All of us have crossroads in our lives. Points in our lives were some significant event happens that puts us on a path different from what we had anticipated. One crossroads for me was in 2006 after the euthanasia of 16-year old dog, Snake. We knew that she would not be able to stay. She had become trapped inside a body which no longer served her well and had begun having cognitive problems. We didn't want her to suffer. We had our veterinarian come to our house on April 22, 2006 to euthanize her. Although we had been planning for the day for quite some time, we didn’t choose the date ahead of time. She had had a rough night and we decided that morning to let her go. We didn’t realize until much later that we had chosen Earth Day to let her go. It seems fitting in many ways. Snake was a coydog; she was part German shepherd and a coyote. She was always a little bit of a wild child. We buried her on our property and gave her back to the Earth; a fitting farewell for such a beautiful soul.
It was after the loss of Snake that events happened that I didn't anticipate in which put me on another path. As much as we prepare, we are never really ready to lose those we love. How can we be? I didn’t adjust well and found that I needed an outlet. I started donating to the animal shelter in the city where I work, hoping to help some other dog or dogs. It was only after donating to the shelter for a few months that I had an unwelcome epiphany about what was happening there. Healthy and treatable animals were being destroyed every day along with the sick and suffering. I guess I should have known this was happening, but I just didn't. I think that's common for a lot of people in America. We presume that shelters use our tax dollars to function consistent with public values when that is not always the case. I know what the word euthanasia means and what was happening at this shelter was far from it in most cases.
Learning what was happening at my local shelter outraged me, angered me, and just made me feel tired and sad. But it also fueled me. I began a path of self-education. Why were animals who were perfectly healthy dying in shelters? Was it just something in the South? Was this happening everywhere? I just had to know these answers. My education took years and continues to this day. This journey of awareness led me to another crossroads. I had two choices. I could continue my education while lamenting what was happening. I could say the issue was just too big for me to take on myself. Or I could try to do something about it. In the end I decided I had to act because I saw it as a moral imperative. If I did not speak up, my silence would have been my consent. Exactly what I would do with my intent and knowledge would end up taking years.
I originally wrote to City officials in 2006 to express my outrage at what was happening at the shelter and didn't get very far. I was pretty much told this is just the way things are and we can’t afford to do any better. I didn’t believe either statement. The city in which I work is Huntsville, Alabama. The community is both incredibly progressive and proud. People from other states and even other countries live here. We have a large military base and we support the space program through the Marshall Space Flight Center. We are considered a medical hub where people come to get specialized treatment. Considering all the great things happening in the city, surely we could break from the status quo and do a better job to save the lives of shelter animals. The city council did not agree. I was left to stew in what I had learned, continue my education and look for some other opportunity to be a change agent. I found this incredibly hard to do. With each passing day, the lives of animals were at risk. Animals just like Snake who no doubt would have been killed in the Huntsville shelter.
The deaths of both my parents to cancer in a six-month period of time ended up being another crossroads for me. We lost dad in October of 2010. We lost mom in April of 2011. We knew they would leave us and tried to be ready. There is just no such thing. Like the loss of Snake, the loss of my parents put me in a different place in my life than I anticipated. For most of my life I had allowed myself to think that I would have decades left to spend time with my parents. I had always known that life was short and precious, but the loss of my parents quite suddenly really reinforced for me that my own time here is finite. I thought that in spite of personal failure to affect change in my area that I may do better if I got some help. That is when I decided to form an advocacy group called No Kill Huntsville. I believed that rather than speaking out about the issue by myself, surely there had to be strength in numbers. The group was pretty large when we started, but as is the case with many things, lots of people talk but only some people do. We ultimately ended up with a small group of like-minded folks who agreed to speak with one voice to try to effect change in our area.
No Kill Huntsville is now and in our 10th year of advocacy. It hasn’t been easy, but we got what we hoped for: change. The changes which have been made at the tax-funded animal shelter are both shocking and incredibly rewarding. We always promoted, and still promote, the No Kill Equation first shared with the world by Nathan Winograd in his 2009 book called “Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America.” The book was a game changer for me as it has been so many other people who have read it.
There will always be differences of opinion or how we got to a point where the shelter was destroying three out of every four animals to a point where the shelter is saving approximately 97% of the animals. It’s hard for people to admit that change can be ugly and uncomfortable. I feel confident that but for the advocacy of our group, little would have changed. The shelter was making incredibly slow progress at the time we first took our issue to the public and got really vocal about it in the area. We were vilified in the community. At one point we were called terrorists. But I know we made a difference.
There was an episode of a program called MythBusters years ago that had to do with the benefit of slapping someone across the face. The show is no longer being produced but I'm sure the episode is still out there somewhere. What was being investigated was if someone's behavior really can be modified after having been slapped across the face. The results of the tests confirmed that be to be the case. A lot of people criticized our advocacy during the most difficult years because they focused on the messenger and not on the fact that the message was necessary in the first place. We were told to be nicer, to stop being so critical. We were told that we just had to go along. I know for myself that we were always incredibly diplomatic and respectful. The worst-case scenario for me is that our advocacy served as a slap across the face to city officials and the public to get them to wake up and see that things not only should be but different but could be different. I know our efforts were much more than that, of course.
In the summer of 2018 I had a meeting with documentary film maker Anne Taiz who was working on a film about No Kill animal shelter philosophies and programs. Anne traveled to Huntsville as part of her research to talk to me about what our group had done to that point. Toward the end of our meeting Anne said, “you know, you really should write a book about this.” I'm pretty sure that I laughed. Although I had been blogging and writing about our experiences over a period of years, I never really considered writing a book. What would it say? Who would even read it? Would it help anybody? After thinking about it for a few months, I decided again that life was short and that my time here was not guaranteed. Why not write a book if it could help other people?
I self-published my book about on Amazon on April 22nd, 2019, the anniversary of Snake’s passing. The whole point in publishing a book was to help other people in other places. People like me. People like people in our advocacy group who were just common folks in the weeds with full-time jobs who came together because we knew that somebody had to do something. It had been years since Nathan Winograd had published Redemption and I thought it might help some people to learn how we used the No Kill Equation to change things in our area. After consulting with attorneys at work, I got umbrella insurance before I published the book. I know from my work in the legal field for almost three decades that the ability to defend a lawsuit and the ability to prevent a lawsuit are not the same. Thankfully, the two-year statute of limitations to sue me has now run. The book is priced to print which means no money is being made. When people order the book, they’re paying for the cover and the paper.
As is the case with many small acts of advocacy for the sake of animals, I guess I'll never really know how much good the book has done. I've gotten a lot of feedback in the last couple years from people that told me that it really did make a difference for them. They had situations similar to ours and they just didn't even know where to start or what to do. Reading the book gave them the information and the courage that they needed to speak out for the sake of animals in their own area. The book will never be a bestseller and I fully acknowledge that it has kind of a narrow audience. But I feel pretty good about it. I feel like it served the purpose and hopefully will continue to serve its intended purpose for a period of years to come. I asked some folks for feedback to share with this blog and would like to thank them for helping me.
If you know shelter animals in your area are being destroyed needlessly, know that you really can make a difference to affect change. It takes information, time, passion and commitment, but you can be a force for good. Choose the path that is the most important to you. You never know how far you will travel or what you can accomplish if you don't try.
I recommend this book to everyone interested in animal rescue or sheltering. I like to highlight key points as I read, but if I had done that with this book, the entire thing would have been highlighted. After reading it, I purchased multiple copies for local shelter managers and fellow animal rescuers. It's a perfect ‘cliff notes' version of Nathan Winograd's Redemption and a practical ‘how to’ study rolled into one. It should be required reading for anyone who cares about animals.” - Jennifer Watkins, Shelter to Home, Inc., Wyandotte, Michigan
Not Rocket Science may have been written about Huntsville, Alabama, but it is the disturbing reality of our broken ‘shelter’ system everywhere. The book very accurately describes the perils currently faced by homeless animals in the majority of municipal animal control facilities across the US. As an advocate in Georgia, I have had far too many of the same experiences that Aubrie describes. This book is essential reading for any animal welfare advocate and I highly recommend it to all animal lovers. There will be both sad and happy tears as you follow the courageous and inspiring journey of the No Kill Huntsville team. But, at the end, you will have a concise, comprehensive resource and a determination to be part of the solution. Ignorance and apathy are the enemies. For about $5, this book can help you overcome both at your local ‘shelter.’" - Shari Cahill, Silver Comet Animal Welfare Alliance, Milton, Georgia
Not Rocket Science: The Story of No Kill Animal Shelter Advocacy in Huntsville, Alabama is the up-close, inside story of what it took to bring a highly regressive, open-admission animal control shelter to save rates in the mid and upper 90%. A must-read for advocates seeking to bring No Kill to their communities, Not Rocket Science presents the unvarnished truth behind this inspiring and remarkable transition. If you have heard about the inspiring tale of Huntsville's success, but have not read this book, you don't really know how the City of Huntsville became one of the most exciting shelter stories in the nation. Order it today." - Mike Fry, No Kill Learning. Minneapolis, Minnesota
Aubrie Kavanaugh has written a seminal book, It’s Not Rocket Science, about modern animal shelter reform. Although the No Kill Movement has been around for decades, the last 10 years has seen a surge in successful animal shelter reform driven by advocates like the author, Aubrie Kavanaugh and her associates. Nathan Winograd’s Redemption from 2008 was the formative publication that launched a revolution in modern animal shelter reform. It’s Not Rocket Science shows us how the philosophy Winograd presented is now proven to succeed with a clear history of the reform of Huntsville, Alabama.” - Davyd Smith, No Kill Colorado, Denver Colorado
Not Rocket Science is an unvarnished look at the hard work required to make progress toward no kill in a resistant environment. It is an excellent step by step guide for no kill advocates who want to take action in their own community but aren't sure how to start and, more importantly, how to keep going when hitting roadblocks." - Shirley Marsh, Yes Biscuit, South Carolina
I was trying to recall the other day when I first met Mike Fry of No Kill Learning. As is the case with many of my animal welfare contacts who became my friends, it feels as though I have always known him. I began listening to his Animal Wise Radio broadcasts created with Beth Nelson about ten years ago after I learned what was happening in our nation’s animal shelters. I was riveted by the conversations they shared about no kill animal sheltering and about this thing called “the No Kill Equation” shared by Nathan Winograd is his ground-breaking book, Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America.” I first met Mike in person in early 2013 when he came to Alabama and became part of the no kill story in Huntsville which was (and has remained) the focus on my no kill animal shelter advocacy for more than a decade.
This trip down memory lane was brought on by Mike’s latest documentary film in his Boots on the Ground series highlighting places where animal shelter reform happened. The first film was about Lake County, Florida, which became a no kill community essentially overnight once the county commission took over operation of the animal shelter from the Sheriff's Office. The shelter now has some of the highest live release rates in the country and has become an example of other shelters to emulate.
The second film told our story in Huntsville, Alabama, where a group of advocates banded together to tell the city, "we are better and this," and to push hard for reform of the tax-funded animal shelter where thousands of animals died over a period of years. Ours was a struggle with much of the opposition serving only to delay reforms we hoped were inevitable. The shelter statistics demonstrate the changes made in the past few years which are the result of cultural changes in how the shelter operates. Saving the lives of animals is now a point of community pride; we hope there is no going back to old ways.
The final film in the series is Mike’s story of his 20-year journey to bring no kill success to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, an area serving over three million people. I was interviewed for the film and was given an opportunity to view it in advance of the October 14, 2020, Youtube premier.
Having known Mike as long as I have, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of the story. I knew Mike had become a no kill advocate through family ties – his family opened the first no kill animal shelter in the state decades ago. I also knew that Mike came to his advocacy through a specific event in his life, as is the case with my advocacy. Mike’s journey – which I consider a journey of the heart - began with him being profoundly affected by a video project he created for a contact of his which about pet overpopulation which changed the course of his life. It put him on a path to question the status quo, to question why it is that shelters were not functioning consistent with public values (while making the public think everything was fine), to question if there wasn’t some other way things could be done, and ultimately to seek out and embrace the solution to shelter killing which is the No Kill Equation. Knowing the solution was not enough, as is often the case. It took years and years of advocacy and struggle to bring change to the Twin Cities with the help of like-minded people and with the standards in the Companion Animal Protection Act enacted in St. Paul in 2014. I call this a journey of the heart because it is one born of love - love for the companion animals with whom we share our lives and homes as members of our families.
I hope you will take time to watch the journey in Mike’s film. He spoke with a wide range of people and the flow of the film tells a compelling story. Why should events in the Twin Cities (or Florida or Alabama) matter to you? Because they inspire change in other places. I think it's important for people to know that change really is possible and to learn about what other people have done in the face of really difficult circumstances. The film serves as a lesson to us all which proves a few key things. First, we learn that each of us can, in fact, make a difference in spite of what may seem like insurmountable odds. I think it is human nature to feel overwhelmed when issues are systemic; we feel there is no possible way our actions can cause the wheels of change to turn. They can. Second, it reminds us that no kill advocacy for shelter animals is a marathon and not a sprint. I know many advocates get frustrated if they cannot affect change as quickly as they would like. Some places change literally overnight upon realizing they were operating in ways which were not only inconsistent with public values, but which led to killing which proved to be unneccesary. Other places take longer. Mike’s journey lasted 20 years. Yes, 20 years. What made a difference was commitment to the goal, recognizing that the process may take time, and being so informed on the topic to be able to convince that elected official that enacting the CAPA was legacy legislation which sets standards moving forward, regardless of who runs the city or who runs the shelter operation. When I think of Mike's journey, I am reminded of a book he shared with me years ago called Twelve By Twelve in which the author spoke of the concept of See, Be, Do. Sometimes you have to just Be until a new opportunity arises to move the issue forward. Which is exactly what Mike and his fellow advocates ultimately did.
I found the film inspiring and know you will also. It runs about 45 minutes. As someone who is very visually oriented, I will tell you that there is some footage at the start of the film which may be difficult for some people to watch. I know Mike anguished over use of some footage from the video he created more than 20 years ago which put him on this journey. In the end, he decided that it was a key component to the story which could not be overlooked. I was able to get through it with no issues, knowing that sometimes it takes a shocking event to help us understand what is most important to us. In my case, it was five words. In Mike's case, it was the video he created.
Please join us for the October 14, 2020, premiere which begins at 7:30 p.m. central time. If you cannot see the film then, it will be available for viewing at any time after the premiere.
Congratulations to Mike on the film and thank you for your tireless advocacy which has been an inspiration not only to me, but to countless people across the country. You fought the good fight. You changed the course of history in your community. This is your legacy and the legacy of all who came together to seek a better future for animals and the people who value them.
As John Lewis would say, "“When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, say something. Do something. Get in trouble. Good trouble.” I hopethe film inspires you to do just that.
(The video below is a short trailer which is one of a series of trailers for the film. Thanks, Beth Nelson!)
There are defining periods for all of us which direct the paths we take through life. Deaths of people we love. A lost job which leads to an unexpected career change. Discovery of some new information which changes our world view. Once we reach these crossroads of sorts, there is no going back. Just choosing a way forward. Such was the case for me when I learned about the deaths of animals in our tax-funded animal shelters using our money, in our name and while we are blamed for the process.
An author friend of mine, Cara Sue Achterberg, had a defining period in her life recently which is the subject of her new book - One Hundred Dogs and Counting: One Woman, Ten Thousand Miles and a Journey into the Heart of Shelters and Rescues.
I first met Cara when I blogged about her previous book - Another Good Dog: One Family and Fifty Foster Dogs. I truly enjoyed her delightful book which introduces us to the world of fostering dogs and to her family, all of whom participate in the process. Cara wrote about what motivated her to foster for a rescue group called Operation Paws for Homes, about her “puppy addiction,” and about all the dogs who passed through her home on their way to new lives.
Having fostered so many dogs, Cara was compelled to ask an obvious question – “where are all these dogs coming from any way?” It is a question I wish more people in rescue circles asked of “the system” related to their efforts to save the lives of animals. We are hearing more and more that fostering is the future of animal sheltering and welfare and I believe that’s true. The more animals we have in foster homes, the faster we can place those animals into new homes and the fewer animals we have in shelters which are stressful places for even the most well -behaved companions. But as I wrote about in my book, if we ever hope to get a handle on the number of animals entering our tax-funded shelters, many of whom are summarily destroyed, we have to look at the bigger picture and address the first of many questions which was the one Cara asked - where are all these animals coming from?
Cara had finished Another Good Dog and hit the road to tour the book and to see some of the places the dogs came from. She wanted to see them for herself and take a closer look at why there was so much need for fostering. As Cara wrote:
Money was good. But money alone would not solve the problem of killing dogs because there wasn’t enough space/time to save them. Foster homes could make a difference. If we had more foster homes, we could save more dogs. The message of my book—that fostering is one way anyone can help save dogs—was needed now more than ever. If there were more foster homes, it would lessen the stress on shelters to stretch strained budgets and maybe they wouldn’t be forced to make decisions about which dogs they could afford to save and which would have to die. But how could there ever be enough foster homes? Foster homes wouldn’t stem the tide of dogs arriving at the shelter. Fostering could give them breathing room, but, clearly, it wasn’t the only answer. I needed to do more than write a book. I needed to go down there. I needed to see this for myself. Sitting there with Willow, I began to hatch a plan. I would use my book advance money, not just to tour with my book, but to rent a van, fill it with donated food and meds and supplies, and take them to the shelters. Along the way, I would write about it, using my words to shine a light on the situation.
Cara ultimately took four separate trips to shelters and rescue groups in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee and Alabama, logging over ten thousand miles in the process. I was fortunate enough to meet her in person as she traveled through Alabama. It was after the third of these trips, and after having fostered a particularly difficult dog named “Gala,” that she decided to write a new book. Cara explained the process this way:
I wrote a proposal for a new book. One that would pick up where Another Good Dog left off with our foster family, but it wouldn’t stop there. I would take my readers to the shelters. So often when I talked about what I saw in the southern shelters people shook their heads, and I was never sure if it was because they didn’t believe me or they didn’t want to believe me. But in my book, I could take them there. I could show them. . . I felt an urgency. The faces of so many dogs click through my mind. Lying on concrete floors or hard plastic shelves, with so little human contact, their eyes haunted me. They were confused and frightened and so incredibly vulnerable. I didn’t have a minute to waste.
When Cara told me she planned another book, I jumped at the opportunity to read an advance copy and give others a sneak peek into the content. As was my method in my blog about Another Good Dog, I won’t share too many details about the new book here. My hope is that you will read it and take the same journey with Cara as I took while reading the book. I will share that what Cara learned during her travels over so very many miles was infuriating, heart breaking, exasperating, empowering, compelling and hopeful all at the same time.
Some shelters she visited were little more than disposal facilities, where government officials should have ensured proper care for animals, but were satisfied with housing them in substandard conditions only to kill them. Of one such place, Cara wrote:
There were no dogcatchers or kennel attendants, just four dogs in kennels that were piled with feces, flooded with urine, and swarming with flies. There were no beds or doghouses or even a blanket to lie on, so the dogs had no choice but to lay in their own filth. They barked at the sight of us, jumping against the fence excitedly. One small, brown pit bull was emaciated and crusted with poop, but wiggled and wagged, eager for our attention. A few kennels down were two dogs together in one kennel with twice as much filth. One had a belly likely bloated with worms; the other Trisha was pretty sure was a sibling of a dog back at her house she had rescued a few weeks before. Around the other side of the building, we found a sweet, yellow dog with doe eyes and a nylon collar, also frighteningly thin, who had a soft cough. The volunteer shrugged, “they’ll stay here until the guys get tired of taking care of them. Then they’ll take them to the vet to be killed.”
(Fanny, in the Huntington Pound; photo by Ian Achterberg)
In other places, local government officials were so complacent about sheltering animals that private individuals had stepped in to try to fill the gap, using their own time, money and resources in a desperate attempt to keep animals alive. Some of those people had taken on so many animals with no plan in place to re-home them that the situation bordered on hoarding. They felt they were the only people keeping animals alive and sometimes made poor choices as a result of huge hearts who just wanted to save lives. Cara wrote about two sisters she met who are in their sixties yet who care for seventy dogs and one hundred and forty-five cats at their property in a county that has no real shelter, just a small dog pound. “The sisters began doing what the county should have been doing, paying for it out of their own pocket and now with their social security.” I’m sure this happens more often than people realize; they have no clue that people will big hearts work frantically to save lives while elected officials do nothing to help using tax dollars.
But all was not doom and gloom. As Cara wrote, “saving dogs, like pretty much everything in this world, comes down to business. What we need is a better business plan. Too many dogs are dying for want of it.” Her travels took her to positive places where “attitudes are a powerful force.” These were welcoming places, some of which operated with very little money. They were staffed by positive people who made the shelter operation welcoming and with leadership who kept the public informed so issues could be solved by the public and the shelter working together. At one place Cara visited, the shelter director focused not on what she didn’t have —volunteers, money, community support, or a fancy building—and instead looked at what she did have—plenty of land in a beautiful part of the country. The director created walking trails through their woods and began a rock painting program. The staff and volunteers began painting rocks with positive messages and placing them on the trails. “Then they invited the public to come and hike, paint a rock and place it, or find a rock and take it home. She enlisted the local high-school students to create storyboards and post them along the trails, giving young families even more incentive to come to the shelter. The only price for using their beautiful, interactive trails? Walking an adorable, adoptable shelter dog! Talk about a win-win. I loved it and was fast becoming a member of the Kristin Reid fan club. Kristin’s common-sense solutions and systems were obvious everywhere we looked.”
(Cara visiting with Rhonda Lindsay of Brindlee Mountain Animal Rescue in Alabama; photo by Nancy Slattery)
As a No Kill advocate, I was enthralled by what Cara learned during her travels. Much of what she saw validates what advocates in No Kill circles have said for years: that saving the lives of animals is a choice and that it is not about money. It’s about compassion and leadership. It is easy to think that animals die because the public doesn’t care enough. In Cara’s words – “It can’t be that people don’t care, they simply don’t know.” So very true. And thanks to Cara’s new book, more people will know and then they can act to be part of the solution.
Cara won’t be able to tour her new book this year due to the pandemic, so we agreed to do a Q&A by video so you can meet her and hear her responses to some questions I posed. I hope you enjoy our chat and that you will read her book. It’s available for pre-order now from a variety of sources and will be available at local bookstores on July 7, 2020. Cara has written a host of other books and has a new fiction book due out in 2021. You can keep up with the latest news on her website and by following her blogs.
How many dogs Cara she fostered to date? 177. Simply amazing!
Thursday, September 26, 2019, marks an annual event called Remember Me Thursday. The website describes this as "a global awareness campaign uniting individuals and pet adoption organizations around the world as an unstoppable, integrated voice for orphan pets to live in forever homes, not die waiting for them." People are asked to light a candle for the animals. If you choose to do so, I applaud you.
But I would like you to go one step further. I want you to be outraged.
In 2012, an elderly man was attacked by two dogs. The owners of the dogs were found to have 33 other dogs chained in their backyard, inside city limits. The dogs were seized and a judge ordered that they be destroyed. People were outraged. These other dogs had done nothing wrong. A staunch animal advocate spoke out for the dogs and argued to the state court judge that the dogs should be spared. The judge changed his mind and almost all of the dogs were saved to be adopted out by rescue groups. The owners of the dogs were convicted of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.
In 2014, law enforcement authorities found 85 dogs inside a suburban home. Some were dead but most were alive and were in very poor health. The dogs were living in filth. People were outraged. Those dogs which could be saved were helped by local rescue groups. Only 38 of the dogs survived and the couple who had the dogs pled guilty to animal cruelty charges.
In 2015, a search warrant was executed on rural property owned by a woman who had sought and obtained the county contract for animal control and sheltering. More than 300 animals were found living in filthy, overcrowded conditions. Dead animals were discovered on a daily basis. Some animals were emaciated and many were suffering from medical issues including parvovirus, distemper and untreated wounds. Some of the animals were suffering from such severe medical issues that humane euthanasia was necessary to prevent further suffering. People were outraged. The woman was later criminally charged and convicted of animal cruelty.
In 2016, 122 dogs were seized from a puppy mill by law enforcement authorities. The dogs had been living outside in cages and some had ice in their fur. People were outraged. People lined up to adopt the dogs to try to help and were turned away because the dogs were still being evaluated and ultimately would go to rescue groups for placement.
In 2017, a woman was arrested after more than 100 dogs and cats were found on her property, living in a waste-filled, trash-strewn dilapidated small house. The animals were housed in crates that were stacked on top of each other that were covered in urine and feces. There was no running water on the property and the majority of the animals did not have access to water. There was also no visible traces of food for the animals, most of which were sick and suffering from infections and parasites., and overgrown nails. People were outraged.
In 2018, authorities found 44 dead dogs in plastic bags in a woman’s freezer and more than 160 dogs living in deplorable conditions in and around her home. People were outraged. Officials said the smell of animal feces and ammonia permeated the entire residence, and several first responders actually got nauseous and dizzy because of the odor. Detectives found more than 160 living dogs in the residence. Four of them were in critical condition and had to be taken to an emergency clinic; the rest were evaluated and treated at the scene by animal shelter workers.
Just this month, a woman is facing 12 separate charges of animal abuse, including 10 felonies after investigators discovered several sick and dead dogs on her property. The woman had been operating a rescue group. She was allegedly housing 278 dogs in inhumane conditions in Texas and transporting them to Kansas. Authorities said over half the animals would have to be euthanized. People are outraged.
We hear about and read about stories like this every month. Every year.
In all of these cases, the animals involved were seen as victims. As worthy of our attention, consideration, support and outrage.
Why is it that we do not see shelter animals in the same light? Why are they not equally worthy of our attention, consideration, support and outrage? Most animals destroyed in shelters are healthy and treatable animals who either were, or could have been, someone's companion. The fact that these animals continue to die for no good reason at all is our public shame.
I know that most people don't think about their shelter much even though they are paying for it. You do not see a story on the news every night taking about animals at risk on __________ Place, Street or Boulevard. When you get a bill for your water and garbage service, it does not contain a line item for "dog and cat disposal," but make no mistake: you are paying for the process whether you approve of it or not and while you are (in many places) blamed for the death.
My position is this: those animals in your local shelter are not only worthy of your attention, but their lives are dependent upon it. Yes. Some end up in the shelter due to the irresponsibility of the few. Many, however, are simply lost, victims of circumstance or victims of our poor choices (and about which we can be educated so we make better choices in the future). The animals are never at fault. They do not deserve to be destroyed simply because they end up in a building which should serve as a safety net, a safe haven as they move on to a new future.
Thousands of healthy and treatable animals are destroyed in our shelters each year even though there are proven ways to save them. If this matters to you, say something to those who govern your area. Let them know you want your tax dollars used in other ways to save lives as opposed to ending them.
Shelter animals are, in fact, worth of your outrage. We should all light a candle for them and then get busy working to reform the broken animal sheltering system which no longer reflects our values as a society.
(image of Taylor property courtesy of the Moulton Advertiser)
When I became a no kill animal shelter advocate over 10 years ago, you could count the number of no kill communities in the country on two hands. I’m talking about places where all healthy and treatable animals make it out of the municipal and non-profit animal shelters alive in a geographic area.
There were plenty of individual no kill shelters across the country, most of which were operated by non-profit organizations which were able to keep all healthy and treatable animals alive by limiting admission. It is easy to say you are no kill when you can also say, “we are not taking more animals because we are full.” Animal shelters operated by municipalities or funded by tax dollars do not have the luxury of limiting admission; they are required to take in animals running at large and exist primarily to serve a public safety function. This means that no kill communities were harder to come by.
Times have changed. The number of no kill communities has gone from a handful of locations to hundreds of places across the country. This change has been driven in large part by the no kill movement. We call a movement because it is just that – it is a social movement which is sweeping across the country and which is fueled (at least from my perspective) primarily by advocates in the weeds of animal advocacy who are stepping up and speaking out to bring change to their communities. Some of these people are shelter directors who are taking formerly regressive animal shelters to new places and some of these people are common citizens who are saying, “enough. We are better than this.” No Kill communities are now found across the country from coast to coast in places with very little in common other than a desire to save the lives of shelter animals.
In the decade I have been advocating for animal shelter reform in the city where I work, I have heard countless times that no kill sheltering is not possible. A shelter volunteer told me in a recent email exchange that I was “living in a fantasy world” if I thought my local animal shelter could save all healthy and treatable animals. She also said that I was doing a disservice to the animals by using the phrase no kill because I was causing people to falsely believe that all animals in the shelter would make it out alive. What she may not understand is that it is the position of the shelter leadership that no healthy and treatable animals have been destroyed in more than four years. Call me delusional. Fault me for using the phrase no kill all you want. It will not change the fact that my local shelter - and so many other shelters across the country - are saving almost every animal entering the system, proving every day that the no kill model works with commitment to a culture of life-saving.
One of the most progressive – if not the most progressive – animal shelters in the country is the Humane Society of Fremont County located in Canon City, Colorado. The HSFC is an open admission animal shelter which serves seven municipalities in Fremont and Custer counties in Colorado, providing both animal control and animal shelter functions.
Although the shelter is considered a shining example of no kill philosophies now, things were not always so positive. The organization came under fire in 2013 after complaints filed by former shelter volunteers and a previous employee resulted in two separate state investigations. The Colorado Department of Agriculture, the state agency in charge of regulating animal shelters, cited the Humane Society in Fremont County in June and July 2013 for poor record keeping, for animals being euthanized incorrectly and for lost pets being put down before their owners were given a chance to reclaim them.
All that changed on September 24, 2014, when Doug Rae was hired to be the new shelter director following a national search. Doug had previously managed shelters in Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Maryland and Phoenix and had most recently served as the executive director of the Animal Rescue League of Southern Rhode Island. Doug changed the culture of the shelter on his first day on the job. During his first two weeks he met with dozens of residents, business owners and elected officials. He had one-on-one meetings with every employee and met with past and present volunteers. As Doug wrote in a guest column which appeared in the Daily Record:
“I heard sadness, disappointment, hatred and rage. Some folks were brought to tears. Tears for the animals. Though many offered me reasons why the shelter was where it was back then, by the end of our talks, those excuses were now in the rearview mirror never to be heard from again. Instead, we quickly came together and just did it. Well, that's not entirely accurate. Some people not able to embrace the new changes were escorted off the bus at the next stop.”
Doug described the change in the shelter as like walking in a flipping a light switch. A shelter which had previously destroyed approximately 50 percent of the animals stopped doing that on the day Doug took over as the director. In his three months, the shelter saved 96 percent of all the animals that came into the building. That number has risen over the last four years.
In October 2017, the shelter received the Henry Bergh Achievement Award from the No Kill Advocacy Center and received a proclamation certificate from the President of the Colorado State Senate. Both awards are proudly displayed in the lobby of the shelter.
In February of 2018, I approached Doug about doing a video project to highlight the wonderful work being done at his facility. I had hopes of legally clearing a song from a wonderful talent whom I had never worked with before. We got the news in June that we were legally cleared to use “The Other Road” from David Hodges’ CD “The December Sessions, Volume 4.” I was thrilled. It took months for the project to come together, but we were able to finish it recently.
Now that the video work is completed, Doug was gracious enough to participate in a Q&A about his facility and about his philosophies.
Q: How long have you managed the Humane Society of Fremont County and what can you tell us about your work background that prepared you for the job?
A: My first job in animal sheltering was as the Shelter Operations Manager for Maricopa County Animal Care & Control. Back then (2003), this agency took in 62,000 animals a year spread out over three shelters, two locations which I managed. I was in Phoenix for three years.
I then moved on to become the Director of Operations at the open admission Harford County Humane Society taking in 6,000 animals a year. This was the first job I was able to have a direct and significant effect on the save rate, since I had the full support of the Executive Director to make any changes that I wanted too. We saved upwards of 97% of the animals. During my time at Harford Humane I was being recruited for jobs across the Country, one in particular, a #2 job in Philadelphia. I refused this job twice but the third request came from Nathan Winograd who asked me to do it “for the movement.”
I accepted Nathan’s proposal and became the Chief Operating Officer for Philadelphia Animal Care & Control, taking in 30,000 animals a year. I was only in Philly for about 1 ½ years before we lost the contract to the Philadelphia SPCA after the PACCA Board voted to not put a bid in for the 2009 contract. The highest we got the Philly save rate was a disappointing 78%. As the # 2 in command reporting to the CEO, I take full responsibility for not achieving a higher save rate. But I do wish I had complete control of the Philly agency to do everything that I wanted to do. Our contact with the City expired December 31, 2008.
In January 2009 I was named the Executive Director for Indianapolis Animal Care & Control. An agency taking in 18,000 animals a year. Between battling the Union President and a City County Councilor that proposed a City-wide BSL banning Pits [pit bull type dogs] from Indianapolis, a proposal which I publicly would not support, I knew that my time in Indy was at best, limited. Especially after my boss, the Director of Public Safety for the City agreed with me to not publicly support the BSL proposal. But even through the many political battles, my boss supported everything that I was doing, supported my decisions, and battled the Union and the City Councilors along side of me. As soon as my boss resigned due to Parkinson’s disease, his acting replacement (a good friend of the Union President and the BSL councilor) told me to start looking for a job. I refused to resign and instead I was fired in a very public way.
I then took a Director job at a shelter in Rhode Island to be close to my ailing mom; who would pass in February 9, 2012. This was the first shelter that was not open admission and the first shelter that I hated working in. After many disagreements with two Board member, I left the agency. I would leave animal welfare due to politics that had nothing to do with saving lives or the animals. Instead, the politics had everything to do with massaging the human ego. Whether it was an elected official, a Union President, a Board member, or others, I had enough. So I turned my back on animal sheltering and went back to retail for almost one year. But I missed working for the animals. And although my wife was adamant that I not take another job in animal welfare, after much discussion, Lynn agreed that I could accept another sheltering job, but only if she was close to family in Colorado.
I would soon learn about the Fremont Humane Director opening in COI quickly applied. When a Board member said to me during a face-to-face interview, “Doug you have no idea what the new Director is walking into here.” I simply replied, “Respectfully, I know exactly what the Director is walking into and I know exactly what they need to do.”
One last thing, and this is a story in itself, my background prior to entering animal sheltering in 2003 was in retail. I was a National Sales Director for the largest Specialty retailer in the nation and I was a Regional Sales Director for the largest Nutrition Supplement company in the nation.
Q: What do you think the most important qualities are in shelter leadership to achieve the no kill model?
A: Transparency. An animal shelter Director must be 100% honest in everything that he or she does. And I mean everything.
Secondly. A Shelter Director must embrace a quality that puts animals first and treats them as individuals. In other words, the 3 week-old kitten is just as important as the 15 year old lab. The 6 year-old Pitty that people walk past day after day is just as important as the highly adoptable purebred Maltese. The moment someone justifies killing based on reckless opinions, (such as, nobody ever looks at that 6 yr-old Pitty, and because we need space we should put him down because he has had his chance) is the time for that Director to be relieved of his or her duties.
Many Board members have little idea how to manage a shelter, what is involved in making life and death decisions, and how to correctly administer shelter finances. I have seen this first hand and I hear it quite frequently from other non-profit Directors. Having worked with some bat-shit crazy Board members over the years, and not that I’m planning on leaving Fremont Humane, but I would never accept a Director position in an animal shelter unless the Board grants me 100% control over day-to-day operations as the Fremont Humane Board did for me during our job interview.
One reason why Fremont Humane achieved No-Kill over-night is because the Board allowed me do the job they hired me to do. Too many Board members hire a Shelter Director and then say, “here’s how we want you to do and here’s how we want you to do it.” That is just plain wrong. I read a blog that goes against everything that I just said, saying how the Board (and not the Director) should get the credit for a successful animal shelter. I can’t disagree any more with that articles premise.
I know for a fact that I made a Fremont Humane Board member nervous during my interviews; especially when I asked for day-to-day operational control. It’s not easy for a Board to give up control like my current Board did, but Board’s that want 100% control end up micro-managing their director (and the agency) straight into the ground. And not just in animal welfare. I see Boards destroy other non-profits as well.
Q: What are some of the most difficult challenges in managing a No Kill animal shelter?
A: Fremont Humane receives 2 ½ times the national average for animal intakes and in 2014 our combined per capita was all of $1.07, while the national per capita average is $5.85. One would think that with these two challenges facing you daily, achieving No-Kill would be difficult if not impossible. Well my team proved the naysayers wrong. In our first three months we saved 97% of the animals. In our first year 94%, year two 96%, year 3 99% and last year we saved 96% of 100% of the animals.
So any challenge outside of two above is negligible and certainly nothing that could ever get in the way of s shelter achieving No Kill status. Oh sure, there are several challenges a No-Kill shelter faces daily, but none that would ever justify killing an animal. When one of my managers comes to me and starts with, “Doug we have a problem.” I almost always say, “No we don’t…”
Q: You’ve had tremendous success keeping animals alive who would have been destroyed in other shelters, particularly dogs who are stressed, anxious or afraid. How do you go about gaining the trust of those dogs and ensuring they do not degrade while in a shelter environment?
A: Less than 1/4 of 1% of the dogs that arrived at Fremont Humane over the last 4 years are simply scared. Sure, they may act all sorts of aggressive, but they are scared, plain and simple. Even in an open admission shelter, these types of animals can and should be saved. So while receiving 2 ½ times the national average for intakes, in a shelter that is far too small for our area, and being $4.78 per person below the national average per capita funding level, if Fremont Humane can achieve No-Kill, anyone can.
Gaining a dogs trust takes time. Sometimes it just happens, other times it can take weeks, maybe months. Like Louie, a dog that lived in my office for a few months and that didn’t trust a soul. But one day when lying on the floor of my office close to Louie, Louie had a break-through. Louie would soon be adopted. As was Amber and Sugar and so many other dogs that would have been killed on intake in some shelters, but instead they made it to my office where I worked with them at the shelter or in my house
Identifying a shelter dog that requires space, and providing that the dog space that he or she needs, whether it be two days or two weeks or two months, is the most important thing we can offer a dog in an animal shelter. My kennel staff does this on a daily basis. I can’t ask for a better kennel staff than I currently have. The reason we are able to save so many “scared’ dogs? My kennel staff and what they do for these types of dogs.
When I started at Fremont Humane past kennel staff was always getting bit. Not anymore. I don’t recall the last time a staffer was bitten by a dog in the kennels.
Q: What would you say to other shelter directors or to animal shelter staff who are struggling to overcome challenges in order to keep more animals alive?
A: Reach out to the community. The same community that Directors blame for the animals coming in their front door, the same community that Directors scold because the shelter “has to kill animals,” that community. And then reach out to rescues. Reach out to sister shelters. Reach out to everyone and anyone you think can help.
And then reach down deep and ask yourself, why the hell are you are doing what you do? If you don’t have a good answer, then it’s time to find a new job. If you say you are in this line of work to save lives, but you are killing animals, then call someone that is saving lives and ask for their help. Way back in my first shelter I didn’t have all of the answers, but I did question everything happening around me. Why are we doing that? What’s the reason for this policy? Why would you want to kill that dog? I made a lot of enemies with my mouth in the early days, but it put people on notice.
If you sit at your shelter desk and magically think everything will be okay just because you want to save lives, think again. Working animal sheltering is not rocket science, but it’s also not stress-free. Saving lives means many things to many people. To me, it means treating all animals as individuals and doing right by each and every animal that comes into your shelter.
The naysayers can nay and say all they want. The truth is that no kill sheltering isn’t just possible. It is a higher calling and it is happening all around us in places like Fremont County, Colorado. The public did not change and suddenly become more responsible. The number of animals in the community did not change. What changed was the shelter leadership, making all the difference in the world to the community, the shelter employees and the animals in the facility.
A time will come when all animal shelters are no kill facilities. How long it takes us to get to that point in our society is up to all of us.
We hope you enjoy the video. Huge thanks to Grammy award winning artist, writer and producer David Hodges and the management team at Milk & Honey Music (Lucas Keller and Nic Warner) for allowing us to use this wonderful song from Volume 4 of the December Sessions (available on Amazon, iTunes and Spotify.)
I have been blogging a lot lately about the topic of animal shelters and particularly those shelters which destroy healthy and treatable pets. I try to cover a number of topics on my website related to companion animals, but they are all related to the bigger issue of what happens in our nation's animal shelters using our tax dollars. Puppy mills contribute millions of dogs to the market which causes dogs to end up in shelters. Chaining dogs and treating them as resident dogs leads to dogs being in our shelters, perhaps following some attack or fatality. Failure to spay and neuter animals leads to higher animal populations in our communities which means more animals end up in shelters. Failure to embrace TNR (trap, neuter, return) as the most humane method of helping populations of free roaming cats causes more cats to end up in our shelters, with most of them being summarily destroyed.
It's been a tough year from where I sit related to this primary topic of shelters where healthy and treatable animals die. I have seen the shelter in the city where I work fail to sustain progress achieved last year, going back to a culture in which it is permissible to destroy healthy and treatable dogs and label them as having had issues with "behavior." I have seen an organization in a city a couple hours south of me continue to destroy about half of the animals entrusted to its care while still managing to maintain a cult-like following of supporters who either don't know how their tax dollars and donations are being spent or who remain willfully ignorant of what is happening. I have interacted with self-proclaimed animal advocates in other states who have defended the killing of animals in tax-funded shelters while labeling those who are speaking out to change that culture as the source of the problem.
There is a balance to all this bad news, of course. There are incredible things happening in some parts of the country related to shelter animals. Doug Rae of the Humane Society of Fremont County in Colorado was given the Henry Bergh Award for his wonderful life saving work at his shelter where he saves the lives of nearly 100% of his intake. Lake County, Florida, had a shift in culture thanks to the tireless advocacy of Steve Shank and Mike Fry, who managed to get county commissioners on board with a change in culture, leading to a transition to No Kill almost overnight. Phil Peckinpaugh advanced a Companion Animal Protection Act in Muncie, Indiana, which provides that the live release rate at the city shelter will never fall below 90%, among other life-saving and life-affirming provisions. Advocates in Pueblo, Colorado are on the verge of having the Pueblo Animal Protection Act codified, thanks to support from some former and current members of the city council.
But back to reality for a minute. For all of the wonderful things happening related to animal sheltering across the country, the grim reality is that most shelters still destroy the vast majority of the animals entrusted to their care as many people do not know it is happening, do not understand it does not have to happen, defend the killing as some Orwellian form of public service or continues to blame the public as a whole. Even thought it is that very same public which needs to be brought to the table so that they can make better personal choices, so they will adopt, so they will foster, so they will volunteer and so they will donate.
If you run a tax funded animal shelter where you still destroy healthy and treatable animals, please tell me why you still do that instead of embracing proven No Kill programs being used across the country to save those lives and which have been known for almost 20 years.
If you run a tax funded animal shelter and you are offered free help from subject matter experts and you refuse that free help, please tell me why your arrogance continues to be the primary obstacle to saving the lives of animals entrusted to your care.
If you run a tax funded animal shelter and you are provided with researched and reasonable recommendations by animal welfare advocates on how to keep more animals alive without spending any more money, please tell me why it is that you refuse to even consider those recommendations even though they could bring about positive changes, possibly even making you look like a hero in the process.
If you run a tax funded animal shelter and you are incapable of listening to constructive criticism for how you spend public money, please tell me why you remain employed as a pubic servant when you have no intention of being responsive to the public you serve.
If you know that your local tax funded animal shelter destroys healthy and treatable animals using your money and donations, please tell me why you not only support that behavior but you defend it.
If you volunteer for or otherwise support a tax funded animal shelter which destroys healthy and treatable animals using your money and donations, please tell me why you have not tried to educate yourself about No Kill programs and services in order to use your influence to change the culture at the shelter to stop them from destroying animals who either were, our could have become, someone's beloved companion.
I'm not being flippant. I'd really like someone to help me understand all of these behaviors.
Our nation's animal shelters are funded by us, the public. We pay for what happens in those buildings whether it is wonderful, good, bad, heart breaking or criminal. It is time for us to all speak out for how we want our money spent, for us to demand better of those employed using our money and to focus on saving the lives of the companion animals we say we value. It is a betrayal of the public trust for those who manage our animal shelters to destroy animals by the thousands while at the same time blaming us for doing that and failing to fully embrace proven methods to stop it not years from not but right now.
Please just tell me why.
(image of the Muncie Animal Care and Education Center courtesy of the No Kill Advocacy Center)
It has been said that advocacy is not a spectator sport. If you want to be heard on a topic, you have to be willing to get down on the field of play, get dirty and take some hits. Many of us have learned this the hard way. We have also learned how common it is for people to focus on the messenger instead of focusing on why the message is necessary in the first place. Even the most diplomatic of advocacy can make people uncomfortable because it challenges the status quo which most of us have grown accustomed to.
It has also been said that the media is the most powerful entity on Earth because it controls the minds of the masses (Malcolm X). My own experience with the media as it relates to animal welfare advocacy has been a mixed bag. I have found some media outlets and journalists to be incredibly professional and entirely focused on neutral reporting which serves a public purpose and educates the public. I have found that other media outlets and journalists are not at all focused on neutral reporting, almost as if they are afraid to speak out on matters they know may be unpopular. Their bias is demonstrated in how they report on facts either in unexpected ways or incomplete ways. When it comes to how tax dollars are spent, some media outlets have no issue reporting on pot holes in the road or citizen complaints about law enforcement. But reporting on how animal shelters function? That's a whole different topic which seems to be off limits for some reason.
There has been a lot of media coverage in my state recently regarding activities at and by the Greater Birmingham Humane Society which fought for and then obtained municipal animal control and sheltering contracts in early 2015. The public perception of the organization and the behavior of the organization as a whole do not always match. When advocates expressed concern about the organization's own statistics and regarding some behavior, many of those advocates received "cease and desist" letters essentially threatening to sue them. I find that to be a bullying tactic which does not speak well to the true goals of any organization which purports to be focused on the lives of animals and needs public support to do a good job. I fully expect that upon learning of public critiicsm for how tax dollars are spent, an organization would first initiate at least some type of discussion toward resolving conflict or clearing up communication issues. There has been some local media coverage regarding what is going on with the Greater Birmingham Humane Society regarding the volume of animals being euthanized and reports from former employees, volunteers and fosters. I have honestly found it lacking to date. I am told another media outlet is working on an investigative report. Time will tell how deep the story goes or if is is more surface reporting which doesn't closely examine the issues.
One of the people speaking out in Birmingham is Phil Doster, a long time contact of mine. I had hoped that Phil's comments would end up being reported locally. Since they have not, I offered my website as a platform for Phil. Phil is down on the field of play and is getting dirty, knowing full well that many people in his area will be made uncomfortable by his words. I hope you take inspiration from Phil, that you speak your personal truth in your efforts to help animals and that you stand your ground when people try to bully you. The First Amendment is a powerful tool, but we have to have the courage to use it.
So I've been asked my feelings about the Greater Birmingham Humane Society and current leadership, and when I tried to prepare a fair, but critical response, the overwhelming response was that it is not sensational enough. That was never my intent in writing about my experience. I expect us to hold non-profits, especially those with an executive that makes over $160k annually as a base salary, to a high standard of integrity and responsibility. Furthermore, and forgotten in a lot of the conversation, is the fact that it is extremely painful and difficult for former staff to step forward and talk about how they were treated. Many are sensitive and compassionate people who were treated with incredible disrespect and tossed aside when they were no longer useful to specific executives. Below is my experience. You can dislike it if you'd like, but I ask that you consider the people and animals in the shelter, as well as the community that this charity is intended to help.
(images courtesy of Phil Doster)
Americans consider themselves animal friendly. In a national poll, 96 percent of Americans said we have a moral duty to protect animals and we should have strong laws to do so. An AP-Petside Poll from a few years back revealed that three out of four Americans believe it should be illegal for shelters to kill animals if those animals are not suffering. These social attitudes are indicators of our cultural values, at least when it comes to general attitudes about animals and how our nation’s animal shelters operate.
There is, quite unfortunately, a great divide between our social values and how many animal shelters function using our tax dollars and donations. People want animals to be protected and don’t want shelters to destroy animals needlessly, but that is what is happening in the majority of our shelters in all but the most progressive of communities. As Nathan Winograd (the Director of the No Kill Advocacy Center) once said, if we had never killed animals in our shelters and we suddenly decided to do that, people would be outraged. The fact that it has happened for so long has made many of us resigned to the death, as if it is a foregone conclusion. It is not.
The good news is that things are beginning to change. With each passing month and year, the list of places where healthy and treatable animals are no longer at risk in shelters continues to grow. Success is now leading to success. Each time a new community adopts No Kill philosophies and ends the needless destruction of savable pets, other communities in the area and the region see the example and say, “we want that.” In places where municipal officials and shelter leadership do not voluntarily make changes to operate shelters consistent with public values, more and more advocates are stepping up and speaking out to demand that changes be made. Some of these advocates do so in spite of great personal risk and threats by shelter leadership to sue them for having the audacity to speak out. They speak out so they can live with themselves.
When my No Kill Huntsville advocacy group was speaking out to end the destruction of healthy and treatable animals at the local municipal animal shelter, some of the most vocal opposition to our efforts came from some surprising sources. Not only were some shelter employees opposed to our advocacy, we also faced some incredibly hostile opposition from shelter volunteers and supporters, in addition to local rescue group leaders. These are people who would tell you that they feel strongly about helping animals and making good decisions for animals. Rather than consider why our advocacy was necessary in the first place, they expended an incredible amount of energy engaging in personal attacks and defamatory behavior on social media. It was both obstructionist and unproductive.
I have seen this same behavior recently related to the Greater Birmingham Humane Society which fought for and then obtained the municipal animal control and shelter contracts in Alabama. I will likely never understand why a nonprofit organization would seek so much work and take on so many animals, resulting in the deaths of large numbers of those animals. Much like happened in Huntsville during what we call the “difficult years,” people in the Birmingham area are now speaking out in support of the organization even though they have been told (and shown) that the majority of the animals taken in are destroyed in all but some months of the year. There are countless people who have supported the organization so long that it is apparently inconceivable to them that animals are being destroyed needlessly.
All of this strange behavior by people who consider themselves champions for animals and animal welfare got me thinking about a concept you may have heard of before: cognitive dissonance.
In 1957 Psychologist Leon Festinger proposed a theory of cognitive dissonance centered on how people try to reach internal consistency. His theory states that cognitive dissonance is created when we have attitudes, beliefs and behaviors which are in conflict with each other. We naturally feel compelled to have our thoughts consistent and when they are not, it can cause us negative physical tension which can actually be physically uncomfortable. Common examples are when a person knows that smoking is unhealthy but that person still smokes or when a person knows that driving a vehicle which hurts the environment is bad, but still drives that same vehicle.
We know it is a fairly common occurrence for animal shelters to destroy healthy and treatable animals even though doing so is not consistent with public values or current social norms. The reasons this happen are many (and this no longer happens in Huntsville for the most part). My interest is in people who either volunteer in or otherwise support animal shelters which destroy healthy and treatable animals. As hostile as some have been toward me, I recognize that they are all people who either love or care about animals and they are very passionate about it. In spite of this, they often defend the destruction of healthy and treatable animals and in some cases do so with a great deal of hostility, as if they are being personally attacked. Although they would tell us that they don’t think healthy and treatable animals should be destroyed, they are very defensive of the fact that it happens every day
Cognitive dissonance theory states that we routinely resolve the conflict in one of four ways: 1) we change one of the thoughts to alleviate the conflict; 2) we change our behavior to alleviate the conflict; 3) we add new thoughts to rationalize our behavior; or 4) we trivialize the inconsistency.
As it applies to people who defend the destruction of healthy and treatable animals in shelters, an example of how cognitive dissonance works goes like this-
Belief: healthy and treatable animals should not be destroyed in shelters is in conflict with
Behavior: I support a shelter that destroys healthy and treatable animals
Change a belief - the shelter I support has no choice but to destroy healthy and treatable animals
Change behavior - I will not support the shelter because it destroys healthy and treatable animals
Method 3 - Add new thoughts to rationalize - the shelter I support destroys healthy and treatable animals because the public will not spay/neuter, there are too many breeders and the public is irresponsible AND I know that the people who work at the shelter I support are good people who don’t want to destroy animals and are doing the best they can
Method 4 - Trivialize the inconsistency - this happens across the country and there really isn’t any way to change it
The methods I see used most often to alleviate dissonance are adding new thoughts and trivializing the inconsistency. It is easy to come up with a list of reasons to rationalize the destruction of animals who either were, or could have been, someone’s beloved pet who ends up in a shelter due to circumstances beyond the control of the people who love that animal and may be looking for that animal. It is also easy to just throw our hands up in the air, say the problem is too big to be overcome and we just need to live with the fact that it can’t be stopped.
The example I gave above is just the tip of the iceberg. I have heard countless excuses from shelter supporters in defense of the killing of healthy and treatable pets and at the end of they day, they are just that: excuses.
If you currently lead or manage an animal shelter where healthy and treatable animals are destroyed, I challenge you to take immediate action to stop what you are doing. The methods being used across the country to save shelter animals have been known for about two decades. No shelter is an island. If you want to stop destroying savable animals you need only educate yourself about No Kill philosophies and then network with other shelters who can help you learn from their successes. If you refuse to do at least that, and do it with a sense of urgency, I encourage you to find another occupation.
If you currently work at an animal shelter where healthy and treatable animals are destroyed and you feel you have no control over that, please do all you can to try to use your influence to get the shelter leadership to network with No Kill facilities or communities in order to learn new ways to keep animals alive. If you are not willing to do that, you may very well find that your life will become incredibly difficult as you try to reconcile your personal beliefs with what happens at work every day you are there. We all decide what we will and will not tolerate in our working environments.
If you currently support an animal shelter where healthy and treatable animals are destroyed, please ask yourself why you tolerate that. As uncomfortable as it may make you to read these words - your silence is your consent. Consider becoming a positive influence for change to try to get the shelter to embrace proven programs being used across the country to save the lives of shelter animals. One of the worst things you can do as someone who cares about the well-being of companion animals is to enable the killing or be an apologist for the killing. The very worst thing you can do it to engage in obstructionist behavior to prevent shelter reform. Doing so only puts the lives of more animals at risk.
A time will come when all animal shelters in America are No Kill shelters and the practice of killing healthy and treatable animals is simply part of our shameful past.
It’s time to lead, follow or get out of the way.
I have always considered myself an animal person. I grew up in an animal integrated household and my siblings and I were taught from an early age that all life has value. We always had rescued pets in our house and some years we had many of them. For much of my adult life, I considered myself fairly well educated on general animal issues. Like most people, however, I lived inside the bubble of my own reality. It wasn't until 2006 after we had our dog euthanized to prevent her from suffering that I had a personal epiphany about what happens in our nation's animal “shelters” using our money and for which we are blamed: the killing of millions of healthy and treatable animals. When Nathan Winograd published his ground breaking and controversial book in 2007, I was further changed. I still consider “Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America” to be compulsory reading for any animal welfare advocate. The content is just as valid today as it was ten years ago. As I have said before, Nathan did not “invent” the animal protection movement or even the No Kill movement as we know it today. That process began more than 100 years ago with Henry Bergh who founded what we now refer to as the American Society for the Protection of Animals. If you have not seen the documentary film which is based on Redemption, I really encourage you to watch it. Much like the book, the film is as much a history lesson as anything and it helps you understand how we got from a time in 1866 when Bergh was changing hearts and minds regarding compassion toward animals to our present reality of killing millions of animals. We kill far fewer shelter animals now that we did a few decades ago, but millions are still at risk each year and thousands die each day using our money.
Since the time I became a No Kill advocate years ago, my views on the subject have really not changed at all. I think it is unethical for us to house animals in places we call shelters and then use tax dollars and donations to destroy healthy and treatable animals. As Nathan Winograd once pointed out, if we had never killed animals in our nation's shelters, but we started doing it today, what would people say? There would be incredible outrage for sure. The public would speak out en masse and the killing would stop. It is incredibly unfortunate that many in our society somehow tolerate or forgive the killing just because it has been going on for so long that people think there is no other way. We have been told so many times that the killing is due to a “pet overpopulation” problem that we don't question it. Animals don't die in shelters because of pet overpopulation. They die in shelters which are overpopulated with pets because the shelters have failed to embrace the very programs of the No Kill Equation set forth in Redemption more than ten years ago (and which have been known for much longer than that) to stop the archaic and outdated practice.
For No Kill advocates, ending the killing of shelter pets is like drawing a line in the sand. You draw that line and then you do not cross it. You do not go back to the old ways no matter what. I have stood the line to end shelter killing for over a decade. I have stood that line along with contacts of mine from across the country too numerous to name. We are the animal welfare advocates in the weeds of grassroots reform and we speak with one voice, for the most part, as we seek to end shelter killing. Most of us promote the No Kill Equation because it can be molded and shaped to fit the resources of any community and because it has been proven to work in every place where it has been comprehensively implemented. Some of us promote the same programs of the equation even if we do not refer to it using the same terminology. We seek a time when the needless killing of pets in our shelters ends and we seek it with a sense of urgency. We all promote diplomacy in communities with regressive shelters which are still destroying animals needlessly. Although there is no polite way to say, “please stop killing animals,” we have always encouraged people to do what we call “the ask” first in an effort to gain the cooperation of shelter leadership and municipal officials toward changing the culture in shelters as a first option. There is truly no point in expending energy on what amounts to political advocacy if it's not necessary. In my own case, I wish the ask had worked. The path taken would have been much faster and much smoother if everyone could have cooperated from the start. The ask was denied and this led to years and years of struggle in which far too much energy was spent defending the continued killing when that same energy could have been used to stop it.
There was a recent exchange on the social media page for an organization called No Kill Movement, of which I am a member. I, and other members of the organization, were referred to as a “radical wing” of No Kill shelter reform. At first I was confused by this and then I kind of laughed. Now I find myself both amused and annoyed.
There is nothing radical about the No Kill philosophies I promote. And I have not changed in that regard in a decade. I would actually argue that I have become more tolerant and more diplomatic in how I interact with municipal officials and shelter officials because I have learned over the years which tactics work better than others in efforts to gain cooperation faster and I do volunteer work for animal control agencies which I support.
So, what changed? While I, and other like me, have remained in place, standing the line, it is those around us who have changed. While we have continued to stay on topic and promote philosophies which bring an end to shelter killing now and not years from now, others around us have seemingly decided that it is more important to focus on planning and not offending anyone than it is to stop killing animals right now. Kindness is given a premium over urgency to save lives. One woman who proclaims herself an animal advocate stated that she “learned that what's effective in creating change is to get as many people as possible on board -- including city leaders, local organizations, and the public. There are situations where 'calling out' may be important, but in most cases the fastest progress is made by cooperation.” I'm glad that is her experience. Unfortunately, it is not mine and it is not the experience of most of the advocates with whom I interact.
It would be wonderful if every community which operates a shelter where healthy and treatable animals are destroyed would stop doing that as a result of being asked to stop and through cooperative efforts which are free of drama, defensiveness and opposition. I hope that as more time goes by and No Kill becomes the norm in more places, community leaders will work to get ahead of this issue without having to be asked at all. Advocacy is hard work and I would like nothing more than for that work to not be required at all. Dare to dream.
In the meantime, call me a radical. Fine with me. Call me divisive. I don't agree with that, but that is your choice. I will instead call myself principled and committed to the same goals and standards I have been for the last decade. I still stand the line. And I am proud to do it with others like me who are working hard to help change our society using grassroots advocacy.
As Margaret Mead so aptly said, “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” Exactly.
It has been said that if we do not learn from history, we are bound to repeat it. It has also been said that in order to learn from history, it must be factually accurate. When we modify the sequence of events which transpired to get from Point A to Point B, we more often than not will learn the wrong lessons. These statements are universally true regardless of the subject to which we apply them. They take on particular importance in the animal welfare movement and more specifically, in the No Kill movement.
The reality is that advocating to save the lives of healthy and treatable animals can be incredibly difficult even if it should not be. The concept seems pretty simple, right? We want to keep healthy and treatable shelter pets alive and do not want our tax dollars or donations used to destroy them. On the surface this may seem like a universally accepted position. The vast majority of Americans think it should be illegal for animal shelters to destroy animals who are not suffering or who are not genuinely dangerous. I have never met a person who has said, "I want my money used to kill animals in need instead of keeping them alive." The concept itself may seem simple on the surface, but putting it into practice is something else entirely.
Americans have been housing animals in places we call "shelters" for over 100 years and have been destroying healthy and treatable animals for as long as anyone can remember. Although the number of animals destroyed in our nation’s shelters has declined greatly in the last 40 years, we still kill healthy and treatable animals by the millions. This Orwellian practice is not at all in keeping with our cultural values about companion animals even though many people have come to accept it as some unfortunate reality. We are told that animals die in shelters because we just have too many of them, a statement which is completely untrue. We are also told that animals die in shelters due to the "irresponsible public" who treat animals as if they are disposable and who refuse to spay and neuter pets to keep them from reproducing. There are people who are irresponsible and should never have pets at all, but it is completely illogical to blame the public for the fact that animals die in shelters while at the same time expecting that very same pubic to make better personal choices, adopt animals and foster animals.
This whole calcified mind set of "oh well, we just can’t save them all," has led to a culture in which the destruction of perfectly healthy and treatable animals is somehow tolerable and that shelters are given a free pass for performing some bizarre public service which is unavoidable. When those shelters are operated by municipalities, or on behalf of municipalities, the amount of time and energy expended to defend the killing can be quite mind boggling.
I first introduced Huntsville city officials to No Kill philosophies in late 2008 at a time when three out of every four animals entering the shelter were destroyed. My personal efforts failed. The shelter director is a veterinarian. The mayor never said as much, but my impression is that he had complete confidence in his department head and was sure that she would not destroy animals needlessly. The mayor’s chief of staff once told me in an email that there was no greater champion for animals in our community than the shelter director. She may have taken an oath to use her "scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health and welfare," but she was still killing healthy and treatable animals by the thousands.
In early 2012, I decided to form an animal welfare advocacy group (which is essentially a political advocacy group) called No Kill Huntsville. The members of our coalition had spent years working independently of each other to bring about change in the region and had failed. The time had come to join forces and work together to speak with one voice. We spent most of our first year as a coalition conducting research and interacting with successful No Kill shelters and communities across the country. We knew we would have one first chance as an organization to convince city officials that Huntsville could become a No Kill community and the destruction of healthy and treatable animals could end.
In early 2013, the city was offered help from subject matter experts in order to do better and learn more about how proven No Kill programs could be implemented by the shelter. Although we would have paid for the help and it would have cost the city nothing but time, the help was refused. The city's position at that time was that the shelter was doing a beautiful job and doing all it could to save lives - even when the live release rate was just over 40 percent.
We first took this issue to the public in the summer of 2013, having reached the conclusion that city officials were satisfied with how the animal shelter was operating and feeling like we had hit a wall in terms of diplomatic efforts to get the city to change on its own. We believed it would take public pressure and demand to force the city to reconsider spending money on death rather than on life. It was after we took the subject to the public in very visible ways and on an ongoing basis that things began to change.
There will always be a degree of dispute about exactly what led to the progress we now see. There have been many factors involved in this process, not the least of which is the arrival on the scene of a new City Administrator who told us in early 2014 that he supported change and that he too wanted the city to save the lives of all healthy and treatable shelter animals. He was, and still is, the key to holding the shelter director accountable for her actions and inaction. We have met with him numerous times over the years to share our research, to applaud progress and to encourage the city to fine tune programs and operations in order to fully embrace the elements of the No Kill Equation (which he once laid out as a drawing similar to the Parthenon).
The path taken to get to this point, and the particular struggles faced along the way, are not directly relevant to us here in Huntsville now that we have "arrived" for the most part. But those facts are entirely relevant to communities outside of this one which may look to our progress and wish to replicate it themselves. We do a disservice to those places if we behave as if our progress here was achieved by reaching across differences, finding common ground and all working together to seek a newer and better future. Yes, this community has achieved tremendous success. But it took years longer than it would have taken had the city simply decided to act on its own many years ago and without the necessity of a group like ours to demand accountability from the city, a process which has taken a great toll on everyone involved. There were literally years when we were both advocating for reform while fending off opponents seven days a week. Some of the most hostile opposition came from shelter employees, shelter volunteers and even leadership of otherwise well-respected rescue groups. While we took painstaking efforts to keep our communications diplomatic and respectful, focusing on municipal accountability and not on individual people, those who opposed our mission did not. Opponents engaged in personal attacks, the low point of which was a hate page on social media which included juvenile and defamatory content. The page was supported by and commented on by the shelter director, a veterinarian who earns a 6-figure salary and who is a public servant. I ultimately filed a formal complaint with the city about her conduct being unbecoming a city employee and in violation of city policies. The hate page was deleted some months later with the help of the City Administrator after we deduced the identity of the shelter employee who created it.
Huntsville is getting a lot of attention these days across the country as a result of the progress made at our municipal animal shelter. People who live and work here are thrilled with the progress, as they well should be. Shelter animals are now safer here than they have ever been in the history of the community as save rates have reached and then exceeded 90% of all shelter intake. Huntsville is being referred to as an example of what can happen "in the south" with a shift in focus and using the compassion which exists in an animal loving community. The city has yet to make a public declaration of intent that healthy and treatable animals are no longer at risk here moving forward, regardless of the circumstances we may face. I hope a day will come when the city does just that; there is really no good reason to avoid making the commitment to a standard which has already been achieved. We were told by the city administrator recently that no healthy and treatable animals have been destroyed for space in almost three years.
For all of our applause of the city for the progress which has been made, the reality in our community is that this process has been a struggle and did not come easily. If you have been told or have heard a version of the history which led to this progress and the story begins with the City of Huntsville voluntarily making sweeping changes, you have been told a history which is devoid of facts and which has been sanitized. If you have been told that a consulting group called Target Zero was the key to change in this city, I would dispute that as well. The portion of the history which involves Target Zero is the subject of another blog and I will not recount the events there. The short version is that Target Zero came on scene for a short period of time after numerous changes had already been made and has since departed as the members of my coalition continue to work with city officials and keep the public engaged. Target Zero is now marketing itself using Huntsville as an example of what it can do in other communities. I find this deceptive as long as only part of the story is told. I think it is possible people will be misled into believing they can replicate the progress made here simply by hiring a consulting organization which is backed by influential people and organizations which support Target Zero financially.
This rewriting of history has occurred related to other locations like Reno and Austin and it is not uncommon in this social movement. Perhaps it just makes a lot of people uncomfortable to think about some of the more unpleasant parts of those stories which relate to conflict and struggle. Perhaps it is easier to make it sound like there was opposition now that so many lives are being saved. That opposition is difficult to defend now and our most hostile critics have gone silent. We know we have had a role in the history here and firmly believe that but for our advocacy, little would have changed here. We didn't have the advantage of funding from outside sources or a national platform to stand upon. Although some funding would have helped, we had what we needed most: determination to bring change to an area and a commitment to see the process through, no matter the personal cost.
Make no mistake - this is not about credit. We have always said that we seek to become irrelevant as a coalition not because we are being ignored, but because we are no longer needed to be boat rockers for community change. We have sat silently on the sidelines while others have taken credit for the changes which have been made here and we plan to continue to do just that. Why? Because we know what we did and we know that our efforts led to the tipping point which allowed change to happen. This is not at all about people and patting each other on the back and it is very much about saving lives. But this is also about being honest about our history here so that others can learn from it and perhaps avoid some of the conflict we endured. Much of what took place here was unproductive and led to a higher body count.
A time will come in the history of our country when all municipal shelters are No Kill shelters and all communities are No Kill communities because that is what the public wants and will demand. I encourage any community which is looking at the progress in Huntsville, Alabama, to take proactive steps to get ahead of this issue and make change voluntarily. Listen to the advocates and animal lovers who come to you with ideas, enthusiasm, research and help. They often know much more about the subject than you may imagine and it is likely they are networked with subject matter experts who can guide and help your community to achieve change not in years but in weeks or months. Invest your time and focus into doing what is right so that energy is spent not on struggle and conflict, but on saving the lives of the animals we say we love and value.
I am an animal welfare advocate. My goal is to help people understand some basic issues related to companion animals in America. Awareness leads to education leads to action leads to change.
image courtesy of Terrah Johnson