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Shelter revolution . . . an alternative concept

Is it time to consider alternative solutions to the traditional shelter and adoption model?
Is it time to consider alternative solutions to the traditional shelter and adoption model?
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

For many years animal shelters have operated in a very similar way. While the goal is always to find homes for those in their care the truth is animals continue to be put down at an alarming rate. Euthanasia is a constant for those animals who run out of time where homelessness is prevalent and allowed to continue in a society that accepts death as an accepted consequence for four-legged beings. It is the sad reality the animal services world shoulders even when they try their best to prevent this tragedy from happening.

According to a blog piece by Francis Battista, co-founder of Best Friends Animal Society, "The United States is a nation of animal lovers . . . To say that most people consider their pets to be a part of the family is no exaggeration and shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone . . . And yet, the tax dollars of these same animal lovers are being used to pay for the sanctioned killing of 3-4 million healthy pets every year in our nation's shelters. That's more than 9,000 healthy, adoptable dogs and cats every day: 9,000 lives, in the fullest sense of the word, are wasted every day."

Let those numbers sink in for a moment and understand the frustration the animal services community faces every day as a piece of each person who works in that environment slowly chips away until you feel like you've lost your way. It's a constant struggle and a never ending search for better ways to evolve as a means to the end of pet overpopulation and being put to death.

Thomas Cole thinks there is a better way to approach this issue. He calls it "Shelter Revolution" with a stated mission ". . . to modernize the animal shelter industry." Said Cole, "My approach is really so simple. Strip away the animal aspects and what you have is a rudimentary retail operation. But instead of one central place (the shelter) handling all aspects of the operation, specific aspects are handed off to other members of the local rescue community. This realignment of duties will be a relief to most and will renovate our method of operation. We could finally switch from best practices to best outcomes - all lives will be saved. This is true 'no-kill' sheltering."

The Adoption Center model Cole is proposing is about more than simply building a new facility. The real challenges lie deeper and are ". . . first about uniting all factions in our fractured rescue communities. We do not need rescue groups trying to be all-service shelters. And shelters/sanctuaries have to stop imprisoning animals to improve their marketing." We are somewhat taken aback by implying shelters/sanctuaries are prisons, but the visual aspect of seeing animals in cages often in dreary surroundings could suggest to people in the community that is the reality despite the good intentions of the shelter staff and volunteers.

That said, Cole believes we must ". . . convince each of the players in a rescue community that working together is more effective than each group going it alone. The missions are streamlined. Each member group learns the benefits of handing off to other members tasks for which the others are better suited."

In Cole's vision, the ". . . goal is to create a new marketing center which makes it fun to look for a new family pet. Our solution = Adoption Center model." In this model there are four distinct pieces that are part of a comprehensive plan for change that serves the whole, as follows:

1. Communal showcasing;
2. In-home rehab;
3. Animal Control; and
4. Management Reporting System

Communal showcasing eliminates cages in favor of "true marketing centers". Here, animals that are calm and socialized (adoptable) ". . . will be presented in large groups. Customers will enjoy these happy groups and leave wanting to return with friends and family. Happy animals make the best sales force. Adoptions, donations and customer satisfaction will increase as citizens learn this is the marketing center for their community." Note use of the term "customer" depicting a true retail type concept that will force shelters to re-think their base approach for moving sales; which in this case presents animals as the product or commodity to be moved hopefully to their forever homes.

In-home rehab moves animals with "challenging behaviors" to rescuers better suited to deal with animals not ready for the Adoption Center. The goal here ". . . is to convince rescue groups to transfer to the Adoption Center efforts that interfere (i.e. adoption, fundraising, medical care, etc). Rescuers and fosters will instead focus on rehab - the basic process of calming an unstable dog or cat. This realignment of missions ensures all animals get a chance at adoption, and all animals adopted out are truly adoptable." Cole calls these "quality adoptions."

In this realignment vision, Cole believes local ". . . animal control must hand off the responsibility for adoptions and sheltering." Furthermore, animal control's law enforcement function transitions into animal advocacy. Instead of being traditional Animal Control Officers (ACO's), they will become "Animal Advocates" who ". . . lead teams of volunteers known as courtesy patrols. Verified cases of neglect or abuse will be turned over to local law enforcement and the courts for prosecution."

Cole recognizes that animal control needs ". . . a softer image for this effort to rally support from the community." Said Cole about animal control officers, "Their new role is strictly educational and to be the eyes and hears in the neighborhoods to check out reported neglect/cruelty. Cops will not be asked to do 'dog catcher' duties. They will be strictly enforcement and prosecution - as it should be." Not only would this be a change in the way the animal control function operates, but it would require the interest and buy-in of local law enforcement to take on a bigger role in their respective departments. Law enforcement would need to view animal cases as an important part of its function and not as a disinterested step-child.

Perhaps the "groundbreaking partnership" between the ASPCA and the New York City Police Department (NYPD) reflects a new era of defining roles for the animal control profession. This "broad strategic collaboration" to provide enhanced protection to New York City’s animals will be accomplished ". . . by leveraging the strengths and expertise of both organizations. Under the agreement, the NYPD will take the lead role in responding to all animal cruelty complaints in the five boroughs, while the ASPCA will expand its direct care and forensics work to assist law enforcement officials by providing critical support for animal cruelty victims, including forensic evaluations, medical treatment, behavior assessments, housing and placement, as well as backup legal support and training."

Said NYPD Police Commissioner William J. Bratton, "We are protecting some of New York City’s most vulnerable residents by enforcing laws against animal cruelty. The NYPD will continue this extremely worthwhile partnership with the ASCPA, and we look forward to our continued success.”

For a long time a primary weakness amongst members and organizations in the animal community has been ". . . the inability to speak the same language. Some report their results, most do not. The weak compromise called the Asilomar Accords has failed to bring a common reporting language to every rescue community."

Collecting and reporting data is an important measure for community programs and government agencies alike. Cole believes doing this ". . . in a uniform manner is an important step in unifying any rescue community. This is one of our specialties. We turn raw data into vital management reports which tell a useful story. No more guesswork and transparency improves."

Implementation of the Adoption Center model is brought together through Cole's plan called Collective Impact. It hinges on working together to move outcomes, to improve, to accept this is what you do, not in addition to what you do, and to advocate for what works. The plan offers the ". . . means to implement this innovative model in economic times that challenge all nonprofits and local governments. Gone will be the lone organization trying to be all things to all animals in all situations. Together we can narrow the role each organization plays in a rescue community to eliminate the redundancy and competition that has been allowed to develop over the years. There's room for everyone."

As is true with most forward thinking initiatives leadership plays a key role. In Cole's vision, ". . . leadership is the activity of mobilizing people to tackle the toughest problems and make the changes necessary to achieve measurable results."

Cole recommends a Backbone Organization that ". . . provides a guiding role in transforming an often inefficient, fragmented system. It is comprised of local leaders with various technical skills. Creating and guiding Collective Impact requires a small separately funded organization with technical experience in all aspects of animal rescue. Foremost is the ability of this group to clear away the burdens of past wounds and provide connections between people who thought they could never possibly work together."

We know this is a change in thinking that may seem a lot to take in. Let us recap some of the bigger salient points as Cole expressed to me, as noted:

• No more shelters - they transition into adoption centers. They're ONLY to handle adoptable animals. That's all.
• No more independent rescue groups - they take on the in-home rehab process for any animal in that rescue community that is not ready for adoption.
• No more animal control officers - they get promoted to animal advocates and each leads a team of volunteers called courtesy patrols.
• No more sanctuaries - all animals can be redeemed. My life's work is a testament to that. All can be re-homed with skilled rehab (not training!). Animals in their final stages of life can be transferred to individual caregivers for end-of-life care. That's about the only sanctuary needed.
• A physically separate medical facility will handle all intakes and medical evaluations. No animal is released to the adoption center or rehab without clearance by the medical team. All incoming animals will be quarantined, examined and treated in safe isolation.
• No more dancing around the admission policy: all rescue community participants are considered intake points for the rescue of animals. This means the entire community is "open admission." Animals will be immediately transferred to the medical facility by trained volunteer transporters.
• No more fee-based adoptions. All animals are re-homed for free. Instead of supporting the operations this becomes a general community responsibility.

Shelter Revolution is offering free assistance at two levels - - Community and Shelter. They will provide ". . . a guiding hand as interested rescue communities wrestle with making large-scale changes. The challenge is to get divided factions to the table. Our experience gives us the ability to speak the different languages of shelters and rescuers. Being able to recognize the needs of each group works to keep these factions at the table so a common plan can be hammered out." They will also use their ". . . vast experience and knowledge to modernize today's antiquated shelter model. We offer the beauty and cost-saving simplicity of our Adoption Center model."

What Cole is advocating may be considered radical by many who have followed traditional guidelines in operating animal service or rescue responsibilities in communities across America. In fact, Shelter Revolution's ". . . Adoption Center model is based on revolutionary concepts which replace old ways (like caging and isolation) that stifle rescue efforts today. Our concepts are proven methods taken like bits and pieces from successful operations in effect right now. Each concept is a piece of a comprehensive plan and serves the whole." Remember, this is about serving the whole not just the one.

Said Cole, ". . . Just thought your part of Florida might like to hear that there are solutions to the out-of-control killing there that exists today." Certainly what is being done throughout the animal community in America hasn't fully resolved the problem and animals continue to be euthanized each and every day. That is a tragedy and should never be acceptable to anyone.

We don't know if Shelter Revolution is the answer, but we do know alternative solutions to today's status quo in the animal community must be found. We are responsible as compassionate human beings to protect and care for them even though it seems that often it is our four-legged friends who are really taking care of us.

If you would like to learn more about Shelter Revolution, please contact them at:

• Email =
• Phone = 651-480-8280
I would like to thank those readers who contacted me with such kind words about the passing of my Mr. Tee. It has been a real struggle for me and both the two and four-legged members of my family the past month to no longer have that sweet child in our lives. Too many of us have experienced that kind of loss in our lifetime, often more than once, but we know that somehow those four-legged friends are still watching over us until the time finally comes to join them at the Rainbow Bridge.

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