Denise Deisler, director of the Humane Society of Manatee County, gives 1-year-old cat Jason a snuggle during a visit to the clinic. Jason, a laid back cat, has become a favorite with the humane society staff. Islander Photo: Diana Bogan
Humane Society of Manatee County’s board of directors recruited Denise Deisler two years ago for the specific purpose of transitioning the organization to a no-kill facility.
Deisler had successfully transitioned the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Richmond, Va., from a high euthanasia rate to a no-kill facility.
Deisler is quick to note that she didn’t swoop in and turn the local humane society into a no-kill shelter. “My hat goes off to the board of directors for doing great legwork,” she said. “This board did strategic planning studies. They visited organizations, including the Richmond SPCA, that are not killing animals and had some major points already properly aligned before they recruited me.”
The board believed a no-kill community was possible. After researching other no-kill communities, the board identified missing ingredients in its own organization.
The first missing ingredient was that Manatee County did not have an affordable spay/neuter clinic.
“It just wasn’t here,” said Deisler. “There was a small mobile unit that would come in on contract, but there was nothing affordable or accessible to the public.”
The second missing ingredient was support for the organizations working to trap-neuter-release feral cats. Volunteers trapping feral cats had to pay private veterinarians to spay or neuter the animals. There was no affordable alternative.
So, the humane society stepped up to the plate on both counts.
The organization began by offering a Feral Sunday program, working with TNR groups to provide free spay/neuter services.
“We paid for the medical oversight, staffed our clinic with volunteer veterinarians and for the first time a number of organizations set aside all differences and came together,” said Deisler. “It was a very important step for our community.”
The organization is unique in that it maintains a full time medical staff, so it is able to open its clinic to the public with affordable service rates. Grant money helps them provide clinic services Monday through Friday. It has since stopped the Feral Sunday program and let TNR caregivers bring in feral cats without an appointment.
Providing the TNR program doubled the number of feral cats being spayed or neutered. “One of the leading contributors to kill rates in Florida is the babies feral cats have,” she explained. “Well-intentioned people pick up the kittens, and if they aren’t weaned they can’t be socialized or sent back into its feral cat community. A feral cat’s odds of getting out of a shelter alive is one in four. ”
Deisler noted that Florida’s mild climate enables cats to reproduce all year long, while in northern, colder climates a cat might only produce one litter of kittens. Anna Maria Island and Cortez, for example, have sizable feral cat populations.
“If we don’t want to pick up and euthanize cats, then we need to stop them from reproducing,” she said.
When the humane society takes care of a feral cat, the staff clips a v-shaped notch into its ear. This signals that the cat is part of a feral community and has been spayed/neutered and vaccinated.
Deisler has established a partnership with Manatee County Animal Services regarding feral cats. She said that in the past, when a cat with a notch in its ear was picked up by animal services, it was an automatic death sentence.
“The notch immediately signaled that the cat was feral and unadoptable,” she explained.
However, the humane society requires all the feral cats to be given a microchip. The microchip makes it possible to identify the neighborhood the cat came from, and most feral cat communities have a caregiver within the neighborhood looking after them, be it a homeowner or business owner.
Deisler said in the past year animal services has agreed to call the humane society when it picks up a feral cat with a notched ear instead of euthanizing it.
“We have already invested the money to vaccinate and alter the cat. Shelters are already stressed out about limited space and no one will adopt a feral cat.
“But a cat with a notched ear already has a home,” said Deisler. “So now the notch serves as a get-out-of-jail-free card instead of a death sentence.”
Deisler said there is no question the TNR efforts made in the past two years save lives.
She said in the two years the clinic has been open and a proactive TNR program has been in place, that the number of animals going to animal services has been reduced 20 percent.
“That’s 1,000 cats and dogs that did not go to a shelter,” she said.
Deisler believes that adopting animals alone is not what it takes to become a successful no-kill community. She pointed out there are dozens of organizations pulling animals from animal services and adopting them out. She notes that Bishop Animal Shelter in Bradenton also does a fabulous job, with adoption rates averaging more than 1,000 adoptions annually.
Deisler explained that by law an animal picked up without any identification has a minimum of five days in at animal services before it is at risk for euthanization. An animal with identification is kept in the shelter a minimum of 10 days.
“Prevention is the most cost-effective way to reduce the number of animals in the shelter, so that the shelter doesn’t become overburdened,” she said.
The humane society has reduced the number of animals it shelters by putting retention programs in place. If a pet owner comes to surrender an animal the humane society won’t automatically take it. First, staff members will ask about the owner’s circumstances. If it is a matter of food, then the owner will be directed to free food from the organization’s food pantry. If the animal has a behavioral problem, staff members offer training services.
“We understand giving up an animal is a tough decision,” said Deisler. “Generally if someone comes to us it’s because they care about what happens to the animal, and, a third of the time, just by talking about the extenuating circumstances the owner is able to keep the animal.
“Most of the time people are willing to work to keep the animal, they just don’t know it’s an option,” said Deisler.
Deisler said she is willing to help Manatee County government implement similar services.
She said kill rates can be reduced to a minimal number with affordable clinic services, a proactive TNR program, retention programs, and by utilizing foster families to care for animals. Using foster families frees up space in shelters.
One of the changes in working with animal services Deisler insisted upon was opening up the ability to transfer animals out of the county shelter to any legally operating non-profit organization.
Before 2010, only Bishop and the humane society could transfer animals. Deisler lobbied to have the ordinance changed, and, in the past year transfer rates have increased.
Overall, the programs the humane society put in place have enabled it to stop killing animals, with the exception of those that are not medically treatable.
Between October and December 2010, the humane society euthanized three animals, returned five to owners and adopted out 130 animals while only taking in 126.
The organization has reduced the number of animals surrendered by owners by at least 30 percent and has increased the number of spay/neuter surgeries from 3,000 to 10,000.
The organization publishes its statistics as well as a breakdown of its income and expenses online at www.humanemanatee.org.