Lessons from Pueblo: In the Face of Significant Opposition, How No Kill Advocates Got Pueblo Animal
Updated: Jun 7, 2019
Monday, February 26, 2018 is a day animal advocates in Pueblo, Colorado will remember for a long time. During a City Council meeting that ran late into the evening, the Council voted to approve the Pueblo Animal Protection Act (PAPA) in a 4 to 3 vote, concluding a months-long campaign run by Reform Pueblo Animal Services (RPAS) to get the ordinance passed.
PAPA was a proposed law that was based on similar laws enacted elsewhere, known as the Companion Animal Protection Act (CAPA) and requires animal shelters to not kill healthy or treatable pets when humane alternatives are available. In places where it has become law, CAPA has reduced or eliminated shelter killing, has not increased costs of running animal shelters and has improved public safety, by helping animal shelters make better and more informed decisions about dangerous dogs.
In spite of its many benefits, the effort to make PAPA law was difficult, time-consuming and challenged the advocates working for it at every turn, with opposition coming from some surprising places. It turns out that the number of people willing to advocate for killing healthy and treatable pets in animal shelters is higher than some might think and they come from some unexpected places.
It was not a surprise that the Humane Society of Pikes Peak Region (HSPPR) which currently holds the contract with the City of Pueblo to run Pueblo Animal Services (PAS), would oppose the ordinance. It would, after all, require them (if they decided to continue the contract after this year) to do more to save more animals. HSPPR and PAS have had a pretty comfy setup in Pueblo for years, one that helps to pay Jan McHugh-Smith, their CEO, a $200 K salary, plus other perks and benefits, even as their shelter was often largely empty, and while HSPPR and PAS were maintaining some of the lowest save rates for shelters in the state of Colorado.
It also wasn't surprising that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) would oppose the ordinance. Anywhere in the USA progressive animal shelter laws are proposed, they weigh in opposing, because they favor killing, and do a lot of killing themselves. No one who follows animal sheltering, therefore, was stunned when PETA came out in opposition to PAPA.
What was a bit surprising was that HSPPR was able to sway some other influential people to help them fight PAPA. Most people (more than 90% in some surveys) are opposed to animal shelters killing healthy or treatable animals if there are alternatives available. For this reason, getting people to come out publicly in support of killing in shelters can be challenging. In spite of that, early-on in the debate about PAPA, HSPPR was able to sway the editorial board at the local newspaper, the Pueblo Chieftain, to help them do just that. The Chieftain published a string of op-eds and editorials critical of advocates, who they accused of being ill-informed and of trying to micro-manage the animal shelter. Additionally, while they were giving a lot of ink to opponents of PAPA, The Chieftain initially refused to print responses from supporters of the proposed law. Animal advocates wanting to see an end to the unnecessary killing of animals in their local animal shelter knew they were in for a long battle. They were a small group of volunteer animal advocates up against a collection of wealthy organizations that had significant influence over the press. It was, by any account, a kind of David vs Goliath story. Fortunately, the advocates had more than a little slingshot to use against their giant, because, contrary to how they had been described in the Chieftain, they were very well-informed, organized and prepared.
The people at RPAS came from a variety of backgrounds, were highly skilled, articulate and had researched animal sheltering, not just in Pueblo, but far beyond. They had shelter data from all of the shelters in Colorado and were connected to advocates across the USA, including many of us here at No Kill Movement, and also people who had passed and implemented CAPA in other places. They were well-prepared to counter the misinformation spread by opponents of PAPA throughout the debate. That proved to be key to prevailing.
In order to convince people that PAPA was not needed or even harmful, opponents launched a multi-prong attack against it, using, primarily, three false arguments. These arguments were as follows:
1) Pueblo Animal Services (PAS) HAS to kill animals because of "pet overpopulation." This argument was a way for them to shift the blame for the killing away from the shelter and, wrongly, put it on the general public. The argument went that the public were not adopting enough animals, were breeding too many animals, that there were simply too many animals and not enough homes to end the killing at the shelter.
RPAS members countered this argument by comparing PAS and HSPPR outcomes with other shelters in the state, and across the nation. Given that the AVERAGE shelter in Colorado achieves a Live Release Rate (LRR) of 90% or better, there seemed no rational reason these well-paid and funded organizations could not do at least as well. Advocates also highlighted times when PAS was importing animals from out-of-state for adoption. If the shelter was killing animals because they already had too many, why, one would have to ask, would they import more?
The most powerful piece of evidence that the "overpopulation" argument was nothing more than an invented excuse for killing came from advocates for PAPA simply tracking the number of animals available for adoption at the PAS shelter. Then, they published them and called attention to them. It was common throughout the PAPA debate for the PAS shelter to have fewer than 10 dogs available for adoption, for example, and many empty cages and kennels.
2) Passing PAPA would force PAS to adopt dangerous animals to the public. Using the argument that PAPA would force the shelter to adopt dangerous dogs was a scare tactic that had the potential to sway city leaders who have a responsibility to ensure public safety.
Fortunately members of RPAS were prepared for that argument, too. Most importantly, they were armed with the language of the proposed law, which specifically calls for the euthanasia of dangerous dogs. Furthermore, other shelters achieving the outcomes required by PAPA were not having trouble with dangerous dogs. Additionally, in places where PAPA provisions have been put in place, like Austin, Texas, serious dog bites have actually declined. Because RPAS advocates were prepared, they were able to counter this argument with facts, and even provide Pueblo City Council members with contact information for officials in cities where similar laws were passed.
3) PAPA would be expensive and would require the City to pay more money for animal services. The notion that saving animals' lives is, in effect, "too expensive" was put forward repeatedly by opponents of PAPA. This argument was problematic for leaders at PAS and HSPPR for several reasons, most importantly, they were already well-compensated for their services, according to all of the information provided by RPAS. From a public relations perspective, it likely did serious damage to the image of both shelters. Both organizations, after all, do fundraising to the tune of millions of dollars to save animals' lives, not end them. The notion, therefore, that the City had to pay them even more than their already large contract in order for them to save more animals simply did not set well with animal lovers in the community.
After all, the primary reason a municipality contracts with a nonprofit animal welfare agency for animal control services is because the nonprofit sector is better able (oftentimes) to focus on animal welfare, and conduct the fundraising for those efforts. If a nonprofit contracting to perform animal control services abdicates their responsibility to do the fundraising for the animal welfare component of sheltering, then there is no point in contracting with them. Because HSPPR and PAS statements about fees and costs seemed to put them at odds with their own stated mission RPAS members needed to do little to point that out. They were, however, prepared with some basic facts about sheltering and life-saving.
Most importantly, it is fact that killing and disposing of animals is 100% revenue negative. It costs money to house, destroy and dispose of animals. On the other hand, working with rescues, so that animals can be quickly transferred out of the shelter, saves money. Generating more adoptions and increasing reunions with owners generates revenue, while also saving money. The notion, therefore, that saving more lives costs money is not even true. RPAS members effectively neutralized this argument with clear, objective and common-sense information.
In the End
In the end, opponents arguments could not hold up to the desire of Pueblo citizens to see increased life-saving in its shelter. When that desire was coupled with articulate and well-prepared advocates, it was only a matter of time before PAPA became law.
While some people were surprised by those who opposed PAPA, and the methods used to do so, others were stunned by the silence of large, national No Kill organizations, like Maddie's Fund and Best Friends. These entities profess to be leaders in the No Kill Movement and claim to support laws like CAPA/PAPA. Yet, throughout the lengthy debate about shelter reform in Pueblo, they sat silently on the sidelines, offering not even as much as letters of support. Effectively, they let the voice of national animal welfare organizations rest on the words of PETA, which opposed. They left the No Kill advocates at RPAS to fight this battle on their own. Had it not been for us here at No Kill Movement, and some of our local partners across the USA, like No Kill Huntsville, NJ Animal Observer and others who weighed in publicly and provided support behind the scenes, the folks at RPAS likely would have felt pretty alone and unsupported during the challenging times of this debate.
The silence of these so-called "leaders" in the No Kill movement is not unique. It is just how they are. Rather than stepping out in front and LEADING, they, far too often, sit back with deafening silence while local advocates do the heavy lifting to bring about shelter reform in their own communities.
The important lessons learned in Pueblo are: 1) advocates need to be prepared to counter the three main arguments to shelter reform; 2) they need to be persistent and objective; 3) they need to know who will fight them, who will remain silent and who will help them. If they do those things, they will prevail, because public opinion is on their side.
The success in Pueblo is not just a win for animals there, it is a story from which No Kill advocates can learn to help them in their own communities. For all of those reasons, February 26, 2018 will be remembered for a long time by advocates in Pueblo and far beyond.