My first post about the No Kill Conference is not going to cover any of the brilliant workshops I attended but rather some of my personal experiences. While a conference is appropriately designed to educate the masses, I’ve always been a one-on-one or very small group oriented person. So I really appreciate the individuals who approached me to talk (I’m shy) – some just for a minute, others a little longer – and wanted to share some valuable insights I gained through these exchanges.
For starters, I’ll refer you to David Greene’s post on Pet Connection since he puts it much better than I could. Basically, in the context of stepping up and taking action, David stated that someone in Memphis needs to (metaphorically) fire on Fort Sumter. This resonated with me and if you read the post, I hope it will with you too. We have a lot of Fort Sumters in the animal sheltering world. We need a lot of Someones.
I also spent some time chatting with Christie Keith and Jamie Horton after the end of the conference on Sunday afternoon. We talked about how so many well-intentioned pet advocates have all their eggs in the Spay-Neuter Basket. Their belief being that, if they post enough Facebook status messages reminding people to neuter their pets, and if they get out their Spay-Neuter Soapbox at every mention of pets in polite conversation with strangers, and if they wear their “Don’t breed or buy while shelter pets die” t-shirts enough times – we will become a no kill nation. The reality is that it would be a miracle if we could become a no kill nation based upon a single action (encouraging more owners to neuter their pets) and, as Christie put it, “We’ve already had our spay-neuter miracle”.
Christie is referring to the fact that several decades ago, spay-neuter was far more barbaric and far less commonplace than it is today. But with veterinary advances and public education, we have dramatically increased the number of owners who neuter their pets and decreased the number of pets killed in shelters – from about 24 million pets a year in the 1970s to roughly 4 million in recent decades. That was our “spay-neuter miracle” but there is no more miracle to be squeezed from that stone. There will probably always be a need for targeted neuter campaigns in isolated areas but by and large, we are doing an excellent job marketing the benefits of neutering to pet owners and pet owners are responding fabulously.
We continue to linger around that 4 million mark in shelter killings and it’s not because we need to encourage more pet owners to neuter their pets. It’s because we need to stop killing pets in shelters and get them into homes. What kind of homes? ALMOST ANY HOMES. This is something I feel very strongly about so I’ll try to keep the all caps to a minimum. The fact is, we have people coming to shelters and rescue groups saying, “I want a pet” and being either discouraged by intrusive screening processes (such as home checks and background checks) or being turned down outright. The shelters and rescues are doing this “for the protection of the pets” which is a noble and understandable idea. But it’s totally wrong in my view and here’s why: We are killing about 4 million pets in shelters in this country every year.
If someone wants a pet, I say place a pet with them. That is a generalization of course. It is not meant to include the tiny fraction of people who would approach a shelter or rescue about adoption with an animal cruelty conviction on their record. I am very much in favor of reasonably screening adopters to catch anyone like that. Similarly, within that tiny group, there might be someone who, for example, appears to be severely mentally ill and has no caretaker to assist them. Again, I’m in favor of common sense screening to avoid placing pets with people who demonstrate a clear inability to care for a pet.
But this is where it gets even more complicated: What exactly defines the “ability to care for a pet”? To many people, it means “someone who will care for the pet just like I care for my pet”. This is wrong thinking. And in my view, we will never achieve a no kill nation if our shelters and rescues don’t open their minds to the idea that we can and should place pets with people who care for them in ways we dislike. If a pet can be loved – and specifically I mean have daily human companionship/affection, be fed and watered adequately, and have sufficient protection from the elements – that is good by me. I’m not saying I like the idea of a dog being tied to a stake all day, being fed generic “dog food” from the grocery store and hanging out in his dirty barrel (dog house) while he waits for the owner to get home from work. Nope, I don’t like it. But you know what I like an awful lot – that dog is alive. Alive trumps dead, any day of the week. And to reiterate, I’m talking about pets who are loved by their owners, as I defined previously.
Placing a shelter or rescue pet with someone who wants one, regardless of whether the adopter will provide a life similar to the one your pets enjoy, is a good thing:
- You have established a relationship with the adopter. You know their name and where they live. You will be calling them for follow-up calls to ask how things are going with the new pet. You will have their ear and they will look to you for advice. They like you because you gave them a pet they wanted. They will not only listen to what you have to say but they will probably refer their friends and family to you when they want pets.
- You have placed a pet in a loving home. Yay everybody!
- You have freed up a space that can immediately be filled by another pet who would otherwise be killed in your local pound.
By “protecting” the pets in your care and discouraging/refusing adopters who don’t meet your arbitrary criteria for goodness, you have done a bad thing:
- You have alienated an adopter. This person will get a pet from another source. That pet will be living the life you felt was sub-standard but you have no relationship with the person. You don’t know their phone number and even if you did, they are not likely to be interested in anything you have to offer since you judged them unworthy of having a pet. In future, that person will not turn to you when he sees a dog hit by a car on the side of the road and he will tell his friends and family to avoid you altogether.
- You have not placed a pet in a loving home. Loserville.
- You must continue to keep the pet they wanted in your facility, while other pets are being killed in your local pound. In the case of a kill shelter, you will be killing the dog the adopter wanted in order to free up space for a new intake. No additional pet will be saved.
Let me give you a recent example from social media. One of my virtual friends mentioned on Facebook that her neighbor had asked her to look after her dogs while she was away. The neighbor had explained that the dogs were low-maintenance but when the water in the buckets turned green, they needed to be changed. My friend cringed, I cringed, probably many of you did too when you read that. But you know what? That person loves her dogs. I can tell because she cares enough about them to secure care for them while she’s away from home. And she gives instructions to the caregiver in order that her personal standards of care are maintained for her dogs in her absence.
Now I’m not saying it’s fantastic that there are dogs drinking algae water all summer long. But they are loved and they are alive. I have no idea where this person obtained her pets but if it was from a shelter or rescue then I say kudos to that group. You did a good thing.
Advocates are dancing naked on tabletops with bullhorns (possible slight exaggeration) in order to get the word out about pets in urgent need of homes and yet, some of these same advocates are discouraging or turning away adopters who come to them seeking a pet. While 4 million pets are being killed in US shelters year after year. I see a way we could start saving more pets immediately and at no additional cost – put a Revolving Door of Life on the front of your facility. Keep it moving with a continual flow of pets going home with happy adopters and new pets coming in to take their place for their opportunity to get a loving home.