Sheriff, community come together to save Brevard County’s pets

December 8, 2016

Sheriff, community come together to save Brevard County’s pets

What do you think of when you imagine law enforcement running an animal shelter?

If you imagine increased lifesaving, innovative programs, an updated shelter, and a community united to keep animals in their homes and get them adopted if that’s not possible, then one of the communities you’d be describing is Brevard County, Florida. In September of this year, the county’s animal services department announced it had raised its live release rate from 55 percent to more than 90 percent in the two years since the sheriff’s department had taken over operations.

Brevard County Animal Services, which joined the Million Cat Challenge in 2015, reported a 2012 baseline of 3,742 feline euthanasias, a number that dropped to only 485 in 2015. They’ve set a goal to reduce that number to 200 or less in 2016.

“There are two powerful stories here,” said Dr. Julie Levy, co-founder of the Challenge. “One is about the magic of making big lifesaving goals, and the other is about collaborating to achieve them.”

Setting a new course, creating a new culture

brevardiveyTwo years ago, under the leadership of Sheriff Wayne Ivey, the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office officially took over the county’s struggling animal services division. “Prior to that, animal services had undergone a lot of scrutiny and a lot of struggles,” he told the Million Cat Challenge. “It had a live release rate of around 55 percent over a 5-year period. There was a lot of community criticism, there were concerns from the county manager. All this served as a catalyst for us to take over.”

Initially, the sheriff’s office was only going to take over the enforcement side of animal services, and privatize the shelter. “Even though I’m a huge animal lover, I didn’t think we had the right skill set to run the animal care center,” he said. “We kept looking at the problems, and discussing what we could bring to the table. But in the end, it all came down to my wife. I discussed it with her, and she said she’d never once asked me to do anything as sheriff, but she wanted me to take over animal services. The next day, we did.”

Brevard County may be in Florida, but that doesn’t mean things were sunny from that moment on. “When we first took over, we were behind the curve,” Ivey said. “None of us had experience doing anything with an animal care center. There were trust issues with the community. There were naysayers who said the sheriff’s department lacked the skills to handle this.

“And there was a steep learning curve, mistakes we had to be transparent about. We had tremendous resource problems. Everything was dilapidated. Vehicles would break down 2-3 times a week at the side of the road, and have to be towed.”

With all those challenges, giving up was the last thing on Ivey’s mind. “My motto for getting things done is pick a good team, get them the resources they need, and stay out of their way. I was very blessed to have a great team to start with, and was able to assemble even more great people, both on our staff, as volunteers, and in the community, including other shelters, rescue groups, sanctuaries — every one of them is a significant piece of the puzzle for helping animals.”

Two of animal services’ new team members were shelter veterinarian Dr. Sarah Boyd, who relocated to Brevard County from Charleston, and former Port Canaveral chief of police Joe Hellebrand, now animal services operations director for Brevard County.

“I did a shelter medicine fellowship with Dr. Sandra Newbury and Dr. Kate Hurley sponsored by the ASPCA in 2011,” Boyd said. “I thought I knew what I needed to know in shelter medicine, but I didn’t. I needed to go through the fellowship and change my way of thinking as a shelter vet. I told Drs. Newbury and Hurley it gave me new eyes.

“For example, in rounds just now, there was an older kitten sitting in her litter box who didn’t look right. So I took a closer look, and realized she was sick with an upper respiratory infection. But the signs were subtle, and it was easy to miss.  Maybe even easier to miss is the big picture.”

brevardboydBoyd credits her shelter medicine education with giving her the knowledge and experience she needed to help turn Brevard County around. “You learn from what other shelter vets see, and their experiences. You learn to see where animals are suffering, when before you would have thought they were okay. Concepts like Capacity for Care, flow, decreasing length of stay, live outcomes — those are all part of it. And especially the part that I love the most, as a veterinarian, the population management side of it.

“A revolution has happened in shelters, to get the animals out of the shelter alive. That’s what makes a healthier shelter. I go to work every morning thinking, how can I get them out faster, alive, and healthy?”

Hellebrand is equally passionate about his role in animal services. “I volunteered for this,” he said. “They were having some problems, as you can imagine, and highly resistant to change. We may not have done animal services before, but we knew fighting change wouldn’t help the animals. So we changed.”

Boyd agreed that embracing change is key to transforming how a community shelters animals. “Shelters used to say, don’t let the dogs interact, it might spread kennel cough. Now we do playgroups. Or shelters would hold onto cats for a long time, because no one came to the shelter to find their lost cats. Then after two weeks they’d have URI, and would go into iso on a two-week course of antibiotics. Those policies were often creating problems, instead of being a launchpad for the animal to get out into the community through rescue or foster.”

Dr. Boyd had come to Brevard County from Charleston Animal Society (CAS), where she’d learned what it took to focus on saving lives. “I was able to use what I had learned from CAS along with my fellowship and create a culture here with Joe, a positive culture,” she said. “We focused on programs that we knew would save lives — foster programs, intake mitigation, all of it.”

Added Hellebrand, “Some people thought the sheriff’s office would be a disadvantage due to lack of experience, instead it was an advantage. We didn’t come in with a specific mindset other than to save as many animals as possible and get things rolling in a new direction.”

Programs and partnerships the keys to success

Everyone involved with the transformation agrees that programs are the key to saving lives. “I always tell the public, there’s not one answer to the problem,” Hellebrand said. “When we took over, it was like we inherited a bike with wheels, but only a couple of spokes. The ride was not easy, not smooth. Every time we add a program, it’s another spoke, and the ride gets smoother. And your confidence and enthusiasm build, so you look for more programs to make the ride even smoother.”

Many of the programs they implemented, and the decisions they made about which to implement at what point, grew out of their partnership with Target Zero, a pro-bono animal shelter consulting group headed up by Dr. Sara Pizano and Cameron Moore.

“When I was still working at CAS, I met Dr. Cynda Crawford from the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida,” said Dr. Boyd. “She asked if I was sure I wanted to go to Brevard. Then she said if I was really considering it, I should talk to Sara Pizano. So I did. And she said if I was serious, she’d love to work with me there.”

The partnership turned into a huge success. “I’m a huge Target Zero fan,” said Ivey. “They really guided us. They were the light in front of the train. Having them partner with us was one of the big blessings of this process, with them pretty much saying, ‘Here are your policies today, here’s where you want to go, and here’s what you need to do to get there.'”

Dr. Pizano agreed with the new team’s assessment of the shelter from the days before they took over. “The previous team hadn’t given themselves the tools to succeed. They had no support from the county commissioners at the time. There was no population management, no safety net, no staff doing rounds, no formal community cat diversion,” she said. “They had one volunteer running that program who didn’t want to return any friendly cats to the field. We are very emphatic about community cat program design and how it needs to operate; we know how to save these cats. Cameron has taken 25,000 cats through this program in Jacksonville. We know it works. Anything less is just another barrier to lifesaving.”

In terms of high-impact programs in Brevard County, Pizano pegs surrender prevention as, without question, the most significant. “We see shelters thinking about surrender prevention last, but it should be the first thing. Why try to save 1,000 animals if instead we can only need to save 500? They didn’t have a staff member devoted to surrender prevention, now they do. And now they’re diverting 80 percent of owner surrenders. It’s a huge change.”

For Sheriff Ivey, the role of key relationships and staff positions was the magic bullet. “For example, something I didn’t first realize is the importance of a rescue coordinator and an animal advocate,” he said. “Now, as soon as a dog or cat comes in, they’re already working to find a foster or a home for that animal. They help manage our population, find fosters, work hand in hand to provide a seamless delivery of services. Both were vital in getting to a no kill status. Even if we had fallen short this year, seeing the magnificent gains, the countless lives that have been saved, how many forever homes we were finding, walking into the shelter and literally seeing empty kennels and cat rooms — those were dynamic leaps for us.”

What’s more, he said, “We didn’t just see it, our community saw it as well. People would say, ‘I adopted three years ago, and just came back today. What an amazing difference!'”

Ivey also pointed out the profound effect of changing how they manage cats in the shelter. “We went from housing cats in cages at our shelter, to putting portals between the cages, to having communal cat rooms, to working with different organizations like HOPE, Space Coast Feline Network, and PURRS with TNR — we’re still expanding in that area, and have a lot of room to grow.”

Another huge step was partnering with Habitat for Humanity for an extreme makeover for the animal care center. “Habitat for Humanity had never done an animal cause before, but I’ve made my career out of doing things no one had done before,” Ivey said. “So I reached out and said it’s a chance to come together as a community, to do something unique. We created a video with a dog, Fisher, giving a tour of the existing shelter and saying, ‘Can’t you please help my friends?'”

The local Habitat group got clearance from the head office, and the project was on. “We did it in two day as a spinoff of the show ‘Extreme Makeover,'” Ivey said. “They parked a big bus, Habitat for Humanity brought the volunteers, and we had tons of press coverage. Now, people visit the shelter and say it looks like the Taj Mahal!”

He also brought adoptions out of the shelter and into the community. “I was out at the range one day and saw a huge trailer,” he said. “I asked what it was, and was told it was a mobile fitness unit. I asked, ‘Really? When’s the last time anyone used that?'”

It had been so long, in fact, that the tires had rotted. So the next day, he had it taken to the department’s shop, brought it up to speed, and got a local company to sponsor painting it. “Now we take it to Bass Pro Shop, community events, Patrick Air Force Base, everywhere! The animals market themselves if we can get them out to the public. In fact, we have two mobile adoption units now, because we had so much success with it.”

Truth be told, there’s just about no one Ivey won’t partner with to help animals. “We created partnerships not only with other adoption centers and rescues, but with organizations in Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Maryland, and New Jersey. Our volunteers literally take dogs and cats to them. We pay for transportation out of proceeds of what we call our ‘Sheriff’s Pet Posse.’ Up north, they don’t have the kitten season we have here, because of the weather, and some times of year they are looking for cats! So not only can we manage our own population better, but we help people in other areas find forever companions.”

Dr. Boyd identifies the Brevard County Return to Field community cat program as having the greatest impact on lifesaving. “That started early on, with urging from the community,” she said. “We did have to overcome some obstacles. The program started simply, with enforcement officers no longer going looking for cats. And while it focused at first on ferals only, we had an aha! moment where we realized that, with a shelter return to owner rate of less than 2 percent for cats, we need to return happy, fat, and sassy cats to their neighborhood to get back to their own home or find a new one.”

That adds up to a lot of partnerships and programs that at least someone interviewed here identified as having the “most impact,” but Hellebrand isn’t surprised. “You have to go back to the spokes in the wheel,” he said. “It all plays a part.”

What other communities can learn from Brevard County

Are you wondering what your community can learn from the experience of Brevard County? We asked each of the people we spoke to about the lifesaving revolution it’s undertaken, and they had a lot of practical as well as inspirational advice.

brevardhellebrand” You just have to stay focused on the mission,” Hellebrand said. “It’s easy in animal welfare to become overwhelmed, but you have to stay focused and stay positive. Take little steps, add spokes to the wheel, think in terms of initiatives and programs. You’ll get more confidence and more credibility that way, which in turn lets you become even more successful. From day 1, in Brevard County, we knew we would succeed. We just had to get the right formula and the right team, and keep positive and moving forward. There was no plan B.”

He added, “This starts at the top of the food chain, whoever that might be in your community. The leader has to be fully committed to doing the right thing. Without that, you will not succeed. Sheriff Ivey was committed on day one.”

Said Boyd, “My answer as a shelter vet would be to say that it’s okay to look at a shelter differently from the way you might be used to. As my years in shelter medicine go on, I’m seeing that a lot of shelters feel they need to have the cages full to get donations, and they need to be the rescuers. They do need to be rescuers, but they also have to be okay with letting the animal go into the community for adoption, foster, or rescue.

“You can take in those animals and help them, but you also need to get them out in an efficient manner. Having open kennels is a good thing; it can seem counterintuitive, but it’s not about having your kennels at maximum capacity, it’s about being there for your community and its animals when they need help. It’s about helping  the community help themselves when able, and providing for the well-being of animals when they’re not, by getting them out through foster, rescue, low-fee or free adoption, whatever strategy increases your outflow. You can actually help more that way!”

Sara Pizano of Target Zero advised, “Create global policies that affect the most animals in a positive way. I say that because it is extremely common that in our animal shelters that are struggling, they have policies based on fears or myths. They think without those restrictive policies they’ll have a negative outcome, but when you look at the facts, that’s not happening. Creating policies based on exceptional circumstances and few and far between exceptions, without any support or data or proof, that’s very common. If leaderhship has to look at one thing, that’s definitely it.”

For example, she said, “Consider the concept of the stray hold for cats: If almost 100 percent of the cats aren’t being reclaimed, then what you’re doing isn’t working. So why not consider doing things differently?”

Sheriff Ivey was brief but definite when he said, “What other animal care centers and organizations can do is pick a good team, get them the resources they need, and stay out of their way. I was very blessed to have a great team – management, staff, volunteers — all have done a great job. We let them develop a relationship with the community and local rescues, sanctuaries, and other organizations. They key is, we let that happen by getting great people on the team and not putting obstacles in their way.”

It takes leadership and community working together

“In Brevard and everywhere else, people want their animal shelters to be focused on lifesaving,” said Dr. Pizano. “When a shelter makes clear their commitment to lifesaving, it attracts support from the community.”

Additionally, she said, “Sheriff Ivey excels at reaching out to the community both in the spirit of transparency and to celebrate success. He’ll say, ‘We need to solve this problem together.’ Then when there are milestones of success, there’s always a celebration.”

Relationships and partnerships in the community are the core of Ivey’s approach to helping animals. “A lot of people even today say wow, your animal care center has now achieved no kill status. But our goal is a no kill community, and to do that, you have to have absolute buy in from the community. Ours has pulled together – all the people who come there to adopt, foster, and volunteer. They understand we had to change how we were working with intake, understanding that we wanted to have an advocate, so if someone was thinking about surrounding, we could talk to them, could give them resources or help find their pet a home instead of coming into the shelter. Community buy-in is paramount in achieving no kill as a community.”

Some of his most successful community programs and partnerships include:

  • Working with Space Coast Daily, an online newspaper that reaches about a million readers a week. “For free, they interfaced with our system and put up all our pets on an adoption page as soon as an animal comes in!”
  • Dog parks. “We built a dog park out in front of the animal care center. Its purpose is to give people a place to bring their dogs to exercise and socialize, but we have an ulterior motive. If they get in the habit of coming to the care center all the time, then they know where to send people who are looking for a new pet, and where to go themselves. Now we’re building another on donated property with a business funding it, and we’re about to build a third in north end of county.”
  • Asking for help from a local car dealership. ” I went to the dealership and said if you have money to donate, we could use help feeding our animals. The next day he called me and asked how much we pay to feed our pets each year. I told him $18,000 a year, and now he writes us a check every year for $18,000 to feed our animals! In return, we put up a sign that says our animals are proudly fed by his automotive group. He’s a huge animal lover. It’s a good partnership. Around 2-3 times a year he calls and says, ‘I’ll pay for the first 200 adoptions you do this month!'”

Hellebrand agrees Ivey’s leadership is a critical component of community support and engagement, as well as in helping everyone stay focused on positive change instead of on naysayers. “Our sheriff is a strong leader and was committed to this program,” he said. “In any community, when you make significant changes to animal services, you’ll get detractors. They can be loud, but fortunately the sheriff learned quickly the difference between those who are willing to help and those who want you to fail. We stay focused on positive things and making the program better, rather than beating back criticism all the time.”

Boyd feels the same. “At times when I have spoken with people who were with animal services previously, they’ve said that some idea or program just isn’t possible. They warn that the community won’t like it, and you’ll get so many complaints it will never work. But we were encouraged to focus on what was possible, instead of getting bogged down in what we couldn’t do. Our focus is on what’s best for the animals. On a daily basis you have to say, this is our goal.”

Hellebrand shared two examples of times the community expressed initial opposition, but quickly turned around when the changes were successful. “The first was closing the night drop boxes, which is really a no-brainer in the animal welfare world. People were screaming at the sheriff that abandonment would go up, but in the time since we closed them, only three dogs have been dropped off in the parking lot.

“The second was our surrender mitigation program. When we first started making appointments for people who needed to surrender an animal, some parts of the community said it wouldn’t work. Thankfully Sheriff Ivey let us do the right thing. Now, with our support and resources, 80 percent of the people who make appointments find other ways to rehome their dog while they’re waiting.

All in all, it’s a bright day for the animals in Brevard County. “The health and well-being of pets is not only a vital component to a community, but it’s one many, many people care about and want to see done the right way,” said Ivey. “Our goal was to make our live release rate go through the roof, to become a no kill community, to decrease intake and increase live outcomes. We created a five-year strategy; we got there in two. But we didn’t do it alone.

“I have this saying: ‘It takes a community to protect a community.’ Our community was protecting our animals, who were asking us for help and for a second chance. Today, you walk into our animal center, and it looks immaculate. Everyone is smiling and laughing. They see the success, and that they’ve been part of something incredible. I mean this from the bottom of my heart: This community, this team, they take my breath away.”


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