Give Me Shelter
How “Human Animal Support Services” Threatens the Lives of Animals
Microchipped and wearing a little pink harness, Nesa should have had her whole life ahead of her. Had El Paso Animal Services taken her in and scanned her for a microchip after she was found roaming the streets, she would have been reclaimed within 15 minutes. Instead, she was turned away by the municipal shelter; her finder told to release her back on the street. She was subsequently found dead.
Though Nesa died in an El Paso alleyway, her death had its genesis over 500 miles away in the headquarters of Austin Pets Alive (APA). It was there that the leadership of Austin’s sheltering establishment – Austin Pets Alive and Austin Animal Center – and others hatched a plan to manipulate intake and placement rates by abandoning the fundamental purpose – indeed the very definition – of a shelter: to provide a safety net of care for lost, homeless, and unwanted animals.
Under the APA policy, “Intakes of healthy strays and owner surrenders doesn’t exist anymore,” and there is “No kennel space for rehoming, stray hold or intake.” Instead, the community — whose taxes and donations already go to pay for shelters — is expected to pick up the slack (hence the term “community sheltering”).
Care for homeless and stray animals is left to chance: people who find animals are told to take them into their own homes until their families are located or leave them on the street. According to Austin Pets Alive, the “hope” is that the lost animal “finds its way back home.” Such hope is misplaced. Indeed, for Nesa and many others like her, it proves fatal.
HASS lacks evidence and relies on false assumptions.
The Austin Pets Alive assertion that dogs will find their homes without human intervention is based on a study that claims most are located, in some areas, within one mile of their home. Accordingly, Austin Pets Alive tells shelter administrators that “if a person who locates an animal is unable to hold on to it until the owner is located, encourage them to leave it where it is in hopes it finds its way back home. Our thinking is most lost animals are within 1,000 yards of their home.” Their thinking is wrong.
First, shelters cannot assume that lost animals are within a thousand yards of their home. The No Kill Advocacy Center analyzed detailed records of lost and found dogs in several communities. The average distance was roughly two miles (1.96 miles), with one shelter’s average being 3.2 miles. This is consistent with the study APA relies on, which found that the average distance was as high as 2.5 miles away in some areas. And while many dogs were within one mile of their home (which is still very far for a dog), others were four to five miles away.
Second, shelters cannot assume that lost animals will find their way home without human intervention. While the study showed where people picked up dogs, it did not reveal where they were going. The No Kill Advocacy Center’s review of reclaim data shows that the longer dogs were missing, the further away from their homes they tended to be found, precisely the opposite of APA assumptions. Moreover, the study APA relies on showed that roughly half and, in the case of dogs without microchips, more than half were not reclaimed; many did not have homes to go back to. Without a shelter to rehome them when not reclaimed, these dogs may stay homeless. Austin Pets Alive admits that,
There is just an unknown number of animals that are falling through the cracks out there in the community and we just don’t have a really good understanding of how many that is and if it’s a normal number or more. So it would be really great if we could figure that out.
Aside from admission of ignorance, APA’s belief that there is a “normal” amount of animals falling through the cracks is an admission of failure. The goal of a shelter is to treat all animals as individuals and protect all animals, not just some of them.
Third, regardless of how far away from home they are, lost animals face risks. There are many factors, for example, that might impact how likely a free-roaming dog is to be struck by a vehicle: time of day and traffic level, whether a dog is roaming in open space or on a busy road, in an urban area or a rural one, or the level of anxiety and fear a dog is exhibiting that might result in poor judgment. These are not necessarily related to how far the dog is from their home or if they even have one. Nonetheless, under HASS, shelters are directed to treat all free-roaming dogs the same and leave them to whatever fate might befall them.
It is irresponsible to promote a policy that has great potential to harm dogs with no objective evidence that it will help them.
HASS fails to meet the public’s expectations for humane animal services.
During the pandemic, U.S. animal shelters fell into one of two camps. The first were those that lived up to their mission, stayed open as an essential service (with policies to protect staff and the public, such as masks, social distancing, and virtual adoptions), and met their obligations to residents and animals.
The second were those that closed their doors, turned animals away, and abandoned the debt and duties they owed animals and residents. These pounds did less work, cared for fewer animals, and all but ceased their adoption programs, even though it increased animal suffering. As a result, animals were left on the streets, including a blind pregnant cat found by one couple walking in circles: “It was just heartbreaking... They told us to release the cat.” Through HASS, Austin Pets Alive seeks to make that permanent.
This allows shelters to appear to be doing a better job than they are. Because shelters are turning animals away and published statistics only measure outcomes for animals taken in, they claim higher placement or “save” rates without doing the work necessary to achieve No Kill success in earnest. But the approach proved unpopular with the public, and Austin Pets Alive knew it.
During a strategy session, Austin Pets Alive admitted that “people are already starting to complain about lack of infrastructure to support lost and found and abandoned pets during COVID.” To prevent shelters from providing that infrastructure once the pandemic ended, Austin Pets Alive told partners that they needed to move fast because people’s expectations that shelters would do the job entrusted to them would return once the pandemic ended.
HASS hides poor performance by turning animals away and not counting their subsequent deaths in statistics.
Following HASS, Austin Animal Center, the city’s shelter, began turning dogs and cats away. Other shelters have, too. When a Good Samaritan found an abandoned dog tied up, she tried to take the dog to Miami-Dade Animal Services (MDAS). MDAS staff told her to “put [him] back where you found it, and hopefully it’ll go back home.” But there was no home to go back to. Leaving him tied up would have meant his starvation. MDAS leadership, however, was unmoved. They “confirmed that the shelter has instructed people who find stray animals on the streets to leave them in the area where they discovered them.”
Through tears, the finder said, “How am I going to just put [him] back in the middle of the street? I’m not going to do that.” Had she followed the cruel tenet of the HASS program, he might have shared Nesa’s fate. But that death would have been rendered invisible as dogs like Nesa are not counted in statistics.
Not one of the shelters that has embraced HASS keeps records of the number of animals turned away or how many end up dead after they do so. Many also hide statistics showing HASS results in lower intake rates, higher stray numbers, and higher DOAs (animals found on the street brought to the shelter or sanitation departments “dead on arrival”). Shelter Animals Count, a national shelter data reporting clearinghouse hosted by Maddie’s Fund, changed its policies to allow individual shelters to determine what data is publicly available and, consequently, hidden.
HASS reverses 50 years of progress in lifesaving and reducing the number of stray dogs roaming American cities.
HASS redefines failure and animal abandonment as success. It defies the public’s humane expectation that their tax and philanthropically-funded animal shelters have a moral duty to care for the neediest and most vulnerable animal companions. And it reverses 50 years of progress by threatening to return cities to the status quo of the 1970s when loose dogs were a familiar sight.
To overcome public complaints, Austin Pets Alive suggested that municipal governments could enact a “reduction in municipal shelter operating budgets” since shelters would be taking in fewer animals, caring for fewer animals, and not having to find them homes.
That Austin Pets Alive would call for less money for animal services in their communities, a lower profile for the agencies that are supposed to care for the most vulnerable of animals, and less innovation instead of more, is not only self-defeating; it represents both a failure of leadership and imagination. And that such a retreat should occur at this moment, when the American public has shown itself more enthusiastic and generous in its embrace of animal welfare than ever before, adds to the tragedy of wasted potential. Just as our fellow Americans are standing up, APA would have our nation’s shelters stand down.