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 After all, it’s about time our sheltering system moved past the outdated and barbaric “cage and kill” paradigm and into a new era of progressive reform.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.”

shelterpupdekalbblog

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.”

kittendekalbblog

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.

___________________________________________________________________________

 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.

lefty-1blog

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
saritacardenkittennursery-blog

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

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.”

cs2_5961

(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.”

cs1_4568

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 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.”

cs1_4492

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.”

cs1_4496

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.”

cs2_5893

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.

Best Friends Los Angeles mobile adoption

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.

history-denverlibrary-org-blog

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.

purepaws-net-blog

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.

stripesadoption-blog

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!

shelter-dogs-petbucket-com-blog

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.

Saving Mandy – Part Two

I lay awake most of the night, my mind mulling over the events of the day like a video on an endless loop. I couldn’t stop thinking about Mandy, the sweet-faced, red-coated little Mastiff mix we’d left behind at the animal shelter, where her future remained uncertain. I didn’t just want to get her out of there, I had to get her out of there. But there were obstacles to overcome first. Bringing her home with me was impossible and Angels Among Us Pet Rescue was already overflowing with animals and not enough foster homes. Later that day I’d even called a couple of dog-friendly acquaintances to see if they could house Mandy temporarily but neither were interested in taking on a young, untrained and very active shelter dog who would need food and housing for an indeterminate period of time. It hurt me to the core, thinking about that sweet little girl lying alone and confused on that cold, hard cement floor, just because she had nowhere safe to land. But in the end, wasn’t she just one of thousands, even millions of shelter dogs who find themselves in that same tragic predicament every day in this country? Still, I tried my best to nurture a tiny flicker of hope as I thought about all that had transpired just hours earlier.

My heart had ached as we’d driven away from the shelter. From the sanctity of Jennifer’s comfy SUV, we gazed out at the bleak scenery before us – dilapidated houses, shoeless children, broken down cars, people in disheveled clothing walking around aimlessly or sitting like statues on shabby porches, their eyes staring into nothingness – all snapshots of a typical disadvantaged inner-city neighborhood. How could a city like Atlanta, with so much wealth and abundance at its disposal, condone such chronic impoverishment? And how could its citizens throw their animals away like trash, including such sweet and deserving dogs like Mandy, whose only mistake was being born into the wrong circumstances. I will never understand why human society must work this way.

We were seconds from getting onto the freeway when Nick touched my shoulder and suggested we turn around and go back to the shelter. What if we took some pictures and made a short video of Mandy and then posted them on the Angels foster Facebook page? Maybe by some miracle someone would come forward and volunteer to take her in. Certainly giving up and driving away wasn’t going to get her out of harm’s way but going back and doing whatever we could to save her just might. Jennifer looked over at me, beaming, and promptly made a U-turn at the intersection.

Mandy at the shelter, posing for her Angels foster plea picture.

Mandy at the shelter, posing for her Angels foster plea picture.

I couldn’t wait to get back to the kennel and pull Mandy her out of her run. When I approached she was lying in her original spot, wrinkly head between her paws, dozing. I called out, “pup, pup, pup,” and her head snapped up. Her soulful eyes met mine and she leapt to her feet excitedly. Nick let himself into the run and looped a leash over her head, all the while holding her kennel mate, the frantic blue pit bull, back with one leg as he pulled Mandy to freedom.

The moment we let her loose in the play yard it was like someone had flipped a switch. The once sedate, solemn-faced dog immediately transformed into a happy, playful puppy, diving for the nearest squeaky toy and running around with it in her mouth. She was sweet, affectionate, beautiful and adorable. Other dogs walked by and it was obvious she just wanted to interact and play with them. There wasn’t an aggressive bone in her body and she seemed to love everybody she met. Jenn, Nick and I looked at each other and practically cried out in unison, “what an awesome dog!”

After spending a little time playing with her, we took some pictures and made a video. Nick insisted I do the talking, which typically isn’t my forte, and I had to force myself to keep from crying as I stared into the camera and pleaded with our foster network to consider taking her in. Although returning her to the kennel was tough – the blue pittie began dominating Mandy as soon as she returned – this time we walked away hopeful. We had done what we could and would leave it up to one of our kind-hearted foster volunteers to jump in and do the rest.

Still, as I lay there that night, picturing Mandy’s sweet, wrinkly face and confused, pleading eyes staring back at me through the chain link as we shut her back in her run, I felt tears trickling down my face. I wondered if perhaps I might be experiencing some displaced grief for Mandy’s namesake, my dear friend Amanda, whose death several days earlier still seemed incomprehensible to me. But whether I was crying over Mandy the canine or Mandy the human, either way I became inspired to do something I hadn’t done in years – pray.

How could you not fall in love with that face?

How could you not fall in love with that face?

Now anyone who knows me well understands that I am not a religious or even a very spiritual person. I believe that when we die it’s basically game over. No heaven, no hell, no going to a “better place,” just nothingness. Sure, the idea of disappearing into oblivion isn’t a pleasant one, but then I like to reason that if not existing before I was born wasn’t horrible or scary, then why should the concept of not existing after I die be so terrifying? If anything, transitioning out of the physical body is probably like falling into a deep sleep similar to going under anesthesia, only you never wake up.

Logic and scientific evidence point to this being the most likely end-of-life scenario, yet almost every time someone close to me has died I’ve had experiences that have made me question the finality of death via incredibly vivid dreams that feel more like visitations. During these experiences I can feel their touch, see every detail of their faces, their eyes, their smile. And most of all, I can feel the love, that tangible bond between us. They tell me they have to go away, and while I’m sad and don’t want them to leave, I understand I have to let them go. When they hug me goodbye I can feel the warmth of their skin, their arms around me, their breath. And that’s when I wake up, usually in tears but at the same time elated, feeling as if I’d actually been with them. Twice those dreams have happened just hours before I even knew those friends had died, as if they wanted me to hear it from them first.

Being a rational person, I could easily tell myself that these are simply comforting hallucinations created by my brain to make the pain of loss and grief more bearable. Yet at the same time I must concede that the universe is an amazing, mysterious place with infinite aspects we humans have yet to even attempt to understand. So to keep it simple I will leave it at this – whether Amanda and my other loved ones have really come to me in dreams or whether those visitations are simply apparitions manufactured by my brain to make me feel better, I will never know, but I am grateful to have experienced them nonetheless. Life is a mystery, and so too is death.

Figuring it was worth a try, I began talking to Amanda, hoping that if my girlfriend’s energy was somehow hovering in the ether she’d hear me and maybe help me save this dog. What did I have to lose?

Just a puppy.

Just a puppy.

The next day found me in yoga class, trying to clear my mind and focus my breathing as I moved and sweated from pose to pose. Yet despite my efforts to quiet my brain I couldn’t stop thinking about little Mandy, wondering how she was doing and hoping one of the Angels fosters had been swayed by her Facebook video. So when I got to my car and saw there was a message on my phone from Jennifer and Nick, my heart leapt, and upon hearing their excited voices on the other end of the line began to sob. One of our regular foster volunteers, Chrissy Frey, had agreed to take Mandy, who would be released from the shelter that afternoon. I was ecstatic!

I felt like a crazy person, crying hysterically one moment and laughing uncontrollably the next as I silently thanked Amanda, wherever she was, imagining she’d somehow had a hand in this, my first rescue. Because the fact that Angels was so full and Mandy had found a foster home so quickly was nothing short of a miracle.

People who foster animals in-need are indeed their own breed of kind-hearted human. I have so much respect and admiration for them. They’re the kind of selfless individuals who think nothing of opening their homes and lives to homeless creature after homeless creature, happy to provide them with food, shelter, care and love for as long as it takes to find them forever homes. Whether caring for the sickly, rehabilitating the abused or comforting the neglected, foster volunteers are a crucial part of any successful rescue organization and are absolutely vital in helping these deserving animals achieve the kinds of lives they were always meant to live – that of beloved, cherished companions.

Chrissy is such a special person. Kind, intelligent, generous, nurturing and open-hearted, she is not only an experienced dog mom who truly understands the nuts and bolts of caring for canines and bringing the best out in them, but is also someone who goes the extra mile for every dog she takes in, whether they’re her own babies or just passing through on their way to new families.

Mandy and her doting foster mommy.

Mandy and her doting foster mommy.

Despite the fact that Mandy had no manners when she arrived in Chrissy’s home – along with tons of puppy energy and a host of destructive tendencies – Chrissy’s patience, calm, centered energy and loving attention has done wonders for the wayward, nine-month-old pup, who has been thriving in her care for over two months now. Every time I’ve had a chance to visit Chrissy’s home it’s obvious how secure, loved and happy Mandy feels there. And although part of me is envious that I didn’t get the chance to foster Mandy myself, not to mention develop the kind of special bond she has with Chrissy, I’m so grateful that such a wonderful person ended up being the ideal guardian for this precious dog. I don’t think there is anyone I could have chosen who would have been more perfect for her.

While Mandy appears to be well on her way to finding her happy ending, I have been coming face-to-face with the hard, cold reality of Amanda’s tragic life. Not long after she died, I reached out to one of her old boyfriends, one of the few men she’d dated back in the day who’d actually been good for her and treated her well. He finally called me back a few weeks ago, and it was so great to hear that deep, familiar voice again. As we spoke he brought it all back to me, the fun times we’d had hanging out in L.A., just the three of us or with our gang of crazy, colorful friends. We were young, irreverent, edgy and cynical back then, yet still optimistic about our futures as artists. None of us expected to change the world, only to achieve enough success so we could be free to do what we wanted and enjoy our lives. But there was nothing lighthearted or nostalgic about the conversation that eventually ensued.

Unlike me, Amanda’s ex had stayed friends with her after she’d abandoned acting and left Hollywood, continuing to be her shoulder to lean on whenever she needed him over the years, which was usually when she was hurting or in trouble. As he began to fill in the blanks for me, describing what had happened to her during the two decades I’d been out of her life, it began to dawn on me that the person I thought I knew so well was actually someone I barely knew at all.

Chrissy and Mandy at a recent Angels Among Us adoption event.

Chrissy and Mandy at a recent Angels Among Us adoption event.

What he proceeded to describe was a crazy, haphazard, dysfunctional existence fueled by drug addiction and abusive relationships, resulting in several arrests, jail time, three children from different fathers – none of whom she was able to maintain custody – and a number of failed attempts at sobriety. She’d lived in trailers, on the streets, shacked-up with various men, sometimes running from dangerous people but always running from herself. Eventually she did get off the hard stuff and ended up crawling back to her family, who had since hardened their hearts to her after so many years of enduring her insanity.

As his story continued to unfold, I realized with sadness that I’d only known the version of Amanda she’d wanted me to know. So many of the things she’d shared with me about herself had just been partial truths, downright lies or lies of omission. While I understand that most people are untruthful in order to protect themselves from rejection and judgment, it still hurt that she hadn’t trusted my loyalty enough to know I would have stuck by her, no matter how ugly her secrets turned out to be. Yet at the same time I really had no right to be offended – I was the one who’d walked away from our friendship. But once I was able to put my ego aside, I felt grateful for my newfound clarity, of being able to see and understand her in a way I’d never been able to when she was alive.

In the end, Amanda had never really, truly gotten sober. After all, she had a good excuse for self-medicating – pain. Due to a host of health problems in recent years, she was often in great discomfort and began using an assortment of painkillers to manage it. An accidental morphine overdose was what finally freed her from her troubled life.

Mandy taking a break from swimming with her doggie pals at the nature preserve near Chrissy's house. She's an active girl and Chrissy has been amazing making sure she gets plenty of exercise!

Mandy taking a break from swimming with her doggie pals at the nature preserve near Chrissy’s house. She’s an active girl and Chrissy has been amazing making sure she gets plenty of exercise!

I wasn’t able to save Amanda. I wasn’t there to drag her to an AA meeting, sit with her while she went through withdrawals, or talk her out of it doing something self-destructive. I probably wouldn’t have been able to, anyway – Amanda lived by her rules and always did what she wanted to do. Her life and her death were a tragedy, but she lived and died on her own terms. Maybe that’s why saving her canine namesake, and seeing her through to a new life with a loving family, has become everything to me. And while that may not be enough to make up for abandoning Amanda in her time of need or to ease the pain of losing her forever, it has gotten me further along the road to healing, to finally forgiving myself.

I think ultimately some of us rescue not only because we value the lives of animals but also because deep down we’re trying to save and heal those lost, abused, neglected and vulnerable parts of ourselves. I know that’s true for me. And while Amanda wasn’t able to find peace and happiness in this lifetime, I believe Mandy will.

I’d like to think that if Amanda had lived she would have eventually revealed the truth of who she was, what she had done and what had happened to her. I’d like to believe she would have trusted me enough to let herself be radically honest, knowing I would have been there to listen, not to judge, and that I would never have abandoned her again. That eventually, there would have been no more secrets or lies between us. I have to go on believing that. And so I will.

Mandy and me a month after her rescue. I will never forget this wonderful pup, who has inspired me to fight for shelter dogs everywhere!

Mandy and me a month after her rescue. I will never forget this wonderful pup, who has inspired me to fight for shelter dogs everywhere!

“Saving one dog will not change the world, but surely for that one dog, the world will change forever.” – Karen Davison

Saving Mandy – Part One

Amanda was my soul sister. Intelligent, talented, hilarious and extremely irreverent, she was the fraternal twin I’d never had but always wanted. We met when I was 22 and she was 18, at a Hollywood recording studio where a mutual friend was cutting an album. Bright, fresh-faced and disarmingly pretty, she was a little blond dynamo with an infectious energy, cool sense of style and a delicious sense of humor. I immediately fell in love with her – it was like we’d been friends our entire lives. And from that day forward we became practically inseparable, hanging out whenever we could, yacking on the phone for hours. She even moved into an apartment just two blocks away from mine. Some of our antics, adventures and escapades from those early days are legendary. And while I always came second to whomever she was dating, I was her main girl and she was mine.

As a child actress and teen film ingénue who’d starred a hit movie by the time she was 15, Mandy was someone accustomed to a lot of attention and adoration. In fact, she was often recognized when we were out together in L.A., be it at El Coyote, Canters Deli, La Poubelle or some of our other favorite haunts. Although the Mandy I knew was generous, easy-going and down-to-earth, she could turn on the charm and play the superficial celebrity game when she needed to – it was almost like she had two distinct personalities. And like most actors who work in “the business,” she could be terribly self-involved and narcissistic.

One of our favorite L.A. stomping grounds. Photo credit: lostinasupermarket.com

One of our favorite L.A. stomping grounds. Photo credit: lostinasupermarket.com

While she loved me and valued our friendship, I always knew that being with her meant putting up with the “Mandy Show.” After all, this was her world and I was simply living in it. But introvert that I am, I didn’t mind being in her shadow all that much. I’ve never been impressed by popularity, wealth or fame, and Hollywood always felt like high school to me. It wasn’t a world I coveted or wanted to be a part of, although I found its inherent dysfunction rather fascinating. Really, I just loved Amanda and wanted to be her friend, flaws and all, and knowing that I was special to her made it all worth it for me. That is, until she discovered drugs.

Addiction is a terrible, seductive, destructive force, and in my younger years I watched several people succumb to its dark siren song. Amanda had always been intrigued by the underbelly of life, so it was no surprise to me when she started dabbling with mind-altering substances and eventually got involved with a small-time drug dealer. In the years since we’d met she’d grown increasingly disillusioned with acting and often talked about leaving the business. Growing up in Hollywood had distorted her sense of reality and the world, but she couldn’t stand the idea of being a “normal” person – it simply wasn’t exciting or interesting enough for her. So by 23 years of age she was simply burned out and looking to rebel.

Tinsel town from behind the Hollywood sign. Photo credit: store.chrispzero.com

Tinsel town from behind the Hollywood sign. Photo credit: store.chrispzero.com

Soon enough, coke and heroine became her new passions. Suddenly she became willing to sacrifice everything – her career, her relationships, her family, her reputation, even her dog – for drugs. I’d always known she had a crazy streak and was capable of all kinds of self-destructive behavior, which she’d typically played out in a devilish spirit of fun, but this was different. I tried to reach out and reason with her, but she became secretive and evasive, repeatedly denying she had a problem. The space between us grew and eventually became a chasm as I realized I was no longer useful or important to her. I knew I couldn’t stop her from going down this path, a path I had no intention of following, so I walked away and went on with my life.

Twenty years came and went. All the while I never stopped thinking about Amanda, hoping she was okay, praying she wouldn’t die of an overdose or at the hands of an abusive boyfriend. Then last year I decided I was ready to reach out. I sent a letter to her parents, hoping it would get to her, which it did. And when I finally got that first voicemail I was delighted, yet saddened, all at the same time.

I barely recognized her voice. Gone was that impish, girlish energy, that inimitable Mandy liveliness. This voice was slow, slurred and weary. Although she’d been clean for a while, it was obvious she’d been through the ringer, that all those years of drug abuse had taken the spark out of her soul. Since we’d parted ways she’d been arrested several times, gone to jail, gotten clean, even had a daughter. She’d moved back to her hometown, where she was trying to figure out what to do with her life. She admitted that she didn’t know who she was or what she was supposed to be. And true to form, most of our phone conversations were about her, but that was okay. I was just happy to have her back in my life.

How I wish I could have hugged Amanda again, just one more time. Photo credit: piclist.com

How I wish I could have hugged Amanda again, just one more time. Photo credit: piclist.com

We talked about seeing each other, although I must admit I was afraid of the changed person I might face. I’d seen recent pictures of her circulating online and it was obvious that the drugs had ravaged her face, her teeth and her body. Yet I was so relieved to know she was safe and sound, that she had survived what she liked to call “just a phase.” I realized how much I’d missed her and when we talked about old times and laughed like we used to, I’d get glimpses of the old Mandy and suddenly all felt right with the world. Before we hung up we always said I love you. And then she stopped answering my calls.

I knew that morning that something was wrong. I’d had a dream the night before that she and I were together, finally reunited after so many years apart. We were in a crowded club and I put my arm around her so we wouldn’t get separated. The dream was so realistic I could actually feel how thin and fragile she was. Wordlessly she told me she needed space and time to heal, that I couldn’t be a part of that and she hoped I would understand. I told her I did and that I’d see her soon. Then I woke up.

Photo credit: talkwiththepreacher.org

Photo credit: talkwiththepreacher.org

I went straight to my phone and texted her. No response. All day I couldn’t shake the feeling that I needed to call her parents. I didn’t have their phone number so I did a Google search, hoping to find it online. And that’s when I saw the headlines. She had been found dead in her apartment the day after the 4th of July, after missing dinner with her family. I couldn’t believe it. She was only 43 years old. All those plans of seeing her again, gone. All those future phone conversations – we had so many more catch-up stories to tell – were not to be. All those hugs we couldn’t wait to share, they were never going to happen.

I couldn’t believe that my girl, my soul sister, was gone. To make matters worse, it was July 8, Mandy’s 44th birthday. Instead of celebrating with cake and presents, her family was putting her in the ground. I was numb with grief. But nothing soothes my soul like being with animals, so when my rescue friends, Jennifer and Nick from Angels Among Us Pet Rescue, invited me to spend the day visiting a couple of Atlanta metro animal shelters and possibly rescue a few dogs, I jumped at the chance to join them.

This is what we faced that day at Fulton County Animal Services, which is an amazing facility run by wonderful, compassionate individuals doing their best to help animals that the irresponsible pet-owning public continually dumps upon them.

This is what we faced that day at Fulton County Animal Services, which is an amazing facility run by wonderful, compassionate individuals doing their best to help animals that the irresponsible pet-owning public continually dumps upon them.

The kennel was absolutely packed. I hadn’t been to a municipal animal shelter in many years, so when we walked in I’ll admit it took me a few minutes to get my bearings and my emotions under control. There seemed to be hundreds of dogs in there, as many as five or six to a run, their voices raised in a cacophony of barking that echoed throughout the kennel and into my brain. So many pit bull-type dogs with sweet faces and pleading eyes, whining, crying, jumping up against the chain link barriers, desperate for salvation and hungry for love. It hurt to give them attention and it hurt even more to walk away, wishing I could save every one of them and quietly hating the irresponsible humans who had put them there.

I was walking down the last aisle of dog runs when I spotted her, a large, gangly red dog with a Mastiff-like head, smooth coat and a very sweet face. Lying to one side, she looked like a sphinx, gazing about her with a noble yet solemn expression, as if determined to maintain her composure in such undignified surroundings. She lay calmly, stoically, as if she understood the futility of joining her brethren in their never-ending song of longing and despair. I’m not sure if it was her dark, soulful eyes, those big paws or that wrinkly face that got me, but I felt immediately pulled to her.

The red girl minutes after I first saw her, a hidden gem among throngs of homeless dogs.

The red girl minutes after I first saw her, a hidden gem among throngs of homeless dogs.

As I approached the run, one of her kennelmates, a blue female pit bull, rushed the fence, tail whipping back and forth at top speed in anticipation. Feeling sorry for the poor girl, I crouched down and pressed my hand against the chain link so she could sniff and lick my skin. Yet all the while I fixed my gaze on the red girl, who hadn’t moved and was politely watching me, as if waiting her turn. When I called to her she jumped up, a flicker of hope alighting in her eyes, but the blue pit became territorial and immediately blocked her path. It was obvious that she was the dominant dog in the run and that the red girl was the submissive, the way she hung back with her head low, afraid to get too close for fear of reprisal.

“Jenn, look at this dog!” I called over to my friend, who’d been busy checking out some of the small dogs she wanted to pull, “She’s so special.”

Like me, Jennifer’s face was tight with emotion. No matter how frequently a rescuer pulls from high-kill shelters, I don’t think they ever get used to the sight of so many homeless dogs, the multitude of innocent creatures who have ended up in such terrible circumstances at no fault of their own. Almost two million of them lose their lives in U.S. shelters every year because of human irresponsibility and over-breeding. People suck, she and I have agreed in unison, over and over.

The blue pit and the red girl. The shepherd mix in the background seemed defeated and didn't bother to get out of bed.

The blue pit and the red girl. The shepherd mix in the background seemed defeated and didn’t bother to get out of bed.

“I want to pull this dog, can we do it?” I asked beseechingly, watching Jennifer’s face as she gazed at the beautiful red girl, who was now pacing back and forth behind the blue pit, her wrinkly face full of longing. Jenn explained that we’d have to get a foster home lined up first, as our rescue already had over 800 animals in its system and boarding yet another dog wasn’t an affordable option. Plus, most of our foster families were already overwhelmed with animals. It didn’t look good. Yet I could tell from her face that Jenn also saw what I saw, that there was something very special about this wrinkly-faced dog. We looked at each other and sighed.

Crouching down next to me, Jenn coaxed the blue pit to one side of the run and kept her distracted so the red girl could finally get to me. As I poked my fingers through the fence, stroked her soft fur for the first time and felt her warm tongue bathe my hand in kisses, I could barely contain my emotions. I had to get her out of here, but there was no way I could foster her myself, as my German shepherds, Heidi and Chloe, disliked other dogs and would surely beat her to a pulp. Yet I felt destined to save this dog. She could not die here! After all, I had already named her.

Nick joined us and we agreed it was time to go. I gazed into the young dog’s eyes and told her I was sorry. It was agonizing to get up and leave her there, as every instinct, every fiber of my being screamed at me to do otherwise. But what could I do? We had to find a foster or she had nowhere to land. As I followed Jenn and Nick toward the door, I couldn’t help but look over my shoulder, just in time to see Mandy put her paws up on the side of the run and watch me walk away.

Mandy pleading with us to get her out of there.

Mandy pleading with us to get her out of there.

To be continued…

The Homeless Pit Bull Conundrum

Hey you, pit bull breeder. Yeah, you, the jerk who thinks it’s cool to make money off the backs of poor, innocent dogs. You’re the kind of person who thinks nothing of letting your dogs produce litter after litter so you can sell their pups on Craig’s List or to anyone with cash in-hand. You don’t care if your “breeding stock” has temperament issues, genetic defects or health problems. You don’t know anything about their bloodlines and you’ve probably never even taken them to the vet. Maybe they’re just existing out in your backyard, probably on chains, where they’re just lucky enough to get a bowl of cheap food, a little water and a pat on the head once in a while. Or maybe you’re just an irresponsible idiot who didn’t fix your dog and now she’s pregnant – again. And the puppies? You don’t care where they go, who they go to or what happens to them – their wellbeing is not your problem. If you can’t sell them then you’ll just dump them at your local shelter. Sure, let those nice people deal with your mess – that’s their job, right? So what if these unfortunate facilities are already packed to the gills with hoards of homeless pit bulls just like yours? But that thought never occurs to you and even if it does, you don’t give a damn. Meanwhile, legions of animals suffer and die because of you, another ignorant, selfish jerk who shouldn’t be allowed to even own a dog.

If I sound angry it’s because I just came away from a very upsetting visit to one of our local shelters here in Atlanta. Mind you, Fulton County Animal Services is an amazing facility, managed by the incredible LifeLine Animal Project and thus, run by a great group of kind, knowledgeable and dedicated, animal-loving individuals trying their very best to manage the burden our irresponsible pet-owning public has thrown at them. It was just a few days after the 4th of the July weekend, so understandably the shelter was extremely crowded. In fact, it was jam-packed, with triple the amount of dogs the facility was designed to house. So while I knew I had arrived at a pretty a-typical, stressful time, it was an important scene for me to witness. Sometimes you have to experience something for yourself before you can truly grasp the reality of a situation.

I have long been aware of our nation’s homeless pit bull crisis. I know that pits and pit mixes are the most euthanized dogs in the U.S., with shelters destroying approximately 1 million of them every year (that’s almost 2,800 per day!). Still, I wasn’t prepared for what I witnessed firsthand at the shelter. We’re talking cages and dog runs practically overflowing with canines of all shapes and sizes, more than half of them pits or pit bull-types. It wasn’t unusual to have three, four or even five of them in one run. But here is where I have to give the Fulton County staff so much credit – for the amount of dogs and cats they were housing that day (465, to be exact), the place was incredibly clean and the animals were well cared for. Yet that didn’t take away from the upsetting scene before me.

A sweet young pit bull vying for my attention at Fulton County Animal Services.

A sweet young pit bull vying for my attention at Fulton County Animal Services.

I walked over to the first dog run and slowly crouched down. Four young pitties swarmed toward me, eagerly jumping up, whining, pawing and licking at my hand, which I had pressed against the chain link so they could smell me. Unlike some people, I’m not intimidated by bully breeds and am pretty adept at reading canine body language, so I didn’t hesitate to get down to their level while making sure to avoid initial eye contact. But this little group of friendly, tail wagging butt-wigglers was far from threatening – they were practically climbing all over each other to get as close to me as possible. As I took in all of their sweet, innocent, wide-jawed faces, feeling their warm breath and plaintive little licks wetting the back of my hand, I felt myself become overwhelmed with emotion.

I got up and walked away, trying to control myself. These unfortunate dogs didn’t need my sad energy – they were upset enough. One of my fellow volunteers from Angels Among Us Pet Rescue caught my gaze and my eyes welled up with tears. She understood. As someone who pulls dogs from Atlanta Metro area shelters on a regular basis, she’s been through this hundreds of times. I pulled myself together, taking deep breaths and steeling my heart before moving on to the next group of dogs, then the next, giving attention to anyone who wanted it along the way. I can’t recall passing a dog run without at least one or several pit bull-types in it.

I don’t think many people, especially those who breed them intentionally or unintentionally, fully grasp just how desperate the situation is for pit bulls in America. Feared and misunderstood by the general public (thanks in part to their vilification by the media), they have become the unfortunate victims of a particular subculture that not only views them as a status symbol, but also enjoys using them for financial gain via breeding and dog fighting. As a result, this “breed” (the “pit bull” is actually a bully breed-type classification, not an actual breed) often ends up in the hands of abusive and irresponsible individuals. Add in targeted kill policies at shelters, breed specific legislation and breed bans, and you have a dog with more riding against it than any other type of canine. To put it simply, they are the most abused, misused and euthanized type of dog in our nation today.

Five little bullies looking for love.

Five little bullies looking for love.

Unlike Fulton County, many animal shelters have a no-adopt policy for pit bulls, so they’re either saved by rescue groups or killed, just for being pit bulls. Even sweet, tiny puppies don’t escape the euthanasia needle. So in the face of such a bleak reality, how can anyone justify breeding pit bulls right now? Not until the amount of good homes catch up with the amount of homeless dogs! Yes, there is definitely a place for ethical, responsible hobby breeders – I am not so militant about adoption and rescue that I’m against all breeders – but there is no place for backyard breeders, especially those churning out pits. Anyone who cares about dogs should be saving their lives, not adding more of them to our already saturated society.

Frustrated and needing expert advice, I consulted Lara Hudson, director of Fulton County Animal Services. As someone on the front lines of this challenging situation, I figured she would have a better understanding of what needs to be done to fix the homeless pit bull problem.

“Pit bull terriers are very popular, so this ‘breed’ is at the top of the list for many statistics because of their popularity,” she explained. “Combine this with the fact that any mixed breed, pit-looking dog is called a ‘pit bull terrier’ and then consider that if you breed mixed breed dogs and breed them again, they start to look like a generic pit mix, and thus, it looks like we have a pit bull problem. I disagree. Honda Accords are the most popular car in America. They are also the most stolen and they probably get the most tickets. Same with pit bull terriers. They are the majority ‘breed’ in our shelter and they are the majority ‘breed’ in households in this area. They are the breed most often filed on bite reports, etc. So I think the better question would be what are we going to do to alleviate the homeless pet problem in our city? For example, LifeLine just launched the ‘I’m In’ campaign on July 1 in an effort to make Atlanta Metro ‘No-Kill’ by the end of 2016.”

You could tell this girl had been through the ringer. Note the battle scars on her head.

You could tell this girl had been through the ringer. Note the battle scars on her head.

While all this made sense, it definitely wasn’t the answer I was expecting. But I could definitely appreciate Lara’s broader perspective on the issue. After all, she has a pretty clear understanding of the community she serves and the issues it faces.

“To put it simply, it’s a problem with education,” she explained. “When you drive through some of the areas in our community and you see where a lot of these stray dogs come from, you realize that these people’s kids aren’t even being taken care of. A lot of people really do love their dogs but their parents, grandparents, and their grandparents’ parents all tethered their dogs outside. It’s going to take generational change and improving the conditions where these animals are coming from so it trickles down.”

She continued, “We need more resources, ways to help people who don’t have enough money to take their animals to the vet, because what happens when people can’t do that? Their animals get sick, they turn them into the shelter or they let them go. So I think casting a bigger net by providing better resources for people who want the help is going to save more animals than aggressively going after the minority of people not doing the right thing, regardless of their resources.”

I understand that change takes time and that there’s no magic bullet to solve this problem. Still, it’s terribly frustrating and upsetting, thinking about all those homeless dogs – pit bulls or otherwise – dying in our nation’s shelters every day. But I guess when it comes to changing irresponsible human behavior there are no quick solutions. Mandatory spay and neuter legislation has been proven to be ineffective and enforcing breeder licensing fees is extremely difficult. Continuing to educate the public about responsible dog ownership, including the benefits of spaying and neutering their pets, and offering those services for free or at very low-cost is one tried-and-true solution, but it’s a process, and a gradual one at that. Educating the public about bully breeds to help clear up fears or misconceptions about them is another way to increase their adoption numbers. But no matter how hard we try, we’re simply not going to rescue our way out of this problem. It’s a very frustrating conundrum with no simple or expedient solutions.

Two sorrowful kennel mates. I wished I could save them all.

Two sorrowful kennel mates. I wished I could save them all.

Meanwhile, people who want to their breed dogs, especially pit bulls, should have to spend time volunteering at their local animal shelters so they can witness the tragedy of pet homelessness firsthand. They should have to spend time in the kennels, see the faces and watch as one wonderful dog after one wonderful dog disappears into the euthanasia room (or better yet, watch them take their last breaths). Maybe that will help change their tune. Maybe then they’ll fully grasp that the most responsible, compassionate choice is to not contribute to the problem by spaying and neutering their pets.

Pit bulls and pit bull-type dogs are some of the most wonderful, loving and loyal companions anyone could wish for, but they’re definitely not the right fit for everyone. It takes a special kind of person to become a successful pittie parent, so please do your research before bringing one into your life.

For more information about pit bulls, their history and their plight, check out this article published in Pacific Standard magazine as well as this wonderful piece featured in Esquire, both published last year. And while you’re at it, visit Pit Bull Rescue Central for tons of great educational and adoption information resources!

“He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.” – Immanuel Kant

That face...

That face…

Why I Care Like I Do

Blame it all on Facebook. There I was, innocently scrolling through my morning news feed, sipping coffee and catching up with what my friends were doing, when I stumbled upon a photograph that changed my life.

The image depicted several German shepherds on the back of a rickety-looking truck, packed in cages far too small for their large, long-legged bodies. In fact, the dogs were crammed in so tightly, their paws stuck out between the metal bars in awkward, seemingly painful positions. Languishing beneath a thin tarp that barely shielded them from the hot sun, they were clearly suffering, their mouths hanging open as they panted, their faces the epitome of stress and exhaustion. And there, leaning against the truck’s passenger side door stood the driver, a skinny Asian man smoking a cigarette with a blasé expression on his face, seemingly oblivious to the anguish of the animals in his care.

The scene hit me square in the heart. These poor canines could have been my shepherds, who at the time were dozing contentedly in their respective spots on my home office floor, their bellies full of breakfast. And as I read the photo’s caption my blood turned to ice. These beautiful, intelligent, emotional creatures weren’t headed to a shelter or anyplace where their suffering would be ended and eventually forgotten. These unfortunate dogs were headed to the live meat markets of Vietnam, where they would be slaughtered and eaten.

I felt as if my brain was about to explode. Did people in Asia really eat dog meat? Wasn’t that just an old joke? Maybe they had in the past, during times of desperation, of famine, but not now, not in the 21st century! I simply couldn’t believe what I was reading. I had to know more. I did a Google search and began to read and read and then read some more. And with every article, every website, every image, graphic or otherwise, my heart began to break into more and more pieces.

Yes, I discovered, people in Asia and even Africa eat dog (and cat) meat. In fact, pet meat is a multi-billion-dollar, unregulated trade, especially in parts of China, South Korea and Vietnam, where the flesh of companion animals is considered a delicacy and purported to have (unproven) health benefits. Approximately 10 million dogs and cats are eaten each year in China alone. But the worst part? These “humans” involved in this trade weren’t just killing these animals, they were torturing them first, living under the false belief that the adrenaline stimulated by intense fear and suffering makes a dog or cat’s meat more flavorful and beneficial to one’s health.

Suddenly my reality was no longer the same. I felt like Alice after she’d fallen down the rabbit hole, or Neo in “The Matrix” after he swallowed the red pill. I knew I couldn’t go back to being happily oblivious that this level of cruelty existed – those days were over. I would have to do something, and at that very moment I decided that I would do what I did best – write. I would use my writing skills to let the world know that this horrible trade existed and must be stopped.

Mind you, my objective wasn’t to condemn any culture for its food choices, but to stop this egregious cruelty. To “humanely” kill and then eat an animal is one thing, but to intentionally put it through prolonged, agonizing pain is another. That is simply barbaric and wrong.

I felt like I was on fire. I contacted the animal welfare organization that had posted the photo and volunteered my writing and editing services to them. I learned everything I could about the trade, its history, its economic impact, its players and the propaganda and fake medicine they tout to perpetuate the demand and thus, line their pockets. I forced myself to watch videos I now wish I hadn’t seen and cried out loud in horror and despair. What I was witnessing was raw barbarity. How could any human being do such things to another living creature?

My brain haunted with images I couldn’t shake, I lay awake at night, staring into the darkness and sobbing at the thought of all those innocent animals that were probably suffering right at that very moment, while I was powerless to stop it. Unable to halt my tears, I often awakened my poor husband, who wasn’t sure what to do but hold me until I cried myself to sleep.

I knew it was wrong to blame an entire culture, that there were many wonderful animal lovers and activists in these countries who cared about animals, despised this trade and were fighting to stop it, but I struggled with hateful, judgmental and racist thoughts nonetheless. Though I tried to remind myself that people involved in the dog and cat meat trade were most likely ignorant and desensitized individuals who were the product of an environment bereft of compassion and empathy, I hated them nonetheless.

It seemed that the more I learned, the angrier I became. I went through a very bitter, cynical period. I got irritated when someone would ask me what I was writing about and when I would try to tell them they’d make a face and cut me off with, “ugh, okay, stop, I don’t want to know!” I didn’t understand why people would rather be ostriches choosing to remain ignorant rather than become enlightened so they could either do something to stop this suffering or simply help to spread awareness, too.

Then I realized I was being a bit of a hypocrite – with my own eating habits. Here I was, consuming the meat of farm animals while at the same time judging other cultures for eating the meat of companion animals. What made the lives of pigs, chickens, cows, lambs and turkeys any less important than those of dogs and cats? No creature, be it human or non-human, wants to suffer and die. I knew I had to walk the walk if I was going to talk the talk, so I started reading everything I could about the evils of factory farming to help lose my taste for animal flesh, something I had always consumed in moderation but still enjoyed from time to time. I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals” and from cover to cover in two days. What a brilliant book. It opened my mind and did its job by ending my desire to eat meat forever. It’s been two years since I last tasted animal flesh and I’ve never looked back.

I felt good about not eating animals. I had been practicing yoga for almost 20 years and had always tried to live by the yamas and niyamas (the essential principles of a yogic life), one of the most important being ahimsa, or non-violence. But while I had stopped being violent in my eating habits, I was still being violent in my thoughts – toward people who either didn’t seem to care or “didn’t want to know.” I realized that harboring all this anger and resentment was only hurting my psyche and not solving anything, so I began to shift my thinking and my attitude. After all, did I really want to be one of those self-righteous vegans? Not really.

Sure, anyone with a compassionate (non-psychopathic) heart cares about animals, but I do believe there is such a thing as “compassion fatigue” in our society. Our world is riddled with so many problems, so much cruelty and pain, that I think most people feel helpless, overwhelmed and not sure what to do or where to even begin. So they shut down. I’ve certainly been there. And just because my eyes were open didn’t mean that everyone, even members of my own family, were interested in opening theirs.

I couldn’t blame some of my friends for saying they couldn’t read my Facebook posts anymore, which had become an outlet for my burgeoning animal activism. So what if they just wanted to see pictures of cute, fuzzy puppies with inspiring quotes to make them feel all warm and fuzzy inside? I knew I had to try to understand where most people were coming from so I could let go of my frustration with their lack of “likes” when I posted something I thought was really urgent and important. I knew I would find my “tribe” of fellow animal activists eventually, but meanwhile, it was time to find other platforms for my animal-centric writing and awareness efforts. And that’s when I began to write for Dogster.com and soon after, started this blog.

For thousands of years humans has been exploiting animals for their own benefit. What right do we have to continue this tyranny, especially now that we know without a doubt that animals are sentient beings who have emotions and feel pain, just like us? Non-human species don’t have the ability to fight for their rights, tell their own stories, or change the systems that are harming, enslaving and murdering them. So I will tell their stories and be their voice and maybe, just maybe, I will get through to someone and they will feel inspired to help animals, too. Just imagine if everyone did one thing, big or small, to make a difference – what a safer, happier and more compassionate world we could co-create together!

So this blog is dedicated to the animals, to all the amazing, unique and inspiring individuals, past and present, who have touched my life, loved me unconditionally and always stood by me. I have been lucky enough to call many dogs, cats, rabbits, chickens, goats and horses my closest friends, creatures who made me laugh, gave me love and asked for very little in return except to be taken care of and treated with kindness. They have been my greatest teachers, forever inspiring me to be a better person and a more loving caretaker. I can’t imagine who I would be or what my life would be like without them.

Me and my boys, Hugo (left) and Gizmo (right). Hugo has since traveled to the Rainbow Bridge. His mommy really misses him.

Me and my boys, Hugo (left) and Gizmo (right). Hugo has since traveled to the Rainbow Bridge. His mommy really misses him.

“Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the wellbeing of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.” – Martin Luther King Jr.