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Living with Kudzu

If you've never lived in the South, you might not be familiar with kudzu. It’s a vine that was brought to the U.S. from China in the late 1800s and planted throughout the South as an erosion control device.The root of the kudzu vine takes hold in relatively shallow dirt and then begins to spread across the ground ... and over fence posts and barns and outbuildings and abandoned autos and trucks and tractors and trees and bushes and, if they don’t move fast enough, over the top of lethargic people and animals. In fact, kudzu grows at the rate of a foot a day. Highway maintenance crews mow the shoulders of roads to push back encroaching kudzu only to find that the creeper is halfway to the center yellow line by midweek.

Kudzu is incredibly resistant to any type of herbicide—once it’s introduced, you’re basically stuck with the stuff. You can’t eat, wear, smoke, chew, or do much of anything with kudzu. Only recently have creative artisans found that kudzu vines can be woven into attractive baskets and wreaths—but there’s a limit to how many anyone would want. Plus, there is probably a basic fear among those of us who have grown up with kudzu that the darn stuff may not really be dead and will steal out of the wreath in the middle of the night and strangle us while we sleep.

So what does kudzu have to do with running an animal shelter? Here’s what. Many established animal care and control agencies and humane organizations are finding they are much like the weathered barns that have stood for years and are now being “overtaken” by something, or someone: animal activists, breed placement groups, and even their own boards. These “interlopers,” as they are too often thought of by some in our field, are about as welcome as kudzu in some circles. They seem to move in and spread throughout the community at a surprising rate, and they are highly resistant to any efforts to control them.

But instead of looking on all these newcomers as a pesky weed, some organizations are reaching out to them to form coalitions. Many municipal agencies now have “Friends Of” groups working to generate money and community support for the shelter. In Denver, 13 area animal agencies have formed an alliance that meets monthly and works together on a wide variety of projects and programs—from joint adoptathons to media outreach.

Inviting people who have been critical of your operations into your agency isn’t easy. But instead of thinking of your detractors only in terms of their suffocating and enveloping qualities, look at their positive kudzu qualities. Many neglected barns in the South would have crumbled into piles of dust if kudzu vines, woven throughout the boards and mortar of the buildings, hadn’t held them together. And although kudzu was allowed to grow out of control, its original purpose of providing erosion control saved millions of tons of topsoil that would otherwise have ended up in river and creek beds or been flushed out into the ocean during the area’s torrential summer storms. Without the barn and the topsoil (both of which were rescued by the kudzu), the farmer would be out of business altogether.

The viability of any agency depends on its ability to change with the times, to move forward, and to create and sustain lasting change. In our currently depressed economy, we have an even greater need to work with rather than against one another to turn the tide of animal homelessness and animal cruelty. Remember two things about kudzu: It can only overtake you if you are standing still, and in the right hands it can be woven into a sturdy basket to hold all sorts of delightful things—a lot like our critics.

Martha C. Armstrong
HSUS Senior Vice President for
Companion Animals and Equine Protection


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