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A Common Cause Meets an Uncommon Solution

The Asilomar Accords have become known as the peace talks of the sheltering movement. Now it’s time to put those talks into action.

The Asilomar Accords have become known as the peace talks of the sheltering movement. Now it’s time to put those talks into action.

Healthy. Treatable. Untreatable. Rehabilitatable.

For years we've asked members of the public to navigate the nuanced language of animal homelessness and sheltering, expecting them to understand overnight a vocabulary that’s taken decades to evolve.

But they’re still confused, and it’s no wonder. Even people within animal protection haven’t been able to agree on the most basic terms, volleying back and forth about what they mean, how they should be applied, and where they should be publicized.

The result is all too predictable: story after story in the local and national media pitting one organization against another and highlighting wildly different euthanasia statistics—while failing to explore the economic and cultural complexities that drive those differences.

But with the recent development of a document called the Asilomar Accords, all that could change. Born out of a meeting of the minds at a retreat in Pacific Grove, California, the Asilomar Accords represent what local and national animal welfare leaders hope is the beginning of a kinder era in which collaboration supersedes division and local organizations strengthen their presence by raising a collective voice for animals.

“It really is saying that we’re not going to use terminology that’s hurtful of one another,” says Martha Armstrong, senior vice president for Domestic Animal Programs at The HSUS. “The Asilomar Accords group decided that rather than argue over language that was divisive—like ‘kill rate’ or ‘euthanasia rate’—we’re going to focus on the positive and talk about our ‘save rates.’ ”

Representatives of all factions of animal sheltering, care, and control were in attendance at the Asilomar Conference Grounds last August. From the national level were leaders of The HSUS, the ASPCA, Maddie’s Fund, American Humane, and the Society of Animal Welfare Administrators. Local representatives included directors of private humane societies and public animal control agencies in Colorado, Hawaii, Utah, Iowa, Arizona, Washington, California, and Indiana.

The conversations began cautiously, as people who had long ago drawn lines in the sand over divisive phrases like “no kill” and “turnaway shelter” proceeded hesitantly through the facilitated discussion. Soon, though, participants dared to tread on treacherous ground, letting their honest opinions bubble to the surface.

Discussions on such topics usually devolve when the real dialogue begins. At Asilomar, miraculously, they didn’t. What could have been just another sparring session became instead a kind of melting pot of differing philosophies and approaches that progressed far beyond anyone’s initial expectations.

“I was definitely surprised by the openness, the willingness of the various players to try to forget past histories and basically check their luggage at the door to really focus on what’s best for the animals,” says Richard Avanzino, president of Maddie’s Fund, a grant-giving organization in Alameda, California.

Maybe the time was ripe, or maybe the face-to-face forum was fertile ground for communication. “When you have to look each other in the eye, that makes a tremendous amount of difference,” says participant Jane McCall, executive director of the Dubuque Humane Society in Iowa.

The result is a tangible, written document that the Asilomar group hopes will make a tremendous difference, too. Outlined in the document are 14 guiding principles of collaboration; a list of concrete definitions for words like “healthy” and “treatable”; and a statistical reporting template that local organizations can use to measure the extent of the homeless animal problem communitywide.

The beauty of the uniform reporting system, of course, is consistency. If every agency in a given area reports intake and euthanasia numbers the same way, the theory goes, it will be easier to identify why some organizations’ adoption rates are lower than others—and presumably easier to appeal for more resources. An animal control agency that takes in 10,000 animals on a $1 million budget, for example, is not going to be as well-staffed or well-equipped as a private organization that has the same budget but takes in only 3,000 animals—a distinction that will be apparent under the system set out by the Asilomar Accords.

“In the past what we’ve seen is that organizations that have had the terrible task of having to kill unwanted pets got criticized and blamed …” says Avanzino. “And we’re saying it’s really the community that has to shoulder the obligation to make for a better world; it’s not one agency by itself. ... And if an agency really isn’t doing what it should be, nobody should take comfort in basically pointing the finger and thinking that’s the only place for blame.”

Among the guiding principles in the Asilomar Accords is a special emphasis on the formation of community coalitions of the sort that have already been developed in several other communities, most notably Denver. Composed of shelters, breed adoption groups, veterinary associations, and other Denver-area groups with a stake in finding solutions to animal homelessness, the Metro Denver Shelter Alliance has become a model for collaboration.

Now other local participants in the Asilomar Accords are bringing the concept back to their own communities. In Seattle, a community with a “pretty wholesome working environment” for animal protection organizations, there are still groups promoting their own agendas by painting a negative picture of other agencies, says Nancy McKenney, CEO of the Humane Society of Seattle/King County. And the community is still lacking in real area-wide statistics and measurement tools, she says.

The new Asilomar documents are a good “baby step” toward solving those issues, says McKenney, who is in the embryonic stages of forming a coalition in her area. The documents lend weight and credibility to the process, she says. “I think this has a lot of potential positive repercussions in showing the communitywide statistics and in showing that groups are getting together to try to look at the problem and actually obtain some more concrete information,” she says, “as opposed to some of the more emotional rhetoric that tends to occur.”

Because they must take in animals in varying behavioral and physical states, animal control agencies often perform the most euthanasia—and therefore may be skeptical of a document that requires them to report all their numbers alongside those of better-funded agencies, says Belinda Lewis, director of Fort Wayne Animal Care and Control in Indiana. Ideally, however, the statistics will be used to show not how many animals one agency is euthanizing but how many homeless animals the community is generating and sending to shelters in the first place, she says.

“In the coalition type of approach, you’re not looking at euthanasia at the animal control agency—you’re looking at euthanasia in the entire community,” says Lewis. “And the theory behind Asilomar is not pointing fingers at one agency who, while they may do their best to [head] in the right direction, still has to face the limits that they have. So if in fact a coalition is true to the Asilomar nature and is honest in its information and its direction, then the coalition becomes the defender of the animal control agency.”

In other words, consistent reporting—when adopted by all sides of the spectrum in a kind of team approach—will make it “socially unacceptable” to engage in name-calling and derogatory behavior, says John Snyder, senior director of Companion Animals and Equine Protection for The HSUS.

Gathering around the table for peace talks is no small feat in communities with a history of feuding. But the Asilomar Accords and the alliances in Denver and San Francisco—and, most recently, Chicago and Monterey—are evidence that nothing is impossible.

The diversity of the Asilomar group was both “painful and helpful,” says Avanzino. “Who wants to change what they’re doing? Everybody likes what they’re doing; otherwise, they wouldn’t be doing it that way,” he says. “And so when we come together and we are put into a position where we’re making compromises and trying to develop a consensus and modifying what we’ve done in the past, it’s not terribly comfortable. But the goal is to make for a better society.”

All the Asilomar participants stress that the agreement is merely the first of many steps—and that real change has to grow organically from the ground up. “What will really keep this grounded and make this work is if it’s not just the national talking heads discussing it,” says Armstrong. “It’s going to have to be applied in the local community.”

To read the Asilomar Accords and download a copy of the statistical reporting template, visit www.asilomaraccords.org.

 

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