Speaking with one voice: A call for transparency in sheltering

By Julie Castle

Best Friends is proud to be a co-author of the landmark position statement jointly issued today by eight of the nation’s leading animal welfare organizations and foundations.

Calling upon every organization in the country that takes homeless pets into their care to share their data, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Best Friends Animal Society, Michelson Found Animals Foundation, the Humane Society of the United States, Maddie’s Fund, PetSmart Charities, Petco Foundation and WaterShed Animal Fund issued a joint press release today intended to help set the public’s expectations for the organizations that they support with their donations and their taxes.

If you live in a state like Virginia that requires the annual public filing of this type of information by all sheltering organizations, you may be wondering what the big whoop is all about. However, a lack of transparency — overtly and by fudging the facts — has been a serious problem in our movement for a long time and state laws like Virginia’s are still not the rule. Texas, the state with the highest number of killings in its shelters, has no such requirement. California, which has the second highest number, has an outdated law that has fallen into disuse.

Transparency is central to the no-kill philosophy and to the effective implementation of no-kill programs. After all, how can you solve a problem if you don’t know the actual nature of that problem? This is especially true when it comes to shelter pets, who can live and die behind closed doors with little or no public awareness or oversight.

Basic animal shelter transparency begins with simple numbers: how many dogs and how many cats entered a shelter in a given time period; how many animals had positive outcomes (were adopted, returned to owner, returned to field, etc.); how many animals died or were killed in the shelter for any and all reasons.

Ideally, those numbers are broken down further to convey a better profile of the shelter’s work and where, if needed, improvements can be made. For example, if a high percentage of animals are succumbing to disease, that may point to the need for improved vaccination and sanitation protocols as well as better veterinary care. If a high percentage of healthy animals are being killed, then it’s probably a good idea to look at expanding adoption programs and intake reduction activities such as targeted spay/neuter services, return-to-field for community cats and surrender intervention programs.

The more detailed the snapshot, the more accurately programs can be targeted to need. A high number of kittens, especially kittens under eight weeks of age, entering a shelter system indicates that there are breeding colonies of community cats. That points to the need for programs such as “bottle baby” foster care programs to save the lives of fragile kittens and community cat programs, such as trap-neuter-return, that are aimed at getting to the source of the problem.

In Los Angeles, for example, Los Angeles Animal Services (LAAS) provides data support for the Best Friends NKLA initiative, which has been critical in guiding the work of all NKLA Coalition partners. LAAS provides ZIP code–level data that breaks out the numbers of neonatal kittens, large dogs and small-breed dogs. Month-to-month trend statistics make it possible to adjust program emphasis quickly.

However, data can also be scrubbed or slanted to obscure transparency, which is why the joint position statement calls for “…number of animals that come under their care, and the outcome for all of those animals.”

It is still the case that some very large municipal shelter systems and influential regional private humane organizations do not share raw data. Rather, they use subjective terms such as “adoptable” or “healthy” to qualify their numbers. An organization claiming to adopt out 100 percent of the healthy animals who come into their care tells you nothing about that operation. Does an animal deemed unhealthy have a terminal disease, the sniffles, an ear infection or a skin rash? That is, could that animal have been treated and returned to health or could he have been adopted with a minor health problem? Was it a neonatal kitten who needed feeding and a foster home? Did the animal arrive at the shelter with a serious disease or did she contract something while in the care of the organization? Was the animal treated or just conveniently erased from the rolls? “Healthy” in that context is just a term to mislead the public.

The same goes for the word “adoptable.” What are the criteria for an animal being deemed unadoptable? Age? Breed? Blindness? Behavior? We all know that none of these are disqualifiers for a homeless pet’s eligibility for adoption.

Times are changing, and this call for transparency by a united front of the largest and most influential animal organizations in America is a powerful statement about what everyone should expect and demand from the organizations they support with their donations or tax dollars.

Together, we will Save Them All.

Julie Castle


Best Friends Animal Society