When "Humane Societies" are anything but

Martha is an 83 year old woman.  She's a lovely lady, but after losing her husband, is a bit lonely.  Her children are grown, with children and agendas of their own.  They're busy, they don't call as often as they used to.  Martha wants a friend, desirous of the companionship she so misses.  She gets in her car and makes a trip to the local "humane society."  "May I see the dogs?" she asks. 

She is brought into the kennel area.  Looking over all the dogs, she finds one that tugs at her heart strings.  Enter Beau, a seventeen month old black Labrador Retriever.  Beau looks a lot like the first dog Martha and her husband George had adopted together.  "That's the one,"  she says, pointing and smiling at Beau.  The shelter volunteer nods, "that'll be $150 adoption fee and you can take Beau home today!"

Martha makes out the check and walks out to her car with Beau.

Three hours later, Martha and Beau are back at the humane society.  "He's just too strong for me," she says.  "I tried to take him for a walk but he pulled me over and hurt me.  I don't think this is the right dog for me," she admits, sadly. 

"That'll be a $50 turn in fee, Ms. Banks," says the shelter volunteer.  For the second time this day, Martha pulls out her checkbook.  She leaves the shelter, her feelings of loneliness still real as ever and now compounded with feelings of guilt, as though she had "failed" Beau.

The truth of the matter is, the shelter had failed both Beau and Martha. Neither Beau nor Martha had done anything wrong.

This is a true story.  While we are quick to condemn puppy millers and other unscrupulous entrepreneurs that breed dogs for profit without thought of the well-being of both the dogs they produce and the people that open their homes to them, we are understandably reluctant to in any way critique shelter or rescue operations.  The sad fact is, not all rescue or shelter operations are created equal.  Are shelters, rescues, or humane societies that sell adopters false promises and offer no support any better?  Aren't they, like millers, just looking to profit at the expense of canine suffering?

Not all shelters are like this, but I am sure that this humane society is not an aberration; there are likely others like it, possibly near where you live.

This shelter routinely adopts animals into homes without screening.  One of the volunteers tells a trainer, "This happens a lot.  They make more money if the dog doesn't find a forever home."  Beau had arrived to the shelter with a $50 turn in fee.  The adoption fee was $150.  Each time Beau is adopted into a home and returned to the shelter, the shelter gets to make money off this dog again.  Each time, the dog becomes more stressed and less homeable.  Each time, well-meaning pet owners wanting to rescue an animal in need leave alone, frustrated, and feeling like failures, turned off by the whole sheltering experience.

Some shelters place dogs inappropriately out of desperation.  They simply need to make space, because they cannot house all the dogs that enter their doors.  They are forced to make difficult decisions - do we send this dog home with an owner who may not be able to care for him adequately, or do we euthanize him for lack of space?  In this instance, there are no easy answers, but there are some options (more on that later).  This rant isn't directed toward those shelters, but to the ones that have the resources to do better for dogs and choose not to.

I'm sure I'll get hate mail and people that think I'm the devil for daring to say anything against any shelter operation on the planet.  People will remind me that resources are limited, a fact which I am well aware of.  But if resources are allocated irresponsibly, people need to be aware.  People make donations thinking they will improve the lives of animals, not realizing that many of these organizations have little or no financial accountability when it comes to the distribution  and utilization of donated funds and items.

My business partner donated $5,000 worth of training equipment, leashes, harnesses, clickers, treat bags, toys, Kongs, etc. to a local shelter.  When he went back the next week, all of the items were gone.  He found them again, later that weekend, on a table at a local flea market, run by a shelter volunteer. Understandably, he never volunteered there again, to the detriment of the dogs and their eventual adopters.

Despite our distaste at the shelter's practices, our hearts can't help but ache for the dogs.  Now we are forced to donate things that nobody would want to steal - towels, old blankets, second hand dog toys that are still in usable shape, etc.  At least we feel relatively assured that these will go to the dogs. 

Truly, there are some organizations which use the pretence of helping find homes for homeless animals as a smokescreen for their true motives, lining their own pockets.  Why bother investing the time and resources into finding a dog the right home the first time, for a total of $200 received, when you can adopt him out to the wrong home 5x while raking in a cool $1000 on the dog?

The individuals running this shelter wonder, "why can't we keep volunteers around?"  The truth is because the volunteers are discouraged.  They love these dogs.  They sacrifice time with their own dogs, families, etc., to donate of themselves, both their time and compassion.  They see the same animals come back, over and over again, each time looking more sad and less hopeful than the last.  The reward for their hard, uncompensated work should be seeing happy endings for the animals in their care, forever homes where dogs make people happy and vice versa.  It's frustrating and discouraging to see that the volunteers care more than the shelter Board of Directors  about homing the dog permanently. 

The shelter I've mentioned here actively turns down offers of free assistance from local trainers who are volunteering their services to train the dogs on some basic manners, do a little behavior modification where necessary, increase enrichment opportunities and establish minimum standards of care, and screen both dogs and adoptive candidates to ensure appropriate and long-lasting matches.  They are unwilling to increase adoption rates if doing so comes at the cost of increasing profit margins.

Few words could describe my gratitude to one of Dog Star Daily's founders, Kelly Dunbar, who has taken the initiative to develop a non-profit organization known as Open Paw (http://openpaw.org/).  The organization's goals are:

Our primary goal is to provide people and their pets with the tools they need to develop lasting and successful relationships with one another and with their communities. We’re here to help prospective and existing owners learn what to expect from their pet, how to prepare for their pet and how to train their pet easily to express its dogginess or kittiness appropriately in a home. 
 
Our secondary goal is to turn every animal shelter into a community education center. At these shelters, every puppy/dog or kitten/cat will learn basic manners and be housetrained, chew-toy/scratching post trained, and socialized to people and other animals. Shelters will also serve as learning centers for the human community, as they will be pleasant, friendly, quiet places for people to go to see basic training and behavior modeled in the daily routines of the shelter. 

I think this is one of the most important projects dedicated to promoting the well-being of homeless animals and their potential adopters I've ever seen.  Adoption rates and owner/dog placement satisfaction would increase exponentially if more shelters were able to incorporate Open Paw ideas and programs. 

My frustration with the local operation in question is probably evident from this post.  However, initiatives like Open Paw give me hope for what the future brings for homeless animals.  While resources are certainly stretched in virtually any shelter or rescue environment, many of these organizations are not using the resources they do have (be they volunteers, donations, etc) as efficiently as they could.  I, and the rescue and shelter dogs I've brought into my home as permanent companions, are eternally thankful to Open Paw for giving those shelters who truly are dedicated to the well-being of their charges the tools they need to set both dogs and adopters up for a lifetime of companionship, happiness, and success.

Maybe I am the devil for saying that some shelters don't have the best interests of dogs in mind.  Regardless, I'm not one to give congratulatory back pats to organizations who steal money from the donation coffer, put dogs and humans at physical or emotional risk, really have no interest at all in placing dogs in good, permanent, well-matched loving homes, and treat volunteers poorly. 

These organizations are a blight not only to the dogs in their care and volunteers, but to the global rescue and sheltering community as well - from such irresponsibility breeds beliefs like, "all rescue or shelter dogs are 'bad' or have problems," or that "all shelters are awful places," neither of which are true. It breaks my heart to know that in my community alone, there are many dog owners who would gladly volunteer of their time but have been so "turned off" from the shelter volunteering experience by poor treatment of volunteers, adopters, resources, and animals that they are now left saying, "I wish there was something I could do to help." 

It just seems so wasteful to me.