It is obvious that our nation is in a state of crisis. The news of the COVID 19 pandemic is all around us. We’re all doing our best to get through this period together while changing our personal behavior to reduce the loss of life. The situation is evolving so rapidly that it’s enough to cause all of us to feel ill to some degree as we try to keep up. Stress levels are high. The pandemic affects every aspect of our daily lives and those effects extend to places we might not have expected.
I got an email from an author contact of mine this morning, Cara Sue Achterberg, wondering what we can to about reports we are hearing that some animal shelters plan to destroy their entire populations of animals in anticipation that they will not be able to manage the intake of animals. I’ve seen posts on social media to the same effect. I’m honestly not sure how pervasive this “mass killing” problem really is on a national level. I've also read about people surrendering pets to shelters because they fear they can get COVID 19 from an animal. The information from the CDC about that rumor is here.
Yes, this is a time of crisis. That’s the bad news.
But there’s good news. Now is the perfect time to makes changes in the culture in our animal shelters and our communities to keep animals alive. We know how to reduce shelter intake. We know how to increase shelter output. The methods have been know for years. We do those things using the programs and services of the No Kill Equation which was developed by Nathan Winograd and about which I have written many times.
Foster programs get animals out of shelters quickly. Many people are working from home. This is a great time for people to foster a shelter pet not only to free up shelter space, but to help the animal get adopted faster. Most animals behave completely differently in a home than they do inside a shelter, so fostering provides a great opportunity to learn more about them and to help them decompress. Photographs, video clips and information about the animals are then used for marketing purposes. I saw a Facebook post just this morning about the Kern County Animal Shelter which is doing drive-up foster pick up of animals to free up shelter space.
(image courtesy of the Kern County Animal Services)
Promoting adoption of animals is always important, but now it is critically important. Shelters can use the media and social media to let the public know how to adopt an animal and what animals are available using adoption specials and promotions. In a time of crisis like this, shelters do well to either waive adoption fees (while still doing screening) or drastically reduce those fees. Many shelters have used this opportunity to reach the public about adoptions using humor. These images are from Huntsville Animal Services in Alabama, which is my local tax-funded shelter; they were taken by Kelly Jo (an incredibly talented Lead Kennel Attendant) and posted on the shelter's Facebook page. Just like now is a great time to foster a pet, now is a great time to adopt a pet. With so many people working from home, it provides a wonderful opportunity to help animals decompress from their shelter stay and get settled into a new home.
(images courtesy of Kelly Jo)
Pet Retention Programs
Managed intake is more important now than ever. Most shelters are not obligated to take owned animals and they should not be taking them now. Shelters should be doing all they can to encourage pet retention to keep pets in existing homes or help people rehome pets themselves with family members, friends, co-workers of people they attend church with, know from social groups, etc. Now is a great time for shelters to share information about pet food banks or even partner with local rescue groups to provide free pet food to people who may have lost a job or otherwise be facing a financial crisis. Shelters can also share information about local veterinary resources (to resolve health conditions which may be causing undesirable pet behavior) and about local trainers and behaviorists (to resolve issues with pet behavior which may be the reason someone wants to surrender their pet to an animal shelter). In many cases, a desperate pet owner can be referred to a local rescue group for help. If an owner still insists they must surrender their pet, they should be put on a waiting list to do that once space becomes available.
Community Involvement/Public Relations
Shelters that work hard to keep their communities informed will always operate more efficiently, but now is the time to really ramp up public relations to get the animal-loving community involved. Use of the media - both television and radio - and social media is the bridge to connect shelters to the public which affects the number of animals entering shelters and the number of animals leaving shelters. Although many shelters assume the public is aware of the need to make better decisions and to adopt, foster, volunteer, etc. most people just don’t think about their local animal shelter unless it is put on their “personal radar” for some reason. If a shelter needs help from the community, it has to say so loudly, clearly and often. Tell people to take extraordinary steps to keep pets contained so they don’t end up in the shelter. Tell people what to do if their pet does go missing. Tell people about how the process works to foster and adopt animals. Tell people about the animals in the shelter who need to be fostered or adopted using images, video clips and information. An engaged public is a active public which can do amazing things in times of need, it only we tell people how they can help.
The programs I covered above are just some of the programs of the No Kill Equation. Now is the time to get progressive. Now is the time to make better choices to keep animals alive with the help of the community.
I hope that the rumors I’ve heard of shelters essentially “cleaning house” of both animals and bacteria are false.
As I told Cara this morning, I think shelters will go one of two ways. Shelters led by progressive people or people who genuinely care will rise to the challenge. They will get creative and do everything possible to help their communities and keep animals alive. Regressive shelters led by people who remain willfully ignorant of progressive programs will likely use the crisis as an excuse to kill animals while making it sound like they are performing some Orwellian public service.
What will your animal shelter do? Will it rise to the occasion or will it make excuses? No matter what happens at your local shelter in the weeks and months to come, remember that you are paying for it.
These links are not directly related to this blog, but may be helpful for
you regarding pets and COVID 19.
Animals and Coronavirus Disease 2019
COVID 19 and Animals FAQs from the CDC
COVID 19 FAQs from the American Veterinary Medical Association
How to Care for Dogs and Cats during Coronavirus
So, here's the scene. You have lots of inventory you need to move to make room for new inventory. You only have so much space. If you are in the car sales business, you no doubt have commercials on television, you may tie balloons to car door handles, hang colorful flags between light poles and you may even use one of those strange air tube puppet things to attract the public and get them into your business. You may be open from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. so people can not only look at new cars, but get cars serviced. If you are in the furniture business, you may put some of your inventory outside the store so people can see it while they drive by and you may hire someone to stand near the street with a large sign with the name of your business to encourage people to stop in and see what great deals they can find inside. You may be open from 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. so people can come by after they get off of work. If you are in the hardware business, you may runs ads in a local paper, offer coupons for items you’re trying to move or have ads on the radio. You may be open from 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. so that people who work in trades can get what they need at almost any time.
No one likes to think of shelter animals as products or inventory, but the reality is that animal shelters housing animals in need of homes are in the customer service industry. They have to work hard to remain in the public eye not only to compete with other sources of animals, but so the public knows they even exist. If I was to take a walk in a large park in my area which is centrally located in the city and stop people to ask them where the animal shelter is located, quite a few would know. If I went one step further and asked them the hours or operation, I think some would know but many would not. If I went even further and asked them what they know about the live release rate, a few may have heard that ours is a No Kill shelter (although it is not), just because progress has been made and people would like to think it is a No Kill facility. If I ended by asking them how difficult it would be for them to reclaim or adopt an animal while the shelter is open, I feel confident I would see more than few looks of confusion or contemplation. It's just not easy here and the reason for that is the shelter is not open family-friendly hours.
Not a week goes by when I don’t receive some email or see some post on social media lamenting the fact that the tax-funded animal shelter in the city where I work only had X number of adoptions that week or faulting owners of animals for failing to come to the animal shelter to find them. “If they only cared enough they would be down here looking every day.”
News flash. People cannot get to an animal shelter to either look for a lost pet or to adopt a new one if the shelter is only open when people are at work. We can all agree that people can only be in one place at one time. People with traditional work schedules along the lines of 8:00 to 5:00 cannot be at work and be at the shelter at the same time.
In addition to being very visible in the community, animal shelters have to - have to - be open family-friendly hours when people can actually get there while the shelter is open. Any shelter which is only open when the majority of the public is at work is setting itself up for limited reclaims of lost animals and adoption numbers which are lower than they otherwise could be. And that’s just a shame. No one expects people who work in animal shelters to work the same hours as other people in public safety departments. But no one who works in an animal shelter should expect to have a 9:00 to 5:00 job either. If that is the kind of job they want, perhaps working in an animal shelter is not a good choice. Any animal shelter which is not open to the public at all should not call the building a shelter. It should be called a holding facility.
Let me give you a couple of examples for the community where I work to explain.
The shelter here is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. It is open until 6:00 p.m. on Tuesdays - one night a week. It is open on Saturdays from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. There are a lot of people who work here who commute from other places. For many folks, an hour commute each way is not a stretch. But let’s take the example of a person who lives locally for the sake of argument and let’s say that person has traditional work hours during the day - 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. with an hour lunch break.
Person A lives 20 minutes from where they work and they work another 20 minutes from the shelter. If their pet goes missing and they have to go to the shelter to look for their lost pet, it will take them 20 minutes to get to the shelter, at least 20 minutes (if not more) to look for and then reclaim their lost pet, another 20 minutes to get their pet back home and then another 20 minutes to get back to work. That’s a total of an hour and 20 minutes. Most traditional work schedules allow an hour for lunch. The only way this person can reclaim a lost pet is to take vacation time, wait until a Tuesday or wait until a Saturday. Depending on when the animal was taken to the shelter, their pet may have been adopted out by another family by the time they can go look for him or her.
Person B lives 15 minutes from where they work and they work another 15 minutes from the shelter. If they want to adopt an animal, they have two logical choices. They can go on a Tuesday night and hope they can complete the process of meeting potential animals, filling out the paperwork and get adoption counseling by 6:00 p.m. They can also wait until Saturday and go when the shelter is open from 9:00 to 3:00. If they want to adopt a pet during the week, they almost always have to take vacation time. I don’t advocate adopting a new pet and then dropping that animal off at home before going right back to work, but let’s say someone wanted to do that. It would take 15 minutes to get to the shelter, at least an hour to meet pets, do the paperwork and get counseling, another fifteen minutes to get home and then another 15 minutes to get back to work. That’s a total of an hour and 45 minutes.
See the problem?
I know of some municipal animal shelters which are open from 11:00 to 7:00 every week day and have both Saturday and Sunday hours. I applaud them. The municipal animal shelter in Lake County, Florida, is open on Sundays and the shelter director has told me that she "loves" her Sunday hours. I just wish more shelters would take this subject of family-friendly hours more seriously to keep the number of animals in the building as low as humanly possible at any given time. Lives are at stake if shelters do not recognize that the ability to move their inventory - animals - is directly affected by whether or not the public can get to the shelter while it is open.
We tell people that adopting an animal is a lifetime commitment. A process to be taken seriously. If we really believe that, then shelters have to be open when people can get there, take time to meet new-to-them animals and do the adoption process right. Adopters should be screened to make sure the adoption is a good fit and they should be counseled on dog or cat decompression to help set everyone up for success. I admit that I did take vacation time when we adopted our dog. That is because we found him on Petfinder and had to travel 2 hours to reach the shelter where he was being housed. It took the better part of a day to get there, spend some time with him and a few other dogs, complete the paperwork and get him home.
We tell people that if their pet goes missing, regardless of whose “fault” it is, they have to go to the shelter to look for their lost pet. If they cared enough, they would do that not just one day but every day. If we really believe that, then shelters have to be open hours when people can get there. It’s just that simple.
Family friendly hours does not mean more hours. It means different hours. If you are an animal shelter which is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. during the week, I challenge you to at least try changing your hours for six months to see if it makes a difference. Talk to your city council if you have to get permission. Get public support to try the experiment and encourage the public to contact elected officials to make it happen. Have your employees who interact with the public arrive an hour later and stay open at least until 6 p.m. Make sure the public knows about this experiment using the media, a press release, and social media. Shout it loud and clear. Explain why you are doing it: to help the public by getting more animals back home and by getting more animals into new homes.
If you try this for six months and it does not work, contact me to let me know. I’d like to hear about it.
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 have absolutely no background in marketing. Certain things seem obvious to me as an animal lover, however, and one of those things is that in order to get shelter animals adopted, they have to be marketed very visibility and in a very consistent way.
It's an unfortunate reality that our historic destruction of shelter animals, regardless of their health or behavior, has led most of the public to get used to the killing, at least to a degree. People have come to believe either that something must be "wrong" with the animals who are destroyed or that there's just no other way to function. "Surely," the argument goes, "shelters would not be destroying animals unless they had no other choice, right?"
The reality is that there are other ways for animal shelters to function and that healthy and treatable animals don't have to die. Yes, we should absolutely euthanize shelter animals who are suffering or who are irremediably ill. To do otherwise would be unethical. Yes, we should destroy dogs who are genuinely aggressive to people and for whom no sanctuary placement is available simply because we cannot have them in our communities endangering the public. But what about the other animals in shelters? What about those animals who are perfectly healthy or who have treatable health conditions and would made a great companion for someone?
I think that a lot of people who work in shelters or who volunteer there think that the public knows about animals who need homes and they don't care enough to save them. I just don't agree. Most of the public does not know about the animals needing homes because they just don't think much about what happens at their local shelter. Even though they may love animals, or may be thinking of getting a new-to-them animal, most people have no clue about those healthy, wonderful and very worthy animals at their local shelter. It is up to shelters to make sure the public knows about these great animals and to put the subject on the "community radar" by being very vocal and very consistent in terms of the message. It has been said many times that we could be a no kill nation now if only shelter animals and potential adopters were better introduced. Exactly.
There are an endless number of ways to get shelter animals into new homes, most of which require no extra spending by animal shelters and just a little creativity. In most communities, all it takes to get animals adopted is to let the public know they need homes and to talk about how great they are. The more shelters view themselves as customer service based businesses with animals who need to be marketed, the more the public will respond. Whether shelters use web sites, social media, television media, radio or billboards, there are a host of ways to put the message in front of the very public who can be persuaded to adopt your animals in need. People have a host of options regarding getting a new pet from a breeder, from the internet, from a store or from a newspaper ad. Those people need to be convinced that your shelter is the first, best, "green" and the "go to" option when the time comes to bring a new animal into their home.
Be positive. Get creative. "Sell" the attributes of your animals. Offer ongoing adoption programs like Pets for Vets to place animals with those who have served in our armed forces or Seniors for Seniors to place older animals in homes with older people. Have regular adoption events not just in the same place in your city every few months, but at your shelter so that people can see how you operate your business and how much you care. Consider doing adoption events in different locations in your community on a regular basis so you are taking at least a few of your animals out to the public who may adopt them. A lot of people are afraid to go to an animal shelter because they are worried about what happens there or that they will be overwhelmed by animals needing homes. Why not take the animals to them instead? Take advantage of national events like Just One Day to help get exposure for your shelter and your animals in the media and using social media.
Who knows. You may find that the demand for your animals exceeds your supply. And wouldn't that be a wonderful problem to have...
I am a self-professed keyboard animal welfare advocate. What that pretty much means is that most of my volunteerism to help animals is done using my laptop, my phone and my brain. I do "incidental rescue" when my husband and I come across animals needing our help, but I do not run a rescue group and I have never managed an animal shelter. I am not even a nonprofit because in all my years of advocacy, I just haven't found a good reason to seek that status and all that comes with it. I would much rather handle my own legal and administrative costs myself and have people make their donations in ways which help animals directly.
I work a full-time job as a timekeeper in the legal field which means that all of my time is accounted for and billed to clients. I commute to that job. I manage four websites, administer multiple social media pages, do video/slideshow projects for nonprofits across the country and do small task in my own area from flyers to networking for animals to helping with promotions and events. I lead a group of people who do TNR with a managed cat colony at my office. My point is that I'm pretty busy on any given day and I have to work really hard to have boundaries so I can have a life of my own in addition to my advocacy. I don't ask for credit for any of what I do; it truly is all about helping animals and I'd like to think that my role has some value. If I can persuade someone to behave differently to save the life of an animal as the result of something I wrote, said or did, I consider that a good thing.
I'm not sure exactly when it happened, but at some point in the last year or so, being a keyboard advocate became a bad thing. From what I can tell, it happened on a national level around the same time there was a split between factions in the no kill movement and some of those who were formerly the talkers, thinkers and bloggers became the hands-on doers. I guess their transition from keyboarding and philosophical discussions about no kill concepts to handling animals somehow led them to believe there either is no room for folks like me or that somehow my advocacy is less worthy than their own.
I have been told many times by rescuers and shelter volunteers that if I am not at an animal shelter doing hands-on tasks with animals, I am part of the problem and not part of the solution. I'm not sure where that type of advocacy arrogance comes from or what it really accomplishes. I would love to be able to either retire or work part-time so that I can be more involved in a more hands-on way. One day when I do retire, I am sure I will be able to do more which helps animals directly. I have never faulted those in rescue or who volunteer at shelters for doing what they do to save the lives of animals or enrich those lives so I'm not really sure why it is that my contributions are seen by some in such a negative light. I admit that I am hard on people who help at shelters where animals die needlessly and who refuse to seek better for those animals; to me, silence is approval.
I have been in conflict with some rescuers in my area for a few months now and it is this situation which has finally led to this blog post. In December of last year, I organized a bed drive to help homeless pets in my county. The drive was a success and the homeless dogs in our county who are helped by animal control no longer sleep on concrete floors. On a holiday in late December, I was attacked in social media by a rescuer who said that the bed drive I promoted was going to lead to the death of 45 dogs. Huh? I had to threaten that person with legal action for cyberdefamation. I was told just this last weekend by another rescuer that instead of having a bed drive, I should have worked to help her reduce the $20,000 tab she had run up at a local veterinary hospital housing dogs she had "rescued." I was told that it was very inconsiderate of me to divert attention away from fundraising to keep dogs alive and that "a dead dog doesn't need a bed." She went on to say that I should spend 15 hours a day helping dogs like she does so that I can know them as she does.
But here's the thing. Sometimes a bed is more than a bed. Sure the bed drive was to help get dogs up off of the floor at a veterinary hospital where they are housed for their property hold period. But the bed drive was about much, much more than beds. At the time we did the drive, there was a need to help bring the public to the plight of the dogs being housed by animal control personnel and the need to get them out into adoptive homes. How else was the need for boarding ever going to stop? The drive was just as much (or more) about public awareness and community involvement than anything. Every person who decided to donate a Kuranda dog bed for a homeless dog now feels connected to the animal control and life-saving process in our community. And that person probably told another person who told another person who may then decide to adopt a dog the next time they bring a new pet into their home.
I make no secret of the fact that I am not a fan of long-term boarding of "rescued" animals. No kill does not mean you house dogs in kennels for months or even years on end with little or no socialization, making them institutionalized and less adoptable with each passing day. It is not rescue to collect more and more dogs, exceeding any foreseeable resources and having no plan to rehome the dogs. I really did not know that rescuers had run up a 20k tab trying to keep dogs alive and even if I had known, I simply would not have done any fundraising to help them chip away a few hundred bucks on a bill that continued to grow with each day. My focus was on negating the need for the boarding at all.
Everyone who works hard to help animals brings something to the table whether they are walking a dog, cleaning a kennel, helping at an adoption event, helping with a website, creating a flyer, making phone calls or any other task to help make a difference. It takes a lot of different skill sets to help educate the public to encourage them to make better choices for companion animals.
I'm proud to be a keyboard advocate. And I don't plan to stop what I'm doing any time soon. As for working 15 hours a day to help dogs? Perhaps I will be able to do just that some day when I retire and I open my Rescue Shop to help place shelter and rescue animals.
I am a firm believer that all homeless pets deserve to be treated like someone's beloved pet who is just lost or as victims of circumstance and our poor choices. While this may make sense to most people, there are some people who presume that shelter animals are in shelters for a reason, as if they somehow deserve their fate. I just don't agree at all. Animals are not capable of malice. It's just not how they function. Yes, there are some animals who have cognitive issues just like some people do, but when lives are on the line, we cannot afford to confuse circumstances with fault.
Animal shelters across the country are becoming increasingly progressive in order to keep up with our culture. The days of catch and kill are slowly coming to an end as more and more communities realize that we save animals while still insuring public safety and spending our money wisely. Even the best of shelters, however, can be a stressful environment for any animal. Many are very empathic. Most can see, smell and hear things we do not. This means that for them, a shelter is a very strange and scary place and is nothing like home. Even the most balanced of animals will not behave in a shelter the way he or she behaves outside of a shelter. This makes it very difficult to identify behavioral issues and to even determine which animals are social and well-adjusted. So. How to we help them? We get them out.
Shelter animals in foster care are animals who are being prepared for a new life. Some are perfectly healthy. Some may have some special needs. When we put animals in homes, even for short periods of time, we learn about how they function and we help them get ready to be someone's pet. Their past will never be known but their present becomes very much known. Can he walk on a leash? Is she house trained? Does riding in a car upset her? Does he love to play with toys? How about getting along with children or other pets? All of these questions can be answered more accurately once animals are outside of a shelter environment.
The great news is that most communities have an incredible number of resources which could become foster homes. Retirees. Soldiers. Students. There are people who may not want the long-term commitment of a pet but who are great with pets. All of these people are excellent candidates to provide foster care. Do you not have a pet because you think you are too old? Foster. Do you not have a pet because you want the freedom to travel a lot? You can foster. Do you want to help a deployed troop so he does not have to surrender his beloved dog to the shelter? Fostering that dog means he can stay local and be returned to his owner when the deployment ends. Do you want to help neonatal puppies or kittens who need regular bottle feeding for a few weeks until they can eat solid food? Yep. You can foster.
In support of the concept of fostering, I have launched a Bonfire shirt drive to help offset veterinary costs for homeless animals in my area. If you'd like to do something to help homeless animals and get a nice shirt or hoodie in the process, please stop by my drive page. I made the design patriotic to satisfy the veteran in me. I hope it will appeal to all animal lovers who advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves.
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