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 After all, it’s about time our sheltering system moved past the outdated and barbaric “cage and kill” paradigm and into a new era of progressive reform.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

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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

Frisky – A Cautionary Cotton Tale

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

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

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

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

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

Frisky & me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MyHouseRabbit.com

HopperHome.com

Make Mind Chocolate Facebook page

The Language of Lagomorphs

ClickerBunny.com

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

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Photo by Chris Savas.

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

Marc Ching – A Brave Rescuer On a Mission of Compassion

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

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

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

Ching the rescuer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Heroes of Puerto Rico – Part Two – Save A Gato

Once upon a time in the 1950s, some rats decided to take up residence in the colorful colonial town of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. After all, who wouldn’t love to live in such a charming little city by the sea? But the humans who lived there weren’t too happy about their pesky rodent neighbors, whose numbers were increasing rapidly. So they came up with a brilliant idea – bring in some cats. And within a short period of time, their rat problem was solved. The humans were very grateful to the cats, who were allowed to stay in Old San Juan and coexist with them in harmony. That is, until the feline population began to get out of control.

While some good-intentioned people in the community had taken it upon themselves to feed the cats, this did nothing to stop the felines from multiplying. Now there were hundreds of stray cats prowling the streets, getting into garbage and using the city as a giant litter box. Some of them were sick and injured, not a pretty sight for locals or tourists. The city realized it had a veritable “cat-pocalypse” on its hands.

By 2004, one of the biggest hotbeds of the stray cat problem was centered at the Paseo del Morro National Recreation Trail, a waterfront walkway that winds alongside the San Juan Bay and the western section of the San Juan Wall. Approximately 250 feral cats were living along the Paseo, which had recently been refurbished as a public walking and jogging path. But when park service officials proposed “getting rid” of the “problem” by trapping and removing the cats, the animal lovers of Old San Juan would hear nothing of it. Fearing the cats would be euthanized, they started a letter-writing and petition campaign that ended up being signed by thousands of outraged citizens.

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One of the feral cats living along the Paseo del Morro. Some of the felines that prowl around Old San Juan are believed to be descendants of cats that arrived on the ships of the first Spanish settlers when they came to Puerto Rico in the 17th century.

And that’s when three brave ladies decided to come forward and take it upon themselves to save the cats. They asked the National Park Service to give them six months to spay and neuter all of the feral felines along the Paseo, humanely euthanize the sickest animals, and find homes for the adoptable kitties. Happy to have the cat crisis off their hands, the powers that be agreed and Save A Gato was born.

Twelve years later, Save A Gato is a well-established, all-volunteer organization dedicated to helping the street cats of Old San Juan and responsible for managing the Paseo’s feral cat colony. Through humane TNR (Trap-Neuter-Return) methods, the organization has decreased the colony’s population from 250 felines in 2005 to around 100. Ferals receive regular food, water, medical care and shelter for the rest of their lives, while kittens and friendly cats get a chance to find forever homes throughout Puerto Rico and in the mainland U.S. via Save A Gato’s adoption program.

While not everyone who lives in OSJ professes to be a cat-lover, some locals acknowledge that along with the narrow cobblestone streets, pastel-colored residences and 17th-century fortresses overlooking the ocean, the cats have become part of “The Old San Juan Experience” that tourists enjoy. And even kitty naysayers know that the cats play a crucial role in keeping down the rodent population and thus, preventing disease. Since 15 percent of the buildings in OSJ are abandoned, without the cats the rats would once again proliferate.

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Another Paseo feral, this one giving us the evil eye for disturbing his breakfast. Note the tip of his ear has been removed to mark his sterile status. Photo credit: Chris Savas

When I happened to hear about Save A Gato while visiting Puerto Rico last month with my husband, I knew I had to meet this amazing group. We had just spent the day with The Sato Project and I was fired up to meet more inspiring people on the island who were going above and beyond for the welfare of animals. So on our second-to-last day in Old San Juan, Chris and I rose with the sun, got some coffee and walked to the Paseo, thinking we’d check out the feral colony first and take a few photos before heading to the group’s headquarters in the nearby park.

Once on the walkway, it didn’t take long to catch sight of the cats, many of them prowling in the bushes or sunning themselves on the rocks along the water. Some were still enjoying breakfast at one of several feeding stations Save A Gato maintains on the trail and barely acknowledged our presence, while a few of the more sociable kitties seemed to take an interest and began following us. Minutes later we seemed to have attracted a rainbow of cats – calicos, tortoise shells, tigers, marmalades, black and whites, grays, gingers and solid blacks. Most appeared healthy, contented and well fed.

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Myriam Pabon and Irma Podesta, two very dedicated, kind-hearted women who help make Save A Gato possible. Photo credit: Chris Savas

After a 30-minute photo session with the photogenic ferals, we retraced our steps out of the Paseo and up into the park, where Save A Gato maintains a tiny, one-room building called a Casita. This is where 12 of the group’s 20 volunteers take turns caring for adoptable cats and kittens as well as sick or injured cats. Upon arriving at the tiny, bright pink shack, we were immediately greeted by Myriam Pabon, volunteer coordinator and casita director, and Irma Podesta, Save A Gato’s lead rescuer, trapper and social media coordinator. Both have been volunteering with the organization for over a decade.

As we sat down and Myriam began telling us about Save A Gato and how it started, we found ourselves swarmed by a few of the 70 friendly kitties that live around the Casita – all in that same amazing kaleidoscope of coat colors – rubbing up against us, climbing in our laps and mewing for attention. Most are highly adoptable but simply haven’t been able to find the right homes. Chris is terribly allergic to cats but maintained a brave face as he was surrounded by attention-seeking felines. One even climbed into his lap and stared up into his face as if to say, “hey, why aren’t you petting me?”

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Just a few of the 70 cats Save A Gato cares for at the Casita. “Gato” is the Spanish word for cat. Photo credit: Chris Savas

As Myriam continued her story, it became evident that while Save A Gato has made huge strides in OSJ over the past 12 years, the organization is facing its fair share of daunting challenges lately, thanks in part to a bad economy and people abandoning their pets in droves.

“Over 60 percent of the population in Puerto Rico is living in poverty, so if people don’t have money for themselves, their children and their needs, forget about the animals,” Myriam explained. “Because we’re having hard economic times, a lot of people are losing their homes and leaving their animals behind. Even people with money don’t want to spend anything on a cat.”

She continued, “But even people who can’t take care of their pets don’t want to take them to a shelter where they will die. Our problem is we want to decrease the cat population but people are coming from all around the island just to leave their cats here. It’s endless because we have to give priority to the community of Old San Juan and we have so many animals here that aren’t neutered, and we neuter almost weekly.”

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Newbie volunteer Marie Sela cleans out one of the kitten cages in the Casita. Did you know that just one unaltered female cat and her offspring can produce 370,000 cats in just seven years? Photo credit: Chris Savas

Luckily, relief may soon be coming for Save A Gato and the island’s other incredible animal rescue organizations thanks to the Humane Society of the United States, which launched an aggressive animal welfare campaign in Puerto Rico last year. Part of its many progressive initiatives include establishing island-wide high-volume spay and neuter services, providing humane education for all public elementary school students, and working with local governments to crack down on irresponsible pet owners and enforce Puerto Rico’s Animal Protection and Welfare Act 154.

But until that happens, Save A Gato will be working overtime to garner enough support so it can continue its lifesaving mission – helping OSJ’s street cats for the foreseeable future.

“Twelve years ago people didn’t understand spay and neuter, about keeping cats healthy, how to care for them or how to control the population,” said Irma. “Today the metropolitan area is more aware of this, but on the rest of the island people still have no idea of what to do and we don’t have enough programs to help them. People think that if a female cat has 15 kittens, just throw them in the street and let them starve to death. So we really need more funding, more volunteers, more adoptions and the ability to send more cats to the U.S. With enough money we could fix every cat in Old San Juan.”

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This handsome guy is simply waiting for the right home. Could you be his perfect forever human? Photo credit: Chris Savas

Want to help the stray and abandoned cats of Old San Juan? Here’s what you can do:

  • Give money: Save A Gato is in great need of funds to pay for cat food, supplies, veterinary care and spay and neuter surgeries. No amount is too small and every penny goes to helping the cats. To make a donation, go here.
  • Donate supplies: Save A Gato can always use dry and wet cat food, cleaning products, flea preventative, towels, cages, cat toys and bowls. If you live in Puerto Rico or are visiting soon, please contact the organization to set up a time to drop off your donation.
  • Volunteer: Even if you don’t live in Puerto Rico, you can still become a Save A Gato volunteer. Go here to check out all the great ways you can help make a difference!
  • Adopt: Save A Gato usually has about 40 kittens or young cats available for adoption at any given time. If you’re interested in adopting one of their adorable kitties, please reach out to them on their Facebook page or website to set up a time to meet the kittens and take one (or more) home.
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One of my favorite photos I took at the Paseo – a little mustacheoed feral watching us from afar. Whether he was an abandoned pet or born on the streets, we’ll never know. Either way, he seemed content to keep his distance.

Here are some other wonderful animal rescues and shelters in Puerto Rico in need of help and support:

PAW Rescue Humacao

Santuario de Animales San Francisco de Asis

Save a Sato

Vieques Humane Society and Animal Rescue

“Life is life, whether in a cat, or dog or man. There is no difference there between a cat or a man. The idea of difference is a human conception for man’s own advantage.” – Sri Aurobindo