In cartoons and animal movies, it’s not uncommon for shelters to be portrayed as a sort of animal jail, gray and cruel, where the only path out besides escape is the quick and brutal march to euthanasia. But this image belies all of the change and care veterinary professionals and animal rescue volunteers and advocates have invested in creating safe, comfortable spaces for animals. More and more, shelters are becoming waystations for pets’ transitions from homelessness to loving homes.
Many potential pet owners see shelters and rescue groups as the only acceptable source for adoptable pets. So how are pet owners supposed to evaluate these sources and determine whether these sources are reputable? And when the shelter’s primary responsibility shifts from being a source for dogs, how should the shelter shift its services to serve pets and pet owners?
“There are some animals that we feel could be adopted that aren’t now,” says Apryl Steele, DVM, president and CEO of Dumb Friends League in Denver. She explains that the Dumb Friends League is building spaces to do more work with fearful dogs that would currently be dangerous if they were placed in homes. “If we had some really quiet places where we could work with them for four to eight weeks, we could make them trust again, and we could make them safe. So that’s something we’re working towards.”
Dr. Steele says they also don’t currently place diabetic cats, but they do transfer some of them to a group that does placements for these special needs kitties. Pets with chronic diseases may also be new targets for adoption.
What else could the future of sheltering hold? Let’s take a look at what some shelter and veterinary professionals wish for the future of animal welfare.
New opportunities for shelters
Jed Rogers, DVM, is CEO at Firehouse Animal Health Centers in Austin, Texas, and he previously served as senior vice president of animal health services for the ASPCA. In years past, he says the big focus for shelters has been on getting adoptable pets in homes. But the shifts in available dogs may be an opportunity for shelters to reimagine the services they offer. For example, shelters might focus instead on keeping adoptable pets in their homes. He points to programs like the ASPCA’s Safety Net program, which works with communities to provide resources that may include one-on-one counseling, pet food banks, community vaccination clinics and spay/neuter services, pet help lines and more. Currently programs exist in communities in Alabama, California, Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina and Ohio.
Dr. Rogers says a positive trend he sees is the sheltering world becoming more organized. “It’s always been a professional world, it’s just now more organized in a very professional way,” he says. “To me, there’s strength in that. You can have a better chance of doing a good job if you’re sharing best practices and adhering to standards. And I think that that’s led to a lot of success over time that’s hard to track because the data, the consolidated, aggregated data, has been difficult to come by.”
The second positive trend he sees is a deepening relationship between some veterinary professionals in private practice and shelters.
“I see more and more veterinarians participating in a positive way with shelters and rescue groups in their community, and I think that’s an awesome thing,” Dr. Rogers says. “I think that’s a way we can all work together to benefit pets and people in our community.”
Dr. Rogers’ practices work closely with animal shelters and rescue groups to provide services to support pet adoptions and rescue efforts. He says the key to successful relationships usually starts with identifying the services the shelter or rescue needs—and it’s not always the same thing.
“We always spend a little time to get to know them and say how can we help you?” Dr. Rogers says. “And if they don’t have any ideas, then we can say, OK, here are the four or five things we do with other shelters, are any of these interesting to you? And usually there’s something there that clicks.”
For example, some rescue groups offer to reimburse the cost of the pet’s adoption fee by offering free veterinary services at one of their practices. So if you paid $100 to adopt a dog, you’d receive $100 worth of free veterinary services.
Another way to help? Offering allowances for rescues and shelters to offer the care to bring pets to a place where they are adoptable.
“At the beginning of each year we give the shelters we work with a credit for services, a $5,000 or $10,000 credit, and then they can use it however they want throughout the year,” Dr. Rogers says. “If they have a complicated surgery they want done or a bunch of dental work or whatever, they can just use the credit.
“There are a hundred things a veterinarian can do with a shelter, so it’s just a matter of taking the time to get to know each other and figure out what that relationship is going to look like.”
A new view on sheltering
For Nichole Boudreau, the director of shelter operations at Young-Williams Animal Center in Knoxville, Tennessee, it was a culture shock to leave the Bay Area humane society shelter she worked at for 10 years and take on a new job at a shelter in Tennessee. Young-Williams takes in more than 10,000 animals each year. Since she joined the organization two years ago, she’s been working to change the attitudes and relationships in the community to support responsible pet ownership.
“There was a mentality that owners are bad and we need to have open doors and take all of the animals from the people, even if it means putting them down,” Boudreau says. “Since I’ve been here I’ve been trying to change all that.”
She’s helped implement a managed intake system with resources to work with pet owners to discover their issues with their pets and help resolve them. “We know we’re just contributing to the cycle of poor pet ownership if we’re just taking them in every time someone gets sick of having an animal or bumps against some behavior concerns,” Boudreau says.
She has a dedicated intake manager and a pet resource coordinator who fields all of the owner surrender calls. “The three of us went through the HSUS [Humane Society of the United States] cat behavior counseling course, so we have all those skills to help people manage litterbox issues and cat-on-cat issues and fear stuff and play aggression, things like that,” Boudreau says.
With the help of her new team and a progressive CEO, they’ve increased the save rate of the organization from about 67 percent to 84 percent at the end of the last year.
Boudreau is also focused on changing the attitudes of other groups involved in the animal sheltering community, including the animal control officers. She says her goal is to shift the attitudes a law enforcement focus to social services.
“I think it all starts with shifting the whole concept of what an animal shelter’s role is in a community. I think that we need to get away from having people think of a shelter as somewhere to relinquish their pet for adoption,” Boudreau says. “We’re in the business of housing, sheltering, rehabilitating and finding homes for stray animals that are never reclaimed by owners, despite a proactive effort on the shelter’s part and animal control’s part.”
To that end, Boudreau has been working closely with an organization called Mission Reunite, which has gifted Young-Williams with microchip scanners for their animal control trucks. This way animal control officers can scan loose pets in the field and drive the pet home instead of taking it to the shelter. This frees up resources at the shelter and makes space for pets that need sheltering.
Boudreau says her efforts are guided by three principles: keep pets out of the shelter as much as possible, reduce their length of stay, and remove any barriers to getting pets out of the shelter environment.
“So don’t charge rescue groups pull fees, reduce the adoption fees, don’t have crazy home visit requirements and vet record requirements for your adopters,” she says.
It also means talking to potential pet owners up front and offering guidance as they make pet ownership decisions. Boudreau offers this example. Say you’re working with a potential adoptive family who says they want a backyard dog. Instead of immediately turning them down, she says it’s important to fact-find. First, realize that if you turn them down, they’re likely to obtain a dog somewhere else—Craigslist, anyone?
And if you haven’t offered counseling and support, you’re likely to end up with that dog in your shelter at some future date. Instead, with probing you might learn that someone in their family is allergic. This offers you the opportunity to suggest a breed that’s less likely to trigger allergies—or even suggest another type of pet altogether.
“So it’s on us. We have the biggest stake in this whole thing. We have to kill the animals we can’t save. That’s the end-all, be-all for me,” she says. “I don’t want my staff to have to kill these animals because we don’t have solutions or because we’re too full.”
Rescues, shelters and vets can work together
In an ideal world, animal rescue organizations will find ways to work together to promote healthy relationships between pets and people.
“In Colorado, rescue groups have really taken off. Last year was the first year that adoptions through rescue groups really exceeded adoptions through shelters,” Dr. Steele says. “Rescues transferred in about 20,000 dogs, shelters 10,000, and the other 5,000 animals were cats, which had a similar ratio of rescues to shelters."
Breed rescues, she says, are the groups that are having more trouble, because there aren’t as many purebreds that need homes. But the breed rescue groups also offer an opportunity for shelters. Dr. Steele uses the example of purebred German shepherds. They can be protective, especially some adult males, and it’s important to know this breed to provide a good home for them.
“We will often transfer to a German shepherd rescue, even though we can put that dog on the floor and adopt it,” Dr. Steele says. “They have a following of people who really understand German shepherd behavior, and that will be the best outcome for that dog. We will transfer some of the breeds to rescues, especially if there’s a particular behavior trait, because we’ll have a better outcome with a little bit more education and a prescreened population to adopt them.”
On the flip side, breed rescues used to get most of their dogs from shelters, Dr. Steele says, and if there’s a purebred that comes to a shelter it’s adopted as fast as it can be adopted.
“A lot of the breed rescues we’ve seen in our community, the specific breed rescues, have really diminished. Whether they’ve gone away completely or they just handle way fewer dogs, it depends on the group.”
Like attracts like
Has social media set sheltering back? Sure, it’s allowed like-minded rescuers to find each other, but Boudreau isn’t so sure that’s always a good thing.
“I think social media really hasn’t done us any favors, because it’s just so easy to find people who have your same point of view and just run with it,” she says. “So much of the philosophy changes that are happening in animal welfare are really around trust. I find that some of the smaller rescue groups that completely control their intake, they are pretty darned picky when it comes to adoptions. They don’t think anyone’s good enough for whatever reason, there’s a lot of judgment that goes on, and they’re completely reluctant to adopt an open philosophy when it comes to adoptions.”
This broaches the next obvious question: Is it OK to own a pet if you’re poor? You’ve heard the statement, “You shouldn’t own a pet if you can’t afford to take care of it.” For Boudreau, the answer to this question is less black-and-white and more shades of gray. She says she’s open to adopting pets out into homes that may need to sign up for a pet pantry right away or may need other support to start on the path to a happy, healthy home for a pet.
“If somebody falls in love, they’ve got great intentions, they’ve got a great setup, and they aren’t going to have that little bit of extra money this month for pet food, we can help with that. That’s our job,” she says.
At the end of the day, it’s the relationships that veterinary professionals, animal control officers, shelter professionals and rescue groups form that will create stronger relationships between people and pets.
“I think there’s a lot of potential of tightening up the community, having rescue groups work closely with shelters, having animal control officers working closely with shelters and having everyone on the same page, seeing the big picture,” Boudreau says. “I think that’s a big part of it—more communication, getting together more, sharing the same goals and sharing the same data.”
Do pet owners know where their dogs come from? We’re not talking animal husbandry here, folks. Instead, we look at the ethics behind the sourcing of many of the pets people adopt—and buy—in the United States. Check out “Man’s best livestock” to read more.
Editor’s note: Do you believe financial stability is a prerequisite to pet ownership? Is there room for pet ownership for people living in poverty? Are pets tied to social status or class? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below or by emailing us at [email protected].