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Animal Welfare: A look back, around, and forward with Dr. Roger Haston

Dr. Roger Haston, Chief Analytics Officer of PetSmart Charities, gave two, standing-room-only presentations, at the Humane Rescue Alliance January 16 and 17.  His presentation “The Future of Animal Welfare: A look back, around, and forward” is the culmination of years of research and analysis of data and trends in the animal welfare industry. Dr. Haston’s presentation provided an objective analysis of the tough realities, complexities, and trends in animal welfare as well as a glimpse of what the future has in store for animal welfare organizations.

HRA: With a doctorate in geophysics, an MBA in finance, and years of experience working in the oil and gas industry, your background clearly shapes the way you approach animal welfare. What made you realize that an analytical approach to animal welfare was needed?

Dr. Haston: There’s been an emerging trend in animal welfare to start to leverage, interpret and understand data in ways that were never imagined just five or 10 years ago. As I started to learn more about animal welfare, I realized the ways we have been thinking about data and metrics were very myopic, or narrow, in their scope and didn’t really reflect the complex and inspiring work that was going on in shelters.

I gave a talk in Dallas, TX about five years ago looking at the true impact of live release rate and how it was beginning to distort our industry’s view of success. A singular focus on that metric alone can result in some potentially negative outcomes for animals. I think explaining the problems associated with using one, isolated metric as the penultimate measure of success really helped people start to understand why we need to be viewing data and metrics as a broader system. My science background helps me illustrate the importance of moving beyond live release rate and begin thinking about modern animal welfare in a holistic way that more accurately reflects what is going on in the community.

I like to use the phrase “realistic optimism” because it aptly captures the balance the animal welfare profession needs to strike between compassion and rationalism. This is a very difficult line of work and we can never lose touch with the compassion and desire to help animals that has brought so many of us to the field. But we need to make sure that compassion has a vessel to live within, and that vessel is rational thought. To me, “realistic” is the framework of rational thinking that lives in our heads, and “optimism” is the compassion that lives in our hearts. There is room—in fact I would argue there is a need for both of them in our industry and I do feel that my background has helped bring those seemingly diametric viewpoints together.

Future of Animal Welfare Presention Dr. Haston

HRA: You began your presentation with a brief history of animal welfare, including the formation of the first animal welfare organizations in the latter part of the 19th century in response to cruelty to carriage horses and then the launch of spay and neuter clinics around the country in the 1970s. It’s encouraging how far we’ve come in eliminating an egregious form of cruelty and reducing the number of homeless pets in such a short time. However, success in reducing the number of animals coming into shelters has resulted in some unique challenges for many shelters. What are some of the unexpected challenges we are facing in our field?

Dr. Haston:  I have been involved in animal welfare for over 15 years now and when I was putting this talk together it really made me look back on my own journey and how much the world has changed. To be honest, I’m not sure any of us could have predicted the traction and momentum the animal welfare movement would gather, and the kind of progress we would make. It’s pretty remarkable.

What’s also fascinating is that success creates new issues and challenges and that is what we are seeing all over the country now. The first and most obvious challenge that has arisen from our success in reducing pet overpopulation is that we are now starting to run out of dogs that people want.

Not everywhere, but in many places, the diversity and number of homeless dogs is declining quickly. This is creating a challenge for shelters as it is changing the nature of a key function for them: namely adoptions.

It is not that adoption isn’t going to continue to be important, but when fewer adoptions are taking place in shelters due to lower intake of homeless dogs, the resources of a shelter and how they are re-deployed are going to need to reflect the new types of issues that we face. At PetSmart Charities, we believe this may mean that shelters will soon be focusing more on creating, enhancing, and sustaining positive relationships between people and all pets.

The other big thing that we see happening is we have started to recognize that the current sheltering system is perhaps not doing as much as we could to help people and pets in underserved or at-risk areas and communities.

Much like in the human space, we have left large groups of people behind and we have some work to do in eradicating stigma. There’s a perception out there that if an individual or family cannot afford to feed or provide veterinary care for their pet, then they simply should not have one. And yet, let’s consider the unconditional love, companionship, and support a cat may provide to an isolated senior living on a fixed income; or the warmth, protection, and comfort a dog may bring to a person experiencing homelessness or living outdoors.

I was at a conference in Chicago and happened to run across a homeless man, Ismeal, who had a cat. He had a whole elaborate set up mounted on his shopping cart that was specifically for the cat. When we spoke, the cat was wrapped around his neck looking peaceful, happy, well-fed and cared for. When you see things like that how can we say that this man doesn’t deserve the cat that he clearly loves so much. How can we do anything else, but help to support that bond?

We need to start viewing our work as more than sheltering—as community outreach and development work. We need to be able to connect with people and pets throughout the community. We need to consider how we can partner with social services agencies to bridge the gaps that may prevent people from keeping their beloved pet during life’s challenges. That’s why PetSmart Charities has created new grant streams focused on making veterinary care more accessible and affordable and providing funding to organizations that are making strides to keep people and pets together.

HRA: Following Hurricane Katrina, there was another big shift in animal welfare. The numbers of animals being transferred between shelters skyrocketed and there was an explosion of small rescue organizations. How have these developments changed animal sheltering?

Dr. Haston: It’s estimated that over 500,000 dogs were transported in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina. That is an amazing number of animals moving all over the country—at that point out of necessity, but I think it really opened our eyes to what pet transport could mean to the work we do and how it could help.

While we’ve seen tremendous celebrity and societal support for pet adoption, and wide-spread understanding of the importance of spay and neuter, we must be careful of perpetuating the perception that we have solved the pet over-population crisis. The positive changes in animal welfare are not uniformly seen across the continent, or even the country.

Right now, there are shelters in the greater northeast and northwest regions of the U.S. with so few pets in their care that they have a waiting list of loving families looking to adopt. Conversely, there are other shelters the southern and rural west and mid-west so overcrowded that they are forced to consider euthanizing perfectly healthy or easily treatable pets every single day.

Why the imbalance? Varying laws and regulations about pets and pet breeders, long-standing beliefs or misconceptions about spay/neuter procedures, a dearth of infrastructure in the humane space, rural landscapes, and even regional climates all play a role in the vast disparity that can be seen in animal welfare.

This disparity drove the birth of transport programs designed to relocate pets from over-populated and resource-strapped shelters to areas where the demand for adoptable pets often outweighs the number of pets available. While pet transport isn’t the sole solution for homeless pet population disparity, what we’ve learned is that we can’t view the world one shelter at a time anymore; it is a deeply interconnected system.

It’s also true that there has been an absolute explosion of small animal rescues throughout the country. I heard one estimate that there are over 20,000. At PetSmart Charities we work with close to 4,000 of these groups and help them facilitate over 580,000 adoptions in PetSmart stores throughout North America.

Future of Animal Welfare Presentation Dr. Haston

HRA: Many animal welfare organizations strive to meet the needs of underserved communities by providing free spay/neuter and vaccination clinics as well as other services. Yet, often those efforts don’t go quite far enough. Can you explain why?

Dr. Haston:  My favorite slide from the talk I gave at HRA is “Why Free is Still Too Expensive”. I have been doing a lot of research around access to care in underserved communities and it has been eye-opening for me.

By offering subsidized or even free spay/neuter procedures, we feel we are solving the problem for pet parents living in underserved communities. But what we haven’t considered is the other “costs” these individuals may need to incur to obtain that free procedure for their pet.

First, many people living on the lower economic end of the spectrum work hourly and the cost to them can be significant if they need to take an unpaid day off of work to get their animal spay/neutered. Another key consideration is that transportation to and from a free veterinary clinic can often be difficult to impossible in many of these neighborhoods. Public transport might be the only way someone commutes from point a to b, yet most public transport systems do not allow pets on board. The question then becomes, how does someone without a personal vehicle even get their pet to a spay/neuter clinic? Once explained in terms like this, it then becomes very apparent why free is still too expensive, and as a speaker it’s fun to watch the audience have that “Ah-ha!” moment.

As we start to do more and more work in these neighborhoods and communities, we need to broaden our vision to include all of the challenges that people face. It is not simply about providing a free service such a spay/neuter. We need systems that allow people to overcome the many challenges they face to get those services: that means looking at cost, transportation, knowledge sharing, hours of access, etc.

HRA: You expressed concern about the increase in polarization among animal welfare groups. Breed specific legislation and the use of terminology like “No-Kill,” are creating division among organizations and communities that has resulted in dire situations for both people and animals. Can you explain how this divide arose and if there’s any hope for a harmonious path forward?

Dr. Haston: As I say in my talk, I am an optimist. I always believe there is a positive path forward.

It has been interesting to watch the dialogue over the last several years and see how divisive and confusing it has become, especially in and around the term “no kill”.  I was very curious to try and get a better understanding of the roots of the conflict, so I started to study the history and evolution of animal rights, welfare and ethics.

What is apparent is that as things have improved in animal welfare, the inherent conflict between the philosophical frameworks for animal welfare (consequentialism) and rights (Kantian theories) are driving much of what we see happening today.

I feel terms like “no kill” are divisive and cause people and organizations to feel very defensive. Those terms can also do a disservice to a lot of the amazing work that is occurring in sheltering today. It paints the world into an us/them debate that really doesn’t need to exist. 

It narrows our focus down to only what is happening inside the four walls of a shelter, when the vast majority of animals in need, animals we are trying to help, live in the community—and the measures and terms used to define “no-kill” shelters do not reflect this.

Animal welfare is deeply complex and difficult. It involves far more than just the number of wet noses and wagging tails traveling in and out of a shelter. Most shelters have a wide array of programs that include services for both homeless and owned pets. Programs like community outreach, veterinary care for the underserved, animal control, public safety and humane education for children. All of these programs help to make communities a better place for people and pets. Whether a shelter is no-kill or not is not the ultimate measure of the work and value.

HRA: You concluded your talk with a cautiously optimistic view of the future of the animal welfare industry. You encourage the adoption of a long-view approach, making decisions not just with short-term goals, but instead with long-term sustainability in mind. You also support hiring professionals with diverse skill sets, who will elevate animal welfare into a “profession.” What does a more inclusive, professional, and collaborative animal welfare industry look like to you? Are there any organizations currently embracing this model?

Dr. Haston: Let me be clear that in this answer, I’m not just speaking about the animal welfare industry. Our country, as a whole, is suffering from a crisis with systemic bias due to a lack of diversity in our key institutions, and animal welfare is no exception. Too often, organizations are led by a small, tight-knit, likeminded group of people that are from similar backgrounds, with similar credentials and life experiences. 

However, the areas that we need to serve are far more diverse than we are. If we are going to find ways to serve marginalized, at-risk, and underserved populations and communities, we need to find a way to change our systems to fully understand and adapt to the people we are trying to serve. We need to start locating and hiring people from these neighborhoods, with different perspectives and experiences, so that we can get a broader cultural understanding of the needs and build solutions that will work.

Looking back, we’ve historically taken a bit of a “colonial approach” to animal welfare. We walked into neighborhoods, told people what we felt was right and what they needed. Then we stood back and wondered why we had not always made progress or established connections. It is time to broaden our thinking and shift our approaches and our systems to be more collaborative and inclusive. In short, we need to listen.

The good news is that we have a currency that can bring people together like no other – animals. Our near-universal love of pets and animals is a powerful common bond among so many of us. Animals can help us build better and healthier communities.

By further professionalizing the animal welfare industry through standards and accreditation processes, we can begin to be viewed as essential service providers in municipalities and communities—not dissimilar to the services offered by EMTs, police officers, fire fighters, and veterinarians. That will help public and government officials to start to view animal services and animal welfare as a basic civic service that cannot be ignored when it comes to budgets and funding provision. When we do that, our communities will be healthier, happier and safer places for people and pets.


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