I’ve never really understood the concept of buying a pet from a breeder through a website. I guess part of that is because I promote adoption of animals from shelters and rescue groups as a first option. To me, it just seems like the right thing to do on a personal level and from a point of being responsible. As a nation, we continue to destroy healthy and treatable animals in our shelters using tax-dollars even though we have more than enough homes for all of them. These are animals who either were, our could have been, someone’s beloved pet. I see it as our collective responsibility to stop the needless death from happening through adoption as a first option.
I fully recognize that some people will never adopt from a shelter or a rescue group and insist on getting a pet from a breeder. But from a website? Really?
Online shopping is a great resource in many ways. Even prior to the pandemic, more and more people turned to their electronic devices to shop that ever before because it's easy and convenient. The pandemic has supercharged a transition away from brick and mortar shopping to online sales which have soared as people do all they can to keep themselves and their families safe while limiting (or completely ending) in-store purchases. I've heard some experts say the retail industry as we have known it is forever changed and there is likely no going back. But a pet? It just seems sordid to me. Online shopping for things is great. Online shopping for a living, breathing, sentient creature who will be part of your life for at least a decade and maybe two is just not right in my book. I know people do it all the time for a host of reasons and it may relate back to that easy and convenient mindset. They’re looking for a companion animal, find a website (or a bunch of websites) that look polished on which images of cute puppies or kittens are just too hard to resist and read that the animal comes fully vetted and with a health guarantee. What could possibly go wrong? Everything.
Many animal advocates are quick to preach, “don’t breed or buy while shelter dogs die.” That’s a nice idea in theory, but it doesn’t work in reality, at least at this time in our society. There will always be people who want to get a pet from a breeder and since breeding animals is legal, there is nothing to be done to stop it. Some breeders breed dogs specifically to be placed in service industries. Others breed dogs to perform law enforcement functions. Some breeders make big money from breeding animals; I’ve seen some puppies who cost thousands of dollars. Some breeders make hardly any money at all and do it for the love of the species or love of the breed. I know there are breeders who function responsibly, who care deeply for their animals, who provide their animals with all they need – veterinary care, exercise, socialization and even training – and who work hard to place animals in great homes, insisting the animal be returned to them if something goes wrong.
Then there are the other breeders. The people who insist they meet you in a Walmart parking lot or never even meet you at all. The people who will not let you see the conditions in which the animals are bred, coming up with any variety of excuses as to why you can’t see the location for yourself to judge how the breeder dogs are cared for. It is this group of people who ordinarily broker their animals to stores to be sold to the public in a retail setting or who develop inviting looking websites with wonderful images and testimonials to lure you into the sale. I’ve seen numerous sites like this over the years and am always amazed at how much the animals cost and the process used to buy one. Some require a nonrefundable deposit before you meet the animal. Some want full payment before a dog is shipped to you. I’ve often wished there was some “truth in advertising” requirement for online sale of pets so photos of the conditions in which the dogs live are posted next to the photo of the cute animal, cuddled up next to a teddy bear. Maybe that would cause people to be repulsed enough to reconsider their decision.
Which leads to the point of this blog. Pet scams are now more prevalent than at any time in history as people spend more time at home or spend more time separated from people and are looking for companionship. I heard a few months ago that the pandemic has led to a sharp rise in complaints about pet scams. I was reminded of this again today when I caught a glimpse of a heartbreaking story on CBS This Morning about a woman whose young daughter had died and who decided to buy a dog from a website in her daughter’s honor (her daughter always wanted a puppy), only to be scammed out of the money she paid for the dog. This led me to look at the Better Business Bureau News page about “puppy scams” which have soared during the pandemic. The numbers are astounding. The BBB reports that the biggest increase in online shopping fraud is pet scams which have more than tripled from last year. They make up 24% of online scams reported to the BBB and are now considered the riskiest scam according to the BBB Risk Index. Of the people targeted by the scam, 70% end up losing money with the typical amount lost of $700. And, of course, the BBB reports that not only are these the riskiest of scams, they are also one of the most heart-breaking. The BBB news story states:
Some families turned to the internet to look for a pet, thinking a pandemic puppy or kitten would help ease some of the uncertainty of current events. Many have come across scammers advertising animals that don't exist and are never shipped. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has given scammers the idea to ask for money up front, or to make excuses as to why buyers can’t see the pet in person-- before heartbroken, would-be pet owners figure out they have been conned. This practice has also lead to a jump in online shopping fraud in general. BBB suggests, be aware of these pet scams and avoid falling for phony websites."
When it comes to buying animals online, please. Just say no. It you’re determined to get an animal from a breeder, find a reputable breeder close to you or who has been recommended to you by someone you know. Meet the breeder in person, see where your new pet will come from and ask for both veterinary references and references from people who have bought a pet from the breeder in the last year.
Better yet, open your home to an animal from an animal shelter or rescue group. If you’d like to use the Internet to help with that, there are wonderful websites like Petfinder or Adopt A Pet where you can search for animals by species, breed, size and age by geographic area. You can also visit your local animal shelter in person to see the animals available for adoption or learn about animals in foster homes who are ready to be adopted. You can also visit the websites and Facebook pages for animal shelters and rescue groups in your region to see what animals are available to find the right fit for you and your lifestyle. When you adopt from a shelter or a rescue, you enhance your own life, save the life of the animal you adopt and make room for another animal in need.
I feel terribly for the woman who was scammed trying to honor the life of her daughter. I am sure she is devistated. I wish I knew her so I could help her find a puppy from a shelter or a rescue group instead.
There are some universal truths in life, one of which is that no one gets to stay. Our time here is limited even though we act as though we literally have all the time in the world for ourselves and with those we love. Another truth is that we all want to matter. We all want to make a difference in some way through the legacy of our families, having contributed to some change or having helped others. We seek confidence that our time here was well spent, regardless of our individual beliefs about what comes next when we die. The 10-year anniversary of my dad’s passing is at the end of this month and I’ve been reflecting on his influence on almost every aspect of my life, one of which is my animal welfare advocacy.
In the fall of 2009, both of my parents were diagnosed with different forms of cancer. Dad’s lung cancer diagnosis was early September; mom’s stomach cancer diagnosis was early December. As I struggled to process the realization that I would lose them both not decades in the future but at any time, I found myself thinking of my own mortality. Where I was in my life at the time. Choices I had made. What was important to me in the big scheme of things. It was sobering to say the least. I had been doing animal welfare video projects for a few years to help animal rescue groups, but was there more I could be doing to make a difference? The answer to that question was yes.
In late 2009, I decided to publish a website to help other people like me who may consider themselves “animal people” but who may not be aware of some of the issues related to companion animals in our society. I wasn’t sure what I would accomplish, but thought it was worth the effort to try to reach some people. I chose the name Paws4Change. This is an intentional play on words. My goal was to present content which may cause people to pause and then perhaps learn something new or change some previously held belief. I knew from my own awakening about issues related to companion animals in our country that there were a number of subjects which were all related to some way to the destruction of healthy and treatable animals in our nation’s shelters using our money and in our name. Puppy mills. Free roaming cats. Chaining of dogs. Spay and Neuter. Breed bans and restrictions. And, of course, no kill animal sheltering philosophies.
I shared my website with my parents in January of 2010 during one of many visits to see them over a short period of time. They were both undergoing a dueling chemo schedule and I honestly wasn’t sure how much they would care about my efforts. Their lives were in the balance and much more important issues challenged them every day. They did take time to look at it and they each gave me a long hug. I distinctly recall dad saying, “the website looks great. But why is your name not on it anywhere?” I confessed that I had not included my name at that time because some of the issues I covered were the subject of intense debate and I didn’t want anyone to threaten me or try to damage my reputation in some way for having had the audacity to speak. I also distinctly recall the next thing he said: “if it’s worth your time to set up a website to help people and take a stand, it’s worth putting your name on your work. Own it.” Yes, dad. You were right then, just like you were on so very many subjects over the years.
My parents are both gone. Dad left us on October 28, 2010, after his lung cancer moved to his brain. Mom left us on March 20, 2011, having outlived predictions for her lifespan by more than a year. We lost Rich's dad to cancer five days after my mom; it was a tough six months to say the least. I wrote about the loss of my parents before in my blog about placement of their cats. Not a day goes by when I don’t think of them and don’t miss them. I carry them with me each day.
My website has changed over the years. Some of the early content I thought would help people was of limited value so I got rid of it. I was looking back at it on The Wayback Machine for this blog and had forgotten how the site has changed over the years. I had to trademark the name a few years back after some folks decided to not play well with others and I've had to remind people about trademark protections a few times. I’m considering a new look in the next few months just to make the site appear a bit more modern.
The site content will remain essentially the same because the goal is still the same: to try to help people like me learn something new so they can make better personal choices which may have positive effects not only in their own lives, but in their communities. I still do my video work for nonprofit rescue groups and some for animal shelters. I now do periodic fundraisers to help those same organizations and published a book about my no kill animal shelter advocacy last year. I’d like to think both my parents would be proud and would approve. I could not help them stay here. But I give thanks each day for the time we shared and how they helped me become the person I am today. I honor them through my advocacy as I hear dad’s voice in my mind, telling me to “own it.” I'm not sure how much of an effect my efforts have. I know I have regular traffic to my website and my blogs are shared by some. As much as I would like to change the world, I know I cannot. But I can change some small parts of it and that's good enough for me.
We are all shaped by events in our lives, some of our own choosing and some over which we have no control. If there is something important to you, whether it is some wrong in society you want changed or some need to be fulfilled, I hope you will strive to get into what John Lewis called “good trouble.” We can all make a difference in a myriad of ways in our own families, with our jobs and with how we live our lives each and every day. As the tag line for my website says, your values are expressed by the choices you make. Go forth and do great things. You can make a difference. Time is both fleeting and precious.
you know life's too short to live it in fear
only thing you will regret is what you
do not do at all even more than the
stupid things you do
better take the chance
listen to your heart, no one can tell you
what your spirit wants
I was trying to recall the other day when I first met Mike Fry of No Kill Learning. As is the case with many of my animal welfare contacts who became my friends, it feels as though I have always known him. I began listening to his Animal Wise Radio broadcasts created with Beth Nelson about ten years ago after I learned what was happening in our nation’s animal shelters. I was riveted by the conversations they shared about no kill animal sheltering and about this thing called “the No Kill Equation” shared by Nathan Winograd is his ground-breaking book, Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America.” I first met Mike in person in early 2013 when he came to Alabama and became part of the no kill story in Huntsville which was (and has remained) the focus on my no kill animal shelter advocacy for more than a decade.
This trip down memory lane was brought on by Mike’s latest documentary film in his Boots on the Ground series highlighting places where animal shelter reform happened. The first film was about Lake County, Florida, which became a no kill community essentially overnight once the county commission took over operation of the animal shelter from the Sheriff's Office. The shelter now has some of the highest live release rates in the country and has become an example of other shelters to emulate.
The second film told our story in Huntsville, Alabama, where a group of advocates banded together to tell the city, "we are better and this," and to push hard for reform of the tax-funded animal shelter where thousands of animals died over a period of years. Ours was a struggle with much of the opposition serving only to delay reforms we hoped were inevitable. The shelter statistics demonstrate the changes made in the past few years which are the result of cultural changes in how the shelter operates. Saving the lives of animals is now a point of community pride; we hope there is no going back to old ways.
The final film in the series is Mike’s story of his 20-year journey to bring no kill success to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, an area serving over three million people. I was interviewed for the film and was given an opportunity to view it in advance of the October 14, 2020, Youtube premier.
Having known Mike as long as I have, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of the story. I knew Mike had become a no kill advocate through family ties – his family opened the first no kill animal shelter in the state decades ago. I also knew that Mike came to his advocacy through a specific event in his life, as is the case with my advocacy. Mike’s journey – which I consider a journey of the heart - began with him being profoundly affected by a video project he created for a contact of his which about pet overpopulation which changed the course of his life. It put him on a path to question the status quo, to question why it is that shelters were not functioning consistent with public values (while making the public think everything was fine), to question if there wasn’t some other way things could be done, and ultimately to seek out and embrace the solution to shelter killing which is the No Kill Equation. Knowing the solution was not enough, as is often the case. It took years and years of advocacy and struggle to bring change to the Twin Cities with the help of like-minded people and with the standards in the Companion Animal Protection Act enacted in St. Paul in 2014. I call this a journey of the heart because it is one born of love - love for the companion animals with whom we share our lives and homes as members of our families.
I hope you will take time to watch the journey in Mike’s film. He spoke with a wide range of people and the flow of the film tells a compelling story. Why should events in the Twin Cities (or Florida or Alabama) matter to you? Because they inspire change in other places. I think it's important for people to know that change really is possible and to learn about what other people have done in the face of really difficult circumstances. The film serves as a lesson to us all which proves a few key things. First, we learn that each of us can, in fact, make a difference in spite of what may seem like insurmountable odds. I think it is human nature to feel overwhelmed when issues are systemic; we feel there is no possible way our actions can cause the wheels of change to turn. They can. Second, it reminds us that no kill advocacy for shelter animals is a marathon and not a sprint. I know many advocates get frustrated if they cannot affect change as quickly as they would like. Some places change literally overnight upon realizing they were operating in ways which were not only inconsistent with public values, but which led to killing which proved to be unneccesary. Other places take longer. Mike’s journey lasted 20 years. Yes, 20 years. What made a difference was commitment to the goal, recognizing that the process may take time, and being so informed on the topic to be able to convince that elected official that enacting the CAPA was legacy legislation which sets standards moving forward, regardless of who runs the city or who runs the shelter operation. When I think of Mike's journey, I am reminded of a book he shared with me years ago called Twelve By Twelve in which the author spoke of the concept of See, Be, Do. Sometimes you have to just Be until a new opportunity arises to move the issue forward. Which is exactly what Mike and his fellow advocates ultimately did.
I found the film inspiring and know you will also. It runs about 45 minutes. As someone who is very visually oriented, I will tell you that there is some footage at the start of the film which may be difficult for some people to watch. I know Mike anguished over use of some footage from the video he created more than 20 years ago which put him on this journey. In the end, he decided that it was a key component to the story which could not be overlooked. I was able to get through it with no issues, knowing that sometimes it takes a shocking event to help us understand what is most important to us. In my case, it was five words. In Mike's case, it was the video he created.
Please join us for the October 14, 2020, premiere which begins at 7:30 p.m. central time. If you cannot see the film then, it will be available for viewing at any time after the premiere.
Congratulations to Mike on the film and thank you for your tireless advocacy which has been an inspiration not only to me, but to countless people across the country. You fought the good fight. You changed the course of history in your community. This is your legacy and the legacy of all who came together to seek a better future for animals and the people who value them.
As John Lewis would say, "“When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, say something. Do something. Get in trouble. Good trouble.” I hopethe film inspires you to do just that.
(The video below is a short trailer which is one of a series of trailers for the film. Thanks, Beth Nelson!)
In one city, cats and kittens who are not adopted or removed from the animal shelter by a rescue group in a week are destroyed.
In another city, the shelter adopts out cats, has a barn cat/working cat program, seeks foster homes for cats who have just given birth (and their kittens) and seeks bottle feeders for kittens with no mother.
In one city, a dog who is fearful in the shelter environment and cowers in his kennel is destroyed for failure to make eye contact.
In another city, a fearful dog who cannot be touched is provided with a bed, a blanket, toys and is slowly fed pieces of hot dog by employees and volunteers to earn his trust and help alleviate his fear so he can be adopted or placed in a foster home.
In one city, an elderly dog surrendered by the owner who asked that the dog be euthanized is destroyed within thirty minutes of entering the building.
In another city, a dog taken in by the shelter whose owner wanted him destroyed is evaluated and placed in a Fospice (foster hospice) home to live out his glory days in comfort.
In one city, the shelter takes in any and all owned pets without any management of kennel space and the majority of those animals are summarily destroyed for space with no regard for their age or health.
In another city, the shelter requires pet owners to have surrender counseling to find alternatives to overcome short-term issues problems, to help the caregiver re-home the pet with the help of the shelter staff and takes in only those owned animals the shelter can reasonably care for and as a last resort.
So, what is the difference between these two cities? Does one have more money and resources than the other? Is one in a more affluent area than the other? The difference is one of commitment and communication with the public.
In communities where healthy and treatable animals are routinely destroyed, there is no commitment to life saving. People can say that “no one wants to kill animals.” Those are merely words. When the actions are to end the lives of those animals, in spite of clear alternatives to doing just that, the words mean little. The public is blamed for treating animals as disposable, when is the shelter which is doing just that. The programs which are used to save the lives of shelter animals have been known literally for decades. Any person who leads an animal shelter in this day and age who is not saving lives has either remained willfully ignorant of those programs at worst or should seek another occupation at best. I realize that some municipal officials know little about shelter operations or how to transition from "catch and kill" to saving lives. I see it as incumbent on shelter leadership to bring those people into the 21st Century by educating them and by explaining why money is better spent on saving lives and ending them.
In communities where healthy and treatable animals are saved, there is commitment to life saving which is built on a foundation of compassion. The reasons animals enter shelters are seen for what they are – people problems, not animal problems. The shelter exists not just for public safety purposes, but to help people make better decisions and to help them overcome obstacles. The shelter is seen as a place of support, hope and new beginnings. Because people do not fear the shelter, they are more apt to seek guidance, can be educated to keep their pets from entering the shelter and are less apt to abandon animals (a crime) out of desperation.
Nathan Winograd once wrote in his book "Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America," that the there is a three-step method to becoming a No Kill Community: 1) stop the killing; 2) stop the killing and 3) stop the killing. In the end, this is a choice and there are no excuses good enough to defend the destruction of animals who either were, or could have been, someone’s beloved companion. If we had no longer destroyed healthy and treatable animals in shelters and suddenly began doing that, people would be outraged. They should be as outraged by that business practice now as they are by other forms of animal abuse and neglect. It is inconsistent with public values and a betrayal of the public trust.
I hear all the time that we should not blame the shelters where animals die. Why not? Is that not he place where they are being killed?
Change starts and is maintained by the example set by the shelter itself. In places where the killing of shelter pets has ended, it's not because the public suddenly became more responsible. It’s because the shelter changed its culture, either by choice or as a result of pressure, and invited the public to be part of something bigger than themselves. When we help people find alternatives to surrendering animals, families are kept together. When we tell the public about the need for foster homes for special needs animals, neonatal animals, animals struggling in the shelter environment or just to get animals in a new location where we can learn more about then, people step up and make time and room to help those animals. When we tell the public materials are needed for animal enrichment - toys, treats (and yes, hot dogs) - people donate those items. Compassion is a powerful force which can be harnessed and used to change our society.
What kind of city do you live in?
If it is one where animals go to the shelter to die, I cannot encourage you strongly enough to speak out to make that stop. You are paying for the death.
If it is one where the shelter is part of the community and has embraced progressive ideas, count yourself fortunate. And do what you can to help maintain that culture. Make better personal decisions to keep your pets from ending up in the shelter, make sure they can be identified if lost, have a plan for their placement if something happens to you and consider adoption, fostering, donating and volunteering if you can.
September is Puppy Mill awareness month. I have not written about mills for a while so a new blog is overdue. I admit that it is prompted, in part, by events in my own area. I don’t live near a Petland at which people protest every weekend and there is only one insidious backyard breeder in my area of which I am aware (who has had dogs stolen because he keeps them in such poor conditions), but the subject of commercially bred dogs is never far from my mind.
There are those who chant, “don’t breed or buy while shelter dogs die.” I’m not quite that absolute in my thinking. As unpopular as this opinion makes me with some people, I have no issue at all with people I call hobby breeders who breed dogs once in a blue moon for the love of the breed and who make little (if any) money from the process. My dentist breeds Black Russian Terriers and has been to the Westminster Dog Show before, having won Best in Breed with one of her dogs. Her dogs are incredibly well cared for and they never end up in shelters. Ever. She has also had shelter and rescue dogs in her home and we’ve talked about her fostering shelter dogs in the past. It may sound like a wonderful idea to end all dog breeding, but we all know that won’t happen as a universal change around the globe. It’s perfectly legal and as much as we would like people to adopt a dog from a shelter or a rescue group, some people just won’t for whatever reason. That is their right. I can’t count the number of conversations I’ve had with people who planned to get a dog from a breeder in which I talk about the benefits of adoption. At the end of the day, they use the information as they see fit. I cannot force them to adopt because I see it as the right and responsible thing to do.
Commercial breeding of dogs is another matter entirely. I’ve written on this topic many times. To find my past blogs, you can clip on the keyword “puppy mill” on the right hand side of this page. I call commercial breeding of dogs puppy mills because that is what they are – they breed puppies and they produce them in volume much like a textile mill of wood mill. In the case of Smith v. Humane Society of the United States, 519 S.W. 3D 789, 801 (2017), a puppy mill was defined as a commercial farming operation in which purebred dogs are raised in large numbers. That’s good enough for me. I know that not all mills are created equal. Some are places were dogs are socialized, get exercise and get wonderful veterinary care. Some, however, are anything but that. They are cruel places where dogs are bred repeatedly until they cease to be profitable, never leaving the small cages to which they are confined (which means no form of exercise of even walking on a solid surface) and they don’t get veterinary care. In these operations, the dogs truly are seen as a commodity and a source of profit. It’s all about the money.
Dogs from these commercial operations are sold in stores, creating a complete disconnect between the locations were the dogs come from and the products being sold. When people see a puppy in a store, they are blinded by the cuteness they see, giving little thought to where that dog came from, how he or she was raised, the conditions of the parents and even the health of the puppy him or herself. If each dog was displayed with images and video clips from the breeding operation which were honest, people would be appalled, infuriated and sickened. (Buying a pet store dog has shown that it can actually make people sick in a very real sense based on investigations by the CDC). A friend who bought a dog in a store years ago told me she did so because the dog looked so pitiful, was already there and she knew they wouldn’t sent him back if he wasn’t sold. She knew that someone was going to buy him and she felt that by taking him home, she was saving him from the store. Talk about emotional blackmail.
If we ever hope to bring an end to the commercial dog breeding industry which treats dogs as livestock, with less regard for their well-being in many cases than livestock bred to be part of our food supply, we simply must stop buying what stores are selling. If we know we are not capable of walking away from a puppy in a pet store for emotional reasons, the only solution is to not enter the store at all. There are plenty of stores which sell pet supplies which don’t sell dogs (or kittens), some of which have animals available for adoption from local shelters and rescue groups.
Like so many other things in our society, we have to draw a line in the sand and just say no. No to the multi-million dollar industry which started with a USDA promotion decades ago which was intended to help farmers and quickly got completely out of control. No to the industry which treats the dogs with whom we share our homes as commodities to be abused, neglected and treated as disposable when they no longer bring in enough money fast enough. No to the industry which takes us hostage by exploiting our emotional bonds with dogs and our desire to help them find better lives with us.
(image courtesy of National Mill Dog Rescue, Inc.)
Only when we stop buying dogs in stores will the industry cease to be profitable enough to continue the way it has for decades and those farming dogs may go back to farming another commodity instead. We cannot rely on the USDA to police the very kennels to which is issues licenses. It is an inherent conflict of interest which cannot be overcome. We change our society and our culture by changing our own personal behavior so the industry knows what we value and what we will and will not tolerate.
The dogs in this image are from a local brokering operation near where I live. The local breeder says she is part of a “team” of 13 families who breed and sell dogs. In order to buy a puppy from her, you have to make a non-refundable deposit of half the price of the dog. You cannot see the conditions from which the puppy comes and you have to make an appointment to meet your new puppy on a Tuesday or Thursday. The prices for these dogs make this about profit, not about love for a breed. This is a thriving business. I guess I should not be surprised that the dogs are listed on the website as “new products.” Some of the dogs are listed as XXS and weigh a pound.
Just. Say. No.
So, here’s the scenario. You work at an animal shelter where healthy and treatable animals have historically been killed. You may not have known that when you took the job. You probably took the job because you like animals and you wanted to help them. You quickly learned that what you wanted to happen and what really happens to those animals are worlds apart, but you felt like you couldn’t do anything to change the system. You were told time and time again that so many animals need help because people don’t care enough, people don’t’ spay and neuter their animals, people let their animals run loose and people don’t come looking for animals when they go missing. You stayed in the job instead of quitting because you need the money and you became convinced that all the things you were told were true – that it just could not get any better and animals would always have to die for some reason. You accepted that as your reality not only for the animals who were euthanized because they were truly suffering, but also for the dogs with wagging tails and cats who purred when you picked them up to carry them to the euthanasia room. You found ways to rationalize the process so you could live with yourself. You had to.
Then one day something changed. A new organization came in to lead the animal shelter. They talked about something called the No Kill movement and saving lives and changing the culture and live release rates and making the public part of the solution to help reduce the number of animals entering the shelter and increase the number of animals leaving the shelter. They told you that shelters across the country save the lives of almost all of the shelter animals and it could happen in your community too. It was just a matter of thinking outside the box and changing attitudes. They told you that you cannot blame the public for what happens in the shelter while at the same time expecting that very same public to make better personal choices, to foster animals, to adopt animals, and to volunteer their time to help animals.
What do you do now? The answer to that is entirely up to you. I would argue that how you react is all about your attitude and all about how you view your role in the system which employs you.
I have never led or worked in an animal shelter. My knowledge of those operations is the result of contacts of mine across the country and my no kill animal shelter advocacy which is based on years of research. I have historically been very critical of people I consider apologists for the killing of animals in tax-funded shelters as if there is no other way to function. There is. I once wrote that I would no sooner volunteer in a kill shelter (let alone work in one) than I would work the line in a poultry processing plant. I have also written that shelter apologists use cognitive dissonance to rationalize their thinking.
I am not totally unsympathetic to people who go to work in animal shelters with good intentions and then become part of an antiquated system that destroys healthy and treatable animals for space. I also appreciate the fact that change is hard. If you lead, or work in, an animal shelter which has historically destroyed animals, suddenly shifting to keeping those same animals alive may seem risky. What if you don’t succeed? And even if you do succeed, what will people say about all those animals who died over a period of years? It can be scary and daunting to think about those things. But you must. The first step toward changing any ingrained behavior is to admit that change is necessary, even if that means admitting past failures.
A time will come when all our tax funded animal shelters are no kill facilities and we will end the outdated and Orwellian practice of destroying healthy and treatable animals for space or convenience. How quickly we get to that new and better future depends on all of us as a society. It depends on the people who lead and work in our shelters to be the change they seek, leaving the calcified attitudes of the past behind. Because the lives of shelter animals are saved across the country using proven programs, no one can say it is not possible. It is. I’ve seen myself what happens when shelter leadership acknowledges that the old methods were not consistent with public values and the shelter leadership and employees have the courage to try something new. The change is nothing short of magical.
When we first began advocating for shelter reform in the community where I work, the live release rate was 34%. The shelter director (a veterinarian) said that was as good as it could get. She resisted free help from subject matter experts as she said, “I am loved here.” That statement was true. Most people didn’t know so many animals died in the shelter, felt there must be too many and presumed a licensed veterinarian would not needlessly end the lives of healthy animals. From the time we first began advocating for better and the time city officials took action to change the shelter operation, more than 33,000 animals were destroyed in the shelter. 33,000. When she spoke years later at a national conference, she lamented having moved so slowly to embrace change and encouraged others to act with a sense of urgency. Although I, and the members of my advocacy group, lament the needless deaths, we are forward-thinking and looking. We are thankful city officials decided to change the shelter operation and make life-saving a priority alongside public safety. People who move to the area now have no idea how the shelter used to function; they see an animal-friendly community in which the shelter is a place of hope, support and outreach. There is no going back.
I had an opportunity to speak with Mike Fry of No Kill Learning recently regarding his upcoming Boots on the Ground film about animal shelter changes in the Twin Cities: St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota. We got to talking about the power of positive thinking and about how we create our own reality when it comes to our lives, our society and animal sheltering. I had been pondering our conversation for a week or so when I learned from a contact in Hawaii that animal shelter proposal for which I wrote a letter of support had been approved and new ways of functioning were being implemented. I thought about employees left from the prior operation, wondering if they would resist change or welcome it. I would like to congratulate Rainbow Friends Animal Sanctuary (as the Proposer for the legal partnership with Partners and SubProposers KARES, Aloha Animal Advocates, AdvoCats, Hawaii Lava Flow Animal Rescue Network and Magical Creatures of Hamakua) for the new contract with the County of Hawai'i. This path has been walked before you so don’t hesitate to reach out to other areas for help and guidance.
I hope the employees of the former contract holder – or employees of any animal shelter implementing a cultural change – will consider this. If someone outside of an animal shelter setting ended the lives of healthy and treatable animals for some reason, we would not call that euthanasia. There is no reason to apply a double standard to what happens outside of an animal shelter to what happens inside animal shelters. You have been given a wonderful opportunity to be part of something new and wonderful and empowering not only for yourself, but for your co-workers and the community. Please have the courage to embrace that change and create your own future through positive thoughts which lead to positive outcomes. Please do not engage in disruptive or obstructionist behavior for the sake of preserving a model of animal sheltering you know deep down is wrong. If you think you lack the capacity to help implement change and you stand in the way of life saving, it is time for you to find a new job.
It is time to lead, follow, or get out of the way. The lives of animals depend on it.
I’m sure I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. I meet some of the most amazing people thanks to my animal welfare advocacy. Most are just normal people like you and me who are on a mission related to animals, using their superpowers for the good of us all. I’ve only met a handful of these folks in person, but thanks to the inter-connectivity of our world provided by video conferencing and email, I still feel as though I know them. And I am proud to say I do.
I first learned about “Pete Paxton” last fall when I learned about his book (co-written with Gene Stone) called Rescue Dogs: Where They Come From, Why They Act the Way They Do, and How to Love Them Well. Pete’s name is in quotes because I honestly have no idea what his real name is, You see, he’s an undercover investigator who has done incredible work for the Companion Animal Protection Society. (I encourage you to visit the CAPS website to help further your education). Pete has been to over 700 puppy mills, hundreds of pet stores, and has worked undercover at some of the biggest mills in the United States. Rescue Dogs is aimed at exposing mills and explaining how the public can help fight them by adopting dogs. The book also explains finding a good shelter or foster group, dog training tips, how to rescue stray/abuse dogs, and busts myths about shelter dogs being “broken” in some way.
I have long railed against the commercial dog breeding industry and have long supported rescue and advocacy groups which help dogs saved from mills and which educate the public toward bringing an end to the industry. I’ve worked on local laws which keep national pet supply chains from setting up shop in communities and importing sick dogs from puppy mills which can, in turn, make people sick. I’ve fought state legislation which would allow pet supply chains to grow roots in my state and further erode the humane treatment of dogs in a culture lost in time compared to the values regarding dogs in the rest of the country. When I heard about Pete’s book and his undercover work in the mills themselves, I just had to read it
The first part of Rescue Dogs was a hard read for me, but not in a bad way. As you would imagine, there is something quite criminal (and, I would argue, nefarious) about the way many people in our society treat dogs for their financial gain. It is heartbreaking, infuriating and mind-boggling. And I say that as a person who has never walked a path remotely close to the one walked by Pete. I cannot possibly imagine the mental and emotional toll taken on people who take on fake identities and put themselves in the bowels of hell in order to take down the very people whose behavior we find abhorrent. I am confident that we cannot possibly understand what Pete and others like him have endured for the sake of dogs and for the sake of all of us. Could you pretend to be someone you are not and work in a place where dogs are abused, neglected or killed on a regular basis all for the sake of money to collect evidence? I know I could not. Which is why I consider Pete one of my animal superheroes.
The second part of the book was incredibly informative. I think that most people in the shelter and rescue world assume the public knows all about rescue dogs, where they come from, how wonderful they are and why adopting a rescue dog is such a compelling choice. Many people just do not know, even if we think they should. Thanks to Pete’s book, now they can. He goes into great depth about where many of these dogs come from, how they think and how to make them members of our families – as opposed to buying dogs from the million dollar industry which has no regard for their well-being, viewing them not as sentient creatures but as things.
Pete was kind enough to help me introduce you to information which goes beyond the book through the Q&A that follows. I think it’s helpful for me to say a few things about the book, but I want you to learn something information not found in the book to entice you to read it. You can find Rescue Dogs on all major book selling platforms and at your local bookstore. I hope you enjoy our exchange.
You repeatedly use the phrase “puppy mill” in the book. I also use this phrase as a reflection of volume of dogs produced as well as the conditions in which they live. What does that phrase mean to you?
To me, “puppy mill” refers to any facility or person who raises dogs for profit. I realize that puts individuals who sell a litter of puppies every two years to neighbors into that category. However, I use the term “puppy mill” to refer to anyone that is part of a system that results in dogs being killed in shelters and exploited for human gain. Whether a facility keeps dogs in the house or a kennel, has two dogs or a hundred, or is licensed or not, they are contributing to that system.
Most people who love animals would have an incredibly difficult time investigating undercover like you did while staying in character. Your work must have been difficult beyond description. How were you able to stay so focused to see the investigations through to collect enough evidence?
I appreciate the kind words. I’d like to say I’m just that tough, but I think part of it relies on my personality. I enjoy taking risks and improvising puts me in my comfort zone. Undercover work does involve suffering moral injury, but it also involves Adrenalin. Whether it’s a lot or a little, the Adrenalin is often there, and if you enjoy taking risks than it changes some situations that would normally repulse you into ones you want to dive into. Essentially, it’s the work itself that keeps me motivated, which I believe is true for any professional who enjoys their job.
In specific cases, though, it is knowing that if I quit, I’m letting victims down. In most undercover investigations, there’s no second chance to get the evidence. If you lose patience or will, it means everything you’ve seen animals suffer for will be for nothing. When I started doing investigations and would sometimes complain about stress to friends and family members, they would tell me I should walk away from cases and take care of myself. I would tell them instead to remind me that anything I’m going through is nothing compared to what the victims I’m documenting are going through. Friends who used to tell me, “Take care of yourself,” now tell me, “Cowboy up and stop whining.” It’s quite motivating.
Do you still do undercover work to this day? I would imagine that someone can only do that kind of work for a certain amount of time before they need to take a break.
I still work undercover, and much of it still for the Companion Animal Protection Society, which I mention in Rescue Dogs. I take breaks when needed, sometimes for weeks at a time depending on how many reports from past work and research for future work I have to keep me busy. Enough time behind a computer and I’m dying to go back in the field.
Stopping to write Rescue Dogs was a particularly long and unusual break for me. It was a difficult process going through so many old case notes and videos to verify details and write about things from years ago in a narrative manner. My field notes allow me to remove emotions from the context of evidence. Rescue Dogs had me write about that evidence in an emotional manner, in which my thoughts and feelings were as much the focus as the victims concerning them. At times it was cathartic, and at times it made it impossible to sleep. In the end, I’m very grateful I did it and that authors Gene Stone and Nick Bromley worked the entire process with me.
You write about dogs you met during your investigative work you wanted to help but could not because it would have blown your cover. Are there any specific dogs who haunt you or do you have any regrets?
This is where things will get dark. There are so many dogs that haunt me that the vast majority of them are not even mentioned in Rescue Dogs because there was no need to drag readers through the memories of so much cruelty, when one story alone could make the point. It was painfully difficult to select which dogs would be used in stories. In every investigation I’ve done, whether of a puppy mill, factory farm, slaughterhouse, or commercial fishing boat, there are victims whose stories are never told publicly. Often, it’s that there’s so many victims that it’s not possible to concisely explain what happened to them all in a video or interview. Other times, it’s that some victims are part of a crime that is irrelevant to other evidence the press or a client wants to focus on. If you ever see a video about an animal cruelty case, you should know that you’re not seeing half of what happened. You’re only seeing enough to try to keep your attention so you can then read about what you can do to help without shutting the video off.
There are so many dogs I want to mention whose individual stories are not told in Rescue Dogs that I feel like I’m suffocating under them. However, the reality is that I’ve tried to tell those stories to people. I’ve tried writing about them, explaining them in person, and discussing them in interviews. It’s simply too much for people to handle. It drags people through emotional turmoil and isn’t necessary to make them understand a subject.
The problem I have is that while undercover, I very rarely get an opportunity to help animals. I have seen many dogs suffer and die without saving them. For so many to be lost in a bigger picture, without their stories told, I feel like I’m betraying them and not giving them the final dignity they deserve. I have been in so many morally ambiguous situations that shame and pride have often been synonymous for me. Choosing which victims will have their stories told is another one of those situations, but I believe we chose well in Rescue Dogs.
I imagine you have testified numerous times regarding your investigations. Do you feel the legal process works to hold breeders accountable or is the system (and laws) not in keeping with public values?
You may be surprised to learn I’ve rarely had to testify in court. Most of the time, when a defendant has so much evidence piled against them that they are dead to rights, they plead out. That said, I’ve testified in front a jury, without a jury, in front a grand jury, and dealt with both good and bad law enforcement at the county, city, state, and federal level. Here’s the short version: The system doesn’t work for animals.
Here’s the longer version: As written, most cruelty statutes make causing unnecessary suffering a violation. You’d think that would make it pretty easy to bust breeders who don’t treat dogs’ wounds, leave them to the elements, or let their teeth rot in their heads. The problem is that culture supersedes enforcement. The vast majority of breeding dogs are in commercial kennels, and the vast majority of those kennels are in rural areas where commercially bred dogs are treated as livestock. In fact, dogs are often seen as an alternative livestock that can be more profitable than other animals. Compared to hogs, for example, puppies are more profitable by the head and you can keep a larger number of breeding stock in a smaller amount of space. Most states have exemptions to cruelty statutes if an act that would normally be considered illegal (such as mutilating an animal without anesthesia) is a routine operation on a farm. The difference between legal cruelty and illegal cruelty becomes so difficult to discern that cruelty laws are rarely ever enforced on farms. Since puppy mills are seen by farmers as the same as hog farms or dairies, local law enforcement typically ignores cruelty complaints about puppy mills just as they do hog farms and dairies.
Furthermore, many commercial kennels are licensed by the US Department of Agriculture. The same agency that inspects slaughterhouses inspect dog breeding kennels. That agency has a dual motive of enforcing regulations while promoting the industries they license. The more enforcement actions they take, the more they are cracking down on an industry they want to promote. Therefore, the USDA notoriously lets violations go. I’ve seen USDA inspectors ignore dogs dying in cages and even warn people ahead of time they will be inspected. Many inspectors prefer to be friendly with breeders instead of confrontational with them. To assist inspectors, the USDA has a policy called “teachable moments,” allowing inspectors to tell the breeders to fix violations on their own instead of them even been written in a report.
When desensitization to animal cruelty, law enforcement corruption, and government corruption come together, I call it a “culture of cruelty.” Commercial dog kennels often exist in this culture.
I have been unapologetic in my criticism of rescue groups that buy dogs at auction and call it rescue. What do you think about rescuers and rescue groups that buy dogs at auctions and make it sound like they have done something good (while showing no regard for the dogs who will take the place of the dogs they paid for)?
I applaud your criticism. Activists buying dogs at auctions provide funding for puppy millers to buy more dogs and keep their operations going. Many puppy millers have rescue groups take their spent breeding dogs, but breeders will have no incentive to do so if they can profit from selling the dogs instead.
What is the single most important thing you think people need to know about commercial dog breeding operations in order to deter them from buying dogs in pet stores?
I have two single most important things to mention. For commercial dog breeding kennels, you should know that most of them are worse than you’d imagine. For pet stores, you should know that most lie to you about their breeders in ways that are bold and ridiculous, but clever.
Even commercial dog kennels that are clean and have few dogs frequently have problems such as severe dental issues for dogs. Dogs also frequently suffer from anxiety being kept in cages and pens. There is no part of the Animal Welfare Act (USDA’s standards for licensed puppy mills) that has anything to do with dogs’ psychological well-being. It covers cage size, cleaning regulations, and even regulations for lighting, but even puppy mills that follow the standards have no rules make sure their dogs are actually happy.
Pet stores frequently show videos of breeders with dogs and puppies running in exercise yards, and point to a part of the Animal Welfare Act that says breeders have to regularly exercise their dogs. The closest I’ve ever seen a breeder come to actually following the exercise regulation is to occasionally put dogs into pens larger than the dogs’ cages or runs. Pet stores show videos of dogs running through lush green yards, which if dogs were to actually be in every day, would be worn down to dirt. Pet stores will lie and say their breeders keep dogs in their homes, have only a few dogs instead of hundreds, play with the dogs all the time, and treat the dogs like family. Most customers don’t know how to disprove photos and videos shown to them as though they are fact, or to contradict someone who says they personally visit breeders selling to a store. The simple reality that I’ve seen, as evidenced on the website for the Companion Animal Protection Society (caps-web.org), is that pet stores lie.
A writer once told me that there will always be a need for large scale commercial dog breeding to meet demand and that if we want breeding communities like the Amish to do a better job caring for dogs, we should be prepared to put money toward their operations to raise standards. I could not disagree more. My position is that if they cannot properly care for dogs, they should raise another “cash crop” instead. What do you think?
Saying there will always be a need for commercial dog breeders because of customer demand is like saying there would always be a need for cigarettes because customers demanded them. The cigarette industry is thankfully dying, because it exploited people for profit. The puppy mill industry is dying, because it exploits dogs and lies to people for profit. If we want dogs to be treated better, we shouldn’t subsidize an abusive industry. We should abolish it. I agree that breeders can transition from raising dogs to another business. Ingredients for plant-based foods are diversifying, and I would prefer tax subsidy shift from supporting animal agriculture to supporting farmers whose operations are better for the environment and free from animal cruelty.
Much of your book is devoted to helping people learn about rescue dogs so they will be informed and will adopt. What do you think people misunderstand the most about these dogs in need of homes?
People often think that if they get a rescue dog, they won’t know how the dog will behave. There’s more foster-based rescues and shelters that take time to train dogs now than ever before. Shelter workers and volunteers spend time with dogs to learn their personalities, likes, dislikes, and teach them how to navigate the normal routines of living in a home if they didn’t already know it. Raising a puppy, you can’t guarantee your training will mold the puppy’s personality into who you want. You simply don’t know who you’re getting when you buy a puppy from a breeder, but you are much more likely to know who you’re getting if you adopt a dog from a shelter.
People also often think that dogs are dumped at shelters because something is wrong with them and that they all have separation anxiety. That’s simply not true. Most of the time, dogs are given to shelters by people who can’t afford vet bills, won’t take the time to properly train them, are moving and can’t take animals with them, or who found stray animals they can’t keep. There’s nothing wrong with dogs at shelters. In fact, overcoming adversity have can make them better at dealing with change.
I believe a time will come when our tax-funded shelters no longer destroy healthy and treatable pets because the public will no longer tolerate the old catch and kill model of sheltering. Do you think this is possible for our future?
I think it is possible. The fact that the term “rescue” refers to an adopted pet, and not just an animal taken from an abusive situation or as a stray, is part of a cultural shift that the publicly increasingly recognizes the need to adopt animals instead of purchase from breeders. There is a stigma beginning to be attached to people who buy purebred and designer breed puppies, and a mark of respect for people who adopt. Momentum is building for pet stores to be shut down in the U.S. Welfare legislation, too strict for the worst puppy mills to stay in business, is gaining footholds. Municipal shelters are increasingly working with local rescues to decrease euthanasia rates.
The fight against puppy mills is multi-pronged, and we’re seeing every effort have impacts in the entire process. When pet stores ban selling animals from breeders in a major city on the coast, puppy mills in the Midwest start to go out of business when they lose their main market. When false rescues are shut down, the same thing occurs. All of this makes me optimistic.
Your book was published in October of 2019. What has the feedback been like?
The main responses are that readers have learned a lot about the puppy mill industry in ways they haven’t before, particularly in understanding how puppy mills operate in ways that are hidden from us. Other readers have noted being happy with the amount of information on how to rescue dogs, with different people noting different sections of the book as most useful, which is ideal for me. I wanted a book that reaches out to everyone involved in dog rescue, and I think we nailed it.
There’s been no major controversy I’ve detected in the rescue community about the book, but from some feedback and interviews I can tell that my advocacy against domination-style training and against purpose-driven thinking are the most controversial points. Rescue Dogs explains why dogs view us as equals, and why they respond best to positive reinforcement-based training, as opposed to punishment that includes shock collars or reprimanding dogs verbally. I stand by this way of thinking, and I should note that many dog trainers advocate it. Personally, it’s helped me rehabilitate some terrified dogs into being comfortable members of loving families.
I believe my stance against purpose-driven thinking, also known as teleology, is most controversial. In Rescue Dogs, I counter the idea that dogs are here for us to fight, race, or breed in a manner that goes against their psychological and physical well-being. However, the idea that a dog was born with the purpose of racing for our amusement is no different than the idea that a dog was born for the purpose of being loved. Both rest upon the notion that something gives a purpose to dogs outside of our control and beyond our judgement. Dogs have no inherent purposes. We give them purposes, with some of us doing so for our own benefit, and others to benefit individual dogs. If we don’t rely upon science, ethical considerations for dogs’ well-being, and the history of how dogs have come to be so exploited by people, we end up relying on justifications that dogs are used by us because, “That’s why they’re here.” I’m adamant against teleological thinking because I’ve found it is the most common justification for abusive acts I’ve seen.
(video courtesy of the Companion Animal Protection Society; mill images courtesy of Pet Shop Puppies)
(Aspy next to the 9th green at the Twin Lakes Golf Course, watching Rich putt)
The 4th of July is a day of celebration for many people. I know that it should be for me, but it honestly is not. The 4th of July is the day that we mark the passing of our senior dog, Aspy, under what I consider traumatic circumstances. Much like we involuntarily mark the dates of the people we love who have left this Earth, we do the same with our beloved companion animals. We do our very best to focus on lives well-lived and be thankful for the number of years we shared walking a path together. That is what I will try to do on July 4th. It will be bittersweet as I do my very best to force away the memories of our dog's last day with us.
As I've written about before both of my website and in my book, I became an animal welfare advocate when I learned what was happening at my local animal shelter and in the wake of another personal loss. It is abundantly clear to me that using the word euthanasia to describe the destruction of healthy and treatable shelter animals is entirely misplaced. Making a decision to euthanize a beloved animal has nothing whatsoever in common with decisions made in shelters every day to end the lives of animals who were, or could have been, someone's beloved companion.
But back to the subject of euthanasia of beloved companions. Anyone who has ever made what Marian Hale once called "That Terrible Decision" regarding a companion animal is torn with having made that decision. We are plagued by doubts about timing. Did I wait long enough? Did I wait too long? Did I allow my selfish love and need for that animal to cloud my thinking? Did I really put the welfare of my beloved companion first? Could I have done more?
I've come to believe that when the decision to euthanize an animal is made from a place of love, it is always the right time, because it will never be the perfect time. We do our very best with the information available to us and once the act is done and our companion no longer shares our lives with us here, we have to forgive ourselves. I know that's easier said than done and I struggle with the decisions we have made regarding our own beloved pets throughout the years.
It is easy to look back and say that we waited too long with Snake and we kept her around for us and not for her. It is easy to say that we waited too long for Aspy. That we likely should have let him go after he had his stroke in the summer of 2015. But he had so many good and happy days after his stroke that I choose to focus on those extra months he had. He was fiercely loved. He was a member of our family. We did and would have done anything for him. And in the end, that caused just to make the decisions that we did.
While others are celebrating on the 4th of July we will be experiencing our day of remembrance.
Love your companion animals for as long as they are with you no matter how poorly they behave or may frustrate you at times. They have the cognitive function of children and they do not act with malice. If you believe your pet is suffering or his or her quality of life has diminished so greatly that you are wondering if it is time to let them go, please consult with your veterinarian. Euthanizing pets is very difficult for them; they are attached to the faces they have cared for over a period of years. But they have a degree of objectivity based on their education that we lack because we are thinking with our hearts.
When your beloved companions are gone, you will find yourself wishing you had just one more day with them. That is natural. But likely not what they need from you.
One more day, one more time
One more sunset, maybe I'd be satisfied
But then again, I know what it would do
Leave me wishing still for one more day with you.
(our annual memorial trip to the places Aspy loved; next to the 9th green at the Twin Lakes Golf Course)
("One More Day" by Diamond Rio)
I've used a lot of beach metaphors related to my advocacy for shelter animals. I have written of drawing a line in the sand which is a reference to animal shelters proclaiming that they will no longer destroy healthy treatable animals under any circumstances. I have written about animals in need being like starfish on the beach and that it's not enough to save just that one; we have to figure out where all those starfish are coming from to keep them from washing up on the shore and we need to figure out how better to help them if they do end up on the beach. Now that summer has arrived and our world is in crisis, it is time for another beach metaphor. The sands of the animal sheltering world in the United States are shifting and they're shifting very quickly.
If you've kept up with me at all you know that I am an unapologetic proponent of something called the No Kill Equation which was developed by Nathan Winograd in 2007 and first published in book form for all to see. I support the Equation as an animal shelter philosophy because it works, because it can be molded and shaped to fit any community and because it is not about spending more money – it is about culture and leadership. It is dual purpose in nature because it serves to reduce shelter intake and it serves to increase shelter output. The Equation focuses on animal shelters because that is where animals die using our tax dollars. Having said that, it is not just about the shelter itself. The Equation works because it helps people make better personal choices which affect shelter intake and because it helps people see shelter animals as worthy of their time, attention and love. In spite of my long-term support for the Equation, I fully recognize that there are other philosophies and methodologies “out there” which also save the lives of shelter animals. I don’t care what you call it, who developed it or how far removed from the status quo progressive programs are; saving lives should be something we can all agree upon.
The pandemic has revealed many things about our society and changed many aspects of how we function personally and collectively. In terms of animal sheltering system in the United States, the pandemic has revealed the true colors of shelters funded by our tax dollars. Shelters that were at least nominally progressive before the pandemic have risen to the challenge. They have become creative as they have adopted new programs in ways to engage with the public to keep animals alive. They have worked incredibly hard to get animals back home, to keep animals in existing homes, to get animals adopted out or to get animals into foster homes (which does miraculous things toward helping those animals be adopted). Animal shelters that were regressive and which used excuses to kill animals in the past have added the pandemic as just one more excuse to kill those animals. Many have stopped adoptions, have ceased interacting with the public, and killed countless animals because they continue to do intake while doing nothing to get animals out of the building. These facilities (I refuse to call them shelters) have refined the catch and kill model as animals come in one door and go out in body bags.
As our society has changed over the last 3 months, there has been what I consider an awakening on the part of the public when it comes to animal shelters. For the first time in my lifetime I heard well known people in mainstream media talking about shelter animals and the need to foster and adopt shelter animals. With more people staying home, fewer animals have run loose which has led to reduced shelter intake. When lots of people were working from home (many of whom still are), more people were willing to foster animals to either prevent them from entering shelters or to get them out of shelters, making it much, much easier to pair them with potential adopters. Many of those people returned to work, but now see how easy it is to foster an animal for a short period of time to make a huge difference.
During the course of these changes, a new approach to animal sheltering has emerged. It is called the Human Animal Support Services model which is being led by Kristen Hassen (Director of Pima County Animal Services in Arizona), Dr. Ellen Jefferson (Executive Director of both Austin Pets Alive! And American Pets Alive! in Texas), Gina Knepp (national Shelter Engagement Director for the Michelson Found Animals Foundation), Lisa LaFontaine (President and CEO of the Humane Rescue Alliance) and Bobby Mann (the Maddie’s Fund Director of Human Animal Support Services). HASS describes itself as “an international coalition of animal services leaders and more than 30 pilot organizations transforming the traditional sheltering system to serve the entire community in supporting the human-animal bond.”
The HASS is what the name sounds like – it is a model that focuses on helping people related to animals who end up in shelters. There are currently 26 working groups working on shelter concepts in subjects like marketing and communications, behavior support, community engagement, fostering, volunteering, fundraising, shelter education and outreach, ecosystem mapping, and research (just to name a few). There are 12 elements to the HASS model which include getting pets home, keeping families together, self-rehoming, intake-to-placement, core functions of the physical shelter, animal protection and public safety, remote help, foster, telehealth, case management, volunteers and partnerships.
There are currently 12 tier 1 pilot communities working to implement the HASS model immediately. There are 15 tier 2 pilot shelters that will implement programs based on lessons learned from the tier one animal services organizations, one of which is in my state.
Call me skeptical as well as moderately annoyed. The primary reason is that I think that this model presumes a level of commitment to life-saving which does not exist in many places across the country. My opinion is that the shelters and communities most likely to consider and implement the model are those which were already progressive when the pandemic hit and which doubled down on their commitment to life-saving. Those places are a step ahead because their culture already provides the foundation for progress to continue through innovation. Shelters and communities which do not already save the lives of animals in need for whatever reason, regardless of resources, are not as apt to make the leap from a catch and kill model to a human animal support model. My annoyance is caused by the fact that the focus seems to be external to the shelter and may put too much pressure on the public to do too much. In many states shelters are statutorily required to take in animals found running loose. This is a public safety issue. We have heard that some shelters are no longer taking in healthy animals found running at large which is mind boggling to me. What exactly is the shelter staff doing with all that free space and all that time on their hands if only a handful of animals are in the building? I'm all for keeping animals out of shelters whenever possible or getting them out quickly. But the notion that a shelter would simply stop doing intake of healthy animals running loose is exasperating to me. Do the intake, vaccinate them, put them in the system, and then put them in a foster home. But don't expect the public to become behaviorists, veterinarians or animal control personnel for the community. And don't put people at risk. Dogs behave in unpredictable ways when they feel fear. We need trained personnel dealing with those dogs, not people who may end up injured just because they tried to do the right thing.
I have long promoted municipal accountability for the use of tax dollars related to animal sheltering and care. As much as I would like to think the animal shelter system can be reformed, now is not the time to take the burden off of shelters and put it on the public or on rescue groups with many people paying attention for the first time ever. Now is the time to keep the public engaged as we really focus on programs proven to work and to push public officials to do their jobs consistent with public values when it relates to keeping people safe and keeping healthy and treatable animals alive. Now is the time to supercharge those programs which have proven they may be the most important during times of crisis - pet retention programs, proactive redemptions, foster programs, comprehensive adoption programs, and community outreach/public relations. Now is not the time to take the focus off of a shelter system which exists in most places not for animal welfare but for public safety. I think you need a foundation of a commitment to life-saving first; killing healthy and treatable animals for no good reason is a betrayal of the public trust which continues unabated across the country. Once we end that outdated model, that is our foundation upon which we can build a new and better future.
Perhaps I am being short-sighted. My opinion matters little in the big scheme of things in any event. The view is just a whole lot different from the weeds of Alabama than from the streets of Texas. I would love to be proven wrong and would love to see all of my concerns put to rest.
I understand that the HASS model is a pilot program to see if the ideas work. Much like shifting sands, it is not engraved in stone. It is a series of idea which may or may not have have universal application. I would love a future in which the shelter in any community is a safe haven for the animals most in need of help, in which shelters are seen as places of hope and support, and in which there are interactions between the shelter and social services agencies or community stakeholders to help people who most need help so we keep pets where they belong - in existing homes.
Back to my beach metaphors, I am but a grain of sand on the beach of animal sheltering and welfare. I have worked hard for many years to affect change in my own area with some degree of success in a few places and with dismal failure in another areas. My plan is to watch what happens around me and write about it to keep people informed to the extent that I can keep up. I will keep promoting the No Kill Equation in the meantime because it works now, it works anywhere, it’s about leadership (not money) and it includes many of the same elements being contemplated by the HASS model.
It is possible that we have arrived at a tipping point in the history of our society which may result in a complete change in how animal shelters function and interact with the public being served. Dare to dream. My hope is that if we really want to change our society related to animal sheltering, some large national animal welfare organizations which have routinely operated with millions of dollars in the bank from a view of thirty-thousand feet while writing position statements and holding seminars will realize it’s time to land their planes, put boots on the ground and use that money in the communities that need their help. Ideas are great. Actions are better.
I also hope that those who are promoting the HASS model are not blinded by an information silo created by their own progress. Austin, Texas, is nothing like Anniston, Alabama. Tucson, Arizona is nothing like Toledo, Ohio. I wish the HASS founders well. They have much more time to devote to this subject than most individual advocates like me and they are much smarter than I am to be sure. A day will come when the destruction of healthy and treatable animals in our nation's shelters will end. How quickly we arrive at that new "normal" is up to all of us. Is HASS the path to that future? Time will tell.
Stay tuned. See you on the beach.
NOTE: Since the time I wrote this blog, I have learned that some shelters are using the HASS Model as a reason to stop providing services to the public. In El Paso, the shelter is refusing to pick up and house healthy animals running at large in spite of the legal public safety obligations of the city and the shelter there. El Paso is a Tier 1 location in the HASS program. This is completely unacceptable. If you live in a place where the municipal animal shelter, or one funded by tax dollars, is refusing to provide public services, contact your local elected officials and demand better.
Icon. Hero. When we think of those words, we tend to think of people. When I think of those words, I think of a small dog whose life was so improbable as to be the stuff of legends. Harley. Harley Taylor, to be exact. I was trying to think back to when I first learned about Harley and I had to go look it up in my records. Just like human icons and heroes are timeless, so is Harley. It is like he has always been and always will be, thanks to his family and his devoted followers.
Harley lived in a cramped, filthy cage at a puppy mill for the first 10 years of his life, fathering countless puppies to be sold in pet stores across the country. His life was incredibly rough. He was sick, afraid and had never known the kindness of human touch. After he had been tossed in a bucket along with some dead puppies, a puppy mill worker noticed he was still breathing. She retrieved him from the bucket and passed the tiny, disfigured Chihuahua on to a nearby rescue. He received immediate medical care and he was put in the grass where his picture was taken. He was old and crooked, he had only one eye, and he appeared sad and afraid. Rudi Taylor wrote:
when I saw the photo I knew instinctively that this little Chihuahua was meant to be with me. I called the women who ran the rescue; we spoke for an hour and the next thing you know I was on my way to pick up “my boy” a couple states away. To be honest, my intention was to give this dog a loving home for his final days, which the vet said would likely be about three months. A soft bed, good food and clean water – but most importantly, love – that is what I would give “Harley” for the first time in his life.
Harley had come very close to death and he had issues: a diseased heart, a mouth filled with rot, a fused spine, a broken tail, gnarled toes, and legs that were deformed. And then there was the missing eye – the result of his cage being power-washed with him in it (an all too common practice in puppy mills). But Harley was a survivor. He thrived on the love and attention he received for the first time in his life.
Harley has been called “magical” by everyone who met him and loved him. Harley inspired Rudi and her husband, Dan, to create a campaign called “Harley to the Rescue” which raised funds to save (and provide medical care for) more than 500 dogs from puppy mills in less than two years. Harley went on these rescue missions and “clearly recognized his role in helping to bridge the gap between canine and human,” wrote Rudi.
Harley passed away on March 20, 2016. I had never met him, but still felt the loss. I had created a series of video projects over the years using images and video clips of him and faithful sidekick, Teddy Burchfield, so I felt like I knew him. But isn’t that the way it is with all heroes? I believe so. When souls touch our lives on such a personal level, we feel as if we know them and so the loss of them feels like a personal loss. I wrote a series of blogs after Harley’ passing. I wrote about the fact that he changed the world. I wrote about his extraordinary life. I wrote about his legacy. I wrote about the fact that he was small in size and larger than life.
As I processed the news of his passing, I felt deep down that Harley's legacy would be huge and may even be greater than his accomplishments while in the loving care of the Taylors. Even I was wrong. No one could have imagined the profound effect Harley had, and continues to have, on so very many people across the country. He inspires. He empowers. He has given some people a focus and passion for a subject they never had before as they labor tirelessly to speak out for other dogs like Harley who were not saved.
To honor Harley’s life and continue his legacy, Rudi and Dan Taylor developed a non-profit organization called Harley’s Dream. The work done by this incredible organization is almost beyond description. The Taylors channeled their love (and, I would presume, their grief) into developing programs to bring an end to puppy mills and to help other dogs like Harley. The scope of these programs is huge so I encourage you to visit the website to learn more about them.
The first program is a public awareness program which is intended to expose the puppy mill industry to as many people as possible toward bringing an end to that industry. This program includes large scale public awareness using billboards, social media awareness, peaceful protests and rallies, puppy mill awareness cards, media awareness, t-shirts and products (which start conversations), an annual Hops & Harley event and the Art by Teddy campaign.
The second program is an educational program which seeks to educate the public about the reality of the puppy mill industry and the link between puppy mills and pet stores/websites. It includes educational events, presentations, a Children’s Educational Campaign, print and display educational materials and Bookmarks for Change.
The third program is an advocacy program which promotes grassroots organization with mobilized supporters across the country in order to effect change at the local and regional levels. It includes Harley’s Heroes groups in each state, Lobby Days, petitions, sample letters, and promotion of Humane Pet Stores which provides the steps and information necessary to start the process of establishing a ban of the retail sale of puppies in pet stores in towns/cities. More and more places across the country are enacting ordinances to keep national pet supply stores from selling animals sources from puppy mills. They do not prevent people from purchasing a dog from a breeder. They do serve as consumer protection laws in light of CDC investigations of the transmission of diseases from pet store puppies to people.
The fourth program is new and is truly a labor of love. It is Harley’s House of Hope which helps individual senior dogs by saving them from animal shelters, caring for them in a home environment and providing them all necessary medical care before finding them new homes. Most of the dogs who enter Harley's House of Hope were scheduled to be euthanized until they were rescued.
I know it has been more than four years since Harley left us. Sometimes it feels like it has been ages and other times it feels as though it was just yesterday. Looking back, I marvel at how many people Harley has touched with his life and his legacy. I believe a time will come when the puppy mill industry will cease to exist as we know it. I have no doubt that Harley and the Taylors will have played a huge role in that transition to more compassionate way of functioning as we not only say that dogs are man’s best friend, but we prove it through our actions and our choices.
Dare to dream. We miss you Harley. You are a hero and an icon. And you will never be forgotten.
If you would like to support Harley's Dream, there are a variety of ways to do that. Click on the support drop down menu on the website to learn more.
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