Inside the Industry: The Foundation of Cincinnati Animal CARE
The Foundation of Cincinnati Animal CARE
By Meaghan Colville, Shelter Director, Cincinnati Animal CARE
Best Friends Executive Leadership Certification Graduate, Cohort 2
At a rooftop table overlooking the city of Cincinnati, Meaghan Colville sat with her 3 colleagues from Clermont Animal CARE; a small nonprofit with the municipal county contract 30 minutes east of Cincinnati. Clermont Animal CARE has been operating since 2017 and was founded and launched by a team of friends, led by Carolyn Evans (Executive Leadership Certification Graduate, Cohort 1), who sat across from Meaghan on this rooftop, and who had never run a shelter before. Carolyn took Best Friends Animal Society’s CEO, Julie Castle’s, call to action in 2016 literally, where she stated, “We will be a no-kill nation by 2025 but YOU have to act in your own communities”. With no experience at all, Carolyn and friends took over a county animal shelter; a pattern that would later be repeated. Carolyn gathered her Clermont Animal CARE leadership; Shelter Director Meaghan Colville, their Medical Director, and Chief Dog Warden on this Memorial Day weekend to discuss a new venture.
The topic bringing the 4 of them together was the Hamilton County Dog Warden and animal shelter contract. Hamilton County is 450 square miles in southwestern Ohio and home to 850,000 people and the metropolitan city of Cincinnati. It is flanked by Indiana to the west and Kentucky, just over the Ohio River, to the south.
Decades of Tension
Like many states across the country, Ohio’s animal laws are insufficient and outdated. According to the Ohio Revised Code, the governing laws of the state, every county in Ohio must provide Dog Warden (Ohio for “animal control”) and a place to house stray dogs for 3 days. That’s pretty much it. Like most counties in Ohio, Hamilton County partnered with a humane society to offer “above and beyond” services communities had come to expect in the 21st century. The animal services contract in Hamilton County had been held for over 60 years by SPCA Cincinnati; a staple in the region and through longevity and a little help from a certain Sarah McLaughlin commercial, had become synonymous with “animal shelter”. However, in the summer of 2019, after increasing and compounding community pressure for change, SPCA Cincinnati announced they would not be renewing the contract. This announcement was unprecedented and unexpected but what the people had been asking for. Predictably, however, none of those critical voices that led the charge for change offered another solution once SPCA announced they would step down. Weeks turned into months and as we approached a year after their surprise announcement, no one had come forward to take over the contract from the SPCA. The future of animal services in Hamilton County was in a state of uncertainty to say the least.
The lack of interest in the contract was disappointing, but could you blame them? SPCA Cincinnati had been under fire for years about everything under the sun; some of it legitimate, some of it unfair. Like every animal welfare organization, criticism comes with the territory, but can be exhausting to deal with. Like many established humane societies around the country, SPCA Cincinnati struggled to keep up with public expectations, and the excuses were plentiful and legitimate: too many animals and not enough people, not enough money and insufficient facilities. But it didn’t matter. The public expected more and eventually, running animal control and the county shelter didn’t have the same appeal as it once did when you’re constantly called the bad guy. There is no doubt that running the county shelter under 21st-century expectations is hard. Safely and humanely managing an intake of nearly 8,000 animals in a building with 100 kennels built over half a century ago while responding to community needs of 850,000 people over 450 square miles? Facing the uncertainty of contract renewals, political winds, and funding, along with a real emotional toll and a constant threat of criticism and personal attacks? Any takers?
Cue the sound of crickets.
Sitting on that rooftop patio on Memorial Day weekend in 2020, I looked around at my 3 colleagues with a forward posture, smile, and convincing expression. I was already sold. Yes, we should be the ones to take over the Hamilton County contract. The 4 of us were already running a shelter so we had experience, right?
Sure, Hamilton County was 4x the square mileage, budget and annual intake we were used to.
Ok, so Hamilton County (urban) was much different than Clermont County (suburban/rural).
Of course, we had seen all the non-stop critique SPCA Cincinnati received when they ran the shelter.
Yes, we were also running the Clermont shelter (meaning we’d be taking on, no, launching, a 2nd shelter while simultaneously running another one)
We acknowledged that, for planning purposes, we didn’t have access to any real animal population or budget data from Hamilton County to even understand what we were getting into.
No, not a single person or organization had put in a bid on this contract in the 10 months since SPCA Cincinnati announced it did not intend to extend. Did they know something we didn’t?
We discussed these concerns and more. We evaluated what this kind of (crazy?) venture would mean and tried to anticipate the commitment we were facing. We weighed the pros and cons but collectively realized that all our discussion was simply an attempt at due diligence prior to a foregone conclusion. Before the meeting even started, before we met on this hot rooftop patio, the 4 of us had all independently arrived at the same conclusion.
If not us, then who?
On Monday, May 31st, 2020, the leadership team from Clermont Animal CARE decided we would bid on the Hamilton County Dog Warden and animal services contract. A short 8 weeks later we were running operations.
As you probably guessed, 8 weeks was not a lot of time to build an organization from scratch. However, it felt like par for the course. Of course, we only had 8 weeks- can’t anything be easy? Luckily, Cincinnati Animal CARE’s foundation is rooted in a “jump now, ask questions later” attitude and approach which fared very well under such rushed circumstances.
We arrived at the Hamilton County shelter on August 1st, 2020 to a full house of cats and dogs, a mixed batch of staff; some from SPCA Cincinnati, some borrowed from Clermont, and others newly hired, and a lot of excitement. As all change management experts will recommend, we were selective in the changes we made early on but our no-kill philosophy was non-negotiable from day one. Animals stopped dying today. That line in the sand has been our battle cry and everyone who has supported or been a part of the organization has bought in and contributed to that mantra. That was the day animals stopped dying in the Hamilton County animal shelter but not a day has gone by that it has been easy.
The sheer chaos of forming an organization, writing a bid, bidding, winning the bid, recruiting a Board, registering as a humane society, negotiating a budget (with no baseline to work from), putting together a team, and launching operations in 8 weeks, during Covid, cannot be overstated. “Embrace the Chaos” t-shirts were our Christmas presents to staff that year. The people we’ve attracted to Cincinnati Animal CARE are committed to best-practice animal sheltering. We are humble students of our industry and embrace opportunities to learn from anyone who has found success in this field. We are agile and passionate. Hustle is one of our core values.
Cincinnati Animal CARE as an Archetype
Although there probably aren’t that many organizations out there who are in the same start-up mode we are, I’m certain there are a lot of organizations going through the same daily struggles. As a humane society with a government contract running a mid-size shelter, we are relatable. As the Director of Shelter Operations and a founder of Cincinnati Animal CARE, I’ve had a front-row seat to our successes and challenges. I’ve been in the room when decisions have been made and received praise for good choices and had to deal with the fallout from bad ones. In our short 3 years, we’ve been through everything our industry has been experiencing- just doing it as a start-up company. From canine population concerns to a distemper outbreak. From staffing and personnel issues to both good and bad press. From balancing lifesaving with the responsibility of putting safe animals in our community. We are right here with all our colleagues around the country doing our best to survive and thrive. Launching and running Cincinnati Animal CARE is the hardest thing I’ve ever done but with it has come the most rewarding experiences of my career.
Over the next 12 months, you’ll be hearing honest, real-time accounts from inside the municipal sheltering world from a director of operations. Animal sheltering has seen such rapid growth and transformation in the last decade that it can be head-spinning and often, isolating. We’re here to assure you that this work we do is exceptionally difficult but that none of us are alone. Each month she’ll reflect on real-time issues affecting their shelter and community, and most likely yours. Through this vulnerable and thoughtful reflection, it is our hope that industry leaders can feel a sense of comradery and connection through this blog. We’ll review a range of topics that affect the daily lives of shelter leadership across the country including gaining buy-in for contemporary programming from your team and community, professionalizing our industry, addressing animal population concerns, handling fallout and criticism, and understanding the true complexity of running a high performing shelter. Please join us each month this year as we break down these topics and more from the perspective of a shelter director.