Shelter Animals Count Attempts to Gather National Shelter Data

A first-ever nationwide rescue reporting project will collect and share shelter data to save lives.

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One of the greatest challenges facing all rescue organizations across the country is the lack of hard numbers. There are estimates of how many animals are surrendered, adopted and so on, but no one can say exactly how many homeless pets enter shelters each year across the country or how that number compares to, say, 10 years ago.

In an age when accurate data drives business decisions, shelter organizations are handicapped, left to try to solve a puzzle without all the pieces or to try to fit together pieces from several puzzles to make sense of the larger picture they create.

Capturing accurate numbers would transform the rescue world, giving a clearer picture of important topics such as how rescue is evolving, what advancements are most effective and how best to meet future needs.

Shelter Animals Count, established in 2012, is taking on this daunting and vital task. Heading up this effort is Jodi Lytle Buckman, chair of the board of directors, who has worked in rescue on both local and national levels. She spoke to Rescue Me about the challenges of getting this project off the ground.

1. What has stymied efforts to gather national shelter information?

Without considering context, data collection appears straightforward — how many dogs and cats come in and how do they go out — but of course the devil (and difficulty) is in the details. In the past, we didn’t have the technology, the collective will of such a large group of stakeholders or the standard basic data matrix to work with and from.

2. What makes now the right time?

The stage for this national effort to gather data was set by the creation of the Asilomar Accords (a data collection and reporting tool), an increased focus on data collection at a community level by shelters and national organizations (including funders), and the evolution of sophisticated and accessible shelter operating software.

Another step forward was the creation and national acceptance of the National Federation of Humane Societies’ Basic Data Matrix, defining for the first time the minimum level of animal data any sheltering or rescue organization should be collecting.

When leaders from a variety of national organizations began discussing the possibility of creating a national database, PetSmart Charities recognized the opportunity and invited a wide variety of voices to meet at one table and begin a very serious conversation about a national database project. One year later, Shelter Animals Count was created, and we’re truly blessed with an extraordinary group of board members and advisors who are working together with one objective in mind: the creation of a national database. Although we come from many different organizations with a wide variety of perspectives, I believe our singular focus on this task, along with our commitment to work by consensus, has created a unique opportunity to get this job done.

3. What are the goals of Shelter Animals Count?

Our long-term goal is best summed up by the Shelter Animals Count project’s mission statement: “to create, share and steward a national database of sheltered animals that provides facts and enables insights to save lives.” To get there, we’ve designed a series of steps that will help this project move forward.

Today, we’re working with just a few shelters in a couple of communities across the country that are experienced data collectors and are willing to partner with Shelter Animals Count in building and testing the technology needed to make the national database a reality.

The testing phase will last for another nine to 12 months as we build, test and work the structure and technical tools needed for the national database — there is much to do! We hope to begin open enrollment of shelters from across the country in May of 2015.

4. What incentives do shelters have to participate?

The greatest incentive is the opportunity to learn from and share with others through comparative data. I see animal sheltering and rescue as a community of people dedicated to saving lives and meeting the needs of the communities we serve — and by sharing our data with each other we can explore the opportunities and challenges faced by organizations across the country.

I recently had the opportunity to participate in a conversation with animal sheltering leaders as they explored the idea of nationally shared accountability and responsibility for the dogs and cats at risk in our country. I’m inspired by this national perspective, especially given how different the opportunities are for homeless and at risk animals depending on where in the country they are located. When we can add data to that conversation, we can get much clearer about where we, as a nation, need to go and how to get there. It’s all for the animals.

5. What are the greatest roadblocks you face?

So far, every roadblock I’ve imagined has been overcome by the extraordinary focus and commitment of the people who serve on the board of directors or as advisors to this project. Looking ahead, I think about funding and participation. Our current funders (ASPCA, Best Friends Animal Society, The Humane Society of the United States, Maddie’s Fund and PetSmart Charities) have been very generous, but we will need to expand that pool and build long-term sustainable support for Shelter Animals Count.

And when we’re ready, we’ll need shelters to be ready to contribute good, clean data. There’s a lot shelters can do today to ensure they are ready, and we’re hopeful that the enthusiasm we’ve seen as we begin to talk to shelters about this work will translate into action.

To prepare, shelters can work on getting their data ready for the national database by taking a look at the basic data matrix and its definitions to see if their data already aligns with that report. Between now and next May, we hope to offer workshops, likely in partnership with national partners, on how to get data cleaned up and ready for submission.

6. What kind of response have you received from the shelter world?

I’ve been surprised by the responses we’ve received thus far. They’re not only supportive and excited — they want more. We get questions like: “Can you gather additional data?”, “Can you open this to other countries?” and “Can we join now and contribute data now?” It’s so exciting to see shelters excited about sharing data. To answer the last question, we’re encouraging shelters to join our email list so they can stay in touch with Shelter Animals Count as each new phase of the project launches. Shelters can join by looking for the shelter registration button on our website.

Need to know

Participating shelters will report intake and outcome information for cats and dogs in their care, including the following information:

• Numbers of animals by species (dog and cat) and age (juvenile and adult).
• Intake information. Were the animals surrendered by their owner? Strays? Other?
• Outcomes. Were the animals adopted, transferred, returned to the field or euthanized?

“We’re requesting this level of data because we believe that’s the minimum level of detail needed for animal welfare organizations to truly understand what opportunities and challenges exist for the animals in their care,” Buckman says. “Also, it’s important to allow for comparison between organizations and communities so you need data that’s both fairly straightforward and complex enough to provide some valuable insight.”

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April Balotro

April Balotro has worked in the pet publishing industry for 10 years, a career that has dovetailed with her life-long love for animals. She is the proud owner of rescue dog Penny, a 15-year-old Chihuahua-mix who loves going for walks and curling up on soft pillows.

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