I had a conversation with some of my contacts in the national No Kill community recently about the toll taken at shelters where healthy and treatable animals are destroyed. We started talking about it after an article was written by some big thinkers in the animal shelter industry called “The Human Face of Shelter Euthanasia.” Some of the content of the article troubled me and for some reason the article is not available, at least not now. The article and our conversation got me thinking about the changes I have seen in the shelter industry in the last fifteen years - at least in some places - and how the culture in shelters affects not just the animals, but the people in the building and the community as a whole.
The best way to explain this is with two examples.
Shelter A is a kill shelter which means that healthy and treatable animals are killed for space, convenience or what some call “lack of resources.” This means that animals who are suffering are euthanized and dogs who are too dangerous to be out in the community are destroyed, but the lives of animals who are otherwise healthy and treatable are also ended. There are a number of excuses used for this, but the end result is the same because the act is permanent. The general mindset at this shelter is that it is the fault of the public that animals “have to" die. Employees and volunteers tell themselves there is no other way because the public just does not care enough. They say that if the public would only keep pets contained, spay and neuter pets, stop breeding animals, be more responsible, etc., the shelter would not be forced to end so many lives. Some of the people in this shelter take great pride in how they treat the animals prior to ending their lives, spending extra time with them or giving them special food or treats much like a death row inmate may receive a last meal. Most shelter employees lament the death, but tell themselves there are fates worth that death like adopting to a “less than” family (which means a family which does not meet all of the shelter criteria to adopt) or like having the animals develop negative behaviors while in the shelter due to stress. I see these attitudes as a form of cognitive dissonance.
The toll taken by the killing in this shelter is paid 1) by the healthy and treatable animals who should have and could have been saved; 2) by the people who work in the shelter and who have either engaged with the animals are who are tasked with ending their lives; 3) and by the community as a whole. This shelter is seen by the public not as a place of hope, but as a place of death. People do not want to go there, do not want to take their children there, and for the most part do not want to volunteer there because it is emotionally easier to just distance themselves from what happens at the shelter than to deal with the death. They just can't handle it and feel powerless to do anything about it.
Shelter B is a No Kill shelter which means healthy and treatable animals are not destroyed. Animals who are suffering or are irremediably ill are euthanized for reasons of mercy. Dogs who are genuinely dangerous to the public are also euthanized because they are considered untreatable (as opposed to dogs who have mild to moderate behavior issues who can be rehabilitated, fostered and adopted into homes). In this shelter, each animal is treated as an individual and is viewed as having been - or being capable of being - someone’s beloved pet. The shelter staff works incredibly hard every day to keep pets in existing homes to avoid them entering the shelter, to provide enrichment and care to those animals in the shelter and to get animals out into foster homes, adoptive homes or to rescue groups as soon as possible. For this shelter, the public is not the enemy. The public is presumed to care and to sometimes need help and guidance either to make better personal decisions or to learn how to help the shelter. The shelter communicates on an ongoing basis with the public to help them keep pets contained, find lost pets, make sure pets can be identified, overcome problem behaviors, locate resources in the community (food, veterinary care, spay/neuter assistance and behavioral help), learn how to foster pets, learn how to volunteer to help pets, learn how to adopt pets and about pets who are at risk and need to get out of the shelter immediately because they are doing poorly in the shelter environment.
The people who work in this shelter have incredibly difficult jobs, but they take pride in what they do. Each day is a new opportunity to help animals in need while serving the community. There is sorrow when the lives of shelter animals are ended, but staff and volunteers are confident that each animal euthanized was given every opportunity to leave the shelter alive, they did their very best to find a positive outcome and the ending of the life was done for reasons of mercy.
I work in a community where the shelter was once like Shelter A and is now like Shelter B. The transition from a shelter which had historically destroyed thousands of healthy and treatable animals each year to one where very few animals die each year has been nothing short of remarkable. This transition did not happen because the public suddenly became more responsible or cared more or made better choices. The transition was at times incredibly difficult and it made a lot of people uncomfortable. It’s hard to admit that there is a new way of functioning while not focusing on the past and what could have been. Change happened as a result of municipal leadership, advocacy and public pressure and it has led to a complete shift in culture at the animal shelter. Are there still issues? Sure. Is there fine tuning to be done? Absolutely. But a building which was once used to house and then destroy animals is now used to house animals and keep them alive.
When I think of how the shelter functioned before, I know the operation was fatal for so very many animals, detrimental to the mental, emotional and likely the physical health of the staff, and was a source of shame in an otherwise very progressive community.
But all that is in the past. Now the shelter is a place of hope instead of death. People in the community turn to the shelter for help, guidance and assistance. Working and volunteering there is still a challenge because the work is really hard, but it is also rewarding which means the people who manage and help the operation are happier. I have been told that the pressure to keep up the level of life-saving is intense and I’m sure it is. The public has come to expect that animals will be kept alive now that a higher standard has been achieved. There are still critics and there always will be, but the way in which the shelter operates is now a source of community pride.
What kind of shelter do you want for your community? A or B?
I know the price. I know the toll. I know my choice.
(Images courtesy of Erick Pleitez and Lisa Vallez)
I participated in a No Kill in Motion panel discussion recently about the subject of appointment-only hours for animal shelters. During the early months of the pandemic, some shelters closed entirely. Others went to appointment-only interaction with the public. Using appointments made perfect sense for a while as we all adjusted to what we now refer to as “public safety measures” to keep people safe and try to limit the spread of the Covid virus. Some shelters split their staffing into teams to limit the number of staff in the building at any given time. This also made sense – if someone on Team A got sick, the shelter would only need to test and quarantine those team members, limiting the negative affects on the shelter operation.
With the country back open for business, some shelters have continued their appointment-only hours. The members of the panel were not in complete agreement regarding why this is a bad idea, but we all agreed that only seeing people by appointment creates barriers to add to the barriers which already exist related to animal adoptions. As Nathan Winograd wrote about years ago when he said “good homes need not apply,” some organizations make it so difficult to adopt animals that really good people end up being turned away for reasons which have very little to do with their decision to bring an animal into their home and their commitment to care for that animal. Work more than 40 hours a week? No, you cannot adopt. Travel for work? No, you cannot adopt. Have children in your house? No, you cannot adopt. Over the age of 50? No, you cannot adopt. The list goes on and on including one which would have precluded my family from adopting years ago – lack of a fully fenced yard. Companions and Animals for Reform and Equity (CARE) did a great video about this very subject recently which I share often. Some people get so frustrated by the extraordinary lengths they must go to trying to adopt a shelter or rescue animal that they give up and end up getting a new pet from a breeder. The problem was recently covered in an article in the New York Times entitled, "Want to Adopt a Pet? Prepare for a Full Background Check."
Shelters are at their very core customer service and marketing organizations. Yes, they exist for reasons of public safety but now are increasingly expected to balance public safety with animal welfare because that is what the public demands. Any shelter which only interacts with the public by appointment is seriously limiting its ability to help people reclaim animals or help people adopt new animals. There is nothing at all wrong with having appointments for people who seek pet surrender counseling to talk to them about alternatives to surrender or people who want to talk about some issues they are having to get help to overcome those issues. But requiring appointments for people to try to reclaim a pet or even adopt a pet serves to create more barriers to a process that many people already find daunting.
The issue of shelter hours came up just this week in my own area related to the municipal animal shelter in the city where I work so I will take this subject one step further. Shelters that do not require appointments, but which are only open to the public when people are at work also create tremendous barriers. Not everyone works from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. but many people do. If the shelter is only open during hours when people work, how are they supposed to get to the shelter to reclaim a lost pet or adopt a new one? It is almost impossible unless that person takes vacation time from work, provided they have a job which even provides them with vacation time at all.
Let’s say someone’s cat is missing and they know from looking at the shelter website that their cat is there. The shelter is only open from 9:00 to 5:00 when they are at work. Even if that person gets a one-hour break for lunch, it takes time to drive to the shelter, go through the process to reclaim their pet, get their pet back home and then get back to work. I challenge even the person who lives closest to a shelter and works close by to accomplish all those tasks in an hour.
Adopting an animal takes even longer. People should feel free to look around at the available animals without someone following them around like an aggressive used car salesman (no offense intended to used car salesmen; this is a statement about people who hover), should be able to spend time with animals they are interested in, ask questions, etc. It is not possible to do that during a lunch break, get the animal home and help that animal begin the shelter decompression process.
The only way someone could either reclaim an animal or adopt an animal in the scenarios above would be to take vacation time, if that is even available to them.
I have heard some people say that running the shelter by appointment only is less stressful for the animals and staff because there are not as many people wandering around. As Shirley Marsh of Yes Biscuit said during our discussion, getting those animals out of the shelter by having them adopted or fostered is also less stressful.
Animal shelters that are open until at least 6:00 p.m. or even 7:00 p.m. make it much easier for people to come to the shelter after leaving work and then go home from the shelter with their reclaimed pet or new pet. Shelters with weekend hours make it even easier to reclaim or adopt a pet. As one shelter director in Florida told me, “we’re in the building on the weekend anyway, so it made perfect sense to make it easier for people to get here.”
If you run an animal shelter and are only open by appointment or only open when most people are at work, please take a good look at what you want to accomplish. Having different hours doesn’t mean being open more hours. It means being open hours which make animals accessible to the public you serve so that you can help get more animals out of your building and either back home where they belong or into new homes. If you really only want to work from 9:00 to 5:00, you are in the wrong business.
(image of animal control officer with dogs courtesy of the Lake County Florida Animal Shelter)
There’s a phrase that goes something to the effect that if you want to get something done, ask a busy person to do it. My interpretation of the phrase is that some people are talkers, while others are doers. Doers are busy, but they are organized and committed to getting more things done. In my circles, I come across some of the most incredibly busy people, one of whom is Andrew “Roo” Yori. I think of Roo as a Renaissance Man for good reason. He’s super smart (he works at the Mayo Clinic as the Supervisor of the Clinical Genome Sequencing lab), he’s an animal welfare advocate (he runs a nonprofit called the Wallace the Pit Bull Foundation and he transports dogs to new homes) and he’s super fit (he competes in Spartan competitions and most recently has become famous for competing on American Ninja Warrior). To say that Roo is busy and passionate about life is a complete understatement.
I first became aware of Roo and his wife, Clara, in 2013 when I read a Jim Gorant book called Wallace: The Underdog who Conquered a Sport, Saved a Marriage and Championed Pit Bulls. If memory serves, I learned about the book from Mike Fry of No Kill Learning who is friends with Roo. I was drawn to the book because Snake, our dog who passed away in 2006, loved her Frisbee and I was intrigued by the story of a pit bull-type dog who became a champion in the sport. Most dogs who compete in Frisbee competitions are Border Collies, Labs, Goldens, Malinois and Australian Shepherds. Having a dog like Wallace excel in the sport was a game changer. I loved the book because it wasn’t just about Wallace; it was about how he changed the Yori family while changing people’s opinions about dogs who have been unmercifully stereotyped for decades. Wallace was the first pit bull-type dog to win a National and World Championship in the sport of Canine Flying Disc. As Roo’s website states, Wallace “has been referred to as the Jackie Robinson of Pit Bulls on more than one occasion, as his actions and accomplishments rose above all the negative noise surrounding dogs that looked like him at the time. “ Roo and Clara established a nonprofit in the wake of Wallace’s passing which is focused on improving the lives of dogs and the people who care for them.
It was only after I read about Wallace that I also learned that the Yoris adopted one of the former Vick dogs, a dog named Hector. Hector was one of the 51 pit bulls rescued from the Michael Vick dog fighting case. Hector originally went to BAD RAP on the west coast before being adopted by the Yoris. Hector passed the Canine Good Citizen test twice, became a Certified Therapy Dog visiting nursing homes and hospitals and also went to schools to teach children about how to behave safely around dogs. He, along with the other Vick dogs, showed us all that dogs subjected to the worst humans can do to them have the capacity to become beloved companions. If you have not read Jim Gorant’s book about the Vick Dogs, I consider it a must read. It is upsetting for obvious reasons, but it tells the real story about what happened related to Vick and the dogs and you’ll learn something from it.
In 2016, Roo’s life presented a new platform for his advocacy for dogs when he was selected to compete on American Ninja Warrior for the first time. Roo competes as the “K-9 Ninja” and I confess that I have numerous t-shirts in my collection related to his ANW efforts. As we approach the 2021 season for American Ninja Warrior in which Roo will again compete, I wanted to have a Q&A with Roo to introduce him to more people. Numerous articles have been written about Roo which are easy to find. My hope is to share some information you may not otherwise find in other articles. Thank you to both Roo and to Clara for all they do to help dogs and help the people who love them. You can support the Wallace the Pit Bull Foundation by visiting the website or by pledging support for Roo on the upcoming season of American Ninja Warrior.
I first learned about you, Clara and Wallace from Jim Gorant’s book – Wallace: An Underdog who Conquered a Sport, Saved a Marriage and Championed Pit Bulls – One Flying Disc at a Time. When you were working with Jim on the book, did you have a vision even then about what you planned to do in Wallace’s honor?
I don’t know that anything with Wallace was really planned. One of the things that I learned from Wallace is to go for the opportunities that present themselves. I knew that I wanted to preserve Wallace’s story even after he was gone, so I was really happy to have Jim write the book. He’s an incredible writer, and I feel that he really did the story justice.
In addition to Wallace, you and Clara had another high-profile dog – Hector - who was a former Vick dog. I saw a video of your visit to the former Vick property in Virginia and you singing in the building in which the dogs were fought. What can you tell us about that song and your visit there?
I went to a Charlie Parr concert and he ended his concert with a really cool rendition of Ain’t No Grave. I’m not really a religious guy, but it was my favorite song of the night. While I don’t necessarily believe that our physical bodies will rise from the grave, I do believe that we can have a lasting impact on things beyond our years here. The Vick dogs have done that, so singing that song in that place was my way of honoring them and also honoring the dogs who we don’t know because they weren’t as lucky to make it out.
I consider you a Renaissance Rescuer. You work in a high-tech medical job, you compete in American Ninja Warrior and Spartan competitions, you sing, and you work hard to help animals. How do you balance all those aspects of your life?
I enjoy doing a lot of different things. It helps keep things interesting for me. I sometimes feel that if I were to focus on one thing I could make a bigger impact in certain areas. At the same time, making sure I stay interested helps me stay in the game long term. The main thing is that whatever I do, I want to connect it back to something with the dogs so it has a bigger purpose.
You and Clara are known for being super fit and very active. How did you get involved with the American Ninja Warrior television program and culture?
I just saw it on TV and thought it would be fun to try. I was fortunate to be chosen when I submitted my application, and have been fortunate to be chosen every year since. Wallace and Hector played a big role in a number of ways with me being selected, so I’m taking the lessons that they taught me and taking advantage of the opportunity to help other dogs like them best I can.
A lot of people who compete on ANW have compelling stories related to a cause or a challenge in their lives. Did you know when you were first chosen to participate in ANW that you would use that as a platform to help shelter animals?
Yeah, I knew that I wanted it to be more than just me doing obstacles. When Wallace and Hector passed away I was struggling with how to have a significant impact without them around anymore. ANW provided a unique platform in front of millions of people, so I knew that I wanted to leverage that to help dogs in need if possible. I still can’t believe that I’m considered kind of a regular on the show now, but I’m going to keep going as long as they keep having me back and my body can handle it.
What is the most important thing you want people to know about shelter animals so we can change how we view them as a society?
The vast majority of dogs end up in shelters through no fault of their own. And just because it didn’t work out for them in one scenario doesn’t mean that dog is a bad dog. Just like us, each dog is an individual. They have emotions, and deserve a chance to succeed if we can figure out a way to make that happen. All of my dogs have been rescues, and I’ve met so many good dogs in shelters along the way that we will always adopt rescue dogs until the shelter kennels are empty.
I would like to think that your exposure through ANW has enabled you to do a lot more through the Wallace the Pit Bull Foundation to help animals. How big of an impact do you think ANW has had on your ability to help animals?
There aren’t too many platforms where I could get in front of millions of viewers to spread a message. And through the support of fans and the show itself, we’ve raised over $60K for Wallace the Pit Bull Foundation to help dogs in need. The van that we just purchased to help transport dogs from areas where they will likely be euthanized to areas where there are more homes available is a direct result from competing on ANW, and has been a rewarding experience that is helping to save a lot of dogs right now.
I saw recently that you were able to get a vehicle with a Wallace wrap on it that you use to transport animals. What can you tell us about that transport work?
P.A.W.S. coordinates a transport out of Missouri every other week. One of the legs goes through my city, so the van helps make sure we always have enough room to cover our leg of the transport. We’ve helped transport over 200 since last fall. A huge shout out to the coordinators who put together the transports every other week, and all the other volunteer drivers who make it happen. We’re glad to be a small part of it and to help do our part.
Are there any specific goals you have for the next year related to your animal advocacy that you hope to achieve through the Foundation? Is there an animal shelter or sanctuary in your future?
I would like Wallace the Pit Bull Foundation to purchase some property, but not for a shelter or sanctuary. I’d like to do something a little different. Where I live we don’t have a huge overpopulation issue, and I think that in the animal rescue world there needs to be more effort put into prevention and community support. My goal is to actually run a boarding business where the profits go to funding low cost spay/neuter events for the community. I’d like to have a place to hold training classes to help keep dogs in their homes in the first place, and some kennels as a temporary spot to house dogs until foster homes open up when needed. Ultimately I want to help put ourselves out of business in regards to sheltering, and get us more in the business of community support.
I understand you’ve been chosen to compete on the next season of ANW. What is the single most important thing people can do to help you and help with your goals for the Foundation?
The big thing right now is my Ninja for Dogs fundraiser where people can pledge money per obstacle I complete on the show. You can also make a flat donation if you’d prefer as well. All money raised will be going to the purchase of property or the transport of dogs to safety. You can also follow me on social media either through Roo Yori - K9 Ninja or Wallace the Pit Bull so you can keep up with us and know how to support us in the future.
I’ve been blogging about a lot of books lately. That’s not why my Paws4Change platform exists, but it’s not a bad thing either. Countless wonderful books have been published related to the topics I cover on my website. I think at some point along the line, I ended up on a list “somewhere” of people willing to read and blog about books, so I get a new request about once a month. I’m okay with that. I can pick and choose which books I read and consider. The latest request surprised me a bit because I was asked to read a children’s book. I’m certainly no authority on that genre and it’s been many years (okay, decades) since I was a child myself. I agreed to read and blog about the book for one simple reason: I believe our future is one in which adoption and rescue of companion animals will be the norm and will be the go-to option thanks to the youth of today.
I grew up in an animal friendly household, but I really didn’t even think about animal shelters until I was an adult. I knew all of our childhood pets were either adopted from a shelter or adopted from a family who could no longer care for them, of course, but the concept of an actual building where animals in need were housed just was not on my radar because I had never been to a shelter in person. As I’ve written about here and in my book, it was much later in my life when I learned what happened to most animals in shelters and I became an animal welfare advocate as a way to own my outrage.
Times have changed. A lot. Children today are born into a society in which the subject of shelter and rescue animals is already part of their existence. They may be young, but they are much more aware of the need to help animals than I ever was as a child. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard about children who have asked for items to donate to a local animal shelter instead of receiving birthday gifts or other children who have found some creative way to volunteer for or help an animal shelter because to them, it’s just the right thing to do. Scout troops make toys and beds for shelter pets and groups of children read to shelter pets to help them build confidence in their reading skills. Children bring me hope that we will truly become a more progressive society over time as old attitudes fade away and companion animals receive the care, attention and commitment they deserve.
But, on to the book. Tails from the Animal Shelter is a delightful book. It was written by Stephanie Shaw and illustrated by Liza Woodruff. The book itself is a work of art in many ways. It is wonderfully bound and will last for years. What hit me first was the illustrations. From the front cover to the back cover and all pages in between, the book is filled with wonderful drawings which demonstrate diversity in the people and imperfections in the animals. What struck me when I opened it was that it is a combination of imagery, poems children will enjoy and educational information.
I consider it a good introduction into the subject of shelter and rescue animals which is age appropriate (even though the subject can be dark for many of us adults). It provides just enough information on the plight of shelter animals to generate questions from and discussions with children so they can learn more, but not so much information that they tune out or feel overwhelmed by the subject. I also appreciated the fact that the book introduces a variety of pets well beyond dogs and cats so that children learn there are options for families based on their interests and ability to care for a pet. I also appreciated the length of the book. It was far too short for me as an adult (just because I wanted more), but is probably a great length for school age children who can read. (The age range listed for the book on Amazon is 5-8 years with a grade level of Kindergarten to 3d Grade; my personal opinion after having spoken to a couple of teachers and some parents is that this range may be a bit low. I leave it up to all parents, of course, to determine what books are appropriate for their own children.)
I am well past the target age group, so I decided to enlist the help of some friends to get their impressions of the book. Thanks to Ally and Lacy for taking a few minutes to talk about the book!
(image of child reading courtesy of National Mill Dog Rescue)
I wrote a blog a few years back about animal shelter apologists and the concept of cognitive dissonance. This was an effort to explain how people who claim to care about the lives of animals rationalize their support for animal shelters where healthy and treatable animals are killed. It’s been a while since I touched on this topic and Sheri Cahill of the Silver Comet Animal Welfare Alliance in Georgia asked me to revisit it.
So when it comes to animal shelters, what is an apologist? That is a person who defends (in essence apologizing for) what happens at a regressive animal shelter – typically the killing of healthy and treatable animals - while at the same time professing to be passionate about saving the lives of animals. We see this all the time from shelter employees, shelter volunteers, people in the rescue community and from the public. It seems inconceivable that people who claim to want to save animals would come to the defense of the killing that takes place but it happens every day across the country. Apologists tell themselves that their shelter is somehow different from other places, making it impossible to save more lives. They tell themselves that the public in their area is more irresponsible than in other places, so the shelter has no option but to end the lives of animals. They tell themselves that there is just no other way for the shelter to function because of a shortage of talent or resources. The rationalizations go on and on. Trying to understand why people behave this way is way above my pay grade and no doubt would make for a great research study by someone in the field of psychology.
There are times when the people who defend the killing of animals in shelters can be reached and can be educated. In my experience, these are the people who never felt quite comfortable with the killing, but just were not sure what to do about it. I’ve heard countless times from volunteers or rescuers that they did not condone what was happening at a particular shelter, but they did not speak out because they worried they would be cut off and would not be able to help animals any more. The most polite way I can address that reasoning is to say that it is incredibly short-sighted. It means that the focus of that person is on the dog or cat they are trying to help today or tomorrow, with no regard for the dozens, or hundreds or thousands of other animals they will not be able to help. In the most direct way I can address that reasoning is to say that there is a price to be paid for silence. In the city where I work and in which I lead an animal shelter reform advocacy group, more than 33,000 animals died from 2008 to the end of 2013 when the city began making changes to the culture at the shelter. 33,000. I feel confident that volunteers and rescuers thought they were doing all they could to help individual animals during those years. But the end result is that thousands of animals died and that process may have stopped earlier if the people closest to the issue had simply spoken up and encouraged the shelter to change.
There are many times, however, when there is just no conversation to be had with people who defend the killing of healthy and treatable animals. These people are so committed to the reality they have created for themselves that there is no way to break down their walls with any amount of logic or information. It is these people who are the most aggressive in their defense of shelter killing and who are the most likely not only to blame the messenger for the message, but to go on the offensive to attack anyone who has the audacity to believe the shelter can save more lives.
When my advocacy group in Huntsville, Alabama, began advocating for shelter reform in 2012, we ran into a host of apologists. The live release rate at the shelter at that time was about 34% which means that 2 out of every 3 animals entering the building were destroyed. It was at this time that the shelter director said she and her staff were doing a beautiful job. She said, “I am loved here” and the statement was true. As a veterinarian, she had a huge public following of people who either did not know what was happening at the shelter or who knew about it and were sure there was no other way to function. Animals had to be destroyed, they told themselves. There is no other way, they told themselves.
I wrote about the opposition to shelter reform we faced in Huntsville in my book. It was ugly, it was juvenile, and in the end, it was futile. We expected shelter employees to be upset with our efforts to hold the city accountable for how the shelter was operated using tax dollars. What we didn’t expect was the level of animosity toward us from the rescue community. We were vilified, ridiculed, the subject of a hate page on Facebook and at one point we were referred to as terrorists. We knew engaging with these people was a complete waste of time and energy; we did our best to ignore them and stay on subject with city officials and with the public.
Now that the city has changed the culture at the animal shelter, our critics have gone silent for the most part. Just like they had their own version of reality when so many animals were being killed, I presume they have their own version of reality about how that change happened. It is easier to revise history and to gloss over the difficult times than it is to admit that change came about as the result of struggle. As much as I think history is important so that we do not repeat it, my satisfaction comes from the fact that things did change as a result of advocacy. My focus is less on how we got to this point than the fact that the change has been drastic and empowering. The shelter now saves approximately 97% of all animals entering the building and my hope is that there is no going back. The public has come to expect the lives of animals to be saved instead of ended and it is that expectation that may do the most good to keep the city from reverting back to the way it was before.
If you live or work in a city where the animal shelter destroys healthy and treatable animals for whatever reason, please consider speaking out against that. Your focus should be on municipal accountability for how tax dollars are spent (or not spent) and not on individual people, at least at the start. You may not get a bill in the mail every month with a line item for "animal disposal," but you are paying for what happens at your local shelter and you have the right to demand better. If you learn that there are others who want to bring about shelter reform, support those people and find ways to help them if you can.
If you are one of those people who are defending the killing of animals, please ask yourself what you hope to accomplish with that behavior. It may very well be that you have become a human obstacle to change. If that is the case, you are standing in the way of progress which means you are standing in the way of saving lives. Yes, you can save a few each month while telling yourself that if it wasn’t for you or people like you, more animals would die. That would be true. But if you consider the bigger picture, you can help prevent the deaths of thousands of animals. It’s time to make a choice and to walk the walk instead of just talking about what you say you stand for.
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
There is a bill pending in the Colorado Legislature I firmly oppose because it is dangerous. House Bill 21-1120. I do not live in Colorado so you may ask, “why do you care about that bill?” I care because laws can be infectious both for the good and the bad. A bad law in one state can spread to others and I think it’s up to all of us to keep that from happening. Some explanation is in order.
When I first learned at what was happening at the shelter in the city where I work over 15 years ago, I was shocked, angry, upset, and emotional. Like most Americans, I presumed that animals died in shelters because they were suffering. As I have blogged about before and wrote about in my book, I had a rude awakening in the summer of 2006 when I learned that healthy and treatable animals died at the shelter every day for no other reason than that is what had happened for years. “Catch and kill” and “first in, first out” were the status quo. I was like most people who probably should have known what was happening at the shelter, but just did not. It had not been on my personal radar. This unwelcome epiphany led me to a journey of educating myself about why this was happening not just in my area, but across the country. I came to realize that animal shelters in our country are, for the most part, our public shame. We call ourselves animal friendly and we say we cheer for the underdog while we hold our values above those of other cultures. Shame on us.
Part of my education was learning about something called the Asilomar Accords. This was essentially a meeting of the minds in animal welfare which was held in Pacific Grove, California, in 2004. The stated goal of the Accords was to build “bridges across varying philosophies, developing relationships and creating goals focused on significantly reducing the euthanasia of healthy and treatable companion animals in the United States.” That may sound like great goals. What really happened was that the Accords focused more on people and not offending anyone and less on saving animals. The outcome was definitions for a series of words and phrases which are used to classify animals in shelters:
Unhealthy and untreatable
We are now almost 20 years removed from the Accords. The result has been not an increased focus on life-saving, but use of words by shelters which are inconsistent with the words are used by the public. The Accords have been used to categorize animals who could have, and should have, been saved, but instead were killed after having been put into a category that attempts to make that action more acceptable in some bizarre way. No one would dispute that an animal who is suffering or irremediably ill should be euthanized. But what about neo-natal animals? Old animals? Blind or deaf animals? Animals with conditions like epilepsy, megaesophagus, Wobbler’s Syndrome, paralysis, allergies or broken limbs? What about community cats? What about animals who get sick only after they enter a shelter or animals who develop behavior issues in the shelter due to the shelter environment itself? I think all these animals should be saved. Progressive shelters do save them. Regressive shelters do not. The words from the Accords are used as political cover to classify animals and then end their lives. It happens every day and may be happening in the community where you live.
This brings me back to Colorado House Bill 21-1160, called the Care of Dogs & Cats in Pet Animal Facilities. This bill is the Colorado version of the Accords, but worse because it says so little so poorly. It hinges on the definitions of two words that are not well defined: healthy and safe. Sound familiar? Much like the Accords have been used to classify and then destroy animals for almost two decades, this bill creates a license to kill. At the heart of the bill are definitions for the words “healthy” and “safe.” The fact that the bill does not define those words more specifically or by referring to an evaluation matrix is terribly problematic. This means that animals are put at risk for conditions or behavior which may lead to their death unnecessarily, some of which may have been created by the shelter environment itself. The bill also refers to a concept called Socially Conscious Sheltering which I have blogged about before; the words sound positive and they are. The issue is when those words are used to end the lives of animals needlessly.
I know it can be hard for people outside of animal welfare circles to believe that animals in shelters are destroyed for having been classified using words, but it happens every day. Animal shelters use words like healthy, unhealthy, treatable, untreatable, safe and unsafe – all of which are open for interpretation - while making it sound like the animals were saved from some fate worse than death.
Also not included in the bill is any language setting forth the qualifications of the people making decisions on whether animals are considered healthy or safe and, by extension, which animals live or die. Is that a decision made by a veterinarian who is trained in shelter medicine? Does it involve evaluation by a trained behaviorist who evaluates dogs outside of the shelter facility itself (since many fear-based behaviors are caused by the way in which dogs are traditionally housed. We must remember that the animals who could pay the ultimate price from this bill are not just numbers on a sheet of paper. They are living, sentient beings who are worthy of our very best, because that is what the public expects. The dog destroyed may be our own who is so scared in a shelter he shows his teeth or cowers in a kennel corner. The cat destroyed may have been our neighbor's beloved pet who presented as feral out of fear because she had never been outside of her own home.
I learned long ago that statutory law is a tricky thing; words in a law are there for a reason and if words are not there, that is with intent. If the same bill can be read by ten different people who come away with ten different interpretations, the bill is fatally flawed. A bad bill is worse than no bill. Once it becomes law, it can be complicated to say, "oh, no. That's not what we meant or what we intended." This is one of those bills.
I have heard from many people that they interpret the wording of the bill differently than I do. That alone is a red flag which tells us this bill must be stopped to avoid taking Colorado back in time rather than making it more progressive. I applaud any city, county or state which decides to take proactive steps to improve the lives of pets in need and to help them either get back home or get to new homes. House Bill 1160 is not that bill.
If you live in Colorado, I encourage you to read the latest version of the bill and then consider stating your opposition to the bill. It has already made it through the House and is set to be heard by the Senate Agricultural and Natural Resources Committee on April 22, 2021. You can email the committee members in addition to your own state senator. You can also sign up to testify remotely or using written testimony, which is what I did. If you do not live in Colorado, you can still have an opinion on this bill. The bill is backed by some organizations with lots of money and is being promoted by sponsors who likely are not educated enough on how animal shelters operate to see the danger this bill presents. The only way to stop the bill is for us to speak up and do our part to say there are better ways to help shelter animals in Colorado.
To learn more, visit these links.
MaxFund Opposition to House Bill 21-1160
No Kill Colorado Opposition to House Bill 21-1160
House Bill 21-1160 FAQs
Sample Letters about House Bill 21-1160
Organizations Which Oppose House Bill 1160
As we near the end of an unprecedented year for all of us, I’ve been thinking a lot about the good we found in 2020. Yes, there were good things even if it doesn’t feel that way sometimes. Thinking back to my animal welfare advocacy, I had to stop and reflect on how very fortunate I am that I have friends in the music industry who allow me to use their songs either directly or by helping me navigate the process of licensing music legally. It really is quite amazing that I know people with so very much talent who graciously help me so I can help animals.
I first tried to legally clear music a couple of decades ago and quickly learned it is a daunting process. My first effort was a complete failure. I had hoped to use a song called “Take it to Heart,” co-written by Michael McDonald and Diane Warren. I got permission from both of them, but got stuck at the label which really didn’t have time for someone who could not pay to use the song and who wanted to use it to help animals. All that changed once I figured out the best way to use music legally was to make personal connections with the people who own the music. I want to thank them in this blog and tell a little about how it all came together. I’ve listed them in the order in which I began using their music.
Fisher. We were channel surfing one night in the late 1990s when I heard part of a song on a talent show which I think was actually the version of “The Gong Show” hosted by Arsenio Hall. A young couple was doing a modern dance to a quiet and haunting song which immediately caught my attention. I wrote down some of the lyrics and later learned the song was “Ordinary Moment,” by Fisher – the pop duo of married couple Kathleen Fisher and Ron Wasserman. I was hooked. I found a Fisher message board, began interacting with other fans and ultimately connected with both Ron and Kathy directly by email.
When Fisher released their 2002 double CD called “Uppers and Downers” (true creative genius, by the way), I just had to ask. Could I please use a couple of the songs in video projects to help animals? I knew Kathy and Ron had left the label they were working with in order to have more freedom over their music and knew they owned all of the music themselves. The answer was not only yes. It was a yes to what is called "free use license" which means I can use any of the songs for any purpose to help animals. I can’t speak for them, but I think they both understood this was a mutually beneficial arrangement. I would help animals using their music and they would reach people who may not know about them, much like I didn’t know about them until I heard part of "Ordinary Moment." (This song is still a favorite of mine and is very much suited to our lives in 2020; I hope you'll take the time to listen to it).
As an aside, I like to tell a story about Fisher to help people understand how grounded they are. When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, the family of a co-worker of mine relocated to Alabama. I think it was 12 people in all. They loaded up all they could in a few cars, hit the road and it took days to arrive. They had very little to sustain them. Our office collected clothes, dishes, furniture. The items they would need to live until they figured out what would come next. After I posted about them on Fisher’s message board, Kathy called to talk about what they needed. She and Ron not only donated money, but sent boxes and boxes of supplies from baby clothes to dishes just because they wanted to help. It's just the kind of people they are.
I’ve since used countless Fisher songs over the years from a variety of CDs - Uppers and Downers, The Lovely Years, Water, Stripped and 3. I’ve done projects for animal rescue groups, animal shelters, on certain animal-oriented subjects and for PSAs for television. I’ve even used some which were never released which I’m fortunate enough to have in my box of musical treasures. My most recent was a project for Shadow Cats, Inc. in Texas using "Different Kind of Wonderful." I cannot thank them enough. Kathy now has this platform on Facebook and Ron has a website that is focused on his composition work. Their music is available on Amazon and iTunes.
Martin Page. Much like my introduction to Fisher, my connection with Martin Page began with a single song. In “In the House of Stone and Light” was released in 1996 on a CD by the same name. I was not yet an animal advocate and the time, but always loved the song. As time went on, I forgot the name of the song but had parts of it stuck in my head over the years. I was driving to work one day in 2014 when it came on the radio and I was thrilled. The whole song came back to me and I quickly wrote down the title so I wouldn’t forget it. I connected with Martin through Diane Poncher who handles his Music Management. I told him how thrilled I was to have “found” him again after all the years in between and asked if it would be possible to use some of his other music in my animal welfare projects, much like my arrangement with Fisher. I knew Martin handled his own music production also and I would not need to interact with a label. Diane and Martin said yes, no doubt after consulting with Martin's cat, "Bootsie." I now have a relationship with them in which I ask to use a particular song, describe the project I have in mind and get approval. I continue to be astounded by this connection, primarily due to the library of Martin’s work. He’s written songs with and for some of the most notable names in the music industry and I am in awe of his talents. My first project using one of Martin’s songs was for National Mill Dog Rescue in Colorado. We used a beautiful tune called “I Can’t Get There Without You.” The video quality is lacking a bit, but this is a personal favorite for me for a couple of reasons: we used footage of people slow dancing with dogs and it includes both Harley Taylor and Teddy Burchfield, both of whom have since left this Earth. I used "All For the Love of You" in a popular project for Esther the Wonder Pig who lives in Canada and has a huge following. Many thanks to both Martin and Diane, both of whom I consider friends. Martin’s music is available on iTunes.
David Hodges. Although David Hodges has been in the music industry for decades, I didn’t have an awareness of him until I heard a song called “Shattered” from a 2011 release called More Than This. I looked for information about David and discovered that he had been around for years and had become one of the most prolific songwriters on the planet. He had released a series of CDs under the name “The December Sessions,” and I was hoping to use some of the songs in my video projects. I had a hard time finding out how to connect until a long-time Fisher contact in Tennessee (thanks, Melissa!) did some sleuthing for me and learned he was managed by Milk & Honey Music Management, led by Lucas Keller. David’s music is with a label (it was Sony and is now Kobalt), but Lucas graciously helped me navigate the process of legally clearing songs and continues to do so to this day (along with help from his rescued dogs Kilo and Graham). I’ve used two of David’s songs this year – “A Song for Us” for House of Little Dogs in Arkansas and “The Only Story” for Harley’s House of Hope (I’m particularly proud of this one since we decided to incorporate American Sign Language into the video). David has so many wonderful songs that I find myself thinking of projects even before I have a target organization in mind. Thank you so very much to David, Lucas and the folks at Kobalt. David’s music is available on Amazon, iTunes and Spotify.
Jim Gaven. Most of my video projects are created using a Photodex software program called ProShow Producer. Before the company stopped supporting the program, it came with a music library and that’s how I found Jim Gaven. A few of his songs were in the library and although I was allowed to use them from having purchased the software, I connected with Jim to let him know I was using the music. I’m so glad I did. Jim has a wide variety of music released on his own through the Bandcamp platform. In addition to creating wonderful music, Jim leads a nonprofit organization called Key of Awesome Music, Inc. which improves the quality of life for people with disabilities, addiction, the elderly, and children - with music. What amazing work. I used “Make this Moment Last” in a project for the Lake County Florida Animal Shelter and very much look forward to using more of Jim’s music in the future to help animals. Jim’s music is available on Bandcamp and Soundcloud.
Cristina Lynn. Cristina and I met through a common contact who calls her "cous" (they both share the last name Lynn). I had heard she was a singer-songwriter from my area and thought it would be interesting to connect with someone local. After I lost my parents to cancer, I ended up with some songs in my head, one of which was from the perspective of a rescued animal called, "Just No Looking Back." I knew it was not a chart topper, but also thought it might be able to help some animals. I reached to to Cristina and she graciously agreed to record the song for us both after improving on the lyrics and melody. I've used in in a few different projects and each time I learn she will perform locally, I make a request for her to "sing our song." Cristina is a wonderful talent and I look forward to a very bright future for her in the music industry!
I hope you’ll take a break from a very difficult year to enjoy some of the video projects. You can them on my Paws4Change channel on Youtube. If you are an aspiring artist who is looking for some exposure to your music in a feel-good, let's help animals kind of way, let me know.
I’ve never really understood the concept of buying a pet from a breeder through a website. I guess part of that is because I promote adoption of animals from shelters and rescue groups as a first option. To me, it just seems like the right thing to do on a personal level and from a point of being responsible. As a nation, we continue to destroy healthy and treatable animals in our shelters using tax-dollars even though we have more than enough homes for all of them. These are animals who either were, our could have been, someone’s beloved pet. I see it as our collective responsibility to stop the needless death from happening through adoption as a first option.
I fully recognize that some people will never adopt from a shelter or a rescue group and insist on getting a pet from a breeder. But from a website? Really?
Online shopping is a great resource in many ways. Even prior to the pandemic, more and more people turned to their electronic devices to shop that ever before because it's easy and convenient. The pandemic has supercharged a transition away from brick and mortar shopping to online sales which have soared as people do all they can to keep themselves and their families safe while limiting (or completely ending) in-store purchases. I've heard some experts say the retail industry as we have known it is forever changed and there is likely no going back. But a pet? It just seems sordid to me. Online shopping for things is great. Online shopping for a living, breathing, sentient creature who will be part of your life for at least a decade and maybe two is just not right in my book. I know people do it all the time for a host of reasons and it may relate back to that easy and convenient mindset. They’re looking for a companion animal, find a website (or a bunch of websites) that look polished on which images of cute puppies or kittens are just too hard to resist and read that the animal comes fully vetted and with a health guarantee. What could possibly go wrong? Everything.
Many animal advocates are quick to preach, “don’t breed or buy while shelter dogs die.” That’s a nice idea in theory, but it doesn’t work in reality, at least at this time in our society. There will always be people who want to get a pet from a breeder and since breeding animals is legal, there is nothing to be done to stop it. Some breeders breed dogs specifically to be placed in service industries. Others breed dogs to perform law enforcement functions. Some breeders make big money from breeding animals; I’ve seen some puppies who cost thousands of dollars. Some breeders make hardly any money at all and do it for the love of the species or love of the breed. I know there are breeders who function responsibly, who care deeply for their animals, who provide their animals with all they need – veterinary care, exercise, socialization and even training – and who work hard to place animals in great homes, insisting the animal be returned to them if something goes wrong.
Then there are the other breeders. The people who insist they meet you in a Walmart parking lot or never even meet you at all. The people who will not let you see the conditions in which the animals are bred, coming up with any variety of excuses as to why you can’t see the location for yourself to judge how the breeder dogs are cared for. It is this group of people who ordinarily broker their animals to stores to be sold to the public in a retail setting or who develop inviting looking websites with wonderful images and testimonials to lure you into the sale. I’ve seen numerous sites like this over the years and am always amazed at how much the animals cost and the process used to buy one. Some require a nonrefundable deposit before you meet the animal. Some want full payment before a dog is shipped to you. I’ve often wished there was some “truth in advertising” requirement for online sale of pets so photos of the conditions in which the dogs live are posted next to the photo of the cute animal, cuddled up next to a teddy bear. Maybe that would cause people to be repulsed enough to reconsider their decision.
Which leads to the point of this blog. Pet scams are now more prevalent than at any time in history as people spend more time at home or spend more time separated from people and are looking for companionship. I heard a few months ago that the pandemic has led to a sharp rise in complaints about pet scams. I was reminded of this again today when I heard about a heartbreaking story on CBS This Morning about a woman whose young daughter had died and who decided to buy a dog from a website in her daughter’s honor (her daughter always wanted a puppy), only to be scammed out of the money she paid for the dog. This led me to look at the Better Business Bureau News page about “puppy scams” which have soared during the pandemic. The numbers are astounding. The BBB reports that the biggest increase in online shopping fraud is pet scams which have more than tripled from last year. They make up 24% of online scams reported to the BBB and are now considered the riskiest scam according to the BBB Risk Index. Of the people targeted by the scam, 70% end up losing money with the typical amount lost of $700. And, of course, the BBB reports that not only are these the riskiest of scams, they are also one of the most heart-breaking. The BBB news story states:
Some families turned to the internet to look for a pet, thinking a pandemic puppy or kitten would help ease some of the uncertainty of current events. Many have come across scammers advertising animals that don't exist and are never shipped. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has given scammers the idea to ask for money up front, or to make excuses as to why buyers can’t see the pet in person-- before heartbroken, would-be pet owners figure out they have been conned. This practice has also lead to a jump in online shopping fraud in general. BBB suggests, be aware of these pet scams and avoid falling for phony websites."
When it comes to buying animals online, please. Just say no. It you’re determined to get an animal from a breeder, find a reputable breeder close to you or who has been recommended to you by someone you know. Meet the breeder in person, see where your new pet will come from and ask for both veterinary references and references from people who have bought a pet from the breeder in the last year.
Better yet, open your home to an animal from an animal shelter or rescue group. If you’d like to use the Internet to help with that, there are wonderful websites like Petfinder or Adopt A Pet where you can search for animals by species, breed, size and age by geographic area. You can also visit your local animal shelter in person to see the animals available for adoption or learn about animals in foster homes who are ready to be adopted. You can also visit the websites and Facebook pages for animal shelters and rescue groups in your region to see what animals are available to find the right fit for you and your lifestyle. When you adopt from a shelter or a rescue, you enhance your own life, save the life of the animal you adopt and make room for another animal in need.
I feel terribly for the woman who was scammed trying to honor the life of her daughter. I am sure she is devistated. I wish I knew her so I could help her find a puppy from a shelter or a rescue group instead.
In one city, cats and kittens who are not adopted or removed from the animal shelter by a rescue group in a week are destroyed.
In another city, the shelter adopts out cats, has a barn cat/working cat program, seeks foster homes for cats who have just given birth (and their kittens) and seeks bottle feeders for kittens with no mother.
In one city, a dog who is fearful in the shelter environment and cowers in his kennel is destroyed for failure to make eye contact.
In another city, a fearful dog who cannot be touched is provided with a bed, a blanket, toys and is slowly fed pieces of hot dog by employees and volunteers to earn his trust and help alleviate his fear so he can be adopted or placed in a foster home.
In one city, an elderly dog surrendered by the owner who asked that the dog be euthanized is destroyed within thirty minutes of entering the building.
In another city, a dog taken in by the shelter whose owner wanted him destroyed is evaluated and placed in a Fospice (foster hospice) home to live out his glory days in comfort.
In one city, the shelter takes in any and all owned pets without any management of kennel space and the majority of those animals are summarily destroyed for space with no regard for their age or health.
In another city, the shelter requires pet owners to have surrender counseling to find alternatives to overcome short-term issues problems, to help the caregiver re-home the pet with the help of the shelter staff and takes in only those owned animals the shelter can reasonably care for and as a last resort.
So, what is the difference between these two cities? Does one have more money and resources than the other? Is one in a more affluent area than the other? The difference is one of commitment and communication with the public.
In communities where healthy and treatable animals are routinely destroyed, there is no commitment to life saving. People can say that “no one wants to kill animals.” Those are merely words. When the actions are to end the lives of those animals, in spite of clear alternatives to doing just that, the words mean little. The public is blamed for treating animals as disposable, when is the shelter which is doing just that. The programs which are used to save the lives of shelter animals have been known literally for decades. Any person who leads an animal shelter in this day and age who is not saving lives has either remained willfully ignorant of those programs at worst or should seek another occupation at best. I realize that some municipal officials know little about shelter operations or how to transition from "catch and kill" to saving lives. I see it as incumbent on shelter leadership to bring those people into the 21st Century by educating them and by explaining why money is better spent on saving lives and ending them.
In communities where healthy and treatable animals are saved, there is commitment to life saving which is built on a foundation of compassion. The reasons animals enter shelters are seen for what they are – people problems, not animal problems. The shelter exists not just for public safety purposes, but to help people make better decisions and to help them overcome obstacles. The shelter is seen as a place of support, hope and new beginnings. Because people do not fear the shelter, they are more apt to seek guidance, can be educated to keep their pets from entering the shelter and are less apt to abandon animals (a crime) out of desperation.
Nathan Winograd once wrote in his book "Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America," that the there is a three-step method to becoming a No Kill Community: 1) stop the killing; 2) stop the killing and 3) stop the killing. In the end, this is a choice and there are no excuses good enough to defend the destruction of animals who either were, or could have been, someone’s beloved companion. If we had no longer destroyed healthy and treatable animals in shelters and suddenly began doing that, people would be outraged. They should be as outraged by that business practice now as they are by other forms of animal abuse and neglect. It is inconsistent with public values and a betrayal of the public trust.
I hear all the time that we should not blame the shelters where animals die. Why not? Is that not he place where they are being killed?
Change starts and is maintained by the example set by the shelter itself. In places where the killing of shelter pets has ended, it's not because the public suddenly became more responsible. It’s because the shelter changed its culture, either by choice or as a result of pressure, and invited the public to be part of something bigger than themselves. When we help people find alternatives to surrendering animals, families are kept together. When we tell the public about the need for foster homes for special needs animals, neonatal animals, animals struggling in the shelter environment or just to get animals in a new location where we can learn more about then, people step up and make time and room to help those animals. When we tell the public materials are needed for animal enrichment - toys, treats (and yes, hot dogs) - people donate those items. Compassion is a powerful force which can be harnessed and used to change our society.
What kind of city do you live in?
If it is one where animals go to the shelter to die, I cannot encourage you strongly enough to speak out to make that stop. You are paying for the death.
If it is one where the shelter is part of the community and has embraced progressive ideas, count yourself fortunate. And do what you can to help maintain that culture. Make better personal decisions to keep your pets from ending up in the shelter, make sure they can be identified if lost, have a plan for their placement if something happens to you and consider adoption, fostering, donating and volunteering if you can.
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