When I hear the word orphanage, it conjures up images of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist asking for “more” from the sadistic Mr. Bumble. Did you know that in the United States, orphanages have become obsolete? They have been replaced by foster care programs and private adoption agencies. Also, the availability of education on responsible parenting and child care has increased significantly. The days of institutionalizing children are over, but not so much for dogs. For them orphanages, a k a shelters, still exist.
Having worked with many animal shelters during my professional career, and being the former director of operations for the four branch shelters of the Pennsylvania SPCA, I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly. I have seen shelters that have been “killing factories,” and I have seen shelters where people work like the dickens to find a home for each and every animal there.
The difference between these shelters lies in their basic attitudes, assumptions and culture; their respective dogmas. The shelters that succeed in helping animals in their community know that their job is not to rescue the dogs and cats, but to be a temporary way station until their real rescuer comes for them. Then the shelters facilitate that rescue with every resource available to them. These shelter workers truly believe that every animal deserves a home, and they have enough faith and determination to make that a reality. They scoff at those who claim that a dog is “unadoptable”. While it’s true that some dogs are more difficult to place than others, with hard work and dedication successful matches can be made. I have seen this time and time again.
Unfortunately, many shelters are uninformed or just plain lazy. They use archaic “evaluation” techniques to decide if an animal lives or dies. These evaluations include the ridiculous technique of poking a dog through the wire cage with a pointer or a rubber hand to see if the dog will bite. These dogs are already in incredibly stressful situations. They are isolated from physical contact most of the day, surrounded by many other stressed out animals and enveloped by a thick cloud of stress pheromones. They’re scared, confused… and then someone pokes at them with a rubber hand on a stick! I think I would bite, too.
Additionally, some of these shelters do some obedience training with the dogs. While it’s good start and their intentions are noble, they have the misguided notion that training is akin to programming. Nothing could be further from the truth. The bulk of the training should occur after the adoption, so the dog and the adopter can develop a relationship of trust with each other. They don’t need programming; they need to learn to become lifelong friends. You can’t teach that to a dog before he finds his home.
Another problem with many shelters is the incredibly difficult adoption process. The amount of economic and logistical conditions that have to be met to adopt an animal are often unrealistic and unnecessary. Even a less than ideal living situation is far, far better than to live in a kennel on a cement floor with maybe an hour of human contact a day. I usually ask, would the shelter itself pass its own criteria?
Working with the animal and the adopter after they are together make more sense. There is always a period of time where the dog and the person have to learn about each other. This is when a good shelter should offer follow-up support. The faster an animal gets out of the kennel and into a home, the greater the chance for a successful and lifelong friendship to form. Each day the dog remains in a cage the more institutionalized he becomes.
I am not going to go into the debate over kill shelters vs. no-kill shelters. For me, there is no debate. Killing is not rescuing. The argument that no-kill shelters become over-crowded is a myth. If the shelter is committed, every animal finds a home as quickly as possible. Killing, or as the proponents of kill shelters call “humanely euthanizing”, is small-minded, archaic, and just plain lazy. I once heard a prominent director of a well known animal shelter in New York say that they “…don’t kill animals, they gently euthanize them.” Talk about a spin job!
There are so many ways a good shelter can help adopt out animals to great homes. Posting pictures on social media is not enough. That’s too passive. There needs to be a concerted effort to reach out, treated with the same vigor as fundraising. I remember when I was the director of the Pennsylvania SPCA branches, we would hit the phones all the time. “Smiling and Dialing”, a phrase I borrowed from my wife, an executive recruiter, is what I called it. We would call former adopters, people who visited the shelter (we always had them leave names and phone numbers for this reason), and even cold-call. At times we were there until 11 p.m. doing outreach. If these folks weren’t interested at that time in adopting, we’d put them in the pipeline (another word borrowed from my wife) to call at a later date. Sitting back and praying for people to come to us was not the way to rescue animals. We had to work hard and always had to reach out. It paid off greatly.
And follow-up counseling for the adopter is vital. This needs to be done with compassion for both the animal and the person. I had set up a 24-hour hotline at the PSPCA branches that people could call to ask questions and get advice about any issues they might experience. (It was actually my personal cell phone, and I remember speaking with people at 1 a.m. at times! My wife was not too happy about that.) We also offered as much one-on-one consulting and training as they needed. We did anything to ensure that the people and their new friends would have deep and successful friendships. It takes devotion to the mission, and there is no room for egos or laziness.
The goal of every animal shelter should be to ultimately make themselves obsolete. They should have the attitude and the passion to find each animal a home, and to help their community realize what a precious resource our dogs and cats are, so there will no longer be abuse or abandonment. This includes continuous outreach, education, and collaboration with other rescue organizations in the area. The shelter must become a resource for people to turn to and learn from, not just a disposal unit for unwanted pets. If a shelter can help its community to become better friends to their dogs and cats, then it can happily close its doors one day because it’s no longer needed, going the way of the orphanages. Wouldn’t that be a great “twist” to the shelter situation?