Animal Welfare: Solve for X
A curious thing happened in this space last week.
I wrote something and hit ‘publish.’
And one week later, that something has been visited by 95,000 people spread across 131 countries.
Apparently, I struck a nerve. A very, very deep nerve.
The comment section of that post exploded (or imploded, depending on your point of view). I watched, incredulous and excited as passionate discussion took place among the commenters. An open sharing of ideas is exactly what is needed.
But then an unsettling trend surfaced – a disturbing pattern that must be addressed: somewhere along the way, we animal advocates have turned against our own.
If you were to go back and peruse the comments, you would notice that they quickly devolve into a tangential ‘conversation’ between no-kill advocates and those who have been or still are in the trenches of kill shelters.
And a distinct undercurrent of ‘VERSUS’ flows through it all.
Militant idealism versus jaded realism.
The ones who have forgotten the struggle versus the ones who are still struggling.
Prosecution versus defense.
But what it really boils down to is passion versus passion. The passion of one group of people who care about animals versus the passion of another group of people who care about animals. If you were to poll a bunch of four-year-olds and ask them if it makes sense for two groups who care about the exact same thing to be against each other, they would yell ‘no!’ And then probably tell you all about the boo-boo on their knee and how they want to be a veterinarian princess when they grow up. I digress.
The point is, they would recognize that when you share the same purpose, the same end goal, it makes the most sense to work together. Particularly when that goal is to overhaul the state of animal welfare in this country.
Let’s examine some of the areas of contention, shall we:
Limited Admission/Open Admission, Kill/ No-Kill
Kill shelters by default are open admission – they have no control over intake. However, it does not necessarily follow that open admission shelters are kill shelters – the potential exists for them to achieve no-kill status. However, frequently no-kill shelters are limited admission, meaning they control intake, typically by having a waiting list for admission or requiring appointment and/or surrender fees for someone to relinquish an animal to them. Fervent argument crops up when open admission and limited admission are compared to each other and the question becomes how does one get from point A to point B … and how long should it take. Which leads us to the next area of contention.
The No-Kill Equation
The eleven programs of the No-Kill equation are perfectly admirable as well as logical elements of reform: rescue partnerships, volunteers, foster care, TNR, pet retention, comprehensive adoption program, public relations/community involvement, medical/behavior prevention & rehabilitation, high volume/low-cost spay & neuter, proactive redemptions, and last but not least a ‘hardworking, compassionate shelter director.’ Those all sound fabulous, don’t they? So, what’s the problem – why is there discord among animal advocates about implementing these? Because the expectation of how long it takes to successfully execute all of these programs contrasts wildly between those who are already on the other side of claimed success and those who are still climbing the wall.
So how long does it take?
Well, according to previous commenters, anywhere from one day to one month.
Here’s the truth: incorporating those eleven tenets of no-kill requires a variable that is wholly unpredictable.
Speaking from my own experience, I worked at a shelter that was trying mightily to check off all those boxes. They pour energy into building trusting relationships with area rescues. They have established a veritable army of volunteers. They publicize and fully support the lone high-volume/low-cost spay and neuter clinic erected a few short years ago to serve a multi-county area. They implemented a free training program to help pet-owners work through behavioral issues with their animals and also provide spay/neuter vouchers to low-income households. They keep their adoption fees incredibly low ($65 for dogs, $15 for cats … that includes spay/neuter, rabies vax, parvo/distemper vax, bordetella vax, heartworm test, physical exam for dogs and spay/neuter, rabies, FIV test and physical exam for cats). They passionately promote their animals through social media and conduct multiple off-site adoption/outreach events every single week to engage the public. They established a heartworm treatment program that is entirely funded by private donation. They provide an online space for the public to post their missing pets (which is checked daily by staff for any possible matches to intakes). And they have a remarkable shelter director who leads by example – fostering animals, rehabilitating animals who seem otherwise hopeless, engaging the public and cracking down on cases of animal cruelty.
That all sounds amazing, right? Guess what: they are still a kill shelter.
Let me give you an example of why. This shelter decided to start a TNR program – one of the key tenets of no-kill. Feral cats made up a huge fraction of animals being euthanized. The program launched. Would you like to know the response from the public?
‘Why are you releasing them? They should be killed.’
Cue extreme confusion. There was a large percentage of the population who genuinely believed that those cats should be killed. One complaint was because ‘those’ cats walked all over parked cars, leaving dirty little paw-prints.
It takes time to change minds and hearts. Depending on how ingrained the prejudice, it could be considerable time. Without community support, this program has been hindered and will not realize its full potential until the public majority understands its value to the community. In the meantime, feral cats still flood the shelter.
Another example is public attitude toward spay/neuter. We as animal advocates understand that part of being a responsible pet owner is ensuring no unwanted litters result. However, there are numerous people who believe not only that animals should procreate but that it is their right. Here’s a true story: one day, I was finishing up an adoption event off-site and a woman approached me with her child in tow. She asked about one of our female cats and I told her what our adoption fee covered, specifically the included spay. The women looked at me in horror and asked if we could not spay the cat. I told her no, that we ensured all animals we adopted out were spayed or neutered. She grew visibly upset and asked why I would deny a female cat the right to be a mother. At this point, I looked around for a hidden camera … this could not possibly be real.
I explained to her why we required all animals adopted out to be spayed and neutered and the benefits inherent. My words were somewhat hampered when I had to break off in order to ask her son not to antagonize the cats by beating on their kennels and trying to pull their tails. She left in a state of befuddlement.
Time and time again, I have been confronted by people who felt it was a given right for their (usually male) dogs to remain intact and wander the neighborhood.
‘They’re dogs – that’s what they do.’
No. That’s what YOU allow them to do. And the inevitable result ends up on the shelter’s doorstep.
Okay but really – how long?
For the mathematically minded, consider the equation:
success = X (11 tenets of no-kill)(time)($)
Solve for X.
Here’s a hint: it starts with community and ends with support. Without that, success is stuck in the no-man’s land of imaginary.
As much as I’d love to believe the commenters that state that no-kill can happen overnight, I’m too much of a realist to believe that the attitudes and minds of a very large population would or could immediately change in a short span of time.
Let me be clear: I believe change can and will happen but I am realistic enough to understand that its timeline is not one that I get to have the final say over. The public at large has that power. And for that power to be realized, they must understand their role in necessitating the need for animal shelters in the first place.
Constructive Dialogue vs. Heated Argument
Now that we know X, how do we ensure that the shelter we care so much about receives the community support necessary to success? This is where cooperation among all groups of animal advocates is critical. When shelters take their first steps down the path of improvement, it accomplishes nothing to have someone point out, “You’re not doing enough.”
It also accomplishes nothing to point to the generic tenets of no-kill and emphatically state, ‘Do this.’
Here’s what is helpful: constructive solutions specific to each shelter.
You might be thinking ‘hmmm, that’s hard.’
Yes, it is. But nothing, and I mean nothing, about being involved in animal welfare is easy.
Whether you are in the trenches of the kill shelter now, have already escaped them or avoided them entirely, we need to remember that we are working toward the same goal: a better life for the animals in our care. Let’s not waste time and energy attacking each other when we can instead learn from each other. That requires a listening ear from those who seek guidance and an empathetic voice from those with viable suggestions.
It also requires compassion on all fronts. As kill shelters make strides toward improvement, their workers are still juggling the emotional burden that comes with the territory. As no-kill shelters provide sanctuary for countless animals, their workers still bear the emotional baggage of hoping that animals will find a home quickly rather than languish for years.
We are in this together. We don’t have to like each other. We don’t have to agree on everything.
But we must work together for the sake of the very animals we serve.
If you work at a kill shelter, what are the specific problems you face?
If you have firsthand experience with no-kill success, what specific changes did you make and what was your timeline?