SAC. What is painfully clear is a need to standardize and create best practices for reporting to ensure that all organizations are using the same definitions for shelter statistics, including measurements for the following:


  • Intake

  • Adoptions

  • Return-to-owner

  • Transfers

  • Euthanasia

  • Owner-requested euthanasia


What makes SAC different? Well, simply put, it’s simpler to do and will be more accurate than any previous effort. The reporting requirements are not only easier, but SAC is working on a way to automatically pull the information out of the main shelter software management systems for the shelters that agree to participate. The automation will mean lots of data available with no extra work for already strapped shelter employees. For those not using these software programs, the reporting form is short and incredibly easy to fill out. We want shelter staff to be focused on animal care and adoptions rather than bits of paper, so we have made this as no-fuss as possible.

So why should a shelter in a medium-size city in Wisconsin or a rural area in Oregon care about this project? Surely the national metric matters less to them than to, say, Best Friends or the Humane Society of the United States? Good question. Through the use of some newer data visualization technologies, all the data pulled in by SAC will be visible by the local groups. Census data, such as population information and economic data, can be overlaid to help local shelters better understand the problems and do comparative analysis against other cities. In other words, this data can help inform every community across the country. If that sounds like fun to you, but you’re not with a rescue group, don’t worry. This information will be available to the public.

What has just been released is only phase one, demonstrating the data visualization and census overlay with limited data. In phases two and three, there will be much more important information as the number of shelters participating increases.

If you are with a shelter or rescue group and are interested in being a part of this incredibly important work, visit the Shelter Animals Count website to learn more. The more solid, consistent data that can be collected, the better the results will be. Better results will mean more lives saved. And that is what it’s all about.

Can I get big “Woohoo!” for the Bureau of Weights and Measures? OK, a nod of appreciation will do.

Together, we can Save them All.