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13 Steps to a More Secure Shelter

Carrie Allen, HSUS

From the July-August 2001 Issue of Animal Sheltering Magazine

Keeping Your Staff, Animals, Supplies, and Donations Safe Without Making Your Shelter Look Like a Federal Prison

To say it was a bad day would be an understatement: On January 3, 2001, Pierre Barnoti, executive director of the Montreal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Quebec, Canada, came to work to find that two safescontaining cash receipts, donation checks, and adoption recordshad been broken into and looted. The safes were unusually full because the staff had been unable to make bank deposits during the winter holidays, and the robbery occurred just as the shelter was bracing for its busiest time of the yearthe post-Christmas rush. “Our safe probably weighed two tons, and they opened it like it was a sardine box,” Barnoti says ruefully. “They knew what they were doing. What saddened me very much was that they left with all of the checks that had been donated. … There is no way to retrieve them; they aren’t useful to the thieves because they can’t cash them. But Basically they are lost to us, too.”

Everyone who works in animal protection will agree: The weeks and months after Christmas, often filled with people relinquishing thoughtlessly purchased animals, can be hard enough. But when that depressing phenomenon is compounded by a theft that robs the shelter of the funds it desperately needs to help those very animals, even the New Year looks bleak.

And yet shelters contend with security issues not just during the holidays but year-round, whether the problem is the theft of a donation jar, a break-in to steal fighting dogs, or a fire like the one that devastated a shelter in Escondido, California, earlier this year. In recent years, the frequency of such incidents seems to have risen in direct proportion to the increasing popularity of illegal dogfighting. But the very nature of the animal protection field has long made shelters a target for angry or disgruntled members of the community: In seeking to protect animals, shelter workers and animal care and control officers are charged with impounding people’s “personal property,” most often against an “owner’s” will.

The rising incidence of violence in the workplace adds a new layer of concern, especially for those who work out in the field, often alone. “You hear more and more about shootings and you think about the safety of officers in the streetsI can actually [foresee] bulletproof vests on animal control officers because that’s the world we’re living in,” says Rodney Taylor, chief of the Prince George’s County Animal Management Division in Forestville, Maryland.

Barnoti suspects that the burglary at the Montreal SPCA was an inside job, but the mystery has not been solved and may never be. It’s an ongoing case, but for shelters and animal care and control agencies everywhere, the bigger mystery lies in the question of how to keep your facility (and the animals, people, donations, and supplies within that facility) safe and secure. In the midst of trying to remain friendly and open to the public, how can a shelter ensure that the roaming Bad Guys don’t take advantage of such accessibility?

As with any mystery, in figuring out the best methods for securing your organization, you have to follow the clues. Here are some steps to help you on your way to becoming a security sleuth.

  1. Start at the Very Beginning: Secure Your Location
  2. Good Fences Make Good Neighbors
  3. Get to Know the Men and Women in Blue
  4. Prevent the Inside Jobs
  5. Keep Everyoneand We Mean Everyoneon Board
  6. Wield a Mighty Staff
  7. The Best Defense is a Good Office
  8. Direct Traffic in Your Shelter
  9. Mind Your Money
  10. Just Say Noand Use a Safe
  11. All Systems Go
  12. Lights, Camera, Action
  13. Off-Site Options and Special Cases

1. Start at the Very Beginning: Secure Your Location

Many shelters suffer from what might be called “location problems”: Even if your community as a whole is fairly quiet and crime-free, your shelter may have been built in an area that, for whatever reason, attracts a less desirable element. (Across the country, shelter workers right now are nodding ruefully as they raise their eyes to see the bail bondman’s office outside the window or pause to sniff the gentle waft of the nearby city dump.)

While it’s certainly worth considering how and why so many municipal animal protection agencies get stuck on property in the veritable “armpit” of the community, you have to work with what you’ve got. And part of working with it is knowing it: Understanding the security needs of your agency starts with understanding your community. Are you rural, suburban, or urban? What are the income levels in your area? Read the crime reports in your local paper, and obtain statistics from the police department. Stay on top of where the community is headed by doing demographic research and talking to local planning and zoning committees; the better your understanding of your community’s past problems and future directions, the better prepared you’ll be for security problems that may arise.

In Novato, California, high income and education levels have worked to the Marin Humane Society’s advantage. The shelter enjoys one of the lowest euthanasia rates in the country, thanks to high adoption rates, good spay/neuter programs, and a community which, for the most part, understands the problem of animal homelessness.

Yet the humane society isn’t in the best part of town, and the few security problems it has are largely related to the location of the facility. “We do have a few homeless people who appear from time to time, and it’s not that they’re dangerousit’s just they have managed to surprise our staff from time to time,” says Rick Johnson, associate executive director.

In response, the shelter has added extra lighting to outdoor areas for staffers and members of the public who come for evening dog-training programs. The lights enable staff to feel more secure and also allow them to survey the outside areas before leaving the building at night. Cameras installed in the after-hours receiving area serve a dual purpose: They increase security, and they alert staff to the presence of animals dropped off by relinquishers who don’t come inside to fill out paperwork.

2. Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

While the community of Novato doesn’t pose any big threats to the Marin Humane Society, the Prince George’s County Animal Shelter in Maryland lies in well-known dogfighting territory. The shelter underwent a major catastrophe a few years back when some people broke in to let loose some fighting dogs. The police were called, but they weren’t prepared for the situation they found when they arrived: Pit bulls were running around loose, and the incident turned tragic when an officer speeding into the parking lot accidentally ran over one of the dogs.

Taylor wants to make sure that such incidents don’t occur on hiswatch, but helike most shelter folksfeels conflicted about the way security concerns and the shelter’s “user-friendly” appearance compromise each other. The old saying that “good fences make good neighbors” is an idea that’s easy to take at face value: If you turn your shelter into a fortress, you’ll always have good neighbors, because your impregnable walls won’t allow them to be bad ones. But in fact, the “fences” surrounding a shelter or animal care and control agency have to work on a variety of levels: They must be strong enough to keep out the bad guys, but not so scary that they deter all the animal-loving folks in your community from coming in to adopt animals or make donations.

With this in mind, Taylor made the decision to remove one of the shelter’s more imposing security featuresa barbed wire fence that surrounded the entire facility. “It was starting to look like a penitentiary,” says Taylor. “When we redid the fencing, we took the barbed wire away from the front of the building so it would look more like a shelter and have more of a warm look to it.”

But the shelter can afford to let its guard down in appearance only; after pit bull puppies were stolen from the kennels, shelter managers decided to install another, more modern version of a “fence”security cameras. “It’s helped tremendously,” says Taylor. “Since the cameras have been installed we haven’t had any thefts at all.”

Just as good “fences” make good neighbors, you may find the converse is also true: Good neighbors make good fences. When the Humane Society/Waterville Area in Maine had several break-ins within a month of one another, Director Paula Mitchell rallied the “neighbors” in her community to help replace the money that had been lostand ensure that such an incident wouldn’t happen again. “We did a fund-raiser and sent out an appeal,” Mitchell says, “and we got enough to install the alarm system. … It’s proved to be very cost-effective. As a matter of fact, the gentleman who installed the system waived half of the yearly fee as part of his donation. It’s about $100 a year, and we certainly feel a lot safer.” The shelter hasn’t suffered any burglaries since the system was installed.

Animal lovers come in all forms, and just as you may be delighted to find that one of your volunteers is a graphic designer or a great plumber, you may find that lurking out there somewhere is a cat lover who just happens to run his own security business. After the Nevada Humane Society in Sparks, Nevada, suffered a break-in following a benefit auction, Executive Director Susan Asher searched for an affordable way to beef up the shelter’s security. “One of the nice things about living in the Reno area, where the main industry is gaming, is that I found I had an employee whose husband was a surveillance manager for a casino,” says Asher. “And he came out and really designed our security system for us.”

Although it doesn’t take unfortunate incidents like the ones Asher’s and Mitchell’s shelters experienced to appeal to supporters for help, a crisis often brings out the best in people. In Montreal, the break-in had one silver lining: In the wake of the publicity surrounding the crime, a safe company donated a new safe to the SPCAone so large it had to be lifted through a second-floor window. “I’m sure companies are very proud when they can help an animal movement or help out after a tragedy,” says Barnoti, who adds that the new safe is much more sophisticated than the one that was burglarized.

3. Get to Know the Men and Women in Blue

Perhaps the community members who can help you most with security issues are those in uniform. A great way to start understanding what security risks you face is to talk to your local police; law enforcement officers have the knowledge and experience to give you a picture of your community you might otherwise never be privy to. Some animal protection groups have great working relationships with law enforcement agencies, and they think of those agencies as their first line of defense when it comes to security problems. Think about it now: Do you know the police officers at the nearest station? Would you hesitate to call them if you needed their advice or help?

At the Washington Humane Society (WHS) in Washington, D.C., crime is an ongoing concern. “You can see where people have tried to bust in to get their animals, and we’ve tried to lock them out, and they’re drunk or something and they just go crazy,” says Jim Monsma, director of community relations. “You can see all the doors have been pried and jimmied.” Working in a city with a high crime rate makes knowing the local police even more vital, and Monsma recommends making a real effort to get to know the officers assigned to your territory. “This bad stuff is going to happen, particularly if you’re getting pit bulls from fighting situations, and the police should be interested in getting briefed by you on crime issuesand you’re going to want their backup when it comes to it,” Monsma says.

If you have concerns about the relationship your organization has with law enforcement in your areawhether the relationship has been troubled or simply nonexistentyou can get it on track by fostering better communication. Talk and listen to your police. Often the best way to do this is by simply walking into the nearest station, introducing yourself, and discussing some of your concerns. As a way of cultivating good friendships with police, some shelters offer reduced adoption rates to officers; the Marin Humane Society provides free boarding to police dogs. Other shelters offer free training on rabies prevention and aggressive animal handling, and sponsor general programs designed to help officers understand how the shelter’s services complement those provided by the police.

In nearby San Francisco, the staff of the San Francisco Department of Animal Care and Control (SF/DACC) have benefited from a good working relationship with law enforcement. Animal control officers carry police radios, says Director Carl Friedman, so they don’t have to go through the 911 system if an incident occurs. “We’re pretty close with our district station,” says Friedman, “and whenever we have a security issue or a concern we might be dealing with, we can get the officers to drop by.” Some shelters have also had their local police conduct overall security assessments of their facilities, thus opening the lines of communication and making concrete steps toward a more secure organization.

The alarm system at the Nevada Humane Society has foiled several burglary attempts, but it’s the local police who’ve made Susan Asher and her staff feel a little safer when that alarm goes off. “I live only five minutes from the shelter, so when the alarm company calls me at three in the morning, it’s a pain in the butt, but no big deal,” says Asher. “I go down and check it out, and I’ve often had the police meet me here at night just to be on the safe side.” What’s more, Asher says, the good relationship has had some unexpected side benefitsthe officers are animal lovers even at an ungodly hour. “They want to go through the kennels!” Asher laughs. “I normally end up adopting a dog or two to the cops when they come out.”

4. Prevent the Inside Jobs

While knowing local law enforcement officers is a great way to combat security problems, knowing your own staff can help prevent those problems from developing in the first place. Barnoti, who suspects that at least one staff member was involved in the burglary at the SPCA, acknowledges that before the break-in occurred, the shelter was naive about some of its hiring processes.

“One of the things I would advise any humane society is to check the background of anybody they hire,” Barnoti says. “[Before the break-in], we never thought of checking for a criminal record. Now we do.” After the break-in, Barnoti discovered that one staffer had a substantial criminal record. The mistake the SPCA made, he says, was to check employee backgrounds only after an incident had occurred.

Municipal animal care and control agencies may have an easier time checking the backgrounds of potential employees. Because the hiring process is usually overseen and controlled by local government, city or county personnel departments often perform standard checks on all job candidates. The protocol can include examination of criminal records, drug testing, fingerprinting, and even polygraph testsand because these are part of the standard operating procedure, potential employees are less likely to take requests for information personally.

But while screening job candidates may be easier for public shelters, private shelters should not neglect this step in the hiring process. A private shelter can use hiring forms to inquire about criminal history, following up on any information provided. Generally speaking, people who don’t have anything to hide won’t take offense at the questions, especially if you explain why they’re being askedthe presence of living creatures and controlled substances makes such background checks a necessity. Your potential employees will understand that you’re just trying to ensure a safe working environment for everyone who works in your facility.

Much of what’s involved in hiring folks boils down to good instincts, but your guesses have to be educated ones. While it’s possible to use your discretion in deciding whether minor criminal incidents and misdemeanors in someone’s past automatically disqualify them from working at your organization, keep in mind that some criminal behaviors are linked. If you work in a small, safe town that doesn’t have much of a dogfighting problem, it may be OK for you to hire that applicant with an unblemished work history but a decade-old drug violation. But in other cases, you may have to be stricter about your standards. “We’ve had situations where there have been questionable employee alliances, questionable friendships outside of work,” says Asher. “The feeling you get is that someone might be a recreational drug user and have contacts with the pit bull fighting people.”

While forgiveness is certainly a virtue, and while some mistakes can probably be dismissed as youthful or past indiscretions, keeping your animals and staff safe is the top priority. If your alarm bells go off, you should probably listen to them. It goes without saying that a person with any sort of violent criminal history should not be employed at an animal protection agency.

5. Keep Everyoneand We Mean Everyoneon Board

Weeding out the bad guys from your hiring roster will help you build a safety-minded staff, but educating new employees about shelter policies and security protocols will help you maintain it. You can have the safest building in the world, but a staff member who isn’t on board with shelter policies can be as dangerous to your shelter’s security as leaving your keys hanging from the front door keyhole. If you have an employee on board who’s great with animals but disagrees with your euthanasia policy both in private and public, you may suddenly have folks breaking in to “save” animals when you’ve never had security problems before.

Under the conditions of the employment policy at the Nevada Humane Society, staff and volunteers are required to keep company business private. “It’s very specifically stated that you cannot talk about the animals here, you cannot talk about investigations with anybody,” says Asher. “[We have] to maintain the security of animals who might be involved in court cases. That’s worked pretty well; everyone’s taken that very seriously.”

Standards for volunteers should be no less stringent. Volunteers may be invaluable to the shelter, but they can present some tricky issues. “The people who come to volunteer for the first time and receive training, you don’t know who they are!” says Barnoti. “You can’t be 100 percent sure that a volunteer who goes to walk a dog is going to come back with it. … I’m not denigrating volunteers at all; I’m just saying that if I want to infiltrate a humane society, I can just say I’m a volunteer.”

Providing guidelines up frontin the form of handbooks and training sessions outlining volunteer policies and responsibilitiescan help eliminate problems that may arise down the road. Phil Morgan, executive director of the Escondido Humane Society in California, highly recommends that all training procedures be put in writing. “That way, you won’t have one staff person training another and that person training another,” says Morgan, “with each person changing the procedures a little bit each time.” It’s also worthwhile to have your volunteers sign a formal agreement to abide by the policies of your agency.

At Barnoti’s shelter, dog-walking volunteers are required to leave a driver’s license while they play with the pooches; volunteers get their permits back once they’ve returned the animals to the shelter. Strategically placed security cameras also contribute to a greater level of comfort with volunteers.

As flexible and understanding as many shelter managers try to be, every working environment will produce the occasional disgruntled employee. When staff members leave their positions with bad feelings, they may be leaving you with a new set of security issues. Depending on what you know of their backgrounds, how disgruntled they appear to be, and how much access they had as an employee, you may want to consider adjusting your security system after they’re gone.

In Washington, D.C., WHS has had the occasional security problem involving a staff member or volunteer, necessitating modifications to security protocols. “We just get new keys and switch the combinations for our keypads fairly regularly,” says Monsma. “Even if you’re not worried about an individual, typically if someone’s left or [been fired], we change the combination. … It’s a pain trying to remember the new one for a few days, but you’ve got to do it.”

Access to the building by non-employees needs to be tightly controlled as well, even if the individuals are “regulars” who represent a local animal control agency, a cooperating shelter, or some other government entity. “If you have access by reserve police officers or anything like that, you don’t necessarily want to give them [the codes to your alarm system],” says Belinda Lewis, director of Fort Wayne Animal Care and Control in Indiana. By providing automatic openers to only one staff person from each outside agency, Lewis makes sure someone is always responsible for any extra-agency access to the buildings; previously, outside agencies would come in and trip the alarm system unnecessarily. “Since we’re a 24-hour operating department, and we’ve got so many people coming and going, we had to get very specific about our alarm policy,” Lewis says. “It’s one of the first things you have to train someone on. … Otherwise, supervisors are going to get called out of bed all the time.”

While a selective system for handling the cooperating groups who need regular access to the shelter is a necessity, shelter staffers should also ensure that police and fire department personnel are able to get into the shelter in case of a genuine emergency. Many agencies handle this by having a lockbox containing a key to the shelter; only law enforcement officers and fire fighters should have access to the box.

6. Wield a Mighty Staff

Disgruntled or forgetful staff and volunteers are by no means the only threat to a shelter’s security; once in a while, a member of the public tries to seek retribution for some insult or injurywhether real or perceivedinflicted on him by the agency. Front office staff in particular are in a prime position to deter these potentially dangerous people from committing acts of theft or violence. Some of the people who’ve become criminals by threatening shelter staff or by burglarizing or vandalizing started out simply as customerspeople who came in to the shelter seeking something and left feeling insulted, ignored, or railroaded.

To learn how to avoid aggravating or offending relinquishers and adopters, who are often in a fragile emotional state anyway, shelter staff can benefit from communication seminars like those conducted by Jan Elster, director of Jan Elster & Associates. For more than 15 years, Elster has worked with dog-training and sheltering professionals to ensure that customer service is a top priority. Customer service involves much more than just answering questions correctly and providing good information. Frequently, says Elster, how you say something is as important as what you’re saying. “I tell people to be like the willow treebend, be flexible, but don’t break,” says Elster. Basing her recommendations on principles of martial arts and yoga as well as her own experience, Elster teaches what’s known as “verbal aikido.” The purpose of the training is to help staff stay cool under pressure and learn more effective ways of dealing with customers who may be belligerent or upset; in other words, to turn those difficult people who might pose security risks into satisfied customers.

Shelters across the country have invited consultants like Elster to help them handle some of the trickier aspects of dealing with the human racea group of creatures far more temperamental and complicated than the most standoffish kitty or food-aggressive pooch. “Let’s face it, often in this job we’re dealing with people we don’t like,” says Monsma, whose shelter has worked with Elster’s group regularly. “And sometimes our attitude comes out, and a lot of these people are violent, and pretty soonboom. Communication is the best thing you can do for security.”

Monsma and his staff have worked with Elster to construct hypothetical case studies that help newer staff learn the best ways to deal with risky situations. For example, when a humane officer is confronting a huge, angry man whose dog’s collar has grown into her neck, how can the officer keep the situation under control while still ensuring the best outcome for the dog? If a couple who have been turned down for an adoption are becoming loud and verbally abusive, what can front office staff do to calm them down? Elster’s seminars teach staff how to use tone, body language, and non-threatening words to diffuse situations that have the potential to become ugly.

WHS has found the verbal aikido sessions so effective that the shelter is considering holding them on a bi-monthly basis, with each session focusing on case studies reflective of situations staff might encounter in their work. “Obviously if someone is going to break in and steal your money in the middle of the night, that’s not a situation where communication can help,” Monsma acknowledges. “But most of these problems, like the [attempted arson we had] or folks stealing their dogs, they’re folks we know. … And it happens because somebody came here in a decent frame of mind or just a little bit testy and ended up going berserk because of some lip or attitude he got from an employee.”

7. The Best Defense is a Good Office

While customer service seminars can work wonders for your staff’s understanding of their human clientele, it’s helpful to foster communications among staff members as well. If your organization is working on a hoarding case or investigating a dogfighting ring and you think the suspects could make trouble in your shelter, staff need to be briefed about the case. Obviously, the details of certain operations have to be kept quiet, but shelter personnel should, at a minimum, be made aware of basic facts and be told what (or who) to be on the lookout for.

In San Francisco, SF/DACC works with a system of codes. If a security risk develops, a staffer announces the code over the public address system and the agency’s personnel are put on alert. “Two major codes we use are [one for] suspicious folks in the facility who need to be monitored, and the other code is our panic code, which means that all staff have to report to a certain location immediately,” says Friedman. “We’ve had to use it, unfortunately all too often[everything from] situations where we’re concerned that someone is coming to steal animals to people who are out of it or high or very hostile.” The agency uses this system because Friedman and his staff know there’s strength in numbers; in some cases having staff on hand might deter theft, and in other cases the presence of more people may keep an irate customer from becoming violent.

After a confrontation or other problem does occur, staff ensure that future incidents will be handled better by rehashing every detail and figuring out what was done right and what was done wrong. “Most of the times that people get upset, if you look at the incident, study the incidentand we do that with every threat that happens hereyou can see where one or two of the people have made a mistake,” says Friedman. “Every accident, every near miss, every verbal or physical confrontation is discussed. We have a managers’ meeting once a week and anything of that nature goes on the agenda.”

8. Direct Traffic in Your Shelter

If you’ve taken the time to handpick and educate your staff, volunteers, and supporting agencies, then you’re already on your way to a safer and more secure shelter. But even the best staff in the world can’t prevent some of the things that can happen in a shelter; unfortunately, there are just some bad people in the worldand there are those whose carelessness and sense of mischief can create problems, too. Potential adopters and donors should be able to move about with ease in the shelter, but there’s a fine line between making visitors comfortable and compromising safety. Clear signage can help a shelter maintain that delicate balance. Most people will follow directions if they’re delivered in an accessible and friendly wayyou need to provide instructions, but they don’t need to be presented like commands. Even if you don’t have an artist on staff, you can make bright, clear, and welcoming signs at any local copy shop; the more eye-catching the sign, the better.

Areas where the public is welcome should be designated as such; likewise, areas of the shelter reserved for employees only should be clearly marked and, if necessary, kept locked. “With all of our stray areas at Marin Humane Society, the doors are kept locked so that if you want access to any of those areas, you have to talk with one of our staff who has a key to open them,” says Johnson.

Many organizations that did not lock their kennels and cages in the past have started doing so more recently. While allowing members of the public to interact with adoptable animals is an important part of a shelter’s adoption services, such allowances can’t be made at the risk of the animals’ securityit’s best to have a staff member present during meet-and-greet sessions between animals and potential adopters. Otherwise, people may try to steal animals from the shelter during operating hours; in Nevada, Asher’s staff has had to stop kids from smuggling animals out in oversize clothes or backpacks.

Shelters that are fortunate enough to have facilities that allow for separate receiving and adoption areas benefit from the clarity this setup provides; keeping these two basic functions of the organization in separate spaces can prevent people from wandering aimlessly through the building. If you can reduce the number of people moving randomly through the shelter, you can increase the ability of staff to actually speak to customers who may be lost or confusedand that, of course, will improve not only your security but also your responsiveness to visitors.

Along with separating the different tasks of your agency into different areas of the shelter, you can also perform regular maintenance checkups. Staff should make it a point to walk the perimeter of the outer grounds to make sure that no new facility-related risks are developing; a dig-happy dog can wreak havoc even on a secure chain-link fence, and once that tunnel is there, Muffy, Scooter, and Spike will be happy to use it, one by one. Fences in outdoor animal play or meet-and-greet areas should be tall enough that dogs can’t jump them and visitors can’t pass animals over themsome shelters have had problems with people handing animals over fences to waiting accomplices.

Ensuring that your adopters and reclaiming owners are who they claim to be is such a basic responsibility that it’s barely worth noting the importance of verifying identification and following up on any misgivings you may haveteenagers who claim to own their own property, for example, and folks you suspect may be fudging on the issue of landlord permission. If your alarm bells go off during an adoption or reclaim interview but you can’t put your finger on why, it’s worth taking a few minutes to investigate: Call other shelters in the area and find out if the person has already tried and failed to adopt from their facilities.

9. Mind Your Money

In terms of security priorities, running a close second behind protecting your staff and animals is securing your shelter’s money and supplies. Especially if you take in many small donations, you should keep them in the safest place possible as well as track where money is coming from and where it’s going.

Donation jars in front offices or other heavily trafficked areas shouldbe closely monitored. They should be in view of a trustworthy staff person or surveillance camera to help prevent internal theft. If the donation jar is accessible to the public, it should be locked and securely fastened to whatever counter or area it’s kept in; some organizations have had a person walk in off the street and walk out casually with the jar under his arm. The opening where change and bills can be inserted should be smalla bigger opening allows easy access for talented thieves. A piece of tape attached to a straw or string, dangled or poked into the jar and designed to stick to and pick up bills, is all it takes to drain away an organization’s resources bit by little bit.

Regular deposits of donated money can also keep the spare change from reaching tempting amounts. In keeping track of your dough, don’t neglect the paperwork. If your field officers receive donations while out on calls, these donations should be accompanied by receipts whenever possible.

The SF/DACC has found that requiring two signatures on any check for the purchase of supplies or for reimbursement of employees helps the agency track where the money is going. What’s more, says Friedman, the agency has also found help in one word that usually strikes fear into the hearts of taxpayers: audits. “Because we’re a county agency, we do get audited on occasion by the controller’s office, and while those audits are a little scary, they’re a tremendous help in areas we’re weak in,” says Friedman. “They’ve pointed out areas we could be better in, and we’ve made changes. … I think any agency, private or municipal, should have someone come in and do audits and make sure they’re doing things right.” Embezzlers can do major damage to an organization’s finances, Friedman points out, and it’s important to have a system of checks in place so that you can follow the money and make sure it’s going where it’s needed.

10. Just Say Noand Use a Safe

Other valuable or potentially dangerous supplies, especially veterinary drugs, must also be kept in a safe place. Serious problemslegal, organizational, and personalcan result if your organization doesn’t maintain tight control over euthanasia drugs. Requirements vary from state to state, but the federal Drug Enforcement Administration oversees use of pharmaceuticals used in euthanasia and outlines procedures for securing, handling, and reporting use of these substances. Shelters should keep strict logs detailing the use of all controlled drugs.

Even beyond the issue of legal problems, the drugs used for euthanasia are extremely dangerous; in some cases where the wrong people have gained access to them, the results have been tragic, says Friedman. “Anyone who’s been in this field for a while probably has known someone who’s stolen or taken euthanol and used it to kill themselves,” Friedman says, noting that a suicidal person will use the method most accessible. “If you’re a cop and you want to kill yourself, you shoot yourself with your service revolver. If you’re a construction worker, you jump off a building. If you’re a doctor, you overdose. If you’re an animal care or vet tech, usually you’ll do it with the drugs that are available.”

With the club scene and the continuing popularity of “rave” parties and dances, shelter veterinarians and other veterinary staff also have to take particular care with animal tranquilizers and pre-euthanasia drugs, particularly with a drug called ketamine, known on the street as “Special K.” Ketamine is a sought-after club drug, used in low doses for relaxation and mildly hallucinogenic effects. At higher doses it can produce a sensation described by some as a “near death experience.” A few shelters and veterinary clinics have had trouble with people breaking in to steal ketamine or with staff members commandeering it for themselves. To prevent such problems, veterinary medicines should always be kept in a secure place; only staff who have the need and experience to use them should be allowed access to these drugs.

Both drugs and money are best kept in a heavy-duty safe, preferably one that’s immobile. Shelter managers sometimes feel secure with movable safes, only to come in and find that someone has broken in during the night and, with the aid of a dolly or other vehicle, removed the safe and taken it elsewhere to open it. (Asher theorizes that the safe stolen from her shelter in Nevada is now sitting at the bottom of a lake somewhere because the thieves couldn’t get it unlocked.)

Having a safe attached to the floor can also help prevent a repeat of the fiasco experienced by the Montreal SPCA, where criminals didn’t physically remove the safe, just punched through the bottom of it. “If I have one piece of advice, it’s that any safe should be bolted down,” says Barnoti. “Ours wasn’t. The weakest part of a safe, I learned, is the bottom. … On most sides, the safe is solid metal, heavy-gauge, but some safes have a bottom made of cement and a [thinner] sheet of metal that can be more easily opened.”

The safe donated to the shelter after the burglary is much larger and heavier, virtually impossible to crack into, says Barnoti. It also has different compartments, so that records and donations can be kept in separate parts of the safe; access to one compartment doesn’t give you access to the others. What the SPCA has learned from this incident, in a nutshell, is better safe than sorry (or rather, better to have a better safe than be sorry).

11. All Systems Go

Along with a good safe (or two) for donations, records, and veterinary supplies, there are more basic elements of a physically secure shelter. From locks and fences to alarm systems and video surveillance systems, there’s a veritable cornucopia of security options for you to pick from, and a good consultant can suggest some that will suit your needs and price range.

While Fort Wayne Animal Care and Control is considering conversion to an electronic keypad entry system, the shelter is now guarded by an elaborate and well-designed system of locks and keys. “We sat down with the lock company to design our system of locks,” says Lewis. “We have 96 doors operated by a total of five different keys, and the keys are hierarchical, so there’s a master key that operates every door in the building that only I have, then there’s a key that operates all the supervisors’ offices, narcotic drug closets, and so on. … The last key down operates the employees’ entrance.” It’s a great system, Lewis says, not only because it guarantees that staff have access only to the areas they need to be in, but also because Lewis will have to change just one lock if she ever has a problem with a hostile or disgruntled employee.

In the wake of the fire that wiped out the shelter in Escondido, many shelters are revisiting their fire safety plans and plans for other disasters. Some are retrofitting older facilities to include smoke detectors and fire extinguishers; others are installing alarm systems that can detect both fires and break-ins.

Organizations that aren’t at a good comfort level with the technical side of fire safety have sometimes compensated for their old buildings and lack of sprinkler systems by ensuring that a staff member is present at the facility 24 hours a day. Along with physical improvements to Escondido’s setup, the new facilities will include an apartment where a staff member will live.

Staffing your facility overnight is an especially important consideration if you have nighttime drop boxes for animal relinquishments. A shelter in North Carolina recently suffered a terrible tragedy when someone put a propane tank in a drop box; the tank exploded, killing five animals in the wildlife room and causing more than $10,000 in damages. But the aftermath of the explosion could have been even worse were it not for the presence of a shelter worker in the building; the employee was able to alert the fire department in time to keep the fire from spreading to the rest of the shelter.

Even with the constant presence of able staff, though, shelter managers should still do everything possible to fireproof their facilities. Fire extinguishers should be readily available, fire escape plans should be posted throughout the shelter, and all employees should undergo regular tests of fire and emergency preparedness. A shelter’s disaster plan should be revisited biannually in order to ensure that it remains effective and up-to-date.

12. Lights, Camera, Action

Catching criminals on candid camera isn’t just for banks anymore. Cameras can provide an added sense of safety in shelters with evening or nighttime staff; employees can use them to check out areas they’d hesitate to walk into unprepared. In Fort Wayne, cameras that survey the grounds put the nighttime dispatcher more at ease when she’s working alone in the wee hours.

Top-of-the-range security cameras are extremely expensive, saysJohnson, but the Marin Humane Society staff have found that a mid-level camera works just as well for their purposes, since employees mainly need to know if someone is loitering outside the shelter or if an animal has been dropped off outside the facility. “Our camera, it can maybe tell us whether the person is a man or a woman and give us an idea of what kind of car they drove, but the main thing is that we can see if they’ve dropped off or abandoned an animal outside,” says Johnson. “We don’t spend a lot of time following up on thiswe’d rather they abandon it here than out in the country somewhere.” Outdoor lighting at Marin also makes the environment safer for staff and provides the illumination without which the surveillance cameras would be useless.

Installation of cameras has essentially eliminated the theft of animals from many organizations, including the Montreal SPCA and the Nevada Humane Society. If you do use video surveillance, make sure the central location of the system is also secure. If your video camera is located above your safe and catches every detail of the felons who break in and bust the safe open, you may think you’ve got the crime almost solvedbut if, after stealing the contents of the safe, the thieves proceed down the hall to the taping system and steal the tape too, you’re no better off, says Barnoti. Make sure your systems are what they’re cut out to be; whatever company or individual sets up your alarm or surveillance system can help ensure it’s well-designed and kept somewhere inaccessible.

The installation of security cameras may be greeted with some reluctance by staff, at least initially. People who are trustworthy like to be trusted, and the presence of cameras may cause some hurt feelings. But at the Capital Humane Society in Lincoln, Nebraska, where cameras were installed after an employee had stolen an animal from the night drop area, those hurt feelings quickly dissolved into gratitude.

“We wanted to make sure the public knew that we don’t put up with funny stuff going on here; it was a public trust issue,” says Executive Director Bob Downey. “[Some employees] didn’t like it. But then, literally less than an hour after the surveillance system had been installed, one of our staff was assaulted by a member of the public, and the camera caught the whole thing. It went to court, and the conviction was a slam dunk because the camera had caught all the details.”

The system has also disproved a fake worker’s comp claim, Downey says, as well as a falsified injury claim by a citizen. The cameras have even helped the shelter counter the claims of irate citizens complaining that their animals have been wrongly euthanized. “It’s happened a couple of times,” Downey says, “where they’ve said, ‘I came in at such-and-such a time and talked to this employee about reclaiming my dog, and now you’ve killed it,’ and then when we talk to the employee they denied having spoken to the person.” It’s the sort of thing that could easily disintegrate into a he said/she said fiasco, if not for the camera system: Staff reviewed tapes of the times the people had supposedly come in to claim their animalsand found they’d never even been in the building.

The success of the cameras has helped convince the staff that having “Big Brother” overseeing the shelter isn’t all bad. While no one likes to feel spied on, the safety benefits tend to outweigh the negative aspects. If you don’t stealand don’t pick your nosethe camera won’t cause you any problems at all.

13. Off-Site Options and Special Cases

For animals seized from fighting rings or for those being held pending the outcome of cruelty cases, security is of particular concern. Depending on the circumstances of the case and the condition and disposition requirements of the animals involved, some shelters foster such animals out into specially screened and secure homes; most others keep them in private, secure areas of the shelter where members of the public can’t gain access to them. At the Prince George’s County Animal Shelter, for example, seized animals and animals quarantined for biting are kept in a separate building, and citizens can’t be in the building unless they’re escorted by a uniformed officer.

In some cases, routine security measures won’t be enough. Some shelters contract with security agencies or off-duty police officers when they have a particular need, such as after a major fundraising event or during a dogfighting investigation. Police officers or a private security company can drive by at regular intervals during the night, station personnel on-site, or simply park a security vehicle near the entrance of the shelter to let potential burglars know the place is under surveillance. If you do contract with security companies or officers, it’s worthwhile to find out whether they have worked with shelters in the past; it helps if they understand some of the risks animal protection agencies face.

At WHS in Washington, D.C., thefts of animals rescued from fighting situations have diminished since the shelter began housing animals off-site. “We used to keep the dog fighting seizures at the city shelter,” says Monsma, “but the city told us we could no longer do that, so we’ve been renting space out of town for those dogs, and that’s a secret location so they won’t get stolen. … We just tell people who ask that the dogs aren’t here and we won’t tell them where they are. We’ve been really good about that secret. … It’s a small world and if one person figures out where the dogs are, then the whole city’s going to know.”

If you do place seized animals in off-site housing, you must have explicit and carefully worded contracts with any other agencies or citizens involved, says Barnoti, whose shelter handled a heartbreaking case of horse abuse and used off-site facilities to house the animals. “It was really terrible,” says Barnoti. “When we seized the horses, they couldn’t stand on their feet because their hooves were so overgrown, and we had to struggle to get them out of their stallsthey were prisoners of their own manure.” The SPCA took on $60,000 worth of expenses to treat and house the horses, only to have the judge levy a mere $500 in fines before ordering the horses returned to their owner.

It’s a situation all too familiar to many shelter personnel, but it’s even more difficult to handle when your agency has been aided by outsiders who’ve become attached to the abused and neglected animals they’ve been fostering. “We end up looking like the bad guy, because the people say, ‘What do you mean you’re returning them?’” says Barnoti. “And we have to be respectful of the law, even if we don’t like the outcome; we don’t accomplish anything by playing Robin Hood. So we have to get fosterers to sign very serious documents agreeing that if the court throws the case out, they will abide by the judgment.”

Regardless of whether or not you decide to keep special-case animals off-site or on, with every security procedure or system you implement, you must walk the fine line between protecting your animals and staff and making the shelter seem unfriendly. “Unless I wanted to put in a huge moat with alligators and an impregnable electrified fortress fence, I can’t really see what else we can do,” says Asher, who feels her shelter has found the proper balance. “With too many cameras and fences and barbed wire, you get that prison feeling; when you’re trying to be open and warm and welcoming, you can’t have armed people marching around. I think we’ve made a pretty good compromise with security and surveillance and locks in appropriate places, so it’s better than it’s ever been before.”

Courtesy of

Animal Sheltering Magazine
Humane Society of the United States
2100 L. Street, NW
Washington, D.C. 20037


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