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New executive director of Washington Co. Humane Society streamlines adoption process and more

May 12, 2013|By C.J. LOVELACE | cj.lovelace@herald-mail.com
  • Michael Lausen, Executive Director of the Humane Society of Washington County, brushes a long hair domestic cat at the Humane Society Thursday afternoon.
By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer

Reducing obstacles for adoption, decreasing euthanasia rates and increasing the number of animal control field service officers are top priorities listed by Michael Lausen, the recently hired executive director of the Humane Society of Washington County.

Lausen, who took over the executive director job Feb. 4, said recently that the humane society had 142 adoptions, including 73 cats and 65 dogs, in March — its highest recorded one-month total ever — simply by relaxing the requirements in the adoption application process.

“We’re not the housing police. We’re not checking the income,” Lausen said during a recent interview at the humane society’s facility at 13011 Maugansville Road north of Hagerstown.

Lausen, 43, who came to the area from El Paso, Texas, said the previous adoption policy was “extremely tedious, to be polite.” Applicants had to fill out a form and wait several hours, even days in some cases, to find out if they were approved for adoption, he said.

“We weren’t the most friendly place to get an adopted animal from, previously,” he said. “There were so many obstacles and so many steps that somebody had to go through, by the time they were ultimately approved, people had decided that they didn’t want to adopt anymore.”

The humane society’s “streamlined” adoption policy functions on a first-come, first-served basis, Lausen said, and gives weight to the interactions of adoptable pets and their potential owners.

Lausen said the application process itself is in the process of being digitized, speeding up the process like never before. He said adoptions now can take as little as one hour from start to finish.

“People make an emotional connection with an animal very quickly,” he said, adding that pets can “go home that day” provided they have been spayed or neutered.

The new program is called Smart Search, a document management program that allows staff to use e-forms to move through the system more quickly as well as integrate field services information, Lausen said.

In addition to going to the humane society to adopt a pet, people can adopt shelter animals every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at PetSmart in the Centre at Hagerstown west of the city, according to the humane society website.

Paul Miller, who was executive director of the shelter for nine years before his departure in late 2012, said the humane society’s adoption policy was stricter before his arrival in 2003, requiring extensive background checks of veterinarian records for animals and financial records for adopters.

By the time he left the agency Nov. 13, 2012, Miller said, the policy had been relaxed, with checks made mainly for any prior animal control violations against applicants. He said they also checked with landlords in the cases of applicants who did not own their own homes.

“Sometimes, they were unaware of the fact that the landlord didn’t want an animal,” Miller said. He said such checks were made to ensure an animal was going to a permanent home.

“We wanted them going out and staying out,” he said.

A direct effect of higher adoption rates is lower euthanasia rates, Lausen said, and the humane society, which can house about 150 animals, is “no longer euthanizing for space.”


Looking at options

Stray animals that arrive at the shelter sick or injured can be candidates for euthanasia, but Lausen said all euthanasia orders go through his office and every animal is examined on a case-by-case basis before a final decision is made.

“If it’s a highly adoptable animal, no,” Lausen said. “We’ve changed some of the other standards that were being used as assessments. We have relaxed some of the assessments that were there.”

Older animals and those with behavioral issues, such as a dog getting aggressive when food is around, no longer are immediate triggers for euthanasia, Lausen said.

Lausen said he changed the euthanasia policy immediately upon his arrival, making it a “continued process where everybody becomes involved,” including staff members, during an animal’s time at the shelter, rather than a “one-time snapshot” of the animal’s situation or behavior within the first 30 minutes of its arrival.

The initial assessment previously was used to label an animal as “unadoptable” and thus justified the euthanasia, Lausen said.

While trainers are being more vigilant in retraining and socializing animals, Lausen said those showing signs of being — or having the potential to be — vicious and dangerous would not be adopted out of the facility.

Lausen said the shelter is increasing its use of foster homes to aid in rehabilitating animals and improving their socialization skills to make them more adoptable.

“Now, animals that are showing signs of stress can move into a foster home and work toward recovery,” he said.

Lausen recalled a recent instance in which two dogs were surrendered at the shelter over two days, both of which previously would have been candidates for euthanasia. But he decided against it and staff members worked on socialization with both animals. Both later were adopted.

“People loved it,” he said. “It showed the staff that euthanasia was no longer the first option. And that’s the way it needs to be looked at.”

Education and providing resources for pet owners has been key in the increased adoption rates, Lausen said, noting that animals might act up in their new surroundings after being in a kennel for long periods.

Lausen said the humane society can help connect pet owners with trainers who provide obedience training or help with behavioral issues, and food is available from the shelter’s food bank if needed.

The more relaxed adoption process not only has increased the number of applicants who become pet owners, but it has energized the humane society’s 32-person staff, Lausen said.


‘Positive changes’

“Once we showed them how easy it was in removing the obstacles and all these extra checks and backup schedules, man, they got excited and they just went after it,” he said. “When they saw all the animals that were adoptable that didn’t have to be euthanized, they went after it.”

“That’s what made it fun, and that’s the way it should be,” Lausen said.

Shannon Cianelli, president of the humane society’s board of directors, said in an email that the board has been “extremely impressed” with Lausen’s ability to review and revamp existing policies and procedures to enhance programs and statistics.

“He has brought a fresh set of eyes and enthusiasm that has been contagious among staff, volunteers and donors,” Cianelli said. “It’s what we need to take the HSWC to the next level.

“Mike truly embodies the HSWC’s mission statement and we are eager to see all the positive changes and growth the organization will be making over the next few years.”


Dual role

As a “dual-role” agency, the humane society is under contract with Washington County to handle animal control throughout the 450-square-mile county. That job includes providing field services such as handling issues related to animal bites, cruelty cases and leash laws.

“We’re not law enforcement ... but we do the investigations,” Lausen said.

He said information from investigations is passed along to the Washington County State’s Attorney’s Office or to law enforcement agencies.

Field officers respond to complaints such as county animal ordinance violations, excessive barking or at-large animals. In the past, the organization has been criticized for its perceived lack of aggressiveness in responding and reporting, Lausen said.

“Have we always done it right? No. But ... we’ve been making a lot of improvements,” he said. “... Prior to my arrival, the field service officers were kind of doing a Monday through Friday. It’s not that they weren’t responding. It’s just that they had such a volume of calls that they just didn’t have enough staff to respond in a timely manner.”

Lausen said April 29 that the humane society has hired additional officers, increasing the current force to five field service officers and two dispatchers dedicated to field services.

Miller said he believed adding more officers would divert resources from other departments. He expressed skepticism that more officers would improve overall response and service because there always are two people involved in a complaint.

“It was very difficult to make both people happy,” Miller said. “... You can’t be everywhere at once. In reality, he cannot put on enough officers under the current budget to cover the whole county.”

The humane society is set to receive about $1.17 million from the county in the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1. The amount reflects an increase of about 1 percent, or $12,000, over the current year to cover the cost of pet food due to a loss in funding from a local pet business.


Working to raise the bar

Lausen said the humane society is holding a first-of-its-kind academy that started May 6 and continues through Friday to train its new animal control officers. The training is taking place at the Maryland State Police barrack off Sharpsburg Pike.

The training sessions are open to the community as well, Lausen said, a move he said he hopes will help increase volunteer involvement in the field services area.

Volunteer involvement will help augment and create what Lausen called “a force multiplier” that will assist in reporting and enforcement at all levels, with one goal being to assist Hagerstown’s auxiliary police force in foot patrols of downtown to help enforce county and city animal ordinances.

“We want to be somebody that’s setting a standard, not just meeting it,” he said. “We want to be able to raise the bar and give people an opportunity to be a part of that.”

Hagerstown Police Chief Mark Holtzman said he’s in favor of partnering with the humane society, predominantly to promote education about proper care of animals.

“It is an important topic to the public,” he said.

Holtzman said he’s had positive meetings with Lausen about providing education to his officers on handling dangerous and aggressive dog complaints in the city.

Additionally, the humane society soon will implement new computer software that will allow officials to better track calls for service and identify community trends that might require extra attention, such as recurring violations or an influx of unneutered males in a specific area, Lausen said.

“We’ll be able to add maps that will actually have the overlays of where the actual complaints are coming in from so we can better enforce the ordinances or target for education,” he said. “There’s a lot of things we can do using statistics.”

Lausen said he plans to regularly release response and in-house shelter statistics to the public to increase transparency.

“We’re going to do what we’ve been asked to do and we’re going to demonstrate that, and provide that data back,” he said.


Seeking volunteers

Before his arrival, Lausen said, the organization had about 100 to 110 active volunteers, and in about three months’ time, that number has increased to 337, including people who provide animal foster care as well as help with off-site adoptions, rabies clinics and at the shelter.

The foster care program for animals is new, Lausen said, and the humane society is working to expand its off-site adoption capabilities to increase the number of animals that are “go-home ready.”

In addition to allowing volunteers to take part in animal control efforts for the first time, Lausen said a new adoption counselor program is being made available.

Lausen said there are no specific areas of need for volunteers and every aspect is “wide open.”

“We’ve had a lot of people getting involved, and we still need more help,” he said, adding that the shelter always needs volunteer dog walkers and trainers.

High school students often chip in to help around the shelter, volunteering for 20 to 25 hours to fulfill community service requirements for graduation, but some volunteers commit a lot more time, Lausen said. He noted that one couple has put in more than 6,000 hours in the past few years.

The hardest thing, Lausen said, is motivating people to keep coming back.

“Making them feel a part of the family is a key component,” he said. “... We’ve got a lot of work to do and we’re just getting started.”

To volunteer, people can call 301-733-2060 or fill out an online application form on the humane society’s website, www.hswcmd.org.

Starting June 1, the humane society will be open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.


New facility

On Thursday, the humane society announced plans to add a new low-cost spay-and-neuter clinic as part of a $2.2 million, 7,000-square-foot expansion at the shelter, expected to be completed in March or April 2014.

Lausen said animals currently are taken to area veterinarians to have the procedures done, and having the ability to do spaying and neutering on site will provide a cost savings to the agency. This fall, the humane society will recruit a veterinarian to run the clinic, he said.

Scheduled to have ground broken this summer, the expansion will feature a redesigned and expanded adoption center, as well as a three-table operating room to accommodate up to 60 spaying and neutering procedures a day, Lausen said.

The facility also will have staging areas for incoming animals, X-ray and laboratory equipment to assist in treating animals and intensive care unit capabilities, he said.

Adoption of a pet costs $150, which includes having them spayed and neutered. Lausen said grants are available to lessen the cost for people who have pets that need the procedure.

Lausen said more than half of the money needed for the clinic has been secured through donations, but more financial assistance is needed.

People interested in donating may visit the humane society office, or go to its website and click the “Donate Now” button in the “Helping animals” tab.

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