How to Investigate Your Local Shelter and Why You Should

This black lab mix was in the municipal shelter in Big Spring, TX where residents are calling for reform due to the number of dogs being killed by the City.

How to investigate your local shelter and why you should 

Do you know what goes on in your community’s animal shelter? Do you know how many dogs and cats are adopted each year? Returned to their owners? Euthanized? Do you know what the conditions are like? It's something very important to find out because if you don’t inquire, if you don’t visit, you may have no idea there’s a problem.

Watchdog Mary gets emails and messages every week from people concerned their local shelter is keeping animals in horrendous conditions or euthanizing too many.

If you want to expose what’s going on you’ve got to prove it. Here’s 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: How many pets are being euthanized? How many animals are adopted or rescued? Make a public records request to find out. Sometimes city or county 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. This guide gives examples of different request letters. If you run into trouble after you submit the request, or it seems like the agency is stonewalling you, email Watchdog Mary, she will help point you in the right direction.

  • What to Request: Request the number of animals taken in each year and the outcome of each animal. 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.

  • 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? How do they market and inform the public of animals in their facility? If you can’t find any advertising, that might signal a problem. If no one knows a dog or cat exists, how can they be rescued or adopted?

  • Find Witnesses: If you start to see red flags, try to 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. If you tell them you have pictures, video and documentation that may generate more interest.

  • Make a Stink to Municipal or County Officials: Take your documentation to public hearings and show officials 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, a Facebook page or another social media page to expose what’s going on. Ask people to call the city or county where the shelter is located demanding change. Tell people who live in the community how they can get involved.

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 spouse, was once arrested for shoplifting, or has a grudge against you for whatever reason, don’t bring that up. 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 it — that's okay to include. Just stick to the facts and the animals. 

How your community can become "No Kill" 

Nathan Winograd, founder of the "No Kill Revolution" told Watchdog Mary any city or town, regardless of its size, its wealth, or its demographics can become no kill. That means at least 95% of the animals are saved or returned to their owners.

Winograd said 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," he said.

If a shelter isn't saving most of the animals that come through its doors, Winograd recommends asking 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," Winograd said. "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 a 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 use 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.