Wednesday, February 22, 2017

I Love You But No: An Open Letter to Animal Rescuers


Hello, animal rescue peeps. I love you. I really do. Working with rescuers this last decade has shown me the sort of dedication, bravery, and strength that songs are written about.

But you can be so fucking ridiculous sometimes.

And I'm not talking the "fostering ten different dogs at once" kind of ridiculous, though there's plenty of that. Or the "trying to do everything by yourself without researching resources" ridiculous, though there's sadly too much of that, too. Or the "driving a hundred miles to transport a sick kitten to the only vet clinic who would treat it", kind of ridiculous.

I'm talking the judgmental kind. Sorry, but you know in your hearts it's true. You even agree with me with one half of your brain, while the other half is already poised over the "Flag" button on Craigslist, searching for the barest hint that someone, somewhere, is rehoming a pet using methods you don't approve of and/or for reasons you don't agree with.

I love you, my fellow animal lovers, but stop, please.

We don't know better than the average pet owner. We don't need or deserve to be gate-keepers to pet ownership. None of us has a PhD in rehomology. The only difference between a "rescuer" and Average Jane Pet Owner is the amount of time we spend on pet-related things. We've made it our hobby, and it's an important one! We do good things with this hobby. We probably make the world a little better through our efforts... but that doesn't make us better than anyone else.

A Handy but Incomplete List of Shit Rescuers Need to Stop Doing

1) Stop the social media punishment

It felt good to post picture of a skinny dog and get that chorus of agreement from followers, didn't it? It felt good to flag all the Craigslist rehoming posts that one day, didn't it? It felt good to take all your frustration and drape it haphazardly on the shoulders of a stranger on the internet. They probably deserve it, and people agree with you, so it's ok, right?

Did you do those things because you honestly thought it would help any animals, or because you knew you'd get an ego boost?

This sort of tribalism is dangerously seductive. Sometimes, venting is important. Trust me, I totally understand the importance of letting off steam. Shelter work is a stressful and underpaid, and you end up seeing humanity at it's worst. But too much "venting" is not healthy, and in aggregate, this avalanche of negative, often illogical and anti-factual "venting" is counterproductive. It hurts the reputation of rescue in general and pushes away the very people who need help or advice the most.

Obviously, there are real monsters out there. And there are probably times when they need to be outed. Odds are very, very high, however, that you don't need to be the one doing it, or even commenting about it, especially if you don't know the full situation. A good rule of thumb is: if it makes you feel smug, think twice, or thrice, before posting.

And on the topic of sharing...

2) Stop making up sad stories

When a dog comes to you with an unknown history, resist the urge to make one up. Not every skinny dog was starved (for that matter, not every "skinny" dog is actually skinny - many people, even vets, have a hard time judging a healthy weight). Scars are not necessarily from fighting. Timid does not mean past abuse. 'Scared of men' does not mean past abuse. And fer the love of pie crust, do not use the term "bait dog" unless that dog was literally confiscated from a fighting operation with a sign around its neck labeled "bait". "Bait dogs" are not nearly as common as rescuers think they are.

Sometimes these sob stories sell, in fact it may be useful to think of abused or crippled animals as a "niche" market with a small but steady subset of adopters who are looking for that specifically. A well-publicized story can also lead to more potential adopters coming in the doors. Often, though, the only thing they do (besides stoke the ego of rescuers) is contribute to the myth of shelter dogs being broken castaways, and surround the shelter or rescue with a cloud of negativity, ultimately resulting in fewer adoptions. Cute pictures and upbeat advertising will win in the long term.

Keep the speculation to yourself unless something is glaringly obvious or confirmed by a behavior or health expert.

Speaking of:

3) Stop sharing abuse stories

If it bleeds, it leads, but even if corporate news and click bait sites focus on all the bad shit that happens in the world, stop sharing and amplifying it, unless there's a specific, positive solution you're sharing at the same time, like a GoFundMe for an injured pet, for example. Rescue folks are some of the worst at this, and their feeds end up being 75% horror show, interspersed with pics of your foster animals. It's jarring. I mean, feel free to vent on your personal page if you don't also use that page to promote adoptions at the same time. I unfollow people who share senseless suffering just for the rubber necking, misanthropic factor, and so do a lot of potential adopters.

5) Stop attacking breeders

I would be so happy if I never saw another "don't breed and buy while shelter pets die" PSA. I understand how easy it is to see a litter of puppies for sale at the same time shelters are killing healthy dogs and assume that one leads to the other. It doesn't. The ven diagrams don't overlap much. Firstly, we know that "pet overpopulation" is a myth. Yes, there are missed nuances here, but the numbers here are real, and they don't lie. Shelter kill pets because homes aren't coming to them, but that's not the same thing as there being a "lack of homes for pets".

Secondly, we have statistics on why people surrender their pets, and the two main reasons are a change in lifestyle, or the pet's behavior, neither of which have much to do with origin of the pet. There not mass of excess puppies, in fact, most surrendered animals are over five months old (and anecdotally, I can say that in my area young puppies and kittens always have more demand than supply).

When you bad-mouth breeders, you alienate them and their clients, all of which are potential customers or allies.

And while we're on the subject:

3) Stop the ridiculous adoption screenings 

This issue is slowly starting to change as the public share more of their horror stories of being denied pet adoptions for absurd reasons. Adoption counseling and "open adoptions" are becoming more popular at shelters, and I'm glad.

We need to understand just how few pets actually need the shelter/rescue network to find homes. Seventy percent of  pet owners get their pets from somewhere other than a shelter or rescue. That means the majority of pets are bred, born, raised, sold, homed, and rehomed all without permission or screening from rescuers. And here's the key: most of them do just fine.

Some rescuers run themselves ragged trying to police the pet-rehomers on Craigslist or Facebook because they seem to think that no one could possibly do a good job without their input. This is off-putting to the majority of pet owners, aka customers.

I agree that it would be great if shelters acted as a central resource or for pet owners, a place they would go to first for pet related questions, even (especially!) pet owners who never got their pet through a rescue. There is a lot of ignorance and misinformation out there. That will only work if shelters and rescuers stop being hostile to the needs and wants of the public.

Which leads to the biggest one:

5) Stop thinking shelters would not be needed if people were just more responsible

Most rescuers I know (myself included, not that long ago), have this vague idea in the back of their heads that the ultimate goal is to put themselves out of work. One day, one way or another, we'll stop the "irresponsible" people from dumping their pets and all shelters everywhere will close their doors forever.

Many people have written extensively about how shelters will always be needed, even in Utopia. It becomes more clear when you look at the real reasons people surrender pets to shelters (see above). Most people give up pets because of unexpected lifestyle changes that make it difficult or impossible to keep them, which can happen to anyone.

Wait. If your first response to that last sentence is something along the lines of, "they should have predicted..." or "I would have made different choices..." or "no one should get a pet if they can't see into the future!" maybe take a breath and consider a time that something unexpected happened to you, or you didn't have perfect judgement, or were completely overwhelmed by circumstances, or made a decision based on ignorance and later learned better. Be kind to yourself and others for past mistakes.

This attitude leads to a kind of apathy towards the very concept of animal rescue: "everyone but me and my friends are awful, therefore rescue is ultimately hopeless". It contributes to burn-out and compassion fatigue and encourages illogical, reactionary responses to the perceived "root of the problem"; "control and punish the wrong-doers, and all our problems will be solved!" (Which is another seductive, tribalistic mindset that radiates from deep in the hindbrain).

Keep your eye on the prize.

Focus on the fact that, as a rescuer, you are a small but integral part of an unofficial, but nation-wide animal rescue network, which is itself a small but important part of pet ownership in general. Taking a holistic and compassionate view of pet owners who are having problems can be both humbling and uplifting for everyone involved. Thankfully, this is becoming more common in the animal shelter community. Don't fight it, don't take the old road that assumes everyone (but you and your friends of course) are probably terrible and untrustworthy. In the long run, you'll save more lives and be happier.



Image descriptions: At the top is a photo of a dog in a kennel in an shelter, throwing back his head and howling; interspersed throughout the posting are screen caps of random, judgmental social media comments from animal rescuers: 1) "Sometimes I think there should be a psych and competence test before allowing someone to own a pet." 2) "the parents are clearly monsters. That kid must be heartbroken." 3) maybe they should have put these weak children up for adoption instead." 4) "you have not made a compelling argument for breeding this dog, because you can't. You see, (redacted), a very high percentage of posters here have been or are involved with homeless animals in some capacity. When these folks are out of work, then we'll talk. Mk?"