Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Myth busters - Not all shelter pets need a new home

Part 2 in a series about making a paradigm shift in our thinking about animal welfare.

Here's the scenario:  You walk into an animal shelter as a volunteer, an employee or a potential adopter. You see all those adorable faces of the animals looking at you and you think "All these poor, poor animals - there are so many of them, we need to find them all homes. They are homeless, unwanted, unloved." STOP! REWIND! DO-OVER! BIG MYTH!

The vast majority of animals in shelters come from two sources. Strays and surrenders.  In Wisconsin, we receive a lot of transfers from other shelters.  But the initial reason for the animal coming into a shelter was the same. It was a stray. Or it was a surrender.  (Occasionally some will come from a cruelty case or a commercial breeder surrender. I'm not talking about those - they rightfully belong in a shelter until a new home can be found.)

Instead walk down that aisle and think about where that dog or cat came from. How could you have stopped him or her from coming through the door?  I admit, my mind used to work the old way. I thought shelters should be just big adoption facilities - cranking them out as fast as they were coming in. But then the reality hit me. Most animals don't belong in shelters. Now when I walk into a shelter and see those faces the words of that old Jackson Browne song runs through  my head "She Must Be Somebody's Baby - She's So Fine."

If you are only thinking about how to get the animal adopted, you are just putting a bandaid on the problem. A lot of these animals don't need new homes. They had perfectly good homes to begin with. Animal shelters should be operating like good doctors - focusing on wellness and prevention rather than treatment.

Does your shelter operate like a pet store? That's a big red flag to me. Now don't get me wrong - I have no problem with shelters that use good marketing techniques and make their shelters happy, friendly places with convenient hours and policies for people to come and adopt.

What I do have a problem with is is the attitude - "We'll find them a better home", instead of getting them back into the home they had. I've blogged on this twice before once concerning the poor and once concerning the elderly. A shelter should be a a safety net for the animals who have no guardian or owner to advocate for them. Most pets DO have somebody to advocate for them and you have to do a little homework to find them and make it all work out.

Maybe they weren't perfect homes, but then whose is?  But maybe they were good homes. And we've got to get off this kick that every pet needs a fluffy bed and fancy toys.  Pets need kindness, food, shelter, water and basic veterinary care  - not a six figure income and a big house in the suburbs.

If the shelter or rescue is not spending a great majority of it's time and resources on programs which promote "reducing intake" then it is only putting it's finger in the dike.

Strays are lost pets who should be returned to their homes.   It's called Missing Animal Response or proactive redemptions. It should be a major focus of every shelter and animal control agency in this country. Bill Bruce, Director of Animal Bylaw Services in Calgary, Alberta; and Mitch Schneider, Director of Animal Control Services in Washoe County, (Reno) Nevada are leading advocates of proactive redemptions and guess what? Both of these communities are saving over 90 percent of the animals.

Mitch Schneider summed it up simply and brilliantly: “By returning the dog home, we don’t stress the dog, we don’t stress the dog’s owner, we don’t stress the staff at the shelter, and we don’t stress the other dogs in the shelter. Everyone wins. Even the taxpayers win: we spend less of their money.”

Surrenders are dogs and cats who are brought to a shelter that with early intervention could have probably been kept in their homes.

Does your shelter or rescue have an animal help desk? Do they have resources for people that need to move, need behavior or training advice, need pet food? Or do they accept every animal no questions asked? Then as soon as the person walks out the door after surrendering, the judgements and accusations start to fly behind the counter.  (How could they dump their pet like that?  What horrible people! They don't deserve to have a pet!)

Does your shelter  provide high volume,  low-cost or no-cost spay/neuter with no hoop-jumping income or residency restrictions?

If a pet does needs to be rehomed - does your shelter have a rehoming link on it's website? Then the pet can be rehomed by it's present owner.  These pets get into a new home without ever entering a shelter. Without the risk of stress, disease and death that entering a shelter brings.

Does your shelter have a Trap Neuter Return program for community (feral) cats? Because these cats should never be in a shelter to begin with (except for the snip and eartip). They live and belong outside.

Notice the 'Making a Difference" links on the side of my blog. These are all local organizations aimed at reducing shelter intake. Yes, rescue and adoptions are important. But let's start keeping the animals out of the shelter in the first place.

What is the number one cause of death in companion animals in America? It's not puppy mills, or dog fighting or cruelty. It's shelter deaths. So, how do we reduce shelter deaths? We don't let them go there. If they don't enter a shelter they can't be killed!

Will it work out every time? Of course not. But by starting to make a paradigm shift towards reducing intake you will begin to give yourself the breathing room to truly rehabilitate and rehome those animals who need it.

It only took a few paragraphs and I covered four steps of the No Kill Equation: Trap Neuter Return, Proactive Redemption, Pet Retention and High-Volume, Low-Cost Spay/Neuter. And not one mention of warehousing or hoarding. Hmmm. Maybe that is a myth too.

"A leader is the one who climbs the tallest tree, surveys the entire situation, and yells, 'wrong jungle!'" - Steven Covey


  1. The majority of the pets in City shelters should not be returned to their owners. If they had good loving homes, their owners would be proactive and find their pets without the shelter having to track them down. It would cost a tremendous amount of time, resources and energy to locate owners not looking for their pets. Then when you find them, after you've spent an inordinate amount of resources, you learn they do not want the pet back.... so are you better off? I think not. I wish it were the case where every stray had a "decent" home to return to. I wish the pregnant German Shepherd abandoned in an alley had a decent owner. I don't think he wants her back... that's why he dumped her where she most likely would not be found. People like this should not be allowed to own a pet. It should be changed to where owning a pet is a privilege and not a given right. Animals are cheap and easy to come by. So people take them in and get rid of them. If it were more costly and more was required to be a pet owner, people may think twice. Mandatory spay / neuter laws are the only way to make a significant difference. I would hate to think I returned a dog to an owner who was less than interested in having the dog returned and then having the dog end up with a broken leg, head injury or dead because the owner took it out on the dog for being returned.

  2. to #1, my local shelter keeps pet for 3 days. They are closed many days and operate on short hours. Many people I know have made it to the shelter to find out their dog was put down or sent to another shelter before they even made it there. You should read more of the columns and the No Kill Nation website. Everything you are saying seems logical but then when you see the flip side and the shelters that have been successful with these measures, it's amazing.

  3. I absolutely believe that there are truly evil people in this world. But I have found over and over again that most of the things that mark owners as being "evil" really boil down to a lack of education. We need to ask "why"?

    Why are you surrendering your cat? It's spraying and yowling and fighting. Is it neutered? No. Well let me help you with that. Neuter that cat, train the owner on how to break bad behavior and follow up to make sure things are now OK in the home.

    Why are you getting rid of your dog? It's destructive. Tell me what the dog's day is like, has he been trained at all? Hmmm... you have a husky that never gets walked and hasn't had a training class. Well let's find some dog parks where your husky can RUN and let's find some low-cost or free training classes for you and your dog.

    Now for some people these are just excuses and they just don't care/ don't want the animal anymore. But for many, they are overwhelmed and don't know where to turn for help. Maybe if they were greeted with some creative problem solving when calling to surrender, we would find that more and more people will want to keep their animals. Slowly, the attitude changes to where "getting rid of" your animal is not considered the first option.

  4. The shelter/stray/unwanted pet problem is complex with too many issues to list here, yet I agree that many well intentioned people acquire pets and then quickly become completely overwhelmed. That problem is also complex, ranging from situational, economic to illness, any one of the many known major life changing events can cause this. Most arguments avoid the very obvious, until unwanted/unneeded births are reduced, shelters will be overwhelmed with animals. Morals and ethics aside, they become a commodity, the more there are, the less they are valued.

  5. @Anonymous - First, I would appreciate your name. If you feel that your viewpoint is valid enough to comment then you should be willing to leave your name. Second, If you click through to the links on Bill Bruce, Mitch Schneider and Missing Animal Response and/or if you ever get a chance to hear them speak either in person or through a webinar (Mitch did one just a couple of weeks ago) you will realize that their system does not cost more money - it actually costs less. Both have a slightly different approach - but it is a win-win situation for everyone involved - the owners, the animals and the taxpayers.

  6. Both my current dogs came from great families? How do I know? They were both great dogs from the git go. The shepherd mix I found in heat and traveling, feet bloody and raw, no collar, no chip. However she came so well socialized to kids, men and other dogs... you get the picture. The Jack I got from Pasadena Humane. He was turned in July 6th. He goes CRAZY with loud noises. His story is clear and he was clearly a great member of someone's family. I wish his owners had found him. He'd been in the shelter a month, adopted once and returned when I adopted him.

    These are both dogs that came from good homes and were somehow lost and not found. I imagine their people must have looked for them. Chipping would have helped. But for the thousands of dogs who's owners can barely afford them, or are too ignorant of the benefits of chipping, spaying, etc. education at the shelter level is imperative. I appreciate your blog post though realize it's really tough right now with budget cuts, etc.

    When I had to turn in a found pit bull who was trying to kill my little dog I was stunned to see that 80% of the dogs in the North LA shelter were pit bull and German shepherds. That says something. I don't know the answer.

  7. I have answered the phones for our local rescue for about 15 years. In the early years I spent hours trying to do problem solving with people who wanted to surrender pets. No matter what the stated reason was, in 99% of the cases I would give the people a solution, and the response was, "Yeah, but..." and they would give another problem.
    Bottom line, by the time people call the shelter to turn in a pet, it is too late for intervention. 99% of those people have made the decision they do not want the pet any more, and they are not interested in problem solving. Intervention would need to be done much earlier to have any chance to be effective.

  8. Well Mary, I hate to be rude - but maybe it is time to change your approach or change who is answering the phone! Because here is a quote out of one article that I have also provided the link to. You can also google Nevada Humane Society and Animal Help Desk for many helpful articles and resources on how they do it.

    A study in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association found that targeted helpful advice that actually solves the problem results in a better than 90% decline in chances of relinquishment. At the Nevada Humane Society, their animal help desk, a central part of their pet retention program, fields over 20,000 calls a year. Of those who agreed to try and resolve their issues after calling to surrender their pet, 59% ended up not doing so.

    Continue reading on Animal Sheltering 101: Turbocharging Your Adoption Program - San Francisco animal shelters |

  9. Kathy,

    Though your take on "strays" may be true in some areas, it is not true of our shelter (which focuses mainly on strays). Most of the strays we get have no chip or collar and are living in abandoned buildings or on the street in packs. They are starving and injured. They are living in areas where they may be shot by residents. Many are completely feral, having never lived in a house with a family. Some did have families but were left behind in the house or tied to the porch when the family moved or was foreclosed on. We check for chips and have a "Lost & Found" book at the front desk. This is not to say that we have never had a case like the one you describe, but it is extremely rare for us. It is indeed a pity when a stray really does belong to someone and a shelter does nothing to find that someone, but to consider all "strays" in that category does not acknowledge the other side of the stray dog problem. We have neither the manpower nor the money for the effort to find the owner of the one socialized dog among a pack of ferals living in a dilapidated building in a neighborhood of dilapidated buildings. In cases like that, if the dog is not chipped or collared and nobody comes looking, the owner will never be found. And, usually, even the socialized dogs are in such bad shape physically, it's easy to tell they've been out on the street for quite a while. We have had a few people come in saying things like "I lost my brown pitbull", but those few could provide no other details, which made us quite leery of them, to be honest. Our dogs do not come from areas where you would just "return" a "brown pitbull" to someone without proof.

    On the other hand, I think that helping people to keep their dogs before they surrender them is very important. We do not have the resources for our own spay/neuter clinic, but there are a few in the area that we can direct people to. We are also active in a "pet-food pantry" which helps low-income people to receive free food, just as in a human food pantry.


  10. I feel very badly for your community Alexis and I know there are a some like it in the U.S. Fortunately, they are in the minority. In most places, strays are simply lost pets. I commend you for doing the best in a difficult situation and trying to reduce intake by offering a petfood pantry and offering pet retention services is a big step. Hopefully somebody in your organization is reaching out to one of the large charitable organizations for guidance and assistance.

  11. I believe many stray dogs are lost. Gates can be left open, doors can open at the wrong time, and fences can be vulnerable. Animals slip their collars on walks. If you think you can control your animal at all times, I suspect your home looks more like a kennel than the average house! : )

    I see many "strays" who are well fed. These are the animals new to the street and I often see their poster about the same time. Those are the lucky ones that go home immediately.

    The dogs who are scared and cannot be caught are more likely to range beyond the area where people are looking. At that point, anything can happen - weight loss, disease, injury - that does not mean there is not an archived vet record somewhere on a formerly healthy dog.

    We do not know when we find an animal if he was lost and then mistreated. If you do not see the animal in the home, you do not know who did what to that animal.

    Should they have been chipped and tagged? Of course! Should the collar have been tightened after the groomer visit, of course! Should your teenager not have let the cat run out. This is life. Accidents happen and is it an accident when the cat has been plotting to get outside all day?

    Every animal that does not go home, but goes to a new home, means another animal is not adopted..

    Bottom line is there is way too much judgment by people who see animals in poor condition and make guesses as to how they got that way. People who do not want an animal back will tell you. Isn't it worth asking to find the family that will bless you and become a support for your shelter and spread the word? And buy a microchip from you?

  12. I have a team of discreet online pet detective volunteers who can help trace chips and ID, even with dead ends. Any shelter or rescue wanting help, please get in touch. This overlooked aspect of shelter operations is essential to reaching no-kill!