25 years into my tenure in park services, I was promoted to the position of director of the animal shelter.
I had a great relationship with my new boss. We shared a vision and drive for professional excellence. I put together a strong leadership team and we worked fast to end the killing of pets in the shelter.
After two years of addressing outdated practices, policies and programs, we were in the top 1% of animal shelters in the nation and had the capacity to assist rural communities as well as a large city nearby. Every day was a celebration, morale was good, media coverage was stellar, and the shelter had become a community center. The leadership team and I were invited to speak at conferences regularly as we were considered thought and action leaders for animal services around the country.
Behind the scenes while all this historical progress was being made, a handful of animal control officers who felt threatened by the changes, misused the police department’s internal affairs process and filed anonymous complaints. The officers were accustomed to operating without being held accountable to lifesaving standards and some perceived the changes as reckless even though they were based on lifesaving shelter best practices, science and data.
In an effort to build rapport and a strong relationship, we attended animal control roll calls, went on ride alongs, met with officers regularly, highlighted officers work in the media and had an open-door policy to address concerns. Privately, officers were supportive and thankful, but publicly a minority few viewed the changes as a threat to their control and continued to cause problems, monopolizing valuable time, resources and energy, diverting our attention away from important lifesaving goals.
It was not uncommon for armed internal affairs officers to show up during operating hours unannounced asking question about open adoptions, or routine and mundane shelter practices like transfers to rescues or to other shelters. Both myself and my leadership team were summoned to interrogations at police headquarters that lasted for hours in isolated rooms several times. This went on for months.
I was always assured that everything was going to be okay, but my boss could not stop the internal affairs process, as it was designed to protect the integrity of the police force, even if he knew that these complaints/concerns did not belong in internal affairs or did not have merit.
The police culture was not going to change. I had more than 26 years of unblemished award-winning public service, but as a civilian commander I was at a distinct cultural disadvantage. I was also finding out at conferences that other directors around the country working toward lifesaving changes under the umbrella of law enforcement were experiencing similar challenges.
As the director, I was a lightning rod and the situation was distracting at best and destructive at worst. I worked quietly with elected officials on a plan to move the shelter from under the police department to the county executive’s office. Moving the animal shelter out from underneath the police department to civilian oversight in the county would create an appropriate culture conducive to the flexibility and evolution needed for the rapidly evolving animal sheltering field. It would leave the shelter in good stead for future leadership and I had the commitment from leadership in the county to make that happen.
I was recruited and ultimately accepted an Executive Director position in a large city that embraced no kill animal sheltering. My life changed dramatically and the animal shelter that I left is doing well today as an independent department. The leaders of that community will not allow it to backslide to a catch and kill system.
The best thing that came from my tenure as director was the realization that the situation was untenable and it was time to make a big, bold move, and then making the strategic decision and laying the foundation to get the animal shelter moved from the police department to the oversight of a civilian executive.
No other leadership team will ever have to experience the misuse of an internal affairs department meant for protecting the integrity of law enforcement and not for the harassment of civilian employees. The experience was painful but was worth it when I think of the lives that will be saved as a result of the change in oversight. I am ultimately in a much better position now to help end the killing of pets in other communities around the nation.
I had to evaluate what would be best for the community and for me. In the end I was able to broker the beginning of a change for animal services and move on to a professional opportunity of a lifetime.
When to soldier on through the difficulties, when to stand and fight and when to move on are all options to consider because we cannot let the challenges and obstacles related to ending the institutionalized killing of pets in animal shelters stop us from our calling of lifesaving.
There is no scarcity of professional opportunities and organizations around the country that need and want innovative lifesaving leaders, however before you decide to move on from your current position consider these points:
- Talk with mentors and confidants to get perspective and advice.
- Remember to always give your chain of command the opportunity to listen to your concerns in a respectful way.
- Remember that change is hard and pushing through if you can to make a difference is a good option.
- If you are in a position to lead changes, Best Friends Animal Society, can assist you. Please reach out to me and I will connect you with leadership in your region and I can also offer guidance.
- Are the difficulties situational and not long term?
- Beware you may trade one set of challenges for another, so consider your options carefully and do your homework about any organizations you are considering joining.
- Lastly, if you do decide to move on, make sure you have another job lined up. It is easier to get a job when you have one.
If you decide that leaving might be in the best interest of you or your organization, you can monitor the Facebook Animal Shelter Job Postings for professional openings. Attending the Best Friends Animal Society National Conference is a great way to network with like-minded professionals. The Maddies Fund Apprenticeships are also a good way to help your current organization, widen your knowledge base as well as your professional contacts.
Don’t be stifled from being the best version of you and in a position of making lifesaving changes. If you do decide to move on, I encourage you to pick up the lifesaving flag in another organization