Challenge to Our Local Shelter and AC Department Leaderships
In an e-mail message sent out to about 130 people this past week, our shelter's executive director implored us to become part of the solution and take actions instead of waste time. She had received a personal message from myself and an individual rescuer to our personal network of animal people; we were trying to save a few dogs in danger of being killed at our shelter. It seems when anyone tries to address issues in any real, meaningful or detailed way, they are accused of being part of the problem. I have experienced this directly myself and have heard it time and again from many who work in animal welfare.
That's where I form my opinion about our current shelter leadership and how it reflects going up the ladder to our ASCMV governing board. I honestly don't think we are doing all that we can to enrich and save more lives at our shelter, and I have every right to that opinion. I also have observed far too many times where our shelter's leadership and staff have been very unprofessional in their dealings with animal groups and individuals from the public, and I think this is uncalled for and the main reason why we cannot progress.
For example, this one paragraph in the director's message shows how far we have to go as a community. First of all, it is insulting to many of us as it slaps us in the face and acuses us of doing nothing to help solve our community's animal issues. This came to us from a hired individual who is paid a good salary to run our sheler and has only been here a little over a year. Yet, she said this to some rescuers who have been here working for years on these issues. Her message and demeanor also show how horrible the lines of communication are between our shelter and the rest of us out here working hard most of our free time in doing just what she asks us to do. Overall, it's sad and tragic to see how out-of-touch our shelter's leadership is with the community it serves.
Many of us are out here working directly with normal people and helping them become responsible pet guardians. We are not stuck in a myopic view behind the walls of an overburdened facility pointing fingers outward and circling those wagons. Some are out here helping people spay and neuter their animals, some are trying to find alternatives to pet relinquishments at the shelter by re-homing animals, some are operating non-profits and rescues, but there is no doubt in my mind that we are all working hard ... most of us for no monetary compensation whatsoever.
On top of that, there is another whole large part of our community that we have not even started to tap into nor have we begun to harness the overwhelming compassion that is out there. We forget that for every bad, irresponsible pet owner, there are tens of hundreds more normal people that are good guardians and who provide well for their animals and have a strong bond with them. If not, Americans would not be spending billions of dollars on animal care each year. It is these people we have to reach out to and invite to become part of the solution as well as those who we can educate and turn around. Ironically, most of what shelter leaders who are regressive do is point fingers at people, treat them suspiciously, and turn them off, which directly affects the programs and services the shelter can provide for our homeless animals. It's akin to a police officer who treats every person as a criminal.
The other day, I was walking my dog in what many would consider a more poor area of our city; then we went to the dog park and then another city park after that (it takes a long while to tire him out!). I have been making it my duty these days to take a mental "pet guardian" vs. "pet owner" count as I'm out on my daily tasks. I often notice the difference between beloved family dogs vs. resident dogs tied out with zero socialization ... and everything in-between. I do this to not get lost in the negativity that can sometimes come from animal-welfare work and to keep a bigger perspective.
From these observations, it is clear to me that nothing is black and white. In this one outing, I saw about five dogs outside whose owners were playing and hanging out with them in the yard; I saw a man feeding a cat on top of an abandoned car in his yard and petting him/her; I saw one tied up, pathetic resident guard dog; and then I saw about 10 to 20 pampered pooches at both the dog park and regular park I went to as well as several people walking their dogs on leashes or riding with them in their cars. Once you look at the big picture, you realize how colorful it really is.
That's not to say we don't have issues in Dona Ana County; it would be an insult to say that as well. I just think we have alot of untapped resources to deal with the issues more creatively and successfully. And, we are never going to get to a time we turn the tide around until there are clear, open, transparent lines of communication and partnerships between us animal-welfare volunteers and non-profit groups and the shelter's leadership. Then, there needs to be the same openness and partnering with these groups and our AC departments and between the shelter and each AC department. If the shelter tries to do it all alone, it will take a longer time to reach success, and they will probably never get there.
A good case in point is information our director revealed to us in this same e-mail about their increasing transfers of animals out of our area and how that reduced our kill/euthanasia rate from the horrible 70-80% rate to actually matching the national average of around 50%+ in April 2009. That's great news, and that is the kind of success that everyone who works with animals in our community should know, and we should know if we are maintaining that success from here on out or not and look into why we are or not. However, unless we can make it to one monthly morning ASCMV board meeting held on a work day (at 9 a.m. the first Thurs. of each month), we are in the dark. And, that one meeting is not conducive to working through any details or for back-and-forth communication and problem-solving.
In the end, our overall kill rate cannot be reduced by any one effort or program alone or any one facility, group, or person alone. We still have a long way to go. The national average kill rate of 50% is still a tragedy. It takes the whole village and whole slew of efforts to create a No Kill community. It is being done in more and more communities in the U.S. each year, and it is up to us to decide to join that movement now or later. I have no doubt that the nation will reach No Kill sooner or later. When will we join the shelter reform movement?
For us, it's the flow of communication and information I challenge us all to improve in order to help save more lives and in order to come to the day when our shelter's staff does not have to make those daily, harsh decisions of who lives and who dies. Yet, even those decisions need to be made equitably and after fair, documented behavioral and medical assessments.
What kind of information will help us? How can we begin to share it better and start mending these broken relationships? How can we move on from the past?
We all talk about the horrible overpopulation issue in our community and the high intake rate at our shelter. That is an issue we can all agree upon and want to do something about. However, that is still a very big-picture view of the situation. Each non-profit group and individual rescuer is trying their best to make a dent in these numbers, but we also spin our wheels alot because we lack the information of where and how to best target our efforts. No story is that simple, and the more detailed information we can share, the better off we all will be.
Here is some food for thought for us all moving forward:
- If the AC departments and the shelter shared some of their database information with animal groups, we could start targeting our efforts outside the shelter to those areas in most need first. For example, from what exact areas (by zip code or other identifier) are the most strays picked up? Where are the mom dogs and cats coming from with their litters? These are the areas that groups can target for public outreach/education and that can be targeted with special spay/neuter efforts. For example, Albuquerque's Animal Humane has a program that offers free s/n services via their mobile van in only one zip code of their community from which the most homeless animals come.
- Another useful piece of information would be to know the predominant breeds and "types" of animals coming into our shelter. From my experience there in the past, I saw that we got many chihuahuas and mixes, pit bulls and mixes, and too many stray/feral cats. These figures can help us develop incentivized efforts to make a dent in these populations first. In some areas, they have programs that fix pit bulls for free or for a small "reward". Also, the shelter's leadership should be at the forefront of lobbying for legal changes in our system to deal with cats in the community in better ways than hauling ferals in to be killed within hours of reaching the facility. Of all groups, the shelter should understand this is the last place any feral cat should be, and they should be giving educational presentations throughout the community about community cat programs that work and are now endorsed by every major animal group in the nation.
- With the large intake in our one municipal shelter, it is obvious that one facility is not enough. What about starting a capital campaign to build another facility -- perhaps one run as a private, non-profit that can take up some of the slack and offer/model progressive sheltering programs and services? Or, how can we build a larger foster network to help ease the burden at our shelter? We need foster homes that number in the hundreds if not thousands, and with a community that has so many military families, why not target a P/R effort to these families to help them understand the benefits and rewards of fostering animals? I know that most people in the general public do not understand what fostering animals entails; it's a foreign concept to them. Many people love animals but cannot make a lifetime commitment at this time -- those are the ones to steer into fostering. News media can help by featuring stories about families who foster as well.
- We need a PR campaign that educates the public that the animal shelter should be the place of LAST resort for unwanted animals. When possible, we need to help people work through issues with behavior modification, etc. We also need a shelter staff that does more than repeat one sentence to anyone relinquishing an animal, "We don't have space right now, so if you leave that dog/cat here, the chances are it will be put down immediately." We need to sit down with these people, get as much information as possible about each animal to make better adoption matches, and we especially need to start sending a message back to the public that dumping an animal is not something you can do in five seconds. Make it as important event as it is, and also remove the option of people stuffing animals into a cage when no one is around. Until we in animal welfare start treating each animal like his/her life matters as much as the one that came before, the public won't get that new message either.
- We need to find a way to provide socialization, training and enrichment to our shelter animals as they are going through the system. We need to do more than figure out their outcome; we need to be responsible about the quality of their lives in the system, too. This is also one of the biggest efforts in disease control because stressed animals have depressed immune systems. It is not enough to follow shelter medicine cleaning protocol while you restrict access to animals and then provide zero enrichment. This is an outrage, and it needs to be addressed. We must employ the Five Freedoms in the least (see the last part of this blog posting for a definition of this concept), and if the shelter staff cannot do this alone, we need a plan of action to get people in there who can. This is especially true for any animals held long-term, such as those pending cruelty court cases.
- When it comes to increasing animal transfers, we can still do much more. The animal-welfare network in Las Cruces should be fully vetted on which rescue groups our shelter works with and not, WHY not, and the process by which rescues are contacted or when they are allowed to come look through the shelter. We need to be sure it is against the rules for the shelter to kill any animal a rescue is willing to take. We need to be informed about the policies in place and when and if there is logical flexibility around these policies. For example, many reputable, dedicated individual rescuers in our area do not have official non-profits and do their work out of their own homes/pockets. We need a work-around for working with these individuals as well as those networks that help only with transport. We also need to start branching out to surrounding areas and partner with those on the border facing similar issues, such as all the groups in El Paso--not just one or two.
- We need to develop partnerships with human-services groups and agencies, such as juvenile and adult detention facilities and prisons as well as places like La Casa, which probably need help developing a foster system for abused spouses who don't want to leave their situations because they don't have anywhere to go with their furry family members. I'm sure that those groups and agencies that service various low-income individuals have similar needs, such as programs to match and support pets for home-bound seniors, etc. The possibilities of these human/animal-welfare partnerships are endless.
The single greatest need is for us all to sit down together, roll up our sleeves, get to work, and share essential information. I openly challenge the shelter's leadership (oversight board) to be the leader in these efforts; after all, it is our shelter that is ultimately responsible for the animals that enter their system. They also have the most pertinent information because they are the only large facility in our area at this time that takes in the majority of our animals.I know myself and others are willing to pitch in and work on areas that will make an impact. Alternately, we don't want to go in and work in a restrictive, negative, unprofessional environment that does not allow us make much of a difference; that is a waste of time for us and does nothing to positively change things for those we all care about -- our homeless animal population.
Why we should push for the Five Freedoms for all long-term sheltered animals
It is animal welfare's dirty little secret because the general public is not aware of this issue, but it is high time for anyone who loves animals to speak up against the horrible intense confinement of animals long-term in sheltering facilities here and nationwide. This happens in our system each time someone is busted for animal cruelty and their animals are removed pending case resolution. It also happens to any sheltered animal that remains in intense confinement long-term for whatever reason, such as undesirable breeds or other special-needs animals that take longer to place or for which special efforts are not made to adopt them out. Whatever the reason, living in a small cage or kennel with little or no breaks from that stressful environment is unacceptable in this day and age.
The issue goes all the way up the ladder to national groups like the HSUS and PETA; these rich animal-protection groups raise millions of dollars each year to fight animal cruelty, as they should. However, shouldn't those of us giving our money in the name of fighting animal cruelty also call for alternatives to the intense confinement and subsequent death that many of these victims of abusers face after they are taken away from their horrible conditions? This is the height of irony for the victims in these cases ... that they continue suffering and being victimized after being "rescued" from their abusers.
Look no further than our community. There is only one choice for long-term care, and that is our shelter. Dogs are placed in kennels, and cats in cages, and they go crazy in no time in this environment after even a short period of time, much less long stretches in time. Some look emaciated from the stress, or they jump in circles of panic all day long, or they go as far as to gnaw on concrete and destroy their own teeth or gnaw/lick themselves raw. Sometimes these cases drag on for months-to-years. Conversely, look at the serene environment of the long-term care at our one animal sanctuary which often provides a home to animals for years. There, dogs live in bigger pens with companions and are much happier and cats live in an enclosed cattery (much like the way they are housed at Best Friends Animal Society in UTAH). There is no reason why each community should not have a peaceful alternative to the intense confinement for any animals being held pending cruelty case resolution or adoption/transfer.
For all the animals who are housed for any period of time, the standard of the Five Freedoms must be applied. These freedoms were developed with factory-farmed animals in mind, but they apply equally as well to companion animals in shelters:
1. Freedom from hunger and thirst
2. Freedom from discomfort
3. Freedom from pain, injury or disease
4. Freedom to express normal behavior
5. Freedom from fear and distress
Our local shelter and AC leadership must also focus on animals' quality of life while they are being housed for whatever reason. Any animal lover who contributes to animal-welfare organizations--especially the big, rich and powerful ones who have the money and clout to change things--must lift up their voices to say that it is negligent and unacceptable to forget the other part of the animal-cruelty crackdown equation ... that of the victims who are rescued from one horrible environment to be placed into another stressful one awaiting a usual sad outcome in the end. We must demand better care and treatment for all of these animals, including equitable assessments, opportunities for survival (a second chance), and the well-being of all the animals in a facility--not just a token few or favorites or "special cases".