As one of the largest metro animal service agencies in Northern California, San Jose Animal Care & Services has its work cut out for it. With a yearly intake of over 15,000 animals, some days it’s all it can do to keep up. One might think the leadership of such a facility would throw up its hands, blame the public, and be defeated. On the contrary, it is leading the way in saving lives of animals.
The San Jose Animal Care Center opened its doors in 2004. After the passage of the Hayden Law in 1998, which extended hold periods for stray animals, many private nonprofit animal shelters gave up their contracts with cities and counties. Lacking the capacity to hold so many animals, they decided instead to focus on spay/neuter, public education, and support of government animal control facilities. This caused a surge of new animal shelters to be opened by cities and counties, helping to spread the burden and to make sheltering more local.
Over the years, SJACS developed relationships with community partners in rescue, enabling SJACS to quickly transfer animals out of the shelter and into foster homes, freeing up space for the constant influx of new animals. SJACS developed a robust adoption program with regular promotions and special events. In 2008, SJACS, along with the other five animal shelters in Santa Clara County, formed the WeCARE coalition for mutual support in the lifesaving of animals. In 2012 the coalition was awarded the Maddie’s Fund Community Lifesaving Award of $1.04 million.
Still, with all of these successes, the animals kept pouring in. With only 20 percent of stray dogs—not just in San Jose but across the nation—being found and reclaimed by their owners, shelter leaders realized they were going to have to focus on something other than adoptions. It was time to put in a call to Missing Pet Partnership.
Founded in 2002, Missing Pet Partnership is a national nonprofit dedicated to lost pet prevention and recovery, also known as LPPR. Missing Pet Partnership provides public education for pet owners, training and certification for pet detectives and search dogs, and training and support for animal shelters. In 2017, it rolled out the Mission Reunite initiative with the goal of increasing owner reunions in shelters across the country as well as reducing stray intake through prevention. The San Jose Animal Care Center’s director, Jon Cicirelli, invited me, as Missing Pet Partnership’s president, and founder Kat Albrecht to come to the shelter in February and conduct a two-day training seminar with management, staff, and volunteers.
Day one was a large group presentation with 80 people. Attendees were introduced to the concept of barriers to owner reunion, shelter practices that—intentionally or not—make it difficult or impossible for owners to find and reclaim their pets. Confusing jurisdictional systems, limited business hours, and ineffective phone systems are just a few examples of the many barriers common in animal shelters.
Attendees also learned about the behaviors of pets, owners, and finders that hinder owner reunion. One of the most common is the “finders keepers” phenomenon, where a well-meaning finder believes that the stray animal has been neglected or abused so decides to keep or re-home it without making any attempt to find the owner. This belief does a disservice to both the animal and owner, as there is no way of knowing that animal’s history, and well-loved and well-cared for pets are often found in poor condition after being missing for weeks or months.
“Grief avoidance” is a common problem for owners of missing pets. Unable to bear the burden of not knowing what has happened, the owner will believe that their pet was stolen, ran away, or was eaten by a coyote. These fallacies are often supported by friends or co-workers who pressure the owner to move on, so by the time their pet shows up at the shelter, they have stopped looking.
Understanding these behaviors helps shelter staff to better counsel owners in effective search techniques and to keep them going. “The most important thing we give to grieving pet owners,” says Albrecht, “is hope. Without hope, people stop searching, and their pets are absorbed into stray and shelter populations.”
On day two of the seminar, attendees were broken into small groups and tasked with proposing solutions to specific barriers or groups of barriers. The energy in the room was amazing as management, staff, and volunteers worked together, coming up with idea after idea. Posting pictures and locations of found pets on Facebook, counseling of owners during the lost pet tours (which can take quite some time in the large facility), and allowing reunions even on days the shelter is closed were just a few of the solutions proposed. At the end of the day everyone was tired, but energized with their newfound abilities to get more pets back into their loving homes where they belong, and keep them there.
An example of a posting for a found dog.
Brigid Wasson is the founder of The Path Ahead Animal Shelter Consulting, providing infrastructure building, management team support, and lifesaving programs for animal shelters across the country. She lives in Sonoma County with four dogs: an Anatolian shepherd, a Corgi/terrier, a Pomeranian/terrier, and a newly adopted Catahoula. For more information, visit AnimalShelterSuccess.com.
This column is written by a different trainer each month. If you’d like to contribute, contact Editor@BayWoof.com.
Main article photo by: Brigid Wasson