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A tale of two cities

Mentorship helps struggling shelter mount massive turnaround

From Animal Sheltering magazine November/December 2014

For every life saved, staff at Stockton Animal Services add a marble to a jar at the front desk. Since partnering wiht the San Francisco SPCA, the shelter has been able to stockpile more marbles than staff thought possible.By updating its cleaning protocols, Stockton Animal Services effected dramatic improvements in animal health.Sometimes, it takes a team. Jamie Larson (left, Animal Protection League), Candace Conti (middle, San Francisco SPCA) and Anita Mangum (right, Stockton Animal Services), check on a fearful pup.Darlene Vote, a volunteer at Stockton Animal Services, assesses a shelter dog for food aggression.The Stockton community showed up in droves at a canine wellness event presented by the local shelter, along with the Animal Protection League and the San Francisco SPCA.The Stockton Animal Shelter’s dramatic turnaround could help to restore hope to the beleaguered city, which filed for bankruptcy in 2012.

Things were sunny in San Francisco in 2011. Maybe not in the literal sense, thanks to its legendary fog, but at the San Francisco SPCA (SFSPCA), the outlook for the city’s animals was bright.

The staff were energized, funding was flowing and the numbers were looking good. Thanks in large part to the opening in 1999 of the Maddie’s Pet Adoption Center and a high-volume spay/neuter program, adoptions were high and intake was low. Efforts undertaken by the SFSPCA were part of a spate of citywide initiatives aimed at ending euthanasia of healthy or otherwise treatable animals, and were so successful that some began to call it the first “no-kill” city in America.

Eighty miles away in Stockton, Calif., it was a different story. In 2011, Forbes magazine dubbed Stockton America’s “most miserable city.” It had the highest foreclosure rate in the nation and was California’s No. 2 city for crime.

When things are bad for a human community, they’re usually bad for its animals, too. “Stockton’s animal shelter is reflective of the woes of the city of Stockton,” says Tammie Murrell, interim director of Stockton Animal Services (SAS).The shelter had an intake rate of 14,000 animals per year and disastrously low adoption rates. Animals who entered the shelter had little better than a 25 percent chance of leaving alive. Every morning, shelter staff found their drop box filled with animals who were dead or close to it, and there was no veterinarian on staff to provide immediate care. Due largely to uncontained canine parvovirus and feline panleukopenia outbreaks, staff were finding even animals who’d come in relatively healthy dead in their kennels.

The disparity between the two cities was positively Dickensian.

Back in San Francisco, intake was almost too low. During the course of a 2008 evaluation by the UC Davis shelter medicine program, the SFSPCA discovered that nearly 30 percent of San Francisco dog owners had purchased their pets online from out of state. “San Francisco is a city that has more dogs than children,” says Jennifer Scarlett, co-president of the SFSPCA, but the shelter was actually running low on the kind of dogs the community seemed to want, losing a market opportunity to puppy mills selling online.

SFSPCA had a variety of rescue partners, including Stockton. But SFSPCA staff had an idea. Rather than make a relatively small difference for several shelters, they wondered if they should try and make a huge difference for one.

In 2010, San Francisco County had an intake rate of 8.8 animals per 1,000 people. Two counties to the east in San Joaquin (where Stockton, which takes in animals for the entire county, is located), the rate was more than quadruple. Euthanasia rates were similarly divided—1.2 per capita in San Francisco versus 21.5 in San Joaquin. And as a transfer partner for Stockton, SFSPCA staff had seen firsthand that—due to health issues—Stockton’s dogs had to stay quarantined longer and receive more care than those coming from other shelters.

For Kate Kuzminski, SFSPCA’s director of shelter medicine, trying to help Stockton was also just the right thing to do. “A lot of shelters need help. They just needed it so significantly because of all the lack of support from the community [and] the city.”

As anyone who’s been involved with someone who is troubled knows, relationships where one person tries to “save” another rarely succeed. SFSPCA didn’t want a project. It wanted a partner.

So in the summer of 2012, everyone came to the table for a talk, and SFSPCA pitched a program it called Our Shelter Shares. The two shelters already had a relationship, which helped open the door, but while SAS leadership was receptive to help, there was some skepticism about how the arrangement might play out.

Though she wasn’t the director back then, Murrell was there for those early talks. At the time, she was the deputy chief of police in Stockton, and the animal shelter was under her department. “It was maybe 5 percent of my time,” she says. She knew the shelter’s needs were dire, so in her spare time, she had helped to create the Animal Protection League (APL), a nonprofit dedicated to supporting the shelter by pulling animals and placing them with foster families or transferring them to rescues.

According to Murrell, SAS welcomed the lifesaving interventions the program envisioned. Still, those on the Stockton side of the table were clear that they didn’t want to get shelter staff excited only to have SFSPCA pull out. “The [staff] here had lost hope,” Murrell says. “That’s one of the reasons I stayed so heavily involved.” (After she retired from the police department, Murrell volunteered to take on the executive director role at APL, and in May assumed the SAS interim director spot.) “I had a great deal of empathy for the animals, but I saw what [the situation in Stockton] was doing to the shelter staff. I was a police officer, and so I understood about post-traumatic stress.”

Scarlett and Kuzminski assured Murrell and other SAS leadership that what they were offering was a long-term commitment—that Stockton’s successes and failures would become San Francisco’s successes and failures. And to top it off, SFSPCA was going to foot the entire bill for at least the first year.

Putting Things in Motion

The first orders of business were conducting a needs assessment and getting boots on the ground in Stockton as quickly as possible. But first, the groups had to go before the Stockton City Council to get approval. It took until November 2012 to get a memorandum of understanding (MOU) passed to enable SFSPCA to officially start helping, but the team used those intervening months to pull together their strategy so that they’d be ready to roll. “As soon as [the MOU] got signed, the next day we were there,” says Kuzminski.

SFSPCA and SAS leadership described the partnership concept to the staff and rolled out three main goals for year one: decrease the shelter’s dead-in-kennel rate by 10 percent, increase transfers and adoptions by 20 percent and decrease the quarantine rate for animals transferred out of Stockton from its average 16 to 20 days to seven.

“It was easy to get overwhelmed,” remembers Kuzminski. “We wanted to focus and prioritize, [because] you can do a mediocre job at a lot of things.” So they isolated three phases of implementation: triage, to deal with the immediate challenges; prevention, to slow down overall intakes; and sustainability, which would require community involvement.And so it began. Kuzminski and a group of SFSPCA staff and volunteers rolled up their sleeves and got to work treating animals and scrubbing down kennels using new cleaning protocols. Kuzminski, herself, started spending one day at a week at the shelter, providing vet care, while other SFSPCA staff and volunteers worked with overburdened Stockton staff to isolate animals who needed to be quarantined and to ramp up vaccination efforts.

Murrell says their attitude was contagious. “Every person [at the SFSPCA] is about saving lives, and they model that behavior, and they are workhorses. They are tireless.”

The team also focused on transferring out as many adoptable animals as possible. “We knew if we could get those animals to San Francisco, we could get them into homes,” Kuzminski recalls. (SAS has other transfer partners, including Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation and the East Bay SPCA, but for a while they had suspended taking Stockton’s animals because they were coming in too sick.) In year one alone, SFSPCA was able to transfer in and adopt out 1,114 animals from Stockton—a win for both communities.

It quickly became apparent that Stockton was going to need its own vet—someone ready, willing and motivated to take on the gargantuan tasks the situation presented. SFSPCA staff saw it as critical, so they created a position within their own organization for a vet dedicated completely to Stockton. Then they turned to their friends at the UC Davis shelter medicine program, who said they they knew just the right person.

When a mentor approached Sarah Lamborn, a newly minted veterinarian, with the idea of taking a one-year fellowship in Stockton, it was a no-brainer—she had always wanted to work in a community with great need. Lamborn describes the situation in Stockton as like going back in time. What struck her most was “the volume of animals coming into the shelter, period, and the volume of abuse and neglect cases. I did not realize I would be running a mini trauma center.” With Lamborn on board, Stockton finally had more regular access to critical veterinary services.

It wasn’t just the out-of-towners driving change at the shelter. In 2008, SAS’s nonprofit partner, APL, had created a low-cost spay/neuter and spay-neuter-return (SNR) program to address the shelter’s overwhelming cat problems. But it wasn’t extensive enough to meet the tremendous need. The partnership gave them a much-needed boost in resources. With a full-time vet and bolstered reduced-cost spay/neuter and SNR programs, in less than two years, SAS went from an 85 to 90 percent euthanasia rate for cats to nearly an 85 percent save rate.

Just one year into the partnership, the numbers showed a huge turnaround. By 2013, Stockton’s live-release rate jumped to 50 percent, and the quarantine time for Stockton dogs dropped to just five days.

You Can’t Fight City Hall

As hard as SAS and SFSPCA staff have been working to change things, some of their greatest ongoing challenges lie outside the shelter’s walls—the city code system. “The ordinances are so old that they’re stuck in a ‘catch and kill’ mentality,” says Murrell. Dealing with the frustrating bureaucracy has been one of the project’s biggest challenges, she says, and the situation was further complicated when the city filed for bankruptcy in 2012. Fortunately, the city has been largely supportive of the partnership and of efforts to overhaul codes that are limiting progress.

Still, it’s hard to lower adoption and service fees in a city with a budget crisis.All of this has required Murrell and her staff to get creative. For example, one of the long-standing criticisms of the shelter has been its fee structure. People who want to reclaim their pets from the shelter have to pay a variety of state and city fines, including an intact fee for unneutered dogs, that could add up to as much as $330. “In our community,” says Murrell, “that’s oppressive.”

A series of bureaucratic and legal slowdowns have kept the shelter from lowering or waiving fees. Staff were tired of seeing people leave the shelter in tears because they couldn’t afford to bring their pets home. The shelter’s adoption fee for an altered animal, though, was only $100, and that included license, vaccinations and microchip. So SAS devised a work-around: Owners whose animals end up in the shelter for various reasons can re-adopt their own pets for $100, but only if they are altered.

Winning Hearts and Minds

The numbers, of course, don’t tell the whole story. It wasn’t just the animals whose lives were changing.

Jenifer McCollum has seen a lot in her 14 years as a registered veterinary technician at SAS. Until recently, there was little the understaffed shelter could do to save healthy animals, let alone those who came in badly injured. “When I first started here, I was given little packets of Neosporin and told, ‘Here you go. This is what you have to fix animals.’” She recalls periods when staff would have to euthanize 50 or more kittens a day.McCullen is honest about the changes that have taken place since the SFSPCA partnership began—they’ve made a lot more work for a shelter staff that’s already overburdened. The rigorous cleaning protocols and all of the spay/neuter paperwork are tough to keep up with, even with San Francisco’s help. In addition to bringing in Lamborn, SFSPCA has hired a full-time lifesaving coordinator for SAS, but it’s still a struggle. On a given day, three staff members might be in charge of cleaning kennels for 300 or more animals, and that’s before noon, when the shelter opens and those same staff have to then work the front desk. More staff and local volunteers are needed, McCullen says, and given the city’s bankruptcy, she’s skeptical about whether paid help will come anytime soon.

Still, in spite of routinely giving up days off to keep up with the workload, McCullen says all the changes are worth it. She’s grateful to SFSPCA for bringing its tremendous resources to bear in Stockton and giving a boost to the lifesaving efforts that SAS and APL were struggling to keep going. “I didn’t go to college to kill animals,” she says, “I went to help save them.” Now, she’s able to do more of that. “It’s like every [animal] that comes here has a chance … and they didn’t have any chance before.”

Both shelters know, though, that lasting change requires involving the greater Stockton community.

“There were lots of stories about Stockton,” recalls Kuzminski. “They were all bad.”

The team hoped that maybe some of the incredible work going on at the shelter could show the larger community that great things are possible in Stockton. So SFSPCA started a Facebook page for the shelter that helps to publicize the turnaround and showcase adoptable animals through attractive photos and engaging descriptions. They’ve also helped to brighten up the adoption area, so people have a more positive shelter experience.

Additionally, SAS leveraged the SFSPCA’s PR expertise and reputation to work with local media to help tell the story and get people engaged. That’s key if Stockton is going to be able to sustain the work San Francisco has helped to initiate. Indicators are strong that many of the citizens of Stockton want to do the right thing by the city’s animals. At a free spay/neuter and vaccination event last February in conjunction with World Spay Day—one of SAS’s first attempts to reach into the community—at 3 in the morning, people were already lined up with their dogs.

And the community is starting to pitch in financially, as well. More than 450 people showed up on May 1 at a sold-out fundraiser to benefit the shelter. The event raised more than $100,000.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed when there are still so many challenges facing SAS, so Murrell tries to keep the crew motivated by focusing on their successes. She has staff add a marble to a large jar in the front office for each animal saved. (Some of these saves are measured as year-over-year statistics.) Each time the jar fills up, the team has a small party or other treat to celebrate.And the staff must be getting used to celebrations. In year one of the partnership, 2,300 dogs and cats were saved.

SAS staffers know there’s a long way to go, but they’re undoubtedly headed in the right direction. “I’ve had a 30-year career in policing,” says Murrell, “and honestly, this is probably the most success I’ve had in my career. … The air’s lighter here now because [people] have hope that things are getting better.”

SAS veterinarian Sarah Lamborn agrees. “I think the success lies in making it a true partnership, and everybody being heard, and everybody’s values being respected and everybody having a common goal.”

But shelters that want to lend a hand shouldn’t feel they need to have the extensive resources of SFSPCA or engage in such a long-term partnership to make a difference. Sharing knowledge and partnering on one-off events, such as low-cost spay/neuter clinics, could make a big difference for a struggling shelter. Helping can also mean just sharing knowledge about cleaning protocols, how to build a great volunteer program or ways to spur adoptions.

If more shelters team up, the impact will be exponential. SAS veterinary technician Jenifer McCollum says she looks forward to a day when Stockton is doing so well that it can help another shelter. “That’s the ultimate goal—pay it forward.”

Getting Past the Awkward Conversation

In an environment where budgets are overstretched, many shelters could use help. Inga Fricke, director of shelter and rescue group services for The HSUS, is convinced that lots of shelters want to lend a helping hand, but in many cases, they just don’t know how to start the conversation. She recalls a recent conference on shelter medicine where professor and veterinarian Cynda Crawford asked the audience how many of them knew of a shelter that was struggling that they would be willing to try and help. “Hands went up all across the room,” says Fricke. “That was a very powerful moment for me. … If more shelters that are doing a stellar job have resources that they could put to helping elevate another shelter nearby … how many more animals could be saved all around the country?”

But communication seems to be a big stumbling block. Crawford later told Fricke that after her talk, many of those shelter representatives approached her saying they wanted to help, but had no idea how to even start that conversation with another shelter.

“It’s not about rescuing the other shelter, but supporting them,” says Fricke. And that’s something that should be emphasized from the get-go. When San Francisco SPCA leadership sat down with their peers in Stockton, they made it clear that they knew the Stockton Animal Services (SAS) staff were doing their best and just needed some help because the challenges were too great to address with their current resources. Murrell says that nonjudgmental approach got things started on the right foot.

About the Author

Kelly Huegel is a former staff writer for the Humane Society of the United States.