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Called to account

From Animal Sheltering magazine May/June 2016

In December, HSUS staff specialists, working with the sheriff’s office in Adams County, Ohio, stepped onto a property and into a mess created by a group once registered as a nonprofit animal sanctuary. There, our rescue workers found 166 dogs and cats in pens, on chains, inside crates. Some were emaciated; some had untreated wounds, severe eye and ear infections and mange. Dozens of deer carcasses littered the grounds, and dogs scavenged on the decomposing remains. The fetid air that hung over the property, redolent of death and waste, made the rescuers gag.

There are thousands of animal groups doing remarkable, lifesaving work every day, in almost every community in the nation. They are the heart and soul of our cause. But there are also some groups operating as sanctuaries that are in way over their heads, without sufficient resources, and without the good sense to get help. Through the years, we’ve responded to no small number of cases of animal sanctuaries gone rogue. This was one of the most heinous.

Most states have no inspection rules for sanctuaries, and there is no single private accrediting body that gives these operators a seal of approval. But we need greater capacity in this arena, to sort out the authentic and beneficial operators from the shams, scams and substandard facilities.

The animal protection movement must always strive for professionalism in the wide range of activities it undertakes. Sanctuaries and rescues must be run properly. Every group should strive for transparency.

One major discussion item in our movement involves the compilation of data, including records on intake and adoption. That’s something that’s been steadily improving throughout the humane movement, and it’s time to add fuel to that effort.

That’s why I’m excited about the work of a start-up in our movement—a collaborative project called Shelter Animals Count. It’s a new initiative that encourages shelters and rescues to track and share their statistics so that everyone—especially local and national groups and researchers working on the problems of animal cruelty and pet homelessness—can identify and study what’s working and replicate those approaches far and wide.

It’s not always easy for animal shelters to commit to reporting, since there’s no shortage of critics and gadflies out there. But any group doing its best work must embrace transparency. Tracking data, ensuring that staff are engaged with results and allowing external access and evaluation helps refocus organizations on their mission to save animals’ lives and place them in loving homes. Measuring outcomes helps groups perform still better for their communities.

Together, we’ve made tremendous strides in reducing euthanasia numbers in the U.S., but 2.4 million healthy and adoptable animals are still euthanized annually. We know this with some certainty, but beyond that enormous picture, our grasp of the details becomes fuzzier. Who are the animals most at risk? Where are they living? What programs will help address the specific problems driving them into shelters, or keeping them there longer than they need to be?

Our approaches to driving down the euthanasia of healthy, adoptable animals to zero may shift significantly as we get a clearer picture through the data. The task of placing homeless animals is a multidimensional one, one best treated not as a shelter-based problem but as a broader set of challenges requiring the input and engagement of the whole community.

You are a part of that picture, and we hope you’ll join your colleagues around the country in sharing the data that will help us all work better, work smarter and save more lives. Only when we understand the details and scale of animal-related problems can we show leadership and fix them.


Read more about Shelter Animals Count.

About the Author

Wayne Pacelle is the former President and Chief Executive Officer of The Humane Society of the United States. Under Pacelle's leadership, The HSUS has been approved by the Better Business Bureau for all 20 standards for charity accountability, voted by Guidestar's Philanthropedia experts as the #1 high-impact animal protection group, named by Worth Magazine as one of the 10 most fiscally responsible charities, and is ranked in the top 10 for nonprofit brands.