I had a conversation with some of my contacts in the national No Kill community recently about the toll taken at shelters where healthy and treatable animals are destroyed. We started talking about it after an article was written by some big thinkers in the animal shelter industry called “The Human Face of Shelter Euthanasia.” Some of the content of the article troubled me and for some reason the article is not available, at least not now. The article and our conversation got me thinking about the changes I have seen in the shelter industry in the last fifteen years - at least in some places - and how the culture in shelters affects not just the animals, but the people in the building and the community as a whole.
The best way to explain this is with two examples.
Shelter A is a kill shelter which means that healthy and treatable animals are killed for space, convenience or what some call “lack of resources.” This means that animals who are suffering are euthanized and dogs who are too dangerous to be out in the community are destroyed, but the lives of animals who are otherwise healthy and treatable are also ended. There are a number of excuses used for this, but the end result is the same because the act is permanent. The general mindset at this shelter is that it is the fault of the public that animals “have to" die. Employees and volunteers tell themselves there is no other way because the public just does not care enough. They say that if the public would only keep pets contained, spay and neuter pets, stop breeding animals, be more responsible, etc., the shelter would not be forced to end so many lives. Some of the people in this shelter take great pride in how they treat the animals prior to ending their lives, spending extra time with them or giving them special food or treats much like a death row inmate may receive a last meal. Most shelter employees lament the death, but tell themselves there are fates worth that death like adopting to a “less than” family (which means a family which does not meet all of the shelter criteria to adopt) or like having the animals develop negative behaviors while in the shelter due to stress. I see these attitudes as a form of cognitive dissonance.
The toll taken by the killing in this shelter is paid 1) by the healthy and treatable animals who should have and could have been saved; 2) by the people who work in the shelter and who have either engaged with the animals are who are tasked with ending their lives; 3) and by the community as a whole. This shelter is seen by the public not as a place of hope, but as a place of death. People do not want to go there, do not want to take their children there, and for the most part do not want to volunteer there because it is emotionally easier to just distance themselves from what happens at the shelter than to deal with the death. They just can't handle it and feel powerless to do anything about it.
Shelter B is a No Kill shelter which means healthy and treatable animals are not destroyed. Animals who are suffering or are irremediably ill are euthanized for reasons of mercy. Dogs who are genuinely dangerous to the public are also euthanized because they are considered untreatable (as opposed to dogs who have mild to moderate behavior issues who can be rehabilitated, fostered and adopted into homes). In this shelter, each animal is treated as an individual and is viewed as having been - or being capable of being - someone’s beloved pet. The shelter staff works incredibly hard every day to keep pets in existing homes to avoid them entering the shelter, to provide enrichment and care to those animals in the shelter and to get animals out into foster homes, adoptive homes or to rescue groups as soon as possible. For this shelter, the public is not the enemy. The public is presumed to care and to sometimes need help and guidance either to make better personal decisions or to learn how to help the shelter. The shelter communicates on an ongoing basis with the public to help them keep pets contained, find lost pets, make sure pets can be identified, overcome problem behaviors, locate resources in the community (food, veterinary care, spay/neuter assistance and behavioral help), learn how to foster pets, learn how to volunteer to help pets, learn how to adopt pets and about pets who are at risk and need to get out of the shelter immediately because they are doing poorly in the shelter environment.
The people who work in this shelter have incredibly difficult jobs, but they take pride in what they do. Each day is a new opportunity to help animals in need while serving the community. There is sorrow when the lives of shelter animals are ended, but staff and volunteers are confident that each animal euthanized was given every opportunity to leave the shelter alive, they did their very best to find a positive outcome and the ending of the life was done for reasons of mercy.
I work in a community where the shelter was once like Shelter A and is now like Shelter B. The transition from a shelter which had historically destroyed thousands of healthy and treatable animals each year to one where very few animals die each year has been nothing short of remarkable. This transition did not happen because the public suddenly became more responsible or cared more or made better choices. The transition was at times incredibly difficult and it made a lot of people uncomfortable. It’s hard to admit that there is a new way of functioning while not focusing on the past and what could have been. Change happened as a result of municipal leadership, advocacy and public pressure and it has led to a complete shift in culture at the animal shelter. Are there still issues? Sure. Is there fine tuning to be done? Absolutely. But a building which was once used to house and then destroy animals is now used to house animals and keep them alive.
When I think of how the shelter functioned before, I know the operation was fatal for so very many animals, detrimental to the mental, emotional and likely the physical health of the staff, and was a source of shame in an otherwise very progressive community.
But all that is in the past. Now the shelter is a place of hope instead of death. People in the community turn to the shelter for help, guidance and assistance. Working and volunteering there is still a challenge because the work is really hard, but it is also rewarding which means the people who manage and help the operation are happier. I have been told that the pressure to keep up the level of life-saving is intense and I’m sure it is. The public has come to expect that animals will be kept alive now that a higher standard has been achieved. There are still critics and there always will be, but the way in which the shelter operates is now a source of community pride.
What kind of shelter do you want for your community? A or B?
I know the price. I know the toll. I know my choice.
(Images courtesy of Erick Pleitez and Lisa Vallez)
I 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!)
It is obvious that our nation is in a state of crisis. The news of the COVID 19 pandemic is all around us. We’re all doing our best to get through this period together while changing our personal behavior to reduce the loss of life. The situation is evolving so rapidly that it’s enough to cause all of us to feel ill to some degree as we try to keep up. Stress levels are high. The pandemic affects every aspect of our daily lives and those effects extend to places we might not have expected.
I got an email from an author contact of mine this morning, Cara Sue Achterberg, wondering what we can to about reports we are hearing that some animal shelters plan to destroy their entire populations of animals in anticipation that they will not be able to manage the intake of animals. I’ve seen posts on social media to the same effect. I’m honestly not sure how pervasive this “mass killing” problem really is on a national level. I've also read about people surrendering pets to shelters because they fear they can get COVID 19 from an animal. The information from the CDC about that rumor is here.
Yes, this is a time of crisis. That’s the bad news.
But there’s good news. Now is the perfect time to makes changes in the culture in our animal shelters and our communities to keep animals alive. We know how to reduce shelter intake. We know how to increase shelter output. The methods have been know for years. We do those things using the programs and services of the No Kill Equation which was developed by Nathan Winograd and about which I have written many times.
Foster programs get animals out of shelters quickly. Many people are working from home. This is a great time for people to foster a shelter pet not only to free up shelter space, but to help the animal get adopted faster. Most animals behave completely differently in a home than they do inside a shelter, so fostering provides a great opportunity to learn more about them and to help them decompress. Photographs, video clips and information about the animals are then used for marketing purposes. I saw a Facebook post just this morning about the Kern County Animal Shelter which is doing drive-up foster pick up of animals to free up shelter space.
(image courtesy of the Kern County Animal Services)
Promoting adoption of animals is always important, but now it is critically important. Shelters can use the media and social media to let the public know how to adopt an animal and what animals are available using adoption specials and promotions. In a time of crisis like this, shelters do well to either waive adoption fees (while still doing screening) or drastically reduce those fees. Many shelters have used this opportunity to reach the public about adoptions using humor. These images are from Huntsville Animal Services in Alabama, which is my local tax-funded shelter; they were taken by Kelly Jo (an incredibly talented Lead Kennel Attendant) and posted on the shelter's Facebook page. Just like now is a great time to foster a pet, now is a great time to adopt a pet. With so many people working from home, it provides a wonderful opportunity to help animals decompress from their shelter stay and get settled into a new home.
(images courtesy of Kelly Jo)
Pet Retention Programs
Managed intake is more important now than ever. Most shelters are not obligated to take owned animals and they should not be taking them now. Shelters should be doing all they can to encourage pet retention to keep pets in existing homes or help people rehome pets themselves with family members, friends, co-workers of people they attend church with, know from social groups, etc. Now is a great time for shelters to share information about pet food banks or even partner with local rescue groups to provide free pet food to people who may have lost a job or otherwise be facing a financial crisis. Shelters can also share information about local veterinary resources (to resolve health conditions which may be causing undesirable pet behavior) and about local trainers and behaviorists (to resolve issues with pet behavior which may be the reason someone wants to surrender their pet to an animal shelter). In many cases, a desperate pet owner can be referred to a local rescue group for help. If an owner still insists they must surrender their pet, they should be put on a waiting list to do that once space becomes available.
Community Involvement/Public Relations
Shelters that work hard to keep their communities informed will always operate more efficiently, but now is the time to really ramp up public relations to get the animal-loving community involved. Use of the media - both television and radio - and social media is the bridge to connect shelters to the public which affects the number of animals entering shelters and the number of animals leaving shelters. Although many shelters assume the public is aware of the need to make better decisions and to adopt, foster, volunteer, etc. most people just don’t think about their local animal shelter unless it is put on their “personal radar” for some reason. If a shelter needs help from the community, it has to say so loudly, clearly and often. Tell people to take extraordinary steps to keep pets contained so they don’t end up in the shelter. Tell people what to do if their pet does go missing. Tell people about how the process works to foster and adopt animals. Tell people about the animals in the shelter who need to be fostered or adopted using images, video clips and information. An engaged public is a active public which can do amazing things in times of need, it only we tell people how they can help.
The programs I covered above are just some of the programs of the No Kill Equation. Now is the time to get progressive. Now is the time to make better choices to keep animals alive with the help of the community.
I hope that the rumors I’ve heard of shelters essentially “cleaning house” of both animals and bacteria are false.
As I told Cara this morning, I think shelters will go one of two ways. Shelters led by progressive people or people who genuinely care will rise to the challenge. They will get creative and do everything possible to help their communities and keep animals alive. Regressive shelters led by people who remain willfully ignorant of progressive programs will likely use the crisis as an excuse to kill animals while making it sound like they are performing some Orwellian public service.
What will your animal shelter do? Will it rise to the occasion or will it make excuses? No matter what happens at your local shelter in the weeks and months to come, remember that you are paying for it.
These links are not directly related to this blog, but may be helpful for
you regarding pets and COVID 19.
Animals and Coronavirus Disease 2019
COVID 19 and Animals FAQs from the CDC
COVID 19 FAQs from the American Veterinary Medical Association
How to Care for Dogs and Cats during Coronavirus
I’m hearing a lot of chatter these days about a new phrase which is making the rounds: Socially Conscious Sheltering. Like many phrases used in animal welfare circles, the meaning of the phrase isn’t clear from the words used so I did some poking around to educate myself. What I found was disturbing. I am waiting for some voices louder than mine on the national stage to take on this issue, but am sharing my thoughts to get some conversations started.
According to a page on the website for the Denver Dumb Friends League in Colorado:
Socially conscious sheltering’s fundamental goal is to create the best outcomes for all animals. The noted best outcomes are reached by striving for the “Five Freedoms,” which were developed in the United Kingdom in 1965.
A simple search about the Five Freedoms reveals that the origins of the freedoms relate to what is commonly referred to as “livestock production systems.” In 1964, a British woman named Ruth Harrison wrote a book called “Animal Machines” which described intensive livestock and poultry farming practices. Due to public outcry about the book, the British Government formed a committee to examine the way farm animals were treated. The committee presented a report in 1965 that concluded that farm animals should have the freedom to "stand up, lie down, turn around, groom themselves and stretch their limbs.” After the report was published, another committee was created to monitor livestock production leading to the “Five Freedoms” being codified (made law). They have since been adopted by a host of organizations and professional groups around the globe. The Five Freedoms are:
The Five Freedoms should not be controversial related to shelter animals. Surely all of us can agree that animals deserve to be properly cared for and should be free from hunger, thirst, discomfort, pain, injury, disease, fear, distress and should be able to express normal behavior. The problem arises when we try to apply these freedoms to animal shelters and the interpretation of what the words mean related to whether or not animals are kept alive.
Hunger and thirst are easily addressed by any animal shelter. Shelter animals should have continuous access to clean water and should be fed a nutritious diet daily.
Discomfort is easy to understand and should be easy to address. Animals in shelters should be housed in such a way that they are protected from the elements and have a comfortable place to sleep.
Pain, injury or disease are also not complicated issues for animal shelters. Shelters should take immediate steps to alleviate pain, treat (or prevent) injuries and treat (or prevent) diseases.
Expressing normal behavior becomes a little more complicated. What is normal to one person may not be normal to another. The reality is that most animal shelters are designed in ways which negate the ability for animals to behave normally. Dogs, which are pack animals, are normally housed by themselves in narrow kennels in which they can smell and hear other dogs, and may be able to see some dogs, but cannot get to those dogs. The kennels are ordinarily in rows which face each other allowing room for staff, volunteers and members of the public to view or access the dogs. It should come as no surprise that dogs in shelters do not behave normally due to the shelter itself more than a reflection of how they would normally behave. Dogs in shelters often show barrier aggression (which is really not aggression at all) and can display stress behaviors like pacing, jumping and barking. The situation for cats in most shelters is not much different. Most shelters house cats by themselves in stacked, stainless steel kennels. They can smell and hear other cats they more often than not cannot see and there is little room for movement.
Fear and distress are also more complicated – many animals will behave in ways which show fear and distress inside the animal shelter for the same reasons they do not “express normal behavior.” Some dogs show fear-based aggression or barrier aggression which is not surprising in light of the manner in which they are housed. Cats often exhibit some form of distress due to being housed in small kennels.
As much as we would all like to believe that we all want the same things for shelter animals, the reality is that is not the case. We are not all on the same page. Some shelters treat all animals as individuals who either were, or could become, someone’s beloved pet. They go to great lengths to explore all possible options to ensure animals leave the building alive and go on to lead wonderful lives with new families. Other shelters are not quite as progressive. They view the animals in their buildings as being there due to the fault of the irresponsible public which do not make enough good choices and which treat animals as if they are disposable (when, in fact, it is the shelter which is behaving that way by destroying healthy and treatable animals).
Even if we all agree that the Five Freedoms are good in principle, using those guidelines to make decisions about which animals live and die is another matter. If a dog does not behave normally in a shelter due to the shelter environment itself, does that make it permissible to destroy that dog? If a cat is fearful and in distress because it is housed in a small kennel day after day after day, do we say that cat is “suffering mentally” and tell ourselves we are saving that cat from a fate worse than death by ending the cat's life? In some shelters, those are the very decisions being made.
The Five Freedoms should be considered in light of why they were developed and when they were developed. They were created more than 50 years ago related not to companion animals, but to livestock. This does not mean they have no application to animals in our nation’s shelters. What it does mean is that the words should not be used to provide cover to regressive animal shelters which have not kept pace with programs and services being used across the country (and which have been known for a couple of decades) to keep shelter animals alive while ensuring they are properly housed, cared for and provided with enrichment opportunities. They words should not provide political cover to go back in time to a period in our history when animals were killed because it was easier than saving them or because death was seen as a better alternative to being housed in an animal shelter.
My biggest concern thus far with the concept of Socially Conscious Sheltering is the idea that it is somehow better than, or in conflict with, no kill philosophies. Much to my disappointment, the website for the Denver Dumb Friends League goes on to state the following:
In the no kill movement, the phrase “no kill” means we do not destroy healthy and treatable animals. Period. The No Kill Equation which was developed by Nathan Winograd and is being used by animal shelters across the country serves to both keep animals from entering shelters in the first place and serves to move them through the animal shelter as quickly as possible. No kill philosophies do not promote “sheltering homeless animals with the intention of keeping them alive indefinitely irrespective to the pet’s level of suffering.” They serve to treat all animals as individuals who are worth of our attention, time, patience and commitment to keep them alive. It is also not helpful to say that no kill proponents “often spread misleading and inaccurate information which, unfortunately, is believed by many people.” That is a loaded statement for which no details, examples or support has been provided at all.
The Denver Dumb Friends League is not the only organization which promotes Socially Conscious Sheltering while at the same time making the no kill movement seem irresponsible and uncaring. A simple Google search for the phrase results in a number of hits. I found a full page of information on the subject on the website for the Santa Cruz Animal Shelter in California which credits the content to the President and CEO of the Denver Dumb Friends League, the President and CEO of the Humane Society of Pikes Peake Region and the CEO of the Humane Society of Boulder Valley, all in Colorado. This website states that Socially Conscious Sheltering is being “slaughtered by the No Kill Movement” (perhaps not the best choice of words) and that “No Kill is Slow Kill.” In April, the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association Board approved a position statement “supporting the socially conscious animal community movement and opposing the no kill movement in animal welfare." According to the CVMA website, the no kill movement increases animal suffering, threatens public health, causes animals to languish in cases, causes dangerous dogs to be placed in the community, and puts animal welfare at risk. I would honestly like to see support for those statements, if they even exist. I am the first to admit that there are some organizations which use the no kill phrase in ways which do not comport with no kill as a social movement, but those places do not represent the entire movement any more than the criminal behavior of some backyard breeders represent the entire breeding industry or any more than the collecting behavior of some animal rescue groups represents all animal rescue groups.
Wow. Just wow.
We sometimes joke in the state where I live, Alabama, that time travel really is possible. It just depends on where you go and who lives there. There are antiquated beliefs and values to be found across the state which have not kept pace with the rest of modern society.
As much as Colorado has a national reputation as being progression on a number of fronts, it appears that the state has taken a trip back in time when it comes to animal sheltering concepts, relying not on the progressive and genuinely successful programs of the No Kill Equation, but instead focusing on a set of freedoms developed more than fifty years ago. Perhaps we should not be surprised when we consider that BSL (Breed Specific Legislation) is still alive and well in Denver even though it has proven to be ineffective.
I feel confident my dog will never end up in an animal shelter. Having said that, if he did end up in an animal shelter, I want the shelter to function using no kill programs and services to help him while still providing the Five Freedoms. I want him to have access to nutritional food and clean water. I want him to be housed in a place that keeps him safe from the elements and allows him to sleep comfortably. I want him to have the ability to go outside for walks, to run and play, and to interact with other dogs. I want him to have enrichment using toys, treats and by participating in play groups. If he acts fearful or stressed, I want him to be given opportunities to express normal behavior outside of the building and not be judged by how he behaves in a small kennel. If he hides in the back of his kennel or paces, I don’t want him destroyed because someone thought he was “suffering” and felt that death must be a better alternative. If he stays in the shelter for a few weeks without being adopted, I don’t want him destroyed because of some fabricated expiration date which says he has been there too long. The dog I’m speaking about was in a municipal animal shelter for over a month before we adopted him. He lacked manners. He was heart worm positive. He was kept alive and we thankfully found him. Had he been housed in an animal shelter in some places in Colorado, I do not have confidence his outcome would have been the same. And that would have been a tragedy.
If you’re not sure how you feel about Socially Conscious Sheltering as a “better” alternative to the no kill movement, think what you would want for your own animals. I know my answer. What’s yours?
Note: After I published my blog the Denver Dumb Friends League modified the Socially Conscious Sheltering page of the website to remove the text I quoted above. It still, however, has a FAQs page which contains the following language which I find incredibly unhelpful. Who is being divisive now?
As I stated above, trying to describe all no kill advocates in such broad generalizations is disingenuous. Stating the Austin study was "flawed" while providing no information to back that up in any way is also misleading.
It’s official. I’ve written a book. I never planned to, but life sometimes takes us down paths we did not expect. This is one of them for me.
In August of 2018, I had a meeting with documentary film maker Anne Taiz about the second of two films she’s working on related to the no kill movement. The first film focuses on San Francisco. It is in final editing now. The second film Anne hopes to make focuses on different places across the country where animal shelter reform has happened. Anne and I met to talk about the work of an advocacy group I lead called No Kill Huntsville which has worked for years to change the culture in the community regarding how the animal shelter functions using tax dollars. At one point in our conversation, Anne paused and said, “you should really write a book.” I scoffed at the time. I think I may even have laughed. A book? Really? Who would read it? Would it really help anyone? I discounted the idea and moved on.
I formed No Kill Huntsville in 2012, when my individual efforts to encourage the city where I work to change (which began in 2008) fell short. I believed I had been easily dismissed advocating on my own and felt that a small coalition of advocates speaking with one voice may be more effective. At the time we began our advocacy, the live release rate at the shelter was 34% which means that two out of every three animals were destroyed. The situation in Huntsville was depressing, infuriating and exasperating. We felt, and still feel, that the city is far too progressive to destroy healthy and treatable animals just because that was what had been done for years.
Fast forward a few years and things have change drastically as a result of our advocacy, members of the public who spoke out and asked for better use of tax dollars and municipal leadership. To say ours was a struggle would be an understatement. We spent years working our issue 7 days a week in the face of a great deal of opposition, much of which came from the rescue community.
After the city began making changes, we began to shift our focus to promoting a Companion Animal Protection Act which we called the Huntsville Animal Protection Act. This is local legislation that sets basic standards for the operation of the animal shelter, codifying the standards so they are maintained regardless of who runs the shelter and who leads the city. We had support for HAPA on the council, but the city decided to revise Chapter 5 of the city code, which governs the subject of animals for the entire city. This means that it covers not just the animal shelter operation, but also laws about licensing, animals running at large, violations, and penalties for those violations.
In October 2018, we learned that the HAPA as we had written it would not be included in the city’s revisions to Chapter 5 of the city code, but that about 80 percent of what we had proposed would be included. One of the provisions we felt most strongly about—the language about the live release rate not falling below 90 percent—did not make the cut. (We had the percentage in the language not as a goal, but as a stop gap measure to prevent the city from ever returning to a time when the vast majority of animals in the shelter died there). We were told that the city did not want to legislate outcomes. We were disappointed, but we knew there was little we could do to change the city’s position. We did not get the HAPA in quite the form we had hoped. What we did get was strong language regarding the city's intent regarding animal welfare and the shelter operation (and assurances that some of the language included in the HAPA would be included in policy revisions rather than being codified as part of the law for the city).
After our work to promote the Huntsville Animal Protection Act was suspended in late 2017, I thought back to how many times we have been contacted by advocates in other parts of the state, other states, and even other countries asking for help. It was then that I decided to write the book, hoping that it would of value to others. Each country, state, and community are different, but some concepts are universal related to the nature of advocacy and the opposition to change.
I do not consider the Huntsville story to be the success story I had hoped for or which we have seen in other places. It took years for change to occur and there is much work to be done by city officials moving forward, particularly to keep more dogs alive. There are a variety of things we have asked the city to do which do not cost anything, or for which there is support on the council for some limited spending, which have yet to be considered. I can only speculate as to why that is, based on our history with some city officials who cannot hear the message from us and can only hear it from other sources.
My book is available on Amazon, thanks to the company’s self-publishing platform. It is priced to print which means no money is being made on the book. Although I initially planned to write to book to help other animal advocates, I included enough information and wrote it in a way that I hope it also helps people who care about animal welfare, but don’t consider themselves advocates. I also hope it is of use to elected officials, animal shelter staff and members of the animal rescue community.
Every community has the potential to be a no kill community. Sometimes it just takes the courage to try something new. And sometimes it just takes a group of people willing to band together and speak out with one voice to say, “enough. We are better than this.”
I''m having a bad day. It relates to no kill principles, aggression in dogs, volunteering and a dog named Lulu. My head is not particularly clear, but I will share anyway so I can try to move on.
I have written many times about the phrase "no kill" and what it means to me and the people in my circles. No kill is an animal sheltering philosophy in which healthy and treatable animals are not destroyed for space, for convenience or just because that is what has historically been done. Shelters which euthanize animals to alleviate suffering can still be no kill because they are doing what is ethical and right; no one would argue that animals should be kept alive if they are in pain or are so terribly injured that they simply cannot be saved. Shelters which destroy dogs who are genuinely dangerous for legal reasons related to public safety can also be no kill shelters. It is not reasonable to expect shelters to allow all dogs to be adopted out into our communities if those dogs may ultimately present a public safety risk and either injure or kill someone. I've dealt with legal cases about dog bite fatality attacks and they are both gruesome and preventable.
Determining which dogs are actually dangerous is the tricky part. Although numerous dogs are destroyed in our nation’s animal shelters for behavioral issues which are categorized in a number of ways (fear, aggression, public safety and “high arousal”) experts have opined that shelter evaluations of dogs are no better than a coin toss and the number of dogs who are genuinely dangerous make up less than 1 percent of all shelter intake. Shelters are nothing at all like the homes or lives dogs may have known outside the shelter environment, even if that life was not good. As was stated in an article published by the National Canine Research Council:
Shelter evaluations may tell us as much or more about the effect of the shelter as they do about the individual dogs. Shelters are noisy, alien environments, filled with strange smells, unfamiliar people, and dogs they may hear, but not see. We should not be surprised that some dogs may... behave differently when confined in a shelter, with its barrage of stressors that the dog cannot control, than they will in the safe, secure, predictable environment of a home, cared for by people with whom they are able to form positive attachments.
I have known for a very long time that the shelter in the city where I work destroys large numbers of dogs for behavior. Some months are better than others. I get the reports from the city each month and I see the columns on the reports which set forth the identification number of each dog destroyed, the perceived breed, the age estimate and other details. The majority of the dogs are young. I, and members of my no kill advocacy group, have tried to get the city help on this issue. We've helped pay for experts to train the shelter staff. We've tried to connect the senior shelter staff with people in other places who can provide guidance and make recommendations on how to keep more dogs alive. There is only so much we can do because we lack any real influence to make things change for the better.
Even though I know about dogs being destroyed, I decided the time had come to volunteer at the shelter. I refused to volunteer for years during the period when large numbers of healthy and treatable animals were destroyed. My position was that I would no sooner volunteer at a kill shelter than I would work the production line at a chicken processing plant. Because the city has made a lot of progress - and because it is the city's position that it has not destroyed any dogs for space or convenience for four years - I decided the time had come to give it a shot. I have never given any value to the opinion of my many critics over the years who have professed that I am not allowed to have an opinion about what happens at the shelter unless I volunteer there (as if volunteering is the Golden Ticket to free speech). I can absolutely have an opinion about how tax dollars are spent, But I was spending less time on political advocacy locally so I told myself that I could spend some time volunteering instead.
I volunteered at the shelter for a few months and admit that I enjoyed it even though my advocacy has marked me as the enemy in the minds of some. It was nice to take my lunch break, put on some jeans and and old pair of tennis shoes and go walk dogs, engage with dogs and feed them special treats. I did a fundraiser to help the shelter buy some great slip leads and leashes. I created posters to help promote donation of toys and treats. I began making short promotional videos for some dogs to help market them with the public. One day a couple of weeks ago I met a singer/songwriter friend of mine at the shelter as she performed "shelter serenades" while I took some video footage. I fully admit that my time at the shelter was not a big deal in terms of the overall need. My hour or so a week was not a huge contribution, but I wanted to do something and I felt like I was helping in some way even though I was not welcome at the shelter by many of the other volunteers.
It did not last.
On Friday I met a dog named Lulu. I had seem images of her on social media used to help promote her on Valentine's Day. One was of her wearing beads and a headband with hearts on it; I remember thinking to myself that not many dogs would tolerate having that much "stuff" put on them and then actually sit still for photographs. I knew from contacts that Lulu had been showing signs of stress inside the shelter. On the day I met her, a volunteer had taken LuLu outside for a walk. I talked to Lulu, touched her, took some photos and recorded her walking nicely on a leash so I could make a short promotional video to help her get adopted. She was happy. She was calm.
I learned later that afternoon that she had lunged at her kennel door when meeting a potential adopter and had tried to bite a volunteer. I finished the video of her and shared it with others on Monday, hoping someone would see it and decide to adopt her or foster her. I was sure that if she could be introduced to someone not inside the shelter, but outside, she may have a chance to be placed. I've seen dogs who were incredibly stressed inside shelters change completely once they are no longer confined in that environment. One woman did offer to foster her. But it did not matter.
I found out today that Lulu was killed yesterday. Some of the words used to explain the decision were, "she had become unsafe" and "we were worried about her potential for harming people." I appreciate the fact that some dogs are broken and are unsafe. I do not think we can "save them all." I do think we can save almost all of them and that it takes a commitment to try everything before we give up. We need to look for every opportunity to keep the dogs who are struggling the most alive. A foster home. Housing the dog outside in a kennel for a few hours a day to get them out of the shelter building itself. Working with a contract behaviorist.
I have a hard time reconciling the image of the happy dog wearing beads and my memories of the dog walking calmly on a leash with a decision to end her life three days later.
Grief makes no sense. I will grieve for the dog named Lulu whom I just met not only because she is gone but because she represents so many other dogs just like her.
I'm sorry we failed you, Lulu. You were beautiful. You were smart. And this image of you is forever seared in my memory.
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.)
In August of last year, we began talking about getting another dog. We had said farewell to Aspy very unexpectedly and traumatically on the 4th of July of 2016 and we just had not been ready for another dog. We needed time to heal and time to separate ourselves from the onslaught of memories of the last 36 hours of Aspy's life. But we were ready. We started the search on Petfinder and considered getting another American Eskimo Dog since we thought that was probably the breed Aspy had been. We weren’t able to find any close to us and considered making a trek to another state to adopt. We thought about adopting a senior and talked about whether or not I was strong enough emotionally to handle having a dog for a short period of time. We were also looking at local dogs and ultimately decided to meet some of them before making plans to travel to meet a dog in another state with whom we may or may not have a bond.
We met three dogs on a Saturday and did not feel a connection to any of them. They were all worthy of being saved, but we just didn’t feel like any were a good fit. The first was at a nonprofit no kill shelter. He was just too big, so much so that I had trouble controlling him on a leash. He was a beautiful dog and we knew he would be okay. The second was at a veterinary office which provides services for a local city. He was very young and too high energy for us. He was incredibly cute and we knew he would be adopted. The third was at what is called a dog shelter, although I have many other words to describe it. She was so traumatized from having been housed with hundreds of other dogs for years that we really could not interact with her. We felt guilty leaving her there, but we knew she would be kept alive and in the end we did not want to make a decision out of guilt. Our Saturday trip was a bust and it was upsetting. I had told myself I would be fine with any dog and I guess I was expecting magic that did not happen. I know intellectually that there are hundreds of thousands of dogs who would make a great addition to our family. I know emotionally that feeling a bond and a connection with a dog with whom we will share about 15 years of our lives matters.
We did what any rational people would do. We spent time back on Petfinder, looking for other dogs in our area. Rich was on his computer. I was on my phone. I must have handed my phone to him dozens of times to show him a listing while asking, “how about this one?” There were just so many that it was overwhelming, sad and encouraging at the same time. Surely there was a dog out there who would be a good fit for our home and our lifestyle. When I first saw “Shaggy’s” face, my heart skipped a beat. Or at least it felt that way. He was a young adult. He looked sweet. He had a little mohawk and while he was in what I consider a kill shelter and I worried about his care, he looked really happy. He was listed as a German Shepherd/Husky mix, he was thought to be two years old and the listing said he was "a little rough around the edges." His listing also said he had been found running loose with a chain around his neck which was so tight it had to be cut off. That touched a chord with me, considering that our dog, Snake, had lived chained to a tree for the first two years of her life before Rich adopted her. We agreed he was a possibility and Rich made plans to meet him on Monday when the Pell City Animal Shelter opened, along with another dog named King who was surrendered because his owner had cancer.
Rich made the trip on Monday and told me he liked both dogs, but that I should meet them. (I am sure looking back that the bond had been forged and it was just a matter of me meeting our dog new dog). I made plans to take some time off work the next day to make the trip. I was anxious about it. I knew the Pell City shelter had a good reputation, but I also knew they destroy animals for space. Would I be able to stay calm? Would I be able to look past the faces of the other dogs in the shelter and focus on being there to adopt just one dog? We met both dogs. King was sweet and was fully vetted and ready to go. He really would need very little work and would just need to decompress in a new home. Shaggy was a mess. I think I knew from the time I met him that he was the one. He was sweet and goofy, he had no real idea how to walk on a leash and he was a jumper. King or Shaggy. King or Shaggy. We talked about it and decided that Shaggy was the one because we felt a bond with him and because he needed us more. We knew he had some behaviors typical for chained dogs that some people may not know how to handle and he was also heart worm positive. We left with him that day and made the drive home in a thunderstorm.
We began working with "Rusty" from the moment Rich put him in our truck for the trip home. When I say "we," I really mean that Rich did the work and I tried to help. Rusty is house trained and crate trained. He has learned not to lick us for the most part and when he does, I joke that it is "incidental contact" and that "after further review, the ruling on the field stands." He jumps less than he used to but still jumps and twists in the air when he's playing outside and is wound up; he jumps so high he could probably do well as an agility dog. He no longer uses rocks, leaves and pine cones as toys since he has dog toys, although we did learn the hard way that hard rubber toys are the only kind he cannot destroy in less than 5 seconds. He could do quality control work for toy manufacturers before they describe a dog toy as "indestructible." He is full of energy and loves, loves, loves to play. Rich taught him to catch a Frisbee and he has a host of toys he plays with on his own by tossing them in the air and then going to chase them down. Although the shelter thought he was two years old, we believe now that he was much younger and was probably a year old when we adopted him.
Rusty is actually not playing at all now since we are still doing his heart worm treatment. I still marvel at the fact that so many people in our region do not give their dogs heart worm prevention. It costs about $6 a month and using it can avoid putting dogs through an incredible ordeal to try to rid their bodies of heart worms. Rusty was given a heart worm preventive for period of months before prescriptions for an antibiotic and steroids. His first heart worm shot was in August; the second and third were over a week ago. Based on instructions from our veterinarian, Rich calculated that Rusty can play again on October 21st so it will be a day of celebration for us. He won't be retested by our veterinarian to confirm the worms are gone until May of next year.
Rusty may not have been perfect for everyone, but he was perfect for us. We still think about Aspy's last two days, but less than we used to.
I still know intellectually that there are hundreds of thousands of dogs out there who could have made a wonderful addition our family. But I believe that some things are meant to be and I believe the same about us finding Rusty. Thank goodness for Petfinder.
Happy Gotcha Day, Rusty. We'll be able to play soon.
Note: the dogs we looked at before Rusty have been adopted with the exception of the dog at the "dog shelter." I have yet to come up with a positive way to influence that location and continue to work with my contacts to try to have the dog pulled by a rescue group to be properly decompressed and rehabilitated.
We are a nation of animal lovers. The vast majority of Americans believe we have a moral duty to protect animals and we should have strong laws to do so. A poll from a few years ago showed that three out of four Americans believe it should be illegal for shelters to kill animals if those animals are not suffering. So why does it continue to happen? Good question.
People tend to focus on what is important to them in their own lives. It is human nature. We all have certain people, problems issues and concerns on our “personal radar” on an ongoing basis. We may have general knowledge or opinions about other issues, but we normally don’t devote too much time thinking about those things because they don’t affect us or our every day lives. It’s not that we don’t care. It’s just that most of us lack the “bandwidth” to remain fully engaged on all of the topics we find important on an ongoing basis.
This means that most Americans give very little regular thought to what happens at animal shelters using tax dollars and donations. Although we all pay for animal control and sheltering in some way, we still would not pay much attention to the topic even if our monthly bill for garbage and recycling pick-up included a line item for animal care and disposal. We think about shelters when we lose a pet or when we learn about some event or we are told about some tragedy. On other days, the shelter just “is,” pretty much like our view of other municipal functions on which we spend money. Law enforcement. Fire services. Engineering. Public works. Parks and recreation.
I have long believed that if we are ever to reform our broken sheltering system in America, in which the vast majority of healthy and treatable animals are still killed by the millions, we have to put that subject on the public radar and get people involved. I once described the separation between animal lovers and animal shelters like two groups of people on opposite sides of a chasm. On one side are the people who own and care for animals or at least like animals. They are at best family members and at least serve some purpose. Most of us include our animals in family celebrations and may take them on our vacations. We buy them beds and toys and treats and provide them with regular veterinary care. We expect that the people in the sheltering system will operate in ways which are consistent with our values and many of us just presume that all animals who end up in shelters are given an opportunity to be adopted. On the opposite side of this chasm are people in the sheltering industry. Most of them (but certainly not all) care about animals and do their very best with the resources they have. Many of them, however, work in a defeatist culture with calcified attitudes in which healthy and treatable animals are destroyed. They see this as some terrible task they must perform because there is no other way to function while blaming the destruction on the “irresponsible public” which is on the opposite side of the chasm. Not every shelter functions this way, of course, and many have become very progressive. I’m speaking for the majority of shelters which still destroy animals regularly and with no apparent regard for the very real fact that the way to stop that archaic practice has been known for decades.
Some communities change the culture at the animal shelter through municipal leadership or nonprofit leadership (in cases where the shelter operation has been outsourced to a nonprofit organization). Change is hard and those communities are to be commended. Most communities which change do so as a result of public pressure. People don’t like it when their money is used in ways which are inconsistent with their values. Once you tell people that healthy and treatable animals are dying and they are paying for it, most get mad, some get vocal and others become community activists seeking change. In all places where change takes place, there is one common denominator. The public didn’t suddenly become more responsible. It was the shelter operation itself that changed. It absolutely helps for the public to be invited to be part of that change. Their buy-in is actually vital to the process. The No Kill equation I promote contains 11 elements, but vital to most of those elements is public awareness and participation.
The last documentary film about the No Kill movement was released in 2014 - “Redemption: The No Kill Revolution in America.” The film has since been made available by Nathan Winograd on Vimeo for free. It is based on Winograd’s 2007 book by a similar name - “Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America.” If you have not seen the film, you owe it to yourself to watch it for free while you can. It runs just over an hour.
At about the same time Redemption was released, documentary film maker Anne Taiz began working on the first of two fills about the No Kill movement. The first is called “No Kill: The Movement Begins.” This film focuses on both No Kill efforts and failures in the City of San Francisco. The people who appear in the film include Richard Avanzino; Nathan Winograd, Director of the No Kill Advocacy Center; Julene Johnson, former San Francisco SPCA volunteer; Dr. Kate Hurley of the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at UC Davis; Maria Conlon of Give Me Shelter Cat Rescue; and Dr. Jennifer Scarlet, the current director of the San Francisco SPCA.
The second film is not formally named yet, but will likely be something along the lines of “No Kill Across America.” I had an opportunity to meet with Anne on July 30th to talk about both films. My hope is that the story of Huntsville, Alabama, will be included in the second film, provided it is produced. We had a great connection and I think the story of the changes in Huntsville can inspire other communities to get ahead of this issue.
I know that Anne is passionate about reaching the public about this very important and urgent subject. Like all documentary films, however, this film is only as good as the ability to finish the final production. All of the footage for “No Kill: The Movement Begins” has been shot and it has been partially edited. What is needed are finishing funds.
You can make a donation toward completion of the first film using this From The Heart Productions platform as I have done. No donation is too small. A donation of $25 will give you access to see the “rough cut” of the film and provide feedback. A donation of $250 will give you film credit as an associate producer. Award winning actor and narrator Peter Coyote has agreed to narrate the film.
A time will come when the outdated practice of destroying healthy and treatable pets in our nation's animal shelters will become part of our shameful past. We can reach that point faster if we reach more of the public and put this issue on the personal radar of as many people as possible.
I saw an image in my Facebook news feed last week that I just didn’t need to see. I’m very visually oriented and once I see some things, it can be hard to get them out of my head. The image was of a veterinary examination room. There was a dead dog laying on a metal table and a man sitting on the floor near the table with his head lowered towards his knees. The image said, “you think it’s easy to kill companion animals day in and day out.” It also said, “1) adopt from shelters and rescues until they are empty; 2) spay/neuter your pet; 3) volunteer to help if you can.” Below the image was the following statement: “shelters do not want to kill animals, but 5 million healthy pets die every year. It is an antiquated system that is not good for the workers or the animals. Neutering your pets does make a difference!” The statement about 5 million animals is wrong. That’s not my issue here. And I will not share the image.
I know that some organizations use what I call “shock and awe” to try to get people’s attention. I’m just not one of those people. When I see ASPCA or HSUS commercials on television showing images of injured or suffering animals while making pleas for money, I change the channel immediately. When I encounter someone on social media who regularly uses shock images to make a point, I unfriend them. I know full well what happens in most animal shelters and I don’t need to see images of dead dogs and cats over and over again to make a point. I am outspoken in my own animal welfare advocacy, but I use words to convey my message and I am careful to avoid images which can be upsetting to some people, particularly children.
But back to the image. It showed a man represented as a shelter worker sitting near a dog he had apparently killed. His posture made it appear as though he was upset.
I am not totally unsympathetic to people who go to work in animal shelters with good intentions and then become part of an antiquated system which destroys healthy and treatable animals for space. I think a lot of people decide to work in the shelter industry because they love animals and they want to make a difference. There are many places in our country where healthy and treatable animals are no longer destroyed in shelters and where the only animals destroyed in shelters are those who are genuinely suffering (in which case use of the word “euthanasia” is appropriate) or dogs who are so dangerous they present a public safety risk and for whom no sanctuary placement is available (as opposed to dogs who are just scared, fearful, traumatized or confused). There are more places which do still destroy healthy and treatable animals for space or convenience.
My expectation regarding people working in those places is two-fold. First, find out if the shelter destroys healthy animals before you apply to work there. If they do and that upsets you, the answer is simple: just don’t work there. I would no sooner work in a kill shelter than I would work in a poultry processing plant or on a hog farm. We all choose where we work and it’s not like “kennel worker” is the only employment opportunity available in your community. If you are already working at a shelter which destroys healthy and treatable animals, please take the time to educate yourself on how to make that process stop and work to reform the shelter from inside the system. Your silence is truly your consent. No Kill philosophies have been common knowledge for about 20 years and the No Kill Equation specifically has been known for more than 10 years. There is really no reason to lament the needless killing of animals because there are ways to stop it. I’m not saying it’s easy and I’m not saying it will happen overnight. It takes work, planning and commitment. It takes a change in culture in the shelter to take it from a place where animals are brought to die to a place of hope and new beginnings. If you fear that you will lose your job if you speak out for change, then give some thought to what is most important to you. Perhaps you will find another job which does not cause you to be part of a system which affects your mental health and causes you to lose sleep because you destroyed animals who were not suffering.
I would have responded much more favorably to an image of a shelter worker walking a dog and talking about how enrichment programs are used to keep dogs entertained and to help socialize them.
I would have responded much more favorably to an image of a shelter worker engaged in community outreach to help educate the public to make better choices.
I would have responded much more favorably to an image of a shelter worker engaged in a peaceful protest regarding the continued destruction of healthy and treatable animals using tax dollars or donations.
If the death upsets you, don’t be complicit in the behavior. Do something to change the system. If you choose to work in a facility which destroys healthy and treatable animals, that is your choice. Just don’t expect a whole lot of sympathy from me. My sympathy goes toward the animals whose lives were ended unnecessarily – an act which is entirely permanent.
I hope the guy in the image I saw got up off the floor, quit his job and became an advocate for shelter reform. I would welcome him to join the No Kill movement so we can change our country for the sake of the animals we say we love and value.
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