We chose to shine our very first spotlight on Million Cat Challenger Stockton Animal Services because it has been nothing less than humbling to witness this little shelter with a huge heart continue to reach new heights year after year despite all odds. Stockton reminds us that where there is will, there is always a way.
Not too long ago, you could have easily said that Stockton had every card in the deck stacked against them. In June of 2012, Stockton became the largest city in America to ever file bankruptcy. A soaring unemployment and crime rate topped the nation and landed the city squarely on every undesirable list ever drafted, included Forbes most miserable places to live. Eight out of every ten cats that entered the shelter did not make it out alive. The same was true for over half the dogs. The operating budget was so grossly inadequate, there weren’t even funds to fix the air conditioner in a cinder block building located in a city that regularly reaches over 100 degrees. Three people were staffed to care for upwards of 300 animals a day, answer phones, man the front desk and take leashes from the never-ending surrender line. The staff wanted more for the animals, but there seemed to be a perfect storm of bad luck that circled the mountain of “Nos” they faced every single day. If there ever was a situation that could be deemed impossible, few could argue that Stockton Animal Shelter wasn’t a contender for the title.
Three years later, we stand in awe of all that has been accomplished. Our first Million Cat Salute proudly goes to you, Stockton Animal Services!
And, of course, saving lives helps keeps the positive momentum going! In Stockton, in less than two years, the shelter went from an 85-90% euthanasia rate for cats to an over 80% save rate. No one wants to turn back now.
Of the five key initiatives (Alternatives to Intake, Managed Admissions, Capacity for Care, Removing Barriers to Adoption and Return to Field), which one did Stockton implement first? Would you do it differently? Which one have you been the most surprised by? Have any of the initiatives been easier to implement than you had previously thought?
Removing barriers to adoptions through flexible-fee adoptions was among the easier of the initiatives to implement, even with the additional hurdles that the city’s bankruptcy imposed.
Making adoptions easier doesn’t necessarily require more staff time, and it doesn’t cannibalize other programs or services – we just changed the pricing structure and welcomed the resulting lifesaving.
One of the biggest surprises came with the return-to-field (RTF) initiative. Not because of community backlash (we really didn’t experience much, if any) or lack of support for the program (we thoroughly embraced it as a lifesaving alternative). Frankly, it was difficult to keep up with spay/neuter demand.
In 2008 (long before the SF SPCA and Stockton Animal Services partnership), Stockton’s nonprofit partner, Animal Protection League, had created a spay/neuter program to address the shelter’s overwhelming cat problems. But it wasn’t nearly extensive enough to meet the shelter’s tremendous need, and there was a tendency to focus on TNR as opposed to RTF.
The partnership between SAS and SF SPCA gave the shelter a much-needed boost in resources, including a newly hired veterinary team to help with shelter medicine and spay/neuter (before the partnership, Stockton didn’t even have a fulltime veterinarian on staff). Increased access to veterinary resources made the return-to-field initiative possible. It gave the shelter a chance to focus and prioritize on improving and ultimately saving the lives of the cats actually sitting in the shelter.
Speaking of removing barriers to adoption, we noticed you have been waiving your adoption fees recently. Like many municipal shelters, this wasn’t previously possible. What changed? How has this impacted your adoption outcomes? Have you experienced pushback from the community?
As hard as shelter staff had been working to change things, some of the greatest challenges were the city’s code system. The ordinances were so old that they reflected an antiquated “catch and kill” mentality. On top of that, Stockton is one of the largest cities to file for bankruptcy in US history (second only to Detroit). Suffice it to say, it’s hard to lower adoption and service fees in a city with a budget crisis that’s under bankruptcy restrictions.
Fortunately, with a little creative thinking, we were able to get flexible-fee adoptions off the ground, even during bankruptcy. In a nutshell, we did this by just starting with a pilot program. We simply asked City Council to give us a chance to prove to the community what contemporary data/studies already show – that fee flexibility results in significantly move lives saved, with the same good homes, at a potential cost savings to the shelter. If successful for the first 90 days, with the results being measured and thereafter presented to City Council, we asked that City Council extend flexible fee adoption pricing for the shelter indefinitely.
To say that the pilot was a success would be an understatement – adoptions more than TRIPLED in volume as compared to the same time period during the previous year.
Specifically, in the 90 days of the pilot, the number of dog adoptions increased from 278 to 572, and the number of cat adoptions increased from 15 to 413. In addition, adoptions of pit bull type dogs, which historically have been some of the hardest animals to find new homes for in the shelter, increased an impressive 457% over the same time period the previous year. The lifesaving results were astounding!
The community was thrilled, and City Council excitedly backed the shelter by voting unanimously to indefinitely extend flexible fee adoption pricing. The lifesaving made possible by flexible fees still continues today.
Fortunately, we experienced very little pushback from the community. If anything, we experienced the opposite – the program improved shelter staff and community morale and resulted in a surge of positive press and media attention for the shelter.
Once we explained to people that the shelter maintains the same adoption standards and screening processes, any concerned citizens seemed to accept that the animals were going to good homes, or at the very least acknowledge that taking a chance that a flexible-fee adoption might not work out tomorrow was better than certain euthanasia today (either for that animal or another competing for limited kennel or cage space).
Many Challengers report that accepting the Million Cat Challenge actually improved the lives of dogs in their care just as much as cats. Has this been the case for Stockton?
Absolutely! In Stockton, on a given day, 3 shelter staff members are in charge of cleaning kennels for 300 or more animals, and that’s before noon, when the shelter opens and those same staff have to then work the front desk. Chronic understaffing was undermining the shelter’s efforts to improve welfare and positive outcomes.
Fortunately, the Million Cat Challenge initiatives enable a shelter like Stockton to focus and prioritize for the benefit of all of its shelter animals. For example, by getting SNR cats in and out of the Stockton shelter quickly, we free up time and space for other animals awaiting homes, and we improve our capacity to help other animals (even without much-needed staffing increases). Reducing barriers to adoption, for example, benefits all animals involved, and in our case resulted in adoption surges for traditionally harder to place animals, like pit bull type dogs (see above).
Are your feline enclosures single or double sided? Has this changed recently?
Stockton houses its cat population predominately in double-sided feline enclosures, but it wasn’t always this way. Cat housing used to be extremely small – with single 18” cages, fearful cats were unable to hide, and staff couldn’t move food away from the litter area. It was heartbreaking.
So, we decided that rather than intaking lots of cats and caring for them poorly, we would instead admit fewer cats and care for them more humanely. And then focus on expanding our foster network.
In 2013, using the “Cat Cage Modifications” from the UCD Koret Shelter Medicine Program, we hired a local welder to cut holes in the 58 existing metal cat cages and connect them to create a total of 29 connected units, and we added simple cardboard boxes for hiding.
We also removed a communal cat housing area (essentially a repurposed dog run) that was an infectious disease nightmare. With the newly freed space, we were able to add additional individual cat cages that were far more humane and better aligned with the shelter’s capacity to care.
If you could go back in time two years, what advice would you give yourselves?
Never underestimate the power of compassionate, forward-thinking shelter leadership and good shelter data.