Crossposting this great essay from Pet Connection:
What are animal shelters for?
By Christie Keith
“I think some people are just using the economy as an excuse to dump a pet they didn’t want anyway.”
Add that to “I’d live in my car before I’d give up my pets” as WTF comments I keep hearing in discussions about pets being relinquished to shelters when their owners lose their jobs, homes, or suffer other effects of the current economic collapse.
It’s not that I don’t feel the same way about my pets, nor even that I disagree that some people will get rid of their pets for the most trivial of reasons. It’s this: This is a useless path to go down if we want to solve the problem of animal suffering and death.
Yes, hello, some people suck. They drive drunk, blow their paychecks at the track, buy a new HD television set instead of paying their bills, embezzle from their clients, and skip out on child support. Do you think that will ever end? Do you think those people will ever stop getting pets? That’s why we have shelters, and why we’ll always need them. Every time I see someone say that the goal of the shelter movement should be to put itself out of business because there are no more animals in need of their services, I honestly don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
As long as we define “success” as the literal end of a need for animal shelters, and insist that goal must be met before we stop killing healthy, treatable pets instead of finding them homes, or before we stop insisting that breeding is evil and that pets should be required by law to be sterilized, then we’re dooming ourselves to abject failure. That day will never come. Never.
We have to replace the paradigm of “people are bad and evil so we have to prevent them from having pets in the first place so we no longer have to mop up after them” with one of, “Sometimes animals need our help, and that’s why we’re here.”
Of course we should have programs to help people cope with behavior problems, so they know they have alternatives to surrendering their cat or dog. Of course we must provide accessible, low-cost, free, or incentivized spay/neuter. Of course we should provide counseling, dog training, and whatever other services we can to help people and their pets be happy together. Those services are for people who aren’t “irresponsible,” but rather people who need resources and assistance to do what they want to do in the first place: keep their pets and have it be fun, rewarding, and joyful instead of stressful, difficult, and unpleasant.
And of course we should provide sheltering, medical care, and rehoming services for the animals of people facing economic hard times, illness or disability, or other challenges. Those things, too, are inevitable, and their animals will sometimes need more help than they can give them.
But equally “of course” is that some people just don’t want to keep their animals. The bond isn’t that deep, and they’ll get rid of them for flimsy reasons. Reality check: that’s none of our business and we can’t change it, because it’s not about animals, but about those people, their values and personality type. We should BEG them to give up those pets to a shelter that will find them a new home with someone who really wants them. We shouldn’t be lecturing those people; we should be smiling and nodding and pushing the surrender papers and a pen into their hands as fast as we can.
Now, I need a reality check here, too, because of course, not all communities currently have the resources to take every animal in need of their services into their system 24/7. I’m not talking so much about actual policies and programs that should be implemented immediately everywhere, but about changing how we envision the role of animal shelters in our society.
Right now, America is in a transitional stage of animal sheltering, as popular support for solutions to animal population control that don’t involve killing animals is growing nationwide. For many in the shelter world, being told they’re doing it wrong by the very class of people they hold responsible for the problem in the first place is infuriating. Tempers are short on both sides, and it can sometimes be hard to hear each other over what British folk singer Billy Bragg once called “the sound of ideologies clashing.”
Of course, it’s human nature that large groups of people will always have such divisions. I’m not expecting there to be unanimity of opinion on sheltering, any more than on anything else. Fortunately, we don’t need to march in lock-step to succeed in helping animals. But we do need to share a common goal, and right now, we don’t.
My proposal is that our goal be to bring the need for animal services in a given community below its threshold of resources. We can reach that goal both by reducing need and increasing resources, two approaches that are almost infinitely customizable to match regional and local circumstances. It’s compatible with a wide range of techniques, programs, policies, and even ideologies. It’s definable by data, not emotions.
And it’s an achievable goal, because it works with, instead of against, human nature, both good and bad. It accepts that some people will always do wrong by their animals, but many others will be ready and willing to help them. It meets the reality check.
But it’s also a goal that requires we all adjust how we think about – and discuss – the problem. In other words, what do we want animal shelters to be for? Places to get animals out of sight and mind so they’re not troubling society? Slaughterhouses and prisons where every attempt at reform is cast as enabling irresponsible pet owners? Adoption and rehoming centers at which people aren’t stigmatized for needing their services, and that people aren’t reluctant to visit if they’re looking for a new family pet? Centers for training, education, and pet health care?
As long as one set of stakeholders has a goal of putting shelters out of business because they think they can end all need of animals for sheltering, while another envisions them as a safety net for the animals who will inevitably need their services, it’s hard to imagine we’ll be able to make much more progress in saving animal lives.
So I say it’s time for reality-based sheltering. You say people suck and that’s why animals suffer? You’re right. But fixing that isn’t the job of animal shelters; their job is to take care of animals.
They can do that by embracing the other reality: for every person who sucks, there’s someone who doesn’t. There are people who would like to volunteer at the animal shelter, if only it were made inviting and rewarding for them. Who would donate if they believed it would really help animals. Who would adopt a pet from a shelter if they felt welcomed and not judged. Who would foster sick or orphaned pets if they were recruited, trained, and given support. That, too, is reality.
But putting shelters out of business forever because there are no more animals who need them? That’s nothing but a fantasy.