When I heard about how UPAWS in Michigan went from an open admission shelter who killed more pets than they saved to an open admission shelter saving more than 90% of their pets, I wanted to know more. We often hear from kill shelter staff and their supporters that no kill is just not possible in our community/on our budget/until we have MSN/etc. And yet UPAWS shows us, once again, that it is possible in the very community they had previously driven away from their shelter. They don’t have MSN in their county. And the cost to taxpayers for this incredible lifesaving effort? Zero dollars.
So we know it’s possible, but how difficult is it – making that change? I wanted to know from those who were there during the years of killing, the transition period and the present environment of lifesaving. I asked UPAWS board members if there was a “darkest hour” along the way – a point where they doubted they could pull off such a turnaround. And I specifically wanted to know how they handled dogs with behavior issues which would make them “unadoptable” in many shelters (cage aggression, resource guarding, etc.). Several members generously shared their experiences and thoughts. You have read some of what Reva Laituri had to say here. Now I want to share with you the responses I received from other members. Thank you to Ann Brownell, Lynn Andronis, Joan Mulder, Dayna Kennedy and to everyone else at UPAWS doing the hard work of saving lives. I hope your words will motivate others who believe no kill isn’t achievable.
I gave careful consideration to editing their letters and putting together a post in my usual manner. But after much deliberation, I decided I really wanted to share each of their responses with you in their entirety. Because every word they have to say is important. This is what every shelter in America can be. This is the testimony of no kill in action.
My name is Ann Brownell and I have been volunteering since 1997 at UPAWS. I was on the Board in 2002-2004. I am currently on the UPAWS Board since 2008.I am one of the few that gained the trust of the previous Executive Director (before 2006 and she leaving). She did not seem to trust many people. As I look back now, I know the ED loved animals and she felt that she was doing the right thing with stringent rules and regulations, but I always felt that I was defending the rules, the stringent policies. The public was not treated well a lot of the time. I felt foolish after the change, and I like Reva, feel like I was part of it all. I just blindly trusted the ED and what she said. The thing is I never knew was how much euthanasia was really happening — kittens, puppies, dogs, cats, rabbits… I always felt like I was walking on egg shells….never knowing exactly “what” was wrong…just having a feeling. The majority of our community disliked our shelter. I didn’t realize to what extent until after management change.
The former management did not trust the media. When we had a huge cat neglect case in 2004, I asked why don’t we contact the local TV station and ask for help. I was told NO that they would get the facts wrong and that we should keep this within our shelter’s close knit few. That was a turning point for me. I started to really question in my mind what was happening. Felt sad and bad a lot of the time but I stayed for the animal’s sake. If that large neglect case would happen today – we would be contacting the media asap!
So after the change in management and the ED leaving, yes, I was of the mindset of “Oh no, we may be in trouble here”. But the animals needed us. The first year was tough, I have to admit. There were former supporters that stood by old management and let us know that they were not happy at all with the changes. They fought the change. We lost their support but as the months went by, we gained support from others who found out we were going in a new positive life-saving path. For me it was a rocky time but we got through it and as more animals found homes it spurred us to know we were going in the right direction. Redemption saved us!
I remember in 2005 two cats being euthanized because they were 7 years old. There was no reason to euthanize those cats, but I was told they were too old and would never adjust. I cried for them, I was so sad. I planned on leaving. I am so glad I didn’t. We adopt out senior pets all the time…and they are loved and they do adjust.
After reading Redemption I felt stronger than ever that we needed to reach out to the community by asking the TV station, radio and newspapers to help. Before the change, our website was updated every few weeks (when management had the time). We had a great looking website but it wasn’t being updated. I begged to be able to take it over to be able to keep the pets up to date. Though I did finally get more access toward the end, I knew the potential of the website was being missed. After the change, our Board voted to make a new committee called Community Relations of which I am chair. I am very proud of the accomplishments. Our website is updated every night and I take great pride in taking photos and videos and being part of writing their stories. I hear all the time from so many people in our community, “I love your website, we go on it every day!” We have a page with an article and pets for adoption in the local weekly newspaper and I am constantly faxing PSA’s to the radio stations. Our daily newspaper prints PSA’s for us all the time and in fact, we now have a local newspaper writer who writes a column for our newsletter. We also have a local radio station that does a weekday segment for us in the afternoon, talking about two pets of the day and what UPAWS is up to. A monthly segment on a local TV show has now been added. The media does this for free for UPAWS, it costs us nothing. Consistency is the key; I make it a priority to have UPAWS in the public eye in some way every day. I love Community Relations!
There is more to do but we know we are on the right path and we are constantly “thinking outside the box” with new adoption promotions, new ideas. But it is fun, I love it and though I work a regular paycheck job in retail, I am passionate about our shelter and the homeless pets. Nothing today gives me more joy.
The change in direction occurred rather sharply on December 1, 2006 with a change in management. (Note: Our Director resigned – was not fired.) As a board, we had agreed with her request to not publicly announce her resignation until the end of November, even though her resignation letter was submitted in August. Our reputation in the community was such that many people refused to adopt from us and would instead travel 50 miles (or more) to adopt from another shelter. At the end of November, we began what could only be described as a “media blitz” within our community. We utilized every resource we had….press releases (for ANY reason), news articles (for ANY reason), television and radio interviews (again, for ANY reason) and having a “Grand Opening” to publicize our “new look” (a cleaning/painting job, really). The “dark hole” I was facing was a shelter full of animals, with a new attitude but no “human” clients! Sort of like…”if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it make a sound?” We planned and executed the best approach we could have….but would it work? Thankfully, it did. By the time we started our “Home for the Holidays” campaign in mid-December, we had almost no cats and had to transfer them IN from another nearby shelter (our first official transfer!).
In addition, the financial hole we were during the Fall of 2006 was so large that there was a genuine fear that we would have to shut our doors. In my heart I knew that once people found out about the change in management, the adoptions/donations would increase. I knew that we wouldn’t lose supporters because of the Director’s departure. In fact, I was positive that MORE people would support us. But would the money come in time? The increase in revenue from adoptions helped us through the early months until the donations began to increase once word of our “new attitude” became better known. But, it was a stressful time for me…..would everything happen as we wanted it to, or would some part (or all) of the plan fall apart?
I also had a personal concern that at the 2007 Annual Meeting, there would be a “hostile takeover” of our board. In past years, our members’ meeting was only attended by about 5 people, plus the board. Unfortunately, those 5 people were rabid supporters of our previous director. I came prepared with graphs showing a month-by-month comparison of adoption and euthanasia rates. They showed a dramatic flip of those rates that coincided with her departure. If this was the direction that these few members wanted for our shelter, I felt that they should be confronted with the reality of her tenure on our animals. Fortunately, I walked into the meeting and there were almost 50 people in attendance. I knew, at that point, that our direction was safe and so were our animals!
For me, the economic downturn in the Fall of 2008 was another potential problem. I was noticing that our admissions were increasing at a record pace, with a majority of the people citing financial difficulties. I was fearful that the economy would have a similar effect on our adoption rates and donations. Although many shelters across the country experienced increases in surrenders (as we did), they also saw decreases in adoptions (we did not). I attribute our ability during the hard financial times (and since) to the publicity that our animals receive on a continual basis (thanks to Ann for her hard work!).
The semantics of the “No-Kill” vs. “Low-Kill” was not a “dark hole” for me, but generated lots of internal debates. Once our policies and practices were changed, there was some discussion about claiming a “No Kill” status for our shelter. I (and others) take the “man on the street” approach to what exactly “no kill” means. In that common-sense view, “no kill” means never picking up the needle and frankly….we do.
In the past, our Director would never talk about our kill rates in public. I openly admit that we euthanize, but explain why this is our only alternative and our stats provide an easy explanation of our work. Because we are an open-admission shelter that also handles stray animals for our community, we have absolutely no control over what type of animals come through our doors. We accept ALL of them and for that reason we will always have to make the hard (but necessary) decision to kill (even when it is our only option). We euthanize animals that come to us so ill or injured that euthanasia is the most humane solution for that particular animal. We euthanize those dogs that come to us that would rather rip your face off than sit on your lap. We also perform Owner Requested Euthanasias if approved by staff. We don’t talk about “no kill/kill” rate – the numbers are explained as “of all the animals that came into our shelter last month (or last year), X% walked out the door on their own 4 feet.” Again, this is an easy way to describe our work to a lay-person….i.e., the “man on the street.” We have nothing to hide, but more importantly, it is the truth.
I know that many shelters across the country have been using the Asilomar Accords formula for their data collection. Unfortunately, some of these shelters are using the designations of “unhealthy” or “untreatable” to just reclassify their animals. The actual kill rates don’t change….just their designation of the animals. Personally, I view this as “spin” to make a shelter appear to change, but their internal practices have not and so the rate of killing remains the same. For example, shelters can claim to be “no kill” because they don’t kill on site, they take the animals to the vet’s office for the killing. But, HEY….their numbers “look” better to the public! No Kill/Low Kill means that the internal policies actually change so that more animals are saved. Anything other than that….in my view, is a lie. Every shelter needs to maintain their honesty/veracity within their community if they want to continue to operate successfully and save lives. (Sorry….I’ll get off my soapbox now.)
SIDE NOTE: Please note that I often use the word “kill” (instead of euthanasia) so as to not diminish the enormity of what we are doing and our responsibility.
SIDE-SIDE NOTE: Just to be clear on the issue of our past and current finances. It’s not that we are receiving substantially more donations over previous years. We do, however, have a little bit of a “cushion” now. It’s that we are finding homes for many more animals. We still face the same problems as many other small local shelters. Our building is 30 years old and needs work (we would love a new building, but can’t afford it); we are situated out in the “boondocks” and many people can’t find us (we would love a new location, but can’t afford it); although we have a beautiful/effective website, our shelter does not have high-speed internet access or a computerized shelter management program, all paperwork is done by hand; our staff works very hard for very little pay; there are times during the year where our census skyrockets (right now we have 70 cats….70 cats!); our volunteer board works their butts off doing what they can to help get animals adopted or pitch in at the shelter; and the list goes on. We still face many obstacles in our future and each of us involved know that our work will continue. We are all committed to that work.
When we decided to change our shelter we knew we could make a difference in the
animals lives. We hope that our story will inspire other open admission
shelters to turn away from the killing and start saving lives. It CAN be
done. No matter how small or big you are!
I first became involved at UPAWS as a volunteer in 2001. They had a case
of 35 starved/neglected horses and since I’ve had horses all my life I
called to help out. I then became a board member in 2003 and employed as
their bookkeeper in 2004. During my 2 year tenure at UPAWS, I sadly
witness a high percentage of wonderful animals euthanized. It was due to
the same old thought process, “too many animals, not enough adoptable
homes, the animals are better off dead than in a home where they could be
abused or neglected”. The euthanasia rate was so high that there were a
few months where it was over 100% in cats (that means that they euthanized
every cat that came through the doors plus ones that had been there from
the months before). I quit May 2005 and met with a few board members to
discuss what was going on and I told them that I’d come back as a
volunteer and donor as soon as things changed.
I returned as a volunteer and donor the end of 2006 when the Executive
Director resigned, and back on the board the beginning of 2007 and then I
was then elected treasurer fall 2007 to the present time. The entire
board decided that the killing had to stop and started making changes. A
lot of it was trial and error but we all made a firm commitment to save
every adoptable animal that came through our doors. One of our board
members had read Redemption by Nathan Winograd and told the rest of us
about it. I bought one of the books, read it and then bought 3 more books
to give to each board member to read and then pass on to another board
member. Reading the book inspired the board even more that we can make a
difference and stop the killing.
We had quite a lot of hurdles we had to overcome to change our shelter.
As an open admission shelter we wondered if we could accomplish our goal
of every adoptable animal being adopted. Our reputation in the community
prior to these changes was terrible. Other shelters in our area would
barely even talk to us. Law enforcement and the county prosecuting
office were angry with us. The old “regime” that left the shelter was
doing their best to get what supporters we had to quit donating to us. We
even were accused by some of the local vets for “warehousing” animals. To
this day the state inspector for Michigan shelters keeps writing us up and
threatening to close our doors because we aren’t euthanizing (specifically
the cats) enough. There were so many misconceptions about our
organization because we used to be named the Marquette County Humane
Society that people thought we got county support and that we were a part
of the Humane Society of the United States.
The first two years of changing our shelter was challenging and very
financially difficult. We could barely cover our every day expenses.
Just about every cat in the shelter came down with an upper respiratory
infection. In the past the standard practice in our shelter was if a cat
so much as sniffed all the cats in the shelter were euthanized. We
decided that putting the cats down just because they had a treatable cold
was not even an option. Some of the cats and kittens were so sick that we
had to bring them to the vet for emergency care. Our vet bills and
medication bills went through the roof, draining just about every last
dollar we had built up in our checking and savings account. We had many
special board meetings to discuss how we could get more money. I as
treasurer had many sleepless nights, up worrying about how we were going
to make ends meet. During this time we still continued with all the life
saving efforts that we had put into place, and I’m so very proud to say
that not one board member brought up the option of putting the cats down.
We knew we were doing the right thing and continued walking down that
“yellow brick road” heading to OZ. We had a grant that helped get dogs
spayed/neutered for low income families that we had to turn down upon
renewal because they started requiring us to implement the old thought
process that would’ve forced us to have to euthanize more dogs.
When I thought I couldn’t handle the financial stress and was just about
at the end of my rope, prayers started to be answered. We got a
$54,000.00 bequest that let us pay off our line of credit and put a little
bit of money in our savings. A few of our locals vets helped our shelter
manager get a handle on the upper respiratory and the cats started getting
better. As word got out about how we’d changed more people started
donating and volunteering. Our fundraisers started making more money. I
know our Community Relations person (who is also a board member) will be
emailing you the details what we did to change everything. I don’t think
there was one thing, but many that pulled us out of the black pit we were
in. The more the public heard about what we were doing to save every
adoptable animal the more donations came in. The media stepped up and
helped promote us and did a lot of advertising for us for free. We
received another large bequest this past summer that has given us more
stability and is allowing us to think about starting the process of
building a bigger shelter.
When I look back at how bad it was to where we are now I can’t believe all
we’ve done. AND we’ve done this as an open admission shelter. All
animals are welcome at our shelter and we’ve never turned one away – from
mice, dogs, cats to snakes, chickens and horses. We’ve done this with a
very old and small shelter, not much of a budget and a small handful or
committed board members, volunteers and staff. I’m very proud of what
we’ve ALL accomplished. This could never have happened without the
support of our board, staff, volunteers and the community.
Whenever we hit a hard time we’ve always kept this first and foremost,
“It’s all about the animals” nothing else matters.
Upper Peninsula Animal Welfare Shelter
Reva asked me to email you regarding what type of behavioral issues we
handle and about what it was like for me during the change. Sometimes, I
hate calling them behavior modification programs, because it implies that
the programs take time and money to implement. I am a “dog trainer” at
heart. I love the way you can train a dog to do almost anything as long as
you know about shaping behavior and the reward process. While I hate
looking at a fearful dog baring teeth at the back of his kennel, I love
the fact that the dog will be wagging his tail at the front of the cage in
less than three days. A dog with cage aggression would have been
euthanized within the first day of stepping its paws in our shelter in the
While a dog baring his teeth at someone is not adoptable, neither is a dog
that is so fearful, it will bite if provoked. So, we can either euthanize
the unadoptable dog, or treat the reason the dog is unadoptable at its
source…the fear. The same principle holds true for almost any animal that
enters a shelter with varying backgrounds. Sometimes, we see the biggest
changes in food aggression by hand feeding meals and sometimes, the
process is more involved. For the most part, we use the ASPCA’s behavior
modification programs, but the biggest thing I have learned is that there
is no right or wrong modification protocol for every scenario. If an
animal is cage aggressive and we only leave them alone when they have
stopped growling, we just made that animal adoptable again. If an animal
is cage aggressive, we might be able to address the aggression by just
allowing the animal time away from all of the other animals until they
have adjusted. The biggest thing is that we do something to change the
animal’s behavior. Our building is old and not very conducive to
rehabilitating animals, but we make do. We let a dog behind the front
desk. We exercise the animals. We let the animals live in the office if
they don’t do well in their kennel. We rely on volunteers to spend time
with the animals. We use foster homes. We train the animals. We give them
a hiding spot. We do what we have to do to help the animals. Please
notice, that none of these things require a lot of money to implement!
As far as my darkest hour in regards to the way our shelter was changing,
there wasn’t one. I started working here in 2003. I saw the ad for a
minimum wage job working with animals and thought…perfect! I had only been
in the area for two months before I got the job of animal care giver. I
loved working with the animals. Training the difficult dogs was the most
rewarding. I would then have my heart broke when the dog I had been
training was euthanized. I quickly learned to not ask my supervisors too
many questions, because they were always met with excuses. I was
frustrated every day. I would hoard magazine and website articles and I
researched animal sheltering practices and brought these to the director’s
attention. I could advocate for the animal and for changing, but I never
won the argument in the end. I would hold the animals as they were
needlessly killed. I don’t know if I will ever forgive myself for not
finding a way to stop it.
There were so many times I wanted to walk out the doors. I wondered why on
earth anyone would even come to our shelter to adopt. We had terrible
customer service and getting a new pet was like pulling teeth. When I
adopted my puppy, I had been working here for a year, and still had to sit
through an hour of ridiculous “counseling”. I can’t pinpoint why I stayed.
It may have been I wanted to give the animals as much as I could before
they were killed. It may have been that I saw the “burn out” in the
director’s eyes and knew I wanted her job someday. It may have been that I
knew in my heart this is where I was meant to work.
Anybody that knows me knows I am an optimist. I can’t say I ever thought
we had hit a dark point with the changes. I never knew how big of a change
we could make, I just kept thinking, if we can save one scared kitten just
by holding it every single day, it wouldn’t be enough, but it would be a
step in the right direction. I had heard the board and the director were
facing some head to head challenges, but really, I didn’t care. All I ever
thought about through the whole process was what type of organization this
could be to work for. Now, it is a great one!!! I never imagined so many
lives could be saved! I am glad I stayed.
Upper Peninsula Animal Welfare Shelter (UPAWS)