Shelters love to blame others; it seems to be a prerequisite for working at or volunteering at an animal shelter. Blame the public for too many animals, blame the rescue groups for being uncooperative, blame the media for getting the facts wrong, blame the public for not donating and blame the adopters for not adopting, but let’s put blame for all those problems where it belongs – on the shelter itself.
I’ve been both supportive and critical of the Niagara SPCA in the past – and this article is going to be a little of both. I’m going to be supportive of the things they have changed that have brought them closer to being truly no-kill and critical of the things that they have been remiss on. Being a true no kill shelter is about sustainability, not about doing great one month and falling short in subsequent months. It is up to the shelter to reach and sustain the 90% or greater save rate. And in order to do so, more still needs to be done.
In the spirit of support and cooperation, let’s point out the things they have done RIGHT:
- Drastically expanding their open adoption hours to evenings and weekends when most people can get to the shelter
- Adding special adoption promotions to move animals out of the shelter and into homes more quickly
- Refusing to take feral/community cats purely to dispose of them for the municipalities
- Working with feral/community cat groups to address several free-roaming cat situations
- Implementing doggie play groups
- Installing Andrew Bell, a strong No Kill proponent, as executive director
- Increasing the save rate over the last 5 months, 85.2% in June, 85% in July, 80% in August, 79% in September and 91% in October.
- Electing a new board of directors, with a full complement of animal welfare people, business owners, public servants and professional expertise.
We’ve also been told that a few things are “in the works”, although at this time, they have yet to be implemented completely.
- Meeting with all area rescue groups and instituting an open “pull” policy so as to increase transfers out to rescue groups.
- Implementing a Niagara County TNVR program in cooperation with other organizations in the area.
But there is still so much more that must be done if the Niagara SPCA ever hopes to reach the goal of maintaining true No Kill Shelter status.
It was thrilling to see the shelter finally reach a 91% overall save rate in October. That far surpasses every shelter in the area, even those with 100 times more money, staff, volunteers and donors. They should be celebrating, they should be shouting it from the rooftops, they should be sending out press releases, they should be lining up news interviews and they should be posting it in HUGE letters on their webpage. So how did they advertise this great success??? Did they announce it on one or all of the three major news stations in the area? Did they contact the Niagara Gazette to let them know they have finally reached that coveted save rate? Did they write and submit an article for the Niagara Falls Reporter about their journey, their success and their challenges? Have they made an announcement on their website home page? They did none of the above. Instead they posted a small piece with a link to a statistical sheet on a Facebook page that has a little over 1100 followers. This means the other 214,900 residents of Niagara County who do not use Facebook, do not subscribe to their Niagara SPCA Facebook page or do not have computers, will have no idea of the progress they have made.
- Stop asking for money for crematoriums and operating expenses
In a recent local news report, the shelter’s continuing fiscal woes were highlighted. In fact, the shelter has a projected $170,000 operating deficit for this year. Unfortunately, the story mentioned, among other things, the need for a new, updated crematorium.
Not the image that inspires potential donors to open their pocketbooks. Would a hospital in need of funds send a plea to potential donors and sponsors by referencing their morgue? While a morgue is extremely necessary to hospital operations, it is not the image a hospital uses to get donors, nor should the shelter mention the need for an updated crematorium. Marketing is about drawing people in, not making them feel uncomfortable with the image of burning bodies, especially given the previous year’s death rates.
Putting donation pleas out to help cover operational shortfalls such as payroll, utilities and cleaning supplies will not work either. Animal lovers won’t open their pocketbooks for these types of donation pleas; they want to donate to help with successful adoptions or enrichment projects. They will donate to help an animal get medical care; they won’t donate to add a bookkeeper to the staff, no matter how necessary it might be. They will donate to purchase cat toys or cat towers; they won’t donate to pay an animal control officer. The stories that bring in donors are ones of hope and positive outcomes for the animals in the shelter’s care, not for daily operations. It is the shelter management’s responsibility to come up with the right message to bring donors and supporters in. If they can’t, they only have themselves to blame.
- Follow through with promised transparency
While we were happy with the majority of the new Niagara SPCA board members that were elected, we have not seen the transparency they promised to get elected. Dues paying members of the Niagara SPCA have not seen, nor voted on, any new bylaws as promised. Dues paying members of the Niagara SPCA have not seen a new mission statement or vision statement as promised. Board meetings have been closed and board minutes have not been made available to the membership. In fact, communication with the very members that elected them has been non-existent. There is no information on the website on how to become a member other than an application link that goes nowhere. Are they trying to change to a closed board? Are they not allowing new members? Since there is no information, speculation runs rampant and feeds into the feeling from the public that the new shelter administration operates in secret, just as the old regime did for decades. When renewals come up in January & February, will the members be inclined to again open their pocketbooks if they have been largely ignored for 10 months or no longer allowed to have a voice? When that happens, will the shelter blame the membership for not supporting them or will the shelter realize that they were the ones that failed to engage their supporters?
- Always be open for adoptions
In May, when the Niagara SPCA changed their adoption hours to encompass more evenings and weekends, we applauded them. We felt they finally realized that to increase adoptions, you need to be open during hours of the day that most people are off work. As a result adoptions HAVE increased for both dogs & cats. We were thrilled to see adoption promotions on a regular basis, such as the “Pre-owed Certified Pets” promotion they had in September. BUT – on the two large events that the Niagara SPCA had on their grounds this year, ”Dog Days of Summer” and “Zombiefest”, why on earth were they closed to adoptions????? These were the days when the maximum numbers of animal loving people were going to be on the grounds, yet the Niagara SPCA did ZERO adoptions.
At the Town of Niagara’s Electric Lights Parade in early November, volunteers & staff of the Niagara SPCA walked in the parade with dogs. It was a perfect opportunity to showcase some of the shelter’s adoptable dogs, correct? While some volunteers walked shelter dogs, some of the staff chose to walk their personal dogs instead, while shelter dogs were left behind in kennels all day.
In October, the Niagara SPCA was invited to have a booth at the Autumn Festival at the Lewiston #2 Fire Hall. The booth was manned by volunteers, yet those volunteers were not allowed to take shelter dogs with them. Lewiston is known in the area as a very animal friendly community, yet no adoptable animals were allowed to be brought to the event? Why?
These are missed opportunities to get animals showcased and adopted while the shelter is at max capacity. Who is to blame? The public for not adopting or the shelter for not doing everything it can to get adoptable animals out to places where people can meet them?
- Employees & Volunteers need to be helpful and cheerful at all times
Every employee and volunteer at the shelter needs to project a positive attitude and a helpful demeanor at all times. Every single person they interact with should be regarded as a potential adopter, donor, member, foster home, volunteer or all of the above! For far too long, shelters have gotten away with bad customer service skills, and that results in animals losing their lives. Animals losing their lives due to poor customer service is completely unacceptable on any level, but especially for a shelter looking to repair a badly tarnished reputation. It only takes one employee or volunteer with a negative attitude to turn off potential adopters or donors as well as adversely affecting the moods of other staff members and volunteers. It also takes one employee or volunteer with a great attitude to bring those around them up to their level and to turn a potential donor into a lifetime donor.
How about implementing a “secret shopper” program, just like so many other businesses do? It is a competitive world and there are other shelters and numerous rescue groups that would gladly welcome these potential adopters, donors, volunteers and fosters. The shelter could do the same at no cost by enlisting friends and family that are unknown to the employees and volunteers. These “secret shoppers” could go in looking for a new dog or cat for their family and report back the interaction with the staff and volunteers.
Does the shelter have standard protocols the employees & staff are supposed to follow when calls come in? Do they have protocols on how to handle animal cruelty complaints? Free roaming cat issues? Lost dog/cat reports? Are they all handled by qualified individuals that will treat these calls with empathy, knowledge and a helpful demeanor?
So I say this to the board and staff at the Niagara SPCA: Do not blame the public for not coming out to adopt, donate or support – look into your own practices and figure out what you need to do to get them back. Do not blame the volunteers for not coming out to help when needed – look into your own practices and figure out what you need to do to get more volunteers on board. Do not blame the media for getting the message wrong – look into your own practices and figure out what message you want to send. Do not blame the membership for being non-supportive – look into your own practices and figure out how to engage them more. In other words, stop blaming everyone else and get on with it already…