Thursday, December 22, 2011

Save some lives-Support Florida Animal Rescue Act

Here in Florida we are fortunate to have new legislation pending that will save animal lives.  The bill, called the Florida Animal Rescue Act (SB 818), provides clean, clear legislation that accomplishes two simple, but essential things: 1) it guarantees Rescue organizations access to animals at shelters that would otherwise be killed, and 2) it demands transparency for all animal shelters regarding how many animals they take in, how many they place, and how many they kill.  Neither of these are currently provided for in Florida Statute.  This deficit allows shelters to kill animals that Rescue organizations are willing and able to take, and allows shelters to hide the ugly reality of their true kill rates.
As a former open admission county Animal Control Shelter Director I fully and completely support this bill.  I commend Senator Mike Bennett of Bradenton for introducing this, and equally thank and commend the many legislators in both Houses that are co-sponsoring this and its companion HB 597.  Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for supporting these bills and giving the animals of Florida a fighting chance.
Some may think that such legislation is unnecessary.  “After all”, they think, “shelters already work with Rescues and others to place as many animals as possible…don’t they?”  Sadly, they don’t.  As illogical and counter intuitive as that seems, during my tenure I saw far too many other agencies that either had no desire to cooperate, or were openly antagonistic, to Rescue involvement. In my own agency it took a substantial amount of time to build trust with Rescues that had been previously rebuffed.  I also struggled against those who begrudged the time, effort and resources spent trying to place and return animals to owners.  After all, “catch ‘em and kill ‘em” had always been the way.  There was no need to change.
Some parties are already lining up to protest and obstruct the passage of these bills.  An organization on which I formerly sat on the Board has publicly come out opposing the legislation.  The excuses are the same old routine always trotted out against progressive change: “It costs too much.  It takes too much work.  It is hard.  It isn’t the way we have always done it.”
Below I have presented their objections and have detailed the claims that many of the opponents have made and my answers to their specific points.
The specific objections noted:
  • These bills require local animal control agencies to create a registry for animal rescue groups and offer animals to these groups prior to euthanizing them. While well-intentioned, this will create severe unintended consequences, including: There will NOT be a cost-savings under this bill; rather, there will be a significant cost incurred. For each animal sheltered by a local agency there will be up to $45 additional cost to house animals during the required holding period. To comply with §823.15, FS shelters will have to invest approximately $175 per animal for shots and sterilization before they go to another shelter or rescue. For a small shelter that takes in 100 animals a year that could be a greater cost than their entire operating budget for the year.
            This is incorrect.  There is no requirement for additional holding days; the legislation provides simply that the shelter notify their list of Rescues no less that 24 hours before euthanizing an animal and allow the Rescues to make contact and arrange pickup of the animals within two days of contact.  The total maximum time period required is three (3) days-and State Law already demands that shelters hold the animals taken in as strays for three (3) days.  The easy method here would be for an agency to simply send an email of incoming animals soon after intake (Say at the end of each business day) and let the entire hold run during the mandatory 3 day stray hold. This legislation does not require ANY additional holding-it can all run at the same time.  No additional days-no additional costs.  This statement also fails to mention that the shelter will be able to charge its full adoption fee to any claiming Rescue, thus recovering the same costs as if they had adopted the animal normally-just faster.
            Further, the citation of FS 823.15, claiming that the shelters will have to invest approximately $175.00 per animal for shots and sterilization before transfer is incorrect.  FS 823.15 provides that “all dogs and cats sold or released for adoption from any public or private animal shelter or animal control agency…by either (emphasis added)…(a) providing sterilization by a licensed veterinarian before relinquishing custody of the animal; or (b) Entering into a written agreement with the adopter or purchaser guaranteeing that sterilization will be performed within 30 days or prior to sexual maturity.” (emphasis added).  This section also provides that “Any fees or court costs used for the enforcement of this paragraph are the responsibility of the adopter”. It further states “All costs of sterilization pursuant to this section shall be paid by the prospective adopter…”   This places the alleged $175.00 on the receiving shelter or rescue and allows the releasing shelter to recover any and all costs for enforcing this provision.  None of this alleged $175.00 is the responsibility of the shelter releasing the animal(s) to the rescue groups.  There are no additional costs.   
·         Animal control officers will go from spending most of their time caring for animals and addressing community issues to spending most of their time doing paperwork. The burdensome process will increase both labor and supply costs that currently are dedicated to the animals.
            There is no extra paperwork to consume the Animal Control Officers’ valuable time.  A shelter should already have a functioning system of intake and accounting in place.  The only extra effort will be a simple batch email to the established list of Rescues once a day.  That is all.
  • This burdensome new process will create overcrowded conditions in shelters due to increased holding requirements. To address this issue many, if not all, shelters will reduce the local holding periods to account for the mandated increase – meaning owners will have three fewer days to reclaim a lost pet before it is available to the public and rescues. In some cases this reduction will be from 5 days to 2 days, but in many others it will go from the current 3 days to no days.
            As stated above there are no extra holding periods.  The Rescue notification and response period can be incorporated into the already-required legal holding period.  If this means that agencies are intending on reducing their holds below the level required by State Statute they have bigger problems than alleged overcrowding.
·         There are very limited exceptions where euthanasia can occur – diseased animals cannot be euthanized unless they are “irreparably suffering”, meaning that parvo, ringworm, and other diseases will spread through shelters infecting currently healthy animals, leaving them unadoptable, creating undue suffering, and increasing the medical and labor costs to the local shelter.  
            Untrue.  The only restriction on euthanasia is that the animals must be offered to Rescues first.  If the Rescues do not claim the animal in the time listed then the agency is free to dispose of the animal as they see fit.  This legislation does not require the warehousing of animals or any increased holding time. 
  • There are no controls in place to ensure that the animal rescue groups are legitimate, meaning that shelters will not be able to weed out hoarders or animal testers.  Very little information can be asked of the rescue groups.  They don’t even need a place of business in Florida.  Like the problem of ‘pill mills,’ Florida will become known as the place to get animals without any scrutiny. Animal testing labs that currently breed their own animals or pay a high price to acquire animals will now have a new resource in Florida. This will bring undue negative publicity to the State.
                This is an issue that has always existed with rescue groups, and for which there is no current prohibition in State Statute as it stands.  The proposed legislation requires that the organization have a 501(3)c Non-Profit designation (currently not required under State Statute) and that the Rescue may be required to provide background checks on its personnel (also not currently required).  Instead of lowering the requirements for Rescues to pick up animals (there are none in Statute) it established two important benchmarks.  And as far as whether the Rescue is local or out of area: Oh, the horror!  Instead of killing an animal in a local shelter there might be an alternative.  Some Rescue might, at their expense and using their resources, adopt an animal SOMEWHERE ELSE!   Please.
·         This bill unnecessarily restricts local animal control agencies in their operations.  Many shelters have vastly improved their local programs, all without interference from state regulation.  This bill puts that progress at risk and would almost certainly lead to overcrowded, diseased conditions. Some of the shelters have already taken euthanasia rates from 85% or more down to 35-40% with locally based initiatives. These programs may be at risk because the bill will require holding animals that may never be taken from the shelter and it may deteriorate working relationships with known and professional rescues that will no longer be willing to work with shelters that allow anyone claiming to be a rescue to get animals.
            The proposed legislation takes no control from local agencies-it simply requires them to try and place or transfer animals before they kill them.  Yes, many agencies have reduced euthanasia rates substantially.  This legislation will not affect those agencies because they are already doing what is needed.  Known and professional rescues should welcome this legislation as another opportunity to do their jobs with agencies that have heretofore not been willing to work together.  And again, there is no mandate for additional holding periods.
  • Mandating a restrictive program with no flexibility will cost taxpayers money and lead to less humane conditions for animals. This bill creates additional unfunded mandates upon the local governments by increasing costs unnecessarily.
            There are no unfunded mandates in this bill.  The cost of the establishing the registry can be as little as a donated three-ring binder with copies of the Rescue organizations’ 501(c)3 papers.  That is how my agency handled it voluntarily-and it worked just fine.  Other than that three-ring binder there are no costs as I discussed above.

The email broadcast went on to list the following talking points.  I have addressed each of those below.
Myth: You can drop your pet off at a “no-kill” shelter any time if things do not work out.
Fact: “No-Kill” shelters have limited room and resources and turn away needy pets that are deemed unadoptable. Most “No-Kill” shelters require appointments for surrendering a pet and many of these shelters charge a fee to take your pet. Sadly, nearly all of the turned away animals are abandoned or taken to another shelter where they may eventually be destroyed.
This has nothing to do with the proposed legislation.  It is further untrue-there are No-Kill Shelters that are open admission municipal agencies and who accept unrestricted drop-offs.  This is an attempt to divert attention from the legislation and to create an artificial “Ugly Reality vs No-Kill” debate were it does not belong.
Myth: There is no overcrowding problem.
Fact:  In one major Florida city from 2001-2010 there were 282,661 pets that entered animal shelters. Of those, 97,259 pets were returned to owners or found new homes. In that same period, however, 185,402 were euthanized. In 2010 there were 304,074 households – meaning nearly one in three households adopted a pet from a shelter, yet nearly 2/3 of the animals in that city were euthanized. Every household would have had to adopt an animal over that period of time for “No-Kill” to have been accomplished. Statistically ½ of all households desire to own a pet – so every household wanting a pet would have had to adopt 2 additional pets into their household over this 10 year period.
Yes, there are a lot of animals.  This has no relevance to the proposed legislation.  The issue of the number of animals homeless is better addressed by such strategies as low- or no-cost spay/neuter, responsible pet ownership education, etc.  This is just an attempt to confuse the issue and set out a fog of allegation and misinformation hiding the true issue: should a shelter have to make a minimum effort to try and adopt or place an animal before the kill it? 
Myth: “No-kill” shelters offer a humane way for unwanted pets to live out their natural days.
Fact:  Pets being warehoused in “no-kill” shelters are confined to cages for weeks, months or even years. These caged animals become more withdrawn, depressed or aggressive everyday, reducing their chances of being adopted. This practice is considered by humane groups such as PETA to be a far worse fate than traditional shelters. In several documented cases these animals suffer needlessly and die in inhumane manners because the shelter became overwhelmed with the animals being kept for long periods of time.
This is an issue long debated and off topic in this discussion.  Differences in opinion about the “humane” state of No-Kill shelters are appropriately the subject of other debate, but have nothing to do with this bill.  And by the way-citing PeTA as an authority regarding humane treatment of companion animals is ludicrous. Their Virginia shelter killed 97% of all its animals in 2010.

Myth: “No-Kill” shelters offer a cost savings over traditional shelters.
Fact:  The average cost to prepare an animal for adoption is estimated at $175 per pet. Additionally, it costs $10-15 per day to care for the animals. “No-Kill” shelters often rely upon the public shelter to pay for the services required for sterilization/adoption and housing before taking them to place in new homes. While it may look as if the “No-Kill” shelter offered a savings it is simply that they shifted the burden to the public shelter.
This is an exaggerated overstatement of costs.  Vaccinations for a pet amount to less than $10.00 for a full set (if purchased in bulk as most shelters do).  Spay/neuter costs vary, but are significantly less than listed, especially when conducted by an in-house program.  This also ignores the fact that the public shelter transferring an animal to a Rescue, under the proposed legislation, will collect its full adoption fees covering their costs-if not actually making money. There is no “shift” of any rescue organization’s costs to the public sector.
Myth:  Public shelters are the only ones that euthanize animals they take in
Fact:  Many “No Kill” shelters turn animals over to the local animal control agency for euthanasia or they have private veterinarians perform the procedure so they can maintain their “No Kill” claim.
If this is happening please refuse to “massage” the paperwork, document it and report the FRAUD being perpetrated.  I know as a former Animal Control Agency Director that I was asked to do this once-and refused.  I would not be party to fraud.  I assume that other Animal Control Agency heads (at least the ones I know) are of equal integrity and will refuse to cooperate with this kind of sham.  Again, this does not impact the proposed legislation.
Myth:  “No Kill” shelters are all working to resolve their local pet issues and adopting out all types of cats and dogs.
Fact:  Many “No Kill” shelters actually look outside their local area for more “desirable” pets to place for adoption. The typical mixed breed brown or black dog is too often not taken by these shelters because they are difficult to place due to a lack of public demand. The same is true of adult cats, especially black cats and orange tabby.
This is another argument being presented to fog the issue-this legislation has no effect on local adoptions-OTHER than to make it possible for Rescue organizations to step up and take in animals that they have room for WHEREVER they might be.
Myth:  “No Kill” shelters will always take a good animal that needs a new home.
Fact: Nearly all “No Kill” shelters are limited admission shelters (meaning that they will only take animals when they have available space). These shelters turn away thousands of animals per year due to lack of space. Additionally, these shelters must remain in business by producing revenue so they often limit the kinds of animals they take by what they know will be adopted quickly to generate operating revenue. This leaves bigger pets, common mixed breeds and those animals that have lower demand to be the burden of the open admission shelters that ultimately have to euthanize some of these animals.
The allegation that No-Kill Shelters are ALL limited admission is incorrect.  There are open admission shelters that are documented No-Kill Shelters.  In this context the question is off-topic.  These allegations, true or otherwise, have no bearing on the legislation at hand.  This is a distraction.
            Those of you who know me personally know that I am a pragmatist.  I recognize the harsh realities of life, and have a great appreciation for the difference between reality and fantasy.  This bill sits solidly in the realm of the real world.  This is a practical, workable, and efficient method to begin the task of reducing needless euthanasia in Florida, and indeed across the nation. 
Please join with me in supporting this legislative action to save animal lives in Florida.