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By Tom Cushing

Animal House

Uploaded: Nov 11, 2014

Show of hands ? who knows that your Town or City underwrites the operation of the County Animal Services Department (ASD) shelter in Martinez?

It's true ? state law mandates that 'animal control' be performed in each political subdivision; our cities choose to deal with the County, under annual contracts to perform those functions. Elsewhere, governments sometimes turn to an SPCA or humane society, also under contract (locally, both the City of Alameda and Marin County operate in that fashion). Trouble is, we're not getting our money's worth.

The County ASD is a pleasant, modern facility, built by all of us only ten years ago. It operates mostly behind the scenes, however. For the record, it takes in about 12,000 companion animals per year. Tragically, it kills nearly 4,000 of them ? most of those unlucky critters are healthy and adoptable pets. Many people with whom I've spoken don't want to go there, out of concern for learning too much. Sometimes, ignorance really is blissful, especially when knowledge creates a kind imperative to do something.

Are you still here? Good, because it doesn't have to be this way. Over the past twenty years, animal sheltering has been revolutionized ? away from the idea of inevitable killing (some label it 'euphemasia' because it has so little to do with mercy). The so-called 'No-Kill' movement has gained traction by demonstrating that true shelter euthanasia can be reserved for the few impounded animals who are truly beyond hope of redemption for health or behavior issues. In the current state of things, that's usually only 5-10% of sheltered animals. It's about 1,000 animals per year in Martinez shelter terms. The other 3,000 are just destroyed.

So, for example, Reno has half our population; it takes in 16,000 animals annually ? and saves 94%, year after year. Austin TX, exactly our size, takes in a whopping 27,000 animals ? 92% find their way out the front door under their own power. Locally, Berkeley, Alameda and Marin are all better than 90%ers. In fact, 213 communities of all sizes and shapes have achieved No-Kill status. In Contra Costa, our save rate is about equal to Oakland, which has lacked permanent shelter leadership for the past year.

High rates of success are achieved via unswerving leadership commitment, and a series of a dozen programs, passionately pursued by shelter staff and volunteers. Those programs deal with reducing intake, expanding capacity and dramatically improving adoption matching. Many have involve both community outreach and making the shelter The Place To Go for your next animal companion. Here's an example especially for fans of ABBA: imagine if Martinez could command that kind of energy and appeal!

Contra Costa ASD is at a bit of a crossroads. Its Director has announced his retirement, set for early next year. A group called Citizens for a No-Kill Contra Costa (I am a member) is visiting each County Supervisor and every contributing burg (including Danville @ $226,000 and San Ramon @ $405,000 in annual fees), to request two things:

1 -- that the County establish results-oriented metrics to guide its sheltering practices, and embark on a three-year plan to raise its 'save' rate to 75% in fiscal 2016, to 85% in 2017, and then 90+% in 2018 and beyond. The best shelters in the country consistently hit 94-5%; our ASD has been mired at 65% for many years.

2 ? that as the outgoing Director of ASD departs, the County seek to hire a replacement well-versed in the specific leadership qualities, philosophy and processes of the No-Kill movement.

By contrast, ASD's current, activity-based goal reads as follows: "Increase animal adoptions by increasing the use of modern technology to better showcase animals on our website and on Facebook pages; create video presentations to improve the visibility of the animals and our adoption programs; and increase the number and locations of mobile adoption events." As they say, "that which gets measured, improves." And conversely.

Regarding the second request, 'leadership' has been demonstrated to be the single best predictor of no-kill success. One shelter director in Minnesota, a former consultant on the subject of managerial leadership, has isolated 22 out of hundreds of leadership characteristics that are particularly useful in running a facility that can truly call itself a 'shelter.' The hope is that the hiring process can focus on finding a candidate with those qualities, as well as demonstrated no-kill chops.

Okay, another show of hands: who'd like to help?

One excellent step is to check-in on the subject by email with your elected officials: County Supervisor Andersen: [email protected], Danville Town Council, and San Ramon City Council. Each council has a public comment opportunity at the opening of their sessions, as well.

In addition, if you have any experience with the Martinez shelter, you might take the brief(!) assessment survey here. You can use my name as 'facilitator,' if you like.

Of course, the ultimate aid is to adopt your next 'best friend' ? if roughly 1/10 of the families seeking new pets were to match-up with a shelter veteran, we'd be at a 90% save rate. Marry that stat with the recent study finding from PetSmart Charities that 2/3 of pet seekers are interested in adopting, and both the nature of the challenge and its good prospects for success are clear. Which brings to mind the story of the kid at the beach, throwing stranded starfish back into the waves. "Why bother," she was asked, "you can't possibly save them all."

"Maybe not," she responded, as she flung another one back into the sea. "But I Can save THIS one!"