I had a conversation with some of my contacts in the national No Kill community recently about the toll taken at shelters where healthy and treatable animals are destroyed. We started talking about it after an article was written by some big thinkers in the animal shelter industry called “The Human Face of Shelter Euthanasia.” Some of the content of the article troubled me and for some reason the article is not available, at least not now. The article and our conversation got me thinking about the changes I have seen in the shelter industry in the last fifteen years - at least in some places - and how the culture in shelters affects not just the animals, but the people in the building and the community as a whole.
The best way to explain this is with two examples.
Shelter A is a kill shelter which means that healthy and treatable animals are killed for space, convenience or what some call “lack of resources.” This means that animals who are suffering are euthanized and dogs who are too dangerous to be out in the community are destroyed, but the lives of animals who are otherwise healthy and treatable are also ended. There are a number of excuses used for this, but the end result is the same because the act is permanent. The general mindset at this shelter is that it is the fault of the public that animals “have to" die. Employees and volunteers tell themselves there is no other way because the public just does not care enough. They say that if the public would only keep pets contained, spay and neuter pets, stop breeding animals, be more responsible, etc., the shelter would not be forced to end so many lives. Some of the people in this shelter take great pride in how they treat the animals prior to ending their lives, spending extra time with them or giving them special food or treats much like a death row inmate may receive a last meal. Most shelter employees lament the death, but tell themselves there are fates worth that death like adopting to a “less than” family (which means a family which does not meet all of the shelter criteria to adopt) or like having the animals develop negative behaviors while in the shelter due to stress. I see these attitudes as a form of cognitive dissonance.
The toll taken by the killing in this shelter is paid 1) by the healthy and treatable animals who should have and could have been saved; 2) by the people who work in the shelter and who have either engaged with the animals are who are tasked with ending their lives; 3) and by the community as a whole. This shelter is seen by the public not as a place of hope, but as a place of death. People do not want to go there, do not want to take their children there, and for the most part do not want to volunteer there because it is emotionally easier to just distance themselves from what happens at the shelter than to deal with the death. They just can't handle it and feel powerless to do anything about it.
Shelter B is a No Kill shelter which means healthy and treatable animals are not destroyed. Animals who are suffering or are irremediably ill are euthanized for reasons of mercy. Dogs who are genuinely dangerous to the public are also euthanized because they are considered untreatable (as opposed to dogs who have mild to moderate behavior issues who can be rehabilitated, fostered and adopted into homes). In this shelter, each animal is treated as an individual and is viewed as having been - or being capable of being - someone’s beloved pet. The shelter staff works incredibly hard every day to keep pets in existing homes to avoid them entering the shelter, to provide enrichment and care to those animals in the shelter and to get animals out into foster homes, adoptive homes or to rescue groups as soon as possible. For this shelter, the public is not the enemy. The public is presumed to care and to sometimes need help and guidance either to make better personal decisions or to learn how to help the shelter. The shelter communicates on an ongoing basis with the public to help them keep pets contained, find lost pets, make sure pets can be identified, overcome problem behaviors, locate resources in the community (food, veterinary care, spay/neuter assistance and behavioral help), learn how to foster pets, learn how to volunteer to help pets, learn how to adopt pets and about pets who are at risk and need to get out of the shelter immediately because they are doing poorly in the shelter environment.
The people who work in this shelter have incredibly difficult jobs, but they take pride in what they do. Each day is a new opportunity to help animals in need while serving the community. There is sorrow when the lives of shelter animals are ended, but staff and volunteers are confident that each animal euthanized was given every opportunity to leave the shelter alive, they did their very best to find a positive outcome and the ending of the life was done for reasons of mercy.
I work in a community where the shelter was once like Shelter A and is now like Shelter B. The transition from a shelter which had historically destroyed thousands of healthy and treatable animals each year to one where very few animals die each year has been nothing short of remarkable. This transition did not happen because the public suddenly became more responsible or cared more or made better choices. The transition was at times incredibly difficult and it made a lot of people uncomfortable. It’s hard to admit that there is a new way of functioning while not focusing on the past and what could have been. Change happened as a result of municipal leadership, advocacy and public pressure and it has led to a complete shift in culture at the animal shelter. Are there still issues? Sure. Is there fine tuning to be done? Absolutely. But a building which was once used to house and then destroy animals is now used to house animals and keep them alive.
When I think of how the shelter functioned before, I know the operation was fatal for so very many animals, detrimental to the mental, emotional and likely the physical health of the staff, and was a source of shame in an otherwise very progressive community.
But all that is in the past. Now the shelter is a place of hope instead of death. People in the community turn to the shelter for help, guidance and assistance. Working and volunteering there is still a challenge because the work is really hard, but it is also rewarding which means the people who manage and help the operation are happier. I have been told that the pressure to keep up the level of life-saving is intense and I’m sure it is. The public has come to expect that animals will be kept alive now that a higher standard has been achieved. There are still critics and there always will be, but the way in which the shelter operates is now a source of community pride.
What kind of shelter do you want for your community? A or B?
I know the price. I know the toll. I know my choice.
(Images courtesy of Erick Pleitez and Lisa Vallez)
I participated in a No Kill in Motion panel discussion recently about the subject of appointment-only hours for animal shelters. During the early months of the pandemic, some shelters closed entirely. Others went to appointment-only interaction with the public. Using appointments made perfect sense for a while as we all adjusted to what we now refer to as “public safety measures” to keep people safe and try to limit the spread of the Covid virus. Some shelters split their staffing into teams to limit the number of staff in the building at any given time. This also made sense – if someone on Team A got sick, the shelter would only need to test and quarantine those team members, limiting the negative affects on the shelter operation.
With the country back open for business, some shelters have continued their appointment-only hours. The members of the panel were not in complete agreement regarding why this is a bad idea, but we all agreed that only seeing people by appointment creates barriers to add to the barriers which already exist related to animal adoptions. As Nathan Winograd wrote about years ago when he said “good homes need not apply,” some organizations make it so difficult to adopt animals that really good people end up being turned away for reasons which have very little to do with their decision to bring an animal into their home and their commitment to care for that animal. Work more than 40 hours a week? No, you cannot adopt. Travel for work? No, you cannot adopt. Have children in your house? No, you cannot adopt. Over the age of 50? No, you cannot adopt. The list goes on and on including one which would have precluded my family from adopting years ago – lack of a fully fenced yard. Companions and Animals for Reform and Equity (CARE) did a great video about this very subject recently which I share often. Some people get so frustrated by the extraordinary lengths they must go to trying to adopt a shelter or rescue animal that they give up and end up getting a new pet from a breeder. The problem was recently covered in an article in the New York Times entitled, "Want to Adopt a Pet? Prepare for a Full Background Check."
Shelters are at their very core customer service and marketing organizations. Yes, they exist for reasons of public safety but now are increasingly expected to balance public safety with animal welfare because that is what the public demands. Any shelter which only interacts with the public by appointment is seriously limiting its ability to help people reclaim animals or help people adopt new animals. There is nothing at all wrong with having appointments for people who seek pet surrender counseling to talk to them about alternatives to surrender or people who want to talk about some issues they are having to get help to overcome those issues. But requiring appointments for people to try to reclaim a pet or even adopt a pet serves to create more barriers to a process that many people already find daunting.
The issue of shelter hours came up just this week in my own area related to the municipal animal shelter in the city where I work so I will take this subject one step further. Shelters that do not require appointments, but which are only open to the public when people are at work also create tremendous barriers. Not everyone works from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. but many people do. If the shelter is only open during hours when people work, how are they supposed to get to the shelter to reclaim a lost pet or adopt a new one? It is almost impossible unless that person takes vacation time from work, provided they have a job which even provides them with vacation time at all.
Let’s say someone’s cat is missing and they know from looking at the shelter website that their cat is there. The shelter is only open from 9:00 to 5:00 when they are at work. Even if that person gets a one-hour break for lunch, it takes time to drive to the shelter, go through the process to reclaim their pet, get their pet back home and then get back to work. I challenge even the person who lives closest to a shelter and works close by to accomplish all those tasks in an hour.
Adopting an animal takes even longer. People should feel free to look around at the available animals without someone following them around like an aggressive used car salesman (no offense intended to used car salesmen; this is a statement about people who hover), should be able to spend time with animals they are interested in, ask questions, etc. It is not possible to do that during a lunch break, get the animal home and help that animal begin the shelter decompression process.
The only way someone could either reclaim an animal or adopt an animal in the scenarios above would be to take vacation time, if that is even available to them.
I have heard some people say that running the shelter by appointment only is less stressful for the animals and staff because there are not as many people wandering around. As Shirley Marsh of Yes Biscuit said during our discussion, getting those animals out of the shelter by having them adopted or fostered is also less stressful.
Animal shelters that are open until at least 6:00 p.m. or even 7:00 p.m. make it much easier for people to come to the shelter after leaving work and then go home from the shelter with their reclaimed pet or new pet. Shelters with weekend hours make it even easier to reclaim or adopt a pet. As one shelter director in Florida told me, “we’re in the building on the weekend anyway, so it made perfect sense to make it easier for people to get here.”
If you run an animal shelter and are only open by appointment or only open when most people are at work, please take a good look at what you want to accomplish. Having different hours doesn’t mean being open more hours. It means being open hours which make animals accessible to the public you serve so that you can help get more animals out of your building and either back home where they belong or into new homes. If you really only want to work from 9:00 to 5:00, you are in the wrong business.
(image of animal control officer with dogs courtesy of the Lake County Florida Animal Shelter)
It happens every day. Pets are displaced from caregivers for a variety of reasons and not all have to do with someone’s irresponsibility. A cat slips outside when a child leaves a door open. A dog escapes a fenced area when a contractor leaves a gate open. A cat is scared by loud noises or fireworks and runs from a yard in fear. A person is in a traffic accident and the dog traveling in the car with them runs off when a door is opened. Severe weather arrives quickly and pets go missing either before or after a storm. We try to do our best to make sure our companion animals are not separated from us, but sometimes our best is not enough.
Most animals who get lost or go missing don’t make it back home for one reason: they cannot be identified. I see posts every day on social media about lost animals someone has found. Many people do the right thing and alert local animal control authorities to increase the chance of the caregiver being able to find their lost pet. Just as many people don’t take that step at all, instead choosing to either keep the found animal or give the animal away to someone else.
I know people joke about what their pets would say if they could talk and while we know that won’t happen any time soon, it would certainly make it easier to get them back where they belong. “I got lost when I chased a squirrel and then another dog and then a cat. But I live at 123 Main Street. Can you give me a ride home?”
There are many ways to help pets be identified if they are lost. A dog collar with a phone number. A collar with a tag what includes a name and phone number. As I have written about before, my go-to recommendation is to have a microchip in addition to these other methods because it cannot fall off, cannot be torn off and cannot be taken off by someone who finds your pet. Our dog wears a collar with his rabies tag, but it also has a tag with his name, on the back of which is his microchip number and the phone number of the manufacturer to call if he is found.
A microchip is not a GPS tracker. It’s a small implant, about the size of a grain of rice, that functions using radio-frequency identification which does not require a power source. Think of it like a barcode for your pet. When a microchip scanner is passed over the pet, the microchip gets enough power from the scanner to send the microchip identification number to the scanner. That number is then used to trace the animal back to your registration for the chip. There is no battery, no moving parts, nothing to lose, nothing to charge and nothing to wear out. The microchip will last for the lifetime of your companion animal. Beyond the obvious simplicity of microchip, it has another advantage. If your pet is stolen, the chip is your “proof” that the animal belongs to you. All of this is dependent, of course, on registering the microchip with the manufacturer and keeping that registration information current whether you move or whether you have to re-home your pet yourself for some reason.
Just this morning I saw a story on the news about the power of microchipping. A woman in Foley, Alabama, lost her dog more than two years ago. Brooke Lake opened the door of her house and her Beagle, Lilly, “caught a scent and she just ran.” Brooke did all the right things. She searched everywhere, called veterinary clinics, called animal shelters and still could not find Lilly. What Brooke did not know is that Lilly had found her way to a truck stop where someone picked her up and drove her to Oklahoma. Her new caregivers had trouble keeping Lilly inside their fenced yard and took her to an animal shelter. Lilly was scanned for a microchip and was traced back to Brooke. An Oklahoma rescue group will transport Lilly back to Foley this week to a very excited Brooke. This happy story would not be possible without Brooke having taken the time to have her dog microchipped. We hear stories like this often and as amazing as they are, they reinforce for us the fact that microchips work to get pets back home.
So, where do you get a microchip and how much do they cost? It varies depending on where you live. If you got your companion animal from a shelter or rescue group, he or she may already be microchipped so check with that organization to get information from them first. Most veterinarians will microchip your pet although some charge a lot for that process. It’s often possible to get your pet chipped for a super low cost at a microchipping event in your area. You can also buy your own microchip and ask your veterinarian to implant it for you. I found a Home Again Microchip on Amazon for $13.75 and at Jeffers for $11.99. If your veterinarian will not insert a chip you purchase yourself to save money, it may be time to find a new veterinarian. Once the chip is implanted, make sure you register it and keep the registration information current. I also recommend having your veterinarian scan your pet’s microchip during regular exams to make sure the chip has not migrated to another part of your pet’s body. I also recommend you use a chip from a reputable company like Home Again, DataMars (Petlink), AKC Reunite, AVID or 24PetWatch. There are some really cheap chips which are part of a 900 shared manufacturer series (used globally) which are not as reliable.
I’ve had people tell me that they don’t think their pet needs to be microchipped because they live inside or are never without supervision outside. Considering how little a microchip costs, and the fact that our companion animals are priceless to us, I think all pets should be microchipped. We just never know what unexpected events may happen and once a pet is displaced from us, it is too late to lament the fact that we didn’t spend $20 to help them get back home. Microchipping is suitable for a variety of species we keep as animal companions. If your animals are not microchipped, please make plans to help them "call home."
There are some universal truths in life, one of which is that no one gets to stay. Our time here is limited even though we act as though we literally have all the time in the world for ourselves and with those we love. Another truth is that we all want to matter. We all want to make a difference in some way through the legacy of our families, having contributed to some change or having helped others. We seek confidence that our time here was well spent, regardless of our individual beliefs about what comes next when we die. The 10-year anniversary of my dad’s passing is at the end of this month and I’ve been reflecting on his influence on almost every aspect of my life, one of which is my animal welfare advocacy.
In the fall of 2009, both of my parents were diagnosed with different forms of cancer. Dad’s lung cancer diagnosis was early September; mom’s stomach cancer diagnosis was early December. As I struggled to process the realization that I would lose them both not decades in the future but at any time, I found myself thinking of my own mortality. Where I was in my life at the time. Choices I had made. What was important to me in the big scheme of things. It was sobering to say the least. I had been doing animal welfare video projects for a few years to help animal rescue groups, but was there more I could be doing to make a difference? The answer to that question was yes.
In late 2009, I decided to publish a website to help other people like me who may consider themselves “animal people” but who may not be aware of some of the issues related to companion animals in our society. I wasn’t sure what I would accomplish, but thought it was worth the effort to try to reach some people. I chose the name Paws4Change. This is an intentional play on words. My goal was to present content which may cause people to pause and then perhaps learn something new or change some previously held belief. I knew from my own awakening about issues related to companion animals in our country that there were a number of subjects which were all related to some way to the destruction of healthy and treatable animals in our nation’s shelters using our money and in our name. Puppy mills. Free roaming cats. Chaining of dogs. Spay and Neuter. Breed bans and restrictions. And, of course, no kill animal sheltering philosophies.
I shared my website with my parents in January of 2010 during one of many visits to see them over a short period of time. They were both undergoing a dueling chemo schedule and I honestly wasn’t sure how much they would care about my efforts. Their lives were in the balance and much more important issues challenged them every day. They did take time to look at it and they each gave me a long hug. I distinctly recall dad saying, “the website looks great. But why is your name not on it anywhere?” I confessed that I had not included my name at that time because some of the issues I covered were the subject of intense debate and I didn’t want anyone to threaten me or try to damage my reputation in some way for having had the audacity to speak. I also distinctly recall the next thing he said: “if it’s worth your time to set up a website to help people and take a stand, it’s worth putting your name on your work. Own it.” Yes, dad. You were right then, just like you were on so very many subjects over the years.
My parents are both gone. Dad left us on October 28, 2010, after his lung cancer moved to his brain. Mom left us on March 20, 2011, having outlived predictions for her lifespan by more than a year. We lost Rich's dad to cancer five days after my mom; it was a tough six months to say the least. I wrote about the loss of my parents before in my blog about placement of their cats. Not a day goes by when I don’t think of them and don’t miss them. I carry them with me each day.
My website has changed over the years. Some of the early content I thought would help people was of limited value so I got rid of it. I was looking back at it on The Wayback Machine for this blog and had forgotten how the site has changed over the years. I had to trademark the name a few years back after some folks decided to not play well with others and I've had to remind people about trademark protections a few times. I’m considering a new look in the next few months just to make the site appear a bit more modern.
The site content will remain essentially the same because the goal is still the same: to try to help people like me learn something new so they can make better personal choices which may have positive effects not only in their own lives, but in their communities. I still do my video work for nonprofit rescue groups and some for animal shelters. I now do periodic fundraisers to help those same organizations and published a book about my no kill animal shelter advocacy last year. I’d like to think both my parents would be proud and would approve. I could not help them stay here. But I give thanks each day for the time we shared and how they helped me become the person I am today. I honor them through my advocacy as I hear dad’s voice in my mind, telling me to “own it.” I'm not sure how much of an effect my efforts have. I know I have regular traffic to my website and my blogs are shared by some. As much as I would like to change the world, I know I cannot. But I can change some small parts of it and that's good enough for me.
We are all shaped by events in our lives, some of our own choosing and some over which we have no control. If there is something important to you, whether it is some wrong in society you want changed or some need to be fulfilled, I hope you will strive to get into what John Lewis called “good trouble.” We can all make a difference in a myriad of ways in our own families, with our jobs and with how we live our lives each and every day. As the tag line for my website says, your values are expressed by the choices you make. Go forth and do great things. You can make a difference. Time is both fleeting and precious.
you know life's too short to live it in fear
only thing you will regret is what you
do not do at all even more than the
stupid things you do
better take the chance
listen to your heart, no one can tell you
what your spirit wants
I published a blog on Wednesday of this week about our COVID 19 public crisis and what animal shelters can do to reduce intake of animals into shelters and increase output of animals from shelters. The impetus for the blog was a call I had with a contact of mine who asked what I knew about rumors that some shelters were resorting to population control killing. I used the blog to again promote the programs and services of the No Kill Equation while highlighting some great things being done by shelters to help animals.
Today let's talk about the rest of us. About those of us who share our lives with companion animals. The choices we make regarding our pets which are reflected in our personal behavior are more important now than ever before when it comes to keeping animals alive - not just our own animals, but the animals in our communities. I realize that many people don't give a whole lot of thought to how their personal choices affect how animal shelters operate. What we do as individuals absolutely affects shelters either for good or for bad.
Keep Your Dogs Contained
Most places have laws that require animals, particularly dogs, be contained so they do not run at large. Now is the time to take extraordinary measures to keep your pets under your control. Do not let your dogs run loose like it is 1845. It is not only dangerous for your dog, but it can be dangerous for the people who encounter your dog whether they are driving or just happen to cross paths. Make sure you keep gates closed, keep doors closed and you teach your children to do the same. If your dog gets loose, he or she is not only apt to be injured, but is apt to end up in a local animal control system. Do your part to keep that from happening not only to reduce the number of dogs in local shelters, but to avoid putting the life of your dog at risk. Your dog who is well behaved at home may do very poorly in a shelter environment and that may lead to his or her death.
Make Sure Your Pets Can be Identified
Now is the time to have your pet microchipped so he or she can be identified. Chipping is a cheap, easy way to help shelters, veterinary offices and law enforcement authorities know your pet's identity to get them back to you quickly if they do get loose or even if they are stolen. If you are on a Stay at Home Order and cannot get to a veterinary office, you can order an identification tag or collar for your pet so that someone who finds them can contact you easily. For cats, breakaway collars are recommended to avoid strangulation.
Identify a Pet Parent
I have written about the concept of a Pet Parent before. Much like some people name a Godparent for a child, a Pet Parent is someone who has agreed to take your pet or pets for you in the event of your death, hospitalization or if you can no longer care for them for some reason. Please do not assume that your family members or friends will automatically take your pets and care for them as you do in the event the unthinkable happens. Have an actual conversation with a family member or friend to ensure not only that they commit to take your pets, but that they know how to get to them in your absence and how to care for them. Our Pet Parent is one of my cousins. She has information about pet history, veterinary contacts, local contacts to get into our home and we have made provisions for the costs of care in the event of our deaths. No one likes to think of the worst case scenario, but it is the responsible thing to do. Related to COVID 19, you also need a Pet Parent for short-term housing and care. Think of this as a foster for your pet who will care for your pet temporarily until you have recovered and can care for your pet yourself. Don't allow your pet to end up in your local animal shelter because you didn't have a plan in place.
Pet Supplies - Be Ready
In the middle of shopping for the human members of your family by having a supply of food to last for a while, don't forget your pets. Make sure you have enough pet food to last a while. Make sure you have your pet's medications refilled and documented with dosages and administering directions.
Have a crate and extra supplies on hand if you need to relocate your pets quickly. Keep all animal vaccines up to date and have copies of those records available in the event that boarding becomes necessary.
Help Local Animal Shelters
There are a host of ways you can help your local animal shelter during this crisis provided you are not under a Shelter at Home Order.
You can foster an animal to get him or her out of the shelter and help expedite the adoption process. Many shelters offer sleepover fosters, weekend fosters, or other short-term fosters which not only frees up shelter space, but also helps the shelter to learn about the true personality of the animal. Very few dogs and cats behave in shelters the same way they behave in a home environment. When you foster, you learn about the ability of the animal to ride in a vehicle, get along with other animals, get along with children and about their personalities in general. That information, along with photos and video clips can be used by the shelter to help place the animal in a new home. It's much easier to "market" animals to new homes when more is known about who they really are, beyond what we see.
Now is also a wonderful time to adopt a shelter animal. Adopting a new-to-you pet now gives you a wonderful opportunity to help your adopted shelter animal decompress, learn about structure and become a member of your family. It can be hard to do that when working your normal hours at an office. Extra time at home makes the process easier for you and for your new pet.
You can also donate to your local animal shelter to help during the crisis. Some shelters may need food, blankets, beds, or enrichment items like Kongs and treats to keep shelter animals occupied during their shelter stay. Contact your local animal shelter to find out what they may need; many shelter have Facebook pages where they regularly list items they need donated.
Donate to a Local Pet Food Bank
Even if you have plenty of pet food on hand, others may not. If there is an organization in your community which operates a pet food bank, please consider donating so you can help another person keep their pet during difficult financial times. Many people are losing their jobs and may think they have to surrender their pet to a shelter because they can no longer afford to feed him or her. Many pet food banks taken open bags or boxes of food. No donation amount is too small. If you are not sure if your community has a pet food bank, your local animal shelter or local rescue groups should be able to tell you about places to donate food.
As a U.S. Army veteran, I have strong opinions about free speech. I not only see free speech as a right of all American citizens, but I would argue that it is our responsibility to speak out on matters of public concern. If issues are important enough for us to be outraged or angry, then they must be important enough for us to speak out and express ourselves to those who govern us.
I’ve been an outspoken animal welfare advocate for many years. Your tax dollars at work, I guess. Most of my advocacy relates to keeping shelter animals alive using the programs and services of the No Kill Equation. I also advocate for animals related to the issues I cover on my website: puppy mills, spay and neuter, adoption, aggression in dogs, breed bans, etc. I am the first to admit that I’ve made my fair share of mistakes along the way. In my early days of No Kill advocacy, I was too focused on the method I was promoting and not enough on the personalities of the people with whom I was dealing. Because I work in the legal field in municipal defense, I have always had a good handle on how local and state governments function. What I did not fully appreciate was that how my message is received is often as important as the message itself, regardless of my intent. I think the path I have taken would have changed little even if I had a better appreciation for position of the people with whom I was interacting. Some would have been defensive no matter how diplomatically I behaved. Some would not have been able to hear the message from me no matter now many years of experience I have or how much I know related to the issues about which I speak for animals.
One thing I have learned along the way is the importance of always striving to take the high road, no matter how others behave. There will always be people who oppose efforts to improve the welfare of animals for a host of reasons and there is little we can do about it. We cannot convince everyone to share our beliefs through magical thinking or sheer force of our will. Saying the same thing numerous times or saying it more loudly or forcefully is not the answer. I wrote about the behavior of some local opponents to my No Kill shelter advocacy in the book I published last year. People outside of animal welfare circles may think we all get along because we all want the same things. We do not all get along and there are great divisions and struggles between advocates. The people who voiced the loudest opposition to our efforts to reform the local animal shelter were from the animal rescue community. Doesn’t make much sense, I know. But that’s the reality. Even when we take the high road, that behavior is not always reciprocated and we have to learn to just tune out the hate and focus on the message and what we hope to accomplish.
In addition to my advocacy efforts related to No Kill animal sheltering, I’ve been involved with writing and advancing local laws in my state related to animals as well as writing, promoting and opposing laws on the state level. My bill about commercial dog breeding in my state has yet to be filed by my primary sponsor; it is standards-based and makes violations criminal, much like the criminal laws about abuse and neglect. My sponsor tells me he is holding my bill it as a common-sense alternative to a bill which he expects to be both overly ambitious and unenforceable. Time will tell if it is ever filed, but it has been reviewed for the state’s legal team and is ready to roll.
Just this week I was reminded again of the importance of staying on that high road when it comes to interacting with state elected officials. People who advocate for animals are passionate. We cannot lose sight, however, that how we communicate our opinion – and how we behave it we don’t get what we want – are of critical importance. I encourage everyone I know to speak out about proposed state laws that relate to animals. Sometimes bills about animals move so quickly the pubic knows nothing about them before they made laws. The reasons for this relate to money and influence by some large organizations like the AKC, Petland, insurance companies and Big Agriculture, but that’s the subject for another blog. When we communicate with state elected officials about bills, we have to be logical and respectful and we have to know what we’re talking about. To behave otherwise means that our message is lost completely. After having expressed our opinion about bills, we wait for the process to unfold and see what happens. If a bill we support does not pass, it is up to us to try to determine why. It may be that there is a way to promote something better in the future. It may be that the forces opposing the bill are just too strong to be overcome at the present time. If a bill we oppose does pass, it up to us to determine how we behave moving forward. Once a bill becomes a law, there is nothing we can do to turn back the hands of time. Laws are often amended, but that takes time so that circumstances change from the reasons the law was enacted in the first place.
When we yell, scream, threaten or otherwise run around like our hair is on fire related to laws, we lose all credibility and we stifle communication. I sometimes call this behavior Boomerang Aggression. We’re all familiar with the concept of a boomerang – a throwing tool or toy that is designed to spin about an axis perpendicular to the direction of its flight. A returning boomerang is designed to return to the thrower. Boomerang Aggression is when we behave so badly in our communication that we end up silencing our own efforts, having effectively hit ourselves in the head.
A number of animal bills have been filed in my state since the legislative session began in early February. Some are good like House Bill 134 which serves to define the single word, “shelter” in the existing criminal law about abuse and neglect of dogs and cats. This may seem like any easy bill. It is not. It has been opposed by some powerful organizations in past years and likely will be again this year. Nonetheless, animal advocates like me have voiced our support for the bill to the committee considering it and we’ll continue to express ourselves through the process.
One particular bill, Senate Bill 196, was not just terrible. It was downright dangerous. This bill would have put all control of all things animal under the exclusive control of the State Department of Agriculture (which has never dealt with any issues related to dogs and cats), would have nullified local laws already on the books about pet shops (for which I worked hard last year to promote) to open the door for companies like Petland to begin selling more animals in the state, would have put investigation of complaints of abuse and neglect in the hands of the Agriculture Department, would have criminal charged someone who reports animal abuse or neglect if the allegations later prove to be unfounded, and which would make it practically impossible for cities to enact new laws related to animals.
Through some incredibly hard work by a large number of people, to include the Alabama representative for the Humane Society of the United States -Mindy Gilbert- we were able to get SB 196 stalled. After the commissioner of the Department of Agriculture said his department was not consulted on the bill and they were completely unprepared to deal with issues related to dogs and cats, and as a result of many people speaking out against the bill, the primary sponsor agreed to not advance the bill further. This was a huge deal for most of us, but we’re not claiming victory yet. The legislative session doesn’t end until May and anything can happen in the intervening months.
In spite of this small victory, some people in the Birmingham area have failed to do one simple thing: stop talking about Senate Bill 196. The primary sponsor has agreed to not advance the bill. When people continue to call, email and write to the senate sponsors (there are 6) to threaten them, engage in name calling and engage in otherwise aggressive behavior, that does two things. It paints all animal advocates as unreasonable zealots who are incapable of respectful communication and it makes it harder (if not impossible) to have constructive communication with those elected officials in the future.
I have seen this same behavior from the same people before. It has not served them well in the past and it is not serving any of us well now. Those people fail to understand that the very senators they are attacking are the very people from whom they will need cooperation in the future on similar animal law or other animal laws. When you are so aggressive in your communication that the person with whom you are communicating is no longer listening or decides to apply your behavior to others, you are doing terrible harm to the animal welfare movement as a whole.
So. Folks in Birmingham. Please. Stop talking. Let Senate Bill 196 die a quiet death in this legislative session and stop vilifying the very elected officials from whom you will no doubt need cooperation in the future. We can all communicate our position on proposed laws in ways which are logical, effective and respectful. I can’t control your behavior, but you can for the sake of us all, human and animal. If you can’t stop talking, that tells me your focus is not on animal welfare itself but on you as a person. So don’t be surprised if the boomerang comes back and hits you in the head. You will have deserved it. And we may all suffer the consequences of your inability to speak your truth without screaming it.
A dog wanders onto your property or up to your front door. He looks dirty, is thin and has some blood on his fur. He’s not wearing a collar and is a bit scared, but appears friendly. Which of the following describes how you react and what you do? You -
If you answered with number 1 only, I hope you never cross paths with a lost dog.
If you answered with any combination of numbers 2 through 5, you likely don’t have a very high opinion of others and you may end up committing a crime.
If you answered with any combination of 6-10, you are to be commended.
Millions of us share our lives and homes with companion animals and most of us consider them family members. It can be difficult to think of them as property, but that is what they are considered under the law, just like our cars and our furniture. The big difference is that most of our property cannot get lost, get confused or feel pain. Case law on the subject of animals as property and the value of those animals when they are stolen or killed is evolving. We have not reached a time in our society that animals have a status separate from the other things we “own.” Other countries have taken that step. In some ways this is a good thing. As long as my dog is my property, I have certain rights regarding the ability of someone else to keep him from me or the ability of law enforcement authorities to seize him from me.
Animals get lost for a variety of reasons and not all of them relate to people being irresponsible. Most of us have heard the story of the dog who went missing on a family trip after having managed to get through a hotel door during a bad storm. The Washington family looked for him for 57 days before he was found in a field near a subdivision. We hear all the time about pets who have gone missing after automobile accidents. A few years ago, just that happened to a co-worker of mine. My co-worker and her family were on their way home from a trip and were traveling on a major highway when they were involved in an accident. Their dog was in the car. Although he was not seriously hurt by the accident, he was scared. The minute they opened the door he ran and kept running. They looked for him for hours and were not able to find him that same night. They kept looking for weeks and were ultimately able to find him with the help of a team of volunteers. A similar thing happened just this past weekend in Arizona.
(image of Obi and his family courtesy of Nicole Rodriguez)
Companion animals get lost or loose for so many reasons. A gate is left open, a contractor does not close a door, a child opens a door to go outside and an animal pushes past him or her. A dog or cat jumps a fence following a loud noise which scares them, including fireworks or gunshots. Our default assumption may be that an animal we encounter is loose because someone is to blame or people just don’t care enough. That is certainly the case some times, but most definitely not all of the time.
My husband and I have personally encountered numerous lost animals over the years, many of whom we found on or near our rural property. I admit there was a time when I presumed the worst of people. I wondered how they could “allow” their pets to get loose or how they could care so little to “dump” their pets in a rural area, presuming they would be able to survive. My position on this has evolved over the years as my education on animal welfare issues has also evolved.
We once had a shockingly thin hunting dog show up at our front door. “Buck” was wearing a tracking collar with a phone number which, thankfully, was still valid. It turns out he had gone missing from a pack of hunting dogs and had been missing for weeks. We didn’t feel great giving him back to the owner who showed little emotion when he came to retrieve Buck from our property, but we did it because it was the right thing to do. The last dog we “found” was crossing a busy highway a few miles from our house. I felt sure he would be hit by a car. Rich pulled into a nearby parking lot and was able to coax him toward our truck with some dog biscuits. “Buddy” was covered in mud so we took him home, cleaned him up a bit, contacted local animal control authorities to explain what happened (and in case there were any reports of a missing dog) and housed him in our workshop until we could get him to a rescue group which scanned him and held him for his “property hold period.” We drove around the area for weeks looking for lost dog signs and looking for properties my may have come from. He was a Great Pyrenees and we thought me might have come from a parcel on which livestock were kept. I posted about him on social media and on a website called Helping Lost Pets. I feel confident his family must have been looking for him just because he was such a stunning, laid back dog. The connection was never made and Buddy was later adopted by a wonderful family.
I have often joked about “liberating” animals I see living in what I consider substandard conditions and know people who have done just that, one of whom was convicted a few years ago of theft and receiving stolen property. Another contact of mine is facing criminal charges now for her involvement with placing a blind dog who left his property, ran into the road and almost caused an accident. I hope she has found a criminal defense attorney and will find a way to negotiate return of the dog, perhaps with some agreement that the family not let a blind dog outside unattended. For me, it’s just talk. As much as I would like many of the animals I see to live the way my dog lives, they do not belong to me and there would be real world consequences to stealing them. I try to find other ways to help them either by donating items to be used for their care or enlisting the aid of rescue groups to approach the owners toward improving the conditions for the animals or encouraging the owners to surrender the animals instead.
(image courtesy of Chriss Pagani)
I see information every week about animals who are lost and the people who find them. These are people I would ordinarily consider Good Samaritans who mean well, but may not always make the best choices. I also learn at least once every few months about someone who has purposefully stolen an animal or animals. They do this knowing who owns the animal but while having made a conscious decision to take one or more animals because they don’t think the owner is caring for the animal properly.
If you find a lost animal, even if that animal comes on your property, you are not entitled to keep that animal any more than you are entitled to keep a car parked near your house with the keys in the ignition, the wallet you find when walking through a parking lot or the bicycle you see leaning against a wall outside of a business. If you knowingly keep a person’s property from them and/or later transfer that property to another person, you have committed a crime regardless of your good intentions. Every state has its own criminal laws about theft of property and receiving stolen property. In my state, theft of property in the fourth degree and theft of lost property in the fourth degree relate to property that is valued at less than $500. These are Class A misdemeanors which may result in a jail sentence of up to one year and a fine up to $6,000.00. Theft of property of theft of lost property valued at more than $500 but less than $1,000 are each Class D felonies which can result in a sentence of not more than 5 years and not less than 1 year and one day. Receiving stolen property is also based on degrees related to the value of the property and is a separate offense.
I know this is an emotional topic. I know that people who find lost animals more often then not want the very best for them and are just trying to be helpful. This subject was recently explored on an episode of a popular television show called A Million Little Things; one of the characters in the show found a dog and kept him, only to learn about a year later that the dog's family had been looking for him and made flyers about their missing dog. As of this writing, "Gary" was struggling about what to do with the dog, whom he named Colin.
The next time an animal in need crosses your path, please give some serious thought to how you would feel if your pet went missing. Wouldn’t you want the person who found your pet to presume the best of you, and not the worst, and do everything possible to help you find your lost pet? I know I would. Please take the time to at least contact local animal control authorities so you can get the animal into the animal control system and give the owners an opportunity to find him or her. That doesn't necessarily mean you have to take the animal to an animal shelter and leave him or her there. If you decide to find a new home for that animal yourself, whether you know who owns the animal or not, you are knowingly breaking the law and may be criminally charged and convicted.
I hope a time comes when our companion animals have their own legal status as sentient beings. My couch cannot get up and wander away, crossing county lines. My car will not roll away on its own and end up miles from my office of my house. Some countries have changed their laws already. It’s time for us to get on board. It’s time to change the legal status of animals to protect them not as “things,” but as the creatures we love and value as they enrich our lives in countless ways.
But in the meantime, please. Don't steal my dog.
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 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)
It has been more than a week since Hurricane Harvey first made landfall in southern Texas. I heard last night that even more people were being evacuated from west Houston as water from more reservoirs was released by the Army Corps of Engineers. These are people who surely thought they had made it through the worst and they would not have to leave their homes. As I was watching the news, it got me thinking about how quickly many people have moved on both mentally and emotionally from the events of the last week. I'm always amazed at how short our attention spans are when it comes to disasters. Perhaps we are too easily swayed by news cycles. Perhaps we are just so focused on what is on our personal radar that we become callous to the tragedies of others which are far removed from our own lives. We see the images, hear the stories, maybe make a donation or two and then are back to normal for the most part.
If you have never lived through a natural disaster, it can be hard to have true empathy for those who have. The images and news reports simply cannot do justice to the scope of the event in terms of structural or material losses and will never do justice to the human toll taken on those who have lived through it. Natural disasters change lives forever. They become a demarcation point between “before” and “after.” What life was like before the flood, tornado, earthquake, fire. What life is now after the flood, tornado, earthquake, fire. I don't expect everyone to think about what has transpired in Houston and other affected areas every day. I do think that those of us who have not been personally affected by the disaster owe it to those who have been to learn from what has taken place. There are lessons to be learned both in terms of our personal lives and in terms of how we want our country to handle disaster response in the future.
Lessons Learned in Terms of Disaster Response
A lot of lessons have been learned from prior hurricanes. When it comes to how we manage companion animals, many lessons were learned from Hurricane Katrina, leading to enactment of the PETS Act. I was not involved in the response to Katrina, but I know people who were. People like Mike Fry of No Kill Learning who wrote the following in his blog for No Kill Movement entitled, "Harvey is Not Katrina: Lessons from the Trenches":
Following Katrina, a sizable group of people (including myself) worked diligently to ensure that the PETS Act was passed into law, providing safety and shelter for people and their pets in disasters. During Katrina, pets were forcibly taken from their evacuating families at gun point. Following Harvey, pets are being welcomed into evacuation shelters. Though there were some false starts, and some families with pets were initially kept out, a federal judge quickly set that right and gave notice that pets were to be accommodated. That has led to proactive life-saving of unprecedented proportions. When people can bring their pets with them, they are more willing to take shelter. If they can't, they often don't and needless human and non-human loss of life results.
Much has changed since Hurricane Katrina regarding how people are sheltered with their pets as opposed to being forced to leave them behind. One thing which was apparently not learned from Katrina was 1) how to manage how pets are rescued and by whom; 2) how rescued pets are accounted for; and 3) where those pets can and cannot be taken. I know of a number of groups which went to the predicted path of of the storm before it made landfall or shortly thereafter which pulled animals from shelters in the predicted path of the storm. They did this to keep animals safe, but also to free up space in those shelters for owned animals who may later be displaced. I support that type of rescue.
Because there is no centralized system used to track animals helped by a myriad of organizations, however, there were will large numbers of owned pets who will never be accounted for. My sources who live in the Houston area or who are there helping with disaster response tell me that some organizations are taking potentially owned companion animals out of the state. At a glance this may look like a good idea; the focus should be on saving lives. I would like to think the organizations doing this mean well with the possible exception of PETA which I fully expect will kill each and every animal it “rescues.” But here's the thing. Those animals belong to someone and we owe it to those people to do everything we can to keep potentially owned pets in the immediate area so people can find them.
When I called the practice of removing potentially owned animals from the area “pet looting” on my Facebook page recently, I got a lot of mixed reactions. Some from outside the area are quick to assume that pets are displaced from people due to some form of irresponsibility and that those people don't “deserve” to get their pets back. Not so fast. Here is the scenario I posed on my Facebook page:
You're at your house near Houston. It is not yet flooded. You think you're going to be safe. The Army Corps of Engineers opens a dam and with very little warning your house begins filling up with water. You frantically start grabbing things to load up in a vehicle in hopes that you can get out in time. In the process of loading things into a vehicle your dog gets out. You had him leashed and with you all the time, but he's scared and feeding off of your fear so he pulls away from you. You call for him. You search high and low, but you have to go. Authorities come along, telling you to get in a rescue vehicle right now. You say, "but I don't know where my dog is," and they say, "don't worry. Someone will find your dog and take care of him." You panic and you leave as you call out for your dog.
I think it is easy for people to find fault with those who did not leave the Houston area with their pets or who were displaced from their pets. I get that. But it's not always the result of irresponsibility. How in the world are people supposed to find their pets if they've been taken away to another state? What website are they supposed to check? Where are they supposed to go? Who can they call? Because there are no answers to any of those questions, my hope is the lessons learned from Hurricane Harvey include how we account for companion animals handled in any way by any organization whether they are housed locally, housed in nearby areas or removed from the state. I honestly don't know how we would go about tracking animals like we track people. I trust there must be some way to do that and that just hope that there are some people "out there" who are already working on this issue.
Personal Lessons We Must Learn
The personal lessons we must all learn are a lot less complicated than trying to figure out a solid disaster response plan for all pets.
The first and most important thing all of us can, and should, do is to have our pets microchipped so they can be identified if they are displaced from us for any reason. You may never have to survive a natural disaster, but you may still have a pet go missing due to an open door or open gate. You may have a dog or cat flee in fear due to fireworks. Your pet may be stolen from you. The best way to ensure your pets can be identified is using a microchip which is implanted under the skin and which contains a unique number which can be traced back to you after you have registered it. Unlike collars or tags with may fall off or be removed, the microchip is subcutaneous and can be scanned by a host of authorities from animal control personnel to rescuers to veterinary offices to law enforcement authorities. The cost of having your pet chipped is nominal compared to the costs you may incur trying to find your pet, not to mention the emotional and psychological toll it may take on your and your family. A microchip is not a GPS device (although those are available, with a limited battery life) but it is the best possible way to ensure your pet can be identified quickly and easily.
The second important thing all of us can, and should, do is to simply have a plan in the event of a natural disaster. If you had to evacuate an area, where would your pets go? If you were away from home when a mandatory evacuation order was imposed, how would anyone know that you have pets in your home or yard? Do you have friends or family who could house your pets for you if you could not find space in a FEMA shelter and take your pets with you? None of us likes to think we will ever have to endure a natural disaster and go through what the people of Texas have endured in the last couple of weeks. We have fires all over. We now have earthquakes in places where they never occurred before. We have tornadoes in New York. For the sake of all of your family members, both human and animal, please have a plan and please prepare for the worst.
And while you're doing all of that, please stop to remember that there are people in Texas who are suffering. Their lives have been forever changed. Have some compassion and empathy for those people and don't be so quick to judge them. You cannot possibly say that you know how you would behave under extreme stress unless you have lived through it yourself. The image below? That's our tornado shelter. I have my plans. Do you have yours?
(flooding image courtesy of Illinois Public Media)
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