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Fireworks? Crowds? I'm Outta Here!

Who they are: The staff of Prince George’s County Animal Management Division in Forestville, Maryland

What they do: Faye Logan and Adina Howard cross-check descriptions of lost animals with animals in the shelter, load photos and descriptions of found animals to the shelter website, and work with owners searching for missing pets

How it came to be: In 2000, Rodney Taylor lobbied successfully for funding to hire a full-time staffer to reunite pets with their owners

Why it matters: The animal shelter is the first place the public turns to when searching for missing pets—and, in many cases, the last chance for a family reunion

How it's helped: Between 75 and 100 matches are made each month, up from only 10 to 15 before the program started

In the rockets’ red glare, pets disappear in thin air. But over the Fourth of July—and year round—a Maryland shelter is helping them find their way home.

July 3, 2005: It’s a hot, hazy day in the Washington area, and all around the nation’s capital, people are gearing up for the Fourth of July. Lines at the supermarkets swell as people stock up on charcoal, wieners, and beer. Yards smell of cut grass and echo with the sounds of kids yelling and leaping through sprinklers. The Beltway around town jams up as tourists head in for the fireworks and locals head out to the beaches. And though it’s not the Fourth yet, people can already smell the smoke and hear the noise from the smallscale fireworks being shot off in neighborhoods all over town: bottle rockets, sparklers, Roman candles, jumping jacks.

People can hear them, and so can all the animals who share their spaces. Some of those animals are wild ones, such as the terrified squirrels and birds who wonder why the Battle of Gettysburg is being reenacted under their tree. Others are closer still: Cats and dogs hole up in basements and under stairs, hoping for the noise to stop. And in the D.C. suburb of Hyattsville, Maryland, Rusty, an old rottweiler out in her backyard to do some business, decides that all these terrible noises and smells indicate one thing: Time to go.

Rusty is just one dog, but her story is typical of many pets on the Fourth of July. They don’t know why the world seems to be coming to an end. They don’t know the history of the United States and why we feel the need to celebrate that history by making giant firebursts in the sky. And while they appreciate the plenitude of grilled meats available, they could pretty much take or leave the rest of the hullabaloo. Quite often, they choose to leave it.

While most other people are preparing for a weekend of fun in the sun, staff of the Prince George’s County Animal Management Division in Forestville, Maryland, are preparing for what they usually experience in the weeks surrounding the holiday: A massive influx of pets gone wild.

Most shelters see an increase in lost animals around the Fourth of July, but what’s exceptional about the animal management team in Forestville is their success rate in reuniting those animals with their owners. They actually have a staffer, Faye Logan, whose entire job focuses on making matches between lost reports and the animals in the kennels and cattery. And she even has a backup person in Adina Howard, who helps her make matches and fills in when Logan is out.

The county’s approach goes against the grain of sheltering trends, says Kate Pullen, director of Animal Sheltering Issues at The HSUS. At a time when many private and municipal shelters are scaling back their lost-and-found services, Prince George’s County has invested its resources into making sure its shelter continues to help pets who—whether due to an owner’s carelessness or sheer misfortune—are lost.

Many shelters have started leaving owners to their own devices when it comes to finding their pets, says Pullen—a decision that’s all too understandable in today’s litigious climate where owners have been known to sue agencies for placing or euthanizing their missing animals, she adds. But owners who are unaware of a shelter’s hands-off policy may file lost-pet reports and then halt their own searches, believing their work is done.

“They don’t realize how many animals are coming in. They don’t realize that their description may not match what the staff sees,” says Pullen. “In the mind of the public, once they’ve made that report, they expect that if their animal comes into the shelter, he’ll be recognized and they’ll get a call.”

Of course, that’s rarely true—especially of animals not wearing any identification. Few shelters have the resources to devote staff to making reunions, and often the matching process is haphazard: What looks to an owner like a tabby may look like to a shelter employee like a brown cat. Photos provided by owners may be out of date. Kennel staff juggling multiple duties aren’t always consistent about when and how they make their checks. It’s a difficult process to match a portrait of a clean, smiling chocolate Lab in a grassy backyard to the skinny, flea-infested creature in the back kennel. All too often, matches get missed, and sometimes owned animals have been euthanized once their stray holding period has expired.

That’s occasionally resulted not only in heartbreak for owners but lawsuits for shelters that failed to spot the lost animal. And in such an atmosphere, says Pullen, it’s little wonder that many shelters are scaling back on their promises to the public and putting the onus on owners to do all the legwork of finding lost pets. “A lot of organizations will simply tell people that they need to come back every day and check for their animal,” says Pullen. “They don’t even say that staff will try to make matches—it creates a perception that something systematic is being done when it’s often not, because there are no resources to do it.”

Such an approach, of course, is a double-edged sword for the organization that tries it. While telling the public that staff are actively seeking to match lost reports with found animals bears a certain risk, ceasing such services carries a different kind of risk—namely that citizens, many of whom make their first and only contact with an animal shelter when they lose a pet, will be angered and dismayed to find the one service they’ve always associated with the animal shelter is not really offered.

Any way you slice it, the handling of lost animals has the potential to become a public relations disaster for a shelter, says Pullen. And that’s the main reason she’s so impressed with the program in Prince George’s County.

Reuniting lost pets with their owners is a fundamental service of any shelter, says Rodney Taylor, chief of the county’s animal management division. When he started at the division 22 years ago, no single person on staff handled the job of making matches between lost pets and worried owners. “It was just whoever could do it, whenever they could find the time,” Taylor says. And as a result, the shelter was making only ten to fifteen matches a month—at most.

But Taylor believed the lost-and-found function was too important to slide onto a back burner. “If the pet can go to its home, its comfort zone, then that’s better than having it go to a whole new life,” says Taylor. “So many people would judge an owner whose animal gets lost. No! Let’s address the little issues, get them fixed up, and send the animal back home with an educated owner.”

Recognizing the importance of reunions to both citizens and their pets, Taylor ensured that when the shelter’s contract with the county was revised in 2000, a position devoted to making matches between strays and owners’ lost reports was written into that contract and funded by the county.

Rodney Taylor displays the customer service award the shelter won for its lost-and-found program.

For the past five years, that position has been filled by Faye Logan. With assistance from Adina Howard, Logan spends her days fielding phone calls from frantic owners, going through lost reports in Chameleon, and checking photos and descriptions against animals in the kennels.

Chameleon software helps limit descriptive options, says Logan, decreasing the possibility that a citizen could provide a description that a shelter employee won’t associate with the dog he’s looking at. (For example, in the category of color, Chameleon provides “brown” as a possibility but not “tan,” so if an owner says he’s looking for a tan dog, all the brown dogs will get searched.)

“We get about 300 messages a month, and between us we return every phone call,” says Logan. “We try to make sure we call them back quickly so they know they’ve been heard. Sometimes by the time an owner calls, their animal is already here.” Animals’ pictures are taken when they come in, and Logan updates the shelter’s website with new photos twice a day at noon and 6 p.m. Logan and Howard check the animals being held against the photos themselves, but they also urge owners—as the people most likely to make a positive I.D.—to check the listings as well.

When people come in looking for a pet, they receive a packet with tips for finding a lost pet, information on hours of operation and the shelter’s website, contact information for other shelters in the area, and a reproducible lost notice that can be distributed throughout the neighborhood. Logan and Howard emphasize that the owners should keep checking the website, where they often end up recognizing their animals.

Each morning Logan walks the runs and visits the cattery, checking new reports against the animals who’ve come in. She and Howard keep each other up-to-date on new arrivals so they can feel more confident that they know who’s in the shelter. They do a final check against lost reports whenever stray animals have to be euthanized. This is Logan’s job at the shelter, and she’s not distracted by other tasks. She has a system in place and a step-by-step routine that decreases the likelihood of an animal slipping through the cracks.

Still, she admits, “it’s really nerve-wracking because you know you can make a mistake. But Dina and I talk to each other and are very careful.”

The county is committed to the program, says Taylor, noting that he didn’t have to do much arm-twisting to convince officials that the lost-and-found position was needed. And it’s shown itself to be effective: In the past ten years, as the shelter has focused resources and time on the task, staff have progressed from making ten to fifteen matches a month to between 75 and 100. The system is so effective that in February, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments gave Logan and Howard a customer service award for the program.

More rewarding for Prince George’s County Animal Management staff, though, is seeing lost pets go home. Six days after she went missing, on the afternoon of July 9, Rusty the firework-spooked rottweiler was brought in to the shelter by the division’s animal control officers. And the system immediately started working for her: Her photo was taken and uploaded to the website that evening.

When Logan got in the next day, she found a voicemail message that had been left at 2 a.m. Rusty’s owner, having been told to check the website, had already spotted her dog. She arrived in the morning to pick her up, very grateful to the shelter and to Logan for having found her. It was just one more happy homecoming created by an agency that’s now been responsible for thousands.

 

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