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The Shelter Voice: Length of Stay

Meet the newest TAILS guest blogger: Darlene Duggan! For many years, Darlene worked behind the scenes at The Anti-Cruelty Society in Chicago–overseeing volunteer programs, problem solving shelter issues, and laboring tirelessly for the welfare of animals. Her bi-weekly column, The Shelter Voice, will explore the complex concepts surrounding animal rescue and welfare usually reserved for discussions amongst those at the very front lines of the industry. She hopes to broaden the understanding and education of shelter supporters so they can act as well-informed advocates for the cause and help spread the adoption and rescue message throughout their community.

Ahhh … summer vacation, my favorite time of year. For most of us, the first step in planning our next vacation is to choose how long we are going to be away. We then know exactly how long to book the pet sitter, exactly how long to hold our mail at the post office, and exactly how many days to tell our employers we need off from work. It’s helpful information for those at our destination as well—the resort staff knows exactly how many days we will occupy the hotel room, exactly how many times to launder our linens, and exactly how many meals we will require when we check in.

But, in the animal sheltering world, knowing exact needs like this is a foreign concept. When a dog or cat (or bird, or hamster, or bunny, or guinea pig, or lizard …) is dropped off at a shelter, the staff have no idea exactly what needs the animal may have, let alone how long it will take residence. Yet, care and planning must continue—despite not knowing the animal’s check out date.

Many shelters and rescue organizations readily report statistics to their local community regarding how many animals they took in or how many lives were saved during a particular time period. And while these types of quick statistics paint a good picture of the life-saving efforts of these groups, they significantly under-tell the story. Let’s do a quick math exercise to understand the truer depths animal shelters and rescues dive to in order to care for the animals:

Think about Animal Shelter XYZ who reports they took in 1,000 animals last year. Impressive,  right? Absolutely! But, you want to find out more, so you call the shelter director. She starts talking about the animals’ Length of Stay (LOS), which piques your interest so you ask her to elaborate on the topic.

LOS is the total time an animal stays with a shelter—literally the outcome date minus the intake date. If a cat is dropped off at the shelter on July 15, and is adopted from the shelter on July 25, it had an LOS of 10 days. Keep in mind that this cat only counts for 1 of the 1,000 animals the shelter cared for last year, but the shelter had to care for it for 10 days.

The director continues to explain that her shelter animals have an average LOS of 12 days. So in addition to 1,000 animals cared for last year, this shelter output 12,000 animal care days. That translates to 24,000 meals served (assuming two meals per day), 12,000 blankets laundered, and 12,000 litter boxes cleaned or dog potty pads used.

But, remember, 12 is the average LOS, so some animals stayed for longer or shorter periods. Some may have stayed for 20, 30, even 60 or more days, whereas some may have stayed for only 5 days. The challenge for shelter staff is that LOS can only be calculated after the animal has left the building; this statistic is used only as a measure of how they did last year or last month. Of course, clever shelter directors will utilize their historical data to anticipate now and for the future what an animal’s particular LOS might be, but unlike the hotel industry, the next dog or cat seeking temporary shelter does not come with a pre-determined departure date.

So when you are booking your five-day trip to Disney, or your week-long Caribbean cruise, please keep in mind the shelter animals that are also checking into their “hotel”. You and the hotel staff know that you will be leaving on Friday night to return home, but the dog, cat, (or bird, or hamster, or bunny, or guinea pig, or lizard…) has no check out date scheduled.

To read more from Darlene, check out her Blog–Shelter Report.

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