Animal sheltering is a tough business. If you think about it, many people find the thought of even walking into an animal shelter too much to bear. And if you think even more about it, given the way shelter animals and shelters have been marketed in the past, it makes sense. From sad eyes, to sometimes unbearable pictures of abuse and neglect, it can seem as if there’s nothing cheerful or hopeful about animals in need. In an ideal world, no animal would ever be abused, neglected or left behind. But, this is not an ideal world and there are those of us who choose not only to pick up the pieces, but constantly strive to put the pieces back together. And many of us do it without the emotional blackmail that can come along for the ride.
Emotional blackmail is a process in which one person attempts to control another by inducing fear or guilt. Those ads that were so popular a few years ago- you know the ones- the sad song, the heartbreaking images, the appeal to emotion- those were emotional blackmail- a way of saying “we can get you to do this thing because we are going to make you feel sad and doing this thing will make you feel less sad”, except in many cases, it doesn’t. It’s a band-aid, and a short-acting way of “fixing” the problem.
While most animal shelters survive on donations, the ones that thrive do so due to taking the initiative to elevate sheltering, and to increase the likelihood of the animals contained within their walls being successfully placed. They do that by constantly striving to improve the counseling done at the point of adoption, by creating programs that engage the community and by marketing their adoptable animals in a way that is honest, open, and invites people to want to know more. Because here’s the thing- all the money in the world is not going to bring people through your doors if you’ve got nothing to offer them but sadness. You’ve got to show people that you are making decisions based on the best interests of the community and animals you serve.
All of this is not to say that it’s not still a tough business, because it is. But, it is to say that as sheltering evolves, I think we’re more likely to see more of this- and in my very biased view, it’s something we do every single day at Women’s Humane Society. Over the course of the last year and a half, I’ve seen the following amazing things happen and have been lucky enough to take part in some of them:
- An elevation of our humane education programs: positive engagement of school children through workshops both in the shelter and in schools.
- A reading program for school children in which dozens and dozens of children have participated, many of whom have come back 10 times or more.
- A robust volunteer program, in which community members become engaged and invested, not only in the care of our animals, but in the overall health of the organization, from tasks like paperwork, to laundry, to animal care.
- Enrichment programs for dogs and cats that improve their quality of life throughout their stay and increase their chances for successful adoption.
- Adoption counseling that is open and honest and is focused not only on getting an animal into a home, but helps ensure he/she stays there.
- A team approach which always strives to ensure we are meeting the needs of our animals, making adjustments where appropriate and creating criteria to help us be sure we are always making the best decisions possible as to an animal’s quality of life.
- Educational efforts designed to help people understand how they can best meet the needs of their pets.
- A “desk foster” program designed for dogs who struggle in their kennels to help give them time to decompress and stay adoptable. 38 dogs have been successfully placed thanks to this program- and a boss who approves it.
One of the things I’ve learned along the way is not to sacrifice the good for the perfect. Because there are always things like budget to be considered, I’ve had to adjust my vision of things along the way.
This poster is one such example: In an ideal world, we’d have professionally designed murals or boards all over the place, and maybe someday we will. For now, my inner frustrated artist created something to help get a message out that I consider important- enrichment is a crucial part of helping keep animals happy and healthy.
My initial treat bucket project cost me $9- a cost I was more than willing to absorb. The 2017 update was free, as I solicited donations for take-out containers and we had zip-ties on hand. They’re neater, cleaner, keep treats fresh longer and most importantly, keep the birds away! Visitors enjoy giving treats to the dogs, and the dogs, obviously, enjoy getting them. Engaging with people who approach their kennels not only improves a dog’s chances of getting adopted, it keeps their associations with people approaching positive and not threatening.
As we’ve been working to improve not only our own image, but the image that people have of sheltering in general, what we’ve found is not surprising: animals are healthier and less stressed, people are more positively engaged with us- both in person and virtually and we have better outcomes. More animals are being successfully adopted.
Nelson is one such example: he struggled mightily in his kennel. he lost weight, he was drooling, jumping, barking, whining, pooping and had pink mucus membranes almost all the time. Desk fostering kept him sane. His easy-going ways and some good timing got him adopted. And look at him now.
We rise by lifting others. We always have choices to make. We can appeal to sadness and guilt, or we can appeal to possibilities. By making the choice to appeal to possibilities, we are choosing to see the good. By choosing to see the good, we are more likely to open the minds and hearts of people who might otherwise turn a blind eye.
It’s time to elevate the shelter industry to one of possibilities. One in which we strive to house animals humanely and meet their needs. One in which we place animals appropriately and are able to do so because we’ve proved to the community that we are responsible and care about their well-being as much as we care about the well-being of our adoptable animals. One in which we get so good at educating people and providing services that we eventually drive ourselves out of business. While I am a dreamer, I know that last part is unlikely at any time in the near future, but if we get really good at the other parts, there’s hope for us yet.