Rapid fire questions. Don't think. Just answer.
If you did not have solid answers to these questions you are not alone. I want you to have those answers which is why I'm blogging on the topic of pet parents again.
I think it is human nature to avoid preparing for the worst. We know we should have wills and advance health care directives in case something happens to us, but many of us do not because planning ahead causes us to face our mortality. Even those of us who have wills and have made our health care wishes very clear to those around us may not have taken the time to make plans for the care of our beloved companion animals in the event of some crisis or disaster. But why? We love them and they are part of our families so why would we leave their future to chance?
A lot of people simply presume that if something happens to them, their friends or family will automatically step up and take their beloved companion animals either temporarily or permanently. The sad truth is that often does not happen. Your family and friends may love you, but that love may not extent to making a commitment to care for your pets and all that entails. Short term fostering? Maybe. But taking them for the rest of their lives? Perhaps not.
I cannot count the number of times I have been contacted by someone trying to place pets due to some life crisis either of their own or related to a family member. The message invariably says they need someone to take the animals that day or the next day, as if that is really possible. I realize our bonds with animals are emotional and we often do not think clearly under stress. There are a lot of great animal welfare organizations, animal shelters and animal rescue groups across the country. But the reality is that there is no magical place you can call which will result in someone taking pets with little or no notice. Most progressive animal shelters do try to help with owned animals even though they are not obligated to take them. They provide counseling on alternatives to surrendering animals and may do courtesy social media posts to help a family place animals in the event of a death or crisis. Rescue groups also do the same. There are shelters, however, where not all healthy and treatable animals are saved and where animals who were once loved by someone are destroyed. Think about that for yourself. Can you imagine the animals you loved housed in a shelter only to have their lives ended just because you can no longer care for them. That would be compounding one tragedy with another.
Life happens. Death happens. The unthinkable happens. We live in very uncertain times in terms of people's housing, finances and health. Because you love your companion animals, I implore you to make plans for their future without you t to make sure someone will take them and care for them in your honor. Do not put their lives at risk by allowing them to enter an animal shelter. Do not presume the people you love and know will be able to take them. This requires a direct conversation with the people in your life to develop a plan for pet parents who will take your place. Your pet parent needs detailed information from you ranging from how to get into your home, how many pets you have, what health issues they have and information for day to day care about what and how much they eat, food allergies, crate training, ability to walk on a leash, where they normally sleep, who provides their veterinary care, vaccination status, microchip registration. They need all the same information you know or have so they can care for your companion animals from the moment they have them as you would care for them.
We have a plan for our dog which has been shared with his pet parents (my cousin and her husband who live in Texas), with a local police officer who knows how to get into our house, with our veterinarian who will board our dog temporarily until he can be picked up by my cousin and with some co-workers who may know of some crisis before our family members know. My cousin has an information sheet about our dog which includes a host of information not just about the most vital aspects of his life, but which includes things like what types of toys, treats and style of Frisbee he prefers. We also have a provision in our wills to pay for his care for the rest of his life.
If you need some help preparing for the care of your pets, you can use this basic form shared here in both pdf format and Word format. The form is designed to get you thinking about plans. I encourage you to be as detailed as possible in your planning not only for the benefit of the animals you love but to give yourself peace of mind that they will be cared for if something happens to you.
I was trying to recall the other day when I first met Mike Fry of No Kill Learning. As is the case with many of my animal welfare contacts who became my friends, it feels as though I have always known him. I began listening to his Animal Wise Radio broadcasts created with Beth Nelson about ten years ago after I learned what was happening in our nation’s animal shelters. I was riveted by the conversations they shared about no kill animal sheltering and about this thing called “the No Kill Equation” shared by Nathan Winograd is his ground-breaking book, Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America.” I first met Mike in person in early 2013 when he came to Alabama and became part of the no kill story in Huntsville which was (and has remained) the focus on my no kill animal shelter advocacy for more than a decade.
This trip down memory lane was brought on by Mike’s latest documentary film in his Boots on the Ground series highlighting places where animal shelter reform happened. The first film was about Lake County, Florida, which became a no kill community essentially overnight once the county commission took over operation of the animal shelter from the Sheriff's Office. The shelter now has some of the highest live release rates in the country and has become an example of other shelters to emulate.
The second film told our story in Huntsville, Alabama, where a group of advocates banded together to tell the city, "we are better and this," and to push hard for reform of the tax-funded animal shelter where thousands of animals died over a period of years. Ours was a struggle with much of the opposition serving only to delay reforms we hoped were inevitable. The shelter statistics demonstrate the changes made in the past few years which are the result of cultural changes in how the shelter operates. Saving the lives of animals is now a point of community pride; we hope there is no going back to old ways.
The final film in the series is Mike’s story of his 20-year journey to bring no kill success to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, an area serving over three million people. I was interviewed for the film and was given an opportunity to view it in advance of the October 14, 2020, Youtube premier.
Having known Mike as long as I have, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of the story. I knew Mike had become a no kill advocate through family ties – his family opened the first no kill animal shelter in the state decades ago. I also knew that Mike came to his advocacy through a specific event in his life, as is the case with my advocacy. Mike’s journey – which I consider a journey of the heart - began with him being profoundly affected by a video project he created for a contact of his which about pet overpopulation which changed the course of his life. It put him on a path to question the status quo, to question why it is that shelters were not functioning consistent with public values (while making the public think everything was fine), to question if there wasn’t some other way things could be done, and ultimately to seek out and embrace the solution to shelter killing which is the No Kill Equation. Knowing the solution was not enough, as is often the case. It took years and years of advocacy and struggle to bring change to the Twin Cities with the help of like-minded people and with the standards in the Companion Animal Protection Act enacted in St. Paul in 2014. I call this a journey of the heart because it is one born of love - love for the companion animals with whom we share our lives and homes as members of our families.
I hope you will take time to watch the journey in Mike’s film. He spoke with a wide range of people and the flow of the film tells a compelling story. Why should events in the Twin Cities (or Florida or Alabama) matter to you? Because they inspire change in other places. I think it's important for people to know that change really is possible and to learn about what other people have done in the face of really difficult circumstances. The film serves as a lesson to us all which proves a few key things. First, we learn that each of us can, in fact, make a difference in spite of what may seem like insurmountable odds. I think it is human nature to feel overwhelmed when issues are systemic; we feel there is no possible way our actions can cause the wheels of change to turn. They can. Second, it reminds us that no kill advocacy for shelter animals is a marathon and not a sprint. I know many advocates get frustrated if they cannot affect change as quickly as they would like. Some places change literally overnight upon realizing they were operating in ways which were not only inconsistent with public values, but which led to killing which proved to be unneccesary. Other places take longer. Mike’s journey lasted 20 years. Yes, 20 years. What made a difference was commitment to the goal, recognizing that the process may take time, and being so informed on the topic to be able to convince that elected official that enacting the CAPA was legacy legislation which sets standards moving forward, regardless of who runs the city or who runs the shelter operation. When I think of Mike's journey, I am reminded of a book he shared with me years ago called Twelve By Twelve in which the author spoke of the concept of See, Be, Do. Sometimes you have to just Be until a new opportunity arises to move the issue forward. Which is exactly what Mike and his fellow advocates ultimately did.
I found the film inspiring and know you will also. It runs about 45 minutes. As someone who is very visually oriented, I will tell you that there is some footage at the start of the film which may be difficult for some people to watch. I know Mike anguished over use of some footage from the video he created more than 20 years ago which put him on this journey. In the end, he decided that it was a key component to the story which could not be overlooked. I was able to get through it with no issues, knowing that sometimes it takes a shocking event to help us understand what is most important to us. In my case, it was five words. In Mike's case, it was the video he created.
Please join us for the October 14, 2020, premiere which begins at 7:30 p.m. central time. If you cannot see the film then, it will be available for viewing at any time after the premiere.
Congratulations to Mike on the film and thank you for your tireless advocacy which has been an inspiration not only to me, but to countless people across the country. You fought the good fight. You changed the course of history in your community. This is your legacy and the legacy of all who came together to seek a better future for animals and the people who value them.
As John Lewis would say, "“When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, say something. Do something. Get in trouble. Good trouble.” I hopethe film inspires you to do just that.
(The video below is a short trailer which is one of a series of trailers for the film. Thanks, Beth Nelson!)
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 he 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.
(Aspy next to the 9th green at the Twin Lakes Golf Course, watching Rich putt)
The 4th of July is a day of celebration for many people. I know that it should be for me, but it honestly is not. The 4th of July is the day that we mark the passing of our senior dog, Aspy, under what I consider traumatic circumstances. Much like we involuntarily mark the dates of the people we love who have left this Earth, we do the same with our beloved companion animals. We do our very best to focus on lives well-lived and be thankful for the number of years we shared walking a path together. That is what I will try to do on July 4th. It will be bittersweet as I do my very best to force away the memories of our dog's last day with us.
As I've written about before both of my website and in my book, I became an animal welfare advocate when I learned what was happening at my local animal shelter and in the wake of another personal loss. It is abundantly clear to me that using the word euthanasia to describe the destruction of healthy and treatable shelter animals is entirely misplaced. Making a decision to euthanize a beloved animal has nothing whatsoever in common with decisions made in shelters every day to end the lives of animals who were, or could have been, someone's beloved companion.
But back to the subject of euthanasia of beloved companions. Anyone who has ever made what Marian Hale once called "That Terrible Decision" regarding a companion animal is torn with having made that decision. We are plagued by doubts about timing. Did I wait long enough? Did I wait too long? Did I allow my selfish love and need for that animal to cloud my thinking? Did I really put the welfare of my beloved companion first? Could I have done more?
I've come to believe that when the decision to euthanize an animal is made from a place of love, it is always the right time, because it will never be the perfect time. We do our very best with the information available to us and once the act is done and our companion no longer shares our lives with us here, we have to forgive ourselves. I know that's easier said than done and I struggle with the decisions we have made regarding our own beloved pets throughout the years.
It is easy to look back and say that we waited too long with Snake and we kept her around for us and not for her. It is easy to say that we waited too long for Aspy. That we likely should have let him go after he had his stroke in the summer of 2015. But he had so many good and happy days after his stroke that I choose to focus on those extra months he had. He was fiercely loved. He was a member of our family. We did and would have done anything for him. And in the end, that caused just to make the decisions that we did.
While others are celebrating on the 4th of July we will be experiencing our day of remembrance.
Love your companion animals for as long as they are with you no matter how poorly they behave or may frustrate you at times. They have the cognitive function of children and they do not act with malice. If you believe your pet is suffering or his or her quality of life has diminished so greatly that you are wondering if it is time to let them go, please consult with your veterinarian. Euthanizing pets is very difficult for them; they are attached to the faces they have cared for over a period of years. But they have a degree of objectivity based on their education that we lack because we are thinking with our hearts.
When your beloved companions are gone, you will find yourself wishing you had just one more day with them. That is natural. But likely not what they need from you.
One more day, one more time
One more sunset, maybe I'd be satisfied
But then again, I know what it would do
Leave me wishing still for one more day with you.
(our annual memorial trip to the places Aspy loved; next to the 9th green at the Twin Lakes Golf Course)
("One More Day" by Diamond Rio)
I spent part of my lunch hour at a local pet supply store recently. It was a serious case of sensory overload. One whole wall is devoted to toys of every shape and size. It reaches from the floor all the way to the ceiling. I was in the store looking for a couple of Rusty-proof toys for our new dog. We learned pretty soon after we adopted him a few months back that fabric toys and even toys made out of ballistic nylon are no match for his teeth. Toys that are generally rated as chew-proof have not lasted particularly long and we've found he does best with rubber toys like the Kong Extreme, the GoughNuts ring, the Play Strong Bone and the West Paw Zogoflex Zisc. I found a couple of new toys in the store I think he'll like, a travel water bowl and a rug designed for drying off wet dogs to fit into our routine of wiping damp/wet feet and body every time we come inside. The dog's, of course.
I know a lot of people think that buying toys for pets during the holidays is nuts. Luckily I know more people who do just what we do. They consider their companion animals family members and they shop for their pets just like they shop for parents, siblings and children. I won't go so far as to ask Rusty to wear an antler headband so I can take cute photos, but he will get some gifts from Santa Paws, along with the stocking I'm cross-stitching with his image on the front.
On an intellectual level, I know that giving him gifts is more for our benefit than ours. As a formerly chained dog who lived outside before he ended up in an animal shelter, he's almost as easily entertained with rocks and leaves as he is with dog toys. Much like a cat who shuns a fancy toy in favor of an empty box or a paper sack, he is used to keeping himself entertained and could get by just fine without toys or special towels (although the elevated feeding tray with his name on it which was lovingly made by my husband will actually serve a purpose related to his digestion). We shop for him so that he feels included and because "we are pack."
All this shopping got me thinking back to a concept I have mentioned before and which I'd like to mention again during this season of love, compassion and giving of gifts.
Most of us love our companion animals and do treat them like family members with fur, feathers or scales. Because of that love and how much we value them in our lives, we want the very best for them. Always. Which is why I sincerely hope you will take some time during the holiday season to give your pets the most important gift of all: the gift of security.
None of us knows how long we will live or what tragedies may change our lives with no notice. We can get sick, lose our job, lose our home to a fire or die in an automobile accident. The list of what ifs is almost endless. If something happened to you, who would take your pets and love them as you do? If you have family or friends who live close to you, you may assume they'll step up and care for your pets. I've seen enough emails, texts and posts on the Internet and social media to know that is not always the case. Animals end up in shelters or with rescue groups every day because of some unexpected tragedy and because the person who cared for them failed to make a plan for their care.
Please give your pets the gift of a Pet Parent. This is a person you've talked to ahead of time who has agreed to take your pets in the event you died or could no longer care for them for some reason. In choosing your Pet Parent, be mindful of how your pet gets along with other animals and their general health. Give some thought to whether or not you should include financial provisions in your will to pay for the care of your pets for the rest of their lives. Consider how someone would communicate with the Pet Parent on your behalf if something happened to you. Do not just presume that someone will step up and take your pet or pets - this calls for an actual conversation to make plans just like those made for your children.
We have a plan in the event that anything ever happens to both of us at one time. Rusty will go to live with a member of our family in Texas who will help him adapt to living in her home with her rescued dogs and who will love him as we love him. And she will care for him the rest of his days. We'd like to think the odds of this happening are really small. But we'd rather have plans and never need them than to have Rusty put at risk in some way.
I think Rusty will like the gifts we're giving him this year, although he'll still play with leaves. I know that we'll sleep better at night knowing that we are prepared to give him the best possible gift by ensuring he is cared for the rest of his life, even if it is not by us.
Please think about it.
It happens every day in spite of our best intentions. Cats get out through an open door either because they are scared or curious. Dogs jump fences or escape through a gate left open by a child or contractor. So now what? If your dog or cat is gets lost and is wearing a color with some form of identification and the collar stays on, you have a fairly good chance of getting them back if they are helped by a Good Samaritan or they end up in an animal shelter. But what if the collar comes off? What if your pet has been stolen? The reality is that getting your lost or stolen pet back to you is hard work and you may never get them back even if you do everything right. Animals who are loose can cover great distances and animals who have been stolen can be driven great distances. I have written before about the importance of having all pets microchipped, even those who live inside and are ordinarily never outside unsupervised. Life happens, accidents happen and natural disasters happen and there is just no replacement for having your pet chipped so they can be easily identified if they are displaced from you for some reason.
If your pet does go missing or is stolen, there are a host of things you can do to try to get your pet back to you and that’s the purpose of today’s blog. This list is not comprehensive by any means. If you read the blog and you have a suggestion which has worked for you in the past or which has worked for someone you know, by all means post a comment to share that information.
Contact the microchip company. If your pet is microchipped, contact the company you used to register your chip to let them know your pet is lost or stolen. If your registration information is outdated, update the information with the company. There may be an extra fee to do this depending on the microchip implanted in your pet, but it will be some nominal amount and is worth every penny.
Go to local shelters to look for your pet. Many animal shelters have listings of found pets which are in their custody, but many animal shelters do not. There is no substitute for physically going to the shelter or shelters in your area to look for your lost pet. You should take an image of your pet with you to leave with the shelter staff so they will "be on the lookout" for your pet to arrive in the future. You should go more than one time just so you can be sure that your pet did not roam for a period of time before being taken to the shelter by an animal control officer or Good Samaritan.
Look for your pet in your area. It may sound obvious, but look around for your pet to see if you can find him or her. You should do this quietly and not by enlisting the help of others. Your friends may want to help you find your lost dog or cat, but if you try to canvas a particular area with people unfamiliar to your pet or calling out your pet's name, you may spook your pet and cause him or her to flee or run into traffic.
List Your lost or stolen pet on a reputable website. If you do an Internet search for “lost pet websites” you’ll come up with enough hits to make your head hurt. The two websites I use most often for posting lost or stolen pets are Helping Lost Pets and Track My Paws. Helping Lost Pets is map-based which means that your post about your pet will show up on a map in a geographic area. You have to register to post your pet, but the process is entirely free. You enter data about your pet (more is better), you include a photo and your pet is listed on the website. It’s just that simple. People who are in your area who are registered on the site receive an email alert about your pet. You can also create a free flyer about your pet using a variety of formats so that you can then print that poster to put up around your area and you can share on social media or email as either a pdf file or an image file. Track My Paws is very similar. You register to post your lost or stolen pet, enter as much information as you can and then your pets is shown on a map.
Create a flyer about your lost or stolen pet. When it comes to getting your pet back home, the key is letting as many people as possible know that your pet is missing. We have Amber alerts for children. When it comes to pets, we are left with old school methods of letting people know that we need their help. Create a flyer about your lost or stolen pet which includes a good color image using Helping Lost Pets or using your computer. Print as many posters as you think you can reasonable distribute and then post them in your neighborhood, personally deliver them to the neighbors and businesses closest to where you live and share them on social media and by email with people in your area. Do not offer a reward for your pet. Although this has historically been seen as a way to motivate people to help you, it can actually encourage "dog napping" and can cause people to chase your dog or cat, making them run further away. If you do put up flyers, make sure you go back and take them down once your pet is safely back home.
Use social media. There are a lot of social media pages that relate to geographic areas like cities and counties. Do a search on Facebook for groups or pages in your general area and post about your lost or stolen pet there. Because animals can travel distances, don’t limit this just to the city or town where you live. Try to post about your pet on any page that covers an area within about 60 miles of your location. There is no such thing as posting in too many places to help people know that your pet was lost or stolen and to share images of your pet so that people can be your eyes and ears all around you. If you do post about your pet on social media and your pet is found, please update your posts so that people know your pet is safely back home. People love a happy ending and this gives other people who have lost their pet hope for a positive outcome.
Contact the media. Most local newspapers will allow you to run a short ad about your lost or stolen pet. Contact your local paper or papers which service your general geographic area and ask if they will run an ad for you for free. Some small papers may actually include an image of your pet in a small add for which you would pay some nominal fee. If your pet was stolen from your home or from an area where you were staying (campground, neighbor’s house, etc.) contact local TV stations to see if they will run a story for you. Many television stations are very animal friendly and may be willing to do a short story to help you.
Entice your pet to return home using bedding and food. Although many pets go quite far once they are outside, some don’t go far at all and are just hunkered down some place because they are afraid. Leave bowls of water and food outside near your home or the place where your pet went missing with some of your pets bedding. You may also want to put an item of clothing you have worn and which smells like you with the bedding.
Contact locals. Contact local veterinary offices, animal control agencies and law enforcement agencies to report that your dog or cat is lost or has been stolen and provide them with a copy of your flyer. Sometimes people who find lost pets take them to veterinary offices or turn them in to animal control agencies. If your pet was stolen, you should file a report about that so that it can be investigated, particularly if you think you know who took your pet. Some law enforcement agencies may not take your report seriously, but be persistent and demand help. We don’t like to think of our pets as property, but your pet is your property and theft of a pet is the same legally as theft of other things you own (although much more upsetting, of course). It's always a good idea to talk to local bus drivers and mail carriers to let them know your pet is missing so they can be "on the lookout" for your dog or cat. You can also contact Lost and Stolen Pet Recovery Assistance to see if they can help you.
I have known of people who had a pet go missing who never found the pet again. But I also know of people who have found pets after they had been missing for months. When your pet is reunited with you, I encourage you to have your pet microchipped and to take any and all steps within your power to keep them from being displaced from you again.
(images courtesy of Shelley Lomanto and Peace and Paws Dog Rescue)
In the years since I had my unwelcome epiphany about the plight of shelter animals – which led to greater awareness about a host of issues concerning companion animals in general – I have had the privilege of connecting with people across the country whom I consider trailblazers for the sake of animals. If you are new to the topic of animal welfare, you may not know their names. I call them Nathan and Mike and Theresa and Rudi and Dan and Mary and Ryan and Tamira and Davyd and Becky and Brian and Valerie and Debi and Terri and Kathy and Christie and Doug and Bett and Karen and Keith. All are very active related to the topics of no kill animal sheltering and ending puppy mills and ending the chaining/tethering of dogs and getting lost dogs back home and TNR of community cats and ending breed stereotypes and bans. What all of these contacts of mine have in common is that they don’t work for large national animal welfare organizations. Some of them manage nonprofit organizations, but most of them work full-time jobs and aren’t paid a dime for their advocacy. It is something they do because they are compelled to take action to improve our society and improve the welfare of the dogs and cats we say we value and care for. They act because they have to and it is part of who they are as people.
I get a lot of email from people in other states about a variety of issues due to my outspokenness. Many want to know how to bring about change in their own areas and really don’t know where to start. Most have put some reliance on large national organizations to bring about change and have been left disappointed in that process. They ask, “what could I possibly do as one person? How can I possibly make things better related to _____________ (fill in the blank on the topic) in my city or my state?” I think that for most of us, the idea of taking on an issue ourselves is pretty daunting. We know we want to help, but may feel overwhelmed at the work we see before us to bring about change. The problems just seem so – to use an overused word – HUGE.
Take heart, animal advocate. Because you do have the power to bring about change and your voice is louder than you may imagine. You do need to educate yourself on your topic. An informed advocate is an effective advocate. But speaking out on your own can be of more value than you may realize in your current state of mind.
I was reminded of this recently while reading a book written by a contact of mine named Becky Monroe called Bark Until Heard: Among the Silenced Dogs I Found My Voice. Becky and I just recently connected on the topic of puppy mills as a result of one of my earlier blogs on the topic. I have yet to blog about her book, but the reasons she wrote her book got me thinking about this whole topic of advocacy by individual people. Without taking away from your enjoyment of Bark Until Heard, the premise is pretty simple: Becky ended up at a puppy mill auction somewhat unexpectedly, saved a dog she named Thorp and was forever changed by the process, making it part of her life’s purpose to educate others about the horrors of the puppy mill industry in an effort to bring an end to it. I’m sure when Becky started what could be described as a crusade to end puppy mills, she had no idea how successful she would be. But that didn’t matter to her. She connected with like-minded people, she sent emails and composed letters, she wrote articles which helped people get a glimpse of what she had experienced and now she has a very successful book she is using as a means to reach more of the public. She truly did find her voice.
I was also reminded of this recently while engaging with fellow advocate Steve Shank of Lake County, Florida. Steve has been working for years to shine a light on the dark corners of the house that is animal sheltering in his county. He has been met with opposition, resistance and most recently what I would consider at best deception and at worst lies by the current shelter leadership to make things seem better than they are. Steve is just one person. But he did not give up and he stayed true to his vision. He ultimately connected with a county commissioner who got on board with his goals right away and in just a couple of weeks, a no kill consultant will be traveling to his county to meet with local officials and talk about plans for the county to run a no kill animal shelter using progressive and proven programs. I am sure that much like Becky, Steve had no clue where all this would go when he decided to take the risk of being the one to speak out for the animals who could not speak for themselves. The future of Lake County is still unfolding, but I’m sure we can all agree that there are many changes ahead and that the animals in that area are soon to be safer than at any time in the history of the county. Steve and his contacts will face opposition from a host of sources which will surprise many people. PETA, local rescuers and general naysayers will say that no kill is not possible or it means institutionalized hoarding or it costs too much. The problem with the pushback like that is that it seldom survives the reality of communities which change drastically and in very short periods of time. It’s hard to say the world is flat or we didn’t go to the moon or no kill communities are not real when they continue to emerge with increasing speed.
Being a voice for animals is hard work. It may cause you to lose what you thought were friendships. It may baffle the people you love who are closest to you who support you, but who may not truly understand the depth of your commitment to bring about change. It may cause you to be vilified by organizations or individuals as they defend the status quo and focus more on the messenger than on the reasons why the message was necessary in the first place.
But never doubt the power of individual advocacy related to companion animals whether it is on a general topic or whether is it focused on a state or municipality which is using tax dollars related to animals in ways which are not consistent with our culture and our values in America. Sometimes all it takes is one person putting themselves “out there” to help others find the courage to do the same. Which means that instead of being an army of one, you may find that you are one of many as you work together to change our society and help many more animals than you may ever realize.
To borrow a lyric from Sara Bareilles, show me how big your brave is.
(images courtesy of Becky Monroe and Steve and Hank Shank)
I think my husband and I are great pet parents. We both grew up with companion animals and we consider them not things, but sentient creatures of other species who have souls and value. We have never humanized our dogs, but the reality is that we would do, and have done, anything for them and they have lived long and very full lives. In spite of the fact that I think any dog would be fortunate to share our lives with us, many rescue groups simply would not agree. When we lived on our 8 acre parcel for almost 20 years, our property was not fully fenced. Now that we are in our new home, our 3+ acre parcel is also not fenced. We've thought about it, but the benefit v. cost balance just has not been worth it so far. The lack of a fence alone would cause many rescue groups to decline to adopt a dog to us. It matters not that we met our dogs’ every need, they are canine members of our family and they are never outside unattended. No fence = no dog.
I first encountered this unreasonable mindset about animal adoption when I read Nathan Winograd’s book “Irreconcilable Differences: The Battle for the Heart and Soul of America’s Animal Shelters.” The book contains a chapter called “Good Homes Need Not Apply” in which Nathan sets out the obstacles often used by shelters and rescue groups which keep animals from being adopted using fixed and arbitrary rules that are based more on a suspicion of the public than on a focus of getting animals into homes.
One of these obstacles relates to the concept of adoption fees. Not a week goes by that I don’t end up in a discussion with someone either with a rescue group or about an animal shelter regarding adoption fees. I know of rescue groups which charge high adoption fees because they don’t do enough marketing and fundraising and they are trying to cover their veterinary costs through the fees. I know of other rescues which charge fees which they think separate the good people from the bad people and are an indicator of an adopter’s future ability to care for the animal. The logic goes like this: if you cannot afford our $250 adoption fee than you can’t afford to keep and care for a dog. No $250 = no dog.
On the flip side, I know some in rescue or in shelters who are completely opposed to the concept of fee waived adoptions for similar reasons. The mindset is that if you will only adopt an animal from a shelter when it’s free, that means that you are not financially prepared to pay for that animal’s care for the duration of his or her life. One contact asked me one time, “if we give animals away from free, what does that say about the value of the animal?” My answer was simple. It means that you value the life of that animal more than you value some nominal fee. It means that when it comes to animals in need of homes, we cannot equate cost with value or worth.
A number of articles have been written over the years related to the concept of fee waived adoptions by people with a lot more experience than me and you can find them using a simple Internet search on the topic. In spite of what conventional wisdom may dictate, studies have shown that there is little correlation between the amount of money someone pays for an animal and their devotion to the animal or ability to care for the animal. People take in free animals all the time as acts of kindness and to save their lives. People get animals from animal shelters during fee waived adoptions all the time, not because of the "deal" they are getting as much as the waived fee served as an incentive to act and to be part of something bigger than themselves. We need look no further than a recent phenomenon that happened in Sacramento to see the value in fee waived adoptions. A local businesswoman offered to pay the adoption fees for all pets adopted from the Front Street Animal Shelter during the month of December as an incentive to get animals adopted. When people found out, word spread and people wanted to be part of something special. Some people camped out outside the shelter before it opened. Others arrived hours before opening time, forming a line that wrapped around the block. Not only were all of the animals adopted out, but the shelter was able to import animals from other local shelters and find them homes. This wasn't a situation of people lining up because they didn’t want to pay an adoption fee. It was a situation of people wanting to adopt after hearing about a wonderful event and wanting to do something compassionate. The results have been called "epic." I look forward to finding out how many animals were adopted in this one month alone.
I have a lot of contacts in advocacy and rescue circles and all of this talk about adoption fees led me to a conversation with Denise Mulliken of Fayetteville, Arkansas, recently. Denise and I know each other from No Kill advocacy circles; she and her husband, Frank, are long time supporters of the No Kill Equation and we have a lot in common. I was thrilled to learn recently that not only have Denise and Frank started their own rescue group, but they don’t charge adoption fees at all. Yes, you read that correctly. No adoption fees. I asked Denise to tell me more about House of Little Dogs, Inc., how they function and about the decision to not charge an adoption fee. She shared this information:
The basis for all of our decisions about how we run our rescue has been No Kill. We’re actually pretty new to animal welfare. We didn’t become seriously involved until about four years ago when we met some No Kill advocates here in Fayetteville, started reading about it, reading Nathan’s writings. . .so by the time we decided to get into rescue, I guess No Kill principles were instilled in us: embracing compassion and hope, assuming a can-do attitude, postitive marketing and promotion of adoption, thinking outside the box and trusting our community and looking at our community as the solution to pet homelessness. When Frank and I decided we wanted to run our own rescue, we decided we were going to run it counter to almost everything we’d seen so many other rescues do.
I hope that others in the rescue community and the shelter industry will take some time to think outside the box like Denise and Frank and will consider that the focus should be on putting animals in homes while having some faith that most people are essentially good at heart. An adoption fee is not an indicator of someone’s level of love or commitment or willingness to care for an animal for the duration of his or her life. We have all heard of celebrities who have paid thousands of dollars for animals and then treated them as disposable things. I personally know of people who have paid thousands of dollars for dogs from breeders only to decide the pets were too much work and they wanted to get rid of them. We do better when we focus on our goal – getting animals into loving homes – than when we focus on dollar amounts as an indicator of someone’s capacity to be a good pet caregiver.
I am not suggesting that all rescues function the same way as House of Little Dogs. I think it is perfectly reasonable to charge some adoption fee which does help cover some of the vetting costs so the rescue can remain viable. Many animals in rescue require a great deal of veterinary care and for some groups it makes sense to charge a fee not as a test of someone's good intent, but as a business decision. I am also not suggesting that all municipal animal shelters function the same way and waive fees all the time. I support fee waived adoptions for bread and butter programs like Pets for Vets or Seniors for Seniors or even to move special groups of animals like older animals, pit bull-type dogs or special needs animals. When municipal shelters waive fees all the time as a go-to way to place animals, they can make it harder for the rescue groups in their communities which they rely on to pull animals to compete financially (as many of those rescues are likley charging some nominal adoption fee).
I know this subject can be polarizing. People can be firmly on one side of the argument or the other. I'm just asking you to think about it and about what the adoption fees being charged really mean. What they represent.
We found Aspy, our beloved Eski boy, living in a cow pasture with a herd of cattle in a property adjacent to ours. He was free. But he was priceless to us. And he had a long and wonderful life with us. With no fence.
(image of Front Street Shelter adoption event courtesy of the Sacramento Bee)
I have long believed that there are two kinds of people who share their lives with companion animals. The first type of people have pets because they like them and it's nice to have them around. They may say that they love them, but the relationship is not really one of commitment. Animals run away, animals get hit by cars, life happens and when times get tough, it's really not a big deal to either place the animal with someone else, give the animal away or take them to an animal shelter. The second type of people share deeper bonds with their animals who are true members of the family. These people see their relationship with their animals as one of long-term commitment and they are prepared to live up to that commitment no matter what life brings. These people would no sooner give away or surrender a pet than they would give away a child.
Because our animals are childlike in their dependence on us and their needs, I feel pretty strongly about our responsibilities toward them. I think that anyone who brings an animal into their life must take that decision seriously and be prepared to care for that animal for the duration of his or her life. I am pretty much zero tolerance when it comes to people who tell me that their dog or cat is precious to them, but they have to give them up because of ___________ (fill in the blank). The excuses range from I don’t have time or the dog won’t listen or the cat refuses to use the litter box or we’re having a baby or some other reason. I was in a pet supply store once and saw a flyer for a gorgeous dog which read “New home needed immediately! Moving to Minnesota!” I grunted and asked the woman at the counter, “what? Do they not allow dogs in Minnesota?” I just think that having pets equates to making a promise. You don’t give away your relatives, you don’t give away your children and you don’t give away your pets or, worse yet, surrender them to an animal shelter where they may be summarily destroyed. If they mean so little to you, please. Just don't get a pet or become a foster for a homeless pet instead.
In spite of my zero tolerance for people who treat pets like an old lamp or a used sofa, I am well aware that there are times when people simply cannot keep their pets even though they do love them deeply. People get sick. People die. People lose jobs. Houses burn down. In those instances, my personal hope is that some family member or friend will step up to take that beloved pet (or pets) so that the person giving them away doesn’t lose all contact with them. It could be that they get well or get a new job or get a new place to live, after which their animal can be given back to them. In cases there that cannot happen or does not happen, my secondary hope is that the community in which that desperate person lives is a no kill community so that a local animal shelter or rescue group can help re-home the animal and the person can be assured that their pet’s life is not at risk. People who are going through hard times have enough to think about without worrying about whether their dog or cat will live or die. I also recognize that animals often are incompatible with other animals in a household and need to be re-homed for their own well-being. I have no issue with this at all. I would much prefer that a pet be placed into a new and more compatible home for the benefit of everyone, human and animal.
If you consider yourself someone who has a true, committed relationship with your pets, I think that there is one more thing you can do for them which you may not have done already. I'm talking about finding a Petparent.
Even if you have the best of intentions for your animals, life does happen and events are often entirely unexpected. Do you know what would happen to your pets if you ended up in the hospital for an extended period of time? What if you died? What about if your house burned down or you lost your job? How about if you ended up in a dire financial situation either due to overwhelming medical bills or some act of fraud? We hear all the time of animals needing homes because someone died or got cancer or became so incapacitated that they were simply not able to care for their animals at all.
Much like people may have a Godparent for their children, I want you to consider doing the same for your companion animals. As much as your family and friends love you, you simply cannot assume that they will willingly take in your pets if the unexpected happens. This can’t just be some wishy-washy assumption that someone you are related to or someone you know will step in and help. It has to be a direct conversation with someone in your life to get them to commit to taking your animals and keeping your promise to those animals in the event you no longer can. I’m not suggesting you have anyone sign a contract. I am suggesting that you have a face-to-face chat or serious telephone conversation in which you get a commitment from at least one person that they will care for your pets if you die or become so ill you cannot keep them. Ideally this person will be someone very close to you whom you can trust. Make sure that person knows about the health condition of your animals, who your veterinarian is (in order to get copies of records if needed) and that you tell them about your pet's needs and personality. If something happens to you unexpectedly, it is up to you to minimize the trauma to the animals you love. You do that by making solid plans for their care so that they can transition into a new home as easily as possible.
I know that planning for the worst is uncomfortable for us. The idea of having a will or an advanced directive for our own health care is difficult for us.
But if you love your companion animals, you'll make a plan and you will have a true Petparent. You'll sleep better at night knowing you have kept your promise.
(images courtesy of Digna Oliveras, Becky Lynn Tegze and Peace & Paws Rescue)
I grew up not just in an animal-friendly household, but in an animal-integrated household. We always had companion animals and they were part of the family. Some lived short lives and we lost them to illness. Some lived decades and we would marvel at how healthy they remained year after year. I take for granted that companion animals are a long-term commitment. You don’t give away or discard your family members. It’s just not done.
Because I was raised this way, I have very limited tolerance for people who treat companion animals like things or like furniture. Your dog is not a couch. Your cat is not a lamp. When you bring a companion animal into your life and your home, you should be prepared for a 15 to 20 year commitment and all that the commitment entails through the good, the bad, the hilarious, the infuriating and the heart breaking. I have often thought there should be pet caregiver vows, but I’m not sure who would administer them.
I make this promise to you.
I will care for you for your time on Earth.
I will value you on my worst of days and on your worst of days.
If you make a mess or eat my shoes, I will understand that is not done with malice but is the result of something I failed to do for you.
I will help you understand my language and I will learn yours so that we can communicate easily.
I will make sure you can be identified if we are ever separated from each other so you can find your way home.
I will never hurt you, abandon you or be cruel to you.
If you get sick, I will take care of you.
When you get old, I will take care of you.
I will have a care plan for you in case something happens to me so that you will have a new home with people who will love you as I do.
I value your unconditional love, your humor, your company and your soul.
And I will keep my promise to be there for you for all of your days.
If you are not prepared to make a commitment to a companion animal, please do not get one. If you have a burning desire to have a pet, but know you cannot make the commitment that entails, become a foster to save a life.
(image courtesy of Harley, Dan and Rudi Taylor; Harley is a puppy mill survivor who was named the Hero Dog of 2015; www.harleypuppymilldog.com)
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