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Finding common ground

How one dog’s case inspired a rescuer to set labels aside

From Animal Sheltering magazine September/October 2015

When Jessi arrived at Black Dog Animal Rescue, she was sweet and playful, but also aggressive toward people and other dogs.Much like the animals themselves, advocates working to save lives are all in this business together, and they would do well to set aside their differences.

A couple of years ago I had the great fortune to meet a dog we called Jessi when she was taken in by our group, Black Dog Animal Rescue. She had amazing, flying-nun ears and a distinctive not-quite-black color. She was sweet, she was busy, she was playful and funny. And she was very dangerous.

Who knows what life events Jessi had endured in her short time prior to coming to us—but whatever they were, the damage was deep. She was reactive toward other dogs and prone to aggressive outbursts. She was at turns fearful of and aggressive toward people and would sometimes charge at them, hackles raised and teeth bared.

Exercising caution, I took her to public events with the rest of our adoption team in an effort to help her get accustomed to public outings. She and I would set ourselves far back from the crowds at events while I rewarded her for calm behavior with treats and praise. Together, we slowly built up her confidence so she could remain safe and happy in these busy and sometimes unfamiliar settings. In the meantime, we looked everywhere for help. We contacted other rescue groups and shelters with renowned behavior programs— none of them could offer her a spot in their program. We called sanctuaries and were told that dogs who could not get along with others were not good candidates for placement. We read hundreds of pages of training and behavior modification books and tried our best to implement them with her.

Eventually, after more than a year as a foster dog in my home, Jessi seemed to turn a corner. Something finally seemed to give. Jessi began to look like a dog who someone might actually be able to adopt. And one day, someone did.

But this story isn’t one of those that tell how perseverance actually worked for her, and how an organization deeply committed to the idea that every dog can be saved helped facilitate a miraculous turnaround. Six months after she was adopted, Jessi turned on her companion dog and very nearly mauled him to death.

Jessi’s family was traumatized, hurt and afraid. They couldn’t bring themselves to bring her back into their home. Six months after she was adopted, and probably many, many months after I should have done it in the first place, I took Jessi myself and had her put to sleep. I held her in my arms and let her lick my face and bid her, this dog I loved and who I could not save, goodbye.

Re-evaluating It All

In the weeks that followed, my career in animal welfare nearly came to an end. Not only was the loss of Jessi a soul-crushing experience, the decision to end her life made me question my own belief system.

The definition of “no-kill” I’ve long subscribed to has allowed me to euthanize dogs in the past. I could do so in good conscience as long as the dog was sick or injured beyond hope of recovery, or vicious to the point of being unsafe for the public. I could justify Jessi’s death, and many people would support the decision I made. But I still had to ask myself if I had really done everything I could, if she could have been rehabilitated if I’d only found the right person to help.

Many months later, when my panic attacks subsided and I no longer had to pull the car to the side of the road when grief suddenly overtook me, I asked myself other questions. “How many other dogs died while I fought for those 18 months to save Jessi?” “Would it have been fair to any other organization, or to her, to transfer her in order to let someone else try to figure it out?” “What if I had actually quit and walked away after this—what would happen to all the people and animals I might still help?”

Did I back myself into a corner by subscribing to an organizational philosophy that prevented me from seeing our limitations? Was my judgment over her care clouded by worries about what people might think of me, or the organization I worked so hard to build, when a dog we’d committed to ended up dead after all? Could I still look my colleagues in the eye and confidently tell them, “We’re no-kill; we only euthanize in the most extreme of circumstances”? What if Jessi’s issues didn’t seem so extreme to them?

The questions made me realize that there’s a dark side to the politics of animal sheltering, one that draws a false line between those who believe in no-kill and those who do not. An industry built around a daily struggle to care for, find homes for and stem the tide of incoming homeless animals has enough to do without having to face off across a philosophical divide with would-be partners in our mission. We would be far better off to get rid of the labels and instead focus on the ways in which we can support like-minded organizations that strive to meet industry best practices within the realities of our respective capabilities.

Philosophical Differences?

There are no shortages of blog posts, websites and informational materials available to explain the fundamental parameters of the no-kill movement. In its most widely accepted version, the definition of no-kill means that an agency, organization or community achieves a collective live-release rate greater than 90 percent.

At its face value, that seems pretty straightforward; in practice, not so much. This is because the term used to identify this “save 90 percent or more” movement is in itself misleading. How can you be “no-kill,” but still kill? Advocates will tell you it’s not “killing” but humane euthanasia, a relief of suffering—but other shelters with lower live-release rates will say the same about their own statistics.

Any organization that repeatedly demonstrates a commitment to bettering the lives of the people and pets it serves, that adheres to the basic tenets of humane animal sheltering reflected in the Five Freedoms, that can inspire others to make humane choices like adoption or spay/neuter, deserves the respect of its peers.

Many no-kill advocates will say all animals can be saved. They’ll rally around that paradigm and make it the clear call to action for all would-be progressive shelters. But, as a co-worker of mine recently pointed out, those rallying cries come with an asterisk: Everyone can be no-kill! All of the animals can be saved!* (*Except in the cases of the 10 percent or fewer animals deemed nonrehabilitatable.)

At its core, the no-kill movement is based on the philosophy that every life entrusted to the care of the sheltering organization is precious beyond replacement, and that we should pursue every possible effort to ensure a live outcome for that animal. This philosophy has been instrumental in shaping the animal welfare landscape into what it is today.

At Black Dog Animal Rescue, we work with a lot of animal shelters. Since our rescue doesn’t accept surrendered pets from the public, we have to create partnerships with shelters to assist them where they need help. Sure, there are still too many shelters out there that have a lot of catching up to do to bring their operations into the 21st century, but this is not about those shelters (their numbers are diminishing anyway). This is about the other shelters, the ones we work with that are struggling every day to care for the animals, but even with their best efforts are still not “no-kill.”

Here’s the thing I’ve learned about these shelters: Their boards, staff and volunteers also operate on the guiding principle that every single life entrusted to their care is precious beyond replacement, and that every possible effort to ensure a live outcome for those animals should be pursued. These progressive shelters are doing everything within their means to pursue proven lifesaving programs.

Is it possible that, regardless of whether we call ourselves no-kill or not, we as an industry are actually mostly on the same page? Do we believe in the power of the same programs, in harnessing the compassion and responsibility of the communities we serve, in our ability to do more good as a team, and in the moral responsibility to care for each animal as an individual?

Live-Release Rate Isn’t Enough

The question of what makes an effective, progressive animal shelter should no longer be one of simple live-release percentages, but rather one of organizational effectiveness, program implementation and community involvement.

In Roger Haston’s 2014 presentation through the Societ y of Anima l Welfare Administrators, “Beyond Labels: Understanding the True Impact of Live Release Rates and Intake Policies,” he argues that animal sheltering agencies (including rescue groups and other adoption organizations) can predict the long-term success of their programs based solely on intake and outcome numbers and on the policies surrounding the organization’s operations. The model shows that over time, organizations that refuse to euthanize at all costs are likely to significantly diminish in effectiveness, oftentimes creating catastrophic organizational consequences.

Haston’s work presents an intriguing question: In many communities, if organization A saves 10 animals per year and euthanizes one, it is technically no-kill and may be lauded as such by the public. But if organization B takes in 2,000 animals per year and euthanizes 300 of them, its liverelease rate is only 85 percent. Based solely on live-release rates, one might conclude that organization A is more effective, even though it saved only nine animals compared to organization B’s 1,700. How does this make sense?

To be fair, it is likely group A has significantly fewer financial, material and human resources than the larger organization in the community. Groups like this tend to run on an all-volunteer basis, or with minimal staff. They are usually not supported by any government funds and may not qualify for larger funding sources due to lower visibility and capacity to help. Often, their donor pool is much smaller, and they may be unable to attract highdollar donors from the community.

Organization A may criticize B for its lower live-release rate. Organization B may criticize A for being selective in its intake. To the public, it just reads like infighting. And in such situations, when organizations choose to spar rather than partner up, each fails to acknowledge that both are working to save homeless pets. They are doing the work within the confines of their respective capabilities. If both organizations are responsible, adhere to their mission and make adoptable animals available to the public, then both are assisting in the best way they can to help homeless pets find homes.

Animal sheltering as an industry has evolved into something far more compassionate and capable than what it was some 25 years ago.

It is only to the detriment of both that they choose to view each other as opponents.

Common Ground

The operational nuances of an organization are often impossible for anyone outside of that organization to understand. Any organization that repeatedly demonstrates a commitment to bettering the lives of the people and pets it serves, that adheres to the basic tenets of humane animal sheltering reflected in the Five Freedoms, that can inspire others to make humane choices like adoption or spay/neuter, deserves the respect of its peers. Whether that organization is an open-admission facility serving thousands of animals every year or a small rescue group, it has a role to play.

Animal sheltering as an industry has evolved into something far more compassionate and capable than what it was some 25 years ago. Regardless of each organization’s intake policies, adoption criteria, or the threshold it sets for how far and how long it will go for an individual animal, it is neither productive nor wise for those of us outside of that organization to judge. None of us can take on all of the other’s animals. None of us can understand the intricacies of the relationships an organization has with its staff, volunteers, foster families, donors and adopters.

Is it possible that, regardless of whether we call ourselves no-kill or not, we as an industry are actually mostly on the same page?

What we can impact is the public’s understanding of what constitutes an effective and humane organization. We can collectively turn public scrutiny toward organizations that do not uphold the Five Freedoms, that do not make adoptable animals available to the public and do not consider public safety when placing animals. We can agree on minimum standards and do everything in our power to drive public support to organizations that meet them. We can unite for public policies that will make our communities safer for pets and people, and that will discourage or eliminate cruelty and neglect. As the number of animals euthanized in shelters diminishes, we can acknowledge the large gray area between no-kill and not, and begin to eliminate the barriers to collaborations, partnerships and the achievement of mutual goals.

My experience with Jessi helped me understand that animal sheltering is no longer a black-and-white question of whether euthanasia occurs or not. It is a dynamic, evolving and complex process, complicated by the fact that neither people nor animals are always predictable or consistent. For the sake of moving onward in our collective vision of a time when there are no more abandoned, neglected, abused or homeless animals, we must recognize there’s no longer much point to squabbling over labels. We are, simply, in it together.

Watch online: “Beyond Labels: Understanding the True Impact of Live Release Rates and Intake Policies” (2014).

About the Author

Britney Wallesch is executive director of Black Dog Animal Rescue Inc. in Cheyenne, Wyo.