Making Animal Shelters Work: A Case Study
There are hundreds of millions of companion animals in the U.S. including about 78 million dogs and 86 million cats living in homes. More than 60% of US households have at least one companion animal – and millions more than live in shelters around the country. Depending on the statistics you find, millions of dogs and cats are euthanized in U.S. shelters each year. Shelters are operated by a variety of local, country, and state governments as well as non-profit animal welfare groups that provide animal care services. It can be a complex network, making it hard to get a clear sense of the state of things. Regulations also vary widely from state to state. Animal shelters find themselves at a strange intersection between a general public with ambiguous feelings about companion animals and regulatory bodies that take an uneven approach.
This article presents a case study of the sheltering system in Kentucky. The state’s sheltering system faced intense criticism in 2002 when a shelter worker was caught “euthanizing” dogs by gunshot. This led to the adoption of a Humane Shelter Law in 2004, but enacting the law did not change things overnight. In 2010, the Metro Animal Services of Louisville, the biggest city in Kentucky, received 14,149 animals, adopting 17% (2,147), returning 9% (1,140), transferring 16% (2,193) to other organizations, and euthanizing 57% (more than 8,000 animals). This study, the first of its kind in Kentucky, collected data from a range of shelters. The authors received data from 92 of the state’s 120 shelters. The objective of the study was to collect comprehensive data that would help “provide a scientific foundation for the further improvement of animal shelters in Kentucky.” They also hope data from Kentucky might have implications for the U.S. more broadly.
The authors found that Kentucky has the potential to be a model state when it comes to animal sheltering. The Kentucky Humane Shelter Law “provides a strong platform” for building strong shelters. However, the main barrier continues to be data collection. They recommend requiring the Kentucky Animal Control Advisory Board to make it mandatory for shelters and counties to complete surveys “on the identifiers defined by the Humane Shelter Law.” Anyone who does not meet the minimum care identifiers would get a visit from the board to make a judgment on potential improvements. Such a simple shift in policy would “remove the responsibility from individual citizens to challenge county shelters through the legal system” and place the responsibility “back on the advisory board and state government officials.” Even a relatively simple change in data collection would have the potential for large impact. The authors assert that “the Commonwealth of Kentucky could become a leader in the ethical and humane treatment of companion animals in the nation.”
The study should be an encouraging one for shelter workers and companion animal advocates. There is strong potential for sheltering systems to turn themselves around, including in places like Kentucky that face substantial challenges. In addition to the potential positive effects it could have on shelters, the authors note that “the data mandated by the Humane Shelter Law could also help owners locate lost pets quickly and efficiently.” Of course, helping people locate their lost pets is a positive for both shelters and people, in addition to being an obvious positive for the animals themselves. This study shows that data is not only valuable by itself; it can also be essential in setting shelter policy and steering some animal shelters in a more positive direction.