Almost as soon as I arrived as the Chief of Field Operations for the City of Albuquerque Animal Welfare Department, Mayor Keller’s Office asked us to review our pet licensing program. One of the mayor’s policy positions is the use of local businesses in an effort to reduce the millions of dollars spent annually outside of the city of Albuquerque and the State of New Mexico.
At the animal shelter, we were using an out of state contractor to process pet licensing. Previously, the department had looked at the feasibility of bringing the program in house, which didn’t seem practical due to the cost and increased staff workload.
Our budget showed anticipated revenues of $300,000 generated by the pet licensing program, but the department lost approximately $27,000 in the previous fiscal year due to the costs of the contract exceeding the revenues generated by the program.
When I arrived and was asked to look again, we used the AVMA’s Pet Ownership Calculator to estimate our cat and dog population. To estimate our compliance rate of pets (both cats and dogs) licensed in our community we looked at the number of pets licensed compared to the estimated pet population.
In Albuquerque, we estimated that only 20% of the pets in the community were currently licensed. As we looked closer at the data, we determined that nearly half of those licenses were part of our fee-waived programs. Only 11% of the pet population had paid for a pet license.
Our early research showed that the program not only had low compliance, but it was cost-ineffective. We knew something had to change. We wanted to get rid of licensing and use microchips instead. Historically, licenses have not been effective in returning animals to their owners, because pets will often lose their tags or their collars, or the license won’t make it on them in the first place. A microchip is an identifying integrated circuit placed under the skin of an animal.
We started the process to make the change. Here are the five steps we took to make the switch from licensing to microchips:
Many states have language for pet licensing in their statutes which can be challenging to change. In New Mexico, the statute reads “Every municipality and each county may provide by ordinance for the mandatory licensure of dogs over the age of three months.” The key phrasing in the statute is “may”, meaning we were not required to have a licensing program.
One key ordinance the City of Albuquerque already had was mandatory microchipping for pets in the community, which became very important for our proposed program changes. With the assistance of our city attorney, we drafted language for the following proposed changes to the local HEART(Humane Ethical Animal Rules and Treatment) ordinance:
In an effort to boost compliance and to aid officers to assist pet owners, registration service for microchips would be free for pet owners. Our officers are able to register any microchip while out in the field.
When the Mayor’s Office asked for a negative paper (a proposal that would either eliminate or save the city money) for our upcoming budget, pet licensing was the only item we discussed. It was part of a greater package of increased services to the community in the areas of spay or neuter, vaccinations and support resources for the underserved communities.
We had a full schedule of meetings with the city to discuss the program elimination but more importantly how it fits into the vision of the department of compliance and supportive programs. The Mayor’s Office was on board and multiple councilors advised that they would sponsor the ordinance change.
Now with all of the data in hand and support from elected officials, we still had one more hurdle to face in the process. We needed community support
Some media stories hit just as the budget was going through approval. The following was just one such story: Lack of pet license puts owner in the doghouse. It gave the department a platform to start socializing the low compliance and the costs of the program to the community.
In July of 2019, we started free microchipping events one week out of every month. In the four months since the program began we have microchipped nearly 4,000 pets.
Lastly, we had the city council meetings in which we anticipated facing public comment. At each of those meetings, there were zero public comments.
Finally, on November 4, 2019 the City of Albuquerque passed O-19-81 unanimously (find this at 3 hours and 9 minutes). The response to the elimination of the decades-old national practice was support-- “something whose time has come”, “not useful anymore”, “the more you regulate… the fewer people comply” and “so practical, so smart”.
The entire process to switch from licensing to microchipping took over a year, from our early research to the ordinance change passing. This was no easy task. It required us to take an honest look at our community programs and determine what we were providing.
It does not matter how institutionalized they have become over the years, a pet license has never stopped a pet from getting lost and rarely gets a pet returned to its owner these days. Now, today, we have implemented community-supported programs that will increase the chance of stray pets that are returned to their owners.
Adam will be speaking at this year’s conference in our field services track, join us in Austin for even more ideas for how to rebuild animal sheltering from the ground up! If you're interested in hearing more from Adam at the conference, be sure to check out the sessions below: