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In a classically cold winter morning in Chicago, pet owners held their dogs and cats close as they huddled into our new Pets for Life Center. They were patiently waiting to sign up for spay/neuter and veterinary checkups, provided at no cost to them. As people waited, they scratched their pets’ bellies and gave plenty of loving looks to the creatures who brighten their lives—perhaps, on that day, feeling a sense of pride and relief that they were able to do something beneficial and healthy for their beloved companions.
For too long, our first impulse in the animal welfare field has been to view most of the public with suspicion—wondering not what they will do right, but what they might do wrong. Why haven’t they already spayed their cats and dogs? Will they tether them outside in the cold? Will they one day relinquish their animals to a shelter?
Of course, that thinking is sometimes justified. Animals are vulnerable, and they need people looking out for their interests. Anyone involved in our field knows there are careless people out there who do not properly value animals, and selfish people who can’t be bothered to do the right thing. And sadly, there are even a small number of wicked people. Our anti-cruelty laws are reserved for them.
But the people who trekked through snow and ice to get to our Chicago center that morning—and the thousands more who sign up for pet services when our teams knock on their doors, or the ones who eagerly come to our community events in Atlanta, Los Angeles and Philadelphia—are not among those people. Time and again, when we offer people services for their animals, they show up, excited to give their pets the care they deserve.
We started our Pets for Life (PFL) program with that simple premise: that the low spay/neuter rates in poor communities stem more from a lack of services and information than from any lack of compassion or care.
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Our program meets people where they are, without judgments, and supports them on the path to becoming better caregivers for their pets. The program focuses on caring for people as much as for their animals. We share information from a place of respect and trust, strengthening not just the care animals receive, but the human-animal bond itself.
The data from the first few years of the PFL program has validated our strategy. Operating in areas with spay/neuter rates that average just 9 percent, our teams have been able to empower three out of four pet owners they meet to get their pets fixed. They’ve done it not through threats or reprimands, but through reducing the financial and geographical barriers to spay/neuter and meeting people with open hearts and minds.
To me, the success of PFL holds a broader lesson for the animal welfare community, and especially for everyone on the front lines at shelters and rescue groups: We need to start treating the public as allies, and not as adversaries and perpetrators.
A few years ago, Dan Heath, co-author of Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, delivered a talk at Animal Care Expo in Nashville. He explained how so often what looks like a “people problem” is really a “situation problem.” He argued convincingly that instead of blaming people for bad habits, like not getting a dog spayed, we should look at how we can change their situations to make spaying the default behavior.
Pets for Life represents not just a new program, but a shift in thought and attitude. We think that the premise behind the program is a fundamental principle in the work we do for animal protection.