“I wish he/she could go to a foster home rather than a shelter.” I hear this often from fellow animal care professionals and volunteers in my work with nearly 300 shelters and rescues nationwide to place victims of cruelty and neglect from HSUS and HSI cases. While there are animals who certainly benefit from a foster home environment, I believe there are just as many benefits for an animal in a well-run animal shelter.
I direct the Emergency Placement Partner (EPP) program for The HSUS. Recently, I helped place 200 dogs from Korean meat farms with our shelter and rescue partners. Through this process, I have seen extraordinary medical and behavioral transformations happen at animal shelters. Many of the dogs coming from Korea have no idea how to be dogs. They may never have experienced a kind hand or fresh water. It is absolutely heartbreaking to consider what they have been through.
Rocky, a brindle mastiff, flew from Korea to Orlando. He, along with 35 other dogs, went to the Humane Society of Vero Beach and Indian River County, which allowed us to use their beautiful facility as a temporary shelter for the entire group.
Rocky was completely shut down on arrival. He would not make eye contact and getting him out of his crate was an ordeal. Staff and volunteers felt incredibly sad for Rocky. We all agreed—he was damaged; certainly, Rocky would need “long-term” foster care.
Enter the Humane Society of Broward County. Mary Steffen and her team swooped into Vero Beach to pick up a group of the Korean dogs to take into their program. Rocky was one of the dogs assigned to them. We gave them the rundown that ended with, “Are you sure you want to take him into your program? He may need a long-term foster home.” I said it, I admit it. Mary explained that her behaviorists would work with Rocky and were excited to begin the process. She was completely confident that her team would turn Rocky around. He left the building. Two weeks later I received an adoption picture of Rocky and his new family, confidently posing for the picture with his new 140-pound Great Dane brother.
Here is the thing: The field of animal sheltering has come a long way. I visited 3 animal shelters during my trip to Florida. I saw cat housing that was open, warm and inviting. Dogs were fed from puzzles to keep them busy; medical clinics expanded to accommodate the community animals and compassionate, innovative staff. There were play yards, a wide variety of enrichment items, volunteers, community education and excellent customer service. Descriptions on cage cards included personalities but lacked breed. In my three days at the Vero Beach facility, staff had animals in their offices and adoption counselors sat with people and discussed which pets would fit their lifestyle.
The very next week a tiny puppy, Louis, was flown to D.C. from Korea. He was smaller than his littermates and had some type of underlying health concern. He was scheduled to go to one of our incredible rescue partners, Pawfect Match Rescue in North Carolina, but there was an “issue.” The director of shelter operations at Virginia Beach SPCA (VBSCPCA) fell in love with Louis on transport and asked to adopt him. Jenny’s connection to Louis was instant and of course, Pawfect Match agreed to the adoption. Jenny checked Louis immediately into the clinic at VBSPCA. Staff got to work to identify what was affecting Louis and he was diagnosed with a serious blood infection. Thanks to the care of the experts at VBSPCA clinic, Louis made a full recovery!
Not every shelter has the resources of the shelters I’ve cited, but I still see the same traits in open admission rural shelters nationwide through my disaster work. Animals are transferred by caring staff who have trouble letting go. They have grown attached to the animals and planned to see them to their final homes. In most cases, the animals are sent with behavior and medical notes. When I send adoption pictures and stories back to staff, there is so much gratitude and in some cases, tears. The structure of an animal shelter does not define it; the staff does.
Now I hope that you can understand why the statement, “He doesn’t belong in a shelter” makes me cringe. Despite major advancements of community animal shelters (public and private), that stigma is still hanging on. I would like for us all to work together to remove it. We can do it. Let’s talk more about the work you, the animal shelter staff, are doing. I know that you are insanely busy juggling animal care and the needs of the community, but you are doing extraordinary things! You may see your days as ordinary, but I can assure you—they are not. Tweet it, post it on Facebook and invite your favorite media outlet for a visit and profile a special case. While you have them, show them what you are doing to provide enrichment to increase your animals’ adoptability. Talk about your staff! Let animal advocates and rescue groups get to know them. They are incredible! Invite local officials (your sheriff, legislators, the mayor, etc.) to your events and fill them in on your accomplishments—and needs.
I am not saying that every shelter has evolved and has a perfect staff. But we can continue to move in that direction by lifting up our shelters and celebrating their good work. Let’s pull the entire animal welfare movement into our community shelters. They should be the cornerstone of animal welfare in every community, the first point of rescue. Don’t get me wrong here, the HSUS Emergency Placement Partner program has incredible foster-based rescue groups, and some animals truly do not belong in a shelter environment for a variety of reasons. But let’s put a stop to the stigma floating around that animal shelters are not as capable of solving problems. The majority create a loving and productive healing environment for the animals. It is up to us, the animal welfare community, to spread the word.