The Complexity of Running a Lifesaving Animal Shelter

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The Complexity of Running a Lifesaving Animal Shelter

By Meaghan Colville, Shelter Director, Cincinnati Animal CARE (Best Friends Executive Leadership Certification Graduate, Cohort 2)

Thanks for joining us again for the Inside the Industry blog series.  In today’s entry, Meaghan Colville, Shelter Director of Cincinnati Animal CARE focuses on the complexity of running a lifesaving animal shelter.


When I talk about what I do professionally, more often than not, I get a response of “I had no idea!” From the outside, animal shelter operations seem straightforward. Animals come and go. House them, feed them, get them out. This view of animal sheltering ties back to the origins of animal pounds and shelters. Most people do not know the difference between a high performing animal shelter and a shelter that still operates as a pound, even in 2024.


At a high-performing animal shelter, we are juggling numerous priorities between animals and a multitude of services that we offer while trying to serve the needs of a diverse community; some who need our help and those we need help from. The shift our industry has seen toward community-centric services has been a catalyst for the rapid change animal services has experienced in recent years.


In Cincinnati, we encounter people every day who don’t know what we do, don’t understand the connection we have to the county (we’re the operators of the county contract), and even get us confused with other local animal welfare agencies. 


We do a great job of sharing our results on social media but we need to do a better job in establishing who we are, what we do, and how the community can be part of those efforts. 


Behind the Scenes of a “No-Kill” Shelter


“No-Kill” is a term that is commonly misunderstood, even inside the animal services industry. Most communities expect lifesaving, but often there is lack of clarity on what it takes to get to that level and sustain it ongoing. The pursuit of “no-kill” is much more than just proclaiming it. Without a plan, no-kill can become warehousing (overcrowding) very quickly. Successful “No-Kill” shelters are able to balance their fluctuating population with public safety while saving the most lives possible. To do this incredible work takes a team of smart and thoughtful people coming together to address complex issues and competing priorities such as budget constraints, community relations, meeting the needs of a range of audiences and clients on multiple fronts. 


This increase in expectations is elevating the professional and specialized skill demands in our industry. For far too long, animal sheltering has been an afterthought when it comes to career aspirations (who else grew up thinking the only “animal job” was a veterinarian?) and I feel we continue to struggle with gaining respect as a credible and valuable public service. Slowly but surely we are shaking industry stereotypes of the past.  


A Professional Approach to Complex Issues


Running a lifesaving, high performance animal shelter takes a professional approach that includes three critical elements. 


  • A Business Mindset


Animal shelter leaders need to be focused on the big picture including impact and sustainability. An organization is useless if it folds due to poor management. To make an impact and help the most animals, a shelter must be operational and to do that it must be run as the business it is. 


Items like budgets, contract renewals, facility upgrades, and strategic long-term planning are critical to the foundation of any organization intending to thrive for years to come. But these are not easy tasks that come naturally to a lot of people. Strong organizations prioritize and execute these business necessities to create and maintain their brand and relevancy.


Too often in animal welfare, bleeding hearts prevail which can potentially lead to reckless decisions for short-term gain that can compromise long-term sustainability. This approach is tempting when faced with sad and homeless cats and dogs on a daily basis but with a business plan and discipline, shelters can make data-driven decisions that carry them into the future and increase impact through longevity. 


  • Strong Leadership


Leadership is most important in times of turmoil and chaos. For those of us in animal sheltering, we know that times of turmoil and chaos are commonplace. It can feel like we are always in crisis and never have time to catch our breath. 


Leadership in this highly emotional and sometimes volatile setting takes composure and decisiveness. The best leaders provide a vision, make difficult decisions and are the calm in the storm. 


Also critical to the strength of an organization is to bring all the people and programs together, moving in one direction. At Cincinnati Animal CARE, we have 90 employees in over 10 departments. Leadership is present in the logistical skills and decisive decision-making needed to manage a constant intake flow (in Cincinnati, we are absorbing up to 8,000 animals a year). Much of our success is due to our ability to build strong teams and march them forward together, even when there is uncertainty.


Leadership is also present in the navigation of community relationships with police departments, sheriffs, government officials, and human resources. These relationships take emotional intelligence, as well as the ability to compromise. 


Effective leadership is the marrying of emotional intelligence with vision, a sense of urgency, grit, and composure to achieve success in this complex, ever-evolving industry. 


  • Dynamic Programming


High-performing animal shelters are a complex ecosystem of internal and outward-facing programs being driven by a myriad of exceptionally complicated decisions. 


All those animals need an outcome, whether it’s keeping them with their families or through optimized pathway planning once they enter the shelter.  A balanced approach to supporting animals inside and outside of our shelter walls leads to successful results. High performing shelters are prepared to implement robust programming to support their live outcome goals. Without a plan for outcomes, animals will continue to come in and pile up in the shelter. 


At Cincinnati Animal CARE, we implement foster programming, behavior support, engaging social media, high quality medical care, community support/intake diversion and strong volunteer programs to support our “no-kill” commitment. All of those programs run simultaneously and sometimes have competing priorities. Coordination and an in-depth understanding of the current shelter landscape at any given time is critical. 


There are many moving parts involving so many animals and people, that strong organizations need to commit to continued analysis and development of the programs built for their community and organization. The programming is only as good as its alignment to the community needs. How we show up for the community is dependent on our strength of leadership, as well as how we support our staff so they can be successful in implementing the lifesaving programs required to run a highly successful animal services organization. 




Running the Cincinnati municipal shelter is one of the most challenging projects of my life. The coordination, decision-making, and problem-solving that go into every day cannot be understated. I’m incredibly proud of my team and of the countless other animal shelter leaders across the country who have raised the bar in our industry. 


This article is the second of twelve for the year and each month 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.

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