Episode 65 – Dr. Sara Pizano

65 Dr. Sara Pizano_FB

65 Dr. Sara Pizano_FB

Dr. Pizano is a 1994 Cornell vet school grad and has spent her career in shelter medicine, operations and now large scale transformation. Dr. Pizano draws from her experience as a veterinarian and shelter leader in both private shelters and as a public shelter director. As one colleague stated, ‘Dr. Pizano leaves a wake of life-saving behind her and is devoted to helping animal welfare advocates collaborate’.

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 Dr. Sara Pizano is considered a leading expert in shelter reform with unprecedented results. As an accomplished public speaker, an influencer in particular with municipal leaders, she is a positive force, helping organizations by creating cost-effective programs and eliminating waste, so they reach their full potential. Team Shelter USA was created in August of 2017 and in an effort to offer a wider scope of services to help shelters of all types and sizes, regardless of their challenges and resources. The goals for all animal welfare organizations to implement proven lifesaving best practices, that ultimately provide sustainable resolution for issues long believed to be unsolvable.

 Hey, Dr. Pizano, Thanks for coming on today. Thank you so much, Chris. I appreciate the invitation and opportunity. Yes. So why don’t you give us a little bit about you? For people that don’t know you. I know you’ve been on other podcasts and have been a speaker, but kind of run through your background for us. Sure. Well, I was that typical kid that had the best dog in the world. And so when I was three years old, I announced to my parents that I was gonna be a, actually, a vegetarian, and they thought, Well, she doesn’t even know what that means. So they figured out, it meant veterinarian and just That’s it.  I just feel it was my calling. There was never a plan B. So I was just, I just felt so blessed to be accepted to Cornell Vet school, and then I did an internship in Manhattan, at the Animal Medical Center and worked at North Shore Animal League after that. So that was sort of my introduction into the sheltering world. But I don’t know if, how much you know about North Shore, but financially unlimited. That’s not normal, right? But that was my normal. I’m like, Oh, this animal welfare thing is awesome, it has got money and no problem. They need Oh, you know, $7000 orthopedic surgery. No problem, you know. So that was Dr Pizano’s introduction.

 And then I began, I did move to Florida, and I began working at an open admission private shelter that was euthanizing for space. And Chris, that was, that was the first time I ever knew. And when I speak publicly, I always tell people I’m gonna just give you the basics because look at my amazing education. And I was through Cornell and out of school for three years before, four years before, I even knew the reality about euthanasia for population control, and that was, really brought me to my knees. And that’s when I said, you know, because I could have run back and I said, You know what? This is where the opportunity is to change because this is not acceptable. And this system in animal welfare that we’ve set up, it’s set up and destined for failure, and there has to be a better way. So from that moment, that’s been my inspiration, you know, starting off with my perfect dog, of course, Boy Up. But that really has been my motivation. 

Wow, it sounds like it had a really profound impact on you. Absolutely. Because when you, I think, you know, the way that I’ve always approached a shelter or the whole shelter system is, how would I feel if my beloved dog or cat, was in that shelter? Like, How would I feel? So it’s always been unacceptable that animals ended up in shelters and we just try and work so hard to keep them comfortable. But you and I both know it’s not our home, right? Oh, um, so we just are so shelter, you know, all of us in the open admission world are so devoted to end, you know, obviously private shelters, to just devoted to caring for the shelter pets. But really, we now know better that there are so many amazing ways to keep them out of the shelter. Yeah, and it sounds like you’re doing your part then, to try and take the best practices and now educate and bring them to the parts of the country and the other shelters that are not aware of all these things.

 That’s right and what’s exciting today and you know this, Chris, you’re a tech person. But everything that I teach and preach you can find online. You can get educated for free. There’s amazing blogs and websites and webinars constantly and podcasts just like yours. But what I found is, as I’ve worked with public shelters, over 60 public shelters and the foundation of those organizations and systems are destined for failure. And so that’s the problem. And I was just blessed to have been chosen to, as the first program director, for an organization that a lot of you have heard about, Target Zero. So in 2013 I started to create this assessment process and what would that look like? And remember back then, we’re like, Well, jeez, we have one funder that’s gonna pay for all this. So it’s free for the shelters. How amazing is that? So let’s, you know, he wanted to focus on ending euthanasia. So we only chose shelters with high euthanasia rates. And I can tell you that now, in my experience, with all these shelters, there’s all these common threads and it starts with the foundation. Absolutely.

 So what are the common things? I guess that you’ve seen I mean, you mentioned that, you know, the system in some ways is broken, right? And some of these things, walk us through them and you started out in this as you said, a very advanced, I don’t know, well funded shelter. And then you move down into one that was in a different situation. Help me understand. Like your practice through all this is, what are you seeing as the common threads? Yes. So when I was a public shelter director, I was shocked to learn that the local ordinance had not been updated in 30 years. So imagine what’s happened in the last 30 years, right? in the world and in animal welfare. So when I started visiting shelters and they would say things like, Well, we can’t do that because of our ordinance, period. And I said, Well, then let me talk to the decision makers. So, now the first thing I do is before I do an assessment, I set up meetings with commissioners and mayors and county administrators and county attorneys or municipal attorneys and talk about revising ordinances that focus on public animal safety. Because the thing is Chris, along the way, with the best of intentions, we’ve inserted all these things that have created barriers to lifesaving in our shelters. And so that’s the very first step. Is setting that system up and telling these elected officials, you are not being financially responsible if you don’t implement best practices because you’re wasting money on programs that are not getting you results. So ordinances are number one.

 Then what’s happening in the community? Remember, historically, we’re just this funnel, right? So everybody just floods into the shelter with no barriers. But then, boy are there a lot of barriers to get animals out of the shelter, right? So we need to think about turning the funnel upside down. And now we know, Holy cow, if we have a safety net for people, the ASPCA just did a brand, a new study came out recently, that showed over 80% of the people that were surrendering, actually would have opted for services, if they had somebody to help them. 80%.  It was over 80% and they did another one in 2015 that that research showed 40%. The thing is, it’s a missed opportunity. And listen, Chris, you probably were in that pile of people with me, judging everybody leaving animals at shelters. Yeah. You’re a bad person because you let, right?

 So we have this very judgmental attitude against people leaving animals in shelters. I know I did, but boy did that open my eyes, and now we know you look at Brevard Sheriff’s Office. We said, Hey, you know, try this safety net. If you help 30% of the animals, you know, either stay in the homes or get them services to rehome them, so they don’t have to come to the shelter. 30% would be amazing. Guess what they did? 80% 1st year, 80% decrease in owner surrenders of both dogs and cats. So we have a great opportunity. But we need to stop judging people. We need to say, we need to ask them what they need, whether it’s to keep their pet or rehome. So that’s a big thing.

 Yeah, it definitely sounds like there’s some programs that can have a huge impact in a lot of areas across the country.  And here’s the thing though,16 states. I’ve worked in 16 states, rural, urban, high poverty rates, low poverty rates and the approach and the way that I do the assessments, has worked everywhere, every single time. In fact, out of those 60, I just looked at 18 of those shelters and I thought, gee, what was the difference? What kind of difference did I make? And I looked at the euthanasia numbers of dogs and cats. The year before I was there, and the year after, in just 18 shelters, Chris, 47,000 less animals were euthanized. That’s amazing. Those numbers are, I mean, I never would have expected that they would be that big. Yeah, yeah. I mean, it’s that this is that big. And so how did that happen? Not just ramping up the live outcome programs, of course, that is so important but targeted spay/neuter. But shelter neuter return, TNR, for those cat population management. Again, sometimes we get a little lax.  Well, this is a common problem. Well we shouldn’t say sometimes. It’s a common thread that nobody’s looking at the big picture when the animals come in the shelter because the minute they come in, if you couldn’t find them an alternative, the minute they come into your shelter, there must be a plan and a team trying to get them out to alive outcome as quickly as possible.

So why do you think, I mean, as you mentioned, you know, a little bit ago, that all of this information is out there, right? It’s technology’s made things really seamless and easy, you can find things on YouTube and Facebook. Why is it that you think more of these programs are not being adopted? Well, I think in a lot of parts of the country, they are. And I think there’s a lot of successful programs. Remember, I am in this pool of shelters on the other end of the bell curve. I just recently spoke at a national veterinary conference, and the major part of my first session was about the human brain. And so number one our human brain amplifies negatives, and we trigger to the worst case scenario. Even if one time out of 100 something bad happened, that’s what we’re gonna bring up first. So you combine that with an emotional entity, like a shelter and animals that were very bonded to. We want to protect them, and so we’re afraid of change. We’re afraid because we only remember those negative things that happened in the past.

 But, I don’t know if you’ve read Adopters Welcome by HSUS, The guidelines. Have you seen that? I haven’t seen that one? Oh my gosh, it is a must-read for anyone in animal welfare, came out in 2015. You can download it for free on animalsheltering.org or by a hard copy for $15. Boy did that, that was eye-opening for me. And one of the numbers, the sets of numbers, helps me teach a lot of people that are stuck in sort of the old school ways. 144 million animals,  pets live in our families in the United States, 6 to 8 million entering shelters and a very small fraction of those, victims of halting neglect and abandonment. So you see where I’m going. So when we think about our microcosm, your rescue, I’m guaranteed your Facebook blows up with pictures of cruelty, neglect and abandonment. That’s your microcosm. But that’s not the world right? That’s not globally what’s happening. And so a lot of times, these shelters and leaders are afraid of a negative consequence, but in reality they don’t have to be. And so what I do is I come in and say,”Hey, Here’s what’s happening nationally. Here’s examples of successful programs around you, so you don’t have to be afraid. We already figured it out, and I’m gonna help you with these steps.” But what about this? But what about that? But what? It’s okay. We fear those negative outcomes, but guess what they don’t happen. And I was right there with people, you know, in a lot of these things. But so really, to me right now, absolutely the most exciting time in animal welfare, Chris. Because when I started 30 years ago, I saw a lot of empty cages, and that’s because animals were euthanized. And today I see empty cages because animals are saved. And I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t see a way out 30 years ago. We were just, Holy cow, how are we ever going to get out of this hole? So it’s so incredibly exciting to know, Hey, we got the answer. This is amazing. Yeah, it seems like you’re able to bring them a tool kit and give them different programs. And like you said, you’re showing them how they work and you’re showing them that, Yeah, while you might think, or you might believe that this is what the outcome is gonna be, here is actually what happens, and you’re able to give them case studies of where these things have been a success.

 And links, people link, they rate you and I was talking because we’re both in animal welfare. We relate to people like us. So I will take a commissioner in town A and link them to a commissioner in town B, so one can say, Hey, we were right where you are and we transformed. And I just want to encourage you. I link the animal welfare attorneys with municipal attorneys and directors of like organizations that are geographically close or somehow similar. And that really helps as well. But you know what? I sell confidence. I just give people the confidence to take the step, you know, in the right direction. So Team Shelter is what is my company, that I started a little over a year ago, so that I could really expand my services and help more communities in different ways and creative ways. So it’s been really exciting.

 Yeah. I wanted to ask you. What really kind of inspired you to do that?  To start your own company, Team Shelter USA. I’m sure you spent some time thinking about the name that you wanted to portray. Yes. Well, USA because I’m national. Team because this is a team effort. All of us play a role. All of us have a piece. It doesn’t matter who you are, how much money you do or don’t have, how much time you do or don’t have. Everyone is holding a piece of this puzzle. You can donate time, money. You can help network online. You can volunteer at the shelter. You can do a capital campaign for a shelter. I mean, there’s an endless array of ways that you can help. Be a foster parent, um, adopt. There’s just so many endless ways. And so that’s how I came up with the name and my clients are varied. So I have one of my biggest clients is the Joanie Bernard Foundation. It is a Cat Foundation in Cincinnati. And we just ended euthanasia of cats, in all of northern Kentucky. Wow. So that’s been an amazing project. And you can read all about this stuff on teamshelterusa.com. But, um, I was selected as a sole source from the University of Florida. And so I head up their assessment program. And why I love this program so much is I am, and I am an LLC. So I charge for my services. But with the University of Florida contract, guess what? The shelters get my services for free, so that’s amazing, right? That, um, that I still can get to the shelters that need the most help, right? Yeah, absolutely.

 So I’m curious. Like, what does a typical week look like for you? There is no typical. Okay. So I, um I travel typically every other week. So I am on the road, doing an assessment, every other week. And then when I’m home, I have a home office. And during that time, I am talking to potential clients that might contact, get a lot of referrals from all the national organizations and obviously the University of Florida. So I am talking to potential clients. I am also helping my clients that I have done assessments for because I’m helping them implement what I recommended. And that’s another important part of what I do. It’s not just, you know, we, there have been organizations that did assessments, and they no longer do them because they didn’t find them effective. But that’s because they did the assessment and left. And people need a little bit of hand-holding, along the way, to make these changes because there’s a lot of moving parts, so I help support them, after the assessment. I may be talking to a funder who wants my advice about how to set up a funding campaign. There are funders that call for my advice about you know, who they should give to and how they should design the program. So it’s really been so interesting and creative because I don’t have a typical day ever.

 Yeah, yeah, it sounds like you’ve got quite a bit going on. And like you said, you’re traveling around the country and in the midst of all this, you’re also writing a book? Yes. So this is extremely, extremely exciting. So again, I didn’t make up these. These core best practices are shared by all of us, right? Best Friends and ASPCA and HSUS. All the core best practices, Milling Cat Challenge. And so I have been asked over and over,” Where can I find, you know, I want to read about your approach.” Because I do an individual report for each assessment and I said, “Well, it’s in my brain. I don’t, right? It’s all over the Internet, kind of splattered like the stars. So  has underwritten my book, which is called The Best Practice Playbook for Animal Shelters. And Dr. Hurley, from the University of California and Dr. Levy, from the University of Florida, are my editors. And the Joanie Bernard Foundation is also a sponsor, and so it’ll be out in early 2019, with input from the Fear Free Team and because they want the sheltering that Through Free Sheltering is coming out soon. And input from Animal Arts, which is a phenomenal shelter design company. So I am so excited because everything I’m talking about, everything I teach will be now in one playbook, very user-friendly, for everybody to access. Whether you’re a commissioner, shelter director, a county worker or rescue partner, a volunteer, a transport person. It’s going to be user friendly for everybody, and everybody will learn, here’s the system, so that they understand how they could be a part of the solution. And Chris, one thing that comes to mind as I say that everyone I just mentioned, guess what? If they go to their elected officials and say, We want these Best Practices Ordinance revisions, the officials will listen and they will absolutely pass Best Practice Ordinances. So if we all work together, this happens much quicker. Yeah, I really love that. Is that you’re developing the tool kit again, right? But you’re making it available. So as you said we can, we can build that momentum, we can have that grassroots effort because, individually, there’s only so much anyone of us can do. But if we enable and empower people with the right tools and the right best practices, we can really create the movement.

 Exactly. And, you know, people say to me, Yeah, you know, we don’t have the money, we need a bigger shelter, we need a bigger staff. And I said, actually, you don’t. So look at Dr. Kim Sanders. She took over Anderson County’s Public Shelter. The week we did the assessment. And guess what, Chris? In three months she took that shelter from a 50% save rate, to a 90% save rate. They’re in their second year now. She did that in three months with no increase in budget, no increase in staff and no increased space. She did it because she implemented commonsense best practices and she did it in three months. Yeah, you think about three months. That’s a very short period of time. And to make that much progress with no increase in budget and just leveraging the best practices that are out there, that’s amazing. And anybody can do it, you know. And people say again, I say, We want you to do the return to field program. You know the shelter neuter return. Don’t take those stray cats in the shelter. They’re not getting returned to their owners less than 3%, right? So what a waste for them to sit in the shelter and get sick. And for the majority of them to get euthanized. Nationally, doing that program instead of taking them into your shelter system, sterilized, vaccinate, ear tip, put them right back where they already are cared for and don’t need you or your intervention. In Greenville, South Carolina, they documented that that was budget neutral with 2000 cats year one. So year one, 2000 cats did not enter the shelter. Instead, that would have otherwise. Instead, they went to spay /neuter, and they will put back where they were found. And it was budget neutral. That is key, right? Nobody has the additional funds like you, like you talked about in the beginning. So having these best practices, knowing they work, knowing that you don’t need an increase in budget, that’s gotta be revolutionary for some. Absolutely, you know, Julie Castle from the executive director at Best Friends, recently asked me if I thought the problem with animal welfare was underfunded, and I said, Absolutely not. I think the problem is that animal welfare, the traditional system, is extremely wasteful, And so when we eliminate that waste, it’s remarkable what we can accomplish. 

Well, Dr. Pizano, this has been a really interesting discussion, and I appreciate you coming on and sharing about Team Shelter USA. Is there anything else you wanted to share with us before we wrap things up? I just want to encourage your listeners, you know, half of what I teach now, I wasn’t thinking or doing 20 years ago, right? I was standing and thinking the opposite. So to please, you know, look at these best practices. Read my book. Read Adopters Welcome. Get on all those blobs from ASPCA, Maddie’s and learn about all these amazing programs. You don’t have to be afraid, if we if we just engage our communities, whether it’s as good Sam Foster parents or adopters when we all work together and we just let go of that fear, you’re gonna, we’re gonna end euthanasia tomorrow. If everybody could just do that. Very well stated. Well, thank you, Dr Pizano, for coming on. It was a pleasure to speak with you. I appreciate it, Chris, Thank you so much.

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