Editorial: Keeping shelters open when money & time are tight
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2009:
The good economic news from the nonprofit
information-tracking web site Guidestar is that only 52% of U.S.
charities reported declining donations during the winter of
2008-2009. This was no worse than the rate of decline during the
Animal charities appear to have enjoyed less severe declines
than those serving other sectors, but since animal charities raise
only about 1% of total contributions to charity in the U.S., even
moderate losses hurt.
Economic analysts now predict that we may have reached a
turnaround. Yet even in the most hopeful scenario, fall and winter
budgets must be planned conservatively. If more money arrives than
is expected, more can be done, but meanwhile it is prudent to avoid
becoming over-extended. If we are not yet coming out of the
recession of the past two years, the recent stresses on animal
shelters will only get worse.
The influx of “foreclosure pets” that many shelters
experienced in 2007-2008 has been slowed by a decline in
foreclosures, but shelters now have fewer resources to cope with
additional intake. Shelters that had reserves to fall back on have
often reached legally mandated limits on their ability to draw down
endowments, like the Massachusetts SPCA and Pennsylvania SPCA.
Still affluent on paper, both have recently turned shelters over to
other charities due to constricted cash flow.
Other nonprofit shelters have simply depleted their reserves.
Shelters that had good credit two years ago may now have problematic
Shelters operated by public agencies are typically having to
work with less, even when their own revenues have held even or
increased, because mortgage defaults, unsold property, and failing
businesses have reduced tax revenues in their communities. This has
in turn meant reduced animal control allocations.
Shelter directors have already struggled for many months to
cut costs in any way possible. Few had funding surpluses even before
the recession began. More than half of all U.S. animal shelters
operate on less than $300,000 per year. More than 85% of U.S.
animal shelters operate on less than $1 million per year: less than
the sales volume of almost any supermarket. After seven years of
record economic growth, U.S. animal shelters at the beginning of
the recession were still only raising about $6.50 per U.S. resident
per year, or about $20 per household, and under $100 per active
There just was not much fat to trim out of animal shelter
budgets in the first place.
The hardest part of making budget cuts in humane work,
especially hands-on animal care, is that almost any cut one makes
amounts to deciding which animals will go without help.
Budget-cutting may involve only looking at numbers on a computer
screen, not looking into the eyes of an imploring animal and people
bringing the animal to the shelter in hopes of a happy outcome, but
no shelter manager looks at the numbers without knowing the meaning
of doing fewer sterilization surgeries, less adoption advertising,
or laying off staff, who usually work for low wages and have little
or nothing to fall back on.
As last resort before introducing layoffs, shelters often
cut back their hours of public access. Remaining open to the public
for longer hours requires keeping public service personnel on duty
for more hours. This is much more costly than just employing night
clean-up staff, who may not be fluent in English and are usually not
trained in other aspects of shelter work.
Most large shelters have some night staff, especially those
that hold animal control contracts and may be called upon to accept
impounds at any hour when police encounter animals who must be taken
into custody. Night is often the best time to do cleaning and
repairs, and euthanasia technicians tend to believe their work is
less stressful to the animals at night.
Yet remaining open to the public is more difficult than
opening a door in response to a police call. Night security issues
for shelters in out-of-the-way places and rough neighborhoods are
already huge, even behind locked gates. Fifteen to 20 years ago
shelter break-ins by people trying to steal or recover impounded
animals were rare, but shelters in vulnerable locations were
frequent targets of break-ins by addicts trying to steal cash,
pentobarbital, and ketamine. Those problems have not subsided, but
now break-ins to steal or recover impounded animals are so common
that ANIMAL PEOPLE has received reports of more than 60 cases in the
past three years, probably just a fraction of all those that have
occurred. Among them were 18 cases of suspected dogfighters trying
to take pit bull terriers from shelters.
To safely remain open after hours, a shelter may need to
have multiple personnel on duty who are able to keep track of each
other and respond quickly to distress paging.
Then there is the problem of providing the particular service
that the public might expect to find after hours. Having a
veterinary technician on duty to receive injured animals is more
costly than having a cleaning crew. Having an intake counselor who
is trained to calm irate people and go through a checklist of
possibilities for keeping an animal in a home may be more costly
still. Offering after-hours adoptions requires having someone on
duty with yet another skill set. Sometimes a vet tech can double as
an intake and adoption counselor, as is often done at smaller
shelters, but if a shelter requires personnel to handle multiple
specialized roles in the daytime, it usually doesn’t have anyone to
work a night shift.
The counter-argument is that after hours are often when
humane services are most needed. A domestic crisis that results in a
pet being surrendered to a shelter is most likely to occur after
hours. Animal abuse or abandonment is more likely to occur when no
one is on call to intervene and there is nowhere safe to take the
animal, even for an overnight cooling off period. Nights and
weekends are also when lonely people are most likely to feel the urge
to adopt an animal companion.
None of this is unknown to the humane community. Shelters
today are still open to the public. on average, for only the 20 to
30 hours per week that they were open a generation ago, but the
distribution of public reception hours has markedly shifted from the
“banking hours” that prevailed then to retail hours now. Checking
hours at more than 30 open admission shelters in 25 cities, ANIMAL
PEOPLE recently found that more than 90% are open on Saturdays, more
than half are open on Sundays, and more than half are open to at
least six p.m. on three or more weekdays.
Shelter directors are often quite aware that if they could
remain open for longer, they could accomplish more program service.
Mike Arms, as shelter manager for the North Shore Animal League,
demonstrated with the Pet Adopt-a-thon held each May that people will
adopt animals 24 hours a day if they know they can. The North Shore
Animal League has expanded the Pet Adopt-a-thon into an international
event. What works in the New York City suburbs turns out to work in
Europe, Japan, and the developing world as well.
Arms, after becoming executive director of the Helen
Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Santa Fe, California, introduced
Home-4-the-Holidays to comparably demonstrate the value of offering
adoptions at other times when shelters are normally closed or keeping
only restricted hours–and has achieved another global success.
Brenda Barnette, now heading the Humane Society of Seattle,
demonstrated as executive director of Pets In Need in Redwood City
that night humane education classes for adults could be a big hit,
promoted as guest speaker appearances, and could morph into
The San Francisco SPCA, under Richard Avanzino, who now
heads Maddie’s Fund, more than 25 years ago introduced a 24-hour pet
crisis intervention hotline with multilingual counselors on call.
Several other humane societies have more recently enjoyed success by
partnering with other 24-hour crisis intervention services, so that
if a domestic violence crisis involves an animal, someone with
appropriate animal expertise can help.
Handling after-hours emergencies is less expensive, on a
case-by-case basis, than coping with the consequences of delay until
a shelter is again open. Yet there is considerable after-hours down
time, and keeping the necessary personnel on duty at the shelter
during the down time is prohibitive, even when the shelter has the
personnel to put on late shifts.
Coping with a budget crunch, almost any shelter director can
look at the numbers and see that cutting hours looks relatively
painless compared to the alternatives. Since only about 20% of the
animals coming to shelters these days are brought by the public,
keeping shorter public access hours appears likely to have little
effect on intake volume. Since shelters often do more than half of
their total adoption volume on Saturdays, discontinuing adoption
hours on Mondays or Tuesdays appears to be reasonable.
But what is economically reasonable and perhaps even
essential may not be in keeping with donor expectations, or with the
message a humane society hopes to impart to the public about the kind
of around-the-clock care that animals need and deserve.
The residential solution
This is not a new dilemma. Ironically, the humane societies
of more than 100 years ago and those of today in the developing world
were and are well ahead of the present U.S. humane community in
confronting and resolving it.
The oldest animal shelter in the U.S. that still operates
from the original premises appears to be the Ellen Gifford Home in
the Boston suburbs. Ellen Gifford renovated her family’s carriage
house into a cat shelter in 1881. She lived for the rest of her life
in the adjacent family residence, which is to this day the residence
of the shelter manager.
The Ellen Gifford Home has thus had resident staff for longer
than any other U.S. shelter. What was unusual about that arrangement
then was that it had only one resident caretaker, instead of
multiple caretakers on rotating shifts–but it was always a very
The Mohawk & Hudson Humane Society, in the Albany suburb of
Menands, New York, was by contrast among the biggest in the entire
U.S. when the oldest part of the present shelter opened in 1913.
Operating an orphanage as well as animal care facilities, it housed
about 10,000 children and 20,000 animals per year, attended by a
resident staff of dozens, and hosted the offices of the American
Humane Association for a time, too. The Mohawk & Hudson Humane
Society retained some resident staff until 1993, when the last
resident staff housing was condemned and demolished.
The advent of the automobile gradually ended the tradition of
resident animal shelter staff in the U.S., which persisted only at
zoos and sanctuaries for exotic species. Once workers could commute
efficiently, few people wanted to reside amid barking dogs and
animal smells, on constant call, in a place where for most of the
20th century most of the animals would soon be killed.
But having resident staff is still more the rule than the
exception abroad. Dogs Trust, of Britain, is known for attracting
employees to shelters in upscale neighborhoods by offering them
cottages or townhouse apartments on the premises. The
accommodations are much nicer than any that most shelter workers
could afford to rent or buy within easy commuting distance. Shelters
in India frequently include both “officers’ quarters” for senior
night supervisors and visiting veterinarians, and “enlisted
quarters” for animal care staff, who are often themselves rescue
projects. Shelters in continental Europe–both east and
west–commonly include small apartments for residential volunteers.
Many of the overnight residents at foreign shelters are not
regular staff, nor even trained personnel. But they are people who
can call regular staff if someone arrives with a crisis after hours.
A constant human presence is reassuring to donors and the public,
and probably to the animals, too. Efforts are made to keep the
residential quarters attractive, as well as secure, and because
most shelters with residential quarters usually have more than one
person staying overnight, backup help is at hand in a crisis.
U.S. shelters are unlikely to retrofit to add residential
quarters in the near future, not least because many are not zoned to
accommodate humans; but residential quarters are a perk to consider
in designing new shelters, especially in communities where housing
is hard to find at humane workers’ wages. Shelter architecture and
operating procedures have improved to the point that a well-managed
shelter environment can be a congenial place to live, and many
personnel might consider being on call as needed after hours much
less stressful than fighting traffic before and after every shift.