All I Want for Christmas

Working in an animal shelter, I see all manner of behavior- all day, every day. From animals…and from people. I see happy, I see sad, I see conflicted, I see scared. It may look different from person to person, from animal to animal, but the common thread is the wide range of emotions.

In my job, I get to interact with lots and lots of dogs. We are an open access facility, we take all comers. Sometimes decisions have to be made based on medical needs, overall health and/or behavior. These are the aspects of my job that I don’t love. I’d rather not see suffering in any form, and I also include human suffering there, as well. Pet owners often have to make difficult decisions and though we might all wish they went about things differently, if they haven’t (and for reasons we may never understand), we, as a facility, have a responsibility to do the next right thing. Outsiders often disagree on what the next right thing is, and truthfully, sometimes us insiders do, too. But, if I speak for my place of work, I can say that we do so in the most informed way possible, taking into account each individual animal’s needs, what we can possibly do for that animal and the effects those decisions may have on the public. And that’s a responsibility we take seriously.

Over time, my opinions, feelings and knowledge have evolved. That’s sort of the way life is supposed to be. As I’ve been exposed to more, I’ve had to re-evaluate some of my positions on things and I’ve tried to do so in a way that doesn’t make me cynical. I talk to my boss and my co-workers a lot. We have open conversations in which we sometimes have to acknowledge difficult truths, but more often than not- way more often than not, in fact- we are able to make adjustments to an animal’s care to ensure he/she stays healthy while in the shelter, whether we are talking about physical health or behavioral health. We employ things like classical music, bandanas sprayed with DAP (Dog Appeasing Pheromones), lots of enrichment and lots of downtime in our staff offices.

While I recognize that not every shelter has the resources to do all of this, I know that among my colleagues, all strive to do the best they can. Resources like time and money are often in short supply in animal shelters. Knowledge is sometimes in short supply, as well, but most shelters are doing the very best they can with what they’ve got. Shelters are underfunded, they are understaffed, burn out is high, compassion fatigue is an almost constant risk and the jobs involved in keeping one running are endless. Sadly, there is no shortage of animals needing rehoming and this is something that is constantly on my mind.

And so, because of these things, I’ve been thinking a lot about the external factors and broad mythology surrounding animal shelters and decided that All I Want for Christmas is for the conversation to shift. Even if it’s just a little bit. Even if a tiny wedge of light gets in there and causes people to think “Hmmmm…maybe I’ll use different wording.” or “Maybe there are things going on there that I don’t understand.”, I’ll be thrilled. Because the truth is that changing the conversation around shelters may actually have an impact on how people see shelter animals and ultimately, more of them moving into loving homes. And that is where I think the commonality exists: we all want more companion animals to live long lives in which they are loved and well cared for. So here goes:

All I Want for Christmas is:
1.) For the terms “high kill” and “kill shelter” to just go away. This is the worst form of animal advocacy. It has nothing to do with the animals contained within the walls of a facility and everything to do with people’s opinions of one, which may or may not be true. If it’s true, there may be reasons you don’t understand. If it’s not true, those terms can scare off people who might actually walk through the doors. In either case, the animals don’t benefit. Why would someone walk into a shelter with an image of a steady flow of dead animals in their heads?

2.) For the term “no-kill” to be more clearly defined for the masses. No-kill, as a goal, confuses people and effects where they put their donation dollars. Animals in shelters where euthanasia is sometimes a necessity are just as deserving as those lucky enough to be in those where it is not. Improving the number of live exits and adoptions is a goal to strive for, and speaking for my place of employment, we are always striving for it. But, not so that we can earn the title “no-kill”, but because we want to do a good job at adopting out animals who are physically healthy and behaviorally sound- and to know that we’ve done the very best we can at ensuring those things (at least while the animal is in the shelter). Constantly striving to meet the needs of each animal we make available allows us to achieve our own goals. Goals that we have defined for ourselves, without outside pressure. The pressure that exists for us is generated by us- What can we do differently? How can we help this animal feel safe? What can we do to meet this animal’s health needs? That varies from animal to animal and is not determined by a definition or set of standards determined by anyone but us- those of us who interact with the animals daily.

3.) For advocates, volunteers and employees to stop using euphemisms to describe things. Does “has skin issues” mean an animal has severe allergies, mange or a behavior-related issue causing skin problems? Some things can be very expensive and taxing to treat. Does “likes to be with his people” mean there is some evidence a dog has separation anxiety? Using euphemisms to save a life may do so in some cases, but it may also be temporary. A dog who is returned because the new owners can’t afford to treat the skin allergies is no better off than she was before and the dog who is left alone to suffer or returned for separation anxiety is likely to get worse and/or returned. This is unfair to both animals and people and something that personally drives me crazy. There is nothing easy about deciding to end an animal’s life. I often have the luxury of shielding myself directly from it and empathize with my peers, colleagues and coworkers who do not. In cases where I have had to confront an issue head-on, I have had long, honest conversations with the people I trust most: my boss, my colleagues, my husband and other professionals. I have avoided ranting on the internet, though at times I have wanted to- to get comfort, to get backing, to feel less alone. But, I know that is not the way to solve a problem, neither as a person who loves animals or as a professional.

4.) For people to recognize that we cannot forget to see the forest for the trees. We all have favorites. There will always be those animals who speak to us more than others. But, if we focus on dogs with known behavioral issues, those who haven’t displayed them may miss out on the life they deserve. The fact is that many people don’t know how to effectively deal with major behavior issues, and I’d argue that they shouldn’t have to. If we want people to continue to choose to adopt, we should be sure that we are adopting out healthy animals. Animals who have shown us that they are social, friendly and deal with life’s stress without using their mouths. If a dog has a known aggression problem, and we focus on that dog, the friendly dog who struggles in his kennel may pay the ultimate price, especially in a facility where space is an issue.

5.) For logic and reason to be as much a part of the conversation around animal sheltering as emotion is. I recognize that I have some biases and that my biases may ruffle some feathers. But, I think my goals are generally the same as most other animal advocates: I want to see more people choosing to adopt. I want that to happen in ways that are responsible- to the people who are doing so and to the animals they may bring home. I also want it to be responsible to the thousands that are, sadly, likely to follow. Until we have viable solutions to stem the flow of animals needing homes, we need to stop disparaging the people who are doing the work that some shelters must do, exalting those based on a description of an industry, which may be a misnomer in some cases, stop sugarcoating issues, and remember that there are thousands of animals behind the ones we are advocating today depending on us to be their voice.

Let’s use our collective voices wisely. We are all in this together, after all.

Photos of Pierre and Nelson are courtesy of Samantha Marie Photography.