AWLA Hits 90+

Five months ago, an animal-welfare advocate in Tallahassee launched a blog called No-Kill Communities to track the progress that the No Kill movement is making in open-admission shelters across the country. This is a great idea, and I’m glad someone has stepped forward to provide a clearinghouse for the exchange of advice, encouragement, and data. Based on my first review of the site and my experience building ShelterWatch, I’d guess that managing the No-Kill Communities blog is practically a full-time effort. Its author deserves our thanks and support.

One of the prominent features on her blog is an alphabetical list of No-Kill communities on the right side of the home page. And listed right near the top is Arlington, VA. Yep, that would be our own Animal Welfare League of Arlington, which was highlighted as a recent addition to the No-Kill ranks in this recent post and this post from August.

A “live release rate” of 93% is great — if it reflects outcomes for all the homeless cats and dogs an open-admission shelter receives. But since most shelters use the Asilomar Accords statistics format to track and report their outcomes, there are two caveats to keep in mind. Ideally, these caveats should be adjusted for, to eliminate moral hazard and the undue influence that can be wielded by canine and feline escape artists.

Moral Hazard
The Asilomar Accords format excludes animals categorized by the shelter as “unhealthy and untreatable” from the total outcomes number used to calculate live release rates. So shelters can (and many of them do) designate all the animals they kill as unhealthy or untreatable.

If a shelter classifies more than 1-2% of its animals as unhealthy/untreatable, it’s likely that healthy pitbulls or mouthy puppies or orphaned newborn kittens or depressed adult cats are among them. So when I was collecting statistics for ShelterWatch, I included the euthanizations of unhealthy/untreatable animals in the live release rate calculations, assuming that the law of large numbers means that all shelters will receive roughly comparable proportions of truly unsaveable animals.

Escape Artists
In the Asilomar format, “Returned to Owner” dogs and cats also contribute to a shelter’s live release rate, and that inclusion can mask true performance levels. That’s why the ShelterWatch format excludes RTOs from live release rate calculations.

Consider two open-admission shelters that both receive 1,000 cats and dogs per year. Citania serves a high-density community with apartment buildings and fewer escape artists, and Slowburbia serves a suburban community with fenced yards, open space, and more escape artists.

Cats and Dogs Received1,0001,000
Returned to Owner100400
Adopted Out500200
Transferred to Rescue100100
Live Release Rate, Asilomar format70%70%
Live Release Rate, ShelterWatch format67%50%

So in a community like Slowburbia, where fenced-in dogs and cats routinely escape and then are rounded up and returned, the open-admission shelter will have an artificially high live release rate. This collect-and-return service is important and beneficial, but at best it isn’t really relevant to the plight of homeless animals. At worst, it makes the shelter’s treatment of homeless animals look better than it really is. In this example, Slowburbia actually only received 600 homeless animals, and it killed half of them.

While I haven’t seen the actual numbers underlying AWLA’s 93% live release rate, I think we can assume that Arlington looks more like Citania than Slowburbia. But the issues posed by moral hazard and escape artists are significant enough that aggregate percentages and results should be considered skeptically. All open-admission shelters should post their outcomes statistics in the complete Asilomar format, which allows viewers to assess these issues and adjust the results appropriately.

One year ago yesterday, Neil Trent joined AWLA as its new Executive Director. To mark the occasion, Arlington-based animal welfare advocate Debbie Marson sent the following letter to the Arlington County Board.

September 13, 2011

Today is a momentous day — Neil Trent started at the AWLA one year ago. And the animal lovers, animal advocates and the animals of Arlington could not be happier.

In his short tenure, Neil has significantly reduced the shelter’s euthanasia rate. He ended the fiscal year with an impressive 91% success rate for dogs and 85% for cats. But the 1st quarter of FY 2012 is even better. The success rate for this quarter is 95% for dogs and 91% for cats. For those of you who don’t know what the success rate is, it is the “live release” rate. This means, for example, that 95% of all dogs who entered the shelter between 7/1/2011 and today, came out alive. This compares to about 80% success rate for dogs in FY 2010 and 70% for cats. This is an amazing accomplishment in such a short period of time and one that Neil should be incredibly proud of. I know that I could not be happier with his efforts, dedication and results.

Neil has implemented many new programs and taken many steps in order to reduce the euthanasia. In addition to his new programs like, implementing TNR, adding a vet clinic and a new vet and waiving adoption fees for older cats, he has reached out to and embraced the local animal community. Not only has he met repeatedly with animal advocates, he has taken our suggestions and quickly implemented many of them. He has changed the shelter’s reputation to one of being friendly to the animal community and to being progressive and proactive in saving lives. I can now say that not only am I a donor but have encouraged others to support AWLA as well.

It is just a matter of time before the AWLA is the best shelter in the state. With the programs that Neil has implemented and the lives he has saved, he is already one of the top 5 shelters in Virginia. Recently a shelter director south of us was heard on the radio as saying, “We are not as good as Arlington yet, bet we are working on it”. It is nice to be the bench mark for others to aspire to.

Again, I’m beyond grateful for what Neil has done. He has saved hundreds of lives and has brought the joy of pet ownership to many Arlingtonians. Happy Anniversary and a HUGE thank you to Neil. Keep up the good work.

Debbie Marson

During the last decade, no one has worked harder than Debbie Marson to refocus AWLA on saving as many homeless animals as its impressive resources permit. Now Neil Trent is making Debbie’s hard work pay off, while raising the bar for other open-admission shelters in affluent DC-area jurisdictions.

The policies Debbie cites above (and others that Trent is implementing, like AWLA’s “Pit Crew” that works to find homes for well-adjusted dogs that other shelters routinely brand as pitbulls and then euthanize) lead to drastically reduced kill rates, or as in AWLA’s case, a kill rate approaching zero. And those results dramatically improve community support, which means more funding, more foster homes, more adopters, more volunteers, more animals saved. Everyone wants to be involved with a winner, and that’s what AWLA is becoming under Trent.

Are you paying attention AWL of Alexandria?
Montgomery County Humane Society?
Loudoun County?

Progress Confirmed

On March 22, 2010 — just under a year ago — Kay Speerstra resigned as AWLA’s Executive Director. As the animal-outcomes data attest (see ShelterWatch.org), she left behind an organization that dramatically underperformed leading national open-admission shelters when it came to saving homeless cats and dogs. This was in spite of the fact that AWLA had greater financial resources and received fewer animals than most of the more successful shelters. Clearly, AWLA’s lack of commitment and effort trumped its monetary and logistical advantages.

As posts from last summer like where have all the kittens gone? and Arlington’s homeless dogs indicate, AWLA’s animal-outcomes performance did not start improving immediately after Speerstra resigned. But there were hints — an offsite dog-adoption event, an effort to repair damaged relationships with local animal-rescue organizations — that more hopeful days lay ahead.

Those hopeful days are here, and acknowledgement and thanks for that are due to Joann DelToro and the AWLA Board. Many observers assumed the Board would hire an AWLA insider who would attempt to preserve the status quo. Instead they conducted a deliberate national search before hiring Neil Trent from the Longmont Humane Society in Colorado. After Trent arrived at AWLA six months ago, things really started to change.

During his first six months at AWLA, the organization has:

— launched a trap-neuter-return (TNR) program in partnership with Alley Cat Allies;

— expanded its use of social media websites to promote its cats and dogs;

— begun posting flyers to promote its adoptable cats and dogs at local vet clinics;

— met numerous times with leaders of local rescue organizations to discuss how they can collaborate with AWLA;

— begun planning to extend its foster program to include adult cats and dogs;

— begun publishing its animal outcomes data on its website using the standard Asilomar format.

These steps are just a start, but they show that Trent realizes that improving the prospects for the homeless animals in its care isn’t rocket science — it just requires implementing the same kinds of programs that the most successful open-admission shelters have been practicing for years.

And sure enough, AWLA’s newfound effort is beginning to yield improved results:

Homeless cats7/09 – 6/107/10 – 12/10
Died or Lost1.9%1.5%
Homeless dogs7/09 – 6/107/10 – 12/10
Died or Lost0.6%0.5%

What a difference a year makes.

AWLA’s turnaround is still a work in progress, but it’s clear by now that Neil Trent has set the right goals and has begun to drive the organization toward them.

We look forward to further progress at AWLA, and hope that its local peers like the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria and the Montgomery County Humane Society are taking note. The homeless companion animals consigned to them deserve no less of an effort.

Forward Progress?

It’s been almost two months now since Neil Trent joined AWLA as its new Executive Director, and some good things are happening.

AWLA found a home for Mya

For starters, AWLA has taken tentative first steps toward marketing its on-view dogs. Three offsite events featuring adoptable AWLA dogs were held during the last two months. And AWLA seems to be discovering the potential of online marketing. They have yet to exploit Craigslist, but they did send out a broadcast e-mail asking recipients to help find a home for Mya, a young black dog with a bully-breed jaw who’d arrived at the shelter in April, gone on-view in May… and then spent five months waiting for a home. She was adopted in early October.

And while we haven’t seen the outcomes data for the most recent quarter yet, daily observation of the dogs listed on the AWLA website suggests that fewer dogs are mysteriously vanishing a week or two after they first appear on the site. I won’t be surprised if the Q3 data shows that AWLA has stopped killing the vast majority of its pitbulls and other powerful breeds.

Other promising signs: Trent has met with and listened to the advice of local animal-welfare advocates, many of whom have been repeatedly frustrated by their past interactions with AWLA. He has committed the organization to launching a trap-neuter-return program for feral cats, which his predecessor was unwilling to do. And he seems willing to expand the scope of AWLA’s foster program and develop more efficient ways of providing veterinary care for all its animals.

So the early evidence suggests that Trent is trying to steer the organization in the right direction.

A less encouraging observation is that he didn’t bring his team from Longmont Humane with him, which means he has inherited a management team steeped in AWLA’s traditional culture of selective disclosure and a circle-the-wagons mentality. Converting AWLA into a top-tier shelter (like those in Reno, Charlottesville, Ithaca, Richmond, Berkeley et. al.) would be a much easier task if he had a lieutenant or two who understood how these highly effective shelters work.

If Trent chooses to retain the management team he inherited, AWLA’s recently released FY2010 Annual Report demonstrates the entrenched culture he’s up against.

For example, the financial report states that for the fifth consecutive year, AWLA spent more money ($1.427 million) executing its responsibilities for animal sheltering and animal control than it received from its contract with Arlington County ($1.253 million). The report explicitly notes that “The League subsidizes this deficit (of $173,610) with its own funds.”

As we pointed out in our Fun with Numbers series last fall, this is pure fiction. Correctly allocating the fees that AWLA receives from adopting out county-funded shelter animals would go a long way toward erasing this “deficit”. Instead AWLA classifies those fees as “program revenues”. Tuition from AWLA’s summer Kids Camp is another example of “program revenues” that is entirely dependent on the County-funded shelter animals.

The bottom line is that Arlington County subsidizes AWLA, not the converse. Without its County Contract, AWLA would just be one of many local animal welfare organizations. Without a guaranteed revenue stream, it would have to spend more of its time pulling animals from municipal pounds and working to find them homes, because its fundraising efforts would depend on an expanding legacy of successful adoptions.

Much less effort would be devoted to projects that don’t directly save animals, like Kids Camp, Canine Behavior Classes, and Baby-Ready Pets. Without the County Contract, AWLA would have to compete for volunteers, adopters, and donors based on its animal-saving performance, rather than rely on taxpayer funding and a captive supply of animals.

For years, AWLA has essentially been a fundraising organization that uses its stream of animals to achieve its monetary goals, rather than an animal rescue organization that uses its stream of funds to achieve its lifesaving goals.

If you don’t believe that, download AWLA’s tax returns from GuideStar and juxtapose them with its animal outcomes results. Or read this post.

Or look at how AWLA’s profit of nearly $400,000 in FY2010 didn’t help increase the number of homeless cats and dogs it saved:

  FY 2010FY 2009FY 2008
Homeless dog outcomes490478432
 Died or lost376
Live release rate*68.2%69.0%67.1%
Homeless cat outcomes107911451125
 Died or lost202132
Live release rate*67.2%67.1%65.7%

* = (adopted + transferred) / outcomes

Despite these uninspiring results, I’m convinced that Neil Trent has the motivation and ability to convert AWLA into the resource that it can and should be. But he’ll need plenty of encouragement and help from the outside the organization.

August 16, 2010

The Animal Welfare League of Arlington is pleased to announce that Neil Trent will join the organization as Executive Director in September 2010. Neil brings over 30 years of experience in international, national and local animal welfare. He is currently the Executive Director of the Longmont Humane Society in Longmont, Colorado.

Neil Trent has been at Longmont Humane for less than two years, but if he can convert AWLA into an organization like LHS, the AWLA Board will have dramatically improved the prospects for Arlington’s homeless companion animals.

Here are a few reasons for optimism:

– LHS took in 2000 cats and over 2000 dogs in 2009, compared with 1357 cats and 900 dogs for AWLA. So the new Director won’t have to worry about challenges related to scale as he addresses AWLA’s cultural deficiencies.

– LHS publishes its Asilomar animal outcomes statistics on its website, making it easy to track its progress in saving homeless cats and dogs. There is no more important step an animal shelter can take toward improving its performance.

– LHS has two staff veterinarians. AWLA could have prevented considerable suffering on the part of its animals and countless hours of unnecessary driving, waiting, and stress on the part of its volunteers if it had been willing to invest in in-house veterinary care.

– LHS extends its foster program to adult cats and dogs, not just kittens and puppies. AWLA’s foster program barely exists today.

– According to ShelterWatch.org, LHS ranks 5th out of the 49 open-admission shelters listed in its rate of dog adoptions, and 15th out of 48 shelters in its rate of cat adoptions. AWLA’s dogs need more help than its cats.

– LHS has a Tr/Eu (transferred/euthanized) ratio for dogs of .74, which is above average for the shelters listed on ShelterWatch. Its Tr/Eu for cats is an anemic .07, but that may be partially attributable to a preference for dogs over cats in Boulder Valley, Colorado.

And there are no doubt additional reasons for optimism.

We would be remiss if we didn’t applaud the effort that AWLA’s Chairman personally invested in the search for a new Executive Director. There have been other recent signs of progress at AWLA — a meeting with rescue groups in July, an offsite dog-adoption event last weekend — but nothing demonstrates a commitment to change like a comprehensive search for new leadership. We’re gratified and impressed that AWLA’s Board didn’t take the easy way out by hiring someone with prior connections to the organization. Instead they executed a national search and were able to attract a candidate with impressive credentials.

Next month the work begins. If Neil Trent is as capable as Bonney Brown at Nevada Humane, he’ll likely pursue many of the same steps that she outlines in her summary of how NHS became one of the country’s most effective open-admission shelters.

Given Arlington’s much smaller scale and AWLA’s resources, the job should be easier here. Welcome, Neil. We’re eagerly awaiting the start of the transformation.

What’s Possible
What’s Possible, Part Two

In the first six months of this year, AWLA took in 210 homeless dogs. Here’s what happened to them, juxtaposed against how AWLA’s homeless dogs fared in 2009:

% of homeless dogsJan-June 2010Jan-Dec 2009

The jump in the transfer rate is good news, but the other changes are in the wrong direction.

The 71 homeless dogs that AWLA killed in the first half of this year were a mix of “owner-surrenders” (40), returned dogs (8), strays (13), transfers (2), and quarantines (1).

Also among the 71 are “owner-requested euthanasias” (7) for dogs under five years old, including a one-year-old Rottweiler and a six-month-old pitbull. It seems likely that these young OREs were either misclassified or healthy enough to be rehabilitated.

Of these intake categories, transfers had the best chance (88%) of making it out of the AWLA shelter alive, and strays had the worst survival odds (61%). Returned dogs had a low adoption rate but by far the highest transfer rate, implying that AWLA felt some kind of responsibility toward these dogs that it had previously placed in unsuccessful homes.

Because an owner-surrendered dog is not “lost”, and because no statutory holding period applies for these dogs, most of them were never listed on AWLA’s website. Six dogs were killed within hours of being surrendered by their owners. The average tenure for killed owner-surrenders was six days.

While AWLA killed strays at an even higher rate than owner-surrenders, it was compelled to post them on its website and hold them for at least five days first. Some were offered for adoption and listed online for several weeks. Others spent days or weeks hidden from adopters but listed on the “stray or found dogs” page of AWLA’s website.

Here are photos of a few of the stray dogs that AWLA ultimately killed:









Josie: f American bulldog, 3 months

Mocha: f pitbull, 5 months

Rasta: m pitbull mix, 4 months

Neal: m German shepherd mix, 5 months

Pierson: m pitbull, 1 year

Desiree: f pitbull, 2 years

Stucky: m pitbull-lab mix, 8 months

Molly: f chihuahua, 1 year

If “pitbull” seems to be the most common breed of dog that AWLA kills, that’s only partly because AWLA receives a lot of pitbulls. It’s mainly because AWLA uses the term pitbull liberally to describe the dogs it receives (many mixed breed dogs are characterized as “pitbull mix”) and because AWLA kills almost all of the pitbulls it receives.

During the first six months of this year, AWLA received 30 pitbulls. Five were adopted out. Three of these were puppies (and not really pitbulls), one was eight months old, and the lucky fifth was four years old.

The other 26 pitbulls were killed, at an average age of 20 months. Eight of these dogs were 10 months old or younger. The youngest was only four months old. If this isn’t a de facto breed ban, it’s pretty close.

AWLA doesn’t use its website (or Craigs List or Twitter or e-mail or any other form of digital broadcast) to attract prospective adopters and rescue organizations on behalf of the dogs it later kills. As mentioned in a previous post, this may be because pronouncing that “Josie’s last day is Wednesday!” would undermine the image it wants to project to potential donors.

So instead Josie just disappeared from the AWLA website when she was killed on Jan 31, twelve days after she arrived at the shelter.

And because AWLA doesn’t actively promote its on-view dogs, these dogs sit in their kennels for weeks on end while a trickle of visitors passes through the dog room.

Meanwhile, local rescue organizations are staging and publicizing adoption events where the dogs in their foster homes can strut their stuff to the community. And as a result of their efforts, these rescue groups with a fraction of AWLA’s resources are sending more dogs home:

Dogs Adopted Out, 2009

Lost Dog Rescue Foundation: 1,621
Homeward Trails: 816
A Forever Home: 767
AWLA: 340

Foster programs, adoption events, publicizing the dogs it wants to transfer out — it’s not rocket science. Across the country, the most effective open-admission shelters implement these proven-successful tactics that AWLA continues to ignore.

For Arlington’s homeless dogs, the clock keeps ticking. How many more will die before AWLA starts working harder on their behalf?

On July 23, Governor Jack Markel signed Senate Bill 280, thereby establishing Delaware as a national model for the compassionate treatment of homeless companion animals.

Modeled on the No Kill Advocacy Center’s Companion Animal Protection Act, Senate Bill 280 amends Chapter 80 of the Delaware Code by specifying how animal shelters must handle unclaimed animals. The new language includes the following mandates regarding euthanasia and outcomes transparency.


§8004. Euthanasia in Animal Shelters.

(b) Animal shelters shall ensure that the following conditions are met before an animal is euthanized:

(i) The holding period for the animal required by this chapter is expired;

(ii) There are no empty cages, kennels, or other living environments in the shelter that are suitable for the animal;

(iii) The animal cannot share a cage or kennel with appropriately sized primary living space with another animal;

(iv) A foster home is not available;

(v) Organizations on the registry developed pursuant to §8003(d) are not willing to accept the animal; and

(vi) The animal care/control manager certifies that the above conditions are met and that he/she has no other reasonable alternative.

§8007. Record Keeping and Reporting.

Animal shelters shall maintain records regarding the following information:

(a) Intake rate;

(b) Euthanasia rate including age, by animal;

(c) Number of adoptions;

(d) Number reclaimed by owner;

(e) Number transferred to other agencies for adoption;

(f) Number of spay/neuters;

(g) Number of animals in shelter;

(h) Records showing the number of animals that died or were lost/stolen;

(i) Records showing compliance with vaccination requirements; and

(j) Records regarding medical treatment provided.

The information in subsections (a) through (g) shall be posted to the shelter’s website on a quarterly basis. The information in subsections (h), (i),and (j) shall be made available upon request by appropriate authorities.


For reasons explained in our posts on Oreo’s Law and outcomes transparency, this legislation changes everything. By prohibiting open-admission shelters in Delaware from killing homeless cats and dogs simply because that’s the easiest thing to do, and because that’s what they’ve always done, the Delaware Companion Animal Protection Act will save thousands of animals every year. The new legislation will energize Delaware’s animal-rescue organizations by making them indispensable to fulfilling the requirements of the law, and by highlighting Delaware as the model for other states.

As Delaware demonstrates during the next few years that the foot-draggers are wrong — and that sometimes euthanasia is the most humane choice is a false and self-absolving platitude when shelters kill healthy cats and dogs despite empty cages and foster homes — more legislation like Delaware’s CAPA is inevitable.

It will reach Arlington too, the sooner the better. AWLA should recognize that the future is not far away (in this case, only about 100 miles), and that within a few years its current practices will be both unthinkable and illegal. As AWLA searches for a new leader, it should insist on someone who will get in front of this wave rather than keep trying to resist it.