Posts Tagged ‘adoption’

Speaking Up for the Underdog

At a meeting with some of our closest shelter colleagues last week, we talked about, once again, the pit bull dilemma.  We all want to get to zero euthanasia of adoptable animals in our city but there are just too many pit bulls, not all of whom are “ambassadors” for the breed.  And there are simply not enough adopters.   Shoot, there aren’t enough adopters for yellow labs, yorkies or cocker spaniels either.   And pit bulls, no matter how much we promote them and try to tackle the “bad rep” that we as a society have created, are just not for everyone.  They’re energetic, strong, athletic dogs who need a lot of training.  The media have done a bang-up job of villainizing “America’s dog.”  Sometimes it’s the dog, but it’s always the owner and a good story about a dog attacking anyone makes great TV.

So where does it start?  Do we discount adoptions for pit bulls? Give them away for free?  Or do we attack the “supply” side of the problem?  If so, how can we promote spay/neuter better than we have been doing non-stop for the past two decades?  Do we educate, do litter abatement programs (spay the mom and rehome the litter), bribe, cajole, entreat? 

The fact is, we’ve been trying to do all the above.  But it’s just not working.  We give away spays and neuters, as do many of our colleague organizations.  But we actually have trouble filling these free slots.  We talk, teach and train owners to be responsible.  It just doesn’t work.  We haven’t tried paying people to spay and neuter their dogs, but that’s being discussed nationally with promotions like “spay your dog and get a $20 gas card” among other ideas.

We’ve even talked about going out to pick up dogs for spay/neuter from people’s homes.  Like the rug cleaners do.  If we can’t get the dogs to come to us, we’ll go to them.  And that’s the model that some of the largest spay/neuter programs, like Humane Alliance in Asheville, North Carolina, have done.

Here’s an example of what we’re up against.  Just last week, in the middle of our weekly low-cost vaccination clinic, someone tried to sell his pit puppies in our own lobby.  Unbelievable! Selling puppies at an animal shelter whose mission is to promote animal adoption over breeding as a means towards ending euthanasia and placing every homeless dog and cat in a home.  Where is the message not getting across?  That’s like someone coming into your living room, grabbing your TV remote and changing it to C-span during American Idol.  If we ask people, during our outreach, if they’d bring their dog in for a free spay or neuter, they look at us as if we’re completely nuts.  Why would they spay a dog whose puppies they can sell off in the lobby of an animal shelter?  Or why would they ever want to neuter their dog, especially if it might make him less of a guard dog (it won’t).

So what’s the solution?  If we step back and take a broader view, I think it becomes obvious.  The solution to the pit bull problem is the same as the solution to any animal problem.  It’s all a matter of seeing things from the animal’s point of view.  What if people looked at their own pit bull and saw, not a fighting dog, not a potential source of income, not a tough-dog status symbol, but a living, breathing companion with his or her own interests?  What if they saw a loving, trusting, and loyal companion—a family member, even—whose welfare mattered and was entirely dependent on them? 

Then they would be much more hesitant to turn their dog in to a shelter when he or she became “inconvenient.”  They would be much more forgiving of the dog’s “imperfections” and realize that the burden of training lies on them.  Then—most importantly—they would understand that their dog has absolutely nothing to gain from being bred so that her puppies can be sold on the street corner.  At the cost of annual euthanasia of thousands of unwanted pits already out there.

No matter what it is, it’s a big, fat problem.  And one we’ve got to fix if we’re ever going to get to zero euthanasia of adoptable dogs.  I’m up for any and all out of the box ideas.  But one thing I know is that we’ve got to convince people to stop breeding these dogs.   Then we’ve got to make sure we place pits responsibly in the right homes.  And we’ve got to follow up and make sure they stay there. 

That’s a tall order, but people’s attitudes can and do change.  We need a change on a societal level, but every society is made up of individuals.  Everyone’s opinion counts, but only if it’s voiced.  Yes, animal protection groups like mine have a responsibility to lead the chorus.   But we need every voice we can get.  And every idea, entreaty, proposal out there to encourage people to spay and neuter their pits.  And for heaven’s sake, don’t buy a dog, especially a pit bull.  Believe me, there are thousands waiting for adoption at every animal shelter. 

So, I urge you to speak up for animals, even—or rather, especially—for pit bulls.  When enough people do, and do so at every opportunity, the change will come. Until that happens, we’ll never get to zero.   And that’s the only goal that matters.

A Moment in the Sun for a Dog No One Wanted

Hamlin was a dog nobody wanted.  One of a litter of four unplanned and unexpected puppies, he was born in a backyard in West Virginia to a mother of no specific breed. We decided he’s a “mixed hound,” but that’s really anybody’s guess. His owner placed a free-to-good-home ad on Craigslist and, one by one, Hamlin’s siblings drove off to unknown fates. Maybe the homes really were good. But if you work at an animal shelter, as I do, you tend to be pretty cynical about Craigslist homes.

No one came for Hamlin. And that may have been the best thing that could have happened to the puppy. As a last ditch effort, the woman who placed the online ad called the local animal rescue group. They came and collected Hamlin, who was just 12 weeks old at that point.

The rescue group, Potomac Highlands Animal Rescue (PHAR) consists of a small, all-volunteer cadre of deeply committed animal advocates. They find abandoned dogs in the woods and take others off of chains when owners move away and leave their pets behind. They carry armloads of cats out of hoarders’ trailers. Living where they do, they can hardly go to the local grocery store without returning with a few “free” kittens or a lost dog.

The supply of homeless animals there, as in many rural communities, is endless. Sadly, the supply of adopters is not. In fact, that is almost non-existent.  So for years now, PHAR—along with quite a few other groups—has been bringing animals to our shelter in DC.  Hamlin arrived on October 7.

Hamlin represents what, in my opinion, is the biggest problem today in animal welfare: too many animals where no one wants them and too few where they do.  Hamlin had the misfortune of becoming one of the hundreds of thousands of surplus dogs and cats in the United States.  Shelters like ours, and groups like PHAR, work hard to change that equation and move the surplus to where the homes are.  There is no other option besides euthanasia.

The next day, the puppy met the first veterinarian he had ever seen. Looking Hamlin over, that veterinarian met a lot of giardia and other parasites that he had seen all too often. But after a few days in our Medical Center, Hamlin was given a clean bill of health and moved to the adoption area, where he had a clean bed of his own, toys, regular nutritious meals, and even an education of sorts. Our behavior and training team makes sure that puppies in their formative months get off to a good start by introducing them to lots of different people, a variety of dogs, and things like umbrellas and wheelchairs so that they grow up to be confident and well-socialized pets.

That’s standard practice. But Hamlin got in some extra-curricular activities. The Washington Capitals hockey team called to say that they were producing a calendar to benefit the League, and Nicklas Backstrom needed a puppy to pose with.  So here’s Hamlin with the Capitals’ beloved center and alternate captain.

And Hamlin’s education included an additional unit on Cultural Traditions of Post-Modern America.  Here he is learning about Halloween.

It was this second photo, appearing on Facebook and Flickr the day after the photo op with the Capitals, that won Hamlin his current—and permanent—home.  In a coincidence almost too good to be true, he now lives on Hamlin Street in the District with a young family who is glad to have him. He’s no longer the dog no one wanted; he’s got a devoted family of his own now. After his whirlwind journey through the pages of Craigslist and as poster dog for the Capital’s 2012 calendar, he can get down to the serious business of being a really great dog.  One anybody would want.

A Weekend to Celebrate: Our August Adopt-A-Thon

photo: Chris Motz

At the beginning of this month, we had our most successful adoption event in the history of the Washington Animal Rescue League. In 33 hours—actually even before the first of our two-day event ended—we had nearly emptied our shelter, uniting more than 100 rescued animals, who had previously been neglected, abandoned, abused, or some combination of the above, with happy families.

That was more than we could have hoped for and a raging success.  113 animals found the new homes and new lives they deserved. Scores of excited families were enriched by the addition of a new best friend. And our League family grew accordingly.

We always send animals home with more than a leash or a cat carrier—our “alumnae” come with a virtual life-long membership card that makes them a permanent part of our family. We guarantee our support in any way we can give it: medical, behavioral, emergency housing, even food and supplies in hard times. Everyone who adopted an animal that weekend also adopted all of us.

But here’s what is so interesting. We waived adoption fees that weekend; people could “pay what they chose” as an adoption fee.  And people did.  Some paid vastly more than the regular fee.  No one paid nothing. This wasn’t a give-away; this was an adoption event to help us get animals who would otherwise sit in a shelter for weeks or months into new homes. And it generated a compelling interest in coming to a shelter—an exceptional shelter, I might add—not among people who just that weekend thought “Wow, I think I’ll go get a free dog today!”  These were families who have been thinking about a pet, and who may have otherwise bought a dog or a cat off of Craig’s List or from a puppy mill sourced internet ad.

So it surprised all of us to get a few calls and emails actually condemning us for holding the event, for “giving animals away.”  Someone even wrote that we “might as well be giving them away on the sidewalk,” a comment I thought was interesting since it is exactly what we hope to do every time our adoption truck goes out to local neighborhoods.  With more than 3 million dogs and cats being euthanized every year in this country, isn’t adoption exactly what we should be striving for?  And isn’t introducing the public to a source of wonderful animals whose very lives are in jeopardy entirely the point? 

What these concerned people were so horrified about wasn’t simply adopting animals out in volume, it was doing so without home visits. We, like most other progressive animal shelters all over the country, dropped home visits as a routine requirement years ago. We find that we learn more about people and their intentions by sitting down with them to discuss their needs and make a match that works, than by doing invasive home visits which only delay the process, jeopardize the placement, and frustrate and discourage the very people we should be rewarding for coming to a shelter in the first place.

It’s astonishing to me that a few people could complain about an event that cleared out our shelter to make room for more needy animals. They might feel differently if they had ever looked in to the faces of the hundreds of dogs and cats in the overcrowded shelters we visit to pick up animals for transport. On these visits, we know that we never have room for all of them. At any given moment, hundreds of animals are overwhelming our nation’s shelters, waiting for an adopter to give them the future they deserve. And that is precisely what we gave them.

Our critics were concerned that our animals, to whom we have made a 100 percent commitment, will go to the “wrong people,” as though we’re just boxing up puppies and kittens to give away as door prizes. With every adoption we always ask ourselves, Will our decision lead to a better life for this animal?  And the adopt-a-thon weekend was no different than any other in terms of the scrutiny and education we undertake with our adopters. And as usual, we will follow-up with every single adopter in two weeks, then two months, then one year.

The adopt-a-thon was a triumph.  For our animals, for the families who may not have otherwise considered adopting their new best friend from a shelter, and for our many supporters and return adopters.  And…for our staff and volunteers who saw the shelter packed with people working together stridently to bring about a day when shelters may not even have to exist. That weekend we welcomed the right people into our shelter, our home—we saw that even without going to theirs.

Rescue and the Ford E450

I have the best job in the world.  That’s what I told our COO as I pushed hard down on the gas pedal to force our brand new animal rescue truck up a winding, mountain highway road in West Virginia during what was, hopefully, the last real snowstorm of the season last month.  So what if this was the first time I’ve ever driven a truck which is pretty much wider than my house?  Or that I was petrified that the CEO would be the first one to scratch or dent (or worse) the new, beautiful, graphic-laden sides of our brand new truck?  Or that it doesn’t have a rear view mirror because I’m supposed to use the side mirrors, now coated with ice and sand from the snow plows that are driving faster than this new truck does?  Like that’s so easy.

It’s still the best job in the world. 

I’m not much of a car freak.  I’m the one who smiles and nods and acts interested when someone shows me his or her new car.  I can’t differentiate a Lexus from a Lamborghini.   But this was different.  After seven years of driving our worn-to-the-hubcaps vans all over the country, bundled in sweatshirts in the summer as we billow the A/C back to the animals in the cargo area, this was our first real, state-of-the-art, rescue and adoption vehicle.   One that will make it possible for us to get to Missouri to help with the latest puppy mill rescue, and actually get out to where the animals are.  Or travel to Texas to help with a pit bull fighting ring rescue or, heaven forbid, another natural disaster forcing people from their homes and animals from their people. 

And we’ll be able, with this very same truck, to get to such exotic locales as Georgetown or Dupont Circle, or up Rockville Pike (although finishing the 500 mile, 10 hour drive on the beltway at 10 pm that night was the scariest part of the whole day).  Because we’ll be able to bring animals (many from the previously mentioned rescues) for the final part of their odyssey, directly into homes and the loving arms of their new families.

Rescue, Rehab, Rehome.  That’s our call sign.  And now we can do the first part better than we’ve ever been able to before. 

That’s the whole point.  And why for me and for our staff, this is the best job in the world.   Even without a rear view mirror.

Filling the Shelter: Local Transports and Saving Lives

I took a walk through the shelter a few months ago with our COO, Mary Jarvis.   We passed a few empty dens on the left, a few empty puppy enclosures in the puppy room.  And some open cat condos in the cat room.  We weren’t full.  Not because we didn’t want to be.  But because new adopters had just picked up their new family members, and we were trying to manage floor space for an incoming transport of animals from a partner shelter  in Ohio, or West Virginia, which are overflowing with dogs and cats.

Puppies at the League

The newest arrivals to the League

 I remember Mary looking me in the eye and saying “I’ll go to New York Ave and see what they need.”  She knew what I was going to say.   And hers is a common response now.  To go to our neighboring  shelters at DC Animal Control, or Prince George’s County, or Baltimore, and bring back as many animals as we can hold.  Sometimes more than we can hold. 

Just last night, we got a call from one of these shelters asking for relief because they had too many dogs.  The miracle is that this bleakest of pronouncements doesn’t necessarily have to mean euthanasia anymore.  It can mean calling us to make room for incoming animals.  And that’s what we did.  Of course I’m proud of the fact that our doors are open when other shelters need us.  For, as we like to say, animals who have nowhere else to go.  But I’m equally proud of what our partner shelters are doing to decrease euthanasia and work together to lower the rate of needless death of otherwise healthy dogs and cats. 

There was a time when this didn’t happen.  When shelters didn’t talk to each other and ask for help for the most helpless among us.  When we’d have to go drive 100’s of miles to bring in animals from Georgia, or Mississippi because we didn’t work with each other. I’m happy to say this is no longer the case.

In Washington DC, we are working closely with our municipal partner to eliminate the euthanasia of any dog in the District. And to lower the euthanasia rates for cats in our capital.  This is no easy feat.  But instead of poorly communicating, of not working together to do the best for our community’s animals (and people), we’re collaborating to lower euthanasia and work together to solve the problem.  It’s a wonderful thing.

More puppies at the League

Just this past week, we’ve brought in 37 animals from our local partner shelters.  And, even completely full, Maureen, our shelter director drove her own car on Saturday to pick up 12 puppies from the overflowing Baltimore city shelter.  The sleeping mound of puppies I saw here on Sunday afternoon is an image I wish I could share with anyone who has ever questioned why partnerships are so important.

 Walking through the shelter this afternoon—where every den is full, every cat condo is filled and we have overflow in runs and cages in our Medical Center—I’m proud of our staff, and of our partners, for recognizing that none of us can solve the problem of homeless animals alone.  That mound of puppies is all the proof I need.

Catapalooza 2011!

A special Valentine’s Day celebration of all things feline!

Sunday, February 13, 12 – 3 p.m.

“Just the two of us” adoption discounts: Take home a new, perfect feline companion of any age for just $2.  All cats are spayed or neutered, current on vaccinations, blood tested, and comprehensively examined by veterinarians and behavior specialists.  Free cake and mimosas, give-away’s, and prizes for all attendees!  Admission is free.  For more information, call 202-726-2556 or write

The Numbers and Beyond: A Look Back at 2010

As we close out one year and push on into the next, it’s a great time to spend some energy on the spreadsheets and data tables on my desk to get a view of the major and minor trends that influence the work we do at the Washington Animal Rescue League.  Mostly, I want to know what animals and their people need from us and how we can make sure they get it.

Here are some of the numbers for 2010:

  • 68% of the animals placed in homes by the League in 2010 required medical or behavioral rehabilitation before they could be made available for adoption.
  • Forty percent of the adopted animals were cats. This is about ten percent more than it was two years ago, before we began our campaign to promote cat adoptions.
  • About a third of the animals that the League helped in 2010 came from outside the area, mostly from large-scale rescues.
  • Another third were transferred from local shelters when their space was tight or they had animals with medical or behavioral problems.
  • The last third were surrendered to the League directly from the public. Many of these were animals with needs that their former guardians could not meet.
  • Our Medical Center treated more than 3,800 dogs and cats belonging to low-income people, who can’t afford a private veterinarian.  Another 2,210 animals came to our weekly low-cost vaccination clinics.  That’s more than 6,000 animals.
  • The League spayed and neutered 2,566 dogs and cats.  Among these were 224 pit bulls and 386 feral cats treated without charge. (Pit bulls and feral cats are the two types of animals whose populations are most in need of control in this area).

I’m well aware that statistics by themselves can’t possibly tell the whole story of what we do.  Every animal we help is so much more than a number in a column!  Each one is a living being who is tied to many other lives by bonds of love and companionship.  Each one comes to us with a unique set of needs and a unique set of gifts.  None of this is reflected in the statistics.

But there are lessons we can draw from the numbers—more, in fact, than can be enumerated here.  One conclusion stands out starkly: there is great need—both locally and across the country—for a shelter that emphasizes and specializes in animal rehabilitation. Not just housing animals until they can be adopted; lots of groups do that.  But putting in the hard work binding wounds, treating illnesses, and modifying behaviors, so that every animal—no matter how physically or emotionally scarred—has a chance to become the cherished companion they were always meant to be.

Then let this be our resolution for the new year: to help more animals than ever before and to push onward towards the day when all animals’ lives will be free of needless pain, neglect, and abandonment.

A New Home for the Holidays?

With the winter holidays rapidly descending upon us, we are suddenly reminded at every turn of the need to be buying presents.  Our radios, our televisions, our computers are all full of offers to sell us virtually anything that could even vaguely be considered a present. These days, you can buy seemingly everything and anything for your loved ones. Except, that is, for a pet.

 The sight of a new kitten or puppy under the decorated tree, sporting a festive holiday ribbon around his or her neck, is a bit of Americana that has gone the way of the Yule log. It’s not done any more.  At least not in the same way.

Animal shelters, like the one where I work, are largely to blame for this. For decades we were held captive by a Grinch-like paranoia that convinced us that holiday shoppers, running amok in a materialistic frenzy fueled by seasonal excesses, were in no state of mind to make rational choices about the kind of animal companion they should get. And what’s worse, they might not even be buying the animal for themselves: the kitten or puppy could end up under a tree in someone else’s house. And that someone might actually have no more interest in a pet than in the yearly fruitcake from Aunt Myrna.

So shelters across the land used to close their doors to adopters in December and leave them closed until after the holidays had passed and people regained their sanity.

That’s no longer true. The fact is, we now realize, that the holiday season may be the perfect time to introduce a new dog or cat to a household. People have time off from work and school, the family spends time together, and the busy-ness of life as we generally know it subsides just a bit. Provided that your holiday plans don’t include out-of-town travels or an influx of relatives with severe allergies, the final weeks of the year could be an ideal time to help transition animal to new home and vice versa.

We still don’t condone animals as surprise gifts, of course. The choice of a new family member—and that is just what a companion animal is—is a weighty matter. You’re not always given the luxury of choosing family members, but when you are, it’s probably wise to take full advantage of the opportunity to do so carefully.

So no surprises. And yes, that means no kitten or puppy under the tree. But as an alternative, lots of people these days wrap a box containing food bowl, collar, leash, and harness (or cat toys, brush, and scratching post) and leave that under the tree with a card promising a trip to the local shelter where a host of homeless animals of all ages, sizes, and personalities are waiting to meet their future families.

That seems to work well for all parties, and each year we find early January adoptions booming as people cash in their “adoption gift certificates.” It’s a growing tradition that we heartily approve of, as do the dozens of dogs and cats who walk out of our doors with proud new families this time of year.

Need Something to Celebrate?

November 7 – 13 is National Animal Shelter Appreciation Week.  You probably didn’t know that.  In fact, so few people are aware of this that it begs the question, Do we really need an animal shelter appreciation week?

Maybe and maybe not, but I do think that lots of people take us for granted, not realizing how dramatically animals shelters affect communities. 

 For many of us, life without animals is unimaginable.  They enrich our days and nights in countless ways; they are integral members of our families; and their presence in our homes and neighborhoods makes our communities happier places.  We feel indebted to them, and we feel that we have a solemn responsibility to see that the trust they place in us is not violated.

 Too often, however, that trust is violated as animals are abused, abandoned, neglected, and denied what they need for health and contentment.  Others live with people who have lost jobs or are on fixed incomes and are struggling to give their beloved companion the care they need and deserve.  The League exists for all of these animals.  And since we do our job well, people might not even know we are here, constantly offering refuge, care and fresh starts to animals who need it most.

 Last year, among other things the League:

  • found new homes for 1407 homeless animals;
  •  provided affordable medical care to 4,449 animals belonging to low-income neighbors;
  •  saw 1,766 animals at our low-cost vaccination clinics;
  •  spayed or neutered 2,065 animals; and
  •  led humane education classes and field trips for more than 700 students.

The Washington Animal Rescue League saves lives, builds families, and makes our community a better place to live.  Perhaps that is reason enough to celebrate.

Follow this link to see what we are doing to observe National Animal Shelter Appreciation Week.  Then drop by and learn how can join us in helping the animals and people who need us.

Every animal has two stories…one about himself or herself, and one about us.

However you stumbled upon my new blog, it’s a pretty safe bet you have some connection to the animal welfare field: you’ve adopted a dog or cat, you work or volunteer at a shelter, you’re part of a rescue group or you’ve bookmarked an animal adoption page on your computer.

WARL_BlogWhatever your connection, you know that the animals’ stories bring up very big issues. They tell us volumes about who we are as people, what terrible and wonderful things we are capable of, and what is really worthwhile about life. It often involves them.

At an animal shelter, something like this can happen at any moment…

A puppy comes in nearly dead of heat stroke after being left in a hot car. His guardian doesn’t seem too concerned. She just wants us to take the puppy so she can be on her way. What makes her so nonchalant? And why do we care so deeply about this puppy whom we’ve never seen before, that we spare nothing to save his life?

The process of rescuing, rehabilitating and rehoming animals is full of decisions, often difficult ones. The animals are totally reliant on us for their care but can only express their wishes in the most rudimentary forms (through their eyes, wagging tails, whimpers, purrs, and cries). We, not they, have to decide what’s best for them.

Here’s a dilemma we faced recently…

The cat transferred from another shelter tests positive for FIV, an immune deficiency that he can live with for years. He’s certainly adoptable but he’ll need a special home, and it will most likely take months to find him one. Meanwhile, how many other cats will be euthanized in area shelters because they have no more room for homeless cats?

These stories and the issues they raise make our field unique. Filled with the drama of animals’ suffering, recovery and fresh starts, our days bring a constant stream of shock, sadness, joy, and often enough, surprising triumphs.

Some moments are truly uplifting, as when…

A pit bull who was turned in because he was too much to handle and was threatening the neighbors becomes a training star at the shelter and finds a grateful family. They report, “We can’t imagine life without Seamus. He’s the perfect addition to our household!”

In this blog, I plan on sharing the stories and reflections that come out of our experience working with animals at the Washington Animal Rescue League. Either on their way or safely sheltered and “out of harm’s reach,” all of these animals have stories. That’s the point of this blog, and of our very unique shelter. I invite you to offer your own reflections, convictions, and stories. And by all means, let me know how we’re doing.