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When Your Friendly Community Shelter Isn't

Updated: Jun 7, 2019

Nearly every No Kill advocate shares at least one common experience: the moment they discovered their "friendly community animal shelter" wasn't so friendly. It is a lesson most people react to in very similar ways, generally following, nearly to the letter, the five stages of grief: First comes Denial, then Anger, then Bargaining, then Depression and, finally, Acceptance.

To be clear, when we say "acceptance" we do not mean to suggest that when shelters kill healthy or treatable pets it is acceptable. We only mean that people need to come to accept that what they have learned about the shelter is the actual current reality. This is a critical stage that is needed before a person can decide it is time to change it.

Marlene Foote was one of the early movers and shakers in the No Kill movement. She helped found Minnesota's first No Kill shelter in 1977. Her "awakening experience," however, happened 21 years before that, in 1956.

"It was like being punched in the gut," Foote said.

Like Foote, too many No Kill advocates learn the hard way how some shelters operate only after an animal they knew has been killed. In Foote's case, the animal in question was her own beloved dog.

The dog's name was Goldie. She was a young, friendly retriever mix, not yet an adult. Foote was pregnant with her first child and her husband had decided it would be impractical for her to keep Goldie and care for a baby. So, he took Goldie to the local shelter when Foote was not home.

"When I got home and found out what he had done, I rushed off to the shelter to get her back," Foote recalled. "But, when I got there, the shelter was closed. Frantically, I went around the building trying to see if there was anyone there who could help me. I ended up going around to the back of the building, where I discovered metal barrels full of dead animals. Goldie's body was on the top of one of them."

That moment, she said, changed her life forever. First, she learned to never trust her husband again. She ended up divorcing him years later. More importantly for the No Kill movement, the event planted a seed that would germinate into a 40-year-long mission to end needless killing in animal shelters. The seed, however, did not germinate for another 21 years.

For Foote, moving through the five stages of grief and on to the next phase - the decision to do something about what she learned - took a couple of decades. Some people never get through the grieving process and some who do never move on to becoming active advocates for change. It is 100% normal, appropriate and reasonable for animal lovers to feel anger, sadness or even rage as they come to terms with what is happening in many animal shelters today, especially if an animal they knew has recently been killed at one.

During our years of advocacy, we have known people to stand in the lobby of a shelter yelling or crying when they discovered what has been happening there. We say, good for them. People should use every legal means available to make it known how they feel about needless killing in animal shelters.

That being said, once people decide it is time for them to become an active advocate for changing the status quo, a more strategic approach is usually necessary, especially because not all shelters that kill are alike, and not all people working in a broken system are bad.

A recent article posted on the Just One Day web site describes a meeting held by No Kill advocates in a very rural part of the deep South. The meeting was with the Mayor, various City Council members and current and former staff of the City who oversaw animal control, which had a kill rate of between 80% and 90%. You might expect that meeting to have been heated. It wasn't. Quite the opposite. The group was very receptive to change and got busy reorganizing to make dramatic improvements. Lives began being saved almost immediately, with no fight whatsoever. If the No Kill advocates had approached the meeting differently, that might not have happened.

While it is true that a large percentage of people respond defensively to any challenge to their current ways of operating, some are actually receptive to change, and willing to help make it happen. It is important to take advantage of those opportunities when they present themselves.

At the same time, it is rare to have the opportunity to sell all stakeholders in a community all at once, like they did in the Just One Day story. More often we end up needing to meet one-on-one with each of them. Each stakeholder plays a part in a system we want to reform. And each one of them can turn out to be an ally or an enemy.

The best way to learn which they are is actually pretty simple. Following these steps will help:

1) Come prepared to each meeting. That means dress professionally, bring materials to leave behind and know your subject matter. Bring with you information about the No Kill Equation, outcome statistics for the shelter(s) that you want to reform and any other information you believe will be helpful.

2) Be respectful, courteous and objective. Remember - your ultimate goal is to get the person or people with whom you are meeting to listen to you with open minds. Excessive emotions, disrespectful attitudes or behavior will not help with that.

3) State your goal clearly and unambiguously. Tell them it is your goal to stop the killing of healthy or treatable pets at the shelter, that you believe it can happen and that you intend to continue working on that goal until it is achieved.

4) Ask for their support. And, not just in a general way. Ask them what they are specifically willing to do to help.

After having such a meeting with various stakeholders, you will know where your support in the community may be, as well as who is likely to fight you. Then, assuming things are not changing, you will be well prepared to develop a plan to use petitions, demonstrations, direct political action, letters to the editor and other legal means to protest or to call attention to killing in the shelter(s) you want to reform. Before moving to that final step, however, it is best to do your homework to find out if a fight is even needed, and with whom the fight is going to be.

Following these general guidelines will help advocates to be more effective at reforming their shelters when they learn they are not as friendly as they often pretend to be.


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