Understanding your Animal Shelter System: Fact and Fiction

By Kimball Lewis

"Child and Dogs on Spencer Creek in Winter", Ryan Ramon

Nearly every community in America has some form of shelter system for unwanted, abandoned, stray and abused animals. The type of shelter and level of service may vary greatly from community to community. The purpose of this column is to better equip you with some inside information so that when you decide to donate, adopt, visit or volunteer for your animal shelter you can make an informed decision.

There are two types of animal shelters. There is the "Open Door Shelter" and there is the "Limited Intake" or "No Kill" shelter. Both provide a valuable service and are deserving of your support. Both are also as different as night and day in terms of how they operate and what services they will provide.

The "Open Door Animal Shelter" is just what it sounds like. They are generally under some form of contract to house stray and unwanted animals from a given community or geographic region of service and they receive some form of city or county funds to provide such a service. But there are also two types of open door shelters and it is important that you understand the difference. Let's look at two regional examples of open door shelters -- the private, non-profit Greenhill Humane Society and the Lane County Animal Shelter

The Greenhill Humane Society has served Eugene (Oregon) area since 1944. Greenhill is a textbook example of what an open door animal shelter was intended to be. Under contract with two smaller towns, the City of Veneta and Springfield to receive stray dogs, Greenhill also takes in many thousands of unwanted, abused and abandoned dogs and cats as well as other species of animals, from virtually every area of Lane County and beyond. In fact, on a busy day in summer, it is not unusual to see as many as fifty to seventy animals come through the front doors of Greenhill! That is a whole lot of castaways.

While Greenhill receives a stipend from the City of Veneta and Springfield for housing stray dogs, these animals and the contract services monies only account for about ten percent or less of Greenhill's annual budget and animal intake. Where do the other 90% of animals come from and who provides the money to pay for them? You, the individual donor provides for the housing, care, feeding and medical attention of more than 90% of Greenhill's annual animal intake.

Many people have the mistaken notion that these animals are supported by tax dollars. Not so. Without your contributions of time and money, approximately 7000 animals would be (literally) out in the cold. Because Greenhill has chosen to be an "open door" shelter, they take on a tremendous but vital burden in sheltering animals that no other local agency or facility will accept.

The other open door facility in Lane County is the Lane County Animal Regulation Authority or LCARA. LCARA is 100% funded by tax dollars. Their function is to receive and care for stray dogs within the unincorporated areas of Lane County and within the incorporated city limits of Eugene. As a rule, LCARA does not receive cats because they are an animal control center and presently, there is no law governing cats in Lane County in spite of the fact that stray and abandoned cats outnumber dogs at least 4 to 1. (See my W By NW article Animal Welfare and Protection for a New Century )

LCARA and Greenhill, as open door facilities, take on the outcasts and disposable pets of society. The primary mission of both groups is to adopt these animals to loving homes that will provide adequate care so that the animals do not wind-up back in the system. It is unrealistic though, to expect that every adoption will go smoothly and so, some of the animals do come back. This is an unavoidable fact of dealing with such a large volume of animal adoptions. Greenhill, for example, tries very hard to screen potential adopters. Some people have complained that they try too hard when screening adoptions and that its harder to adopt a puppy than it is a baby. On the other hand, when an adoption goes bad, critics are quick to say that the adopting agency didn't screen hard enough. Indeed this places the animal shelter in a tough spot as they weigh what is too much or not enough screening potential adopters.

Unfortunately, the laws of supply and demand directly and sometimes negatively impact "open door" shelters. It is black and white; if you have a 150 animal capacity, 100 adopters and another 200 animals coming in over the weekend, something has got to give. For most shelters, rather they are humane society are animal control run, this supply and demand cycle means euthanasia. Shelter staff must walk through the halls and undertake the very painful task of selecting the "least Adoptable" animal and then euthanize them to make adequate room and ensure a humane environment for the never-ending stream of incoming animals.

The task of selecting specific animals for euthanasia is traumatic to the staff involved and often leads to burnout or "compassion fatigue" The average employment period of a shelter worker is two years. Those that go beyond that point are either very exceptional individuals or very skillful at masking deep emotional trauma. This accounts for the high turnover rate at shelters as well as the historic infighting and conflict witnessed within the walls of most shelters.

Some "open door" shelters such as Greenhill have taken steps to beat the odds of overcrowding and reduce euthanasia. They accomplish this through innovative foster care programs, satellite adoption centers, creative marketing and increased public access to adoptable animal. Also, Greenhill expanded hours and joined the Web -- the Greenhill Humane Society web sites features pets for adoptions. Unfortunately, in spite of all the miracles, in spite of all of the foster homes, marketing strategies and creative adoption efforts, there comes a time when even the most progressive "open door" shelter cannot keep up with the numbers and euthanasia is forced upon them.

No humane society wants to euthanize any animal (unless it is for humane reasons to relieve the suffering of a mortally wounded or sick pet). Therefore, the public perception that "if you take your animal to the shelter they are simply going to kill it", couldn't be further from the truth. Gone are the old days when shelters held animals for 3 days and then simply killed them. Today's animal welfare and protection organizations have made incredible strides in the mitigation of unnecessary euthanasia.

The "closed door" shelter or no kill shelter is also a necessary and commendable component of animal welfare. These no kill facilities appeal to our sense of justice because they don't euthanize their charges. The can afford this luxury because of their limited intake or closed-door policy. It is simple, when they become full, they stop intake until they adopt enough animals to generate more room. There is a place for closed and open door shelters in our society.

Be aware however, that there are currently several "no kill" shelters who are actually euthanizing what they deem as unadoptable animals. This game is intended to dupe donors into believing that they are supporting a "" shelter. If you want to donate to a truly no kill shelter, simply call them and ask them if they do any euthanasia at all or if they ever send animals out and have their euthanasia done elsewhere. The results may surprise you.

Still the responsibility for how many animals are adopted versus how many are euthanized does not begin at the shelter. How many animals with be subject to abuse, starvation, abandonment or euthanasia is decided in the back yard of homes like yours and mine before you and I surrender those unwanted litters and pets at the shelter. We must recognize that while it is easy for us to pass judgment on the shelter when we look at increasing euthanasia statistics, it is actually in our hands long before theirs. The animals that crowd the halls and kennels of LCARA, Greenhill, and other facilities across the nation did not originate with them. Instead, they came from the backyards of our homes and from our disposable, "easy come, easy go" society.

The humane society and/or animal control center in your community may operate differently and has different needs in terms of money and support. What both groups have in common is that they need your efforts at the grass roots level, before the animal's end up in their facilities. We must stop looking to the animal shelter for answers and realize that they (the animal shelters) are a byproduct to our actions. Of course the shelter must operate in such a way that they adopt out the most animals possible and in the most efficient manner, but in reality, how did the animals come to be at the shelter in the first place? Unwanted litters of pets do not magically appear; they are yours and mine or the next door neighbors.

In order to directly and positively impact the situation for animals in your community here are some realistic, inside tips on what you can do: First, national animal groups that promote legislative change are great but none of that money trickles down to the local scene. If you want to help animals in your neighborhood support your local animal organization.

Secondly , both animal control and humane shelters need all the volunteers they can get. Whether you give a Saturday a month or three days a week, your efforts absolutely mean a huge difference.

Thirdly, in terms of animal welfare and protection -- get involved. Attend city and county budget meetings that pertain to animal control. These meetings are open to the public by law and animal control is almost always at the bottom of the budget list. Lane County Government is probably one of the worst offenders when it comes to not supporting animal control while the city of Eugene is much more progressive. If you want to see more animal control resources such as longer hours of operation at the shelter, or more animal protection on the street, it will be up to you to attend these meetings and demand it. After all, these are our elected officials and they cannot/will not ignore large groups of citizens.

Finally, donate financially to your local non-profit animal organization. Ask for their annual report and if your donation is earmarked for a specific program or service, make certain the organization knows that you want it put to use for that service. You decide.

Most of all, when looking to add a pet to your home bypass the pet store and head to the animal control or humane shelter. It's "good karma" and you'll be saving a life at the same time.

For more information check the Website of your local humane society or call them and ask questions. But most important, get involved. In a very real way ,you can help make the difference.

Animal Welfare and Protection for a New Century

Horse Neglect and Abuse in America: Fact and Fiction

Greenhill Humane Society,

© Spencer Creek Press, West By Northwest 2000-2002 All Rights Reserved unless otherwise noted.

The opinions expressed by the authors are not necessarily the opinions of the publisher and/or sponsors.



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