Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Animal Control, Humane Societies and the No-Kill Movement

In another time, at another place, I was a little deeper involved in shelter politics than I am now. Time is one reason, but ego-driven managers, useless boards, nonsensical actions, and rules and regulations that don’t always prioritize animal welfare, distracted me from doing what I do best – working with dogs. So here and now, I give advice or assess a dog when asked, but other than that live happily in my tralalala world, distanced from the internal dramas and conflicts of the rescue circuit.
Not being involved doesn’t mean that I don’t care. I often ponder about the plight of animals nobody wants. A little while ago I read a couple of blog posts that caught my interest, plus I had private conversations about local dog politics, and as a result felt compelled to voice my opinions on homeless dogs and the institutions that deal with them, and what I think should and could happen, but not necessarily does happen, at least not everywhere.

I’d like to see Animal Control and Humane Societies under provincial, not municipal jurisdiction. That would streamline bylaws, resources and training, assessment and adoption guidelines, and offer consistency for people - and dogs if they have to be moved from one shelter to another.
Rules and regulations must ensure public safety, but the focus should be the animal. Child Social Services is about kids, health care about sick people, and animal stuff about animals. Lawmakers typically consult with experts before making decisions, and the same should be the case regarding dogs. Dog bylaws must be based on facts about dogs, and not public paranoia fueled by a media that sensationalizes isolated incidents.

A few years ago in Calgary, during a radio interview, someone and it might have been Bill Bruce but I am not sure, explained the different roles Animal Control and a humane society have in the community. AC protects people from animals and the HS animals from people. I quite liked that. It is clear, and a simple policy to implement. Unambiguity means that no pooch falls through the cracks. AC’s duty, then, would be to seize reported aggressive dogs that are owned, but also, in my opinion, gather up roaming strays for safekeeping and behavior-assessing. I like to see dogs kept for 10 days unless an escapee is claimed, at which point AC should check if the owner is capable of caring for his pooch properly. 72 hours is too short. One often doesn’t get an accurate personality evaluation in the first 72 hours cause the dog is too afraid, confused, stressed, hungry, or sore. Plus, a stray’s person might be out of town, unaware that his dog is missing and therefore unable to retrieve him within 3 days.
Humane societies would cover all dogs that can’t stay in their present homes because they are either mistreated, or unwanted. I believe that there should be at least one open admission shelter within a certain radius and populous; a place where no animal is denied entrance. Yes, that does enable callous people to dump the dog they messed up. Yes, it does provide an easy copout for immature and irresponsible humans whose lifelong companion doesn’t fit their lifestyle any longer. But the sad truth is that someone who wants to get rid of his dog, will. If the pooch can’t be surrendered, he might be ditched in a rural area, chained, shot or beaten, or passed on to a na├»ve softy who has the best intentions, but lacks awareness that a neglected or mistreated dog can come with emotional baggage, expressed in problem behaviors. The dogs, almost all of them, can get better and some people are committed to their new canine, and financially able to afford professional help, but others continue the cycle and get rid of the dog.
Suffering is a constant in many dogs’ lives, happens in many places, and often in people’s homes. To ease suffering, open admission is unavoidable.

AC and HU have different, but equally important roles in a civilized society, and both entities should receive public funding. No third parties. No tenders. Methinks it is easier to work together if there isn’t a juicy contract to vie for.
I get it: Non-profit and transparent government funded institutions that are managed by animal experts that deeply care is wishful thinking. Coming up with more money, when there are so many demands already, is a doozy for our politicians. No question, caring for the sick and poor, keeping roads and other infrastructure in decent shape, and educating our youngsters are paramount responsibilities. There is other important stuff, like building impressive structures and arenas, subsidizing for profit companies, and financing decades-long studies to scientifically prove common-sense knowledge.
And let’s not forget that the business of governing is not cheap. Our elected politicians need to be paid, and their expenses need to be paid, too, and their retirement has to be taken care of. They also need money to hire consultants that tell them how to govern better, pay committees of consultants for the same reason, travel to fancy places to see how others govern, travel to fancy places to conference how to govern better together, and travel to fancy places to make plans to meet somewhere else to discuss how to govern better. I am not kidding myself that compassionate animal welfare is anywhere remotely on the agenda of governments any time soon. But it should be. Cause people dedicated to improve the lives of animals in need should be able to focus on exactly that, and not be consumed with fundraising enough dough to stay afloat for another month.

With humane societies funded, the various rescue groups orbiting the big shelters would likely see more donations coming their way, and everyone could work TOGETHER – tralalalala.
Specialized rescue organizations are the best fit for specific dogs, and more money for them means that they are in a better position to help AC and HU when such a dog is seized, found or surrendered. Ideally, every pure bred dog should go to pure breed rescue, and I like breeders involved in that - and many good ones are.
But even without government funding, I wish people with a common goal, even if their personalities clash, could get over their antagonistic relationships and cooperate. Dogs don’t care who did what to whom 5 years ago. All they want is food, water, shelter and to feel safe, and they rely on humans to supply those things.

Enough wishful thinking, let’s talk about the reality I see. Presently, only a small percentage of all monies donated goes to animals, and many organizations, including humane societies, compete for the little that’s available, and that makes good PR a critical aspect. The PR buzz word for the last several years is No-Kill.
No-Kill shelters reject euthanasia unless an animal is too sick, or too aggressive to be adopted; aim, as far as I know, for a below 10% euthanasia rate. It is popular with the public, where donations come from, cause people hate when cute furry things die an untimely death; pity the down-trodden, sad-eyed dog and want for him to have chance in life – with someone else.
Okay, now is a good time to state unequivocally that I believe that no animal that can be treated and rehabilitated should be killed. Not one. My wish is for every dog (and cat, ferret, iguana, bird….) to feel safe and cared for, in a home or sanctuary. Is any euthanasia rate acceptable? No. Is the No-Kill movement the solution? I don’t think so.
As long as we have more animals produced than people wanting one, and as long as we don't have laws with teeth that ensure that dogs don't develop problems the average person can't live with, we have more needing help than available spots. And whenever that happens, shelters are between a rock and a hard place.
Dog: “My person doesn’t want me anymore. He frightens me when he gets angry with me. Can you help?”
Shelter staff: “No, sorry buddy. We would only have to euthanize you, and that would mess up our No-Kill statistics, and that would affect our donations.”

If I'd have a junk of money to get rid of, euthanasia statistics is the last thing I am interested in.
What matters most to me is that each and every animal that enters an organization’s door is treated with the utmost compassion, and consideration to what is in that dog’s best interest given the circumstances.
If the shelter claims No-Kill status, I wanna know how many dogs they turned away to, possibly, die elsewhere?
Do they have hard to adopt dogs wasting in kennels for months?
What are their adoption criteria? Are new owners carefully selected, or does quantity overrule quality?
Is anybody checking if the pooch is still with the adopter after a few months? A couple of years? How is he kept? What’s his quality of life? Remember, No-Kill doesn’t mean No-Suffering. Every adopted dog should get at least one follow-up check, and if he can't be traced, should be added as “euthanized” to the statistics.
Of course, quantity doesn't exclude quality. There are fabulous shelters that do both. They typically have progressive programs, public-accommodating opening hours and adoption guidelines, and knowledgeable staff that matches the dog with a compatible human.
If a shelter has a higher euthanasia rate I wanna know why.
Were dogs killed because they failed a small aspect of an unrealistic, only minutes long, temperament test that sets dogs up to fail?
Were they euthanized because the shelter doesn't have a training program and follow-up care for dogs with issues?
Are managers and staff incompetent, careless and rude, thereby driving the public away and creating bad PR?
Or do they have a large intake of dogs that are in bad shape?
Are they located in an area that provides very little resources?
How are the animals euthanized? Sedated and overdosed while someone caresses and talks to them? Or cruelly mass-gassed?

There are other aspects that determine if I support someone, or not.
A biggy for me is if animals are sold to a research facility. In my books, every dog has the same value. I don’t care if he is a pedigreed, once pampered surrender, or a flea-ridden mongrel trapped at one of Canada’s many rural garbage dumps. Every dog feels fear and pain, confusion, anxiety and panic, and the thought and knowledge that some are deliberately sentenced, for life, to experience any or all of the above, by the very same people who are suppose to speak on their behalf, is heartbreaking.
I also want to know where the dogs are spayed and castrated. The shelter I used to volunteer for sent dogs to a teaching college, and some came back with pretty severe behavioral, and occasionally physical, issues they didn’t have before. The dogs couldn’t tell us in words what had happened there, but their behavior indicated that it was traumatic. Based on that, the shelter stopped to supply the college with animals, even though it meant an additional financial burden. That’s compassion.
And I want to know, if the shelter has a training program, who works with the dogs. Shelters rely heavily on unpaid helpers, and there is nothing wrong with delegating daily dog training duties to volunteers. It can be a win-win-win if dogs receive mental and physical stimulation and learn manners that make them more adoptable, the new owners get a pooch who knows foundation commands they can build on, and people interested in dogs are given ample opportunities to learn more about their behavior.
It is a lose-lose-win if intimidation, force and pain increase fear and anxiety in the, due to past and present living environments, already stressed and confused dog. Dogs and future owners lose; the ones who win are upcoming shock collar trainers who get to practice their zapping skills, beginner handlers who become more proficient in pinning and punishing, and seasoned trainers who often drum up business through pro bono shelter work.
So, training yes, but the method has to be in place. Training guidelines have to be set by the shelter, and all volunteers must observe them.

In an ideal world every dog would have a place to live that is safe, and where his species and breed specific, and individual, needs are met. That place could very well be a sanctuary, where people care for dogs' physical needs, and compatible dog buddies provide social interactions. But it can’t be a cage or a solitary life on a chain, dog run or fenced yard.
We don’t live in an ideal world. Animal welfare organizations often don’t have enough resources cause governments on all levels don’t care, and wealthy philanthropists like to support causes that generate more recognition and media applause.
There aren’t enough sanctuaries for dogs that don't fit into society, and if the right person for an unwanted one isn't available, euthanasia becomes the most humane option. To prevent that dogs live the miserable life of permanent restraint, isolation or harsh treatment, shelters kill him. And if that is their motivation, they shouldn’t be judged.
I wish that nobody would get his pup from a pet store, pet broker or large-scale breeder, but I have nothing against people who purchase a blue-blooded pooch from a conscientious one. Really, I don’t. To the contrary, it benefits all parties when the person has a clear understanding what he desires in a dog, and where his personal limitations are. Owning an expensive pure-bred is okay, but then judging a shelter’s euthanasia rate, and withholding donations because it doesn’t match his perfect world, is not.

A life free of fear, stress and pain means more to a dog than the length of it. I am certain of that. Because it is important for them, it is priority for me. If you feel the same, ask a whole lot of questions before you hand over your hard-earned dollars. Look for an organization that treats each animal kindly - maybe for the first time, on the last day of his life.


  1. Once again and excellent Blog,, Thanks for keeping the world informed and trying to changes points of views for the better.


  2. Awesome blog post, Silvia - succinct and you covered everything!