On October 1, 2021, the Executive Director of ACCT Philly, the nonprofit which contracts with the city to provide animal shelter and control services resigned along with the Operations Director. An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer stated the Director resigned, "amid an ongoing dispute with some local shelter activists and volunteers." The so-called dispute stems from a number of issues which are included in a petition created by shelter volunteers and "Love Local Partners" (rescue groups and no kill shelters) which includes the following allegations:
I do not live in Philly and do not have any personal knowledge of the shelter operation there. I am blogging on this topic to share my own experiences regarding the subject of bullying and personal attacks related to animal shelter operations. The short version is pretty simple:
There is no place for threats or personal attacks either toward or by members of animal shelter staff.
I am zero tolerance about this. As outspoken as I am in my No Kill advocacy, my focus is and has always been on municipal accountability. Focusing on specific individuals may seem to make sense in the moment, but even if those individuals resign or are terminated, what has that really accomplished if the source of the problems are systemic? Nothing.
Shelters which are operated by municipalities, or which are non-profits who hold municipal contracts, are held to different standards than non-profit shelters which are funded through donations and grants. The people who manage and work at animal shelters operated or funded by cities and counties are public servants. Their compensation and benefits are all paid for through public funds in the form of taxpayer dollars. People who are paid with public funds, whether they are elected officials, public servants or are performing public functions, are - by the nature of their jobs - open to criticism and comment. The reason for this is that they work for us. Of the people, by the people, for the people.
As I wrote in my book, I feel strongly about the exercise of free speech. I not only see free speech as a right of all American citizens, but I would argue that it is our responsibility to speak out on matters of public concern. If issues are important enough for us to be outraged or angry, then they must be important enough for us to speak out and express ourselves to those who govern us. People complain to police departments all the time about increased patrolling related to reducing crime. They complain to public works departments about garbage pick-up. They complain to traffic engineering departments about the timing of traffic lights which they think are too slow or about roadway conditions. They complain about a host of issues most of which do not relate to the imminent threat of death. So why are things any different when it comes to animal shelters and the animal sheltering industry?
I have seen plenty of posts on social media over the years in which shelter directors or staff are called a host of names and people make vague threats about them. I do not tolerate this behavior on my Paws4Change page on Facebook or the No Kill Huntsville page on Facebook. The comments are deleted and the people who made them are banned from further comment. I am zero tolerance on this subject. In the fifteen years I have advocated for animal shelter reform, I have personally observed this type of behavior less than a dozen times. I see it as coming from a fringe element which exists on social media because. These are people with too much time on their hands who lack (or do not want to know) facts, so they use the verbal assaults instead. As far as direct threats, I have personally never heard someone threaten a shelter director or employee with death, bodily harm or engage in personal attacks at all. It may be easy to post snarky words on social media; most people know better than to do so in person.
I acknowledge that there are shelter directors and employees who have been subjected to incredibly harsh criticism, sometimes warranted and sometimes not. The subject of the lives of animals is an inherently emotional one and there can be very strong feelings on both sides of the issue. I have long believed that not everyone is suited to public service. Theirs is often thankless work and when it comes to animal shelters, particularly shelters where healthy and treatable animals are destroyed, there are likely no good days. (Although the good news is that there are ways for those shelters to change and stop the killing.)
There are two sides to this issue, however, and I've been on the other side. When I and the other members of No Kill Huntsville first sought copies of shelter records from the city attorney's office, we were accused of personally attacking the shelter director. When we created something called a No Kill Equation Report Card to inform our followers in the public of our views about the shelter implementation of the programs and services of the No Kill Equation, someone set up what we called a "hate page" on Facebook. It included a parody of our logo and slogan, false information about the members of our coalition and the people running the page used it to re-post our Facebook posts when their own commentary. The most offensive post on the page was a video which was created by downloading a video we had created from a public service announcement we sent to local television stations which was also on Youtube. Someone took the time to save the video as a sound file of my voice and create a video which made it appear as if I was speaking from a monkey's rectum (it could have been a cow now; it appeared to be a monkey when I first saw it). We were upset when we first learned of the page but were determined not to react publicly. We learned that many of the people commenting on the posts and liking the comments were leaders of local rescue groups, shelter volunteers and shelter supporters, but we stayed silent because we did not want to make matters worse. That changed when we learned not only that a shelter employee set up the page but saw that the shelter director had liked a number of posts and put comments on those posts like, "so funny! So very very funny!," "I don't think you can tell them ANYTHING," and "It's hilarious" BIG SMILE on this gal's face." I submitted a formal complaint to the City for conduct unbecoming a city employee and asked that the Facebook page be deleted. It took a few months, but the page was deleted five months after it was created.
I recall a meeting at city hall with city officials many years ago in which we were referred to as terrorists. The person who stated that claimed to not be making that statement for themselves. I believe the context was "people call you terrorists" without qualifying who the "people" were. During the course of our advocacy were not subjected to personal threats of violence. If that had occurred, we would not have hesitated to file criminal complaints. We did consult with an attorney about what we felt were libelous remarks about us on social media. Because the hate page was ultimately removed, we did not act on the legal advice. We spent years being the subject of hateful comments and what likely bordered on criminal harassment for having the audacity to speak out. Some people close to the shelter operation focused more on our message than the fact that the message was necessary in the first place. Those people have gone silent for the most part now that the shelter has changed and has become a place where lives are saved and not a place of death.
I do not know if the people working for ACCT Philly were actually the subject of death threats, threats of physical harm or personal attacks. If they were, my expectation is that they contact law enforcement authorities to pursue a criminal investigation toward having criminal charges filed. Some see this as a fine line. I do not. Criticism about a shelter operation is to be expected. Seeking accountability for shortcomings related to animal care and keeping animals alive is to be expected. Even direct criticism of individuals by name for their part in the operation should come as no surprise. When the criticism becomes threatening or harassing, that is a crime and it should not be tolerated.
Where I think the organization has failed its leadership and staff is in transparency and taking on the issues directly. I would have expected some type of press release about the shelter inspection and the death of Saint particularly, since those failings created the most outrage. That did not happen of which I am aware. What I did see was a post on social media which alleged that a former employee had hacked into the shelter's system and stolen records. Even if that was true, what did that have to do with an inspection which recommended an investigation for animal cruelty or the fact that a dog's jaw was broken while in the shelter, leading to euthanasia and a devastated family?
As I said above, there is no place for threats or personal attacks either toward or by members of animal shelter staff. Period. When we communicate about animal shelter reform, we must always use diplomacy and respect. And when shelters react to our communications, criticism, recommendations or even allegations, they would do well to join us on that same high road for the sake of us all, people and animals.
When I think about puppy mills, I tend to think about them as an American problem. I guess it's typical for us to focus on issues we face in our own backyard and not consider those same issues in different countries or on different continents. When I heard about a book about a dog named Little Belle who was saved from a puppy mill in Portugal by a rescue group, I was intrigued. I had no idea if the dog breeding industry in Europe is as insidious as it is in the United States and I wanted to learn more about Belle and her family.
I expected a book about a dog saved from a puppy mill and how she went on to lead a charmed life through love, patience, veterinary care and being given a second chance. I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of the book. Little Belle: Where Love Is, Magic Happens obviously focuses on the subject of puppy mills and how dogs are treated by people who breed dogs and do not care at all about their physical, mental and emotional well-being. What I didn't expect was for the book to touch on other issues about differently-abled dogs, decisions made regarding euthanasia of dogs or how people view what they perceive to be aggression in dogs. Much to my surprise and appreciation, the book focuses on many of the same issues I focus on in my No Kill advocacy related to animal shelter operations.
As is the case with my other blogs about books, I don't want to give away the whole story. My hope is that you'll be intrigued enough from my blog to read the book and want to learn more for yourself.
The short version of the story is that Little Belle was in a puppy mill in Portugal for almost 12 years of her life before she was saved by a rescue group who then got her to her new family in the Netherlands. Irene van Raadshooven decided to make it her life's mission to save differently-abled dogs and dogs with medical issues following a tipping point in her personal life. As Irene wrote, "I knew what I wanted to do - adopt old dogs and dogs who were differently-abled to give them the best years of their lives, full of love and joy. I would follow the passion deep within me.... I saw a teeny, tiny dog on the Internet, Belle. I was drawn to her in a way I had never experienced before. My heart beat harder while my eyes scanned her skinny little body, the dull brown color of her coat, the thin legs that look like fragile twigs, her cute ears with the big bald spots, and her adorable little mouth and nose. . .While normally I first thought about a possible adoption for a few days, this time I couldn't wait to email Ana at the shelter in Portugal and the next day I was on the phone with the Dutch foundation that took care of the adoptions. In one phone call and after a home visit Belle's adoption was arranged."
Irene went on to write, "I believe that many events in life have a reason, or reason we cannot always understand or unravel. Often the insight comes later, as certain moments and experiences can lead us on a special and promising path. That's what I felt from the start seeing Belle's pictures, and was feeling even more strongly now that I was looking at her. Here was a kinship that would mean a key turning point in both our lives."
The book is unique in that it is written not just from Irene's perspective, but from that of Belle. At first, I wasn't sure how that would come off or if it would be believable. The more I read, the more I realized that that decision was a stroke of genius. How often do we look at our own companion animals and know exactly what they're thinking because of the depth of our relationships, their energy, their body language and how they look at us? I'm sure it was no different regarding the bond between Irene and Belle. Their bond was so strong that they knew each other's thoughts even though Belle did not speak using words and Irene did not always communicate using words. In one passage in the book in which Belle is speaking she says this: "From the first moment I saw Irene I knew I could trust her; there was this instant connection between us. I didn't know that this could get stronger every day. It now seemed like this growth was infinite. I had come to realize that Irene was always there for me, no matter what happened. Right here, right now, I made her a promise that I would also be there for her. Whatever happened."
As I mentioned earlier, the book is about much more than a dog saved from a puppy mill and the relationship between Belle and Irene. It touches on other issues which resonated with me as an unapologetic advocate of No Kill animal sheltering. One particular passage from Belle's perspective resonated with me. Irene said to her, "do you remember that day when we had this encounter with the woman who asked about you and how she reacted when she heard our story?" Belle thought, "oh, yes, I did. She had said that dogs that were as old as me, had health problems, and missing an eye should be put to sleep. That it wasn't worth it anymore. I wondered if old people also hadn't any value." Irene signed and said to Belle, "you know, recently I searched on the Internet for 'quality of life,' focused on animals because I had been thinking about it for some time already and what did I find? Nothing at all. . .This explains why, when I looked for quality of life for animals, I only got results for how humans could improve their lives with the animal's aid. Animals are seen as instruments rather than sentient beings with their own lives in the world. The same life belongs to us all."
Irene also wrote about dogs who are perceived to be aggressive, after saving a dog named Sun who was scheduled to be destroyed. Irene wrote, "it was unbelievable that anyone had ever considered euthanizing her. Even a veterinarian had agreed to this. Quite often a physical handicap is not the only reason for relief or injection; alleged aggression - often based on deep fear - was an insurmountable problem for many people. The real problem, however, was often the person who couldn't see from the animal's perspective. . .I thought that from Sun's point of view, it was the humans who were completely unpredictable. To me being able to express yourself, both animals and humans, and certainly when you feel uncomfortable, anxious, or threatened, was a basic right."
I found Little Belle enchanting, captivating, magical, uplifting, heartwarming and thought provoking. I learned not only about Irene and Belle, but about Irene's family and the other animals in her life. I was reminded repeatedly from reading the story that we must all do our very best to be present and to enjoy the time we have with each other while we can. It is precious and finite.
Belle passed away on April 25, 2017, but her legacy is strong. Irene founded the Little Belle's Magical Sanctuary in her honor, "a place where we give senior dogs and dogs who are differently-abled a forever home. Every dog, whether young, old, sick and/or differently-abled, has the right to live a happy and fulfilled life and to receive all the care they need with unconditional love." I look forward to keeping up with Irene's labors of love to help dogs and help educate us humans who love them in the process.
Irene was gracious enough to spend some time answering some questions for me which go beyond what we read in the book so people can learn more. Thank you very much to Irene for taking time our of her busy schedule. I hope you will read the book, follow Little Belle on Facebook and learn more about the sanctuary established in her honor.
People in the United States have impressions of what puppy mills are from animal welfare organizations and from the media. How pervasive is the issue of commercial breeding of dogs or substandard breeders of dogs in the region where you live?
In the Netherlands, puppy mills are more hidden than in the U.S.A., and there is also less media coverage. There are no real organizations that purely fight the puppy mill industry but there are people who try to bring the issue of puppy mills into the light. The main issue we have here is that puppies at a very young age travel from one of the Eastern Bloc countries to the Netherlands to be sold here as healthy dogs. Often they are not healthy at all because their vaccinations are not right and they were taken away from their mother's too soon. The companies that sell them act like they think about the welfare of the puppies but never show the mother dogs because they simply can't. The mother dogs are living in deplorable conditions in puppy mills in an Eastern Bloc country. People who buy those puppies don't know about this or they just don't care so this just keeps happening. The mother dogs continue to suffer and the puppies are often sick and even die at young age.
It seems like finding Belle was a turning point in your life and put you on a new path. How important was she to shaping you as a person and shaping your future?
Finding her was very important. She changed my life in a way I could never imagine. One of the main things she taught me was to embrace life every day, no matter how I feel. Often I looked at her, at her amazing zest for life, each and every day again, and thought "if she can live life with such joy and curiosity after all that she's been through, how could I not?" And then I felt again that spark of life in me, just like she tells about in the book, that little flame of hope, how she kept that alive. It's always there, we just somehow can't always reach it. That's how life is. Belle also brought me back in the moment, in the present, the only moment we have and truly live. Life is so precious and being able to live and experience it together is the greatest gift.
You have your own health issues, as did Belle. Do you think the fact that you both deal with some limitations played a role in the bond you share?
Yes, I think a big role. We understood each other. Having health issues doesn't mean life can't be lived fully. It's just different. Belle showed me that this is possible and therefore my perspective of life changed. Also, because of her way of approaching life each day, I never saw Belle as a dog with limitations. She never felt that way, too. Often it felt like we both conquered the world, in all the adventures we shared, and that we made each other more aware of our own strengths and possibilities. When Belle lost her last eye, I didn't become her eyes, because she could still see with all her other senses. The way she embraced life again was just simply amazing and taught me again a lot about myself, too. The bond we shared grew even deeper.
I found it fascinating that you wrote from your own perspective but also from Belle's perspective which I think is a stroke of genius. What led you to choose this format to tell your story?
When I started writing, I wanted to tell the whole story from only Belle's perspective. I just thought she could tell it so much better than I would. While writing, I realized this wasn't working because I was the only one who could really write about certain parts of my life. Also, I think it provides more insight into the perspective of Belle and our lives together when reading it from both our views. I'm very happy and touched that you found it fascinating and a stroke of genius.
Belle had something called Leishmania. Many people in other regions may not know about this disease. In the US, we deal with heartworms which are caused by mosquitos and can be fatal to dogs. What causes Leishmania and is there a vaccine which can be used to prevent it?
Leishmania is transmitted by a sand fly (a small type of mosquito). The sand fly lives in warm areas with humus-rich soil. Leishmania doesn't occur in the Netherlands but comes from the Mediterranean region. After infection, it can take years before a dog becomes ill. Leishmania is treatable, but not curable. When not treated in time and/or in the right way, a dog can die from the consequences of this disease. There has been a vaccine against Leishmania for several years now, although the effect of this vaccine has not yet been proven by independent research.
You write not just about your personal experiences with Belle, your other dogs and your horses, but also about attitudes about the ability of animals and how decisions are made about their quality of life and end of life. What do you most want people to know about differently-abled animals and animals with perceived behavior issues so they can make better choices about those animals?
In general, to not have any expectations. That's how it often goes wrong. People tend to expect a lot from dogs; they need to listen, need to be kind, can't have any fears or uncertainty. There have been so many times I've seen dogs who were just adopted who were were returned because they barked too much, were afraid too much (or just a little), did bite or did urinate or poop in the house.
When a dog becomes really part of the family, without any expectations, and with knowledge, then there is a whole different energy. An energy the dog can feel so well. Then dogs feel the space to be themselves. This can take days, weeks, months or even longer. This applies exactly the same to dogs who are differently-abled. They have the same quality of life. One thing that I think is also important to share is that not a lot of vets and specialists have experience with differently-abled dogs. Look at Jessie's story in Little Belle's book as an example. I've encountered it many more times. If someone adopts a differently-abled dog, never follow the opinion of one vet, or more, when you feel that your dog is happy and does love life. Always follow your heart.
I know you have plans for an actual sanctuary perhaps in Spain and that those plans are on hold for now due to your health. What is the best way for people to help you continue your mission of helping more dogs like Belle?
For now, it would be beautiful if people just continue to support us with the Sanctuary we have here in the Netherlands. We already receive so much love and support from many friends and followers from around the world. Until now, we have always been able to pay for all our medical bills for the dogs and their daily care with the wonderful (monthly) donations. When one of the dogs need surgery or other medical procedures, the response and support we get is absolutely heartwarming. Also, it's very important for people to continue to support Little Belle's Dream (the fundraiser for our own place one day) so we can continue to give the senior and differently-abled dogs a forever home and family. This is the dream that started with Belle and it is her legacy.
I had a conversation with some of my contacts in the national No Kill community recently about the toll taken at shelters where healthy and treatable animals are destroyed. We started talking about it after an article was written by some big thinkers in the animal shelter industry called “The Human Face of Shelter Euthanasia.” Some of the content of the article troubled me and for some reason the article is not available, at least not now. The article and our conversation got me thinking about the changes I have seen in the shelter industry in the last fifteen years - at least in some places - and how the culture in shelters affects not just the animals, but the people in the building and the community as a whole.
The best way to explain this is with two examples.
Shelter A is a kill shelter which means that healthy and treatable animals are killed for space, convenience or what some call “lack of resources.” This means that animals who are suffering are euthanized and dogs who are too dangerous to be out in the community are destroyed, but the lives of animals who are otherwise healthy and treatable are also ended. There are a number of excuses used for this, but the end result is the same because the act is permanent. The general mindset at this shelter is that it is the fault of the public that animals “have to" die. Employees and volunteers tell themselves there is no other way because the public just does not care enough. They say that if the public would only keep pets contained, spay and neuter pets, stop breeding animals, be more responsible, etc., the shelter would not be forced to end so many lives. Some of the people in this shelter take great pride in how they treat the animals prior to ending their lives, spending extra time with them or giving them special food or treats much like a death row inmate may receive a last meal. Most shelter employees lament the death, but tell themselves there are fates worth that death like adopting to a “less than” family (which means a family which does not meet all of the shelter criteria to adopt) or like having the animals develop negative behaviors while in the shelter due to stress. I see these attitudes as a form of cognitive dissonance.
The toll taken by the killing in this shelter is paid 1) by the healthy and treatable animals who should have and could have been saved; 2) by the people who work in the shelter and who have either engaged with the animals are who are tasked with ending their lives; 3) and by the community as a whole. This shelter is seen by the public not as a place of hope, but as a place of death. People do not want to go there, do not want to take their children there, and for the most part do not want to volunteer there because it is emotionally easier to just distance themselves from what happens at the shelter than to deal with the death. They just can't handle it and feel powerless to do anything about it.
Shelter B is a No Kill shelter which means healthy and treatable animals are not destroyed. Animals who are suffering or are irremediably ill are euthanized for reasons of mercy. Dogs who are genuinely dangerous to the public are also euthanized because they are considered untreatable (as opposed to dogs who have mild to moderate behavior issues who can be rehabilitated, fostered and adopted into homes). In this shelter, each animal is treated as an individual and is viewed as having been - or being capable of being - someone’s beloved pet. The shelter staff works incredibly hard every day to keep pets in existing homes to avoid them entering the shelter, to provide enrichment and care to those animals in the shelter and to get animals out into foster homes, adoptive homes or to rescue groups as soon as possible. For this shelter, the public is not the enemy. The public is presumed to care and to sometimes need help and guidance either to make better personal decisions or to learn how to help the shelter. The shelter communicates on an ongoing basis with the public to help them keep pets contained, find lost pets, make sure pets can be identified, overcome problem behaviors, locate resources in the community (food, veterinary care, spay/neuter assistance and behavioral help), learn how to foster pets, learn how to volunteer to help pets, learn how to adopt pets and about pets who are at risk and need to get out of the shelter immediately because they are doing poorly in the shelter environment.
The people who work in this shelter have incredibly difficult jobs, but they take pride in what they do. Each day is a new opportunity to help animals in need while serving the community. There is sorrow when the lives of shelter animals are ended, but staff and volunteers are confident that each animal euthanized was given every opportunity to leave the shelter alive, they did their very best to find a positive outcome and the ending of the life was done for reasons of mercy.
I work in a community where the shelter was once like Shelter A and is now like Shelter B. The transition from a shelter which had historically destroyed thousands of healthy and treatable animals each year to one where very few animals die each year has been nothing short of remarkable. This transition did not happen because the public suddenly became more responsible or cared more or made better choices. The transition was at times incredibly difficult and it made a lot of people uncomfortable. It’s hard to admit that there is a new way of functioning while not focusing on the past and what could have been. Change happened as a result of municipal leadership, advocacy and public pressure and it has led to a complete shift in culture at the animal shelter. Are there still issues? Sure. Is there fine tuning to be done? Absolutely. But a building which was once used to house and then destroy animals is now used to house animals and keep them alive.
When I think of how the shelter functioned before, I know the operation was fatal for so very many animals, detrimental to the mental, emotional and likely the physical health of the staff, and was a source of shame in an otherwise very progressive community.
But all that is in the past. Now the shelter is a place of hope instead of death. People in the community turn to the shelter for help, guidance and assistance. Working and volunteering there is still a challenge because the work is really hard, but it is also rewarding which means the people who manage and help the operation are happier. I have been told that the pressure to keep up the level of life-saving is intense and I’m sure it is. The public has come to expect that animals will be kept alive now that a higher standard has been achieved. There are still critics and there always will be, but the way in which the shelter operates is now a source of community pride.
What kind of shelter do you want for your community? A or B?
I know the price. I know the toll. I know my choice.
(Images courtesy of Erick Pleitez and Lisa Vallez)
I learned recently that Illinois passed Senate Bill 1882, called the "Safe Pets" Act which governs dogs and cats sold in pet stores. The new law does not prevent pet stores in the state from selling animals which are sourced from breeders. This comes as no surprise. Petland, the most prolific pet store chain in the country which sells dogs, already has eight retail locations in Illinois. The state cannot enact a law which would affect commerce for Petland because the stores are already open. The new law does state the following (among other provisions):
Many of these local laws go much further than the new Illinois law and I first blogged about them last year. These are locations where there are no existing pet stores like Petland selling dogs. The lack of those retail locations means that municipalities have the ability to enact pre-emptive laws to keep the stores from opening in the first place. The local ordinances I have advanced in some cities in my state require pet shops to source animals from shelters and rescue groups, prohibiting them from getting animals from breeders, brokers or from rescue groups which obtain animals from breeders or brokers for compensation (often referred to as the "rescue model.")
As I have written about before, I obviously support these ordinances, resolutions, bills and laws which are, at their core, consumer protection laws. The Illinois law has limitations because Petland stores are already open there, but the language of the law makes it clear that it is also focused on consumer protection. And for good reasons. The Internet is replete with stories about people who bought a dog at a pet store, only to have that dog be terribly ill or have some genetic defect which results either in thousands of dollars of veterinary bills to treat/manage or which results in the death of the animal. The CDC has done multiple studies about pet store dogs spreading diseases to people, in some cases resulting in litigation. Then there is the less publicized scam in buying a pet from store: when the person who buys the animal does not understand they have leased the animal and it does not belong to them.
I've heard a number of arguments against these laws, none of which are persuasive for me and some of which are just absurd.
The laws take away personal choice. No. They do not. I admittedly promote adoption of animals from shelters and rescue groups. As much as I would like others to feel the same way, I cannot force them to share my values through magical thinking. I know plenty of people who get animals from breeders and cannot be persuaded to do otherwise. If someone wants to get a dog from a breeder, these laws do not prevent them from doing that. In places which have enacted laws about pet shops, that sale is just not facilitated in a retail setting. That does not mean the person cannot seek out a breeder of their choice who does not sell animals in retail stores. I read a blog on the website for the American Kennel Club which claims, "the purpose of these measures is get at not only retailers, but also breeders." We hear all the time that no "reputable" breeder would ever sold a dog or cat in a store, so people who have chosen to breed animals either for love of the breed or as a source of income are not affected by these laws. They are free to sell those animals directly to consumers just like they always have.
These laws are only aimed at shutting down "puppy mills". It is true that the fewer pet stores in our country which sell dogs from large dog breeding operations (which I consider mills regardless of how well the dogs are cared for), the less profitable those operations will be. But to say the laws are only enacted to try to close those places loses sight of the primary purposes for the laws. Consumer protection. Perhaps a time will come when enough of these laws are enacted across the country when it will have a huge impact on those people currently breeding dogs for sale in those stores. The more stores which close or which switch to the rescue model, the fewer places there will be for the dogs to be sold. That time is a long way off. Millions of dogs are bred in the United States each year and this is a huge industry. The dogs are sold on the internet on websites which look polished and which leave the impression the parent dogs are well cared for. Dogs are also sold at auctions and in some cases, the dogs are being purchased by rescue groups which claim they are saving the dogs they buy from a fate worse than death while at the same time remaining willfully ignorant of the dog or dogs who will take the place of the dog they bought at auction using the money they paid.
The laws prevent people of color from getting a dog of their choice. This is a new argument I first heard a few months ago and the explanations go something like this: 1) Many shelters and rescue groups making adopting an animal incredibly difficult (this is often true) which; 2) negatively impacts people of color; so 3) those people who have not been able to get a pet from a shelter or a rescue group need the ability to get a pet of their choice from a pet store as an alternative. I am the first to admit that there are shelters and rescue groups which make adopting an animal so difficult that people just give up. There have been a couple of recent articles about this in the New York Times and in The Cut. We had a panel discussion as part of the No Kill in Motion series (from No Kill Movement) recently in which we talked about this subject. Organizations like CARE - Companions and Animals for Reform and Equity are working hard to shine a light not only on the lack of diversity in shelter leadership, but also on how difficult some shelters make it for people to adopt because of their judgment of the worthiness of those people. The work of CARE is invaluable and it is long past the time when we should be having these discussions about inclusion and equity. But for every shelter and rescue which makes adoption difficult, there are many more which are doing all they can to place pets in need by making adoption exceedingly easy by using open adoption counseling and providing animals who are fully vetted and microchipped, sometimes with the adoption fee being incredibly low or waived. To say that people who have been turned away from a shelter or rescue should go to a pet store as their next option is not compatible with the argument that there are scores of reputable breeders across the county who do not sell pets in stores. I plan to take up this issue of how these laws affect people of color with James Evans of CARE to get his take on the argument.
I have written many times about the subject of puppy mills and pet stores. I have often wondered how different our country would be had the UDSA not tried to help struggling farmers some 70 years ago and recommended breeding dogs as a way to make money. We would still have dog shows and people would still breed dogs, but would we see the production and sale of millions of dogs a year like we do now while at the same time destroying millions of dogs in places we call shelters? We will never know. I have also wondered how people would feel if we had never sold dogs or cats in stores from commercial breeding operations (many of which house dogs in conditions we would consider criminal) and we suddenly started doing that. Would people be outraged? I'd like to think so.
I hope a day comes when we see an end to the sale of dogs and cats in stores and when people instead get companion animals from shelters, rescues or from responsible breeders as a direct purchase. Stores are great for a lot of things. Furniture. Clothing. Food. Not for pets. It's time for that to end. The sooner the better.
(image of pet store puppy courtesy of Hector Parayuelos)
If you have a companion animal in your life of have ever been inside a pet supply store, you are probably familiar with the KONG brand. KONG makes a variety of dog and cat products from toys to toy stuffing to treats to puzzles to scratchers. The volume of products is vast and goes way beyond what you may have seen in stores. I didn't realize until recently that KONG doesn't advertise. KONG sells what I consider self-marketing products. The name is so well known that the products essentially sell themselves as a result of quality and a result of word of mouth advertising between satisfied customers and KONG Believers. KONG also has a program to help shelters called KONG Cares in which it distributes factory seconds to non-profit organizations at reduced prices.
But there is a new program being rolled out by KONG which I'm blogging about today. I've known about it for months but was sworn to secrecy because the program was developed in my area as a result of some circumstances which caused a KONG employee to have a true "aha!" moment for the sake of animals. Some explanation is in order.
In the summer of last year, people were still fostering and adopting a lot of animals during the height of the pandemic. Many animal shelters were closed. Some shelters were seeing people on an appointment-only basis and some still function that way (unfortunately). Progressive shelters were using changes to their operations to try to find ways to keep animals from entering the shelters at all by implementing social services programs to help people. The HASS - Human Animal Support Services - model of shelter was developed during the pandemic and is in pilot programs today. The basic idea behind HASS is to "keep people and pets together. We are bringing animal welfare organizations and community members together to engage in partnerships that support the bond of people and animals."
As I thought about changes taking place nationally, I wondered how to help people more in my own area. I lead an advocacy group called No Kill Huntsville which was created to encourage the City of Huntsville to save more shelter animals. Part of our advocacy is interacting with the public to help modify their behavior. We decided to put together what we were calling a pet resources guide to help the public find organizations to help them find pet food, help pay for veterinary care, refer them to trainers or behaviorists, provide short-term foster placement, etc. A local television station did a story about our proposed resources guide. The plan never came together. We could not get enough organizations to provide us with input to create a guide and so the idea was disbanded, at least for now.
But one good thing happened. When the story was on the news, Sandy Howle, an employee who works for KONG as a Training Ambassador, saw it and reached out to our group. She asked what she could do to help and that started a conversation with her about what we hoped to accomplish. Sandy was the person who had the "aha!" moment when she realized that KONG could do more to help not just animal shelters but shelter animals and the people who adopt them. Sandy developed an idea for a shelter enrichment and education program which she pitched the corporate folks. It should come as no surprise that they loved the idea. The test location was at the Greater Huntsville Humane Society in Alabama and there are now plans to take the program national to help shelters, shelter animals and animal caregivers across the country. The program includes educational classes for the shelter, volunteers, fosters and pet parents. KONG is also providing a swag bag for people that adopt. There are plans to hold KONG stuffing events, building sensory gardens and dig pits, holding donation drives. The list goes on.
I've asked Sandy to tell us more about how the program began and about the plans for the future. I'd like to thank her for taking the time to share this wonderful news.
Sandy, prior to us connecting, I knew about the KONG Cares program. Were there other programs KONG was doing to help shelter animals?
We have always been involved in the shelters with our KONG Cares program and donations of product and raffle baskets. We also have our Pet Pros Shelter program that shelters or rescues can sign up for through our website at www.kongcompany.com. We help provide educational tools and marketing materials that shelters or rescue groups can use. Your group can also be entered into regular drawings for KONG Cares product, raffle baskets, and swag.
You and I emailed back and forth a bit about the pilot program in Huntsville but I'm not sure I explained it correctly. Can you tell us what you did with the Greater Huntsville Humane Society to get things started?
The first thing we did was training for the Animal Care Staff and anyone else who wanted to be involved. The first training was "KONG 101" where we discussed not only KONG, but the instincts of dogs, how that comes into the home and the "problem behaviors" it can create, and how KONG can help be a solution for these behaviors. We also did an enrichment training. We talked about why animals need enrichment and about different things the shelter or fosters could do in their everyday routines that would help provide enrichment to both the dogs and cats in the shelter or in foster homes. The shelter was able to take some of the ideas and run with them, for example, creating a "foster a plant" program to create a sensory garden for the animals. We also have a partnership with a distributor that is selling discounted enrichment kits to the shelters. These kits will go home with the newly adopted dog or cat. The hope is that the animal has enrichment in the shelter, and this can now be rolled into the home with this enrichment kit to help alleviate some of the stress on the new pet family and the new pet. We also have a partnership with Fig & Tyler Treats who, not only, have a bag of treats in the enrichment kit, but also have created a shelter give back program in which the shelter can earn free treats to use in their shelter.
Now that the program you proposed will have a national roll-out, what can you tell us about what KONG plans to do to help other animal shelters?
One of the things that we have learned is that both cats and dogs need enrichment in their lives. Enrichment leads to a happier healthier life. While we know there are many shelters and rescues that have great enrichment programs already, we also know there are many that do not. Our goal is to share this program and education so that someone can create an enrichment program in their shelter or we can help take their current program to the next level. We pair this enrichment program with the KONG Cares and Pet Pro Shelter Program and we are able to help reduce the stress in shelters and keep dogs and cats happy, which in turn helps them become more adoptable.
If there is someone with an animal shelter who reads this blog and wants to make sure their shelter can participate in the program, is there something specific they should do to sign up?
They can reach out to me via email or phone and I can give them more information about the program. I can be reached at 661-433-7687 or firstname.lastname@example.org
KONG's story began with a German Shepherd named Fritz, his owner, and a Volkswagen
van transmission part one afternoon in 1970.
KONG ran one commercial in the 1970s when the first KONG hit the market. The commercial ran one time
only in the middle of the night because that was the affordable spot at the time.
KONG rubber products are made in Golden, CO and KONG Consumables are made in the USA.
KONG is distributed in over 80 countries and millions of dogs worldwide.
(images courtesy of the Kong Company, Inc. and Snyder Building Construction)
I participated in a No Kill in Motion panel discussion recently about the subject of appointment-only hours for animal shelters. During the early months of the pandemic, some shelters closed entirely. Others went to appointment-only interaction with the public. Using appointments made perfect sense for a while as we all adjusted to what we now refer to as “public safety measures” to keep people safe and try to limit the spread of the Covid virus. Some shelters split their staffing into teams to limit the number of staff in the building at any given time. This also made sense – if someone on Team A got sick, the shelter would only need to test and quarantine those team members, limiting the negative affects on the shelter operation.
With the country back open for business, some shelters have continued their appointment-only hours. The members of the panel were not in complete agreement regarding why this is a bad idea, but we all agreed that only seeing people by appointment creates barriers to add to the barriers which already exist related to animal adoptions. As Nathan Winograd wrote about years ago when he said “good homes need not apply,” some organizations make it so difficult to adopt animals that really good people end up being turned away for reasons which have very little to do with their decision to bring an animal into their home and their commitment to care for that animal. Work more than 40 hours a week? No, you cannot adopt. Travel for work? No, you cannot adopt. Have children in your house? No, you cannot adopt. Over the age of 50? No, you cannot adopt. The list goes on and on including one which would have precluded my family from adopting years ago – lack of a fully fenced yard. Companions and Animals for Reform and Equity (CARE) did a great video about this very subject recently which I share often. Some people get so frustrated by the extraordinary lengths they must go to trying to adopt a shelter or rescue animal that they give up and end up getting a new pet from a breeder. The problem was recently covered in an article in the New York Times entitled, "Want to Adopt a Pet? Prepare for a Full Background Check."
Shelters are at their very core customer service and marketing organizations. Yes, they exist for reasons of public safety but now are increasingly expected to balance public safety with animal welfare because that is what the public demands. Any shelter which only interacts with the public by appointment is seriously limiting its ability to help people reclaim animals or help people adopt new animals. There is nothing at all wrong with having appointments for people who seek pet surrender counseling to talk to them about alternatives to surrender or people who want to talk about some issues they are having to get help to overcome those issues. But requiring appointments for people to try to reclaim a pet or even adopt a pet serves to create more barriers to a process that many people already find daunting.
The issue of shelter hours came up just this week in my own area related to the municipal animal shelter in the city where I work so I will take this subject one step further. Shelters that do not require appointments, but which are only open to the public when people are at work also create tremendous barriers. Not everyone works from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. but many people do. If the shelter is only open during hours when people work, how are they supposed to get to the shelter to reclaim a lost pet or adopt a new one? It is almost impossible unless that person takes vacation time from work, provided they have a job which even provides them with vacation time at all.
Let’s say someone’s cat is missing and they know from looking at the shelter website that their cat is there. The shelter is only open from 9:00 to 5:00 when they are at work. Even if that person gets a one-hour break for lunch, it takes time to drive to the shelter, go through the process to reclaim their pet, get their pet back home and then get back to work. I challenge even the person who lives closest to a shelter and works close by to accomplish all those tasks in an hour.
Adopting an animal takes even longer. People should feel free to look around at the available animals without someone following them around like an aggressive used car salesman (no offense intended to used car salesmen; this is a statement about people who hover), should be able to spend time with animals they are interested in, ask questions, etc. It is not possible to do that during a lunch break, get the animal home and help that animal begin the shelter decompression process.
The only way someone could either reclaim an animal or adopt an animal in the scenarios above would be to take vacation time, if that is even available to them.
I have heard some people say that running the shelter by appointment only is less stressful for the animals and staff because there are not as many people wandering around. As Shirley Marsh of Yes Biscuit said during our discussion, getting those animals out of the shelter by having them adopted or fostered is also less stressful.
Animal shelters that are open until at least 6:00 p.m. or even 7:00 p.m. make it much easier for people to come to the shelter after leaving work and then go home from the shelter with their reclaimed pet or new pet. Shelters with weekend hours make it even easier to reclaim or adopt a pet. As one shelter director in Florida told me, “we’re in the building on the weekend anyway, so it made perfect sense to make it easier for people to get here.”
If you run an animal shelter and are only open by appointment or only open when most people are at work, please take a good look at what you want to accomplish. Having different hours doesn’t mean being open more hours. It means being open hours which make animals accessible to the public you serve so that you can help get more animals out of your building and either back home where they belong or into new homes. If you really only want to work from 9:00 to 5:00, you are in the wrong business.
(image of animal control officer with dogs courtesy of the Lake County Florida Animal Shelter)
There’s a phrase that goes something to the effect that if you want to get something done, ask a busy person to do it. My interpretation of the phrase is that some people are talkers, while others are doers. Doers are busy, but they are organized and committed to getting more things done. In my circles, I come across some of the most incredibly busy people, one of whom is Andrew “Roo” Yori. I think of Roo as a Renaissance Man for good reason. He’s super smart (he works at the Mayo Clinic as the Supervisor of the Clinical Genome Sequencing lab), he’s an animal welfare advocate (he runs a nonprofit called the Wallace the Pit Bull Foundation and he transports dogs to new homes) and he’s super fit (he competes in Spartan competitions and most recently has become famous for competing on American Ninja Warrior). To say that Roo is busy and passionate about life is a complete understatement.
I first became aware of Roo and his wife, Clara, in 2013 when I read a Jim Gorant book called Wallace: The Underdog who Conquered a Sport, Saved a Marriage and Championed Pit Bulls. If memory serves, I learned about the book from Mike Fry of No Kill Learning who is friends with Roo. I was drawn to the book because Snake, our dog who passed away in 2006, loved her Frisbee and I was intrigued by the story of a pit bull-type dog who became a champion in the sport. Most dogs who compete in Frisbee competitions are Border Collies, Labs, Goldens, Malinois and Australian Shepherds. Having a dog like Wallace excel in the sport was a game changer. I loved the book because it wasn’t just about Wallace; it was about how he changed the Yori family while changing people’s opinions about dogs who have been unmercifully stereotyped for decades. Wallace was the first pit bull-type dog to win a National and World Championship in the sport of Canine Flying Disc. As Roo’s website states, Wallace “has been referred to as the Jackie Robinson of Pit Bulls on more than one occasion, as his actions and accomplishments rose above all the negative noise surrounding dogs that looked like him at the time. “ Roo and Clara established a nonprofit in the wake of Wallace’s passing which is focused on improving the lives of dogs and the people who care for them.
It was only after I read about Wallace that I also learned that the Yoris adopted one of the former Vick dogs, a dog named Hector. Hector was one of the 51 pit bulls rescued from the Michael Vick dog fighting case. Hector originally went to BAD RAP on the west coast before being adopted by the Yoris. Hector passed the Canine Good Citizen test twice, became a Certified Therapy Dog visiting nursing homes and hospitals and also went to schools to teach children about how to behave safely around dogs. He, along with the other Vick dogs, showed us all that dogs subjected to the worst humans can do to them have the capacity to become beloved companions. If you have not read Jim Gorant’s book about the Vick Dogs, I consider it a must read. It is upsetting for obvious reasons, but it tells the real story about what happened related to Vick and the dogs and you’ll learn something from it.
In 2016, Roo’s life presented a new platform for his advocacy for dogs when he was selected to compete on American Ninja Warrior for the first time. Roo competes as the “K-9 Ninja” and I confess that I have numerous t-shirts in my collection related to his ANW efforts. As we approach the 2021 season for American Ninja Warrior in which Roo will again compete, I wanted to have a Q&A with Roo to introduce him to more people. Numerous articles have been written about Roo which are easy to find. My hope is to share some information you may not otherwise find in other articles. Thank you to both Roo and to Clara for all they do to help dogs and help the people who love them. You can support the Wallace the Pit Bull Foundation by visiting the website or by pledging support for Roo on the upcoming season of American Ninja Warrior.
I first learned about you, Clara and Wallace from Jim Gorant’s book – Wallace: An Underdog who Conquered a Sport, Saved a Marriage and Championed Pit Bulls – One Flying Disc at a Time. When you were working with Jim on the book, did you have a vision even then about what you planned to do in Wallace’s honor?
I don’t know that anything with Wallace was really planned. One of the things that I learned from Wallace is to go for the opportunities that present themselves. I knew that I wanted to preserve Wallace’s story even after he was gone, so I was really happy to have Jim write the book. He’s an incredible writer, and I feel that he really did the story justice.
In addition to Wallace, you and Clara had another high-profile dog – Hector - who was a former Vick dog. I saw a video of your visit to the former Vick property in Virginia and you singing in the building in which the dogs were fought. What can you tell us about that song and your visit there?
I went to a Charlie Parr concert and he ended his concert with a really cool rendition of Ain’t No Grave. I’m not really a religious guy, but it was my favorite song of the night. While I don’t necessarily believe that our physical bodies will rise from the grave, I do believe that we can have a lasting impact on things beyond our years here. The Vick dogs have done that, so singing that song in that place was my way of honoring them and also honoring the dogs who we don’t know because they weren’t as lucky to make it out.
I consider you a Renaissance Rescuer. You work in a high-tech medical job, you compete in American Ninja Warrior and Spartan competitions, you sing, and you work hard to help animals. How do you balance all those aspects of your life?
I enjoy doing a lot of different things. It helps keep things interesting for me. I sometimes feel that if I were to focus on one thing I could make a bigger impact in certain areas. At the same time, making sure I stay interested helps me stay in the game long term. The main thing is that whatever I do, I want to connect it back to something with the dogs so it has a bigger purpose.
You and Clara are known for being super fit and very active. How did you get involved with the American Ninja Warrior television program and culture?
I just saw it on TV and thought it would be fun to try. I was fortunate to be chosen when I submitted my application, and have been fortunate to be chosen every year since. Wallace and Hector played a big role in a number of ways with me being selected, so I’m taking the lessons that they taught me and taking advantage of the opportunity to help other dogs like them best I can.
A lot of people who compete on ANW have compelling stories related to a cause or a challenge in their lives. Did you know when you were first chosen to participate in ANW that you would use that as a platform to help shelter animals?
Yeah, I knew that I wanted it to be more than just me doing obstacles. When Wallace and Hector passed away I was struggling with how to have a significant impact without them around anymore. ANW provided a unique platform in front of millions of people, so I knew that I wanted to leverage that to help dogs in need if possible. I still can’t believe that I’m considered kind of a regular on the show now, but I’m going to keep going as long as they keep having me back and my body can handle it.
What is the most important thing you want people to know about shelter animals so we can change how we view them as a society?
The vast majority of dogs end up in shelters through no fault of their own. And just because it didn’t work out for them in one scenario doesn’t mean that dog is a bad dog. Just like us, each dog is an individual. They have emotions, and deserve a chance to succeed if we can figure out a way to make that happen. All of my dogs have been rescues, and I’ve met so many good dogs in shelters along the way that we will always adopt rescue dogs until the shelter kennels are empty.
I would like to think that your exposure through ANW has enabled you to do a lot more through the Wallace the Pit Bull Foundation to help animals. How big of an impact do you think ANW has had on your ability to help animals?
There aren’t too many platforms where I could get in front of millions of viewers to spread a message. And through the support of fans and the show itself, we’ve raised over $60K for Wallace the Pit Bull Foundation to help dogs in need. The van that we just purchased to help transport dogs from areas where they will likely be euthanized to areas where there are more homes available is a direct result from competing on ANW, and has been a rewarding experience that is helping to save a lot of dogs right now.
I saw recently that you were able to get a vehicle with a Wallace wrap on it that you use to transport animals. What can you tell us about that transport work?
P.A.W.S. coordinates a transport out of Missouri every other week. One of the legs goes through my city, so the van helps make sure we always have enough room to cover our leg of the transport. We’ve helped transport over 200 since last fall. A huge shout out to the coordinators who put together the transports every other week, and all the other volunteer drivers who make it happen. We’re glad to be a small part of it and to help do our part.
Are there any specific goals you have for the next year related to your animal advocacy that you hope to achieve through the Foundation? Is there an animal shelter or sanctuary in your future?
I would like Wallace the Pit Bull Foundation to purchase some property, but not for a shelter or sanctuary. I’d like to do something a little different. Where I live we don’t have a huge overpopulation issue, and I think that in the animal rescue world there needs to be more effort put into prevention and community support. My goal is to actually run a boarding business where the profits go to funding low cost spay/neuter events for the community. I’d like to have a place to hold training classes to help keep dogs in their homes in the first place, and some kennels as a temporary spot to house dogs until foster homes open up when needed. Ultimately I want to help put ourselves out of business in regards to sheltering, and get us more in the business of community support.
I understand you’ve been chosen to compete on the next season of ANW. What is the single most important thing people can do to help you and help with your goals for the Foundation?
The big thing right now is my Ninja for Dogs fundraiser where people can pledge money per obstacle I complete on the show. You can also make a flat donation if you’d prefer as well. All money raised will be going to the purchase of property or the transport of dogs to safety. You can also follow me on social media either through Roo Yori - K9 Ninja or Wallace the Pit Bull so you can keep up with us and know how to support us in the future.
I’ve been blogging about a lot of books lately. That’s not why my Paws4Change platform exists, but it’s not a bad thing either. Countless wonderful books have been published related to the topics I cover on my website. I think at some point along the line, I ended up on a list “somewhere” of people willing to read and blog about books, so I get a new request about once a month. I’m okay with that. I can pick and choose which books I read and consider. The latest request surprised me a bit because I was asked to read a children’s book. I’m certainly no authority on that genre and it’s been many years (okay, decades) since I was a child myself. I agreed to read and blog about the book for one simple reason: I believe our future is one in which adoption and rescue of companion animals will be the norm and will be the go-to option thanks to the youth of today.
I grew up in an animal friendly household, but I really didn’t even think about animal shelters until I was an adult. I knew all of our childhood pets were either adopted from a shelter or adopted from a family who could no longer care for them, of course, but the concept of an actual building where animals in need were housed just was not on my radar because I had never been to a shelter in person. As I’ve written about here and in my book, it was much later in my life when I learned what happened to most animals in shelters and I became an animal welfare advocate as a way to own my outrage.
Times have changed. A lot. Children today are born into a society in which the subject of shelter and rescue animals is already part of their existence. They may be young, but they are much more aware of the need to help animals than I ever was as a child. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard about children who have asked for items to donate to a local animal shelter instead of receiving birthday gifts or other children who have found some creative way to volunteer for or help an animal shelter because to them, it’s just the right thing to do. Scout troops make toys and beds for shelter pets and groups of children read to shelter pets to help them build confidence in their reading skills. Children bring me hope that we will truly become a more progressive society over time as old attitudes fade away and companion animals receive the care, attention and commitment they deserve.
But, on to the book. Tails from the Animal Shelter is a delightful book. It was written by Stephanie Shaw and illustrated by Liza Woodruff. The book itself is a work of art in many ways. It is wonderfully bound and will last for years. What hit me first was the illustrations. From the front cover to the back cover and all pages in between, the book is filled with wonderful drawings which demonstrate diversity in the people and imperfections in the animals. What struck me when I opened it was that it is a combination of imagery, poems children will enjoy and educational information.
I consider it a good introduction into the subject of shelter and rescue animals which is age appropriate (even though the subject can be dark for many of us adults). It provides just enough information on the plight of shelter animals to generate questions from and discussions with children so they can learn more, but not so much information that they tune out or feel overwhelmed by the subject. I also appreciated the fact that the book introduces a variety of pets well beyond dogs and cats so that children learn there are options for families based on their interests and ability to care for a pet. I also appreciated the length of the book. It was far too short for me as an adult (just because I wanted more), but is probably a great length for school age children who can read. (The age range listed for the book on Amazon is 5-8 years with a grade level of Kindergarten to 3d Grade; my personal opinion after having spoken to a couple of teachers and some parents is that this range may be a bit low. I leave it up to all parents, of course, to determine what books are appropriate for their own children.)
I am well past the target age group, so I decided to enlist the help of some friends to get their impressions of the book. Thanks to Ally and Lacy for taking a few minutes to talk about the book!
(image of child reading courtesy of National Mill Dog Rescue)
I wrote a blog a few years back about animal shelter apologists and the concept of cognitive dissonance. This was an effort to explain how people who claim to care about the lives of animals rationalize their support for animal shelters where healthy and treatable animals are killed. It’s been a while since I touched on this topic and Sheri Cahill of the Silver Comet Animal Welfare Alliance in Georgia asked me to revisit it.
So when it comes to animal shelters, what is an apologist? That is a person who defends (in essence apologizing for) what happens at a regressive animal shelter – typically the killing of healthy and treatable animals - while at the same time professing to be passionate about saving the lives of animals. We see this all the time from shelter employees, shelter volunteers, people in the rescue community and from the public. It seems inconceivable that people who claim to want to save animals would come to the defense of the killing that takes place but it happens every day across the country. Apologists tell themselves that their shelter is somehow different from other places, making it impossible to save more lives. They tell themselves that the public in their area is more irresponsible than in other places, so the shelter has no option but to end the lives of animals. They tell themselves that there is just no other way for the shelter to function because of a shortage of talent or resources. The rationalizations go on and on. Trying to understand why people behave this way is way above my pay grade and no doubt would make for a great research study by someone in the field of psychology.
There are times when the people who defend the killing of animals in shelters can be reached and can be educated. In my experience, these are the people who never felt quite comfortable with the killing, but just were not sure what to do about it. I’ve heard countless times from volunteers or rescuers that they did not condone what was happening at a particular shelter, but they did not speak out because they worried they would be cut off and would not be able to help animals any more. The most polite way I can address that reasoning is to say that it is incredibly short-sighted. It means that the focus of that person is on the dog or cat they are trying to help today or tomorrow, with no regard for the dozens, or hundreds or thousands of other animals they will not be able to help. In the most direct way I can address that reasoning is to say that there is a price to be paid for silence. In the city where I work and in which I lead an animal shelter reform advocacy group, more than 33,000 animals died from 2008 to the end of 2013 when the city began making changes to the culture at the shelter. 33,000. I feel confident that volunteers and rescuers thought they were doing all they could to help individual animals during those years. But the end result is that thousands of animals died and that process may have stopped earlier if the people closest to the issue had simply spoken up and encouraged the shelter to change.
There are many times, however, when there is just no conversation to be had with people who defend the killing of healthy and treatable animals. These people are so committed to the reality they have created for themselves that there is no way to break down their walls with any amount of logic or information. It is these people who are the most aggressive in their defense of shelter killing and who are the most likely not only to blame the messenger for the message, but to go on the offensive to attack anyone who has the audacity to believe the shelter can save more lives.
When my advocacy group in Huntsville, Alabama, began advocating for shelter reform in 2012, we ran into a host of apologists. The live release rate at the shelter at that time was about 34% which means that 2 out of every 3 animals entering the building were destroyed. It was at this time that the shelter director said she and her staff were doing a beautiful job. She said, “I am loved here” and the statement was true. As a veterinarian, she had a huge public following of people who either did not know what was happening at the shelter or who knew about it and were sure there was no other way to function. Animals had to be destroyed, they told themselves. There is no other way, they told themselves.
I wrote about the opposition to shelter reform we faced in Huntsville in my book. It was ugly, it was juvenile, and in the end, it was futile. We expected shelter employees to be upset with our efforts to hold the city accountable for how the shelter was operated using tax dollars. What we didn’t expect was the level of animosity toward us from the rescue community. We were vilified, ridiculed, the subject of a hate page on Facebook and at one point we were referred to as terrorists. We knew engaging with these people was a complete waste of time and energy; we did our best to ignore them and stay on subject with city officials and with the public.
Now that the city has changed the culture at the animal shelter, our critics have gone silent for the most part. Just like they had their own version of reality when so many animals were being killed, I presume they have their own version of reality about how that change happened. It is easier to revise history and to gloss over the difficult times than it is to admit that change came about as the result of struggle. As much as I think history is important so that we do not repeat it, my satisfaction comes from the fact that things did change as a result of advocacy. My focus is less on how we got to this point than the fact that the change has been drastic and empowering. The shelter now saves approximately 97% of all animals entering the building and my hope is that there is no going back. The public has come to expect the lives of animals to be saved instead of ended and it is that expectation that may do the most good to keep the city from reverting back to the way it was before.
If you live or work in a city where the animal shelter destroys healthy and treatable animals for whatever reason, please consider speaking out against that. Your focus should be on municipal accountability for how tax dollars are spent (or not spent) and not on individual people, at least at the start. You may not get a bill in the mail every month with a line item for "animal disposal," but you are paying for what happens at your local shelter and you have the right to demand better. If you learn that there are others who want to bring about shelter reform, support those people and find ways to help them if you can.
If you are one of those people who are defending the killing of animals, please ask yourself what you hope to accomplish with that behavior. It may very well be that you have become a human obstacle to change. If that is the case, you are standing in the way of progress which means you are standing in the way of saving lives. Yes, you can save a few each month while telling yourself that if it wasn’t for you or people like you, more animals would die. That would be true. But if you consider the bigger picture, you can help prevent the deaths of thousands of animals. It’s time to make a choice and to walk the walk instead of just talking about what you say you stand for.
All of us have crossroads in our lives. Points in our lives were some significant event happens that puts us on a path different from what we had anticipated. One crossroads for me was in 2006 after the euthanasia of 16-year old dog, Snake. We knew that she would not be able to stay. She had become trapped inside a body which no longer served her well and had begun having cognitive problems. We didn't want her to suffer. We had our veterinarian come to our house on April 22, 2006 to euthanize her. Although we had been planning for the day for quite some time, we didn’t choose the date ahead of time. She had had a rough night and we decided that morning to let her go. We didn’t realize until much later that we had chosen Earth Day to let her go. It seems fitting in many ways. Snake was a coydog; she was part German shepherd and a coyote. She was always a little bit of a wild child. We buried her on our property and gave her back to the Earth; a fitting farewell for such a beautiful soul.
It was after the loss of Snake that events happened that I didn't anticipate in which put me on another path. As much as we prepare, we are never really ready to lose those we love. How can we be? I didn’t adjust well and found that I needed an outlet. I started donating to the animal shelter in the city where I work, hoping to help some other dog or dogs. It was only after donating to the shelter for a few months that I had an unwelcome epiphany about what was happening there. Healthy and treatable animals were being destroyed every day along with the sick and suffering. I guess I should have known this was happening, but I just didn't. I think that's common for a lot of people in America. We presume that shelters use our tax dollars to function consistent with public values when that is not always the case. I know what the word euthanasia means and what was happening at this shelter was far from it in most cases.
Learning what was happening at my local shelter outraged me, angered me, and just made me feel tired and sad. But it also fueled me. I began a path of self-education. Why were animals who were perfectly healthy dying in shelters? Was it just something in the South? Was this happening everywhere? I just had to know these answers. My education took years and continues to this day. This journey of awareness led me to another crossroads. I had two choices. I could continue my education while lamenting what was happening. I could say the issue was just too big for me to take on myself. Or I could try to do something about it. In the end I decided I had to act because I saw it as a moral imperative. If I did not speak up, my silence would have been my consent. Exactly what I would do with my intent and knowledge would end up taking years.
I originally wrote to City officials in 2006 to express my outrage at what was happening at the shelter and didn't get very far. I was pretty much told this is just the way things are and we can’t afford to do any better. I didn’t believe either statement. The city in which I work is Huntsville, Alabama. The community is both incredibly progressive and proud. People from other states and even other countries live here. We have a large military base and we support the space program through the Marshall Space Flight Center. We are considered a medical hub where people come to get specialized treatment. Considering all the great things happening in the city, surely we could break from the status quo and do a better job to save the lives of shelter animals. The city council did not agree. I was left to stew in what I had learned, continue my education and look for some other opportunity to be a change agent. I found this incredibly hard to do. With each passing day, the lives of animals were at risk. Animals just like Snake who no doubt would have been killed in the Huntsville shelter.
The deaths of both my parents to cancer in a six-month period of time ended up being another crossroads for me. We lost dad in October of 2010. We lost mom in April of 2011. We knew they would leave us and tried to be ready. There is just no such thing. Like the loss of Snake, the loss of my parents put me in a different place in my life than I anticipated. For most of my life I had allowed myself to think that I would have decades left to spend time with my parents. I had always known that life was short and precious, but the loss of my parents quite suddenly really reinforced for me that my own time here is finite. I thought that in spite of personal failure to affect change in my area that I may do better if I got some help. That is when I decided to form an advocacy group called No Kill Huntsville. I believed that rather than speaking out about the issue by myself, surely there had to be strength in numbers. The group was pretty large when we started, but as is the case with many things, lots of people talk but only some people do. We ultimately ended up with a small group of like-minded folks who agreed to speak with one voice to try to effect change in our area.
No Kill Huntsville is now and in our 10th year of advocacy. It hasn’t been easy, but we got what we hoped for: change. The changes which have been made at the tax-funded animal shelter are both shocking and incredibly rewarding. We always promoted, and still promote, the No Kill Equation first shared with the world by Nathan Winograd in his 2009 book called “Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America.” The book was a game changer for me as it has been so many other people who have read it.
There will always be differences of opinion or how we got to a point where the shelter was destroying three out of every four animals to a point where the shelter is saving approximately 97% of the animals. It’s hard for people to admit that change can be ugly and uncomfortable. I feel confident that but for the advocacy of our group, little would have changed. The shelter was making incredibly slow progress at the time we first took our issue to the public and got really vocal about it in the area. We were vilified in the community. At one point we were called terrorists. But I know we made a difference.
There was an episode of a program called MythBusters years ago that had to do with the benefit of slapping someone across the face. The show is no longer being produced but I'm sure the episode is still out there somewhere. What was being investigated was if someone's behavior really can be modified after having been slapped across the face. The results of the tests confirmed that be to be the case. A lot of people criticized our advocacy during the most difficult years because they focused on the messenger and not on the fact that the message was necessary in the first place. We were told to be nicer, to stop being so critical. We were told that we just had to go along. I know for myself that we were always incredibly diplomatic and respectful. The worst-case scenario for me is that our advocacy served as a slap across the face to city officials and the public to get them to wake up and see that things not only should be but different but could be different. I know our efforts were much more than that, of course.
In the summer of 2018 I had a meeting with documentary film maker Anne Taiz who was working on a film about No Kill animal shelter philosophies and programs. Anne traveled to Huntsville as part of her research to talk to me about what our group had done to that point. Toward the end of our meeting Anne said, “you know, you really should write a book about this.” I'm pretty sure that I laughed. Although I had been blogging and writing about our experiences over a period of years, I never really considered writing a book. What would it say? Who would even read it? Would it help anybody? After thinking about it for a few months, I decided again that life was short and that my time here was not guaranteed. Why not write a book if it could help other people?
I self-published my book about on Amazon on April 22nd, 2019, the anniversary of Snake’s passing. The whole point in publishing a book was to help other people in other places. People like me. People like people in our advocacy group who were just common folks in the weeds with full-time jobs who came together because we knew that somebody had to do something. It had been years since Nathan Winograd had published Redemption and I thought it might help some people to learn how we used the No Kill Equation to change things in our area. After consulting with attorneys at work, I got umbrella insurance before I published the book. I know from my work in the legal field for almost three decades that the ability to defend a lawsuit and the ability to prevent a lawsuit are not the same. Thankfully, the two-year statute of limitations to sue me has now run. The book is priced to print which means no money is being made. When people order the book, they’re paying for the cover and the paper.
As is the case with many small acts of advocacy for the sake of animals, I guess I'll never really know how much good the book has done. I've gotten a lot of feedback in the last couple years from people that told me that it really did make a difference for them. They had situations similar to ours and they just didn't even know where to start or what to do. Reading the book gave them the information and the courage that they needed to speak out for the sake of animals in their own area. The book will never be a bestseller and I fully acknowledge that it has kind of a narrow audience. But I feel pretty good about it. I feel like it served the purpose and hopefully will continue to serve its intended purpose for a period of years to come. I asked some folks for feedback to share with this blog and would like to thank them for helping me.
If you know shelter animals in your area are being destroyed needlessly, know that you really can make a difference to affect change. It takes information, time, passion and commitment, but you can be a force for good. Choose the path that is the most important to you. You never know how far you will travel or what you can accomplish if you don't try.
I recommend this book to everyone interested in animal rescue or sheltering. I like to highlight key points as I read, but if I had done that with this book, the entire thing would have been highlighted. After reading it, I purchased multiple copies for local shelter managers and fellow animal rescuers. It's a perfect ‘cliff notes' version of Nathan Winograd's Redemption and a practical ‘how to’ study rolled into one. It should be required reading for anyone who cares about animals.” - Jennifer Watkins, Shelter to Home, Inc., Wyandotte, Michigan
Not Rocket Science may have been written about Huntsville, Alabama, but it is the disturbing reality of our broken ‘shelter’ system everywhere. The book very accurately describes the perils currently faced by homeless animals in the majority of municipal animal control facilities across the US. As an advocate in Georgia, I have had far too many of the same experiences that Aubrie describes. This book is essential reading for any animal welfare advocate and I highly recommend it to all animal lovers. There will be both sad and happy tears as you follow the courageous and inspiring journey of the No Kill Huntsville team. But, at the end, you will have a concise, comprehensive resource and a determination to be part of the solution. Ignorance and apathy are the enemies. For about $5, this book can help you overcome both at your local ‘shelter.’" - Shari Cahill, Silver Comet Animal Welfare Alliance, Milton, Georgia
Not Rocket Science: The Story of No Kill Animal Shelter Advocacy in Huntsville, Alabama is the up-close, inside story of what it took to bring a highly regressive, open-admission animal control shelter to save rates in the mid and upper 90%. A must-read for advocates seeking to bring No Kill to their communities, Not Rocket Science presents the unvarnished truth behind this inspiring and remarkable transition. If you have heard about the inspiring tale of Huntsville's success, but have not read this book, you don't really know how the City of Huntsville became one of the most exciting shelter stories in the nation. Order it today." - Mike Fry, No Kill Learning. Minneapolis, Minnesota
Aubrie Kavanaugh has written a seminal book, It’s Not Rocket Science, about modern animal shelter reform. Although the No Kill Movement has been around for decades, the last 10 years has seen a surge in successful animal shelter reform driven by advocates like the author, Aubrie Kavanaugh and her associates. Nathan Winograd’s Redemption from 2008 was the formative publication that launched a revolution in modern animal shelter reform. It’s Not Rocket Science shows us how the philosophy Winograd presented is now proven to succeed with a clear history of the reform of Huntsville, Alabama.” - Davyd Smith, No Kill Colorado, Denver Colorado
Not Rocket Science is an unvarnished look at the hard work required to make progress toward no kill in a resistant environment. It is an excellent step by step guide for no kill advocates who want to take action in their own community but aren't sure how to start and, more importantly, how to keep going when hitting roadblocks." - Shirley Marsh, Yes Biscuit, South Carolina
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