Are your expectations of how your local animal shelter should be saving pets driven by data or fantasy?


During the weekly Best Friends town hall last week, a handful of incredible animal welfare leaders from Dallas, Texas, sat down for a candid conversation about the powerful impact of true community-centered lifesaving work. It was an expert lesson in what substantive collaboration to save the lives of pets actually looks like and a reminder that if our lifesaving work is not grounded in reality, we’re not honoring our commitment to the animals or to our goal.

During the discussion, Ed Jamison, the director of Dallas Animal Services, recounted an exchange he’d had with Christina Arriaga, the executive director of Rockwall Pets, a local rescue organization that helps move dogs and cats out of the shelter for foster care and adoption. That exchange went something like this:

Christina: So, you don’t need me to transport Yorkies to Minnesota anymore, Ed?

Ed: Nope! I’ve got medium and big dogs who need to be saved for the folks in Minnesota. Will you help?

While meant in part to be a light-hearted memory from countless meetings, conversations and collaborations among this Dallas group over the last few years, the heart of this exchange is critical to understand if you care about pets in your community and really want to help.

We all love a good rescue story. Rockwall Pets had defined much of its incredible lifesaving work through pulling small dogs out of Dallas Animal Services and transporting them to groups in northern states like Minnesota, where they could more easily find homes. This is a common animal rescue group model across our country, one that often attracts new supporters and volunteers who love the idea of a bus or plane full of lovable at-risk pups being whisked away from a big, overcrowded shelter to a place where they can find safe new homes. I love it, too. It’s a great model. That is, until it’s no longer what the animals and the shelters actually need.

Once Ed started looking at the shelter’s data on which dogs really needed to get out of Dallas Animal Services for transport, it wasn’t the cute Yorkie-type pups, it was big dogs. According to the data, Dallas wasn’t having any trouble finding local adopters for their small dogs. Big dogs were the ones who ended up lingering in kennels rather than being quickly adopted. And since Christina’s organization was committed to saving the most lives possible and helping the city of Dallas collectively achieve no-kill, she pivoted. Rockwall Pets changed its model to fill a gap and stay in step with the lifesaving needs of their community.

Bonnie Hill, the executive director of the Spay Neuter Network in Dallas, did something similar. Spay Neuter Network has spayed or neutered, vaccinated and saved around 5,000 community cats from Dallas Animal Services. But recently, a different need came up, so Bonnie and her team stepped up to help fill that gap.

The city of Dallas now has a 311 hotline that residents can call (instead of waiting in line at the shelter, which was the procedure before COVID-19) when they feel that they can’t keep their pets anymore and want to surrender them to the shelter. Last year, Dallas Animal Services took in nearly 40,000 animals. That’s around 110 animals every day, roughly half of whom were pets surrendered by members of the community. With the flood of calls for pet surrender coming into the 311 hotline (80 to 100 calls each day), Ed and his team at the shelter desperately needed help fielding inquiries and finding alternative solutions for some of the animals coming in.

Notorious for never being afraid to ask for help (an essential quality in any effective shelter director), Ed mentioned how nice it would be to have someone else take over the pet surrender calls coming into the 311 hotline so that the city didn’t have to bear all the burden. Bonnie’s response to that? “Well, let’s hire people and start a call center and find positive alternative solutions for some of these pets that don’t involve them going to the shelter.”

The call center launched in May and in just the first month or so of fielding calls from the city’s 311 hotline, Spay Neuter Network found positive lifesaving solutions that didn’t involve the shelter for about half of the pets who would have entered Dallas Animal Services. For a large city shelter, that is huge.

Here’s why this is so important: Strategic and thoughtful data collection and analysis help us understand exactly how many animals are dying unnecessarily in shelters, which animals are dying and where in the country the lifesaving need is greatest. What Dallas Animal Services and its phenomenal collaborative of SPCA of Texas, Spay Neuter Network, Rockwall Pets, Operation Kindness and Dallas Pets Alive are doing is letting their community’s needs and the shelter’s data drive their decision-making and define their lifesaving model. They understand that what’s needed to save the most lives today might not be what’s needed next month or next year. They know that their job is to pivot and adapt to stay true to their ultimate mission of saving pets’ lives, supporting people with pets, and creating and sustaining a compassionate no-kill community.

Tomorrow, Best Friends is rolling out the latest national shelter data set, which is helping to guide our lifesaving work around the country and the no-kill movement. Coincidentally, the data set shows that, more than any other shelter in the country, Dallas Animal Services is increasing the number of lives saved year over year.

My question for you is this: As your local shelters and rescue organizations look at the data and shape their lifesaving game plans to fill gaps and best meet the needs of your community and state, will you be there by their sides to pivot, adapt and help?

Julie Castle


Best Friends Animal Society