Monday, July 9, 2012

Perhaps the Shelter System Needs a Wake-up Call

I've been seeing this "letter" from an imaginary shelter director make the rounds again. You can read the whole thing.

I volunteered at Sacramento County Animal Care and Control for four years.

I worked the adoption area  (also contained intake, cat cages, temp test zone, entrance to bite kennels). I heard every reason for why a person would abandon an animal.

At the end of four years, I had an epiphany. It was not the people bringing animals to the shelter who were the entire problem. Rather, it was a system that chose to spend time blaming rather than acting. I saw too many adoptable dogs and cats killed. Not euthanized, killed, their lives stripped away for "space" or "cropped ears" or "feral" or "too young/too old/too fat/too skinny".

I recognized that the excuses hi-kill shelters were making to themselves and the public were not any better than some of the excuses people made to abandon their animals.

I understand the desire to express the anger and horror at what happens inside our dog and cat shelters, but I feel a lot of it is misplaced. Our shelter system can be optimized. Shelters are doing it now.

I want to address some of the recurring post:

"First off, all of you people who have ever surrendered a pet to a shelter or humane society should be made to work in the “back” of an animal shelter for just one day."

In an ideal world, the second you welcome a dog or cat into your life, you commit yourself to that animal's lifelong care.

Unfortunately people get sick, go to prison, die, fall onto hard times. Some of us have a network to pick us up when we fall down. Some of us are alone. I am not one to judge the hardship of a family member going to prison, someone going to a nursing home, or dying, losing all of one's belongings to a failed job or poverty.

Don't get me wrong; I've met people I would like to beat with a pillow (or bat, depending on my mood). They are people who see dogs and cats are material objects, akin to a car or chair. And these people suck.
Sherman wills mina to play
Instead of taking Sherman to the shelter, someone let this little puppy loose. Luckily, a police officer found him before he could get hit by a car. Mina says NOT LUCKY, because she then had to put up with his antics. Despite being one of those infamous BIG BLACK DOGS, he was one of the quickest of my fosters to be adopted, yo.

 I rarely met these people! Most people felt - right or wrong - that they had no recourse and they believed - right or wrong - that a shelter for dogs and cats would be able to help find their dog/cat a good home. Only rarely did I ever want someone to follow their dog to the kill room and see barrel upon barrel of dead dogs and cats. Because at the end of the day, in my opinion,  it was not this person's failure to keep their dog until death, it was our failure - that of the shelter system - to creatively and compassionately find permanent placement. That is how I ended up feeling and continue to feel.

I know you will not all feel the same, and I respect that.

"The most common excuses: “We are moving and we can’t take our dog (or cat).” Really? Where are you moving too that doesn’t allow pets?"

Not to be too harsh, but does this so-called shelter director live under a rock?

In my final year of college, I discovered how difficult finding housing can be with a Pit Bull. More than 60 rentals turned me down - talk about a bummer! I moved back in with my parents. Each day, I commuted nearly an hour to UC Davis from Napa and another hour back. It was an ongoing struggle finding a place that would take Mina.

When I did? Well, I liked to call the old Victorian-turned-apartments I lived in The Halfway House. The stories I could tell!
Pit Bull Falling Asleep
Mina rocking the sad look at the Halfway House. She once had to defend Celeste from a marauding Dachshund!

Finding housing that accepts dogs is difficult. In many areas, finding housing that accepts certain breeds or sizes is even more so. If you do not have the support from family and friends to keep you afloat, you are going to have to make tough decisions.

And in the face of hard decisions, who are you supposed to turn to for help? Our dog and cat shelter system should be a safe place to send dogs and cats.

The following excerpts are serious problems, but not with the public. If your dog and cat shelter operates like this one, start fighting for these dogs and cats, because this is unacceptable.

"Well, let me tell you, your pet has 72 hours."

If you cannot extend more than three days to any animal coming into your shelter, then yes, the public better find another way to rehome their animals. It might be safer to use Craigslist!

"If it sniffles, it dies."

If your shelter believes sneezing is an indication of irreversible medical damage, then yes, find somewhere else for your dog to go. It could be allergies. It could be a bacterial infection. It could be a virus. Most likely, it is a disease that is treatable with medications or that found in a well-developed foster care program!

"Your pet will be confined to a small run/kennel in a room with other barking or crying animals.It will have to relieve itself where it eats and sleeps. "

If your shelter is unable to provide appropriate space to each animal coming into the shelter or does not have separate areas for defecation and sleeping, then please take the animal elsewhere.

 "If your pet is lucky, I will have enough volunteers in that day to take him/her for a walk. If I don’t, your pet won’t get any attention ."

If your shelter does not have a solid volunteer program, demand it gets one! Start it yourself!! Work with local schools to develop partnerships. Starting a volunteer program is not rocket science...but if your shelter does not accept volunteers or treats volunteers like crap...take it to your city council/board/commissioners/whatever. Try.

Where I now live, my local county shelter has a 95-98% adoption rate and has volunteers that come every single day. I tried to foster for them, but they prefer the animals stay at the shelter to get adopted, that's how great their adoption program is! And this is a shelter that used to kill most of the animals it took.

I foster for a rescue organization that works heavily with a struggling shelter. It is not the best shelter, nor is it the worse. What they have going for them is a rescue willing to take on fostering and some medical treatment...and a staff supportive of these efforts. I commend any shelter taking steps in the right direction, which usually only happens at the bequest of a member of that dastardly public!

Alice Cute
Alice was a black dog but somehow I managed to get pictures of her as calm and adorable, despite the fact she was kind of evil!
"If your dog is big, black or any of the “Bully” breeds (pit bull, rottie, mastiff, etc) it was pretty much dead when you walked it through the front door. Those dogs just don’t get adopted. It doesn’t matter how ‘sweet’ or ‘well behaved’ they are.""

Zombie dogs, rawr! This is just silliness! If your shelter is killing healthy, adoptable, friendly dogs of any color or breed, don't bring said dogs to this shelter.

None of these problems listed have anything to do with the public. I am not in control of the kennel design or how much money is devoted to paying the director versus awesome adoption programs. There are some things I can try to influence, like creating public pressure over lack of volunteer/foster/rescue networking programs. But even then, if the shelter system is set up such that volunteering/fostering/adopting/rescuing is made virtually impossible by limited or odd hours, unusually high adoption fees, angry staff, nice kennels, etc...then it is hardly the public's fault for a failed shelter.

We have to all work together to create a better world for dogs and cats. For too long, the public has carried the brunt of the blame-game burden.

It is time to recognize that there is a fault-line in the entire system, and we need to shake it up. The only true victims have ever been the nonhumans, and we owe them a lot.

We must make it easier for people to KEEP their companion animals and give them fewer reasons to abandon them. We must create shelters that are places of joy, where dogs and cats can find comfort and people automatically run to to find new friends. We must welcome the public in as adopters, foster "parents", rescuers, volunteers. And we must recognize that people sometimes need to give up their animals and they need somewhere safe to go. We must have stellar volunteer and foster programs run by the shelter. Qualified rescues should be embraced. Creativity should be our cornerstone, instead of the tired, old argument in all its permutations of "we cant."

We must.

No comments: