If you're frustrated at a lack of transparency on the part of your local municipally funded shelter or animal control agency, there's something you can do to uncover the numbers they want to hide: File a Freedom of Information request.
Whether you think your local agency is cooking its books, or you simply want to force them to cough up statistics they're unwilling to publish, the law may be on your side. All municipal agencies and a large number of municipally-funded agencies (ie, private agencies operating under a municipal contract) are subject to public records laws, passed to ensure citizens and journalists have access to documents paid for with taxpayer dollars.
While this is a much larger subject than a blog post can cover, here are a few tips animal activists should keep in mind:
Freedom of Information laws cover documents, not data. You cannot request information, you can only request specific documents -- intake forms, veterinary exam notes, kennel cards, purchase orders for euthanasia solution, etc. I've seen way too many request letters that were not asking for documents; public records laws do not require agencies to create documents for you. You need to request existing documents.
You're not alone. There are many organizations out there that will help you with public records requests. Two great places to start are the Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Student Press Law Center; both these sites have do-it-yourself FOIA request letter generators that can be customized for any state's laws.
Ask for everything. It's perfectly fine to ask for as many records as you can even begin to imagine wanting, whether they exist or not. It's not your job to decide they don't have those records; it's their job to tell you they don't. The absence of records in and of itself can be extremely useful if you're trying to convince legislators that an agency is abusing the public trust.
The war on drugs is your friend. Animal shelters have to comply with federal laws about the drugs they use, including euthanasia drugs. You can request their drug logs, and documents they file with the Drug Enforcement Agency are public records. This can provide valuable clues as to just how many animals are dying in a shelter that's not operating in a transparent manner.
Know the rules. For example, agencies subject to freedom of information laws can't just refuse to comply with your request; they have to give you a reason that qualifies under your state or local public records laws. So read the laws, know what is and isn't exempt, and if they just say no without explanation, slam back immediately requesting the section of the law under which they are denying your request. And cc the municipality's attorney.
Be prepared to fight. In my experience, most of my FOIA requests to animal agencies are ignored, even though they are legally required to respond within a short period spelled out in the law (information included in the letters generated by the above sites). It's helpful when sending these requests to send a copy to the municipality's attorney our counsel's office, but if they ignore you, bringing in the county, town, or city's legal counsel is your first recourse. Just telling the agency that turned you down or ignored you that they have to comply probably won't work, so don't waste time arguing with them; escalate.
Find a lawyer. If you think you're getting the runaround or being lied to, find an attorney who will write a follow-up letter. If the municipality thinks you're ready to go to court over it, they'll usually become extremely cooperative.
For a complete list of public records laws by state, visit the National Freedom of Information Coalition website.
Have you used public records laws to help animals? I'd love to hear your experiences!