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Thinking Outside the Box

I was recently on a phone meeting with a shelter, trouble shooting flow issues in the implementation of some new programming. While we were chatting about their intake flow, they shared that a significant percentage of their intake is coming from night drops in their drop boxes. These are unmanned cages in a lobby area that automatically lock once a pet is placed in. I am philosophically opposed to these boxes for many reasons – all adding up to decreased lives saved. The senior team at the shelter shared that there was some interest to move away from the drop boxes, but that much of the staff was dead set against it. They were concerned of what would happen to the animals who come overnight if there is no box to place them in.

I think not what would happen to the animals, but what is happening to the animals. Animals with infectious disease are placed in cages next to animals who are healthy, because there is no staff to shuttle animals to the appropriate space. Suffering animals may languish overnight in the box; cats and dogs are co-housed in cages side by side…

The ASPCA’s own Dr. Lila Miller – often referred to as the founding mother of Shelter Medicine – says this of drop boxes: “I don’t believe there is any place in 21st century shelters for treating animals like merchandise by placing them in an untended drop boxes.” What message are we sending to the community regarding our dogs’ and cats’ places in our lives? There have been some interesting articles on the subject:

“Animal Shelter To Close After-Hours Night Drop”

“Night-Drop Kennels for Animals: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”

"Citing disease and costs, Palm Beach County' s animal shelter closes night drop-off for unwanted pets"

When animals placed in overnight drops are processed into the shelter, they come with little or no information, increasing the time and resources needed to process the animals effectively. Owner-relinquished animals who may have been quickly transitioned onto the adoption floor are instead housed for the stray period – increasing costs and increasing the likelihood of disease for that animal, and all others in the population.

It is this piece that offers us some light – as I know many of you are looking for options to move away from drop boxes. If you are a larger shelter, add up the costs for stray holding for the many likely relinquished animals who come to the drop box, along with the costs associated with increased disease and the lost relinquishment fees of those dropping off overnight. You will likely find the funds to have either an on-call position, or an in-shelter position to properly care for and process animals who come overnight. Smaller facilities may also be able to cover a staff person with the shift, but if not, proper messaging in the community can go a long way. There are likely emergency vets, or relationships with vets, EMTs, fire stations and more to help support the few who truly can not wait until morning. It is time to explore those options. Many of you have transitioned away from drop boxes. Your stories would be very meaningful to others reading this forum – I hope you will share.

Watch the webinar recording: Beyond the Box: Closing After-Hours Drop Boxes

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We don't have a drop box at our shelter, but we were thinking of unlocking an outdoor run to be used as a makeshift drop box. The problem with not having a drop box is that people often abandon their animals by tying them outside when no one is there. Several times, dogs have chewed through their leashes and were found running around and almost got hit by cars. Any ideas for how to manage this problem without a drop box? 


Thanks a bunch for the thoughtful question Lila. As a former shelter director, and now in my role as Senior Director of ProLearning at the ASPCA, I can certainly understand (and share!) the concern about the safety of those few dogs who have been tied out and faced some dangers as a result. That said, I’d encourage you to think about the potential additional challenges you might face by leaving a run unlocked  such as multiple animals left together, injured or ill animals that could suffer in that run for hours until the shelter opens, etc. It’s also worth considering whether it’s good practice to create a “solution” for something that’s happened two or three times. Thought it’s two or three times more than you would like it to be, does it really warrant an approach that could have all sorts of other consequences?

In terms of how to manage that problem otherwise, that depends on your organizational resources – and, again, I’d encourage you to consider whether the effort is warranted; in other words, if you’re investing resources in addressing the rare exception. You could have an on-call staff member who could be reached for assistance overnight. You could install cameras – fake or real – on the property and signage as a deterrent. You could have an overnight staffer there to respond to emergency needs or, for that matter, arrange with a local emergency vet hospital to take those cases as needed (and referral info at your facility.) My hunch though, is that all of those approaches are a little overboard for the scale and scope of the problem. I’d consider the educational route first – make sure your community knows when you’re available, what services are available to help them keep their pets at home, either permanently or temporarily while they wait for an intake appointment, and accept that sometimes, people will feel desperate and do desperate or ill-advised things. Not ideal, but sometimes true. Oh, and the flip side? People also do extraordinary things all the time – if we give them the tools and the support and the information they need, they might even do them more frequently!  

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