Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Stop the Killing – Solutions

In Part 1, I took a look at the number of cats and dogs killed in US shelters every year.  Sadly, the numbers are a best guess because there are no requirements for shelters to keep statistics.  The estimated kill rate of 64% was based on a 14-year-old study with only 1000 shelters participating.

In Part 2, I took a look at causes for the killing.  The primary cause is the shelters themselves, with irresponsible owners being secondary.  There are also a number of contributing factors.

Today, I conclude with solutions.

Because the problem itself is multi-faceted, there is no single solution.  There are a number of parts, that when put together create a whole.  Each component must be utilized if there is to be widespread success.  While any one component certainly helps, it can be overwhelmed when the others are ignored.

So what is the solution?  I believe there are two primary solutions … no kill shelters and education.  But neither is as simple as the words imply.  The problem is multi-faceted, and so is each solution.

No Kill Shelters

If shelters stop killing all the adoptable animals, then the kill rate drops to 15% or less.  Simple, yes?  Not really.  Part of the current problem is what the shelters do or don’t do. 

Some, such as the shelter in Vermillion Parish, Louisiana, is rescue only.  Most rescues are foster-home based and are limited in the number of animals they can handle.  Shelters such as this one must allow adoption of their animals.

Some shelters, such as Bladen County, North Carolina, have restricted days and hours, making it difficult for people to adopt or rescue.  To make matters worse, this shelter only has one rescue day each week, and the day changes weekly.  Rescues must also call for an appointment.  Adoption and rescue friendly policies must be put into place. 

Some shelters, including my local ‘humane’ society, do not market or advertise their animals as they should, if at all.  If people do not know about the available animals, they can’t adopt or rescue them.  Adoptable animals must be marketed and advertised appropriately.

Some shelters do not allow adoption or rescue of animals at all.  Every animal they intake is killed.  The question is why. 
·         If it is because of local/county government policies, then the citizens of the area must speak out against such policies.  It is up to the citizens to ensure elected officials do what is desired of them.  If they don’t, boot them out of office and elect someone who will.  These policies must be changed.
·         If it is because the employees themselves would rather kill than have to care for the animals, then the employees need to be fired and replaced with those who will care for the animals.  Employment policies must be changed.

Some shelters, such as the one in Memphis, Tennessee, do not make all of their adoptable animals available to the public.  If these animals are never seen, they can never be adopted or rescued.  All adoptable animals must be made available to the public.

Some shelters kill because they think no one will want to adopt a senior dog or cat, or simply because it’s ‘euthanasia’ day.  This is an employee problem, and yes, shelter directors are employees too.  Policies must be in place to ensure this type of thinking is not condoned or allowed, and if necessary, employees replaced.

Some shelters kill dogs of certain breeds and all black animals upon intake, no matter how the animal arrived at the shelter.  Policies must change and this type of killing not allowed.

Many shelters kill owner surrenders upon intake.  Most of these animals are healthy and adoptable.  Policies must change and this type of killing not allowed.

Many shelters do not give strays a chance.  Once the stray hold is up, the animal is killed.  How can an animal be adopted if it’s killed before it’s even seen by anyone?  Policies must change and this type of killing not allowed.

Some animals are killed because they have not been adopted after weeks or even months.  Why these animals are not adopted is another multi-faceted issue.  Often, it is because the animal doesn’t present itself well at the shelter due to fear, anxiety and stress.  Sometimes it’s because of the breed and/or color.  Sometimes it’s because of the animal’s condition.  Read this blog post for a few stories that illustrate this.  Sometimes it’s because the dog needs some training and socialization.  Read Save Marshall to see a current real life situation.  Shelter employees and volunteers must be trained to recognize these animals and work to make the animal more adoptable.

Some shelters either do not allow volunteers to help, or restrict what volunteers are allowed to do and say.  Some, such as the shelter in New York City, require volunteers to sign non-disclosure agreements so they cannot say anything about what they see.  These policies must change, and the shelters must change if they are so afraid of what volunteers may say about them.

Some shelters kill animals who fail their temperament testing, even when the test is improperly administered and interpreted, even when the dog is under duress from being in the shelter.  Some test results may even be deliberately fudged to justify killing the dog.  This must change with tests appropriately and properly administered by qualified, impartial testers.

Most shelters are not transparent.  They do not publicize their adoption versus kill rates.  They do not advertise their policy regarding owner surrender.  They do not advertise their policies concerning strays.  They do not publicize their budgets or where all their money goes.  This has to change.  Shelters must be transparent.

And when a county shelter, such as the one in Seagoville, Texas, wants and works to be no kill even when county policies are not written that way, county government needs to rewrite their policies and support the shelter’s efforts.

Simply addressing the problems above could dramatically reduce the kill rate, even without officially becoming a no kill shelter.  Taken together, everything above is what a no kill shelter is about.  But no kill shelters also go beyond this.  They hire and properly train caring employees.  The animals’ best interests come first.  They make the commitment to the no kill philosophy and to the animals. 

Irresponsible Owners

Virtually everything I listed under irresponsible owners is a matter of education
·         Many people don’t know how to choose the right pet for them. 
·         Many people don’t know why an animal should be altered, and many are under false impressions concerning altering. 
·         Many people don’t know about the proper care of their chosen pet, which includes everything from feeding to exercise to breed characteristics to vet care.
·         Many people do not know what resources are available to them when they have a problem.
·         Many people don’t know what their local and county animal laws are.
·         Many people don’t know why they should train and socialize their puppy.

For a real life story that illustrates some of my points about the lack of knowledge, please read about Miss Pig and her mom.  It is a story of life, love and lessons.  You may want to have a tissue handy.

Shelters, rescues and other animal welfare groups, as well as veterinarians, need to work to compile information and resources, and disseminate it in multiple ways.  It does no good if you have the information and don’t share it or otherwise make it available.  And you have to market/advertise the fact that you have this information.

Classes, pamphlets/booklets, document files (on websites), handouts, posters, and more will go a long way in helping to educate people.  Programs where presentations are given at schools, social groups, town meetings, etc are another way to educate.

Shelters and rescues must have policies in place and appropriately trained staff or volunteers to help potential adopters choose the right pet for them.  When the wrong animal is chosen, it is often returned, and this is not the animal’s fault.  Please read Cocoa’s story, a real life situation where a dog was not a good fit for the family that adopted her and is now in danger of being killed.

I remember that while reading Badd Newz: The Untold Story of the Michael Vick Dog Fighting Case the author recounted an incident where a woman brought in a puppy to surrender because it was destructive and then wanted to adopt another.  When asked, the woman admitted she had never taken the puppy to any sort of training class.  Thankfully, the staff member on duty at the time accepted the puppy and refused to let the woman look at others.  If this isn’t a case of a lack of understanding and education about puppies, I don’t know what is.  And sadly enough, it probably happens far more often than we’d care to think about. 

Any of us could recount multiple instances of problems caused by a lack of education about companion animals.  Use your knowledge and personal experience to help others learn.

Contributing Factors

Blissful ignorance, disposable society, and thinking of animals as being property or things are all a matter of education.  These are probably the toughest education issues.  People believe what they want to believe, and sometimes, no matter what you say you can’t change their minds.  But that does not mean you shouldn’t try.

Dissemination of information will help educate the public about what is going on with our shelters, which is why I wrote this series of posts.

Education programs can help people rethink how they view and treat animals as being property or disposable.  Put a link on your website or print out copies to hand out of I am a dog, not a thing by Penny Eims, National Dog News Examiner.  Some people just never look at or think about animals from this point of view.  Until they do, animals are just a thing to be treated however the owner wants, or to be disposed of when a newer model comes out.

Animal neglect and cruelty often results in the abused animals being taken to a shelter.  Neglect is sometimes a matter of education where people just don’t know any better.  While we will never be able to change or educate abusers, better animal welfare laws and penalties can serve as a deterrent.  Weak laws and “slap on the wrist” penalties do nothing to make people think twice about abusing an animal.  Unfortunately, this will not eradicate the problem, but it may lessen it and thereby the number of animals going to shelters.

Going hand-in-hand with better laws is the establishment of Guardian ad litem programs where trained volunteers are assigned to abuse and criminal cases and represent the animals in courts.  These programs can help prevent animals from being killed when the case is resolved and they are no longer considered evidence.  Their guardian will be able to speak for them, and make sure they have been evaluated for potential adoption or rehabilitation.

Overpopulation is not a cause of the killing, although it certainly contributes to it.  There are more than enough homes for all the animals entering shelters each year.  Many people advocate mandatory spay/neuter laws, but I’m not sure mandatory laws are the way to go.  A lot of people get very stubborn and testy when any level of government mandates they have to do something in regards to their property.  Yes, we think of our pets as members of the family, but according to law they are property, and we must remember that fact.  Yes, altering pets will reduce the number of unwanted litters and pregnant females that end up in shelters but mandating it is not the solution.  Educate people about the benefits of altering their pets, as well as dispelling some of the myths concerning altering.  People are more likely to respond positively to benefits than they are to mandatory laws.

When it comes to terminology, the simple solution is to tell the truth.  Unless a shelter is no kill (officially or by actions), it does not deserve to, and should not, use the term.  Same thing applies to humane societies.  What term is better?  That’s a tough one.  I’m not sure “pound” is the way to go, although it is a familiar term to most people.  Don't use the term "euthanasia" unless the animal is truly being put down for humane reasons.  Most are being KILLED and not as mercy killings.  Avoid using "put to sleep" as it is misleading and implies a peaceful end by going to sleep forever.  It doesn't matter if the killing is by gas, injection or heartstick ... it is painful and not peaceful.

There are other contributing factors, such as Breed Specific Legislation and media hyperbole and sensationalism, which I have not included.  These also need to be appropriately addressed if we are to make any headway with them.

In conclusion, it is possible to stop the killing at our shelters … but it will take time and effort on the part of many people.  It will require making tough decisions, and opening yourself to pain and sorrow.  It will require people to open their eyes, minds and hearts to that which they would prefer not to.  It will require many people to speak up and be the voice of the animals.  It will require “the powers that be” at shelters to admit the truth.

Every positive change made by a shelter is a step towards no kill.  Every person who is educated is a step toward reducing the number of animals entering shelters.

It can be done.  It is a matter of doing it.

Stop the Killing - Solutions Part 2