Saving Lives with Innovative Humane Programs
The nonprofit Homeward Bound Pet Adoption Center, formerly the Camden County Animal Shelter, is located in Gloucester Township, New Jersey, and serves 18 municipalities in Camden County. The county has a population of more than 500,000, the eighth largest in New Jersey. The shelter now takes in about 5,000 animals per year. Half of that intake comes from the city of Camden, which has been historically known for poverty and has limited animal care resources. Recent census data estimates that 38 percent of the population of the city of Camden lives in poverty, and its median household income is $26,214.
Where: Camden County, New Jersey
Communities served: 18 municipalities.
Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) Program adopted: 2007
Increase in live release rate due to TNR: Over 40 percent
Annual operating budget: About $1.8 million
Animal intake: More than 6,000
Cat live release rate: less than 50 percent
Animal intake: About 5,000
Cat live release rate: 91 percent
How They Saved Lives:
low-cost spay and neuter clinics, tabling at community events, dropping off flyers at county schools and stuffing them in kids’ backpacks, door-to-door outreach, Trap-Neuter-Return and Shelter-Neuter-Return, foster programs, adoption spaces at local stores, open adoptions, enrichment teams, expanding and updating the shelter
The Benefits of TNR:
- Fewer cats killed in the shelter
- Improved shelter staff morale and decrease of turnover rate
- Money that would have been used to “euthanize” cats is redirected to adoptable animals
- Improved reputation within the community
In 2006, the Homeward Bound Pet Adoption Center was stacked floor to ceiling with cages of cats and kittens. The annual intake was more than 6,000 animals. The total save rate was under 50 percent. The shelter serviced an area that included one of the poorest cities in the country and had been struggling for years. New leadership tried to improve the shelter but ultimately left it in debt. The entire board resigned.
A group of volunteers stepped in to keep the shelter afloat, including Michelle Zebrowski, who became the shelter’s board president.
“We tried to save as much as we could, but you can imagine it was hard without resources,” says Zebrowski. “We had no money. We weren’t even able to spay or neuter the shelter animals. The adoption rate was pretty poor, and the public didn’t have a good perception [of the shelter].”
It took weeks, months, and years of hard work, but the determined group of volunteers, with help from Alley Cat Allies and other organizations, implemented policies and procedures that would completely transform the shelter.
By 2017, the shelter’s save rate for cats was 91 percent (92 percent for dogs), the highest of any shelter in the region.
Steps to Success
- Getting help from Alley Cat Allies. Zebrowksi reached out to and met multiple times with Alley Cat Allies to figure out how to save more cats’ lives. Alley Cat Allies staff informed her that the answer was more low-cost spay and neuter options for the community. Alley Cat Allies also provided policies and procedures on implementing low-cost spay and neuter clinics and community cat policies like Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR), and resources such as informative doorhangers to hand out in the community. Alley Cat Allies continued to advise the shelter whenever it needed direction on community cats and TNR. Zebrowski says the information was “eye-opening.”
- Holding low-cost spay and neuter clinics. From 2007 to 2013, on the recommendation of Alley Cat Allies, the shelter ran monthly low-cost spay and neuter clinics for the community’s indoor and community cats. Following Alley Cat Allies’ procedures, the shelter began running the clinics once a month, providing a spay or neuter, vaccination, and eartip for $35. The clinics served more than 10,000 cats, preventing countless litters of kittens. The shelter has since not had any increases in cat intake, which Zebrowski credits the low-cost clinics.
- Gaining community support. To educate the community and promote their services, the shelter leaders dropped off thousands of flyers at county schools, and stuffed students’ backpacks with those flyers, so parents would read about the changes at the shelter. Shelter volunteers also set up tables at community events and went door-to-door to place Alley Cat Allies doorhangers in communities. These efforts raised enough awareness about the low-cost spay and neuter clinics that they were regularly fully booked. They also helped increase adopters, supporters, and donors.
- Carrying out TNR and SNR. Homeward Bound Pet Adoption Center moves community cats quickly out of the shelter by referring them to local TNR groups. This program is known as Shelter-Neuter-Return (SNR). The shelter also received grants to carry out targeted TNR.
- Adopting a TNR ordinance. Alley Cat Allies worked with Camden County to create a shared TNR ordinance; legislation that all the county’s municipalities would adopt. Shelter officials also pushed for the countywide TNR ordinance. In 2017, a resolution supporting TNR passed. As of November 2018, seven of the 18 municipalities the county serves have passed TNR ordinances. As a result, the Homeward Bound Pet Adoption Center can easier collaborate with TNR groups and ensure more community cats are returned to their outdoor homes.
- Moving, and keeping, animals out of the shelter. The Homeward Bound Pet Adoption Center further decreased intake and moved animals faster out of its facility by implementing a foster program, securing adoption spaces at PetSmart and Petco stores, and increasing partnerships with other shelters and rescues. In 2017, the shelter transferred more than 1,500 animals to partner organizations.
- Implementing progressive adoption procedures. The shelter implemented an open adoption policy to increase adoptions. Rather than operating with strict requirements that discourage many adopters, shelter staff have an open and honest conversation with adopters about which animals would fit their lifestyle. For example, the shelter no longer requires veterinary references or checks that people adopting dogs have fenced yards.
- Providing enrichment programs. The shelter has enrichment teams that focus on behavior training and socialization so animals are happier, healthier, and more likely to be adopted. For example, volunteers take dogs to play groups so they learn how to interact around other dogs. For cats, volunteers do clicker training, which is a way to reward cats for positive behaviors and provides mental stimulation.
- Expanding and updating the facility. Camden County acknowledged in 2010 that the shelter facility was not big enough nor designed effectively. The shelter budgeted to expand the old facility and focused on programs to keep more animals out of the shelter in the first place to save resources. It renovated its existing space to more efficiently house cats and dogs. A new clinic surgical suite to increase the shelter’s capacity for spay and neuter and TNR is almost completed.
Challenges and Solutions
- Funding. Money was a big challenge in the beginning. Zebrowski and volunteers designed, printed, stuffed, and mailed fundraising calls to any address they were able to collect from events, adopters, and previous donors. Zebrowksi also applied for grants through PetSmart Charities, the Petco Foundation, ASPCA, and more. Homeward Bound Pet Adoption Center received several $10,000 grants from PetSmart Charities to carry out targeted spay and neuter in the city of Camden. Other grants included $7,300 from the ASPCA in 2012 for spay packs, cat traps, and a surgical light, and $10,000 from the Petco Foundation in 2009 for spay and neuter.
- Getting the county on board with TNR. Convincing municipal leaders to embrace TNR has been challenging, especially when county officials change with elections every few years. But the Homeward Bound Pet Adoption Center is making progress. Each municipality contracts with its own animal control agency, so Camden County has to work with multiple animal control agencies to support TNR.
Initially, to get the county and municipalities on board, Zebrowski prepared a presentation that highlighted the benefits of TNR, with a heavy emphasis on cost savings of the program, compared to trapping cats, housing them for the required 10-day hold period, and killing them. This helped get the county and some municipalities on board.
Providing funding has helped convince other municipalities. To encourage municipalities to pass a community cat ordinance, the county is providing grant funding so any residents from a town that has passed a cat-friendly ordinance can receive discounted or fee-waived spay or neuter for community cats. With this funding support, two additional municipalities—Gloucester Township and Runnemede—passed the community cat ordinance.
- Camden City. Serving the city of Camden has been a particular challenge for Homeward Bound Pet Adoption Center, since about half of the shelter’s animals come from this area. Pet services are limited in the city. Many programs that function in the rest of the county won’t work for the city, says Zebrowski. For example, providing low-cost clinics doesn’t make a difference in Camden city, since many residents don’t have access to vehicles to get to the clinics.
With the help of a partner group, the Animal Welfare Association, the Homeward Bound Pet Adoption Center has been able to practice TNR in the city, so intake continues to go down.
- Implement more progressive practices and creative programs to increase adoption and increase its save rate, especially for cats and community cats.
- Convince more municipalities it serves to implement TNR ordinances that save community cats’ lives.