Rochester Animal Services – A 15 Year Retrospective

Written by Chris Fitzgerald, Director of Rochester Animal Services

With a new year comes a time of reflection on where we come from, what we have accomplished, and also looking ahead to where we are headed.  When the City assumed operational control of Animal Services in June 2000, annual intake was over 6,000 companion animals, live release rate was around 39%, about 100 dogs and no cats were being sterilized prior to adoption, and there were no programs within the city that provided low-cost sterilization directly to low-income owners.

During that first year, Animal Services focused on increasing its public visibility with the creation of web pages and a unique URL (www.rochesteranimalservices.com), highway banners, and festival appearances.  The exposure helped increased adoptions for both cats and dogs.

In 2001, the City stiffened the penalties for dog control violations including unleashed dogs and dangerous dogs.  Animal Control Officers (ACO) enforced those amendments, which helped to reduce the numbers of loose, wandering, and stray dogs entering the shelter.  However, as dog numbers continued to decline, cat numbers increased.  We also developed programs for dog bite prevention and pet owner responsibility that we presented to various schools, neighborhood groups, postal carriers, utility workers, probation and parole officers, and others as requested.

In 2002, Animal Services mandated the sterilization of dogs and cats prior to adoption and contracted with the Humane Society of Rochester and Monroe County at Lollypop Farm to provide such surgeries.  That arrangement enabled most of the adopted dogs to be spayed or neutered but few cats were sterilized because the majority had upper respiratory infections, which prevented surgery.  That same year, we also created the Animal Control Gifts Fund for donations from our supporters.  We added an online donation link to the website that helped encourage community support for enhancing the care and sterilization of animals. That trust fund continues to draw direct support from the community for contracting veterinary services and purchasing items for shelter enrichment, outreach, and pet assistance.

In 2003, we received a series of grants to help fund the creation of an on-site spay/neuter clinic at the Animal Services Center.  The grants were used to purchase the supplies and equipment that would be utilized in the proposed spay/neuter program.  Donations and cash capital funds were pooled to pay for the renovation expenses.  The following year, the clinic was opened and we began sterilizing all dogs and cats adopted from the shelter and the Low-Income Spay/Neuter (LISN) Program was established.  With both adoption surgeries and LISN surgeries occurring at the shelter, Animal Services was finally able to address the challenge of pet overpopulation and work towards reducing the numbers of stray and unwanted pets entering the shelter for years to come.

The LISN Program continued to grow in popularity during its first few years before leveling off.  The more recent decline has been related to a shift in the prioritization of surgeries. We have become more focused on pre-adoption surgeries for animals at the shelter in our efforts to reduce their length of stay and expedite adoption. As such, the LISN surgeries have been limited to those that can be performed during weekend shifts by consulting veterinary teams. However, our community also has additional options for spay and neuter clinics that were not available prior to 2012.

In 2005, the Friends of Verona Street Animal Shelter, Inc. was founded to help support the mission of Animal Services with fundraising and promotions.  The Friends group, which operates under the name Verona Street Animal Society (VSAS) consists solely of volunteers who work within a committee structure under the board of directors.

In 2006, we began evaluating behavior for all dogs prior to placing them up for adoption.  Adding this step to the daily procedures took time away from other duties however it provided us with greater assurance that the dogs were unlikely to cause significant problems in a new home that might result in an injury to a person or other pet or relinquishment of the dog to the shelter.  The downside is that there were fewer dogs available to adopt out.  Also in 2006, I began teaching the state-mandated course on animal cruelty cases to cadets at the police academy.

In 2007, Animal Services and VSAS held our first race and dog walk (initially The Furry Scurry, now The Fast & The Furriest®), which has continued to grow and become a perennial favorite on the calendars of local runners and pet owners alike.  We are currently planning the tenth annual event the proceeds of which are essential to the continued marketing and advertisement efforts, foster care program, playgroup support, veterinary supplies, veterinary services, and other supplies beyond the Animal Services annual operating budget.

In 2009, Animal Services and VSAS held our first winter fundraiser, The Frosty Paws Winter Carnival.  With the addition of a second fundraiser, VSAS was able to boost its support for Animal Services by paying for outsourced spay and neuter surgeries, sponsoring adoptions, purchasing vet supplies and medicine, purchasing pet beds and other enrichment items, and subsidizing professional development for employees.  That event was repeated in 2010 and 2011 when it was discontinued in an effort to focus on other activities that we hoped would be more impactful without the significant time investment involved with event planning. Also in 2009, I drafted Training Bulletins to assist RPD patrol officers in their response to scenes involving animals and animal cruelty.

In 2010, we continued our efforts to work with sworn officers on navigating the unfamiliar waters of animal-related jobs, animal cruelty calls, and animal control assistance with warrant service.  We developed reference cards and roll call training dealing with animal cruelty laws.  Recently, RPD has included animal behavior and animal cruelty during in-service training for all sworn members.

In 2011, we entered in the ASPCA $100,000 Challenge.  Participation in that competition sparked increased attention to our social media efforts as we worked to bolster online voting among our supporters. The Challenge also got us thinking about different ways of increasing live releases. We continued removing barriers to adoption and embraced a more open adoption process.  We also implemented a reduced fee schedule for low-income owners seeking to reclaim missing pets. With these changes and increased promotions we elevated the live release rate to around 50% but clearly there was still a lot of work to be done.

In 2012, we hired our first full-time Shelter Veterinarian and were awarded a $107,000 grant from the ASPCA for targeted spay and neuter through the NYS Animal Population Control Program. Later that year, the RPD hired LifeLine Animal Project to conduct a comprehensive assessment of our operation. We received LifeLine’s final report early in 2013 and began implementing many of the recommendations and proposing other changes that would require legislative action or additional financial support. Many of those long-term recommendations are still in the works.

During the 2013-2014 fiscal year, we elevated the live release rate to over 63%. Last year, we jumped to over 74%. These significant increases were made possible because of a number of factors including marketing and social media support from VSAS, reduced fee and fee-waived events, implementation of canine playgroups, reduced intakes, increased transfer to partnering rescue organizations, and a lot of hard work and commitment by our staff and volunteers.  We are currently hovering around 80% and are hoping that we can continue to increase that save rate beyond 90% in the near future.

Last fall, we made a significant adjustment to our field services when we discontinued the residential pick up of surrendered pets. Although we have continued to accept unwanted pets from city residents, we no longer provide door-to-door service. Instead, we find out more about the reasons for surrender and discuss options that might aid retention of the pet or facilitate its placement directly into a permanent home without requiring intake at a shelter. This adjustment has resulted in a reduction in the numbers of animals surrendered to us and has enabled our ACOs to devote more attention to core responsibilities of dogs running at-large, dog license compliance, and other human and animal safety concerns.

In 2015, we continued evolving toward a community outreach and pet assistance model whereby ACOs expanded the sharing of information and providing direct assistance to pet owners in need. Such support involves recommending obedience training and behavior consultation; providing food and water bowls, collars, leashes, toys, and even pet food and cat litter. We plan to expand on these efforts in 2016 and beyond to include spay-neuter vouchers, training crates, dog houses, and dog trolley systems among our offerings to pet owners in need.

In spite of our many accomplishments and enhancements, we are not content to sit back and function with the status quo. We are constantly trying to improve the care and services provided. The list of projects for the coming months and years includes hiring a behavior consultant, amending City Code to reduce the holding periods for cats, assisting with plans to establish dog parks, facilitating trap-neuter-return programs for feral cats, selling identification tags, working with City Clerk’s Office to improve dog license compliance, expanding our network of foster homes and rescue organizations to reduce unnecessary euthanasia of healthy, adoptable pets; establishing offsite adoptions locations at retail centers, partnering with local foundations, corporations, and philanthropists to increase financial support for the animal shelter, spay/neuter clinic, and other programs.  We will also continue to work in conjunction with the VSAS to bolster fundraising through events, grant writing, annual appeals and planned giving strategies.

We are planning for a needs assessment and programming study during fiscal year 2016-2017 that will help us identify the best option for improving the shelter whether renovation, expansion, or new construction. Once that study is completed we will begin working on financing the recommended improvements, developing design plans, and fundraising toward the anticipated costs.

Over the past 15 years, Animal Services has evolved from a city pound into a progressive animal care and control agency that provides essential services, valued programs, and serves as a resource for the community.  Animal Services is working diligently and persistently to address the challenges related to companion animals in Rochester.  We are reuniting owners with missing pets, finding new homes for stray and surrendered pets, providing low-cost spay and neuter surgeries for pet owners with limited resources, providing outreach and assistance, and encouraging compliance with dog licensing, dog control ordinances and other animal regulations.  This is an honorable profession that we have chosen as we work every day to help citizens and animals within our community.  Please join our cause in helping to make Rochester not only the best place to live, work, raise a family, but also the best place for pets.

Adopt. Give. Volunteer. Spay / neuter. License your dogs. Use collars and tags. Microchip your pets.