I’ll apologize in advance for the length of this post , but Animal Services is not an easy issue to tackle. Refill that same coffee cup that you used to stay awake when you were reading my posts about the budget, and then settle in. Keep in mind that Garland Council Members are volunteers. The majority of us have 9-5 jobs, and animal services aren’t a full time gig for any of us. With that said, I will try my best to advocate for policies that let professionals in this area succeed at providing a higher level of care. If I get any of the minor details slightly wrong, I beg forgiveness. None of us have all the answers, but together we can get close.
The last few months have been long and difficult working through shelter issues and we still have quite a long way to go. We have been learning more about our structural and operational deficiencies and looking for ways to get better. We have talked, written and yelled to each other about what that best path forward might be to fulfill the animal services mission and to use taxpayer dollars wisely. In this post I will cover a bit of my research, the shelter history, improvements that have been made, improvements in the pipeline, improvements under discussion, goals for the future, criticisms/Q&A, and finally I’ll address ‘The Five Freedoms’.
One last reminder. I do not speak for the City of Garland, nor am I representing the position of the council. The opinions that I express are solely my own. I do my best to be factual in what I write, but I’m human and may get it wrong sometimes.
Apart from visiting the shelter, speaking to staff, city management, rescue groups, and veterinary medical professionals, I’ve been reading two docs to better educate myself on the city’s role in animal services:
Current best practices and shelter standards as published by the Association of Shelter Veterinarians:
Animal Control Management: A New Look at a Public Responsibility, by Stephen Aronson
Our facility was built back in 1965. It is largely open air, except for administrative and medical space up front. With that setup comes several challenges. The structure design pushes us into certain operational patterns that are tough to change without careful consideration. We are having to force ourselves to operate in a way that doesn’t make sense with the building, because the building limits us in some ways to 1965 thinking. But we can do it. It takes time, a bit of money, and a lot of creative thinking until we can get into a new structure.
A simple example of this: our dog population largely stays in cages 24/7 until adoption. The shelter wasn’t built with an attached, fenced area. Our volunteers will take animals out individually and leash walk them for basic exercise. Most modern shelters have attached, fenced green space that they can use.
Since 1965, the role of animal control has shifted from law enforcement, to public health, to include adoption and placement. This is a major culture shift for staff, funding, and buildings.
– We now have an outside veterinarian that we can contact so that our in-house vet can take time off.
– Staff have been trained on recognizing post-operative surgical infections
– A refrigerator and microwave have been donated to the shelter for staff
– Additional medical notes are now posted on the cages so staff and volunteers know what to watch for with certain animals
– Adoption fees waived for senior citizens age 70+
– Adoption fees waived for veterans
– There is a now a single vendor source for food
– Sun shades in high sunlight areas
– Expanded use of e-collars when appropriate
– Improved wayfinding signage to the down town adoption center
– Five new cooling systems have been ordered and should be delivered this week. We’ve pulled money from other projects to cover this expense
– Improved CCTV surveillance system
– Expanded volunteer management program with color-coding to establish levels of responsibility
Improvements Under Consideration
– Council may decide to place a new shelter for voter consideration in the 2019 bond election. A new facility would allow for full heating and air, should make it more comfortable for humans and animals alike, and may help reduce disease and infection rates. A new shelter may also have an attached adoption center as well as green space for animals to get out of the cages and exercise.
– Additional staffing
Criticisms / Q&A
With any department, there’s room for improvement. This section isn’t an attempt to white-wash concerns, and I’ll be painfully honest in areas where we’re either lacking or we have an unfunded need. With that said, some of the criticisms are unwarranted, or apply to all shelters. I’ll draw those distinctions below.
The building is 53 years old. The construction reflects the best practices and attitudes at the time towards animal services.
Heating and Cooling
It’s an open-air facility that makes heating and cooling difficult, but not impossible. The city is adding additional cooling this summer to try and help. The ‘swamp’ coolers currently in use drop the temperature between 10 and 20 degrees depending on humidity and keep the air moving.
Because of recent videos, comments on social media, and citizen comments at council meetings, we’ve delayed funding other projects and better cooling is on the way. The first unit should arrive this week. We’re also now using sun shades in appropriate areas to further cool cages. The answer to this issue is to move into a new facility. Until then, we’ll keep making incremental fixes.
Post-op Infection management
Non-veterinary staff had no training on recognizing and reporting post-operative infections. Since the ‘Newman’ story, all staff members are trained on this topic. Cages have additional tagging to alert staff to watch for signs of infection. For aggressive / fearful dogs, we have ‘stick and mirror’ tools that allow examination of the dog without putting our staff at risk.
Basic and Advanced Veterinary Care
Our system is designed to alert rescues to animals that need something more than basic veterinary care. Our facility flat out is not equipped to deal with advanced or elective medical issues. We handle triage, sterilization, and basic medical needs only. There are no plans to change our approach to this issue.
We administer intake vaccines in the same manner that most shelters do. If an animal is already in medical distress we may opt to not administer vaccines until the animal is stable or healthier. A reminder: vaccines help prevent diseases, they do not cure them. Worse, the Bordetella vaccine is one of the least effective vaccines in existence. After vaccination, animals need 10 -14 days to realize the benefits of the vaccine and can be infected in the meantime. Better HVAC can help cycle out the air, manage humidity and keep out insects to reduce rates of infection.
Note: Rabies vaccines may be delayed based on quarantine periods for animals that are suspected of possibly being infected. Most shelters have built-in delay periods for this case.
Infection Prevention and Management
Quoting from the ASV shelter management best practices document (page 18) that I linked at the start:
“Because canine respiratory pathogens can be easily transmitted through the air, isolation areas for dogs should have separate air circulation from the rest of the facility”
“Dust control is important because microbes may be transmitted by airborne dust (FASS 1999). Airborne dust can contain a variety of bioactive aerosols, particularly endotoxins, which have pro-inflammatory effects and a negative impact on lung function”
All of this tells us that we need a new facility that is designed with these principles in mind. We use large fans to keep air moving and circulating for temperature control, but it doesn’t help for disease management. An outdoor facility invites visible parasites like mosquitos, fleas and ticks to gather, which can facilitate the spread of heartworms and other diseases. Some dogs may also be at greater risk for diseases such as parvo and distemper. Stringent cleaning protocols help reduce risk but parasite control may still be a problem.
Every animal that comes in that is medically able receives a Capstar tablet on intake. Capstar kills most fleas within 30-90 minutes and is around 90% effective. Our outdoor facility doesn’t help us with mosquito control.
Water bowls are checked several times a day. More volunteers will help us keep an eye on the bowls and make sure that a knocked over bowl doesn’t lead to a dehydrated animal. On my inspections, I haven’t seen any empty bowls, but some citizens have reported seeing them. The answer either way is more frequent checks, especially during warm weather.
Poop. It’s a fact of life. But, there are a few things we can do to minimize the amount of time that it is in the cage with them. A new facility with attached green space will encourage the dogs that are crate-trained to go in the outside area. While staff cleans up prior to the shelter opening, dogs will poop throughout the day. Additional volunteer labor can help us keep cages cleaner.
Emaciated animals, Under-feeding, feeding twice a day
We feed medically-normal animals once per day, and we have been guesstimating the amount based on intake weight. Best practices are (again according to the ASV shelter management best practices guide):
At minimum, healthy adult dogs and cats (over 6 months old) must be fed at least once per day (CDA 2009; CFA 2009). Ideally, dogs should be fed twice daily (New Zealand 1998); cats should ideally be fed multiple small meals or encouraged to forage throughout the day (Vogt 2010). If food is not available to cats all day, at minimum, they should be offered food twice daily. Healthy puppies and kittens must be fed small amounts frequently or have food constantly available through the day (free-choice) to support higher metabolic rates and help prevent life-threatening fluctuations in their blood glucose levels (hypoglycemia). Debilitated, underweight, pregnant, and lactating animals should receive more frequent feedings to support increased metabolic needs. Veterinary input should be sought when developing a feeding protocol for a population of animals, or when treating starved animals or individuals with unique nutritional and health needs.
We have moved to a single source food vendor which will help with gastrointestinal upset, and we are meeting the minimum standards set by the state. I plan to push for (once we have the staff or volunteer base to support it) at least weekly weigh-in of each animal and finer adjustments to food offered. If we are treating a dog that was emaciated due to lack of nutrition, we need to correctly ramp up its food allowance. If we aren’t tracking weight or using a more scientific approach to nutrition, then we aren’t doing the animal any favors.
Since our facility doesn’t have a built-in bathing facility, we use a water hose and a kiddie pool. Better use of our volunteers and a willingness to accept the help will increase the number of baths and help improve overall animal health.
Landfill Burial / Euthanized animals / Road kill
I’ve recently investigated the costs associated with landfill burial versus cremation of deceased animals. The cost difference in a neighboring city was quoted at $40/ton for burial and $2000/ton for cremation. Based on capital costs, operating costs, repairs and location, advice from neighboring cities and staff research/opinions we really do need to stick with burial. We have private sector crematoriums in the area which could be used if required. If we feel a need to cremate, we should look to outsource the service.
A recent video has called our transportation practices into question. Specifically, we had a pickup staged and ready to head to the landfill for animal burial, and there were live animals near the truck. According to the people in the video, there was a strong smell from the truck as well. I don’t know how much the layout and lack of space played into the situation, but I would strongly prefer live animals to be nowhere near dead ones. And while we were not in violation of any standing laws, I believe that the spirit of the law is clear. I’ve made my preferences known to the department.
No government-run shelter in the DFW area that I am aware of performs background checks. However, the concept of KYC (Know Your Customer) is one that is common to many industries. During a recent meeting Council member Morris asked that we look at follow-up phone calls to see how the animal is doing, ask about any post-sterilization complications, and gather feedback on our services. Extending her concept a bit, we can use our engagement with our customers to keep basic customer notes and provide a better service. When they come in to look around, did they have a preference for small or large animals? Hypoallergenic breeds? Have we picked up a high energy dog from them before that gets out of the front door frequently? Could we steer them towards a lower-energy dog that is less of a flight risk? Did they and their animal end up on the news due to running a mill or for abuse issues, and we need to prevent them from adopting? KYC extends to both the good and the bad aspects of customer service. We can use internal record-keeping to run a more effective program.
Historically, we’ve sent most of our volunteer force over to the pet adoption center to ensure that it is fully staffed. To quote one of our staff members, “the best way we can care for an animal is to get it adopted into a good home”. But there are volunteers that work better with animals than they do with people. I’ll admit that I’m the guy at the party that spends all of my time petting and playing with the dog and ignoring the people, so I understand. Some volunteers just prefer to work in the kennels.
We are slowly getting better at bringing volunteers into the main shelter facility, training them, and setting out different levels of responsibility. Our animal services director has worked out a color coding system to identify which volunteers can handle various tasks. We’ve historically been deficient in this area, but I think we’re getting better. I like where we are headed, and I’m looking forward to having a full contingent of volunteers in the building.
No Kill Designation, Statistics, Domestic -vs- Feral
We are not, nor will we probably ever be a ‘no kill’ shelter. While our statistics ( > 90% domestic live release rate) allow us to claim that honor, it would be a lie. ‘No kill’ to me means that we don’t euthanize for capacity reasons (rabies and humane medical reasons aside). There’s still a chance that during the spring/summer months when the shelter is overflowing we might euthanize for space reasons. I’m a big believer in truth in advertising.
Also, no-kill speaks only to the release rate of domesticated, non-feral animals. Feral animals typically have release rates of less than 30%. To keep the feral cat population in check (thinking back to my high school biology course that talked about population control and exponential growth), we would need to sterilize 75% of the feral population. We’ve made progress on TNR (trap, neuter, return) which is a catch, sterilize, and release program. We still have to be concerned with rabies issues as well, but releasing feral cats has the added benefit of helping to keep rodent populations down. TNR is a rapidly-evolving segment of animal services across the country, and it’s something I’ve been watching with a great deal of interest. I expect that our policies on this issue will continue to evolve over the coming years.
The Garland Shelter makes no distinction between breeds. We do not proactively euthanize “aggressive” breeds like pit bulls or chihuahuas by policy, although it is this council member’s humble opinion that every chihuahua should come with a warning label and a bottle of Prozac.
Social media coordinator
Why did we spend money on a social media person when the shelter needed funding?
The social media person is for the entire city – 2000+ employees and 42 departments. They do not just handle animal services work. Garland is the 12th largest city in the state. Because social media is where many people get their information and news, we’ve had trouble with communications. This is less of a ‘nice to have’ and more of a primary communication channel for our citizens. Think about how you got to this article to begin with. Twitter? Facebook? Nextdoor.com? Social media works, and it’s an area that the city has to function in.
Inspections (Personal and DSHS)
Due to complaints, council members and the Department of State Health Services have inspected the facility. Neither have found significant material deficiencies in the shelter based on the state minimums. But as I asked in a recent work session, are we okay with just doing the minimum? Do we want to shoot for C’s or try for A’s? There’s a balance between fulfilling the department mission, responsible use of taxpayer dollars, and humane treatment. We can do better in what we fund and in the expectations that we set for the department. So far, our staff has risen to the bar that we’ve set every time we’ve raised it as a council. I’m interested in finding out how high we can set the bar in a way that makes managerial and financial sense.
Training is an on-going challenge. Our staff were not trained in recognizing post-op complications, because it was assumed that our vet would always spot any problems. However, due to vacations, illness and seasonal crowding, it was unreasonable to expect that a single staff member would catch everything. We’re training our team to recognize issues and report them.
The 30-Minute Rule
At a recent council meeting, we ran into a rule that limits citizen comments to 30 minutes maximum. Because we rarely have a large turnout for non-agenda items, we haven’t run into that limitation in recent memory. I made a motion to suspend the rules and extend citizen comments to 60 minutes. That motion failed due to lack of a second.
There are a dozen reasons that a council member might not second that motion. Meetings are designed to work around the agenda in order to keep business moving and not bog down the process. This time the topic was about something current and relevant, but if a few hundred people showed up to complain about the results of a primary election in Turkmenistan, we would want reasonable rules in place to limit the time on the conversation. The feedback I’ve received is that the motion didn’t receive a second due to the reason behind the rule, and not out of a desire to limit commentary about the shelter. I respect the council’s position on this issue and will set a higher bar for myself for that motion in future meetings.
As it was, several council members stayed after the meeting and had productive discussions with people in the well of the council chambers. Thank you to everyone in the chamber that stayed after the meeting to sit and talk.
The Five Freedoms
During our last council meeting on June 5th, one of the speakers mentioned the Five Freedoms for animals. This is a recurring theme in shelter management and is a universally-acknowledged principle of domestic animal care.
I’ve looked for ways that we can improve in each area, and listed those ideas, some high profile things that we’re already doing, along with the Five Freedoms below.
1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst: by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor
– Weigh animals more often and adjust food quantities
– Use additional volunteer and employee staffing to verify clean water levels
2. Freedom from Discomfort: by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area
– A new facility will fix the majority of our current issues.
– Supplemental cooling (on order)
– Use additional volunteer and employee staffing to verify cleanliness of kennels
3. Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease: by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment
– Continue rapid placement with rescues for advanced medical needs.
– Continuous improvement of staff to recognize and respond to medical needs.
– A new facility will help with spread of disease by better controlled air flow and isolation areas for sick animals.
4. Freedom to Express Normal Behavior: by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind
– Normal behavior includes the ability to run. A new facility will need attached green space.
– Large and small breeds of dogs are already separated, and different species are in different areas of the building.
5. Freedom from Fear and Distress: by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering
– It’s hard to tell what will cause fear or distress in each animal, but lower noise levels, controlled lighting and a more comfortable climate can help. Exercise can de-stress an animal, as can general wellness. Shelter settings are stressful by nature, so we have to be creative and look for ways to improve the animal’s environment.
Folks, we have some work to do. We can place a lot of the blame for our shortfalls on the structure itself, but there’s more that can and should be done. Animal Services is usually an after-thought in most cities, but the attitude towards animal control and adoption have changed over the last fifty years and our service levels have got to catch up. While we’re meeting every legal standard that is in place, those standards are written as safety nets to ensure only the most basic humane care. It is to our credit that we aren’t deficient in any area, but there’s a large gap in where we are and where I believe we ought to be.
Thank you to staff, citizens, activists, and council for working so hard on this issue. I hope that at the end of this process we’ll have something meaningful to show for it.
Updates since original posting:
6/12/18: Garland’s Trap-Neuter-Release rate is nearly double the average at around 50%. Nice job guys!
6/14/18: We use Certifect, Frontline, Activyl and Spot-on for additional longer-term flea and tick management.