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Turning sour to sweet

What one animal control director learned from a 'bad' pet owner

Terry was what some people would call a "bad" pet owner. Unsanitary conditions, and creating a public nuisance are just a couple of the calls that we’ve responded to at Terry's house over the past several years. And still, with all our efforts--our efforts being issuing fines and trying to enforce the law--Terry continued to be a constant burden to our agency, with complaint calls steadily coming in and the conditions for his pets never improving.

As the director of the largest open-admission municipal shelter in Utah, people like Terry make my job difficult. Our shelter has had a live-release rate over 90 percent for the past five years; currently, it’s 94 percent. We provide animal control, sheltering, and veterinary services to the public and a variety of pet programs in our community. On average, 10,000 pets cycle through our doors each year and we work tirelessly to provide them phenomenal care. As a county municipal service, we are constantly faced with budget constraints, irate customers and compassion fatigue, so people like Terry can create a lot of stress.

A few years back, we stumbled upon The Humane Society of the United States Pets for Life program and a grant opportunity with Pets for Life and PetSmart Charities. We chose to apply and were thrilled when we were awarded the grant.

We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

Initiation into the Pets for Life family included learning how to deeply engage our community through grassroots, door-to-door outreach ... and we weren’t doing this in the safe, happy suburbs. At our first training in Chicago, the PFL team showed no fear in taking us to visit what is perceived by many as the scariest and most dangerous neighborhoods in the city. I figured I could certainly handle the streets of Salt Lake City!

As the director, it was important for me to have an in-depth understanding of the work on the ground, so I could best support the outreach team and talk about the PFL approach on a personal level. So at the outset of our program, I laced up my comfy shoes and hit the streets. On my first day out in the community back home with my team, I timidly knocked on a few doors, and was privately relieved when I got no answer. On that first street, an elderly gentleman was sitting on his porch and started yelling at me to come over. He asked why I was "bothering" his neighbors. I shared my over-rehearsed pitch and asked him if he had any pets I could help. He said no, but directed me to a few houses with pets.

The next day the old man met me again at the street corner and said he would look at the paperwork I had and pass it on to some other neighbors. He walked with me for over an hour and critiqued my salesmanship. He yelled at neighbors to come and talk to me and chased a few cars down when he thought he knew them. He generously helped me connect with others in the neighborhood and made my job much easier. Before long, I was knocking on doors all by myself, and no longer dreading them opening. 

On the day of our first community outreach event, he stopped by to gloat about all the people who showed up because of him. About 30 minutes in, I noticed that he was standing in the line with two carriers containing his own cats (the cats he’d originally told me he didn’t have). Five ginormous cats toppled out when it was his turn to get vaccines. He also signed all five up for sterilization surgery.

On the morning of the appointment when we showed up to transport them to the spay/neuter surgery, he had several questions and was visibly stressed as we loaded them up. When we returned after surgery, he was overcome with joy to see they were in good condition. In fact, I think he was a bit surprised we showed back up at all. He hugged and kissed each one and welcomed his babies home. With no veterinarians nearby and the high costs of sterilizations, he was beyond grateful that we could provide these services. With Pets for Life, we had bridged the gap between him and the resources he needed and wanted for his pets. After he snuggled his last cat, he scooped me in tight with a teary-eyed, grandpa kind of hug … and in that moment, I was hooked.

At the end of the day we went back to the shelter to input all our data. When I came across the paperwork for my new friend, the little old man, I smiled, thinking of him with his hefty cat carriers and how much he had already impacted my life. Glancing down at his name I did a double take: “Terry.” He was Terry. It didn’t hit me until I was looking at his paperwork: This was the same Terry, the "bad" pet owner. This was the man I had, for a long time, thought of as someone who neglected his pets.

He is none of those things. In fact he loves his pets. He just needed a little support and better access to resources. Most importantly, he needed me to change my perception of him. Terry had every reason to be skeptical of me when I showed up on his street, every reason to be fearful that I was there to punish him. He didn’t have to be nice to me or introduce me to others in his neighborhood. But he did.

We are an exceptional animal care facility, but we have started to see we are much more than that. We are a community resource. Through doing PFL we have also learned it’s financially possible to be proactive in our work instead of just reactive. Let’s look at Terry’s situation as an example. If, in our earlier interactions with him, we had taken away his five cats and brought them to our shelter, it would have cost us on average $400 to provide care--$400 per animal. We would also spend about 12 hours of staff time for each pet. This means that we would have been looking at about $2,000 plus 60 hours of staff time to handle his cats.

With PFL, on the other hand, our average cost per pet is $116, which equals about $580 for all five cats. Our staff time totaled about 3 hours. On top of the cost savings and having fewer pets entering the shelter, we have happier employees, better community relations and healthier pets in our community. And, oh yeah, the occasional grandpa hug. What an amazing way to really make a difference in people’s and pet’s lives.  

It has been almost three years since Pets for Life changed Terry’s life and Terry changed mine. With his help, we have sterilized hundreds of pets, vaccinated and provided services for thousands of people, and made a huge impact on the community we serve. One of the best stats, though, is the total number of calls for enforcement at Terry’s house since Pets for Life showed up on his street: Zero.

About the Author

Talia Butler is the Division Director for Salt Lake County Animal Services. Through Talia’s leadership, Salt Lake County Animal Services has achieved a live release rate over 90% for the past 5 years. Talia excels at creating innovative programs that improve the lives of pets and citizens in Salt Lake County and across the state of Utah. She has over 18 years of experience managing programs, projects and personnel. Talia has presented at numerous national events and has provided leadership to local and national partners. She has also authored publications and industry guiding literature as an expert in animal welfare. Talia is FEMA R335 certified, animal evacuation and emergency trained, supervisory program certified, DEA licensed, EMT trained and formerly certified, and holds a BIS Degree from Weber State University. Talia resides in Riverton, Utah with her husband, two children, and two dogs.