New Shelter Director Aims for More Collaboration, Fewer Euthanizations

by ARLnow.com November 15, 2010 at 2:20 pm 4,132 19 Comments

Among certain local animal welfare circles, the Animal Welfare League of Arlington has developed a bit of an unsavory reputation over the past couple of years.

Its high euthanization rate and its reluctance to cooperate with animal rescue groups prompted animal advocates to launch an anonymous blog last year called the AWLA Hawk.

Most recently, the AWLA Hawk published statistics showing that about 30 percent of all dogs and cats that entered the shelter in FY 2010 were euthanized.

Enter Neil Trent, who took over as the League’s executive director in September.

“Not on my watch,” he said, after being asked about the numbers.

Trent, who started his career in animal welfare more than 30 years ago as an animal cruelty law enforcement officer in the United Kingdom,  says that he is making collaboration a high priority in his effort to reduce the kill rate.

“Whatever we can do to try to get more animals turned around through the shelter process and out into foster homes or new homes as quickly as we can, that’s what our challenge is going to be,” he said. To that end, he’s pushing AWLA to be “more collaborative, to reach out more and engage more members of the community.”

Among the initiatives Trent has been undertaking is collaborating with animal rescue organizations — including breed-specific rescue organizations — to try to place more cats and dogs with adoptive families.

“We are starting to network more with local rescue groups,” he said. “They do great work in finding homes.”

Trent has also been trying to bolster the League’s volunteer corps, in an effort to make shelter animals more visible at events in the community.

“If we get more volunteers, we’ll have more opportunity… to get more of our adoptable animals out to these outdoor events,” he said.

“We’re talking about living animals here,” Trent added. “They’re not just commodities sitting in a parking lot with a for sale sign on them. They’re living breathing creatures, and our role is to ensure that these animals get every possible chance that they can to make a very short spell here at the shelter and back into a good forever home as quickly as possible.”

On Wednesday, AWLA will host a workshop about feral cats with the group Alley Cat Allies. At least 50 people are expected to attend the event, during which Trent will discuss the new Trap-Neuter-Return program that he’s helping to implement.

Using food as a bait, the League will trap feral cats, spay or neuter them so they cannot reproduce, then release them back into the wild. The program is seen as a humane and more effective alternative to euthanization, and an example of the progress AWLA is making.

Trent says the League, which receives more than half of its $2 million budget from the county for providing animal control services, is also focusing on providing medical care to animals.

He says the shelter, which has an open admission policy, receives many older animals from owners who either can’t afford or can’t cope with their pet’s medical issues. To encourage owner to keep older animals, the League has set up a medical fund that can loan or grant money for medical treatment. The fewer older animals that are left with the shelter, the fewer euthanizations will be necessary.

Trent says AWLA is a “wonderful organization” that has been “undergoing some issues,” but insists that the League’s board is taking criticism seriously.

“We don’t want to circle the wagons,” he said. “There is always room for improvement.”

  • CMG

    I love him already!

  • NorthAdams

    this is very exciting news. We spend an INSANE amount of money on AWLA only to put most animals down.
    Breath of fresh air COMING THRU!!!

  • Kevin

    Why was/is AWLA reluctant to work with rescue groups?

  • S. Arl 2

    A move in the right direction! Thanks, Mr. Trent.

  • Lost Dog Rescue out of Arlington is adopting out 50 dogs per weekend. They do this through a dynamic website and lots of adoption events. At any dog park in Arlington you will find Lost Dog owners. There is no reason AWLA should have the as good a program. There is no excuse for this high execution rate. They need more outreach, more adoption events, better use of facebook and twitter, and they should use the county dog park bulletin boards to post notices.

    AWLA also needs to be more responsive to criticism. Below is the email that I received from them – the issue should not be whether the AWLA HAWK post was anonymous – the issue should be whether the criticism was valid. (see http://awlahawk.org/2010/08/06/arlingtons-homeless-dogs/ ) Even if the execution rate has been brought down to 20%, that is still way too high.

    Dumping ground for damaged animals???? Look through the announcements of some of the animals that local rescue groups have rescued. Go to the adoption events and see what animals are there. There are a lot of damaged animals – and they do ultimately get adopted.

    I would love to see AWLA post a full accounting of its animals and why each animal that is executed was killed. I would like to also see AWLA required to contact local rescue agencies and attempt to adopt out animals before execution. AWLA HAWK has an excellent post on a DE law that seems humane and appropriate. http://awlahawk.org/2010/07/29/delaware-changes-everything/

    Thank you for your e-mail of November 5. The League does not respond
    directly to anonymous blog posts. We do, however, try to inform our
    constituents about our policies and procedures as shown in our Web site and
    quarterly newsletter. As you read in our Frequently Asked Questions:

    The League is an open-access shelter, meaning that all animals are
    welcome regardless of age, health, or behavior. Many organizations that call
    themselves “no-kill” are limited admissions shelters that only admit animals
    when they have space and, quite often, admit only healthy, behaviorally
    sound animals.

    In FY2010 the League received 769 dogs and dispositioned 771 (some were
    already in the shelter at the beginning of the period). Of those 771, the
    decision was made to euthanize 153. That is 20% of 771. Most of the dogs
    euthanized had been surrendered by their owners. While many owner
    surrendered animals are healthy and friendly, some are not. Unfortunately,
    many people use open access shelters as dumping grounds for animals with
    severe health or behavior problems. We receive animals from all over the
    region that are at the end of their lifespans with serious medical issues,
    but their owners do not want to make the decision to end the animal’s
    suffering. We also receive animals with behavior issues that owners have
    tried hard to resolve without success. The League spent $100,000 last year
    on medical care for shelter animals and another $23,000 from our Healthy Pet
    Fund to treat serious conditions such as heartworm, severe dental disease,
    mass removal, and orthopedic surgery. We also work on behavior modification
    for dogs with certain issues such as resource guarding. We do not, however,
    make dogs available for adoption that pose a danger to our volunteers,
    staff, and the community.

    The League is committed to making euthanasia a last resort only for animals
    with very serious health or behavior issues. Over the last few years we have
    greatly increased our cooperation with rescue groups to find homes for
    animals that do not thrive in a shelter environment and have implemented
    behavior modification plans for many shelter dogs. We hosted an open forum
    for rescue groups last July to give us feedback, and our new Executive
    Director is meeting regularly with rescue group representatives to find ways
    to reduce euthanasias. We are determined to find homes for more animals.

    Please contact me if you have any further questions.

    Susan Sherman


  • Yellow Submarine

    I can only hope that AWLA’s board of directors grows a collective spine. They let the old ED of AWLA get away with horrendous (and supposedly unlawful) acts for years. The board stood by her and never asked any questions. They are in part at fault here. The new ED brings promise, but the proof will be in the pudding. The board must direct the new ED to improve the overall operations of the shelter; it can’t be a 1-man-show.

    There are tremendous independent rescue groups working tirelessly, and without profit, on behalf of dogs and cats. It is beyond reason why AWLA didn’t want to work with any of those groups to increase adoption rates. Let’s hope the past stays in the past.

    Trent, if you’re reading this, God Speed. We’re really pulling for you. Please don’t let us, or all these wonderful, helpless animals, down.

    • Linda

      Amen Yellow Submarine! All of the AWLA Board Members need to immediately resign from the board. They did not protect the animals or provide good stewardship of Arlington County tax dollars. They failed miserably and there is no excuse for the blood on their hands from the animals killed needlessly.

      Has anyone ever heard an AWLA board member make statements of accountability (“Not on my watch”) like those from Neil Trent? Where in AWLA’s history have they worked collaboratively with the community? This is the dawn of a new day and it is very exciting.

      To ensure Mr. Trent’s success, we need AWLA board members who not only want a top performing shelter, but demand it. And, who will keep the animals alive through hard work. The days of just showing up for board meetings are gone; we need people on the board like those who work in rescue since they know what it takes and are willing to work to make it happen. I look forward to seeing the resignations from current AWLA Board members and have them replaced with those who demand success and hold themselves accountable for the shelter’s performance.

  • Skeptical

    Thank Providence! I *never* understood the mulish attitude of the old AWLA toward trap-neuter-release for ferals, and have warned people for years against taking cats there. I remember when some shelter workers got in hot water for smuggling out adoptable animals and caring for them/seeking homes for them on their own time rather than kill them.

    • SoCo Resident

      Such a difficult situation being a public shelter with all the responsibilities. I do wish so many pet owners were responsible in the first place when they make a decision to keep a pet as it should be for life. The trend for couples to ditch their pets when they have a baby is appalling. Or pet ditching decisions for the most minor of reasons. College kids who have pets in their residences and then have to dump them when they graduate. I assume schools have some educational sessions to inform kids of the responsibilites of pet ownership for the life of the pet. This would seem to help in reducing shelter popualtions. But, I do applaud everyone who works to protect animals. Very noble work.

      The South of Courthouse, SoCo, neighborhood bounded 10th St, Wash&Arl Blvds

      • Lala

        Enough with your “SoCo” agenda–it’s not even relevant to this article.

        • SoCo Resident

          In the very pet-friendly South of Courthouse, SoCo, neighborhood, there are a couple of wonderful neighbors who give out dog biscuits regularly. Many here actively support the the AWLA and hope for the best care for these animals.

          — SoCo, the triangle neighborhood: 10th St, Arl.&Wash. blvds. —

  • GoVegArlington

    Having worked in animal advocacy, I have a unique perspective on this issue. I always ask people to stop and think of the life a shelter animal leads. They spend ~23 hrs a day in a tiny cement cage. If they’re older, have behavior issues or are simply not getting adopted, they can have a VERY long life ahead of them in a no-kill shelter. Which is worse: a life with no love and affection (outside of the occasional volunteer or person shopping for a dog) or laying down and falling asleep? I know it’s not pleasant (BELIEVE ME, I KNOW), but euthanasia is actually a better alternative to the torture a life in a shelter can be. Also, some people bring elderly, abused (suffering beyond repair) or dying animals to the shelter as a “free” way to have them put down vs going to their vet. So consider that — those numbers are included in this “euthanasia count”.
    The real issue is breeders. STOP breeding and the over-population issue will hugely decline. Every dog purchased from a breeder leaves one shelter dog on death row.

    I don’t know all the ins and outs of the AWLA, but don’t be so quick to criticize, as in some cases, euthanasia is a blessing for these animals.

  • Linda

    GoVegArlington, your information is not accurate. Owner requested euthanasia is NOT included as part of the shelter outcome of the animals killed by the shelter, owner requested euthanasia has its own line item. In FY2010, AWLA made the decision to end the life of 153 dogs, 334 cats, and 48 small companion animals. Owners who requested euthanasia for their own animals occurred 77 times for dogs, 68 times for cats, and 24 times for small companion animals. Again, owner requested euthanasia is not part of the AWLA euthanized numbers since the owners do not release the animal ownership to AWLA and they are not included as part of the intake numbers. (This data can be found in the AWLA Annual Report.)

    The point of increasing adoptions is not to have the animals living miserable lives in the shelter, but to get them adopted and living in homes. While in the care of the shelter, animals should not be suffering and I am not sure why it is assumed they automatically suffer because they are kept alive?

    According to the AWLA Annual Report, the average number of days in shelter for dogs was 13 days, 24 days for cats, and 47 days for small companion animals. Perhaps if the number of days increased, more animals would have left AWLA alive.

    There is no doubt that aggressive spay/neuter programs and educating the public about puppy mills and backyard breeders will decrease the number of unwanted animals. However, that does let AWLA off the hook for the unnecessary killing that has taken place there for years. During this same time period, rescue groups in the area were adopting out thousands of animals to the same public without killing the animals because they were “older, had behavior issues, or simply not getting adopted”.

  • Katie

    I agree with GoVeg about the breeding problem but disagree that being dead is better than being in a cage most of the day.

    Now, in addition to the great comments above, I’ll add that I think the web site AWLA has is pitiful. Compare the photos and descriptions of the cats and dogs on the AWLA site compared to Lost Dog’s and other organizations.

    AWLA takes pictures of the animals when they are at their most scared–most look anti-social at best and vicious at worst. Whereas, Lost Dog has cute, full, personality and history backgrounds–some information isn’t pretty but it’s what you need to know.

    And it’s impossible to do a search for, say, dogs who can tolerate cats, and cats who can tolerate other cats–and overall, there’s just so little info except for a few.

    ALSO, attention new director! I filled out the full, detailed volunteer form and sent it in only to have the volunteer coordinator write “oh, that’s the wrong form; the site isn’t updated. Please fill out the attached and return it me ASAP.

    Excuse me? Do you people have any idea of the long hours people around here work? And a bit of a thank you might help, no?

  • Ilovecats

    While I have adopted two long lived cats from AWLA over the years, I am disappointed to see (as a prior comment stated) little to no information on the website on the cats. Rescue organizations with little to no funds publish great pics and updated info on the pets personality. I ended up adopting a new cat from one of these groups when a pet passed away.

  • Charlie

    Thank god that Mr. Trent is here. He seems to really care about animals and has accomplished more in the last 3 months than the last director did in 5 years. I’m VERY hopeful that Mr. Trent is going to end the needless killing but we need to continue to keep an eye on them. We as Arlingtonians need to demand to have the best shelter in the state and hopefully, one day to have the best shelter in the country. Let’s keep the pressure on until the AWLA is on par with the stature of the rest of the county. Thank you for writing this article and thanks to AWLAHawk.org!

  • Shari

    I can support trapping cats to neuter them, but returning them to the wild is disastrous for wildlife. Alley Cat Allies puts cats above native animals’ welfare.

  • Lost-Dog mom

    I hope that this change results in better adoption policies. A few years ago, my ex and I wanted to adopt a dog from AWLA, and they refused us solely because we both work (and I don’t work every day). Um, huh? You only let the unemployed adopt? We’ve been the happy parents of a Lost-Dog pup for 6 years now.

  • Ann

    As an Arlington resident, I am very pleased to read this article and am hopeful that Mr. Trent will lead the shelter in a new direction!


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