So, here’s the scenario. You work at an animal shelter where healthy and treatable animals have historically been killed. You may not have known that when you took the job. You probably took the job because you like animals and you wanted to help them. You quickly learned that what you wanted to happen and what really happens to those animals are worlds apart, but you felt like you couldn’t do anything to change the system. You were told time and time again that so many animals need help because people don’t care enough, people don’t’ spay and neuter their animals, people let their animals run loose and people don’t come looking for animals when they go missing. You stayed in the job instead of quitting because you need the money and you became convinced that all the things you were told were true – that it just could not get any better and animals would always have to die for some reason. You accepted that as your reality not only for the animals who were euthanized because they were truly suffering, but also for the dogs with wagging tails and cats who purred when you picked them up to carry them to the euthanasia room. You found ways to rationalize the process so you could live with yourself. You had to.
Then one day something changed. A new organization came in to lead the animal shelter. They talked about something called the No Kill movement and saving lives and changing the culture and live release rates and making the public part of the solution to help reduce the number of animals entering the shelter and increase the number of animals leaving the shelter. They told you that shelters across the country save the lives of almost all of the shelter animals and it could happen in your community too. It was just a matter of thinking outside the box and changing attitudes. They told you that you cannot blame the public for what happens in the shelter while at the same time expecting that very same public to make better personal choices, to foster animals, to adopt animals, and to volunteer their time to help animals.
What do you do now? The answer to that is entirely up to you. I would argue that how you react is all about your attitude and all about how you view your role in the system which employs you.
I have never led or worked in an animal shelter. My knowledge of those operations is the result of contacts of mine across the country and my no kill animal shelter advocacy which is based on years of research. I have historically been very critical of people I consider apologists for the killing of animals in tax-funded shelters as if there is no other way to function. There is. I once wrote that I would no sooner volunteer in a kill shelter (let alone work in one) than I would work the line in a poultry processing plant. I have also written that shelter apologists use cognitive dissonance to rationalize their thinking.
I am not totally unsympathetic to people who go to work in animal shelters with good intentions and then become part of an antiquated system that destroys healthy and treatable animals for space. I also appreciate the fact that change is hard. If you lead, or work in, an animal shelter which has historically destroyed animals, suddenly shifting to keeping those same animals alive may seem risky. What if you don’t succeed? And even if you do succeed, what will people say about all those animals who died over a period of years? It can be scary and daunting to think about those things. But you must. The first step toward changing any ingrained behavior is to admit that change is necessary, even if that means admitting past failures.
A time will come when all our tax funded animal shelters are no kill facilities and we will end the outdated and Orwellian practice of destroying healthy and treatable animals for space or convenience. How quickly we get to that new and better future depends on all of us as a society. It depends on the people who lead and work in our shelters to be the change they seek, leaving the calcified attitudes of the past behind. Because the lives of shelter animals are saved across the country using proven programs, no one can say it is not possible. It is. I’ve seen myself what happens when shelter leadership acknowledges that the old methods were not consistent with public values and the shelter leadership and employees have the courage to try something new. The change is nothing short of magical.
When we first began advocating for shelter reform in the community where I work, the live release rate was 34%. The shelter director (a veterinarian) said that was as good as it could get. She resisted free help from subject matter experts as she said, “I am loved here.” That statement was true. Most people didn’t know so many animals died in the shelter, felt there must be too many and presumed a licensed veterinarian would not needlessly end the lives of healthy animals. From the time we first began advocating for better and the time city officials took action to change the shelter operation, more than 33,000 animals were destroyed in the shelter. 33,000. When she spoke years later at a national conference, she lamented having moved so slowly to embrace change and encouraged others to act with a sense of urgency. Although I, and the members of my advocacy group, lament the needless deaths, we are forward-thinking and looking. We are thankful city officials decided to change the shelter operation and make life-saving a priority alongside public safety. People who move to the area now have no idea how the shelter used to function; they see an animal-friendly community in which the shelter is a place of hope, support and outreach. There is no going back.
I had an opportunity to speak with Mike Fry of No Kill Learning recently regarding his upcoming Boots on the Ground film about animal shelter changes in the Twin Cities: St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota. We got to talking about the power of positive thinking and about how we create our own reality when it comes to our lives, our society and animal sheltering. I had been pondering our conversation for a week or so when I learned from a contact in Hawaii that animal shelter proposal for which I wrote a letter of support had been approved and new ways of functioning were being implemented. I thought about employees left from the prior operation, wondering if they would resist change or welcome it. I would like to congratulate Rainbow Friends Animal Sanctuary (as the Proposer for the legal partnership with Partners and SubProposers KARES, Aloha Animal Advocates, AdvoCats, Hawaii Lava Flow Animal Rescue Network and Magical Creatures of Hamakua) for the new contract with the County of Hawai'i. This path has been walked before you so don’t hesitate to reach out to other areas for help and guidance.
I hope the employees of the former contract holder – or employees of any animal shelter implementing a cultural change – will consider this. If someone outside of an animal shelter setting ended the lives of healthy and treatable animals for some reason, we would not call that euthanasia. There is no reason to apply a double standard to what happens outside of an animal shelter to what happens inside animal shelters. You have been given a wonderful opportunity to be part of something new and wonderful and empowering not only for yourself, but for your co-workers and the community. Please have the courage to embrace that change and create your own future through positive thoughts which lead to positive outcomes. Please do not engage in disruptive or obstructionist behavior for the sake of preserving a model of animal sheltering you know deep down is wrong. If you think you lack the capacity to help implement change and you stand in the way of life saving, it is time for you to find a new job.
It is time to lead, follow, or get out of the way. The lives of animals depend on it.
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