When I first published my website over ten years ago, I had a page I called The Reading Room. It included the books I had read which helped me become a better animal welfare advocate. “Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America,” and “Irreconcilable Differences: The Battle for the Heart and Soul of America’s Animal Shelters,” by Nathan Winograd. “The Lost Dogs: Michael Vick’s Dogs and Their Tale of Rescue and Redemption,” by Jim Gorant. “The Pit Bull Placebo: The Media, Myths and Politics of Canine Aggression,” by Karen Delise. Those were just a few. As you may expect, my collection has grown over the years and I've blogged about a number of my favorites. We are such an interconnected society today, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, that I am constantly learning about new books to add to my education and my collection (Yes, I am old enough to have survived living before the miracle of email, the Internet and video conferencing, amazing as that may seem).
One of my new favorite authors is the focus of this blog. Peter Zheutlin. If you have not read his books, you’re really missing out on a treat. Peter has written a host of books on a variety of subjects and has a remarkable resume of the many and very different jobs he’s held over the years. The books I’ve read are what I call his “animal books.” They are “Rescue Road: One Man, Thirty Thousand Dogs, and a Million Miles on the Last Hope Highway,” “Rescued: What Second-Chance Dogs Teach us About Living With Purpose, Loving With Abandon, and Finding Joy in the Little Things,” and his most recent book, “The Dog Went Over the Mountain: Travels with Albie, An American Journey.”
This blog is not a review of his books. I don’t want to tell you too much about them and spoil the value of reading them for yourself. The title of each book explains much about the book and gives you a glimpse into what is to come. I would like to share my impressions, which won’t give away too much.
Rescue Road is amazing, inspiring, heart-wrenching and thought provoking all at the same time. I have historically not been a fan of what I describe as mass-transports from one region of the country to another, but there is no denying that but for the tireless work of Greg Mahle and a host of other people, countless animals would die in our antiquated animal shelter system.
Rescued was life affirming, humorous and touching. As a staunch advocate of animal rescue, reading the stories of others felt like coming home to a tribe which spans the nation.
The Dog Went Over the Mountain was a wonderful journey from start to finish. I felt like I was along for the ride, sometimes quite literally, and it left me pondering what the places I’d like to experience in my days left on this Earth.
I asked Peter to help me with a Q&A instead, a format which has worked well with other authors I’ve blogged about in the past. I think it’s helpful to learn something about these incredibly talented people that you may not get just from reading the book or books. I like to think of it as the written version of sitting down together to have a conversation. You can learn more about Peter on his website and he may be in a city near you very soon. His events page has a listing of his appearances for his book tour for The Dog Went Over the Mountain.
I’d like to thank Peter for taking the time to engage with me about his books. I hope you’ll read them, become a fan like me and add the books to your own personal library. Enjoy.
You have a fascinating background which includes work as a lawyer, as a journalist and working for an organization which was awarded the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize. How does your work as an author compare to your prior occupations in terms of satisfaction? Do you feel like you were always meant to be a writer?
Well, I didn’t exactly have an illustrious legal career! I never regret having gone to law school, but working in a law firm just wasn’t for me. I taught first year legal skills courses, first at Northwestern University School of Law and the University of Virginia Law School and enjoyed that, but in mid-1980s had a chance to join the staff of an organization called The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). It’s hard to appreciate decades later just how front and center the nuclear arms race was as a global issue at that time, so the work was very meaningful to me, and it gave me the opportunity to travel all over the world and work with some truly extraordinary people. It was during my time at IPPNW that I started writing op-ed columns and features on issues related to nuclear arms. To be honest, it was a kick to see my name I print and to know that a lot of people would see what I was writing. All of this work…as a lawyer, as a law school instructor, as the staff member of a large NGO (non-governmental organization) was very collaborative. Being an author is more of a solitary pursuit. Sure, you interview people, you write about experiences you’ve had in the world, but most of the work itself is solitary and I rather like that. There are no staff meetings, no office politics, and no office holiday parties.
You've written a number of books on a host of topics. What led you to write animal-oriented books?
In 2012, after more than twenty years of fending off the pleas of my wife and kids, I finally agreed to get a family dog. When my wife suggested a rescue dog I was perplexed; I imagined a St. Bernard with a whiskey barrel under its chin in the Alps. Seriously. But once I was educated I was on board. I have always been disposed to the underdogs in life and there are tens of thousands of real underdogs that come into shelters every year in the United States; the lost, the abandoned, the abused, and the neglected. And they need someone to step up and give them another chance in life. So, in 2012 we adopted Albie, a two-three year old Lab mix who was found wandering alone on a street in rural Louisiana. He was brought to a shelter where nearly 90% of the dogs who come in never leave. I knew nothing about the scope of the problem or the rescue process and decided to take a deep dive into that world to learn more. I was so in love with Albie and I wanted to know more about the people who made his rescue possible. That led to my first “dog” book, Rescue Road: One Man, Thirty Thousand Dogs, and a Million Miles of the Last Hope Highway. The “one man” is Greg Mahle of Rescue Road Trips. He was the man who drove Albie north from Louisiana. He was my entryway into the world of rescue.
Rescue Road tells the story of your travels with Greg Mahle. Most people would have a hard time envisioning a trip that difficult and emotional. Do you have a single most difficult memory and a single most positive memory from the trips?
In addition to driving thousands of miles with Greg, I spent time in some of the communities where so many rescue dogs come from. For example, I spent an evening with volunteers from a group called Forgotten Dogs of the Fifth Ward in Houston. The number of strays, many clearly suffering, on the streets of Houston was astonishing. Perhaps my favorite moment came at the very last drop off spot in Connecticut where families were waiting for Greg to arrive with their new dogs. As we pulled into the parking lot a group of about 40 people started jumping and waving signs welcoming their new pups. Greg pulled to a stop, turned the truck off and took in the scene for a minute. Then he said this to me: “A week ago these dogs were all going to die. Now the doors will open, the light will come flooding in and each one will be delivered into the arms of a loving family. This is heaven.”
After Rescue Road, you wrote a heartfelt book called Rescued. Are there any particularly impactful stories you left out of the book you can share with us?
If they were impactful stories I surely would have included them in the book! But you always hear heartwarming stories when you talk to people who have rescued a dog. Sure, there are times when an adoption doesn’t work out, but the vast majority do and the joy and the intensity of the bonds people form with their dogs is truly remarkable. I didn’t appreciate that until we adopted Albie, and then Salina, and then Jambalaya, all rescues from Louisiana. I think everyone who rescues wishes they had room for just one more.
The Dog Went Over the Mountain is an incredible story of a cross-country journey you took with your dog, Albie. Now that it is behind you, is there anything you wish you had done but did not get the opportunity to do? Was there something that didn't make it to final editing for the book that you'd like people to know about your journey?
As I write at the very beginning of the book, this is the story of a road trip and you cannot really get to know a place, any place, unless you spend extended time there. And I’ve already gotten some criticism for sharing my impressions of places based on limited exposure. But when we travel, that’s what we do; we form impressions, fair or not, based on limited experience. It’s why some people love New York or Omaha, for example, and some don’t. It’s the nature of a road trip to pass through many places. There are countless places and people with a story to tell and you just can’t gather it all. So, do I wish I could have immersed myself in the life of some of the places we visited? For sure. But, as I said, we were on a road trip, not an anthropological mission.
You have become a huge proponent of adoption and rescue of animals needing homes. We now have a presidential candidate making the plight of shelter animals a campaign issue. Do you think a time will come when we no longer have so many companion animals at risk and our animal shelters keep the healthy and treatable animals alive?
There was a story recently in The New York Times that documented the progress we are seeing in this area, even since we adopted Albie. Nationwide, more shelter animals are being saved, “euthanasia” rates are down (I use quotes because the word sanitizes what’s really going on which is the killing of often healthy, perfectly adoptable animals), and public awareness of the issues is on the rise. More and more shelters and communities are moving towards the “no kill” philosophy and “live release” rates (the inverse of “euthanasia” rates) are rising. This is a trend and not an end point, though. We seem to be moving in the right direction and that’s encouraging.
(image of Peter and Albie at Half Moon Bay, courtesy of Peter Zheutlin)
During my Army days, there was a saying used often which has stuck with me over the years. You may have seen it on a t-shirt. The saying goes, “the beatings will continue until morale improves.” The natural reaction is to think, well, wouldn’t morale improve if the beatings stopped? Of course if would.
I was reminded of this phrase yesterday when an old article about animal rescue was making the rounds on social media for the umpteenth time. It should have been called “you are to blame but please help us rescue now.” The natural reaction, for me, is that if you stop blaming the public, they may help you more and may make better choices. The 2014 article said the following things about animal rescue.
• dog owners tend to have a lot of misconceptions about rescue groups. . .and what their job is in society. Spoiler alert: it’s not to fix your problems.
• It’s not our job to fix your basket case.
• If you decide your dog needs a home, do it yourself; it’s really not our job.
• If you didn’t spay your dog, and now you have [puppies], that’s your problem, not ours.
• You disgust me.
• You thought you were good enough for that dog in the first place, now prove it.
Wow. Tells us how you really feel (yes, that’s sarcasm).
Animal rescue is not for everyone. It is often a thankless, dirty, heart breaking, frustrating and expensive venture. Many rescuers I know work full-time jobs and spend a lot of time and a lot of their own money working incredibly hard to keep animals alive. Some have what I call “life balance.” Their focus is on helping animals, but they fully realize they cannot help all animals and so they do the best with the resources they have. They learn how to say “no” to people politely and then refer people who need help to other rescue groups or organizations which may be able to help them resolve issues they are having. They work hard to help each animal, one at a time, and then go on to help other animals when time and resources allow. Then there are others whom I can only refer to as angry rescuers. They are perpetually angry with the public, whom they view as the enemy. They do not hesitate to vent or rant about the people seeking their help and whom they view as outrageously irresponsible, making the lives of rescuers unreasonalby difficult.
News flash. Problems with companion animals are not animal problems, they are people problems. And whether rescuers like to view their role this way or not, theirs is a customer service based function in our society
I feel confident that most people in animal rescue mean well and entered the rescue field to help animals in need find new homes. But the reality is that you cannot separate the animals in need of help from the people who may seek help unless you do not deal directly with the public and you only remove animals from animal shelters. Yes, there are irresponsible people who should never have companion animals, some of whom behave in ways which are criminal at worst and negligent at best. I genuinely believe, however, that the majority of people who share their lives with dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, snakes, ferrets, hamsters and other companion animals mean well. They may not always make the best decisions, but most of them lack malice. I also believe that most people can be educated to make better decisions about animals if we check our judgment at the door and presume the best of people and not the worst.
Should people get their pets spayed and neutered? Absolutely. When they don’t, that does not mean they hatched some evil plan in the dark of night to keep a pet from being sterilized for the sole purpose of having a litter of puppies or kittens they then need help to place. I can’t count the number of times people have asked me for help to place a litter of animals and when I ask them about spay or neuter of the parent animals, they either say, “I meant to do that but thought I had more time” or “I wanted to do that but my veterinarian wanted hundreds of dollars and I just could not afford it right away.”
Should people make plans to re-home their pets themselves in the case of some life emergency? You bet. When people don’t, that does not mean that they don’t care enough. I believe strongly that we should all have what I call Pet Parents in the event of our death, serious illness or some life tragedy that puts us in a position where we have to re-home our pets because we can no longer care for them. When people do not make plans and they need help, they are not evil or uncaring. It more likely than not means they did not take seriously the possibility that life would change very suddenly and that their family and friends may not be lining up to take their pets and care for them the rest of their lives. They may not have given enough serious consideration to a worst case scenario which may affect us all with no notice.
Should people be prepared to fulfill their lifetime commitment to their pets? Certainly. The reality is that many people expect pets to know how to behave automatically and put little or no effort into decompression or training whether it is house training, walking on a leash, not jumping on people or furniture, etc. Many people also give little regard to the needs of dogs in terms of exercise and mental stimulation which help reduce bad behaviors brought on by boredom. This can lead to people becoming frustrated with pets who do not behave the way they expect and decide they are not worth the time and effort it takes. There are also situations when a person brings an animal into their home, only to encounter a conflict with an existing animal in the home which cannot be resolved even through the very best of efforts. I know some people treat pets as disposable and I know that lots of people need to be more responsible and live up to their commitments. For every person who gives up too easily, there are many more people who would go to the ends of the Earth to help or save their beloved companion animals. It helps to not lose sight of that.
I am not a rescuer. I know how I like to be treated by rescue groups when I need help with some animal I have found; I am asking you to be mindful of the image you present to the public. I do volunteer work for and support rescuers and it is in that vein that I offer the following.
The public is not your enemy. You cannot bash, rant about or otherwise blame the irresponsible public for your frustrations and then expect that same public to adopt animals from you, foster animals for you, volunteer to help you or donate to your rescue. You can’t have it both ways. Recognize privately that some people are awful, but don’t treat us all that way. We have plenty of options when it comes to which organizations we deal with and support. If you are too toxic, we will just put our support toward a more friendly rescue which doesn't view all people in the same negative light.
Learn to say no. You cannot help every animal in need. You cannot help every person who asks for help. If you cannot help someone who has asked you for help, tell them no and refer them to other organizations which may be able to help them. Let it go and move on. If they insist that it is your job to help them, just don’t respond to that type of bullying or pressure.
Consider ways to help people make better choices so the need for you is lessened. Set up a spay/neuter fund to help offset costs of spay/neuter for animals owned by families of limited means. Offer free microchipping periodically to help lost animals get back home. Refer people to pet food resources in your community if they fall on hard times. If an animal is hurt and the family cannot afford the veterinary care, consider paying for the care to help keep the animal in the existing home. You can do targeted fundraising for any of these efforts. Doing so will cause people to see your rescue group as a resource to help not just animals, but to help people in the community overcome obstacles while still keeping pets in existing homes.
Drop the attitude and try to keep your filter in place. As much as you may not like dealing with some people in the public, you have made yourself a public figure by making a decision to rescue animals. It is natural for people to seek your help whether you find them worthy of your time or not. Most have no clue of your existing obligations and have no idea what resources are available to you. Our ties to animals are emotional and when we are desperate, we often don't think clearly or communicate well. Please forgive us our shortcomings. If you hope to preserve your reputation toward getting more public support, be mindful of what you say to people in person, in email messages and on social media. Take the high road even if you are fuming or exasperated internally and then find a way to release your stress other than with your words.
Try to focus on the positive. Every animal you help is a success story. Every family you help is something in which you can take pride. Rescue is really hard work and not everyone can do what you do. It takes passion, commitment, patience and creativity. Focus on the lives you save. Focus on what you know you can do with the resources you have. There’s a lot of bad out there, but there is more good than bad.
Take time for yourself and try to seek balance. Knowing you cannot save every animal and help every person, remember that you cannot help anyone if you do not take care of yourself. Set boundaries, do things just for you periodically and learn how to disconnect when you get so stressed that every ask or every animal causes you anger. To do otherwise means you may ultimately flame out and not just walk away from rescue, but run from it. If you have not been out to dinner, seen a movie or read a book in the last six months, it's time for a break. No one wants you to be so incredibly unhappy that it affects your mental health or your own personal well-being. The suicide rate in the rescue community is higher than some may imagine. If you find yourself feeling so overwhelmed and hopeless that you are tempted to give up not just on rescue, but on yourself, please step away from rescue and seek help.
Nobody likes an angry rescuer. Please don’t be that person who helps animals, but who hates people
I’m a sucker for a good animal book. I have a library of go-to book resources, some of which are tabbed, highlighted and worn much like old high school or college textbooks (for those of you old enough to have used actual books in school). These are the more serious books I use as reference materials and to which I refer regularly in my animal welfare advocacy. Then there are what I call the feel-good books. I don’t mean feel-good in a Hollywood kind of way where nothing bad ever happens and the good guys always win. I mean feel-good from an animal welfare advocacy standpoint. These are books which share empowering and inspirational stories of people in the weeds of animal welfare, doing unseen great deeds for which all of us should be grateful. They are the books which have the power to compel each of us to evaluate what we are doing to help animals and to "be the change" we seek by getting personally involved in helping animals.
A few weeks back, one of my reference authors (Kim Kavin of “The Dog Merchants”) led me to a new author about whom I did not know before. There had been an issue with difficulty getting a shelter in South Carolina to release a dog to a rescue group following Hurricane Michael and I was asked what I knew about the shelter operation. As it turns out, the shelter has nothing to write home about, as mom used to say. (The live release rate at the shelter is around 60% which means that animals have about a 50/50 chance of making it out of the shelter alive).
Cara Sue Achterberg, however, does have something to write home about and she did just that in her enchanting new book about her experiences as an animal foster - “Another Good Dog.”
I have written before about people who foster animals for animal shelters and rescue groups. I thought it was a big deal when I learned that my brother and sister-in-law had fostered more than 100 dogs in a period of over 8 years. Each time I've visited my brother’s house I've been amazed at how difficult it must be, and how much time it must take, to foster 5 or 6 dogs at any given time in addition to caring for and loving your own pets.
Cara takes the concept of fostering to a whole new level, having fostered more than 50 dogs in a 2-year period and then writing a book about her experiences. No one is keeping score, of course, but the sheer number of animals flowing from shelters, to rescue groups, to Cara’s home and then on to new lives is just mind boggling to me. This is a very organized process in terms of the logistics of the rescue group getting dogs out of shelters and transporting them to foster homes, but the outcome is anything but certain. Foster families who take in rescue animals never really know what will happen when a new animal enters their home and never know how long their visitor will stay. It is a fascinating process to me which I think far too few people know about.
Fostering animals for shelters and rescue groups quite literally keeps them alive. While many communities have become more progressive regarding how tax-funded animal shelters operate, healthy and treatable animals are still destroyed in our nation’s shelters for no good reason than the fact that they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is easy to tell ourselves that dogs are destroyed by the millions in our nation’s shelters either because something is wrong with them or because there is no other way to function. The truth is that with very few exceptions, all the healthy and treatable dogs in our shelters are good dogs and they just need our help to start new lives. Animals rarely behave like themselves in shelter environments which can be scary, loud, foreign places which are nothing at all like the homes and lives they once knew. Animals placed in foster homes are being prepared to become someone’s beloved companion through socialization and structure. When they are in foster homes, we help them decompress, help them get the veterinary care they need and we learn about their personalities so that we can help people learn more about who they truly are and not just how they behaved in the shelter.
But on to Cara’s wonderful book.
I grew up in a reading household and have always found great enjoyment in books in general. When I learn of a new animal book like Cara’s, there really is no better place to be than inside my head as I go along for the ride and learn about the life of another person. Lots of people write animal welfare or animal-oriented books. It takes a true talent to take us on a journey in a book and that is exactly what Cara has done in “Another Good Dog.” The book is not just about the dogs themselves; it is about Cara as a person, about what led her to feel compelled to foster dogs, about how fostering became a family affair (which includes her husband and children) and about how fostering has since become a way of life. I laughed. I cried. I wished Cara had kept some of the dogs she fostered even thought I understand why she did not. I found myself personally invested in the story and while Cara and I have never met, I am honored to call her both a friend and a hero.
When I write blogs about books like Cara’s, I don’t want to spoil the journey for anyone. When you read her book you'll see for yourself what I saw as I turned the pages and wondered what in the world was going to happen next. The book will appeal to anyone who loves animals even if they have never fostered animals. If you have been thinking about fostering animals to save lives, this book may help you take a leap of faith and give it a try. Cara explains why it is that the heartbreak of letting a foster animal go to a new home is far outweighed by the need for fosters to keep animals alive. She helps us understand that no one is really ready to foster and you just do it and do your best, knowing that alive and cared for always beats the alternative (which in many parts of the country means death). She helps us understand that while fostering helps animals in need by preparing them to be someone’s beloved pet, each animal we help also helps to mold and shape us and to become better people in the process.
One of my favorite passages from the book is this:
In the beginning, fostering for us was about having fun with a new dog, trying each one out as if it could be our own. Each adoption was a decision for me – should we keep this one? And each time when the decision was made to let the dog leave, I felt sad, guilty event. Somewhere along the line, though, I’d stopped thinking of the dogs as mine. It didn’t hurt less, but it was easier. I didn’t imagine any of them staying. I had an important job here. It was to prepare the dogs for their new home. If I did my job right and OPH’s (Operation Paws for Homes) adoption coordinator team did their job right, there was a very good chance that the next home these dogs moved to would be their last. So when each dog left it wasn’t because I decided not to keep it, it was because I’d helped it find its home, and now could save another dog.
Cara was gracious enough to agree to a Q&A session so I could share some information with my followers which is not contained in the book and help people learn more about her and what she does. If you have other questions for Cara about her book, you can contact her through her website.
Q: Early on in your book, you talk about a foster kit you get which includes a number of items which I found fascinating: vitamins, probiotics, coconut oil and cranberry extract. Do you still use the same items for your fosters? If so, would you recommend them to anyone who adopts a dog from an animal shelter?
A: Because so many shelter dogs have a spotty health history at best, we try to bolster their immune system and help them fight off potential health issues with vitamins and probiotics. The cranberry extract is given to female dogs to try to prevent (or treat) urinary tract infections that can be common in dogs who have to hold their pee for a long time on transport runs that can be as long as twelve or more hours. The coconut oil is not only a natural wormer, it’s good for lots of things like their coat. And yup, we still use the same stuff and I always recommend the probiotics to adopters.
Q: We hear all the time about shelters with high kill rates which make it incredibly difficult for rescue groups to pull animals. Even though there are rescues out there that are willing to pull dogs that are heart worm positive, may have some behavioral issues, are older or may have come from a really bad situation, it seems like some regressive shelters would rather destroy the dogs than release them to rescues. Have you ever encountered this attitude?
A: I do think it’s rare. I haven’t encountered it with the shelters we have established partnerships with, but this past fall I did run into it for the first time with a shelter in South Carolina that took in evacuated hurricane dogs. They put up quite a fight, insisting that we shouldn’t pull a dog because they had labeled him heart worm positive and dog-aggressive. Because I’d met the dog in person while on my tour, I argued that we should still pull him and offered to foster him myself. As it turns out, he was heart worm negative and not the least bit aggressive toward dogs, people, or even cats! Quite the opposite actually. I think the vast majority of shelters are working hard to save every dog they can, but as I learned this fall, occasionally there are shelter workers who become jaded or frustrated or maybe just burnt out, and find it easier to euthanize than go the great lengths it sometimes takes to save a dog.
Q: A lot of people don't foster animals because they work full time away from home and are worried about leaving a foster animal alone for long periods of time. What would you say to those people to convince them that fostering is still a good idea?
A: Even though I work from home, I still crate my foster dogs for part of the day. I do this because I know that the vast majority of adopters will have to crate them while they work. Most of the people who foster with OPH (the rescue I work with) work full-time away from their house. People who work outside of their homes are actually the perfect people to foster most dogs.
Q: What do you think about the concept of Sleepover fostering where people foster either for a weekend or for a couple of nights?
A: I think that any time you can get an animal out of the shelter for any period of time, it’s going to benefit that animal. It’s also a great way to ‘try out’ fostering a dog you aren’t sure about and to help shelter workers assess a dog’s temperament in a home setting.
Q: In your book you talk about the fact that you may have a puppy addiction. Do you still?
A: Oh, yes. Puppies are my crack. Even worse, I love to foster pregnant dogs. Fostering puppies is much more time consuming than fostering dogs, plus it’s very messy. We quarantine our puppies who are not fully vaccinated, which means for at least 8 days, the puppies stay indoors in a restricted area. That means there’s a lot of potty detail. But all of that pales when you hold it up against the joy of being with puppies. No one can be unhappy in the presence of a puppy.
Q: It seems as though fostering has become a way of life for you, as it has for many of my other contacts. Do you envision yourself doing this forever?
A: Well, I hope I won’t be doing this forever. I hope we will solve this absolutely solvable problem our country has of euthanizing adoptable dogs. But until we do, yes, I will continue to rescue. Having met so many good dogs whose only crime was landing in an overcrowded shelter and knowing how many more are still dying, there’s no way I could stop.
Cara Sue Achterberg describes herself as a writer, blogger, and “occasional cowgirl” who lives on a farm in South Central, Pennsylvania. Her first novel, I'm Not Her, was a national bestseller. She has since written two additional fiction books (Girls' Weekend and Practicing Normal) which have had huge success in addition to an award-winning book called, Live Intentionally: 65 Challenges for a Healthier, Happier Life. Cara fosters dogs for Operation Paws For Homes, a nonprofit all-breed rescue organization, and writes a blog about her experiences.
As of the date of this blog, Cara has fostered 136 dogs. She is currently fostering two adult dogs and three six-week-old puppies (in addition to her two personal dogs)
As a proponent of the No Kill Equation as a way to save shelter pets, not a week goes by when I don't have a conversation with someone about foster programs and how vital they are to keeping companion animals alive.
Even the best of shelters can be a stressful environment for any animal. Many animals are very emphathic. Most can see, smell and hear things we do not. This means that for them, a shelter can be a very strange and scary place and is nothing like the home they may have known. Even the most balanced of animals will not behave in a shelter the way he or she behaves outside of a shelter. This makes it very difficult to identify behavioral issues and to even determine which animals are social and well-adjusted.
Most rescue groups do not have a physical shelter facility and are completely foster-home based meaning that all of the animals are housed in foster homes. In the case of rescue groups which do have a physical building, the same focus on getting animals out into foster homes still applies. Even the best animal rescue facility can be a stressful environment for animals who may be confused, scared or otherwise traumatized because they are displaced from home.
I have always considered the fostering of animals to be a Higher Calling. It takes a particular type of person to bring an animal into their home, knowing that the arrangement is temporary. Most of us who consider ourselves “animal lovers” bond with animals quickly and the realization that foster animals are in our homes not to stay, but to be prepared to be a beloved pet for someone else can be really hard for some people. For me, I think it's all a matter of attitude in realizing that the arrangement is temporary for the foster home, but will be life-changing for the animal being fostered. The good far outweighs the sad when an animal goes on to his or her Happy Beginning.
What exactly is fostering all about? Animals in foster care are animals who are being prepared for a new life. Some are perfectly healthy. Some may have some special needs. The past of animals in foster homes may never be known, but their present becomes very much known. Can he walk on a leash? Is she house trained? Does riding in a car upset her? Does he love to play with toys? How about getting along with children or other pets? All of these questions can be answered more accurately once animals are outside of a shelter environment and in a home. While we are learning about the foster animals, they are also learning from us and from our own animals. They learn to be house trained or use a litter box, they learn about structure and they learn to trust. As Marti Colwell of Bichon FurKids, Inc. told me recently about her organization, the “mission of foster homes is to provide a loving environment where dogs can learn to trust, know that they are safe and can grow to become the happy, confident, loving canine companions they were born to be.” Yes.
Fostering pets can be a wonderful opportunity for people who love animals, but who are not prepared for the long-term commitment of a pet or who travel frequently and for whom having a pet would be difficult. It can also be a good option for someone who is grieving the loss of a beloved pet and is not sure if they are ready to adopt again; it can help that person heal.. Some shelters and rescue groups have foster programs in which animals are fostered for a finite amount of time and some prefer that animals remain in one foster home until they are placed. The shelter or rescue group should provide food and cover the costs of all veterinary care of specialty training. An effective foster home extends the walls of the shelter or rescue group out into the community, increasing the life-saving capacity of the organization. Additionally, each foster home becomes a working part of a marketing machine. Every time a foster home talks to people about their foster pets, they are helping to promote the life-saving work of the organization.
My brother and sister-in-law have fostered more than 100 dogs over a period of 8 years, a fact which both amazes me and makes me incredibly proud. We will surely never know the full effect of fostering so many dogs not only on the dogs themselves, but on the lives of the families which are forever changed by the dogs they adopt. When I was working on a project recently to highlight their fostering, both of them told me that fostering dogs is how they want to be remembered.
It is a Higher Calling indeed.
(image of foster dog, Benjamin, courtesy of Lori Anne Truman and Doug Eisberg)
Fingerprints. Footprints. Pawprints.
I first learned of the concept of a Soulprint a few years ago, thanks to the incredibly talented Martin Page. Martin and his manager, Diane Poncher, allow me to use Martin's music in my animal welfare projects. When Martin released his "In the Temple of the Muse" CD in 2012 and I first heard the song, "Soulprint," I knew I would try to use it some day. I just didn't know at the time that I would end up using it to honor a loss.
I think all of us want to make a difference in some way. All of us want to be remembered. Only some of us are truly able to change the world or society or even a community. Most of us do well to be good people who love our families and our friends, who work hard and who try to help others when we can. Also universal is the reality that the longer we live, the more precious time becomes as we lose those we love. Death is a part of life. I have my own beliefs about God and death and The Other Side which I don't force on anyone. Although I believe that there is an After, I feel incredibly strongly that we must all do our very best to be grateful for the time we have here and the time we share with the people we care about. It is easy to let ourselves assume that we will have X amount of time based on how long other people in our family lived or based on how hard we try to eat well, exercise and avoid bad habits. The truth is that no one is guaranteed any more time than today and we are well served to do our very best to treat each day as our last.
Losing beloved animals over the years taught me about death at a young age. Losing my parents in a 6 month window of time to cancer taught me to leave no words of love, apology or advocacy unsaid and to do my very best to appreciate the blessings in my life. I have always been outspoken and I attribute part of that to my military background. Your tax dollars at work, I guess. Losing Snake put me on a path of animal welfare advocacy. Losing my parents simply honed my focus on my advocacy and allowed me to cast away some of my fears about what others think.
I've crossed paths with a lot of wonderful and passionate people over the years in my animal advocacy and we all lost an incredible person yesterday. Dana Kay Mattox Deutsch. I think I was just lucky to see the post about her passing in my Facebook feed. Had I not looked at the right moment, it may have been weeks before I heard the news. It took me a while to process. Surely she was not gone. I had just talked to her a couple of months ago and she sounded fine. I am told she had lung cancer even though she had never smoked, which is the case with many people. I am also told that it moved to her brain, as was the case with my dad back in 2010.
Dana. I first met her in 2004. I was working on some slide show to promote animal adoption and I ran across her photostream in Flick. I emailed her to ask if I could use some of her images and of course she said yes. I went on to use countless images of hers over the years. At one point I did a slide show specific to the shelter where she worked at the time. We used "Ordinary Moment," by Fisher, a song which has always held a special place in my heart since it was the first Fisher song I ever heard. We kept in touch when she moved on to her new job in North Chicago. I was kind of surprised that she had chosen to become an animal control officer. It is a hard and often thankless job in which you see a lot of neglect and tragedy. I knew from talking to Dana that she took an incredible amount of pride in her work. It was her life's passion. I could hear the energy in her voice each time we talked and I always felt empowered after speaking with her. When I later did a project for her about Ralphie (her beloved dog she rescued after Hurricane Katrina) I felt closer to her. I had seen so many images of him, and of all the animals she had helped for so many years, that I felt a tight bond with her.
We will never really know how many people Dana helped. How many animals she saved. The numbers are surely staggering and for that I am grateful.
Dana's Soulprint was, and is, deep. She is gone from this place far, far too soon. I am so very happy to call her friend. I am honored to have walked Life's Path with her for a while, even if from different physical locations. She was a kindred spirit and I have to believe her legacy will be strong as she inspires others to live with the type of passion she showed each and every day.
I read something yesterday to the effect that Dana will still making calls to try to place animals from her hospital bed in the days prior to her passing. I had to smile when I heard that. Of course she was.
I miss you, friend. I love you, I will honor you as I move forward by using your images and remembering how very hard you worked each and every day to make a difference. How deeply you loved.
I feel your Soulprint, even though your light has gone. I feel your Soulprint on me.
(images courtesy of Dana Kay Mattox Deutsch; "Soulprint" courtesy of Martin Page)
On April 27, 2007, law enforcement authorities converged on a property at 1915 Moonlight Road in Surry County, Virginia, to execute two drug search warrants. What they found on this rural property quickly became the subject of intense national discussion and drew a great deal of attention to pit bull type dogs. Because of the involvement of then NFL football player Michael Vick in a multi-state dog fighting operation, the dogs soon came to be know as “the Vick dogs.” The dogs became the subject of a civil legal proceeding regarding their disposition as property. The following wording is taken from the Verified Complaint regarding the dogs which was filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Richmond Division (federal court) on July 2, 2007:
On or about April 25, 2007, state investigators executed two search warrants at 1915 Moonlight Road, Smithfield, Virginia. During those searches, the officers recovered and observed numerous items associated with an illegal animal fighting venture, including approximately 54 pit bulldogs. Many of the pit bulldogs recovered or observed in the search had scars and injuries consistent with injuries sustained in dog fighting.Additional items were recovered and observed. These items include: a blood-stained fighting area; animal training and breeding equipment, including a "rape stand," a "break" or "parting" stick, treadmills and "slat mills;" assorted paperwork documenting involvement in animal fighting ventures; and performance enhancing pharmaceuticals commonly used to increase fighting potential in dogs trained for fighting, as well as to keep injured dogs fighting longer.
On August 31, 2007, the Court entered a judgment forfeiting the seized dogs to the United States. Although some large national organizations were calling for the dogs to be destroyed (namely PETA and HSUS), they were not. On October 16, 2007, the Court granted a motion by the government to appoint Professor Rebecca J. Huss as the guardian/special master to evaluate the permanent disposition options for the forfeited pitbulls. The recommendations were adopted by the court and the dogs went to a variety of organizations: 22 dogs went to the Best Friends Animal Society Sanctuary in Utah, 10 went to Bad Rap in California, 3 went to the SPCA of Monterey County in California, 1 went to Our Pack in Virginia, 4 went to the Richmond Virginia Animal League, 3 went to Recycled Love in Maryland, 3 went to the Georgia SPCA, 1 went to Animal Farm Foundation in New York and 1 went to Animal Rescue of Tidewater. (Of the 52 dogs taken from the Vick property, 2 died while in government custody and 2 others were euthanized due to physical/emotional suffering)
It seems since the time of the initial seizure of the dogs and we learned about Vick's personal participation in the dog fighting operation and killing dogs he has been in the news regularly. I will not recount the history here. He was last in the news in late August when it was announced that he had been named as sports analyst for Fox Sports. Prior to that, he was in the news in July when he was inducted into the Virginia Tech Sports Hall of Fame. I often read statements by people to the effect that Vick “did his time” and “paid his debt to society.” I beg to differ. We all know that Vick spent some time in prison. What many people either don't realize, or refuse to acknowledge, is that he did time in federal prison for federal crimes related to engaging in a criminal enterprise which crossed state lines. The Surry County District Attorney at the time of the dogs were seized and the scope of the dog fighting operation was discovered was Gerald Poindexter. He chose to not prosecute Vick for the state law crimes which included his personal participation in torturing and killing dogs. If you have never read Jim Gorant's book which sets forth what really happened at 1915 Moonlight Road and what happened after the dogs were seized, I cannot encourage you strongly enough to do so. "The Lost Dogs: Michael Vick's Dogs and Their Tale of Rescue and Redemption" is an incredibly well researched book which holds a place of honor in my own animal welfare library. For me, Vick's “debt to society” will never be paid because he was never fully prosecuted for his crimes. I realize that he has a right to earn a living and feed his family. I do not believe that he should enjoy any type of celebrity status in our society or that he should be put forth as a role model of any kind.
When I think about the ten years since the dogs were saved, I choose to focus on the dogs and not on the thugs who used dogs for their own entertainment and financial purposes, leading to abuse, neglect and death. Although there were calls for their destruction, the 48 dogs who went on the organizations approved by the court proved to be far more resilient and far more forgiving than anyone would have imagined. They are examples that even when pit bull terrier type dogs have been subjected to the worst that humans have to offer, they are capable of defying the media hype of them as super-predators and of overcoming incredible abuse. Many of the dogs saved on April 27, 2007, have since passed away. To learn the history of all of the dogs, please consider reading Jim Gorant's recently published book, “The Found Dogs: The Fates and Fortunes of Michael Vick's Pit Bulls, 10 Years After Their Historic Rescue.” I don't want to spoil the book for you. I will say that of the 48 dogs placed, "17 passed their CGC (Canine Good Citizen test), seven were certified as therapy dogs and more than half have made public appearances to support anti-breed legislation or to raise awareness and fight discrimination. At least that many have also been used in training programs and foster homes to act as role models and help calm other dogs."
We've learned a lot about pit bull type dogs in the last ten years. It has obviously not been enough as municipalities continue to enact and enforce BSL (Breed Specific Legisaltion) and BDL (Breed Discriminatory Discrimination), objectifying perfectly good family dogs who have done nothing wrong while perpetuating myths about the dogs which are not based in science. The pit bull ban is still in effect in Denver, Colorado. It is also still in effect in Miami-Dade County, Florida, although a federal lawsuit challenging the legality of the ban was filed on October 11, 2017. I'll be watching that case closely and genuinely hope the ban is repealed.
To learn more about fact-based research related to pit bull type dogs and dog aggression, I encourage you to visit the website for the National Canine Research Council. I relied heavily on materials published by the organization in my original 2009 edition of my research paper advocating adoption of pit bull type dogs and the revision of my paper published in 2014.
If you'd like to read an incredible law review article on the topic of pit bull type dogs and Breed Specific Legislation, Katie Barnett of the Barnett Law Office is published here. Katie and I first interacted during the time when the criminal and civil cases about the former Vick dogs were pending. I consider Katie another one of my go-to subject matter experts; her law review article is incredibly comprehensive and goes far, far beyond the scope of my research paper.
In honor of National Pit Bull Awareness Month, let's all take a moment to reflect on the dogs saved more than 10 years ago, on those dogs still being unfairly judged due to media hype and on the people who love them dearly - who know the truth about the capacity of these dogs to love and be loved.
(image of Molly courtesy of the Best Friends Animal Society; image of Hector courtesy of Roo and Clara Yori)
You’ve decided to bring another dog or cat into your home. You know where and how you’ve found animals before so you tend to gravitate to what has worked for you in the past. If you haven’t cared for a pet before, you may take advice from friends or family members on how best to proceed. There are plenty of options out there. You can buy from breeder, you can search through newspaper ads or you can go to a local pet store. Or you can take a long, hard look at why you really want to bring an animal into your home and into your life and find that adoption from a shelter or a rescue group is your best option.
It has been said that “adoption could in theory replace all population control killing right now – if the animals and potential adopters were better introduced.” When the time comes for you to bring a "new to you" animal into your life, I hope you will seriously consider making adoption your best option. If you were planning to purchase a purebred animal, think realistically about whether you plan to enter the animal in professional dog or cat shows or if you are more focused on the companionship of the animal. If the animal will be a pet and will not compete in breed competitions, you can find a wide variety of animals at your local shelter or with a rescue group. Shelters and rescues help both mixed breed animals and purebred animals. You can use web sites like Petfinder.com or AdoptaPet.com to search for homeless animals by location, breed, gender, size, age and temperament to find a homeless animal who is perfect fit for you and your family.
Which is exactly what my family did recently. Our dog Aspy passed away on July 4th of 2016 under what we consider traumatic circumstances. His passing was nothing like we had hoped and while it sounds theatrical, we both had problems with flashbacks for a very long time. I knew we would wait quite a while before we brought another dog into our home and we did. The search began in earnest a few weeks ago as we talked about the size of dog we were looking for, basic temperament, how much time we are willing to devote to training and rehabilitation. Our tool of choice? Petfinder. As I have written before, I have a love/hate relationship with Petfinder. I love it because it’s a wonderful way for animals in need to find new homes. I’ve described the site as being like an online dating site, but to connect humans with companion animals instead of humans with humans. I hate it because there are so many animals in need that going on the site can be both depressing and sensory overload. And I find it somewhat addictive also. Once I start looking on Petfinder, I almost feel like I can’t stop. Looking at so many faces compels me to look at even more in the search for that next creature who will spend the rest of his or her life in my home. I ended up spending hours at a time staring at my phone, looking through listings and then handing my phone to Rich to say, “here. Look at this one.” He sent me links for dogs he was interested in and we went back and forth over a period of time before we agreed on a small group of local dogs we wanted to meet.
The first dog we met was being held at a local animal hospital which holds the contract for a local city. “Boudreax” was cute, but he was a puppy and was practically uncontrollable when we took him outside on a leash. I know that’s not his fault. I fully realize that most dogs do not behave in a shelter environment in any way remotely like they behave away from that environment and in a home. Boudreax went on our “to consider” list. Because of where he was being housed, we felt he was less at risk of being destroyed.
The second dog we met was being housed at a dog sanctuary/shelter in another city. Our visit there was so shocking that I have still not quite processed it. I have never been to a place like that and as we walked around, I found myself thinking that I could easily be shooting B roll video footage for the HSUS or the ASPCA. There were hundreds of dogs on the property, three to each outdoor kennel. There was waste everywhere and flies everywhere. “Lindsay” was nothing like the dog we saw in the Petfinder listing. I know it was the same dog, but three years at what I consider a dog prison had clearly taken a toll. She was so withdrawn that we really could not engage with her in any meaningful way. Even the volunteers (who seemed oblivious to the conditions in which they were working) were not really able to get a positive response from the dog. I cried when we left. I have put the wheels in motion to try to have some positive changes made at the outdoor shelter, but have no idea if they will do any good or not. That is another blog for another day.
The third and fourth dogs we met were being held at a county animal shelter a couple hours away from where we live. Rich was interested in a dog listed as “Shaggy” and I was also interested in another dog named “King.” King had been surrendered because his owner had cancer and could no longer care for him. He was house trained, neutered, could walk on a leash and had clearly been someone’s pet.
I knew Shaggy would be “the one” from the moment I saw his face. His Petfinder listing said that he had been found running loose with a chain around his neck and the chain was so tight it had to be cut off. We were told he was 2 years old and the shelter staff thought he was a German Shepard mix. He did not do well on a leash and when we tried to walk him around the “meet and greet” yard, I ended up with poop all over my shoes and my pants. But that didn’t matter at all. We talked for a few minutes to make sure we were ready. I was torn, much like I was while looking at all the images on Petfinder. Part of me wanted to adopt Linsdey just to get her out of the terrible place where she had lived for three years. But we also did not want our adoption to be motivated by guilt and we wanted to make decisions for the right reasons. Shaggy went home with us that same day.
Shaggy became Rusty. He has been in our home for just over two weeks and is doing really well. He’s been crate trained and we’re working on house training. He’s much younger than we were told and still has a lot of puppy in him which makes him somewhat of a wild child. He has some of the behaviors of a formerly chained dog. He is easily distracted by sounds – other dogs barking, children at play, birds. The leash training is a work in progress. He will go in circles if he’s on a lead that’s too long and we have to keep him focused (chained dogs often go in circles out of boredom and as they explore the diameter of the small areas to which they are confined). Rusty now has “sit” down pat and is doing better with “down” (which we use to get him to lay down to have his feet wiped before coming inside). He loves, loves, loves to run and play. Thankfully, Rich has years of experience in training dogs who come from bad circumstances. It helps that we had a fenced exercise area put in our yard at the same time we were doing perimeter fencing recently. We can take Rusty off leash to let him run and chase a ball. We actually think someone may have tried to do agility training with him before. He will fetch a ball and when he brings it back, he jumps in the air like he expects to be caught. Rusty is goofy and sweet and silly and full of energy. We have no idea what breed he is. Some have said he has some type of snow dog in him based on his face and his tail curls up like a Samoyed. In the end, his breed doesn't matter to us at all. He was the perfect dog for us. It will take time for him to decompress and to learn how to behave as we teach him our language and he learns ours. But he will live a great life in our home and is now a family member.
I talk a lot about animal shelter reform and about No Kill philosophies on my site for a reason. Rusty is but one of millions of dogs in our country who have done nothing wrong and who just need a new start. I shudder to think what would had happened to him had we not just happened upon his Petfinder listing one day. Would he still be alive? We’ll never know. The director of the shelter from which we adopted him freely told us that she does destroy animals for space. Which is simply a tragedy as far as I’m concerned. With very few exceptions, every animal entering our animal shelters either was or could be someone’s beloved pet. We owe it to all of them to treat them as the individuals they are and to not judge them solely by the circumstances which led them to be in the shelter. Or even by how they behave once they are in the shelter.
King went to a rescue group run by a contact of mine last week. Boudreaux was adopted two days ago. I’m working to get a rescue contact to pull Linsday and put her in a foster home so she can be socialized to people again and can overcome whatever trauma she has experienced in the last three years.
October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month. When the time comes to bring a new companion animal into your home, please adopt. Please. There are so many animals in need and there is surely one “out there” who will perfect for you.
In November of last year, I wrote a blog called "Rescuers at Dog Auctions - Please, Stop." The blog received a lot of attention and not all of it was good. I knew that some in the animal rescue community would not take kindly to my position. I honestly expected a great deal of hostility from some rescuers and I was not at all surprised by their negative reaction. My hope was to reach ordinary, animal loving people who may not be aware of the topic and who may unwittingly be complicit in the behavior through well-intended donations.
The concept is fairly simple. There are organizations and individuals which breed dogs and which then sell them at auctions, much like a livestock auction or an auction of farm equipment. Dog auctions are held in a variety of places. The most well known dog auctions are held by Southwest Auction Service in Wheaton, Missouri. The next dog auction is being held this Saturday - October 7th. Looking at the schedule, four more dog auctions will be held before the end of the year after the one being held on Saturday. There was a time when the people at dog auctions were other breeders and were brokers who were there to buy dogs to be sold in pet stores across the country. Make no mistake - this has always been big business and it is fueled by one thing: our willingness to buy dogs in pet stores. Millions of dogs are bred each year to meet public demand and millions of dollars change hands in the process.
I have never been to an dog auction, but I have numerous sources and contacts who have and their first-hand accounts are good enough for me to not only have an opinion about the auction process in general terms, but to have an opinion on how that process has changed - for the worse - due to people in the animal rescue community. My sources have decades of combined experience in interacting with commercial breeders and with the auction houses themselves. They have been around long enough to see the evolution of the industry based on sweeping changes brought about by good intentions, but which have made matters worse. Many of them have been involved for decades in seeking legislation to regulate the dog breeding industry, to make auctions illegal and to ensure better conditions for the "breeder stock" and the puppies they produce.
As I wrote in my earlier blog, there was a time as recently as 10 years ago when the presence of rescuers and rescue groups at dog auctions was not the norm in most regions. Most of those present at auction were breeders who were at the auction to buy dogs to add to their businesses. During this time, it was not uncommon for some in rescue get dogs for free, to get "dollar dogs" or to get large numbers of dogs for small amounts of money (i.e., 50 dogs for $3. Yes you read that correctly). That all changed not quite 10 years ago in the Great Lakes region and about 6 years ago in the Midwest. Rescuers had an increasing presence at auction and were often easy to spot from the way they dressed, the way they behaved and the amount of money they were willing to spend on dogs. The presence of rescuers at auction is now extremely obvious to both the auction companies and to the breeders who are both fascinated by and repelled by the rescuers’ behavior in terms of how much money they are willing to spend to "rescue" dogs.
I have heard the arguments of many in the rescue community to the effect that buying dogs at auction is a noble cause and that it is all about the dogs. I recently read an article written by a rescuer who equated the dogs she and her peers buy at auction as machines. She said the breeding dogs are the machines and the puppies are the products. She wrote that when she and others like her buy dogs at auction, they are taking a machine out of the production process and that dog will no longer be objectified or mistreated in the course of producing puppies. This argument is not only incredibly short-sighted. It is simply wrong. Yes, there are some dogs "in the system" at "puppy mills" or in large commercial dog breeding operations who are not treated well. Some are outright abused. Yes, it is noble to seek to get those dogs out of the system to end their lives of imprisonment and servitude and to rehabilitate them to put them into loving, compassionate homes. But when money is paid by rescue groups for those dogs in amounts which far exceed what any other bidder would pay, three things happen:
- a dog has been removed from the breeding operation and will more likely than not go on to lead a wonderful life in a new home(if the dog has been neglected, has serious health issues and is not socialized to people, the rehabilitation process can take a long time and many well-meaning adopters may not understand the challenges they will face)
- more money has been paid for that dog than would have been paid by non-rescue bidders at the auction (in some cases these amounts are many times what another breeder would have paid for a dog)
- the dog which is no longer part of the breeding operation will be replaced by a better, younger or more healthy dog
The first of those three things is great. I would love nothing more than for all dogs currently being used as part of a breeding operation to be freed, rehabilitated and to go on to live lives of luxury and be spoiled rotten. That is not a realistic idea at this juncture simply because the business is so huge and because it is fueled by us and our demand for dogs. It is the second and third things which are the issue. The money paid for the dog at the auction simply serves to enrich the breeding operation and the dog bought by the rescuer will be replaced with at least another dog if not more than one dog.
It cannot be denied that the presence of rescuers at auction has changed the industry. Breeders send dogs to auction because they are done breeding them (they are no longer profitable), because they can't sell them directly to consumers and/or because they know they can get more money at auction than anywhere else. As I wrote about last year, there are now breeders who produce puppies of certain breeds specifically to sell to rescuers at auction.
The solution to me is simple even if some people get emotional about it. The dogs who are in the commercial breeding industry now are already there. Some are well cared for. Many are not. If we want to end what many call "puppy mills" or better regulate the commercial dog breeding industry, the way to do that is through endorsing legislation which sets standards for the care of the dogs and to stop buying the products in pet stores. And in auction tents. I understand we feel badly for those dogs in the system, particularly those who have not been treated well. We see them as victims and we should. But when rescuers buy them at auction and call it rescue, we are simply ensuring the industry will be more profitable than ever and we are ensuring that dogs we do not see will take their place. It is a fallacy to think that by purchasing a dog at an auction, no other dog will be negatively impacted.
Animal rescue is very much about helping animals in need, many of whom are in our antiquated sheltering system and who are at risk of death every day in all but the most progressive communities. If you are a rescuer, or you financially support a rescue group, please focus on those dogs in need in the animal shelter in your own community or in another community. If yours is a breed specific rescue and the demand of your followers for the breed of choice is so great it cannot be met through saving shelter dogs or other dogs of that breed needing to be re-homed for some reason, consider expanding your rescue organization to also help other dogs of a similar size or look. You may be surprised to learn that many people think they want a particular breed, but are willing to adopt another breed of dog in order to save the dog's life.
Please, rescuers, just stay away from auctions. Please. And donors, please do not financially support those who buy dogs at auction. You may think you are doing something noble and just. But you are not. If you are intent on having a dog which came from a puppy mill for some reason, connect with an organization which does not buy dogs at auction and which instead gets dogs relinquished to the organization for free by breeders and auction houses with no money changing hands.
(Note - at the time I was writing this blog, I learned that the City of Dothan, Alabama, was planning to auction off a number of dogs which had been seized from a local dog breeding operation. The dogs had been spayed/neutered and vetted and I am told that this was done as a fundraising effort toward building a new shelter. I opposed the auction decision; a lottery would have been another way to raise money from the community while raising awareness about all shelter dogs. A number of people in the rescue community who regularly buy dogs at auction in Missouri spoke out against the Dothan auction, but they attended anyway. I had hoped they were attending for research purposes. They bought dogs as intermediaries for other rescue organizations, in some cases outbidding locals who had hoped to adopt the dogs.)
(images courtesy of PetShopPuppies and National Mill Dog Rescue)
I love Petfinder. It’s a wonderful way for animals in need to find new homes. I’ve described the site as being like an online dating site, but to connect humans with companion animals instead of humans with humans.
I hate Petfinder. There are so many animals who need new homes that going on the site can be depressing for me. I want to help them all.
My husband was on Petfinder a couple of weeks ago looking at dogs and he ran across a 15 year-old American Eskimo dog in South Carolina. The rescue group was charging a $150 adoption fee. My first reaction was overwhelming sadness that a dog that old has no home. I know intellectually there are senior animals across the country who need to be placed so this one dog is not unique. My second reaction was to the adoption fee. I told Rich that the rescue should screen adopters, but should just give the dog away. Really.
The plight of this one dog rumbled around in my head for weeks and ended up colliding with a lot of other thoughts about how rescue groups function in their seemingly never ending quest to place animals in new homes. Those in rescue are some of the hardest working people on the planet. Most work full-time jobs and do rescue on the side as a labor of love, being paid absolutely nothing in the process. I call you Rescue Warriors. There are some bad apples out there who do terrible things while masquerading as rescues, but I’d like to think that most groups are genuine and have the best of intentions.
Having said that, I think that there are things that rescues either do or fail to do which drastically limits their effectiveness and that’s the subject of this blog. I hope that if you run a rescue group or you work with a rescue group in some capacity you will at least consider my input. I admit that I am an outsider looking in, I cannot possibly appreciate all the challenges you face and that my suggestions may not be welcome. I really do mean no offense. I think I just see some of these things from a different perspective as both an animal welfare advocate and a potential adopter. In making my suggestions, I fully recognize that most rescues function with only volunteer labor and that tasks are spread out among a number of people. My suggestions are aimed toward rescue groups which are nonprofits with 501(c)(3) status. If you are in rescue and do not have that status, please work on that. There are many steps to get your nonprofit status, but the online filing options available now make the process move much faster and it costs a lot less than it did just a couple of years ago.
Your adoption listings should be detailed, compelling and kept up to date. Whether you list your animals on Petfinder, on Adopt A Pet or on Rescue me (or all three sites), your listing is your sales pitch for the animal. There are a lot of articles out there on how to write good content so that it is positive and compelling. Please do a little homework on how to best describe your animals in ways which help the reader "meet" the animal using a computer or phone. Not only should you describe the animal in positive ways, but include enough detail so an adopter knows the approximate age and approximate weight. Some adopters are looking for animals of a particular size due to their lifestyle or their own age. There are a lot of adoption listings which say so little that people really don’t look at them long and just click the "back" button to move on. The value of good images can also not be understated in your listings. An image of the animal looking happy and who is in a friendly environment will always get more response than a sad or depressing image of an animal in a kennel or looking away from the camera. Finally, make sure you keep your listings updated. If your initialing listing says the animal is undergoing some treatment or in need of some rehabilitation, make sure you update the listing later so that the potential adopter is getting the most current information on the pet and understands his or personality. Petfinder listings may take a little time to develop with the help of volunteers who write descriptions and take photographs for you, but is it worth every minute to market your animals effectively.
Relax your adoption standards to make them reasonable. Nathan Winograd of the No Kill Advocacy Center wrote an article years ago which was later included in his book, "Irreconcilable Differences: The Battle for the Heart and Soul of America’s Animal Shelters" as a chapter called Good Homes Need Not Apply. The gist of the chapter is that some rescue groups make their standards so high that really good adopters are turned away. Of course you want your animals to go to good homes and live fully and healthy lives. This means, however, that you need to consider adopters on a case-by-case basis and not judge them all the same. Arbitrary rules like not adopting out animals to homes with young children, not adopting animals to couples who are not married or not adopting out a dog to a family that doesn’t have a fenced yard simply keep perfectly good adopters away and limit your ability to place animals. In the almost 20 years I have lived in Alabama, we have lived in two separate places, neither of which were fenced because they encompassed acres of land. Our dogs have never been outside unsupervised and both lived more than 16 years. Yet many rescue groups may not adopt to us now because we don’t have a fully fenced yard.
Find creative ways to raise money so you are not relying on your adoption fees to cover costs. I know that helping animals costs a lot of money. Some of the animals taken in by rescues require thousands of dollars of veterinary care to treat injuries, skin conditions or even heart worms. All of the animals have to be fully vetted and must be spayed or neutered before being adopted out. But please do not rely on your adoption fees to cover your costs. There are a host of ways to fund-raise to get money coming in regularly to help offset your costs. Do shirt fund raisers with a company like Bonfire which requires no cost output, produces great shirts and helps you brand your organization at the same time. Consider ordering custom vehicle magnets from a company like Magnet America. You can purchase high quality vehicle magnets for a small price and sell them for 5 times what you paid for them while branding your organization. Organize a “no budget” event like a dog walk at a local park and raffle off donated items. Consider doing a cyber auction using a Facebook page or a website like Bidding for Good. You can invite supporters to list items in your auction virtually and then those supporters ship the item to the winning bidder once the auction ends with no cost to you. Those are just some ideas. There is a great book called Funds to the Rescue which may give you some ideas you haven’t thought of before. And when in doubt, network with other rescues you believe do a good job raising money and just ask them how they do it.
Seek out business sponsorships and grants. Another way to keep money coming in regularly is to take advantage of business sponsorships. Simply approach a business you think may be willing to give you a one-time donation each year and ask if they are interested in sponsoring your organization with a tax deductible in exchange for having their name and logo appear on your website. Even businesses which have nothing at all to do with animals appreciate the value of exposure and having positive public opinion about them. If you have ever decided to use a business because you knew it was animal friendly or supported animal causes, you have seen this process in action. Related to businesses, you can also see if you can persuade them to either cover all adoption fees in a particular month or all spay and neuter costs in a particular month. If you can find just one business to do this one time, it will allow you to later challenge another business to do that same. As far as grants go, there are many to be had. I am told that grant writing is a skill and it is not one that I possess. If you have a volunteer who is computer savvy and who likes a challenge, have them do some searing for both national and regional grant opportunities and consider sending the volunteer to a grant writing class. Many large organizations like Petsmart Charities offer grants, but so do local organizations you may never have heard of before. In the city where I work, there is a biomedical business that gives out annual grants and many of them go to animal shelters and rescue groups.
Rethink your adoption fees. I wrote a blog about adoption fees and what they mean in December of 2016 so I won’t restate the whole blog here. Adoption fees should be a way to offset some of your costs, but should not be the only way you cover costs. Please remember that you are in the business of marketing animals to get them into new homes and the focus should be on the placement itself, not the purchase price. If your adoption fees are too high, you price yourself out of the market. I have seen some fees so high that people go to a breeder instead and that’s just a terrible shame. In the process of writing this blog and searching on Petfinder, I found a rescue group close to me which charges an adoption fee of $450 for some dogs and which claims those fees are tax deductible*. I really do wonder how many people will pay that much in my area. Charge some nominal fee if you have to or consider waiving the fee entirely in at least some cases. I encourage waived adoption fees for adoptions of senior pets, adoption of pets to seniors and adoption of pets to veterans. I also encourage to waive the fee for any harder to place animal whether it is a special needs animal or just an animal you have had for a longer period of time that other animals. As I wrote in my prior blog about this, the adoption fee has nothing at all to do with the value of the animal. When you waive that fee, you are saying that the animal’s life is worth more than the fee you would have charged. You absolutely still have to screen adopters. I’m just saying that the fee itself should not be the focus. (*Adoption fees are not tax deductible because the person giving you money is getting something in return. If you have low or waived adoption fees, you can then encourage people to donate toward your organization and those funds would be tax deductible.)
Have a fully functioning website. Social media is a wonderful tool to help place rescue animals. Please just do not make it your only tool. Although most people have computers, laptops, tablets or smart phones, there really are a lot of people out there who "don’t do" social media. Even those who do use social media are not focused on a lot of the content. News feed items come and go and while people may "like" your Facebook page, they are surely not checking it daily. In order to market your animals and reach more people, you need a fully functioning website that looks polished and which contains all the information you want people to know about your organization, your animals, your fund raising, your events, etc. There are a variety of companies you can use to get a domain name and then host your site for very little money. I moved my sites to Weebly a couple of years ago and I recommend it highly. It is easy to create a website quickly with no prior experience and you may very well have a volunteer who can develop and manage your website for you for very little money.
Be visible and not invisible. Your rescue group may be the most important thing in your life, but if people don't know about your group then you are not important to them at all. You may be an island in your community and your region even if you have a fully functioning website and Facebook page. You have to be proactive to get your organization on the public radar. Think in terms of how to set yourself apart from other groups in your area. Brand yourself and the name of your rescue group through t-shirt drives, by selling vehicle magnets and hosting periodic events (even if they are low budget or no budget events). Check with a local billboard company to see if they offer a nonprofit rate particularly on electronic billboards which can be much cheaper than static billboards. Try connecting with movers and shakers within your community - people of influence who run businesses or may have some celebrity status - to see if you can get them on board to support your rescue in some way by attending a function or by doing a PSA for you to appear on television. If there are dozens of rescues in your area you simply have to find a way to make yourself stand out and to do it consistently and in a positive way so that people know your name.
Don’t forget to use the media. One of the areas where I think most rescues miss out is use of the media. If you are having an event, do a press release and send it to local television stations and radio stations. Also consider doing a PSA (public service announcement) about your event or just about your rescue group in general. It is not difficult to create a PSA using a computer and some software and it is not difficult to develop relationships with local TV and radio stations. We see nonprofit advertising on television all the time from The Ad Council and other nonprofit organizations. There is no reason you cannot create a PSA for your group and get it aired; it will not air in prime time when paying ads run but any exposure through television is a plus. The same is true for radio. Some radio stations are owned by large corporations which make it hard to get air time. Most communities, however, have at least one locally owned and managed radio station which will allow you either submit a PSA or which will work with you to record a PSA. Just this month I prepared a television PSA for nonprofit group about an adoption event and I recorded a PSA at a local radio station about a "Chipathon" in which people could get pets microchipped for reduced prices. I don’t have any special skills on this subject beyond what any rescuers have. You just have to take advantage of the opportunities out there by being fearless.
(images, sound file and video clip courtesy of Petfinder, Inc.; Dana Kay Mattox Deutsch; Southern Skies Labrador Rescue & Adoption Inc.; Becky Lyn Tegze, Fun 92.7 and A New Leash on Life, Inc.)
I grew up not just in an animal friendly household, but an animal integrated household. From the time we got our first cat when I was very young, we always had companion animals and sometimes we had many of them. They were as much members of our family as us children and most of them had human names. Dave. Annie. Mark. Barbara. Tom. Leroy Brown’s name was a product of our time, having come from an old Jim Croce tune. I know there are people who are not raised with companion animals and who don’t consider themselves “animal people.” I respect that lifestyle. But I simply cannot imagine a life without animals. Studies have shown that they help us live longer, lower our blood pressure, keep us more active than we might otherwise be and provide us truly unconditional love which we often do not have in many of our human relationships. Life is simply all the richer, more joyous, more hilarious and yes, more heartbreaking, as a result of sharing our homes and our waking hours with the companion animals we love.
I spent most of my childhood in a single home in a suburb in northern San Diego and I spent some time there very recently. Mom and dad have both been gone from us for six years and the house has reached an age when it is easier to sell now than a few years from now when upgrades will be required. I lived in the house a number of times as an adult, but I no longer see it in quite the same way. For me, the house was the place where we made our memories and not the place where they remain. Don’t get me wrong; I still view the house as my childhood home and letting it go is not easy. It’s just that the time had come to spruce up the house so that it can be a home for a new family who will make their own memories there.
My siblings and I converged on the house recently to do some last minute fix-ups and cleaning (with the vital help of our very able spouses). As I was cleaning shutters and vacuuming the new carpet, I reflected back on the many years spent under the same roof with animals and all the lessons learned along the way. They taught me about responsibility and compassion. They taught me about humor and joy and the value of living in the moment. They taught me about acceptance and tolerance. They taught me about sharing and selflessness. And yes, they taught me about loss and death.
At the same time the animals were teaching me lessons, our parents were doing the same. All of our companion animals were either adopted or rescued. I didn’t even know that commercial dog or cat breeding and sales existed for decades; I just assumed everyone who had pets had rescued them or adopted them. Mom was helping free roaming community cats long before those descriptions became common. She helped a free roaming cat she called “Elvis” for years, as well as a cat she simply called "E.C." (for Extra Cat). When a bonded pair of ducks came to spend time in our little suburban yard year after year (Bob and Marlene, of course) we were taught the value of letting wild animals just be and allowing them to live in peace without our interference. Our parents’ love of all animals extended far beyond the walls of our childhood home to the vast spaces of the San Diego Zoo and the Wild Animal Park (which is essentially a breeding facility for wild and endangered species). They were benefactors for the lion exhibit at the park and a plaque outside the exhibit bears their names. Each acacia tree at the facility has its roots in the seeds smuggled into the country thanks to what amounted to a “ covert op” schemed by mom to get acacia seeds from South Africa with the help of her boss on one of his mission trips with his church. Dad was a huge fan of the California Wolf Center in Julian which not only houses wolves but works to introduce them back into the wild while working with ranchers to develop cooperative relationships to protect both livestock and wolves.
I am grateful for the time I shared with our parents in my childhood home in the company of companion animals. I am grateful for the way I was raised with the help of animals and guidance of my parents who taught as much with actions as with words. I am also grateful that I helped prepare the house for the transition to a new owner so I could say my own farewell of sorts.
While I was busy in California, a co-worker of mine decided to adopt a young free roaming cat from our colony which lives near my office. I had found the small female cat as I was putting out food for the colony just before my trip back to San Diego. I brought her to my office to wait for a rescue group to arrive and word soon spread that I was harboring a visitor. The bond between “Latte” and Sha’Lena was obvious from the time they met. I have since learned that Vivian, Sha’Lena’s young daughter, has usurped her status and now Vivian and Latte are inseparable. I am sure that Vivian will grow up learning the same lessons I did so many years ago and her life will be all the richer from the bond she will share with a young cat who just happened to cross my path and who is now Vivian’s best friend.
Our first open house was this past weekend. As is the case in many places in southern California, the house was in demand because of the area and the schools. We have decided to sell the house to a single mom who is relocating to be closer to her parents who can help with her young son.
It is only fitting that our buyer is a veterinarian who has an older dog and two cats. I think mom and dad would be thrilled. Let the memory making and lessons to be learned begin.
Life is fleeting and precious.
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