The COVID-19 pandemic has empowered many animal welfare organizations to make operational changes such as the introductions of telemedicine, virtual adoptions and a huge uptick in fostering. Will we go back to the way things were? This interview with Lisa LaFontaine, President and CEO of Humane Rescue Alliance in Washington, D.C. is the first in a three-part series examining these very changes.
The question of “when can we return to normal?” comes up frequently as we continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. While the desire to return to normal is completely understandable, it’s not something we necessarily want in animal welfare. Lisa LaFontaine, President and CEO of Humane Rescue Alliance in Washington D.C., explains why.
An outdated shelter model
“Our movement has outgrown itself and is waiting for the next thing,” said LaFontaine. She explained how the city “pound” model model that most shelters were founded on, was established in the 1800s and was developed as a way to keep people safe from sick or dangerous animals. Since then, everything in animal sheltering has cropped up around that. “While we’ve made really great programmatic advances since then, we’re still making these advances on top of the same hub and spoke model.”
LaFontaine says this old model revolves around a shelter building that exists in a community where people have to go to get services, for the most part that animals come to move onto the next phase of their lives.
“I don’t think it’s a model that works anymore, and one that probably hasn’t worked for a long time,” she said. “We want to move away from a hub and spoke model and create more of a network model where we create resources around animals but they don’t all have to come through our doors to receive them.
Is length of stay really the right metric to focus on? Should they be with us at all? We do all these campaigns to build new buildings but what if we had those tens of millions of dollars to put into programs?”
Sure, buildings are still important, but LaFontaine says we should be intentional about what happens there, and it’s different than institutional housing. The model where people feel like they have to go to shelters to adopt and receive services; and where it’s accepted to surrender an animal with a low threshold to do so, is just an outdated concept. The old model needs to be replaced with relationships.
“With the onset of COVID-19, we’ve had to explode everything we know and have had, and the community has shown us that they’re ready for a change. I think they’ve demonstrated this by overwhelmingly offering to foster, by staying engaged with us, by showing us pictures of their pets. People have made plans for their pets. They’re ready for us to be in the community.”
What does “being in the community” look like?
In short, LaFontaine says it’s taking a good hard look at what kind of animals need to come into the shelter; and challenging our assumptions about what that looks like. “The shelter building then becomes a place where it’s part emergency room where people who can’t afford services can bring their animal, part triage center where we do something to help get the animal to their next place, and part shelter.”
Furthermore, she asks how we can utilize telemedicine so they don’t have to come to us at all. “Why would we have someone surrender an animal that we’re going to put all of this medical attention into and then have them sit in the shelter and wait for a home, when we could have put that same medical attention into that pet and give it back to their owner who already loves them and is bonded with them. Multiply that to any other issue that we were going to help with anyway, whether it’s behavioral, lack of food, etc.”
When LaFontaine started their surrender conversations they asked people to tell them “how he’s going to do best in his next home,” and said all of a sudden, the person who appeared really gruff and negative about the dog they were surrendering started to open up. “You can tell they’ve put up these walls to distance themselves from the animal in order to surrender them, so we should be connecting with real time support before they make the decision to surrender or euthanize animal. We don’t just have to use phones, we can use text, social media, call centers, there’s so much we can do to be readily accessible and we need to get going on that.”
LaFontaine says it’s looking at everything we do and thinking about how we can do it with or in the community and help keep pets where they are.
What can you do right now to move forward in this direction?
This will look a little different for everyone, depending on what you’re currently doing. Some changes that LaFontaine’s organization include:
- Creating a virtual adoption process with how-to video. She is happy to share this with anyone who wants to see it. This includes letting go a little and allowing foster caregivers to meet with potential adopters (more on this below).
- Looking at staff/volunteers who aren’t working or doing 100% of their role and figuring out how they can use them right now. “We found out that we have a lot of members with social services backgrounds. Look for hidden talent – this is an opportunity to ask them about it.”
- Engage new foster caregivers, even if you don’t have enough animals for them. LaFontaine says they’re piloting new things. “Our communications team is on it, making sure news is being shared, opportunities on how to help other ways, a lot of conversations about waiting patiently and an animal will come.”
Wondering how to let go of some control and trust foster caregivers and adopters?
Focus on building a relationship and on engagement. When LaFontaine started at her organization, they were taking in 14,000 animals with a 28% live release rate, and all the adoptions required a home visit.
“If we have all this bandwidth around adoption process and going to homes, or to call people, why don’t we do it after the adoption to make sure it’s successful? We need to build a relationship with adopters so they keep coming to us again and again. It’s the same thing with fostering,” LaFontaine explained. “We’ve adopted out north of 900 animals from foster homes in the past two and a half months all via Zoom. The foster knows the animal by then. Why wouldn’t we trust them to have that conversation? We can’t get into a competition of who loves that animal more. We all have their best interest at heart. Let’s trust them to make a match.”
Maintaining a sense of hope and power
LaFontaine’s advice for newer leaders right now? Don’t isolate. Stay connected to people. “The only way you can stay in animal welfare a long time is if you maintain a sense of hope and a sense of power. We see a lot of broken animals, but we get to fix them and make sure they have a good rest of their life. We get to create families, who else can say that?”
She says we need to maintain that sense of power because it allows us to be creative, connect with other people, and fight when we need to fight. And sometimes we need that. She also recommends connecting with other leaders. “Find those who are very hopeful and upbeat and believe that change is possible.
Also, look for all the love that is being exchanged between people and animals right now. “There’s so many examples of love and connection between people and animals. It’s going to provide us with the energy we need to move forward in the next few months if we harness that.”
So, will we ever go back to normal?
“No. But, we have a choice about where to go next. We need to meet people and pets where they are. We need to learn how to be mobile, agile, and remote in order to deliver programs and services in different ways. There’s a community of people who can make this change and support each other along the way. I know it’s going to be hard, like any big change. But look at the muscles we’ve built along the way. This is a time of invention, not to be perfect. No pride of authorship. It’s a big experiment we’re all in together. We need to fully make a pivot and leave the past behind.”
Don’t forget to give yourself a round of applause
Everybody in animal welfare should give themselves a round of applause. “As a result of the advocacy work, the services we’ve been providing, the incredible care and dedication of our staff over many years have created this environment where people value animals now. If this had happened 15 years ago, shelters would have seen euthanasia as the only option to get animals out of their shelters, and people would probably be surrendering animals at a much higher rate in this pandemic. But animals are squarely in the family now, or part of the community if wildlife. So, we’ve succeeded, right?”