A couple of months ago, a group of shelter directors and advocates in California released a very detailed whitepaper on recommendations for shelters across the state. Many of the ideas were logical, and while some were controversial, they were for the most part well-thought out, data-based recommendations.
One of the recommendations of the whitepaper that has sparked a lot of good conversation is the over the topic of "hold times" for shelter animals. "Hold times" are the period for which shelters are required to hold stray dogs and cats before they can offer them for adoption, transfer to resues or for death at a shelter -- giving owners a certain amound of time to reclaim their lost pets. Many states have mandatory hold periods, some do not. I think, for the most part, the debate had been healthy, and good -- as I think it's important for us to look at effective policies, analyze different opinions and trade-outs of different options. And no solution is perfect, including my own which I'll get to below.
The shelter group, supported by people from the ASPCA, Maddies Fund, HSUS and others contained two primary recommendations when it comes to shelter hold periods:
1) For dogs, make hold times no longer than 4 days unless the dog is wearing some type of identification such as a tag or microchip. Based on the shelter data in Caifornia, 80% of all dog RTOs (returned to owner) occur within the first 4 days and there is not much net gain in increasing time beyond that as animals become unlikely to be reclaimed after 4 days, and holding them longer just ties up shelter space for animals that are unlikely to be reclaimed, but unable to be adopted out or transfered -- which ties up shelter capacity and increases shelter costs.
2) The report goes on to suggest eliminating hold periods for cats unless they have identification (a collar, tags, microchips, etc. Nationwide, only about 2% of shelter cats are ever reclaimed, and most of those are because the cat has identification. Without the identification, a cat's likelihood of getting reunited with its owner becomes statistically, almost zero.
At the time of the white paper report, and now, I support the reccommendations made in the California committee -- hold times for 4 days for dogs unless they have identification and eliminating hold times for cats unless the cat have identification. Many others support the recommendations, in whole or in part.
Of the recommecndations, the elimination of hold times for cats without identification has been by far the most controversial.
Not everyone is on board, and last week Nathan Winograd wrote a very detailed critique of the idea of eliminating or reducing hold periods based on the false notion that the only reason people support the measures is because they want to allow shelters to kill them more quickly.
While everyone is entitled to their own opinion on this, what Winograd has done is create a false debate. He's framed anyone who supports the idea of eliminating hold times as someone who supports "instant killing" of cats in shelters. He even went so far as to place advocate statements out of context to make it seem more dramatic. Such tactics are divisive, and do nothing to add to the positive dialogue that is taking place about solutions to saving more lives in shelters.
Below is my opinion on the hold times for cats (and to a lesser degree dogs), based on data and experience. It also contains my proposed solution that, while not perfect, eliminates the concern over cats risking instant death in shelters (at least, any more so than they do now), but also maximizes the opportunity for their safe exit from the shelter.
One Shelter's Experience
In 2012, our group, the KC Pet Project, took over our city animal shelter. We took over a shelter that was killing 40% of the animals that came in. In 2012, KC Pet Project saved more than 86% of the dogs and cats in our care. In 2013, with only a few weeks to go, we are on pace to save 91% of the dogs and cats that come into our shelter.
The idea that I (and many others) would support an idea so shelters could kill animals faster is a false premise. But I do support fact-based decision-making.
In Missouri, the state-required hold time for shelters is 5 days. For our shelter, 80% of all dogs that ever get returned are returned in the first 3 days. After day 3, they become significantly less likely to ever be reunited with their owner.
For cats, the situation is much more challenging. Through the first 11 months of 2013, KC Pet Project has reunited exactly 21 cats with their owners. Given a total intake of 2,568 cats, this represents less than 1% of all cats being reunited with their owners. Nearly all of the cats that were reunited were reunited because of some form of identification.
In 2012, we returned 16 cats to owner -- again, less than 1%.
So cats entering our shelter have a less than 1% likelihood of being reunited with their owners even with a mandaotry 5 day hold). When the cat comes in without identification, its likelihood is nearly 0%. The idea that we are holding cats without identification based on the statistically zero percent chance that they will be reunited with owners does not create a net increase in lifesaving.
Our situation is not unique. When looking at other successful shelters around the country, in 2012, the Nevada Humane Society (Washoe County/No Kill since 2008) returned 99 of the 5,234 cats (1.8%) that came into their shelter. The Charlottesville -Albermarle SPCA returned 68 out of 1744 cats at their shelter -- which is 3.8%.
The reality is that in American shelters, the data indicates that cats coming into shelters without identification and being reunited with owners is a statistical anomaly. While it is great when it happens, it cannot be relied upon for life-saving, and even model shelters aren't all that successful in doing it.
Much of this is because, unlike dogs, most cats that find their way into shelters do not have owners. The number of owned cats in the US is estimated at about 80 million. Meanwhile, the estimated number of unowned/free-roaming/feral/community cats in the US is estimated to be around 60 million (although, projections on this vary wildly). So unlike dogs, where nearly all are owned, roughly 1/2 of the entire cat population in this country is unowned. So when unowned cats come to a shelter, there is no one who will come looking for them - whether the hold time is 10 days, 5 days, or zero days. It's also why the total number of reclaimed cats is so low.
Even with owned cats, because most are indoor, people usually opt to not license/microchip them because they are indoors, and will never get away, so why bother? Except sometimes they do. Which is the problem.
The importance of length of stay for shelters
Time and space are the two biggest factors for every shelter in America. No shelter has unlimited capacity. If a shelter is to be successful, it is essential that animals get moved out of the shelter at the same rate as they come in. Smart shelters are always looking for ways to minimize length of stay. It's a major way to increase capacity.
To put it simply, let's say you run a shelter, and you have 1 kennel. Your capacity is determined by one out, one in. If your average length of stay is 28 days, then every 28 days a dog gets out, and new one comes in. At at a 28 day length of stay, your shelter has the capacity for 13 dogs throughout the course of the year.
However, if you decrease your lenght of stay to 14 days, you've doubled the capacity of your one kennel -- so now you can hold 26 dogs each year. If you decrease your length of stay to 10 days, you can now hold 35 for the year. It's math. The faster you get them out, the more room you have in your shelter.
But when you run a large shelter, this magnifies very quickly. If you have 100 kennels, and your a average length of stay is 28 days, then you can safely house 1300 dogs through the course of the year. But if your average length of stay is 10 days, these same 100 kennels can now house 3,500 on the year.
Sure, there are other things you can do to increase capacity (like foster homes), but minimizing the length of time for animals at shelters is essential to maintaining capacity (and the health of the animals). The goal this is to make the exit from the building safe -- into either a loving adopted family, to a rescue group or safe shelter facility, or back to their owners - as quickly as possible.
Holding cats on "stray hold" so that they are unable to be adopted or transferred, and whose odds of being reclaimed by its owners are statistically zero, are unecesssarily driving up the amount of time they are in the shelter, increasing length of stay, taking up capacity, and thus the ability to save lives.
Let's say Animal Control brings in a momma cat and a litter of six, eight-week old kittens to the shelter. None of the cats has identification, and a neighbor says the momma has been living in the neighborhood for years but thought the kittens could be socialized and wanted them to go to the shelter. A solid plan.
Under current rules in the state of Missouri (will vary from state to state), all of the cats would have to be held for 5 days. Because of the age of the kittens, we would have to divide them up into pairs and now this group is taking up 4 kennels -- one for momma, three containing two kittens each. This is 20 kennel days being taken up when statistically there is less than a 1% chance someone is looking for them. And because we highly suspect (based on neighbor reports) that the kittens are community cats, the likelihood that these cats will be claimed by an owner are essentially ZERO.
If we eliminated hold times, the shelter could quickly alter the momma cat and send it to a barn home (or return her to her current "home", the neighborhood) and send the 6 kittens to an awaiting rescue immediately, or adopt out these cute, adorable kittens. Instead, under the current mandatory hold times, they must occupy 4 kennels for 5 days each while we were waiting "on hold" for an owner (that doesn't exist) to possibly reclaim them. Meanwhile, the kittens risk being exposed to disease that may exist in the shelter that their fragile immune systems may not be able to handle.
This type of policy doesn't increase life-saving.
Last week, the Shelter in Hillsborough County, FL became the poster child shelter for the discussion on mandatory hold times. In August, Maddie's Fund's Shelter Medicine program recommended that the shelter eliminate "unnecessary hold times". Florida doesn't have required hold times (shelters set their own), and Maddies was no doubt referring to the hold time for cats.
Let's make no mistake, the Hillsboro County shelter has its share of issues. In 2012, the live release rate for cats was 19%. But even there, eliminating the hold times makes sense.
Contrary to the statements that in such a VERY high kill shelter, the only way for cats to make it out alive is not for them to serve their required hold time so they might possibly be returned home. Their most likely route of the shelter alive is still through adoption or rescue.
Even in the Hilsborough County shelter, which saves less than 20% of its cats, 1200 cats were adopted in 2012 and 700 went to rescue. Only 101 cats were reunited with to their owners. So in a shelter that statistically represents the worst of the worst, a cat is 20x more likely to leave alive via adoption/rescue than by being reclaimed by its owner.
In Reno, NV, they are 43x more likely to leave by adoption than by RTO.
At Kansas City Pet Project, they are 86x more likely to leave by adoption or rescue than by RTO.
Mandatory hold times take adoption, and transfer to rescue groups, off the table for the required period in the HOPE that someone wil come in and reclaim their cat. However, statisically, a cat's most likely safe exit from the building is through rescue or adoption. Taking adoption/rescue off the table for any amount of time only decreases the cat's opportunities of getting out of the shelter safely.
If the goal is to save more lives, getting the cats onto the adoption floor faster (not slower) is the best way to maximize success. And mandatory hold times (and certainly increasing mandatory hold times) actually slow down the process of getting cats onto the adoption floor -- which is their most likely safe exit from the shelter whether the shelter is a high kill shelter or a no kill shelter.
To me, this is the most fundamental difference between a focus on "not killing" vs the focus on "saving them all" -- is that one is attempting to institute policies to prevent shelter deaths, while the other is trying to focus on maximizing positive outcomes. These are often congruent goals but not always, as sometimes efforts to eliminate killing, also hinder the ability to save lives.
A Common Sense Solution
There is of course legitimate concern that while the desire to save lives in public shelters is growing, there are still FAR too many shelters in the U.S. that would use the absence of hold times for cats as a reason/excuse/opportunity to immediately kill cats as they come through the doors. This is reasonable and sadly, even likely in many cases.
However, there is a practical option for this. My idea would be to create a "mandatory safe time" for which a cat has to be at the shelter before it can be killed (except for when it should be immediately euthanized - in the true sense of the word -for health reasons). However, instead of mandating that cats without identification be held only for owner reclaim during this time (which will happen for less than 1% of all cats), make them available for owner reclaim, adoption, or to transfer to rescue. Cats with some form of identification would be held for that period for reclaim by its owners.
The ability to move an animal to safety quickly will help shelters that are seeking to save lives by increasing their ability to lower length of stay (and thus, maximizing shelter capacity), while also maximizing the opportunities for cats in high kill shelters to find homes (through adoption or rescue) before their lives are terminated.
Advocates might argue that in these rare cases where an owner comes to reclaim their cat and the cat has already been adopted is a danger to the human/animal bond. It's a valid concern. While these cases would be very rare -- as not only do statistically zero percent of cats without ID get reunited with owners -- there is also the likelihood that if owners came looking for their cat, it would still be at the shelter, even if made instantly available for adoption.
While these very rare cases would be unfortunate, at least the owner would know their pet was in another loving home (or other rescue group) and at least not killed at the shelter. And the number of lives saved by maximizing the likelihood of likely positive outcomes may very well outweigh the unfortunate few, rare, and avoidable cases.
Meanwhile, I support the no kill movement's desire to not "blame" the public for animals coming into the shelter, and "overpopulation", etc. I believe in the public because for the most part, the public is good and are the adopters and volunteers who make life-saving possible. They have certainly shown this in our community.
However, how have we gotten to the point where every ounce of responsibility for people's lost pets is put squarely on the shoulders of the shelters? How is it that asking the public to do something so basic as to put tags, a collar or microchips on their cats so they can be reunited isn't a part of the discussion? This simple act would be their insurance policy for getting their pet back (as it is now) vs rehomed should it end up at the shelter. This would be a fairly easy educational campaign and would likely drive up the number of cats in compliance.
By having a time period where the animal cannot be killed, but can be saved (through adoption and rescue), you have not only offered the same protection from death in high kill shelters as current hold times, but also actually INCREASED its likelihood of being saved- - in both high kill and low kill shelters.
And isn't that the goal?
And this idea isn't based on only avoiding worst case scenerios, it's based on statistically consistent data from shelters of all types around the country. And if owners want to protect themselves from the possibility that their lost cat will be rehomed, then they can simply place tag and/or microchip their cat.
In spite of the best efforts, I'm convinced that we are not going to be able to legislate shelters into saving lives. In fact, in every single one of the 200+ communities that are saving 90% of the animals in their care, ALL of them got there not through legislating compassion, but by actually having the shelter run by smart, compassionate leaders.
Meanwhile, laws that are intended to stop heartless, incompetent shelters from killing animals quickly, are the same laws that also keep compassionate, caring shelter leaders from saving lives quickly.
And we don't have to sacrifice one to help the other when reasonable compromises exist.