The following is my interview with Thomas Cole of Shelter Revolution.  It is lengthy (necessarily so), but fascinating. If you are truly concerned about the nation’s pet overpopulation dilemma, please read this in its entirety.

Please tell us a little about yourself. I have a degree in business management, worked for almost 15 years as a corporate controller in the transportation industry. I fled that world to get back to my roots working with animals.

How did you become involved in animal causes?  My father had a shelter and sanctuary that served as animal control for an entire county. At an early age I handled the grumpy dogs in the sanctuary. The dogs there were mostly abandoned farm dogs and pretty scary. But over time I got pretty comfortable around them. I didn’t know it then because we didn’t have a name for it, but this was a true no-kill shelter.

What is wrong with the traditional sheltering programs offered in the nation?

 Cages

Cages! Gotta get social animals out of isolation and into an environment where they’re happy and can show off their best qualities naturally.

Enrichment

Then there’s this “enrichment” fad right now. This is nothing more than a band-aid approach: shelters cram animals into cages and they go “kennel crazy.” To fend off this problem some shelters treat symptoms by playing with the animals then returning them to cages. The solution is to get rid of the cages. Simple concept, hard to convince people.

Foster Homes

Though resisted strongly for years by the industry, fostering has become all the rage now. I see foster homes as a potential resource for rehabbers. They will just need to have their handling skills honed by experienced rehabbers. Then they can play a vital role in dealing with grumpy dogs and cats.

The real benefit of fostering is in caring for sick, injured and neonatal cases which just take time and a quiet place to heal or grow. Fosters are great for these cases.

One drawback I have seen in fostering in general is that it often provides only “overflow storage” for shelters. Of course I’d much rather see shelter animals in foster homes than in shelter cages. But it tends to be difficult to place these shelter animals who are “out of sight and out of mind.”

Overzealous Adoptions

The increased emphasis on adoption rates is also causing a hidden problem. Many placements done under the zeal of increased adoptions result in poor placements. These lead to later returns or abandonments, or worse. Most of these failed adoptions were made by placing dogs and cats who weren’t really ready for adoption. These animals need some rehab time first and are not getting it.

Shelter Rehab

Some progressive shelters are trying to deal with behavior problems by hiring trainers or behaviorists to work directly with their animals. At the forefront is Boston Animal Rescue League’s own Center For Shelter Dogs (http://www.arlboston.org/site/PageServer?pagename=Behavior_CSD_people), dedicated to working with difficult dogs. The problem is that the noisy shelter environment is counterproductive to this work. Rehab is best done in quiet homes.

What is Shelter Revolution? Shelter Revolution is just a website (www.shelterrevolution.org). It serves as a way to get out the word about what is really important – the Adoption Center model. Shelter Revolution’s goal is to change the course of this antiquated shelter industry. That is the revolution part of the name.

Long ago I saw that the industry really treats shelters as prisons and their animals like prisoners. I still can’t understand how, in this day and age of space travel, high-tech devices and the “global community,” how people can still think the best way to deal with SOCIAL animals is to jam them into little cages. I think it’s because people with little or no animal handling experience run these places. It must be a basic fear of animals.

In order to change the shelter from a prison facility into what I envision, a fun place to spend time amongst large groups of friendly animals, two things have to happen: first, we have to get rid of the cages! That means redesigning the facility. Second, we obviously can only put into large groups animals who get along. The others have to go into rehab to fix their behaviors.

Shelter Revolution is a comprehensive marketing plan. It combines the No-Kill Equation (NKE) with the Adoption Center model to finally modernize this industry. We need to get beyond this concept of “sheltering” which focuses on housing. Instead we need to move away from that and toward the idea of getting homeless animals new homes, or rehomed.

 Can you give us an example of a shelter that has implemented Shelter Revolution’s concepts?

Sadly, there aren’t any. The Adoption Center model is very innovative and looks way outside the box. As its motto states, a better way for a better future.

There are several that are very progressive and have put into action some of the main elements. The closest are two shelters that house large numbers of cats together. Pet Connection, Inc. in Avonmore, Pennsylvania (http://www.petconnectioninc.com/) and the Richmond Animal Protection Society near Vancouver, British Columbia (http://www.rapsociety.com/about.htm).

But I should mention Aimee Sadler at Longmont Humane Society in Colorado (http://www.longmonthumane.org/about.php?c=about) and Brandi Tracy at Braveheart Rescue in Hastings, Minnesota (http://www.braveheartrescueinc.com/index.html). While both are typical shelters, these two are leading the pack by allowing their dogs to romp together in large groups during the day.

Natalie Owings with her The Giant Doghouse (http://www.animal-sanctuary.org/doghouse.html) is truly pioneering something very close to the Adoption Center model.

Can it work anywhere in the US? Of course. But that assumes the community and the powers that be are behind it. Even tired old shelters can be cheaply converted to communal housing. Ideally new facilities are better. The greatest challenge is to create rehabbers to handle the animals with issues.

The main thing is to develop a network of experienced rescuers and fosters trained in rehab. Without this key component we will never be able to handle the growing number of animals with behavior issues and the killing will continue. Rehab is vital to sound adoptions.

By the way, two of the eleven steps of the No-Kill Equation (http://www.nokilladvocacycenter.org/nokillequation.html) generally point at rehab. The Adoption Center model picks up this issue and runs with it. This is one of the ways that the NKE and Adoption Center model complement one another.

What about costs incurred in these revolutionized centers? Much, much cheaper. I envision a center where most people working there are energized volunteers. I hope to play a role in changing this very costly thing called a shelter. Corporate streamlining is one of primary goals.

When I first promoted using volunteers all I heard is how unreliable volunteers are. I believe in the dedication of animal lovers. My faith in volunteers is what Abe Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

I have also witnessed incredible dedication from volunteers. Here’s a great example: 

Helping Paws of Minnesota (http://www.helpingpaws.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=25&Itemid=27) is an all-volunteer training center. Their “Foster Home Trainers” go through an intensive two-year process where they raise and train a puppy to become a service dog. These certified service dogs are then paired with a mobility-challenged recipient at the end of the two-year training program.

Think about that – Helping Paws does with volunteers what other organizations do only with expensive professionals. And I’ll match the quality of Helping Paws’ service dogs with any produced by these pros.

How is this possible if volunteers are so unreliable? These volunteers line up on a waiting list to work for free with a commitment to over two full years of many hours per week. Then I look around the country at thousands of rescuers who give everything they have to help save lives. Many pay for their rescue work by working extra jobs. I believe the key to finding these dedicated volunteers depends on a leader who can inspire and challenge “the better angels of our nature.”

Who do you think are some of the most influential people in the SR Movement? There is a select group of what I call rehabbers – that’s my term – which I hope to bring together and highlight their much-needed skills. This will be the group that provides the expertise to form a national rehab training academy.

I’ve already mentioned Brandi Tracy and Aimee Sadler leading the way with large play groups. Also there’s Natalie Owings and her The Giant Doghouse.

FOUND Chicago is another leading-edge effort. Small now but growing. (http://foundchicago.org/about/mission/ — watch the video)

I see you use the term “family companions” to describe our pets…why is this an important way to look at them? I think the term is more respectful and better reflects their growing stature in our society.

One of the greatest obstacles to passing effective animal protection laws is politicians’ refusal to move beyond the idea that dogs and cats are just personal property. They cannot seem to get it that our society has changed. These animals are no longer just “pets” to be bought and sold like things. Dogs and cats truly have become members of our families. They sleep with us, run errands with us and go on vacations with us. These backwards politicians will eventually get the message loud and clear that our society will not accept their attitudes.

It took a long time, laws and social leadership to get this country beyond thinking of African-Americans, Native Americans and women as mere things. Remember, there was a time not long ago when these people were bought and sold or traded for goods. Eventually our country will finally see that dogs and cats are sentient beings – our family companions.

What reading or websites do you recommend to those who wish to learn more? I think it is imperative for animal lovers to study Shelter Revolution, especially the “detailed road map” (https://sites.google.com/a/shelterrevolution.org/www/detailed-road-map) and the FAQ page (https://sites.google.com/a/shelterrevolution.org/www/FAQ). Then I think it’s very important for all to read through the No-Kill Equation’s 11 common-sense steps (http://www.nokilladvocacycenter.org/nokillequation.html). These are the two most important sites dealing with shelter reform.

Then there are some wonderful videos which portray important elements of the Adoption Center. I think these are very eye opening and lots of fun:

1) No More Cages = http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OPajZB9cPWQ

2) The future of sheltering = http://youtu.be/OPwpR1RFubg?hd=1

3) Dogs can’t be housed together? = http://tinyurl.com/27qk72j

What is your ultimate goal for the future of the homeless animals of America?

 Idealistically, to end the wholesale slaughter of millions and millions of family companions every single year. But realistically, with whatever time I have left, I hope to simply change the direction of this ineffective shelter industry.

How long do you think it would take to reach your goal? Let’s revise the goal to simply getting one Adoption Center up and running, okay? Boiled down I believe it’s a three-year process. But the question really depends on the facility:  a startup effort would be much easier and quicker than a turnaround situation. Obviously it would be a longer effort if the shelter is old and the community is not prepared to change the old one or build a new one.

I detail the timeline in Question #9 on the Frequently Asked Questions page on Shelter Revolution (https://sites.google.com/a/shelterrevolution.org/www/FAQ). I would like to point out that the first year-and-a-half is basically dedicated to implementing the NKE. It isn’t until later in the second year that the Adoption Center model starts to show itself.

By the end of the third year we should no longer see a “shelter.” In its place will be a new Adoption Center. The shelter facility will become a true marketing tool instead of a prison warehouse.

Thomas also recommends that readers visit No Kill Nation on Facebook.

Thank you Thomas, for sharing with us.  It is the beginning of meaningful change.  Thanks to all those “better angels” among us, too.

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