Shelter tames chaos, saves lives with Kitten Council

November 14, 2017

For a while, Million Cat Challenge shelter Humane Society Silicon Valley was a bit of a victim of its own success.

“As we got better at saving lives, we saw a pattern I think a lot of shelters face,” said Chief of Shelter Medicine Dr. Cristie Kamiya. “We had recruited lots of foster homes to care for and save bottle babies. Our success with that meant we got positive publicity, which meant we got more foster homes and more kittens, and the cycle just kept moving upward. We had a relatively small foster team of three, and we struggled to keep track of the kittens in foster, and to get them back for spay/neuter surgery and adoption.

A few years earlier, HSSV had only around 40-60 foster homes for bottle babies, and euthanized about 30 litters because they didn’t have a foster home for the kittens. They decided to change that.

“We made the commitment we wouldn’t euthanize any healthy bottle babies in 2015,” said Dr. Kamiya. “So our foster and animal care team joined forces with our brilliant marketing team, and started a social media push for more foster homes. We now have more than 200 foster homes, and can handle as many as 600 bottle babies. We’re even transferring them in from other shelters!”

How did they get there? With the implementation of what they dubbed the Kitten Council.

“The Kitten Council was created by Joanne Jacobs, our Chief of Operations,” Dr. Kamiya said. “Looking at processes is her expertise. The Kitten Council touches pretty much every department in the organization: foster care, behavior, medical care, the adoption team, the finance team, volunteer programs, the marketing team, operations — it’s a truly cross-functional team of decision-makers, all a supervisor or above.”

The newly-formed Kitten Council had two goals: One, to adopt out every kitten in foster before they turned 3 months old, and two, try to preserve revenue while doing it.

“One of the things we’d done in the past to manage our population was, whenever we started feeling discomfort with our numbers, we’d do a promotion,” Kamiya said. “It was very reactive. Our population goes up, we do a promotion. Our population goes back down to a comfortable level… then goes back up again. We were in a constant cycle of under/over population.”

The Kitten Council created a dashboard to monitor the kitten population on a weekly basis, and get out ahead of these cycles instead of constantly reacting to them.

The metrics tracked on the dashboard include intake, adoption results by age, which adoption location they were adopted from, revenue and donations assocated with adoptions, and population in-house and where they were in terms of capacity. They also looked at numbers from prior years, and the population of kittens in foster homes, grouped by age.

“The really cool thing about the weekly dashboard is we were able to make data driven decisions,” said Kamiya. “And because we had all the decision-makers in the meeting, we could make a decision about what to do and it would get done right after the meeting. We’d just go for it!”

The Kitten Council was able to improve flow-through and reduce length of stay (LOS) in a number of ways. “For example, we were able to look at our foster inventory, and identify the number of kittens who would be approaching adoption age in the next few weeks,” Kamiya said. “We could start scheduling them for spay/neuter surgery ahead of time, which also gives us the ability to predict what our adoption population would look like in a couple of weeks.”

Being able to predict those adoption numbers in advance also helped the adult cats in the shelter, because if they knew they’d need room, they could start doing special adoption promotions for the older cats in advance of the kitten onslaught. “We met our goals to get kittens adopted and preserve revenue,” she said. “Because of the efforts of the marketing team, we saved tens of thousands of dollars just by tracking data and making data-driven decisions around promotions.”

If you think all this focus on dashboards, data, and flow sounds tedious, think again. “Kitten Council meetings are the most fun we have in this whole building,” said Kamiya. “People love this project and are committed to it. Best of all, in one hour a week, when we leave that meeting, we have a plan for what will happen that weekend. It could be a promo on black cats, or seniors, or pets affected by disasters. It’s a great opportunity.”

HSSV has a full year of data now with the Kitten Council, so they’ve decided to take it even further. “We’re now calling it our Adoption Council,” Kamiya said. “We have things under control with kittens now, so we’re expanding our focus to include difficult-to-adopt puppies, dogs, and cats.”

Length of stay is the most recent focus of the Council. “Any animal who is here for over two weeks, and again over 90 days, is flagged,” she said. We track individual animals as they approach a long LOS, which we define as 14 days, and we can do individualized promotions for them, especially on social media. If we know an animal has a big potential for deterioration in the shelter, we start promoting that pet long before 14 days. We’re much more proactive now.”

The lifesaving success of the Council has been extraordinary. “We had a record breaking year this past kitten season,” Kamiya said. “We had more than 600 kittens in foster at one point. And every year we increase live release. Our feline save rate is now over 90 percent, which is amazing for us!”

It may be hard to believe, but HSSV did not add any staff to their teams to make all this happen, despite managing many more animals than they did a few years ago. “Our increase in intake is intentional,” Kamiya said. “in the past 4-5 years it went from 4,500 up to 6,000, mostly due to animals transferred in from other shelters. As we’ve gotten better at fine-tuning our own Capacity for Care, LOS, and keeping track of our data better than in the past, we’re now able to bring in more animals from shelters in and beyond our community.”

Kamiya credits the success to the dedication of the HSSV staff. “We have such an awesome team. They’re very collaborative, and are problem solvers. There’s no infighting, there’s no territoriality, people just want to do right by our animals and make the best decisions to get these guys out of here and into homes. It’s wonderful to be a part of.”

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1 Comment »

  1. Would love to see a sample dashboard form (even if it’s blank) to get a sense of the metrics used! Great article!

    Comment by natalie — November 16, 2017 @ 1:38 pm

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