Sunday, January 23, 2011

What's in a Name?

Today I joined a team of 80 people at a volunteer day at the Animal Welfare League's Intake Facility. They were touchingly overwhelmed by the show of support and it was encouraging to see so many different people willing to chip in. However, I'd have to say that generally the wonderful staff at this facility have one of the more grueling and thankless jobs in rescue. 5,000 dogs and cats come through this small building every year. This is because they take in any animal that turns up at their door - strays from the street, lost pets, owner surrenders - let me reiterate: they take in any animal that comes through the door. Many Chicago-area rescues and shelters pull animals from this facility (three cheers for Alive Rescue who pulled 6 dogs today!). AWL itself has a facility in Chicago Ridge that houses the largest number of adoptable animals from a non-profit organization in the entire midwest. On top of which they run many invaluable programs, such as clinic services for low-income pet owners, micro-chipping, humane education work and pet food giveaways.

However, as was made clear in our orientation, the best that we could hope for for a number of these, often wonderful, dogs was to give them some love and attention before being euthanized.

I recently read a very thoughtful article regarding the incorrect use of this term in reference to perfectly healthy pets. Part of me agrees with the author's point that we should not use a euphemism to hide an unpalatable fact - that these animals, for the most part, are not put to sleep as an act of mercy but killed because there is nowhere else to put them. The problem is that for the majority of people the natural progression from being disgusted by the act is to vilify those that carry it out. Read through the comments to this article (and others like it) and the emphasis seems to be on the evil shelters who need to step it up and stop killing animals. Take for example, this outraged citizen: "They are killing they don’t like to hear it too bad then try to make your shelter a no kill it can be done but you have to work at it." Well yes, of course they can. Every shelter in the country could turn around tomorrow and say "We shall not put down a single healthy pet". Awesome. Problem solved. 

The American Humane Society estimated that 3.7 million animals were euthanized in the nation's shelters in 2008. Well, my self-righteous friends, as dogs sit in shelter for weeks, months or even years, what's your plan for the remaining animals? How many will you be able to open your home to? I concede that there are many shelters across the country where the staff are considerably less motivated than the kind people I met at AWL today. But it's undeniable that this problem goes beyond bad practice and lazy staff in a few facilities. The problem is a country that has taken a disposable culture to such lengths that now even living creatures can be thrown out as casually as a polystyrene coffee cup. So, if you want things to change, go to the source and do what you can in your own community:

1. Educate. Educate yourself, your kids, your neighbors, your co-workers. There's no need to be parsimonious but don't bite your tongue the next time someone mentions they're looking for a puppy on craigslist. For a harsh wake-up call, read this.
2. Adopt. If you've got the space, the time and the money, bring a shelter pet into your home.
3. Volunteer. Pick a local rescue or a shelter and don't immediately get on your high horse and ignore the "kill" shelters, they might not be as pretty as some facilities but they're often under-staffed, under-funded and on the front line.
4. Free puppy love! If you're not ready for a long-term commitment, foster. Go through a reputable organization and you'll help to save a life with plenty of back-up and without having to worry about whether or not you're able to cover unexpected vet bills or pay for all the pounds of dog food that your hungry rescue wolfs down...

To end on a happier note, I hitched a ride down to AWL with Fifty's mom and one of her colleagues from work. Fifty run's with a three-pack as well so, regardless of temptation, neither of us were in any serious danger of taking home an extra pooch. However, it turns out that our joke of Katie picking up a new pack member was prophetic and an adorable chow/shepherd (?) mix came out of his shell to win her heart. Benson didn't have to head back to his cage tonight and is already making himself right at home on the couch. 

What a difference a day makes!

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