I wrote a blog a few years back about animal shelter apologists and the concept of cognitive dissonance. This was an effort to explain how people who claim to care about the lives of animals rationalize their support for animal shelters where healthy and treatable animals are killed. It’s been a while since I touched on this topic and Sheri Cahill of the Silver Comet Animal Welfare Alliance in Georgia asked me to revisit it.
So when it comes to animal shelters, what is an apologist? That is a person who defends (in essence apologizing for) what happens at a regressive animal shelter – typically the killing of healthy and treatable animals - while at the same time professing to be passionate about saving the lives of animals. We see this all the time from shelter employees, shelter volunteers, people in the rescue community and from the public. It seems inconceivable that people who claim to want to save animals would come to the defense of the killing that takes place but it happens every day across the country. Apologists tell themselves that their shelter is somehow different from other places, making it impossible to save more lives. They tell themselves that the public in their area is more irresponsible than in other places, so the shelter has no option but to end the lives of animals. They tell themselves that there is just no other way for the shelter to function because of a shortage of talent or resources. The rationalizations go on and on. Trying to understand why people behave this way is way above my pay grade and no doubt would make for a great research study by someone in the field of psychology.
There are times when the people who defend the killing of animals in shelters can be reached and can be educated. In my experience, these are the people who never felt quite comfortable with the killing, but just were not sure what to do about it. I’ve heard countless times from volunteers or rescuers that they did not condone what was happening at a particular shelter, but they did not speak out because they worried they would be cut off and would not be able to help animals any more. The most polite way I can address that reasoning is to say that it is incredibly short-sighted. It means that the focus of that person is on the dog or cat they are trying to help today or tomorrow, with no regard for the dozens, or hundreds or thousands of other animals they will not be able to help. In the most direct way I can address that reasoning is to say that there is a price to be paid for silence. In the city where I work and in which I lead an animal shelter reform advocacy group, more than 33,000 animals died from 2008 to the end of 2013 when the city began making changes to the culture at the shelter. 33,000. I feel confident that volunteers and rescuers thought they were doing all they could to help individual animals during those years. But the end result is that thousands of animals died and that process may have stopped earlier if the people closest to the issue had simply spoken up and encouraged the shelter to change.
There are many times, however, when there is just no conversation to be had with people who defend the killing of healthy and treatable animals. These people are so committed to the reality they have created for themselves that there is no way to break down their walls with any amount of logic or information. It is these people who are the most aggressive in their defense of shelter killing and who are the most likely not only to blame the messenger for the message, but to go on the offensive to attack anyone who has the audacity to believe the shelter can save more lives.
When my advocacy group in Huntsville, Alabama, began advocating for shelter reform in 2012, we ran into a host of apologists. The live release rate at the shelter at that time was about 34% which means that 2 out of every 3 animals entering the building were destroyed. It was at this time that the shelter director said she and her staff were doing a beautiful job. She said, “I am loved here” and the statement was true. As a veterinarian, she had a huge public following of people who either did not know what was happening at the shelter or who knew about it and were sure there was no other way to function. Animals had to be destroyed, they told themselves. There is no other way, they told themselves.
I wrote about the opposition to shelter reform we faced in Huntsville in my book. It was ugly, it was juvenile, and in the end, it was futile. We expected shelter employees to be upset with our efforts to hold the city accountable for how the shelter was operated using tax dollars. What we didn’t expect was the level of animosity toward us from the rescue community. We were vilified, ridiculed, the subject of a hate page on Facebook and at one point we were referred to as terrorists. We knew engaging with these people was a complete waste of time and energy; we did our best to ignore them and stay on subject with city officials and with the public.
Now that the city has changed the culture at the animal shelter, our critics have gone silent for the most part. Just like they had their own version of reality when so many animals were being killed, I presume they have their own version of reality about how that change happened. It is easier to revise history and to gloss over the difficult times than it is to admit that change came about as the result of struggle. As much as I think history is important so that we do not repeat it, my satisfaction comes from the fact that things did change as a result of advocacy. My focus is less on how we got to this point than the fact that the change has been drastic and empowering. The shelter now saves approximately 97% of all animals entering the building and my hope is that there is no going back. The public has come to expect the lives of animals to be saved instead of ended and it is that expectation that may do the most good to keep the city from reverting back to the way it was before.
If you live or work in a city where the animal shelter destroys healthy and treatable animals for whatever reason, please consider speaking out against that. Your focus should be on municipal accountability for how tax dollars are spent (or not spent) and not on individual people, at least at the start. You may not get a bill in the mail every month with a line item for "animal disposal," but you are paying for what happens at your local shelter and you have the right to demand better. If you learn that there are others who want to bring about shelter reform, support those people and find ways to help them if you can.
If you are one of those people who are defending the killing of animals, please ask yourself what you hope to accomplish with that behavior. It may very well be that you have become a human obstacle to change. If that is the case, you are standing in the way of progress which means you are standing in the way of saving lives. Yes, you can save a few each month while telling yourself that if it wasn’t for you or people like you, more animals would die. That would be true. But if you consider the bigger picture, you can help prevent the deaths of thousands of animals. It’s time to make a choice and to walk the walk instead of just talking about what you say you stand for.
All of us have crossroads in our lives. Points in our lives were some significant event happens that puts us on a path different from what we had anticipated. One crossroads for me was in 2006 after the euthanasia of 16-year old dog, Snake. We knew that she would not be able to stay. She had become trapped inside a body which no longer served her well and had begun having cognitive problems. We didn't want her to suffer. We had our veterinarian come to our house on April 22, 2006 to euthanize her. Although we had been planning for the day for quite some time, we didn’t choose the date ahead of time. She had had a rough night and we decided that morning to let her go. We didn’t realize until much later that we had chosen Earth Day to let her go. It seems fitting in many ways. Snake was a coydog; she was part German shepherd and a coyote. She was always a little bit of a wild child. We buried her on our property and gave her back to the Earth; a fitting farewell for such a beautiful soul.
It was after the loss of Snake that events happened that I didn't anticipate in which put me on another path. As much as we prepare, we are never really ready to lose those we love. How can we be? I didn’t adjust well and found that I needed an outlet. I started donating to the animal shelter in the city where I work, hoping to help some other dog or dogs. It was only after donating to the shelter for a few months that I had an unwelcome epiphany about what was happening there. Healthy and treatable animals were being destroyed every day along with the sick and suffering. I guess I should have known this was happening, but I just didn't. I think that's common for a lot of people in America. We presume that shelters use our tax dollars to function consistent with public values when that is not always the case. I know what the word euthanasia means and what was happening at this shelter was far from it in most cases.
Learning what was happening at my local shelter outraged me, angered me, and just made me feel tired and sad. But it also fueled me. I began a path of self-education. Why were animals who were perfectly healthy dying in shelters? Was it just something in the South? Was this happening everywhere? I just had to know these answers. My education took years and continues to this day. This journey of awareness led me to another crossroads. I had two choices. I could continue my education while lamenting what was happening. I could say the issue was just too big for me to take on myself. Or I could try to do something about it. In the end I decided I had to act because I saw it as a moral imperative. If I did not speak up, my silence would have been my consent. Exactly what I would do with my intent and knowledge would end up taking years.
I originally wrote to City officials in 2006 to express my outrage at what was happening at the shelter and didn't get very far. I was pretty much told this is just the way things are and we can’t afford to do any better. I didn’t believe either statement. The city in which I work is Huntsville, Alabama. The community is both incredibly progressive and proud. People from other states and even other countries live here. We have a large military base and we support the space program through the Marshall Space Flight Center. We are considered a medical hub where people come to get specialized treatment. Considering all the great things happening in the city, surely we could break from the status quo and do a better job to save the lives of shelter animals. The city council did not agree. I was left to stew in what I had learned, continue my education and look for some other opportunity to be a change agent. I found this incredibly hard to do. With each passing day, the lives of animals were at risk. Animals just like Snake who no doubt would have been killed in the Huntsville shelter.
The deaths of both my parents to cancer in a six-month period of time ended up being another crossroads for me. We lost dad in October of 2010. We lost mom in April of 2011. We knew they would leave us and tried to be ready. There is just no such thing. Like the loss of Snake, the loss of my parents put me in a different place in my life than I anticipated. For most of my life I had allowed myself to think that I would have decades left to spend time with my parents. I had always known that life was short and precious, but the loss of my parents quite suddenly really reinforced for me that my own time here is finite. I thought that in spite of personal failure to affect change in my area that I may do better if I got some help. That is when I decided to form an advocacy group called No Kill Huntsville. I believed that rather than speaking out about the issue by myself, surely there had to be strength in numbers. The group was pretty large when we started, but as is the case with many things, lots of people talk but only some people do. We ultimately ended up with a small group of like-minded folks who agreed to speak with one voice to try to effect change in our area.
No Kill Huntsville is now and in our 10th year of advocacy. It hasn’t been easy, but we got what we hoped for: change. The changes which have been made at the tax-funded animal shelter are both shocking and incredibly rewarding. We always promoted, and still promote, the No Kill Equation first shared with the world by Nathan Winograd in his 2009 book called “Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America.” The book was a game changer for me as it has been so many other people who have read it.
There will always be differences of opinion or how we got to a point where the shelter was destroying three out of every four animals to a point where the shelter is saving approximately 97% of the animals. It’s hard for people to admit that change can be ugly and uncomfortable. I feel confident that but for the advocacy of our group, little would have changed. The shelter was making incredibly slow progress at the time we first took our issue to the public and got really vocal about it in the area. We were vilified in the community. At one point we were called terrorists. But I know we made a difference.
There was an episode of a program called MythBusters years ago that had to do with the benefit of slapping someone across the face. The show is no longer being produced but I'm sure the episode is still out there somewhere. What was being investigated was if someone's behavior really can be modified after having been slapped across the face. The results of the tests confirmed that be to be the case. A lot of people criticized our advocacy during the most difficult years because they focused on the messenger and not on the fact that the message was necessary in the first place. We were told to be nicer, to stop being so critical. We were told that we just had to go along. I know for myself that we were always incredibly diplomatic and respectful. The worst-case scenario for me is that our advocacy served as a slap across the face to city officials and the public to get them to wake up and see that things not only should be but different but could be different. I know our efforts were much more than that, of course.
In the summer of 2018 I had a meeting with documentary film maker Anne Taiz who was working on a film about No Kill animal shelter philosophies and programs. Anne traveled to Huntsville as part of her research to talk to me about what our group had done to that point. Toward the end of our meeting Anne said, “you know, you really should write a book about this.” I'm pretty sure that I laughed. Although I had been blogging and writing about our experiences over a period of years, I never really considered writing a book. What would it say? Who would even read it? Would it help anybody? After thinking about it for a few months, I decided again that life was short and that my time here was not guaranteed. Why not write a book if it could help other people?
I self-published my book about on Amazon on April 22nd, 2019, the anniversary of Snake’s passing. The whole point in publishing a book was to help other people in other places. People like me. People like people in our advocacy group who were just common folks in the weeds with full-time jobs who came together because we knew that somebody had to do something. It had been years since Nathan Winograd had published Redemption and I thought it might help some people to learn how we used the No Kill Equation to change things in our area. After consulting with attorneys at work, I got umbrella insurance before I published the book. I know from my work in the legal field for almost three decades that the ability to defend a lawsuit and the ability to prevent a lawsuit are not the same. Thankfully, the two-year statute of limitations to sue me has now run. The book is priced to print which means no money is being made. When people order the book, they’re paying for the cover and the paper.
As is the case with many small acts of advocacy for the sake of animals, I guess I'll never really know how much good the book has done. I've gotten a lot of feedback in the last couple years from people that told me that it really did make a difference for them. They had situations similar to ours and they just didn't even know where to start or what to do. Reading the book gave them the information and the courage that they needed to speak out for the sake of animals in their own area. The book will never be a bestseller and I fully acknowledge that it has kind of a narrow audience. But I feel pretty good about it. I feel like it served the purpose and hopefully will continue to serve its intended purpose for a period of years to come. I asked some folks for feedback to share with this blog and would like to thank them for helping me.
If you know shelter animals in your area are being destroyed needlessly, know that you really can make a difference to affect change. It takes information, time, passion and commitment, but you can be a force for good. Choose the path that is the most important to you. You never know how far you will travel or what you can accomplish if you don't try.
I recommend this book to everyone interested in animal rescue or sheltering. I like to highlight key points as I read, but if I had done that with this book, the entire thing would have been highlighted. After reading it, I purchased multiple copies for local shelter managers and fellow animal rescuers. It's a perfect ‘cliff notes' version of Nathan Winograd's Redemption and a practical ‘how to’ study rolled into one. It should be required reading for anyone who cares about animals.” - Jennifer Watkins, Shelter to Home, Inc., Wyandotte, Michigan
Not Rocket Science may have been written about Huntsville, Alabama, but it is the disturbing reality of our broken ‘shelter’ system everywhere. The book very accurately describes the perils currently faced by homeless animals in the majority of municipal animal control facilities across the US. As an advocate in Georgia, I have had far too many of the same experiences that Aubrie describes. This book is essential reading for any animal welfare advocate and I highly recommend it to all animal lovers. There will be both sad and happy tears as you follow the courageous and inspiring journey of the No Kill Huntsville team. But, at the end, you will have a concise, comprehensive resource and a determination to be part of the solution. Ignorance and apathy are the enemies. For about $5, this book can help you overcome both at your local ‘shelter.’" - Shari Cahill, Silver Comet Animal Welfare Alliance, Milton, Georgia
Not Rocket Science: The Story of No Kill Animal Shelter Advocacy in Huntsville, Alabama is the up-close, inside story of what it took to bring a highly regressive, open-admission animal control shelter to save rates in the mid and upper 90%. A must-read for advocates seeking to bring No Kill to their communities, Not Rocket Science presents the unvarnished truth behind this inspiring and remarkable transition. If you have heard about the inspiring tale of Huntsville's success, but have not read this book, you don't really know how the City of Huntsville became one of the most exciting shelter stories in the nation. Order it today." - Mike Fry, No Kill Learning. Minneapolis, Minnesota
Aubrie Kavanaugh has written a seminal book, It’s Not Rocket Science, about modern animal shelter reform. Although the No Kill Movement has been around for decades, the last 10 years has seen a surge in successful animal shelter reform driven by advocates like the author, Aubrie Kavanaugh and her associates. Nathan Winograd’s Redemption from 2008 was the formative publication that launched a revolution in modern animal shelter reform. It’s Not Rocket Science shows us how the philosophy Winograd presented is now proven to succeed with a clear history of the reform of Huntsville, Alabama.” - Davyd Smith, No Kill Colorado, Denver Colorado
Not Rocket Science is an unvarnished look at the hard work required to make progress toward no kill in a resistant environment. It is an excellent step by step guide for no kill advocates who want to take action in their own community but aren't sure how to start and, more importantly, how to keep going when hitting roadblocks." - Shirley Marsh, Yes Biscuit, South Carolina
Like a lot of other people who deal with animal welfare and animal shelter advocacy, I was thrilled to learn that the Biden family would bring a rescued dog to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Major Biden was adopted from the Delaware Humane Association following the Bidens having fostered him as a puppy who came from a litter of dogs who were sick. That was three years ago. Major is now a stunning dog and pal to Champ, the Biden’s older dog they have had since 2008.
Also like a lot of other people who run in my circles, I was not particularly surprised when I heard there had been a couple of “biting incidents” with Major and members of the White House staff. I feel confident both the Biden’s dogs have been around a lot of people during the course of their lives. The change in location and the sheer volume of new people in new situations would be a lot for any dog to handle and sets the stage for some degree of conflict and adjustment. I can’t imagine how my own dogs would behave if they were thrust into a new environment, surrounded by dozens of people they had never met before (some of whom may know little about dogs) and subjected to almost constant stimulation. We learned yesterday that Major will undergo some additional training to help him adjust to life in the White House.
A contact of mine posted a question on her social media account a couple of weeks back, asking what the Bidens should do. I suggested they should do what all families with dogs should do – learn about dog bite prevention and educate those around them about dog bite prevention. I went on to opine that this week – which is Dog Bite Prevention Week – would be a prefect opportunity to do that. Training Major is a wonderful idea that likely should have been considered sooner. Training the people who interact with him is equally important in my book if not more important. We have so many dogs in our country, that most of us presume people understand dog behavior and body language. That’s just not true.
As renowned researcher Karen Delise wrote many years ago in The Pit Pull Placebo: The Media, Myths and Politics of Canine Aggression, all dogs have teeth. All dogs bite. “They bite other animals, they bite each other and they bite humans.” More than half of American households includes at least one dog. This means millions of people are in daily contact with dogs, even if we include only the members of the dogs' own households. But how many people have really educated themselves on dog body language and how to remain safe around dogs? Not nearly enough. Dogs are surrendered to shelters every day for some type of bite incident, many of whom are destroyed. We hear that the incidents were “unprovoked” or “came out of nowhere.” While there are certainly times when that is true because the dog has some cognitive issue, most of these incidents were both foreseeable and preventable. The groups of people most commonly involved in dog bite incidents are children and the elderly. How many any times have you seen a picture of a child with their arms wrapped tightly around the neck of a dog or even laying on top of a dog? Some people find these images cute; I see them as disasters waiting to happen.
Dogs bite for a variety of reasons. As the American Veterinary Medical Association states on its website, a dog bite is most commonly a reaction to something. “If the dog finds itself in a stressful situation, it may bite to defend itself or its territory. Dogs can bite because they are scared or have been startled. They can bite because they feel threatened. They can bite to protect something that is valuable to them, like their puppies, their food or a toy.” Dogs also bite when they don’t feel well and they just want to be left alone. Dogs also bite during play, something most of us have experienced.
During Dog Bite Prevention Week, please take time to educate yourself and your family about how to prevent dog bites. If you having issues with your own dog, please don't hesitate to get help; the issue will not go away with time and will only get worse. Consult with your veterinarian to see if there is some medical reason for your dog's behavior. Also consult with a trainer or behaviorist to resolve your issues. People don't like to hear it, but there are many times when the issue is not with the dog but with the people who care for the dog. The training may need to be more for you than it is for your canine companion. If you have an issue with your dog in your home and take your dog to a shelter, the odds are against your dog being adopted. Do all you can to resolve your issues in your own home so lack of action does not lead to the death of your dog.
There is a lot of great information on the internet on this subject so I won't restate it here. The sites I think have the best information are the following:
American Veterinary Medical Association: Dog Bite Prevention
ASPCA: Dog Bite Prevention
The Spruce Pets: How to Stop Your Dog From Biting
Positively Victoria Stillwell: Dog Bite Prevention
If you’re up for something more in-depth, I encourage you to look into the materials on the website for the National Canine Research Council. I relied heavily on materials from the NCRC when I wrote my research paper about adoption of pit bull-type dogs years ago and was thankful Karen Delise reviewed it for me.
The Family Dog also has some great videos on their Youtube channel about children and dogs. One of my favorites is “I Speak Doggie.”
Back to the Biden family, I hope steps will be taken not just to “train” Major Biden, but to educate the people around him who will interact with him. I am sure Major was trying to communicate with the people around him when the incidents happened. We all need to know how dogs communicate to keep all of us safe.
There is a bill pending in the Colorado Legislature I firmly oppose because it is dangerous. House Bill 21-1120. I do not live in Colorado so you may ask, “why do you care about that bill?” I care because laws can be infectious both for the good and the bad. A bad law in one state can spread to others and I think it’s up to all of us to keep that from happening. Some explanation is in order.
When I first learned at what was happening at the shelter in the city where I work over 15 years ago, I was shocked, angry, upset, and emotional. Like most Americans, I presumed that animals died in shelters because they were suffering. As I have blogged about before and wrote about in my book, I had a rude awakening in the summer of 2006 when I learned that healthy and treatable animals died at the shelter every day for no other reason than that is what had happened for years. “Catch and kill” and “first in, first out” were the status quo. I was like most people who probably should have known what was happening at the shelter, but just did not. It had not been on my personal radar. This unwelcome epiphany led me to a journey of educating myself about why this was happening not just in my area, but across the country. I came to realize that animal shelters in our country are, for the most part, our public shame. We call ourselves animal friendly and we say we cheer for the underdog while we hold our values above those of other cultures. Shame on us.
Part of my education was learning about something called the Asilomar Accords. This was essentially a meeting of the minds in animal welfare which was held in Pacific Grove, California, in 2004. The stated goal of the Accords was to build “bridges across varying philosophies, developing relationships and creating goals focused on significantly reducing the euthanasia of healthy and treatable companion animals in the United States.” That may sound like great goals. What really happened was that the Accords focused more on people and not offending anyone and less on saving animals. The outcome was definitions for a series of words and phrases which are used to classify animals in shelters:
Unhealthy and untreatable
We are now almost 20 years removed from the Accords. The result has been not an increased focus on life-saving, but use of words by shelters which are inconsistent with the words are used by the public. The Accords have been used to categorize animals who could have, and should have, been saved, but instead were killed after having been put into a category that attempts to make that action more acceptable in some bizarre way. No one would dispute that an animal who is suffering or irremediably ill should be euthanized. But what about neo-natal animals? Old animals? Blind or deaf animals? Animals with conditions like epilepsy, megaesophagus, Wobbler’s Syndrome, paralysis, allergies or broken limbs? What about community cats? What about animals who get sick only after they enter a shelter or animals who develop behavior issues in the shelter due to the shelter environment itself? I think all these animals should be saved. Progressive shelters do save them. Regressive shelters do not. The words from the Accords are used as political cover to classify animals and then end their lives. It happens every day and may be happening in the community where you live.
This brings me back to Colorado House Bill 21-1160, called the Care of Dogs & Cats in Pet Animal Facilities. This bill is the Colorado version of the Accords, but worse because it says so little so poorly. It hinges on the definitions of two words that are not well defined: healthy and safe. Sound familiar? Much like the Accords have been used to classify and then destroy animals for almost two decades, this bill creates a license to kill. At the heart of the bill are definitions for the words “healthy” and “safe.” The fact that the bill does not define those words more specifically or by referring to an evaluation matrix is terribly problematic. This means that animals are put at risk for conditions or behavior which may lead to their death unnecessarily, some of which may have been created by the shelter environment itself. The bill also refers to a concept called Socially Conscious Sheltering which I have blogged about before; the words sound positive and they are. The issue is when those words are used to end the lives of animals needlessly.
I know it can be hard for people outside of animal welfare circles to believe that animals in shelters are destroyed for having been classified using words, but it happens every day. Animal shelters use words like healthy, unhealthy, treatable, untreatable, safe and unsafe – all of which are open for interpretation - while making it sound like the animals were saved from some fate worse than death.
Also not included in the bill is any language setting forth the qualifications of the people making decisions on whether animals are considered healthy or safe and, by extension, which animals live or die. Is that a decision made by a veterinarian who is trained in shelter medicine? Does it involve evaluation by a trained behaviorist who evaluates dogs outside of the shelter facility itself (since many fear-based behaviors are caused by the way in which dogs are traditionally housed. We must remember that the animals who could pay the ultimate price from this bill are not just numbers on a sheet of paper. They are living, sentient beings who are worthy of our very best, because that is what the public expects. The dog destroyed may be our own who is so scared in a shelter he shows his teeth or cowers in a kennel corner. The cat destroyed may have been our neighbor's beloved pet who presented as feral out of fear because she had never been outside of her own home.
I learned long ago that statutory law is a tricky thing; words in a law are there for a reason and if words are not there, that is with intent. If the same bill can be read by ten different people who come away with ten different interpretations, the bill is fatally flawed. A bad bill is worse than no bill. Once it becomes law, it can be complicated to say, "oh, no. That's not what we meant or what we intended." This is one of those bills.
I have heard from many people that they interpret the wording of the bill differently than I do. That alone is a red flag which tells us this bill must be stopped to avoid taking Colorado back in time rather than making it more progressive. I applaud any city, county or state which decides to take proactive steps to improve the lives of pets in need and to help them either get back home or get to new homes. House Bill 1160 is not that bill.
If you live in Colorado, I encourage you to read the latest version of the bill and then consider stating your opposition to the bill. It has already made it through the House and is set to be heard by the Senate Agricultural and Natural Resources Committee on April 22, 2021. You can email the committee members in addition to your own state senator. You can also sign up to testify remotely or using written testimony, which is what I did. If you do not live in Colorado, you can still have an opinion on this bill. The bill is backed by some organizations with lots of money and is being promoted by sponsors who likely are not educated enough on how animal shelters operate to see the danger this bill presents. The only way to stop the bill is for us to speak up and do our part to say there are better ways to help shelter animals in Colorado.
To learn more, visit these links.
MaxFund Opposition to House Bill 21-1160
No Kill Colorado Opposition to House Bill 21-1160
House Bill 21-1160 FAQs
Sample Letters about House Bill 21-1160
Organizations Which Oppose House Bill 1160
It happens every day. Pets are displaced from caregivers for a variety of reasons and not all have to do with someone’s irresponsibility. A cat slips outside when a child leaves a door open. A dog escapes a fenced area when a contractor leaves a gate open. A cat is scared by loud noises or fireworks and runs from a yard in fear. A person is in a traffic accident and the dog traveling in the car with them runs off when a door is opened. Severe weather arrives quickly and pets go missing either before or after a storm. We try to do our best to make sure our companion animals are not separated from us, but sometimes our best is not enough.
Most animals who get lost or go missing don’t make it back home for one reason: they cannot be identified. I see posts every day on social media about lost animals someone has found. Many people do the right thing and alert local animal control authorities to increase the chance of the caregiver being able to find their lost pet. Just as many people don’t take that step at all, instead choosing to either keep the found animal or give the animal away to someone else.
I know people joke about what their pets would say if they could talk and while we know that won’t happen any time soon, it would certainly make it easier to get them back where they belong. “I got lost when I chased a squirrel and then another dog and then a cat. But I live at 123 Main Street. Can you give me a ride home?”
There are many ways to help pets be identified if they are lost. A dog collar with a phone number. A collar with a tag what includes a name and phone number. As I have written about before, my go-to recommendation is to have a microchip in addition to these other methods because it cannot fall off, cannot be torn off and cannot be taken off by someone who finds your pet. Our dog wears a collar with his rabies tag, but it also has a tag with his name, on the back of which is his microchip number and the phone number of the manufacturer to call if he is found.
A microchip is not a GPS tracker. It’s a small implant, about the size of a grain of rice, that functions using radio-frequency identification which does not require a power source. Think of it like a barcode for your pet. When a microchip scanner is passed over the pet, the microchip gets enough power from the scanner to send the microchip identification number to the scanner. That number is then used to trace the animal back to your registration for the chip. There is no battery, no moving parts, nothing to lose, nothing to charge and nothing to wear out. The microchip will last for the lifetime of your companion animal. Beyond the obvious simplicity of microchip, it has another advantage. If your pet is stolen, the chip is your “proof” that the animal belongs to you. All of this is dependent, of course, on registering the microchip with the manufacturer and keeping that registration information current whether you move or whether you have to re-home your pet yourself for some reason.
Just this morning I saw a story on the news about the power of microchipping. A woman in Foley, Alabama, lost her dog more than two years ago. Brooke Lake opened the door of her house and her Beagle, Lilly, “caught a scent and she just ran.” Brooke did all the right things. She searched everywhere, called veterinary clinics, called animal shelters and still could not find Lilly. What Brooke did not know is that Lilly had found her way to a truck stop where someone picked her up and drove her to Oklahoma. Her new caregivers had trouble keeping Lilly inside their fenced yard and took her to an animal shelter. Lilly was scanned for a microchip and was traced back to Brooke. An Oklahoma rescue group will transport Lilly back to Foley this week to a very excited Brooke. This happy story would not be possible without Brooke having taken the time to have her dog microchipped. We hear stories like this often and as amazing as they are, they reinforce for us the fact that microchips work to get pets back home.
So, where do you get a microchip and how much do they cost? It varies depending on where you live. If you got your companion animal from a shelter or rescue group, he or she may already be microchipped so check with that organization to get information from them first. Most veterinarians will microchip your pet although some charge a lot for that process. It’s often possible to get your pet chipped for a super low cost at a microchipping event in your area. You can also buy your own microchip and ask your veterinarian to implant it for you. I found a Home Again Microchip on Amazon for $13.75 and at Jeffers for $11.99. If your veterinarian will not insert a chip you purchase yourself to save money, it may be time to find a new veterinarian. Once the chip is implanted, make sure you register it and keep the registration information current. I also recommend having your veterinarian scan your pet’s microchip during regular exams to make sure the chip has not migrated to another part of your pet’s body. I also recommend you use a chip from a reputable company like Home Again, DataMars (Petlink), AKC Reunite, AVID or 24PetWatch. There are some really cheap chips which are part of a 900 shared manufacturer series (used globally) which are not as reliable.
I’ve had people tell me that they don’t think their pet needs to be microchipped because they live inside or are never without supervision outside. Considering how little a microchip costs, and the fact that our companion animals are priceless to us, I think all pets should be microchipped. We just never know what unexpected events may happen and once a pet is displaced from us, it is too late to lament the fact that we didn’t spend $20 to help them get back home. Microchipping is suitable for a variety of species we keep as animal companions. If your animals are not microchipped, please make plans to help them "call home."
After we lost Aspy to cancer in 2016, my sister got me a memorial bracelet made out of white magnesite beads. It has a pawprint bead and a silver heart bead. I wore it all the time as a way to deal with my grief and keep Aspy close to me in spirit. That may not make much sense if you have not lost a beloved pet; it just helped me to have something with me to represent our bond. Our loss of him was tragic and not at all on the terms we had hoped for. I wore the bracelet so much that the stretch cord finally got a little loose so I decided to fix it. It turned out to be pretty simple, just some stretch cord and some craft glue. Which led to my thought that went something like, "hey. I could make these." And so I do. I have my own selection of what I call Rescue Bracelets I wear often. I make them for friends and for people I know who have suffered a loss similar to ours.
I began doing small fundraisers to benefit shelters and nonprofit organizations a few years ago. None are big money makers or game changers; they are just a way to bring attention to small groups and keep them in the public eye while helping with marketing through the sale of items. A lot of people like to help an organization and having something to show for having done so. I originally focused on t-shirt fundraisers with Bonfire because they are easy to manage, Bonfire makes great shirts and the production is based in the United States (Virginia). My other go-to events now are the shirt campaigns and Rescue Bracelet Facebook auctions to benefit nonprofits. Beading is a creative outlet that is cathartic for me.
If you'd like to support the current bracelet fundraiser to benefit House of Little Dogs, Inc., the photo album for the Facebook auction is here. Bidding ends on Sunday, March 21, 2021, at 5:00 p.m. central time. Any amount you pay over the value of your purchase is tax-deductible (although you need to keep your receipt for your tax purposes). To learn more about the wonderful work done at House of Little Dogs, please visit the website. They do wonderful work helping small dogs with medical and behavioral issues, most of whom come from animal shelters where they would otherwise be destroyed.
Our video about House of Little Dogs (thanks to David Hodges, Jason Mraz, Lucas Keller at Milk & Honey and Terra Simon at Kobalt Music) is below. Enjoy.
If you lead or volunteer for a shelter or nonprofit organization, I highly recommend both Bonfire shirt drives and some form of auction on Facebook or another platform. Shirts and bracelets are both wearable conversation starters without having to say a word.
Something remarkable happened this week in the midst of the unprecedented times in which we live due to the pandemic, political unrest, social injustice and much uncertainty: a shelter dog moved into the White House. I realize this is not particularly important to many people who are struggling and perhaps it should not be. As I find my way through this time with my family, I admit that I am always looking for the positive. For something to remind me that normal life is still going on in some ways and that there is good in the world.
The fact that “Major” Biden now lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue may not seem like a big deal to many people. There have been animals in the White House before. The reason this is so important is because of the message it sends to the public. That animals rescued from animal shelters are beloved family members who enrich our lives in so very many ways. That they are worthy of our time and our attention. That they are individuals like all of us who have the capacity for love and joy and humor if only given the chance.
I know that not everyone gets their pets from shelters and rescue groups. I just wish that they would. As long as we have animals who are destroyed in our nation’s shelters using our money, shouldn’t that be the first place we look when we decide to bring a new companion animal into our lives? I would like to think so. I feel this way because I was raised with animals who were rescued or came from shelters. For me, it’s just the right and ethical thing to do. But that’s not all there is to my position. We consider ours an animal friendly country where we “root for the underdog.” I don’t think we can claim that moral high ground as long as we continue to allow breeding of millions of animals every year, often in operations that are criminal, while at the same time destroying millions of animals a year. Our actions should speak as loudly as our words if not more loudly.
I would also like to think that outdated and unnecessary act of destroying healthy and treatable animals in our nation’s shelters will end during my lifetime. I know that some people will never get a companion animal from any source other than a breeder. I can live with that, provided we find a way to apply standards to commercial breeding operations for the safety of the public and the welfare of the animals bred there. And provided we stop producing them by the millions only to destroy them by the millions. Sales of dogs and cats in stores must end. It may have been the norm decades ago, but attitudes have changed about companion animals in our culture. Time will tell whether that happens because people no longer buy dogs and cats in stores – realizing that they are perpetuating the animal abuse and neglect we all abhor - or whether that happens because it is no longer profitable to mass produce dogs and cats for transport and sale nationally because of standards which are not only written but which are enforced.
When I was in the Army, there was a phrase used regularly within the ranks and up and down the chain of command: lead by example. In this case, the Biden family is leading by example. They are demonstrating their values through their behavior. My hope is that people will see that behavior and perhaps reconsider their own behavior the next time they decide to bring a companion animal home. There are plenty of animals in need of homes across our country who are easily found at local animal shelters, with local rescue groups, or using websites like Petfinder or Adopt-A-Pet.
Welcome to the White House, Major. Take good care of your friend, Champ, and take care of the rest of your family. They need you.
(photos of Major at the shelter courtesy of the Delaware Humane Association; photos of Major and Champ at the White House courtesy of the White House).
As we near the end of an unprecedented year for all of us, I’ve been thinking a lot about the good we found in 2020. Yes, there were good things even if it doesn’t feel that way sometimes. Thinking back to my animal welfare advocacy, I had to stop and reflect on how very fortunate I am that I have friends in the music industry who allow me to use their songs either directly or by helping me navigate the process of licensing music legally. It really is quite amazing that I know people with so very much talent who graciously help me so I can help animals.
I first tried to legally clear music a couple of decades ago and quickly learned it is a daunting process. My first effort was a complete failure. I had hoped to use a song called “Take it to Heart,” co-written by Michael McDonald and Diane Warren. I got permission from both of them, but got stuck at the label which really didn’t have time for someone who could not pay to use the song and who wanted to use it to help animals. All that changed once I figured out the best way to use music legally was to make personal connections with the people who own the music. I want to thank them in this blog and tell a little about how it all came together. I’ve listed them in the order in which I began using their music.
Fisher. We were channel surfing one night in the late 1990s when I heard part of a song on a talent show which I think was actually the version of “The Gong Show” hosted by Arsenio Hall. A young couple was doing a modern dance to a quiet and haunting song which immediately caught my attention. I wrote down some of the lyrics and later learned the song was “Ordinary Moment,” by Fisher – the pop duo of married couple Kathleen Fisher and Ron Wasserman. I was hooked. I found a Fisher message board, began interacting with other fans and ultimately connected with both Ron and Kathy directly by email.
When Fisher released their 2002 double CD called “Uppers and Downers” (true creative genius, by the way), I just had to ask. Could I please use a couple of the songs in video projects to help animals? I knew Kathy and Ron had left the label they were working with in order to have more freedom over their music and knew they owned all of the music themselves. The answer was not only yes. It was a yes to what is called "free use license" which means I can use any of the songs for any purpose to help animals. I can’t speak for them, but I think they both understood this was a mutually beneficial arrangement. I would help animals using their music and they would reach people who may not know about them, much like I didn’t know about them until I heard part of "Ordinary Moment." (This song is still a favorite of mine and is very much suited to our lives in 2020; I hope you'll take the time to listen to it).
As an aside, I like to tell a story about Fisher to help people understand how grounded they are. When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, the family of a co-worker of mine relocated to Alabama. I think it was 12 people in all. They loaded up all they could in a few cars, hit the road and it took days to arrive. They had very little to sustain them. Our office collected clothes, dishes, furniture. The items they would need to live until they figured out what would come next. After I posted about them on Fisher’s message board, Kathy called to talk about what they needed. She and Ron not only donated money, but sent boxes and boxes of supplies from baby clothes to dishes just because they wanted to help. It's just the kind of people they are.
I’ve since used countless Fisher songs over the years from a variety of CDs - Uppers and Downers, The Lovely Years, Water, Stripped and 3. I’ve done projects for animal rescue groups, animal shelters, on certain animal-oriented subjects and for PSAs for television. I’ve even used some which were never released which I’m fortunate enough to have in my box of musical treasures. My most recent was a project for Shadow Cats, Inc. in Texas using "Different Kind of Wonderful." I cannot thank them enough. Kathy now has this platform on Facebook and Ron has a website that is focused on his composition work. Their music is available on Amazon and iTunes.
Martin Page. Much like my introduction to Fisher, my connection with Martin Page began with a single song. In “In the House of Stone and Light” was released in 1996 on a CD by the same name. I was not yet an animal advocate and the time, but always loved the song. As time went on, I forgot the name of the song but had parts of it stuck in my head over the years. I was driving to work one day in 2014 when it came on the radio and I was thrilled. The whole song came back to me and I quickly wrote down the title so I wouldn’t forget it. I connected with Martin through Diane Poncher who handles his Music Management. I told him how thrilled I was to have “found” him again after all the years in between and asked if it would be possible to use some of his other music in my animal welfare projects, much like my arrangement with Fisher. I knew Martin handled his own music production also and I would not need to interact with a label. Diane and Martin said yes, no doubt after consulting with Martin's cat, "Bootsie." I now have a relationship with them in which I ask to use a particular song, describe the project I have in mind and get approval. I continue to be astounded by this connection, primarily due to the library of Martin’s work. He’s written songs with and for some of the most notable names in the music industry and I am in awe of his talents. My first project using one of Martin’s songs was for National Mill Dog Rescue in Colorado. We used a beautiful tune called “I Can’t Get There Without You.” The video quality is lacking a bit, but this is a personal favorite for me for a couple of reasons: we used footage of people slow dancing with dogs and it includes both Harley Taylor and Teddy Burchfield, both of whom have since left this Earth. I used "All For the Love of You" in a popular project for Esther the Wonder Pig who lives in Canada and has a huge following. Many thanks to both Martin and Diane, both of whom I consider friends. Martin’s music is available on iTunes.
David Hodges. Although David Hodges has been in the music industry for decades, I didn’t have an awareness of him until I heard a song called “Shattered” from a 2011 release called More Than This. I looked for information about David and discovered that he had been around for years and had become one of the most prolific songwriters on the planet. He had released a series of CDs under the name “The December Sessions,” and I was hoping to use some of the songs in my video projects. I had a hard time finding out how to connect until a long-time Fisher contact in Tennessee (thanks, Melissa!) did some sleuthing for me and learned he was managed by Milk & Honey Music Management, led by Lucas Keller. David’s music is with a label (it was Sony and is now Kobalt), but Lucas graciously helped me navigate the process of legally clearing songs and continues to do so to this day (along with help from his rescued dogs Kilo and Graham). I’ve used two of David’s songs this year – “A Song for Us” for House of Little Dogs in Arkansas and “The Only Story” for Harley’s House of Hope (I’m particularly proud of this one since we decided to incorporate American Sign Language into the video). David has so many wonderful songs that I find myself thinking of projects even before I have a target organization in mind. Thank you so very much to David, Lucas and the folks at Kobalt. David’s music is available on Amazon, iTunes and Spotify.
Jim Gaven. Most of my video projects are created using a Photodex software program called ProShow Producer. Before the company stopped supporting the program, it came with a music library and that’s how I found Jim Gaven. A few of his songs were in the library and although I was allowed to use them from having purchased the software, I connected with Jim to let him know I was using the music. I’m so glad I did. Jim has a wide variety of music released on his own through the Bandcamp platform. In addition to creating wonderful music, Jim leads a nonprofit organization called Key of Awesome Music, Inc. which improves the quality of life for people with disabilities, addiction, the elderly, and children - with music. What amazing work. I used “Make this Moment Last” in a project for the Lake County Florida Animal Shelter and very much look forward to using more of Jim’s music in the future to help animals. Jim’s music is available on Bandcamp and Soundcloud.
Cristina Lynn. Cristina and I met through a common contact who calls her "cous" (they both share the last name Lynn). I had heard she was a singer-songwriter from my area and thought it would be interesting to connect with someone local. After I lost my parents to cancer, I ended up with some songs in my head, one of which was from the perspective of a rescued animal called, "Just No Looking Back." I knew it was not a chart topper, but also thought it might be able to help some animals. I reached to to Cristina and she graciously agreed to record the song for us both after improving on the lyrics and melody. I've used in in a few different projects and each time I learn she will perform locally, I make a request for her to "sing our song." Cristina is a wonderful talent and I look forward to a very bright future for her in the music industry!
I hope you’ll take a break from a very difficult year to enjoy some of the video projects. You can them on my Paws4Change channel on Youtube. If you are an aspiring artist who is looking for some exposure to your music in a feel-good, let's help animals kind of way, let me know.
It’s that time of year again. The time when we scramble around trying to get twice as many things done in a day as we would normally and as we try to find gifts for those we love. No matter your beliefs, we are in the holiday season and most of us engage in traditions which involve expression of our love for friends and family through exchange of things.
The pandemic has made life immeasurably more difficult for many people either because the are working from home while trying to home school children or because they are in the medical field and cannot be with their families at all for fear or infecting them or because they have lost their jobs and worry about paying bills and putting food on the table. With the possible exception of people over the age of 100 who were alive during the last pandemic, no one has been through this before. We all try to do our best and try to cope as we go. The ordinary stress brought on by the holiday season seems doubled as we try so hard to get everything done to our satisfaction.
I’ve blogged before about holiday gifts for animal lovers, one of which is the gift of a donation to a non-profit organization in honor of the person you love. It’s a one-size-fits-all gesture that does not involve shopping and which helps someone do something good. You can choose a non-profit organization you know your loved one supports or find one whose mission is something that would matter to your loved one whether it relates to animals, people or the planet.
Regardless of your ability to make a donation, I hope you will consider giving the most important gift of all. The gift of time. It is free. It is priceless.
If you have ever lost someone you love to age or disease or tragedy, you know you would give almost anything for just a little more time with them. A week, a month a year. For all the things we give each other and buy for each other and obsess over during the holiday season, there really is no more precious gift than your presence with those you love. No distractions, no phones, just being present. I am not suggesting you do this in person outside of your immediate household. Use the phone. Use Zoom or FaceTime. Find a way to spend time with those you love in any way you can which does not put any of you at risk.
One of the best ways to share time with those you love is to learn more about them. You may say, “but I already know who they are” and that may be true. But how much do you really know about your parents? Do you know how they met? What did they do on their first date? Was there a job they always wanted or some place they always wanted to travel and life put them on another path? If your grandparents are still alive, how much do you know about all they've seen in their decades on the planet? How much do you know about your siblings? Do you know what challenges they’ve faced this year? Do they need anything? Do they just need to talk? Or perhaps you can spend time sharing childhood memories with them and see if they hold precious memories you forgot long ago. When it comes to your companion animals, when’s the last time you took your dog for a long walk or actually played with your cat? Ever thought of making some homemade dog biscuits or cat toys? It can be rewarding and cathartic for you and your pets.
I hope this year you’ll be more patient with yourself and those around you. This has been hard for everyone and it will most likely get harder. I hope you have taken stock of what really matters to you and even give some thought to your own morbidity as part of that process. No one gets to stay. And then I hope you’ll give the gift of time. It is the one thing we miss the most when it is gone.
But at my back I always hear, time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near - Andrew Marvell
I’ve never really understood the concept of buying a pet from a breeder through a website. I guess part of that is because I promote adoption of animals from shelters and rescue groups as a first option. To me, it just seems like the right thing to do on a personal level and from a point of being responsible. As a nation, we continue to destroy healthy and treatable animals in our shelters using tax-dollars even though we have more than enough homes for all of them. These are animals who either were, our could have been, someone’s beloved pet. I see it as our collective responsibility to stop the needless death from happening through adoption as a first option.
I fully recognize that some people will never adopt from a shelter or a rescue group and insist on getting a pet from a breeder. But from a website? Really?
Online shopping is a great resource in many ways. Even prior to the pandemic, more and more people turned to their electronic devices to shop that ever before because it's easy and convenient. The pandemic has supercharged a transition away from brick and mortar shopping to online sales which have soared as people do all they can to keep themselves and their families safe while limiting (or completely ending) in-store purchases. I've heard some experts say the retail industry as we have known it is forever changed and there is likely no going back. But a pet? It just seems sordid to me. Online shopping for things is great. Online shopping for a living, breathing, sentient creature who will be part of your life for at least a decade and maybe two is just not right in my book. I know people do it all the time for a host of reasons and it may relate back to that easy and convenient mindset. They’re looking for a companion animal, find a website (or a bunch of websites) that look polished on which images of cute puppies or kittens are just too hard to resist and read that the animal comes fully vetted and with a health guarantee. What could possibly go wrong? Everything.
Many animal advocates are quick to preach, “don’t breed or buy while shelter dogs die.” That’s a nice idea in theory, but it doesn’t work in reality, at least at this time in our society. There will always be people who want to get a pet from a breeder and since breeding animals is legal, there is nothing to be done to stop it. Some breeders breed dogs specifically to be placed in service industries. Others breed dogs to perform law enforcement functions. Some breeders make big money from breeding animals; I’ve seen some puppies who cost thousands of dollars. Some breeders make hardly any money at all and do it for the love of the species or love of the breed. I know there are breeders who function responsibly, who care deeply for their animals, who provide their animals with all they need – veterinary care, exercise, socialization and even training – and who work hard to place animals in great homes, insisting the animal be returned to them if something goes wrong.
Then there are the other breeders. The people who insist they meet you in a Walmart parking lot or never even meet you at all. The people who will not let you see the conditions in which the animals are bred, coming up with any variety of excuses as to why you can’t see the location for yourself to judge how the breeder dogs are cared for. It is this group of people who ordinarily broker their animals to stores to be sold to the public in a retail setting or who develop inviting looking websites with wonderful images and testimonials to lure you into the sale. I’ve seen numerous sites like this over the years and am always amazed at how much the animals cost and the process used to buy one. Some require a nonrefundable deposit before you meet the animal. Some want full payment before a dog is shipped to you. I’ve often wished there was some “truth in advertising” requirement for online sale of pets so photos of the conditions in which the dogs live are posted next to the photo of the cute animal, cuddled up next to a teddy bear. Maybe that would cause people to be repulsed enough to reconsider their decision.
Which leads to the point of this blog. Pet scams are now more prevalent than at any time in history as people spend more time at home or spend more time separated from people and are looking for companionship. I heard a few months ago that the pandemic has led to a sharp rise in complaints about pet scams. I was reminded of this again today when I heard about a heartbreaking story on CBS This Morning about a woman whose young daughter had died and who decided to buy a dog from a website in her daughter’s honor (her daughter always wanted a puppy), only to be scammed out of the money she paid for the dog. This led me to look at the Better Business Bureau News page about “puppy scams” which have soared during the pandemic. The numbers are astounding. The BBB reports that the biggest increase in online shopping fraud is pet scams which have more than tripled from last year. They make up 24% of online scams reported to the BBB and are now considered the riskiest scam according to the BBB Risk Index. Of the people targeted by the scam, 70% end up losing money with the typical amount lost of $700. And, of course, the BBB reports that not only are these the riskiest of scams, they are also one of the most heart-breaking. The BBB news story states:
Some families turned to the internet to look for a pet, thinking a pandemic puppy or kitten would help ease some of the uncertainty of current events. Many have come across scammers advertising animals that don't exist and are never shipped. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has given scammers the idea to ask for money up front, or to make excuses as to why buyers can’t see the pet in person-- before heartbroken, would-be pet owners figure out they have been conned. This practice has also lead to a jump in online shopping fraud in general. BBB suggests, be aware of these pet scams and avoid falling for phony websites."
When it comes to buying animals online, please. Just say no. It you’re determined to get an animal from a breeder, find a reputable breeder close to you or who has been recommended to you by someone you know. Meet the breeder in person, see where your new pet will come from and ask for both veterinary references and references from people who have bought a pet from the breeder in the last year.
Better yet, open your home to an animal from an animal shelter or rescue group. If you’d like to use the Internet to help with that, there are wonderful websites like Petfinder or Adopt A Pet where you can search for animals by species, breed, size and age by geographic area. You can also visit your local animal shelter in person to see the animals available for adoption or learn about animals in foster homes who are ready to be adopted. You can also visit the websites and Facebook pages for animal shelters and rescue groups in your region to see what animals are available to find the right fit for you and your lifestyle. When you adopt from a shelter or a rescue, you enhance your own life, save the life of the animal you adopt and make room for another animal in need.
I feel terribly for the woman who was scammed trying to honor the life of her daughter. I am sure she is devistated. I wish I knew her so I could help her find a puppy from a shelter or a rescue group instead.
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