Let's Bridge The Chasm
Not a week goes by when I am not reminded in very stark terms of the separation between the people who work in our nation's animal sheltering industry and the public being served by that industry. We can say that people should know what happens in their local shelter using their money and in their name. Most people just don't because the subject is not on their personal radar. The following is an excerpt from my book about No Kill concepts, philosophies and animal shelter advocacy. If we want our society to change, we simply must bridge the chasm.
Americans consider themselves animal friendly. In a national poll, 96 percent of Americans said we have a moral duty to protect animals and should have strong laws to do so. An AP-Petside Poll in 2011 revealed that three out of four Americans believe it should be illegal for shelters to kill animals if those animals are not suffering. These social attitudes are indicators of our cultural values, at least when it comes to general attitudes about animals and how our nation’s animal shelters operate.
In my process of educating myself about animal welfare issues and specifically about how animal shelters in our country function, one thing became abundantly clear very early on: Even though we Americans consider ourselves animal friendly, there is a huge divide between the public being served and the shelters serving the public. I think of this divide as like a deep chasm or gorge.
On one side of the chasm is the animal-loving American public. We love our companion animals at best and value them at least. We know they are not children, but they are family members and are involved with almost every facet of our daily lives. We care for them, take them on trips, and give them toys and treats. When we lose them to time or illness, the loss can be devastating. Many of the people on “this side” of the chasm either know little about how animal shelters function or they just don’t think about it unless they are personally affected by the shelter operation in some way. Most people on this side presume that shelters using our tax dollars and donations do the best they can to save animals, and that animals are only destroyed for reasons of mercy. We like to think that we are progressive and informed, and that we make good choices because we love our pets.
On the other side of the chasm are those who work in the animal sheltering industry. Some work for municipal shelters and others work at nonprofit shelters. For those on the “other side” who work at kill shelters, which routinely destroy healthy and treatable pets, life can be grim. Even if they love animals and want to help, these workers can feel overwhelmed, underpaid, misunderstood and angry — at the public. They see the people they serve or engage with as the source of the problems, often referring to the “irresponsible public” that makes mistake after mistake and that treats pets as if they are disposable. These workers feel they are forced to do acts behind closed doors that no one could possibly want to do, and yet they feel they have no choice. They think they are doing the best they can.
As an outsider looking at this situation with a fresh perspective, I thought I could see a clear solution, one that has remained clear in the many years I have been an animal welfare advocate. The fastest and easiest way for us to live our values and to ensure that the animal shelters we fund through collective resources function consistently with those values is to bridge the chasm.
The subject of animal sheltering must be put on the radar of the public so they understand what is taking place using their money, and so they can be educated to make better choices such as spaying and neutering pets, ensuring pets can be identified if lost, not allowing dogs to run at large, and making plans for pets in the event of a crisis or family emergency. And all of us need to take a long, hard look at whether we are prepared to live up to the long-term commitment that comes with being a pet caregiver and that cannot simply be abandoned when things don’t go quite as we planned.
Even though many people who work in animal shelters and with rescue groups presume the public knows what is happening at local shelters and just do not care enough to make better personal decisions, that is not always true. Many, many people feel confident that all animals entering shelters are given the opportunity to be adopted, and they are mortified when we tell them that is not the case. I cannot count the number of times I had a conversation with someone in the community where I work about the animal shelter operation and have been asked, “But, aren’t all the animals made available for adoption?” When my reply was, “No, not all of them are, and most of them are destroyed,” the responses have ranged from tears to anger. Maybe people should know what is happening; many just do not know.
Those in the animal sheltering industry must, once and for all, take ownership and responsibility for what happens in shelters and stop presuming that every animal ends up in the shelter because of someone's irresponsibility or complacency. They must stop assuming the public knows the challenges and issues the shelter faces just because they know, acting as if the situation is obvious to all outside the shelter walls. It is not. And it makes no sense at all to say, “This is your fault, Jane Q. Public. You are to blame for the death. But won’t you please volunteer and donate and foster and adopt?” Yes, there are people who should never have pets. However, if shelters want to save more lives, they must presume the best of the public they support, be firm with the public to stop the cycle of pet surrender, and help the public understand exactly what help is needed to save the lives of healthy and treatable pets.