Unconditional love. Anyone who has ever shared their life with a beloved pet knows unconditional love. The love and companionship that we share with our family pets is central to all that the Michigan Humane Society stands for. Their love is blind to our human shortcomings, our failings, faults, and weaknesses. It is seemingly without limits. Being a part of the Michigan Humane Society, I connect emotionally with this concept of “love without limits,” and I truly believe every committed staff member, supporter and volunteer at MHS has no ceiling relative to their desire, passion and willingness to return that unconditional love.
However, as in many issues, there is a difference between theory and reality. In our hearts and in our minds, there is no limit to what we would do; there is a limit, however, to how much we can do. In animal welfare and sheltering, there is a very real principle called the capacity for care. An organization’s capacity for care refers to its ability to effectively and humanely care for each animal, while ensuring the health and well-being of all the animals in its care. It is the limit to which an organization can provide humane, sanitary and appropriate care for the animals it is charged with, within the walls of its facility. The “Five Freedoms” that follow have served as strong guiding principles within animal welfare for decades and also serve to help effectively measure the quality and effectiveness of animal sheltering – in turn helping to shape capacity for care. They are as follows:
- Freedom from Hunger and Thirst: Ready access to fresh water and an appropriate diet.
- Freedom from Discomfort: Providing an appropriate environment, including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
- Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease: By prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
- Freedom to Express Normal Behavior: Providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
- Freedom from Fear and Distress: Insuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.
The Association of Shelter Veterinarians’ Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters defines capacity for care as:
“Capacity to provide humane care has limits for every organization, just as it does in private homes. Effective population management requires a plan for intentionally managing each animal’s shelter stay that takes into consideration the organization’s ability to provide care. Operating beyond an organization’s capacity for care is an unacceptable practice.”
So how does care capacity impact MHS? An organization’s capacity for care isn’t just the number of cages or the number of staff, but rather an aggregate of all resources that impact animal care. MHS is no different – our capacity for care is constructed from multiple key factors and resources. This includes highly trained staff (veterinarians, behavior experts, adoption counselors, evaluation and care technicians, etc.), the physical limits of the facilities (number of kennels/cages, etc.) medical supplies, foster homes, pet food/litter and much more. All these elements determine how many animals MHS can effectively, compassionately and appropriately care for at any given time.
As an example, let’s say hypothetically that MHS’ capacity for care is 750 animals (it should be noted that capacity for care is often not a set number but a fluid number depending on the resources required for each individual animal you are caring for). That means we are resourced to provide high quality and compassionate care for 750 or fewer animals at this time. Once at 751, the moment we exceed our capacity for care, we compromise the integrity and effectiveness of our care not just for the additional animals, but for all the animals in our care. Therefore, capacity for care is a cornerstone element in our ability to serve our communities’ population of unwanted, abused, neglected and homeless animals as it shapes the best interest of the individual animal alongside the interests of all animals in need. Whether it be 1 or 100 animals over your capacity for care, the result is the same: a breakdown of the integrity of your care and the potential to put in jeopardy the other animals in your care.
Capacity for care is directly and continually influenced by two important factors:
- The rate and condition in which animals are entering our facilities.
The resources of MHS determine our capacity for care; therefore, for every animal we take in, our capacity for care decreases – the rate at which it decreases is directly a product of the conditions and temperament of that particular animal. Each animal requires care and sheltering services to include medical treatment, feeding, walking, mental/emotional stimulation, etc.
The condition the animal is in determines the extent and length of time we utilize our care services for that animal. A “healthy” animal, who is immediately ready to be adopted, may only be in our care for a few days. Compare that with a “treatable” animal, who is not immediately adoptable, which requires more significant care and treatment before it is ready to be placed into a new home and, therefore, has a greater impact on our capacity for care. The spectrum of treatable animals is quite broad, ranging from minor issues that may just require a couple weeks of additional care to very serious ailments that require months of rehabilitation and thousands of dollars of medical expense. When you factor in that MHS at times receives more treatable animals than healthy, immediately adoptable animals, you can understand how each animal impacts our capacity for care differently.
- The opportunities (and timing) for adoption/placement.
Each time we adopt out an animal, we have cause to celebrate. First, and foremost, it is the culmination of all our care and compassion for that animal and knowing they are in a loving home and on to the next, happier, phase of their life. Second, we celebrate because that placement affords us the opportunity to utilize our care resources that had been directed to the adopted animal for another animal in need. This is our cycle of care – it is extremely dynamic, fluid and very complicated, but so rewarding given the animal lives that are saved and changed!
For all the work and care that MHS provides in getting adoptable animals ready for new homes, it is the interest in adopting and the demand of the public that greatly determines the successful placement of these animals. Practically speaking, while there are endless possibilities and we must exhaust all efforts to find homes for the animals, there is the reality that, at some point, new homes become harder to find at a time when intakes come faster than the number of animals being adopted out.
Many people may not realize that the intake of animals into shelters here in Michigan, and nationwide, has a discernible and logical cyclical pattern. During the cold months of winter, when we don’t see litter upon litter of kittens and puppies and, from a practical standpoint, fewer people are outside recognizing animal-related issues, our intake of animals is lower – it is not uncommon for our intake to be roughly half of what it is in the summer months. However, during the Spring and Summer, and at times into early Fall, it’s a completely different story. It’s “kitten season” and “puppy season” and more animals are being born and people’s own pets are far more active, all of which unfortunately tends to mean more animals end up at animal shelters. Thus, the exaggerated cyclical nature of animal intake often being overwhelming in the Spring and Summer is a reality, and those dramatic increases in animal intake, anticipated or not, put an enormous burden on shelter resources and their capabilities to find appropriate positive outcomes. During this time, most animal shelters struggle with the extreme challenge of managing within their capacity for care – managing intake and population within that organization’s capacity for care.
I’ll give you just one recent example. Last week, a large number of kittens were left at the door of our Rochester Hills Center for Animal Care. The box was wrapped in chicken wire and inside we found 26 kittens, approximately 4 to 5 weeks of age. That day, our staff, veterinarians and foster homes went to work caring for these tiny kittens, and we will continue to do so until they are healthy enough to be adopted into loving homes. However, it is times like these when our animal intake increases that our shelters struggle. This is a foundational issue as we govern the care of many animals with needs of each individual animal – and this capacity changes daily. MHS is constantly working to increase our capacity and that begins with expanding the Community’s Capacity for Care.
What is the Community’s Capacity for Care? The public, politicians, MHS supporters, adopters, volunteers and many others all directly impact our capacity for care via engagement in our mission and in critical community issues. One example: We have hundreds of animals up for adoption at any given time, and that requires us to be proactive in caring for them, marketing them and preparing them for adoption. Likewise, the citizens of Southeast Michigan need to be conscious of their choices when looking for a new pet and proactive in adopting from MHS or other animal welfare organizations.
Adopting the amazing animals in our care helps save the lives of those animals and clears resources and space necessary to care for more animals, thereby increasing our capacity for care.
The number of foster homes available to care for the treatable animals at MHS is another example. Regardless of how significant our veterinary medical resources are, the reality is we only have so many places in which we can successfully isolate and care for a sick animal. When we run out of space to effectively isolate and care for sick animals, foster homes are lifesaving options for treatment and recovery on the way to finding those animals loving homes. The efforts of amazing foster caregiver volunteers increase the number of animals we can treat and rehabilitate, and ultimately save; you increase our capacity for care.
As a final example – donating. Every dollar given to our mission, whether it is $10 or $1,000,000, makes a difference in the lives of the animals at MHS. This critical support advances the resources and opportunities available to the animals entrusted to us and increases MHS’ capacity for care.
Policies can also impact capacity for care. Intake policies, for example: It is important to understand that, for a shelter or any animal welfare organization to take in an animal without consideration for the organization’s capacity for care is often not acting in the best of that animal. We discussed earlier the realities of kitten season that result in a significant influx of cats and kittens around late Spring/Summer in nearly every shelter around the country. It is a time that, for most shelters, the intake of cats is far outweighing the adoption demand, which dramatically changes the capacity for care formula – and not in a positive manner. The impact on an organization’s capacity for care of a cat being surrendered in June versus January is very different. So is blindly taking every animal that is brought through your doors always truly in the best interest of the animal? Are there times when, if possible, delaying an intake (and using proactive programs and efforts to avoid it to begin with) and saying “not right now” actually is in the best interest of that animal? If an owner can hold on to a cat for three more weeks, and those three weeks give the cat a substantially better chance at life, what is the right thing to do? That is a decision for each organization to make, but there are seasonal and other factors that impact the “right” answer. There is a very real possibility during this time that the next box filled with a litter kittens being brought to us will exceed our capacity for care. If you were to put the intake numbers at animal shelters on a graph, they would clearly not resemble a straight line, but rather a dynamic shifting and flowing line – an ever-changing numerator to which we have a constant denominator. That denominator, if you will, is an organization’s capacity for care; once the numerator – the number of animals in your care – exceeds your denominator, you are on the wrong side of the equation.
So, what do we do? First, MHS and all of us must continue to work tirelessly to expand the community’s capacity for care – more adoptions, more foster caregivers, more support, etc. Second, we need to look beyond cookie-cutter solutions as we evolve and adjust our policies’ philosophies to better manage our capacity for care and all of our organization’s resources – to ensure we are embodying our mission and actually saving more animal lives. To truly do what is right, to truly do what is best for the animal – the individual animal – presented to you, your polices on intake must be, at times, fluid and adapted to your capacity for care. We will always help an animal in urgent need; however, there is a seasonality in animal populations, both in our shelters and in our communities, that creates the need for an individual assessment of that animal based on what is truly best for it and all others. Every animal is an individual. Every animal is a life.
Thank you for all your continued support. You are the only reason we have the reach and impact we have – the greatest capacity for care in the State of Michigan impacting the lives of tens of thousands of animals every year. You make everything we do possible.