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Winter 2021: Letter from the Director of Animal Services

This has been a strangely surreal time for me and our organization. The past 12 months have involved unprecedented national and international collaboration and shared learning within the animal welfare industry in affecting change, innovation, and improvements in how we serve our communities. However, in spite of the overwhelmingly positive shift, we have been publicly castigated for the changes which appears to stem from some miscommunications.

Instead of focusing on our differences in approach (and our differences are few in number), we need to focus on all of the common ground in our shared missions of serving people and animals in our community. We work with nearly 40 local animal rescue organizations to get animals out of our facility and into a household environment. Of those, several are part of the Greater Rochester Animal Coalition, an alliance of separate organizations formed to work toward an intended impact of saving and supporting animals in the region.

The industry-wide collaboration and movement is being driven largely by the Human Animal Support Services (HASS) coalition for which Rochester Animal Services was chosen to serve as a pilot organization to be directly involved with the evolution and reimagining of how animal services organizations can better serve our communities. Through our participation, the pilot organizations are examining old and new ideas, figuring out what is working and what is not, and developing standards and guidelines for public and private animal shelters, animal control and protection agencies, rescue organizations, community cat groups, and myriad social services agencies for engaging community members to support the human-animal bond. Supporting that bond is literally part of our written mission and should not be a source of contention.

The HASS effort involves all aspects of animal services and is focused on limiting the animals entering shelters to those that have been abandoned, injured, or are the most at-risk animals. Shelters have never been the ideal environment for companion animals. They are stressful places that often trigger medical and behavioral decline. The first major shift related to HASS programming was to switch to a foster-centric model for housing animals in our care. We made that change back in March 2020 and now are consistently operating with more animals in foster homes than at the facility.

One area for which we have recently come under fire is community cats. Trap-neuter-vaccinate-return (TNVR) has been the most widely accepted management strategy for free-roaming cats. Community cats is a well-established term that includes free-roaming, outdoor cats that are feral (i.e., outdoor cats that were not socialized with people), loosely owned (i.e. cats that live outdoors but receive food and shelter from one or more people), or unowned (i.e., cats that are abandoned outside, lost, or that are the offspring of other outdoor cats but may have been socialized with people as kittens).  We all agree that ferals should be candidates for TNVR and that kittens should be placed in new homes. The only aspect of HASS community cat work that may seem a bit new and different is the idea of returning healthy, friendly outdoor cats to their neighborhoods instead of placing them into adoptive homes. But this approach is not brand new and not unique to HASS. These so-called return-to-field programs have become increasingly common throughout the U.S and Canada. The premise is that if cats are healthy and thriving outside, why pull them from their outdoor homes?  They may have owners who let them out to wander and their removal is tantamount to kidnapping.  Or they may be unowned but receive food, water, and care from people in the neighborhood and are not in need of a traditional indoor home. Furthermore, removal of healthy adult cats often results in the emigration of new cats filling the void, which can actually cause an increase in reproduction for a colony. Additionally, the outdoor friendly cats placed in shelters and rescues are then competing for indoor homes with owned cats truly in need (e.g., abandoned in apartment, owner deceased or entering assisted living, hoarding situations, etc.). Adult cats that are friendly and unhealthy, with visible health concerns, low body weight, and injuries are likely lost and abandoned indoor cats that need to be reunited with their people or routed through shelter then foster care, and then into a new home.

Lost pet reunification is another area that is getting an overhaul. Instead of telling people to bring found pets to shelters, we are asking finders if they are willing and able to assist in getting those pets home. Often that can be accomplished simply by walking the neighborhood, knocking on a few doors, and asking neighbors if they know where the dog or cat might live. Beyond asking for such assistance, we are able to provide a variety of services to support reunification including a checklist of tips, assistance with creating flyers, scanning for microchip identification, cross-checking lost reports, entry in Finding Rover facial recognition lost pet recovery tool, and posting on a variety of social media platforms.

Similarly, for people seeking to relinquish ownership of their pets, we are offering a variety of services to assist with self-rehoming. Again, this approach is based on the knowledge that the companion animal is better off remaining in a home with people who love and care for it than being institutionalized on a path to a new home. So whenever possible, we try to support the pet remaining with its family while we work collaboratively to identify a new home. With several online rehoming tools, it is also possible for the original guardians to be directly involved in finding a new home for their companion.

For several years, we have been actively shifting to provide support and avoid punishment in our response to the majority of field services incidents. That means working with pet guardians to identify the root issues and addressing them instead of criminalizing what is typically related to a barrier to information or pet resources. In recognition of this work and how we have incorporated it into the fabric, culture, and mission of our organization, we received the Pets for Life Championship Award for 2020 from The Humane Society of the United States. This accolade should be a source of pride for our organization and our community.

We should not be fighting or dividing ranks. We need to come together for our community. During a webinar on diversity and inclusion in animal welfare, James Evans of Companions and Animals for Reform and Equity (CARE) said, “We need to be as humane as the animals we care for. Live in the moment without judgment.” Although James was referring to how animal services organizations can be more just, inclusive, and equitable, I believe that those sentiments also extend to how we interact and engage with people and organizations who share a commitment to helping animals. Let’s lead with love and kindness. We’re better when we work together.

Christopher S. Fitzgerald, Director, Rochester Animal Services