5 Things I Learned from Working in Animal Welfare
Today, I’m sharing five things I learned during my time working in animal welfare. When I use the term “animal welfare”, I mean it to include municipal animal controls, non-profit shelters, private rescue groups of all sizes and sanctuaries. Nowhere do I use the words “kill shelter” or “no kill”, and I never will. Those terms are not honest or factual, they are frequently misunderstood and they are dripping with disdain.
A few years back, I quit my 9-5 working for an animal shelter. When I resigned my position, there was no bad blood, I was not burned out and I was not suffering from compassion fatigue. I was handed an opportunity that made more sense for me, my career and my family. So I jumped and never looked back…
It was a big transition and, since that time, I’ve been reflecting on the many things I learned from working in animal welfare, what those countless hours meant to me and what changes I think need to be made in the animal welfare community
Though the lessons are numerous and broad, I’ve been thinking a lot of about one particular subject: judgement.
Today, I’m sharing five things I learned during my time working for a private, not-for-profit shelter where animals were, generally speaking, free from the threat of euthanasia. When I use the term “animal welfare”, I mean it to include municipal animal controls, non-profit shelters, private rescue groups of all sizes and sanctuaries.
Nowhere do I use the words “kill shelter” or “no kill”, and I never will. Those terms are not honest or factual, they are frequently misunderstood and they are dripping with judgement.
Stop Judging People! (News Flash! There ARE some very good reasons to surrender a pet!)
Though there are some very bad reasons to surrender an animal to a shelter and I could write a whole article on this alone, there are also some very good reasons as well. Despite the best laid plans, life is unpredictable and sometimes bad things happen to good dogs (and their people).
I have comforted grown men, crying, almost hysterically, because he had to leave his dog. I have met women living in domestic abuse shelters that would not let her live there- her one chance at physical and emotional safety- unless she re-homed her cat. These are good people in the midst of terrible situations. They are grieving their own loss and they feel guilty because their best friend does not understand what is happening or why.
The act of surrendering and being surrendered is a traumatic experience and it requires some grace and humanity on our part. I can’t even imagine what this feels like and, knock wood, I never, ever will. Sometimes, people have to make terrible decisions and yes, sometimes it is in the animal’s best interest to be surrendered to a shelter. The truth isn’t always warm and fuzzy, and sometimes, it just plain sucks.
Please, Stop Judging Animals Control Agencies
Within the convoluted maze of county animal control agencies, private not-for-profit animal shelters, rescue organizations, private individuals working alone and sanctuaries that exist in most areas of this country, there is frequently a certain level of distrust for each other. Each organization believes that their approach is the best solution, that the others are corrupt or hoarders or liars or murders or crazy people who don’t know the limits of how many animals they can help any at any given time.
The open-admit, government-funded shelters are usually mandated to take in any animal that comes through the door, despite a pittance of a budget and very few resources to work towards successful adoptions.
Many of these agencies have created large-scale foster care programs, transfer and pet-retention programs, but when options have been exhausted and space has been filled, euthanasia must be considered, and this doesn’t even begin to consider those broken dogs who, due to genetics, terrible life experiences or a combination of both, are aggressive to animals and to humans. These dogs are dangerous, perhaps through no fault of his own, but dangerous still, and they pose a very real public health threat, a legal liability and a public relations disaster.
These are good people tasked with making horrible decisions and they don’t like the outcomes anymore than their critics. They did not create the problem; rather, they are supposed to magically fix this problem of epidemic proportions with little to no resources- while so many of us in the animal welfare community are picketing and public-shaming and screaming “Murderer!” from the top of our lungs.
My question to those arm-chair Barbaras is, what are YOU doing, besides creating conflict, distrust and stirring the pot? Have you considered fostering, donating your money or your time? These may seem like small actions but they save lives much more frequently than indignant outrage spewed controlled on the Facebook machine.
Seriously, Stop Judging Limited-Admit Shelters!
Many in our communities misunderstand what a limited-admit shelter is. Many people call them “no-kill”, which is inaccurate. Generally speaking, they take in animals if they have space to house them and and if they feel he is an adoptable animal. When space fills ups, they close intake. It sucks but it’s called math. If you have 50 rooms and 50 cages, you can only humanely house a specific number of animals.
But as much as it is simple math, it is also a much more complex equation that involves an assessment of the size of the dogs, the size of the rooms, the behavior of the individual animals and their medical and their socialization needs. It’s important to remember that, for social creatures domesticated by humans, living the rest of one’s life in a room or a cage is not the answer. It may prolong death for a year or ten, but it does nothing to prevent suffering.
Limited-admit shelters also develop comprehensive foster care programs, implement enrichment and behavioral modification programs (if financial resources allow) and even forge transport relationships with other organizations with similar missions and policies.
These not-for-profits are also strapped for money and depend on adoption fees and donations to provide food, medical care and to keep the doors open. They are doing the best that they can with what resources and community support they have.
To accomplish these lofty goals humanely, their intake procedures must be slow and controlled. You typically can’t just drop off a stray animal or even your own pet. Call ahead. Ask about the intake procedures. Be patient. They are doing the best they can to help as many animals as possible, but sometimes the answer is going to be “Yes, but not today.” or “No, but here are some other resources for you.”
Their first responsibility is to the animals currently in their care. Once they have attended to that, then they can begin to accept new animals.
If You Really Want to Help The Animals, Stop Judging Private Rescues!
Private rescue groups are doing important work. They often step in when animal control and not-for-profit shelters can’t help an animal. Rescues are almost always entirely foster-based organizations that have even less resources available than shelters. We are talking about a group of individuals who walk the talk when it comes to helping homeless animals.
Though there are some completely irresponsible rescue organizations that toe the line between “rescue” and “hoarder”, there are many responsible, reputable rescues that do right by the animals in their care. We cannot judge all rescues by a few crazypants hoarders who are working from a place of how they feel about an animal’s situation rather than what is in the best interest of the animal- and these are two entirely different things.
I can name a couple dozen responsible rescue organizations in my area off the top of my head.
I will tell you, that in my experience, a responsible rescue organization has been designated as a 501(c)(3) and is registered with state or local governments when applicable and they are registered as an authorized organization that can pull from municipal animal controls. These are a few things I personally think are hallmark indicators that a rescue organization is reputable and responsible. It’s not fool-proof to be sure, but it is a good criteria to start from when evaluating a rescue organization.
For God’s Sake, Please STOP Judging People Who Want to Adopt!
With over 7.6 million homeless dogs and cats in the United States alone, we need to stop erecting unnecessary barriers to adoptions! We need to stop judging a family’s fitness to care for an animals based on income alone, or if the neighborhood they live in does not meet our own personal standards, or if they are first-time pet parents or if they have the wrong color skin or if they do not have a perfect pet history.
I am a veterinary technician, my family earns a livable wage and my animals are all current on vaccines and preventative care. I am a pet blogger who is a huge advocate for deaf dogs and I work to educate pet parents on proper care, nutrition and socialization of their pets. Each of my dogs is trained and extremely well-behaved.
Yet, I would be denied an animal by many not-for-profit shelters and rescue organizations. My pet history is not perfect. I work (egads!) 8-9 hours a day while my husband travels for weeks at a time. My backyard is fenced but my front one is not.
As a relevant side note, a while back I was helping a very small shelter with a deaf dog in their care. After working with him a few times and meeting with the entire staff and most of the volunteers, I offered to foster him so I could expose him to an intensive 2-week training program where many basic skills could be learned and mastered. Despite my reputation (they had reached out to me for help!) and my personal interactions with them, they insisted that they do a home check prior to saying yes. Under the circumstances, I declined.
I personally know adoption counselors, both staff and volunteers, at several organizations who are fantastic pet parents that, based on an adoption application alone, would deny themselves as adopters. They would deem themselves unfit to adopt and provide a loving home. THIS MAKES ME WANT TO SCREAM!
One part of the adoption process needs to be educating people- on the specific animal they want to adopt, on what kind of medical care will be needed, on keeping the dog safe, on the importance of basic obedience training, and the list goes on. Education should be a key component of every adoption, and the organization should look towards developing a relationship with the adopter, to be a resource and to support them whenever possible.
I love the animal welfare community and am still a part of it. It is a part of how I define myself, and that is not going to change. None of what I’ve said is meant as an indictment. Rather, it is meant as a call to action to educate ourselves, our community, to forge partnerships with each other and to focus our energy on what is in the best interest of the homeless animal before us.
To me, the guiding question for every single interaction with each individual animal in our collective care needs to be, “What do you need from me right now?”