I want to share a strange and surprising revelation.
I believe a Jewish mathematician, who was hounded out of Europe by the Nazis, can help us figure out what’s missing in the No Kill model and how we must change it if we are ever to get to no more homeless pets.
Abraham Wald landed in the Applied Mathematics department of Columbia University.
That was the nerve center where the Allied Command went with urgent engineering questions. Chief among them was how to armor our fighter planes that were going down in droves.
Since making totally armored flying tanks was out, they asked Wald’s team to figure out the minimal but effective amount of armour.
Allied Command had data on spots where the planes were most frequently hit. He only had to efficiently arm those spots.
Looking at the diagram he paused and said,
“You are asking me the wrong question. We should arm the places the bullet holes are NOT. Every plane you studied came home. The ones hit in the blank spots are on the ground in Germany.”
Measuring the right data is also life/death in sheltering. And how we do that is as vital to our success as it was to the pilots.
I love the theme this year not just because I get to wear vegan Doc Martens with my sherwani, but because 17 years ago, we did the most rock’n’roll thing that a shelter had ever done in Houston.
We brought No Kill here.
100 years of Shelter 1.0 was suddenly faced with Shelter 2.0.
Many people in our movement never gave much thought to how difficult it might be for people to re-examine or give up entirely things that so many people had thought so true for so long. And by many people not giving it much thought, I mean me.
But karma is a funny thing.
And I think it is our turn to question some no kill assumptions, and see which to keep and which do not serve us.
What was 2.0 all about?
In a word—accountability.
Shelter 1.0 was externally focused. Literally how many rabid dogs could the dog catchers pull off the streets. What happened within the walls of the facility was hidden—even irrelevant—to how they measured success.
The No Kill movement brought more inward-focused shelters. We keep and share data. We hold ourselves to certain standards of care. We agree that no kill guarantees a right to life to all shelter animals, and any decision to end a life is based on the best interests of the individual animal.
We also agree on the ultimate goal: No More Homeless Pets.
Friends For Life is all four feet in, so far.
Like any new movement, no kill started with a cacophony of voices. We were open to anything that might save lives. We explored. Tried new things.
Over time, the no kill voices have become much more homogenized under a national marketing machine’s big tent into a three point mantra that is repeated at conference after conference, eblast after eblast…
- High volume adoptions are key. Events like Clear the Shelters encourage organizations to do hundreds of adoptions in a day.
- Private shelters should only pull animals from tax-payer funded shelters and not take animals from individuals or take strays
- If all shelters reach a 90% live release rate, we will achieve “no more homeless pets”
So let’s have the courage that we asked of the Shelter 1.0 guard and look at this big tent Nicene Creed of sheltering.
What if we could run an experiment, to see if, in fact, high volume adoptions and high live release rates do equal fewer homeless pets in the community?
Well, there was one experiment.
And, sadly, it happened right here in Houston.
In 2017, despite our best efforts, thousands of animals drowned. Thousands more were loaded on massive transport caravans and shipped out of the state. Thousands and thousands more were adopted through every shelter and rescue as we all exponentially exceeded our previous adoption records.
So what should have happened to Houston shelter intake post Harvey?
It should have fallen through the floor, right?
According to City data, there was barely a blip in intake in 2018, and we’re now above pre-Harvey intake numbers.
All this, as this week, BARC posted their highest live release rate ever.
Could Houston be an outlier? We looked at data from across the US: Austin, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Lubbock, San Antonio and 10 others, and found exactly the same thing…
While No Kill has made a big difference in Live Release rates, it had no effect on intake. So, as 2.0, we are running better shelters, AND THAT’S WONDERFUL… but our equation is not making a dent in reducing homeless animal populations.
How can we reverse the rising intake trend?
It must be something beyond 2.0.
We think it’s Shelter 3.0.
Let’s take another look at the Houston City data. Were there any zip codes where intake went down?
Zip code 77009 went from #1 in cat intake for ten years.
Then to #4.
And the decline continues.
A few years earlier we targeted that zip with a door-to-door cat spay/neuter program we called Fix Houston™. It took long-term focus and several thousand free cat surgeries until we got the cat population 80% fixed, which stabilizes community cat population growth.
It paid off. We have, indeed, reversed the trend of rising intake in a whole zip code.
So let’s start building this model.
- Shelter 3.0 MUST include boots-on-the-ground, data-driven program to stabilize populations of community cats.
I hear you, dog people — how is this going to help dogs?
Most animals taking up resources at shelters are cats—and 92% of them are born to free-roaming cats.
And when we spend resources on litter after litter of homeless kittens, you know who’s left looking through the chain link at traditional shelters waiting to be walked back to euthanasia or languishing at no kill shelters that can’t meet their unique needs?
They are big dogs with behavior challenges. They are every shelter’s Holy Grail to place. They are the animals most killed and least adopted.
- And to help them, we MUST add a second ingredient to shelter 3.0: a strong, data-driven behavior program.
I happen to know a shelter that has the best one in Texas.
At Friends For Life we have a vibrant behavior team. 150 people strong, with 6 employees and over 140 trained volunteers, we are rehabbing and placing animals from every major shelter in Houston. Our next step is to have a dedicated space to fully carry out this program.
Abraham Wald would say that while we do care about the other parts of our airplane, we must especially enhance two parts to bring our plane all the way home:
- 3.0 must focus on community cats – Fix Houston™ must be not just in one zip code but in 10, 20, then all of them.
- 3.0 must have a strong behavior program with a place to carry out fear-free, force-free practices and offer classes to the public and train other shelters to do it. Only then we can reach through the chain link and pull out those lost dogs.
- Finally, Shelter 3.0 must take animals directly from our community.
We have always chosen to help our neighbors directly and the highest honor is to be worthy of their trust.
This summer we received a distressing message from an 80-year-old woman desperately looking for help. Nearing the end of her life, she realized that the five cats she loved dearly would be better with someone else. She wrote:
“I can walk, but with difficulty. I have sold the house because it is too large for me to care for. I have not found a place to live yet, but am looking into either a small apartment or a personal care home. Neither will accept my five cats. An apartment might allow two of them, but how to choose?
It is making me sick.
My cats are the heart of my heart.
Can you please help me?”
And it was signed—
We made plans to immediately welcome her beloved cats—Misha, Miles, Harry, Cassio and Fiona. The intake was scheduled for a Saturday at 10:00 AM.
The Friday night before intake, at home with her cats, Miss Bobbie passed away.
I will always hope that she passed feeling peaceful about the cats she loved so much knowing the next morning, they would begin a new life.
Her kind neighbors kept Fiona and brought the remaining four cats to us.
We took them in, and our Fraidy Cat behavior team worked hard to help these cats—who had known only Miss Bobbie their entire lives—to feel safe.
Misha can be found sunning in our adult room and Miles is happy in his foster home. Harry and Cassio have been adopted.
Miss Bobbie’s cats are living examples why we take animals from the public. This is the heart of our work—to be where people turn for help at their most desperate.
It is every animal parent’s worst fear that one day they will have to completely trust their animals to a stranger.
All the special food, little routines and silly voices you share with your companion could become just memories for them one day. That they would then rely on the gentle touch of someone you may never meet is a leap of faith that leaves most of us breathless.
I experienced the moment of meeting the cats as a pet parent, not a shelter director. While I like to think that I have made plans that will prevent my animals from ever being at the mercy of strangers, I realize that may not be how it unfolds.
If you support a shelter, visualize handing them your animals and walking away.
For my animals and for yours, we want to bring about a world in which animal lovers can trust all shelters to act in our stead with Reverence, Mercy and Love.
Here’s to Shelter 3.0.
Remember, you change the world when you change your mind. Let’s get this plane all the way home.