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Seated behind a table in the lobby of Los Angeles’ North Central shelter, Kerry Lowe Armstrong was feeling nervous.
The longtime animal lover and shelter volunteer had spent months preparing for the launch of the North Central Shelter Intervention Program (NCSIP). She’d met with shelter staff and trained with Downtown Dog Rescue (DDR), an organization running a similar program in South LA. She’d set up an account with a veterinary clinic willing to give a lower rate for the program’s clients.
Early that morning, she’d arrived at the shelter with stacks of handouts: listings of local spay/neuter and vaccination programs, tip sheets for solving pet-behavior problems and information on pet-friendly housing. On the wall behind the table, she tacked up a blue-and-white banner that read “How Can We Help You Keep Your Pet?”
Armstrong was ready and eager to help. But she worried that no one would approach her table.
When the shelter’s doors opened, an elderly woman named Josephine walked in, leading a 10-year-old chow mix named Lucy. She was in tears. She’d had Lucy since she was a puppy. But the owner of the building where she’d lived for nearly 40 years was suddenly demanding a pet fee from tenants.
“She was an 80-year-old woman living on a fixed income; $200 wasn’t possible,” Armstrong says. “She was crying and thinking this was it: She had to give up her senior dog.”
Armstrong reviewed Josephine’s lease, and while another volunteer watched the table, delivered a check to the landlord.
When she returned, she arranged for Josephine to get regular deliveries of dog food from a local pet food bank. Then she posted a photo of Josephine and Lucy, the program’s first clients, on Facebook.
“We got donations right away,” she says. “… That was it. We were off the ground and running and figuring out how we went from there.”
Since that day in November 2013, NCSIP has helped keep more than 500 animals out of the shelter. At the same time, Armstrong says, the program’s success “has definitely cut down on my shelter pet burnout.”
During her years as a shelter volunteer, Armstrong typically focused on one or two dogs a month. She would train them and share their stories, hoping they would get adopted or taken in by a rescue group.
“[For] every dog who was going to a rescue, there were more coming in,” she says. “It was emotionally overwhelming and stressful. I wanted to find another way to work with the system to keep the population down.”
After she read an LA Times article about DDR and its shelter intervention program in South LA, her new path started to take shape. In the traditional rescue model, all the money and effort goes into getting animals out of the shelter. Now Armstrong’s doing something different.
“It’s just a simpler, and a lot of times cheaper, solution to just never have the [pet] leave the home that it knows and loves with the people that love it,” says Armstrong. “For me, it just makes the most sense not to put the animal and family through that anguish.”
In Through the Out Door
Surrender prevention (also called pet retention) programs can take many forms. Some—such as pet food pantries, behavior helplines or temporary housing programs for pets of domestic abuse victims—focus on a specific need. Others work to address a variety of common reasons pets are surrendered or abandoned.
No matter the approach, surrender prevention recognizes that the “pet problem” is typically rooted in human problems, says DDR co-founder Lori Weise. It’s frequently a poverty problem, a problem of information and resources not reaching the people who most need them.
Weise fell into rescue work in the mid-1990s when she and a co-worker began scooping up puppies from the streets of LA’s Skid Row, giving them to friends and family, fostering the strays they could and taking others to the shelter.
At the time, it was the only way she could think of tackling the problem—but it didn’t take long before Weise and her co-worker realized they needed a more effective approach. They began to devote more energy to community outreach, spreading the word about existing resources and bringing spay/neuter clinics, free training, pet food and other assistance to some of LA’s poorest neighborhoods.
2013-2014 statistics from Downtown Dog Rescue’s shelter intervention program in South LA have spurred other rescue groups to launch similar programs.
Inspired by anti-violence programs like Peace in the Hood and CeaseFire, Weise developed the shelter intervention program to “interrupt” unnecessary pet surrenders at the South LA shelter, a municipal facility with high intakes.
“We think of it as the last offer,” she says. “If the surrender is the best option, we sometimes even help the pet owner pay to surrender, but often there are other options. It’s empowering pet owners to have the knowledge to make the best decision. Too often people living in poverty have a lack of information or bad information and base their decision on a choice of bad or worse.”
Just 12 days after launching in April 2013, DDR’s intervention program had already kept 100 animals from entering the shelter. By the end of the year, the number rose to 2,041, and organizations from around the country started contacting Weise to learn more. In less than two years, Weise has trained two local rescue groups and the ASPCA to launch intervention programs at four more LA shelters.
“What we offer makes sense, and we can back it up with data,” says Weise. “It makes sense to work with somebody who’s on the verge of surrendering a pet.”
A Role for Rescues
While more shelters are incorporating elements of surrender prevention in their intake procedures and community services, many still lack the staff and other resources for focused intervention. It’s a gap that rescue groups are ideally suited to fill, says Armstrong.
Before launching NCSIP, Armstrong met with the shelter’s supervisors and managers, letting them know that the program wouldn’t take up any of the shelter’s resources or break any rules. “I think that’s the most important step: not just come in and be like, ‘We’re taking over, we’re going to stop people from turning in dogs.’ Now they trust us and count on us. Their officers will call us in cases where they think we can help.”
Working within the shelter, but as a separate nonprofit, allows NCSIP’s counselors to bypass some of the red tape that often limits what staff can do in a government-run shelter, she says. “You have more autonomy and room for creativity.”
At the same time, an intervention program can free up time and resources by decreasing a rescue group’s foster-adoption workload. If owners don’t get the counseling that enables them to keep their pets, says Joyce Friedman, “what we find is that those animals will end up at the shelter, the very shelter the rescue group goes to regularly to pull animals. So that same pool of animals is increasingly growing.” Surrender prevention allows rescuers to “focus on the animals who are truly homeless or those from owners who truly can’t keep their pet.”
Friedman, HSUS NYC community coordinator, helped run a pet crisis helpline in New York City for seven years. She has witnessed a “huge interest” in pet retention strategies from the rescue community, but the biggest barrier, she says, is that many groups fear they lack the time or resources to undertake additional programs.
Armstrong understands that fear. When she first observed DDR’s shelter intervention program, her reaction was, “There’s no way I can do that.” She forged ahead with herself and one other volunteer staffing a table on weekends.
Today, she shares the same advice that Weise once gave her: Start small.
Even if you have very little funding, you can “just sit at the shelter and answer questions and point people to resources,” Armstrong says.
Many times, the solution is as simple as connecting an owner with an already existing free spay/neuter program. Or coaching someone on how to resolve a litter box issue.
“Read up on stuff,” says Amanda Arrington, director of the HSUS Pets for Life (PFL) program. “Read the Pets for Life toolkit on dog behavior and take the HSUS online cat behavior course. It doesn’t take a genius to talk with someone about how to crate train. You can do that with 30 minutes’ research on the Internet. Don’t be afraid of doing that.”
Through grants and fundraising, NCSIP was eventually able to hire two part-time bilingual intervention counselors and increase operations to four days a week. Still, the program’s annual budget is a relatively modest $62,000. “We definitely couldn’t do this without the other programs we work with,” says Armstrong, adding that her group frequently calls on PFL staff to assist pet owners in Northeast LA. By partnering with other animal welfare organizations and enlisting help from vets, trainers, people with construction skills, attorneys versed in landlord-tenant law and others in the community, NCSIP can provide a wide range of services without breaking the bank.
Cases often require a combination of services: Neutering dogs who are fighting with each other and enrolling them in training classes. Or covering the redemption fee for an impounded dog and paying a handyman to mend the broken fence that enabled the dog to escape the yard.
Help with veterinary expenses is another commonly provided service, but this doesn’t mean paying for MRIs or hip replacements. Many cases require nothing more than $25 for a vet exam and perhaps a bottle of antibiotics or medication for mange, says Armstrong. With help from nonprofits like the Sam Simon Foundation, NCSIP is also able to assist with more complex medical situations, and Armstrong considers it money well spent.
“If a family has a 10-year-old pit bull with growths and health issues, if they turn it in [to the shelter], it’s going to take a lot of work to find an adopter or rescue, and most likely we will not,” she says. “Whereas if we help them pay for the medical care—we put in $200 and they put in $50—then that $200 is so worth it. And it’s not taking up a kennel space here for an adoptable dog.”
Counting Your Successes
No matter your resources, you won’t be able to help in every situation, cautions Armstrong. “There are certain things, as sad as it is, we can’t fix that. At the beginning, it would keep me up at night. You just want to help everybody. But I’ve realized there are some things we can’t help with, and I have to let it go.”
Along with resilience and a dose of pragmatism, surrender prevention requires a certain mindset. “You have to be as compassionate toward people as [you are toward] animals,” Armstrong says. “We’re not here to stop everybody [from surrendering a pet]. You can’t have someone who’s going to say, ‘Your dog’s going to die here; you’re a terrible person for leaving it here.’ We don’t know what they’ve gone through to have to surrender their dogs, so you can’t judge.”
While visiting the South and North Central LA shelters last year, Lisa Young got to see these dynamics at play.
“It’s almost like social work,” says Young, president of Rescue Train, a San Fernando Valley rescue group. “There’s a lot of emotion in rescue sometimes, and I just feel that you have to work from a different place to be able to help these people keep their animals.”
Young became “really intrigued” by the intervention model after she saw the numbers from DDR. She remembers telling her board of directors, “We got to pay attention to this; this is really innovative.”
She shadowed intervention counselors at the South and North Central shelters, and her enthusiasm grew.
She remembers one woman whose dog had escaped the yard and ended up at the shelter. The woman had worked hard to raise the money for the redemption fee, but still didn’t have enough. When the intervention program covered the difference, the woman was so happy, she picked up Young and swung her across the room.
“It’s very emotional to see people that don’t have the resources—or think they don’t have the resources—to keep their pets and then find out there is some help for them,” says Young.
In February, Rescue Train launched a shelter intervention program at the East Valley LA shelter, which is the source for most of the organization’s foster animals. Starting out, the East Valley program will operate one day a week, offering basic services like spay/neuter, pet food, humane euthanasia for terminally ill animals and vetting for simple medical issues.
Young’s goal is to expand the program to three days a week by the end of the year and to add dog training and fence-mending to its list of services. Eventually, she wants to spread this model by mentoring other rescuers who are hungry for new ways to tackle pet homelessness.
“If we can help the rescue community hit it at the other end, that’s just great for everybody involved,” she says. “It’s going to cut down on the burden for the rescue community and help these people who love their pets.”