Is No Kill Really Possible? Part 3: Silencing the Skeptics

The evolution of the no-kill movement and its success in hundreds of cities and towns throughout the U.S. is proof that there is indeed a better way in managing our homeless pet problem. After all, it’s about time our sheltering system moved past the outdated and barbaric “cage and kill” paradigm and into a new era of progressive reform. By implementing a comprehensive portfolio of lifesaving programs and services, shelters can begin to transform themselves from dark, depressing places where homeless pets go to die, to welcoming community centers invested in saving healthy and treatable pets. We’ve already looked at what it takes for a shelter to achieve no-kill status, and the methodology is far from rocket science. So why isn’t every shelter jumping onboard the lifesaving train?

Unfortunately, there can be a wide variety of barriers to no-kill reform, including lack of funding, staffing, resources, community support, and leadership vision. So if you’re an under-funded, understaffed, open-admission municipal shelter overwhelmed with the throngs of unwanted pets your community continually dumps at your doorstep (as opposed to limited or closed admission shelters that can pick and choose the animals they take in), and you have no additional resources at your disposal, then the odds of being able to implement lifesaving programs isn’t favorable. After all, municipal shelters were originally created to protect people from stray animals that could be carrying transmittable disease, not to save lives. So while our society’s expectations of what a shelter “should” do – help pets leave out the front door with a loving family instead of out the back door in a body bag – has changed over time, perhaps our expectations exceed our current reality.

“Often organizations and public agencies, animal control agencies in particular, don’t have the resources they need because their communities aren’t investing enough to allow them the opportunity to do those kinds of (lifesaving) programs well,” said Jodi Buckman, ASPCA senior director of community outreach. “There’s a lot that goes into these programs, so while the programs exist, sometimes the resources don’t. Then it isn’t really about whether the shelter is choosing to euthanize a healthy animal or not, it’s about the community’s commitment to ensuring the resources are available to manage that shelter population responsibly.”

She continued, “We believe shelters have access to the tools they need and have to take responsibility for finding creative opportunities for positive outcomes for animals, but that shelters aren’t alone in that responsibility when it comes to resources. We don’t want them doing (no-kill) poorly – we see the results of that, where organizations are so desperate to not have to consider euthanasia at any turn that they end up with a hoarding-like situation. We have multiple examples where we’ve been called in to support local law enforcement in resolving some of those cases and that is institutional suffering of a horrific scale. So whatever we have to do, we have to do it responsibility, and that’s a difficult line to walk.”

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Understanding the barriers to lifesaving aside, why would anyone disagree with the no-kill philosophy in principle? Because really, how could anyone who claims to care about animals scoff at the idea of saving healthy and treatable dogs and cats from a needless death? Even harder to understand is why any animal “welfare” organization would cling to the status quo, claiming that no-kill is a direct line to animal neglect and abuse.

One of the loudest defenders of traditional shelter euthanasia is PeTA, a group that identifies itself as a leading animal “protection” organization, yet seems to have no problem condoning and participating in the senseless murder of healthy and treatable companion animals simply because they’re homeless. So many animal advocates, including me, have a very difficult time wrapping their heads around the twisted thinking that “humanely euthanizing” homeless dogs and cats is somehow “saving them” from the specter of possible abuse. Why not give these innocent beings a fighting chance rather than rob them of the possibility of a wonderful life with a loving family? But anyone who has bothered to learn the truth about PeTA understands that they aren’t, nor have they ever been, in the “business” of lifesaving (you can read more about PeTA’s disturbing euthanasia practices here).

PeTA founder Ingrid Newkirk paints a very bleak (and extreme) picture of no-kill:

“Making euthanasia the last resort does not contribute to animal abuse, it means you have to find other solutions,” said Rebecca Guinn, LifeLine Animal Project founder and CEO. “What would be unethical is for us to euthanize animals as a result of our failure to be resourceful, a lack of resources, or a failure of imagination. If you’re a shelter that takes euthanasia of healthy and treatable animals off the table and you don’t do anything else, then yeah, you’ve got a problem – that’s just math.”

So unless you’re content with the “adopt a few and kill the rest” status quo, you know that no-kill can and does work when handled responsibly and ethically. Long-term warehousing or hoarding of unadoptable animals because a shelter or rescue simply opposes euthanasia is irresponsible and cruel, but that’s the extreme end of no-kill done wrong. So is it not defeatist to believe there’s no middle ground between killing and hoarding?

“It’s unfair and inappropriate to allow examples of people or poorly handled situations to characterize the real objective of no-kill, which is that as communities and citizens in this country we shouldn’t be comfortable killing savable pets,” asserted Judah Battista, Best Friends Animal Society co-founder and chief regional programs officer. “Everyone recognizes that there are genuine acts of mercy for animals that are suffering, and that it is the right and kind thing to do, but to conflate that with this idea that you have to warehouse them or you’re justifying warehousing because you support no-kill is a false choice – it’s not one or the other. No-kill is only controversial within animal welfare circles where people get hung up on semantics, (and) the idea that it is at all controversial is letting people who don’t want to change the existing system control the narrative.”

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A kitten vies for a little love and attention at Dekalb County Animal Services. (Photo courtesy LifeLine Animal Project)

While leading animal welfare organizations such as HSUS and ASPCA do not openly support no-kill, they do work to reduce the killing of healthy and treatable shelter pets through various national programs designed to drive adoption, promote the human-animal bond, encourage responsible pet ownership, and prevent animals from ending up in the shelter in the first place, for example, HSUS’s Pets For Life Program.

You can read about HSUS and ASPCA’s positions on no-kill shelters and euthanasia here and here.

Regardless of semantics or how these organizations support lifesaving, the main goal of any true-blue animal advocacy agency should always be the same – preventing cruelty and saving innocent lives.

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 What’s the difference between ASPCA and HSUS?

As North America’s oldest humane society, ASPCA (aka, “The A”) primarily focuses on preventing animal cruelty and pet homelessness; cruelty investigation, response and rescue assistance; public policy and legal advocacy; spay and neuter; shelter support grant programs, and running its New York City-based shelter and adoption center. While the bulk of its work has historically revolved around companion animals, it also focuses on equine and farm animal welfare issues.

HSUS is the nation’s largest animal protection organization that works to reduce animal suffering and create meaningful social change through progressive legislation; making sure existing laws are enforced; public awareness campaigns and investigations; assisting large corporations in reforming their animal welfare policies, and providing direct care, rescue, and services for animals in crisis. Its work focuses on a broader range of animals, including wildlife, marine, farm and companion animals, as well as animals in crisis throughout the world.

Contrary to popular belief, neither group is an umbrella organization for the myriad SPCAs and humane societies across the country.  ____________________________________________________________________________

By putting us face-to-face with the shameful reality of how our society has historically handled its homeless pet population and forcing us to re-examine the purpose of animal shelters, the no-kill movement has been integral in advancing our expanding humane movement. It has given us a more compassionate, humane alternative to murder, and a morally sound destination for our pet-loving society to aspire. It has shown us that achieving a no-kill society is possible, although it certainly won’t happen overnight – it will require time, effort, commitment and support from all stakeholders, including animal shelters, rescue groups, animal welfare organizations, communities, and citizens, all equally invested in lifesaving. Because, in the end, shouldn’t a “shelter” be just that – a place where animals are protected and cared for until they can be placed into loving forever homes?

“Euthanasia has always been considered a necessary evil, and we’ve shown that it’s not necessary, so if you take ‘necessary’ out of the equation, it’s wrong,” said Guinn. “You have to believe that animal lives have value, and if you believe that, then killing them simply because you can’t find them a home is not okay. I’ve always felt that we have an obligation to dogs and cats, or any animals we domesticated, to provide for them – it’s our duty as human beings.”

What about us pet parents, rescuers and animal advocates – could we be playing a role in condoning the status quo by being part of the problem rather than the solution? I see it all the time, especially online – individuals and rescue groups badmouthing well-meaning shelters, other rescues, and national animal welfare organizations, wasting time promoting vitriol and suspicion rather than doing anything helpful or proactive. Yes, many animal rescuers are incredibly passionate people, but that “passion” can sometimes come off as “crazy” if it isn’t channeled in a strategic and productive way. So when we criticize others or burn bridges rather than look for common ground so we can collaborate in saving more animals, we aren’t helping anyone, especially the dogs and cats we claim to adore.

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Lefty, one of many sweet and adorable pups waiting for their forever homes at Dekalb County Animal Services. (Photo courtesy LifeLine Animal Project)

I believe that as more and more shelters move away from cage-and-kill and toward the beacon of lifesaving, no-kill will one day become a commonplace industry practice, making the need to use the term as a qualifier obsolete. It will simply be a given that shelters no longer kill healthy and treatable pets, reserving euthanasia only for the behaviorally or physically irredeemable.

“We’re in a position right now in animal welfare to be witnessing and contributing to a social transformation, from a society that accepted shelters as a place that collected, held and disposed of animals in the community, to one that expects shelters to provide a temporary social safety net for animals to get placed into new homes, and for those that are suffering, to be cared for and shown mercy when it’s appropriate,” said Battista. “The cusp of that is happening now, in community after community after community. The fact that it’s happening quietly is the thing we need to change, but it is happening, and all of us should be sharing the news that we’re winning!”

So what can you do to support the no-kill crusade?

  • Make adoption your first choice in acquiring a new pet
  • Always spay and neuter
  • Volunteer and/or donate to your local shelter and/or rescue groups
  • Help disprove the negative misconceptions about shelter or rescue pets by spreading the word that these animals make wonderful family companions!
  • If your local shelter is not yet no-kill, talk to them about their barriers to lifesaving and how you can help support them in making the transition
  • Become a foster pet parent
  • Spread awareness and educate others about adoption, spay and neuter, responsible pet parenting, and animal welfare
  • Reach out to your local animal-friendly legislators and encourage them to pass stronger animal welfare and anti-cruelty legislation
  • Only donate to national animal welfare agencies that support lifesaving
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Volunteer Sarita Carden bottlefeeds a neonatal kitten in the Kitten Nursery at the Best Friends Los Angeles adoption center and shelter. (Photo courtesy Best Friends Animal Society)

“Mankind is not the only animal that laughs, cries, thinks, feels and loves. The sooner we acknowledge that animals are emotional beings, the sooner we will cease destroying animals and embrace them as our brothers and sisters.” – A.D. Williams

Lola Webber – Creating Positive Change for Animals In South Korea

Like us humans, dogs can’t choose the circumstances into which they’re born. Where and with whom a dog ends up is basically luck of the draw, whether with a loving, responsible guardian or an “owner” who simply views them as property. In essence, dogs are at the mercy of the species that domesticated them thousands of years ago, and with no control over their own destiny, the best they can hope for is to end up in good hands.

Like many less fortunate dogs throughout the globe, Django came into the world with the odds stacked against him. In fact, from the moment he took his first breath his future already looked bleak. Born into a dog farm outside of Seoul, South Korea, the Tosa mastiff puppy was just another “meat dog” doomed to a wretched existence inside a barren metal cage, where he would remain until he grew large enough to be sold and slaughtered for his meat. Although the pitiful conditions at the farm could rival any of the western world’s worst puppy mills, Django’s time there would actually be the best part of what was to be his short and miserable life.

Each year, approximately 2.5 million dogs are bred and slaughtered for human consumption in South Korea. Unlike in China and other parts of Asia, Korea’s dog meat trade primarily relies on the commercial farming of dogs to supply the country’s demand for dog meat. It is a massive, unregulated industry, with an estimated 10,000-17,000 farms scattered throughout the country varying in size from small backyard operations to large-scale factory farming systems. On these farms, dogs live in abject squalor, their daily lives full of fear, boredom, hunger and disease. Since there are no legal protections for meat dogs, farmers, traders, and butchers are free to inflict cruelty and abuse with impunity.

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A dog farm in Busan, South Korea. In the country there is a widely-held belief that there are two ‘types’ of dogs: “meat dogs” for human consumption, and “pet dogs,” consisting of purebred dogs, for companionship. Dogs categorized as “meat dogs” are widely perceived to be dirty, stupid and soulless, which has resulted in these dogs being treated as animals that don’t deserve consideration, protection or value. This perception is held by many and reflected by the attitudes of the industry, public and government. (Photo courtesy Change For Animals Foundation)

But lucky for Django, he happened to be in the right place at the right time. A small group of rescuers had arrived at the dog farm, among them a dedicated young activist named Lola Webber. After years of researching the Korean dog meat trade with the long-term intention of bringing it to an end, she’d recently co-founded the Change For Animals Foundation, a small international animal welfare organization that works to create positive and lasting change for animals throughout the world through research, advocacy, campaigns, and strategic partnerships with other like-minded NGOs.

With the opportunity to save one dog that day, the group set their sights on Django’s cage, where he and his litter mates stared back at the strange humans with wide, frightened eyes.

At only four months old, the puppies were already terrified of humans, so when one of the rescuers climbed into the cage and crawled toward them, they quickly scampered away. The touch of a human only meant bad things, so when Django felt strange hands encircling his body, he froze. Enfolded by warm, caring arms, he was carried out of the farm, where a whole new world awaited him. Watch his touching rescue video here.

“We named him Django after Quentin Tarantino film, “Django Unchained,” (because) he’s Django uncaged,” Lola explained. “Though he didn’t know it at the time, he was to become CFAF’s ambassador for our anti-dog meat campaigns. He would show the world that all dogs, regardless of breed or place of birth, are equally worthy of compassion and respect. In Korea there’s a belief that ‘meat dogs’ are stupid and soulless, that it’s their ‘destiny’ to be slaughtered for consumption. Through Django, we wanted to disprove the notion that ‘meat dogs’ are different than ‘pet dogs,’ a myth that has been deliberately promulgated by the Korean dog meat industry to appease a population where pet ownership is rising exponentially. It’s no dog’s destiny to suffer.”

After months of intensive veterinary care to heal his sickly little body, Django flew to Singapore to live with Lola and her daughter, Leila. Once his month in quarantine was up, he was brought to his new home, where he would soon learn the joys of being a dog.

“Django took to his life of freedom immediately,” said Lola. “He fit straight in with my other two rescue dogs, (and) everything was so exciting to him. He found absolute joy in what the world had to offer, such as smelling flowers, chasing birds, being hugged, snoozing in the sunshine, and finding the strength to run, with his beautiful chops flailing around and his gangly, uncoordinated legs charging forward! We loved him immediately, more than words could ever do justice.”

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Django enjoying a swim with one of his rescue siblings. (Photo courtesy Lola Webber)

Sadly, Django’s Cinderella story isn’t a common one for dogs trapped in the meat trade. Approximately 10 million are consumed every year throughout Asia, which is why CFAF has made ending this barbaric industry one of its biggest objectives, a lofty goal they’re determined to attain.

“Change For Animals Foundation was founded in 2012 by myself and three friends – Harry Eckman, Suzanne Rogers and Carla Brown – with the shared vision of creating an organization that would never lose sight of what it believed in, that all animals matter,” Lola explained. “We’re a small organization with minimal funding, so we work hard to ensure that other organizations that have additional resources and expertise can take on pieces of work that we can’t. There are no egos at CFAF, just a burning desire for the suffering of the millions of dogs caught up in the meat trade to end, so we support all efforts by other groups and individuals who share our dream.”

While some anti-dog meat activists make a practice of criticizing cultures and governments in a losing effort to shame them into banning the trade, CFAF takes a more proactive, sustainable approach – working with the industry they’re trying to change. This tactic has included meeting and establishing relationships with a growing network of dog farmers that want to leave the industry but simply don’t have the resources to do so.

“When we sat down and talked with the farmers we realized we actually want the same thing – they want out of the dog meat trade and we want the dog meat trade to end,” Lola explained. “I feel so much anger about what the trade encourages, that it relies on the suffering of dogs, but the more time you spend with the dog farmers, the more you realize that they aren’t monsters, they’re just people who in their minds are making a living. So instead of trying to shut down farms with no consideration for the people whose livelihoods rely on them, we’ve worked on building relationships based on trust and respect so we can actually facilitate change. And that’s where we need the bigger organizations that have the resources and expertise to come in and make change happen.”

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There are many dog meat markets throughout Korea, including Moran Market, the largest and most infamous, located southeast of Seoul, and Gupo Market in Busan, the country’s second largest city. Alongside the significant animal welfare concerns associated with the dog meat industry,a mounting body of evidence suggests that the production and consumption of dog meat poses a substantial risk to human health, including the spread of the rabies virus. (Photo courtesy Change For Animals Foundation)

Humane Society International certainly has the funding, expertise, marketing reach, and manpower to get the job done. With the support of CFAF, HSI launched a dog farm conversion campaign in late 2014 that not only helps farmers transition into more humane forms of agriculture, but also rescues and rehomes the dogs with loving families in the U.S. and Canada. So far, CFAF has assisted HSI with five dog farm closures, a campaign that has been incredibly well-received across Korea and around the globe.

Meanwhile, other anti-dog meat groups including Free Korean Dogs, Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation, and Korean activist Nami Kim have followed suit by closing several dog farms throughout the country. And while the Korean government has yet to step up to the plate and ban the trade, these inspiring campaigns are a positive sign that a death knell could soon be tolling for the country’s dog meat trade.

“As pet ownership continues to rise exponentially in Korea and throughout the region, people’s perceptions of dogs and other animals are changing,” Lola said. “We are also seeing a change of heart in those involved in the industry – dog meat traders, farmers, and restaurant owners. Of all the farmers and traders I have met, not one of them has shown pride in their job, whilst every single one of them has expressed remorse for the dogs who’ve suffered at their hands, resolutely declaring that they are ready to leave the industry but need help to do so. People throughout Asia care deeply and passionately about this issue, and as international organizations, our role is to support change from within these countries as well as those on the frontline.”

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Lola cuddles one of the lucky pups rescued from a dog farm by Humane Society International, which CFAF has assisted in executing its incredibly successful dog farm conversion campaign. (Photo courtesy HSI)

Thanks to local groups, individuals, and international support, animal rights is the fastest growing civic movement in Korea. Although the country is still home to thousands of dog meat restaurants, only two years ago one of its longest-running dog meat establishment closed after 33 years.

Yet despite the many green shoots of change, an unfortunate summer tradition continues in Korea – boknal or “bok” days (or “dog days” of summer), in which Koreans consume dog meat soup, “boshintang,” on the three hottest days of the lunar calendar (this year’s bok days fell on July 17 and 27, and today, August 16). The (unfounded) belief is that dog meat cools the blood and helps the body fight off the debilitating effects of heat and humidity. But according to recent media reports, the demand for boshintang is on the wane, the direct result of growing anti-cruelty sentiments and activism within the country, a movement that picked up speed this year.

“The boknal days have come and gone over the years, and in the past the protest numbers were always very small and the coverage was minimal,” Lola said. “Whereas this year, all of a sudden you have protests through central Seoul with over 100 people marching and passionately voicing their opinions, large demonstrations that are making the 9 o’clock news on the main national news channels. The traders are reporting very bad business over the boknal days, so they’re feeling the pressure. We just need the government to feel the pressure, too.”

Check out this beautiful video of Lola and a few CFAF volunteers rescuing six dogs from a dog meat farm in May 2016 (video courtesy Martyn Stewart):

With the next Winter Olympics slated for Pyeongchang in 2018, the global spotlight will be focused on South Korea. This will afford CFAF and other groups a golden opportunity to shine a light on the dog meat trade, raise international and national awareness, and support local and international groups and activists in leveraging the event to continue lobbying for legislative change.

“I think (activists in Korea) are really finding their voice and confidence,” Lola said. “I don’t know if part of that has come from the Yulin dog meat festival, where it’s become such a global thing with celebrities around the world speaking up about it. Yulin is one tiny place representing a relatively small number of dogs when you look at the whole scale of things, but it’s become a symbol and representation of what the dog meat industry is – cruel, dirty, and not in line with any of these cultures whatsoever. This is not an issue of ‘cultural’ or ‘personal’ preference, this is an issue of inherent and inexcusable cruelty.”

She continued, “By activists throughout the region seeing what’s gone on in Yulin, I believe it’s empowered others to speak out against something that is defended by many as ‘tradition’ or ‘culture,’ because to stand up against that takes a brave person. These people have always been there, but they’re finding their strength and courage, and they will be the ones who will ultimately end dog meat in South Korea and throughout the region.”

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Lola at one of the dog farms HSI shut down. Although the majority of dogs sold and slaughtered for meat in Korea come from farms, the industry is heavily supplemented with ‘excess dogs’ produced for the pet dog trade. Many dogs that are no longer wanted as pets are sold or given to traders and farmers, and it is common to see many different breeds of dogs at farms and markets, some still wearing collars. (Photo courtesy Martyn Stewart)

Three years after his rescue from the dog farm, Django has grown into a big, happy dog enjoying life with his doting family in Bali, Indonesia. As evidenced from his constantly wagging tail, he seems to have forgiven the world for the terrible cruelty he endured in his early puppyhood.

“Watching him swim in the sea and play with my other dogs, his giant gangly legs charging along with that huge Tosa grin on his face, brings me more joy than words could ever do justice,” Lola said glowingly. “He finds joy and happiness in everything, and is the goofiest, most playful soul I’ve ever met. There’s nothing better than coming home to him after being in Korea, but it also just makes it so much harder for me at the same time because (this campaign has become) so personal to me.”

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Lola Webber and her beloved Django. A lifelong animal lover and advocate, Lola has dedicated her entire life to helping animals. Born in Brussels to British parents, she grew up with dogs and was already an animal activist by the time she was six years old. (Photo courtesy Change For Animals Foundation)

Although Lola remains haunted by the faces of the dogs she couldn’t save from the countless farms and markets she’s visited over the years in Korea, she’s learned to channel her remorse into a raw determination to keep fighting until the trade is no more. Whether she’s able to help save one dog or hundreds of dogs, change one mind or thousands of minds, it’s those little victories that keep her going. Meanwhile, Django is there to remind her of why she returns to the battlefield again and again, in the hope that someday, all people will recognize animal cruelty as having no place in our 21st century global society.

“Django is the love of my life, and I can’t remember life without him,” she said. “After witnessing too many horrors and being so helpless to stop the brutal treatment of dogs, I needed to love one dog enough for all those I’d left behind. His ability to love so generously and unconditionally, despite everything he went through, never ceases to bring me to tears – he breaks and heals my heart in equal measures. Knowing dogs just like him continue to suffer on dog meat farms and in slaughterhouses and markets hurts so deeply, but it also keeps that fire of determination burning fiercely inside of me. I always think, if everyone could meet a Django and see him the way I do, the industry would end tomorrow.”

For more information about Change For Animals Foundation, please visit their website or Facebook page.

Want to read about another beautiful dog farm dog who got a second chance at life? Check out Pocket’s story here.

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” – Kahlil Gibran

The Yulin Hangover – Will This Cruelty Ever End?

Once again, another Yulin dog meat “festival” has come and gone. For the sixth year in a row, pet meat enthusiasts converged upon the small southern Chinese city to “celebrate” the summer solstice by gorging on heaping plates of cooked dog flesh and lychee fruit. Right alongside them, and more than happy to put a damper on the festivities were the local and international animal activists who’ve made it their mission over the past several years to protest the festival, record the carnage, and save dogs from the butcher’s block. Meanwhile, animal lovers throughout the globe signed petitions, donated to anti-dog meat campaigns, and watched with outrage as the notorious event unfolded yet again.

Although Humane Society International claims that the festival has grown smaller and more subdued over the past few years, down from killing an estimated 10,000 dogs at its height in 2012 to approximately 1,500 dogs, some activists have expressed concerns that butchers have merely taken their brutal activities underground, making it difficult to know just how many dogs – most of them lost or stolen pets – are actually being slaughtered.

But just a month later, it’s back to business as usual for the dog meat trade in Yulin. The dust has settled as media have moved on, international activists have turned their attention to other heated issues, and global interest has waned. The festival has done nothing but put a black mark on China’s reputation, sparking intense domestic and international condemnation, yet while the local government has distanced itself from the festival, it has so far made no attempts to ban it.

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Dogs languish in a meat truck as they wait to be unloaded into the festival. The majority of dogs used in the Chinese meat trade are lost and stolen pets that are often transported for long distances to rural areas where dog meat is in demand. These shepherds could have been trucked for several days across the country to Yulin, without food, water, or rest. (Photo courtesy HSI)

As someone who has been researching and spreading awareness about the dog meat trade for over three years now, I have to wonder if things are getting any better for animals in China. Are we any closer to seeing an end to this festival of death and abuse, and a criminal industry estimated to murder 10 million dogs a year, in a nation that sorely lags behind other developed nations in animal welfare?

For answers to that loaded question, I consulted three experts who have made it their mission to document, expose, and fight animal cruelty throughout Asia – a front-line rescuer, a photojournalist and videographer, and an official from a leading international animal welfare organization. All three attended Yulin this year and were kind enough to share their experiences, thoughts, and ideas with me, including where they believe the dog meat trade is headed in China.

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Chinese activists speak to the media at the Yulin festival. According to Humane Society International, the movement against the dog meat trade in China began as a grassroots movement from within the country. (Photo courtesy HSI)

Marc Ching arrived in Yulin with a very lofty goal – to document the atrocities, raise global awareness, and decrease the supply of dogs to the festival. As the founder of the Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation, a small Los Angeles-based rescue group that saves dogs from abuse and torture situations, Ching has made it his mission over the past year to rescue dogs from the meat trade throughout Asia and expose the industry for what it is – barbaric, cruel and criminal.

Six weeks prior to the festival, Ching journeyed to Yulin with the intention of doing something no other anti-dog meat activist has attempted thus far – to convince slaughterhouses to suspend their operations during the festival. After much financial bargaining, six of the 11 operators he met with agreed. However, when Ching returned to Yulin two days before the event to shut them down as planned, he realized his rescue mission was going to be a much bigger undertaking than originally anticipated, as those six operations had 1,000 dogs between them – dogs with nowhere to go.

What followed was a whirlwind rescue operation, culminating in just under 300 dogs being taken to three temporary shelters Ching had set up in Nanning and Guangzhou, 120 to an HSI shelter in northern China, and the rest to the Tree of Life in Guangzhou and Gaoyao.

For more details about this massive rescue, please go here. You can also check out more images and video on the Animal Hope & Wellness Facebook page.

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Stressed and exhausted dogs await their fate in a meat cage. (Photo courtesy Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation)

But while Ching received overwhelming encouragement from his supporters, he found himself the target of strong criticism from domestic and international rescue groups strongly opposed to activists purchasing large numbers of dogs from meat traders. To drive this point home, Animals Asia, an international animal welfare organization that works to end the dog meat trade in Vietnam and China, released an open letter in conjunction with 35 China-based rescues, urging animal rescuers to abstain from buying dogs from the event, and citing the practice as counterproductive and damaging to the growing anti-dog meat movement within the country (Founder Jill Robinson also released a very insightful article several days later that explains her organization’s stance on how to most effectively end the festival and the trade).

Although Ching wholeheartedly agrees that paying off dog meat traders and butchers is not the solution to stopping the trade, he passionately defends his actions at Yulin.

“I don’t support the buying of dogs, and I didn’t go there to (do that), it was a consequence of temporarily shutting down those slaughterhouses,” he explained. “I couldn’t leave those dogs behind. If I had, the whole world would have slandered me and they would have had just cause to do so. When you’re a spectator it’s easy to (criticize what I did), but until you’re in that moment, with dogs screaming and dying, you really can’t say anything.”

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A typical dog meat vendor on the streets of the Yulin festival. (Photo courtesy Martyn Stewart)

As someone who wasn’t well-versed with the inside politics of large animal welfare groups, Ching said he found his interactions with them before and during the festival incredibly eye-opening and disillusioning, in that many seemed more concerned about elevating their profiles and pandering to donors than the welfare of the dogs.

“Before I went to Yulin, I reached out to all the big groups and said, ‘help me, and if you disagree with me, teach me and help me to be better,’ but everybody said no, so I went in and did what I felt I had to do,” he remarked. “I’m sure they thought, ‘look at this guy trying to be famous from doing this, he’s trying to bloat his image,’ but they don’t understand what I’m all about, or what I’m trying to do, or that I’ve destroyed my life for this. When you document torture for a living it’s a heavy burden to bear.”

Despite his less-than-positive interactions with humans at Yulin, Ching says he’s satisfied with what he and his volunteers accomplished, whether anyone agrees with his tactics or not.

“The typical Chinese method is to stop trucks, then test dogs for disease, but they’ve been doing this for the last 5-10 years,” he asserted. “I respect those groups that have that opinion, but you can’t do the same thing every year and expect a different result. In the field, in war, you do what you have to do to save lives and you do your best. Because of our Foundation, lives were saved and incredible awareness was raised. The goal is to end the festival, and to show that change is possible.”

Check out the Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation’s Compassion Project PSA, which was released prior to Yulin:

 

Although Martyn Stewart also disagrees with activists buying dogs from meat traders, he does believe that every dog deserves a second chance. After all, he happens to be the proud dad of a Tosa mastiff rescued from a South Korean dog meat farm last fall by HSI. As a veteran sound recordist, videographer and photojournalist, Stewart has documented myriad examples of animal cruelty throughout the globe, including the dog meat trade in South Korea and China, but had never had the chance to attend Yulin until this year.

“I did a story for the BBC on the night of 21st, and stayed for several days afterward to see what was happening,” he explained. “I went into the dog meat markets and shot video of them chopping dog carcasses up, and filmed inside a slaughterhouse. We walked through restaurant after restaurant after restaurant full to the gills with people eating dog. The stench was horrible, and in the heat and humidity, it just stays with you in your nose.”

Like most activists who’ve been following the horrific event for several years, he expected the scene to reflect what he’d read in the media. But in the end, what he experienced turned out to be a bit different from those exaggerated reports and embellished truths.

“A lot of newspapers across the world were trying to sensationalize things, trying to make one isolated story, and hype it up to the point where it wasn’t really true,” he said. “There wasn’t all this aggression, all this in-your-face, no people trying to smash my equipment, as I’d been warned. There was some of that, but certainly, there were no ‘Angels of Yulin’ flying into the festival with capes on their backs and flying out with dogs. To me, Yulin appeared to be a pop-up activist’s dream for those trying to make a name for themselves, but at the detriment of the animals.”

Check out Martyn’s video of the festival (note: there are some disturbing images but no footage of dog slaughter):

 

On a positive note, Stewart felt encouraged by the conversations he engaged in with several Yulin citizens, most of whom didn’t like the idea of eating dog, as well as butchers who said their businesses had taken a drop in sales due to all the activism, outside pressure, and the government no longer endorsing the event. He had good reason to be optimistic – a recent survey commissioned by HSI shows that 64 percent of Chinese citizens between the ages of 16-50 would support a permanent end to the Yulin festival, that nearly 52 percent want the dog meat trade to be banned, and almost 70 percent claim they’ve never eaten dog. Still, Stewart admits that any expectations he’d entertained about Yulin being canceled next year were dashed by the sheer magnitude of the event.

“I went to Yulin convinced this would be the last because of all the hype and the pressure, but after seeing the reality of the festival and the extent of the dog meat being eaten, you realize that if this is the end, something miraculous has got to happen. Ending it has to come from within China, and legislation has to be put in place, which takes time, so thinking you’re going to go in there and close it all down in space of a few days, that’s not realistic. We have a million miles to go before we can even start to consider ending this festival, and Yulin is just another extension of somewhere else.”

Dog meat traders-Yulin 2016-Martyn Stewart

Dog meat traders count their spoils. (Photo courtesy Martyn Stewart)

Peter Li, China policy specialist for HSI, has a more hopeful outlook about the impending demise of the dog meat trade in China. As someone who has attended Yulin for three years in a row to research, document, and expose the festival, as well as rescue small numbers of dogs and cats, he believes the government is closer than ever to not only banning the barbaric festival, but also the industry (he breaks down the history, practices, and attitudes about the Chinese dog meat trade in this must-read article).

“In China, we don’t need more laws to shut down the dog meat trade,” he explained. “If the government enforced its existing laws and regulations, the trade would be dead. China is the only country among all the major developed nations that doesn’t have animal protection laws, so it’s about 194 years behind the rest of the industrialized world. We will continue to encourage them in enforcing existing laws, and press on for animal protection legislation there.”

But going the slow, legislative route toward permanent change can take years, if not decades to accomplish. Meanwhile, untold millions of dogs (and cats) will continue to die to satisfy the nation’s small minority of pet meat enthusiasts. When faced with that overwhelming thought, isn’t it understandable that front-line activists and rescuers would feel driven to go into blood spectacles like Yulin and save as many lives as possible?

Dogs on moped-HSI

Another common sight at Yulin – sick, stressed and dying dogs arriving at the festival crammed into cages on the backs of mopeds. This horrible industry has been directly linked to rabies outbreaks in humans, a common health problem in regions where the trade is most common, such as Yulin. (Photo courtesy HSI)

“No system of slavery or oppression should be allowed to continue, and we all wish this trade could be ended overnight,” he said. “But we agree with the statement that Animals Asia put out that animal welfare groups should not buy dogs in great numbers on the festival day, and in competition with other groups. That gave dog meat traders the opportunity to practice extortion by raising prices. They were doing it last year and the year before, brutalizing and humiliating activists who were buying dogs, and threatening to torture the animals if the activists didn’t pay top dollar for them.”

He continued, “We do not accept animal suffering, and I cannot agree more that we should stand up to be the warriors for animals, but there are different ways to solve these problems. Incremental change and progress will lead to the ultimate demise of the industry, and we have seen great changes in the last few years.”

According to Li, the Yulin government publicly disassociating itself from the festival in 2014 was a big step toward shuttering the festival, as is the tremendous domestic and international pressure that continues to come at the city from all sides. But for the first year ever, the Yulin controversy reached Chinese President Xi Jinping in the form of a formal resolution drafted by U.S. Congressman Alcee Hastings (D-Fla), and a letter from HSI – along with the signatures of 11 million people from around the world – calling on China to shut down the festival and ban the trade. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

120 dogs at HSI shelter-HSI

A few of the 120 dogs HSI took on from Marc Ching’s 1,000-dog rescue, resting up at the organization’s shelter in north China. All will eventually be placed in loving homes in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. Some very little pups indeed! (Photo courtesy HSI)

The hope is that the Yulin government will finally wake up and realize that the damage the festival has caused to its city and country’s reputation is no longer worth the trouble. But until that happens, it’s important to understand that China’s dog meat problem goes way beyond one annual festival, said Li.

“Yulin is just a tiny part of China’s criminal dog meat trade,” he asserted. “HSI has been in China for the last decade, and we’ve been fighting a war against Asia’s dog meat trade on many different fronts and levels because we believe this trade is a comprehensive challenge. There is no quick solution. (An animal welfare organization must have a presence) in China all year long and the strategy has to be multi-layered and leveled.”

Although we may still have quite a distance to go until the pet meat trade is extinguished and buried in the history books as yet another shameful practice we humans once condoned, I remain hopeful that China is indeed on its way to becoming the more compassionate society it has every potential to be, for both animals and humans. Banning the Yulin festival will be an important first step in repairing the country’s global reputation, and demonstrating its intention to catch up with the rest of the developed world in animal welfare.

But before we westerners go pointing fingers and condemning other countries and cultures for their inhumane practices, let’s look in the mirror and take responsibility for the cruelties we inflict upon animals day after day in our own respective countries, whether in factory farming, puppy mills, entertainment, or the fur trade. Why is it okay to judge others for eating dogs or cats, when we greedily consume billions of chickens, cows, pigs and sheep (the U.S. and Australia hold court as the largest consumers of meat per capita) every year? Don’t we inflict plenty of pain and suffering upon these poor, sentient beings behind the closed doors of our nation’s slaughterhouses?

Dogs in cagest-Yulin 2016-Martyn Stewart

The faces of the condemned at the Yulin festival. No innocent being deserves such a fate. (Photo courtesy Martyn Stewart)

It’s easy to get riled up about the Yulin dog meat festival, but keep in mind that this one event, horrible as it is, is only a small extension of a massive, 365-day industry that also thrives across other Asian countries including South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Indonesia. Stopping it won’t come from without, from westerners expressing outrage and telling these cultures what they can or can’t eat, but from within. Although we don’t hear about them due to the country’s highly censored internet, there are countless Chinese animal welfare groups made up of incredibly dedicated activists who have been diligently working for years against a system designed to support the exploitation and persecution of animals. They are the unsung heroes in this fight, and we must support their efforts whenever possible.

If you’d like to help end the dog meat trade in China and Asia, do your research and only support licensed charities that are open and transparent about their mission; have a verifiable track record of how they use their funds; don’t make a practice of bashing other rescue groups, and always make the animals their top priority.

We humans have created every single animal welfare problem that exists on this planet. We have been ignorant, selfish, entitled, and delusional in believing animals were put on this earth to serve our purposes, do our bidding, and “give up their lives” for our gastronomic pleasure. It’s time for our species to wake up, grow up, and start viewing animals for what they are – intelligent sentient beings who deserve to live out their lives in safety and peace. As our voiceless brothers and sisters with whom we share this beautiful planet, they deserve our guardianship and respect. It’s the least we can do for them.

“The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” – Albert Einstein

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The Right To Roam – Protecting The Street Dogs of Kathmandu

Take a stroll through the ancient capital city of Kathmandu, Nepal and you won’t be able to miss them – stray dogs walking along roads, dozing in the sun, hanging out in ancient temples, scavenging on garbage scattered by the roadside. Some appear to be in decent condition, while others suffer from advanced skin ailments, infected wounds, broken bones, and starvation – a sad sight to behold, especially for dog-loving tourists drawn to the valley for its world-renowned mountain trekking. Far from being revered, Kathmandu’s strays are typically considered a nuisance and often fall prey to abuse at the hands of local residents. And the dogs are everywhere – according to Kathmandu Animal Treatment Center (KAT), there are over 22,000 “road dogs” living in Kathmandu valley alone. But while programs exist to help the city’s disadvantaged people and orphaned children, there are very few resources to help the dogs.

Enter Pravin Sharma, owner of Le Sharma Trading Inc., a fair-trade pet product company that sells natural dog chews and artisanal dog toys, beds and accessories made in Nepal. He decided to set up a street dog feeding program to not only care for these desperate creatures but to also spread awareness about their plight.

“Every day hundreds of dogs go hungry and are abused in Kathmandu valley,” said Sharma. “This fact always bothered me when I lived there, and I used to take some measures on a small scale – feeding them, taking care of the ones around my house and encouraging others to do so. Since I was born and brought up in Nepal, I wanted to give back to the country and society in any way I can. Thus, with the income we receive by selling dog products in developed countries, we try to invest a significant amount in doing something good back home.”

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A street dog roams the city of Kathmandu in search of food (Photo courtesy Pravin Sharma).

So Sharma rallied together a small team of kindhearted locals to feed the dogs and provide basic emergency veterinary care. Meals consisting of water buffalo meat, rice, bread, and biscuits are served three times per week in different locations around the valley, including the Pashupatinath Temple, one of the most famous and sacred Hindu temples in Nepal, and the Boudhanath Stupa, considered the holiest Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet.

In one year alone this feeding campaign has nourished more than a thousand hungry canines, with Sharma’s volunteers making a point of involving locals whenever possible in an attempt to change their negative perceptions about the dogs.

“Nepal is an extremely delightful nation, and generally, the Nepalese are delicate and kind, but like every nation, it has a savage side,” explained Sharma. “Although there are a few local and international organizations that work for the welfare of the stray dogs in Kathmandu valley, there are no legal protections, so animal abusers act with full freedom, throwing stones or boiling water at them, or casually kicking them as they pass by. This is all due to lack of awareness. Thus, we were inspired to carry out these programs not just to feed the dogs, but to also make people aware and inspire them to stop abusing these creatures.”

Kathmandu street dogs-2-blog

A mama street dog and her pups. Without humane population control, the cycle of unwanted litters continues (Photo courtesy Pravin Sharma).

Although Sharma agrees that his feeding program is not the ultimate solution – he intends to provide more extensive veterinary services for the dogs once greater funding can be secured – he is doing what he can in the face of a daunting situation. After all, Kathmandu is a city still recovering from a 7.8 magnitude earthquake that claimed almost 9,000 Nepalese citizens in April of last year, so with the community focused on surviving and rebuilding, its road dogs have become nothing more than an afterthought.

“Due to the recent devastating earthquake, a lot of dogs lost their lives, and many lost their homes and were forced to become strays,” Sharma said. “Our feeding program will improve this issue for the short term, but our hope is that the awareness we’ve been spreading by involving locals in the program will help us solve this issue for the long term.”

Nepal isn’t the only developing nation long known to have street dogs as part of its landscape. Humane Society International estimates that there are 250-300 million free-roaming dogs wandering the globe. And just like in other countries where street dog numbers have exploded, Nepal’s is a human-created problem derived from a lack of awareness, education, and most importantly, access to sustainable, affordable, and humane canine population control.

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A lucky road dog lands a quick meal (Photo courtesy Pravin Sharma).

Although stray dogs in Nepal are typically not “owned,” pet dogs can be as much a part of the street dog population as truly homeless canines in some non-westernized countries. In fact, according to Kelly O’Meara, HSI director of companion animals and engagement, there are three basic categories of “free roaming” dogs throughout the world.

“We have discovered that the majority of street dogs are technically ‘owned’ in some fashion or another, in that the dog has a person and a home within their roaming distance, so they receive some element of care,” she explained. “Then there are community dogs that live in a neighborhood and are very tolerated, with a few people within that particular neighborhood identifying that the dog is one they care about, or even love to some degree. Then there are true strays that have no real ties to people, that live among people to some degree, but don’t rely on direct interaction with them.”

She continued, “Most developing countries share the same problem when it comes to management of dogs in the streets, and there are certainly some countries that have it far worse than others. In places like Latin America, we’ve found that while there are more dogs living on or roaming the streets, that the majority of them are owned. Throughout various cultures in the region street dogs are very tolerated, so dogs roaming the streets is not an unusual sight there, and there are millions upon millions of them in Latin America. Generally, you’ll find that some of them may be in better condition than the free roaming dogs you’ll find throughout Asia, for example, and that has everything to do with direct human behavior and attitudes toward those dogs.”

Street Dogs in Thimphu, Bhutan

Stray dogs nap along a busy road in Thimphu, Bhutan, where Humane Society International recently completed a successful 5-year street dog welfare program (Photo courtesy Kuni Takahashi/AP Images for Humane Society International).

And attitudes are everything when it comes to how governments deal with stray canine populations. According to O’Meara, most typically follow three main methods – mass killing, sheltering, or sterilization and vaccination.

Faced with rabies outbreaks and other threats to human health, countries including Indonesia, Malaysia, Kenya, Egypt, Russia, much of eastern Europe and the Baltic countries have frequently turned to mass killing campaigns as a quick and immediate “solution” to their stray problem. Meanwhile, countries including Italy, Thailand, and India have made a practice of warehousing street dogs in large shelters that are often unequipped to handle large dog populations. Since adoption rates in these countries are pathetically low, these poor creatures either spend their whole lives imprisoned, or end up being euthanized for space.

Not only is the mass killing and sheltering of street dogs inhumane, it’s also incredibly ineffective, asserted O’Meara.

“We can prove across the board that whether you’re killing and/or removing them from the streets, it doesn’t solve the problem – it’s a Band-Aid,” she said. “You’re simply creating a void in that community, and nothing has changed other than the fact that you’ve removed that dog. There will always be other dogs, you’ll never catch them all, and the most elusive, least sociable dogs you didn’t catch will be the ones to take its place.”

She continued, “Before, you had dogs who were friendlier, more sociable, more tolerated and interactive with people, and now you’re replacing them with the unknown, so you’re actually creating a worse problem than you had before. This is where rabies has become a greater issue over and over again in these places, because the friendliest dog you can catch is not the problem, they’re not the ones who are going to bite you and potentially spread the virus. Yes, you’re addressing the situation, but not only haven’t you done anything at all and potentially created a worse situation, you’ve also created a poor image for your country for your inhumane treatment of animals.”

India Street Dog Program

HSI’s street dog program in action in Jamshedpur, India (Photo courtesy Humane Society International).

Although Nepal had once used poisoning as a method to manage its road dogs, the government abandoned the cruel practice after street children died from consuming poisoned dog food, explained Sharma.

“People have the mentality that stray dogs should be killed instead of taken care of and fed,” he said. “That is the first thing that needs to change if we want any progress for street dogs in Kathmandu or in any part of the world. Besides trying to spread awareness and involve more people in our programs to change this mentality, we are also conducting humane education campaigns by going to different schools and teaching children how to treat and care for animals. That way, they won’t have to face in the future what we are facing now.”

Luckily, help is coming to Nepal in the form of Humane Society International, which plans to launch a Street Dog Welfare campaign in Kathmandu on April 20. As it is doing in ten other countries, including Bhutan, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guyana, India, Panama, the Philippines, and several U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico, HSI will help Nepal establish a mass sterilization and vaccination program to humanely manage street dog numbers, prevent disease, and most importantly, provide a permanent solution to a problem that has plagued Kathmandu valley for generations, said O’Meara.

“It’s going to start off as a pilot program, which means it will be carried out within a period of time with the intent to show its breadth, success rate, and possibility,” she explained. “We’ll be training local talent and personnel, including veterinarians and government officials, and setting it up from start to finish so we’ll be able to hand over a program that’s fully implemented, and has the resources in place to maintain it in the hope that the government will carry it on from there.”

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Road dogs coexisting with Kathmandu’s citizens in the city’s busy downtown. Photo courtesy of Pravin Sharma.

Similar to TNR (trap-neuter-return) for feral cats, stray dogs are humanely captured, sterilized, immunized, and then released back into their communities. No longer at risk of spreading disease or capable of reproducing, the dogs will slowly die off over time, gradually reducing and potentially eradicating the stray overpopulation issue.

When I told him about HSI’s forthcoming plans in his home country, Sharma was thrilled.

“This is a team project that cannot be achieved by just one group of a few dedicated dog-lovers, so I’m very excited to hear about this,” he said. “The more people that can help the dogs, the better. Attitudes are changing and improving in Kathmandu, pet stores are opening up, and you can see how people love their dogs, but we have to work harder at teaching the new generation. We have to help them understand that dogs are living beings, too.”

To learn more about Humane Society International’s incredible Street Dog Welfare initiative and how to become a Street Dog Defender, go here. You can also help support the Le Sharma Trading street dog feeding campaign by purchasing some of their handmade, eco-friendly pet products on their website, or donating here.

“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.” – Dalai Lama

Frisky – A Cautionary Cotton Tale

For months I’d been begging my dad for a puppy. Ever since I’d seen “Digby, the Biggest Dog in the World,” I’d had my heart set on an Old English Sheepdog, just like the one in the movie. I was convinced that getting one would make me the happiest seven-year-old in the world. But no matter how hard I pleaded, Dad flat-out refused (in retrospect I’m grateful he did – a large, high-energy herding dog with endless grooming needs would have been a huge mistake). After all, once my dad made up his mind it was pretty hard to change it.

Knowing how much I wanted a pet of my own, my parents relented, just a little. After all, it was time for me to learn some responsibility. So while a dog or a cat was out, they compromised on a rabbit, figuring a bunny would be an easy “starter pet” that wouldn’t take up too much space, make any noise, or require a lot of time or effort.

So just a few weeks before Easter, my mom took me to our local pet store to pick out a bunny. I remember walking past the rows of wall display cages full of puppies and kittens and to the back of the store, where the baby rabbits were kept in a large wire playpen. And that’s when I saw him – a beautiful little Dutch rabbit with a brownish-gray and white coat, running around the pen doing “binkies” while all the other bunnies just sort of laid around listlessly. Mom suggested I name him Frisky. So we took him home.

The concept of companion animals living indoors was not yet commonplace or much of a consideration when I was growing up in the 1970’s – most pets lived in the backyard where they “belonged.” Thus, Frisky was relegated to living outdoors in a small wire cage behind the garage, with no bed to snuggle in, no toys to play with, no hay to munch on, just a ceramic bowl full of bunny pellets, a water bottle, and full exposure to the elements, which were luckily pretty mild in Santa Monica.

It must have been an extremely boring, monotonous and lonely life for such a smart, inquisitive and playful little being as a rabbit. But such was Frisky’s lot in life with his new family, to stare helplessly out at the world through walls of wire as he waited for me to show up and relieve him from his confinement for a little while, only to be returned to his small prison and left alone again. Eventually my mom hired our handyman to build Frisky a hutch after he began growing out of his cage, and while he now had more space and a roof to protect him, he was still living outside on wire flooring with nothing to entertain him. But this was simply how people kept rabbits in those days. We didn’t know any better, nor did it ever occur to us to do anything differently – it was “normal.”

Frisky & me

Me giving Frisky a bath – a huge no-no in rabbit care. According to the House Rabbit Society, rabbits groom themselves like cats do, and don’t need to be bathed. In fact, full-body baths can be extremely traumatic for a rabbit and can put them into shock. Luckily Frisky survived his many warm-weather bathings.

While other little girls played with dolls, I played with Frisky – he was a far more interesting toy! As a result, my poor bunny was often subjected to a host of indignities, including being dressed up in bonnets, bathed in a bucket, carted around in my sister’s baby carriage, and being forced to ride in my bicycle basket while I cruised around the neighborhood (without any restraint to protect him from jumping out, which he did on many occasions). Another favorite pastime of mine was to make him to lie in my arms like a baby while I fed him carrots. Sometimes he’d scratch and kick himself free, but mostly he’d just give in and let me do what I wanted. I’m not sure if he was just a very sweet, patient bunny or if I just wore him down.

But for me, an often lonely little girl without many friends, Frisky was everything. He was there when I’d had a bad day at school and just wanted to lie in the grass next to him, pet his silky fur and forget about the world. He was there when I’d gotten in trouble with my parents again and needed to vent about how unfair they were. He was there to listen to me tell stories or sing songs from some of my favorite Disney movies. He learned to come when I called him and he was funny, mischievous and very entertaining. One of his favorite pastimes was raiding my mom’s vegetable garden, and he made me laugh when he’d run up to me after feasting on strawberries, his bunny lips scarlet with berry juice. As the weeks, months and years went by, he made me forget all about that Old English Sheepdog I’d wanted so badly.

When my family moved to the canyons of Malibu in July 1977 I figured Frisky would love it there, with so much more room to run and an even larger vegetable garden to invade. We placed his hutch next to the stable, where he would have a good view of the house and be in the middle of all the action, so he would never be lonely. But our first summer in the canyon was a warm one. I didn’t know how easily rabbits can die of heatstroke, and I thought nothing of the fact that his hutch was exposed to full sun in the late afternoon hours. He was dead within weeks. I was devastated, blissfully unaware that his demise could have been easily prevented. After all, when cared for properly and allowed to live indoors, rabbits can live ten years or more. Poor Frisky only made it to his third birthday.

I’ve written about this before – the regret I feel for the mistakes I’ve made with the pets of my past. And while I’ve been working hard to stop beating myself up, learn from my mistakes and become the best pet parent I can possibly be, it still bothers me when I think about my poor, sweet, neglected little rabbit, baking to death in the hot summer sun.

Despite the fact I’m not currently in the position to bring another bunny into my life, I wanted to learn more – to basically retrace my steps and do the homework my parents and I didn’t do before bringing Frisky into our family. So I figured I’d go straight to the experts – the House Rabbit Society. With chapters in 22 states, this volunteer-based, nonprofit animal welfare organization is dedicated to rescuing and rehoming abandoned rabbits, as well as rabbit advocacy and public education. Luckily, the Georgia House Rabbit Society just happened to be 15 minutes from our house, so Chris and I wasted no time in heading over and immersing ourselves in bunny land!

Jennifer & Jack Sparrow

Georgia House Rabbit Society Shelter Director Jennifer McGee with Jack Sparrow, a young bunny who was found with a broken leg. Now a healthy tripod rabbit , he was recently adopted and is about to start his new life as a beloved family pet. Photo by Chris Savas.

Housed in a small, charming converted residence that includes a shelter, a boarding facility and a retail store, the GA HRS is run by an amazing team of dedicated volunteers who help rescue, care for and adopt out over 300 homeless rabbits every year. After a fun tour of the sparkling clean little facility, complete with 50 adorable, long-eared, cotton-tailed, and wiggly-nosed residents, I had a chance to sit down with Shelter Director and rabbit aficionado Jennifer McGee, who gave me the low-down on some of the biggest misconceptions about this very misunderstood companion animal.

“Sadly, rabbits are the third most euthanized companion animal next to dogs and cats,” she explained. “We get hundreds of intake requests per year, and some of the most common reasons people give for surrendering their rabbits are, ‘we got it from the pet store, but the kids aren’t interested anymore,’ or ‘the rabbit became aggressive and it’s grunting, charging and biting the kids.’ Well, they didn’t get their rabbit neutered and they have it in a tiny cage with no exercise or social interaction – they set that rabbit up to be miserable. With some people, once you explain things to them, they’ll do something about it, but others don’t care, they just want the rabbit off their hands.”

Here are some important facts to consider before bringing a rabbit into your life:

Rabbits are not easy, low-maintenance “starter pets.” Bunnies are a lot of work. They require daily interaction and enrichment, a varied diet, a rabbit-proofed indoor living environment, and safe space to run, dig, jump, and chew.

They are not rodents, they are lagomorphs. Companion rabbits are domestic animals. Unlike their wild cousins, jackrabbits, hares and cottontails, pet bunnies are tame, vulnerable creatures completely dependent on humans for their care. And unlike hamsters or other “pocket pets,” rabbits aren’t content to live their entire lives confined in cages.

They are prey animals by nature. Bunnies are naturally jumpy and skittish, and thus require a different approach than predator pets. Canine and feline social activities such as playing chase and belly rubs can be interpreted as threatening rather than loving and playful to a rabbit.

Chris Keys & Bree

GA HRS Volunteer Chris Keys with his beloved Rex rabbit, Bree. Although most rabbits don’t like to be picked up and cuddled, Bree enjoys being held by her devoted daddy. Photo by Chris Savas.

They belong indoors. Bunnies should never live outside in hutches or be left outdoors unsupervised. Parasites, diseases, the elements and constant stress from being constantly on alert outside can kill a pet rabbit. Besides the fact that life in a cage or hutch is boring, depressing and stressful, bunnies can literally be frightened to death when approached by predators, such as raccoons, hawks, coyotes, owls, cats and dogs. The average lifespan for an outside hutch rabbit is 2-3 years compared to 10 or more years for a spayed or neutered indoor house bunny.

They aren’t suitable for young children. Rabbits are delicate and fragile creatures that require safe, gentle handling and a quiet environment. They don’t like to be held or cuddled, they are easily frightened by loud noises, and their bones and spines are very breakable – not a good fit for a small child who may view them as a toy. A parent who gives their kid a pet rabbit must not only be willing to be the rabbit’s primary caretaker but must also be prepared to supervise any interactions between child and bunny.

They must be spayed or neutered. This is essential in preventing uterine cancer in females, unpleasant and aggressive behavior in males including spraying, and unwanted pregnancies (a female rabbit can have a new litter of kits every 30 days!).

They require training and plenty of patience. New rabbit parents must be willing to spend time teaching home environment boundaries until the rabbit learns its limits. Inquisitive, intelligent, and very social by nature, bunnies are actually very trainable. They can learn their names, understand commands, walk on a leash, use a litter box, and perform all kinds of tricks.

Their vet care can be expensive. Bunnies are considered “exotic” pets, which means they have special veterinary needs that can only be met by vets specifically trained in handling and treating them. Exotic vets aren’t easy to find and their services can be more expensive than those of a small animal veterinarian specializing in dogs and cats.

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A caged rabbit at a suspected puppy mill in Corinth, Mississippi. He was later rescued along with dozens of dogs and other animals. Photo by Chuck Cook/AP Images for the Humane Society of the United States.

They are exploited by the pet industry. When you purchase a bunny from a pet store, such as Petland or Pet Supermarket, or a flea market you’re almost guaranteed to be supporting backyard breeders and large commercial breeding operations called rabbitries. Similar to puppy mills, rabbitries are often all about profit and rarely about the health, temperament or wellbeing of their rabbits. You can learn more about the rabbit breeding industry here.

They don’t make good Easter gifts. Every year, thousands of rabbits are purchased as Easter gifts for children, only to end up neglected or abandoned days, weeks and months later after kids lose interest and parents realize the bunny is a lot more work than they thought.

“Probably 80 percent of the rabbits that come to us were Easter bunnies at some time or another,” said Jennifer. “They’re typically purchased from the feed and seed stores to go in a child’s Easter basket, but people don’t know what to do with them and they die – only 10 percent of Easter bunnies actually live to see their first birthday. That’s why this year we started a billboard campaign with a corresponding website, notforeaster.com. We’re not trying to scare people out of getting a rabbit for Easter, but if they really want a rabbit and are willing to make that 10-12-year commitment, getting one shouldn’t revolve around the Easter holiday.”

bunny

They are not disposable. Rabbits can’t be turned loose outside – they will surely die from starvation, predators and parasites. Most shelters don’t accept surrendered pet rabbits, and rabbit rescues – which are almost always full with unwanted bunnies – aren’t likely to accept a rabbit from someone who purchased it on impulse and just doesn’t want the responsibility anymore.

They are intelligent and sensitive like cats and dogs. Rabbits are loving and social animals who bond with their human parents and bunny friends, and once they are spayed and neutered, they make delightful house pets. Like any sentient being, each rabbit has his or her own unique personality, from playful and silly, independent and reserved, to loyal and affectionate.

Adopt, don’t shop. Just like with dogs and cats, over-breeding and impulse purchases have resulted in thousands of homeless rabbits ending up in shelters and rescues throughout the U.S. There are multitudes of homeless rabbits looking for loving forever homes, so there’s no need to purchase a rabbit when you can adopt one. As you would with any pet, take time to educate yourself about their needs before bringing them into your home, then visit your local shelter, rescue group, or HRS chapter and adopt a homeless bunny.

Chico & Tilda

Chico and Tilda, two sweet little bunnies up for adoption at the Georgia HRS. Photo by Chris Savas.

Although my Frisky wasn’t an impulse purchase or an Easter gift gone wrong, he was indeed the victim of an uninformed little girl who didn’t understand his needs. A rabbit is meant to be a pampered house pet and a treasured companion, not a fixture in a hutch or an occasional plaything. How I wish I’d known that then.

But in the end, meeting with Jennifer actually ended up being very therapeutic – she, too had also kept her childhood rabbit in a hutch in her backyard, and like me, she also felt regret for not knowing better or doing more for her bunny. It felt good to know I wasn’t alone. “You do what you know, and when you know better, you do better,” she said encouragingly. That is a saying I will carry with me always.

“Just like with anything in life, get a rabbit for the right reasons,” Jennifer said. “Don’t do it because your kids are begging and tugging on your leg, or because you want to teach them responsibility – think about what you’re going to teach them when you let that rabbit loose outside, give it to a neighbor or take it to animal control. It’s a society issue at the base of it, it’s how we’re raising the next generation, and it’s not just with dogs, cats and rabbits, it’s every animal. A companion animal is a living, breathing thing and we are breeding them, we’re designing them and we’re making them dependent on us, so we are obligated to take care of them – that’s all there is to it.”

To learn more about proper rabbit care and adopting a bunny, visit the House Rabbit Society to find a chapter near you. If you live in the Atlanta area and are interested in adopting, volunteering and/or supporting the Georgia House Rabbit Society, please visit their website to learn more about them and how you can help their amazing efforts to help Georgia’s abandoned and neglected rabbits.

Check out these sites for great information about rabbits and their care:

MyHouseRabbit.com

HopperHome.com

Make Mind Chocolate Facebook page

The Language of Lagomorphs

ClickerBunny.com

https://www.petfinder.com/pet-adoption/other-pet-adoption/are-rabbits-good-pets/

Jennifer & Jack Sparrow-2

Photo by Chris Savas.

“Animals are not property or ‘things’ but rather living organisms, subjects of a life, who are worthy of our compassion, respect, friendship, and support.” – Marc Bekoff

Marc Ching – A Brave Rescuer On a Mission of Compassion

“You cannot tell a country who does not have the same value system as we do to love dogs. The only way is to plant a seed. And to let dogs themselves soften their hearts. In time I am certain you will no longer have a society that eats them. That no longer bashes in their skulls because their lives will now hold meaning.” – Marc Ching

Lucky for dogs everywhere, there are a growing number of animal advocates, rescuers and activists throughout the world fighting on behalf of man’s best friend. But not everyone is willing to risk life and limb – or come face-to-face with one of the planet’s most violent forms of animal cruelty – in the process. Enter Marc Ching, founder of the Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation and owner of The PetStaurant. A holistic pet nutritionist and Japanese herbalist by profession, this incredibly brave rescuer has taken it upon himself to save as many dogs as he can from the Asian pet meat trade.

Ching’s harrowing odyssey into this dark underworld began last May, when he learned about the summer solstice lychee and dog meat “festival” in Yulin, China. Shocked and disbelieving that such an inhumane practice could actually exist in the modern world, Ching bought a plane ticket, grabbed a backpack and headed to China with a raw determination to witness the trade for himself and rescue as many dogs as possible.

Ching the rescuer

This is Marc Ching – rescuer, savior and modern day hero. These poodle pups were rescued from a trash bag. Photo courtesy of Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation.

“My first trip was after the Yulin festival, on Sept. 1,” he says. “When I went to China I saw things I didn’t know people could do. I knew they ate dogs there but I didn’t know about the torture and abuse aspect associated with the preparation of the meat. It’s one thing to read about it or go to a dog farm, which is like a very dirty breeding facility, but it’s another to go to a slaughterhouse and see the methods people have created just to harm another living creature. It doesn’t make sense to me – it’s unspeakable.”

Since that first fateful journey, which shook him to the core but also galvanized his resolve to keep coming back and save more dogs, Ching has made three additional trips, rescuing a grand total of 249 canines from some of the worst and largest slaughterhouses in notorious dog meat locales including China’s Guangzhou province; Busan, South Korea and Hanoi, Vietnam. Unfortunately, only 61 dogs survived their ordeal.

“My trips are a little different than those of most people who rescue from the dog meat trade,” Ching says in his soft Hawaiian accent. “Typically people go to dog farms and try to shut them down or push meat trucks off the road. I actually go into the slaughterhouses and rescue dogs that are being dismembered, tortured or abused.”

Hanoi slaughterhouse-2

A slaughterhouse in Hanoi, Vietnam, a city notorious for its incredibly violent meat trade. Photo courtesy of Marc Ching.

As the founder of a nonprofit focused on rescuing, rehabilitating and rehoming severely abused dogs in the U.S., Ching is no stranger to cruelty. But he admits his rescue missions to Asia have come at a cost both mentally and physically – he’s been beaten, held hostage, had a machete put to his throat, a gun at his head, and lives with visions that will haunt him for the rest of his life. But neither mental anguish nor fear of death has deterred this gentle savior from his quest.

Since that first fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants trip to China, Ching has developed a more organized process that includes travel itineraries, securing translators and veterinarians in advance, working with teams of researchers to locate slaughterhouses, and finding ways to obtain undercover video footage – without getting caught (he was beaten severely when a South Korean butcher caught him wearing a GoPro). Posing as a wealthy American dog meat buyer, he makes a point of never going to the same slaughterhouse twice.

“It’s actually a great cover,” Ching boasts. “When I come into a country I prep my translator for about two hours before we go out, so when he goes to a slaughterhouse with me he knows what to say. He’ll tell the butchers, this is my client, he’s a rich American and he wants to buy (large quantities of) dogs that have been abused and tortured but still alive, because he’s going to kill them himself, prepare the meat and export it to America.”

Ching rescuing hope-crop

Marc with Hope, the first dog he rescued from a slaughterhouse in China. Hope has since recovered from his injuries and has been brought back to the U.S., where he serves as an ambassador for Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation’s China Effort. He is indeed a miracle! Photo courtesy of Marc Ching.

He continues, “Before we go out we call local veterinarians and ask them how many dogs they can take, treat and keep for a few months, because the number of vets we find determine the number of dogs we save. So our process now is to take the dogs, load them up in vans and get them straight to the vets.”

For those unfortunate dogs who don’t make it to the vet, Ching makes a point of driving them into the countryside and giving them a dignified burial.

“At least they knew in their last moments that someone cared for them,” he says.

Despite the unspeakable horrors and mental anguish he has endured along the way, Ching insists his Asia efforts are worth the pain and sacrifice, especially when he’s able to fly dogs to the U.S. and bring them to his foundation in Sherman Oaks, Calif. So far, Ching has brought back 46 lucky dogs, most of which have since been rehabilitated and adopted into loving homes.

Rescued from China-2

These puppies were rescued from a slaughterhouse in China. It is unthinkable that anyone would want to harm such innocent beings. Photo courtesy of Marc Ching.

“It’s very expensive to bring these dogs to the U.S., so I try to adopt out locally to Canadians or veterans who live there, as well as to great local Asian people who would never hurt their dogs,” says Ching. “But the ones that I bring back are the dogs that really mean something to me – they all have a story. I also realize these dogs have value here…people in America rally around them. Part of raising awareness is showing people the end product of (my rescue missions), so it becomes tangible to them. It spreads awareness that there are people in these countries doing these things and we should do something to stop it.”

Ching says one of his most special rescues is Sorrow, a black and white French bulldog he saved within minutes of being brutalized in a slaughterhouse in Tongzhou, China.

“That’s a dog who means a lot to me because he’s become the face of what I do now, as so many people have seen that picture of him with his mouth and feet bound,” says Ching. “If you love animals, especially dogs, and you see that picture, it’s just emblematic of what they’re doing over there. That dog and the dogs I rescued from that slaughterhouse, they are miracles, because once an animal enters a place like that, there’s no getting out – they were supposed to die. So I think people connect to that image, because he really is a miracle.”

Sorrow upon rescue

Sorrow just moments after his rescue. Photo courtesy of Marc Ching.

Rescuing and getting treatment for dogs in other countries, especially those with extensive medical needs, can be incredibly costly. As the saying goes, “if you want to help animals, get rich.” Luckily, Ching’s thriving wellness and nutrition-centered pet store, ThePetStaurant, has enabled him to fund his Asia missions without having to rely heavily on donations, although he always appreciates any help he can get from his passionate supporters.

“My business is very successful, but where most people would buy a Rolex watch, I save dogs,” says Ching. “I never want someone to look at what I do and pollute it by saying I do it for (donation) money because that’s not possible – I lose a few hundred thousand dollars a year on these rescues because they’re so expensive. But in the end it’s worth it because this means so much to me.”

Ching’s purity of intention is also reflected in the beautiful, tragic, yet inspiring writings he posts on Facebook and Instagram before, during and after his missions. Writing has essentially become a therapeutic outlet for Ching, who admits he has been deeply traumatized by what he has experienced. Yet besides helping him to heal his heart and mind, his heartfelt, sometimes gut-wrenching posts have also touched the hearts of thousands of animal lovers throughout the world, devoted social media fans who follow his travels and cheer him on, every step of the way.

Hanoi, Vietnam-2

Marc on the back of his translator’s moped in Hanoi, following a near-death experience at a slaughterhouse. Photo courtesy of Marc Ching.

“I actually post in real time when I’m (in Asia), so I’m able to take my experiences and use my words to paint a picture so people can feel the moment,” says Ching. “I think they appreciate that and they can see what it’s like out there.”

But after staring into the jaws of death one too many times, this devoted husband and father of two has begun to rethink his strategy, from one of rescuing to shifting a mindset that will inspire lasting change.

“In starting this I didn’t have a goal, I just went out there and rescued dogs from slaughterhouses,” Ching explains. “Internally, I felt like it was a way to save myself, because it’s addicting, that moment when you feel like a hero. But in the long run, especially on trip three, it because so burdensome on my consciousness I even had a hard time living my life. Now my goal has changed from risking my life to creating an effort where I’m doing something to end (the dog meat trade).”

At the core of this new strategy is a media campaign in China and South Korea that will feature a short documentary tempered with graphic undercover video footage Ching and two undercover slaughterhouse workers have compiled over the last several months. Dubbed “The Compassion Project,” its intention is to shed light on the abusive practices tied to the trade, turn people away from eating dog meat and support change.

Ching and rescue

Marc with a very grateful Bull terrier he rescued from Li Yuan, China. The kisses make it all worthwhile! Photo courtesy of Marc Ching.

“In China and South Korea they care more about image, so my goal is to put this media campaign together, line up celebrities and schedule important meetings with people in the government. My message will be, ‘you can be hated by all these countries because of this inhumanity or you can rise up and decide that your country is better than that.’ In our culture we used to have slavery and lynching, but one day we realized that was no longer acceptable and we changed. I believe their countries are no different and that they’ll change in time, too.”

He continues, “Their celebrities (are very important to them). If Yao Ming did the same thing for us as he did (for WildAid’s anti-shark fin soup campaign) in China, I could almost guarantee dog meat would be wiped out in a matter of months because these places where they’re doing it would have so much local opposition, they’d have to end it.”

Meanwhile, Ching is about to embark upon a fifth mission, this time to Thailand, Cambodia, northern Vietnam, South Korea and Yulin, China, a trip he expects to be his “most intense yet.” It appears there is no stopping this determined rescuer.

Sorrow&foster brother-2

Sorrow snoozing with his foster brother. He is back in the U.S., doing great and already has several prospective families vying to adopt him! Photo courtesy of Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation.

When a human being bears witness to terrible atrocity, they are forever changed. I can attest to that, just from researching and writing about the dog and cat meat trade. So when I tell Ching he is my hero, that I could never do what he is doing, that I am so grateful that there are people like him in the world, willing to do whatever it takes to make a difference in the lives of animals, he just laughs.

“I recently wrote a post where I describe what that moment of rescue is like for me,” he tells me. “I go into this place and it’s like you’re breathing into the rain. That’s what it’s like because there’s blood everywhere, everywhere there’s screaming, and it’s usually raining for some reason, and I’m just drenched. And when you save this dog and this dog looks at you, it’s like that moment when you’re in love with someone…it’s amazing. I don’t think people realize that there’s beauty in what I do.”

To learn more about Marc Ching, read his incredibly heartfelt writing and find out how to support his efforts, check out the Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation website and Facebook page.

Ching rescuing Sorrow

Ching cradling Sorrow before heading to the vet. Many dogs that end up in the Asian dog meat trade are lost or stolen pets. Photo courtesy of Marc Ching.

“People look away from the pictures because they cannot stomach it. People do not want to hear about the abuse because they cannot endure to listen to it. But you cannot turn away. You cannot close your eyes because in doing so you just enable it. In doing so you pretend things like this do not exist, and then the suffering and sacrifice become meaningless.” – Marc Ching

Volunteering With an Animal Rescue – How To Be of Service (Without Giving Up Your Life)

I absolutely adore pugs. Next to German shepherds and Great Danes they are my all-time favorite breed. At the time I decided I wanted to get involved in dog rescue, I was living in another city that had one small rescue tasked with rescuing, rehabilitating and rehoming the area’s neglected, abused and abandoned pugs. I had long admired this amazing little organization, so when I heard that its founders were moving out-of-state and searching for volunteers to take over the rescue, I jumped at the chance to get involved. I imagined how rewarding it would be to use my writing skills to help homeless pugs find loving families where they would be adored and cherished as much as my pug, Gizmo, was (and still is).

I remember showing up at that first meeting, so excited to be a part of something so meaningful and knowing exactly how I could best be of service – I would write and edit their quarterly newsletter. About two-dozen people were in attendance, all pug lovers like me who were passionate about seeing the rescue continue. Sitting in a large circle with snacks in our laps and drinks in our hands, we made quick work of getting down to business and in less than two hours had elected nine new board members, signed up several foster homes and had a newsletter team in place, the latter consisting of two other women and myself. As I walked away from the meeting I felt positive and hopeful that my skills would be useful and appreciated.

While I thought I had made it abundantly clear to the rescue’s leadership that working on the newsletter was all I could offer, as I had a husband, four dogs and two jobs taking up the lion’s share of my time and energy, within weeks that boundary began to crumble. Things at the organization quickly became complicated as our initially robust group of enthusiastic volunteers dwindled to just 12 core members and a handful of fosters. As a result, the group was having a hard time managing the deluge of homeless and often sick or injured dogs in desperate need of transportation, veterinary care and placement.

Photo credit: 3milliondogs.com

Photo credit: 3milliondogs.com

Wanting very much to help my new rescue colleagues through this tough period, I agreed to fill in the gaps and do whatever I could with what limited time I had, hoping that once the dust settled and more volunteers came on board I could go back to concentrating solely on the newsletter. But weeks soon turned into months, and any free time I could spare continued to be spent picking up and dropping off pugs, reviewing adoption applications, conducting pre-adoption home checks, attending rescue meetings and assisting at adoption events, not to mention helping out with our annual Halloween pug costume party, the rescue’s biggest fundraising effort.

Mind you, I’m not complaining, as much of what I experienced that first year was very worthwhile and rewarding. While there were plenty of upsetting moments, like witnessing the callous indifference of people and their lame excuses for surrendering their dogs – moving, having a baby, behavioral problems – the experiences I had and the lessons I learned were incredibly enlightening and valuable. It felt amazing to be able to deliver a sweet little pug to his forever home, seeing him welcomed by his new family and knowing that formerly abused or abandoned dog was destined for a wonderful life – I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything in the world. Yet as time passed I found myself stuck in a sort of “rescue vortex” from which I didn’t feel justified dislodging myself. No, I wasn’t doing nearly as much as my other rescue colleagues were – some of them lived and breathed pug rescue – but my home life was already strained and here I was running off to help other dogs when my own pups weren’t getting enough of my attention. While I knew the rescue needed me, I also knew that something had to give, and soon. But instead of finding a way to cut back on my volunteer time and return to my original intention, I began to feel greater pressure to give more of myself while at the same time feeling like no matter what I did, it simply wasn’t enough.

I had only been volunteering with the rescue for over a year and was already feeling burned out. I was so discouraged, as I thought volunteering with a rescue was supposed to be about helping dogs in-need, not about fitting in with a clique, pleasing people or going along with pack-mentality politics. No, I wasn’t a martyr and I never would be – I wasn’t like some of my rescue colleagues who seemed to take pride in bragging about how stressed, exhausted and over-extended they were rescuing pugs. While helping dogs was indeed important, I believed my life should come first. And I certainly couldn’t remember the last time I had felt any sense of gratitude from anyone in the group for what I was contributing, be it insufficient in their eyes. So I began to say no. And that’s when things started to go south.

I won’t bore you with the rest of the story – suffice it to say that my relationship with the pug rescue came to a close just a few months later and that our parting of ways wasn’t a happy one. I get it that I had been the weakest spoke in their wheel, that the rescue was small, understaffed and overwhelmed with dogs, and that the group needed core members willing and able to give more of their time, energy and passion to keeping the organization afloat. I had set myself up to fail by not speaking up, reasserting my boundaries and sticking to them. Being “nice” had backfired on me. Instead of the rewarding experience I had hoped it would be, my first volunteer effort with a dog rescue left me feeling unappreciated, slighted, used and discarded.

Photo credit: volunteer forever.com

Photo credit: volunteer forever.com

While it took almost seven years for me to want to get involved with rescue again, I didn’t let that first negative experience derail my passion for helping animals. Since then I have volunteered with a couple of groups and through trial and error believe I now know the difference between a legitimate, professional, well-organized rescue that deserves my freely given time and energy, and one I should avoid at all costs.

Animal rescue organizations are run by humans, humans have egos and often those egos get in the way of what those individuals are supposed to be doing – helping animals. From narcissists and martyrs to hoarders and control freaks, the animal rescue world does indeed attract its fair share of very “colorful” folks, particularly women with strong and emotional personalities. But while there are certainly plenty of groups to steer clear of, there are also myriad rescue organizations made up of wonderful individuals who always put the animals first and understand the incredible value of good volunteers. So while my story can serve as a cautionary tale for what not to do when volunteering with a rescue, it’s not meant to dissuade anyone from getting involved in such a rewarding and worthwhile effort.

So to ensure you have the best experience possible and are able to help the animals in the best way possible, here are a few things to keep in mind before volunteering with a rescue group:

Do your homework: Unfortunately, the non-profit world is full of scammers who will take full advantage of your generosity if you let them, so make sure you do your due-diligence and research the organization before getting involved. Make sure the group is a 501(c)(3), which means it has been approved by the IRS as a tax-exempt, charitable organization. While this doesn’t guarantee the group’s leadership is well-intentioned, it at least demonstrates that they were serious enough to undergo the extensive amount of paperwork and waiting time necessary to attain official nonprofit status.

Next, check out the group’s website and do an Internet search to see what has been written about them. How long has the rescue been around and how many people are involved? Does the group have a Facebook page, and if so, what are they posting and how many “friends” do they have?

“There’s always someone who’s going to write a bad review, but a larger rescue, especially one that’s been around for a while, is more likely to be in compliance than some smaller, no-name, nobody-knows rescue,” explained Danielle Kramer, a frontline animal rescuer who has volunteered with a wide array of rescue groups for over 20 years, including Angels Among Us Pet Rescue and Atlanta Boxer Rescue. “Not that small rescues are bad, you’re just going to want to do your homework and make sure you’re not working with an animal hoarding situation disguised as a rescue.”

She continued, “If you see a rescue group bashing other rescues, run, because that’s not a good sign. That means that rescue is on a power trip and they’re not looking at the whole picture. It’s so important for rescues to be supportive of one another and not backstab each other because it’s not a competition. Good rescues will want to work with others with the same goal in mind – to save lives.”

Lastly, talk to someone who has worked with the rescue and ask plenty of questions, including, what are the group’s adoption procedures and are they in-line with those of other successful rescues? All good rescues will usually follow the same best practices, so make sure the rescue you’re interested in is following them, as well. Does the rescue provide training and/or supplies and is there a network of fellow rescuers you can rely on for support? If you’re interested in fostering, ask about their pre-screening procedures and how they handle any emergency situations. Information like this will give you a clearer picture of whether the group is run like a business or a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of operation.

Photo credit: patch.com

Photo credit: patch.com

Consider your commitment level: How much time you can devote to your chosen rescue group will depend on your lifestyle, so think about how many hours per week or month you’ll be able to commit. Responsible, reliable volunteers are a boon for any rescue group, so set yourself up to succeed by being clear about what you can or can’t do and stick to your boundaries. It’s always a good idea to start off small and see how you do rather than jumping in full-tilt and risk becoming overwhelmed, so consider sticking a toe in the water rather than swan diving into rescue.

“Some people can live and breathe rescue, while others may only donate an hour or two per month, but that’s equally important,” says Danielle. “No effort in rescue and no act of kindness is too small. Even if that means donating one bag of dog food, anything helps. Even if you can only do one home check once a month, that’s still one more home check and one more dog you’re helping.”

Figure out your ideal volunteer role: Consider what kinds of activities would be the best fit for you and stay true to your intentions. Would you prefer hands-on or behind-the-scenes activities? Do you want to work with a group of people or carry out projects on your own? Do you like structure or are you a self-starter? Do you like learning new skills or would rather stick with the abilities you already have? Are you able to foster animals, join rescue teams, or maybe just walk some dogs at an adoption event? Be clear about what you want to accomplish and never, ever be afraid to say “no.”

“If people want to help, it doesn’t matter what they want to do, especially if they’re new to rescue and don’t want to be on the frontlines, that’s okay,” Danielle said. “They can start off small, or even bring their kid to an adoption event so he can learn, go walk a dog or play with the rescue puppies – that’s such a great life lesson. Every position is important, no matter what it is, even if it’s only once a year – everything you can do helps!”

Photo credit: arlboston.com

Photo credit: arlboston.com

Decide if it’s a good fit: Your time and energy are valuable, so it’s important to select a rescue group that reflects your values, is made up of people you feel comfortable with, and is appreciative of your efforts. Notice, what is the overall “energy” of the group? Is it warm and friendly or does the dynamic feel cliquey like high school? Does the group express gratitude for what you’re able to offer or do you feel pressured to do more? Does the group work to resolve conflicts productively and diplomatically or are its members prone to petty arguments, gossip and backstabbing behavior? All that does is take the focus away from what the rescue is supposed to be doing – helping animals. So even if the group just “feels” wrong, don’t hesitate to walk away and look for another opportunity, one where your blood, sweat and tears will be better spent.

“A rescue should never guilt you into doing more than you want or can do,” said Danielle. “Who are you to judge what anyone is doing out of the kindness of their heart? It’s not fair for anybody in a rescue to be demanding of their volunteers because then those people will be turned off and never want to volunteer again. If a rescue is that desperate or struggling that much, walk away and find a different one because it’s probably going to be a negative, frustrating experience to work with them.”

I’m glad I didn’t let my negative experience with the pug rescue derail me from helping animals indefinitely. If anything, it only helped me identify what to look for and what to avoid in a group, while strengthening my resolve to find that perfect fit. Thanks to that hard but important lesson several years ago, I finally found a rescue group I enjoy working with whenever I have a chance, one that appreciates what I’m able to offer and whose philosophy aligns with my values. Best of all, I’ve met the most amazing, like-minded people, some who have even become great new friends. Volunteering with an animal rescue is so worth it. Imagine how many animals we could help if everyone did their part to pitch in and make a difference. What a better, more humane world that would be!

Photo credit: youtube.com

Photo credit: youtube.com

“The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.” – Mitch Albom