How to save & take care of a kitten and feral cats - an advocacy tool kit

Obtaining Animal Shelter Records: A Guide for Advocates

Publications| Animal Shelter Transparency Project, Community Change, Shelter Transformation

Public shelters and pounds must respond to information requests filed under the state public records law.

In all 50 states and the District of Columbia, local and state government agencies must fulfill requests by citizens for government records. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) refers to the law that compels the federal government to disclose information. However, every state has its own version of FOIA, often called “sunshine” or “public records” laws.

Public shelters and pounds must respond to information requests filed under the state public records law. Ideally, all shelters (regardless of their legal obligation) would post their intake and euthanasia rates on their websites and quickly respond to all reasonable requests for information. But for whatever reasons, sometimes it is difficult for citizens to obtain information from shelters.

This is a guide for activists and concerned citizens who want to obtain information about the animal shelters in their local community. Included are instructions for finding your state’s public record laws, and sample language for a letter requesting basic shelter data.

The most common information that animal advocates want are intake and disposition rates so the sample letter includes this. For example, the intake and disposition statistics of Virginia shelters are already available online at www.vdacs. virginia.gov/animals/welfare.shtml, so you do not need to submit requests to individual shelters if you live in Virginia.

Alley Cat Allies’ Shelter Transparency Campaign

Alley Cat Allies is working to establish and increase shelter transparency through policy papers, public education, and grassroots advocacy. Meaningful and accessible shelter data allows taxpayers and donors to hold pounds and animal shelters accountable and enables decision makers to make informed choices. For this reason we support mandatory recordkeeping for all shelters. Our ultimate objective is to leverage shelter transparency to end the killing of cats in every pound and animal shelter in the United States.

Finding Your State’s Public Record Laws

There are a few ways to learn more about your state’s public record law:

  • Internet search. Using your web browser, type in keywords such as “[YOUR STATE’S] public record laws.” Searching with keywords “sunshine law” and “freedom of information law” may also bring up the information you need. Be sure any link you click has your state’s ‘.gov’ URL to ensure it is legitimate.
  • Visit your state government’s website. The ‘.gov’ website of your state will have a search bar in which you can type the keywords “public record law,” “sunshine law,” or “freedom of information law.” The term “sunshine law” will usually lead you to the relevant information, though your state may call the law by another term.
  • Contact your state. You may be able to receive an answer directly by calling your State Attorney General’s office to ask about your public record law.

When you have found the relevant law, make note of how it is cited and any information on the timeframe allowed.
For example, in Maryland the relevant law is the Md. Ann. Code art. GP, § 4-201 et seq. A decision is mandated within 30 days of receipt of the request, as outlined in Md. Ann. Code art. GP, § 4-203.

Public vs. Private Shelters

It can be difficult to determine whether a shelter is public or private. Remember, only public shelters fall under public records laws. It’s usually clear if a shelter is run solely by the government. The name likely includes the name of the community followed by “animal shelter” or “animal control.” However, some shelters that appear to be private are also partially funded by government dollars and hold the government contract for animal sheltering. For example, the Humane Society of Washington County in Hagerstown, Md. holds the contract for Washington County. Even though a shelter is incorporated as a nonprofit, it still might be considered a governmental body for the purposes of a public information request.

Some nonprofit shelters funded by a local government have refused to respond to public information requests arguing that they are not subject to these laws. The law varies from state to state, but there is a strong argument to be made that these shelters should be subject to requests. There was even a court case in Washington State that found in favor of transparency (Clarke v. Tri-Cities Animal Care & Control Shelter, 144 Wn. App. 185 (Wash. Ct. App. 2008)). In Clarke, a woman requested euthanasia logs from the Tri-Cities Animal Care & Control Shelter (TCAC). TCAC is a private business that contracted with the three cities, Richland, Pasco, and Kennewick, to deliver animal sheltering services. TCAC denied her request arguing that it was not a public agency. The Washington courts determined that TCAC was required to provide the records because it performed a public function and received the majority of its funding for the government.

To Whom Should the Requests be Sent?

If the shelter is run exclusively by your city or county, an Internet search might reveal which city agency or employee is charged with responding to public information requests. For example, a big city like Chicago, Ill. has a specific person who routinely receives public information requests. If it’s not apparent, simply send the request to the shelter director by mail or email. If you are sending an email, include the emails of any administrative support staff that you think might be able to help. The administrative staff is often the front line for requests from the public. You could also call or visit the shelter in person to ask who the requests should be sent to.

Fees

Requesters sometimes have to pay for copying costs or, more rarely, the staff time used to find the records. Oftentimes, records are given at no charge, especially if the records can be sent electronically. You could also view the records in person to avoid copying costs, but in most cases, you will want a permanent copy of the records.

Troubleshooting

What if I Don’t Hear Back?
If you don’t receive a response from an email, deliver the request in person or mail it with return receipt requested. Keep the return receipt in case you later need to prove that the shelter received your request but ignored it. If you still don’t hear back, send the original letter to the city or county attorney’s office and indicate that the shelter has not responded in a timely fashion. Additionally, do an Internet search for your state and “public records.” Most states have online guides about submitting public records requests written by the State Attorney General’s Office or another agency. You will likely find more detailed information specific to your state or perhaps even an explanation of what to do if your request is improperly denied.

Explanation of Common Terms

Understanding shelter records can be difficult. Sometimes shelters use obscure acronyms or terms of art to describe an animal’s intake or disposition. The following is a list of commonly used terms.

  • ACO: Animal control officer
  • A/L: At large
  • DAS/Died: Died at shelter, usually refers to when an animal dies in the shelter’s care
  • DOA: Dead on arrival, the animal arrives at the shelter deceased
  • Owner req. euth/Owner req. PTS/RPTS: The owner asks the shelter to euthanize their pet
  • PTS: Put to sleep or euthanized
  • Q: Quarantine
  • RTO: Return to owner
  • Reclaim: The owner reclaims the animal (similar or identical to RTO)
  • Seizure: An animal is “seized” or taken from a situation often because of cruelty allegations
  • Transfer: The animal is moved to a rescue group or moved between two shelters

Suggested Language for Use in Letters

The sample letter we provide requests intake and disposition statistics. Change the body of the letter if you are interested in other information. We recommend using simple, clear language in drafting the request. Use bullet points so it’s obvious what records and how many records you are requesting.

Here is suggested language for frequently requested records:

Intake and Disposition

  1. For [Year], the total intake of cats and the disposition of cats impounded at [Shelter Name], broken down by month (the number returned to owner, adopted, died, euthanized, or transferred to a rescue group or another facility).
  2. For [Year], the total intake of dogs and the disposition of dogs impounded at [Shelter Name], broken down by month (the number returned to owner, adopted, died, euthanized, or transferred to a rescue group or another facility)

General Policies

  1. Any and all written policies of [Name of shelter/police department] for the operation of [Name of shelter, animal control facility] for [Year] to the present date.

Community cat policies

  1. Any and all documents stating the policy of [Name of shelter/police department] regarding community, free-roaming, or feral cats.
  2. Any and all documents stating the protocol or test, if any, used by [Name of shelter/police department] for determining whether a cat is feral and/or dangerous.

Records regarding a specific animal

  1. Any and all records relating to [Name of animal, physical description of animal, ID number, estimated date of impoundment]
  2. Please include descriptions of any medical treatment that the animal received.

Using Records to Help Shelter Animals (What to Do with It)

Shelter statistics are a powerful tool for advocates because they move the conversation away from accusations and emotion and ground it in facts. Data can help you change local laws to protect animals. Maybe your research will reveal that many community cats are killed year after year. You’ll have a more powerful argument when you ask your city council to consider supporting Trap-Neuter-Return if you can show that the endless cycle of trap and kill is ineffective.

You can also push back against a shelter’s claims if you believe they are being untruthful. Perhaps the shelter is advertising itself as “no-kill” when it actually euthanizes community cats. Finally, examining a shelter’s intake and disposition statistics can help you become a more focused, effective advocate. Pinpoint the type of animal most likely to die in the shelter (kittens, adult pit bulls, etc.). Armed with this information, you can offer the type of assistance that the shelter most desperately needs.

Sample Letter with Annotation

Download: Word file
[Date][Your Name]
[Address]
[Name of Shelter]
[Address of Shelter]

Dear [Shelter Name],

This letter is a request under [Law].

I request copies of the following documents:

  1. For [Year], the total intake of cats and the disposition of cats impounded at [Shelter Name], broken down by month (the number returned to owner, adopted, died, euthanized, or transferred to a rescue group or another facility).
  2. For [Year], the total intake of dogs and the disposition of dogs impounded at [Shelter Name], broken down by month (the number returned to owner, adopted, died, euthanized, or transferred to a rescue group or another facility).

For purposes of this request, “documents” includes all information captured on paper or in electronic format.

For those records that exist in electronic format, I would be happy to receive them as a pdf email attachment or on a CD.

If my request is denied in whole or part, I ask that you justify all deletions by reference to specific exemptions of the Act. I reserve the right to appeal any decision to withhold any information or to deny a waiver of fees. I look forward to a written response within [Time Required] of this letter as mandated by [Law].

Thank you in advance.

Sincerely,
[Your Name]
[Contact Information]

Annotations

  • [Name of Shelter] references the name of the shelter or the name of the agency to which you are sending the request.
  • [Law] references the citation of your state’s public records law.
  • “I request copies of the following documents” is where you list the actual information that you are requesting. In the sample letter above, we request the intake and disposition data for cats and dogs in a given year.
  • “I would be happy to receive them as a pdf email attachment or on a CD”  lets the agency know that you are fine with receiving the records electronically (which might save you money on postage).
  • “If my request is denied in whole or part, I ask that you justify all deletions by reference to specific exemptions of the Act” is included because if the agency denies your request, they must explain their decision in writing.
  • [Time Required] is included because some state laws note that agencies must respond within a certain amount of time, for example, five days. This is a way to signal to the agency that you know the law and that they are violating it if they don’t get back to you quickly. If the law does not state a specific time no is there any relevant case law, don’t include this sentence in the sample letter.
  • [Contact Information] should include as much contact information (phone, address, email) as you feel comfortable so that they agency can reach you.