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April 01, 2021

Animal shelters, control officers aim to be more community-centric

Experts discuss the evolving role of a shelter, who it supports, and how it operates
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Kristen Hassen, like many people who work in animal shelters, knows pet owners don’t relinquish their animals because they want to. Finding solutions to this issue while dealing with overpopulated shelters has been difficult. However, the increase in fostering associated with the COVID-19 pandemic has allowed shelter leaders to do something different.

“We are trying to turn the whole community into an animal shelter,” said Hassen, director of American Pets Alive, a national organization whose goal is to save animals in shelters. “We see the role of animal services evolving. The shelter becomes a last line of defense, but really, the shelter becomes one solution and not the solution.”

JAVMA News spoke with several animal services and shelter leaders about the layered challenges ahead related to the eviction crisis, as well as how the industry is changing the way it interacts with communities and having essential conversations related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

DAS officer returns a dog to its owners
Dallas Animal Services provided care for pets of owners who were evacuated because of Hurricane Laura in August 2020. Here, a DAS officer returns a dog to its owners along with pet food and supplies outside a DAS vehicle. (Courtesy of Dallas Animal Services)

The HASS model

Hassen oversees the Human Animal Support Services project, which is a widespread effort to redefine animal services facilitated by American Pets Alive. In late March, the HASS project had 38 pilot shelters across the U.S. and Canada. The project also involves 700 industry experts, from animal welfare leaders to shelter workers to veterinarians. One of the goals of the HASS project is to gather research and create tools aimed at helping animal support services.

Humane society officer cuddles a puppy
A San Diego Humane Society law enforcement officer cuddles a puppy that was found on the street. (Courtesy of American Pets Alive)

The following elements are important parts of the HASS project:

  • Establishing a program to successfully reunify lost pets with their owners.
  • Providing pet support services that give owners access to medical, food, housing, and behavioral support when it is needed.
  • Providing re-homing support so pet owners who can no longer keep their animals can safely re-home them without the pet entering a shelter.
  • Reworking how the physical shelter facility is perceived so it becomes a place solely for emergency care or short-term housing in urgent situations.
  • Modifying how field support or animal control officers provide support, information, access to care, and other resources to the community.
  • Building partnerships locally among human service providers, veterinarians, and rescue groups so the family is treated as a unit.
  • Using a foster-centric model through which animals are placed directly in foster homes hours or days after entering the shelter.

Marginalized communities and people with lower incomes deserve animals as much as wealthy people, and yet, that has not been the way that shelters have worked. What does it look like to rethink how we support communities and have happy families with pets?

Dr. Jyothi V. Robertson, a board-certified shelter medicine veterinarian and owner of JVR Shelter Strategies

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in animal welfare

Dr. Jyothi V. Robertson, a board-certified shelter medicine veterinarian, is a principal consultant for the consulting firm Adisa and owns JVR Shelter Strategies. She spends a lot of time thinking about equity issues.

“Marginalized communities and people with lower incomes deserve animals as much as wealthy people, and yet, that has not been the way that shelters have worked,” said Dr. Robertson, who is the chair of the AVMA Animal Welfare Committee. “What does it look like to rethink how we support communities and have happy families with pets?”

DAS officers with a dog
Dallas Animal Services officers work with the Dallas Meals on Wheels program to provide transportation for pets of program clients to local veterinary clinics for basic care. (Photo by Jill English, DAS volunteer)

She said doing internal anti-racism work and examining implicit biases and the systems that support those biases are important.

For example, ask questions such as the following: Is it supporting the welfare of animals to remove them from a lower-income area and then transfer them to a higher-income area for adoption? Is it right to view something as cruelty or write a citation if assistance or resources may be better for the animal and the pet owner?

Dr. Robertson, who is Indian, has always talked about diversity, but the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020 sparked her to have more conversations about equity in shelter systems.

“There are many different organizations that have very stringent adoption requirements, and some people can’t meet those, and then you wonder why there are backyard breeding and strays,” she said. “People aren’t given the opportunity to use the shelter to adopt or have a relationship with people in the shelter when there are so many barriers. Institutional structures have caused a lot of systemic problems. We are just opening our awareness to it in animal welfare now.”

According to recent research, there are biases in animal welfare and adoption. The company Companions and Animals for Reform and Equity Inc. and Harvard University’s Project Implicit, with funding from Nestlé Purina PetCare, surveyed about 1,700 people working in companion animal welfare to assess racial and socioeconomic attitudes. That research found there is a moderate to strong implicit preference for adoptions by white people over Black and Hispanic people, as well as a preference for wealthy individuals versus poor individuals.

James Evans, CEO and creative director of Companions and Animals for Reform and Equity Inc.—whose mission is to bring diverse voices to the animal welfare industry while also advocating for a more inclusive path to pet adoption—has seen the bias firsthand.

“White supremacy is everywhere,” said Evans, who is Black. “We should expect to see it in animal welfare, and we should be looking at this as a moment to do some work in the field. … Animal welfare folks often ask, ‘Can this person afford their pet?’ But can they (shelters) afford the pet? Shelters and rescues aren’t running off one income. Even the largest organizations are dependent on donations, and yet, too often, if an underserved person comes in to adopt, we say we’re not sure if you can afford a pet. We haven’t left our colonial roots at all. … Sometimes when people who look like me walk into an animal shelter, they’re asked if they have a prison record.”

Evans’ firm, Illume Communications, worked for nearly a decade with the Humane Society of the United States. The firm was a principal architect in the HSUS Pets for Life program, a project promoting pet owner support and social justice in animal welfare.

Companions and Animals for Reform and Equity Inc. launched last year and is offering diversity, equity, and inclusion training or counseling to people in the animal welfare community. The company is also working to establish CARE centers. These centers will be led by local community leaders who are Black and other people of color.

Amanda Arrington, senior director of Pets for Life, said the program has been operating as a support service for years. It has identified two areas where private practice veterinarians, who may not be involved in shelters, can help: by offering incremental amounts of care and by improving cultural competencies.

“There is long-term work to be done, but in the immediate term, be informed on issues of inequity and understand that a lack of financial means does not equate to a lack of love,” Arrington said. “Consider extending empathy beyond the animal. Over the last few decades in companion animal welfare, we have highlighted the animal, and we are now waking up as a movement and as an industry to the need for bringing the whole picture into focus. It doesn’t mean taking the animal out of focus, but we have to understand the people and the community connected to the animal to make our work more effective and successful.”

Pets for Life released a Sustainability Guide (PDF) in 2019. Among other things, the guide discusses how to communicate and engage on topics of racial and economic injustice—and why these topics matter to animal welfare.

ASPCA representative with 2 dogs in front of food distribution truck
As part of its COVID-19 response effort, the ASPCA operated regional pet food distribution centers in several cities to provide more than 1,900 tons of emergency food for dogs, cats, and horses. (Courtesy of ASPCA)

Animal Control

The role of an animal control officer or field support officer in many areas across the U.S. has historically included an enforcement angle. But some departments, including the Human Animal Support Services pilot shelters, are shifting away from a punitive model to one that focuses on support.

“It is a different approach,” said Hassen, the project overseer. “The new role of animal control addresses root causes.”

Cat cared for at one of the ASPCA Primary Pet Care clinics
A cat is cared for at one of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ Primary Pet Care clinics. (Courtesy of ASPCA)

For example, there has to be a root cause if a dog gets picked up as a stray multiple times. Instead of writing a citation, officers could look to identify that root cause and, if it turns out the root cause is an unfenced yard, help the dog’s owners with building a fence.

Dr. Maria Sabio-Solacito, senior veterinarian at the County of Los Angeles Department of Animal Care and Control, said changing how field officers operate within the community has been a cultural shift, but the officers are more welcome these days.

LA DACC has made several changes, including asking officers to try to facilitate the return of animals to owners in the field so animals are never taken into a shelter and the owner doesn’t have to pay a fee.

“After a few months of doing it, we have noticed a huge difference in how people receive us,” Dr. Sabio-Solacito said. “We are not just an enforcement agency anymore, we are a part of the community.”

LA County Animal Care is not a Human Animal Support Services pilot shelter. However, the organization is involved in working groups for the project.

Edward Jamison, director of Dallas Animal Services, which is a pilot shelter with HASS, said while change is happening in Dallas, it is difficult because of the city’s history. Antoinette Brown was mauled to death by a pack of dogs in 2016, which led to a call for more enforcement by animal control and several structural changes, including the hiring of Jamison.

Jamison said that in the last several months, Dallas Animal Services has put an emphasis on return-to-owner programs. To decrease human-to-human contact during the pandemic, DAS set up a call center through the nonprofit Spay Neuter Network to return calls by phone rather than DAS making all in-person stops. Emergency calls are still responded to in person, but low-priority calls are handled over the phone. He said the triage call system has significantly helped in lowering intake of animals into the shelter.

“Culture doesn’t change overnight,” he said. “It is a lot harder to work through. People remember the bad so much more than the good.”

Public safety is still a top priority for DAS, and, in fact, dog bites actually went down by 33% in the first quarter of the fiscal year, Jamison said.

DAS officer drops off a pet
A Dallas Animal Services officer drops off a pet belonging to a Meals on Wheels program client at a local veterinary clinic for basic services. (Courtesy of DAS)

Evictions

An estimated 19 million pets are living in homes in the U.S. at risk of eviction or foreclosure because of the pandemic, according to data released by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in December.

At press time, there was a federal eviction moratorium in effect. However, there is some confusion and misinterpretation around who can be evicted and for what, even with the additional protections in place, said Arrington of the Pets for Life program.

“Renters can still be evicted,” she said. “A dog barking can still cause an eviction.”

It is important for shelter workers to know about the federal moratorium and its various requirements, Arrington added.

The order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a CDC declaration form for tenants facing potential eviction are available at the CDC website. Regional Housing Legal Services, a nonprofit law firm, provides state moratorium information. HASS, HSUS, and the Association of Animal Welfare Advancement also released a Keeping Families Together Eviction Toolkit that offers resources and information.

Several organizations and shelters have developed foster safety net programs or temporary boarding programs for pet owners who are facing eviction or housing insecurity, including LifeLine Animal Project in Atlanta, Pet Peace of Mind, Pact for Animals, and the Soar Initiative. And the ASPCA has donated $7.5 million to help pet owners and animal welfare groups through its COVID-19 Relief and Recovery Initiative.

“We’re trying to anticipate things that are likely to happen, but there is vast uncertainty,” said Rebecca Guinn, director and founder of Lifeline Animal Project, which is a pilot shelter with HASS. “But we are a county animal shelter, so we are used to not being able to predict.”

Despite industrywide efforts, there are challenges ahead, but Hassen sees potential and is positive about the future beyond the pandemic.

“This has been a terrifying moment, but the silver lining is that we are in this together,” Hassen said. “If we come together as a united voice, we will move forward.”