Breaking down barriers and saving lives in Florida’s animal shelters

Most shelters have at least some self-imposed barriers that are hampering their lifesaving efforts, as well as staff members who are working incredibly hard but feel frustrated and don’t see how they can possibly do more. Thanks to the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at UF and the Million Cat Challenge, Florida animal shelters looking to increase lifesaving now have their very own barrier-busters: Dr. Sarah Kirk and Cameron Moore.

In the last 14 months, Dr. Kirk and Moore have worked with eight Florida shelters through a free shelter assessment program operated by the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at UF and the Million Cat Challenge. “The barriers that hold shelters back are usually based on fear,” said Moore. “We always acknowledge the hard work the staff is doing and let them know they can improve lifesaving without having to do more or work harder. Instead, they need to do things differently.”

Cameron Moore and Dr. Sarah Kirk
Cameron Moore (left) and Dr. Sarah Kirk (right) with friends

Dr. Kirk agrees that fear is the number one factor preventing many shelters from having an assessment, or if they have one, from fully benefiting from it. “Directors often feel that our purpose is to make them look bad, when in reality we are there to support them,” she said. “In many instances the directors have been pushing for the very changes we would recommend, but their bosses aren’t listening or think they have crazy ideas. Having ‘experts’ come in and explain to leadership why these are considered best practices, why it will work in their community, dispelling common myths, and supporting shelter leadership is often embraced by the decision-makers, even when we’re saying the same thing that the directors have been saying for years.”

For many shelters, fear translates into a defensiveness expressed as “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” While this can create challenges for the assessment team, it also creates the opportunity for some positive reinforcement for the acceptance of change. “When barriers are removed, staff members typically see immediate positive change, which is inspiring and motivating,” said Dr. Kirk. “They like seeing their hard work pay off in a good way through things like increased adoptions, less crowding in the shelter, or more time for enrichment.”

For example, when a community cat program is implemented and healthy community cats are being returned quickly to their outdoor homes after sterilization and vaccination, the shelter no longer has cats housed in every nook and cranny. This in turn reduces the time it takes to clean, and also reduces illness and therefore the time spent medicating sick animals. “When staff isn’t spending hours medicating and cleaning, they have time to do other fun things that usually get pushed to the bottom of the list, such as bathing dogs, or providing enrichment, or spending time with potential adopters,” Moore said.

Collier Domestic Animal Services – Collier County
Collier Domestic Animal Services in Collier County, Fla.

These assessments are provided free of charge to shelters in Florida. Since December 2018, Dr. Kirk and Moore have completed assessments at the following shelters:

  • Animal Welfare League – Charlotte County
  • Manatee County Animal Services – Manatee County
  • Citrus County Animal Services – Citrus County
  • Suncoast Humane Society-Charlotte County
  • Pasco County Animal Services – Pasco County
  • Pinellas County Animal Services – Pinellas County
  • St. Joseph’s Bay Humane Society – Gulf County
  • Collier Domestic Animal Services – Collier County

“Once a shelter has been identified for a consult, we conduct research about the organization through a variety of methods that include but aren’t limited to interviews; surveys; reviewing reports and standard operating procedures; analyzing state laws, local ordinances, and contracts; and reviewing budgets and financials to gain an understanding of the entire operation,” said Moore.

In addition, the team reviews historical shelter and field statistics and analyzes trends to identify systemic issues, other barriers to lifesaving, and opportunities for improvement so that once they are on site they have a handle on the situation.

“We typically spend two days with the organization shadowing staff through their daily routines, observing those aspects of shelter practice identified in the Association of Shelter Veterinarians Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters,” said Dr. Kirk. “We discuss public policy issues that impact lifesaving. We ask leadership ahead of time to speak with their staff so they understand we are here to help and that we do not want anyone feeling worried or nervous about our visit. We ask a ton of questions because we have a short period of time to learn as much as we can from them.”

Cat supervising operations at Pasco County Animal Services, Pasco County, Fla.
Cat supervising operations at Pasco County Animal Services

Dr. Kirk and Moore may also speak with county administrators and other municipal leaders to discuss a particular issue that is impacting the shelter. If, for example, they have not implemented a community cat program and have ordinances that do not allow it, they will discuss why the program works and what they need to do to make it happen. They also provide recommendations on ordinance changes and offer to connect them with animal welfare attorneys who can assist them at no charge.

“Before we leave, we speak with leadership so they are already aware of what we have identified as opportunities for improvement for them,” said Moore. “Within a week of our visit, we provide a written report outlining recommendations. We then schedule a follow-up call to discuss any concerns or questions they might have about the report. And we are continually available to them to help guide them through the implementation of the recommendations.”

Canine housing at Pasco County Animal Services
Canine housing at Pasco County Animal Services

“We’ll often connect them with other shelters who have successful programs that match their needs,” said Dr. Kirk. “For example, if they aren’t sure how to start a safety net program, we will connect them with another shelter that is doing it really well so they do not have to reinvent the wheel.”

Moore says there isn’t a single recommendation that can help every shelter optimize lifesaving impact after an assessment. “All the recommendations work together like pieces of a puzzle,” she said.

The assessments encompass the five key initiatives outlined in the Million Cat Challenge:

“These initiatives, with the exception of feline return to field, work great for both dogs and cats,” Moore said. “In addition, we focus on medical protocols, sanitation, and behavior health, as well as helping shelter staff streamline population flow and reduce length of stay for the animals.”

Dr. Meaghan Mielo and Cameron Moore at Citrus County Animal Services
Dr. Meaghan Mielo and Cameron Moore at Citrus County Animal Services

One of Moore and Dr. Kirk’s favorite success stories is Citrus County Animal Services. “When we first visited them in January 2019, their new director had only been in that position for a very short period of time,” Moore said. “They were severely overcrowded with dogs and cats. They have double-sided dog runs with a divider door, which is appropriate dog housing. However, they were so full that dogs were housed on either side with the divider door always closed.

“Their cat cages weren’t portalized and they had many long-term residents who had spent more of their life in a cage than not. They had just hired an amazing veterinarian after being without for a long time, and she was highly motivated to implement good shelter medicine protocols and increase their surgery capacity to get rid of a surgical backlog. Their adoption process was cumbersome and animals were getting stuck in the system.”

Within a very short period of time after the assessment the Citrus County shelter was able to do several adoption events, which freed up enough space to then house one dog in a run with access to both sides. Cat cages were portalized, and through managed intake, pet safety net, return to field, increased marketing, and removing barriers to adoption they were also able to greatly reduce their cat population while increasing their live outcome.

“Their designated sick/isolation room which was always full in the past, now mostly stays empty and they are able to use it as flex space for those who need it such as a nursing mom with puppies or the occasional exotic that ends up in the shelter,” Dr. Kirk said. “The current Medical Director is former Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program intern Dr. Meaghan Mielo. She and Director Colleen Yarbrough have a mutually respectful relationship and are working magic for the animals and people of Citrus County.

“They have been able to maintain this magic even when faced with unexpected hoarding cases,” she added. “By managing what they can control and by providing a safety net programs for owners needing to surrender their pets, only those animals who truly need to be in the shelter are admitted. This allows for the staff to better care for them.”

Best of all, she said, “This is an older facility with no frills in a rural community. They are a great example that you don’t need a fancy building, large budget .and a huge staff to implement our recommendations and see positive results.”

Florida animal shelters interested in an assessment can apply from Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program on our website. When we receive your request, a representative will contact you to discuss your needs, and how we can help you meet your shelter goals.