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Compassion, innovation and common sense: Interview with Mitch Schneider

Mitch Schneiderof WCRAS is a 2010 Henry Bergh Leadership Award winner.
Mitch Schneiderof WCRAS is a 2010 Henry Bergh Leadership Award winner.
Nathan Winograd

The No Kill Advocacy Center has announced this year’s recipients of the Henry Bergh Leadership Award. The award, named after the founder of the first SPCA in the United States, recognizes outstanding leadership in the quest to end the killing of healthy and treatable shelter pets. There are five recipients this year and I will be interviewing each of them—one per week for five weeks. Each has approached the problem of animal shelter reform from a different angle and so brings a different perspective to the issue at hand—how do we stop this needless killing?

I‘ve already spoken with Robyn Kippenberger of the RNZSPCA about the quest to make New Zealand the first No Kill nation, and with the leader of a grassroots volunteer effort in the Southern United States—Kelly Jedlicki of the Shelby County No Kill Mission in Kentucky. This week we hear from an animal control director known for his innovative, yet very common-sense business model for animal control, Mitch Schneider of Washoe County Regional Animal Servicesin Nevada. His approach serves both the public safety and the welfare of animals, which the traditional model of animal control treats as incompatible.

A significant proportion of the animals ending up at shelters don’t need adoption—they need to be reunited with their owners. Under his direction, WCRAS has achieved redemption (return-to-owner) rates far surpassing those of other animal control units—65% for dogs and 7% for cats. The national averages are about 25% and 2% respectively. They also actively support trap-neuter-return (TNR) for feral cats and work collaboratively with nonprofit animal rescue organizations. In partnership with the Nevada Humane Society, they’ve made Washoe County, Nevada into one of the safest places in the country for homeless animals, and they’ve done it despite the bad economy and other challenges which are used as excuses for the failure of shelters to save lives elsewhere. Their per capita intake rate at the shelter is more than double the national average, and triple that of some communities, yet their save rate--91% in 2010--far surpasses most, making them members of the elite, but growing “90% club”. How do they do it?

Schneider was initially skeptical that No Kill could work in Reno, but didn’t want the initiative to fail because of him—you can’t know it won’t work if you have never even tried it. He agreed to try and Reno, Nevada now has one of the highest rates of lifesaving of any community in the United States, saving all healthy and treatable shelter pets, which turns out to be literally 95% of them. His model represents a better future for animal control—one in which animals’ lives are saved, and animal control works collaboratively with the animal rescue community and the animal-loving public, rather than treating them as adversaries. As an added bonus, this results in a cost savings to the taxpayers, better relations with the public and an improved image for animal control, all the while remaining consistent with their public safety mandate.

He is a strong believer in collaboration, but also understands that collaboration isn't always possible. That was one of the things he sought to change when he became manager of WCRAS. In the past, leadership at animal control refused to work fully and collaboratively with the Nevada Humane Society. Sadly, that is true in many communities around the country, as traditional animal control shelters simply refuse to collaborate with rescuers and animal advocates, throwing away opportunities to save lives.

He has said, “In some ways, I see part of my job as getting out of the way of people who want to save lives.”

Mitch Schneider will be giving a webinar entitled ‘Getting to No Kill as an Animal Control Shelter’ on January 28, 2011 and will also be presenting at the No Kill Conference in Washington, D.C., July 30-31, 2011.

How did you become involved in animal welfare and in one of the most successful No Kill communities in the country?

My career in animals actually began as a professional dog trainer. I got into dog training as a result of a love for animals and I think my early experience with pet owners (teaching basic dog obedience classes) gave me a better understanding of pet owners. When I did enter the animal control profession, in the early 80’s, my thinking was a little different than the traditional thinking in this field. Also, I think I was traumatized by the dog catcher in the Walt Disney movie Lady and the Tramp. Fast forward a couple decades, past my years as a dog trainer, Animal Control Officer, Supervisor and to the present. I am the Manager of Washoe County Regional Animal Services which is in a public-private partnership with Nevada Humane Society, and as such, I have the pleasure of working closely with Bonney Brown, their director; NHS has adopted the No Kill philosophy.

What are some of your accomplishments from this past year that led to your being chosen for this honor?

I suppose it was the strong efforts involving collaboration with others, our high rate of returning pets to their owners and a willingness to share our approach and subsequent success with others. I would have to add that our success is the result the great partnership we have with Nevada Humane Society and the other community rescue groups, the wonderful staff members we have and the tremendous community support we enjoy; without all of those things the success we’ve achieved would not be possible.

Animal control in Washoe County, Nevada follows a very different business model from any other animal control unit in the country. How did it come to be so different from animal control across rest of the country and what key things set it apart?

My fundamental belief is that one should try to do the right things for the right reason. With that in mind it makes sense to work with all the stakeholders in the community to achieve the best for the community. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when everyone respects one another (even differences) and works together toward a common goal (keep your eye on the ball, so to speak).

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.

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 death 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.

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 where 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. 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 [kill] 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.

What was the smartest thing you did?

Being nice to Bonney Brown, actually that part’s easy, she’s a super lady. Seriously though, I would have to say it was doing the many little things that came as a result of embracing continuous process improvement and understanding that collaboration was essential; playing well with others.

What would you do differently?

I’m a big believer in continuous process improvement so I will always find something to change; if you don’t believe me, just ask my staff.

What was your biggest disappointment?

I feel expectations are the root of all evil so I avoid them, and as such, I’m seldom disappointed. [Laughs] I just focus on trying to be better today than yesterday and I also accept that we are all human and will make mistakes; as long as we learn from them.

What was your biggest success?

I’m very pleased with our success in getting pets back home to their owners, as opposed to impounding them. But I would have to say that I’m most pleased with the fact that our staff are not asked to euthanize [kill] perfectly adoptable animals; I can’t think of a better gift to give them.

When did you realize you were succeeding?

Not until Bonney told me. Actually, it was pretty clear when we stopped [killing] animals on a daily basis.

What advice do you have for someone embarking on a similar venture?

Think collaboration, ignore the differences (everyone has them) and focus on the commonality; check your ego. And remember, if you have to solve every concern before you do something you’ll never do anything.

What does this award mean to you?

Mixed feelings; it’s nice to get awards but I feel a bit undeserving because so many people had extremely important roles in the success of our community. It’s kind of like giving the quarterback all the credit for winning the game when he had a whole team helping him.

What are your plans and goals for the future?

Specifically, we are going to expand our operational hours for the redemption of pets; making it seven days a week, including holidays. In general, we’ll continue to look for ways to increase return-to-owners in the field and redemptions at our shelter and we’ll continue to increase our use of technology to be more efficient and cost-effective.

What was the most difficult part of your accomplishment, your biggest challenge?

I think the hardest part is getting everyone to buy into a new vision and a new approach to conducting business. Many people seem to get hung up on past practices and/or needing every detail worked out ahead of time to effect change and they seem to fear the unknown and as such imagine the worst, no matter how unfounded; lots of communication helps with this.

What was the most surprising thing you learned along the way?

That even the most ardent detractors can change their mind, in time.

What do you have to say to those who claim that No Kill and Animal Control are mutually incompatible, that it can’t be done?

Animal Control can’t say that part of its mission is animal protection (and animal protection should be part of its mission) if it isn’t doing what is reasonable to save the adoptable animals in its care--that is kind of hypocritical. Also, if you don’t collaborate with all the stakeholders in your community you will always get what you’ve always gotten.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Just that with the economy the way it is, society needs us to choose collaboration over competition and work together. They also need use to utilize technology to its fullest in order to get more done with less. These are things all of us can do and should be doing to better our communities. I’ve had the privilege of speaking in numerous communities around the country and it’s my sense that the desire is there and that the time is right; so now all we have to do is follow Nike’s suggestion and “just do it”.

Read part one in this leadership series, the interview with Robyn Kippenberger of the RNZSPCA.

Read part two of this leadership series, the interview with Kelly Jedlicki of the Shelby County No Kill Mission.

Become a fan of the No Kill Advocacy Center on Facebook.

Become a fan of the Atlanta Animal Welfare Examiner on Facebook, or follow me on twitter.

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  • Profile picture of Thomas Cole
    Thomas Cole 4 years ago

    Mitch stated, "Just that with the economy the way it is, society needs us to choose collaboration over competition and work together."

    So why are there still so many separate rescue groups and shelters in Washoe County? Why can't they come under one umbrella and "work together" as a group? Lots of egos at work, aren't there?

    It all sounds nice but not until Americans can set aside their petty little differences and egos will this problem be solved. Animal rescue is not an "industry," and it's not a place for division or competition.

  • Profile picture of Valerie Hayes
    Valerie Hayes 4 years ago

    What is wrong with having a number of separate groups working together? I see diversity as a source of strength and subsuming all groups "under one umbrella" as the road to bureaucracy. I really don't see why merging all groups into one would be desirable or advantageous.

    One of the things Mitch Schneider emphasized was the importance of collaboration and of people setting aside their egos to Washoe County's No Kill success. Given that they have one of the highest rates of lifesaving in the country, I'd say that their system is succeeding and that it is *not* an example of "lots of egos at work".

  • Diane 4 years ago

    Wonderful interview; intelligent questions asked leading to a better understanding of Mr. Schneider's philosophy. That man is beautiful, btw, and the award well deserved.

  • Karen Fishler 4 years ago

    Terrific interview. So appreciative that you are talking with all the Henry Bergh Leadership Award winners -- each of their perspectives is interesting and unique. Congratulations to Mr. Schneider.

    Though I live in another part of the country, I was curious how Washoe County Animal Services communicates with their community -- such a well-done, friendly, open site. Also, a link at the bottom of one of their pages led to the curriculum for the upcoming National Animal Control Association training summit, to be held in Reno in May. Both Mr. Schneider and Bonney Brown will be presenting workshops.

  • Profile picture of Valerie Hayes
    Valerie Hayes 4 years ago

    Thanks Diane and Karen. I'm really enjoying doing this interview series and learning a lot. Each leader's perspective has enriched my thinking on this subject and I'm glad to be able to share it with others.

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