It’s not that people don’t care, it’s that they don’t know. That was the mantra I’d sang since returning from a tour of animal shelters in the rural south. I had met remarkable people who worked tirelessly to save as many dogs as possible, but often came up short. Too many adoptable dogs not only died but lived in shelters for weeks or months in stressful conditions with no basics such as flea / tick or heartworm preventive measures, bedding, toys, treats, regular exercise or human contact.
Some of the shelters I visited didn’t have a budget for spay / neuter. Even when dogs were adopted, their pups showed up at the shelter a few months later. With so many dogs, there was little time and not enough volunteers for daily playtime or walks, enrichment or just a few good butt scratches. The stresses of living in a shelter have destroyed the toughest dog.
Even for me, a person who has cared for more than a hundred dogs, volunteered for thousands of hours, and been to the eyeballs in dog rescue, the situation at these animal shelters was breathtaking. I just couldn’t believe it was as bad as it was and no one was fixing it. Until I saw it myself. As soon as I left the shelters, I knew I would be back. People had to know.
I returned to the shelters six months later. This time I brought a team of volunteers and a plan to not just look but help and put situations in the spotlight that shouldn’t be.
Our team consisted of eight volunteers from Operation Paws for Homes, a rescue operation for all races. These included a professional photographer, the former leader of the rescue canine biography writing team, an engineer, a former veterinarian, and a Maryland-born social media whiz kid. Washington, D.C; Virginia; and south-central Pennsylvania. We visited seven animal shelters in six days and offered to help in any way we could.
We walked countless dogs, played with them, bathed them, cut nails and cleaned their ears, even picked up feces. We gathered information about the dogs we met and pleadingly passed it on to our rescue team Please pull this dog.
We helped the shelter staff write biographies, develop social media strategies, upload pictures and get set up on Petfinder. We put together dog beds, built a roof for an outdoor puppy playground, and gave technical advice. Our photographer Nancy Slattery pulled her tail off, took thousands of pictures of hundreds of dogs, and then worked late into the night editing the photos and sending them to the shelters for use.
Every day we published the situations, the needs of the shelters and the dogs on our Facebook page and asked people to share them. We added links to the shelters’ Amazon wish lists and started a Facebook fundraiser to help a shelter purchase a much-needed commercial washer / dryer.
We did a lot. And we’ve seen a lot.
A haunting experience
The first six shelters we visited were already full and it was only the first week of April; The puppy and kitten season had barely started. While some held their ground and had not yet laid down many adoptable dogs, others had been forced to euthanize 30 percent or more of the dogs in their shelters. And each and every one of them will be forced to put to sleep for space if summer brings a major hoarding case, or heartworm continues to spiral out of control due to last year’s floods, or the economy experiences a downturn.
As I walked or had a picture taken dog by dog, I wondered if this was a dog that would be part of that 30 percent. In an animal shelter, I didn’t have to be surprised. Like many of the county shelters, there were two sides. One site was run by a humane society and had volunteers and staff responsible for the care and adoption of the dogs. These dogs would all find a home after all; Humane society would be sure of that.
The other side of the building was controlled by animals; These dogs were brought in by Animal Control Officers (ACOs). Some dogs were confiscated during the arrests, others were there because they had bitten a person and therefore had a mandatory “bite grip”. Some had been given by the owners. Most, however, had been picked up by the ACOs as strays.
According to their dispersion and assessment, some dogs would be released into humane society, others would never see this side of the building. Their kennel cards were crossed out with a capital X, meaning the dog in that kennel was euthanized for the space as needed.
We all struggled with our emotions as we walked down the line and paused with the Xs in the kennels to give extra goodies or put a hand around the bars to touch those condemned dogs. Allen, a white dog with perhaps Boxer heritage, was only a year old; He got his X for being “dog aggressive”. Its owner had made him die. Everyone hungry for attention and leaned against the fence for any kind of human touch.
I asked about Sheba, a cute black puppy with a white nose. She was kind and eager and grateful for the goodies I went through the fence. I scanned her card and looked past the giant X scrawled on it to read that she was picked up as a stray and had no bite history. Her breed was listed as a Pit Bull Mix and she was only six months old. I asked if we could get her out, maybe play a little with her.
We led Sheba to a narrow, concrete area at the end of the kennel and played with her leash. Excited to be out of her kennel, she jumped on us and licked our tearful faces, zoomed back and forth in the small room and pounced on the tennis ball we had thrown. She was just a happy pup.
When I put them away, I went down three kennels to study another young black puppy who could have been Sheba’s littermates. They looked so alike that we later struggled to tell them apart in their pictures. This dog’s name was Thea. She was 10 months old and listed as a lab mix. There was a large note on her kennel card indicating that an ambulance would pick her up on Tuesday. She was safe. What a difference a word makes – the difference between life and death.
Later, after seeing the Sheba dog test with a male and female dog and passing it with flying colors (she just wanted to play with everyone), I asked how such an adorable adoptable dog came to have an X on their kennel card .
“Race, color and space” was the answer.
To be clear, the ACOs aren’t the bad guys; It’s not their fault that too many dogs turn up in shelters. Your job description is not to market and adopt the dogs. You have to deal with and take in animals that become a “nuisance” in one form or another. And they have no control over how many kennels are available.
Transparency saves lives
It’s very tempting to be mad at the Xs, but actually I’m grateful to them. Why would a shelter hide the fact that they are planning to euthanize a dog? If more shelters were this transparent, the public might be outraged enough to stop the killing. There are Xs on many other dogs in the other animal shelters we have visited, but they only appear on a list or on a computer, away from the public. At least these Xs increased the urgency, and hopefully the likelihood of a dog being pulled from a rescue.
Would we have felt obliged to save Sheba if she hadn’t had an X? And what about the dogs with the invisible Xs in the other shelters we visited? I’m worried about Ghost and Short and Kimbo, three big pit bulls I went to another shelter with. Despite their loving, happy energy, their kennel cards could very likely be marked with invisible Xs. If the cards were covered in that hand-drawn X instead, would it give them a better chance of being saved? Would it make someone do something?
On our last visit to the shelter – Anderson County PAWS in South Carolina, a true no-kill shelter – we met with Kim Sanders, DVM, who spoke about the importance of transparency in rescuing dogs. She expects it from her employees and her animal shelter. She demands transparency from everyone involved in saving animals at PAWS. No lying, no deceiving. It’s not like the situation isn’t what it is. When asked how she took Anderson County out of a high uptake, high kill shelter where 50 percent of the animals were euthanized within a few months to avoid killing, she says, “They just stop killing animals.” as if it were as simple as that.
And it’s for PAWS. You implemented program after program to address the problems. Your building is a big, bright, welcoming space full of friendly staff who will help visitors adopt an animal or keep the animal they might be thinking of.
While our Rescue Road Trip team was visiting PAWS, we met a tall, butt-wagging, happy Pit Bull mom and her six baby hippos – pups so fat their legs looked like toothpicks made from plump sausages protruded. The mother had been brought in alone with milk-rich teats two days earlier. The ACO said it couldn’t find any puppies.
Dr. Sanders sent her coworkers back to the area with the mother, which led them straight to the house where the pups were. The staff spoke to the owner who obviously loved his dogs but couldn’t afford adequate veterinary care. They offered to return the pups, mother dog, and the other dogs he owned to PAWS, where they would be vaccinated, neutered or neutered, microchipped, and screened for heartworm. When the pups were old enough, they were adopted; The rest of the dogs would be returned to him. While the animals were being treated, the staff brought straw, kennels and dog food to the owner so he had what he needed to properly care for his animals when they returned.
Imagine another scenario where the mother came to one of the other animal shelters we visited. She would have been taken to the animal control side of the building. Without a microchip, there would be no way of knowing whose dog she was. If her owner couldn’t afford the pickup fee, he’d probably leave her there. She would mourn the loss of her pups and her person. She would be frightened and confused. She could be defensive; She would definitely be stressed out. In a few weeks your kennel card could be covered with a big X. If she was lucky and made it to the humane society side of the building, she could stay there for months as pit bull adoption takes longer than most dogs.
“It’s a business decision,” says Dr. Sanders. “It costs us less to treat the dog and return it to its owner and give it what it needs to care for it than it does to confiscate it, house it for weeks or months and have it adopted.” In addition, she points out: “They are connected. Why should I break them apart? He loves the dog and it was clear that she loved him.”
That brings us to one of the biggest hurdles to owning pets, and perhaps one of the reasons our shelters are so full: money. It costs a lot to properly care for a pet, but should people be denied a dog just because they are poor? I don’t have to tell any reader of this magazine how much a dog can enrich and inspire a life.
Dr. Sanders told us about a homeless man who brings his dog to the shelter every month to get a heartworm preventive. The shelter has offered to give him a six month supply, but he has nowhere to keep it. So he comes by every month for medication and a small bag of dog food. Sometimes when he walks in he asks if he can bathe the dog and the staff directs him to their well-equipped grooming room. “This dog has such a great life; He lives better than my own dogs, ”says Dr. Sanders. The dog is with him around the clock and never wears a leash.
It’s a heartwarming story, but do the math again: it’s cheaper for PAWS to give the man his dog’s heartworm every month than to turn it down because he can’t afford it. In the hot, humid climate of the area, his dog would eventually develop heartworms and end up back at PAWS for expensive treatments and an extended stay.
PAWS has other programs that people can use to keep their pets. If someone comes to give you away instead of blindly accepting the animal, the staff will offer the owner other options. Does the animal need veterinary care that it cannot afford? Do you need training help? Dog Food? Cat litter? If they give up their pet because they move, lost a job, or are serving a brief sentence, PAWS actually keeps their dog for them for up to 45 days, possibly longer depending on the situation. While the dog is on PAWS, he or she will be microchipped, neutered, or neutered, and the owner will be educated about heartworms. All things that cost a little now, but save a lot in the long run.
The philosophy of transparency and the consideration of not only the physical well-being of the animals but also their emotional well-being make Anderson County PAWS a special place, but it’s also a smart business. And saving dogs, like pretty much everything in the world, depends on business.
What we need is a better business plan. Too many dogs die from lack of one.