When I was a kid, every day after school, my mother would pick me up and drop me off at the Bahamas Humane Society where I bathed dogs, cleaned kennels and scooped litter boxes.
I enjoyed being with the animals and helping. When we moved to Houston in 1980, then a young teenager, I found a local animal shelter, Citizens for Animal Protection, where I continued to volunteer. This is where I started to develop an understanding of animal welfare and the role of animal shelters in a community.
At that time, it was estimated that as many as 17 million homeless dogs and cats were euthanized in America’s animal shelters. Most animal shelters in large urban areas were simply warehouses, or holding facilities, where surplus dogs and cats were housed and cared for until they were humanely euthanized.
In the 1990s, attention turned from building bigger and better warehouses for unwanted dogs and cats to preventing homeless animals from being born. The concept of high-quality, high-volume spaying and neutering started to take hold and local humane societies started opening large and highly efficient spay and neuter clinics across the United States.
National animal welfare organizations, like Cleveland Amory’s The Fund for Animals, deployed resources to build and operate mobile spay and neuter clinics to address targeted spay / neuter needs in the inner-cities of Houston, Los Angeles and New York, and in remote or rural areas like the Navajo Nation. There was a shift from building bigger and better shelters to house more animals to efforts that focused on preventing homeless puppies and kittens from ever being born in the first place.
As our compassion toward other animals expands and our values as a society evolve, we are experiencing another shift in animal welfare. We once saw humane societies work from a “policing model,” where animal shelters were built to protect animals from harm by people.
Today we are seeing a move by some animal shelters to more of a “social service model” where it is viewed that an animal shelter’s role in the community is to work with families who already have pets become better pet owners and guardians. Developing “safety net programs” helps to keep pets who already have homes, safe, in those homes, and out of local animal shelters. Safety net programs are also called relinquishment intervention programs because the services are designed to provide the public with an alternative to giving up their pet when the public experiences a solvable problem.
The animal safety net in a community might include providing emergency vet care when a family is faced with an unplanned veterinary bill with a sick or injured pet, or providing temporary pet food when a family, due to a job loss or other obstacle, finds itself unable to buy dog or cat food supplies. Safety net programs also include behavior consulting and dog training programs to provide assistance with a training need, like fence jumping or excessive barking, when providing those services can keep the pet in the home and out of the shelter.
Imagine, as a prospective adopter for a dog or cat, you walk into an animal shelter that is brightly colored, quiet and smells clean. You see dogs peacefully lounging on beds, happily chewing away on food-stuffed puzzle toys, or sitting calmly at the front of their kennels wagging hello at every passer-by. The cats are either curled up in beds on elevated platforms or batting at dangling catnip toys.
You see volunteers busily training dogs throughout the facility and cat cuddlers are patiently teaching young, playful cats to retract their claws before getting over-excited. This scenario is a dream for animal shelter and this type of shelter people will travel for miles to visit, clamoring to adopt the friendly, well-trained resident dogs and cats.
We want to dispel the myth that animal shelters are unwelcoming to visitors and are depressing for animal residents. We do not want the animal shelter to be the place where people come to stare at endless rows of homeless pet in cages. Rather, we want modern day animal shelters to be the place where best practices around human-animal interaction are showcased. We want the shelter to be inviting and educational. We want shelter visitors to have a role in the welfare and well-being of animals as part of a socialization team or as an adopters.
Today’s humane society should exist to raise the bar and help people do better with pets. We believe that the tide rises all ships and when we empower people and communities to do better with pets, either with education and training or by providing direct services like veterinary care or pet adoptions, animals become a more important part of the family. When animals are viewed as family members, and not disposable commodities that you can easily dump at a shelter, the human-animal bond is enhanced and that status of pets in the community overall is elevated. When the community cares more about pets, fewer pets end up homeless in an animal shelter.
I believe that animals matter. From pre-historic times to today, animals have been an inextricable part of human society. In our own lifetime, we have seen dogs and cats move from back yards and barn yards to living rooms and bedrooms and even into sleeping with us under the covers in our beds.
The role of animal shelters is evolving, too. From the 70’s and 80’s where, in cinderblock warehouses, as many animals as possible were gathered up and euthanized, to today, where modern facilities are painstakingly designed to be centers of excellence and places that the community goes to learn about and see best practice approaches for people and animals interacting together.
As societies’ views on animals and animal welfare have shifted over time, views on the role of animal shelters have evolved as well. Many people no longer see animals as commodities, as something that is ours to use or exploit. Many people today believe that animals are individuals with whom we share the planet, deserving of caring and compassion.
If we can open our hearts and homes to dogs and cats, is it really that far of a stretch to extend the same caring and hope to other animals with which we share the world?