My “Fishing Trip” with Midwest Animal Welfare Groups

Last week I wrote about attending a Midwest Animal Welfare Summit led by Best Friends Animal Society, where the focus was on animal welfare groups networking with one another. As a follow-up to that meeting, I went on a “fishing trip” for animal welfare info. I started first with Nebraska, and last week I reported here on those results. But I didn’t limit my “fishing trip” to just our state. I also emailed a list of similar questions to the Summit attendees. Just like my article about Nebraska, this one won’t have a great deal of focus, but rather shares some raw information that lays the groundwork for future articles to come.

My utmost thanks to five partners that took the time to respond to my somewhat random questions. They are:

  • Blue Earth Nicollet County Humane Society (BENCHS), Minnesota, is a non-profit shelter. It sponsors spay neuter clinics, offers a food share program for people who cannot feed their pets, and provides nail caps for kittens and microchip events. Susan Kroon is the board president.
  • Furry Friends, Iowa, is a non-profit shelter. In addition to running a spay and neuter clinic, it offers low-cost veterinary services to people who seek surrendering their animals as an alternative outcome, adoption services, and animal control housing and reuniting with owners. Finally, it assists law enforcement when contracted in cruelty investigations Britt Gagne is the Executive Director.
  • Gateway Pets, Missouri, is a non-profit shelter and rescue. It provides free spay/neuter, hosts two free vaccination clinics per year, and offers resource. Jamie Case is the Executive Director.
  • Leavenworth County Humane Society, Kansas, has the goal of “building and operating a centrally located, no-kill, full-service animal care center” in its area. Crystal Swann Blackdeer is the Executive Director.
  • Spay/Neuter Kansas City, Kansas, is a clinic that “assists pet owners in Kansas and Missouri with spaying and neutering, pet vaccinations and more, regardless of financial means”. Marlan Roberts was the Director at the time of this interview.

Why are you a Best Friends Animal Society partner?

The Best Friends Animal Society has always believed that collaboration with local pet shelters and animal rescue organizations (“the people who know their community best”) is key to a no-kill country. To that end it formed the No More Homeless Pets® Network, which comprises of 501(c)(3) non-profit shelters, rescue groups, and spay/neuter organizations across the country. Together, these organizations are working who are working towards the goal to “Save Them All”.

Best Friends has almost 2,000 partners in the United States, with over 20 in the Midwest. Among the five organizations that responded to my questionnaire, the three most commonly cited benefits of partnering with Best Friends were:

  • the backing of a national organization
  • a model to emulate
  • access to resources

Furry Friends noted that sometimes it will face resistance to the no-kill idea from neighboring communities. Best Friends not only backs them as a successful national organization, but also shares models of other no-kill communities.

BENCHS explained that many of the ideas it comes up with and issues it faces have already been explored and handled by others. Thanks to the Best Friends’ network, it doesn’t have to figure out situations through trial and error.

Best Friends provides a flood of wonderful experts who are so eager to help.–Susan Kroon, BENCHS

What are the most common reasons an animal is relinquished to your organization?

In a study conducted by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy (NCPPSP) and published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science (JAAWS), researchers went into 12 selected animal shelters in the United States for one year to learn why people relinquish their pets. Three of the top reasons fall under the category of “life changes” and were also cited by the five Best Friends Animal Society partners.

  • moving
  • landlord doesn’t allow pet
  • owner having personal problems
  • cost of pet maintenance

All five partners cited moving or change of living situation. BENCHS added going into a nursing home or having a baby. One group mentioned pet misbehavior that owners can’t handle, while another group referred to pet health issues that owners can’t afford.

What are the most frequently asked questions from potential adopters?

The answers to this question can be separated into two parts. Before adoption, the background and cost of an animal are major concerns. After adoption, training becomes the bigger issue, with questions about how to train a pet to use a carrier and to use a leash.

Furry Friends complimented adopters, saying that they will often ask excellent questions about medical needs and behavior needs, and showed from its own answer that the group itself also puts a lot of thought into the adoption process: “Having an open dialogue with adopters rather than just handing them an application to fill out can help have meaningful conversations to get adopters to pick the animal best suited for them. When you do have a high live release rate and are working with animals who have additional medical or behavioral needs, it is essential to take the additional time to explain them as well as be open and honest. As much as we want to send animals home, we never want to send an animal home with an adopter that is beyond what that person can take on.”

What kind of support do you provide to adopters? Phone calls? Written info?

The most typical forms of support are provided through handouts given to new pet adopters, and phone calls and emails. Some of the other types of support are:

  • website links to basic pet care
  • written information about caring for the adopted animal
  • animal health records
  • follow-up survey for those animals with special needs
  • alumni Facebook page
  • paid session with behaviorist

Gateway said that it does a lot to prepare an animal for a home such as the use of essential oils, . In addition, its fosterers stay in touch with adopters.

BENCHS told me about calling on the services of a behaviorist when a litter of St. Bernard puppies were brought to them. The pups were five-months-old, had never seen a leash, and were fighting for food and water when available. “The adopting families were eager to re-train these huge pups and so we scheduled a group session with a behavior specialist to go over common concerns and solutions. None of the pups were returned.”

Furry Friends explained that for the average adoption it follows up with the adopter for about two weeks via email to see how things are going and offers assistance when needed. With complex behavior or medical situations, the group typically calls a couple of times to remind adopters that the group is organization is available to offer support through the initial transition and beyond.

What is your live release rate?

If an animal welfare organization sets a goal of 90% live release rate, the aim is that every healthy and potentially adoptable animal will be saved. Only those with severe medical issues or severe behavior issues are euthanized.

In my recent article about Nebraska’s shelters, I wrote about being pleased to hear that two were 100% no-kill, one was “low no-kill,” and two were working towards the goal of becoming no-kill. Maybe I should not have been surprised. The shelters most likely to respond to my questionnaire are probably those that are proud of their stats.

At any rate, I expected that any animal welfare group partnering with Best Friends Animal Society would be no-kill or on the way to achieving that designation, and this is exactly what I found. The lowest live-release rate reported was 90%, with some groups reporting an astonishingly high live release rate of 98%. These rates include cats, which in general have lower live release rates across the country. The groups all have as a goal to find solutions for all health and behavior problems when possible.

How can the needs of cats be better addressed, and what specific cat programs do you have in place?

When I asked what can be done to better help cats, Leavenworth’s succinct response was: “Awareness is a first step, but awareness doesn’t change anything. Programs of support do.” Gateway did mention using social media and public relations to inform the public, but otherwise all five partners suggested programs of support. These were:

  • Spay and neuter
  • Cat-only activities and cat enrichment
  • Litter box education

As a follow-up question, I asked each partner to tell me about their own cat programs. The commonly mentioned program? Spay/neuter programs, including trap-neuter-return for community cats and adoption of kittens from these colonies. Other programs fell into one of two groups: before adoption and after adoption.


  • foster until cat is ready to adopt
  • communal rooms for cats with regular needs
  • separate rooms for cats with specialized needs
  • nail caps to avoid declaws


  • advice through phone calls and emails
  • pet food bank
  • behaviorist for unusual situations

When you address a farm family and suggest they fix the cats they look at you with a blank stare. You might as well suggest flea protection for the barn mice. Their cats have kittens and they “give them away” … aggressive spay neuter for farms would help.–Susan Kroon, BENCHS

BENCHS wrote at length of the need for aggressive spay/neuter work to come first. There are far too many cats, and the most logical way to curb those numbers is sterilization. The challenge for BENCHS is that they serve a strong rural community where “farms cats are at approximately the same scale as birds in the rafters.”

S/N Kansas City focused on the needs of cat owners. It suggested having more creative and appealing cat-only activities to get cat owners involved. For that reason, cat groups have been growing in popularity across the country.

Furry Friends focused on the needs of cats in shelters and stated that many of its cat programs mirror its dog programs but scaled up for more animals. Its cats are in a cage-free environment, with about 75% of its cats being housed in communal rooms. It noted that “cats do tend to get ill more quickly in a shelter setting so we are always watching for anorexia of new arrivals to prevent potentially fatal fatty liver.” In addition, it has separate room for cats that are being treated for ringworm. The group counsels potential adopters to “not rule out non-combative FIV cats just because they have another non-combative but FIV-negative cat in their home, and we offer lifetime veterinary care for our FeLV cats.” Finally, the organization provides many forms of enrichment. Furry Friends works to ensure that cats have access to natural light and provides water fountains and faucets for the exercise areas of the cats. In addition, volunteers read to the cats and play with them.

What do you think needs to be done for a community to become no-kill?

The Best Friends Animal Society, the largest no-kill sanctuary in the country, has the goal of all fifty states becoming no-kill by 2025. When I asked the five Best Friends partners how a community can become no-kill, the three main responses were:

  • use a multi-faceted approach
  • work together
  • recognize that each community will have individual needs

Gateway advised that many programs and people need to be put into place. Some necessary elements are: effective leadership, spay/neuter initiatives, shelter intervention, foster programs, and community cat programs.

Furry Friends addressed the uniqueness of each community. “For some of our neighboring communities, lack of transparency and abilities for rescues to access animals being euthanized are huge barriers to making no-kill happen.  In other areas, there may be transparency but lack of a robust return to owner effort or no TNR program or barn cat program in place.” In other words, what needs to happen in each community will vary depending on animal welfare leaders and programs.

I began working with Spay and Neuter KC in 2012 after working at a municipal animal shelter for four years, and realized that many pets are being relinquished at our shelters for reasons that are preventable.–Marlan Roberts, Spay and Neuter KC

The July/August 2017 issue of the Best Friends Animal Society magazine included an article about the outreach movement, the purpose of which is to help pet owners deal with problems they’re having with pets to reduce the number of pets surrendered to shelters. The more research I do into animal welfare, the more this idea appeals to me. Because I know that this outreach philosophy is one held by Kansas S/N, I asked the group for ideas about how animal welfare organizations can implement it. I received this answer: “Providing affordable services, basic pet resources, and keeping a non-judgmental attitude will help increase pet retention and keep pets home where they belong. Which will in turn allow shelters to be housing for pets who truly are lost or homeless.” Barriers of location, language, and not so receptive pet owners exist, but after several months of implementation, the program is being embraced.


It should be no secret by now that I share Best Friends Animal Society’s dream that the United States will one day become no-kill. Two common refrains in the responses of the five Best Friends partners regarding how that goal can be reached were: more cooperation between groups and a multi-faceted approach. In future articles, I will be writing about more about successful no-kill models here in Nebraska and throughout the country. The more we learn from and cooperate with each other, the better we can help animals.

At the end of the Midwest Animal Welfare Summit led by Best Friends Animal Society, each attendee was asked to name one goal for themselves. I couldn’t limit myself to one goal, so I chose two that go together: building connections with animal welfare groups locally and across the nation, and providing more education to cat owners with the hope that this would prevent fewer cats from being surrendered. These articles are a first step towards achieving these goals Thank you to everyone who had taken time to read them. I hope they have been similarly informative to you, and that you will drop us a line to let us know your animal welfare goals.