ASAP: 20 Years of Achieving the Impossible

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

- Margaret Mead

The Animal Shelter Assistance Program is celebrating its 25th year anniversary in 2014.  We have a compelling story to tell. It is a tale of hard work, perseverance, and an unwavering commitment to placing stray cats in loving homes.  This is our story . . .

Before There Was ASAP...

Trying to imagine what the shelter environment was like in 1989 is nearly impossible for anyone who wasn't directly involved then—due to the number of cages available, the population was limited to approximately 50 cats, including kittens. In 1988 alone, the County euthanized approximately 4,400 cats— this included un-socialized kittens, sick and injured cats, and (worst of all) many healthy, well-socialized cats who had the potential to become wonderful companions. It was considered inhumane at that time to house a cat longer than two weeks in a cage, so after a mere 14 day stay at the shelter, a cat was killed. The adoption rate for cats was only 10%, meaning that 90% of cats entering the shelter were killed.

In October of 1989, a group of animal lovers attended a County Board of Supervisors meeting to protest the planned closure of the Santa Barbara County Animal Shelter on Saturdays. Since the shelter was already closed on Sundays, the group felt strongly that Monday through Friday access to the shelter to redeem and adopt animals was not sufficient. T he Supervisors agreed, on the condition that those in protest would assist the shelter staff in keeping it open on Saturdays. And from that mandate, the Animal Shelter Assistance Program (ASAP) was born.

Prior to 1989, there had never been volunteers at the shelter, and while the need for better animal care and public service was widely acknowledged, it was difficult to navigate the political and emotional complexities of public sector involvement. The County Animal Control Officers and the Shelter Management were very concerned about losing any of the decision-making authority with regard to the animals. Understandably, there was concern about arriving at a situation where the shelter was being run by volunteers of dubious qualification. At the same time, there was interest in utilizing the resources offered by the volunteers and in upgrading the image of the Shelter. As ASAP volunteers become more experienced, they were allowed, little by little, to take on more responsibility.

ASAP Proves Itself One Day At A Time...

In the beginning, ASAP volunteers worked only on Saturdays. They were allowed to exercise the dogs, groom the cats, and assist the public in selecting animals for adoption, but the officer on kennel duty for the day was responsible for all cage cleaning. In addition to limited responsibilities, ASAP had absolutely no say as to which cats were to be saved and which were to be killed. But by the fall of 1990, ASAP had taken full responsibility for the daily cleaning, feeding and medicating all of the tame cats seven days a week, 365 days a year. The existing shelter space was reorganized to provide an area for isolating sick cats from healthy ones, a big leap forward. As ASAP became more an integral part of caring for the cat population at the Shelter, ASAP's ability to advocate against killing increased—not just for healthy animals, but for sick and injured ones as well.

Becoming A "No-Kill" Shelter...

Eventually, ASAP reached an agreement with the County: cats that could tolerate it could be housed as long as one month in the hopes of being adopted. Initially, a month seemed like a long time compared to the previous two week cut-off period, but so many wonderful cats needed longer to recover and find their forever home. ASAP asked for exceptions on an almost daily basis and crept toward a policy of keeping the cats as long as it took to find them a suitable placement. Because of dedicated lobbying, backed up by hard work, during 1990, the last euthanizations of healthy, adoptable cats occurred at the Santa Barbara Animal Shelter. It was official: ASAP had become the first municipal shelter in the U.S. to stop the killing of adoptable cats for the sole purpose of population control. In addition, by the end of 1990, ASAP's adoption rate leapt from a mere 10% to 100% of adoptable cats.

The Improvements Continue...

Of course, the problem of appropriate space to house cats was a growing and critical concern. Despite the addition of a sick bay shed, the need for a larger shelter space was too great to ignore. Throughout the 1990s, ASAP continued to expand the facilities by adding mobile units.

In 1991, the first shelter veterinarian was hired and the level of veterinary care for the cats was elevated to a standard not seen before in the shelter environment—including vaccinations, testing for FIV and FeLV, and the ability to treat more effectively for upper respiratory infections and other illnesses. In 1995, ASAP, in cooperation with the Shelter Management, embarked on a mandatory and early spay/neuter program so that all cats and kittens were altered before adoption. In 1997, ASAP initiated the Lester fund which provides funds for extraordinary medical procedures, and in 1998 it began the Post Adoption Care program to provide veterinary care for cats within the first two weeks of adoption.

By the time ASAP celebrated its 10th anniversary in 1999, it was recognized as a role model not only in the extraordinary care that it was providing for the cats, but also as an example of a successful collaboration between a nonprofit and a municipal shelter.

ASAP stepped into the new millennium with extensive shelter remodel plans. These plans included a large main room for housing the adoptable cat population, veterinary exam room, surgery, isolation, sick bay, kitten room and special areas for small groups of cats and kittens to play together. The grand opening of the new shelter was held on October 20, 2001. In subsequent years, ASAP has added a fully-equipped on-site surgery, and continues to improve the quality of care that it delivers to the County's stray cats.

From Humble Beginnings To A Bright Future...

ASAP began with a central goal of attempting to eliminate the killing of adoptable cats, something that had never been done by a municipal shelter. Everyone involved agreed that the goal was noble, but could it be achieved in a humane and responsible way? In reality, ASAP should never have survived—if you consider the number of cats that were impounded, the extreme shortage of space, money and volunteer time, and opposition from several fronts. But looking back now at all that ASAP has accomplished over the past 20 years, not only has that goal been achieved, but the standard by which ASAP holds itself accountable keeps getting higher—and the dedicated volunteers continue to rise to meet the challenges with hard work, enthusiasm and the knowledge that tens of thousands of cats have been saved through their efforts.