Last week, representatives in Wisconsin heard the first round of testimony on bill AB487/SB450. The bill is pretty straightforward in that it tackles two main issues;
1) It allows for dogs seized for crimes against animals (eg dogfighting) to be potentially rehomed by animal welfare groups and
2) Decreases the stray hold times for all animals entering the shelter from 7 days (which is the longest mandated stray-hold period in the country) to 4 days.
Many Wisconsin shelters support these changes including the Bay Area Humane Society, Elmbrook Humane Society, Milwaukee Area Domestic Animal Control Commission (MADACC) Sheboygan County Humane Society and Wisconsin Humane Society. Best Friends Animal Society has also been supportive of this proposal -- and Best Friends has particularly drawn extremely harsh criticism from some factions in animal welfare.
While the first point of the bill, allowing victims of cruelty to be found homes, is not controversial, the controversy stems from the lowering of the stray hold time for animals. Best Friends claims that lowering the stray hold time will better enable shelters to get animals out the front door -- opponents say that decreasing the hold times will enable kill shelters to kill animals more quickly.
While both groups are technically right, based on the actual data and personal experience in leadership of an open admission no kill shelter, I think the law change to decrease stray hold times will SIGNIFICANTLY increase the ability for shelters to save lives and support the bill in its entirety.
For anyone that needs clarification, the "Stray Hold" is the period of time (usually required by city or state code) in which a shelter must "hold" an animal so it can be reunited with its owner. Most states hold periods are either 3 or 5 days. During this time a pet may ONLY be returned to the pets owner and MAY NOT be adopted to a new home or transferred to another organization -- or euthanized (unless it must be for medical reasons).
Stray Hold Periods and Length of Stay
I want to start with the acknowledgement that often seems to get overlooked in this discussion: Running an open-admission no-kill shelter is extremely hard work. Every open-admission shelter, many of which are still running out of archaic, small, shelters, is in a constant challenge of having a limited amount of time & space. No shelter has an infinite amount of space -- so getting animals OUT of the shelter is critical to make room for incoming animals.
This is one reason that I have been a strong proponent of the importance of managing length of stay as an important factor in lifesaving. And have even written and spoke at conferences about tips to decrease length of stay.
Indeed, many of the top-performing open-admission shelters in the country have very low average length of stay. In Williamson County, TX, their average length of stay is roughly about 14 days. Kansas City Pet Project is approximately 15 days. Petaluma, CA is less than 10 days. Getting animals into successful outcomes quickly is essential for lifesaving success.These shelters (among other successful shelters) focus less on "not killing" animals and more on SAVING them - which means creating successful outcomes quickly for the animals that come into the shelter.
However, holding animals in the shelter for too long can begin to work against this managing length of stay.
Let's share an oversimplified example. Let's say you have a shelter that has kennel space for 200 dogs, and on average, every day, that shelter gets 20 dogs in. In order to make the math work at the shelter, the average length of stay has to be 10 days or the shelter will be out of kennels.
So, a shelter with a stray hold time of 3 days will have an average of 7 days to find an adoption or rescue outcome for each dog, while a shelter with a 7 day stray hold has only 3 days to create that same positive outcome.
And while this is oversimplified, the realities of the time/space limitation are real. And the fact remains that a shelter is far more likely to be successful if they have 7 days to find an adopter or rescue placement vs 3 days - so shortening the amount of time on stray hold has consistently proven to be very helpful in increasing the ability of a shelter to save lives.
How long is the right amount of time to give owners a chance to reclaim their pet?
Opinions on this vary - and differ pretty greatly between dogs and cats. For cats, only roughly 1% of cats are ever returned to an indoor home. Many cats that come to shelter actually don't have an "indoor" home, and instead live in the community. So while there are some ownership rights issues that owners should be given an opportunity to reclaim their lost cat, the reality is that if a cat comes into a shelter in the US without a collar or microchip, its odds are statistically nearly 0% of being returned home. Based on this data, there is growing support among shelter managers for very short, or even non-existent hold times for cats that do not have a form of identification.
For dogs, the answer is slightly more clear.
Back in 2013, a group of shelter leaders in California met to put together a list of best practices in regards to life-saving practices in shelters across the state. One of the many topics that was covered in their highly detailed white paper is the notion of stray hold times.
Of particular note was that in California, a new law that increased the stray hold time for shelters from 3 days to 4 days increased the return to owner numbers by only 3 percentage points. Meanwhile, the study also notes that 80% of all pets that are returned to owner in California shelters are returned within the first 4 days. The white paper group didn't reach a consensus, but generally favored shorter holding times for animals without identification -- but longer hold times for animals that came in with identification:
“Shorter holding periods for live release to an adopter or rescue group in the absence of identification will create an additional incentive for owners to make sure the pet is wearing identification. Knowing that a pet with identification will be held longer in the shelter before being adopted or transferred could motivate some people to take this important step for the safety of their animals and for the benefit of the community. Shelters incur significant expenses – and utilize limited holding space – when they hold dogs for the presumed owner who never comes to claim their pet.”
The finding for the majority of animals being reclaimed prior to a 4 day hold period is not unique to California. In Wisconsin, Milwaukee Area Domestic Animal Control Commission (MADACC) is currently under Wisconsin’s 7 day stray hold period. However, only 1% of all animals that enter their shelter are reclaimed by their owner (RTO) in days 5-7. So, in other words, 99% of all the animals that enter MADACC will be just as likely to be returned to their owner with a 4 day hold period v the 7 day hold period.
However, with a four day hold period, literally thousands of animals will be given three additional days being available for adoption or transfer to rescue - instead of sitting in the shelter for 3 days with minimal likelihood of being returned home and ZERO possibility of being adopted or transferred to a rescue group.
Similarly, at KC Pet Project, where Missouri has a mandatory 5 day hold time,86% of our total RTOs happen within our 5 day hold window. Of those, 87% happen by day 3, 96% by day four, with only 4% occurring on day 5. So with each passing day after day 3, a dog in our care has a rapidly decreasing likelihood of finding its original home. In fact, after a dog is in our care for four days, it has a 4% chance of still being returned to its owner, but a 96% chance of being adopted out or transferred to another organization. Keeping the dog extra time will do little to up the percentages of RTO, but reduce the amount of time for finding other placement.
Based on this information it seems abundantly clear that dogs should be held at least three days, but likely not more than 5 days, because as time passes, the likelihood of a dog’s owner being found diminish rapidly and dogs end up assuming space in a shelter with very little opportunity for any potential outcome until the stray hold is up. If we want shelters to really focus on saving lives, we must acknowledge that statistically after day 4, a shelter's focus needs to shift away from being hyper-focused on a pet returning home with maximum focus given to finding that pet a new home. Allowing shelters to put pets up for adoption sooner will increase the time, and thus likelihood, of a pet being found a home through adoption.
So why the ire at Best Friends?
So, if statistically most animals are returned home by day 3 – and increases beyond 3 days only result in nominal increases in RTOs – why is it that several individuals have targeted their ire at Best Friends for supporting a 4 day hold period for strays that would put Wisconsin in line with nearly all other states in this regard?
Here is, I think, a complete list of arguments:
1) Decreasing the hold time will allow high kill shelters the opportunity to kill animals more quickly. One example that is given is of a high-kill shelter whose shelter director thinks "killing is kindness" and under the new law would be able to euthanize after day 4 instead of having to wait until after day 7.
While this is in theory a true concern, the reality here is that if a shelter director would rather kill animals than try to save lives, then statistically very few animals will be saved by keeping the longer hold time. The problem here isn't the hold time, and isn't Best Friends' stance on the hold time, its in the behavior of the regressive shelter director that thinks killing is kindness. Until that director is replaced, the killing will continue regardless of the hold period.
2) The opinion that there should be a two-tiered hold period. I want to stop and talk about this for a minute because it's a relatively new concept -- and a good one. Essentially, a two-tiered hold period would, for instance, allow a pet to be held for four days for potential RTO, then, on days 5-7 allow the pet to be adopted out to a new owner or transferred to rescue - but NOT euthanized prior to the 7 days. While there is merit to the concept, it is not without its challenges. And it's a new enough idea that it's unclear if any state or city has ever adopted this type of hold period.
In many years of working animal policy, I can say with absolute certainty that if you hope to pass a new law, you almost always have to compromise to get something better. In this case, when talking with several folks in Wisconsin, there has been absolutely no support for this two-tiered system. So, instead of pushing trying to push for a concept that has no chance at passing, Best Friends (and others) have tried to promote a shorter hold period that would be BETTER than what is there. This shouldn't draw ire....it should be applauded.
3) I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that some of the adversaries to Best Friends are people with zero experience running open admission shelters. These people are merely keyboard advocates trying to make a name for themselves by grandstanding on this topic and bashing a solid organization like Best Friends, which has become a leading voice and practitioner in the no kill movement. I will say that I have very little interest in grandstanding -- and very little use for those who do it -- especially when it involves simply spewing a lot of rhetoric bashing an organization that does a lot to help animals. This type of behavior hurts animals, doesn't help them.
My personal opinion is that Wisconsin SHOULD pass AB487/SB450 – by decreasing the hold periods to a very reasonable 4 days, it will most definitely help compassionate shelter directors to decrease their length of stay to support their ability to save more lives.While I acknowledge that for a few very regressive shelter directors this may give them the ability to kill animals more quickly, it is imperative that these leaders be replaced with compassionate leaders regardless of the outcome of this bill. And currently, there is ZERO evidence that extending hold periods increases overall lifesaving -- while there is abundant evidence that decreasing length of stay is imperative to lifesaving.
And while a multi-tiered hold period may still be a preferred long-term approach, preventing progressive change should not be stopped because it is deemed to be “not perfect”. While the idea should continue to be presented as an opportunity to provide a bigger safety net for animals, it should not prevent a positive change to help shelters save more lives while we wait for the idea to gain acceptance.