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The Language of Cooperation

To start on the path toward reducing euthanasia, members of the Metro Denver Shelter Alliance first had to learn how to talk to each other

To start on the path toward reducing euthanasia, members of the Metro Denver Shelter Alliance first had to learn how to talk to each other

In the summer of 2000, local animal professionals in Denver came together to discuss how to reduce euthanasia in the metropolitan area. The meeting was packed with attendees, including representatives from private humane societies, animal control agencies, veterinary associations, feral cat organizations, and the area’s main purebred placement group.They came to the table with a ten-page agenda detailing what needed to happen in Denver to keep the city on the path towards curbing the need for euthanasia.

With energy high and the spirit of cooperation in the air, the groups sat down to talk.But when the discussion started, it became clear that an estimate of how many adoptable animals still faced euthanasia in Denver would not be easy to come by. Different organizations were working with different understandings of what the word “adoptable”actually meant, so adoption and euthanasia statistics were not comparable from agency to agency.

“An animal coming into the League with minor illnesses or treatable behavior problems is an adoptable animal for us,” says Bob Rohde, president of the Dumb Friends League, the city’s largest private shelter. “But other agencies are more limited in [the services] they can provide.”

The groups involved found themselves stymied by their different understandings of what an “adoptable” animal actually looked like. Did the category of “adoptable” include those animals with minor skin conditions? Good temperaments but major injuries? Treatable food aggression?

“The discussion was, ‘How do we get to zero euthanasia?’” says Martha Smith, president of All Breed Rescue Network. “But the discussion just devolved, because we realized we couldn’t even begin to talk about that until we were all using the same language.”

The Dream of a Common Language

Animal advocates all over the country are working to reduce euthanasia in their communities,and many cities have made steady progress.But others have foundered as energy has turned into bickering among organizations and agencies about where and how to seek funding; which programs and services are most likely to net results; and how to measure the progress toward the ultimate goal. Use of language—including terms like “no kill”and “adoptable”—has often been a major point of dispute, causing rifts between organizations and within communities that can last for years.

The coalition in Denver, however, was unwilling to see its desire to communicate spoiled by the lack of a common language.Many of the agencies and organizations working for animals in Denver have been stable for years, says Smith. “None of us are going anywhere,” she says,“so we better learn to talk to each other.”

In developing the terminology that all members of the Metro Denver Shelter Alliance would be using, the definitions task force tried to make their language as clear, straightforward, and accessible as possible. Thus animals coming into area shelters are now placed in one of three categories: adoptable, potentially adoptable, and unadoptable.

Instead of throwing their hands up in frustration, the organizations involved developed a “definitions task force”—a smaller group of representatives charged with creating a new glossary of standardized terms that all of the members of the alliance would use when communicating with each other,with constituents, and with the media.

Much of the legwork for the list of definitions had already been done internally by staff of the Dumb Friends League and the Humane Society of Boulder Valley. Heated language debates among staff members at the Boulder shelter date to as far back as 1996, when the organization reached a point of zero euthanasia of animals who had been labeled “adoptable,” says Jan McHugh-Smith, executive director. “You know, staff develop favorites, and so when you euthanize very rarely, the decisions are more difficult internally,” says McHugh-Smith. “We post our euthanasia list and we encourage staff to come to us with questions, and many of them do, and so we’d been working on some of our definitions of what an ‘adoptable’ animal is for a while.”

Both the Boulder and Denver shelters are in a position to treat animals for minor behavior and health problems, but the organizations recognized that their expertise and financial resources were far ahead of what was available to other animal protection groups in the Denver area.

In developing the terminology that all members of the Metro Denver Shelter Alliance would be using, the definitions task force tried to make their language as clear, straightforward, and accessible as possible.Thus animals coming into area shelters are now placed in one of three categories: adoptable, potentially adoptable, and unadoptable.

Three Categories, One Goal

An adoptable animal is now defined as one who is essentially in perfect condition when entering the facility: “Based on health and behavioral assessments; the canine or feline is determined to be healthy and friendly, and is a good candidate to be somebody’s lifelong companion.” No rehabilitation would be required in this case; the resource levels of the facility the animal has entered will not affect his categorization.

Animals who come into the shelter needing help with minor health or behavior problems prior to placement are categorized differently. These are the animals who, in the past, would have been classified as adoptable at shelters with high resource levels and as unadoptable at places unable to afford treatment for them; they will now be categorized as potentially adoptable at all organizations involved.

The definition the Alliance developed even seeks to recognize the varying abilities of organizations to treat health or behavior issues, making it clear that “potential” does not provide any guarantees. The new definition reads:“The canine or feline is not ready for a new home when it comes to the shelter, but may be with a reasonable commitment of time, effort,or medical care. The shelter’s ability to make that commitment is based on available resources. These canines or felines may include those too young or too shy, those who are sick or injured, and those whose former environment did not include acceptable behavior training.”

McHugh-Smith says she’s pleased with this new categorization because it’s clearer and fairer for the public, and also because it will demonstrate how much rehabilitation work her organization does for the animals who come into the Boulder Valley shelter.

Unadoptable will be defined this way: “The canine or feline is a danger to the public, other animals, or itself due to disease, injury, other infirmities, or behavioral reasons. Euthanasia is the most humane alternative for the canine or feline.”

These new classifications are designed to help paint a clearer picture of the homeless animal problem in Denver—for the sake of both public understanding and interagency cooperation.Too often, the euthanasia rate at one facility is compared to that of another—an exercise in futility if the organizations report their numbers differently, says Rohde. For example, one shelter may say it has reached a 100-percent adoption rate for all adoptable animals—but may count only those animals in perfect health and condition in that group. Another shelter may report it’s only reached half that number—but it may be counting animals with minor behavior and health problems as adoptable.

Building on the new definitions,members of the Denver Alliance can now calculate “save rates,” says Rohde. “Save rates” will derive from a universal reporting method: the total number of animals received minus the total number of animals euthanized (owner-requested euthanasias and animals who are dead on arrival are factored out of the calculation). The process will help clarify the true meaning of reported euthanasia rates, says Rohde, “and I was saying to some of the people from animal control, if people compare animal control to the League and see [that the League has] a lower euthanasia rate, it’ll be clear that the reason is money.”

The Words Preferred

Staff at the participating organizations have to learn to use the new language, and it is a gradual change, says McHugh-Smith. “Once we get more comprehensive statistics, we’re going to introduce ‘save rate’ and explain it to the public,” says McHugh-Smith. “We’ll gradually shift the paradigm to operating around ‘save rate’ instead of ‘100% placement of adoptables.’” The new language, she says,will also help her staff explain to relinquishers why their animals may or may not qualify as “adoptable.” It will enable them to talk to groups interested in transferring animals to Boulder about which animals can be placed.

In some communities, the word "rescue" has been divisive, but not in Denver—All Breed Rescue Network has always been supportive of the work shelters do, and has never used its own name to deride that work. The word "rescue" has never been used offensively, says Smith, so no one seems offended.

Certain words from the animal protection field were rejected outright by the task force. The group nixed “no kill” from their glossary; the list of accepted language instead includes definitions of “limited admission” and “open admission” shelters. The arguments ignited by the phrase have smoldered too long, and “we consider ‘no kill’ to be negative, destructive, judgmental, divisive, and dishonest,” says Martha Smith.

The coalition continues to use the word “rescue” to describe people or groups that help place animals but don’t maintain a central facility for housing them. In some communities, the word “rescue” has been divisive, but not in Denver—All Breed Rescue Network has always been supportive of the work shelters do, never using its own name to deride it. The word “rescue” has never been used offensively, says Smith, and so no one seems offended.

Too often, animal advocates are barred from achieving progress for animals because they’ve been unable to speak to the public with one consistent voice. But in Colorado, members of the Metro Denver Shelter Alliance are planning to approach homeless animal problems in their region together, and now they have a language that allows them to do so.

 

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