I'm a huge fan of people who lead animal rescue groups. They are some of the hardest working people I know, often to their own personal detriment. Most work full-time jobs, are not compensated for their work and rely on volunteers and foster homes to keep animals alive. I feel confident that people who start rescue groups do so with a singular goal in mind: to help save the lives of animals. As a proponent of the No Kill Equation which can be used by any animal shelter to end the destruction of healthy and treatable shelter animals, I know that shelter relationships with rescues are incredibly important toward getting animals out of shelters quickly. Rescue group liaison is one of the 11 elements of the Equation which works in concert with other elements to reduce shelter intake and increase shelter output.
I have never run a rescue group. My work is more in advocacy and education lanes of travel as I look at the bigger picture of why so many rescue groups are needed in the first place. I believe both types of work are important. Rescue groups cannot be THE solution for all companion animals in our society and if we don't work to reform the system, rescuers are forever doomed to save more and more animals as animal populations grow in any given community. That's where advocacy, more specifically political advocacy, comes into play and that has been a personal focus of mine for more than a decade.
I blogged a few years ago about problems with angry rescuers of which there are many. I've been reminded of this a lot lately as I see posts and comments on social media which are incredibly hostile toward the public - the very same public rescue groups need to adopt, foster, volunteer and donate. I won't restate the positions from my 2019 blog here. I upset a lot of people with that blog, but I stand by the primary message: animal problems are really people problems and you can't help that many animals if you can't get along with and be compassionate towards people. I also blogged about adoption fees set by rescues and how some rescues price their animals out of the market. I still stand by the position that the adoption fee charged for a particular animal says more about the value of the animal than the value of some arbitrary amount of money. House of Little Dogs, Inc. still has no set adoption fee and it has served the organization well for years.
I would like those in the rescue community to consider two different changes to their mission as they see to help animals.
Change 1: Please Considering Shifting At Least Some of Your Mission to Helping the Public
The city where I work is what I call "rescue heavy." It has a couple dozen rescue groups which I see as the result of the tax- funded animal shelter doing such a terrible job for so long. Animals died by the thousands at the city shelter year after year after year (before the city finally embraced change due, at least in part, to pressure from the public and political advocacy) so people kept forming rescue groups to try to handle the work not being handled by municipalities.
When people ask me now about whether or not they should start their own rescue group in my area with the mission to place animals in new homes, my answer more often than not is "no. Please don't." There are animals in need all over. That cannot be denied. But each new rescue group is competing for the same adopters, the same foster homes, the same volunteers and the same donors. Saving the lives of animals is commendable, but helping the public keep the animals they have is equally important as far as I'm concerned.
Whenever I look at shelter records regarding animals found running at large, I think the same thing: they all belonged to someone. And whenever I look at shelter records regarding owner surrendered animals, I have similar thoughts: many of the animals could have stayed in existing homes through shelter intake diversion. If we want fewer animals entering shelters and fewer animals needing rescue (either from those shelters or directly from the public), focusing on people first is incredibly important.
Dogs can be kept from running at large by helping people understand how to keep dogs contained through information or through hands on help in the form of large pens, run/trolley lines or DIY coyote rollers for fence jumpers. And before people get upset and demand that all dogs live inside all the time, that's just not the way our society works. Some dogs are inside/outside dogs who spend some time inside and some time in a fenced yard. Some dogs live outside all the time. We have to admit there are different cultures in our society related to dogs, encourage people to have their dogs live inside but then stop judging them if they do not. Providing help to those people willing to accept help goes much farther toward reducing shelter intake than judging people for failing to conform to our values.
Dogs and cats can also be kept in existing homes, or new homes can be found for them, by providing help to people to determine why they think they need to surrender their pet to a shelter or a rescue group. Our relationships with companion animals are emotional and the truth is when life is hard, we often don't think as clearly as we should. Sometimes people need help with pet food. Sometimes they need help to pay for veterinary care. Sometimes a job is lost or someone has to move so they need temporary foster of their animals until they can get them back. Sometimes a dog or cat is displaying some behavior the owner has not been able to resolve and which may be the result of some underlying medical condition which can be diagnosed and treated. Sometimes dogs engage in behavior the owner does not know how to correct, or which is ignored for far too long in hopes it will go away. Those dogs and people can be helped by some guidance and perhaps some free training. In cases where an issue cannot be overcome through counseling and help and an animal must have a new home, people can be provided information on how best to re-home their pet with a family member, friend, co-worker, someone they know through church or a social organization or even with the help of their veterinarian. This reduces stress not only on the family re-homing the pet but on the pet him or herself.
If you currently run a rescue group, pulling animals from shelters or taking them directly from the public, please consider shifting your mission (or at least part of your mission) to help people instead. You would still be helping animals. You would just not be helping by taking possession of them yourself. By providing judgment free help to the public to help them overcome problems, fewer animals would need to be rescued as we rescue the people needing help instead. More than half of American households live paycheck to paycheck and are one crisis away from being unable to care for their children, let alone their pets. Before spouting off that someone "should not have pets if they can't afford them," give some thought to your own personal situation and how close you may be to needing help yourself.
Change 2: Please Consider Helping Local Animals First
Related to rescuers being some of the hardest working people I know, often to their own personal detriment, the most responsible rescuers with whom I interact set limits for themselves whereas those who do not set limits tend to "flame out" or simply walk away after a certain amount of time. I was explaining the concept of limits to a contact the other day. Rescue X cannot save all the companion animals on the planet, cannot save all the companion animals on the continent, cannot save all the companion animals in the United States and cannot save all the companion animals in a particular state. It's just not possible. For at least the foreseeable future, the need for animals (and people) to be helped by rescue groups will always be greater than the ability of any one group to help all the companion animals. Recognizing that, it makes sense to focus on helping animals inside a particular geographic area or hub first as a service area - and before helping animals from other areas who are brought into the location where the rescue is based.
This issue comes up a lot in the state where I live and particularly in the city where I work and where I have advocated for animal shelter reform for over a decade with a degree of success. The tax-funded shelter that serves the City of Huntsville (now the largest city in the state) and Madison County destroyed thousands of animals per year for many years. When the shelter slowed that process by changing the culture at the shelter, it did so with the help of local rescue groups that were happy to be part of something bigger than themselves by saving animals. In the early years of change, rescue groups from inside and outside the area were saving approximately 25% of all animals who left the shelter alive. As the shelter continued to make progress and the animals left in the shelter were considered "less" at risk than animals in neighboring communities which had not, and have still not, embraced change, the percentage of the animals leaving the building alive with rescue groups dropped to the current rate of about 10% of all live outcomes annually.
When a shelter reforms operations and embraces proven programs, that is obviously a source of great community pride. The flip side of that is that most of the public and many in rescue presume all the healthy and treatable animals get out of the shelter alive and turn their attention to other places. It is true that healthy and treatable animals in the shelter in Huntsville are no longer destroyed for space or convenience, which is a good thing. What has arisen as a new problem, however, is that rescue groups mostly pull animals who are easier to place and then help animals in other geographic areas instead of the local animals who may still need help. (This is certainly not always the case and there are times when a rescue group will pull an animal from the shelter with extraordinary veterinary needs.) The animals most in need of rescue now are dogs who present poorly in a shelter environment for a variety of reasons most of which relate to the fact that they are afraid. When the behavior of those dogs causes them to be overlooked for adoption and they are not pulled by local rescue groups, they are often destroyed for "behavior." Nathan Winograd has written at length on this topic. I encourage anyone interested in the plight of dogs in shelters to read his very informative articles on this subject which I share at the end of this blog.
If the local rescues would focus on pulling animals in need from the local tax-funded shelter first, fewer dogs would be destroyed for behavior which is often not a true reflection of the personality of the dog but instead demonstrates the dog's reaction to being housed in the shelter. A dog who bares his or her teeth, lunges at a kennel door, paces or cowers, is more often a completely different dog as soon as they are taken outside of the building.
I understand that some dog rescue groups are breed specific. For those groups, please consider helping your breed of choice but also being open to helping dogs of other breeds in your area who also need help. We know that breed is often not an indicator of behavior. Many people think they want a particular breed of dog when in fact another dog may actually be a better for for the adopter's lifestyle. And unless you are DNA testing all of your dogs, you may be wrong about what breed(s) of dogs you are actually helping.
I know that people in rescue want to help as many animals as they can. We have to admit that not all animals can be saved and there are limits to the number of animals who can be helped by any given rescue group. Because that is the case, I am asking rescues to consider focusing on the geographic hub or area in which they are located first and then branch out to other areas when all the healthy and treatable animals in the primary area are safe. Doing this can accomplish more than one goal. The first goal is to ensure that as many healthy and treatable animals in the service area are kept alive as possible while setting some limits on how many animals can be helped at any given time. If there are 20 local dogs who need help and 200 dogs outside the service area who need help, it is not possible to help them all. My argument is to focus on the 20 local dogs first and then help as many of the other 200 as can be helped while functioning within the ability of the rescue group to care for animals. Doing this may also ultimately demonstrate that any community can, in fact, become a No Kill Community with the help of rescue groups. This could serve as an incentive to less progressive areas embracing change as they say to themselves, "we want that here and it's what the public expects." If a community always has groups from other areas literally coming to the rescue, there is little incentive for those places to change. Just something to think about.
I know of rescue groups and shelters who take animals from outside their service area for the sake of fundraising and marketing. Taking animals from an area hundreds of miles away or even from a different state where a natural disaster occurred will always generate more public support (and lead to more donations) than pulling scared dogs from shelter down the street. Saving animals from a collector or a backyard breeder a few counties away or in another state will always generate more public interest by the public who want to adopt those animals than focusing on animals in need locally. I would argue that if the goal of the rescue is life-saving, and not notoriety, local animals are just as worthy of having their lives saved. I would go on to argue that rescue groups can generate equal public support by making it clear to the public that they focus on the local service area first toward keeping animals alive who would otherwise be at risk and they function outside the area when resources permit that activity. We all set boundaries in our lives to make the best use of our resources and rescue groups should consider doing the same. People appreciate a group that focuses locally first because that may be the rescue that helps them in the future.
If you are based in Huntsville, Alabama, please help animals in Huntsville and Madison County first. If you are based in Chicago, Illinois, please help dogs in Chicago first and before you transport them in large groups from Alabama. If you are based in New York, please help animals in New York (particularly New York City Animal Care and Control) before you get in a vehicle and travel to get animals from other states who are then brought back into your service area.
Think nationally or even on a state level in terms of systemic reform of our society which puts companion animals at risk in the first place. But please consider rescuing locally first.
Afterthoughts: I can't count the number of times I have interacted with people in the animal rescue who are incredibly unhappy and stressed as they try to be all things to all animals. If you are determined to continue rescuing companion animals long term, please keep some balance in your life. There will never be enough time or enough resources. Learn to set boundaries. Learn to say no. Learn to go on vacation. Learn to unplug from your phone. If you do not take care of yourself first and foremost, you will not be able to take care of the animals who are your focus.
I feel confident some in the rescue community will read this blog, unsubscribe from my blogs and blast me for my views. If you disagree with my positions, that is your right. My comments here are requests I would like you to consider. I am capable of learning from other people. If you completely oppose something I have written here, feel free to reach out to me and try to convince me that my positions are misguided. I ask that you do so respectfully. I will not respond to messages which use profanity or personal insults.
Not a month goes by when I don't hear someone talking about or read something on social media supporting the concept of Mandatory Spay/Neuter as the solution to "pet overpopulation" related to the destruction of healthy and treatable animals in animal shelters. The argument is that if we just punish people for failing to have pets sterilized, it will serve as an incentive for them to comply. That approach always reminded of a phrase from my Army days that goes, "the beatings will continue until morale improves." I understand the allure of the "there ought to be a law approach." It would be wonderful if making a single law in a city, county or state would magically resolve numerous issues at one time. The problem is simple: Mandatory Spay/Neuter just does not work.
Most states have laws which say that animals adopted from animal shelters and from rescue groups must be sterilized. Laws like this are vital. Those animals adopted out are the end of the line and will produce no offspring to add to local pet populations. On the flip side, it makes no sense at all to adopt out unsterilized animals who will then create offspring which may then end up in the shelter or with a rescue group, thereby creating a never-ending cycle of adoption, birth and destruction (in most shelters). That would be the animal shelter/rescue version of Sisyphus.
To be clear, when people talk about Mandatory Spay/Neuter (often called MSN for short), they are not talking about laws related to shelter and rescue animals. They are talking about laws that require ALL animals in a given geographic area be spayed and neutered to include owned animals. (People often lament that animals are considered property under the law. When it comes to MSN, that is a good thing. People have a right to determine what happens to their own property, making room for an argument that MSN is actually unconstitutional).
I learned last week that a person in my area had written an ordinance for the city in which I work to enact MSN. I presume that person was well-intentioned and just did not realize that what seems good on paper doesn't translate to practical application. In the process of researching the issues with MSN, it occurred to me I had not seen any recent blogs on the topic. This is why I wrote this blog. Much of the discussion is dated to a degree because this is actually a fairly well-settled issue in animal sheltering. The world is not flat, Elvis has left the building, we went to the moon and MSN does not work. I'm sharing my research here to make my argument in opposition to MSN, to help educate some folks along the way and to provide an example of what one community has done related to spay and neuter which makes MSN irrelevant.
These Organizations Oppose Mandatory Spay Neuter
The following organizations all oppose MSN. There are more, but I consider this my go-to list when I engage with people about this subject. Click on the name for each organization to learn more about opposition to MSN.
American Veterinary Medical Association
American College of Theriongenologsists
Humane Society of the United States MSN Position
Humane Society of the United States (regarding veterinary positions on spay/neuter generally)
Best Friends Animal Society
No Kill Advocacy Center
National Animal Interest Alliance
No Kill Learning (explaining the difference between "pet overpopulation" and "shelter overpopulation) related to MSN
I would be remiss if I did not mention an article written by Brent Toellner about MSN which I have shared too many times to count and shared as recently as last week. He wrote it as KC Dog Blog prior to being named the National Programs Director for the Best Friends Animal Society.
The AKC also opposes Mandatory Spay/Neuter. I do not support the AKC and will not link to their information here. You can find their position using a Google search.
They Oppose it Because Mandatory Spay Neuter Does Not Work
The reasons why organizations oppose MSN are vast. These are what I consider the highlights. I have paraphrased some of the position statements of the organizations below and some of the information was provided by Nathan Winograd of the No Kill Advocacy Center.
Enforcement Issues With a Mandatory Spay Neuter Ordinance
All tax-funded animal shelters serve a finite geographic area. Some are led by a single jurisdiction within that area. Such is the case in the city where I work, Huntsville, Alabama. Huntsville Animal Services provides service to the City of Huntsville and Madison County (excluding the City of Madison); animals enter the shelter from the entire county (minus Madison which does its own animal control functions). Ordinances enacted in the city are only enforceable in the city and not the county. Madison County lacks home rule which means it cannot enact its own animal laws absent a bill being filed in Montgomery and passed through the state legislature. (There are some other ways to enact laws in counties which are complicated and not worth discussing here). The reality is that the county cannot just pass a resolution and change how it functions whether that has to do with spay/neuter, chained dogs or some other animal issue.
There are essentially four groups of animal owners related to any attempt to enforce MSN: 1) those owners whose animals would be exempt (i.e. because they are registered with some organization like the AKC and participate in shows); 2) those owners who would seek exemption for their animals due to opposition to spay/neuter of their pets based on advice from their veterinarian; 3) those owners who have already had animals sterilized or will do it voluntarily; and 4) those owners who cannot afford to have their pets sterilized (or believe they cannot because the fees ordinarily charged by many full-service veterinarians and lack of knowledge of low-cost alternatives).
It can be extremely difficult for even a veterinary professional to visually determine if an animal, particularly a female, has been sterilized; it would be virtually impossible for an animal control officer to make those determinations in the field.
The only way people would be "discovered" to be in violation would be if their animal was picked up running at large, encountered as a result of a complaint or if they were reported by a veterinarian or some other person.
Most, if not all, cities lack the ability to devote resources just to enforcement of MSN which, in most cases, would affect people who lack the ability to pay a fine. If a city did choose to divert resources to MSN enforcement, that would mean taking resources away from public safety functions or shelter functions to get lost animals back home, to rescues or into new homes.
The resources used for enforcement include time and money. If a municipality is prepared to use time and money to enforce a punitive law, it does better to use those same resources to help people instead - which is what Huntsville is already doing.
The Huntsville Story
I have written before about my animal shelter reform efforts in Huntsville because it has been the focus of my advocacy for more than 15 years. While there are more steps which can be taken by the city to be more progressive regarding the operation of the tax-funded animal shelter, I must give credit where it is due related to the community making spay and neuter both accessible and affordable. The only short-coming of which I am aware is a lack of effective marketing and community outreach so more people know about the resources available to help them.
The City of Huntsville created a spay/neuter program for low-income residents in 2009 called Fixin' Alabama. The city originally invested 20k a year into the program and now invests 100k a year in the program. This, combined with other factors, has reduced intake at Huntsville Animal Services from approximately 10k a year (in 2009) to around 5k a year (since 2015) even though the city has grown and is now the largest city in the state (having been recently named the Best Place to Live by U.S. News and World Report).
We know it can take years for programs related to spay/neuter to show results. These results for the City of Huntsville speak for themselves. Making it easier for low-income residents to have animals sterilized removes the judgment, helps them do the right thing and keeps animals out of the tax-funded shelter and other local shelters.
Huntsville is home to the North Alabama Spay & Neuter Clinic which is one of only four such clinics in the state. It is open to anyone regardless of income or where they live. This makes it easy for people who may not qualify for Fixin' Alabama to get a pet sterilized. It is also convenient for people who live and work in Huntsville, regardless of income. The clinic has a 2-3 week waiting list. Demand is high and prices are low. The clinic has performed more than 36,000 surgeries since it opened in 2010 - in spite of some time periods during which the state veterinary board was determined to close all non-profit spay/neuter clinics in the state.
There are several nonprofit organizations that help people with spay/neuter. SNAP (Spay Neuter Action Project) receives 39k a year from the Madison County Commission to have pets spayed/neutered. Another example is HAWS - Helping Animals Without Shelter. This is a judgement-free organization that helps people keep dogs contained, helps with dog houses and food and helps with spay/neuter. There are also several rescue groups in the area who will spay/neuter animals for free or help offset costs for sterilization on a case-by-case basis.
All of this means that Huntsville has numerous spay/neuter resources which negate the need for a mandatory ordinance even if one worked.
The City revised the city code related to animals in the fall of 2018. It enacted MSN internal to the shelter which states that any animal impounded can be sterilized. I am not entirely certain about the legality of this local law; my advocacy group in Huntsville questioned it prior to it being enacted. Time will tell if it is challenged through litigation. I am told by the shelter director that if a family cannot pay to redeem their pet or pay for the sterilization surgery, the fees are waived.
(As a related subject, there is already a state law requiring animals adopted from shelters and rescues be sterilized. It is not consistently followed in the state. That issue is separate from requiring sterilization of owned animals.)
What You Can Do
If you live in a community that is considering Mandatory Spay/Neuter in an attempt to reduce pet populations, I hope you will share this information and consider what it is you really hope to accomplish. I would argue that while it sounds like a good idea, it just is not. If you live in a community which already has MSN on the books, I hope you will take steps to try to repeal that law by working with your shelter director and local elected officials. It is likely the law was enacted with good intentions by people who just did not realize the unintended consequences that come with MSN. I would not be surprised to learn that the law is either not being enforced or is being enforced only as a secondary offense.
As an unapologetic supporter of the No Kill Equation, I also hope you will learn about the 11 programs and services of the Equation, one of which is access to high-volume/low-cost spay neuter services. Let's stop punishing people and instead make it easier for them to make good choices which affect their companion animals, their families and their communities.
I got a text from one of my media contacts earlier this week, asking if I would comment on a story about a woman who had been attacked and killed by a pack of dogs near Red Bay, Alabama, which is in Franklin County (which borders Mississippi). He wanted to know how frequent these attacks are, what criminal sentence the owner of the dogs could receive and wanted to talk about how dog owners are responsible for preventing attacks. I had not heard about the incident and told him I would get back to him. What I learned was not only had there been a tragic death, but it was a compounded tragedy and one which was preventable.
I learned the following, being mindful that many facts are still not known. On Thursday, April 28th, a woman was walking in a rural area early in the morning and was attacked by a pack of dogs. Someone heard her screams, intervened and was able to chase the dogs away. The woman was air-lifted to a hospital in Mississippi. The attack was reported to the Alabama Department of Public Health which investigates dog attacks as part of a dangerous dog law called “Emily’s Law” that was enacted in 2018 following the fatality attack of Emily Colvin in Jackson County, Alabama. On Friday, an employee from the Alabama Department of Public Health went to investigate the attack and was attacked and killed. It is not known why she went to the location in person or if she requested assistance from law enforcement authorities, which seems unlikely. Her body was found in her car after deputies went to investigate a report of a suspicious vehicle in the area. They were also attacked by the same group of dogs, receiving only minor injuries. Media reports indicate the dogs were “euthanized” on the spot. This most likely means they were shot.
The woman involved in the original attack remains hospitalized in Mississippi and is undergoing a series of surgeries. The reported owner of the dogs was arrested for manslaughter which is a Class C felony in Alabama. She will also be subject to the criminal provisions of Emily’s Law which include both felony and misdemeanor provisions. She could potentially face many years in prison if convicted and may be subject to civil suits. I would not be surprised to learn she did not actually own the dogs involved in the attack and was just feeding them to try to help them.
I did an interview with the reporter and shared with him the same information I’m sharing in this blog. The first and most important point I shared was that attacks like this are preventable. I understand that dogs who are family pets get loose for a host of reasons not all of which relate to someone’s irresponsibility. Children open doors, contractors leave gates open, dogs jump fences or dig under fences to escape. There are also dogs who are classified as “resident dogs” who are the dogs most often involved in that is commonly referred to as DBRF - Dog Bite Related Fatalitiy. Extensive research has been done on DBFRs by Karen Delise of the National Canine Research Council and by the American Veterinary Medical Association.
The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association published the most comprehensive multifactorial study of dog bite-related fatalities in December of 2013. The study was based on investigative techniques not used in previous studies (which were first done in the 1970s). The study showed a significant relationship between these fatalities and a number of “potentially preventable factors." (A follow-up report combined the findings from the 2000-2009 study with information from 2010-2015). This study showed the following controllable factors were identified:
The study also showed that the breed of the dogs or dogs could not be determined in more than 80% of the cases. What was reported by the media and what was contained in animal control reports were inconsistent, casting doubt on the reliability of the breed of the dog reported by the media. The breed of the dog could only be confirmed in just over 18% of the cases.
(inforgraphic courtesy of the National Canine Research Council)
The second thing I shared with the reporter was that attacks like this are very, very rare. There were 46 dog bite related fatalities in 2020 in a country of more than 300 million people and a canine population estimated to be between 75 and 90 million dogs. There were 47 fatalities in 2019 and 38 in 2018. Although these incidents are exceedingly rare, it is logical to presume they are more apt to occur in places where the preventable factors are prevalent, such as in parts of Alabama where dogs are primarily resident dogs, not family pets, and where those dogs are allowed to run loose and are not sterilized. I live in the county where a woman was killed by a dog in 2017. Emily Colvin (the woman after whom the dangerous dog law was named) also died in 2017, approximately 30 miles from the fatality in my county. I see dogs running loose almost every day sometimes in small packs. I have written before about this wild west culture of allowing dogs to roam and some of the consequences for the dogs. Not every dog we see running loose in Alabama is a tragedy waiting to happen in terms of attacking and killing someone. But unless and until the people of Alabama and other rural areas of the country start taking responsibility for their dogs related to the controllable factors which contribute to attacks, people will continue to die needlessly.
There are also issues related to the responsibility of elected officials and law enforcement authorities related to this particular attack. Alabama has a law about dogs running at large, but it has to be adopted by each county and then enforced. Franklin County has never adopted the law. There is also a state law that counties and municipalities with more than 5 thousand residents must operate a "pound" (related to enforcement of the rabies law) or pay a pro rata share toward operation of a pound. I'm aware of no such facility in Franklin County and it is not entirely clear if the county has an animal control officer. Is it possible that people reported this pack of roaming dogs and nothing was done about it. It is also possible that people did not report the dogs because they felt doing so would serve no purpose, they didn't know who to call or they didn't see anything wrong with dogs running loose. My hope is that the tragedy of this case will cause the county to adopt the state law about dogs running at large and develop some method to enforce the law to deal with dogs running loose and to also help prevent this type of attack from happening again.
As has been stated by the National Canine Research Council, “all dog owners have an unequivocal responsibility for humane care, custody and control: providing a license and permanent identification; spaying or neutering their dogs; providing training, socialization, proper diet, and medical care; and not allowing a pet to become a threat or a nuisance.” Or a weapon. And all municipalities have a responsibility to keep people safe.
*The phrase "unequivocal responsibility" is from a publication of the National Canine Research Council.
I received an email on Friday from a shelter volunteer notifying me of some dogs at a local animal shelter who had been destroyed that day for "behavior." As of Thursday, the dogs were all still available for adoption or to be pulled by a rescue group. As of Friday, they were dead. This led me to what I can only describe as a moment of absolute clarity, thanks to something written by fellow No Kill advocate Eileen McFall of Austin, Texas. She had written to Don Bland, the Chief Animal Services Officer for the City of Austin about a dog scheduled to die in which she questioned how a dog could be adoptable one day and dead the next. In looking at the images of the local dogs who are now dead, I had to wonder: at exactly what point does any dog destroyed for what is called "behavior" go from being adoptable to having behavior issues so great they cannot be overcome?
If the dog is scheduled to die on the 30th day for displaying behavior issues but no rescue group or adopter steps up on day 29 to save the dog and the dog is killed, how can that dog have been destroyed for what can honestly be called "behavior"?
It cannot. And we can only presume that what led to the dog's death was not really behavior but related more to length of stay and having to devote time and resources to the dog to help him. This is a tragedy that happens in shelters across the country, both those that are regressive and those that provide the illusion of being progressive while engaging in population control killing. It is what happens when shelters that used to (or still do) co-opt the word "adoptable" to suit their purposes now co-opt the word "behavior" to suit their purposes and to justify the killing of dogs.
To be clear, I fully realize that not all dogs can be saved. There are some dogs who are cognitively impaired and present a genuine public safety risk. I've worked in the legal field for thirty years doing primarily municipal defense, dealing with city and county clients. I am fully aware of the not only the liability risk faced by a city or county which knowingly allows a dangerous dog to leave a shelter facility but also what can happen when dangerous dogs roam neighborhoods, causing injuries or even death. One of the most gruesome cases we handled involved an elderly man who went to check his mail was attacked and killed by two dogs.
But here's the thing. If a dog is genuinely dangerous, that dog will not be made available to the public and will not be made available to a rescue group absent some extraordinary plan for the rehabilitation of that dog away from the public. For the most part, we will never know about that dog. His or her face will never be promoted on social media and he will never be put in a foster home because he is dangerous. He will never be featured on a billboard or at an event. Why? Because he is dangerous.
Then there are the other dogs who do poorly in the shelter environment which is something we should fully expect and for which we should make plans to help them in order to save them. The National Canine Research Council tells us that "shelter evaluations [of dogs] may tell us as much or more about the effect of the shelter as they do about the individual dogs. Shelters are noisy, alien environments, filled with strange smells, unfamiliar people, and dogs they may hear, but not see. We should not be surprised that some dogs. . . may behave differently when confined in a shelter, with its barrage of stressors that the dog cannot control, than they will in the safe, secure, predictable environment of a home, cared for by people with whom they are able to form positive attachments." A shelter cannot possibly consider itself progressive if it fails to provide adequate housing, rehabilitation and enrichment to dogs and then kills them for the very behavior created by the shelter environment itself.
In the wake of my moment of absolute clarity, thanks to Eileen McFall, I learned of a new phrase I had not heard before thanks to her husband, Christopher McFall, which is completely accurate. On his Hound Manor Facebook page, Christopher wrote about what he calls a "kill budget." What this means in the simplest terms is the number of animals a shelter feels it can kill after having reached a false goal of 90% while claiming to have maintained No Kill Status. As was posted on the Hound Manor page recently,
the plight of dogs needing treatment for behavior is that they fit neatly within the 5% or 10% that average no-kill shelter directors view as their "kill budget." The numbers are small, yet the moral stakes are not. Helping dogs with behavioral needs takes money, time, patience, commitment, strong values, and good judgment. But given a choice between killing these dogs, warehousing them, or giving them the help they need, there is only one choice that is compassionate and that is consistent with no-kill principles."
I see this issue of using a kill budget to end the lives of shelter dogs as one of the biggest challenges in the No Kill movement today. There are dogs who end up in shelters who need our help to place them and to keep them from degrading while inside the shelter. They need patience and encouragement to gain trust. They need to get outside of the building for walks and to participate in play groups to reduce their stress levels when inside the shelter. They need to get out into foster homes as quickly as possible when those homes are available, even if just for weekends or short-term stays to learn more about their personalities to better place them in an appropriate home. This is a subject written about at length by the No Kill Advocacy Center and about which I encourage all advocates to become more educated. The Toolkit on the NKAC website has wonderful publications called No Dog Left Behind, What We Owe Traumatized Animals and the Animal Evaluation Matrix. Nathan Winograd shared an article on Substack recently called (Willful) Ignorance is Not Bliss on this same subject. Please read them.
When it comes to dogs needlessly killed for behavior, the blame lies squarely on the shelters doing the killing. The buck stops there. But there is enough blame to go around to apply it to the national organizations which continue to promote the lie that a shelter is a No Kill facility when it saves 90% of the animals entrusted to its care. I wrote about this recently and will not repeat myself here other than to say one word: stop. Please. Just stop. We all know the source of the 90% figure. We know that figure should not be used as a goal after which the last 10% are less important. Please stop using it to raise money and to proclaim places have become No Kill when you know they are not. The decision to continue to use that figure has consequences. It confuses the public, it perpetuates falsehoods in the media, it proclaims results which are not accurate and it is leading to what Christopher aptly calls the killing budget.
I know there will be people who read this who find it hard to believe that shelters that proclaim to treat all animals as individuals would be more focused on statistics than saving lives, but that is a reality of our animal sheltering system which is still full of broken parts and systems. Some will say I should focus on the lives saved and not on the lives lost, will say that I will never be satisfied no matter how hard shelters try and that I cannot possibly appreciate how difficult it is to keep dogs from degrading in animal shelters. All shelters which make progress and save the lives of 90% or more of the animals should be applauded for having done so. But there is no place for complacency here because that complacency comes with a cost. Once a shelter reaches the false goal of 90%, that is not enough. With each passing month and year, more can and should be done to continue to improve to save more lives as each animal is treated as having been, or being capable of, being someone's beloved companion.
How would your dog behave in an animal shelter? Would he or she cower in fear, shake, bark, growl or be difficult to handle? Think about it. Any dog I've ever loved would have been killed in a "shelter" for behavior. Which is not just a tragedy. It is unconscionable.
To learn more about Hound Manor, Promoting Integrity in No Kill Sheltering and The Final Frontier Rescue Project at these links:
I’ve written many times about what the phrase No Kill means related to animal sheltering. It means we save all healthy and treatable animals and we do not kill them. The foundation of the phrase is the meaning of the word euthanasia. If we end the life of an animal who is suffering or irremediably ill, regardless of where that takes place, that is euthanasia. We do not say we killed your beloved pet. If we end the life of an animal who is not suffering or irremediably ill, we killed that animal. That act has nothing to do with euthanasia. We should not use words differently based on the place where the act occurs.
It seems like I see some article, social media post or comment every day that says a shelter is No Kill if it saves 90% of the animals in the shelter. That is just not true. To understand why, we have to take a look back in time and to the source of the 90% figure. When the No Kill movement was first taking hold across the country, there was no benchmark for success. No indicators of how communities could be judged in terms of progress. As he covers in his recent Substack series called, “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow: Animal Sheltering in the United States,” it was Nathan Winograd (the founder of the No Kill Advocacy Center) who first made reference to the 90% figure. I suspect he regrets having done so because that figure is now being used in ways which have nothing to do with the moral imperative of the movement. Nathan referred to that figure because at the time it was an ordinary byproduct of saving all healthy and treatable animals - about 20 years ago.
That was then and this is now. With advances in shelter veterinary medicine and development of the programs and services of the No Kill Equation, some shelters are saving as much as 98 and 99% of animals entrusted to their care. They euthanize animals who are suffering or irremediably ill, including dogs who are not just scared or traumatized, but who are cognitively impaired and present a genuine danger to the public (about 1% of shelter intake). Gone are the days of destroying neo-natal animals who can be saved through bottle feeding programs. Gone even are the days of ending the lives of animals who have severe health issues but who are not suffering and who can have good quality of life in a Fospice (foster+ hospice homes) to live out their glory days.
I realize that there are some organizations like the Best Friends Animal Society which still refer to this 90% figure as an indicator of a No Kill shelter or No Kill community. I wish it would just stop. Use of the figure is not only recycled over and over by other organizations and the media, it is serves to encourage deceptive and unethical behavior. I know of shelters that claim to be No Kill when they use a fictional 90% figure to make themselves look good, having deemed some animals “unadopatable” so they will not count against the statistics. These places know the public wants and expects shelters to stop destroying healthy and treatable animals, so they use the 90% figure to act like they are doing better than they are. Some other shelters categorize large number of animals who were destroyed as having been destroyed at the request of the owner (owner requested euthanasia, called ORE) when there was nothing wrong with those animals and they could have been (and should have been) placed into new homes. I also know of other shelters where the focus is so much on the 90% figure that the last 10% does not matter. Once they are sure they will achieve the 90% figure in any given month, they are given tacit permission to destroy dogs who may need more help than others by deeming them dangerous or aggressive. When confronted about this, the response is not “we treated all animals as individuals and gave them every opportunity for a positive outcome.” The response is instead, “we are No Kill because we saved 90%.” No. And for shame.
I have long said this a matter of method and not of math. That if a shelter has a mass intake event from a puppy mill, dog fighter or collector and lots of animals are really suffering and euthanasia is performed as an act of mercy, the figure may fall below 90%. That happens sometimes but not often and is not typical of day-to-day shelter operations. If the live release rate at a shelter is 85% in one month related to intake of a large number of suffering animals, the number should not matter. We should never keep suffering animals alive just to look good on paper.
I did a search just now for organizations that still promote the 90% figure as being equivalent to No Kill. You can do the same. The hits included the Best Friends Animal Society, individual shelters from Los Angeles to Santa Fe to Atlanta to Jacksonville, the Washington Post and even Wikipedia. It is in my local news and it is in the national news. We read and hear this 90% figure so often that people just believe it without questioning it. They should.
Consider this. If it is your beloved dog or cat who is healthy and treatable ends up in a shelter whether it is due to no fault of your own or even due to your fault, and his or her life is ended, you would not care about a number on a form or a percentage on a piece of paper. You would care about the tragedy of the death of your pet which was both unethical and unnecessary. We should care as much about the needless deaths of all animals who end up in places we dare call "shelters," regardless of who they belonged to or how they got there. It is what the public expects and what we should expect of ourselves as a society.
When I first heard about a book called "Catching Dawn" written by Melissa Armstrong, I was intrigued. I thought the book was just about one woman's mission to catch and help a free roaming dog named Night who belonged to no one and who had delivered puppies in a poor neighborhood in Springfield, Tennessee, a mission that lasted months. I quickly learned the book was about much more than rescuing a dog and her multiple litters of puppies. It is about saving ourselves and the people with whom we share our lives - families, friends and even foes.
It may be hard for some people to believe that dogs like Dawn still roam our streets in this day and age. It happens across the country for a variety of reasons, one of which relates to culture with those cultural differences regarding dogs being more prevalent in some areas than in others. I live in Alabama, a place where the differences are obvious. Some dogs live inside and are members of the family. Some dogs live outside and would longer be allowed inside to live than the family would set a place at the dinner table for a pig. The mindset is that dogs are animals and just like other animals - cows, horses, goats, and pigs - they belong outside. Some people who have "outside dogs" keep them confined to their own property. Many do not and think nothing of it at all or how it affects other people. It is just how dogs live. Dogs roam the streets mostly in rural areas and I see them daily where I live. We always check the area around our house before taking our dog outside so we can avoid problems with free roaming dogs. And I cannot count the number of times I have called regional offices for the state Department of Transportation to remove the body of some poor dog who died after having been struck by a vehicle.
(image of Night, who became Dawn)
The story of Melissa's moral imperative to trap and help Dawn is captivating as that story is woven into the story of Melissa's own life and struggles and what motivated her to feel so strongly about helping this one dog. Now that I know what caused Dawn to be so fearful of people and need help, I understand Melissa better and understand how a more recent situation which happened after the book was published must have affected her so deeply (see below). I was pleased to see some common themes in the book which I have seen before and which help to reinforce some of my views on people and animals.
What motivates advocates. Like so many of us, Melissa came to advocacy through tragedy. In her case, it was the death of a childhood cat named Coco at the hands of her father. Melissa wrote, "in retrospect, my need to protect the defenseless started with finding Coco's collar. . .if I had acted, if I had hidden Coco in my closet or taken him to a neighbor's shed, If I hadn't egged him on or left the ribbons scatted cross the floor, maybe he would have lived. In a way, every time I save an animal, I'm giving back to that little girl inside of me who will always blame herself for her fathers' mistakes.
Why advocates feel compelled to help. Not every one who sees a problem in society, particularly related to animals, has the desire or the motivation to do anything about it. For some people, the issue is either just to big for them or is not their responsibility. As is the case with many animal advocates, there is no choice in the matter. They have to do something, anything about what they see, in order to live with themselves. Such was and is the case with Melissa and her husband, Mason, having told themselves, "if we don't do something, who will?"
Animals in need remind us of ourselves or those we love. When writing about the fact that Dawn was a stray, Melissa wrote this: "In the dictionary, the word stray means 'not in the right place or not having a home.' When I was a child and then a teenager, I felt like I lived in the wrong place, like I was a stray. From my first memories, I recognized that I was fundamentally different from my family, physically and mentally."
Maybe people should know about issues with animals, but they just don't. I see this time and time again. People in animal welfare circles presume the public knows about animals in need locally or nationally or presume people know that is happened in local shelters and do not care enough. The reality is that most people don't know about the problem with pets in need (and how shelters function) until we tell them. They do care. We just have to bridge that gap between caring and action with knowledge.
People are inherently good and want to help. On this Melissa wrote: "I'd meet more and more people who were just like Bernice and Troy. They rarely had enough money for medical bills or groceries, but they always found a way to share a plate of food with a neighborhood stray. Their kindness changed my first impression of Sycamore Street. It might have looked dirty and mean, but a profound generosity underscored this neighborhood."
As is the case with other books I've written about, I have not told you much about the story here and that is with intent. My hope is that you will read the book for yourself and learn not only about the story of Catching Dawn, but think about what is happening in your own community and region and what you can do about it. Melissa was gracious enough to take time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions for me which will help you learn more about her and the book.
You had Dawn as part of your family for four years before she passed away. What was the inspiration that led you to publish a book about your life and experiences trying to catch and save her?
It's always been a dream of mine to write a book. I've been writing since I was a child. For me, reading and writing were ways to escape my dysfunctional family. I've also always been an activist. I often joke activism is programmed into my DNA. So, fusing my activism with my writing seemed like a natural progression.
Catching Dawn is actually the third book I wrote, but the only one I tried to publish. And believe me, I received plenty of rejection letters - from both agents and publishers - but I never stopped trying to get Catching Dawn published. I believed in Dawn's story. I wanted people to understand the consequences of the animal overpopulation crisis in the rural South. I wanted them to know what happens to our homeless animals. If I didn't say something, then who would? Certainly not Dawn. And her story was important. She deserved a voice.
I appreciated the fact that your book is your story woven into the story about Dawn. Have you ever felt like you are the human embodiment of Dawn - just needing someone to take a chance on you and help you find yourself?
Absolutely. A big theme in Catching Dawn is that animals are sentient beings. I know our laws still define animals as property but I can't think of anything further from the truth. Their behavior - both good and bad - is often a result of how they were treated. Just like us.
I feel as strongly about animals as I do about humans. For a long time, I apologized for feeling like that. I know many may judge me for it but I stopped apologizing after I wrote this book. After I uncovered the parallels between my story and Dawn's story. Dawn was terrified of humans because she had been abused. For way too many years, I was afraid of relationships because I had been abused and abandoned. That correlation can't be ignored.
I was struck by what you wrote about the people from the neighborhood where Dawn lived. What did your experiences with them teach you about how we judge people based on where they live and what we see?
When I first arrived on Sycamore Street, an impoverished community in rural Tennessee, I was full of judgment. And shame on me for that. I can't say that enough. Shame on me! Because time and time again I was surprised by the generosity and compassion of people who barely had enough money for their own food or medical bills. I discovered it's not that they didn't want to help the stray animals in their neighborhood, but they didn't have the resources or the knowledge to do it. In a way, I think because they had experienced such hardship, they recognized it in the animals. Their empathy for these homeless dogs was such a beautiful thing to see.
(Dawn and Mason)
Have you seen or spoken with Bernice since you chose to make Dawn part of your family?
Bernice and I texted a few times after we adopted Dawn. I brought Adriana (one of Dawn's pups) to visit her several times. But, we haven't kept in touch over the years. I know she was happy when she found out that we adopted Dawn.
In addition to your book, you are the creative mind behind the documentary film called "Amber's Halfway Home" which introduces people to rescuer Amber Reynolds and the work she is doing in Tennessee. How did you connect with her and become inspired to create a documentary?
I used to brag about rescuing and fostering 30 dogs in two years, until I met Amber Reynolds. Amber's stats blow mine away. In one year, Amber saved 2000 dogs. Think about that. That's more than five dogs a day. Even now, it's astounding to me.
I connected with Amber through another author and animal advocate Cara Sue Achterberg, who also wanted to produce a documentary about the overpopulation problem in the rural South. Cara told me about Amber, but, before I committed to producing a documentary, before I spent hours and hours on this project, I needed to make sure Amber was the real deal. On my very first visit to Amber's Halfway Home, I jumped in her van, and by the end of that day, we had rescued 19 dogs. I just couldn't believe what one person was accomplishing. What Amber does on a daily basis is downright heroic. Without her, literally thousands and thousands of dogs would die.
(the film is available to watch for free on Youtube)
When we last spoke, you were working on a series. What can you tell us about that?
Unfortunately, our funding fell through for the series, so for the moment it's on hold. But, one thing that struck me when we were following Amber was the network of people who helped her. There are a handful of women who move dogs from Southern kill shelters to Northern rescues on transports. These women have moved over 4000 dogs out of Tennessee since they started. It's quite an amazing story, and one day I hope I have the opportunity to tell it.
We had also spoken about a so-called animal shelter in Tennessee where dogs were being neglected and abused and were being shot. What can you share about what is happening there now?
A few months ago, I visited a government-funded shelter and the conditions were appalling. Dogs who had been living there for months were emaciated. Their eyes were sunken in their heads from dehydration. They had open wounds on their paws, tails, and ears. They had urine burns from sitting in their own waste. They were never ever taken out of their cold, wet concrete cages. Even when the staff cleaned, they simply sprayed out the kennels while the dogs were still inside.
I was so shaken about what I witnessed that I went to the police and accused the director of animal cruelty. That's when I found out that although the director is certified to humanely euthanize, he shoots the dogs instead. It's just unbelievable to me that this practice still happens. The cruelty of it makes my stomach turn. The problem is that I'm not a constituent or taxpayer in that county, so my voice is nothing but chatter to them.
Recently, I was reading Nathan Winograd's book Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America. At one point Winograd describes a shelter in New York City from 1871 that sounds a heck of a lot like the one I visited a few months ago. The startling truth is that many of these rural shelters are still 150 years back in time.
As far as I know, the director still has his job and things haven't changed much. But, I recently found out the local community is starting to get involved and voice their outrage. I'm hoping this will start the ball rolling for change. I pulled one emaciated, mangy dog out of that shelter and we are currently fostering her, but the ones we left behind still haunt me.
(images courtesy of Melissa and Mason Armstrong; you can learn more about The Farnival & Farnival Films here)
Rapid fire questions. Don't think. Just answer.
If you did not have solid answers to these questions you are not alone. I want you to have those answers which is why I'm blogging on the topic of pet parents again.
I think it is human nature to avoid preparing for the worst. We know we should have wills and advance health care directives in case something happens to us, but many of us do not because planning ahead causes us to face our mortality. Even those of us who have wills and have made our health care wishes very clear to those around us may not have taken the time to make plans for the care of our beloved companion animals in the event of some crisis or disaster. But why? We love them and they are part of our families so why would we leave their future to chance?
A lot of people simply presume that if something happens to them, their friends or family will automatically step up and take their beloved companion animals either temporarily or permanently. The sad truth is that often does not happen. Your family and friends may love you, but that love may not extent to making a commitment to care for your pets and all that entails. Short term fostering? Maybe. But taking them for the rest of their lives? Perhaps not.
I cannot count the number of times I have been contacted by someone trying to place pets due to some life crisis either of their own or related to a family member. The message invariably says they need someone to take the animals that day or the next day, as if that is really possible. I realize our bonds with animals are emotional and we often do not think clearly under stress. There are a lot of great animal welfare organizations, animal shelters and animal rescue groups across the country. But the reality is that there is no magical place you can call which will result in someone taking pets with little or no notice. Most progressive animal shelters do try to help with owned animals even though they are not obligated to take them. They provide counseling on alternatives to surrendering animals and may do courtesy social media posts to help a family place animals in the event of a death or crisis. Rescue groups also do the same. There are shelters, however, where not all healthy and treatable animals are saved and where animals who were once loved by someone are destroyed. Think about that for yourself. Can you imagine the animals you loved housed in a shelter only to have their lives ended just because you can no longer care for them. That would be compounding one tragedy with another.
Life happens. Death happens. The unthinkable happens. We live in very uncertain times in terms of people's housing, finances and health. Because you love your companion animals, I implore you to make plans for their future without you t to make sure someone will take them and care for them in your honor. Do not put their lives at risk by allowing them to enter an animal shelter. Do not presume the people you love and know will be able to take them. This requires a direct conversation with the people in your life to develop a plan for pet parents who will take your place. Your pet parent needs detailed information from you ranging from how to get into your home, how many pets you have, what health issues they have and information for day to day care about what and how much they eat, food allergies, crate training, ability to walk on a leash, where they normally sleep, who provides their veterinary care, vaccination status, microchip registration. They need all the same information you know or have so they can care for your companion animals from the moment they have them as you would care for them.
We have a plan for our dog which has been shared with his pet parents (my cousin and her husband who live in Texas), with a local police officer who knows how to get into our house, with our veterinarian who will board our dog temporarily until he can be picked up by my cousin and with some co-workers who may know of some crisis before our family members know. My cousin has an information sheet about our dog which includes a host of information not just about the most vital aspects of his life, but which includes things like what types of toys, treats and style of Frisbee he prefers. We also have a provision in our wills to pay for his care for the rest of his life.
If you need some help preparing for the care of your pets, you can use this basic form shared here in both pdf format and Word format. The form is designed to get you thinking about plans. I encourage you to be as detailed as possible in your planning not only for the benefit of the animals you love but to give yourself peace of mind that they will be cared for if something happens to you.
My mom was a creative. She played multiple instruments, sang in an oratorio and made wonderful things with her hands ranging from handmade gift cards to photo albums to countless items which were sewn, knitted and crocheted. As is the case with many things from my childhood, I did not appreciate how creative mom was when I was a kid. It was only many years later when I marveled at not just her humor and compassion, but her creative vision that I learned just how gifted she was. From making hats for homeless people to making "rescue paws" blankets for newly adopted animals, mom was always working on something.
When I learned recently about a nonprofit organization called Crafters and Artisans for Rescue Animals, the first person I thought about was mom. She would have loved the concept of helping animals in need using her talents.
I first heard about CARA a couple months back when our local shelter was looking for someone to make what is sometimes called "kennel canvas" for traumatized dogs. Most shelters are set up in rows of concrete kennels in which dogs live right next to each other and across from other rows of dogs. The energy level in these shelters can be incredibly high as dogs smell, hear and often see other dogs they do not know in an environment which is completely foreign to the life they lived before entering the shelter and which causes them tremendous stress. Many of these dogs display what is called "barrier aggression" which is not aggression at all - think about how your dog behaves upon seeing someone out a window of your house or when someone rings a doorbell or knocks on the door. The difference is that when dogs show this type of behavior in an animal shelter, it can be both off-putting to adopters and scary for volunteers and staff. More often than not, the dog behaves completely differently once they are outside the building. It is the concrete kennel which creates the behavior.
It was suggested to me that perhaps someone from CARA could make some kennel canvas for the shelter to create a visual barrier between the dogs in the kennel and the rest of the kennel row. This type of visual barrier does not work for all dogs, but it does work for many. They can still hear and smell the other dogs, but it helps if they cannot see them. CARA volunteers responded to the request for help and within just over a week, more than a dozen kennel canvas panels had been made and shipped, helping dogs have reduced stress levels while in the shelter.
I learned from the website for CARA that the scope of the help they provide is vast. The people who volunteer their time and talents help animals in shelters, animals being helped by rescue groups and animals at wildlife rehabilitation centers. Crafters are asked to use approved patterns and materials for the projects they create (to ensure consistency and to create items which do the most good). CARA receives donations of fabric and yarn which is shared with crafters and crafters can ask for help to cover the costs of supplies or shipping costs. If there is a special project that does not use typical materials (like the kennel covers that needed heavy duty canvas) CARA typically purchases that specialized material and sends it to the crafter for that project. People who do not sew, crochet or knit (like me) can also help by making items for fundraising projects and events. I donated some of my stretch bead and cord animal themed bracelets to CARA this year and the proceeds were used to help fund other projects.
People often ask me how they can help shelter animals, rescue animals or wildlife if they cannot afford to donate money or they cannot volunteer in person. CARA provides a wonderful outlet to do just that. People can use talents they already have to make items for animals in need and make a real difference in their well-being. What a wonderful way to help - by using your time and your hands.
If you are with an animal shelter, rescue group or wildlife rehabilitation organization and you are looking for crafted items, you can sign up on the CARA website on the page for rescues. If you would like to donate your time and talents to help animals, you can learn more on the website page for crafters. If you are not a crafter, you can still support CARA by purchasing items from the store.
Like so many things in life, I wish I had known about CARA earlier. I can picture my mom taking great joy in spending time creating kitten aprons, snuggle sacks, hanging nests, wildlife pouches and cuddle cups. Perhaps helping in this way can bring some much needed joy to your life.
On October 1, 2021, the Executive Director of ACCT Philly, the nonprofit which contracts with the city to provide animal shelter and control services resigned along with the Operations Director. An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer stated the Director resigned, "amid an ongoing dispute with some local shelter activists and volunteers." The so-called dispute stems from a number of issues which are included in a petition created by shelter volunteers and "Love Local Partners" (rescue groups and no kill shelters) which includes the following allegations:
I do not live in Philly and do not have any personal knowledge of the shelter operation there. I am blogging on this topic to share my own experiences regarding the subject of bullying and personal attacks related to animal shelter operations. The short version is pretty simple:
There is no place for threats or personal attacks either toward or by members of animal shelter staff.
I am zero tolerance about this. As outspoken as I am in my No Kill advocacy, my focus is and has always been on municipal accountability. Focusing on specific individuals may seem to make sense in the moment, but even if those individuals resign or are terminated, what has that really accomplished if the source of the problems are systemic? Nothing.
Shelters which are operated by municipalities, or which are non-profits who hold municipal contracts, are held to different standards than non-profit shelters which are funded through donations and grants. The people who manage and work at animal shelters operated or funded by cities and counties are public servants. Their compensation and benefits are all paid for through public funds in the form of taxpayer dollars. People who are paid with public funds, whether they are elected officials, public servants or are performing public functions, are - by the nature of their jobs - open to criticism and comment. The reason for this is that they work for us. Of the people, by the people, for the people.
As I wrote in my book, I feel strongly about the exercise of free speech. I not only see free speech as a right of all American citizens, but I would argue that it is our responsibility to speak out on matters of public concern. If issues are important enough for us to be outraged or angry, then they must be important enough for us to speak out and express ourselves to those who govern us. People complain to police departments all the time about increased patrolling related to reducing crime. They complain to public works departments about garbage pick-up. They complain to traffic engineering departments about the timing of traffic lights which they think are too slow or about roadway conditions. They complain about a host of issues most of which do not relate to the imminent threat of death. So why are things any different when it comes to animal shelters and the animal sheltering industry?
I have seen plenty of posts on social media over the years in which shelter directors or staff are called a host of names and people make vague threats about them. I do not tolerate this behavior on my Paws4Change page on Facebook or the No Kill Huntsville page on Facebook. The comments are deleted and the people who made them are banned from further comment. I am zero tolerance on this subject. In the fifteen years I have advocated for animal shelter reform, I have personally observed this type of behavior less than a dozen times. I see it as coming from a fringe element which exists on social media because. These are people with too much time on their hands who lack (or do not want to know) facts, so they use the verbal assaults instead. As far as direct threats, I have personally never heard someone threaten a shelter director or employee with death, bodily harm or engage in personal attacks at all. It may be easy to post snarky words on social media; most people know better than to do so in person.
I acknowledge that there are shelter directors and employees who have been subjected to incredibly harsh criticism, sometimes warranted and sometimes not. The subject of the lives of animals is an inherently emotional one and there can be very strong feelings on both sides of the issue. I have long believed that not everyone is suited to public service. Theirs is often thankless work and when it comes to animal shelters, particularly shelters where healthy and treatable animals are destroyed, there are likely no good days. (Although the good news is that there are ways for those shelters to change and stop the killing.)
There are two sides to this issue, however, and I've been on the other side. When I and the other members of No Kill Huntsville first sought copies of shelter records from the city attorney's office, we were accused of personally attacking the shelter director. When we created something called a No Kill Equation Report Card to inform our followers in the public of our views about the shelter implementation of the programs and services of the No Kill Equation, someone set up what we called a "hate page" on Facebook. It included a parody of our logo and slogan, false information about the members of our coalition and the people running the page used it to re-post our Facebook posts when their own commentary. The most offensive post on the page was a video which was created by downloading a video we had created from a public service announcement we sent to local television stations which was also on Youtube. Someone took the time to save the video as a sound file of my voice and create a video which made it appear as if I was speaking from a monkey's rectum (it could have been a cow now; it appeared to be a monkey when I first saw it). We were upset when we first learned of the page but were determined not to react publicly. We learned that many of the people commenting on the posts and liking the comments were leaders of local rescue groups, shelter volunteers and shelter supporters, but we stayed silent because we did not want to make matters worse. That changed when we learned not only that a shelter employee set up the page but saw that the shelter director had liked a number of posts and put comments on those posts like, "so funny! So very very funny!," "I don't think you can tell them ANYTHING," and "It's hilarious" BIG SMILE on this gal's face." I submitted a formal complaint to the City for conduct unbecoming a city employee and asked that the Facebook page be deleted. It took a few months, but the page was deleted five months after it was created.
I recall a meeting at city hall with city officials many years ago in which we were referred to as terrorists. The person who stated that claimed to not be making that statement for themselves. I believe the context was "people call you terrorists" without qualifying who the "people" were. During the course of our advocacy were not subjected to personal threats of violence. If that had occurred, we would not have hesitated to file criminal complaints. We did consult with an attorney about what we felt were libelous remarks about us on social media. Because the hate page was ultimately removed, we did not act on the legal advice. We spent years being the subject of hateful comments and what likely bordered on criminal harassment for having the audacity to speak out. Some people close to the shelter operation focused more on our message than the fact that the message was necessary in the first place. Those people have gone silent for the most part now that the shelter has changed and has become a place where lives are saved and not a place of death.
I do not know if the people working for ACCT Philly were actually the subject of death threats, threats of physical harm or personal attacks. If they were, my expectation is that they contact law enforcement authorities to pursue a criminal investigation toward having criminal charges filed. Some see this as a fine line. I do not. Criticism about a shelter operation is to be expected. Seeking accountability for shortcomings related to animal care and keeping animals alive is to be expected. Even direct criticism of individuals by name for their part in the operation should come as no surprise. When the criticism becomes threatening or harassing, that is a crime and it should not be tolerated.
Where I think the organization has failed its leadership and staff is in transparency and taking on the issues directly. I would have expected some type of press release about the shelter inspection and the death of Saint particularly, since those failings created the most outrage. That did not happen of which I am aware. What I did see was a post on social media which alleged that a former employee had hacked into the shelter's system and stolen records. Even if that was true, what did that have to do with an inspection which recommended an investigation for animal cruelty or the fact that a dog's jaw was broken while in the shelter, leading to euthanasia and a devastated family?
As I said above, there is no place for threats or personal attacks either toward or by members of animal shelter staff. Period. When we communicate about animal shelter reform, we must always use diplomacy and respect. And when shelters react to our communications, criticism, recommendations or even allegations, they would do well to join us on that same high road for the sake of us all, people and animals.
When I think about puppy mills, I tend to think about them as an American problem. I guess it's typical for us to focus on issues we face in our own backyard and not consider those same issues in different countries or on different continents. When I heard about a book about a dog named Little Belle who was saved from a puppy mill in Portugal by a rescue group, I was intrigued. I had no idea if the dog breeding industry in Europe is as insidious as it is in the United States and I wanted to learn more about Belle and her family.
I expected a book about a dog saved from a puppy mill and how she went on to lead a charmed life through love, patience, veterinary care and being given a second chance. I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of the book. Little Belle: Where Love Is, Magic Happens obviously focuses on the subject of puppy mills and how dogs are treated by people who breed dogs and do not care at all about their physical, mental and emotional well-being. What I didn't expect was for the book to touch on other issues about differently-abled dogs, decisions made regarding euthanasia of dogs or how people view what they perceive to be aggression in dogs. Much to my surprise and appreciation, the book focuses on many of the same issues I focus on in my No Kill advocacy related to animal shelter operations.
As is the case with my other blogs about books, I don't want to give away the whole story. My hope is that you'll be intrigued enough from my blog to read the book and want to learn more for yourself.
The short version of the story is that Little Belle was in a puppy mill in Portugal for almost 12 years of her life before she was saved by a rescue group who then got her to her new family in the Netherlands. Irene van Raadshooven decided to make it her life's mission to save differently-abled dogs and dogs with medical issues following a tipping point in her personal life. As Irene wrote, "I knew what I wanted to do - adopt old dogs and dogs who were differently-abled to give them the best years of their lives, full of love and joy. I would follow the passion deep within me.... I saw a teeny, tiny dog on the Internet, Belle. I was drawn to her in a way I had never experienced before. My heart beat harder while my eyes scanned her skinny little body, the dull brown color of her coat, the thin legs that look like fragile twigs, her cute ears with the big bald spots, and her adorable little mouth and nose. . .While normally I first thought about a possible adoption for a few days, this time I couldn't wait to email Ana at the shelter in Portugal and the next day I was on the phone with the Dutch foundation that took care of the adoptions. In one phone call and after a home visit Belle's adoption was arranged."
Irene went on to write, "I believe that many events in life have a reason, or reason we cannot always understand or unravel. Often the insight comes later, as certain moments and experiences can lead us on a special and promising path. That's what I felt from the start seeing Belle's pictures, and was feeling even more strongly now that I was looking at her. Here was a kinship that would mean a key turning point in both our lives."
The book is unique in that it is written not just from Irene's perspective, but from that of Belle. At first, I wasn't sure how that would come off or if it would be believable. The more I read, the more I realized that that decision was a stroke of genius. How often do we look at our own companion animals and know exactly what they're thinking because of the depth of our relationships, their energy, their body language and how they look at us? I'm sure it was no different regarding the bond between Irene and Belle. Their bond was so strong that they knew each other's thoughts even though Belle did not speak using words and Irene did not always communicate using words. In one passage in the book in which Belle is speaking she says this: "From the first moment I saw Irene I knew I could trust her; there was this instant connection between us. I didn't know that this could get stronger every day. It now seemed like this growth was infinite. I had come to realize that Irene was always there for me, no matter what happened. Right here, right now, I made her a promise that I would also be there for her. Whatever happened."
As I mentioned earlier, the book is about much more than a dog saved from a puppy mill and the relationship between Belle and Irene. It touches on other issues which resonated with me as an unapologetic advocate of No Kill animal sheltering. One particular passage from Belle's perspective resonated with me. Irene said to her, "do you remember that day when we had this encounter with the woman who asked about you and how she reacted when she heard our story?" Belle thought, "oh, yes, I did. She had said that dogs that were as old as me, had health problems, and missing an eye should be put to sleep. That it wasn't worth it anymore. I wondered if old people also hadn't any value." Irene signed and said to Belle, "you know, recently I searched on the Internet for 'quality of life,' focused on animals because I had been thinking about it for some time already and what did I find? Nothing at all. . .This explains why, when I looked for quality of life for animals, I only got results for how humans could improve their lives with the animal's aid. Animals are seen as instruments rather than sentient beings with their own lives in the world. The same life belongs to us all."
Irene also wrote about dogs who are perceived to be aggressive, after saving a dog named Sun who was scheduled to be destroyed. Irene wrote, "it was unbelievable that anyone had ever considered euthanizing her. Even a veterinarian had agreed to this. Quite often a physical handicap is not the only reason for relief or injection; alleged aggression - often based on deep fear - was an insurmountable problem for many people. The real problem, however, was often the person who couldn't see from the animal's perspective. . .I thought that from Sun's point of view, it was the humans who were completely unpredictable. To me being able to express yourself, both animals and humans, and certainly when you feel uncomfortable, anxious, or threatened, was a basic right."
I found Little Belle enchanting, captivating, magical, uplifting, heartwarming and thought provoking. I learned not only about Irene and Belle, but about Irene's family and the other animals in her life. I was reminded repeatedly from reading the story that we must all do our very best to be present and to enjoy the time we have with each other while we can. It is precious and finite.
Belle passed away on April 25, 2017, but her legacy is strong. Irene founded the Little Belle's Magical Sanctuary in her honor, "a place where we give senior dogs and dogs who are differently-abled a forever home. Every dog, whether young, old, sick and/or differently-abled, has the right to live a happy and fulfilled life and to receive all the care they need with unconditional love." I look forward to keeping up with Irene's labors of love to help dogs and help educate us humans who love them in the process.
Irene was gracious enough to spend some time answering some questions for me which go beyond what we read in the book so people can learn more. Thank you very much to Irene for taking time our of her busy schedule. I hope you will read the book, follow Little Belle on Facebook and learn more about the sanctuary established in her honor.
People in the United States have impressions of what puppy mills are from animal welfare organizations and from the media. How pervasive is the issue of commercial breeding of dogs or substandard breeders of dogs in the region where you live?
In the Netherlands, puppy mills are more hidden than in the U.S.A., and there is also less media coverage. There are no real organizations that purely fight the puppy mill industry but there are people who try to bring the issue of puppy mills into the light. The main issue we have here is that puppies at a very young age travel from one of the Eastern Bloc countries to the Netherlands to be sold here as healthy dogs. Often they are not healthy at all because their vaccinations are not right and they were taken away from their mother's too soon. The companies that sell them act like they think about the welfare of the puppies but never show the mother dogs because they simply can't. The mother dogs are living in deplorable conditions in puppy mills in an Eastern Bloc country. People who buy those puppies don't know about this or they just don't care so this just keeps happening. The mother dogs continue to suffer and the puppies are often sick and even die at young age.
It seems like finding Belle was a turning point in your life and put you on a new path. How important was she to shaping you as a person and shaping your future?
Finding her was very important. She changed my life in a way I could never imagine. One of the main things she taught me was to embrace life every day, no matter how I feel. Often I looked at her, at her amazing zest for life, each and every day again, and thought "if she can live life with such joy and curiosity after all that she's been through, how could I not?" And then I felt again that spark of life in me, just like she tells about in the book, that little flame of hope, how she kept that alive. It's always there, we just somehow can't always reach it. That's how life is. Belle also brought me back in the moment, in the present, the only moment we have and truly live. Life is so precious and being able to live and experience it together is the greatest gift.
You have your own health issues, as did Belle. Do you think the fact that you both deal with some limitations played a role in the bond you share?
Yes, I think a big role. We understood each other. Having health issues doesn't mean life can't be lived fully. It's just different. Belle showed me that this is possible and therefore my perspective of life changed. Also, because of her way of approaching life each day, I never saw Belle as a dog with limitations. She never felt that way, too. Often it felt like we both conquered the world, in all the adventures we shared, and that we made each other more aware of our own strengths and possibilities. When Belle lost her last eye, I didn't become her eyes, because she could still see with all her other senses. The way she embraced life again was just simply amazing and taught me again a lot about myself, too. The bond we shared grew even deeper.
I found it fascinating that you wrote from your own perspective but also from Belle's perspective which I think is a stroke of genius. What led you to choose this format to tell your story?
When I started writing, I wanted to tell the whole story from only Belle's perspective. I just thought she could tell it so much better than I would. While writing, I realized this wasn't working because I was the only one who could really write about certain parts of my life. Also, I think it provides more insight into the perspective of Belle and our lives together when reading it from both our views. I'm very happy and touched that you found it fascinating and a stroke of genius.
Belle had something called Leishmania. Many people in other regions may not know about this disease. In the US, we deal with heartworms which are caused by mosquitos and can be fatal to dogs. What causes Leishmania and is there a vaccine which can be used to prevent it?
Leishmania is transmitted by a sand fly (a small type of mosquito). The sand fly lives in warm areas with humus-rich soil. Leishmania doesn't occur in the Netherlands but comes from the Mediterranean region. After infection, it can take years before a dog becomes ill. Leishmania is treatable, but not curable. When not treated in time and/or in the right way, a dog can die from the consequences of this disease. There has been a vaccine against Leishmania for several years now, although the effect of this vaccine has not yet been proven by independent research.
You write not just about your personal experiences with Belle, your other dogs and your horses, but also about attitudes about the ability of animals and how decisions are made about their quality of life and end of life. What do you most want people to know about differently-abled animals and animals with perceived behavior issues so they can make better choices about those animals?
In general, to not have any expectations. That's how it often goes wrong. People tend to expect a lot from dogs; they need to listen, need to be kind, can't have any fears or uncertainty. There have been so many times I've seen dogs who were just adopted who were were returned because they barked too much, were afraid too much (or just a little), did bite or did urinate or poop in the house.
When a dog becomes really part of the family, without any expectations, and with knowledge, then there is a whole different energy. An energy the dog can feel so well. Then dogs feel the space to be themselves. This can take days, weeks, months or even longer. This applies exactly the same to dogs who are differently-abled. They have the same quality of life. One thing that I think is also important to share is that not a lot of vets and specialists have experience with differently-abled dogs. Look at Jessie's story in Little Belle's book as an example. I've encountered it many more times. If someone adopts a differently-abled dog, never follow the opinion of one vet, or more, when you feel that your dog is happy and does love life. Always follow your heart.
I know you have plans for an actual sanctuary perhaps in Spain and that those plans are on hold for now due to your health. What is the best way for people to help you continue your mission of helping more dogs like Belle?
For now, it would be beautiful if people just continue to support us with the Sanctuary we have here in the Netherlands. We already receive so much love and support from many friends and followers from around the world. Until now, we have always been able to pay for all our medical bills for the dogs and their daily care with the wonderful (monthly) donations. When one of the dogs need surgery or other medical procedures, the response and support we get is absolutely heartwarming. Also, it's very important for people to continue to support Little Belle's Dream (the fundraiser for our own place one day) so we can continue to give the senior and differently-abled dogs a forever home and family. This is the dream that started with Belle and it is her legacy.
I am an animal welfare advocate. My goal is to help people understand some basic issues related to companion animals in America. Awareness leads to education leads to action leads to change.
image courtesy of Terrah Johnson