How to investigate your local shelter and why you should!


As an investigative journalist who helps out in the animal rescue world, I field a lot of questions from people who want to expose poor conditions at their municipal or county shelters. Emails from volunteers concerned about overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, inhumane treatment and even animals who are euthanized painfully or unfairly have filled my inbox over the years.

Sometimes people who care about animals just want to know what their local municipal shelter is up to, but don't know how to find out. It's something very important because if no one inquires you may have no idea what's going on in your own community.

In my line of work I rely on video, pictures and public records to tell a factual story. If you want to prove what’s going on in a shelter you’ve got to prove it. You don’t have to be a reporter to do it, you just need to be brave and keep reading, I’m going to tell you the secrets of how you can be your own pet detective.


  • Take Pictures or Video: If you see a problem in a shelter, whip out your cell phone and take pictures. Document what you see. Are animals being kept in dirty conditions? In cages that are too small? Are dogs and cats malnourished? Having visual confirmation of this is invaluable, and the more pictures and video the better. Can you document the conditions for a couple of days? A week straight? Keep recording!
  • Make Public Records Requests: Do you wonder how many pets are being euthanized? Or how many animals are adopted or rescued? Make a public records request to find out! Sometimes officials make this sound “scary” like you need to be an attorney or journalist to do it, you don’t!  Anyone can make a public records request. Each state has different laws, but essentially you just type out a relatively simple request and email, mail or fax it to the city, town or county agency in charge of the shelter. Every state has different laws, but this guide gives examples of different state request letters. If you run into trouble after you submit the request, or it seems like the agency is stonewalling you, email me, I’ll help point you in the right direction.
  • What to Request: You want to request the number of animals taken in each year and the outcome of each animal. So how many were adopted? Transferred to rescue groups?  Sent to a foster program? Returned to owner? How many were euthanized?  And of the ones that were euthanized, why?  See if you can find out the reasons and does it seem reasonable.
  • Snoop around online:  Does the shelter have a Facebook or social media page where they post animals in need?  Do they have a website? Do they uses sites like Petfinder or Adopt a Pet to post animals who need homes?  If you call the shelter and ask them how to claim a lost animal what do they tell you? If you ask about how to adopt an animal, what is their answer? Do they have a program? See how they market and try to help the animals. 
  • Find Witnesses: Find former shelter volunteers, workers or even vets who have visited the pound. See what they say about it. Ask if they have pictures, video or documentation.

Expose the Evidence

Once you’ve got some evidence, make it known:

  • Go to the Media: Pound on the door, email and call every media outlet near the city or town where the shelter is located. If you’ve got a favorite investigative reporter or station you can try contacting them first. Offer them an exclusive on the story. Nothing intrigues a journalist, especially a television journalist, more than hearing “exclusive”. That little word combined with a tipster telling them they have pictures, video and documentation exposing a situation will generate more interest. 
  • Make a Stink to Municipal or County Officials: Take your documentation to public hearings and show those in charge what’s going on. Call the mayor’s office or the county commissioner. Bring all your evidence.
  • Use Social Media: Make a webpage or a Facebook page to expose what’s going on. Load pictures and video onto a YouTube link to create an easy way to view your documentation. Tweet about it. Facebook about it. Ask people to call the city or county where the shelter is located demanding change.

Stick to the Facts:

If you have a long standing feud with the shelter director or animal control officer, don’t get into old battles in your documentation. Stick to the facts. Even if he/she got an OUI, stole your wife or husband, was once arrested for shoplifting, or has a grudge against you for whatever reason, don’t bring that up to question someone's character. You don't want anyone to question your motives. Write out what’s been happening at the shelter in a chronological, clear and concise way.

Exception: If the head of the shelter was fired in his or her last job for mistreating animals, or has been convicted of animal abuse or neglect and you can prove this--then THAT’S okay to include. Just stick to the facts and the animals. 

How to become "No Kill" and evaluate how your city or town is doing: 

I spoke with Nathan Winograd, founder of the "No Kill Revolution", he says any city or town, regardless of its size, its wealth, or its demographics can become "no kill". He told me success comes from dedicated volunteers and good leadership at the top, "You need a passionate director at the pound who doesn’t hide behind 'too many animals, not enough homes' and works to tap into the compassion of the community."

Winograd's goal is for shelters to have a 95 to 99 percent save rate. If a shelter doesn't have that, he says ask questions,  "When someone says, 'Well I can’t get enough foster homes,' that tells me someone is doing something wrong, they aren’t being effective in their recruitment. There’s a huge disconnect in this movement from people who work incredibly hard but aren't saving animals, this could mean they aren’t working strategically. It doesn’t matter what you want to work, or what you hope will work, we know what does work! Communities are saving lives and they all recruited their foster homes the exact same way, you want to make sure you follow in those footsteps."

Winograd's organization developed an entire "toolkit" to help communities become "no kill". This guide can help you evaluate how your city or town is doing. Once you have the big picture go to the toolkit for other resources to help. He says the days of "catch and kill" animal control can be eliminated by this generation... if people care.

If you don't know what's going on in your local community, you should find out. Animals are counting on you.