Mews & Views

Mews & Views -- A blog for cat lovers everywhere with a focus on the low-income pet cats of northern and central New Mexico.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

“Lies, Damned Lies, and Animal Shelter Statistics”

The recent resignations of two Michigan Humane Society board members, was not so much a reaction to their excessively high euthanasia rate, as to their lack of transparency.  

With three open-admission shelters and an annual budget of 12 million dollars, Michigan Humane is one of the largest companion animal organizations in the country – and one of the many still embracing the 1950’s animal control model.  Under this model, shelters accept local tax dollars as well as private donations, to take charge of displaced cats and dogs (puppies and kittens, strays and relinquished pets) and then either adopt them out or put them down at their sole discretion – with little or no public oversight.   Rarely would board members at these organizations challenge their euthanasia rate -- it’s intrinsic to their operation.   And 2010 was just a typical year for MHS – euthanizing about 71% of their intake, compared with 71% in 2008 and 74% in 2007.   If board members found this objectionable they would have resigned a long time ago – or never agreed to sit on the board at all.
Perhaps the catalyst for these resignations was a recent MHS announcement.   They announced that they achieved their goal to place 100% of their healthy intake by 2010 – and they had also rehabilitated and placed half of their “treatable” admissions as well.  They went on to say in 2011 their “treatable” placements had increased to 81%.    This would be wonderful news except for the fact that their kill rate remained unchanged!  And their “kill rate”  – the only meaningful measure of their performance --  is the only statistic that can’t be fudged.

As resigning board member Cheryl Phillip put it:  
“I doubt that our funders would be happy with a 100 percent healthy adoption rate if they knew that behind the scenes, fewer than 7,000 of the 24,000 total intakes were actually adopted, and more than 17,000 animals were “classified” as untreatable by MHS management ... and were killed.”
To investigate lowering their euthanasia rate (which is 7 times higher than that of an open-admission “no kill” shelter), Phillips called for a third-party review of their procedures, but was voted down 7-5.  Apparently other board members found nothing unusual about MHS significantly increasing their adoption rate without lowering their kill rate.  But therein lies the beauty of statistics. 
To support their fuzzy math, MHS noted that they use a national standard for assessing whether animals are (1) healthy and adoptable, (2) treatable, or (3) unhealthy and untreatable.   These “standards”  are the “Asilomar Accords” -- formulated at a 2004 summit of key No Kill and Animal Control organizations.  The Accords were touted as the first step in bridging the gap between the two movements so they could work collectively to save the lives of all healthy and treatable companion animals – to ultimately, create a “no kill nation”.  
Shelters were encouraged (and often given Maddie's Fund financial grants ) to establish and maintain a standardized database recording their intake and disposition according to the three categories above.  The data would serve two purposes:  (1) It would increase public transparency by being posted to both the Asilomar web site and those of the participating shelters, and (2) It would be used by shelters to track their own progress – with the goal for each shelter to immediately stop euthanizing their “healthy” admissions and then, as practical, begin rehabilitating the “treatable” admissions so they too could be adopted.  When both of these categories reached a 100% adoption rate, the shelter would be considered “no kill” – and when all shelters achieved this goal the U.S. would become a “No Kill Nation”.

This all sounds good on paper, but it fails miserably in practice.   Although Asilomar established the categories for animal evaluation -- they left the definition of the categories up to each participating shelter.  (Apparently the tension between the no kill and animal control organizations was too great for a consensus on what constituted “healthy”, “treatable” and “untreatable” cats and dogs.)    With no consistent definitions the statistics have no meaning and allow organizations like MHS to create whatever picture they want with the unwitting backing of Asilomar.    Instead of increasing transparency, the shelter statistics are more muddled than ever.
Asilomar turned out to be just a paper tiger.  But that should have been clear right from the beginning.  If the founding members had been serious about eliminating the euthanasia of all but the truly “unadoptable cats and dogs – those terminally ill or a threat to public safety – they would have started with the basics – pro-active spay/neuter.    Instead they specifically excluded it from their scope.   You don’t have to be a statistician to know the probability of becoming a No-Kill Nation is pretty low without first ensuring that all cats and dogs have access to free (or at least affordable) and local spay/neuter.    Why do you think so many end up at the shelters in the first place?