July 26, 2011 by Nathan J. Winograd
I am getting ready to take off for the No Kill Conference in Washington, D.C.—the only national conference that says we can end the killing and we can do it today.
I look forward to meeting No Kill advocates from 40 states and 7 countries. I look forward to hearing the speakers who come from shelters with save rates as high as 97%. I look forward to the international speakers who are leading the way to a No Kill Australia and a No Kill New Zealand. I look forward to the animal law attorneys who are protecting the rights of animals and the rights of those who love them: volunteers and rescuers. I look forward to the advocates who have succeeded in reforming their local shelters, even when those shelters initially refused to do what was right. One thing I am not looking forward to is the sweltering heat and humidity. But it will be well worth it to spend a weekend inspired by those who are blazing a trail toward ending the needless killing of millions of animals in U.S. shelters every year. A No Kill nation is within our reach.
July 25, 2011 by Nathan J. Winograd
He was just a flash of white in the gutter as we drove quickly by—a brief impression seen from the corner of our eyes that somehow didn’t seem right. Was that a pigeon? Better double back and check. It happens to us a lot—seeing phantom injured animals along the road side that require a closer look. Most of the time, thankfully, the phantom turns out to be nothing—a shoe, or a crumpled bit of paper or a piece of garbage—and we can go back about our business, grateful and relieved to know there is nothing more to worry about. But sometimes, sadly, it is an animal, and an animal that is still alive. Over the years, we’ve rescued injured cats, a squirrel, crows, a cormorant, lots of pigeons, and twice, dead mother opossums with live babies in their pouches. This was to be one of those times. As we drove slowly by, that flash of white was no longer there—a bad sign. So we pulled over and began a search. That is when we found the pigeon—the little flyer we would come to name Commander Seymour Higgins—huddled behind the back wheel of a large, parked truck, a wing hanging low and limp by his side.
After stopping into a few businesses to get the necessary equipment—a box and an old blanket, we caught him. He was tired and weak so it was easy to do so: after chasing him out from under the truck, we cornered him in a doorway, and gently covered him with the blanket. Relief! Now we could get him to a wildlife rehabilitation facility where they would patch him up, give him several weeks of TLC, and release him back to his home, his flock, his life. As it so happens, pigeons—like wolves, swans, and some humans—mate for life. If there was a Mrs. Higgins, she would be worried for him, but she would wait.
At least, that is the scenario we thought would happen. That is what we have naively thought had been happening all along, all these years, with all the injured or orphaned animals we’ve delivered to local wildlife rehab facilities. We now fear that in so many of those cases, we were wrong, with deadly consequences.
Shortly after delivering the pigeon to a local veterinary office that does wildlife rehab, we called to see if they had determined the extent of his injury. The vet we spoke to told us that the Commander had a fractured humerus—equivalent to the bone that runs from the shoulder to our elbow in our own arms. She explained that fixing it required surgery, and that were the pigeon a rare or endangered bird, they would do it. But given that he was a pigeon, making that sort of investment wouldn’t, according to her, make sense. And since he may never be able to fly again, she told us that the only humane thing to do was to kill him. We were stunned.
This bird did not have a life-threatening injury; he had a fractured bone. If they killed him, it wouldn’t be for his benefit, it would be out of convenience. According to her, since he was born the wrong species—a pigeon instead of a peregrine falcon—his wing wasn’t worth fixing, even though this particular hospital raises thousands of dollars from animal lovers in our community every year for wildlife rehabilitation. When we protested, she took out what she must have considered the “big gun.” She explained that the pigeon was “non-native” and had we taken him anywhere else—the Lindsay Museum, for example, treatment wouldn’t have even been considered—that they would have killed him immediately because of his species. If this was supposed to convince us, she couldn’t have picked a less compelling argument. Knowing that the Lindsay Museum schools their visitors, including hundreds of school children every year—to divide animals into two camps: “native” and therefore worthy of life and compassion on the one hand, and, on the other, “non-native,” foreign and therefore deserving of death, we have never, and would never, trust an innocent animal to their muddled and corrupted calculations, especially when lives are at stake. To therefore expect us to weigh the pigeon’s circumstances based on what the Lindsay Museum would do was unconvincing, to say the least.
Whether the Commander was a pigeon or a bald eagle should have made no difference to the vet. Her duty to him should have been dictated by his injuries alone—what he needed—as opposed to discriminatory determinations about his species. Unrelated and arbitrary calculations of his inherent “value” based on a narrow scope of compassion or worth dictated by others should not have entered the equation. Because although it is tragically commonplace for so–called “environmentalists” to weigh an individual animal’s value by their species, or when and where a particular animal’s ancestors originated, that doesn’t make it right to do so. In the same way we have rejected such discrimination of our fellow humans, recognizing that to judge the worth of an individual person by their ethnicity or where their parents originated is both unfair and immoral, we should strive to regard, and respect, the individual rights of animals in the same way.
Thankfully, as the shrill voices championing this disturbing philosophy have become louder, their language more militant, and the means they embrace to achieve their ends more violent and destructive, the common sense voices rejecting nativism are finally beginning to push back. And with more and more people beginning to speak out against this flawed and cruel philosophy, the movement against it will no doubt continue to grow and gain traction, so that within her lifetime, the veterinarian who prescribed death for our friend will be forced to re-examine her values.
When it became clear that this vet would not treat the pigeon as part of her practice’s wildlife rehabilitation program and we asked to have the bird back so we he could live with us, we hit a wall of dogma so thick, we were seeing stars. In conversations with the doctor, her vet tech, and later, the emergency on-call “expert” at another wildlife rehabilitation facility called WildCare, when we explained that we planned to provide the injured bird a permanent place in our home if he could never fly again, we were treated like naïve, ill-informed and even selfish individuals for suggesting that the pigeon wouldn’t, in fact, be better off dead. “Of course it is admirable that you don’t want the pigeon to die,” said one of them, “But you can’t let your needs cloud your judgment. You need to consider what the bird would want. You need to consider what is in the bird’s best interest, not yours.” Again, we were stunned. After offering to pay to have the wing repaired, after explaining to them that we would be willing to provide the bird with a lifetime of care in our own home, at our own expense, and at to the very best of our ability, we were befuddled as to how we were being “selfish” or self-centered. Weren’t these actions the very definition of altruism?
But we were soon to learn that in the topsy-turvy world of wildlife rescue, just as it has been until very recently in the animal sheltering world, up is down, and down is up. And death isn’t the ultimate tragedy; it is the suggestion that it is that is the problem. And, just as the directors of kill shelters have historically done—these wildlife rehabilitators were likewise willing to apply a mighty thick gloss of unsubstantiated, even entirely fabricated, dogma to prove that they were right. Among other disturbing assertions, including the bizarre claim by the “expert” at WildCare that if you could ask them, the majority of birds now alive in sanctuaries would rather be dead, we were given a host of conflicting and misleading information—all designed to shut us up and get us to tow the party line that killing our friend would be an act of kindness, even though he had but one broken bone.
We were twice given medical prognoses regarding his wing that were false. We were told by two of the “experts” that surgical repair of the wing would be difficult, risky surgery, although the avian specialist who later did the surgery assured us that this was not true. Either these experts were ill-informed and therefore ill-equipped to be making life and death decisions regarding the disposition of injured animals, or they lied to us that the surgery was “extreme” in order to quell and diminish our expectations, and therefore our demands.
Our conversations with these people revealed that, as in the world of animal sheltering, killing had become the default. Custom, convenience and a biological xenophobia against certain species of animals had reconciled them to the atrocity of killing healthy animals it was within their power to help. Killing had become the easy, and in their minds, even the “humane” thing to do, so much so that any suggestion to the contrary was considered cruel.
And so we did what we had to do—we bit our tongues and silenced our criticisms long enough to get the pigeon out of danger. We smiled and bailed him out of the vet who refused to provide him any care other than a complimentary killing unless we paid for it, ultimately spending several hundred dollars for an x-ray, pain medication, and a wing wrap until we could get him to another vet.
At one point during the exam with the new vet, we asked if she thought he was in pain. “We can’t say for sure,” she answered. “But we can assume he is. After all, their biology is similar to ours. And we can therefore assume that what would cause us pain, would cause them pain, too.” Good advice, we thought, but wondered how when it came to the matter of life and death—the most grave and weighty decision of them all—this compelling similarity broke down for wildlife rehabilitators.
In spite of hardship, in spite of enormous obstacles, animals—human and non-humans alike—cling to life. The will to live is the most basic instinct of every living creature. When we found the Commander, he was desperately pecking at a tiny, hardened scrap of food smashed into the gutter, and when he was placed in reach of food and water, he ate and drank voraciously. He hadn’t given up. Who are we to give up on him or to make that decision for him? Especially when such a decision defies logic and our own experience as living beings?
How can anyone rationally assert that a bird who could never fly again would chose annihilation over a what may in the end be a less than perfect life, but life none-the-less? And how can anyone rationally justify the belief that an injured bird, if given the choice, wouldn’t make the same calculation, based on their instinctual will to live, made by millions of humans who can longer walk and are confined to wheelchairs—to go on living? They can’t. To argue that the Commander—or any injured bird not suffering a mortal wound—would ever choose death over life is dishonest.
Given the outpouring of support Commander Seymour Higgins has received on Nathan’s Facebook page, and the incredible generosity shown by people who are helping us pay for his care, we know there is a lot of untapped love and potential out there that wildlife rehabbers could be harnessing but are not, choosing instead to parrot the fiction that the only option—and the humane one—for pigeons like the Commander is a quick but unnecessary death at their hands, instead of what the situation really demands: a repaired wing, and, if need be, permanent placement in a sanctuary or a loving, new home which many people would no doubt be willing to provide, if only given the opportunity to do so.
As long as there is a mentality within the wildlife rehabilitation community* that some animals are more deserving of compassion and care than others, that killing healthy animals is a mercy, and that sanctuary care or adoption is not a viable option for injured animals that cannot be safely returned to the wild, then alternative, life-affirming outcomes for birds like Seymour will never be explored and developed. Killing will continue to be the default, because they have convinced themselves that there is no other option, when, in fact, there are. As Nathan writes in Redemption, “If you deny any responsibility for the outcome, then the impetus to change your own behavior that might impact that outcome disappears.”
Life. That is what we would choose for ourselves. And despite all of the rationalizations built up to justify convenience killing by some wildlife rehabilitators—that is what every single animal would choose for themselves if given the choice. We must begin to publicly challenge the unethical assumptions upon which life and death calculations for so many injured wild animals are being based, or nothing will change; animals who could be saved will keep being killed, the public will continue to be misled by self-proclaimed “experts” that killing animals who are not mortally ill or injured is the right thing to do, and well-intended animal lovers like us who think they are giving the injured animals they find a second chance at a wildlife rehabilitation facility will continue to naively and unknowingly deliver birds like Seymour out of one danger and into an even graver one.
* We recognize that there are wildlife rehabbers who do not share this mentality and we are grateful for their support and guidance with Commander Higgins. To us, they are like the No Kill shelters and rescue groups who provide a beacon of hope in a movement dominated by the darkness of killing shelters.
The total cost to repair Commander Higgins’ wing has come to $2,300. But people should not think that trying to save pigeons will bankrupt them. We consider this a very expensive lesson from the School of Hard Knocks. Here’s what we have since learned: there are some bird rehabbers who do not kill and would do this for free. There are some veterinarians who would do it cheaper. We could have also opted for the cheaper and more conservative option of wrapping his wing (paying for an office visit fee and a bandage wrap) and letting it heal on its own, with a decreased prognosis for flight. We elected to take him to the avian specialist in our community who turned out to be very expensive, but who is considered the leading veterinarian on this kind of surgery. If you can chipin for his care, follow the link: http://bit.ly/nyC1lK. Or click on the ChipIn below:
July 23, 2011 by Nathan J. Winograd
Guest Blog by George Washington University Animal Law Professor Joan Schaffner
Last month near Condon, Montana, two people witnessed a hit-and-run accident where four deer were struck by a car. The two stopped to pull the body of one of the deer off the road only to find that a fawn that had been in utero had been expelled from his mother in the accident. The pair rescued the fawn and took him to their home. Because he was breathing very well and already trying to stand up, they took the fawn to a companion animal rescue in Eureka, where he managed to take a bit of food, then curled up and went to sleep in a laundry basket with one of the resident dogs. Given his amazing story of survival, the fawn was named, Lucky.
Unfortunately for Lucky, the pair next decided to do what they felt was the right thing: They called the game warden with the Montana Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks (FWP) to see if there were a rescue/rehabilitation location that could help Lucky.
The next day the warden came to take Lucky – not to help him, but to kill him. Although his then-guardians pled with the warden for more than an hour, the warden explained that FWP’s policy left him no discretion, that all orphaned deer must be killed as a matter of policy. Lucky was put to death.
FWP policy dictates that all orphaned deer (and certain other animals) who are not able to be returned to the wild be killed. Although there is a wildlife rehabilitation center in Helena, Montana, the center refuses to take in bats, skunks, raccoons, elk, moose and deer “under any circumstances, due to risks related to disease, public health and welfare.” This refusal is dictated by state policy for hooved animals that “prohibits the rehabilitation of ungulates at the centralized Wildlife Center in Helena or by any third party.”
FWP claims that, “The policy is necessary because Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), a fatal neurological disease that affects deer and elk, is spreading in the United States and Canada. Although it has yet to be documented in wild populations in Montana, CWD is found in nearby states and provinces, and an infected animal could spread CWD from a holding center back into the wild.” But that excuse doesn’t wash. FWP “tested more than 1,300 deer, elk and moose collected during the 2010-2011 hunting season and did not detect chronic wasting disease in any of the animals.”
In fact, there have been no reported cases of CWD in Montana and a test exists to detect it. FWP policy could simply be that all rescued animals be tested for CWD.
Lucky was born under very tragic circumstances, yet was miraculously saved by caring Montanans – only to be indefensibly killed by the government.
Lucky isn’t the first baby deer to be killed needlessly. But we can try to ensure that he is one of the last. His tragedy should be a call for reform so that his death will not have been in vain.
Please sign the petition to the Montana FWP asking them to reconsider this policy and develop one that does not falsely protect public health at the expense of innocent, orphaned wildlife. You can do so at http://www.change.org/petitions/stop-killing-orphaned-deer.
July 20, 2011 by Nathan J. Winograd
Due to a heavy project schedule, I’ve been doing a lot less blogging and a lot more on Facebook. You can read about motorcycle gangs who love baby kitties, more incompetence, uncaring, and immorality from our so-called “humane” societies, putting the fun in fungus by adopting out ringworm cats, the environmental movement’s war on nature, and more. Plus the comments are always lively.
Join the discussion:
Please note: Though I am grateful for the number of Facebook pages based on my book Redemption, if you go to No Kill Nation and No Kill Revolution, those are not my pages. My page is at facebook.com/nathanwinograd. (I also help administer the pages for the No Kill Advocacy Center and All American Vegan.)
I’ll be back to blogging after the No Kill Conference.
July 8, 2011 by Nathan J. Winograd
This essay first appeared in Irreconcilable Differences: The Battle for the Heart & Soul of America’s Animal Shelters. To learn more and/or purchase a copy, click here.
I’ve devoted the last  years of my life to reforming animal shelters in the United States (far longer doing rescue). I’ve worked at two shelters that have the highest rates of lifesaving in the nation: one as its Director of Operations and the other as the Executive Director. I’ve also worked and consulted with dozens of shelters nationwide. Currently, I run the national No Kill Advocacy Center, which is dedicated to ending the systematic killing of animals in shelters.
In my work to reform antiquated shelter practices, I often face traditional sheltering dogma that is a roadblock to lifesaving innovation. Too many shelters operate under false assumptions that cause animals to be killed. If shelter directors reevaluated, rather than hid behind conventional wisdom, they would more be more successful at saving lives.
One of the most enduring of these traditional dogmas is that animal shelters must kill because the public cannot be trusted with animals. I faced this attitude when I arrived as the new executive director of the Tompkins County SPCA in upstate New York. Other than prohibiting killing, I had planned to quietly observe the agency for the first couple of days on the job: I wanted a sense of how the agency was run. An elderly gentleman and his wife came in as I was standing behind the counter observing our adoption process. After looking at the animals for some time, they came to the front counter to adopt a cat. The man told the adoption counselor how he adopted a cat from us 15 years ago. “She died one year ago today,” he said. As much as they missed having a cat, he explained, he and his wife waited one year to get a new cat because they wanted to mourn her appropriately. As he told the story, he began to cry and walked away. His wife explained that her husband loved their cat very much, but they were indeed ready to love another one. Because they found a great cat here 15 years ago, they came back to us.
They filled out the application: Do they consider the adoption a lifetime commitment? Yes. Do they have a veterinarian? Yes. What happened to their other cat? Died of cancer. “In my arms,” the old man said. But one thing caught the adoption counselor’s eye. When they came to the question asking about where the cat would live, they had checked the box: “Mostly indoors, some outdoors.”
“Sorry,” the adoption counselor said. “We have a strict indoor-only rule.” She denied the adoption. They were stunned. I was stunned.
What happened to “15 years,” “in my arms,” “wanted to mourn her appropriately,” “lifetime commitment”? I overruled the counselor and gave them the cat. No fees, no more paperwork: “Let’s go get your kitty,” I said. I put her in their carrier and told them we’d see them in another 15 years. They thanked me and left.
I looked at the adoption counselor and told her: “We’ve got to take a more thoughtful approach to adoptions.”
She stared at me blankly.
“Ok,” I said, “Let me put it this way. Outdoor cats may face risks, but it largely depends on circumstances. We need to use common sense. This isn’t downtown Manhattan. This is a rural community. I only saw one car on my way to work this morning. In fact, given how safe it is, people should be required to let the cat go outside.” I smiled.
So I continued: “Outdoor cats may face risks, but so do indoor cats. They are just different ones and we don’t always see the causal connections, such as obesity and boredom. Fat and bored cats are at risk for diabetes, heart problems, and even behavior problems.” Still nothing. My then shelter manager stepped in and said that they were following the policies of the Humane Society of the United States. And HSUS says that people—and therefore shelter adoption policies—must keep cats indoors.
Over forty years ago, the late Phyllis Wright of HSUS, the matriarch of today’s killing paradigm, wrote in HSUS News,
I’ve put 70,000 dogs and cats to sleep… But I tell you one thing: I don’t worry about one of those animals that were put to sleep… Being dead is not cruelty to animals.
She then described how she does worry about the animals she found homes for. From that disturbing view, HSUS coined a maxim that says we should worry about saving lives but not about ending them and successfully propagated this viewpoint to shelters across the country. For many agencies, the HSUS standard is the gold standard. It is not uncommon for shelters to state they are “run in line with HSUS policies.” Consequently, it’s very easy to surrender an animal to a shelter and very hard to adopt one because of a distrust of the public. And after turning away adopters, these shelters often turn around and kill the same animals.
In reality, most people care deeply about animals and can be trusted with them. Evidence of this love of animals is all around us: we spend $48 billion a year on our companions, dog parks are filled with people, veterinary medicine is thriving, and books and movies about animals are all blockbusters because the stories touch people very deeply. Nonetheless, HSUS blames the public and because it has significant influence over shelter policies, promotes this view through shelter assessments, national conferences, and local advocacy. Consequently, it has failed to educate shelters to take more responsibility for the animals entrusted to their care. As a result, HSUS has impeded innovation and modernization in shelters. The result: unregulated, regressive shelters slavishly following the protocols of HSUS based on an idea that no one can be trusted. The employee at Tompkins County’s SPCA embodied this attitude. Such people are not really worried about the remote possibility that the adopted cat would one day get hit by a car and killed; they kill cats every day—obviously, killing is not the concern. Instead, staff at the Tompkins County SPCA at that time—like many shelters—can simply say they are operating “by the book,” even though that meant unnecessarily killing animals every year in the process. In other words, I came face to face with mindless bureaucracy.
I challenged the Tompkins County SPCA shelter manager on this score, asking her how it made sense to kill cats today in order to save them from possibly being killed at some time in the future. “HSUS says,” she responded, “that in order to increase the number of adoptions, we have to reduce the quality of homes”—we must, as a staff member of HSUS once later quipped, basically “adopt Pit Bulls to dog fighters.” And that, she stated, is something we should not do.
Tragically, this is a commonly held misperception in the culture of animal sheltering, but the facts prove otherwise. Increasing adoptions means offsite adoption events, public access hours, marketing and greater visibility in the community, working with rescue groups, competing with pet stores and puppy mills, adoption incentives, a good public image, and thoughtful but not bureaucratic screening. It has nothing to do with lowering quality. It has absolutely nothing to do with putting animals in harm’s way. Indeed, shelter killing is the leading cause of death for healthy dogs and cats in the United States. Adoptions take animals out of harm’s way.
Moreover, successful high-volume adoption shelters have proved that the idea that one must reduce quality of homes in order to increase quantity is merely the anachronism of old-guard, “catch and kill” shelters that must justify high kill rates and low adoptions. Quality and quantity are not, and have never been, mutually exclusive. As one progressive shelter noted:
The best adoption programs are designed to ensure that each animal is placed with a responsible person, one prepared to make a lifelong commitment, and to avoid the kinds of problems that may have caused the animal to be brought to the shelter.
I agree. I have long been a proponent of adoption screening because I, too, want animals to get good homes. But truth be told, in shelters where animals are being killed by the thousands, I’d rather they do “open adoptions” (little to no screening) because I trust the general public far more than those who run many animal control shelters—those who have become complacent about killing and willfully refuse to implement common-sense lifesaving alternatives. In fact, I recently assessed a municipal shelter with poor care and a high kill rate in one of the largest cities in the country. They practice open adoptions and volunteers have long clamored for adoption screening. My recommendation was as follows:
This is an area where volunteers have repeatedly suggested some form of screening to make sure animals are not just going into homes, but “good” homes. This suggestion has some appeal. And while it should ultimately be the agency’s goal, in the immediate cost-benefit analysis, I think it would be a mistake to do so at this time. While the shelter should ensure potential adopters do not have a history of cruelty, the shelter is not capable of thoughtful adoption screening and the end result will mean the needless loss of animal life.
At this point in the shelter’s history, the goal must be to get animals out of the shelter where they are continually under the threat of a death sentence. And given the problems with procedure implementation at the shelter, the process will become arbitrary depending on who is in charge of adoptions. There is simply too much at stake for the staff I observed to hold even more power over life and death.
In addition, several high-volume, high-kill shelters have realized that denying people for criteria other than cruelty, would lead them to get animals (likely unsterilized and unvaccinated) from other sources, with no information or guidance on proper care, which the shelter can still provide.
When the shelter has high quality staff, is consistent in applying sound policies and procedures, and has achieved a higher save rate—when shelter animals do not face certain death—it can revisit the issue of a more thoughtful screening to provide homes more suitable for particular shelter animals.
Unfortunately, too many shelters go too far with fixed, arbitrary rules—dictated by national organizations—that turn away good homes under the theory that people aren’t trustworthy, that few people are good enough, and that animals are better off dead. Unfortunately, rescue groups all-too-often share this mindset. But the motivations of rescue groups differ from those of the bureaucrat I ended up firing in Tompkins County. People who do rescue love animals, but they have been schooled by HSUS to be unreasonably—indeed, absurdly—suspicious of the public. Consequently, they make it difficult, if not downright impossible, to adopt their rescued animals.
I recently read the newsletter from a local cat rescue group. There was a story about two cats, Ruby and Alex, in their “happy endings” section. Under the title, “Good things come to those who wait,” the story explained that Ruby and Alex were in foster care for 7½ years before they found the “right” home. I wondered what was wrong with the cats. If it took seven years to find them a home, surely they must have had some serious impediments to adoption. But I couldn’t find anything in the story. Under another section in the newsletter listing the cats in their care that still needed to find “loving homes,” I found the answer.
The first one I looked at was Billy. Billy was a kitten when he was rescued in 2001. He is still in a “foster” home. Does it really take 8 years to find the “right” home? Surely, I thought again, something is wrong with this cat. But Billy is described as “easy going, playful, bouncy.” It goes on to say that “Billy loves attention and loves to be with his person. Mild-mannered and gentle with new people, he’s also a drop-and-roll kitty who will throw himself at your feet to be petted.” They also note that he likes dogs. In other words, Billy is perfect.
Clearly, the pertinent question wasn’t: “What’s wrong with the cats?” The real question was: “What’s wrong with these people?” Not surprisingly, the rescue group does not believe families with young children should adopt. They claim that if you have children who are under six years old, you should wait a few years. In reality, this rule is very common in animal sheltering. But it is a mistake nonetheless. Families with children are generally more stable, so they are a highly desirable adoption demographic. They also provide animals with plenty of stimulation, which the animals crave. Children and pets are a match made in heaven.
So if families with children shouldn’t adopt, who does that leave? Unfortunately, this group also states that kittens ‘require constant supervision like human babies do.’ My family frequently fosters kittens for our local shelter. When fostering, we live our lives like we always do: we visit friends, take walks, dine out. We often leave home for hours at a time. Obviously, I would have never done that with my kids when they were babies. That isn’t a statement on loving children more than animals. A kitten can sleep, eat, drink, use the litter box, play with a toy, and more at only six weeks of age. A human baby would starve to death surrounded by food if left alone at that age. Kittens are not “like human babies.” They are more advanced, skilled, smarter, and cleaner. But that’s not the point. The point is that the “constant supervision” rule eliminates potential adopters who go to work, too, but would otherwise provide excellent, loving, nurturing homes. That leaves the two minority extremes: unemployed people and millionaires—although my guess is the former would be ruled out, too.
Having eliminated the two most important adopter demographics (working people and families with children), is it any wonder that Billy—an easy going, playful, cuddly, gentle, drop-and-roll kitty—has been in foster care for eight years?
A Pennsylvania rescue group, operating in a community where animal control kills most animals entering that facility, should be working feverishly to adopt out as many animals as possible so they can open up space to pull more animals from the shelter. Instead, they put up ridiculous roadblocks stating that “Cohabitating couples who have not married need not apply to adopt our pets.” Apparently, people have tried because they follow up by noting on their website that you should not waste your time trying because “there are no exceptions.” This eliminates many committed couples and, for those who live in states without marriage equality, most gay people.
And a rescue group from Louisiana, a state with some of the highest killing rates in the nation, pummels you with 47 reasons not to adopt an animal on their application, including the warnings that animals will “damage your belongings, soil your furniture and/or flooring, scratch furniture, chew and tear up items, knock down breakable heirlooms, and/or dig up your yard.”
When I visited the humane society in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania a number of years ago, I was presented with a list of breeds considered not appropriate for homes with children under ten years old: Chihuahuas, Collies, Toy Breeds, and all small terriers.
Several years ago, this mentality really hit home—literally, my home. We decided to add another dog to our family. Having worked at two of the most successful shelters in the country, having performed rescue my whole adult life, having consulted with some of the largest and best known animal protection groups in the country, owning my own home, working from home, and allowing our dogs the run of the house, I thought adoption would be easy.
Adopting from our local shelter was not possible because we wanted a bigger dog which was against their rules because we had young children. Instead, we searched the online websites, and found a seven-year-old black Labrador Retriever with a rescue group about an hour south of us. I called about the dog and asked if we could meet him. They wanted to know if we had a “doggy door” leading to the backyard. We did not, but I told them happily—and naively—that I work from home and that we homeschool the kids, so the dog will be with us all the time. One of us will just let him out when he wants to go like we do for the resident dogs and then he can come back in. We have a fenced backyard. I housetrained every dog we ever had. No problem, I told them.
But that was not good enough. Apparently, the dog should be able to go in and out whenever he wants without having to ask. No doggy door, no adoption. “But,” I started to stammer: seven years old, larger black dog, sleep on the bed, with us all the time, fenced yard…. DENIED.
We then found another dog, a Lab-cross, with a different rescue group. About five years old, “a couch potato” according to the website. Perfect, I thought. I haven’t exercised since I was 18! I’ll take the dog for a walk around the block twice a day, but mostly will hang out, 24/7!
“We’d like to meet him,” I said when I called.
“There’s a $25 charge to be considered above and beyond the adoption fee,” they replied.
“No problem. If he likes our dogs, we’ll pay whatever it costs.”
“No,” I was told. “You have to pay the non-refundable fee before you can meet any dog and before we review your application.”
“What are your rules for adoption?” I said, not wanting to sink $25 if I was going to be denied because of the age of my kids, because I have brown eyes, or because I am balding.
“We can’t discuss that until after you pay the $25.”
Exasperated, I hung up.
We finally found a dog—a seven year old, lab-mix with a rescue group two hours from us by car. The fee was $250 to adopt, a pricey sum, but we were approved over the telephone because she was familiar with my work.
I could have given up. Lots of people do. When I tell people what I do for a living, that my work takes me all over the country trying to reform antiquated shelter practices, people constantly tell me how they tried to adopt from a shelter or rescue group, but were denied for entirely illogical reasons. One woman told me of her own failed attempt to adopt a dog and save a life. She owned an art gallery and wanted a dog who would come to work with her every day, just like her previous one who had recently died. The new dog would also have the run of both the house and office. She went to several shelters to adopt, but all of them denied her: she had really young kids and she wanted a large dog, and that was against the rules. She ended up at a breeder because she really wanted a dog, she said sheepishly, thinking I would judge her as having failed. “But I tried…” she trailed off. “The shelters failed you,” I replied.
Recently, HSUS launched a campaign to help shelters “educate the public” about adoption policies by creating a poster for shelters to hang in their lobbies. The poster features a chair beneath a light in a cement room. The tagline reads: “What’s with all the questions?” and it tells you not to take it personally. Rather than ask shelters to reexamine their own assumptions, HSUS produces a poster of what looks like an interrogation room at Abu Ghraib, instructing potential adopters to simply put up with it. In the process, adopters are turned away. Cats like Billy wait years for a home. And animals are needlessly killed: three million adoptable ones, while shelters peddle the fiction that there aren’t enough homes.
In fact, there are plenty of homes. The experience of successful No Kill communities proves it; No Kill communities now thrive across the United States. The data also proves it. Approximately three million dogs and cats that need a home are killed every year. Simultaneously, [of the 23 million people] looking to get a new dog or cat, [17 million] can be persuaded to adopt from a shelter. And, the number of people shelters turn away because of some arbitrary and bureaucratic process proves it. Like this experience shared with me a few years ago:
I tried to adopt from my local shelter… I found this scared, skinny cat hiding in the back of his cage and I filled out an application. I was turned down because I didn’t turn in the paperwork on time, which meant a half hour before closing, but I couldn’t get there from work in time to do that. I tried to leave work early the next day, but I called and found out they had already killed the poor cat. I will never go back.
Shelter animals already face formidable obstacles to getting out alive: customer service is often poor, a shelter’s location may be remote, adoption hours may be limited, policies may limit the number of days they are held, they can get sick in a shelter, and shelter directors often reject common-sense alternatives to killing. One-third to one-half of all dogs and roughly 60 percent of cats are killed because of these obstacles. Since the animals already face enormous problems, including the constant threat of execution, shelters and rescue groups shouldn’t add arbitrary roadblocks. When kind hearted people come to help, shelter bureaucrats shouldn’t start out with a presumption that they can’t be trusted.
In fact, most of the evidence suggests that the public can be trusted. While roughly eight million dogs and cats enter shelters every year, that is a small fraction compared to the 165 million thriving in people’s homes. Of those entering shelters, only four percent are seized because of cruelty and neglect. Some people surrender their animals because they are irresponsible, but others do so because they have nowhere else to turn—a person dies, they lose their job, their home is foreclosed. In theory, that is why shelters exist—to be a safety net for animals whose caretakers no longer can or want to care for them.
When people decide to adopt from a shelter—despite having more convenient options such as buying from a pet store or responding to a newspaper ad—they should be rewarded. We are a nation of animal lovers, and we should be treated with gratitude, not suspicion. More importantly, the animals facing death deserve the second chance that many well intentioned Americans are eager to give them, but in too many cases, are senselessly prevented from doing so.