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 the 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 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