Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Euthanizing the Myths - The Irresponsible Public

I've seen Nathan Winograd speak several times now, most recently at the No Kill Conference in Washington DC, and I always come away with something I didn't know or something that I needed to be reminded of. Nathan's opening keynote touched on a few of the myths widely held in animal sheltering and rescue, myths that need to be put out of their misery in order for us to make progress within communities. The first shelter myth I'm tackling is one that I think has the potential to be the most poisonous and the most self-defeating to shelter operations everywhere: the myth of the irresponsible public.

It's not difficult to pull quotes these days from directors and staff of shelters the world over telling the press that they have to kill animals, even inviting TV crews to be there while they do it, because it's the fault of the irresponsible John Q. Public that forces them to kill. What a load of claptrap.

Americans love their pets. Love them. When I walk my dog in the morning, I don't generally run across people beating their animals. I run into other people with their dogs, and we talk about them. I run into people out for a walk who stop me and ask about my dogs - ask about their names, want to pet them, introduce their children to them. They want to tell me about dogs they have had, dogs they have loved. I have had the benefit of living with my dogs all over the country, in all kinds of areas from rich to poor, rural to inner city. My positive interactions about animals with people outweigh my negative interactions by a thousandfold.

A few statistics for you:
- In 2009, giving to environmental and animal related charities (which are lumped together by the IRS for the purposes of reporting) increased by 2.3% even as overall giving decreased by 3.6% in the midst of a recession.
- American spending on pet expenses hasn't experienced a decline in ANY subcategory of spending since 2007, with a 2009 overall increase of 5.4% - also in the midst of a recession - to total spending of $45.5B. In 2010 they project further 4.9% growth.
- A pet owner survey in 2000 found that over half of respondents had taken time off of work to care for a sick pet.
- Stories about animals are big in American entertainment in movies like Marley and Me, which had a US gross of $150M for its theatrical release and was based on a book that was a New York Times bestseller. One movie studio exec was quoted in the press as saying "I have learned never to bet against any dog movie".

In an America where people very obviously love their animals, it follows that they would like to do what is best for them. I do not, personally, know anyone whom I would characterize as irresponsible with their animals. Now, I do know poeple who have occasionally done something irresponsible, knowingly or unknowingly - which includes myself, and I know people who have made mistakes - which includes myself. But I do not, personally, know anyone whom I would call irresponsible. I do know many people who love animals. I do know people who have skipped meals - or had ramen - to feed their animals, who have skimped on their own medical care to pay a vet bill, or who have given money to save an animal's life when they had almost none. I know this doesn't get nearly as much press as the bad people in the world, but these are the folks I know.

Now, there are definitely people out there who ARE irresponsible, and being in the shelter industry you're going to see a lot of them. You're on the receiving end of animal cruelty cases, and your daily communications and email are full of awful things that have been done to animals by a very small minority of people within society. But to use this as an excuse to kill is bunk, and more than that it's self-defeating.

When you are a shelter and you need donations to keep operating, you need to appeal to the public. Most people aren't going to give money to an organization that demonizes them, which is going to interfere with a shelter's ability to carry out their mission. If you had a choice between donating money to a shelter that told the public that most of the animals they took in were doomed to die because of an irresponsible public and a shelter that told you they would do their utmost to use your donation to work as hard as they could to find homes for animals that needed them... which would you choose?

You need the public to adopt your animals. Why would I walk in to adopt an animal from an agency that tells the public they're not responsible enough to take care of them? Why would I sit down with an adoptions staff that works for an organization that views the public - me - with disdain?

You need the public to volunteer for you, to help you care for your animals, to support you in public, support your mission and spread the word. Why would anyone want to even find out about your organization when you're telling them they can't be trusted?

We who work in, among, and with shelters need to be a part of putting this attitude to sleep - NOW - and we need to speak up and correct it when we hear it repeated. It is a poison among us, completely counterproductive to what we are trying to achieve, and it runs contrary to the attitudes we believe in as a No Kill Nation - No Kill communities are founded by people who love animals and believe not only that the public loves animals as well, but that engaging the public in the mission of saving animals is key to achieving No Kill.

"The truth is you cannot blame having to kill shelter animals on an “irresponsible public” or “too many animals” when a shelter doesn’t implement lifesaving and low cost programs. I personally witnessed missed opportunity after missed opportunity from alienating potential fosters to terrible customer service to rude behavior toward rescue groups. I heard the same stories from other volunteers. These were not isolated cases. These were failures of management and staff to do what they should be doing: saving lives."
- Jessica Reid, No Kill Louisville


Blogger Dopey LaRue said...

I joined Peta when I was 13 years old, and I worked in a kill shelter when I was 22 where I witnessed the deaths of easily over a hundred animals. I had to quit the job because the guilt and horror were too much. Yet I STILL defended kill shelters and Peta for reasons I don't quite understand now. Thank you, Sib, for posting this information here, and your tireless efforts for the animals. I largely attribute the information here for my complete 180 stance on kill shelters (opposed) and for my renouncing my Peta membership. I love animals and used to think I was somehow "saving them", but now I just shake my head at my former naivete. Thank you.

2:35 PM  
Blogger GwpLady said...

Awesome article! Thank you!
Our licensed rescue shelterhome applauds your insight and clarity!

3:10 PM  
Blogger GwpLady said...

Awesome article!
GWP Rescue, Inc

3:10 PM  
Blogger Kathy Pobloskie said...

Thanks John! This needed to be said and you did it brilliantly.

4:28 PM  
Blogger Maribeth said...

This is great news, but it doesn't take much to see that MANY people are irresponsible with animals EVERY day. Perhaps that's different geographically; indeed I know it is. Our classified ads for PETS-DOGS-FREE are bursting with strays and rescues looking for foster homes at least, a forever home at best.
Many fall between the cracks, and those are the ones that show up at the shelters.
In the interest of humanity and public health there should be local subsidies for animal shelters provided by communities with dollars from animal registrations.

4:47 PM  
Blogger -J. said...

Maribeth, I would never argue against public funding of shelters, a valuable and necessary service. I'd just like to see many of them do their job better.

8:59 PM  

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