How to Navigate the World As an Empath (Without Losing Your Mind)

“You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” ― Jane Goodall

If you’ve been a regular reader of my blog, you probably noticed that right around the 2016 election I fell silent – for over three years. In the aftermath of election night, I knew without a doubt that the new administration was going to be devastating for animal welfare and the environment, providing journalists like me with plenty of fodder to write about. But in the days and weeks that followed, I became so deeply depressed that I lost all desire to continue my animal welfare writing. I told myself that I wouldn’t have anything original to say and would only be repeating what myriad other journalists – many of whom were far more prolific than I am – were already reporting.

Sure, I could undoubtedly rage on and on about every single affront to animals rights that began snowballing almost immediately after inauguration day, but nothing was going to change the fact that we had an animal-hating, science-denying sociopath at the helm of our country who would not be swayed by the condemnation of activists like me. It was going to be a very long, agonizing four years, so I braced myself for what was to come and decided to detach from the chaos in order to protect my emotional wellbeing. Selfish perhaps, but it felt like the healthiest thing to do at the time.

It has been said that the greatest antidote to depression is action, but withdrawing from all the negative news (only staying as informed as-needed), taking a break from my volunteer rescue work and putting my blog on hold was exactly what my heart needed. I was emotionally exhausted after covering the dog and cat meat trade and the many other forms of violence that humans were continuing to perpetrate against animals. I’d also become incredibly disillusioned by so-called “activists” who claimed to be fighting on behalf of animals but were really just seeking publicity while quietly lining their own pockets. Maybe a more courageous and dedicated investigative journalist wouldn’t have blinked an eye, running head-first into the storm with an unflagging determination to report the truth. So if I could be silenced so easily, was I even a real activist at all or just a weak fraud posing as one?

The fact is, I’m an empath. To the world I may appear confident, strong and comfortable in my own skin, but that’s simply a persona I learned to adopt as a young girl to protect my soft, vulnerable heart from petty, hateful people whose cruel motivations to harm me never ceased to mystify me. But beneath my carefully crafted suit of armor, I experience my emotions and those of the people I care about very deeply. I am incredibly intuitive and sensitive to the energy of my surroundings, can “read” others uncannily well, easily see through hypocrisies and lies, and I can’t witness anyone – especially animals – in pain without wanting to jump in and “save” them. While I wouldn’t change who I am for anything, my hyper-sensitivity combined with my introverted personality means I can only handle so much negative stimuli before I start to unravel and need to isolate myself. Only then can I replenish, recharge and reinforce my protective exterior once again.

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There will always be cruel people in the world who will want to hurt the weak and the voiceless in order to make themselves bigger, stronger and richer. We who volunteer our time and energy in animal rescue and activism know this. I was bullied as a child, so nothing motivates my desire to fight back harder than mean people using their positions of power to hurt and exploit others. I imagine that this passion to protect and fight back is what motivates most animal rescuers and activists – we identify with the vulnerability and pure-heartedness of animals, so we channel our protective rage into defending their rights and creating change.

But how can we as animal-loving empaths protect our personal wellbeing while exposing ourselves to so much cruelty and suffering? Here are some techniques that have helped me tremendously over the past three years:

Self-protect and set boundaries: create an energy shield or mental barrier that allows you to let in what you wish while deflecting anything negative (for example, imagine yourself surrounded by a bubble of protective light). Get into the habit of saying “no” more often, and whenever possible, remove yourself from draining and/or toxic situations, places and people who sap your energy.

Observe your thoughts and process your emotions: If you find yourself thinking angry or negative thoughts, begin a dialogue in your mind to figure out what they’re are trying to tell you and find a solution. Allow yourself to feel your emotions when they’re at their strongest but don’t let them rule you or try to block them.

Practice self-care: Nourish your body with healthy food, get plenty of exercise and rest, and stay hydrated. You’ll be much better able to cope with the stresses and challenges around you if you maintain your personal health and wellbeing, so give yourself plenty of “me time” to do just that.

Find ways to recharge and experience joy: Whether it’s getting out in nature, walking or playing your dog, working out, spending time with friends or pursuing your favorite hobby, find something that you love to do and make it a regular part of your life. For me, ballroom dancing is my solace and I’m never happier and more “in the moment” than when I’m moving my body to music.

Develop a daily practice that brings you peace: Whether it’s doing yoga, meditating, repeating positive affirmations or just breathing deeply and mindfully, start each day with something to help quiet your mind and focus your energy so you can move forward feeling centered and calm.

At the end of the day, we empaths have a choice: to live in this imperfect world and commit to being part of humanity or to divorce ourselves from it. We have no power to change anyone, only our reactions to them. At the same time, we must come face-to-face with our own dysfunctional parts, taking responsibility for and embracing what we can or can’t change about ourselves. Lately I’ve been working really hard to be kind to those I have a hard time relating to, although I find it very challenging at times. The willful ignorance and hard-heartedness of some people on the opposite side of the political spectrum has been a harsh reality check for me, to say the least. Sure, maybe I’ll change one heart or two and maybe I won’t, but shutting down and numbing myself isn’t the answer – I’ve tried that. So I’m learning to embrace life for what it is, rather than constantly trying to change it to the way I want it to be. I must be an emotional warrior, as corny as that sounds. “Illegitimi non carborundum” has become my new mantra.

As an energetic healer once said to me, “Be the light and let it shine.” I will take that advice and try to be a force for good while accepting that the world may never change. Our societies appear to be on the precipice of collapse – the warning signs are there and they are screaming at us to pay attention. We are in the throes of the sixth mass extinction, destroying the natural world of which we are a part. Still, I have hope that more and more of us will choose to tune into our higher selves and work collectively to heal our broken world rather than continuing along our selfish path to destruction.

Many like to say we are destroying the planet, but that’s not true. We are destroying our environment and thus, ourselves, but in reality, the Earth will be just fine without us. She will eventually heal and flourish on her own, relishing the quiet of our silenced voices.

What about you? Have you been feeling challenged to stay the course with your animal advocacy recently? What are you doing to take care of yourself when feeling overwhelmed or burned out? Please share in the comments below!

 

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 on a horrific scale. So whatever we have to do, we have to do it responsibly, 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 bottle-feeds 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

Is No Kill Really Possible? Part 2: The Path to Lifesaving

Rebecca Guinn remembers that ah-ha moment as if it were yesterday. Standing in the middle of the “stray ward” at the Dekalb County Animal Services shelter in Atlanta, she couldn’t believe her eyes – the kennel was practically empty. There to save a stray dog she’d reported to Animal Control after he’d gotten caught in a fence behind her home, Guinn decided to adopt him after finding out he would soon be euthanized if no one claimed him. Just days earlier, when she’d first visited the facility to put her name on his kennel card, the shelter had been jam-packed with hundreds of desperate, barking dogs. Where had they gone?

“The dog I wanted to save was still there, but where there had been 400 dogs, now there were practically none…(the staff) had gotten ‘caught up’ over the three-day weekend and euthanized most of them,” Guinn explained. “At that point I just stood there, looking around at the one or two dogs here and there, and I thought, ‘I don’t know what’s going on here, but there has got to be another way.’ That moment changed my life, and I haven’t been able to think of anything else since.”

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(Photo by Chris Savas)

As a criminal defense attorney with no experience working in animal welfare, Guinn could have easily pushed the disturbing encounter from her mind and gone on with her life. But once she began digging deeper into her city’s troubling animal welfare situation, she knew she couldn’t turn back. At that time, in the early 2000s, over 100,000 animals were dying every year in Atlanta’s metro area shelters, with its two largest open admission facilities, Dekalb and Fulton County Animal Services, carrying an appalling 80% kill rate.

Undaunted, Guinn rallied a couple of dog-loving friends and together they began researching the needs of the local animal welfare community to come up with a targeted strategy to help stop the needless killing of healthy and treatable shelter pets. And that’s when she stumbled across a concept that would become the guiding light for her burgeoning career in animal advocacy.

“I first learned about no-kill when I started researching the issue in 2001, long before the term “No Kill Equation” had been coined and long before Reno or Austin had achieved no-kill status,” said Guinn. “I attended a Best Friends National Conference in Seattle in 2001, where I met Nathan Winograd, Peter Marsh, Richard Avanzino, and Bonney Brown, who was with Best Friends Animal Society at the time and later went on to take Reno no-kill. My first real mentors were Bonney Brown, Aimee St. Arnaud, who is now with the ASPCA and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the animal welfare movement, and Susan Feingold, one of the founders of SPOT (Stopping Pet Overpopulation Together) here in Atlanta, who later went on to manage Fulton County Animal Services from 2003-2008, and ran the DeKalb shelter from 2013-2015.”

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Rebecca Guinn, founder and CEO of LifeLine Animal Project, and local legend in the Georgia animal welfare community. (Photo by Chris Savas)

Inspired and motivated to make an impact in a city with an unfortunate animal welfare legacy, Guinn and her partners founded LifeLine Animal Project, a non-profit organization designed to end the shelter euthanasia of homeless animals and transform Atlanta into a no-kill community. And make an impact they did – over the next decade, LifeLine successfully implemented a host of lifesaving resources and programs, including an online “shelter” for showcasing adoptable pets; a volunteer-driven feral cat TNR (trap-neuter-release) program; a boarding facility; a cat adoption center; a rehabilitation program for dogs with medical or behavioral issues, and two low-cost spay and neuter clinics.

But despite ten years of hard work that had helped make a dent in Dekalb and Fulton’s intake numbers, euthanasia rates were still alarmingly high, at 50% and 65%, respectively. The LifeLine team knew they needed to find a way to make a broader impact, so when both counties put their shelter management contracts up for bid in early 2013, Guinn and her team made a pivotal decision.

“The thinking was that if we really want to have an impact in this community, we’re going to have to run the shelters,” she explained. “At that time we were asking, what is the resource that’s missing that’s really keeping us from achieving (no-kill)? Austin and Reno had gone no-kill, and other cities were getting really close, but (Atlanta was) still hovering at this national average of 50%. So we were like, ‘well, somebody needs to step up and do this,’ and that was us.”

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A young man waits outside the Dekalb shelter to drop off his dog. (Photo by Chris Savas)

By mid-2013 LifeLine was managing the shelters, putting them through a much-needed process of reform, and creating a culture of lifesaving. The results were almost immediate – within a short period of time, Dekalb and Fulton saw more than a 50% drop in their euthanasia rates, and by 2014 they were in the teens. Now, most months both facilities are staying within the benchmark 90% save rate, the minimum a shelter must maintain in order to call itself no-kill.

So what did it take to transform two antiquated kill shelters into progressive, welcoming community centers that have saved over 40,000 pets to date? Although LifeLine’s template for lifesaving pre-dates the “No Kill Equation” (a term coined by no-kill revolutionary Nathan Winograd, executive director of the No Kill Advocacy Center), it implemented the same programs and services, as follows:

  • Community cat sterilization (TNR) and re-release
  • High-volume, low-cost spay and neuter
  • Collaborative rescue group partnerships
  • Comprehensive adoption programming
  • Pet retention
  • Medical and behavioral rehabilitation and prevention
  • Public relations and community outreach
  • Volunteers
  • Foster care
  • Proactive pet redemptions

“It isn’t rocket science,” Guinn said. “Basically, you have a foster program, you do TNR for free-roaming cats, and you open up adoptions and really focus on them,” she explained. “We’re trying to overcome (an old and outdated) facility in both counties, so we try to create with people what we can’t do with the facilities, providing the best customer service we can, making it fun through social media, and trying to drive people to the shelters. A lot of people do want to help, so we try to make it easy for them to do the right thing, and we’ve put a lot of effort and resources into that. We do a lot of adoption promotions where the fee is waived or at a very reduced rate, and we’re trying to be the leader, so if you’re looking for a rescue animal or shelter pet, we want to be the source.”

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Young kittens are a common sight a LifeLine’s shelters, especially during “kitten season.” Luckily the organization boasts a robust foster network that helps get young animals out of the shelter and into nurturing home environments. (Photo by Chris Savas)

Although both Fulton and Dekalb remain open-admission shelters that take in approximately 15,000-16,000 dogs and cats each year, LifeLine manages intakes by making pet retention a big point of focus. Long gone are the days when an individual could just walk in and drop off an unwanted pet – now a person must make an appointment, pay a surrender fee, and meet with an “Animal Help Specialist” counselor to explore possible options to help keep that pet in its home, such as behavioral training assistance. That preventative approach also extends to Fulton County’s Animal Control, which LifeLine also oversees.

“We work with our animal control officers to not just instantly impound everything,” Guinn said. “For example, can they knock on doors, use their microchip scanner, and do everything they can to keep animals in their community rather than impound them? If there are people who won’t be responsible then we enforce the law, but we’ve tried to take a community-driven approach rather than just a pure complaint-driven approach to animal control, and have it truly be ‘animal services.’ We want people to come to us for help, and we work at it. Sometimes the people who need our help are the same people causing a problem, so it’s a hard balance.”

But when it comes to saving more lives, there’s nothing like teamwork to help move more pets out of shelters and into new homes. That’s why LifeLine collaborates with 70 different rescue groups, including shelters in the northeast that have high demand for the kinds of adoptable pets the southeast tends to have in great supply, such as puppies. By transporting pets out of high-volume regions, shelters in low-volume areas can meet the needs of their pet-loving communities while getting more homeless animals where they belong – with loving families.

LifeLine has taken pet adoption marketing to an all new level with its adorable videos! Check out this one featuring a sweet bully girl named Amelia (warning: major cuteness overload!):

For decades, many in the animal welfare and sheltering community have resigned themselves to the common belief that there are too many unwanted animals and not enough homes. Yet according to the No Kill Advocacy Center, approximately 30 million people acquire a new companion animal every year. Line that up with the estimated 3 million dogs and cats killed in shelters annually, and it seems logical that there would be more than enough homes for our nation’s homeless pets. But is it that simple?

“Mathematically there are enough homes, but not every dog is perfect for every home and vice versa, so we have to create a market for the animals in our care,” Guinn explained. “At each facility we take in about 7,000-8,000 animals a year. Our population area is 1.6 million people, and 60% of households are pet-owning, so yes, there are enough homes, but that doesn’t mean there’s an abundance of homes for the animals we have. It’s not just math, there’s some creativity to it. That’s why we have the spay and neuter clinics, our outreach programs, and we’re encouraging our animal control officers to be part of the community because there are areas where animals are at-risk, and we have to address that.”

LifeLine Rescue Coordinator Andie Peart “interviews” Peggy about what she’s looking for in a forever home:

For a shelter truly committed to no-kill, the work doesn’t stop at getting to a 90% or greater save rate. That rate has to be maintained, and if anything, achieving that number is just the beginning of a facility’s journey toward sustainable reform. And that isn’t easy in a city like Atlanta, with its shelter populations predominantly consisting of harder-to-adopt bully breeds, thanks to rampant over-breeding. But despite the challenges it faces, LifeLine is unwavering in its commitment to its no-kill mission and communities it serves.

“We hope we can keep doing this because our work here isn’t done,” Guinn said. “We’ve just barely achieved the (no-kill) threshold, we’ve still got work to do to keep it sustainable, and we still need the community to really support the mission. That’s the whole idea behind our ‘I’m In’ campaign – we need people to be invested in making Atlanta a no-kill community.”

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Some of the awesome, animal-loving staff at Dekalb County Animal Services (from left to right): Andie Peart, rescue coordinator, with Orio; Kerry Moyers-Horton, shelter director, with Giselle; Fredrica Lewis, kennel supervisor, with Hogie, and Kayla Morneault, adoption supervisor, with Divine. (Photo by Chris Savas)

Alongside the steadily evolving animal welfare movement, reform is indeed taking place in our old and outdated U.S. sheltering system. To date, there are just under 300 no-kill communities in the U.S., with more shelters making fundamental shifts toward lifesaving and away from impounding, warehousing, and killing. The hope is that as more and more facilities make this humane paradigm shift, saving healthy and treatable pets will become the industry norm rather than the exception.

“There is a philosophical shift in animal welfare, and the days where we needed to demonize the way things used to be, I believe that time is over,” said Guinn. “I’m sure there are communities that need more help and that there are vestiges of the way things used to be, but I really think there’s a lot more investment in moving forward and making progress. When we first started our TNR program for cats, for example, HSUS was against it, ASPCA was against it, most vets were against it, and people said it was abandonment. Now everyone is for it and it’s a model for controlling cat populations. So things have changed as people have opened their eyes, and a lot of organizations are working toward taking killing off the table. That’s what we’re working toward, to really change the model for animal care and control, and to change the law. LifeLine has always been about trying to create the space where no-kill is possible and we’ve shown that it is.”

To learn more about LifeLine Animal Project, check out their website or visit their Facebook page.

Is No-Kill Really Possible? Part One

If your Facebook news feed looks anything like mine, it’s probably flooded with tons of postings and photos of homeless animals, including the most heartbreaking – those of dogs whose time is running out at yet another high-kill animal shelter. Their sweet, confused, and frightened faces never fail to pierce holes in your heart. But if you’re like me in that you’re unable to foster, adopt, or donate more than a few dollars to rescue groups that save shelter pets, all these postings do is leave you feeling incredibly frustrated, depressed, and downright helpless. Because it seems that no matter how many lives are saved at a given facility one week, another wave of unwanted animals is sure to follow the next. Meanwhile, every moment you’re sitting there, trying not to cry, you know that those desperate dogs will likely be among the estimated 9,000 pets that die in U.S. shelters every day. It’s enough to make any animal lover want to go offline and stay there.

According to the No Kill Advocacy Center, shelter killing is the leading cause of death for healthy dogs and cats in the U.S., with “almost half of all animals who enter our nation’s shelters going out the back door in garbage bags rather than out the front door in the loving arms of adopters, despite the fact that there are plenty of homes available.” If you take into account that only 37% of all dogs and 46% of all cats living in homes today were adopted from shelters, that means that the lion’s share of homeless pets are not making it out of our sheltering system alive.

It’s a soul-crushing reality, one we in rescue and animal advocacy constantly wrestle with (and often argue over) in our desperate search for expedient and lasting solutions. What’s it going to take to stop the killing of millions of savable dogs and cats in shelters? How do we stop the flood of unwanted animals by convincing more people to spay and neuter their pets, as well as choose adoption first? How do we stop unethical breeders and irresponsible pet owners from creating this mess in the first place? Is taking our sheltering system no-kill the answer, and is it even possible, or is no-kill just some lofty, unrealistic dream with its own fair share of unintended consequences?

The moment I decided to cover the no-kill movement I knew I’d bitten off a whale of a topic. It’s a highly controversial and contentious issue, long known for its polarized camps of passionate proponents and opponents. In fact, just say the words “no-kill” within earshot of any animal lover and you’re likely to spark a heated debate. Although I’ve always loved the idea behind the no-kill philosophy, after everything I’ve observed in the rescue community here in the southeast (where pet homelessness and irresponsible breeding are endemic), I figured euthanizing pets for lack of good homes was a necessary evil we’d probably always have to live with. But after hours of research, several eye-opening interviews, and a fair amount of soul-searching later, I have come to the conclusion that no-kill is not only possible, but is also the most ethical direction for our animal-loving society to move.

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A volunteer cuddles an adoptable pup at a Best Friends mobile adoption event in Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy Best Friends Animal Society)

Best Friends Animal Society is one of my favorite animal welfare groups and a true leader in the no-kill movement. I’ve always loved their positive messaging, progressive philosophy, and intelligent approach to ending pet homelessness. In fact, they’re the only national animal welfare organization exclusively dedicated to stopping the endless killing of dogs and cats in our nation’s shelters. I couldn’t wait to talk with them, especially since I learned they’d be launching their fourth regional center in Atlanta next month (plus, I was wondering whether they fully understood how much work they would have cut out for them here!). But what started as a straightforward, fact-finding interview with Judah Battista, Best Friends co-founder and chief regional programs officer, turned into an incredibly enlightening and inspiring educational session about the true meaning of the no-kill mission.

“Best Friend’s overall organizational vision is a better world though kindness to animals, with our mission to bring about a time when there are no more homeless pets,” Battista explained. “En route to achieving that mission, one of our goals is to end the killing of dogs and cats in shelters. But first, it’s important that we distinguish between euthanasia and killing, and frankly, any pet owner who’s had to put an animal to sleep knows the difference. Euthanasia is an act of mercy for a physically or behaviorally irredeemable animal that can’t be humanely cared for, while distinctly separate from that is killing, or the ending of a life because we as a society don’t have better solutions yet. I would argue that we do have better solutions, we just don’t have enough community awareness (yet). (No-kill) doesn’t mean that no animal ever dies, but it does mean that we’re not killing dogs or cats who are healthy or treatable – in other words, savable.”

Unlike traditional animal shelters that follow the standard cage-and-kill operating model, no-kill shelters don’t use euthanasia as a primary means of population or disease control. They value each individual animal life and believe that every dog or cat deserves equal consideration. But before we dig further into the philosophy, how it works and what it takes to achieve it, it’s important to understand how our nation’s sheltering system evolved and got us to this point where most of us who love animals are no longer satisfied with the status quo.

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A turn-of-the-century dog pound. (Photo credit: history-denverlibrary.org)

Once upon a time, homeless dogs and cats were viewed as a public nuisance in America. Sections of many cities were overrun with wandering strays that not only posed a direct threat to people and horses, but were also feared to carry rabies. The solution was to catch and warehouse these animals in “pounds,” substandard facilities used in colonial agricultural communities to collect and hold stray livestock until their owners could reclaim them. But unlike cattle, pigs, or sheep, dogs and cats had little monetary value, so ending up at a pound basically meant death, typically through beating, drowning, or shooting.Traditional animal shelters evolved from these primitive facilities in the late 1800s in response to their barbaric approach to stray population control, with early humane efforts focused on finding “kinder” forms of euthanasia for homeless dogs and cats.

The U.S. humane movement officially kicked off in 1866 with the founding of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the country’s first animal welfare organization that initially focused primarily on the treatment and condition of horses. Founded in 1969, the Women’s SPCA of Pennsylvania (now the Women’s Humane Society) built the country’s first animal shelter, and became the first humane group to direct its energies toward the humane treatment of shelter animals.

Soon, more and more humane organizations were popping up across the country in major cities, and the concept of animal control and shelters slowly took hold. For the next several decades, community animal control services would be assumed by humane groups, with the emphasis on improving shelter conditions and developing more “humane” methods of euthanasia, such as electric shock, gas and decompression chambers, and finally, lethal injection. This endless cage-and-kill model would remain the status quo through the mid-1900s, with little thought given to saving lives or solving the increasing pet overpopulation crisis.

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Fast forward to the 1970s, which proved to be a defining decade for decreasing euthanasia trends in animal shelters. Spay and neuter became an important part of shelter operations and pet adoption, with the ASPCA instituting a mandatory sterilization-before-adoption policy in 1972, one that would set a standard at most shelters across the country. The important role of early sterilization of young dogs and cats began to grow, and the numbers of companion animals entering shelters in some communities began to decline. Soon, an important conversation about saving animals rather than killing them began.

The no-kill movement officially started in San Francisco in 1989 under the leadership of Richard Avanzino at the San Francisco SPCA, who made the critical decision to relinquish the shelter’s contract for animal control and instead work with the city’s municipal animal control agency in an effort to end the killing of adoptable animals. This action had a far-reaching impact on the entire animal welfare movement, one that would challenge shelters and their communities to evaluate the need to kill savable animals. Many other animal sheltering agencies followed suit, leading to an often heated and ongoing philosophical debate about the use of euthanasia as a primary means of shelter population control. But despite the controversy and push-back from those who would resist change, the viability and appeal of the no-kill movement has gained traction and continues to build momentum, with hundreds of shelters across the nation striving to achieve 90% or greater save rates.

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Stripes the kitty awaits her forever home at the Best Friends Sugarhouse Adoption Center in Salt Lake City. (Photo courtesy Best Friends Animal Society)

While our sheltering system has undergone many dramatic changes over the last century, especially within the last three decades, it remains a primarily antiquated system in dire need of reform. But thanks to the influence of the no-kill movement and growing public awareness of the plight of shelter animals, we are seeing a veritable revolution taking hold in communities throughout the country. More and more shelters, both public and private, are working harder than ever to go from dark, smelly, and depressing places that warehouse animals until they’re killed, to friendly and inviting community centers with comprehensive programming and pet care services to help decrease pet populations, increase adoptions, prevent pet homelessness, and most importantly, save lives.

“The reality is that we as a generation have inherited an animal welfare system that was implemented basically for rabies control, not a system that was intended to save animals’ lives,” said Battista. “But what is happening at shelters is what the community has subsidized – they are a reflection of the will of the community. We as a society have decided that there should be a service that gives people the ability to dump a pet…that that’s an acceptable decision for citizens to make. But our expectation as pet guardians has changed, and our consciousness as people has changed from when most of our ordinances and services were established, so now we’re in a position where we need to catch up.”

So how do we transform our shelters from places where unwanted animals go to die, to places where savable dogs and cats are guaranteed a home? Stay tuned for Part Two!

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Adorable pooches wait for someone to save them from an over-crowded animal shelter. (Photo credit: petbucket.com)

To learn more about Best Friend’s policies and positions on no-kill and other related animal welfare topics, click here.

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.”

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.”

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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.”

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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

The Heroes of Puerto Rico – Part One – The Sato Project

As a writer and blogger dedicated to spreading awareness about animal cruelty issues throughout the globe, I’m always on the look-out for rescue groups going above and beyond the call of duty to improve the lives of animals. So when I stumbled upon The Sato Project a few months ago, I knew I had to tell their story. This incredible group rescues and rehabilitates abandoned dogs from Playa Lucia, a beach in southeastern Puerto Rico – sadly dubbed “Dead Dog Beach” due to its notorious reputation as a canine dumping ground – and rehomes them in the mainland U.S. Since its founding in 2011, the group has saved 1,400 dogs.

With my husband and I planning to spend his birthday in Puerto Rico, I quickly reached out to Chrissy Beckles, The Sato Project founder and president. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect – she and a small group of volunteers were planning a rescue mission the same week we’d be there, so she generously invited us to tag along. I was ecstatic!

So last month, Chris and I found ourselves parked in front of a roadside lemonade stand in the coastal town of Yabucoa, waiting for a few members of Chrissy’s team to lead us to a vet clinic a few miles away. Although we’d planned on meeting at Playa Lucia, there’d been a change of plans – a couple of dogs the group had in their sights had already been rescued and were en route to Candelero Animal Hospital, the organization’s veterinary partner in Humacao. So while we wouldn’t have a chance to shadow the rescue effort, we’d at least be able to check out the clinic, observe the group’s intake procedures and take a tour of the beach later that day.

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Han Solo, one of two lucky “satos” rescued from Dead Dog Beach that morning. “Sato” is Puerto Rican slang for street dog. Far from revered on the island, they are often abused and killed for sport. Photo credit: Chris Savas

Twenty minutes later, we followed the group’s SUV into a small strip mall, where we were greeted by several smiling women wearing The Sato Project t-shirts. As an all-volunteer, foster-based organization, TSP maintains a dedicated team of ten Puerto Rico and 25 New York Tri-State and Boston-based volunteers. I could tell right away by the way everyone interacted that this was one tight-knit group.

Once inside the cozy clinic, we were introduced to Dr. Bianca Aguirre Hernandez, one of Candelero’s three vets and TSP’s director of veterinary services. As a Puerto Rico native and practicing veterinarian for 11 years, she wasted no time spelling out the educational, economic and cultural reasons behind the ongoing pet abandonment crisis that has plagued her birthplace for many decades.

“Few people adopt dogs here and most want to buy them,” Dr. Bianca explained. “This, along with the fact that spaying or neutering is not considered a priority, has increased the amount of strays, so much so that there are just too many dogs for the shelters here to handle. Many of my clients actually get upset if I even say the word ‘castration.’ It’s a really frustrating problem.”

And a big one. According to Humane Society International, there are an estimated 250,000-300,000 roaming dogs in the commonwealth of Puerto Rico, an island just three times the size of Rhode Island. And with its economy in crisis – approximately 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line – pets have become an even lower priority as people struggle to feed themselves and their families.

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Dr. Bianca gives little Han the once-over as Chrissy Beckles looks on. Watching these dedicated women in-action, it’s obvious that The Sato Project is indeed a labor of love and a mission of the heart. Photo credit: Chris Savas

But unlike in the mainland U.S., most people in Puerto Rico choose to abandon their dogs on beaches or in remote locations rather than surrender them to one of the island’s eight open-intake animal shelters, where euthanasia rates top a staggering 95 percent. The thinking is that cast-off pets will have better odds surviving in locations where rescue groups are feeding animals rather than in shelters where they’re immediately doomed.

As we chatted with Dr. Bianca and some of the volunteers, Chrissy walked in, a mangy little brown dog cuddled in her arms. Petite and slender but obviously very strong (she’s an amateur straw weight boxer), Chrissy has that tough, no-nonsense persona you often find in many veteran rescuers, a heart of gold couched inside a tough-as-nails exterior. I liked her immediately.

Dr. Bianca wasted no time in getting down to business on the scruffy little dog. Christened Han Solo in honor of the new Star Wars movie, he was a pathetic sight to behold, with mangy skin, patches of missing fur, bad teeth and what appeared to be a damaged or missing eye. Yet despite all the probing, prodding and poking that included blood tests, skin scrapings, a dental exam and x-rays, he seemed to be enjoying all the attention. In fact, his straggly tail never stopped wagging. We all fell in love with him and agreed he was going to make someone an amazing companion.

Chrissy explained to us that most dogs dumped at Playa Lucia present with skin conditions, heartworm, parasites, bad teeth and suffer from malnutrition, depending on how long they’ve lived as strays. But once they’re rescued, all of them receive complete medical screenings and any necessary treatments before being cleared for their “freedom flights” to New York City, where they’re received by TSP volunteers, foster families, local shelter partners and even adopters. While most dogs take about 10 weeks to rehabilitate, some end up staying at the hospital for as long as 9-12 months if they have heartworm or any other health issues requiring long-term treatment.

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Dr. Bianca and Chrissy check out Han’s x-rays. Photo credit: Chris Savas

“We founded Sato Project on the premise of, ‘in a perfect world, how would we vet our animals and care for them?’ and that’s why we really emphasize medical care,” Chrissy said in her Manchester British accent. “I’m not going to send an animal to the U.S. unless I know for sure that it’s healthy, so we do more than our due diligence.”

Unfortunately, Han’s heartworm test came back positive, which meant he’ll be calling Candelero home for several months, bunking up alongside 30 other TSP dogs in the clinic’s bustling kennel. Some are undergoing medical treatment, while others are simply awaiting foster placement and funds to pay for their flights out of Puerto Rico.

While TSP’s mission to save the strays of Puerto Rico could keep Chrissy and her team returning to the island for many years to come, the group’s five-year efforts at Playa Lucia have paid off significantly. Interested in seeing the results for ourselves, Chrissy took us on a tour.

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Tonio, one of the feral dogs in Yabucoa The Sato Project has been feeding for several years. Incredibly wary of humans, he has so far been impossible to catch. Photo credit: Chris Savas

Once a popular spot for beach-goers and sun-worshippers until the satos and drug activity moved in, Playa Lucia was a serene but unkempt landscape, with azure waves lapping debris-littered sand beneath swaying palm trees backed by dense jungle. Chrissy pointed out the several feeding and watering stations the group has set up throughout the beach, maintained by two Puerto Rico-based volunteers who visit twice daily to keep them replenished as well as check for new dogs.

Empty of life other than a couple of lone fisherman and the occasional seabird, the 80-acre playa appeared to be a far cry from what Chrissy described as a “nightmare scene” of 300 dogs running around in packs.

“When I first came to this beach about eight years ago…I would have to stand in front of 40 or 50 dogs knowing I had the money to take one,” she said. “It’s one of the worst things I’ve ever had to do because while I’d know that the one I took was going to have a phenomenal life, I was giving the rest a potential death sentence. There would be situations where I’d go back again and they wouldn’t be there and I’d never know what happened to them.”

Although a 24-hour police presence, a locked after hours gate and posted warning signs relaying the unlawfulness of abandoning and abusing animals have helped slow the tide of dumped dogs and animal abusers at Playa Lucia, the beach is just one of 300 on the island. And that means people have plenty of options if they’re intent on dumping their dogs.

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Chrissy and Ivette Hernandez, The Sato Project’s local volunteer beach coordinator, show me around Playa Lucia. We didn’t see one dog. Photo credit: Chris Savas

Luckily, change may be coming to the island thanks to the Humane Society of the United States, which launched an aggressive animal welfare campaign in Puerto Rico last year. Initiatives underway include cracking down on puppy mills; providing humane education for more than 400,000 public school students; offering training programs for shelter staff, rescuers, law enforcement, FBI agents and animal control officers, and strengthening and enforcing existing animal cruelty laws.

Meanwhile, Humane Society International is working overtime to bring high-volume spay and neuter services to the island. With mobile clinics in 14 municipalities thus far, the organization plans to expand the program island-wide upon further funding. In addition, TSP will be collaborating with HSI on a microchip and vaccine campaign this spring. So, not only will this progressive program help slow down pet overpopulation and prevent disease, it will also allow law enforcement to track abandoned pets back to their owners, thus making it possible for Puerto Rico’s Animal Protection and Welfare Act 154 to actually be enforced.

“The real source of the cure comes from the education,” asserted Tara Loller, HSUS director of strategic campaigns and special projects. “Once you show people a better approach, educating them about why you don’t throw a litter of puppies into the street, for example, they’re more amenable to making these changes. We hope that once people see firsthand the availability of resources, are educated and see the value of these things, they will come on board and want to be part of this change. We have total buy-in from the Puerto Rican government, as they realize their homeless animal problem negatively impacts their tourism. So we foresee this problem to be totally winnable and are committed to being part of this change long term.”

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Chrissy gives some lunch and a little love to a very friendly stray pit bull, who appeared to have recently nursed pups. Photo credit: Chris Savas

Now that “Dead Dog Beach” appears to be under control, one would think an over-worked rescuer like Chrissy Beckles would want to take a break. After all, she’s made her fair share of personal and financial sacrifices over the past decade she’s been rescuing dogs on the island, including spending limited time at her New York home. But it appears there’s no stopping this rescue warrior. Not only does her group have their sights set on another beach several miles up the coast, there are also plans to turn Playa Lucia into a dog-friendly community, as well as build a sanctuary.

“I love what I’m doing and I know we’re making a difference and that’s why I continue to do it because it’s tangible,” Chrissy said. “There’s no greater fuel than seeing a little dog like Han Solo, who when he woke up this morning had no idea his life was going to change. That will always be fuel to me, to take a dog like that and change its life.”

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Chrissy Beckles, one of the most dedicated, passionate and inspiring rescuers I’ve ever met. “We fight so the dogs of Puerto Rico don’t have to,” is her organization’s motto, one that Chrissy takes literally by fighting in amateur boxing matches to help raise awareness and money for the organization. Photo credit: Chris Savas

To learn more about The Sato Project and support their incredible efforts, please visit their website and check out their Facebook page. You can also make a difference in the lives of Puerto Rico’s animals by supporting the HSUS Humane Puerto Rico campaign.

The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others – Albert Schweitzer