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Zeroing in

By mentoring communities that want to reduce euthanasia, Target Zero drives change

From Animal Sheltering magazine November/December 2014

Target Zero developed its pyramid model by analyzing best practices of cities that have reached "no-kill" status. A little dog who made a big impact, Fred was Tracey Durning's inspiration to save more shelter pets.Waco, Texas, once had a live-release rate of just 32 percent. It's expected to hit 90 percent by mid-2015.Outdated city ordinances were blocking Baton Rouge, La, from initiating an effective trap-netuer-return program for community cats.

It all started with a shelter dog named Fred.

“He was a total disaster when I saw him,” recalls Tracey Durning. “He was very old, and he was shaking.” But after she adopted him, the scrappy little shelter mutt made a huge turnaround, becoming confident and charismatic, and a fixture in her New York neighborhood—the virtual “mayor of Soho,” Durning laughs.

But it wasn’t until after Fred passed, at the ripe old age of 20, that Durning began to realize the extent of his impact on her friends and neighbors. Many told her that Fred had changed their minds about shelter pets. Her wheels started turning.

Durning didn’t know much about the animal welfare movement, but as someone who has made her career out of addressing social problems, she was no stranger to cause-related work. One day, she was having coffee with a funder when their discussion about oceans and climate change took a surprising turn. Out of nowhere, he told her that what he really cared about was whether it’s possible to stop the euthanasia of cats and dogs in shelters.

For Durning, it was a lightning bolt. She told him about Fred, and he encouraged her to go on a fact-finding mission and report back. “So I hired a researcher and an assistant and we really went on this learning journey for six months. And we met with everyone we could, and we just tried to understand where [animal sheltering] had kind of progressed in the last few decades and where we were today.”

Durning’s research lead her to Peter Marsh, a consultant specializing in pet overpopulation and author of Getting to Zero, which outlines strategies for ending shelter overpopulation. In turn, Marsh brought Rick DuCharme—founder of First Coast No More Homeless Pets, which was responsible for a 68 percent decrease in the euthanasia rate in Florida’s Duval County—into the conversation. As the three started comparing notes, it became evident that a mentorship program could be the solution they sought.

Together, they came up with the idea of creating an institute in which thought leaders could mentor cities that wanted to reach zero euthanasia of healthy and treatable animals. They took the idea back to Durning’s funder, and he was instantly on board to back Target Zero (TZ)—a program through which cities can apply for fellowships to receive from experts in animal welfare free, ongoing guidance, ranging from shelter operation analysis to meeting with public officials.

The Power of the Pyramid

Durning recognized the importance of having a solid structure, so she pushed Marsh and DuCharme to come up with a model articulating specific, reproducible steps cities could follow to reduce euthanasia numbers. The result was the TZ pyramid—seven layers defining what communities need to have in place to save lives effectively.

Shelter and public policy sits at the base of the pyramid. Program director and veterinarian Sara Pizano explains that examining a city’s codes and the local shelter’s standard operating procedures are the critical first step. “People just don’t pay attention to the basics,” Pizano says. It’s not uncommon, she says, to come across animal control ordinances that haven’t been updated since the 1950s. “Imagine if you have a 10-day stray hold—that’s going to really limit your lifesaving capabilities versus a three-day stray hold.”

The next level is targeted spay/neuter. Pizano says that subsidizing spay/neuter so that it costs in the range of $10 to $20 for low-income residents has the greatest impact on reducing shelter intake. In addition to focusing on this human demographic, TZ believes shelters should target the most over-represented breeds in their community, whether it’s Chihuahuas, pit bull-type dogs or other breeds entirely. “Make sure you’re doing about five surgeries for low-income pet owners per thousand people in the community that you’re looking at—whether it be county, city, whatever,” she advises. “That seems to be the tipping point. ...”Level three of the pyramid is something that’s been puzzling communities for years—solutions for community cats. TZ advocates a trap-neuter-release (TNR) policy. “You’re sterilizing them, you’re ear-tipping them, you don’t have to waste resources again on them … coming back to the shelter,” Pizano explains.

Surrender prevention programs are level four. Pizano says The HSUS’s Pets for Life program “does the most beautiful job” on something that for a long time, “nobody ever thought of. Everybody was opening the doors to let all of these animals into the shelter. Now, we can fill in the gaps and help people keep their pets in the home.” By reaching into the community and making contact with pet owners in low-income neighborhoods, organizations can team up to provide resources residents need to hold on to their animals.

Some might be surprised to find live-release programs—such as adoptions, transfers, rescues and reunification—higher on the pyramid at level five. Many organizations look at such programs as the basis of their efforts, but Marsh’s research shows that while these are critical components, surrender prevention has a far greater impact.

Near the apex of the pyramid sits foster care, which Pizano says should include not just neonates, but also crisis medical care and crisis fostering for people who need help in the short term. At the very top sits kitten and puppy nurseries, which are so labor-intensive that most communities can’t afford them, but should remain a long-shot goal.

Radical Collaboration

TZ set some basic requirements for cities applying to its program, including having all of their major players willing to get in the game. For Durning, it’s about what she calls “radical collaboration.” Getting to zero has to be a citywide effort, and for that to happen, everyone from animal control to the local government has to be on board. If there’s a local high-volume spay/neuter clinic, that’s included, as well.Once a city applies to be a fellow, staff and advisers review the proposal, making sure all basic criteria are met. Once accepted, a team from TZ holds a town hall meeting to introduce themselves and the effort to the local community. “We just talk about … how we work and what’s going on in their community, and how we think we can help,” Pizano says. “It really avoids misconceptions down the line.”

Then, the TZ team digs in, talking to everyone from local government officials to shelter and rescue boards to animal care staff. “[We] learn about how they operate, what their challenges are, how they’re raising money, where their deficits are in that respect,” says Pizano, who takes the lead on a weeklong shelter assessment, which she calls “one of the most impactful things we can do for a shelter.” During these visits, which she conducts with another TZ vet, they talk to staff and observe operations, then make a formal presentation of their findings and recommendations to leadership.

“A lot of our recommendations don’t cost any money,” says Pizano. “They’re simple, practical population-management issues that end up saving the shelters money. … Most places have people problems, not animal problems, and if the people were taught to work in a streamlined, smarter way, they wouldn’t have as many budgetary problems.”

Being an outside organization gives TZ some latitude. Having no history with the groups involved allows it to make recommendations without worrying about the legacy of bad feelings that sometimes exists among local groups.

Such was the case in Baton Rouge, La., a TZ fellow city that’s experienced a monumental turnaround. From a starting shelter save rate of 50 percent in 2013, it’s expected to achieve 90 percent within the next few years. Christel Slaughter, board chair of Companion Animal Alliance (CAA), which runs the city’s open-access shelter, says TZ played a critical role in getting key players to the table in Baton Rouge. Participating in TZ “forces you to talk about [its recommendations] instead of a particular incident with a particular animal,” she says, allowing groups to move on from hard feelings over an individual past case to more substantive conversations about how money can be spent to do the most good.

DuCharme worked with city council members, talking with them about the benefits of low-cost spay/neuter and other strategies that could help Baton Rouge become the city it wanted to be. After those meetings, Slaughter and another board member were summoned to the mayor’s office. He’d had his finance director and chief administrative officer review the law addressing pet tag fees, and they discovered the fee could be raised by between $3 and $7, which could net the shelter an additional $200,000 annually. They told Slaughter they would support lobbying the council for the increases. Slaughter says TZ gave CAA the credibility it needed to have such interactions with the city. CAA recently lobbied the city council to introduce ordinance changes that would facilitate citywide TNR for community cats.

For Waco, Texas, a city with a 30 percent poverty rate, problems related largely to resources and organization. At the start of its TZ fellowship in 2012, the city had a live-release rate of just 32 percent. That rate is expected to hit 90 percent by mid-2015.

Due to a new partnership, animal control had come under assistant city manager Wiley Stem, who had no significant previous animal welfare experience. Stem shared the city’s will to change things, but wasn’t sure of the way.Pizano’s assessment revealed the city shelter had no real SOPs, and no real capability to write them. So she did it herself, then gathered all the staff and trained them.

Under TZ’s guidance, Waco kicked up its lackluster vaccination program and started charging surrender fees. It started a TNR program for community cats and dedicated resources to helping low-income pet owners meet city requirements. These days, Waco’s animal control officers are more likely to hand out certificates for low-cost spay/neuter than citations.

Show Me the Data

An eye on critical data points is key to TZ’s strategy. “Data, data, data. We’re just crazy about it,” says Durning. TZ won’t consider coming into a city if it can’t show it has a handle on its animal data (though through a partners program, TZ will offer services to help would-be fellows get their data in order). TZ’s initial assessment relies heavily on data analysis to isolate where problems are and set baselines.

Get your staff trained and get your data cleaned up, because it’s the only way you’re going to be able to assess success or failure, or an opportunity to change something and make it better.”
-Sara Pizano

For Pizano, it’s simple. Implement the programs, check the data and see where the numbers have changed, then tweak interventions accordingly. “Get your staff trained and get your data cleaned up, because it’s the only way you’re going to be able to assess success or failure, or an opportunity to change something and make it better.”

In Baton Rouge, TZ officials helped refine the data management protocols, including timeliness of entering information, to ensure that tracking was ongoing. They also trained the CAA board, helping members read the data in ways that would reveal what was effective and what was being overlooked.


Recently, a reporter called Slaughter questioning reports, which showed a dramatic drop in euthanasia numbers. Did she have confidence in those numbers? Slaughter did, and she could easily point to the data to prove it.

Funders want data, says Durning, so they know exactly how things are going, whether the information is good or bad. Though the institute is still funded almost entirely by the generous philanthropist who helped Durning create TZ (who wishes to remain anonymous), TZ is looking to develop ways to help fellow cities cultivate local funding sources. In some areas, community philanthropists and businesses are already stepping forward, asking how they can help.

In the meantime, TZ’s work in cities such as Waco and Baton Rouge is showing that dramatic progress is possible.

“I’ve been here 38 years, and I’ve done a lot of projects here,” Stem says of his beloved city, “but this is the one that’s been the best for me, to see that shelter turn around. … I don’t think we would be where we are if it wasn’t for Target Zero.

About the Author

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