August 14, 2017
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In 2008, I was the director of operations at a small but mighty animal shelter in New Hampshire, at a time when animal welfare work in New England was undergoing an enormous transformation. We no longer needed to euthanize healthy and adoptable animals. We were developing creative solutions for treatable pets, addressing animal cruelty in the community and promoting owner-support programs. Hounds and pit bull-type dogs were our canine focus (likely explaining my lifelong love for both groups). Ten years ago, there were ongoing debates around the placement of pit bull-type dogs and we found enormous success placing them into loving homes in our small, rural community. It was empowering and gratifying work.
And then I moved to accept a new position at a new organization. Both it and my previous organization were open-admission, had expert staff and strong supporters, but one took in 2,200 animals a year while the other received 30,000 or more. I was quickly fast-tracked into a variety of operational responsibilities, including a shift performing humane euthanasia. Previously, I had created programs for pit bull-type dogs and placed many of them successfully. But now, I stood in a room euthanizing dogs who looked like the ones I helped find new homes. Not for lack of space or available adopters but because local law dictated it. The city’s breed-specific legislation (a ban on pit bull-type dogs) is one of the oldest in the country and still stands today. We worked tirelessly to create better outcomes for these dogs—foster homes, transfers to our partners throughout the state—but while we focused on saving as many as possible, the law stood firm, leading to more unnecessary deaths.
I lived just outside the city limits and would foster pit bull-type dogs until space opened up with one of our transport partners. It was a profoundly arbitrary limitation: Just outside the city limits, a dog lived, legally. Just inside, and they either had to jump through hoops to find homes or be humanely euthanized by animal shelter staff.
I was angry at this geographic lottery game. Born in one city, a dog had every chance. Born or living in another, she did not. I was even angrier that it was not a lack of resources or homes that ended their lives, but words on a piece of paper.
I had a master’s degree in animals & public policy, but it wasn’t until I was euthanizing adoptable dogs that I understood the implications of policy on our ability to save lives. I moved back to New Hampshire and dove into elevating the placement of pit bull-type dogs. While I strongly believe that animal shelter employees should not carry the burden of performing euthanasia, I knew my dedication to placing pit bull-type dogs in New England was a coping skill to offset leftover anger and grief from my previous position.
Back in New Hampshire, I found myself performing euthanasia again, this time on otherwise healthy cats who tested positive for feline leukemia (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). Once again, these decisions were not based on adoptability or available homes, but because of the interpretation of two words in a New Hampshire law: “contagious illness.” The law stated that animal shelters and rescues could place only animals without contagious illnesses, and it was determined that cats with FeLV and FIV were contagious and thus banned from transfer into homes or across state lines. It was the law—even though new research showed that FIV, in particular, was incredibly difficult to transmit between cats. As the placement of hospice animals increased, I felt cats with FeLV deserved the same chance as the 15-year-old dog with terminal cancer. If there were loving homes for these cats, then why were we euthanizing them?
I couldn’t stop the breed ban, but I wasn’t going to stand by as cats needlessly died. As luck would have it, I left animal sheltering and joined The Humane Society of the United States as the New Hampshire state director. Now, a significant part of my job is literally to work to change laws to protect animals. The animal shelters made it a priority to lift the ban on placing FeLV and FIV positive cats. We worked with veterinarians and the Department of Agriculture and began raising awareness among the state’s 424 legislators and, in 2017, we had our opportunity. The HSUS’ attorneys drafted the exemption and it would take the addition of only eight words to save those cats’ lives.
We had no known opposition, but I knew from experience that it wouldn’t pass without support from constituents. There would be confusion among legislators, who would question whether FIV was contagious to humans. There would be a lack of motivation to pass it due to competing state issues. There would be concerns that the change was coming through the state budget process, a complex document with hundreds of pages of nuances. We worked every day from January through May until a Senate committee removed the exemption and asked us to try again in 2018.
Waiting another year meant more cats would die. With only two weeks left in the legislative session, we could either give up or we could pile on the pressure. “Advocacy” is our euphemism for “pressure,” and the state’s animal shelters were ready to apply it effectively. The HSUS sent out an action alert and almost every shelter in the state posted the same alert to their Facebook pages. Legislators received more emails and phone calls about these cats than any other issue in the state budget. Jokes were made in committee meetings about “the cats on death row” which caught the attention of the Associated Press and the rest, as they say, is history.
The exemption was put back in two days before the end of the legislative session and went into effect on July 1st of this year. Since that time, at least six cats have been saved. Animal shelter staff no longer dread waiting for a few blue dots to show up on a medical test. They can make responsible placement decisions without the fear of breaking a law.
Policy is relentless. It’s complicated. It’s boring—until it isn’t. Until it saves lives.
I was in your shoes once. I know how incredibly busy you are every single day doing everything you can to help animals in your communities. I know how much time it takes to drive to the state capitol and testify. I know that calling state legislators in your shelter’s geographic area can take an entire afternoon. But policy is impacting your work whether you respond to it or not, and the only way we will see change is if enough people speak up and contact their elected officials. Cats with FeLV and FIV were saved because of Facebook posts. Your HSUS state director is here to help you, to support your work and monitor legislation that will impact your programs and the animals you serve. We know your state legislature inside and out. Reach out and ask questions. Commit one volunteer to track what’s happening. Choose one issue to get involved in and stay committed. Share one action alert with your supporters.
Together, and only together, we can create a framework to protect all animals.