Creating a snapshot of the state of animal sheltering in the U.S. can be a challenge. Bring up the topic in any group of dog-or cat-lovers and be prepared for a conversation that can move quickly from meaningful discussion to explosive argument. State and local political candidates are often confronted with questions regarding public-shelter policy, and even President Obama was criticized for not adopting a shelter dog .
Since at least the 1860s, animal sheltering has been an industry at odds with itself, splintered between 5500 welfare and humane associations and public, governmental animal control and sheltering groups and deeply torn by philosophical differences on strategies and programs intended to address pet overpopulation. However, all of the battling factions care very deeply and feel they are doing the best they can for the millions of dogs and cats in their care.
Most shelters operate on tight budgets, often relying on volunteers to supplement small employee rosters. Tending to the animals consumes the majority of their resources, and collecting and maintaining data come in a distant second. Further muddying the waters, most states don’t legislate direct oversight, although a few assign advisory boards, which tend to function in a cursory manner.
Though sociological research into human and animal interaction focused on family, shared meanings between people and pets, euthanasia work and identity reflects a paradigm shift in how we view our companion animals, applied research—studies of animalsheltering operations—has inched forward more slowly. This issue  of The Bark features a trio of innovative programs that concentrate on increasing adoption and significantly decreasing euthanasia. Many other shelters also work to creatively address similar problems.
Applied research can assist these dedicated leaders and volunteers. To determine the validity of new strategies and establish a baseline for future comparisons, basic statistical analysis and data collection are required. Regrettably, at this point, we hit another wall. Not only are organizations reluctant to share essential data for fear of being stigmatized for euthanizing companion animals, when data is available, shelters may code or define intake or outtake procedures differently, which negatively affects reliable data collection.
As a PhD student in the University of Louisville’s sociology department, I have spent summers collecting information on policies and programming from public animal shelters in Kentucky, and on the canines and felines held therein. Right now, I’m working to transcribe in-depth interviews with animal-shelter directors about their day-to-day work and leadership. This research is important and necessary to help improve Kentucky’s shelter system.
My next project will focus on nationwide data collection and, from my current position as an intern with The Bark, I’ll be asking for your help. Over the coming weeks, look for a survey request and an opportunity to participate via in-depth interviews. I hope that leaders of organizations, animal-shelter workers, volunteers and readers who have adopted furry family members will contribute to this research.
Courtesy of The Marin Humane Society, illustration by Bill Russell.