I am an Army veteran who works as a paralegal who handles mostly municipal defense and who is an animal advocate. I sometimes lament the fact that I am not able to focus on animal advocacy all the time, but I have found over the years that this combination of experiences makes me a better advocate. I served in the Army for about a decade and got out while I was young enough to get another job and learn a new trade. I fell into paralegal work somewhat by accident, but have done this work for about 25 years. I have worked defending cities, counties and law enforcement authorities for most of that time. Because of this combination of experiences and passion for animal welfare, I have some firm views when it comes to people whom work in animal shelters funded by our tax dollars.
There are thousands of nonprofit animal shelters across our country which are managed by individuals and governed by boards of directors. Those people are beholden only to the donors, fosters and adopters who support them, as well as being required to comply with both state and federal laws and regulations regarding nonprofit organizations. They are also required to comply with state and federal laws regarding animal care and welfare. For the most part, the folks who run non-profit shelters can decide how to house and care for their animals for the benefit of their organizations.
Shelters which are operated by municipalities, or which are non-profits who hold municipal contracts, are entirely different and the expectations and requirements of those organizations are held to different standards. The people who manage and work at animal shelters operated by cities and counties are public servants. Their compensation and benefits are all paid for through public funds in the form of taxpayer dollars. The people who manage and work at animal shelters operate by non-profits who hold contracts with cities or counties are not strictly public servants in the same manner, but they are also compensated through public funds in the form of taxpayer dollars. Some non-profit animal shelters rely heavily on unpaid volunteer labor, as do shelters operated by municipalities.
People who are paid with public funds, whether they are elected officials, public servants or are performing public functions, are - by the nature of their jobs - open to criticism and comment. The reason for this is that they work for us. Of the people, by the people, for the people. When it comes to some forms of public office or public service, we have no problems voicing our opinions about how our money is spent. People complain about pot holes in the road. About the timing of traffic signals. About garbage pick-up. About law enforcement activities. About parks and recreation services. When it comes to these functions of local governments, people normally don't hesitate to make their grievances known and they expect results when they do complain.
So why are things any different when it comes to animal shelters and the animal sheltering industry?
Not a day goes by that I don't hear someone who is defending an animal shelter where healthy and treatable animals are destroyed. Not a week goes by that I do not learn of someone who is aware of problems in a local shelter, but who remains willfully silent about those problems because they fear retribution for speaking out. That makes absolutely no sense to me. Why is it okay to complain about pot holes in a road, most of which will never cause any vehicle damage, let alone personal injury, but it is not okay to criticize shelters which destroy healthy and treatable pets, a process which is entirely permanent?
I realize that the topic of animal sheltering in America is an emotional one. Most of us care deeply about companion animals and we want the best for them. Polls have shown that the vast majority of Americans think it should be illegal for animal shelters to destroy animals who are not suffering or who do not present a genuine public safety risk. As time goes on, we see more and more places across the country embrace proven programs to treat animals in our shelters as individuals and save them from being needlessly destroyed. Although there are naysayers who claim it is not possible to save healthy and treatable shelter animals either because it costs too much or is just too difficult, those arguments fail when we simply look at the growing number of places where animals are saved and where the word "euthanasia" has been restored to the original meaning, as opposed to being used to sugarcoat the process of killing animals who either were, or could have been, someone's beloved pet.
When I began my No Kill advocacy in the city where I work in early 2009, the live release rate at the municipal animal shelter was 24%. That means that 3 out of every 4 animals in the shelter were destroyed. When I formed No Kill Huntsville in 2012, the live release rate was 41%. Some progress had been made but not quite 2 out of every 3 animals were destroyed. At this time, the shelter director (who is a veterinarian) had a huge fan base. She told a contact of mine that she and her staff were doing a beautiful job and were doing wonderful things. She claimed that she simply could not do any better. Beauty is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. If my dog had ended up in the shelter at this time, he surely would have been killed and there would have been nothing beautiful about it. It would have been tragic.
During the years that followed as No Kill Huntsville took our vision and our No Kill message public, the opposition to our philosophies was constant and hostile. We were taunted and vilified both publicly and on social media. We were told we did not have a right to complain about the shelter operation unless we volunteered at the shelter X number of hours per month, had personally fostered Y number of pets or had adopted Z number of animals. The argument was that we had to be worthy of having the right to exercise our First Amendment free speech rights regarding how our tax dollars were being spent. No, no and no. All of us who pay taxes are not only entitled to comment about how money is spent. We are entitled to ask for better. There is no such thing as a Golden Ticket of Worthiness required to express opinions and even provide constructive criticism when it comes to the manner in which local governments function and how public servants spend our money.
Fast forward a few years and the shelter now boasts a live release rate above 90%; some months it is as high as 96%. The people who expended the most time and energy to oppose us have gone silent, although I’m sure they still harbor tremendous resentment toward us. It is easier to attack the message than it is to focus on why the message is necessary in the first place. What happened? The public didn't suddenly become more responsible. I, and the members of my group, did not suddenly jump through hoops to be worthy of exercising our right to free speech related to the shelter. The reality is that our advocacy was a 7-day a week job and we were all running our own shelters, rescue groups, non-profits and businesses already. We could not have met the X, Y and Z criteria even if we had wanted to. What changed was that local officials began listening to the public as a whole as people spoke out and said "I want lives saved" and "we are better than this." We took the subject to the public so that the voices asking for better were not just ours.
If you live in an area where healthy and treatable animals are being destroyed using your tax dollars and you want them saved instead, say something. Speak out.
And if you live in an area where healthy and treatable animals are being destroyed using your tax dollars and you are either defending that behavior or you remain willfully silent about it, please ask yourself why.
Surely the lives of companion animals in need are as important to you as a pot hole in the road or whether or not you sat at a red light for more than 3 minutes.
(image courtesy of the City of Kansas City and the City of Olathe)
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