Tenet 4: Increase Visibility of Impounded Animals

Dr. Bill Paul, Director of Health, has appointed Rebecca Morris, a program specialist at the Health Department, to research best practices and successful programs at other animal control facilities.  Ms. Morris has been tasked with taking that research and designing a plan to lower the euthanasia rate at Metro Animal Care & Control.  During the most recent MACC Advisory Council meeting, while Ms. Morris didn’t provide any specific details, she did mention that one of the new programs was titled, “Saving Lives Through Photography.”  As you all probably know (and if you don’t, you will read below), we provided Health Department officials with extensive information on similar successful volunteer-managed programs, as well as a complete project implementation plan for photographing and promoting adoptable animals at MACC.  We even offered to recruit the volunteers to do it.

Please enjoy the perspective and experience of this dedicated volunteer and Concerned Citizen…

No pictures allowed?
Daniel Henry, Rescue Imagery

I spent a happy three years as an animal shelter adoption photographer.  The work consisted of taking and editing pictures, sharing them with rescue organizations, and posting available animals on PetFinder so they could find homes. Although I stumbled into this work, I quickly came to love it. I loved interacting with the animals and helping calm them from their stress. I loved making photos which showed an animal’s spirit and potential, and I loved seeing people respond with love toward that animal. Although sheer numbers often made the work exhausting, I found the ability to help save lives to be rejuvenating, and ultimately, transformative.  It wasn’t until later that I realized this is what most people want when they volunteer. In fact, people are usually drawn to work that makes them feel good. I hope some of you may decide to try it for yourselves. The animals really need your help.

It’s hard to know what’s driving the dismal outcomes at Metro Animal Care & Control.

Does Nashville have an unusually high number of irresponsible pet-owners?

 Are “bully breeds” inherently dangerous?

 Is breed-designation by MACC staff in place to support facility policies, regardless of accuracy?

 Does MACC believe the public should never see animals that it deems unsuitable for adoption?

 Why do MACC officials, instead of science and adopters, decide what animals are adoptable?

On the face of it, with high shelter euthanasia rates, a huge stray population, and publicity about inherently dangerous breeds, high shelter adoption rates would seem unrealistic. But we know it’s not.  It appears MACC has a system of archaic beliefs and policies that have been in place so long that it can’t seem to make the changes needed to ensure success.  Is it any wonder that adoptions fall short or that MACC kills 76% of the animals it impounds?

As a volunteer stumbling around with a camera and an assistant, I began to wonder why so many of the animals had to die. Nobody admitted to really like killing animals, but there were just so many more of them than people or places for them. Gradually, I came to see that while it was true enough that there were too many animals, it was equally true that most of these animals were never even introduced to the public. How could they ever find homes if nobody knew about them in the first place? Despite this, in both facilities in which I worked, the staff claimed to be fully on the side of adoption. Indeed it was clear that some of them genuinely loved animals. And there were even those few who would go out of their way to help a specific animal. Nevertheless, there were still obvious disconnects. “We believe in adoption instead of killing. But our operational policies still favor killing.” For me, this became the paradox of animal shelters. So I took a small stab at “fixing” it.

I knew precious little about animal welfare, which generally is a poor way to start, but I reasoned that the charitable nature of my work justified a new camera.  So I happily proceeded on my way. My assistant and I started to work a couple of days a week, 6-10 hours a day, photographing every shelter animal the director said could be adopted. We published three photos plus a bio of each animal on PetFinder, so we spent considerable time actively engaged with the animals. All were lonely, scared, and helpless. But they seemed grateful for our attention. We found it impossible to do the work without getting attached to the animals we tried to help. Luckily we found, more often than not, our efforts found animals homes. And this is what kept us going…especially when our best efforts failed.

In a few months we got feedback from adopters – what had engaged them with their new pet were the pictures and the biography on PetFinder.  Many people commented that the photos enabled them to emotionally connect with the animals.  We gradually had rescue groups who called us because they could count on the quality of our pictures and bios. Several adopters told us they decided to drive across state lines to meet an animal because of our pictures.  It gradually became clear that attractive images and honest stories have a profoundly positive impact on shelter adoption rates.

Foot traffic increased considerably in the wake of increased PetFinder exposure. Word of mouth spread that the shelter was adopting more animals. The director utilized volunteers to extend adoption hours and nearly every animal past the required state of Tennessee 3-day stray hold got added to PetFinder.  Our project seemed to spread joy in all directions. The director was delighted to see the kill rate dramatically decline.  One shelter went from a 82% to 18% kill rate in 10 months, and the other declined from 92% to 76% in 6 months!  The number of volunteers grew with the number of adoptions.  More animals were going to forever homes. The staff were relieved they didn’t have to kill as much, and working adoption shifts improved staff morale.  Citizens told us, again and again, how happy they were that their shelter was becoming a more positive and hopeful place.

This is precisely what should be happening in Nashville at Metro Animal Care and Control. This is what Concerned Citizens for Change has formally presented and offered to implement for MACC to stem its high kill rate. We have the skills to do it, the volunteer labor to do it, and the benefit of experience to know all the challenges, shortcuts, and pitfalls involved. We can help bring down MACC’s abysmal kill rate within weeks, at zero cost to the facility or the taxpayers. It seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it?  Not to MACC and the Health Department leadership it isn’t.  In fact, each of the four times we have offered to address this central problem, we have been turned down.

Remember the animal shelter paradox mentioned above? Like so many others, MACC Director Ladebauche purports to want to lower the kill rate and increase adoptions. However, MACC policies manage to accomplish just the opposite. Most of this is hidden from public view, so it is difficult for citizens to realize that behind the window-dressing, an unnecessary blood-bath of staggering proportions continues daily in our city.

Here are the facts:

  1. Of the total impounded animals at MACC, 76% are killed, most of which are never allowed to be seen by the public or advertised to animal rescue organizations. These are the “hidden” animals of MACC, and most are arbitrarily slated for death. We expect this number to rise in the coming months with the addition of three more MACC field officers.
  2. MACC allows the public to choose among only a tiny percentage of their animals to have forever homes.
  3. MACC’s volunteer program has too many roadblocks to participation. It is also too small to be effective at either increasing adoption or engaging the public.

If Director Ladebauche and the Metro Public Health Department changed these things and were willing to utilize the volunteer help which has already been offered, Nashville would begin to see some of its needless slaughter decrease. In fact, most of the obvious obstacles to this  goal can be fairly easily removed. But before this can occur, MACC must embrace its public, make equal opportunity adoption a priority, and stop placing roadblocks in the face of the Nashville animal welfare community.

We are still optimistic that MACC will accept the time and expertise of talented photographers like Dan.  Regardless, best of luck to Ms. Morris in tackling the high kill rate at MACC.  We sincerely hope she is successful in effecting measurable change through new programs.  Until then, bark on.  We must keep fighting for these animals!

Health Department Program Specialist Rebecca Morris can be contacted at rebecca.morris@nashville.gov.  We are told she is very interested in building a bridge with the general public and has an open door policy.

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2 thoughts on “Tenet 4: Increase Visibility of Impounded Animals

  1. Beautifully written piece that is spot-on! Our family drove 3 hours round trip to adopt a dog from a rural county rescue after seeing his picture on Petfinder. Photographers like Dan and websites like Petfinder save lives, no doubt!

  2. We have to be more visible and get news stations involved and the newspaper again.

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