It's very important how these powers that be communicate with the public. No matter how many puppies or other animals a shelter has to deal with, I am not in favor of some of the statements made by shelter leadership in the press recently. For example, they made it sound, when the story first came out in the Las Cruces Sun-News, like there was only one choice for the surplus puppies -- deciding which 50 would be put to death a few days after publication of this story. They talked about the horrible burden of this decision, yet they did not talk about all the vast alternatives to this decision as well. When we consider these vast alternatives, one has to wonder about the message the shelter is sending--about how horrible it is to HAVE to put animals to death.
With that many puppies under one roof at one time, with how overburdened the shelter was at that time, it was the perfect opportunity to discuss not only the obvious problem we have with "overpopulation" but the solutions to situations such as these and to avoiding them in the future. The press only gives you a few sound bites in which to get your message across. Each word you choose is of utmost importance because of this.
There are ways to approach this issue that do not involve talking about injecting puppies with a deadly syringe. Much less is it appropriate to suggest that people should expose their children not only to the miracle of life but the miracle of death by bringing them to the shelter to hold puppies while they die. What an ugly thing to say and totally unnecessary.
Perhaps our shelter's leadership thinks this approach is working due to the influx of people there to help and adopt, but that kind of response and support could be had without these hysterical, untrue, and horrible tactics. If the leadership would have come out with the same story and positive approaches to solving the issue and asking what they specifically need, they would have gotten the same kind of response or perhaps an even better one.
Clarity of the message is important as well. They needed to explain where the puppies came from and the various options for them, of which euthanasia is only one. They needed to ask for help and support in the community to save these precious lives, and they needed to say the LAST thing they ever want to do is to end lives that have just begun. They needed to challenge the community for help and support to save these lives in a way that was inspiring and educational.
The influx of puppies opens up the opportunity to talk about the importance of spay/neuter and the existing programs and support in our community for people to take advantage of as well as the needs to grow the support and services in this area to reach a higher volume of spay/neuter. The opportunity to talk about what each individual can do to help saves lives was also lost. The opportunity to educate people that the shelter should be the place of last resort and offering alternatives to the puppies being dumped is another one lost in the stories that have been coming out. Also lost is the opportunity to discuss what the shelter is doing about outreach and education in the areas in which the puppies are coming from.
Alternatives to the deadly blue solution for puppies are vast. It is far more challenging to place older animals in any shelter. Here are some of the choices shelters inundated with puppies could consider and try before putting puppies to death:
- Have a special puppy adoption promotion with a catchy name and send out public service announcements so the message can inundate the public. Use this also as an opportunity to educate adopters and the public on the long-term commitment of puppy adoption. Consider reducing the adoption amount, offering two for one adoptions, etc.
- Ask area obedience trainers or groups to offer free monthly puppy classes for six months for each puppy adopted during this crisis so that adopters and their puppies can make it through the challenges of puppy hood and especially through those adolescent years (age 1 to 3 yrs.) when dogs are usually relinquished to shelters.
- Contact all local rescue groups, sanctuaries, shelters, and animal-welfare nonprofits to work with the shelter on this issue; have a special emergency action meeting with all of them to come up with a plan of action for saving lives.
- Contact shelters and rescues around the country to see who is short on puppies and devise a plan for getting puppies to them. Start with areas nearest your area and then move outward. Put out a call for transport help in your community to help with this Great Puppy Exodus, and urge the press to cover this ongoing rescue project.
- Have a special event featuring the puppies and inviting the public to a meet and greet; or have a puppy parade tied to a super adoption at a local park or other bigger venue; and/or ask the local newspapers to feature a puppy litter a day in their publications.
- Going forward, tell the community how they can help; ask for what you need specifically, such as foster homes for puppy litters and mom dogs, people to help make calls and network, people to get out to areas in need of more outreach for an all-out education campaign aimed at diverting the same puppy issues in the future from these areas, etc.
- Offer a week of free spay and neuter to any family that relinquished puppies at the shelter; be sure you are sitting people down and counseling them before they are allowed to drop puppies off at the shelter; educate them on alternatives and how they can help find homes for the puppies themselves, etc.
- Be sure that in all your messages to the public, you let people know the cornerstones to saving lives: urge everyone to spay/neuter all their pets and keep them up-to-date on vaccinations; urge everyone to adopt from a rescue or shelter vs. buying from backyard breeders or puppy stores; urge people to address behavior and other issues with their existing pets and offer them the resources to do this with; and, last but not least, urge people to think of the shelter as the place of last resort for homeless animals and offer alternatives and information on what they can do with pets they find, etc.
These are just a few options of the many; if you got more than one person sitting at a desk brainstorming, as I am doing now, they would come up with even more ideas. It's clear that the option to kill puppies should be considered last. A shelter leadership working toward no kill would not name that as the first and ONLY option available.
What we have shown this week is that Dona Ana County and the City of Las Cruces are ready for no-kill success. People showed how much they care when the news came out that the shelter was overflowing with puppies, and the people that care far outnumber the people that are disposing of these puppies. So, what is missing is helping caring people connect the dots to figure out how they can put their great love of animals to good use. That's why our shelter will continue to have these issues in the future; their messages are convoluted and mostly self-centered around their terrible burden instead of ways to solve the problem and utilizing the vast public resource of caring people in order to uncover every other alternative besides the usual one that regressive shelters choose: DEATH.
In today's Las Cruces Sun-News story, the shelter's leadership is quoted as saying that the 100+ adoptions of the last week have "not made a dent". How can that be possible? Each day that I have driven past the shelter this past week on my way home from work, I saw the parking lot more full than ever before. And, there is power in this kind of a response. Our shelter will lose that power if they don't genuinely appreciate it and positively nurture and lead it.
What is lacking, in other words, is harnessing that power in a way that leads to our community simultaneously implementing all of the programs and services we need to save more lives. The kind of response our shelter got last week should show the public can do far more than make a dent in the issues; they could help bring about radical change.
The public is showing they are ready to be led in that direction and to accept this challenge. Who will lead us there?