Big or Small Animal Shelters: Which are Better?

One key issue in animal welfare is whether animal shelters should serve small or large numbers of people and animals? Unfortunately, I’ve never seen much discussion about this topic. This blog attempts to answer this question and provide practical solutions.

Live Release Rates Are Lower at Large No Kill Animal Control Shelters

Smaller no kill animal control shelters tend to have higher live release rates than similar facilities taking in more animals. While some small to medium sized no kill animal control shelters achieve live release rates in the 97%-99% range, most large no kill animal control shelters are in the 90%-95% range. As a result, smaller facilities tend to have the potential to achieve higher live release rates.

Smaller shelters may take advantage of their limited service areas. Shelters taking in animals from a very limited area can adopt out many animals to people outside the communities they take animals from. From my review of shelters, the only facilities achieving per capita adoption rates exceeding around 23 dogs and cats per 1,000 people were small-medium sized shelters. Of course, if every facility was tiny smaller shelters as a whole would not sustain such sky high per capita adoption rates.

On the other hand, per capita animal intake rates are lower at larger shelters. Smaller shelters may have higher per capita intake rates due to animals coming in from outside their limited service areas. If a shelter serves a relatively small area, stray animals from other communities may come in more often. Also, larger communities may have fewer animal control officers relative to their populations and therefore impound fewer dogs and cats. Thus, larger shelters may have lower per capita adoption rates at least in part due to the facilities impounding fewer animals relative to the human population in the area.

Smaller Shelters Are More Conducive to Getting Animals Adopted

Animal shelter environments are unnatural for dogs and cats. Despite cats being able to live in colonies and with people, these animals are still solitary by nature. In a typical animal shelter, cats must share living quarters with large numbers of other cats as well as potential predators (i.e. dogs). Therefore, animal shelters are usually highly stressful environments for most cats. While dogs are social animals, they evolved to be social with their family or pack (an extended family generally). In fact the dog’s ancestor, the wolf, is fiercely territorial to the point where being killed by other wolves in turf wars is the number one cause of natural mortality. As a result, putting large numbers of strange animals in one building is highly stressful to most dogs and cats.

Larger shelters increase the risk of sickness and behavioral deterioration. Simply put, more animals means more dogs and cats can potentially transmit contagious diseases to each other. Similarly, all else being equal, more animals equals more noise, sights, and scents that can stress animals out. Shelters with a greater percentage of animals becoming sick and developing behavioral problems will have prolonged lengths of stay, increased costs and decreased lifesaving. Thus, shelters that can prevent physical and mental illness in the first place have greater lifesaving potential.

Animal shelters housing more animals tend to have longer lengths of stay all else being equal. If two shelters adopt out the same number of animals and one of the facilities has twice as many animals, each animal will stay twice as long at that shelter. Longer lengths of stay tend to radically increase the chance of cats catching upper respiratory infections in shelters. For example, a recent study found that 40% and 60% of highly socialized cats and other cats at a medium sized animal control shelter developed upper respiratory infections after just 30 days. Similarly, disease rates for dogs are likely higher as well during longer lengths of stay. Additionally, animals are more likely to develop behavioral issues the longer they reside at shelters making adopting those pets out harder. Thus, larger shelters tend to have longer lengths of stay and animals face greater challenges staying happy and healthy in such places.

Smaller shelters with fewer animals up for adoption make it easier for people to select a pet. While extremely small shelters may not have enough animals for people to choose from, most facilities seem to have enough animals for people to find a suitable pet (excluding people looking for animals rarely coming into shelters). Virtually all people prefer to have a reasonable number of potential animals to choose from. Unfortunately, adopters often become overwhelmed when they must select among vast numbers of animals. Often dubbed “The Paradox of Choice”, people tend to buy less of things when presented too many options. In an animal shelter environment, which tends to involve far more emotion than buying typical consumer goods, this effect is likely amplified. In fact, the ASPCA found one shelter increased adoptions and doubled the rate of people who left with a pet after limiting the number of animals on the adoption floor. While a larger shelter can of course reduce the number of animals up for adoption, most do not and consumers have a more reasonable number of animals to choose from in smaller shelters.

Financial Issues Place Greater Challenges on Smaller Shelters

Shelters and any other enterprise have both fixed and variable costs. Variable costs vary with the level of operations. In other words, if an animal shelter takes in more animals, it incurs more costs to care for the animals (i.e. additional kennel staff to care for animals, veterinary expenses, etc.). Fixed costs do not vary with the level of operations in the short-term. Examples include rent, administrative salaries, such as those of an Executive Director, and insurance. If a shelter has a high amount of fixed expenses, it basically starts in a hole and needs significant revenue, such as taxpayer funding, donations and adoption fees to cover these costs.

Fixed costs are more significant at smaller shelters. Typically animal control shelters are funded indirectly based on the number of animals they take in. In other words, shelters expecting to take in more animals receive more money from the contracting municipality than if those shelters anticipated impounding fewer animals. At a smaller shelter taking in fewer animals, that means less revenue comes in. On the other hand, that shelter will typically incur many of the same fixed costs as a larger shelter. As a result, smaller shelters have high costs, but lack the revenue to cover those expenses.

The following example illustrates the financial challenges smaller shelters face. Let’s assume a municipality has 20,000 people. Based on the average New Jersey community taking in around 8 dogs and cats per 1,000 people, the shelter would impound 160 dogs and cats each year. In order to ensure a prompt response to animals in distress at any time of day, the municipality would require at least two ACOs. Additionally, the shelter would require a director to manage the facility. Assuming a $50,000 salary for each ACO and an $80,000 salary for the shelter director, the municipality would spend $180,000 on these employee salaries alone. This works out to a cost of $9 per resident for animal control and sheltering just considering these fixed costs. However, most New Jersey communities only pay around $2 or less per resident for animal control and sheltering. Furthermore, the municipality would spend $1,125 per animal and that would exclude any direct animal care costs and other fixed and variable costs. As a comparison, some no kill animal control shelters spend less than $300 per animal counting all costs. Thus, operating a small animal control shelter is very expensive.

Municipalities often operate under a pound model to compensate for these unfavorable economics. Under a pound model, the shelter has no director and ACOs work in the shelter when not on animal control calls. Unfortunately, most ACOs are not qualified to perform all the specialized tasks at an animal shelter, such as providing veterinary care, customer service, marketing, fundraising, community relations, etc. Often these facilities operate for very limited hours and many times are not open during those times when an ACO is out on a call. Also, many times these pounds only hold animals for a short period of time and then either kill the dogs and cats or send the pets to rescues. Furthermore, many of these pounds often rely on various fines and fees to raise money that result in the facility impounding more animals, more animals staying longer at the shelter and more killing. Examples include aggressive enforcement of animal control laws and high owner reclaim fees. Thus, many of the compensating measures to reduce operating costs of small animal control shelters do not benefit the animals.

Preferred Animal Shelter Operating Models

Municipalities can use shared service arrangements for animal control services while operating a local shelter. While towns operating their animal control operation undoubtedly improve response times, such functions are expensive. Recently, Fair Lawn sought proposals to outsource its animal control operation, but maintain its municipal shelter. Fair Lawn budgeted $141,000 for animal control officers salaries in 2014 when the municipality performed animal control and ran the shelter . In 2015, the Bergen County Animal Shelter put out a bid for just $42,000 to provide animal control services and operate the town’s local animal shelter (Fair Lawn ultimately selected Tyco Animal Control). As a result, a municipality can save significant amounts of money by outsourcing animal control, but keeping the local animal shelter.

Multiple small municipal shelters can collaborate and share expenses. In a small animal shelter, an Executive Director, behaviorist, marketing manager, ACO and a veterinarian would not have enough work to keep busy. However, several small municipal shelters can collectively hire these specialized people to provide such services. For example, the veterinarian can spend a couple of days a week at one shelter, a day or two at other facilities, and go to individual shelters additional times when needed (i.e. an emergency). Typically, many small and medium sized shelters contract with a private veterinarian who prioritizes his or her individual clients over shelter animals. Thus, smaller shelters can work together to obtain the benefits of operating both a small and large shelter while keeping costs down to a manageable level.

Several small shelters can also collaborate to operate adoption centers at pet stores. Typically, a small shelter could not provide enough animals and staff and volunteers to operate a dog and cat adoption center in a Petco or PetSmart. However, several small shelters would have enough animals to place in these venues. Additionally, these shelters collectively could hire the staff and/or recruit the volunteers needed to run the operation. In exchange, the shelters could enter into an arrangement with each other to split the costs and revenues from operating the adoption center in an equitable manner. Thus, small shelters can work together to conduct activities only bigger shelters do.

Small municipal animal shelters can use volunteers to significantly reduce costs. Volunteers provide free labor to perform basic tasks like cleaning the shelter and administrative work. Additionally, volunteers conduct activities requiring highly specialized skills, such as behavioral rehabilitation, marketing and fundraising. For example, Michigan’s Chippewa County Animal Shelter saved 98% of its dogs and cats in 2014 despite receiving only $182 of government funding per dog and cat. As a comparison, Associated Humane Societies takes in around $900 of total revenue in per dog and cat. Chippewa County Animal Shelter, which takes in nearly 1,000 dogs and cats in a year and serves a human population of around 39,000 people, only has a shelter manager and three kennel attendants. In fact, the Chippewa County Animal Shelter credits its volunteer and foster programs for saving lives.  Thus, small shelters relying heavily on volunteers can run efficient and effective operations.

Private volunteer organizations dedicated to helping shelters can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of small shelters. Often these organizations have more time to dedicate to developing and enhancing volunteer programs. For example, an ACO at a small shelter may not have the time or the skills to recruit volunteers as well as a separate volunteer group dedicated to that effort. An example in New Jersey is EASEL and the Ewing Township Animal Shelter. Prior to EASEL taking over the Ewing Animal Shelter several months ago, EASEL helped the shelter attain no kill status through its coordinated volunteer efforts. Thus, independent volunteer organizations can make shelter programs more effective.

Privatizing small municipal shelters can significantly improve efficiency. Municipal shelters of any size face more bureaucratic challenges. For example, the municipal council may have to approve any policy changes, such as lowering adoption fees for a promotion, making it difficult to save lives. Additionally, municipal shelter employees typically are in a union and the union can make it next to impossible to terminate poorly performing staff. In perhaps the most egregious case of unions interfering in shelter operations, the Teamsters Local 210 President defended the Helmetta Regional Animal Shelter Director and Assistant Director, who were subsequently charged with animal cruelty, despite ample evidence showing these people committed unspeakable atrocities. Even after the local prosecutor charged the former Helmetta Regional Animal Shelter Director and Assistant Director with animal cruelty, the union continued to fight against Helmetta’s firing of these two people. Thus, private organizations can operate more efficiently than municipal shelters.

Large organizations also can obtain some of the benefits of smaller shelters. Big shelters should operate adoption centers at Petco and PetSmart stores to reduce the number of animals at their main shelters and to increase adoptions. KC Pet Project, which operates Kansas City’s no kill animal control shelter, runs two permanent off-site adoption locations and adopts out 35% of its animals at these locations. Additionally, large shelters can operate smaller facilities and use its leadership to oversee those operations in a manner similar to the collaboration model I describe for smaller shelters above. Thus, large shelters can also obtain some of the benefits smaller shelters enjoy.

At the end of the day, just about any shelter, large or small, can succeed if it enthusiastically implements highly effective programs, such as those making up the no kill equation, to reduce intake and quickly send animals to good homes. However, shelters can operate even more effectively if they utilize some of the business models discussed in this blog. Clearly, homeless animals should expect organizations to operate at the highest possible level given these creatures lives are literally on the line. Thus, municipalities and shelters should act to make their operations more efficient and effective at saving lives.

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