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 Dreams 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.
There are defining periods for all of us which direct the paths we take through life. Deaths of people we love. A lost job which leads to an unexpected career change. Discovery of some new information which changes our world view. Once we reach these crossroads of sorts, there is no going back. Just choosing a way forward. Such was the case for me when I learned about the deaths of animals in our tax-funded animal shelters using our money, in our name and while we are blamed for the process.
An author friend of mine, Cara Sue Achterberg, had a defining period in her life recently which is the subject of her new book - One Hundred Dogs and Counting: One Woman, Ten Thousand Miles and a Journey into the Heart of Shelters and Rescues.
I first met Cara when I blogged about her previous book - Another Good Dog: One Family and Fifty Foster Dogs. I truly enjoyed her delightful book which introduces us to the world of fostering dogs and to her family, all of whom participate in the process. Cara wrote about what motivated her to foster for a rescue group called Operation Paws for Homes, about her “puppy addiction,” and about all the dogs who passed through her home on their way to new lives.
Having fostered so many dogs, Cara was compelled to ask an obvious question – “where are all these dogs coming from any way?” It is a question I wish more people in rescue circles asked of “the system” related to their efforts to save the lives of animals. We are hearing more and more that fostering is the future of animal sheltering and welfare and I believe that’s true. The more animals we have in foster homes, the faster we can place those animals into new homes and the fewer animals we have in shelters which are stressful places for even the most well -behaved companions. But as I wrote about in my book, if we ever hope to get a handle on the number of animals entering our tax-funded shelters, many of whom are summarily destroyed, we have to look at the bigger picture and address the first of many questions which was the one Cara asked - where are all these animals coming from?
Cara had finished Another Good Dog and hit the road to tour the book and to see some of the places the dogs came from. She wanted to see them for herself and take a closer look at why there was so much need for fostering. As Cara wrote:
Money was good. But money alone would not solve the problem of killing dogs because there wasn’t enough space/time to save them. Foster homes could make a difference. If we had more foster homes, we could save more dogs. The message of my book—that fostering is one way anyone can help save dogs—was needed now more than ever. If there were more foster homes, it would lessen the stress on shelters to stretch strained budgets and maybe they wouldn’t be forced to make decisions about which dogs they could afford to save and which would have to die. But how could there ever be enough foster homes? Foster homes wouldn’t stem the tide of dogs arriving at the shelter. Fostering could give them breathing room, but, clearly, it wasn’t the only answer. I needed to do more than write a book. I needed to go down there. I needed to see this for myself. Sitting there with Willow, I began to hatch a plan. I would use my book advance money, not just to tour with my book, but to rent a van, fill it with donated food and meds and supplies, and take them to the shelters. Along the way, I would write about it, using my words to shine a light on the situation.
Cara ultimately took four separate trips to shelters and rescue groups in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee and Alabama, logging over ten thousand miles in the process. I was fortunate enough to meet her in person as she traveled through Alabama. It was after the third of these trips, and after having fostered a particularly difficult dog named “Gala,” that she decided to write a new book. Cara explained the process this way:
I wrote a proposal for a new book. One that would pick up where Another Good Dog left off with our foster family, but it wouldn’t stop there. I would take my readers to the shelters. So often when I talked about what I saw in the southern shelters people shook their heads, and I was never sure if it was because they didn’t believe me or they didn’t want to believe me. But in my book, I could take them there. I could show them. . . I felt an urgency. The faces of so many dogs click through my mind. Lying on concrete floors or hard plastic shelves, with so little human contact, their eyes haunted me. They were confused and frightened and so incredibly vulnerable. I didn’t have a minute to waste.
When Cara told me she planned another book, I jumped at the opportunity to read an advance copy and give others a sneak peek into the content. As was my method in my blog about Another Good Dog, I won’t share too many details about the new book here. My hope is that you will read it and take the same journey with Cara as I took while reading the book. I will share that what Cara learned during her travels over so very many miles was infuriating, heart breaking, exasperating, empowering, compelling and hopeful all at the same time.
Some shelters she visited were little more than disposal facilities, where government officials should have ensured proper care for animals, but were satisfied with housing them in substandard conditions only to kill them. Of one such place, Cara wrote:
There were no dogcatchers or kennel attendants, just four dogs in kennels that were piled with feces, flooded with urine, and swarming with flies. There were no beds or doghouses or even a blanket to lie on, so the dogs had no choice but to lay in their own filth. They barked at the sight of us, jumping against the fence excitedly. One small, brown pit bull was emaciated and crusted with poop, but wiggled and wagged, eager for our attention. A few kennels down were two dogs together in one kennel with twice as much filth. One had a belly likely bloated with worms; the other Trisha was pretty sure was a sibling of a dog back at her house she had rescued a few weeks before. Around the other side of the building, we found a sweet, yellow dog with doe eyes and a nylon collar, also frighteningly thin, who had a soft cough. The volunteer shrugged, “they’ll stay here until the guys get tired of taking care of them. Then they’ll take them to the vet to be killed.”
(Fanny, in the Huntington Pound; photo by Ian Achterberg)
In other places, local government officials were so complacent about sheltering animals that private individuals had stepped in to try to fill the gap, using their own time, money and resources in a desperate attempt to keep animals alive. Some of those people had taken on so many animals with no plan in place to re-home them that the situation bordered on hoarding. They felt they were the only people keeping animals alive and sometimes made poor choices as a result of huge hearts who just wanted to save lives. Cara wrote about two sisters she met who are in their sixties yet who care for seventy dogs and one hundred and forty-five cats at their property in a county that has no real shelter, just a small dog pound. “The sisters began doing what the county should have been doing, paying for it out of their own pocket and now with their social security.” I’m sure this happens more often than people realize; they have no clue that people will big hearts work frantically to save lives while elected officials do nothing to help using tax dollars.
But all was not doom and gloom. As Cara wrote, “saving dogs, like pretty much everything in this world, comes down to business. What we need is a better business plan. Too many dogs are dying for want of it.” Her travels took her to positive places where “attitudes are a powerful force.” These were welcoming places, some of which operated with very little money. They were staffed by positive people who made the shelter operation welcoming and with leadership who kept the public informed so issues could be solved by the public and the shelter working together. At one place Cara visited, the shelter director focused not on what she didn’t have —volunteers, money, community support, or a fancy building—and instead looked at what she did have—plenty of land in a beautiful part of the country. The director created walking trails through their woods and began a rock painting program. The staff and volunteers began painting rocks with positive messages and placing them on the trails. “Then they invited the public to come and hike, paint a rock and place it, or find a rock and take it home. She enlisted the local high-school students to create storyboards and post them along the trails, giving young families even more incentive to come to the shelter. The only price for using their beautiful, interactive trails? Walking an adorable, adoptable shelter dog! Talk about a win-win. I loved it and was fast becoming a member of the Kristin Reid fan club. Kristin’s common-sense solutions and systems were obvious everywhere we looked.”
(Cara visiting with Rhonda Lindsay of Brindlee Mountain Animal Rescue in Alabama; photo by Nancy Slattery)
As a No Kill advocate, I was enthralled by what Cara learned during her travels. Much of what she saw validates what advocates in No Kill circles have said for years: that saving the lives of animals is a choice and that it is not about money. It’s about compassion and leadership. It is easy to think that animals die because the public doesn’t care enough. In Cara’s words – “It can’t be that people don’t care, they simply don’t know.” So very true. And thanks to Cara’s new book, more people will know and then they can act to be part of the solution.
Cara won’t be able to tour her new book this year due to the pandemic, so we agreed to do a Q&A by video so you can meet her and hear her responses to some questions I posed. I hope you enjoy our chat and that you will read her book. It’s available for pre-order now from a variety of sources and will be available at local bookstores on July 7, 2020. Cara has written a host of other books and has a new fiction book due out in 2021. You can keep up with the latest news on her website and by following her blogs.
How many dogs Cara she fostered to date? 177. Simply amazing!
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