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What’s data got to do with it?

Dr. Graham Brayshaw explains how tracking and sharing your shelter’s data can increase effectiveness and save more lives.

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Have you ever sat down and just looked at animal flow for your organization? You know, really just dug into it, looking at intakes, outcomes, adoption, euthanasia, length of stay and any of the other myriad of numbers an organization can produce? This is data that can feel tedious to collect month after month, but it can be so valuable. You can use it as a powerful tool to do anything, from staffing your adoption center appropriately to knowing how many foster volunteers you need to recruit. 

Most companion animal welfare organizations keep some statistics on their animals, but the amount and type of data is as varied as the organizations themselves. We found this out first hand when we underwent a large organizational change a little over five years ago. 

At Animal Humane Society, we have been and will continue to be an open admission shelter, accepting any animal in need. In the 2000s, we brought in around 36,000 animals a year. We were pushing beyond our capacity for care and unfortunately had to euthanize animals. We weren’t alone—there were and still are open admission shelters in that boat. With help from UC Davis, we decided to manage our admission process with appointments while remaining open to any animal in any condition. Not only did this help regulate our animal flow, but by simply having someone call before coming in with their animal, we found they were much more likely to solve their issues on their own. We offer and refer to resources on rehoming, low cost vet care, behavior resources (we have our own behavior helpline and offer training classes), and any number of ways that an animal can get help without ever having to come into a shelter. 

The change was immediate and amazing. We saw our intake drop by 30 percent —yep, a full 10,000 animals fewer came through our doors annually! It freed up time, space and other resources, which allowed us to reach the over 90 percent placement rate we are at today, still with about 25,000 animals coming in every year. 

As great as this all sounds, it would mean little if we were just pushing those 10,000 animals on other groups, so what did we do? We reached out. In our area, we handle the most animals by far, but we are by no means the only game in town. There are a handful of smaller shelters, a couple of animal control facilities and lots of rescues. We asked broadly across the Twin Cities to see if other groups were seeing a tremendous increase in animals, and we found two things: Anecdotally, there was no huge increase, but there really wasn’t much information out there to be had. Even when we spoke to large animal control facilities, there really wasn’t consistent data that was easy to access. From our best estimates, we found an increase in animals at other organizations maybe in the hundreds, nowhere near the 10,000 fewer coming to AHS. Fortunately, we did a lot of work on our end tracking phone calls, number of appointments, and the number of individuals we touched. We found that by helping people help themselves, we actually impacted about the same number of animals as we did before appointments, but 30 percent fewer needed to come into the shelter.

I tell this story to illustrate two points:

  1. Internal tracking of data is very important to ensure your programs have the outcomes you intend.
  2. Sharing data is important because we are all in this together. Animal overpopulation and animals without homes are not the responsibility of any one organization, but the community as a whole.

Fast forward to today, and like many shelters we are transporting in animals from shelters and communities that are overcrowded. In Minnesota, spay/neuter efforts have been successful enough that there is actually more demand for dogs than there are dogs in the state. We partner with groups in communities that aren’t so fortunate, with the combined goal of helping one community try to get a handle on its population size while another fills its adoption demands. We have seen great success with some shelters even flipping from sending out dogs to taking dogs in! Nationally, it is more of an animal distribution issue than it is an overpopulation issue. Don’t get me wrong--there are still regions where there is true overpopulation, but in general, things are improving.

This is another example of why data sharing is so important. Animal populations are so local and diverse that you could have an overabundance of dogs, but the shelter down the road is sitting with open kennels and eager adopters. Unless you talk and share, you would be none the wiser. This is where a group like Shelter Animals Count (SAC) comes in. SAC gives you a place to not only put your information in, but freely view what other organizations have entered, and the more organizations that put their information in, the better our picture is of animal populations across the country. 

There are so many positive outcomes that can come from sharing data. It is not just knowing where there are more or fewer animals, but you can find organizations of similar makeup to find out what they do. If you handle 2,000 animals a year and 150 at any given time, an organization of the same size will likely have a more similar perspective compared to one with 30,000 or 100 animals. We have been using SAC data to see trends that are beyond our shelter. You can see how animal numbers changed at organizations that may have gone through something you are about to undertake. 

I would say most importantly, sharing data brings perspective. It is easy to be in your shelter and focus on your numbers, but sharing really does reinforce that we are all in this together, and it takes all of animal welfare to really affect change and make a difference. We can’t do it alone.

 

About the Author

Dr. Graham Brayshaw is the Director of Animal Services at the Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley, Minnesota. He graduated in 2004 with a DVM from Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine. Before working in animal welfare, he was an Associate Veterinarian and Medical Director with Veterinary Centers of America for over 7 years. Dr. Graham started at the Animal Humane Society in 2012 as their Senior Veterinarian. His areas of interest in include high-quality, high-volume spay/neuter; oncology and endocrinology. When he is not working, he is enjoying Ultimate Frisbee and quiet time with his wife, dog and way too many cats.