Reducing Costs While Improving Customer Service and Public Support
If reducing costs for your animal services program while improving customer service and public support interests you, then Washoe County, Nevada may provide ideas that can benefit your program. Washoe County Regional Animal Services (WCRAS) has been gaining national attention for having one of the lowest euthanasia rates in the country. This success is the combined result of a collaborative relationship with local animal rescue organizations, use of technology and customer friendly policies and practices. This combination is not only providing better customer service and garnering strong public support, but it is also proving to be cost effective, creating a true Win-Win for the community.
The first step in Washoe County’s transformation was voters passing a referendum in 2002 that funded the construction of a new facility and animal services operations. As part of that referendum, Washoe County also consolidated the cities of Reno and Sparks animal services departments into a county operated regional program and, at the same time, entered into a formal partnership with Nevada Humane Society (NHS). This public-private partnership allowed both agencies to share the new facility which opened in 2006.
WCRAS focuses on the public health and safety concerns while also protecting the wellbeing of animals. NHS accepts owner-surrendered pets in addition to saving as many of the animals abandoned at WCRAS as possible, working tirelessly to re-home them. NHS also provides a free Animal Help Desk to assist pet owners in addressing many of the common pet behavior problems and other concerns that frequently result in an owner abandoning a pet.
Understanding the Priority – Reducing Pet Abandonment
Abandonment of animals is a major source of cost to a community’s animal services program. In 2008 Washoe County, impounded nearly 5,000 dogs and almost as many cats. Of the 5,000 dogs impounded, approximately 50% were abandoned by their owners, which is typical in many communities. This could result in a significant amount of funding being spent on the euthanasia of the abandoned animals if not for working closely with the animal rescue groups. When an animal services program recognizes the economic and social costs of animal abandonment, tackling this problem becomes a priority.
Compounding the problem, many traditional animal services programs follow an approach that parallels parking enforcement. In some parking enforcement situations, a vehicle is towed and impounded and held until the costs of the towing and impound fees are collected. This makes sense when you have a vehicle that is worth a substantial sum of money. But it doesn’t work quite as well when you’re talking about an animal that, more often than not, has little or no monetary value. This approach to recovering costs of animal services often increases the need for more shelter space and increases the abandonment and euthanasia rates, which in turn increases the cost of the program. Additionally, this approach fails to recognize that most people consider pets to be a family member and therefore, the traditional business model does little to garner public support.
Focusing on the Priority - Collaboration
Many animal services programs and animal rescue groups focus on the difference in their primary missions; animal services’ focus is public safety and animal rescue groups’ focus is saving animals. By doing so, they often fail to recognize the commonality in their missions and resist working with each other, either intentionally or due to conflicting policies and practices. As a result, some animal services programs may be overlooking a significant opportunity to reduce costs and increase community support.
WCRAS is embracing the efforts of animal rescue groups and has found that working closely with these groups has dramatically reduced the need for euthanasia. In 2008, NHS transferred 3,762 dogs and cats from WCRAS to their shelter for adoption, with other local rescue groups saving another 1,461 for a total of 5,223 dogs and cats. Additionally, NHS accepted over 4,100 owner surrendered dogs and cats, which most likely would have ended up at WCRAS if not for this collaborative partnership. In 2009, no dogs and cats, classified as healthy and behaviorally sound, were euthanized in Washoe County. This resulted in significant cost savings for the animal services program, increased public support and reduced stress for the staff members that perform euthanasia duties; which in turn increased employee morale, and quite likely reduced employee turnover.
In Washoe County, NHS and a number of other local animal rescue groups are working together to create a no-kill community by reducing the need for euthanasia of healthy, adoptable animals. This initiative, also seen in many other communities, is receiving strong public support. It is important for WCRAS to continue to work closely with these groups to ensure policies, practices and laws work in harmony with their efforts so the community reaps all of the benefits of this endeavor. Communities and organizations that want to work together toward reducing euthanasia may also qualify for grants from Maddie’s Fund (to find out more about this program visit their web site at www.maddiesfund.org).
Another program that also involves collaboration with an animal rescue group focuses on feral cats. WCRAS works closely with Community Cats, a Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) program run by Diana Lucree, DVM. This program offers an effective approach to dealing with feral cat problems within the community; something most communities struggle with, at least in the more temperate climates. WCRAS has found that approximately 90% of people reporting a concern with feral cats would rather handle this problem through a non-lethal program. This approach is gaining strong public support and many animal services programs around the country are now turning to TNR. In addition to reducing euthanasia, it also greatly reduces shelter expenses for housing these cats.
Focusing on the Priority – Policies and Practices
To reduce the likelihood of needing a larger shelter facility in the future, at a cost in the millions of dollars, WCRAS policy directs Animal Control Officers to make every reasonable effort to return animals to their owner instead of impounding the animal. In addition to checking the pet for identification (tags or microchips), officers will check lost reports and speak with area residents in an attempt to determine if anyone knows were the animal lives. Besides reducing shelter costs, this policy also reduces animal abandonment and enhances public support. A dog license is promoted as “Your Dog’s Ticket Home”; providing a true benefit for licensing increases voluntary compliance, further reducing shelter needs and the inherent potential for abandonment. In 2009, officers returned nearly 1,000 dogs directly to their owners without impounding them; reducing shelter space needs, stress to the dogs and their owners and reduced shelter staff and supply costs. Note: Upon returning the animal to the owner all laws are enforced and warnings or citations issued as deemed appropriate.
Another traditional practice in animal services that increases abandonment is the policy of not allowing an owner to redeem their pet if they can’t pay all of the fees at the time of redemption. Continuing to hold the animal until all of the fees are collected simply increases the redemption fees for the pet owner and increases the need for greater sheltering space, reduces public support and increases abandonment and the euthanasia rate and associated costs. To address this issue, Washoe County has established a billing system, which is only used with supervisor permission to ensure that this option is offered as a last resort; unpaid bills are turned over to collections.
Disclosure of statistics is an area that requires some mention. It’s not uncommon for agencies to be reluctant to publish their statistics. However, WCRAS feels that by publishing detailed statistical information citizens can see the problems that need to be addressed within the community; this type of transparency can also help in gaining the trust of the animal rescue groups. An excellent reporting format that is widely used came out of the Asilomar Accords; more information on this reporting format and the Asilomar Accords can be found on their web site at www.asilomaraccords.org. Lastly, Maddie’s Fund may even provide grant money to communities willing to publish their statistics; WCRAS has received $40,000 in the past simply for publishing its’ statistics.
For safety and liability reasons, it can be challenging to make effective use of volunteers in animal services work. However, they can be invaluable as a pet detective, where they can have a positive effect on reducing abandonment. WCRAS is developing a Volunteer Pet Detective program to assist pet owners in looking for their lost pets to comb lost pet ads and reports to look for possible matches with pets in the shelter. The program will provide a valuable service to those that have lost their pet and it also reduces the need to have paid staff dealing with this somewhat time consuming public assistance. Volunteers should find it rewarding as they get to perform a function that is challenging while also helping to increase redemptions. A program of this type can also play an important role in reducing the likelihood of receiving negative media attention and reducing the potential for civil liability stemming from the accidental euthanasia of someone’s lost pet.
Focusing on the Priority – Technology
To increase dog licensing, Washoe County dog owners have the convenience of licensing their pets online through the county’s web site at www.washoecounty.us/animal. Additionally, photos and descriptions of all the animals impounded at the shelter are posted to the county’s web site so that pet owners looking for a lost pet can do so from any computer with internet access. Pet owners without a computer can ask a friend, neighbor or relative to look for their pet online or they can use a public library computer. Without the associated time and expense of driving to the shelter everyday, people will continue to look for their pets for longer periods of time. Citizens can also file lost or found animal reports online. Making it more convenient, less costly and less stressful for pet owners to find lost pets or to license their pets can reduce animal abandonment; it also reduces the staff time spent assisting citizens. Increasing pet redemptions also reduces the pressure on animal rescue partners who have the task of re-homing abandoned animals.
Imagine what the world of law enforcement would be like if vehicles didn’t have VIN numbers and license plates; that’s been the animal services world, until now. The microchip has been around for roughly 20 years, yet the benefits of this device are still not fully appreciated by many pet owners. This is tragic because microchips will likely prove to be the single most important technology and step towards reducing the abandonment of animals, not to mention the value they provide in helping pet owners recover lost or stolen animals. As such, it is important for animal services programs to do as much as possible to promote this product and encourage pet owners to avail themselves to the benefits of this technology. A microchip is particularly valuable to cat owners who tend to be reluctant to put a collar on their pet. It should also be promoted as an important element of any pet owner’s personal disaster preparedness plan. WCRAS recently succeeded in getting state regulations modified so that licensed Euthanasia Technicians can implant microchips without a veterinarian present. This dramatically reduces the cost since the majority of the cost comes from the labor involved (microchips can be purchased by shelters for as little as $5). This reduction in cost will allow the county to consider programs and laws to further promote the microchipping of pets. Note: State of Illinois now requires that all animals impounded be microchipped upon redemption or adoption.
The graph below indicates that Washoe County is moving in the right direction as owner redemptions of dogs, at the shelter, up 6% from the previous year. When you also factor in that nearly 1,000 dogs were taken directly home, the total abandonment rate is less than 40%. And if you further consider that all of the abandoned dogs and cats, which were healthy and behaviorally sound, were rescued you can readily see that by a willingness to move away from traditional practices, by utilizing current technology to its fullest and by collaborating extensively with local animal rescue groups an animal services program can reduce costs, increase public support and create a true Win-Win program for their community.