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Seeking solutions in the golden state

California budget crunch spurs stakeholders group, sheltering report

From Animal Sheltering magazine July/August 2014

In cash-strapped California, the animal protection laws needed some protection.

One of the state’s best-known animal welfare laws—the Hayden Law, passed by the state legislature in 1998—established a statewide policy that adoptable and treatable animals should not be euthanized. Seeking to reunite more shelter animals with their owners, the law increased the minimum holding period for stray dogs and cats from 72 hours to four to six business days. Other provisions required shelters to establish holding periods for all owner-relinquished animals, postpone euthanasia until the holding period expires (with exceptions for injured or very sick animals) and release animals slated for euthanasia to rescue groups upon request.

Some cities and counties argued that parts of the law, by increasing shelters’ expenses for food, veterinary care and other budget items, amounted to unfunded mandates—and a statewide commission agreed. California law requires the state to reimburse local jurisdictions for such expenses. But during California’s recent budget crunch, the state suspended the reimbursable portions of the Hayden Law (including the longer holding periods) and has frequently declined to pay local governments’ claims. Gov. Jerry Brown, in his 2012-13 budget, called for repealing all unfunded mandates.

Beyond that, local governments, facing the same economic challenges as the state, have regularly cut funding for animal care and control, compounding the challenges.

The uncertainties in the state budget left sheltering laws vulnerable, with each jurisdiction deciding, for example, how long it would hold animals beyond the pre-Hayden Law minimum of 72 hours for stray dogs, explains Jennifer Fearing, deputy director of policy and programs for The HSUS. The recurring budget woes created consternation among animal welfare organizations and “a desire to get off that ride,” she says.

In response, about two years ago Fearing hatched an idea for a stakeholders group of animal sheltering players that would research how well existing programs are working and figure out ways to insulate shelters from the ups and downs of the state budget.

The 17-member group released its draft California Sheltering Report last year, then held seven community forums around the state. Each stop included a lunchtime meeting for sheltering professionals and an evening session for the public; representatives of more than 63 agencies participated. The group modified the document based on that input, and issued a final report in March.

The report contains legislative and best-practice recommendations on a range of sheltering issues—from intake via appointment to free-roaming cats. While the report is specific to California, group leaders say their process could serve as a model for other communities around the country.

California is a large state, and its shelters differ widely in terms of their available resources, existing programs and the local ordinances that govern them, so the report steers clear of one-size-fits-all solutions. Instead, the group examined outcome data on dogs and cats from cities and counties around the state, and studied other reports to find effective programs both within and outside California.

“We worked really hard ... to provide people not just with conceptual solutions, but with concrete examples,” says stakeholders group member Aimee Gilbreath, executive director of Found Animals Foundation, a California-based nonprofit organization. “… Our biggest hope is that local communities will sit down with the report, and read it, and use it as a starting point to think about what is going on in their community, and their priorities.”

A Diverse Approach

Realizing she couldn’t manage the process by herself, Fearing first reached out to Gilbreath, who offered to have Found Animals fund and staff the stakeholders group. Fearing and Gilbreath added two other
leaders—Jennifer Scarlett, co-president of the San Francisco SPCA; and Jon Cicirelli, director of San Jose Animal Care and Services—and began recruiting group members representing different geographical areas, types of organizations, resource levels and outlooks on sheltering policy.“We didn’t want a whole bunch of like-minded people. … We really wanted to get differing views,” says Scarlett. The group set ground rules: Disagreements were fine, but members had to work through them in a logical, thoughtful manner. “We had some really strong discussions on different issues, and we did not see eye to eye,” Scarlett says. “And that’s the beauty of this, is that we can come from different backgrounds and needs and philosophies on animal welfare, but we can still work out some very rational decisions on how to help animals.”

To avoid an unwieldy process, the larger group divided into four committees focused on intake reduction, shelter standards and practices, cats and budget matters, respectively. The full group met in person quarterly for a year at different locations around the state, while the smaller committees met at least biweekly on the phone.

Initially motivated to propose possible changes in state law (or to justify leaving existing laws on the books), the group came to see it also had a unique opportunity to identify best practices for animal welfare organizations. The group didn’t want to set minimum quality care standards in law, because that would trigger a new round of mandates and amount to the state telling shelters how to operate, Fearing says. Instead, the report provides resources and examples of the practices it suggests, so local shelter directors and advocates can draw from it as they seek improvement.

New Thoughts

The group sought to determine whether outcomes for shelter animals had improved in the 15 years since the Hayden Law’s passage. The short answer, Gilbreath says, is that they’ve improved somewhat for dogs, but less so for cats.

The report notes that between 1998 and 2010, statewide dog intake declined by 17 percent, while the number of dogs euthanized fell by nearly half, and the numbers of adoptions, reclaims and transfers all increased. For cats, in contrast, intake increased by 6 percent, the number euthanized fell by just 2 points and the reclaim rate held steady at 2 percent.

Animal welfare officials have thought that longer holding periods in and of themselves save more lives, Scarlett says, but she’s come to think that isn’t true. While more research needs to be done, it appears that owners of lost dogs tend to visit a shelter to reclaim their pet within a day or two, but not much beyond that period. She questions the value of having an extended holding period before other live placement options are considered. And if only 2 percent of cats are being redeemed by owners, Scarlett asks, “are we doing well by them by holding them?”

The Hayden Law’s longer holding periods don’t appear to have significantly increased the number of lost animals who return home from shelters, the report asserts. The percentage of dogs reclaimed, for example, rose by just 3 points, from 16 percent to 19 percent, between 1998 and 2010. The report recommends that shelters be allowed to move dogs without identification toward adoption or transfer after 72 hours, while those with identification be held for the full Hayden Law period. The stakeholders agreed that no animal should be euthanized prior to expiration of the full hold period.

The group’s willingness to challenge accepted beliefs will ultimately benefit more animals, says group member Christi Metropole, founder and executive director of Stray Cat Alliance, a Los Angeles-based rescue and advocacy group. “I felt like I knew everything, and I realized I didn’t,” she says with a laugh.

Metropole describes herself as a big supporter of the Hayden Law, but through her work with the stakeholders group, she discovered that the law’s longer holding periods haven’t succeeded in saving more cats. The fact that the return-to-owner rate, both in California and nationally, is stuck around 2 percent highlights the need to do something different for cats, she says.Among other recommendations, the report calls for no healthy cat, regardless of temperament, to be admitted to a shelter if the admission would cause the death of that cat or another cat in the shelter. The report notes that California law does not require agencies to take in stray or owned cats, so shelters are under no legal obligation to take them. Further, the report asserts that taking in healthy cats to euthanize them, or euthanizing cats in the shelter to make room for new ones, is a disservice to the animals and a poor use of limited resources.

Scarlett says the most powerful idea emerging from the group’s work is that shelters should balance their optional intake against their ability to produce positive outcomes. “Don’t overload yourself if you know you can’t serve that animal well,” she says.

Trying This at Home

The report’s recommendations run the gamut of animal welfare issues: Shelters should use appointment systems to more proactively manage their intake and assist pet owners struggling with fixable issues. Money currently spent on housing and euthanizing healthy feral or community cats should be devoted to nonlethal programs aimed at reducing the outdoor cat population. Shelters and their rescue partners should begin working on transfer opportunities as soon after intake as possible. Agency budgets and contracts should be based not on intake but on positive outcomes. Before they leave a shelter or rescue group, all dogs should be licensed, and agencies should improve their collection of licensing fees.

Fearing says she’s proud of the energy and effort that went into the report, the discussions that took place and the courtesy people showed each other. “This is a stereotype-busting thing we’ve done.” While people outside the field sometimes perceive animal welfare advocates as emotional and their issues as unimportant, the sheltering report represents a serious effort to promote good government and cope with the issue of unfunded mandates.

“There were out-of-the-box ideas that came up here,” she says, “and for the most part we had a group of people who were willing to think critically about those, and not just reject them because they were new or scary or they imagined some people in their community wouldn’t like them.”

Not every community needs to have a two-year process that includes a professional report writer, a website and catered meetings at hotels, Fearing notes, but local stakeholders outside California can adopt at least some elements of the California group’s process: Make an effort to acknowledge different viewpoints, gather as much reliable information as possible and reach out to the community for feedback.

Individual communities can look at the California report and prioritize what’s most important for them, given their situation and resources, Gilbreath says. “Would we love for everybody to do everything? Of course. Is that realistic in the short term? It’s not.”

And Scarlett notes that communities would do well to strive for collegiality. “Good, healthy discussions and debate are warranted and necessary to get to a better place. Remember that the person sitting across from you at the table has completely different pressures and different perspectives, and hear them out,” she says. “We’re much stronger together than we are apart, and in the end, we all want the same thing—we want better outcomes for animals in our shelter."

About the Author

James Hettinger is the assistant editorial director for Animal Sheltering magazine at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). He's responsible for editing copy and managing the production of the award-winning quarterly publication aimed at shelter and rescue personnel. Prior to joining The HSUS in 2008, James worked for several local newspapers and trade associations in the Washington, D.C., area. He shares his home with three cats: Edgar, Dana and Vinny.