Interview with an Animal Shelter Superintendent

in Jobs with animals, Public Service, Salaried Jobs

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What do you do for a living?

My title is Animal Services Superintendent.

How would you describe what you do?

Basically, I’m the director or manager of the animal shelter, and/or animal services, which also encompasses animal control. We have a vet clinic also.

What does your work entail?

I work for a municipal shelter animal shelter. I’m responsible for planning the budget; making sure that we’ve got the money, and where to spend it, and where to put it. I buy vet supplies for the veterinarian too and make sure the officers are going to complaints and calls that people have out there on the street. I have to make sure we have animals up on the floor that have been temperament tested and they’re behaviorally sound. I have to make sure the animals are properly cleaned, and properly fed, and if they’re sick they get treatment. I talk to people when they bring in animals.

…that’s the satisfying thing’s when you see the animals find a home, and you saw what they looked like when they came infested with fleas, infested with tics; and we’ve had to shave them down to their skin because of an irresponsible owner. And then you find it a great home, and that just makes it all worthwhile.

A lot of my duties are trying to educate people: publicity-type stuff, press releases, and educational materials and literature and trying to make people aware of what is responsible pet ownership and how can you make pet overpopulation go away. Spay-neuter; we preach spay and neuter, spay and neuter. We try to come up with programs that will help people. When people bring in a stray there is no charge. When they bring in their own animal to surrender, for whatever reason, there’s no charge. That’s kind of a myth that we charge folks. The adoption includes spay and neuter. We instituted micro-chipping about four or five years ago, so it’s helped us to get animals back to their owners. It’s a permanent form of identification, even if pets lose their tags, and collars, and all that.

I belong to a group called S.A.W.A., which is Society of Animal Welfare Administrators. We all try to work together and figure out what we can do to make pet ownership easier for people, but then, also look at, what people are doing wrong, and what crimes are being committed against animals. So, that’s part of my job, too, is to look at animal cruelty and people that are breaking ordinances.

So, a lot of my job is just really meeting with people, talking to the public, talking to aldermen. We work under the police department so I do answer to the Chief of Police.

A lot of the fun parts is really getting out and talking to the public. Like on Saturday, we were at the farmer’s market and did a rabies and micro-chipping clinic right there on the square. Our full-time vet that we have on staff did rabies shots. So getting out and really talking with the public and trying to help people that have concerns and have problems, is really helpful.

We once had a guy come in and say, you know, we’ve got a doghouse so I need a dog. Well, that’s not a reason to adopt. And so, a lot of times, those are the things that make it tough, because people get angry when we don’t approve you for adoption. And that’s unfortunate that people don’t understand, that we’re not adopting out guard dogs, we’re not adopting out dogs to live in your backyard, or to run down your grass or your weeds. We’re adopting out animals to be your companions; to be part of your family.

You see folks out there that have, little money, pets bring enrichment to their lives. Everybody should be able to have a pet, and we want that. And that’s why we provide some low-cost, low-income type things like our spay-neuter program for just $10. And, we do, every month, have a rabies and booster clinic where it’s $7. Come and get your rabies shots, your booster shots for the year; for both dogs and cats. And so those are things that we try to do to be kind of an outreach source for the public. Of course, we also do education. We go to the schools, we go to different organizations to talk about dog bites, and spay and neutering, you know, I’m going to say spay and neuter as many times as I can. And, you know, all of those things.

And pet overpopulation. Why are we even here? You know, what’s the point? And that’s a quandary that we have. We call ourselves an open admission shelter. Some folks call us a kill shelter. There’s just a huge myth and kind of in society of what is a kill and what is a no-kill shelter, and there’s really not a no-kill shelter. Folks like to think they are sometimes, but a lot of times what happens is if an animal get’s sick, they take it to a vet’s clinic and euthanize it. And we basically do the same thing here. We, unfortunately at times, do have to euthanize adoptable animals. Our adoption rate or reclaim rate is about fifty-two, fifty-three percent. So, out of five thousand animals a year, about two thousand of them are euthanized; twenty four hundred are euthanized. And that’s tragic, and it’s part of the job that is probably different than most peoples’ jobs.

You know, I have to play God a lot, and it’s unfortunate. It’s not something that I prefer to do, but it’s something where it gives you a perspective on life. I think it changes you and, you know, most of the staff that work here will tell you, when you participate in euthanasia and it’s not, one dog here, one dog there. Some days it’s ten dogs. Some days it’s twenty cats. When they just come constant, and there’s no room for them.

We, unfortunately at times, do have to euthanize adoptable animals. Our adoption rate or reclaim rate is about fifty-two, fifty-three percent. So, out of five thousand animals a year, about twenty four hundred are euthanized. And that’s tragic, and it’s part of the job that is probably different than most peoples’ jobs…I have to play God a lot, and it’s unfortunate.

And we can’t say, nope, we’re full, you know, we’re going to have to turn you away. We don’t have that option. We have to take in all of the animals and therefore we’re open admission. Whereas somebody else who calls themselves a no-kill, you know, they can turn people away.  No, we’re full, sorry, you’re going to have to dump it on the side of the road down the street.  Whereas that’s what we don’t want you to do, we don’t you want you to dump it somewhere. So, unfortunately, that means, at times, we have to euthanize.

We try really hard to get them to rescue. We have animals on Pet Finder, so that people, you know, across the country can find dogs and cats. We’ve had dogs go to the homes on the East Coast, the West Coast, south. We’ve had them go north to Canada. We find people who can transport; there’s actually people, and this is something you might be interested in doing is a volunteer who transports. There’s people that actually transport animals and that’s their job across the country. And they do like a two-week type of thing, where they run dogs and cats across the country. I mean, we’re going to great lengths to find great homes, so we don’t have to euthanize.

And we work really hard. We’ve got a volunteer who just flew nine Pit Bull puppies up to Massachusetts in the spring, and he just did another flight. He’s a pilot. There’s a Pit Bull rescue out of Massachusetts so, he takes our Pit Bulls in his private plane so we can get them there. And they have the ability to put them in foster homes and then find them a really good home. You know, breed-specific rescues have that ability, whereas a shelter, we don’t have the time; we don’t have the manpower, we don’t have the time. And so it takes people like volunteers to help us out; to help us transport these animals across the country.

My dreams would be that everyone would spay and neuter! Spay and neuter and that we’ll close this shelter soon.

That makes you feel good, with what you do. And that’s the satisfying thing when you see the animals find a home, and you saw what they looked like when they came in, infested with fleas, infested with tics; we’ve had to shave them down to their skin because of an irresponsible owner. And then you find it a great home, and that just makes it all worthwhile.

Whereas, having to euthanize is a terrible thing, and folks have come to us and called us, every name you can think of, and then we say, well gee, we weren’t the ones that bred those dogs or cats, and my dogs are spayed and neutered. So, how is that my responsibility? And so, it’s very difficult; it’s very hard to do. But it’s a part of the job and anybody that gets into this has to know that it will be part of their job. And if they’re a superintendent, or a director, or a manager, they’re going to be the ones that are going to have to pick and choose and select. They may do it by committee, they may have certain people in the shelter setting that do it, but the ultimate end comes to the director’s desk, and they have to be the ones that decide are those the dogs that we have to euthanize, or the cats that we’re going to euthanize?  We do do behavioral testing so that makes it a little bit easier, because you can see that aggression and go, there’s a liability here, there’s a safety issue, and so we can’t send this dog or this cat, you know, to the adoption floor.  So, at that point we have to euthanize.

How did you get started?

I actually was in college and it was late one night, and you’re like, Oh, God.  And you know, you’re just going through books all of a sudden because you’re so delirious. I’ve always loved animals; we’ve always had animals as a kid. And I kept reading about all this animal experimentation and bad things. And I just went, this is nuts. This is crazy.  And so, you kind of wonder, gee, what can I do to make a difference?  And so I volunteered at some shelters when I was in college, and I did a lot of projects. I was a journalism and a public relations major, and so I did some newsletters and educational material for the local shelters. And it was interesting to see the kind of behind-the-scene stuff while I was writing for the paper.

And I actually rode with an officer one night, and, she showed me euthanasia and how they used to do this was, you know, twenty years ago. And so, it was that vacuum chamber where you stick the animal in and it just basically sucks the air out of them so they can’t breathe. And that was horrid. That was gut-wrenching, yeah. Today, we don’t do it that way. Most states, anyway, don’t do it that way. Most states have it where, you know, it’s an injection of Sodium Pentobarbital, and so the animals just basically go to sleep and they their heart stops beating. And it’s quick; it’s very quick, and very painless. And so, that was appalling to me. That that’s how we were going to, kill basically, the unwanted animals.

And so, I did some more research into that and thought, god, there’s got to be a better way.  Unfortunately, there are some states that still do it that way. Kentucky still does it that way, some folks in Mississippi still. And they have big chambers now, and Tulsa actually still does it that way, although they’re getting away from their gas chamber so.  It’s just a horrifying death, it’s not humane, and people should be appalled by that, really appalled. You want it to be a humane euthanasia, otherwise that’s cruel. And, so anyway, that just really got me into it, and then I went my way.

People think since it’s(adopted pet) had its Front Line, it’s had its booster shots, it’s been spayed or neutered, it’s been micro-chipped, it’s been rabies vaccinated; it’s going to be perfectly healthy for the rest of its life. And then it goes home and it gets sick, and it’s got kennel cough, and you’re going to have to put it on antibiotics. And people are like, What did you give me?  You know, it’s like the perception is still, like, this is property, and this animal is a living, breathing creature, and it’s going to get sick just like your baby does. And that’s why we try to tell people when we do adoption counseling is this is a living creature and we cannot guarantee that it’s not going to get sick; and it’s just like a child. If you were adopting a baby, if it gets sick, are you going to take it back and say, Give me another one?  Are you going to take it to the doctor?

My husband went to work for the city and I saw this job opening and went, you know, I would love that job. That would be a great job. You know, petting the puppies all day long, and oh, that would be so much fun.  Yeah, you know, it wasn’t petting the puppies all day long. But, you know, it was just I just kind of saw it and went, man, that’s, you know, I can do that. I would be so good at that. Really. Give me the job. And, so, you know, luckily they did, and I’ve been fortunate and really pretty grateful ever since.

What do you like about what you do?

It’s the adoption. It’s being able to go out there and see animals rescued, seeing the officers go out there and they look at some horrible situations, you know animals living in filth, starving to death, you know, living on this huge long chain, and she’s got puppies but they give her no food and water, and it’s just devastating when you go out to see that, and you do have those emotions where you just really want to kill these folks. But you have to, you know, try to educate and move on to save the animals and we do have the power to issue citations of course, we do thatand save the animals. And that’s really about getting them out of those situations. And I think that’s really where it makes it all worthwhile; just knowing that you’re helping those animals, getting them out of those situations.

And we work with wildlife a lot, so that’s interesting, too, and it’s interesting to rehabilitate; see a deer, or a hawk, or an owl, you know, recover and let them go, or release them back into the wild so, that’s really cool, too. It’s really ou never know what the day’s going to bring. Never know.

What do you dislike?

It’s the euthanasia. It’s really that and dealing with some folks I guess it’s hard when you come across people who are so closed-minded, and you know you’re not going to get in there. You’re not going to have the opportunity, be it you don’t have the time or they don’t have the time, you’re just in the wrong place to really try to make them understand how this is wrong, how we shouldn’t do it anymore. And dealing with those folks, that just won’t be open-minded to there’s a better way. We don’t have to treat animals like this. We’re not going to adopt them out to you for you to put them on a chain and not feed or water them until you feel like it. We once had a guy come in and say, you know, I’ve got a doghouse so I need a dog.  Well, that’s not a reason to adopt. And so, a lot of times, those are the things that make it tough, and people get angry because there are times when we don’t approve you for adoption. And that’s unfortunate that people don’t understand, that we’re not adopting out guard dogs, we’re not adopting out dogs to live in your backyard, or to run down your grass or your weeds. We’re adopting out animals to be your companions; to be part of your family. And, so, people get angry at that, and it’s unfortunate, you know, and you know, that’s something that we have to look at.

And a lot of times we’ll get the remark, well, you’d just rather kill this dog,or, You’d just rather kill this cat.  I would. I would rather kill a cat than know that you’re going to take it home and let it loose, and not feed it and not water it unless you’re, you know, in the mind to do that, and you possibly might have that money, and then you’re not going to provide vet care if it gets sick, or gets injured; and it’s going to get hit by a car, because it’s not a feral cat, it’s not, you know, it doesn’t know about cars and it’s going to get ran over. Or you’re going to let people, you know, mistreat it, or whatever. So, you know, when folks do say that, you know, nowadays I say, Yeah, I would rather because you’re not going to provide it with the best home or a good home, or even a good life.  But a lot of times that doesn’t happen. A lot of times we find a good home, and I don’t have to kill it. So, you know, that’s the bad one, you know, just knowing that all of this all of the euthanasia could be solved if people would just spay and neuter.

How do you make money/or how are you compensated?

I work for the city, so I am a city employee. Everybody who works here is a city employee, so we are very lucky. The city pays very well compared to the other surrounding cities. We have good benefits, very good retirement plan, good health insurance, dental insurance, eye insurance, vacations; you know, we get vacation time, we get sick time, we get holidays off, well some of us. People work here year round.

How much money do you make as an Animal Shelter Superintendent?

I started at $35,000 a year, that was six years ago and the city has gone through some changes, and I am now at $69,000 a year. There are some folks just in this area, they’re making $35,000 a year. Some less than that depending on, their shelter size and their staff load. And there are some people in non-profit in different areas that are making over $100,000. So, it really depends on where you are and how many folks and animals you’re responsible for.

What education or skills are needed to do this?

I would say a college degree helps. Some folks have a background in veterinary medicine, animal control, even human medicine, you name it. There’s a lot of different backgrounds, but somewhere along the way the become directors of shelters. And it’s just really you have to be able to deal with numbers; budgets, projections, knowing what you’re going to need, and how much you’re going to need, why you need it. You have to have some, knowledge of animal biology, and animal control, how to work with legislation, ordinances, being able to read some kind of law documents, those type of things.

You also need public relations skills.  I mean, you need to be able to communicate really well with people. You need to be able to write well. You need to be able to manage people well, like I said, if you don’t have a good staff, you’re out of luck.

If you have a passion for animals and you have a passion for animal welfare that’ll get you there. You know, it really will. And a lot of people come up in the ranks, our animal services coordinator, she started as a caregiver and then she was an animal control officer, and then she kind of just worked her way up into admin and, you know, working with the budget, and that type of stuff, and, you know, managing people. Those are just those are skills that you’re going to need.

What is most challenging about what you do?

I think, really, being able to juggle all of the things that occur in a day. And so it’s really hard to try to get all of my processing done of check requests, and bills paid we’re needing a new roof or we’re needing a new ceiling, or the incinerator is broke, or the air conditioner is not working, or the officer’s truck broke down. And so, you’re constantly trying to juggle those priorities. Somebody’s mad at the volunteer coordinator, so the volunteers are going to quit.

So it’s really just juggling everything at once and still finding time to make a difference.

What is most rewarding?

I think just really looking at animals that you’ve seen at their worst. You’ve seen them come in, they’re skin and bones, they have no hair, they’re infested with fleas and tics, and we provide everything that they need for, and they thrive. I mean, you know, it’s sad to say, the shelter is the best that they’ve ever seen it. Being in a shelter setting and they’re thriving, and they’re on the adoption floor, and you’re spending time with them. And just, when you look into that animal’s eyes and you know that they’re grateful, and where they’ve been. I often say,  You know, if they could only tell us. I think anybody who is as sensitive to animals, I think we’d be in an insane asylum because what they would be able to tell us of about their life would be so devastating, and heart-wrenching, that we wouldn’t be able to handle it. But just looking in their eyes and seeing, how grateful they are, and how this is, going to change their life.

And then they go home and we get updates. I love the people who update us. They’ll send us pictures, they’ll e-mail, Hi, I just want you to know, Suzy looks like this now.  Or they’ll come by. And we really make a point at those times to call the staff up and say,  Hey, you know, Bruno’s back. Come and see him.  And the owners are, this is the best dog I’ve ever had. This is the greatest do.  We’ve had a cat that saved somebody’s life that was adopted here, and we had one dog that he was this little mutt-y terrier mix that actually played the dog in Annie at a local theatre just recently. And so she sent us pictures. Those are the type of things that are just throws you over the moon and you’re just like, I’m good, I’m good for another six months. I can handle it.

That’s really it for us, and that’s what drives all of us, is just being able to see those successes and know that we’ve saved that animal and put him in a great home. And they’re loved and cared for and so that’s really what it amounts to, is just, that it’s all about self- satisfaction. I mean, we’re self we’re really selfish people here. It’s like, Give us more. That’s so cool, yeah. And that’s really it.

What advice would you offer someone considering this career?

A career in animal welfare, is an emotional roller coaster ride. You have to learn to be able to be calm and not take things personally. You cannot put your heart on your sleeve. You just can’t do it. You’ve got to have a thick skin and you have to be determined. You cannot give up. You just do it for your love of the animals. If you don’t have a love for animals and you think it’s just, oh, you know, I can make fifteen bucks an hour as an animal control officer. I’m going to go do that.  That is not the approach, because if you don’t care about animals, you’re not going to make it.

How much time off do you get/take?

Not a lot. Well, you know, you do get it, it’s just a matter of taking it. Right now, I think I’ve got over two hundred and fifty hours of vacation that I haven’t taken. I need to work on that, because it’s important to get away every once in a while.

The city gives us two weeks a year. After, I think, you’ve been here ten years, you get three weeks a year. And so that’s really nice. That’s a good thing. It’s just finding the time to take it and being able to do that.

What is a common misconception people have about what you do?

It’s hard for people to get a good grip on, why should I adopt from a shelter? Why should I adopt from your shelter?  I mean, there’s a wide range of diversity. Every shelter is different.

Anyone can be called a humane society, anyone can be an animal shelter, and there’s relatively no oversight. So some peoples’ experience with an animal shelter is great, and others would never even think about adopting from one.

So combating people’s pre-conceived opinions is difficult sometimes.

If you looked at our shelter and then you went to the shelter down the street, it’s not the same. Our policies are not the same, our adoption prices are not the same; what we give you is not the same as what they give you. Spay and neuter is included with us; we have a vet on staff. There’s only two other shelters in this state that have a vet on staff. One’s in Little Rock and one’s in Sebastian County. So, you’re not going to get the same experience. And so, trying to, make people understand that, that’s the first problem. And the second problem is they expect that that dog or cat they get from you, that you’ve done everything to it. They think since it’s had its Front Line, it’s had its booster shots, it’s been spayed or neutered, it’s been micro-chipped, it’s been rabies vaccinated; it’s going to be perfectly healthy for the rest of its life. And then it goes home and it gets sick, and it’s got kennel cough, and you’re going to have to put it on antibiotics. And people are like,What did you give me? You know, it’s like the perception is still, like, this is property, and this animal is a living, breathing creature, and it’s going to get sick just like your baby does. And that’s why we try to tell people when we do adoption counseling is this is a living creature and we cannot guarantee that it’s not going to get sick; and it’s just like a child. If you were adopting a baby, if it gets sick, are you going to take it back and say, give me another one?  Are you going to take it to the doctor?

And so, that’s part of trying to get the word out and trying to get vets, kind of on board too, that are out there to say, You know, this is a shelter dog and they didn’t know where it came from, or (da da da da).  And a lot of times you get a vet that says, Oh, my God! You adopted from a shelter? What were you thinking?! This dog is disease-ridden. Get it out of here.  So, nobody’s on the same page, and so you know, if people actually make it to our door, that’s a huge hurdle we’ve just gone over.

And so you have to make sure that the staff is welcoming and they’re friendly, and we’re answering their questions and getting them everything that they need to know, and sometimes it’s just an overload. They go back there and they look at, you know, forty dogs and they’re like, Oh, man, that’s too many for me. You know, I can’t handle this.  Or they look at the cats and they just in the back of their mind, well, if I don’t give them a home, they’re going to be euthanized. So you have to get over all of those hurdles, and it’s a miracle we adopt out any, actually. When it comes right down to it, it’s a friggin miracle. And so, you’ve got to be appreciative to those people. And we try, we try really hard, but there are so many other things that we have going on around us that sometimes they don’t get their proper, you know, everything they need to know.

I have to say there’s a lot of organizations out there that are trying to help. Like Science Diet, they provide us our food for free. The only thing I have to pay for is the shipping and handling. And so, every adopter gets a free bag sent home with them. And that’s to try to get them on that good, nutritional food, so that we know they’re eating well.

What are your goals/dreams for the future?

My dreams would be that everyone would spay and neuter! Spay and neuter and that we’ll be able to close this shelter soon.

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