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.
The Gift of Time
It’s that time of year again. The time when we scramble around trying to get twice as many things done in a day as we would normally and as we try to find gifts for those we love. No matter your beliefs, we are in the holiday season and most of us engage in traditions which involve expression of our love for friends and family through exchange of things.
The pandemic has made life immeasurably more difficult for many people either because the are working from home while trying to home school children or because they are in the medical field and cannot be with their families at all for fear or infecting them or because they have lost their jobs and worry about paying bills and putting food on the table. With the possible exception of people over the age of 100 who were alive during the last pandemic, no one has been through this before. We all try to do our best and try to cope as we go. The ordinary stress brought on by the holiday season seems doubled as we try so hard to get everything done to our satisfaction.
I’ve blogged before about holiday gifts for animal lovers, one of which is the gift of a donation to a non-profit organization in honor of the person you love. It’s a one-size-fits-all gesture that does not involve shopping and which helps someone do something good. You can choose a non-profit organization you know your loved one supports or find one whose mission is something that would matter to your loved one whether it relates to animals, people or the planet.
Regardless of your ability to make a donation, I hope you will consider giving the most important gift of all. The gift of time. It is free. It is priceless.
If you have ever lost someone you love to age or disease or tragedy, you know you would give almost anything for just a little more time with them. A week, a month a year. For all the things we give each other and buy for each other and obsess over during the holiday season, there really is no more precious gift than your presence with those you love. No distractions, no phones, just being present. I am not suggesting you do this in person outside of your immediate household. Use the phone. Use Zoom or FaceTime. Find a way to spend time with those you love in any way you can which does not put any of you at risk.
One of the best ways to share time with those you love is to learn more about them. You may say, “but I already know who they are” and that may be true. But how much do you really know about your parents? Do you know how they met? What did they do on their first date? Was there a job they always wanted or some place they always wanted to travel and life put them on another path? If your grandparents are still alive, how much do you know about all they've seen in their decades on the planet? How much do you know about your siblings? Do you know what challenges they’ve faced this year? Do they need anything? Do they just need to talk? Or perhaps you can spend time sharing childhood memories with them and see if they hold precious memories you forgot long ago. When it comes to your companion animals, when’s the last time you took your dog for a long walk or actually played with your cat? Ever thought of making some homemade dog biscuits or cat toys? It can be rewarding and cathartic for you and your pets.
I hope this year you’ll be more patient with yourself and those around you. This has been hard for everyone and it will most likely get harder. I hope you have taken stock of what really matters to you and even give some thought to your own morbidity as part of that process. No one gets to stay. And then I hope you’ll give the gift of time. It is the one thing we miss the most when it is gone.
But at my back I always hear, time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near - Andrew Marvell
Dad and a Dog Named Cinnabun
I’ve written before about my parents. About how my siblings and I were raised in an animal-integrated household and how we lost both of our parents to cancer in a six-month window of time. When I first wrote, “The Cats Flew First Class,” only people with the link to the page could read it. It was a bit far removed from the purpose of my animal welfare website and I thought it would be upsetting to some people, so I hid it for years on a special page. I’ve since shared it a few times as I’ve marked the passing of my parents and thought back to how their lives were enriched by their cats who turned into therapy cats (and who later went to live in Austin with my aunt for many years before they passed away as well).
I’ve had my dad on my brain a lot lately. As fickle as my memory sometimes seems to be – some things stay and some don’t last – the last few days or his life are etched on my memory in both bad ways and incredible ways. I think of his passing as The Long Farewell. My dad was diagnosed with Stage 2 non-small cell lung cancer on September 12, 2009, which later moved to his brain and ultimately led to his death just over a year later. I got the “come now” call on October 23, 2010, and he was gone five days later, on October 28, 2010. The last thing he said to me from his hospital bed, in barely a whisper with my ear right next to his lips was, “help. I have to go.” I’ve always thought of his words as relating to a destination, but that’s just based on my beliefs. I told him we were helping him and he could go. We would take care of mom.
Time does not heal all wounds. Our losses begin as gaping wounds which time turns into scars that stay with us always and change who we are as people. They become part of us moving forward. I think about my parents every day and I miss them every day. Whether I am making important decisions or I am engaged in my animal advocacy work or even just enjoying the sun on a beautiful day, I am always mindful of the lessons they taught me as I strive to honor them with my own life. It was my dad who encouraged me years ago to put my name on my website at a time when I had not; many of my views could make me a target for haters and I originally published the website anonymously. “If it’s important enough to write about, it’s important enough to stand behind,” he said. Agreed, dad, agreed. Some days I feel the scars of my parents' deaths more deeply than others, particularly near or on the anniversary of the dates they left. If you have not lost someone very close to you, that may sound strange. Why would anyone want to mark the day that someone died? It’s just something that happens. We can’t possibly forget the dates on which people left this Earthly place and we tend to relive what happened in one form or another as “the day” approaches.” This year as I have reflected on dad’s final days, I have found myself thinking of another man of a different species. His name is Cinnabun.
My dad was in a hospital in Encinitas when I got back to San Diego on October 24th. There was no more treatment to help him and he needed to be moved to another facility. He made it clear in the weeks leading up to his death that he didn’t want to die at home. He knew it would be too hard for mom to continue to live in the house they had shared for 40 years if that happened. I found myself trying to scheme a way to bring the cats to the hospital to visit dad, but was too scattered to figure out a way to pull it off. My brother found a wonderful place for dad to go which was a concept I had never heard of before: residential senior and end-of-life care. Dad was moved to an Eagles Nest Eldercare Home in northern Escondido on October 25, 2010. It was a house on a residential street that looked like every other house from the outside. The inside also looked pretty much like any other house and it was just the people who lived inside who were different – they were all people living with debilitating conditions and people like dad who were going to die.
I will be forever grateful to the administrators, Kevin Calhoun and Maria Richley, for their compassion. I was thrilled that Doug had found such a great place for dad. It was clean and inviting and nothing at all like a hospital environment. There were recliners set up in a living room area for residents to watch television or listen to music, a large dining room where people could sit to eat if able, and each person there had his or her own bedroom. The best part of the experience, other than the people caring for dad was a little dog named Cinnabun. He wasn’t an official therapy dog, but he might as well have been. He was an adorable little bundle of fur with an outgoing personality who loved to play with toys. He brought smiles and an incredible amount of entertainment to what could be considered a depressing environment. Having a dog running around the house helped us all as we did our very best to get through our last days, knowing our time was so very limited. It’s hard. You know what is coming, but you also know you have to be strong and you have to be careful about your inner energy and the things you say, lest your loved one feel your despair. All of our conversations referenced dad and included him as if he was participating even though he could not speak.
A group of us were visiting dad on his second day he was at Eagle’s Nest. Maria took the time to shave dad’s beard and gently trim and clean his fingernails. She said, “everyone needs a little TLC to feel their best.” It was an act of care and tenderness. While she was tending to dad’s Earthly body and a group of us sat around and visited, Cinnabun decided it was time to tend to dad’s heart and his soul. The little dog jumped right up on dad’s lap with no invitation and made himself comfortable. We were surprised at first. Dad was no longer able to speak by this time and had not moved on his own for days that I observed. But he did that day. He reached out and touched Cinnabun as we all looked on and my tears began to flow. Dad’s body was shutting down and his life was ending, yet here was the comfort of a small dog, of hand on soft fur. That image will be with me always, along with my memory of dad’s last words to me.
Dad taught us so many lessons over the years. About the value of family and hard work and about humor and the love of reading and to always, always get the oil changed in my car following the maintenance schedule. Many of the lessons we learned were about compassion for all people and compassion for all living creatures, great or small. We grew to know the value of having companion animals in our lives who helped us become better people as we provided them with their new homes and their new lives.
No one gets to choose how they leave this world. Life happens, Death happens. When my time comes, I can only hope that I will have had that last touch of hand on soft fur and the warmth of an animal companion as I hopefully look forward to seeing those who have gone ahead of me, both human and animal.
I love you, dad. I miss you. I wish you could have stayed longer.
Thank you, Cinnabun. I am told you have continued to help care and comfort the elderly and dying all these years. Yours is a Higher Calling indeed.
Some Things are Just Meant to Be
In August of last year, we began talking about getting another dog. We had said farewell to Aspy very unexpectedly and traumatically on the 4th of July of 2016 and we just had not been ready for another dog. We needed time to heal and time to separate ourselves from the onslaught of memories of the last 36 hours of Aspy's life. But we were ready. We started the search on Petfinder and considered getting another American Eskimo Dog since we thought that was probably the breed Aspy had been. We weren’t able to find any close to us and considered making a trek to another state to adopt. We thought about adopting a senior and talked about whether or not I was strong enough emotionally to handle having a dog for a short period of time. We were also looking at local dogs and ultimately decided to meet some of them before making plans to travel to meet a dog in another state with whom we may or may not have a bond.
We met three dogs on a Saturday and did not feel a connection to any of them. They were all worthy of being saved, but we just didn’t feel like any were a good fit. The first was at a nonprofit no kill shelter. He was just too big, so much so that I had trouble controlling him on a leash. He was a beautiful dog and we knew he would be okay. The second was at a veterinary office which provides services for a local city. He was very young and too high energy for us. He was incredibly cute and we knew he would be adopted. The third was at what is called a dog shelter, although I have many other words to describe it. She was so traumatized from having been housed with hundreds of other dogs for years that we really could not interact with her. We felt guilty leaving her there, but we knew she would be kept alive and in the end we did not want to make a decision out of guilt. Our Saturday trip was a bust and it was upsetting. I had told myself I would be fine with any dog and I guess I was expecting magic that did not happen. I know intellectually that there are hundreds of thousands of dogs who would make a great addition to our family. I know emotionally that feeling a bond and a connection with a dog with whom we will share about 15 years of our lives matters.
We did what any rational people would do. We spent time back on Petfinder, looking for other dogs in our area. Rich was on his computer. I was on my phone. I must have handed my phone to him dozens of times to show him a listing while asking, “how about this one?” There were just so many that it was overwhelming, sad and encouraging at the same time. Surely there was a dog out there who would be a good fit for our home and our lifestyle. When I first saw “Shaggy’s” face, my heart skipped a beat. Or at least it felt that way. He was a young adult. He looked sweet. He had a little mohawk and while he was in what I consider a kill shelter and I worried about his care, he looked really happy. He was listed as a German Shepherd/Husky mix, he was thought to be two years old and the listing said he was "a little rough around the edges." His listing also said he had been found running loose with a chain around his neck which was so tight it had to be cut off. That touched a chord with me, considering that our dog, Snake, had lived chained to a tree for the first two years of her life before Rich adopted her. We agreed he was a possibility and Rich made plans to meet him on Monday when the Pell City Animal Shelter opened, along with another dog named King who was surrendered because his owner had cancer.
Rich made the trip on Monday and told me he liked both dogs, but that I should meet them. (I am sure looking back that the bond had been forged and it was just a matter of me meeting our dog new dog). I made plans to take some time off work the next day to make the trip. I was anxious about it. I knew the Pell City shelter had a good reputation, but I also knew they destroy animals for space. Would I be able to stay calm? Would I be able to look past the faces of the other dogs in the shelter and focus on being there to adopt just one dog? We met both dogs. King was sweet and was fully vetted and ready to go. He really would need very little work and would just need to decompress in a new home. Shaggy was a mess. I think I knew from the time I met him that he was the one. He was sweet and goofy, he had no real idea how to walk on a leash and he was a jumper. King or Shaggy. King or Shaggy. We talked about it and decided that Shaggy was the one because we felt a bond with him and because he needed us more. We knew he had some behaviors typical for chained dogs that some people may not know how to handle and he was also heart worm positive. We left with him that day and made the drive home in a thunderstorm.
We began working with "Rusty" from the moment Rich put him in our truck for the trip home. When I say "we," I really mean that Rich did the work and I tried to help. Rusty is house trained and crate trained. He has learned not to lick us for the most part and when he does, I joke that it is "incidental contact" and that "after further review, the ruling on the field stands." He jumps less than he used to but still jumps and twists in the air when he's playing outside and is wound up; he jumps so high he could probably do well as an agility dog. He no longer uses rocks, leaves and pine cones as toys since he has dog toys, although we did learn the hard way that hard rubber toys are the only kind he cannot destroy in less than 5 seconds. He could do quality control work for toy manufacturers before they describe a dog toy as "indestructible." He is full of energy and loves, loves, loves to play. Rich taught him to catch a Frisbee and he has a host of toys he plays with on his own by tossing them in the air and then going to chase them down. Although the shelter thought he was two years old, we believe now that he was much younger and was probably a year old when we adopted him.
Rusty is actually not playing at all now since we are still doing his heart worm treatment. I still marvel at the fact that so many people in our region do not give their dogs heart worm prevention. It costs about $6 a month and using it can avoid putting dogs through an incredible ordeal to try to rid their bodies of heart worms. Rusty was given a heart worm preventive for period of months before prescriptions for an antibiotic and steroids. His first heart worm shot was in August; the second and third were over a week ago. Based on instructions from our veterinarian, Rich calculated that Rusty can play again on October 21st so it will be a day of celebration for us. He won't be retested by our veterinarian to confirm the worms are gone until May of next year.
Rusty may not have been perfect for everyone, but he was perfect for us. We still think about Aspy's last two days, but less than we used to.
I still know intellectually that there are hundreds of thousands of dogs out there who could have made a wonderful addition our family. But I believe that some things are meant to be and I believe the same about us finding Rusty. Thank goodness for Petfinder.
Happy Gotcha Day, Rusty. We'll be able to play soon.
Note: the dogs we looked at before Rusty have been adopted with the exception of the dog at the "dog shelter." I have yet to come up with a positive way to influence that location and continue to work with my contacts to try to have the dog pulled by a rescue group to be properly decompressed and rehabilitated.
The Readiness is All
I can count some of the worst days of my life on one hand and they all relate to loss. The euthanasia of our dog Snake on April 22, 2006. Earth Day. The death of my father on October 28, 2010, from lung cancer which had moved to his brain. The death of my mother less than six months later on April 20, 2011, from stomach cancer. The death of my father-in-law who had lived with us for more than 15 years exactly five days after mom died. And the euthanasia of our dog, Aspy, on July 4th of 2016.
Aspy was sitting in front of my living room chair when the first seizure happened. I thought he was dreaming at first, but when I looked down at him, it was obvious I was wrong. Rich jumped into action and held him steady while I stroked his body and prayed out loud and repeatedly for God to bless his soul. The seizure lasted two to three minutes and it was terrifying. He howled. I was surprised at how hard his body shook. Rich called our vet as soon as the seizure ended in hopes that she would be able to see us that afternoon. We were only 15 minutes away and could leave right away. She could not help us. She told us to go to the emergency veterinary hospital about 40 minutes away. We waited in an exam room for more than three hours just to be seen. After a CT scan was done, we were told about an hour later, in the waiting area, that Apsy had a mass in his liver, one in his spleen and that the cancer had likely moved to his brain. We were also told the first 24-hours were critical and to monitor him. It was early the next morning when we got home tired, upset and confused.
Aspy was sleeping on the rug in our living room in the early afternoon hours of the 4th of July when the second seizure hit. It was much worse than the first. He shook and howled. He lost control of his bowels and his little heart was beating so fast I was sure he would die from the seizure. I stroked his body again as I tried unsuccessfully not to cry and as I prayed out loud again and over and over for God to bless his soul. I’m pretty sure the seizure lasted about 45 minutes; I kept looking at the clock and know it was at least 30 minutes. I just don’t know. We could not reach our veterinarian so we took him back to the same animal hospital where we had been earlier that same day. The seizure stopped while we were on the way to the emergency hospital and we almost turned around. We did not. We had Aspy euthanized that day.
I could tell you about our disappointment in our veterinarian of 20 years. She has her own life and could not drop her plans to help us. I could tell you about how our experience at the emergency hospital the first night was one of the worst experiences of my life; I’ve had more compassion shown while getting my car’s oil changed. I could explain in detail what happened during the euthanasia process which had me cussing like a sailor, banging on the walls and contemplating criminal behavior while Rich endured his own private hell and wondered what in the world was going on. We later wrote a three page complaint letter to the emergency hospital, not that they cared about our complaints. We told them that when dealing with people like us, they should be mindful that they saw us, and our beloved pet, on the very worst day of our time together and that it was seared in our memories for all time. No one ever bothered to call or apologize in any way for what we experienced and the trauma we endured. I call it trauma because it was. We both had a really hard time in the days, weeks and months to come. We tried to but really could not talk about what happened. The memories were very real and playing almost nonstop on a loop inside out heads; talking just made it worse. Even as the months went by, the memories managed to rise to the surface without invitation or warning. We were told we should get another dog. It would make us feel better. We just could not.
If you are reading this, you probably have a veterinarian you trust to care for your animals. That person is likely only available to help you during normal business hours Monday through Saturday and may be closed one weekday. But do you have a plan for after-hours care? For emergency care or treatment when your vet is on vacation? How about holidays?
I cannot encourage you strongly enough to develop a plan for veterinary care when your own veterinarian is not available. If your veterinarian provides after-hours care for established patients, that’s wonderful. You are fortunate. If that person or veterinary practice does not, take time now to figure out where you would go and what you would do if you needed help outside normal business hours. Determine how long it would take to travel to emergency providers near you. Read the reviews for those providers. Have a plan in place ahead of time for care whether it is injury care for a broken bone, torn ligament or some other non-life threatening situation. Have a plan in place for end of life care. Will you take your dog or cat to the veterinarian? Will your veterinarian come to your house when the time comes? Don’t assume that you can just make good decisions from the hip when accidents happen or tragedy strikes. Your brain may not process information well when you are under duress and you just may not think as clearly as you normally would.
We did adopt another dog last September, over 14 months after Aspy left us. We still miss Aspy and I try really (really) hard to not think about his last 2 days. It’s just too difficult to go there. We found Rusty at an animal shelter with the help of Petfinder, a wonderful tool with which I have a love-hate relationship. I love how it helps place animals; we never would have found Rusty if not for Petfinder. I hate how many animals there are in need of new homes.
We have a new veterinarian we work with who is closer to our house. His office has after-hours care for established clients. We call a number and the on-call vet is paged. Although we probably won’t need it, the veterinary hospital has a storm shelter in the basement in case of severe weather (we have our own storm shelter at home). Our Pet Parent Plan for our new dog, Rusty, provides for him to be boarded temporarily with our veterinarian if something happens to both of us at the same time. Our vet has said he won’t charge for this. Boarding Rusty short-term until my cousin can transport him to Texas will be on the house. We were told, “it’s the least we can do.”
Be ready. Please.
If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. - Hamlet
(candles image courtesy of Mike Labrum)
February is Unchain a Dog Month.
I have a history with chained dogs. Snake was rescued from the end of a heavy logging chain in 1992. She had spent the first two years of her life chained to a tree, living outside with no shelter and limited socialization with the people who owned her. I suspect they were afraid of her. Rich worked hard to rehabilitate her and we grew to love her dearly. She always had issues due to those early years. We had to be careful with her around other people she didn't know and around other dogs. I'm no dog psychologist, but I presume that dogs have a developmental period much like that of children and when that development is not positive, it can have long term consequences. Snake had a wonderful life with us and I'll be forever grateful Rich saved her. She would have been destroyed in a traditional animal shelter. Had she remained on that property where she began her life, it's entirely likely that she would attacked or hurt someone at some point. She was a prisoner on the end of a chain on that property for almost two years and we'll never know the psychological toll that took on her.
My experiences with Snake cause me to have soft spot for chained dogs. It was years later when I learned about an organization called Dogs Deserve Better founded by Tamira Ci Thayne that I began doing slideshow work to help nonprofits. Tami had been arrested for taking a dying dog from a property in Pennsylvania who have been left to die in the end of the chain in a family's front yard. The family was never charged with cruelty or abuse, yet Tammy was arrested, criminally charged, tried and found guilty for having stolen the dog. Doogie (formerly called Jake) was not returned to the family and lived the rest of his days with love and care prior to his passing. Dogs Deserve Better later went on to purchase the former Michael Vick property in Virginia and it was transformed into the Good Newz Kennels.
In 2014 the law firm from where I work got involved in defending the City of Leeds, Alabama in the civil wrongful death lawsuit brought by the widow of World War II veteran Donald Thomas. Mr. Thomas have gone out to check his mail one day and was attacked mauled and killed by two neighborhood dogs. Police arrived on scene and shot and killed the dogs. It was soon discovered that the owners of the dogs had 33 other dogs chained in their backyard inside city limits. Law enforcement authorities and city authorities knew nothing about this, but the situation was not news to the neighborhood. People had been terrorized by the dogs for years and never reported it because they really felt like nothing would be done about it. The owners of the dogs were nice and apologetic each time the dogs got loose. They were later convicted of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. When I interviewed the neighbors they all told me that they felt an incredible sense of guilt that they didn't complain about the dogs running loose in the neighborhood, wondering if Mr. Thomas his death could have been prevented. This was the most gruesome case I have ever worked; some things can't be unseen.
As a result of my involvement in the Thomas case, I decided to seek local legislation in the city where I live to prohibit chaining of dogs and to provide for humane tethering of dogs to keep them contained. It took a while and it was a struggle to a degree. I live in a somewhat rural city with different cultures regarding how dogs are cared for. I took the subject to my city council in July of 2016 and our new ordinance was enacted in January of 2017, a point about which I'm particularly proud.The ordinance prohibits chaining, only allows for humane tethering and provides basic standards for dogs who live habitually outside. It's not perfect by any means. I would have liked it to ban perpetual penning which I also see as creating psychological problems in dogs, but in the end there was no real way to make that enforceable. When I drive around my city now I see dogs being cared for better and provided with basic standards. I would like to think that the odds of our city being the next Leeds, Alabama with a fatality attack are at least lower now that we have an ordinance and basic standards are being enforced not through the criminal provisions (violations are a misdemeanor), but primarily through public education.
When the time came for us to adopt a dog recently, we ultimately chose a formerly chained dog. His name was Shaggy when we first met him. We have since changed his name to Rusty due to the color of his fur. His Petfinder listing said that he was a two year old German Shepherd Husky mix and that he have been found running loose with a chain around his neck which was so tight that it had to be cut off of him. There were other dogs we considered, but ultimately we decided to pick Rusty because we knew he would have behavioral challenges and he may be at risk of being destroyed. He's been with us for almost four months and thanks again to Rich's skills rehabilitating dogs, he's made a lot of progress. He still has some of the behaviors of a formerly chained dog, but he lives inside and is making progress with each passing month. I shudder to think what may have happened to him had he not been adopted by someone ready to rehabilitate him. He's a very sweet dog, but some adopters may lack the patience to work through his issues and it's possible he would have ended up outside again or even chained again.
When I implore people to unchain dogs and to find other ways to contain them, my primary concern is about public safety. It is well documented that the dogs most apt to be involved in fatality attacks are dogs who are "resident dogs" who live outside and are not kept as family pets. Chaining dogs is opposed by every national animal welfare organization. The Humane Society of the United States, the U. S. Department of Agriculture, the ASPCA, the American Humane Association and numerous animal experts have spoken out against chaining and tethering because it is inhumane and can lead to aggressive behavior. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) concluded in a study that the dogs most likely to attack are male, unneutered and chained.
Beyond the safety ramifications of chaining dogs, there is the obvious and very important issue of quality of life for those dogs. A dog is not a security system. If you want to use a dog to protect your home, bring the dog inside so that he or she will form bonds with your family and will consider your home his or her territory. If you have trouble house training your dog, get help. There are a variety of resources on the Internet to help you with this process and you can also interact with a trainer or behaviorist to get tips. If your dog wants to be outside or needs to be outside for parts of the day, take steps to keep him or her contained in a way which does not involve a chain. You can install a fence, use a pen (for short periods of time) or use a run or trolley line suspended between two points and property installed with stoppers at each end. Dogs who live outside for large portions of the day - or all the time - must be socialized to your family and to other people. If you don't have time to care for your dog, you really should not have a dog at all. If you still love dogs and want to have a dog in your life, consider fostering a dog for an animal shelter or a rescue group to help a dog learn new skills and to prepare that dog to be someone's beloved pet.
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.
Remembering the Lost and Found Dogs
On April 27, 2007, law enforcement authorities converged on a property at 1915 Moonlight Road in Surry County, Virginia, to execute two drug search warrants. What they found on this rural property quickly became the subject of intense national discussion and drew a great deal of attention to pit bull type dogs. Because of the involvement of then NFL football player Michael Vick in a multi-state dog fighting operation, the dogs soon came to be know as “the Vick dogs.” The dogs became the subject of a civil legal proceeding regarding their disposition as property. The following wording is taken from the Verified Complaint regarding the dogs which was filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Richmond Division (federal court) on July 2, 2007:
On or about April 25, 2007, state investigators executed two search warrants at 1915 Moonlight Road, Smithfield, Virginia. During those searches, the officers recovered and observed numerous items associated with an illegal animal fighting venture, including approximately 54 pit bulldogs. Many of the pit bulldogs recovered or observed in the search had scars and injuries consistent with injuries sustained in dog fighting.Additional items were recovered and observed. These items include: a blood-stained fighting area; animal training and breeding equipment, including a "rape stand," a "break" or "parting" stick, treadmills and "slat mills;" assorted paperwork documenting involvement in animal fighting ventures; and performance enhancing pharmaceuticals commonly used to increase fighting potential in dogs trained for fighting, as well as to keep injured dogs fighting longer.
On August 31, 2007, the Court entered a judgment forfeiting the seized dogs to the United States. Although some large national organizations were calling for the dogs to be destroyed (namely PETA and HSUS), they were not. On October 16, 2007, the Court granted a motion by the government to appoint Professor Rebecca J. Huss as the guardian/special master to evaluate the permanent disposition options for the forfeited pitbulls. The recommendations were adopted by the court and the dogs went to a variety of organizations: 22 dogs went to the Best Friends Animal Society Sanctuary in Utah, 10 went to Bad Rap in California, 3 went to the SPCA of Monterey County in California, 1 went to Our Pack in Virginia, 4 went to the Richmond Virginia Animal League, 3 went to Recycled Love in Maryland, 3 went to the Georgia SPCA, 1 went to Animal Farm Foundation in New York and 1 went to Animal Rescue of Tidewater. (Of the 52 dogs taken from the Vick property, 2 died while in government custody and 2 others were euthanized due to physical/emotional suffering)
It seems since the time of the initial seizure of the dogs and we learned about Vick's personal participation in the dog fighting operation and killing dogs he has been in the news regularly. I will not recount the history here. He was last in the news in late August when it was announced that he had been named as sports analyst for Fox Sports. Prior to that, he was in the news in July when he was inducted into the Virginia Tech Sports Hall of Fame. I often read statements by people to the effect that Vick “did his time” and “paid his debt to society.” I beg to differ. We all know that Vick spent some time in prison. What many people either don't realize, or refuse to acknowledge, is that he did time in federal prison for federal crimes related to engaging in a criminal enterprise which crossed state lines. The Surry County District Attorney at the time of the dogs were seized and the scope of the dog fighting operation was discovered was Gerald Poindexter. He chose to not prosecute Vick for the state law crimes which included his personal participation in torturing and killing dogs. If you have never read Jim Gorant's book which sets forth what really happened at 1915 Moonlight Road and what happened after the dogs were seized, I cannot encourage you strongly enough to do so. "The Lost Dogs: Michael Vick's Dogs and Their Tale of Rescue and Redemption" is an incredibly well researched book which holds a place of honor in my own animal welfare library. For me, Vick's “debt to society” will never be paid because he was never fully prosecuted for his crimes. I realize that he has a right to earn a living and feed his family. I do not believe that he should enjoy any type of celebrity status in our society or that he should be put forth as a role model of any kind.
When I think about the ten years since the dogs were saved, I choose to focus on the dogs and not on the thugs who used dogs for their own entertainment and financial purposes, leading to abuse, neglect and death. Although there were calls for their destruction, the 48 dogs who went on the organizations approved by the court proved to be far more resilient and far more forgiving than anyone would have imagined. They are examples that even when pit bull terrier type dogs have been subjected to the worst that humans have to offer, they are capable of defying the media hype of them as super-predators and of overcoming incredible abuse. Many of the dogs saved on April 27, 2007, have since passed away. To learn the history of all of the dogs, please consider reading Jim Gorant's recently published book, “The Found Dogs: The Fates and Fortunes of Michael Vick's Pit Bulls, 10 Years After Their Historic Rescue.” I don't want to spoil the book for you. I will say that of the 48 dogs placed, "17 passed their CGC (Canine Good Citizen test), seven were certified as therapy dogs and more than half have made public appearances to support anti-breed legislation or to raise awareness and fight discrimination. At least that many have also been used in training programs and foster homes to act as role models and help calm other dogs."
We've learned a lot about pit bull type dogs in the last ten years. It has obviously not been enough as municipalities continue to enact and enforce BSL (Breed Specific Legisaltion) and BDL (Breed Discriminatory Discrimination), objectifying perfectly good family dogs who have done nothing wrong while perpetuating myths about the dogs which are not based in science. The pit bull ban is still in effect in Denver, Colorado. It is also still in effect in Miami-Dade County, Florida, although a federal lawsuit challenging the legality of the ban was filed on October 11, 2017. I'll be watching that case closely and genuinely hope the ban is repealed.
To learn more about fact-based research related to pit bull type dogs and dog aggression, I encourage you to visit the website for the National Canine Research Council. I relied heavily on materials published by the organization in my original 2009 edition of my research paper advocating adoption of pit bull type dogs and the revision of my paper published in 2014.
If you'd like to read an incredible law review article on the topic of pit bull type dogs and Breed Specific Legislation, Katie Barnett of the Barnett Law Office is published here. Katie and I first interacted during the time when the criminal and civil cases about the former Vick dogs were pending. I consider Katie another one of my go-to subject matter experts; her law review article is incredibly comprehensive and goes far, far beyond the scope of my research paper.
In honor of National Pit Bull Awareness Month, let's all take a moment to reflect on the dogs saved more than 10 years ago, on those dogs still being unfairly judged due to media hype and on the people who love them dearly - who know the truth about the capacity of these dogs to love and be loved.
(image of Molly courtesy of the Best Friends Animal Society; image of Hector courtesy of Roo and Clara Yori)
You’ve decided to bring another dog or cat into your home. You know where and how you’ve found animals before so you tend to gravitate to what has worked for you in the past. If you haven’t cared for a pet before, you may take advice from friends or family members on how best to proceed. There are plenty of options out there. You can buy from breeder, you can search through newspaper ads or you can go to a local pet store. Or you can take a long, hard look at why you really want to bring an animal into your home and into your life and find that adoption from a shelter or a rescue group is your best option.
It has been said that “adoption could in theory replace all population control killing right now – if the animals and potential adopters were better introduced.” When the time comes for you to bring a "new to you" animal into your life, I hope you will seriously consider making adoption your best option. If you were planning to purchase a purebred animal, think realistically about whether you plan to enter the animal in professional dog or cat shows or if you are more focused on the companionship of the animal. If the animal will be a pet and will not compete in breed competitions, you can find a wide variety of animals at your local shelter or with a rescue group. Shelters and rescues help both mixed breed animals and purebred animals. You can use web sites like Petfinder.com or AdoptaPet.com to search for homeless animals by location, breed, gender, size, age and temperament to find a homeless animal who is perfect fit for you and your family.
Which is exactly what my family did recently. Our dog Aspy passed away on July 4th of 2016 under what we consider traumatic circumstances. His passing was nothing like we had hoped and while it sounds theatrical, we both had problems with flashbacks for a very long time. I knew we would wait quite a while before we brought another dog into our home and we did. The search began in earnest a few weeks ago as we talked about the size of dog we were looking for, basic temperament, how much time we are willing to devote to training and rehabilitation. Our tool of choice? Petfinder. As I have written before, I have a love/hate relationship with Petfinder. I love it because it’s a wonderful way for animals in need to find new homes. I’ve described the site as being like an online dating site, but to connect humans with companion animals instead of humans with humans. I hate it because there are so many animals in need that going on the site can be both depressing and sensory overload. And I find it somewhat addictive also. Once I start looking on Petfinder, I almost feel like I can’t stop. Looking at so many faces compels me to look at even more in the search for that next creature who will spend the rest of his or her life in my home. I ended up spending hours at a time staring at my phone, looking through listings and then handing my phone to Rich to say, “here. Look at this one.” He sent me links for dogs he was interested in and we went back and forth over a period of time before we agreed on a small group of local dogs we wanted to meet.
The first dog we met was being held at a local animal hospital which holds the contract for a local city. “Boudreax” was cute, but he was a puppy and was practically uncontrollable when we took him outside on a leash. I know that’s not his fault. I fully realize that most dogs do not behave in a shelter environment in any way remotely like they behave away from that environment and in a home. Boudreax went on our “to consider” list. Because of where he was being housed, we felt he was less at risk of being destroyed.
The second dog we met was being housed at a dog sanctuary/shelter in another city. Our visit there was so shocking that I have still not quite processed it. I have never been to a place like that and as we walked around, I found myself thinking that I could easily be shooting B roll video footage for the HSUS or the ASPCA. There were hundreds of dogs on the property, three to each outdoor kennel. There was waste everywhere and flies everywhere. “Lindsay” was nothing like the dog we saw in the Petfinder listing. I know it was the same dog, but three years at what I consider a dog prison had clearly taken a toll. She was so withdrawn that we really could not engage with her in any meaningful way. Even the volunteers (who seemed oblivious to the conditions in which they were working) were not really able to get a positive response from the dog. I cried when we left. I have put the wheels in motion to try to have some positive changes made at the outdoor shelter, but have no idea if they will do any good or not. That is another blog for another day.
The third and fourth dogs we met were being held at a county animal shelter a couple hours away from where we live. Rich was interested in a dog listed as “Shaggy” and I was also interested in another dog named “King.” King had been surrendered because his owner had cancer and could no longer care for him. He was house trained, neutered, could walk on a leash and had clearly been someone’s pet.
I knew Shaggy would be “the one” from the moment I saw his face. His Petfinder listing said that he had been found running loose with a chain around his neck and the chain was so tight it had to be cut off. We were told he was 2 years old and the shelter staff thought he was a German Shepard mix. He did not do well on a leash and when we tried to walk him around the “meet and greet” yard, I ended up with poop all over my shoes and my pants. But that didn’t matter at all. We talked for a few minutes to make sure we were ready. I was torn, much like I was while looking at all the images on Petfinder. Part of me wanted to adopt Linsdey just to get her out of the terrible place where she had lived for three years. But we also did not want our adoption to be motivated by guilt and we wanted to make decisions for the right reasons. Shaggy went home with us that same day.
Shaggy became Rusty. He has been in our home for just over two weeks and is doing really well. He’s been crate trained and we’re working on house training. He’s much younger than we were told and still has a lot of puppy in him which makes him somewhat of a wild child. He has some of the behaviors of a formerly chained dog. He is easily distracted by sounds – other dogs barking, children at play, birds. The leash training is a work in progress. He will go in circles if he’s on a lead that’s too long and we have to keep him focused (chained dogs often go in circles out of boredom and as they explore the diameter of the small areas to which they are confined). Rusty now has “sit” down pat and is doing better with “down” (which we use to get him to lay down to have his feet wiped before coming inside). He loves, loves, loves to run and play. Thankfully, Rich has years of experience in training dogs who come from bad circumstances. It helps that we had a fenced exercise area put in our yard at the same time we were doing perimeter fencing recently. We can take Rusty off leash to let him run and chase a ball. We actually think someone may have tried to do agility training with him before. He will fetch a ball and when he brings it back, he jumps in the air like he expects to be caught. Rusty is goofy and sweet and silly and full of energy. We have no idea what breed he is. Some have said he has some type of snow dog in him based on his face and his tail curls up like a Samoyed. In the end, his breed doesn't matter to us at all. He was the perfect dog for us. It will take time for him to decompress and to learn how to behave as we teach him our language and he learns ours. But he will live a great life in our home and is now a family member.
I talk a lot about animal shelter reform and about No Kill philosophies on my site for a reason. Rusty is but one of millions of dogs in our country who have done nothing wrong and who just need a new start. I shudder to think what would had happened to him had we not just happened upon his Petfinder listing one day. Would he still be alive? We’ll never know. The director of the shelter from which we adopted him freely told us that she does destroy animals for space. Which is simply a tragedy as far as I’m concerned. With very few exceptions, every animal entering our animal shelters either was or could be someone’s beloved pet. We owe it to all of them to treat them as the individuals they are and to not judge them solely by the circumstances which led them to be in the shelter. Or even by how they behave once they are in the shelter.
King went to a rescue group run by a contact of mine last week. Boudreaux was adopted two days ago. I’m working to get a rescue contact to pull Linsday and put her in a foster home so she can be socialized to people again and can overcome whatever trauma she has experienced in the last three years.
October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month. When the time comes to bring a new companion animal into your home, please adopt. Please. There are so many animals in need and there is surely one “out there” who will perfect for you.
I love Petfinder. It’s a wonderful way for animals in need to find new homes. I’ve described the site as being like an online dating site, but to connect humans with companion animals instead of humans with humans.
I hate Petfinder. There are so many animals who need new homes that going on the site can be depressing for me. I want to help them all.
My husband was on Petfinder a couple of weeks ago looking at dogs and he ran across a 15 year-old American Eskimo dog in South Carolina. The rescue group was charging a $150 adoption fee. My first reaction was overwhelming sadness that a dog that old has no home. I know intellectually there are senior animals across the country who need to be placed so this one dog is not unique. My second reaction was to the adoption fee. I told Rich that the rescue should screen adopters, but should just give the dog away. Really.
The plight of this one dog rumbled around in my head for weeks and ended up colliding with a lot of other thoughts about how rescue groups function in their seemingly never ending quest to place animals in new homes. Those in rescue are some of the hardest working people on the planet. Most work full-time jobs and do rescue on the side as a labor of love, being paid absolutely nothing in the process. I call you Rescue Warriors. There are some bad apples out there who do terrible things while masquerading as rescues, but I’d like to think that most groups are genuine and have the best of intentions.
Having said that, I think that there are things that rescues either do or fail to do which drastically limits their effectiveness and that’s the subject of this blog. I hope that if you run a rescue group or you work with a rescue group in some capacity you will at least consider my input. I admit that I am an outsider looking in, I cannot possibly appreciate all the challenges you face and that my suggestions may not be welcome. I really do mean no offense. I think I just see some of these things from a different perspective as both an animal welfare advocate and a potential adopter. In making my suggestions, I fully recognize that most rescues function with only volunteer labor and that tasks are spread out among a number of people. My suggestions are aimed toward rescue groups which are nonprofits with 501(c)(3) status. If you are in rescue and do not have that status, please work on that. There are many steps to get your nonprofit status, but the online filing options available now make the process move much faster and it costs a lot less than it did just a couple of years ago.
Your adoption listings should be detailed, compelling and kept up to date. Whether you list your animals on Petfinder, on Adopt A Pet or on Rescue me (or all three sites), your listing is your sales pitch for the animal. There are a lot of articles out there on how to write good content so that it is positive and compelling. Please do a little homework on how to best describe your animals in ways which help the reader "meet" the animal using a computer or phone. Not only should you describe the animal in positive ways, but include enough detail so an adopter knows the approximate age and approximate weight. Some adopters are looking for animals of a particular size due to their lifestyle or their own age. There are a lot of adoption listings which say so little that people really don’t look at them long and just click the "back" button to move on. The value of good images can also not be understated in your listings. An image of the animal looking happy and who is in a friendly environment will always get more response than a sad or depressing image of an animal in a kennel or looking away from the camera. Finally, make sure you keep your listings updated. If your initialing listing says the animal is undergoing some treatment or in need of some rehabilitation, make sure you update the listing later so that the potential adopter is getting the most current information on the pet and understands his or personality. Petfinder listings may take a little time to develop with the help of volunteers who write descriptions and take photographs for you, but is it worth every minute to market your animals effectively.
Relax your adoption standards to make them reasonable. Nathan Winograd of the No Kill Advocacy Center wrote an article years ago which was later included in his book, "Irreconcilable Differences: The Battle for the Heart and Soul of America’s Animal Shelters" as a chapter called Good Homes Need Not Apply. The gist of the chapter is that some rescue groups make their standards so high that really good adopters are turned away. Of course you want your animals to go to good homes and live fully and healthy lives. This means, however, that you need to consider adopters on a case-by-case basis and not judge them all the same. Arbitrary rules like not adopting out animals to homes with young children, not adopting animals to couples who are not married or not adopting out a dog to a family that doesn’t have a fenced yard simply keep perfectly good adopters away and limit your ability to place animals. In the almost 20 years I have lived in Alabama, we have lived in two separate places, neither of which were fenced because they encompassed acres of land. Our dogs have never been outside unsupervised and both lived more than 16 years. Yet many rescue groups may not adopt to us now because we don’t have a fully fenced yard.
Find creative ways to raise money so you are not relying on your adoption fees to cover costs. I know that helping animals costs a lot of money. Some of the animals taken in by rescues require thousands of dollars of veterinary care to treat injuries, skin conditions or even heart worms. All of the animals have to be fully vetted and must be spayed or neutered before being adopted out. But please do not rely on your adoption fees to cover your costs. There are a host of ways to fund-raise to get money coming in regularly to help offset your costs. Do shirt fund raisers with a company like Bonfire which requires no cost output, produces great shirts and helps you brand your organization at the same time. Consider ordering custom vehicle magnets from a company like Magnet America. You can purchase high quality vehicle magnets for a small price and sell them for 5 times what you paid for them while branding your organization. Organize a “no budget” event like a dog walk at a local park and raffle off donated items. Consider doing a cyber auction using a Facebook page or a website like Bidding for Good. You can invite supporters to list items in your auction virtually and then those supporters ship the item to the winning bidder once the auction ends with no cost to you. Those are just some ideas. There is a great book called Funds to the Rescue which may give you some ideas you haven’t thought of before. And when in doubt, network with other rescues you believe do a good job raising money and just ask them how they do it.
Seek out business sponsorships and grants. Another way to keep money coming in regularly is to take advantage of business sponsorships. Simply approach a business you think may be willing to give you a one-time donation each year and ask if they are interested in sponsoring your organization with a tax deductible in exchange for having their name and logo appear on your website. Even businesses which have nothing at all to do with animals appreciate the value of exposure and having positive public opinion about them. If you have ever decided to use a business because you knew it was animal friendly or supported animal causes, you have seen this process in action. Related to businesses, you can also see if you can persuade them to either cover all adoption fees in a particular month or all spay and neuter costs in a particular month. If you can find just one business to do this one time, it will allow you to later challenge another business to do that same. As far as grants go, there are many to be had. I am told that grant writing is a skill and it is not one that I possess. If you have a volunteer who is computer savvy and who likes a challenge, have them do some searing for both national and regional grant opportunities and consider sending the volunteer to a grant writing class. Many large organizations like Petsmart Charities offer grants, but so do local organizations you may never have heard of before. In the city where I work, there is a biomedical business that gives out annual grants and many of them go to animal shelters and rescue groups.
Rethink your adoption fees. I wrote a blog about adoption fees and what they mean in December of 2016 so I won’t restate the whole blog here. Adoption fees should be a way to offset some of your costs, but should not be the only way you cover costs. Please remember that you are in the business of marketing animals to get them into new homes and the focus should be on the placement itself, not the purchase price. If your adoption fees are too high, you price yourself out of the market. I have seen some fees so high that people go to a breeder instead and that’s just a terrible shame. In the process of writing this blog and searching on Petfinder, I found a rescue group close to me which charges an adoption fee of $450 for some dogs and which claims those fees are tax deductible*. I really do wonder how many people will pay that much in my area. Charge some nominal fee if you have to or consider waiving the fee entirely in at least some cases. I encourage waived adoption fees for adoptions of senior pets, adoption of pets to seniors and adoption of pets to veterans. I also encourage to waive the fee for any harder to place animal whether it is a special needs animal or just an animal you have had for a longer period of time that other animals. As I wrote in my prior blog about this, the adoption fee has nothing at all to do with the value of the animal. When you waive that fee, you are saying that the animal’s life is worth more than the fee you would have charged. You absolutely still have to screen adopters. I’m just saying that the fee itself should not be the focus. (*Adoption fees are not tax deductible because the person giving you money is getting something in return. If you have low or waived adoption fees, you can then encourage people to donate toward your organization and those funds would be tax deductible.)
Have a fully functioning website. Social media is a wonderful tool to help place rescue animals. Please just do not make it your only tool. Although most people have computers, laptops, tablets or smart phones, there really are a lot of people out there who "don’t do" social media. Even those who do use social media are not focused on a lot of the content. News feed items come and go and while people may "like" your Facebook page, they are surely not checking it daily. In order to market your animals and reach more people, you need a fully functioning website that looks polished and which contains all the information you want people to know about your organization, your animals, your fund raising, your events, etc. There are a variety of companies you can use to get a domain name and then host your site for very little money. I moved my sites to Weebly a couple of years ago and I recommend it highly. It is easy to create a website quickly with no prior experience and you may very well have a volunteer who can develop and manage your website for you for very little money.
Be visible and not invisible. Your rescue group may be the most important thing in your life, but if people don't know about your group then you are not important to them at all. You may be an island in your community and your region even if you have a fully functioning website and Facebook page. You have to be proactive to get your organization on the public radar. Think in terms of how to set yourself apart from other groups in your area. Brand yourself and the name of your rescue group through t-shirt drives, by selling vehicle magnets and hosting periodic events (even if they are low budget or no budget events). Check with a local billboard company to see if they offer a nonprofit rate particularly on electronic billboards which can be much cheaper than static billboards. Try connecting with movers and shakers within your community - people of influence who run businesses or may have some celebrity status - to see if you can get them on board to support your rescue in some way by attending a function or by doing a PSA for you to appear on television. If there are dozens of rescues in your area you simply have to find a way to make yourself stand out and to do it consistently and in a positive way so that people know your name.
Don’t forget to use the media. One of the areas where I think most rescues miss out is use of the media. If you are having an event, do a press release and send it to local television stations and radio stations. Also consider doing a PSA (public service announcement) about your event or just about your rescue group in general. It is not difficult to create a PSA using a computer and some software and it is not difficult to develop relationships with local TV and radio stations. We see nonprofit advertising on television all the time from The Ad Council and other nonprofit organizations. There is no reason you cannot create a PSA for your group and get it aired; it will not air in prime time when paying ads run but any exposure through television is a plus. The same is true for radio. Some radio stations are owned by large corporations which make it hard to get air time. Most communities, however, have at least one locally owned and managed radio station which will allow you either submit a PSA or which will work with you to record a PSA. Just this month I prepared a television PSA for nonprofit group about an adoption event and I recorded a PSA at a local radio station about a "Chipathon" in which people could get pets microchipped for reduced prices. I don’t have any special skills on this subject beyond what any rescuers have. You just have to take advantage of the opportunities out there by being fearless.
(images, sound file and video clip courtesy of Petfinder, Inc.; Dana Kay Mattox Deutsch; Southern Skies Labrador Rescue & Adoption Inc.; Becky Lyn Tegze, Fun 92.7 and A New Leash on Life, Inc.)
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