“Abused and left for dead” – or hey, little dog needs help.

I regularly receive forwarded e-mail pleas for shelter pets in need of rescue.  Sometimes they come with a story – not the real story of what happened to these pets but an obviously fabricated tale, a lie.  While I understand that the motivation to lie about a shelter pet’s background may originate from a positive place, i.e. a fabricated story might engender more sympathy than the truth and possibly motivate more people to donate or at least network the animal, it’s an unacceptable practice to me.  And in the big picture, I believe it does far more harm than good.

One of the pleas I received recently showed photos of a very thin young dog who was lame in the rear.  There was also a photo of an x-ray showing what appeared to be a broken bone in one of the rear legs.  The plea requested donations to pay for veterinary care and a rescue to take the dog.  The story indicated the dog was a stray who had shown up in the yard of a shelter volunteer, been examined by a vet and determined to have a broken leg which appeared to be a few days old.  And it should have ended there since no additional facts could possibly be known about this dog.

But the story went on to tell how the dog had been “kicked & abused, then left for dead.”  It said she had suffered for an extended period of time, roaming the streets alone and starving.  That divine intervention lead her to the home of the volunteer where she collapsed, unable to go any further.  She had endured “horrendous abuse and neglect” and by donating, you could show her that not all humans are evil.

Still from the film Cowboys and Aliens
Still from the film Cowboys and Aliens

Of course all that is fiction.  The dog could have been hit by a car.  She could have climbed a 6 foot fence and landed badly.  Aliens could have abducted her, used her for medical experimentation and then dropped her off with a broken bone.  My point being, there is no way of knowing how the leg got broken.  And while it’s possible she roamed the area alone and starving, it’s also possible she had a buddy, or a pack.  Perhaps she was unable to move and therefore unable to access food.  Maybe a broken-hearted owner was looking for her or you know, the aliens wanted her back as a pet.  And if we are going to float divine intervention, I would suggest that divinity would have guided the dog to a place where she could get her broken leg repaired immediately, not someplace that lacked the means to do it.  Or alternatively, the miracle thing.

When pet advocates lie about “horrendous abuse and neglect”, it undermines the effort to save shelter pets on so many levels.  For starters, the lies diminish the verifiable, relatively rare cases of pet abuse and neglect by making them seem commonplace.  The practice feeds the myth of the “irresponsible public” – the very group being targeted in these pleas.  It leads to compassion fatigue among donors and networkers, resulting in the opposite of the desired effect.  And most importantly, lying about abuse and neglect suggests a fundamental belief that shelter pets have no intrinsic value and that a fabricated tale of woe is required in order to instill some value in them and motivate people to take action on their behalf.  Few things could be more dangerous to the shelter pet advocacy movement than implying that shelter pets have no value.

It is my hope that those who write pleas for pets in need will stick to the facts.  Share as much verifiable information as is known about each pet but don’t resort to lying.  The most basic tenet of the no kill movement is that every shelter pet deserves individual consideration and is born with the right to live.  Abandon that tenet at your own risk but in doing so, you lose compassionate allies.

23 thoughts on ““Abused and left for dead” – or hey, little dog needs help.

  1. I completely agree. For some reason, whenever a would-be adopter sees a skinny, injured, or fearful dog at our shelter, the first thing they ask is, “Was she abused?” Shelters and media have put that mindset into so many people that when we explain that she came in as a stray, probably skinny because she was lost for a while, and probably fearful because shelters are noisy, scary environments, they often seem surprised or even disappointed. But at least they are properly educated. We then do our best to talk up the pet and say how they still need a new loving home where they can become fat and happy once again!

  2. ” And most importantly, lying about abuse and neglect suggests a fundamental belief that shelter pets have no intrinsic value and that a fabricated tale of woe is required in order to instill some value in them and motivate people to take action on their behalf. ”

    At first I thought, “Oh I don’t think that’s true.” But if you think about how some of these stories seem to attempt to try to top each other as time goes on (by well-meaning people trying to network dogs to safety), then you get not only the burn out syndrome, but also the animals that have *less* horrific stories (or none at all) start getting overlooked and start to seem somehow less in need of networking. It’s not like having decent body condition or no injuries is going to keep them alive at the shelter. Muscular, young, healthy animals end up in the landfill just as readily, but they don’t have the tragic tale of woe that gets them marketed far and wide. So yeah, in the long run, it’s shooting your cause in the foot.

    We have a lot of this happening on my local urgents page. “Betrayed by owner!”, “Thought he was going for a nice car ride with the family, then dumped heartlessly at the shelter!!”, “ANOTHER OWNER BETRAYAL!!1!”, etc. They mean well. They are trying to get dogs to safety. But they’re feeding in to the “us versus them” attitude that has been part of animal sheltering for a very long time now and it does not serve them well. It also encourages the “save a few, lose the rest” mentality that MUST change.

  3. It is sad that perfectly healthy, happy well adjusted dogs are over looked as people are always looking to adopt/rescue the saddest story.

  4. And I just want to add…I got a cat from the shelter. He came in as a stray, no one claimed him. This is a huge yellow cat with blue eyes. He’s neutered. He’s afraid of the outdoors. Someone taught him not to jump on counters, but he also knows how to beg for food, loves cereal milk (and fully expects to get it when you’re done), enjoys sitting under a blanket with you, is incredibly adaptable (flew in a small airplane, then in a big airplane, then strode out of the carrier confidently and happily), and can open doors. He greets you with a ridiculous yawn/meow/trill while twisting his head sideways in a comical way.

    Everything about this cat says that he came from a place where he was loved and part of someone’s life. We will never know what his history is or why he ended up unclaimed at a shelter. I only wish I could contact his former owner and let them know the cat is happy and well. I think they’d very much like to know.

    But if this cat had been marketed as you describe, he would have been “Family pet betrayed!! Got too big and they decided they didn’t love him, anymore!! Maybe he was replaced by a cute and fluffy kitten, or they got new furniture that didn’t match his fur. They couldn’t even bother to call the shelter when he disappeared! Won’t you show this cat that not all people are horrible like his so-called former family? Show him that SOME people value their pets and will give him the REAL forever home that he deserves!!!”


    1. I just looked at one that said something like “Has never felt a kind touch from a human hand or slept in a soft bed.” That’s a pretty detailed story for a stray pet to tell. Now if you want to talk about so-called shelters where the animals never feel a kind touch or get to sleep in a soft bed, I know of some of those.

    2. 100% agree on this post. I do the bios on our pets at UPAWS and a cat like you are describing that was a friendly stray – never would we write something like that trying to make the cats former family look bad! I always say something like, “this handsome fellow was obviously well cared for and used to people since he is such a big friendly fellow.”
      That would be after we looked for the owner by posting the cat on our lost pet link and facebook and in the lost pets section of our local paper!

  5. Gotta go with yes and no on this one. True that sometimes people exaggerate or jump to conclusions on whether an animal has been abused or simply unlucky. There are ways to tell forensically a lot of times how a bone was broken or how injuries happened. That’s how people who have injured children end up in jail for abuse, even when they claim the child fell etc. As to this dog, I have no idea if this was done so yeah, could have been nothing more than lost and unlucky. The divine intervention claims drive me a bit up the wall but I try to ignore them. I like the idea of not leaping to the worst possible conclusion in any case of a found animal so there we agree.

    1. That goes back to sticking to facts. I have no problem with “The vet who examined the dog says blunt force trauma is the cause of the broken bone.” It’s the “kicked, abused and left for dead” with no substantiating facts whatsoever that I have a problem with. The forensic investigations you refer to typically involve a pattern of injuries, not a single incident, don’t they?

      1. ” The forensic investigations you refer to typically involve a pattern of injuries, not a single incident, don’t they?”
        Not that I know of, just one event can be looked at and a conclusion come to. I don’t mean to be argumentative or unpleasant but a single broken leg vs blunt trauma spread about from a car can be determined and so on.Bones break in many different ways apparently reflecting how the injury happened. Doesn’t take anything away from your argument.

  6. And I think that the abuse angle makes the animals seem . . . damaged somehow. For those who will take the animals with the sad stories, many others might not because they think that somehow that animal won’t be happy, healthy or well-adjusted. Agree that we need to stick with what we know. And if we start to help animals to be seen as individuals with personalities, maybe more people will take them into their homes.

    The other thing that frustrates me about the sad stories, so many people do their “hand wringing” online and say, “if only I lived closer I’d take this dog or cat”. Do they not realize there are probably wonderful dogs and cats where they live who would love to have a good home.

    1. Maybe they don’t realize. Thing is, shelter pets need to be advertised. However repugnant and misleading, this sort of emotional blackmail is nonetheless fairly effective marketing, and a lot of shelters just don’t bother.

      I often run into people who know, in a vague sort of way, that there are animal shelters around the county, but don’t know where any of them are and have only the most abstract notion that there are pets in them. And they’re not bad people. Some of them have gone on to provide comfortable homes for pets. They’re just – like a lot of people, really – not all that curious unless it’s right under their nose.

      And Shirley? Great analysis!

  7. Very good. Many people ask if a dog was abused because she ducks her head when someone puts their hand out to pet her. I tell them, “Ducking is a reflex response and doesn’t necessarily spell abuse.” Yes, they are surprised because, of course, every dog in a shelter or sanctuary has been abused – NOT. I tend to pass on the hysterically written descriptions trying to get me to take in a dog when NO ONE KNOWS what really happened. I know several people in rescue, who, if they tell me an abuse story, it is be true. I want people to adopt my dogs because they fall in love with the dog, not their story (if I know it..several I do). I’m very careful about who I bring into my Sanctuary because the dogs live in an open pack and I can only afford so many, by my pocketbook and license.

    Right now, several of my dogs are wanting back in the house. If they told a story, they are being “abused” by being made to stay outside in the cool sunshine like two year olds having to go outside and play :). Thank God Beagles can’t talk…..

    1. I know so many people (and shelters) who seem to LOVE to turn ordinary actions into signs of ‘abuse’. Everyone seems to have a dog who ‘doesn’t like men, so a man must have abused her.” Or, you know, the dog wasn’t properly socialized to men as a puppy…guess that isn’t a good enough story.

      Which isn’t to say a dog can’t be abused and go on to be afraid of a certain type of person. But there are lots and lots of fearful dogs who were just plain born that way.

      One of my cats came from a shelter and was obviously a housepet. She was overweight, and the most lovely dumpling you’d ever met. She’s completely terrified of the outdoors and being in a small locked room like a bathroom. Does that mean she was kicked around outside or was chased around a small room with a broom? Or does it mean she grew up indoors and gets spooked outside because she’s never been out, and the only time her previous owners ever locked her in the bathroom was right before before they stuck her in a carrier to go to the vet?

      Somehow I’m betting on the latter, but the shelter would like me to believe the former.

      And on the theme of stories, I think “Fluffy was clearly very well-loved, but her owners were forced to give her up. They would love to know she’s safe and sound with you, and getting all the adoration she deserves” is a fine story, and in most cases a true one.

    2. Some fear behaviors are genetic. I have a dog who has been with me since she was five weeks old, and she ducks from hands. I have never hit her or physically abused her in any way. Yet when she ducks, people always say “Oh she must have been abused.” Actually, she has pretty much been afraid of everything since I got her, and the fact that she only ducks from hands now is because I spent the first two years relentlessly socializing her and pairing novel/strange situations with rewards.

  8. I adopted a dog with a misshapen leg. All anyone knows is that his leg was broken when he was a puppy, before the bone plates sealed, so the leg is twisted. He walks with a limp. He’s 18 years old (a 60-lb. dog) and still walks half an hour a day. One of my pet sitters created a Web page and sent me a draft of the copy she was going to put on there about my dog. I am happy to vouch for the care she can give to seniors.

    What was the story she wanted to post? Some long, convoluted tale of how he’d been abused, abandoned, and then “saved”! He has no such story – best I can piece to is that a financially struggling woman appealed several times for help with troubles he had as a puppy, and finally surrendered him when she couldn’t afford surgery – to a no-kill sanctuary. I think she loved him.

    The owner of a pet store I used to visit a lot told me a couple of her customers asked her whether I was abusing the dog because he limps, has the bad leg, and looks thin – because he’s extremely old! I think she only shared that with me (laughing) because she said she assured these people he was one of the most spoiled dogs in town.

    The abuse stories really distort people’s understanding not just of pets in the shelter but of special needs pets and the realities of pet care in general.

  9. I’d like to also raise a plea for eliminating first-person narratives told from the pet’s point of view. (“Hi, My name is Ruff Ruff and I’ve had a very difficult life. People were mean to me, but now these nice ladies saved me and say someday I will get to have a fur-ever family. I don’t know what that means, but I just want someone to love me” etc.)

    (I’d also love to get rid of the word “furbabies,” but I am probably asking too much.)

    1. I like the first-person narratives when they are well done.

      “Well done” includes not making up crap about abuse or heartless abandonment that didn’t happen.

      My current foster is a happy boy who loves to cuddle. He’s also blind, and comes from a hoarding situation. Many people leap to the conclusion that the blindness is the product of abuse. No. The dogs in this case were not abused, and not neglected within the ability of the family to cope. They were all socialized, friendly, people-loving dogs.

      They were just living in filth, intact, and breeding uncontrolled. They lacked vet care because the family simply couldn’t afford it for that many dogs. After the thirty dogs were surrendered and vetted, and the house was cleaned, four dogs were returned to them, and four more went to friends and relatives.

      They weren’t bad people; they just got in over their heads.

      Corky is a happy boy, doesn’t know he’s blind because he’s never been able to see, and learned such unfamiliar tricks as pottying outside and walking on a leash fairly easily. He doesn’t need a sob story to stir pity; he needs a happy story that reflects his personality and his readiness to be a great pet in the right family.

      And that’s what I’ve tried to do for him.

  10. I agree. I want our shelter to list something about each animal that at least gives them character. And if they are an abuse case list that too. But I do not lie about the background because you will lose ground fast and potential rescues and adopters.

  11. While my heart does get tugged by the “severe abuse” stories, it gets tugged just as hard for the “nobody has looked at me as a wonderful pet” thing as well for the ones who simply have a ‘boring’ back story. Sometimes I think that there are those people who want to adopt the dog in the worst shape ever so they can have bragging rights about how wonderful they are.

    That’s one thing I’ve liked about Grayson, they don’t make up history for the animals, they just give the facts, so if a dog is found as a stray and they have no history, they say that. Then they go on to describe something unique about it, or some characteristics that it shows. I heart Grayson a ton.

  12. Note to all those folks creating these lies and fabricated back stories…if I read a story that sounds implausible or a story about a stray that you cannot possibly know the story of because it was a stray… I IGNORE not only the story, but the animal. Quit it.

  13. A rescue posted a found mastiff puppy (fat and clean) with damaged eyes had been the victim of a crazed maniac. No matter that a vet found he had ulcerated corneas from entropion because all the people who heard that story were traumatized by it. It’s HORRIBLE to think of that. But those who were shocked and commented were too proud to back down and said things like “even so, whoever let the puppy get lost is just as bad”. There are some people who actually want to hate other people. Animals give them a reason. That doesn’t help dogs or rescues, though.

  14. I can’t even respond to my emails from the other “shock rescuers” always in capitol letters always world ending, mange dogs they claim have chemical burns, old blind dogs they say had their eyes burned out, 50 dogs waiting by the euth room if I don’t do something right now.

    I had a dog who walked into a Georgia fire station on fire, firemen put her out got her to the shelter, she was pregnant & 20 rescues wanted her, she went into distress & they called to ask me what to do, I said to spay her & stabilize her immediately, the next day those same 20 rescues wanted nothing to do with her. She is now a therapy dog for an autistic boy, who didn’t need a big sob story, as a matter of fact he doesn’t know her story, he only knows she loves him & he loves her.

    The sob story might get you donations but it doesn’t get the dog a home because folks don’t normally want a dog that damaged. The whole point of rescue should be rehab & to help the dog move past their past to a bright new future. I think.

    Also bashing previous owners is a big pet peeve, if it is not a good situation or something has happened that is out of their control it wouldn’t kill someone to have compassion for a fellow human being.

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