It is often said that “If you don’t care about your customers, someone else will.” Indeed, customer service was so important to Sam Walton, the world’s most successful retail-business owner, that he said, “The goal of our company is to have customer service that is not just the best, but legendary.”

Regrettably, that simply is not a value shared by many animal-shelter employees even though making customers happy literally saves lives by making customers more likely to adopt from a shelter than any other of a large number of alternative sources for pets. On a trip last year to my hometown, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for example, I stopped by the City’s municipal animal shelter.  When a group of us, all in business suits, walked in the front door at 10am in the morning, one employee ignored us entirely, and another shouted “Get behind the glass!” as if she expected us to rob the place.  My last trip to Austin’s Town Lake Animal Center was a little better, but not much.  I was there to pick up a surrendered dog for an out-of-town rescue group.  I overheard one employee say, “I hate the public!”  And the employee who helped me pick up the rescue dog loudly commented, “What an ugly dog,” as I walked out the door.  I wouldn’t call either of these customer-service experiences excellent, warm, or welcoming.  I certainly didn’t have a great deal of interest in heading back any time soon.  (I realize these experiences may have been unique, but they happened, and every customer-service experience counts.)

So I was very happy to see that Maddie’s Fund has recently been focusing on improving customer service at animal shelters.   In fact, they’ve been employing a “mystery shopper” to test shelters’ customer service by e-mail, by phone, and in person.  Better still, they are handing out cash to shelters who exhibit excellent customer service to Maddie’s secret shoppers.

But as important as customer service is to retaining adopters at animal shelters, there is another aspect of shelter service that merits attention:  many shelters (indeed, a great number of shelter directors and politicians) attempt to shame members of the public who, in the shelter employees’ minds, don’t do the right thing.  Maybe it’s because they surrendered an animal to the shelter.  Maybe it’s because their dog got out of their backyard and ended up picked up by Animal Control.  And maybe it’s because their cat got knocked up because they didn’t bother to get it spayed in time for kitten season.

All of those things are grounds for pointing fingers (at least most of the time).  The shelter should be a last resort, not a first resort, when someone cannot keep their pet, and people should do everything they can do to solve problems with their pets before giving up on them.  People should lock their backyard gates, and reinforce any weak areas, to prevent their dogs from getting out and roaming the streets, and they should always keep collars and identification tags on their pets (and get them microchipped too if they can afford it).  And if someone lets their cat outside without first spaying or neutering it, well, they are to blame for the kittens that later arrive.

One of the key differences, however, between open-admission shelters that continue to kill animals in high numbers, and those that dramatically reduce shelter killing, is that the progressive shelters don’t waste time blaming anyone for anything; they find it isn’t productive, and it certainly doesn’t solve the problem.

Instead of looking for someone to blame or shame, they look for a way to help.

Instead of shaming a local resident who brings in kittens from her cat, progressive shelters convince them to bring in the mom so they can spay her for free.  Instead of castigating the public for failing to spay or neuter their pets, progressive shelters offer free and low-cost spay neuters.  Instead of punishing someone whose dog escaped from his or her backyard, progressive shelters knock on doors and talk to neighbors in order to return the animal to its owner without removing it from the neighborhood and subjecting it to illness and stress at a shelter.  And instead of embarrassing someone who considered surrendering a pet to an animal shelter, progressive shelters offer solutions to common pet problems and seek out positive ways to help keep animals in homes.

We see these things in Reno, NV.  We see them in Charlottesville, VA.  And we see them in Ithaca, NY.  It is no coincidence that these are also the best open-admission animal shelters in the country— shelters that save over 90% of all animals impounded.

So if you’re a shelter employee, and you’re reading this, the next time you think “Who can I blame?”, think “How can I help?” instead.  You just might save a life.

5 Responses

  1. Joan Bright November 17, 2010

    Well said, Ryan Clinton. And, all too true. I’ve encountered both types of reactions at shelters. That shame/blame game is one of the reasons many people cannot even face surrendering an animal and instead, they abandon …it to run the streets, starve or die of injuries from being hit by cars….shelter employees can change attitudes…and they should all read Dogs Deserve Better. They’ve had individuals who dragged them into court and had them hit with fines for entering property to feed a starving dog, bring it water and straw to keep it from freezing, turn around and surrender dogs to a chance for a better life, once they were consistently met with a conscious desire to truly help the animals, not punish the humans…unless there is no other recourse.
    I’ve worked in many of the “helping professions” and the bitterness toward the population designated to be helped….families in crisis and in danger of abusing/neglecting their children, individuals with addictions, battered women – is so marked as to make working in these fields painful, for me, at times, as we seem to be working against each other and the very people we are set up to serve. Thanks for the words of loving reasonableness. I hope they are taken to heart by those working in shelters – in an effort to produce the ultimate desired effect…saving the animals themselves and keeping/placing them in the best possible home.

  2. Dian Hardy November 24, 2010

    My county shelter seems to be doing things right though it’s taken a lot of time and work by many committed advocates to bring about change and, yes, we’re still having problems with the number of animals killed in shelter. Most disturbingly, the director who lowered the kill rate by almost one-half was let go the day before her probationary period ended and that is still unresolved.

    Another reason staff at open admission shelters can be experienced as hostile is that they too are tired of the killing and haven’t as yet moved beyond reaction.

  3. Lindsay June 4, 2013

    There seems to be blame going on everywhere. Heck, I even do it. I blame the rescue groups for making adoptions too difficult. I blame the shelters in my area for not being open admission. While these things irritate me to no end, ultimately I know I need to take responsibility and do what I can to influence people in a positive way.

  4. Lindsay June 5, 2013

    Just want to add that after I read this post yesterday, I decided to call one of my local shelters and ask how I can help. They said they could use someone to clean, as in right that second. They were cleaning the entire shelter due to a ringworm problem. So I went over and helped clean for two hours and then signed up to foster a pound cat.

    When we stop playing the blame game and ask “How can I help?” we each make more of a difference. While I wish this shelter were open admission, I believe it is trying to get there.

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