So, here's the scene. You have lots of inventory you need to move to make room for new inventory. You only have so much space. If you are in the car sales business, you no doubt have commercials on television, you may tie balloons to car door handles, hang colorful flags between light poles and you may even use one of those strange air tube puppet things to attract the public and get them into your business. You may be open from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. so people can not only look at new cars, but get cars serviced. If you are in the furniture business, you may put some of your inventory outside the store so people can see it while they drive by and you may hire someone to stand near the street with a large sign with the name of your business to encourage people to stop in and see what great deals they can find inside. You may be open from 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. so people can come by after they get off of work. If you are in the hardware business, you may runs ads in a local paper, offer coupons for items you’re trying to move or have ads on the radio. You may be open from 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. so that people who work in trades can get what they need at almost any time.
No one likes to think of shelter animals as products or inventory, but the reality is that animal shelters housing animals in need of homes are in the customer service industry. They have to work hard to remain in the public eye not only to compete with other sources of animals, but so the public knows they even exist. If I was to take a walk in a large park in my area which is centrally located in the city and stop people to ask them where the animal shelter is located, quite a few would know. If I went one step further and asked them the hours or operation, I think some would know but many would not. If I went even further and asked them what they know about the live release rate, a few may have heard that ours is a No Kill shelter (although it is not), just because progress has been made and people would like to think it is a No Kill facility. If I ended by asking them how difficult it would be for them to reclaim or adopt an animal while the shelter is open, I feel confident I would see more than few looks of confusion or contemplation. It's just not easy here and the reason for that is the shelter is not open family-friendly hours.
Not a week goes by when I don’t receive some email or see some post on social media lamenting the fact that the tax-funded animal shelter in the city where I work only had X number of adoptions that week or faulting owners of animals for failing to come to the animal shelter to find them. “If they only cared enough they would be down here looking every day.”
News flash. People cannot get to an animal shelter to either look for a lost pet or to adopt a new one if the shelter is only open when people are at work. We can all agree that people can only be in one place at one time. People with traditional work schedules along the lines of 8:00 to 5:00 cannot be at work and be at the shelter at the same time.
In addition to being very visible in the community, animal shelters have to - have to - be open family-friendly hours when people can actually get there while the shelter is open. Any shelter which is only open when the majority of the public is at work is setting itself up for limited reclaims of lost animals and adoption numbers which are lower than they otherwise could be. And that’s just a shame. No one expects people who work in animal shelters to work the same hours as other people in public safety departments. But no one who works in an animal shelter should expect to have a 9:00 to 5:00 job either. If that is the kind of job they want, perhaps working in an animal shelter is not a good choice. Any animal shelter which is not open to the public at all should not call the building a shelter. It should be called a holding facility.
Let me give you a couple of examples for the community where I work to explain.
The shelter here is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. It is open until 6:00 p.m. on Tuesdays - one night a week. It is open on Saturdays from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. There are a lot of people who work here who commute from other places. For many folks, an hour commute each way is not a stretch. But let’s take the example of a person who lives locally for the sake of argument and let’s say that person has traditional work hours during the day - 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. with an hour lunch break.
Person A lives 20 minutes from where they work and they work another 20 minutes from the shelter. If their pet goes missing and they have to go to the shelter to look for their lost pet, it will take them 20 minutes to get to the shelter, at least 20 minutes (if not more) to look for and then reclaim their lost pet, another 20 minutes to get their pet back home and then another 20 minutes to get back to work. That’s a total of an hour and 20 minutes. Most traditional work schedules allow an hour for lunch. The only way this person can reclaim a lost pet is to take vacation time, wait until a Tuesday or wait until a Saturday. Depending on when the animal was taken to the shelter, their pet may have been adopted out by another family by the time they can go look for him or her.
Person B lives 15 minutes from where they work and they work another 15 minutes from the shelter. If they want to adopt an animal, they have two logical choices. They can go on a Tuesday night and hope they can complete the process of meeting potential animals, filling out the paperwork and get adoption counseling by 6:00 p.m. They can also wait until Saturday and go when the shelter is open from 9:00 to 3:00. If they want to adopt a pet during the week, they almost always have to take vacation time. I don’t advocate adopting a new pet and then dropping that animal off at home before going right back to work, but let’s say someone wanted to do that. It would take 15 minutes to get to the shelter, at least an hour to meet pets, do the paperwork and get counseling, another fifteen minutes to get home and then another 15 minutes to get back to work. That’s a total of an hour and 45 minutes.
See the problem?
I know of some municipal animal shelters which are open from 11:00 to 7:00 every week day and have both Saturday and Sunday hours. I applaud them. The municipal animal shelter in Lake County, Florida, is open on Sundays and the shelter director has told me that she "loves" her Sunday hours. I just wish more shelters would take this subject of family-friendly hours more seriously to keep the number of animals in the building as low as humanly possible at any given time. Lives are at stake if shelters do not recognize that the ability to move their inventory - animals - is directly affected by whether or not the public can get to the shelter while it is open.
We tell people that adopting an animal is a lifetime commitment. A process to be taken seriously. If we really believe that, then shelters have to be open when people can get there, take time to meet new-to-them animals and do the adoption process right. Adopters should be screened to make sure the adoption is a good fit and they should be counseled on dog or cat decompression to help set everyone up for success. I admit that I did take vacation time when we adopted our dog. That is because we found him on Petfinder and had to travel 2 hours to reach the shelter where he was being housed. It took the better part of a day to get there, spend some time with him and a few other dogs, complete the paperwork and get him home.
We tell people that if their pet goes missing, regardless of whose “fault” it is, they have to go to the shelter to look for their lost pet. If they cared enough, they would do that not just one day but every day. If we really believe that, then shelters have to be open hours when people can get there. It’s just that simple.
Family friendly hours does not mean more hours. It means different hours. If you are an animal shelter which is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. during the week, I challenge you to at least try changing your hours for six months to see if it makes a difference. Talk to your city council if you have to get permission. Get public support to try the experiment and encourage the public to contact elected officials to make it happen. Have your employees who interact with the public arrive an hour later and stay open at least until 6 p.m. Make sure the public knows about this experiment using the media, a press release, and social media. Shout it loud and clear. Explain why you are doing it: to help the public by getting more animals back home and by getting more animals into new homes.
If you try this for six months and it does not work, contact me to let me know. I’d like to hear about it.
Thursday, September 26, 2019, marks an annual event called Remember Me Thursday. The website describes this as "a global awareness campaign uniting individuals and pet adoption organizations around the world as an unstoppable, integrated voice for orphan pets to live in forever homes, not die waiting for them." People are asked to light a candle for the animals. If you choose to do so, I applaud you.
But I would like you to go one step further. I want you to be outraged.
In 2012, an elderly man was attacked by two dogs. The owners of the dogs were found to have 33 other dogs chained in their backyard, inside city limits. The dogs were seized and a judge ordered that they be destroyed. People were outraged. These other dogs had done nothing wrong. A staunch animal advocate spoke out for the dogs and argued to the state court judge that the dogs should be spared. The judge changed his mind and almost all of the dogs were saved to be adopted out by rescue groups. The owners of the dogs were convicted of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.
In 2014, law enforcement authorities found 85 dogs inside a suburban home. Some were dead but most were alive and were in very poor health. The dogs were living in filth. People were outraged. Those dogs which could be saved were helped by local rescue groups. Only 38 of the dogs survived and the couple who had the dogs pled guilty to animal cruelty charges.
In 2015, a search warrant was executed on rural property owned by a woman who had sought and obtained the county contract for animal control and sheltering. More than 300 animals were found living in filthy, overcrowded conditions. Dead animals were discovered on a daily basis. Some animals were emaciated and many were suffering from medical issues including parvovirus, distemper and untreated wounds. Some of the animals were suffering from such severe medical issues that humane euthanasia was necessary to prevent further suffering. People were outraged. The woman was later criminally charged and convicted of animal cruelty.
In 2016, 122 dogs were seized from a puppy mill by law enforcement authorities. The dogs had been living outside in cages and some had ice in their fur. People were outraged. People lined up to adopt the dogs to try to help and were turned away because the dogs were still being evaluated and ultimately would go to rescue groups for placement.
In 2017, a woman was arrested after more than 100 dogs and cats were found on her property, living in a waste-filled, trash-strewn dilapidated small house. The animals were housed in crates that were stacked on top of each other that were covered in urine and feces. There was no running water on the property and the majority of the animals did not have access to water. There was also no visible traces of food for the animals, most of which were sick and suffering from infections and parasites., and overgrown nails. People were outraged.
In 2018, authorities found 44 dead dogs in plastic bags in a woman’s freezer and more than 160 dogs living in deplorable conditions in and around her home. People were outraged. Officials said the smell of animal feces and ammonia permeated the entire residence, and several first responders actually got nauseous and dizzy because of the odor. Detectives found more than 160 living dogs in the residence. Four of them were in critical condition and had to be taken to an emergency clinic; the rest were evaluated and treated at the scene by animal shelter workers.
Just this month, a woman is facing 12 separate charges of animal abuse, including 10 felonies after investigators discovered several sick and dead dogs on her property. The woman had been operating a rescue group. She was allegedly housing 278 dogs in inhumane conditions in Texas and transporting them to Kansas. Authorities said over half the animals would have to be euthanized. People are outraged.
We hear about and read about stories like this every month. Every year.
In all of these cases, the animals involved were seen as victims. As worthy of our attention, consideration, support and outrage.
Why is it that we do not see shelter animals in the same light? Why are they not equally worthy of our attention, consideration, support and outrage? Most animals destroyed in shelters are healthy and treatable animals who either were, or could have been, someone's companion. The fact that these animals continue to die for no good reason at all is our public shame.
I know that most people don't think about their shelter much even though they are paying for it. You do not see a story on the news every night taking about animals at risk on __________ Place, Street or Boulevard. When you get a bill for your water and garbage service, it does not contain a line item for "dog and cat disposal," but make no mistake: you are paying for the process whether you approve of it or not and while you are (in many places) blamed for the death.
My position is this: those animals in your local shelter are not only worthy of your attention, but their lives are dependent upon it. Yes. Some end up in the shelter due to the irresponsibility of the few. Many, however, are simply lost, victims of circumstance or victims of our poor choices (and about which we can be educated so we make better choices in the future). The animals are never at fault. They do not deserve to be destroyed simply because they end up in a building which should serve as a safety net, a safe haven as they move on to a new future.
Thousands of healthy and treatable animals are destroyed in our shelters each year even though there are proven ways to save them. If this matters to you, say something to those who govern your area. Let them know you want your tax dollars used in other ways to save lives as opposed to ending them.
Shelter animals are, in fact, worth of your outrage. We should all light a candle for them and then get busy working to reform the broken animal sheltering system which no longer reflects our values as a society.
(image of Taylor property courtesy of the Moulton Advertiser)
When I first published my website over ten years ago, I had a page I called The Reading Room. It included the books I had read which helped me become a better animal welfare advocate. “Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America,” and “Irreconcilable Differences: The Battle for the Heart and Soul of America’s Animal Shelters,” by Nathan Winograd. “The Lost Dogs: Michael Vick’s Dogs and Their Tale of Rescue and Redemption,” by Jim Gorant. “The Pit Bull Placebo: The Media, Myths and Politics of Canine Aggression,” by Karen Delise. Those were just a few. As you may expect, my collection has grown over the years and I've blogged about a number of my favorites. We are such an interconnected society today, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, that I am constantly learning about new books to add to my education and my collection (Yes, I am old enough to have survived living before the miracle of email, the Internet and video conferencing, amazing as that may seem).
One of my new favorite authors is the focus of this blog. Peter Zheutlin. If you have not read his books, you’re really missing out on a treat. Peter has written a host of books on a variety of subjects and has a remarkable resume of the many and very different jobs he’s held over the years. The books I’ve read are what I call his “animal books.” They are “Rescue Road: One Man, Thirty Thousand Dogs, and a Million Miles on the Last Hope Highway,” “Rescued: What Second-Chance Dogs Teach us About Living With Purpose, Loving With Abandon, and Finding Joy in the Little Things,” and his most recent book, “The Dog Went Over the Mountain: Travels with Albie, An American Journey.”
This blog is not a review of his books. I don’t want to tell you too much about them and spoil the value of reading them for yourself. The title of each book explains much about the book and gives you a glimpse into what is to come. I would like to share my impressions, which won’t give away too much.
Rescue Road is amazing, inspiring, heart-wrenching and thought provoking all at the same time. I have historically not been a fan of what I describe as mass-transports from one region of the country to another, but there is no denying that but for the tireless work of Greg Mahle and a host of other people, countless animals would die in our antiquated animal shelter system.
Rescued was life affirming, humorous and touching. As a staunch advocate of animal rescue, reading the stories of others felt like coming home to a tribe which spans the nation.
The Dog Went Over the Mountain was a wonderful journey from start to finish. I felt like I was along for the ride, sometimes quite literally, and it left me pondering what the places I’d like to experience in my days left on this Earth.
I asked Peter to help me with a Q&A instead, a format which has worked well with other authors I’ve blogged about in the past. I think it’s helpful to learn something about these incredibly talented people that you may not get just from reading the book or books. I like to think of it as the written version of sitting down together to have a conversation. You can learn more about Peter on his website and he may be in a city near you very soon. His events page has a listing of his appearances for his book tour for The Dog Went Over the Mountain.
I’d like to thank Peter for taking the time to engage with me about his books. I hope you’ll read them, become a fan like me and add the books to your own personal library. Enjoy.
You have a fascinating background which includes work as a lawyer, as a journalist and working for an organization which was awarded the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize. How does your work as an author compare to your prior occupations in terms of satisfaction? Do you feel like you were always meant to be a writer?
Well, I didn’t exactly have an illustrious legal career! I never regret having gone to law school, but working in a law firm just wasn’t for me. I taught first year legal skills courses, first at Northwestern University School of Law and the University of Virginia Law School and enjoyed that, but in mid-1980s had a chance to join the staff of an organization called The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). It’s hard to appreciate decades later just how front and center the nuclear arms race was as a global issue at that time, so the work was very meaningful to me, and it gave me the opportunity to travel all over the world and work with some truly extraordinary people. It was during my time at IPPNW that I started writing op-ed columns and features on issues related to nuclear arms. To be honest, it was a kick to see my name I print and to know that a lot of people would see what I was writing. All of this work…as a lawyer, as a law school instructor, as the staff member of a large NGO (non-governmental organization) was very collaborative. Being an author is more of a solitary pursuit. Sure, you interview people, you write about experiences you’ve had in the world, but most of the work itself is solitary and I rather like that. There are no staff meetings, no office politics, and no office holiday parties.
You've written a number of books on a host of topics. What led you to write animal-oriented books?
In 2012, after more than twenty years of fending off the pleas of my wife and kids, I finally agreed to get a family dog. When my wife suggested a rescue dog I was perplexed; I imagined a St. Bernard with a whiskey barrel under its chin in the Alps. Seriously. But once I was educated I was on board. I have always been disposed to the underdogs in life and there are tens of thousands of real underdogs that come into shelters every year in the United States; the lost, the abandoned, the abused, and the neglected. And they need someone to step up and give them another chance in life. So, in 2012 we adopted Albie, a two-three year old Lab mix who was found wandering alone on a street in rural Louisiana. He was brought to a shelter where nearly 90% of the dogs who come in never leave. I knew nothing about the scope of the problem or the rescue process and decided to take a deep dive into that world to learn more. I was so in love with Albie and I wanted to know more about the people who made his rescue possible. That led to my first “dog” book, Rescue Road: One Man, Thirty Thousand Dogs, and a Million Miles of the Last Hope Highway. The “one man” is Greg Mahle of Rescue Road Trips. He was the man who drove Albie north from Louisiana. He was my entryway into the world of rescue.
Rescue Road tells the story of your travels with Greg Mahle. Most people would have a hard time envisioning a trip that difficult and emotional. Do you have a single most difficult memory and a single most positive memory from the trips?
In addition to driving thousands of miles with Greg, I spent time in some of the communities where so many rescue dogs come from. For example, I spent an evening with volunteers from a group called Forgotten Dogs of the Fifth Ward in Houston. The number of strays, many clearly suffering, on the streets of Houston was astonishing. Perhaps my favorite moment came at the very last drop off spot in Connecticut where families were waiting for Greg to arrive with their new dogs. As we pulled into the parking lot a group of about 40 people started jumping and waving signs welcoming their new pups. Greg pulled to a stop, turned the truck off and took in the scene for a minute. Then he said this to me: “A week ago these dogs were all going to die. Now the doors will open, the light will come flooding in and each one will be delivered into the arms of a loving family. This is heaven.”
After Rescue Road, you wrote a heartfelt book called Rescued. Are there any particularly impactful stories you left out of the book you can share with us?
If they were impactful stories I surely would have included them in the book! But you always hear heartwarming stories when you talk to people who have rescued a dog. Sure, there are times when an adoption doesn’t work out, but the vast majority do and the joy and the intensity of the bonds people form with their dogs is truly remarkable. I didn’t appreciate that until we adopted Albie, and then Salina, and then Jambalaya, all rescues from Louisiana. I think everyone who rescues wishes they had room for just one more.
The Dog Went Over the Mountain is an incredible story of a cross-country journey you took with your dog, Albie. Now that it is behind you, is there anything you wish you had done but did not get the opportunity to do? Was there something that didn't make it to final editing for the book that you'd like people to know about your journey?
As I write at the very beginning of the book, this is the story of a road trip and you cannot really get to know a place, any place, unless you spend extended time there. And I’ve already gotten some criticism for sharing my impressions of places based on limited exposure. But when we travel, that’s what we do; we form impressions, fair or not, based on limited experience. It’s why some people love New York or Omaha, for example, and some don’t. It’s the nature of a road trip to pass through many places. There are countless places and people with a story to tell and you just can’t gather it all. So, do I wish I could have immersed myself in the life of some of the places we visited? For sure. But, as I said, we were on a road trip, not an anthropological mission.
You have become a huge proponent of adoption and rescue of animals needing homes. We now have a presidential candidate making the plight of shelter animals a campaign issue. Do you think a time will come when we no longer have so many companion animals at risk and our animal shelters keep the healthy and treatable animals alive?
There was a story recently in The New York Times that documented the progress we are seeing in this area, even since we adopted Albie. Nationwide, more shelter animals are being saved, “euthanasia” rates are down (I use quotes because the word sanitizes what’s really going on which is the killing of often healthy, perfectly adoptable animals), and public awareness of the issues is on the rise. More and more shelters and communities are moving towards the “no kill” philosophy and “live release” rates (the inverse of “euthanasia” rates) are rising. This is a trend and not an end point, though. We seem to be moving in the right direction and that’s encouraging.
(image of Peter and Albie at Half Moon Bay, courtesy of Peter Zheutlin)
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