They Call Me The Dog Lady
They call me “the dog lady.” That’s not my name, of course, but that’s what my contacts at the Department of Transportation call me. I contact them so frequently that I really don’t even have to use my name.
I was driving home from work in October of 2006 when I experienced a life-changing and very unexpected event. I was cruising along, decompressing from my work day, when I saw the dead dog in the middle of my lane. I had a vehicle to my left, a vehicle riding too close on my tail and I just did not process the information fast enough to get over into the right side shoulder. I drove over the body of the dog, thinking I would clear it. I did not. I’m not really sure how I managed to get home after that. I remember screaming and crying as my heart raced and I yelled at people who could not hear me in my anguish. To say I was hysterical is probably an understatement. I cried for days about that dog. It took years before I could drive home each day and not relive the event. I know that probably sounds theatrical, but it’s true. I just could not get it out of my head and when I think about it today, I get choked up.
I will never know how long the dog had been there or if he was loved or if he was missed. All I know is that he should not have been there and that it is entirely possible that his family never knew what happened to him. I do.
I now have the phone numbers for five DOT offices on my phone’s speed dial settings. When I see a dead dog in the roadway, right-of-way or median, I call for help and ask that the dog be removed. The DOT folks tolerate my frequent calling because removal of the bodies is a public safety issue, but they know that I call because it is an emotional issue for me. Seeing them upsets me and seeing them deteriorate upsets me even more. I cry for dogs I have never known simply because the loss is so tragic and so preventable.
I know I live in a state that has a bit of wild west in the culture. People let their dogs run loose even though it is both illegal and incredibly dangerous. When you let your dog out to roam, do not presume that he doesn’t go very far. Do not presume that each person who encounters your dog has experience in dealing with dogs. My mom was deathly afraid of most dogs due to an event in her childhood and no amount of logic or immersion with dogs ever really changed that during her lifetime. Do not presume that your dog is smart enough or fast enough to win in a battle of car v. dog or truck v. dog or 18-wheeler v. dog. He will not.
If you love your dog or even if you just value your dog, please. Keep him or her safe. Do not let your dog roam like this is 1870 and your dog can just trot to town on a dirt road traveled by horses and wagons with no risk. If your dog has a tendency to get loose, take steps to keep him safe by keeping him inside your home or inside your fenced yard.
I saw a little dog on my way to work today. He probably weighed all of 20 lbs. and was wearing a little light blue harness. As he stood on the side of the road, confused as to where to go. It was in a 65 mile per hour zone during peak travel times. I took the next possible U-turn and went back to look for him, but did not see him. I hope he made it home. And I hope that I won’t see him this afternoon or tomorrow or the next day. Or that I am forced to call and tell Danny that I need help with a dog near mile marker 304.
They call me the dog lady. Please keep your dog safe.
About Pets as Property
Pets are property under the law. Most of us are somewhat offended by that status. Our companion animals are family members to us and we know they are priceless and invaluable when it comes to how they enrich our daily lives. But the reality is that sometimes having our beloved animals classified in the same manner as our cars is a good thing. I work in the legal field which means that I deal with legal concepts and issues every day. I am not an attorney; I am a paralegal. But I still understand legal concepts like case law as precedent and I still understand statutory law in terms of how statutes are written and interpreted. It is because of my legal focus that I am actually glad that my dog is my property.
There are places in our country where your dog can be seized from you if he or she either is (or just looks like) a particular breed. This amount to a seizure of your property. If law enforcement authorities were to knock on my door and try to take my dog because they think he looks like or is a _____________________ (fill in the blank), I would have legal options because for them to do so could be considered search and seizure of my property.
Every place in our country has laws about how long animals believed to be owned must be held if they are found running at large. This is usually referred to as the "property hold period." If my dog gets loose because I am driving down the road, get in a wreck and my dog manages to escape his harness and flee the scene in fear, he may very well end up in an animal shelter. Depending on the location, he must be held ____ (fill in the blank) number of days to give me and the members of my family an opportunity to reclaim him. In that same scenario, if the shelter where my dog ends up does not keep him for the requisite hold period and instead kills him or adopts him out to another family, I have legal options because they have either destroyed or converted my property. (There have been a number of lawsuits in recent years about "oops" killings at shelters and about how much the lives of those animals killed are actually worth.)
My dog will never be seized for looking like a pit bull terrier and we don't live in a city that has breed bans or restrictions. My dog will likewise never end up in a shelter because my husband and I take extraordinary steps to ensure his safety at all times so that he will never be displaced or become lost and so he can be identified in the event of a disaster or crisis. But some recent events in Wisconsin have led me to consider what I would do or what may happen to my dog if we lived there. Thank goodness we do not.
There is legislation pending in Wisconsin right now which will shorten the time period shelters hold animals from seven days to four days. I am told passage of the bill is a foregone conclusion. The legislation does not specify if those are four calendar days or four business days (which is a big deal). The bill (in its latest version) says, "under this bill, the period after which a stray or abandoned animal may be treated as unclaimed is reduced to four days." Supporters of this legislation, including the Best Friends Animal Society and a host of self-proclaimed no kill advocates, have applauded this bill. The argument is that by reducing the hold period, that speeds up the process by which animals can be put into new homes or released to rescue groups. In a perfect world, I would agree. But the world is not perfect and the last time I checked with people I know there, Wisconsin was not perfect. From where I sit, reducing the property hold period is a good thing in only the most progressive of communities where it is easy to find out where a lost pet may be housed and where there are programs in place which will assure that "unclaimed" animals will be spared and not killed. To enact legislation like this which will affect an entire state is really hard for me to understand. One laws are on the books, they are hard to change. Just the simple failure to clarify whether we are talking about calendar or business days is troubling to me. But it is not as troubling as making this shortened hold period apply in every community in Wisconsin, regardless of how hard it may be for an owner to find their pet or how hard some shelters work (or do not work) to save lives.
I live in a state which has a lot of challenges in terms of animal welfare. Some communities are more progressive than others. Although I engage with a few communities which are working incredibly hard to save the lives of shelter animals, the vast majority of animals which end up in "shelters" here are simply destroyed once the property hold period ends. If the Wisconsin bill were to be enacted in my state, it would not speed up the process by which animals are adopted or released to rescue groups in most places. It would simply speed up the process by which they are destroyed while local elected officials applaud the fact that they can house animals for shorter periods of time and save taxpayers money as they get rid of so -called “unwanted” animals faster.
I am glad my dog is my property. I am glad we do not live in Wisconsin. But I also know from my job that legislation is infectious both for good and for bad. A good law can be an example for others to follow. Just like a bad law can be an example for others to follow. Will a time come when a law like the one pending in Wisconsin comes to my state? I certainly hope not, but the possibility is very real.
Do you know how many days you have to find and reclaim your dog or cat if they end up lost or displaced from you? If you love or value them, now is the time to find out just how much time you would have if the unthinkable happened and also to take steps to ensure they can be identified through the use of a simple microchip.
(image courtesy of Peace and Paws Dog Rescue)
There are certain things that just aren't done.
You don't abuse or victimize children.
You don't abuse or victimize the elderly.
You don't drink and drive.
You don't engage in any behavior that violates the sanctuary of another person's home.
And you don't kill healthy and treatable shelter animals.
I am often criticized for being zero tolerance when it comes to organizations that destroy savable animals. I am told I would get much more cooperation and my message would be better received if only I was nicer or more polite. I simply don't agree. When it comes to certain behavior, I think the manner in which the message is conveyed is not at all relevant.
Once I say one time, "please stop _______________," (in this case destroying savable animals) it is my position that is sufficient in and of itself. When that request is met with anything but genuine enthusiasm, being more polite or diplomatic is simply not really necessary or appropriate.
I realize that this aspect of my animal welfare advocacy makes some people uncomfortable. Most people like or even enjoy my multimedia projects I do for rescue groups and on important subjects. Most people find something of value on my website. To me, this aspect of my advocacy may very well be the most important; I share my position in order to persuade you to consider your own. Yes, I am zero tolerance when it comes to needless killing of healthy and treatable animals using my money or donations.
For me, this is an issue of behavior that is morally indefensible. The cure for the disease that is shelter killing is known and has been known for a very long time. I am happy to share what I know about that cure but then those who are doing the killing need to own responsibility for doing just that and stop deflecting blame by talking about how I have hurt their feelings. This isn't about people; it's about saving lives.
When people tell me to be nice or to stop making them uncomfortable or to stop being divisive, what they are really saying is that their personal comfort level is more important to them than the lives of defenseless animals. For shame, for shame. When lives are at stake, diplomacy is nice but there is no time to take a poll and make sure everyone is happy and comfortable. You do your best to show some respect but then you focus on the task at hand: saving lives. It's just that simple.
I once had a shelter director tell me that to a dog, an animal shelter is like a prison. This was years ago. I've thought about her words many times over the years and as I have become more familiar with how most traditional shelters operate as compared to more progressive shelters. When I was contacted by a woman recently who tried to help a stray dog and whose story did not end well., I felt compelled to write something about the difference between a true shelter and an animal holding and disposal facility.
In one city, a large dog with no name is seen running across a major roadway and stops near a local business. We'll call him Max. A concerned citizen tries to help Max. She attempts to get him into her car so that she can take him to a local rescue group or get help. Max is fearful, won't get in her car and someone at the business calls animal control. Max is taken to the local “animal shelter” to be held for five days. The citizen calls about Max to inquire about him. She is told that she either has to find Max's owner or find a rescue group to take Max in order to save his life. She tries valiantly to find someone to help and can find no one. She cannot take Max herself because she already has a house full of dogs. As the days pass, Max becomes more stressed. He first tries to bite a kennel worker. A couple of days later he tries to bite a child who put her hand through the kennel fencing. A few days after that, Max lunges at a shelter worker and another dog who are passing by his kennel. And that was it for Max. He was destroyed. Max was not in a shelter. Max was in a holding facility. What no doubt began as confusion for him escalated to fear and anxiety, leading to the point where he was deemed too dangerous to live.
In another city, a dog named Forest enters a shelter. He's a unaltered lab/pit bull type mix who charges at the kennel door and shows his teeth. Luckily for Forest, he is in a true shelter, as most of us would interpret that word. Rather than let Forest simply exist in the shelter or deteriorate with time, the staff there work with him. They make time for him. They talk to him, sit outside the kennel door to simply be near him and they work slowly but surely to form a bond. This story has a happy ending. It turns out Forest is a sweet and gentle dog who thinks kissing people is wonderful and who is a perfect candidate for adoption. In writing about Forest's care, the shelter director said this:
“If your cat or dog was ever lost and brought to a shelter, became petrified due to a shelter's scary, new environment (like Forest), and was tossed into a caged kennel (like Forest), and was separated from his or her family making it hard to trust the strangers imprisoning him or her (like Forest was), wouldn't you want shelter staff and volunteers to explore every option possible before killing your dog?
I like to think we all would want this for our own animals.
For this reason, we explore every option available for every animal that comes to us. Forest and so many other animals are safe and alive today because we do what we need to do to get animals past the anxiety of being dropped off in a terrifying building like an animal shelter."
It has been said that the manner in which dogs behave in shelters 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. In light of all these factors, we should not be surprised that some dogs. . .will 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 attachment.” (National Canine Research Council.)
Every dog entering a place we call a shelter should be given the same opportunity for redemption as was Forest. Places which fail to take even a small amount of time to help set dogs up for success should not be called shelters at all. Let's call them holding and disposal facilities so the public they serve is under no illusions about what happens there.
I know that some dogs are just broken. They are genuinely dangerous to people and should not be allowed to be adopted out into our communities. But I also know that any dog I have ever loved would be terrified, scared, traumatized and anxious in a traditional shelter environment and would have been destroyed. And for me, that is the biggest tragedy of all.
(image courtesy of Terrah Johnson)
I had a conversation with a shelter director recently during which she touched on the level of division between “factions” of the animal welfare movement. I spoke of my frustration in gaining cooperation from officials in my region in spite of exhaustive attempts to provide encouragement and help. She spoke of having been verbally assaulted in the grocery store by people who accused her of wanting to destroy animals. We both agreed that if people who are passionate about the subject of animal welfare would simply check their egos and personal agendas at the door, conversations about how to save the lives of shelter animals would be much more civil and much less toxic.
When I think of the division between people about animals, it brings to mind an image of a deep chasm or gorge. On one side of the chasm is the animal loving American public. We love our companion animals at best and value them at least. We know they are not children, but they are family members and are involved with almost every facet of our daily lives. We care for them, take them on trips, give them toys and treats and when we lose them to time or illness, the loss can be devastating. Most of the people on “this side” of the chasm either know little about how animal shelters operate or they just don't think about it. We all think about what affects us personally and what shows up on the radar of daily life for each of us. Most people on this side presume that the shelters operated using our tax dollars and donations do the best they can to save animals and that animals are only destroyed for reasons of mercy. We like to think we are progressive, informed and we make good choices because we love our pets.
On the other side of the chasm are those who work in the animal sheltering industry. Some work for municipal shelters and others work at nonprofit shelters. For those on the “other side” who work at shelters which routinely destroy healthy and treatable pets, life can be grim. Even if they love animals and want to help, they feel overwhelmed, underpaid, misunderstood and most of them are angry. At the public. They see the people they serve or engage with as the source of the problems, often referring to the irresponsible public which makes mistake after mistake and which treat pets as if they are disposable. They feel they are forced to do acts behind closed doors which no one could possibly want to do and yet they feel they have no choice. They think they are doing the best they can.
The only way we will ever become a no kill nation – above and beyond the list of no kill communities which grows with each passing day – is for us to bridge the chasm. The subject of animal sheltering must be put on the radar of the public so they understand what is taking place using their money and so they can be educated to make better choices like spaying and neutering pets, ensuring pets can be identified if lost, not allowing dogs to run at large, making plans for pets in the event of some crisis or family emergency. And yes, taking a good look at whether or not we are prepared to live up to the long-term commitment which comes with being a pet caregiver and which cannot simply be abandoned when things don't go quite as we planned.
And those in the animal sheltering industry must, once and for all, take ownership and responsibility for what happens in shelters and stop presuming that every animal ends up in the shelter due to someone's irresponsibility or complacency. They must stop assuming that the public knows the challenges and issues faced by the shelter just because they know as if it is obvious to all outside the shelter walls. It is not. And it makes no sense at all to say, “this is your fault. You are to blame for the death. But won't you please volunteer and donate and foster and adopt?” Yes, there are people who should never have pets but shelters simply must presume the best of the public they support, be firm with the public in order to stop the cycle of pet surrender and help the public understand exactly what help is needed to save the lives of healthy and treatable pets.
Check your ego at the door. Grab some rope. It's time to bridge the chasm. For the sake of the animals we say we love and value in our society.
Adopting a New Attitude
I am a firm believer that all homeless pets deserve to be treated like someone's beloved pet who is just lost or as victims of circumstance and our poor choices. While this may make sense to most people, there are some people who presume that shelter animals are in shelters for a reason, as if they somehow deserve their fate. I just don't agree at all. Animals are not capable of malice. It's just not how they function. Yes, there are some animals who have cognitive issues just like some people do, but when lives are on the line, we cannot afford to confuse circumstances with fault.
Animal shelters across the country are becoming increasingly progressive in order to keep up with our culture. The days of catch and kill are slowly coming to an end as more and more communities realize that we save animals while still insuring public safety and spending our money wisely. Even the best of shelters, however, can be a stressful environment for any animal. Many are very empathic. Most can see, smell and hear things we do not. This means that for them, a shelter is a very strange and scary place and is nothing like home. Even the most balanced of animals will not behave in a shelter the way he or she behaves outside of a shelter. This makes it very difficult to identify behavioral issues and to even determine which animals are social and well-adjusted. So. How to we help them? We get them out.
Shelter animals in foster care are animals who are being prepared for a new life. Some are perfectly healthy. Some may have some special needs. When we put animals in homes, even for short periods of time, we learn about how they function and we help them get ready to be someone's pet. Their past will never be known but their present becomes very much known. Can he walk on a leash? Is she house trained? Does riding in a car upset her? Does he love to play with toys? How about getting along with children or other pets? All of these questions can be answered more accurately once animals are outside of a shelter environment.
The great news is that most communities have an incredible number of resources which could become foster homes. Retirees. Soldiers. Students. There are people who may not want the long-term commitment of a pet but who are great with pets. All of these people are excellent candidates to provide foster care. Do you not have a pet because you think you are too old? Foster. Do you not have a pet because you want the freedom to travel a lot? You can foster. Do you want to help a deployed troop so he does not have to surrender his beloved dog to the shelter? Fostering that dog means he can stay local and be returned to his owner when the deployment ends. Do you want to help neonatal puppies or kittens who need regular bottle feeding for a few weeks until they can eat solid food? Yep. You can foster.
In support of the concept of fostering, I have launched a Bonfire shirt drive to help offset veterinary costs for homeless animals in my area. If you'd like to do something to help homeless animals and get a nice shirt or hoodie in the process, please stop by my drive page. I made the design patriotic to satisfy the veteran in me. I hope it will appeal to all animal lovers who advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves.
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