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Making Your Voice—and Your Money—Count: Some Tips from an Animal Welfare Professional

If you’re like a lot of people—and you’re reading this blog—you love animals.  Or at least, animals of your species of choice, be it dogs, cats, horses or exotics.  You want to do right by your own pets, and also by pets everywhere.  You want to see well-run animal control services that keep communities safe, help stray or abandoned critters and maintain humane, caring facilities.  You want to help rescue homeless, abused or neglected pets.  Maybe you’d like to donate to some worthy cause.  When you do, here are five tips for making an effective difference in the lives of our companion animals.


1.  Lead by example.  Your local animal shelter—whether a government agency, private 501(c)3 animal welfare group or private rescue—is overwhelmed, under-staffed and under-funded.   At the humane society where I work, one third of all dogs brought to us don’t need to be there.  They’re not homeless, neglected or abused; they’re Buddy and Daisy who went for a wander without their collar and tags on.  They’re owned—happily owned—and beloved pets.  They should be home.  But we have to spend a ridiculous amount of time, energy and resources trying to reunite them with an (often frantic) owner because the dogs got out of the yard nekkid.  A functional flat-buckle collar costs a few bucks; an engraved tag a few more.  If your dog is “dressed,” your neighbors and Good Samaritans will call you directly instead of involving the hassle of law enforcement or a trip to the pound.  For less than $20 bucks, your dog has a much higher chance of getting home safe, you don’t have to pay impound fees or fines, and I can spend my day working with the dogs that really, really do need my help:  homeless pets that need new homes.  So be part of the solution instead of part of the problem:  collar and tags, period.


2.  License your dogs.  Not only do the revenues from licensing support vital animal control services, licensing gives pet owners political credibility when they want changes to their animal control system.  A Board of Supervisors or City Council is far more likely to attend to animal issues if they know that they have 1000 licensed dog owners in their community rather than 22.  If everyone in the community blows off licensing, it sends a message:  pet owners don’t care that much about being responsible.  And if they don’t care that much, why should local government make it a priority?  Possibly the best model we have for effective animal control/welfare services comes from Calgary, Alberta CA—the Calgary Model.  Core to their success is an over 90% compliance with licensing.  It works.  It sends the right message.  It’s the responsible thing to do.  So, in keeping with the spirit of #1license your dogs.  Just do it.


3.  Look before you donate. Anyone—and oh boy have I seen some doozies in the anyone category—can throw together a website or Facebook page, post some Pitiful Animal Pictures, tell you how much they loooove animals and ask for your money.  Anyone can call themselves a “rescue” or a “sanctuary.”  Really.  They don’t need a stamp of approval from some national group, they don’t need accreditation, they don’t need to know one end of a dog from the other and until the Health Department or Animal Control gets called, they can beg money on their sites and “rescue” away.  These individuals can range from the expert and honest to the well-intended and incompetent to outright animal hoarders keeping animals in appalling conditions.  Telling them apart based on Facebook, a website or even meeting them at an Adoption Event is virtually impossible.  They will all say they love animals and you know what—they do!  They really do.  Being around animals makes them all feel warm and fuzzy, releases oxytocin and puts stars in their eyes.  Even the outright hoarders love their animals. 


Alas, love is not a good indicator of proper care, knowledge or expertise.  If love was all that mattered, I’d be tearing up the Ladies Golf Tour instead of sending golf balls in awful directions.  Seriously—I love golf.  I also suck at it, so before you hit my GoFundMe button for a new set of clubs, you might want to take a closer look at my swing. 


So, how to tell where to put your hard-earned donation?  My best suggestion is—if you want to donate locally, and I hope you do—go look.  If the group has a facility, go visit.  If the rescue keeps their animals at a particular location, ask to come for a visit.  For private rescues and small, entirely volunteer operated groups, you will need to make an appointment—most likely you will be going to someone’s private property and many of them work regular jobs.  And you may have to do a little persuading, because not everyone who loves animals likes people, and they can be keeping excellent care of the critters and still be grouchy about visiting humans.  And, of course, you won’t be welcome if you seem weird or dangerous. 


All that said, you are offering to donate your money to support the care of the animals.  Please go see how the animals are actually being cared for.  If you like what you see, give them your donation.  If you don’t, don’t.  If they won’t let you see, donate elsewhere.


What to look for or ask:

How many animals do you see?  Are there two “rescue dogs” mixed in with ten personal pets and the food you plan to donate will be eaten by which…?  How long have the individual animals been there?   Where are they kept?  How many people work or volunteer there, and are there enough of people to give all of the animals quality attention, including socialization, training, exercise and play opportunities?   What vaccinations and veterinary care do they receive?


Ask if they keep statistics, and what those statistics are.  Any well-run group, regardless of type, should keep accurate records of every single animal that comes into their care:  when it came, from where and where it went or what happened to it.  They should be able to tell you, “We’ve taken in a total 14 dogs so far this year, 9 have been adopted, 2 are in private foster for medical/behavior rehab and we have these 3 up for adoption now…”   


What you should worry about:  “We’ve taken in 35, we’ve adopted 2 and we have to take 10 more next week or they’ll all die die die…!”  A group that is chronically and seriously exceeding their realistic capacity to provide humane care to their current residents and hasn’t demonstrated in cold hard numbers the ability to adopt out the animals they take in is heading into disaster.  That’s a group that’s trying to save all dog everywhere while keeping the ones they already have in substandard, stressful conditions right now. 


Any well-run animal rescue will be keenly aware of the Five Freedoms of animal welfare and be striving to the limits of their resources to meet them on a daily basis for each and every animal in their care.


The Five Freedoms:

1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst - by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor.

2. Freedom from Discomfort - by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.

3. Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease - by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.

4. Freedom to Express Normal Behavior - by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal's own kind.

5. Freedom from Fear and Distress - by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.


As in any field, there are likeable people who are very passionate about what they do, who have been doing it a very long time--and who aren’t actually that good at it.  Quality care of animals isn’t about being likeable, passionate or wanting to do good—it’s about the quality of care provided to the animals.  So… look at the animals, not the website or the people.  Look before you donate.


4.  Don’t be misled by the label “No-Kill.”  The stereotypical “crazy cat lady” who has 60 cats in her trailer can call herself a “No-Kill” rescue—she wouldn’t dream of euthanizing any of her kitties.  They’re all having kittens or may be dying slowly of awful diseases, but she wouldn’t kill them.  Yikes.


The fact that a group touts themselves as “No-Kill” isn’t any indication of genuine caring or quality; the fact that an open-admission animal control facility has to perform euthanasia doesn’t make them uncaring or wretched.   Some “no-kill” groups obtain their animals from “kill” facilities by taking all the young, cute, highly adoptable dogs and leaving behind the sick, old, difficult and dangerous to their fates.  This is actually a collaboration that can work very well, insuring that all the healthy adoptable pets do get homes by divide-and-conquer with the best use of resources.  But it only works if we’re honest and transparent:  if my Love-A-Dog Rescue takes all your “pound’s” cute sweet dogs and leaves you nothing but Cujos, thinking Love-A-Dog is superior to The Pound is flat garbage. 


Between networking with “No-Kills,” collaborating with rescues and running their own adoptions programs, many “pounds” achieve remarkable save rates.  The fact that they can’t for various practical and technical reasons promote themselves as “No-Kill” doesn’t mean they aren’t doing great work.


To evaluate any group’s true performance, get the numbers:  1) their resources/budget, 2) their statistics—number of animal intakes and what the outcomes were and 3) the total population/service area they’re expected to take care of.  Bottom line is the bottom line—we get what we pay for.  If an animal control agency is given no budget, no staff, and asked to provide services for thousands of animals yearly, they need help and more resources, not criticism.  If the budget and resources are sound, the live release rate should reflect it—if it doesn’t, then yes, management or policies do need to be addressed.   But regardless of the terminology used, a solid live release rate is good no matter what the group is called.  Don’t be misled by the label “No-Kill.” 


5.  Forget love, talk votes. If you have a need or occasion to get political for animals—to speak, for example, to local authorities like your City Council about changes you’d like to see, the Righteous Soapbox of Compassion might be the wrong platform to stand on.  I hate to say it, but not everyone loves dogs like we do.  Not everyone cares like we do.  Your City Council probably really doesn’t want to hear about how much you love dogs or how and why we should be kind to animals.  Because, honestly, everyone has an agenda and they’ve already heard from the people who love trees, love birds, love roses, love books, love… and the reverse, the people who hate the danged trees, pooing birds, thorny roses and controversial books.  Going that route is a sure recipe for debate and somebody will certainly trump your concerns about the dogs with bigger ticket items like crime or kids.  My recommendation is—short, sweet and clear not about how you feel, but what you plan to do.  It goes something like this:


Me:  Hi, City Council, I’m a responsible pet owner, my dog is licensed, spayed and vaccinated.   As a responsible pet owner, I’m concerned about __________.  I’d like to know your position/what you plan to do.  I need to know, first, what I can do to help be part of the solution and second, what your individual position is so I’ll know who to vote for and tell all my dog-loving friends and family to vote for in the next election.

Council Member:  grumble grumble about budget, economy, crime and kids

Me:  Oh golly, I know times are hard and how difficult it is to allocate resources… I just need to know where you stand so I can allocate my voting resources to the thing I care about the most.

Council Member:  grumble grumble about making danged dogs more important than people

Me:  Oh fiddle-dee-dee, it’s not really about dogs, you know?  It’s about me and how I feel and how I vote.  I’ve lived here for ___ years and I believe our fine city should be committed to excellence in all areas—golly, if we can’t manage a pound, how could we possibly manage crime, kids or the rose bushes?  If I can’t rely on you to find a better solution for the city’s puppies and kittens, I’m not sure you’re the right person to vote for to tackle crime and kids.  So you see, it isn’t about dogs, it’s about people and excellence in job performance and city services…


The point is, you may not be able to persuade anyone in government to love dogs like we do—or to see the moral, ethical or other concerns that we see--and trying to bring them around to that is probably a trap.  What you can easily persuade them of is that you are a person with a vote who will vote your convictions if your concerns are not addressed—and your concerns are not just “dogs” but what the issue has to say about their competency and commitment to excellence.  Forget love, talk votes will put your concerns in the political language that matters most to them.

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