Changing minds, taking partners to save dogs and cats in the Waco area: Q&A with Malcolm Duncan Jr., Wiley Stem III and Dr. Sara Pizano

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Humane Society executive director Don Bland (left); society president Liz Rezach; Assistant City Manager Wiley Stem III; Target Zero program director Sara Pizano (with Rosie, a very shy stray found entangled in a rose bush); shelter veterinarian Ron Epps; shelter program administrator Luis Leyva; and Waco Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr.

Through a strong partnership between the city of Waco, the Humane Society of Central Texas, animal welfare groups such as Fuzzy Friends and the Animal Birth Control Clinic, the city animal shelter has gone from a paltry 36 percent rate of stray and unwanted shelter animals being adopted or fostered in late 2012 to more than 90 percent this year (and 92 percent last month). In this interview, the Trib discusses progress on Waco’s problem of unwanted and stray animals with Waco Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr., Assistant City Manager Wiley Stem III and Dr. Sara Pizano of Target Zero, a nonprofit group whose mission is to cut euthanasia at shelters nationwide.

Q    The city of Waco looked to Target Zero for advice about how to drastically reduce the number of dogs and cats put down at the Waco Animal Control Shelter and increase the number of live adoptions to “no-kill” status, which means that 90 percent or more of the animals that come in eventually go out. What brings you here today?

Pizano    My first visit here was a year and a half ago and that’s when we did our first assessment. And, gosh, that report was probably some 60 pages about the status of the shelter, the operations and finally our recommendations for best practices. That was in September 2013 and between Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. and Assistant City Manager Wiley Stem III and the leadership, they really took those recommendations to heart. At the time, the save rate was about 36 percent, which means that only 36 percent of the animals that came into the shelter made it out alive. We are now in May and we’re starting the fifth month of what will probably be 90 percent. That kind of success is astounding, so I came back not just to see where we were and what else we could do to help but also to welcome Dr. Ron Epps and help him make that transition from private practice as a veterinarian to shelter medicine, which is quite different.

Q    What is the most striking thing you saw this visit?

Pizano    In 2012-13, over 2,200 cats were euthanized that year, so (it’s amazing) to walk into the shelter today and see only three cats up for adoption, one of them a 15-year-old cat. This shelter was paralyzed with cats and now you have room and space, you have resources in the area of staff time and money to devote to dogs and you have a 15-year-old cat up for adoption. So when does that happen in a crowded shelter?

Q    Mayor, much of this resulted after city officials met with some very dedicated animal welfare groups — groups that made strides on their own but might have been working at cross-purposes in their independence from one another. What prompted all to join forces?

Duncan    Well, I think what Sara told us is the most important quality. We had to listen. Everybody who was working independently had something to say, had something to contribute. We needed first to listen and let them know that there was no such thing as a bad idea or a bad contribution. We’re all here to do the same thing. And everyone agreed they wanted the same outcomes. They all wanted healthier animals, less strays, less euthanasia and just a better animal population for better people. And once we started listening to them and the city committed the resources, it really became its own engine.

Q    Sounds a little too easy.

Duncan    Yes, well, let me tell you what preceded these meetings. Those people previously would all come to council meetings and chip away at us and complain. But they had never come in together to sit down and talk about it. And we had a group at the time (Humane Society leadership then operating the shelter at a loss) that said, “We’ve got to have more money, we’ve got to have more money, or we’re just going to give you the keys,” and I finally just held my hands out and said, “Throw them here.” That really was the start of serious business. Somebody just has to draw a line and say, “We’re not going to keep going down this road of throwing money away and making bad decisions and not working together.”

Pizano    You need innovative people in these positions who can say, “Wait a second — if we invest X dollars here now, in the long run we can save money and then we can use that for our children’s programs.” That’s how I pitch it to elected officials.

Duncan    And make everybody part of the process.

Q    We at the Trib figured out why this program is a success: Assistant City Manager Wiley Stem, put in charge of overseeing all this, adopted a lot of these animals himself. (Laughter across the room).

Stem    I’ve adopted six and we have four now. The first one I adopted was an old Australian shepherd and he didn’t have long to live, so he spent some time at the farm. I had to put him down.

Duncan    We told Wiley that he couldn’t bring anymore four-legged animals home, so they had one at the shelter missing a leg, so he brought home a three-legged dog. (More laughter.)

Q    What had to happen to make the animal shelter itself a success when the city took over its operations?

Stem    It became clear real quick it was all about animal health. So we focused our facility improvements on improving animal health. If you don’t adopt out healthy animals, people take them home and the animals get sick and die. Rescues are not going to happen if you don’t have a reputation for having healthy animals. We really jumped on that. The Humane Society of Central Texas is a wonderful partner in all this. And we have a great facilities department at the city and they jumped in and did a lot of the work with city staff and we were able to get it done pretty quickly. They made some huge improvements.

Q    Such as what?

Stem    We took out all the ratty ceiling — they had a lot of rat poop above them. We had guys in Hazmat suits pulling all of that down. They cleaned the entire intake building out and then came back and moved the ceilings all the way up so there’d be no place for the rats to hide. We insulated it. And we put in a brand new air conditioning system so that we could get the proper kind of air exchange. Commercial washers and dryers. And there was makeshift furniture in intake that you couldn’t keep clean so we pulled all that out. Our facilities supervisor found a bunch of stainless steel out of a casino in Oklahoma and he bought it. We bought it for pennies on the dollar. We spent about $150,000 that first year just making those incidental improvements around here that really made a difference. I mean, we still have an old shelter, we still need a completely renovated one, but the things that we could do to improve animal health we were doing.

Q    You both have helped with a successful campaign to raise money from the public for renovation and expansion of this half-century-old shelter. What are some of the reasons you hear from people who give to this cause?

Stem    The first big donor offered some of the best rationale. He lost his wife to Alzheimer’s. The last three years she was alive, he brought pets into the home because she could relate to them. So the family wanted to do something for the shelter.

Duncan    And he wanted to be anonymous until the last day and then he said, “My friends aren’t doing enough, I want you to put my name in the paper and I’m going to use this to go get money from them.” And that was the first big donor.

Stem    Carrie Kuehl, executive director of Waco Animal Birth Control (ABC), brought him to us. He was trying to give her some money and she said, “I’d rather you do this.”

Q    You’re kidding. Who does that? (Laughter by all.)

Stem    Don Bland of the Humane Society of Central Texas has done the same thing.

Q    I understand Target Zero and other groups hold out this effort as an example of what can be done elsewhere.

Pizano    It happened faster here than we could have ever imagined. I think what worked here is that they put together all the correct strategies simultaneously. The community cat diversion was what put them over the top. This involves feral cats that come to the shelter. They go to ABC, get sterilized and ear-tipped, then the ABC takes them back to their outside homes. I don’t know who their caregivers are outside but they know and they’re fat and happy, so they already have a food source.

Q    And meanwhile they’ve been fixed so that the problem of stray cats or feral cats doesn’t spread.

Duncan    And yet that was such a radical concept to us.

Stem    Yes, Rick DuCharme, founder of Target Zero, told us that. When he came here on Dec. 10, 2012, and talked to us about this, I thought, “This guy is out of his mind.”

Duncan    Yes, but we were desperate enough to do it. And that’s the real value of Target Zero and that’s what I told Sara when she got here. They gave us the confidence that their trial-and-error work was done, that there was hope and there was a way we could make these things work. Otherwise, we’d be out there struggling, still trying to take care of 150 cats.

Q    It seems the culture of animal control officers has changed so that now instead of just trying to collar animals and drag them to the pound, it’s more a solution-making process.

Duncan    Wiley brought in someone from SpayStreet Waco (a volunteer group that performs educational outreach in spaying, neutering and microchipping) who rode with every one of our animal control officers. They were there as the officers made decisions on their shifts, hour by hour, asking why they did something one way and suggesting another way to do things. It was a gradual, hand-holding, educational process, again based on best practices and a model that had worked.

Stem    The last resort now is a citation. They look for a solution to bring an animal (that hasn’t been spayed or neutered) into compliance with city ordinance instead of just writing a citation. We use a voucher approach (for low-income pet owners) and I’m convinced to this day it saves money. They get a voucher (funded by city money for education and outreach in spaying and neutering) and they go and get their animal fixed. Now they’re still required to pay for the rabies vaccine and the microchip, but the animal is 100 percent compliant when it leaves ABC. We even started transporting them if somebody didn’t have transportation. Animal control officers can either bring the animal to the shelter or to the ABC. If it goes to ABC, it’s knocked off our intake numbers, it’s fixed, it’s legally compliant, it’s back home and you don’t have to worry about it again.

Q    When the city of Waco passed a spay-neuter ordinance and set about restructuring animal shelter operations, it put down conditions that other cities had to meet if they wanted to continue to use our shelter. Did you run into resistance?

Duncan    The key to that was their looking at what it was going to cost them as cities if they decided not to participate. Look at the cost of running an animal shelter, running animal control, with hopeless cat and dog intake problems. One of the real benefits in our new shelter is that this will become the animal control facility. They’ve always been seen as part of the police department.

Stem    And change their descriptions to “animal care officers.” And Trib staff writer J.B. Smith gets part of the credit about all this. When we put the ordinance before the City Council to require spay-neuter, he looked at both of us and said, “What’s different about this one? You’ve tried this before.” And he knew all the history of it because he’d written all the stories. So we were challenged but I think we gave him a good answer. I’ve told him several times when he’s called me for updates, “You know, you’re partially responsible for this because you challenged us.”

Q    So what did we do differently this time?

Stem    We backed it up this time. We did a lot of public education, we didn’t do any enforcement for 90 days, and when we did start enforcing, we had all the other cities on board. We had one protocol here for every city using the shelter and we had SpayStreet Waco out there, about six or eight volunteers.

Q    Mayor, you talked about some additional things you and the council want to do to the shelter.

Duncan    One of the things that the Meadows Foundation — they gave us the largest grant they’ve given to any shelter, $250,000, and they normally don’t do that. But one thing was really important to them — that we have some kind of air conditioning or air exchange to prevent infectious disease. And when it’s 100 degrees in August, it’s not going to be 100 degrees in the shelter. It’ll be 80. And some private donors were really interested in enhancement of the playground area.

Stem    And we’re looking at flooring that won’t absorb any bacteria. And then we have a drainage system that will allow them to wash cages and when it (wastewater) goes out of the cage, it’s gone.

Duncan    So, yes, there are things that may cost a little bit more, but they’re better investments in the long term.

Q    Is there anything we need to be doing?

Pizano    There’s always the next level. We need to get those spay-neuter numbers up for the large dogs in the community to decrease the intake. And Wiley and I have talked about removing the 72-hour “stray hold” for dogs and puppies. You’re closed on Sunday, so if a puppy comes in on Saturday, that means it’s not going to be available till Wednesday. Now, of course, if you get a puppy with a microchip and collar, of course we’re going to hold it and follow up. But if you get, say, a litter of puppies and they’re eight weeks old, they’re not stray and not walking down the street. Somebody has dumped them. So now you’re holding them in a shelter environment where they could be exposed to infectious diseases, so we want to see them rescued or adopted right away. And the shelter needs a person in intake doing what we call “surrender prevention.” This is someone who is to address the people who are coming to the shelter to surrender their dog and this person would work with them to figure out what they need to keep their pet or place their pet (in another home) to prevent that surrender.

Duncan    That was another one of those things that Rick told us — we’re making it way too easy for some people to surrender animals. Make it harder, change your operating hours and change the mentality. Don’t make it easy. Make it a burden for them. Make them realize the consequences.

Pizano    That’s the crazy thing about it. We make it so easy for people to simply drop off animals and then we make it hard to adopt. How does that make sense? It should be the opposite. But we call a successful surrender prevention program 20 or 30 percent, so it’s a challenge and this would be a tough position because 70 percent of the day that person is failing. But if you even defer 30 percent or you get some good Samaritan at least into a foster parent situation, you’ve prevented a surrender. So surrender prevention is still a piece we’re working on here. But right now the most important thing is to get the shelter rebuilt and expanded.

Interview conducted, condensed and edited by Bill Whitaker.

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