Posts Tagged ‘animal welfare’

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.

Christmas Wish

We just got our 2011 Christmas present.  One hundred and two survivors of a horrific puppy mill in western Arkansas arrived at our shelter and Medical Center to begin their new lives of hope.  Boston terriers, dachshunds, Pomeranians, Westies, beagles, and others who have never known the feel of human kindness, affection, or compassion.  Only bars and filth, crowded cages and noise, hunger, loneliness and sickness. And even death, as a few unfortunate dogs were found dead on this property before the ASPCA came in and shut down the mill, ending the torment that has no business existing this or any other time of year.

But the holidays came a few days early for these dogs. And for us. Because taking in animals with “nowhere else to go” is our mission. And no creatures have fewer options than puppy mill survivors.  So we’re gearing up for their arrival by making room available “in the inn”—our shelter, clearing the deck on our current medical cases, getting ahead of current spays and neuters, and getting this week’s adopted animals home so we can  turn around their dens like a New York City hotel during the holidays.

“Shelters are dying out there,” Maureen, my shelter director, said to me as she soon as she got back from one of our local partner shelters. In spite of clearing the deck for these new arrivals, she had just picked up eight dogs and even more cats from a local partner shelter. And she has had dozens of calls from other shelters asking us to take “just one more dog.” So, when we open our doors to take in more than 100 dogs and puppies from Arkansas, what does that mean for our local partners? 

It’s really Sophie’s Choice. Truth is, no one has infinite room for all the homeless animals out there.  And choices do have to be made.  But to us, it’s never the dogs’ fault where they’re from. And the fact is, that there are too many animals where there aren’t enough adopters. My staff knows that we help our local partner shelters first. But sometimes, the call comes in from beyond the beltway and we have to say “yes.” Like this Arkansas puppy mill rescue.  And we’ll do everything in the world never  to say “no” to our local animals. 

My Christmas wish is for everyone who ever wanted a puppy or dog or kitten or cat, to go to their local shelter first.  And never, ever, go to the Internet. Because that is where the pipeline to the puppy mill begins. We have to stop the demand for these animals. And look to our local communities to responsibly end homelessness, abandonment and neglect. Because even when Christmas comes early, it’s still never early enough for so many who need it.

‘Tis the Season for Collaboration, Not Combat

Our Winter Open House on December 4

It’s happened again. And just a little more than a few weeks before Christmas. A new non-profit organization called the Humane Society for Shelter Pets (HSSP) was formed by  the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF). The latter is run by Rick Berman, who has battled such “tyrannical” organizations as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and who seems to have a personal vendetta against the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). This may be based on the fact that the CCF gets significant funding from meat producers and processors. He is using HSSP to create a veritable public coliseum over his claim that HSUS does not support shelters or shelter animals. 

Nothing could be further from the truth.  

No legitimate movement can afford to discourage “discourse.” That’s how causes thrive, educate and grow. For the past few years, though, the animal welfare profession has suffered from some of the most hostile attacks I’ve ever seen. All in the name of saving animals. Something we all want to do. So whether it’s from the “no kill movement,” or puppy mill business interests, or egg manufactures, we’ve been hurt badly by the “dis-cohesiveness” of our support base. What CCF and the new Humane Society for Shelter Pets are doing now is just the latest toxic attack in this game of thrones. 

They claim that HSUS is misleading the public about where their funds go. Nonsense. Anyone at any time can pull up the HSUS’s IRS Form 990 and see that millions of dollars go to helping local shelters each year. And millions more go to the fantastic education programs such as the National Animal Care Expo that we all benefit from. Many more millions go to shutting down puppy mills, saving animals from hoarders, and rescuing wildlife. The simple truth is that HSUS supports shelters and companion animals.  Period. They are not—and they never say are—the single umbrella entity under which we all work. What they are is the largest and most effective voice for animals and against suffering in a world with far too much of it. 

Thanks to HSUS, there is cohesion in our struggle to protect animals and move the nation forward on humane issues: shutting down puppy mills, promoting spay/neuter, encouraging shelter pet adoption, and other issues that are crucial to our joint success. And they are always ready to mobilize their rescue teams to work with local shelters responding to natural disasters, hoarding cases, dog fighting rings, puppy mill raids, and other large-scale, often overwhelming, problems. 

There is just too much work to do; we can’t be successful if we’re divided.  Let’s drop the factional language that separates us. We need to increase cohesion between animal groups who share the honor and the grave responsibility to care for the most helpless among us. Using strategies to harm good organizations like HSUS hurts the cause for all involved.  My shelter, The Washington Animal Rescue League, is proud to partner with HSUS. For all they do for animals and all they contribute to shelters across the country, they deserve the undivided support of everyone in the animal welfare field and, indeed, the public as a whole.

Fact is, we’re all trying to take care of animals, and we need to do this job together. Creating organizations such as this new shelter pets group that uses hate and vitriol to manipulate the public harms the backbone of our movement and, worse yet, pits all of us against each other. We could move closer to our common goal of helping more animals by working together, collaborating to conquer the immense problem of animal homelessness. Groups such as the CCF and HSSP hurt not only us, but the animals we are all trying to help.

I’m all for accountability.  But let’s not make up facts to serve our own self-aggrandizing goals. We should all be doing everything we can to ensure that homeless animals get into the homes they need and deserve. But we will be much more effective in pursuit of that goal if we work together and stop creating divisions. 

We can help animals, and each other, best by working together. Not by being divided and conquering each other to further  self-interested agendas. In this season of peace and joy, let’s not hurt animals more by dividing those  dedicated to saving them. CCF and its new group HSSP, may, in fact, have done the best thing in the world for animals by shedding light on the animosity that got animals into their homeless predicament in the first place:  self-interest, dishonesty, and ignorance. So let’s drop the factional language which separates us.  Let’s celebrate collaboration—not combat— in this season of giving and work together to save those who need us the most. I, for one, am thankful to have the support of the Humane Society of the United States whenever we need it. And I personally know a few thousand animals who are home for the holidays today precisely because of that support.

The Pit Bull Dilemma

“Any pits?” I asked our shelter director, Maureen, when she got back from the Baltimore shelter with the transfer animals and was parking our rescue truck in front of the shelter. 

She smiled sheepishly at me. 

“Oh, no.  A bunch of lab mixes and a mixed shepherd or two.  And the cutest puppies you ever saw.”

I knew what that meant.  She had a truck full of pit bulls.

There are two reasons for this:  One, we’re an urban shelter north of the Mason-Dixon Line.  And two, Maureen, like me, loves pit bulls and knows they need our help more than any other animal in this country.  Because of the public’s misperception of this often gentle, loyal, and intelligent breed.   And due to the absolutely unconscionable breeding for criminally inhumane uses that this breed has endured by the most irresponsible humans among us.  There are just so too many pit bulls for the system to absorb.

Here then, is the dilemma.  We have an urban shelter in which we want to house highly adoptable animals whom the public wants to adopt.  And it’s the pits who are most in need of adoption, yet the least likely to get adopted.  So how do we get people into our nation’s shelters when the majority of dogs ready for adoption, at least in the north and in urban centers, are the least likely to be adopted?  How do we compel people to go to their shelters first—long before looking for a dog on Craig’s List, or going to a breed-specific breeder, as good and responsible as many breeders can be?

Some shelters, such as limited admission ones like mine, are not saddled with the municipal obligation of taking in every dog or cat or “other” that is surrendered to them.  We can say no.  Or yes, to the extent we have room.  But that’s not an option the majority of shelters have.  They have to say yes; yes to every litter of puppies, every stray cat, and every pit bull that comes through their doors.  And that leaves shelters full of animals less likely to be adopted—especially in a society that reveres purebred golden retrievers, labradoodles, bichons and Siamese.

We’ve nearly solved the problem of overpopulation in dogs in this country.  That is, if the north had not won the civil war and we were just talking about Washington and above.  Where spay/neuter has worked, it has really worked.  And where it hasn’t—in the south—it really hasn’t.  Other than pit bulls, there are now so few dogs being bred in the north, we have to go to rural communities in the south and in the “middle” to get puppies now, or anything besides a pit bull. I’ve even recently heard a shelter professional say we’ll need to start breeding adoptable dogs now—somewhat facetious, but not entirely. 

I want people to come to the shelter—anyone’s shelter.  That’s why we work to get animals from places where there aren’t adopters to places where there are.  Whether those places are prosecuted puppy mills, hoarding cases, or just the overwhelmed countryside where dogs and cats so readily make more dogs and cats.  That’s the solution.  And, of course, keep those doors open to your own community’s animals, because you can’t be part of that solution without taking care of your own backyard, too.  And I want every single person who adopts to see the number on that national euthanasia rate drop by one digit.  Because that’s exactly what every single adoption represents.

So, has the battle against pet overpopulation been won? Absolutely not.  And certainly not for cats. In this country, there are still between three and four million dogs and cats being euthanized every year.  That’s a huge reduction from the dozens of millions euthanized just a decade ago. But still, looking into the faces of my own dogs, I’m constantly reminded how bonded we humans are to this incredibly dependent species, and therefore, any unnecessary death is an insult to our own humanity.

We’ll continue to try to save dogs and cats from needless euthanasia in this country.  We’ll save the pits, and anything else we can.  And we’ll try to convince the adopting public to go their local shelters first, if they’re in the market to adopt.  And support their shelters with donations.  Lots of them.  Because if ever there were a noble cause, saving and honoring the human-animal bond between us and our canine and feline dependents is a cause that is worthy and very visible.

So back to Maureen and the truck parked in front of our building. 

I just smiled and said, “Bring them in.” 

Because she and I both know that they have nowhere else to go.

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.

Encore’s Long Road to Recovery

One More Chance, a self-proclaimed animal “rescue,” was operated out of a former hog farm in Ohio. Most of their dogs were kept in crates and plastic airline kennels stacked on top of each other in dark hog stalls. They almost never got let out of their crates. Some lived in makeshift wooden pens outside. These dogs fought for what little food there was, and the injured lived with their untreated wounds or died alone in the corner of their pens.

Encore, a male mixed husky, lived in this canine Gulag for years.  He was one of 329 survivors rescued by the ASPCA and the Clark County, Ohio Humane Society in March of this year. Another 76 dogs did not live to see the arrival of the rescue crew.

The Washington Animal Rescue League  agreed to take 30 of these dogs. Specifically, we asked for the ones whose mental and medical conditions were most dire. Our facility has both a full-service veterinary hospital and a team of professionally certified behavioral rehabilitation experts; we feel that gives us the responsibility to look after animals who need more than what most other shelters can provide.

The arrival of the Ohio dogs at the League was not a story-book rescue moment. None of the sick and terrified animals showed any recognition that they had just been rescued. Most wouldn’t leave their travelling crates willingly, even with gentle coaxing and treats as incentives.  Some either couldn’t or wouldn’t walk into their new, temporary home. They had to be carried.

Our veterinarians estimated that Encore was six years old. We don’t know how many of those years he spent at One Last Chance, but he was there long enough to develop the skin, ear, and eye infections that inflicted all the arriving dogs. Unlike the rest of them, Encore wasn’t overly thin. Being one of the tougher dogs, he may have eaten better than the rest.

Encore about a month after he arrived

But Encore’s spirit was in worse shape than his body. Our behavior director recalls that “Encore was very unsure of people, having had little to no human interaction for several years. He wouldn’t look at anyone but would stare at the ground when approached.  He never wanted to leave his den, he’d just lie there facing the wall. He wouldn’t eat food out of a dish at all and wouldn’t touch food if anyone was watching him.  And it was months before we saw his tail wag, even a little.”

Clearing up the dog’s various infections took time. Teaching him to trust people and enjoy their company took even longer. But finding him an appropriate home—the last stage in our “rescue, rehab, rehome” mission—seemed to take forever.  All the other 29 Ohio dogs left long before he did. Encore was still here when we did our big 33-hour, non-stop Adopt-A-Thon this past August. And he was one of only four dogs still at the shelter when the record event was over.

His big break finally came in September. A woman came in asking for the dog who had been in the shelter the longest.  She was looking for a real rescue case.  (We get these big-hearted adopters from time to time; typically they leave with a three-legged dog or a one-eyed cat.) And it didn’t hurt that she was partial to husky-types.

Today, Encore is Hachi.  He no longer sleeps in a filthy crate in a dark hog stall, but in a bed with the boy who is his constant companion.  He doesn’t have to fight for food.  And his walks in the crisp autumn sunshine fill him with joy, not fear of all the unfamiliar smells and sounds.

Hachi in his new home

Encore has had a second chance—a reprise, if you will. He is really home at last and can be a true dog in the best sense of the word. He will love his people no matter what. He will never tire of being with them nor want any other life but the one he has. The story of his life now has a wonderful ending.

Not to brag, but we knew this would happen. That’s why we stood by him through the long months of his recovery. So that he could have the privilege of standing by his people. That’s really all a dog wants. And for Encore, it was worth the wait.

Does Everyone Have a Right to Keep Pets?

Kitty is on the mend

The animal rescue shelter I run includes a veterinary hospital for shelter animals and pets of people who can’t afford private veterinarians.  Almost all the low-income people who use the hospital take excellent care of their pets, though money is often tight. But every once in a while, like any vet office anywhere, we see clients who make us ask, “Why does he even have an animal?”

One walked in last week. A man with a kindly demeanor, he brought in a cat, who at age 18 months had already mothered at least one litter of kittens.  Her name was “Kitty” (and all four of her kittens were named the same thing).  The man said that he planned on giving the kittens to his girlfriend, though I wonder who would want to get four cats all at once.  But that was his plan.

As for Kitty the mother, she was in our hospital because she had fallen off a balcony three days before and was limping.  The likely reason that Kitty fell from the balcony was that she was having trouble walking straight because one of her front legs had gotten stuck in her flea collar.  Although anyone with eyesight could see that the leg was stuck in the collar, it had been there long enough to become embedded in the skin under her leg. Of course, this doesn’t happen overnight.

So here’s a case of a man with a cat who had never before seen a vet, had never been vaccinated—nor had any of her kittens—had limped around with her leg stuck in her flea collar for at least a month, had fallen from a balcony, and even then had to wait three days before getting any help.

The man, as I said, seemed like a generally kind person; he was certainly no monster. Although he didn’t have a lot of money, he worked as a barber, and I imagine that his clients liked him and so did his family and neighbors.  And oddly, he seemed very concerned about his cat.

Occasionally our legal system will mandate that someone has lost the right to keep animals.  Michael Vick is the most famous example, and courts often apply the same rule to animal hoarders.  But other than that, anyone is free to get a dog or a cat, or even several.  It doesn’t always work out well, as Kitty’s story illustrates.  That’s why we in the animal protection field often ask ourselves if keeping pets is a right to be enjoyed by all.

I think, in the end, it should be, at least for those who have not been legally convicted of animal abuse or neglect.  We don’t, as a society, want a law restricting the keeping of pets any more than we want to restrict people’s right to have children.  But sometimes, we all agree, children have to be removed from some parents to protect them.  Same with animals.  But by then, the damage is done. The animal has suffered, and some die of abuse and neglect.

So clearly there is still a pressing need for education on the most basic needs that animals have.  And the responsibility for doing that education falls first and foremost on animal protection groups, like the Washington Animal Rescue League, where I work.  That’s why we have a humane education program that teaches school children kindness and responsibility.  And it’s why all our staff know that they’re to drop whatever they’re doing to talk to anyone who will listen about proper animal care whenever the chance arises.  It’s what I spend a lot of my own time doing.

We often hear that “it takes a village to raise a child.”  I believe that.  And I think you could say that it takes a village to raise a dog or cat, or any animal, too.  We all have to be on the lookout for animals who are not being treated well and intervene when possible.  Often, a little education, proffered gently and with kindness, is all that’s needed.  But sometimes, you have to call the police or local humane society.  In the end, that also has educational value, not only for the abuser, but for family, neighbors, and the rest of us. 

We contacted the local humane society to follow up with Kitty’s owner on the fate of her kittens.  Meanwhile, he surrendered Kitty to us.  She’s had surgery to fix her wound, has been spayed, vaccinated and cared for, and soon she will be looking for new home.  At this point, her story has a guaranteed happy ending.

And maybe her ordeal has taught some people something about caring for animals.  We can only hope.

Saving Puppies

Here we go again. And this time it wasn’t on purpose, unless you consider that we know it’s a strong possibility every time we take in new puppies. We’ve got parvovirus again. The signs go up in the lobby, the low-cost vaccine clinics for the public get cancelled, and the shelter gets broken up into three levels of quarantine, like we’re in the middle of the movie “The Hot Zone.”

This is the hard part of bringing in animals who have “nowhere else to go.”  Which is more than our motto at the Washington Animal Rescue League; it’s an everyday reality.  And rescuing puppies. Puppies that act completely nuts (like puppies do) and who look perfectly healthy at the overwhelmed shelters we travel to every week to lend a hand and bring home the animals who have no time left. Truth is, the 42 healthy-looking, energetic puppies we brought back from two separate shelters in West Virginia last week, were already as much as dead at their shelters because the clock had run out. Not because those shelters were bad places and their staff didn’t care. Quite the opposite. They were already doing all they could to save an ever increasing number of animals whom the public has essentially discarded by overbreeding, under-spaying, never neutering, and rarely vaccinating. 

And we don’t have to go far to run into this. We open our doors to puppies who prance in with their owners from our own neighborhood, or we get them from our partner shelters who also want to save every last one. Unfortunately, it’s a never-ending river of homeless, “throw-away” animals. The world—at least the developed world—has been well-educated in spaying and neutering and the tragedy of companion animal overpopulation. And vaccines have been around since the turn of the last century. So if it’s not ignorance (which it’s not), why is it that we still have too many puppies and kittens, and far too many discarded dogs and cats? And why such poor preventive medical practices when the most easily avoidable animal disease, parvovirus, is so rampant in our shelters?

I have a one-word answer: accessibility. Or lack of it. This country—and the world, too, but let’s stick with the U.S. for now—is critically lacking in accessible veterinary care. And it’s not the vets’ fault. It costs a fortune to run a practice.  And most new vets are in extreme debt to the tune of several hundred thousand by the time they get out of at least eight years of higher education. But if it costs you $100 to get a puppy examined and vaccinated or, heaven forbid, $600-800 if your dog starts vomiting in the middle of the night and you have to go to an emergency hospital, that’s very hard—if not impossible—for many, many people. And never mind that spaying a dog can cost hundreds of dollars. Again, not your vet’s fault. Try doing any of these things (well, not spaying) at a human hospital, and veterinary medicine will seem like the best bargain in the world.

We need accessible veterinary care in this country. Last week, I asked my medical director to come up with a list of veterinary hospitals in the U.S. who offer subsidized or reduced cost services to low-income populations. She found only four. And of those, none of them offered the kind of discounts that we offer here at our shelter. Because they can’t. It simply costs too much. But when we look into the faces of our clients who are bringing in the one thing they haven’t lost in this exhaustingly tenacious recession, it’s clear they can’t afford even the 80 percent reduced costs we offer. So how can people do it in rural West Virginia, or bayou Louisiana, or central Missouri? No wonder these shelters are so full.  And it’s the innocent who suffer—the puppies and kittens no one ever had space or money for, with diseases that are wholly preventable, except they never got a vaccine. Life is already hard enough for people who are just making it as “working class,” never mind the poor or the ill. 

The result is all around me as I walk through the shelter, where we have forty puppies quarantined for at least ten days because they’ve tested positive for parvo. We lost one of them to the disease last week, but we hope we will save the rest, who will go on to wonderful new homes with families who want them and can take care of them. But who is going to save those thousands, ten thousands, millions, all across the country, who will never get that chance unless animal health care is supported, subsidized and prioritized, as it should be in a truly civilized society? For those of us trying to staunch the flow, that question is the toughest pill of all to swallow.

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.

A Noble and Winning Cause

Wayne Pacelle, the president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States and a good personal friend and partner of the League, came by on Monday night to talk about his views on animal welfare, the state of our movement, and some of the lessons he’s learned along the way.

Most, if not all of the observations and convictions Wayne shared are in his new book, The Bond: Our Kinship with Animals, Our Call to Defend Them, and he read selections from it on the Katrina rescue and his dealings with Michael Vick, who now joins HSUS in speaking out against dog fighting.

According to Wayne—and it’s an opinion that I share and have long held—people have a natural bond with animals. Our lives are, in fact, intertwined with the lives of animals around us, our pets first of all, but also wild animals and others that we may encounter. This bond is especially obvious in children; it may be suppressed or ignored by adults, but it never quite disappears. We would never want it to.

In that bond Wayne finds hope. It provides the foundation for the animal welfare movement, which he sees as a natural development in our country’s ongoing evolution.  The United States, founded on lofty and noble ideals, has spent the past 200 plus years trying to bring its actions up to the standards that those ideals express. With animals, we still have a long way to go.

As his book describes, our relations with animals are a moral paradox. We spend billions on our pets, of which there are more in the US than there are people, while our meat industry legally inflicts horrid cruelty upon billions of animals with the evident consent of the government and the American public. But so strong is the bond with animals that the future still looks bright to Wayne.

“The trajectory of progress is unmistakable and undeniable: by ever-larger majorities, the conscience of America is asserting itself. Animal protection has always been a noble cause.  Now it’s a winning cause too.”

In fact, in his remarks, Wayne upheld the League as evidence of this progress, noting that “WARL is truly one of the outstanding examples of a modern animal shelter that breaks the stereotype of a depressing place with forgotten animals waiting to die and replaces it with a welcoming, uplifting place where animals are loved and well cared for. Its renovation started a wave of re-building among animal shelters in the country based on their model and the idea that the shelters can be places of healing and rest.”

That is what we are trying to create and constantly improve on. A place of healing for animals and their people, and living proof of the strength of that human-animal bond he so eloquently describes.

You can order a copy of Wayne’s book, which I highly recommend, through