Gobsmacked. I admit that is not a word I use often but sometimes it just fits and it is the only word that seems suitable to explain my reaction to the recent Substack series by Nathan and Jennifer Winograd called "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow: Animal Sheltering in the United States." A little background is in order.
I've been an animal welfare advocate since 2006 when I learned that healthy and treatable animals were being destroyed at the tax-funded animal shelter in the city where I work. So began my education about concepts related to animal sheltering as I struggled to understand why it was that places called "shelters" would have so little regard for the lives of the companion animals we value and with whom we share our homes. My education continues to this day as I learn about new issues, problems, philosophies and opposition to life-saving (of which there is plenty). Reading the Nathan Winograd book, "Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America," was a game changer for me. It opened my eyes to issues about which I likely should have known but just didn't have a clue. I consider Redemption part history-book and party how-to book. For me, the No Kill Equation presented in Redemption is a DIY solution that can be embraced by any community to reform its animal shelter without the need for consultants or expert advice. It helps to reach out to other places to learn from what they have tried, but plenty of information is readily available on the website for the No Kill Advocacy Center to start affecting change immediately. As Nathan as written before, with each day we delay, the body count rises.
But back to the history part. We've all heard that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. We've also heard the insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. These concepts are absolutely true when it comes to the manner in which our nation's animal shelters function. There is a history of animal sheltering from which we must all learn so that we can avoid doing the same thing over and over again and expect new results.
This was really brought home to me recently when I listened to the series on Substack called Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow: Animal Sheltering in the United States. I really was gobsmacked. I knew some of the history from having read Redemption, but the information in the series was much more comprehensive and gave me a clearer view of how we got to where we are now, as well as some of the pitfalls we face moving forward. I also confess that I developed a new appreciation for Jennifer Winograd. Nathan is very much the face, and voice, of the No Kill Advocacy Center. Jennifer appears in the documentary film based on the book, but I really did not realize until recently how much of a team effort this has been for the whole Winograd family for so very long. I'm sorry, Jennifer, and thank you for your decades of advocacy.
(images courtesy of Nathan Winograd)
When I recommend to people they read Redemption, I usually say two things: 1) I consider it compulsory reading for any animal advocate; and 2) it's a little like doing homework. My own copy of Redemption looks much like a high school or college textbook with tabs, highlighting and notes in the margin. I refer to it often. I now say the same things about the Substack series. It was as important to me as Redemption if not more so because it is aptly named. It takes us through a deep dive of history, to the present and the possible future. I believe it is compulsory listening for any animal advocate and yes, it's a little like doing homework. I listened to the series over a period of weeks, so I was able to take notes. I've asked Nathan to consider putting the series in book form. It's been many years since Redemption was published and while animal sheltering is an ever-evolving industry, I think a new book may be in order to help people understand more of that has transpired in the last 15 years.
I get emails every week from people asking how to fix our sheltering system and what they can do to help. I strongly believe that an informed advocate is a more effective advocate. It is not enough to be upset by what you see, hear and learn. We all need to know how to fix it so you can be the voice for shelter animals. I know there are people in animal sheltering and rescue who are so stressed that the thought of reading a book like Redemption or listening to a series on Substack may seem like time they just do not have. My response is that if you want to be part of the solution so that in the future you function more efficiently and less frantically, this is time very well spent.
I'm sharing a few of my many notes from each recording to pique your interest while imploring you to carve out time to listen yourself and perhaps make your own notes. This is important.
(image capture of Henry Bergh from the documentary film Redemption: The No Kill Revolution in America)
Part 1 Regarding Henry - The birth and betrayal of the humane movement in America
Part 2: A House of Cards Divided - The fight for the heart and soul of America's animal shelters
(images courtesy of Nathan Winograd)
Part 4 - A glass half full and half empty: we've made tremendous progress but we still have a long way to go
Part 5 - What's Past is Prologue - to best serve animals, humane societies must recapture their roots
Winter is Coming (this podcast was not part of the 5-part series, but I found it directly related to what had already been discussed.
When I first heard about a book called "Catching Dawn" written by Melissa Armstrong, I was intrigued. I thought the book was just about one woman's mission to catch and help a free roaming dog named Night who belonged to no one and who had delivered puppies in a poor neighborhood in Springfield, Tennessee, a mission that lasted months. I quickly learned the book was about much more than rescuing a dog and her multiple litters of puppies. It is about saving ourselves and the people with whom we share our lives - families, friends and even foes.
It may be hard for some people to believe that dogs like Dawn still roam our streets in this day and age. It happens across the country for a variety of reasons, one of which relates to culture with those cultural differences regarding dogs being more prevalent in some areas than in others. I live in Alabama, a place where the differences are obvious. Some dogs live inside and are members of the family. Some dogs live outside and would longer be allowed inside to live than the family would set a place at the dinner table for a pig. The mindset is that dogs are animals and just like other animals - cows, horses, goats, and pigs - they belong outside. Some people who have "outside dogs" keep them confined to their own property. Many do not and think nothing of it at all or how it affects other people. It is just how dogs live. Dogs roam the streets mostly in rural areas and I see them daily where I live. We always check the area around our house before taking our dog outside so we can avoid problems with free roaming dogs. And I cannot count the number of times I have called regional offices for the state Department of Transportation to remove the body of some poor dog who died after having been struck by a vehicle.
(image of Night, who became Dawn)
The story of Melissa's moral imperative to trap and help Dawn is captivating as that story is woven into the story of Melissa's own life and struggles and what motivated her to feel so strongly about helping this one dog. Now that I know what caused Dawn to be so fearful of people and need help, I understand Melissa better and understand how a more recent situation which happened after the book was published must have affected her so deeply (see below). I was pleased to see some common themes in the book which I have seen before and which help to reinforce some of my views on people and animals.
What motivates advocates. Like so many of us, Melissa came to advocacy through tragedy. In her case, it was the death of a childhood cat named Coco at the hands of her father. Melissa wrote, "in retrospect, my need to protect the defenseless started with finding Coco's collar. . .if I had acted, if I had hidden Coco in my closet or taken him to a neighbor's shed, If I hadn't egged him on or left the ribbons scatted cross the floor, maybe he would have lived. In a way, every time I save an animal, I'm giving back to that little girl inside of me who will always blame herself for her fathers' mistakes.
Why advocates feel compelled to help. Not every one who sees a problem in society, particularly related to animals, has the desire or the motivation to do anything about it. For some people, the issue is either just to big for them or is not their responsibility. As is the case with many animal advocates, there is no choice in the matter. They have to do something, anything about what they see, in order to live with themselves. Such was and is the case with Melissa and her husband, Mason, having told themselves, "if we don't do something, who will?"
Animals in need remind us of ourselves or those we love. When writing about the fact that Dawn was a stray, Melissa wrote this: "In the dictionary, the word stray means 'not in the right place or not having a home.' When I was a child and then a teenager, I felt like I lived in the wrong place, like I was a stray. From my first memories, I recognized that I was fundamentally different from my family, physically and mentally."
Maybe people should know about issues with animals, but they just don't. I see this time and time again. People in animal welfare circles presume the public knows about animals in need locally or nationally or presume people know that is happened in local shelters and do not care enough. The reality is that most people don't know about the problem with pets in need (and how shelters function) until we tell them. They do care. We just have to bridge that gap between caring and action with knowledge.
People are inherently good and want to help. On this Melissa wrote: "I'd meet more and more people who were just like Bernice and Troy. They rarely had enough money for medical bills or groceries, but they always found a way to share a plate of food with a neighborhood stray. Their kindness changed my first impression of Sycamore Street. It might have looked dirty and mean, but a profound generosity underscored this neighborhood."
As is the case with other books I've written about, I have not told you much about the story here and that is with intent. My hope is that you will read the book for yourself and learn not only about the story of Catching Dawn, but think about what is happening in your own community and region and what you can do about it. Melissa was gracious enough to take time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions for me which will help you learn more about her and the book.
You had Dawn as part of your family for four years before she passed away. What was the inspiration that led you to publish a book about your life and experiences trying to catch and save her?
It's always been a dream of mine to write a book. I've been writing since I was a child. For me, reading and writing were ways to escape my dysfunctional family. I've also always been an activist. I often joke activism is programmed into my DNA. So, fusing my activism with my writing seemed like a natural progression.
Catching Dawn is actually the third book I wrote, but the only one I tried to publish. And believe me, I received plenty of rejection letters - from both agents and publishers - but I never stopped trying to get Catching Dawn published. I believed in Dawn's story. I wanted people to understand the consequences of the animal overpopulation crisis in the rural South. I wanted them to know what happens to our homeless animals. If I didn't say something, then who would? Certainly not Dawn. And her story was important. She deserved a voice.
I appreciated the fact that your book is your story woven into the story about Dawn. Have you ever felt like you are the human embodiment of Dawn - just needing someone to take a chance on you and help you find yourself?
Absolutely. A big theme in Catching Dawn is that animals are sentient beings. I know our laws still define animals as property but I can't think of anything further from the truth. Their behavior - both good and bad - is often a result of how they were treated. Just like us.
I feel as strongly about animals as I do about humans. For a long time, I apologized for feeling like that. I know many may judge me for it but I stopped apologizing after I wrote this book. After I uncovered the parallels between my story and Dawn's story. Dawn was terrified of humans because she had been abused. For way too many years, I was afraid of relationships because I had been abused and abandoned. That correlation can't be ignored.
I was struck by what you wrote about the people from the neighborhood where Dawn lived. What did your experiences with them teach you about how we judge people based on where they live and what we see?
When I first arrived on Sycamore Street, an impoverished community in rural Tennessee, I was full of judgment. And shame on me for that. I can't say that enough. Shame on me! Because time and time again I was surprised by the generosity and compassion of people who barely had enough money for their own food or medical bills. I discovered it's not that they didn't want to help the stray animals in their neighborhood, but they didn't have the resources or the knowledge to do it. In a way, I think because they had experienced such hardship, they recognized it in the animals. Their empathy for these homeless dogs was such a beautiful thing to see.
(Dawn and Mason)
Have you seen or spoken with Bernice since you chose to make Dawn part of your family?
Bernice and I texted a few times after we adopted Dawn. I brought Adriana (one of Dawn's pups) to visit her several times. But, we haven't kept in touch over the years. I know she was happy when she found out that we adopted Dawn.
In addition to your book, you are the creative mind behind the documentary film called "Amber's Halfway Home" which introduces people to rescuer Amber Reynolds and the work she is doing in Tennessee. How did you connect with her and become inspired to create a documentary?
I used to brag about rescuing and fostering 30 dogs in two years, until I met Amber Reynolds. Amber's stats blow mine away. In one year, Amber saved 2000 dogs. Think about that. That's more than five dogs a day. Even now, it's astounding to me.
I connected with Amber through another author and animal advocate Cara Sue Achterberg, who also wanted to produce a documentary about the overpopulation problem in the rural South. Cara told me about Amber, but, before I committed to producing a documentary, before I spent hours and hours on this project, I needed to make sure Amber was the real deal. On my very first visit to Amber's Halfway Home, I jumped in her van, and by the end of that day, we had rescued 19 dogs. I just couldn't believe what one person was accomplishing. What Amber does on a daily basis is downright heroic. Without her, literally thousands and thousands of dogs would die.
(the film is available to watch for free on Youtube)
When we last spoke, you were working on a series. What can you tell us about that?
Unfortunately, our funding fell through for the series, so for the moment it's on hold. But, one thing that struck me when we were following Amber was the network of people who helped her. There are a handful of women who move dogs from Southern kill shelters to Northern rescues on transports. These women have moved over 4000 dogs out of Tennessee since they started. It's quite an amazing story, and one day I hope I have the opportunity to tell it.
We had also spoken about a so-called animal shelter in Tennessee where dogs were being neglected and abused and were being shot. What can you share about what is happening there now?
A few months ago, I visited a government-funded shelter and the conditions were appalling. Dogs who had been living there for months were emaciated. Their eyes were sunken in their heads from dehydration. They had open wounds on their paws, tails, and ears. They had urine burns from sitting in their own waste. They were never ever taken out of their cold, wet concrete cages. Even when the staff cleaned, they simply sprayed out the kennels while the dogs were still inside.
I was so shaken about what I witnessed that I went to the police and accused the director of animal cruelty. That's when I found out that although the director is certified to humanely euthanize, he shoots the dogs instead. It's just unbelievable to me that this practice still happens. The cruelty of it makes my stomach turn. The problem is that I'm not a constituent or taxpayer in that county, so my voice is nothing but chatter to them.
Recently, I was reading Nathan Winograd's book Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America. At one point Winograd describes a shelter in New York City from 1871 that sounds a heck of a lot like the one I visited a few months ago. The startling truth is that many of these rural shelters are still 150 years back in time.
As far as I know, the director still has his job and things haven't changed much. But, I recently found out the local community is starting to get involved and voice their outrage. I'm hoping this will start the ball rolling for change. I pulled one emaciated, mangy dog out of that shelter and we are currently fostering her, but the ones we left behind still haunt me.
(images courtesy of Melissa and Mason Armstrong; you can learn more about The Farnival & Farnival Films here)
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)
Something remarkable happened this week in the midst of the unprecedented times in which we live due to the pandemic, political unrest, social injustice and much uncertainty: a shelter dog moved into the White House. I realize this is not particularly important to many people who are struggling and perhaps it should not be. As I find my way through this time with my family, I admit that I am always looking for the positive. For something to remind me that normal life is still going on in some ways and that there is good in the world.
The fact that “Major” Biden now lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue may not seem like a big deal to many people. There have been animals in the White House before. The reason this is so important is because of the message it sends to the public. That animals rescued from animal shelters are beloved family members who enrich our lives in so very many ways. That they are worthy of our time and our attention. That they are individuals like all of us who have the capacity for love and joy and humor if only given the chance.
I know that not everyone gets their pets from shelters and rescue groups. I just wish that they would. As long as we have animals who are destroyed in our nation’s shelters using our money, shouldn’t that be the first place we look when we decide to bring a new companion animal into our lives? I would like to think so. I feel this way because I was raised with animals who were rescued or came from shelters. For me, it’s just the right and ethical thing to do. But that’s not all there is to my position. We consider ours an animal friendly country where we “root for the underdog.” I don’t think we can claim that moral high ground as long as we continue to allow breeding of millions of animals every year, often in operations that are criminal, while at the same time destroying millions of animals a year. Our actions should speak as loudly as our words if not more loudly.
I would also like to think that outdated and unnecessary act of destroying healthy and treatable animals in our nation’s shelters will end during my lifetime. I know that some people will never get a companion animal from any source other than a breeder. I can live with that, provided we find a way to apply standards to commercial breeding operations for the safety of the public and the welfare of the animals bred there. And provided we stop producing them by the millions only to destroy them by the millions. Sales of dogs and cats in stores must end. It may have been the norm decades ago, but attitudes have changed about companion animals in our culture. Time will tell whether that happens because people no longer buy dogs and cats in stores – realizing that they are perpetuating the animal abuse and neglect we all abhor - or whether that happens because it is no longer profitable to mass produce dogs and cats for transport and sale nationally because of standards which are not only written but which are enforced.
When I was in the Army, there was a phrase used regularly within the ranks and up and down the chain of command: lead by example. In this case, the Biden family is leading by example. They are demonstrating their values through their behavior. My hope is that people will see that behavior and perhaps reconsider their own behavior the next time they decide to bring a companion animal home. There are plenty of animals in need of homes across our country who are easily found at local animal shelters, with local rescue groups, or using websites like Petfinder or Adopt-A-Pet.
Welcome to the White House, Major. Take good care of your friend, Champ, and take care of the rest of your family. They need you.
(photos of Major at the shelter courtesy of the Delaware Humane Association; photos of Major and Champ at the White House courtesy of the White House).
September is Puppy Mill awareness month. I have not written about mills for a while so a new blog is overdue. I admit that it is prompted, in part, by events in my own area. I don’t live near a Petland at which people protest every weekend and there is only one insidious backyard breeder in my area of which I am aware (who has had dogs stolen because he keeps them in such poor conditions), but the subject of commercially bred dogs is never far from my mind.
There are those who chant, “don’t breed or buy while shelter dogs die.” I’m not quite that absolute in my thinking. As unpopular as this opinion makes me with some people, I have no issue at all with people I call hobby breeders who breed dogs once in a blue moon for the love of the breed and who make little (if any) money from the process. My dentist breeds Black Russian Terriers and has been to the Westminster Dog Show before, having won Best in Breed with one of her dogs. Her dogs are incredibly well cared for and they never end up in shelters. Ever. She has also had shelter and rescue dogs in her home and we’ve talked about her fostering shelter dogs in the past. It may sound like a wonderful idea to end all dog breeding, but we all know that won’t happen as a universal change around the globe. It’s perfectly legal and as much as we would like people to adopt a dog from a shelter or a rescue group, some people just won’t for whatever reason. That is their right. I can’t count the number of conversations I’ve had with people who planned to get a dog from a breeder in which I talk about the benefits of adoption. At the end of the day, they use the information as they see fit. I cannot force them to adopt because I see it as the right and responsible thing to do.
Commercial breeding of dogs is another matter entirely. I’ve written on this topic many times. To find my past blogs, you can clip on the keyword “puppy mill” on the right hand side of this page. I call commercial breeding of dogs puppy mills because that is what they are – they breed puppies and they produce them in volume much like a textile mill of wood mill. In the case of Smith v. Humane Society of the United States, 519 S.W. 3D 789, 801 (2017), a puppy mill was defined as a commercial farming operation in which purebred dogs are raised in large numbers. That’s good enough for me. I know that not all mills are created equal. Some are places were dogs are socialized, get exercise and get wonderful veterinary care. Some, however, are anything but that. They are cruel places where dogs are bred repeatedly until they cease to be profitable, never leaving the small cages to which they are confined (which means no form of exercise of even walking on a solid surface) and they don’t get veterinary care. In these operations, the dogs truly are seen as a commodity and a source of profit. It’s all about the money.
Dogs from these commercial operations are sold in stores, creating a complete disconnect between the locations were the dogs come from and the products being sold. When people see a puppy in a store, they are blinded by the cuteness they see, giving little thought to where that dog came from, how he or she was raised, the conditions of the parents and even the health of the puppy him or herself. If each dog was displayed with images and video clips from the breeding operation which were honest, people would be appalled, infuriated and sickened. (Buying a pet store dog has shown that it can actually make people sick in a very real sense based on investigations by the CDC). A friend who bought a dog in a store years ago told me she did so because the dog looked so pitiful, was already there and she knew they wouldn’t sent him back if he wasn’t sold. She knew that someone was going to buy him and she felt that by taking him home, she was saving him from the store. Talk about emotional blackmail.
If we ever hope to bring an end to the commercial dog breeding industry which treats dogs as livestock, with less regard for their well-being in many cases than livestock bred to be part of our food supply, we simply must stop buying what stores are selling. If we know we are not capable of walking away from a puppy in a pet store for emotional reasons, the only solution is to not enter the store at all. There are plenty of stores which sell pet supplies which don’t sell dogs (or kittens), some of which have animals available for adoption from local shelters and rescue groups.
Like so many other things in our society, we have to draw a line in the sand and just say no. No to the multi-million dollar industry which started with a USDA promotion decades ago which was intended to help farmers and quickly got completely out of control. No to the industry which treats the dogs with whom we share our homes as commodities to be abused, neglected and treated as disposable when they no longer bring in enough money fast enough. No to the industry which takes us hostage by exploiting our emotional bonds with dogs and our desire to help them find better lives with us.
(image courtesy of National Mill Dog Rescue, Inc.)
Only when we stop buying dogs in stores will the industry cease to be profitable enough to continue the way it has for decades and those farming dogs may go back to farming another commodity instead. We cannot rely on the USDA to police the very kennels to which is issues licenses. It is an inherent conflict of interest which cannot be overcome. We change our society and our culture by changing our own personal behavior so the industry knows what we value and what we will and will not tolerate.
The dogs in this image are from a local brokering operation near where I live. The local breeder says she is part of a “team” of 13 families who breed and sell dogs. In order to buy a puppy from her, you have to make a non-refundable deposit of half the price of the dog. You cannot see the conditions from which the puppy comes and you have to make an appointment to meet your new puppy on a Tuesday or Thursday. The prices for these dogs make this about profit, not about love for a breed. This is a thriving business. I guess I should not be surprised that the dogs are listed on the website as “new products.” Some of the dogs are listed as XXS and weigh a pound.
Just. Say. No.
I’m hearing a lot of chatter these days about a new phrase which is making the rounds: Socially Conscious Sheltering. Like many phrases used in animal welfare circles, the meaning of the phrase isn’t clear from the words used so I did some poking around to educate myself. What I found was disturbing. I am waiting for some voices louder than mine on the national stage to take on this issue, but am sharing my thoughts to get some conversations started.
According to a page on the website for the Denver Dumb Friends League in Colorado:
Socially conscious sheltering’s fundamental goal is to create the best outcomes for all animals. The noted best outcomes are reached by striving for the “Five Freedoms,” which were developed in the United Kingdom in 1965.
A simple search about the Five Freedoms reveals that the origins of the freedoms relate to what is commonly referred to as “livestock production systems.” In 1964, a British woman named Ruth Harrison wrote a book called “Animal Machines” which described intensive livestock and poultry farming practices. Due to public outcry about the book, the British Government formed a committee to examine the way farm animals were treated. The committee presented a report in 1965 that concluded that farm animals should have the freedom to "stand up, lie down, turn around, groom themselves and stretch their limbs.” After the report was published, another committee was created to monitor livestock production leading to the “Five Freedoms” being codified (made law). They have since been adopted by a host of organizations and professional groups around the globe. The Five Freedoms are:
The Five Freedoms should not be controversial related to shelter animals. Surely all of us can agree that animals deserve to be properly cared for and should be free from hunger, thirst, discomfort, pain, injury, disease, fear, distress and should be able to express normal behavior. The problem arises when we try to apply these freedoms to animal shelters and the interpretation of what the words mean related to whether or not animals are kept alive.
Hunger and thirst are easily addressed by any animal shelter. Shelter animals should have continuous access to clean water and should be fed a nutritious diet daily.
Discomfort is easy to understand and should be easy to address. Animals in shelters should be housed in such a way that they are protected from the elements and have a comfortable place to sleep.
Pain, injury or disease are also not complicated issues for animal shelters. Shelters should take immediate steps to alleviate pain, treat (or prevent) injuries and treat (or prevent) diseases.
Expressing normal behavior becomes a little more complicated. What is normal to one person may not be normal to another. The reality is that most animal shelters are designed in ways which negate the ability for animals to behave normally. Dogs, which are pack animals, are normally housed by themselves in narrow kennels in which they can smell and hear other dogs, and may be able to see some dogs, but cannot get to those dogs. The kennels are ordinarily in rows which face each other allowing room for staff, volunteers and members of the public to view or access the dogs. It should come as no surprise that dogs in shelters do not behave normally due to the shelter itself more than a reflection of how they would normally behave. Dogs in shelters often show barrier aggression (which is really not aggression at all) and can display stress behaviors like pacing, jumping and barking. The situation for cats in most shelters is not much different. Most shelters house cats by themselves in stacked, stainless steel kennels. They can smell and hear other cats they more often than not cannot see and there is little room for movement.
Fear and distress are also more complicated – many animals will behave in ways which show fear and distress inside the animal shelter for the same reasons they do not “express normal behavior.” Some dogs show fear-based aggression or barrier aggression which is not surprising in light of the manner in which they are housed. Cats often exhibit some form of distress due to being housed in small kennels.
As much as we would all like to believe that we all want the same things for shelter animals, the reality is that is not the case. We are not all on the same page. Some shelters treat all animals as individuals who either were, or could become, someone’s beloved pet. They go to great lengths to explore all possible options to ensure animals leave the building alive and go on to lead wonderful lives with new families. Other shelters are not quite as progressive. They view the animals in their buildings as being there due to the fault of the irresponsible public which do not make enough good choices and which treat animals as if they are disposable (when, in fact, it is the shelter which is behaving that way by destroying healthy and treatable animals).
Even if we all agree that the Five Freedoms are good in principle, using those guidelines to make decisions about which animals live and die is another matter. If a dog does not behave normally in a shelter due to the shelter environment itself, does that make it permissible to destroy that dog? If a cat is fearful and in distress because it is housed in a small kennel day after day after day, do we say that cat is “suffering mentally” and tell ourselves we are saving that cat from a fate worse than death by ending the cat's life? In some shelters, those are the very decisions being made.
The Five Freedoms should be considered in light of why they were developed and when they were developed. They were created more than 50 years ago related not to companion animals, but to livestock. This does not mean they have no application to animals in our nation’s shelters. What it does mean is that the words should not be used to provide cover to regressive animal shelters which have not kept pace with programs and services being used across the country (and which have been known for a couple of decades) to keep shelter animals alive while ensuring they are properly housed, cared for and provided with enrichment opportunities. They words should not provide political cover to go back in time to a period in our history when animals were killed because it was easier than saving them or because death was seen as a better alternative to being housed in an animal shelter.
My biggest concern thus far with the concept of Socially Conscious Sheltering is the idea that it is somehow better than, or in conflict with, no kill philosophies. Much to my disappointment, the website for the Denver Dumb Friends League goes on to state the following:
In the no kill movement, the phrase “no kill” means we do not destroy healthy and treatable animals. Period. The No Kill Equation which was developed by Nathan Winograd and is being used by animal shelters across the country serves to both keep animals from entering shelters in the first place and serves to move them through the animal shelter as quickly as possible. No kill philosophies do not promote “sheltering homeless animals with the intention of keeping them alive indefinitely irrespective to the pet’s level of suffering.” They serve to treat all animals as individuals who are worth of our attention, time, patience and commitment to keep them alive. It is also not helpful to say that no kill proponents “often spread misleading and inaccurate information which, unfortunately, is believed by many people.” That is a loaded statement for which no details, examples or support has been provided at all.
The Denver Dumb Friends League is not the only organization which promotes Socially Conscious Sheltering while at the same time making the no kill movement seem irresponsible and uncaring. A simple Google search for the phrase results in a number of hits. I found a full page of information on the subject on the website for the Santa Cruz Animal Shelter in California which credits the content to the President and CEO of the Denver Dumb Friends League, the President and CEO of the Humane Society of Pikes Peake Region and the CEO of the Humane Society of Boulder Valley, all in Colorado. This website states that Socially Conscious Sheltering is being “slaughtered by the No Kill Movement” (perhaps not the best choice of words) and that “No Kill is Slow Kill.” In April, the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association Board approved a position statement “supporting the socially conscious animal community movement and opposing the no kill movement in animal welfare." According to the CVMA website, the no kill movement increases animal suffering, threatens public health, causes animals to languish in cases, causes dangerous dogs to be placed in the community, and puts animal welfare at risk. I would honestly like to see support for those statements, if they even exist. I am the first to admit that there are some organizations which use the no kill phrase in ways which do not comport with no kill as a social movement, but those places do not represent the entire movement any more than the criminal behavior of some backyard breeders represent the entire breeding industry or any more than the collecting behavior of some animal rescue groups represents all animal rescue groups.
Wow. Just wow.
We sometimes joke in the state where I live, Alabama, that time travel really is possible. It just depends on where you go and who lives there. There are antiquated beliefs and values to be found across the state which have not kept pace with the rest of modern society.
As much as Colorado has a national reputation as being progression on a number of fronts, it appears that the state has taken a trip back in time when it comes to animal sheltering concepts, relying not on the progressive and genuinely successful programs of the No Kill Equation, but instead focusing on a set of freedoms developed more than fifty years ago. Perhaps we should not be surprised when we consider that BSL (Breed Specific Legislation) is still alive and well in Denver even though it has proven to be ineffective.
I feel confident my dog will never end up in an animal shelter. Having said that, if he did end up in an animal shelter, I want the shelter to function using no kill programs and services to help him while still providing the Five Freedoms. I want him to have access to nutritional food and clean water. I want him to be housed in a place that keeps him safe from the elements and allows him to sleep comfortably. I want him to have the ability to go outside for walks, to run and play, and to interact with other dogs. I want him to have enrichment using toys, treats and by participating in play groups. If he acts fearful or stressed, I want him to be given opportunities to express normal behavior outside of the building and not be judged by how he behaves in a small kennel. If he hides in the back of his kennel or paces, I don’t want him destroyed because someone thought he was “suffering” and felt that death must be a better alternative. If he stays in the shelter for a few weeks without being adopted, I don’t want him destroyed because of some fabricated expiration date which says he has been there too long. The dog I’m speaking about was in a municipal animal shelter for over a month before we adopted him. He lacked manners. He was heart worm positive. He was kept alive and we thankfully found him. Had he been housed in an animal shelter in some places in Colorado, I do not have confidence his outcome would have been the same. And that would have been a tragedy.
If you’re not sure how you feel about Socially Conscious Sheltering as a “better” alternative to the no kill movement, think what you would want for your own animals. I know my answer. What’s yours?
Note: After I published my blog the Denver Dumb Friends League modified the Socially Conscious Sheltering page of the website to remove the text I quoted above. It still, however, has a FAQs page which contains the following language which I find incredibly unhelpful. Who is being divisive now?
As I stated above, trying to describe all no kill advocates in such broad generalizations is disingenuous. Stating the Austin study was "flawed" while providing no information to back that up in any way is also misleading.
We are a nation of animal lovers. The vast majority of Americans believe we have a moral duty to protect animals and we should have strong laws to do so. A poll from a few years ago showed that three out of four Americans believe it should be illegal for shelters to kill animals if those animals are not suffering. So why does it continue to happen? Good question.
People tend to focus on what is important to them in their own lives. It is human nature. We all have certain people, problems issues and concerns on our “personal radar” on an ongoing basis. We may have general knowledge or opinions about other issues, but we normally don’t devote too much time thinking about those things because they don’t affect us or our every day lives. It’s not that we don’t care. It’s just that most of us lack the “bandwidth” to remain fully engaged on all of the topics we find important on an ongoing basis.
This means that most Americans give very little regular thought to what happens at animal shelters using tax dollars and donations. Although we all pay for animal control and sheltering in some way, we still would not pay much attention to the topic even if our monthly bill for garbage and recycling pick-up included a line item for animal care and disposal. We think about shelters when we lose a pet or when we learn about some event or we are told about some tragedy. On other days, the shelter just “is,” pretty much like our view of other municipal functions on which we spend money. Law enforcement. Fire services. Engineering. Public works. Parks and recreation.
I have long believed that if we are ever to reform our broken sheltering system in America, in which the vast majority of healthy and treatable animals are still killed by the millions, we have to put that subject on the public radar and get people involved. I once described the separation between animal lovers and animal shelters like two groups of people on opposite sides of a chasm. On one side are the people who own and care for animals or at least like animals. They are at best family members and at least serve some purpose. Most of us include our animals in family celebrations and may take them on our vacations. We buy them beds and toys and treats and provide them with regular veterinary care. We expect that the people in the sheltering system will operate in ways which are consistent with our values and many of us just presume that all animals who end up in shelters are given an opportunity to be adopted. On the opposite side of this chasm are people in the sheltering industry. Most of them (but certainly not all) care about animals and do their very best with the resources they have. Many of them, however, work in a defeatist culture with calcified attitudes in which healthy and treatable animals are destroyed. They see this as some terrible task they must perform because there is no other way to function while blaming the destruction on the “irresponsible public” which is on the opposite side of the chasm. Not every shelter functions this way, of course, and many have become very progressive. I’m speaking for the majority of shelters which still destroy animals regularly and with no apparent regard for the very real fact that the way to stop that archaic practice has been known for decades.
Some communities change the culture at the animal shelter through municipal leadership or nonprofit leadership (in cases where the shelter operation has been outsourced to a nonprofit organization). Change is hard and those communities are to be commended. Most communities which change do so as a result of public pressure. People don’t like it when their money is used in ways which are inconsistent with their values. Once you tell people that healthy and treatable animals are dying and they are paying for it, most get mad, some get vocal and others become community activists seeking change. In all places where change takes place, there is one common denominator. The public didn’t suddenly become more responsible. It was the shelter operation itself that changed. It absolutely helps for the public to be invited to be part of that change. Their buy-in is actually vital to the process. The No Kill equation I promote contains 11 elements, but vital to most of those elements is public awareness and participation.
The last documentary film about the No Kill movement was released in 2014 - “Redemption: The No Kill Revolution in America.” The film has since been made available by Nathan Winograd on Vimeo for free. It is based on Winograd’s 2007 book by a similar name - “Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America.” If you have not seen the film, you owe it to yourself to watch it for free while you can. It runs just over an hour.
At about the same time Redemption was released, documentary film maker Anne Taiz began working on the first of two fills about the No Kill movement. The first is called “No Kill: The Movement Begins.” This film focuses on both No Kill efforts and failures in the City of San Francisco. The people who appear in the film include Richard Avanzino; Nathan Winograd, Director of the No Kill Advocacy Center; Julene Johnson, former San Francisco SPCA volunteer; Dr. Kate Hurley of the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at UC Davis; Maria Conlon of Give Me Shelter Cat Rescue; and Dr. Jennifer Scarlet, the current director of the San Francisco SPCA.
The second film is not formally named yet, but will likely be something along the lines of “No Kill Across America.” I had an opportunity to meet with Anne on July 30th to talk about both films. My hope is that the story of Huntsville, Alabama, will be included in the second film, provided it is produced. We had a great connection and I think the story of the changes in Huntsville can inspire other communities to get ahead of this issue.
I know that Anne is passionate about reaching the public about this very important and urgent subject. Like all documentary films, however, this film is only as good as the ability to finish the final production. All of the footage for “No Kill: The Movement Begins” has been shot and it has been partially edited. What is needed are finishing funds.
You can make a donation toward completion of the first film using this From The Heart Productions platform as I have done. No donation is too small. A donation of $25 will give you access to see the “rough cut” of the film and provide feedback. A donation of $250 will give you film credit as an associate producer. Award winning actor and narrator Peter Coyote has agreed to narrate the film.
A time will come when the outdated practice of destroying healthy and treatable pets in our nation's animal shelters will become part of our shameful past. We can reach that point faster if we reach more of the public and put this issue on the personal radar of as many people as possible.
I've been struggling for days with how to begin my blog about the latest book I read to add to my animal advocate education – Bronwen Dickey's “Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon” - and ultimately decided I needed to start with what the book did to me and for me. It blew my mind and I mean that in a good way. I have so many adjectives inside my head to describe the book that it's hard to know just where to start. Beautiful, amazing, encyclopedic, scientific, endearing, frustrating, enlightening, empowering. This book is hands down the most comprehensive coverage of the topic of pit bull type dogs in our society which I have read in the last decade. I cannot implore you strongly enough: if you read one book this year that relates to companion animals in our society, please make it this one. I have already purchased additional copies to share with my local shelter director, a city councilman and some others I think may benefit from the information.
I came to the book somewhat indirectly and still shake my head that I was unaware of it until it had been in print for over two years. I'm not new to many of the topics covered in the book, having done a lot of research in 2009 to write a research paper at the request of my local shelter director advocating adoption of pit bull type dogs (which I later revised in 2014). The best treatise on the subject of pit bull type dogs at that time was written by Karen Delise who, to this day, is still considered the foremost authority on Dog Bite Related Fatalities (DBRFs) and to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for helping me with my research. I learned about Bronwen's book after banging my head against a wall related to some people who promote a website called Dogs Bite dot org either to justify disparate treatment of the dogs or as part of an effort to render pit bull type dogs extinct.
It is the scope of Bronwen's book which blew my mind and which I am still processing even weeks after having finished reading it. It contains so much information that I know my simple blog about it can never do it justice. The book is not just about dogs and how we have breed dogs to look like hundreds of different species (often to their detriment) and how we judge dogs by what we see and what we fear. It is also about our society and how we judge dogs based on who owns them and what purposes they serve (or we think they serve) for those people. This book is as much an examination of how we view each other, be it right or wrong, as how we view the dogs with whom we share our lives.
I had hoped to do a Q&A with Bronwen for this blog, but that will have to wait a few months. For now, I want to hit on some of the highlights from the book in my efforts to convince you to read it. I consider the information below the tip of the iceberg; I had to pare down my original blog to what you see below, which was no easy task. It is my hope that you will find this information compelling enough that you will read the whole book. You will absolutely not be disappointed.
The information shared below consists of both quotes and paraphrased content from the book which is used with the permission of Bronwen Dickey. Thanks, Bronwen. You have my utmost respect and I know that what I have learned will help me not only be a better advocate for dogs, but be a better advocate for people who love dogs.
Our History with Dogs
In America there was never a formal movement to “weaponize” dogs of private citizens until the 1960s when graphic coverage of several high profile murders combined with political assassinations and the backdrop of race riots led many Americans to believe that they were no longer safe in their homes. As citizens fears of one another increased, so did the size of their dogs. While only a fraction of these dogs were professionally trained to guard or attack, the sudden swell in the popularity of dog breeds with formidable reputations marked a significant change in how many Americans viewed the dog's role in modern society.
In depressed American neighborhoods, owning a dog for protection was thought to be necessary for survival, and for many people, it probably was. Once the pit bull was portrayed as an “inner-city dog,” however, it became a magnet for racial fears about crime and the American underclass. Over the course of history, the dogs most often portrayed as “dangerous” and subjected to the highest penalties have belonged to people with the least political power.
Pit Bulls in General
The origins of the American pit bull terrier date back to the late 1889 when dog fighter John Colby began selling his brindle and white fighting bulldogs as pets. Chauncey Bennett established his own dog registry in 1898, the United Kennel Club, after the newly formed American Kennel Club wanted nothing to do with people associated with pit bulls. Bennett knighted Colby's dogs as “American pit bull terriers” because the only thing more fashionable than a terrier was a patriotic terrier.
“Pit Bull,” as it is most commonly used, has become a slap-dash shorthand for a general shape of dog – a medium-sized, smooth-coated mutt – or a “dog not otherwise specified.” The four primary breeds of dogs we call pit bulls are the American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier and the American bully. The related breeds are English bulldog, American bulldog, French bulldog, Boxer, English bull terrier, Boston terrier, Bullmastiff and Dogo Argentino.
The Role of the Media Regarding Pit Bulls
Once reporters and mis-informed advocates cast the dogs as willing participants in their own abuse, pit bulls were exiled to the most turbulent margins of society, where a cycle of poverty, violence, fear and desperation had already created a booming market for aggressive dogs. . . America's century-old love for its former mascot gave way to the presumption that pit bulls were biologically hardwired to kill.
The overwhelming majority of pit bulls, like most dogs in America, live uneventful lives as family pets. You would not know this from reading, watching or listening to the news. Nor would you know that only about thirty-five Americans are killed by any type of dog each year.
Most of us decide what we believe based on our emotions and intuitions, not on the facts. Once we have made an intuitive judgment, we search for the facts that will support our position, then surround ourselves with people who agree. One misinformation takes hold, actual facts can do very little to dislodge a false belief. This is the social and psychological vortex that pit bulls were sucked into. The more we hear about an idea, the more we believe it's true, whether or not the belief is supported by credible evidence.
Breed Specific Legislation
In nearly every municipality where breed-specific legislation (BSL) has been adopted, it has failed to prevent serious dog bite injuries and hospitalizations. Veterinarians, animal behaviorists and public health experts, including those at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are virtually unanimous in their denunciation of BSL on the grounds that it is both cruel and ineffective.
More than half of America's seventy-seven million dogs are not purebred. The most common method of labeling mixed-breed dogs is to describe the pedigree breed or breeds we think the most resemble. The majority of mixed-breed dogs in America are not crosses of two purebred parents, but multi-generational mutts, or mutts mixed with other mutts mixed with other mutts. Because the number of genes that determine the dog's shape is extremely small, and so many variations within those genes are possible, looking at a dog's physical chassis and making a guess as to its probable heritage will inexorably lead to error. (emphasis added).
In 2009, researchers at Stanford University mapped roughly sixty-one thousand canine SNPs (single-nucleotide polymorphisms) and discovered that only fifty-one regions of the vast genome determine the entirety of the dog's physical architecture (.000836 percent). (emphasis added).
The Mars Wisdom DNA panel is now able to match the DNA of more than 250 dog breeds but the American Pit Bull Terrier is not one of them. Some APBT blood lines have been tightly bred for many years and constitute legitimately closed gene pools, but others have been outcrossed with other breeds. The resulting group of dogs contains so many mutts that scientists can't isolate one signal. Only the AKC breeds, the American Staffordshire terrier and the Staffordshire bull terrier can be genetically mapped.
Dogs in Animal Shelters
Shelter worker's visual guesses – that is, the breeds they would have written on the dogs' kennel cars and medical paperwork – did not match the animals' DNA results 87.5 percent of the time. . .once a breed label is affixed to a dog, it not only influences what kind of life the dog's family can have but also sets up expectations that the animal will behave a certain way, which it may or many not. Shelters that have abandoned using breed labels for dogs from unknown backgrounds have seen the number of dog adoptions rise significantly.
Dog Bites and Dog Bite Fatalities
Dog bites almost never cause serious injury. . .the overwhelming majority of bites don't even break the skin. The risk of dying from a dog bite injury in the United States in any given year is approximately one in ten million. Most dogs bite out of fear – not malice or vengefulness or dominance – when a human pushes the animal beyond its stress threshold or forces it into a situation it feels it can't escape. Bite victims often mistakenly believe that the bite “came out of nowhere,” when in fact that dog was sending subtle signals about it's level of discomfort for quite some time. (emphasis added).
According to Randall Lockwood, almost every dog bite related fatality is “a perfect storm of bad human-canine interactions – the wrong dog, the wrong background, the wrong history in the hands of the wrong person in the wrong environmental situation. . .it's not old Shep sleeping by the fire who suddenly goes bonkers. Usually there are all kinds of other warning signs.”
Karen Delise of the National Canine Research Council
When Karen Delise (regarded as something akin to the Erin Brockovich of dog bite deaths) began her research into dog bite related fatalities in the early 1990s, there had never been more than thirty-two DBRFs in the United States in any given year despite a human population that was then approaching 260 million and a dog population that exceeded 55 million.
To get more accurate data, Delise did what no other researcher before her had done: she personally interviewed the police officers, animal control officers and medical examiners who had directly handled each case. (I can attest to this myself, having connected Karen with law enforcement authorities in my state related to multiple DBRFs).
Delise found many DBRFs other researchers and organizations had all missed and nearly every one was a case that did not involve pit bulls. These were harder to locate because they did not receive the same level of media coverage as pit bull incidents. Many of the “pit bulls” responsible for DBRFs appeared to be generic mutts.
Dogs Bite dot org
Dogs Bite dot org was created by a web designer and self-professed fortune teller named Colleen Lynn who was bitten in the arm twice for a period of a few seconds by an unaltered male “pit bull mix” while jogging through a Seattle neighborhood in 2007. She then dedicated herself to the promotion of breed-ban laws (and continues to do so to this day; many of her followers openly and loudly seek the extermination of all pit bulls). The website contradicts everything put forth by group most qualified to speak about animal science, animal behavior and dog bite epidemiology.
Most of the information on the site comes from self-published paper on “dog attacks and maimings” by Merritt Clifton who possesses no relevant credentials and readily admits that his research methods are limited to scanning media reports and classified ads rather than personally speaking with investigators or reviewing primary source documents. Clifton's paper has never been peer-reviewed and it contains no citations. It does not draw upon government sources, public health records, or expert opinion. Numerous deaths on Clifton's list are contradicted by official medical examiners' reports. Clifton also includes breeds of dogs in his data set that do not exist.
"Despite everything that has happened to these dogs over the past two hundred years, I realized, 'people' do not hate or fear pit bulls. To believe that 'people hate pit bulls,' you have to believe only those who grab the microphone and scream the loudest into it matter. . .the dogs moved out of the darkness a hundred years ago. We are the ones who are stuck there.“
“Pit bulls are not dangerous or safe. Pit bulls aren't saints or sinners. They are no more or less deserving than other dogs of love and compassion, no more or less deserving of good homes. They didn't cause society's ills, nor can their redemption – real or imagined – solve them. There is nothing that needs to be redeemed anyway; they were never to blame in the first place. . . Pit bulls are not dogs with an asterisk. Pit bulls are just . . . dogs.”
I saw an image in my Facebook news feed last week that I just didn’t need to see. I’m very visually oriented and once I see some things, it can be hard to get them out of my head. The image was of a veterinary examination room. There was a dead dog laying on a metal table and a man sitting on the floor near the table with his head lowered towards his knees. The image said, “you think it’s easy to kill companion animals day in and day out.” It also said, “1) adopt from shelters and rescues until they are empty; 2) spay/neuter your pet; 3) volunteer to help if you can.” Below the image was the following statement: “shelters do not want to kill animals, but 5 million healthy pets die every year. It is an antiquated system that is not good for the workers or the animals. Neutering your pets does make a difference!” The statement about 5 million animals is wrong. That’s not my issue here. And I will not share the image.
I know that some organizations use what I call “shock and awe” to try to get people’s attention. I’m just not one of those people. When I see ASPCA or HSUS commercials on television showing images of injured or suffering animals while making pleas for money, I change the channel immediately. When I encounter someone on social media who regularly uses shock images to make a point, I unfriend them. I know full well what happens in most animal shelters and I don’t need to see images of dead dogs and cats over and over again to make a point. I am outspoken in my own animal welfare advocacy, but I use words to convey my message and I am careful to avoid images which can be upsetting to some people, particularly children.
But back to the image. It showed a man represented as a shelter worker sitting near a dog he had apparently killed. His posture made it appear as though he was upset.
I am not totally unsympathetic to people who go to work in animal shelters with good intentions and then become part of an antiquated system which destroys healthy and treatable animals for space. I think a lot of people decide to work in the shelter industry because they love animals and they want to make a difference. There are many places in our country where healthy and treatable animals are no longer destroyed in shelters and where the only animals destroyed in shelters are those who are genuinely suffering (in which case use of the word “euthanasia” is appropriate) or dogs who are so dangerous they present a public safety risk and for whom no sanctuary placement is available (as opposed to dogs who are just scared, fearful, traumatized or confused). There are more places which do still destroy healthy and treatable animals for space or convenience.
My expectation regarding people working in those places is two-fold. First, find out if the shelter destroys healthy animals before you apply to work there. If they do and that upsets you, the answer is simple: just don’t work there. I would no sooner work in a kill shelter than I would work in a poultry processing plant or on a hog farm. We all choose where we work and it’s not like “kennel worker” is the only employment opportunity available in your community. If you are already working at a shelter which destroys healthy and treatable animals, please take the time to educate yourself on how to make that process stop and work to reform the shelter from inside the system. Your silence is truly your consent. No Kill philosophies have been common knowledge for about 20 years and the No Kill Equation specifically has been known for more than 10 years. There is really no reason to lament the needless killing of animals because there are ways to stop it. I’m not saying it’s easy and I’m not saying it will happen overnight. It takes work, planning and commitment. It takes a change in culture in the shelter to take it from a place where animals are brought to die to a place of hope and new beginnings. If you fear that you will lose your job if you speak out for change, then give some thought to what is most important to you. Perhaps you will find another job which does not cause you to be part of a system which affects your mental health and causes you to lose sleep because you destroyed animals who were not suffering.
I would have responded much more favorably to an image of a shelter worker walking a dog and talking about how enrichment programs are used to keep dogs entertained and to help socialize them.
I would have responded much more favorably to an image of a shelter worker engaged in community outreach to help educate the public to make better choices.
I would have responded much more favorably to an image of a shelter worker engaged in a peaceful protest regarding the continued destruction of healthy and treatable animals using tax dollars or donations.
If the death upsets you, don’t be complicit in the behavior. Do something to change the system. If you choose to work in a facility which destroys healthy and treatable animals, that is your choice. Just don’t expect a whole lot of sympathy from me. My sympathy goes toward the animals whose lives were ended unnecessarily – an act which is entirely permanent.
I hope the guy in the image I saw got up off the floor, quit his job and became an advocate for shelter reform. I would welcome him to join the No Kill movement so we can change our country for the sake of the animals we say we love and value.
It has been said that if we do not learn from history, we are bound to repeat it. It has also been said that in order to learn from history, it must be factually accurate. When we modify the sequence of events which transpired to get from Point A to Point B, we more often than not will learn the wrong lessons. These statements are universally true regardless of the subject to which we apply them. They take on particular importance in the animal welfare movement and more specifically, in the No Kill movement.
The reality is that advocating to save the lives of healthy and treatable animals can be incredibly difficult even if it should not be. The concept seems pretty simple, right? We want to keep healthy and treatable shelter pets alive and do not want our tax dollars or donations used to destroy them. On the surface this may seem like a universally accepted position. The vast majority of Americans think it should be illegal for animal shelters to destroy animals who are not suffering or who are not genuinely dangerous. I have never met a person who has said, "I want my money used to kill animals in need instead of keeping them alive." The concept itself may seem simple on the surface, but putting it into practice is something else entirely.
Americans have been housing animals in places we call "shelters" for over 100 years and have been destroying healthy and treatable animals for as long as anyone can remember. Although the number of animals destroyed in our nation’s shelters has declined greatly in the last 40 years, we still kill healthy and treatable animals by the millions. This Orwellian practice is not at all in keeping with our cultural values about companion animals even though many people have come to accept it as some unfortunate reality. We are told that animals die in shelters because we just have too many of them, a statement which is completely untrue. We are also told that animals die in shelters due to the "irresponsible public" who treat animals as if they are disposable and who refuse to spay and neuter pets to keep them from reproducing. There are people who are irresponsible and should never have pets at all, but it is completely illogical to blame the public for the fact that animals die in shelters while at the same time expecting that very same pubic to make better personal choices, adopt animals and foster animals.
This whole calcified mind set of "oh well, we just can’t save them all," has led to a culture in which the destruction of perfectly healthy and treatable animals is somehow tolerable and that shelters are given a free pass for performing some bizarre public service which is unavoidable. When those shelters are operated by municipalities, or on behalf of municipalities, the amount of time and energy expended to defend the killing can be quite mind boggling.
I first introduced Huntsville city officials to No Kill philosophies in late 2008 at a time when three out of every four animals entering the shelter were destroyed. My personal efforts failed. The shelter director is a veterinarian. The mayor never said as much, but my impression is that he had complete confidence in his department head and was sure that she would not destroy animals needlessly. The mayor’s chief of staff once told me in an email that there was no greater champion for animals in our community than the shelter director. She may have taken an oath to use her "scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health and welfare," but she was still killing healthy and treatable animals by the thousands.
In early 2012, I decided to form an animal welfare advocacy group (which is essentially a political advocacy group) called No Kill Huntsville. The members of our coalition had spent years working independently of each other to bring about change in the region and had failed. The time had come to join forces and work together to speak with one voice. We spent most of our first year as a coalition conducting research and interacting with successful No Kill shelters and communities across the country. We knew we would have one first chance as an organization to convince city officials that Huntsville could become a No Kill community and the destruction of healthy and treatable animals could end.
In early 2013, the city was offered help from subject matter experts in order to do better and learn more about how proven No Kill programs could be implemented by the shelter. Although we would have paid for the help and it would have cost the city nothing but time, the help was refused. The city's position at that time was that the shelter was doing a beautiful job and doing all it could to save lives - even when the live release rate was just over 40 percent.
We first took this issue to the public in the summer of 2013, having reached the conclusion that city officials were satisfied with how the animal shelter was operating and feeling like we had hit a wall in terms of diplomatic efforts to get the city to change on its own. We believed it would take public pressure and demand to force the city to reconsider spending money on death rather than on life. It was after we took the subject to the public in very visible ways and on an ongoing basis that things began to change.
There will always be a degree of dispute about exactly what led to the progress we now see. There have been many factors involved in this process, not the least of which is the arrival on the scene of a new City Administrator who told us in early 2014 that he supported change and that he too wanted the city to save the lives of all healthy and treatable shelter animals. He was, and still is, the key to holding the shelter director accountable for her actions and inaction. We have met with him numerous times over the years to share our research, to applaud progress and to encourage the city to fine tune programs and operations in order to fully embrace the elements of the No Kill Equation (which he once laid out as a drawing similar to the Parthenon).
The path taken to get to this point, and the particular struggles faced along the way, are not directly relevant to us here in Huntsville now that we have "arrived" for the most part. But those facts are entirely relevant to communities outside of this one which may look to our progress and wish to replicate it themselves. We do a disservice to those places if we behave as if our progress here was achieved by reaching across differences, finding common ground and all working together to seek a newer and better future. Yes, this community has achieved tremendous success. But it took years longer than it would have taken had the city simply decided to act on its own many years ago and without the necessity of a group like ours to demand accountability from the city, a process which has taken a great toll on everyone involved. There were literally years when we were both advocating for reform while fending off opponents seven days a week. Some of the most hostile opposition came from shelter employees, shelter volunteers and even leadership of otherwise well-respected rescue groups. While we took painstaking efforts to keep our communications diplomatic and respectful, focusing on municipal accountability and not on individual people, those who opposed our mission did not. Opponents engaged in personal attacks, the low point of which was a hate page on social media which included juvenile and defamatory content. The page was supported by and commented on by the shelter director, a veterinarian who earns a 6-figure salary and who is a public servant. I ultimately filed a formal complaint with the city about her conduct being unbecoming a city employee and in violation of city policies. The hate page was deleted some months later with the help of the City Administrator after we deduced the identity of the shelter employee who created it.
Huntsville is getting a lot of attention these days across the country as a result of the progress made at our municipal animal shelter. People who live and work here are thrilled with the progress, as they well should be. Shelter animals are now safer here than they have ever been in the history of the community as save rates have reached and then exceeded 90% of all shelter intake. Huntsville is being referred to as an example of what can happen "in the south" with a shift in focus and using the compassion which exists in an animal loving community. The city has yet to make a public declaration of intent that healthy and treatable animals are no longer at risk here moving forward, regardless of the circumstances we may face. I hope a day will come when the city does just that; there is really no good reason to avoid making the commitment to a standard which has already been achieved. We were told by the city administrator recently that no healthy and treatable animals have been destroyed for space in almost three years.
For all of our applause of the city for the progress which has been made, the reality in our community is that this process has been a struggle and did not come easily. If you have been told or have heard a version of the history which led to this progress and the story begins with the City of Huntsville voluntarily making sweeping changes, you have been told a history which is devoid of facts and which has been sanitized. If you have been told that a consulting group called Target Zero was the key to change in this city, I would dispute that as well. The portion of the history which involves Target Zero is the subject of another blog and I will not recount the events there. The short version is that Target Zero came on scene for a short period of time after numerous changes had already been made and has since departed as the members of my coalition continue to work with city officials and keep the public engaged. Target Zero is now marketing itself using Huntsville as an example of what it can do in other communities. I find this deceptive as long as only part of the story is told. I think it is possible people will be misled into believing they can replicate the progress made here simply by hiring a consulting organization which is backed by influential people and organizations which support Target Zero financially.
This rewriting of history has occurred related to other locations like Reno and Austin and it is not uncommon in this social movement. Perhaps it just makes a lot of people uncomfortable to think about some of the more unpleasant parts of those stories which relate to conflict and struggle. Perhaps it is easier to make it sound like there was opposition now that so many lives are being saved. That opposition is difficult to defend now and our most hostile critics have gone silent. We know we have had a role in the history here and firmly believe that but for our advocacy, little would have changed here. We didn't have the advantage of funding from outside sources or a national platform to stand upon. Although some funding would have helped, we had what we needed most: determination to bring change to an area and a commitment to see the process through, no matter the personal cost.
Make no mistake - this is not about credit. We have always said that we seek to become irrelevant as a coalition not because we are being ignored, but because we are no longer needed to be boat rockers for community change. We have sat silently on the sidelines while others have taken credit for the changes which have been made here and we plan to continue to do just that. Why? Because we know what we did and we know that our efforts led to the tipping point which allowed change to happen. This is not at all about people and patting each other on the back and it is very much about saving lives. But this is also about being honest about our history here so that others can learn from it and perhaps avoid some of the conflict we endured. Much of what took place here was unproductive and led to a higher body count.
A time will come in the history of our country when all municipal shelters are No Kill shelters and all communities are No Kill communities because that is what the public wants and will demand. I encourage any community which is looking at the progress in Huntsville, Alabama, to take proactive steps to get ahead of this issue and make change voluntarily. Listen to the advocates and animal lovers who come to you with ideas, enthusiasm, research and help. They often know much more about the subject than you may imagine and it is likely they are networked with subject matter experts who can guide and help your community to achieve change not in years but in weeks or months. Invest your time and focus into doing what is right so that energy is spent not on struggle and conflict, but on saving the lives of the animals we say we love and value.
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