An open-admission shelter in the South opens its mind to new ways to save cats

April 27, 2017

Cats: The final frontier. This is the voyage of a shelter in Greenville County, South Carolina, as told by its captain, Shelly Simmons, CAWA. Its mission: To explore strange new ideas (like community cat diversion), to seek out new and exciting ways of thinking for their staff, volunteers, and community; to boldly go where their discomfort level for change has never gone before.

I love the Capacity for Care in Animal Shelters resource on the Million Cat Challenge’s website. I’m going to suggest that someone make a resource called “Capacity for Change in Animal Professionals and Our Community,”  because if there is one thing that I think is completely underrated and misunderstood in the animal welfare world, it’s our staff and community’s capacity for change.

I think for the most part this is because of leadership’s poor judgment of what our staff and community are willing and able to accept and give while these changes are taking place. I’m “leadership,” too, so if you’re reading this and feeling slighted, know that I am calling my judgment poor as well. But that’s a whole other blog post. I’m here to talk about community cat diversion, and in doing so, my goal is a simple one: inspiration!

Our facility is the largest in South Carolina and one of the largest in the U.S. We can easily house over 200 cats on any given day, and often in the summer we house many more than that. A few of you may be able to imagine what 200+ cats and kittens in one building looks like because you have intake and capacity similar to ours. Most of you will not. But that doesn’t really matter in the end. If you are a shelter that takes in 1,000 cats annually and you have the capacity to care for 20 at a time, your staff and volunteers experience the same challenges and heartbreak that we have.

Prior to 2016, Greenville County Animal Care was taking in 8,000 – 10,000 cats and kittens annually and euthanizing at least 50 percent of them (about 4,000-5,000 each year). We euthanized daily at our shelter because otherwise we’d have no room to house all of the new cats and kittens coming in.

To say it was a “struggle” might just be the biggest understatement in my career of understating some of the problems I’ve faced as a shelter director. It was tragic for the animals that died for no other reasons than there wasn’t enough space at our shelter and there weren’t any other magical farms to take them. We are the only open admission shelter in a 750 square mile radius, and so we were often the only place people could go when they found a cat or kittens outside.

It was debilitating for our staff to deal with the reality of the situation. They had accepted a job with us to save lives, not to end them. It was also the root cause of the lack of community support for our shelter. We were known as the kill shelter, and rightfully so, though it wasn’t for a lack of trying. We offered free cat and kitten adoptions all summer long. We had a robust foster program. We had a huge rescue transfer program. We offered the community reasonably-priced $25 spays and neuters for the feral cats in their neighborhoods.

And our employees cared. They really cared. Despite all of that, not much headway was ever made to make a dent in the number of cats coming in and those we had to euthanize. If we saved 100 then we could expect 300 more later that week.

What was missing was a real solution for community cats in Greenville County. Now, I wasn’t oblivious to the programs out there. I had done my fair share of research on TNR. I knew there were communities saving most or all of the cats in their shelter — even the feral ones. But just like all of you reading this blog who have not yet implemented a cat diversion program in your own communities, I could not wrap my head around the idea that my community leaders would embrace an idea like that.

I could not fathom my animal control officers would accept it as a better solution than trapping and removing nuisance cats. I could not imagine my citizens believing in the “crazy” idea that allowing cats to remain outside (fixed and ear-tipped of course) is a more humane solution than bringing them to an animal shelter. And I could not visualize an empty cattery in my shelter.

In 2016, that all changed when we became a fellow city with Target Zero. We joined the Million Cat Challenge. Greenville County Council unanimously supported and passed a TNR/Community Cat resolution that allowed outdoor cats to continue living outdoors when they were spayed/neutered, vaccinated, and ear-tipped. We asked for and received a substantial grant from The Petco Foundation that allowed us to provide free spaying and neutering of any outdoor cat living in Greenville County for up to two years.

We asked our community leaders to give this pilot program a chance. We asked our officers to not only embrace TNR, but to help us out by returning cats after surgery to their outdoor home areas. We asked our citizens to trust in the proven methods of TNR to reduce cat overpopulation.

Finally, I asked shelter staff to stretch their capacity to change by 1,000 percent and to give more than they’d ever given on the off-chance that this program just might work for Greenville County, too. I had my doubts, of course. But I’m a damn good optimist of life in general, and as Woodrow Wilson explains much more eloquently than I ever will, “You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.”

With support from so many great people, community leaders, and organizations like Target Zero and The Petco Foundation, our community cat diversion program officially began in May 2016. Let me share some numbers with you of what happened in 2016 after implementing this program:

  • 2,097 fewer cats entered Animal Care in 2016
  • 1,917 fewer cats were euthanized in 2016
  • 1,574 community cat (TNR) spay-neuter surgeries were performed in 2016 at our clinic
  • 52-80 percent decrease in number of cats picked up by participating animal control agencies
  • 19 percent decrease in enforcement calls responded to by Greenville County Animal Control

The amount of success we have experienced here in Greenville County since becoming a fellow with Target Zero and implementing community cat diversion is almost too difficult to put into words. One only needs to visit our facility to see the difference it has made in our shelter.

When you walk into our cattery, you see the empty cages. Not just one here and there, but entire rooms. We have ten cat rooms, by the way, and it’s pretty normal now for 8 of them to be completely empty and the two we do use are sparsely populated. For a shelter that routinely housed 200 or more cats on any given day to now sometimes having fewer than 10 cats or even no cats is a phenomenal achievement. It’s a “you have to see it to believe it” experience, and so I’ve included a picture and video so that you, too, can see it and believe it:

From a community standpoint, wow, how the mindset has changed in just one year! We have always felt that we must remain “on the defensive” when going somewhere publicly. We wouldn’t dare tell the public we needed help or that if someone did not step forward to adopt, we would be forced to euthanize more just for space. We had many pow-wows, so to speak, with Target Zero and the county PR folks and took the leap to tell our story, our way, so that the community would want to become part of our team. Really the shelter animals’ team. And we did just that and the community has rallied around us!

Now we walk into a room and we get cheers and thank yous from our community. It’s night and day in terms of the support we are receiving and the difference that has made on our team morale. Our staff has gone from asking why we’re doing that to now telling others in our profession how we did it and how they can do it, too. It’s such a great feeling to be ahead of the curve, when for so long we struggled just to keep afloat.

Take some time to go back through and chew on my words. Digest the statistics and apply them to your own shelter. Consider how the landscape of your community might change if you had the same success we’ve seen thus far.

I’m not saying it will work for your community. I’m saying it could work for your community if you’re willing to expand your teams’ capacity for change and believe in the data that drives this new best practice for saving the lives of our community’s cats.

“Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind.” – Maria Popova

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7 Comments »

  1. Thank you for what you are doing. We are in Union Co. NC. We have been trapping cats for around Three and half year, maybe more. We started off paying for the spay and neutor surgery,but finally got in with Meck. Co. a free month of surgery in April. 2 years ago pd by Petco. After that Monroe Spay and Neutor has been helping us. We trapped and they fix them for free for us. We have had about forty fixed since we started and now are feeding about 18 that stayed around. They are more like our pets instead of feral.Our biggest problem is now feeding them.we are retired senior..We manage because if we didn’t feed them,,who would?.

    Comment by Rena Herring — May 2, 2017 @ 10:29 am

  2. FANTASTIC news! I deal with cat-haters DAILY who insist TNR could not ever possibly work under even the best of circumstances.

    MORE STORIES LIKE THIS, PLEASE!

    Comment by Wendy Jenks — May 2, 2017 @ 10:33 am

  3. This can certainly work in every community.

    Comment by Diane — May 2, 2017 @ 11:36 am

  4. Finally. Congrats to you and all my former co-workers.

    Comment by Candace Wansley — May 3, 2017 @ 6:49 am

  5. Thank you for being open to improving! This is wonderful and so many broken hearts can now rejoice in your success!

    Comment by Allyson McPhaul — May 3, 2017 @ 8:42 am

  6. So wonderful to come to the shelter and not be heartbroken by the overwhelming number of cats in need of homes! Thank you for being willing to try a different approach!

    Comment by Debi Kittle — May 4, 2017 @ 12:48 pm

  7. Inspiring post! Thank you for sharing and congratulations on your success!

    Comment by Karen Green — May 25, 2017 @ 8:18 pm

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