Over the past month, our group has been engaged with Austin Pets Alive! (APA) in order to use design research (specifically, contextual inquiry) to learn in real-time how employees and volunteers log their activity and communicate to achieve consistent care for the thousands of animals that pass through their programs.
APA is a no-kill shelter, which they define as 95%+ life outcomes. Basically when the Austin Animal Center creates their ‘euthanasia list’, APA steps in and takes those animals into care with the goal of nursing them, fostering them, and ultimately getting them adopted. We learned in this process that Austin is one of a select group of cities that can boast the ‘no-kill’ label, which is really cool.
We would like to share the stories of three people at APA that we feel illuminate some of the major issues APA deals with on a daily basis.
First is Brent. Brent is a researcher for APA but has held many roles over the last 6 years. He started as a volunteer when he first moved to Austin, and through that experience learned of a full-time position with APA. He has stuck with APA through a Masters program and now a doctoral program because he believes in the shelter’s mission.
“I guess just the overall satisfaction with the job and what I would consider good work being done by the shelter is what kept me here as more of a career rather than just a placeholder job.”
(Brent line 146)
However, Brent is routinely frustrated in his capacity as a researcher, mainly due to a lack of consistency around the way information is logged and shared across the whole of APA. APA pays for a CRM program called ShelterLuv, which was supposed to be a way to achieve paperless operations and to centralize information. Even after years of having ShelterLuv, this is not the case.
“We switched to ShelterLuv hoping we would go paperless. We didn’t. I don’t think that any department is even close to being paperless.”
(Brent line 30)
A while back, Brent recognized inefficiencies and did his best to make changes. However, his pleas fell on deaf ears.
“My boss, at the time, wanted everybody to be writing out paper prescriptions for all these animals. So what we would do is take pictures of them, email them to a data entry volunteer … I basically wanted to go over my then-bosses head because I disagreed … we were wasting tons of money. It was thousands of dollars that we were wasting over a year, just in the incremental time and amount we were paying [a data entry person] … [the CEO] was busy with other stuff so she was like ‘no,’ … so I got the ‘follow your orders.”
(Brian lines 61-64)
It’s hard not to identify with Brent – having a good idea that could save money, with strong supporting evidence – then being brushed off. The feeling of not being heard can be crushing and can cause people to lose passion for going above and beyond.
Next, we have Gail. Gail is the manager of the kitten nursery. It is a new role for her this year. Gail had been working at a legal services firm for 17 years, which equipped her with solid organizational skills. Gloria loves her job,
“I love saving animals. Love it. I had no idea. Growing up as a kid I thought when you take your cat to the shelter they just found a new home. Like I had no idea that counties killed so many animals. So being here being able to save so many animals is why I do it.”
(Gail line 5)
Gail loves the “one stop shopping” for data provided by the spreadsheets she inherited from the previous manager. Keep in mind that this spreadsheet exists outside of ShelterLuv; this is the exact problem identified by Brent in his workflow.
One of the challenges Gail faces in her role is Panleuk outbreaks in the nursery. Panleuk is a deadly and highly contagious disease that is easily spread through physical contact. Once a room is ‘Panleuk exposed’ it becomes quarantined and kittens cannot be admitted or moved to a different room. This is extremely stressful because it limits the number of kittens Gail can intake and could lead to kittens being euthanized elsewhere.
“Panleuk is one of the worst things to deal with. It’s always a challenge, it’s probably the biggest challenge – Panleuk outbreaks brakes. When an outbreak happens, the entire room shuts down. So we will have a room with cages that we can’t use because Panleuk is in there.”
(Gail line 10)
Gail’s job is further complicated because the nursery relies heavily on volunteers so anything not completed falls on her shoulders. This problem is two-fold. On the one hand, reliable volunteers are needed to help feed and keep kittens alive. Feeding for “bottle babies” must occur every 2-3 hours. On the other hand, Gail has no operating budget, which means she must lean heavily on the community for bare necessities – bleach, paper towels, Tupperware, towels, etc…
“We have no budget. None. Even if we really need something, it all has to be donated.”
(Gail line 113)
After following Gail for a couple hours during an influx of kittens, I can definitively say she is a superhero. She would process a litter, wash her hands at the other end of the nursery, walk back and check the feeding schedules, bark a couple orders, process another litter, wash her hands at the other end of the nursery, and basically do this all over again until all the cats were in cages. She washed her hands 9 or 10 times, about 50 feet away from the action. Then she went right back to dealing with volunteers that “called out,” meaning they are skipping their shift.
She does it because she loves animals and it really struck me how much of her success relies on help from the community.
Finally is Betsy. As training coordinator at APA, Betsy’s role is essential to keeping the kittens alive. The neonatal kitten unit is a specialized operation and it is essential for volunteers to understand the importance of their role. One of the problems Betsy has to overcome is educating the volunteers they are going to get dirty and be in stressful situations.
“We want to set the expectations up front that [volunteers are not here to cuddle cute and fluffy kittens. You’re not here to play with them. You’re not here to socialize them. And bottle feeding isn’t always easy and it’s not all bottle feeding. What it is, is always rewarding and fulfilling, and can always be fun.”
(Betsy line 92)
If bottle feeding volunteers do not understand the importance of their role, it halts the neonatal kitten unit because vet techs, managers, and other staff need to stop their duties of administering meds and in-taking new kittens in-order to tend to the most important need of the kittens, being fed.
Betsy not only trains volunteers at APA but is responsible for training vet-techs from other shelters across the country who are setting up neonatal units in their shelters.
Following the conclusion of our Research Phase, our next step is to synthesize the utterances from our interviews into themes. Identifying themes will lead us to meaningful solutions that allow us to work towards finding ways for APA to optimize how they chronicle activity and communicate important information to provide consistent care.