Why you should support your local animal shelter

Mention the words “humane society” or “animal shelter” to people, and reactions will range from “Oh, I get all my pets from there! They do a great job” to “Ooh, I could never go there! It’s so sad/mean/heartbreaking/smelly/etc.” Most people don’t really understand what shelters do, which is normal, I suppose. If you’ve never been to one, how would you know? Many people are too emotional about animals to handle a visit to a place with a bunch of homeless ones. Just thinking about row after row of sad eyes behind bars is enough to keep people away, unfortunately.

Most people have negative preconceptions about shelters. But you owe it to yourself (and animals, if you care for them) to learn more about what shelters really do before dismissing them. Animal sheltering has changed a lot in the last 20 years, mostly for the better.

First, let’s dispel some of the myths surrounding animal sheltering in general, then we’ll discuss some of the different types of shelters, and how you can develop mutually beneficial relationships with one (or more) in your area.

MYTH #1: Shelters are dirty, smelly places that keep inferior, aggressive animals cruelly caged until it’s time to kill them.
This statement is rife with errors! Most shelters are cleaner than you think. Good shelters put a premium on cleanliness, because good shelters are doing everything they can to rehome animals, and no one will want to visit the shelter and adopt a pet if the place is dirty or unnaturally smelly! Cleanliness=more adoptions, period. Though even the best-run shelters will have animal smells, these should not be overpowering, and you will see staff working constantly to keep it that way.

Yes, most shelters keep animals caged, but it is not cruel, it is for their safety, and yours. All dogs (and cats) do not get along automatically, so shelters often house most animals separately (except litters of puppies or kittens). Not only is this to keep animals from fighting, but it helps cut down on germs. One of the biggest problems shelters face is the reality that lots of animals sharing close quarters can be a habitat for germs that cause disease. No one wants to adopt a sick animal, so the shelter sets up their facilities to minimize the spread of germs.

Good shelters do NOT adopt out aggressive animals! Any shelter that knowingly adopts out aggressive animals is setting itself up for huge liability, and not just of the monetary kind. Negative word-of-mouth dooms the animals in the shelter, because people will not adopt from a place that has dangerous animals. Then what will happen to the good pets? The truth is, most of the dogs and cats and small mammals in well run shelters (such as this Lab mix) will make great pets. They are typically victims of circumstance, or of someone’s poor planning. With a little training and an adjustment period, they will blossom. (For more information on choosing a pet from a shelter, read Carpe Canem.)

Lastly, animals in well-run shelters are NOT simply “marking time” until they are euthanized. They are up for adoption! The Atlanta Humane Society, for instance, has NO time limits for pets awaiting adoption! It’s high time people realized that animal shelters are NOT in the killing business, they are in the rehoming business. Often, animals stay as long as they need to to find homes, as long as they stay healthy and do not become aggressive. A well-run shelter reserves the right to euthanize animals if they no longer meet the criteria for adoption, and this is truly the only humane alternative. Though these criteria differ from shelter to shelter, the good ones are designed to make the best pets available, and to save the public from aggressive animals.

MYTH # 2: All shelters do is kill animals.
Well-run shelters are doing everything they can to rehome the animals in their care. Euthanasia is a last resort, and NO ONE enjoys it. It is extremely depressing for me, as a shelter employee, to hear this myth, and it disrespects shelter employees everywhere. It’s like saying that “all hospitals do is kill patients.” It makes no sense, and it ignores the true focus of the community shelter, which is to care for homeless pets, rehome as many as possible, and educate the people, among other things.

MYTH # 3: Good shelters are “no-kill,” and bad shelters kill animals. You should only support “no-kill” shelters and animal sanctuaries if you love animals.
This myth is a variation of the one above. While the person saying it is smart enough to make distinctions between different types of shelters, he does so erroneously, and at a great price.

First, the term “no-kill” is a misnomer. NO humane society can call itself truly humane if it NEVER euthanizes ANY animals. There will always be animals whose suffering should be ended with a humane death–animals who are irreversibly ill, or in pain, or pose a danger to society. Then, if you accept this premise, you realize that “no-kill” doesn’t really exist. Many shelters call themselves “no-kill” in an effort to galvanize public support and make themselves out to be “better” than shelters who do euthanize (often called open-admission shelters). In a true “no-kill” shelter, animals that cannot be placed for adoption stay for life. In some areas, conditions are tolerable for this, but in most, they are not. No matter how lovely the idea of a “sanctuary where no animal ever dies” sounds, most limited admission facilities are not equipped to properly house animals for life. The result is animals who simply live in cages for the rest of their lives, with little meaningful human contact. Limited admission shelters may take in animals who turn out to be aggressive, and these animals deteriorate quickly in the shelter environment. Personally, I do not consider this humane at all. I would never surrender an animal to such a place. Any organization that keeps every animal alive with little thought to how that animal is affected is not a place I support financially or any other way, and I’d never want an animal I cared for to live like that. A well-run shelter takes the animals’ needs, not just the donors’ needs or the employees/volunteers’ needs, into account. Dogs and cats are NOT meant to live their entire lives in cages (or in yards). They are meant to live in homes, and form lasting bonds with their “pack.”

Open admission shelters must take every animal brought to them, and must make the hard decisions about adoptability daily. If animals do not pass temperament tests, or are too sick to be rehabilitated with limited funds, the unpleasant task of euthanasia must be performed. Though it is a controversial subject, and one without easy answers, the public pays its tax dollars (and gives donations) for animal control services, not just rehoming. All pets are not suitable for adoption, unfortunately. It does no one any good to vilify open admission shelters (or limited admission ones who do euthanize responsibly) because they are trying to clean up messes they did not create. They are forced to find the most humane ways to deal with the problem of too many pets and not enough homes. Often, this is a combination of ambitious adoption programs (the warm, fuzzy side) and euthanasia (the part no one wants to consider).

Why is it important to distinguish between the different types of shelters? Since shelters depend on donations and good word-of-mouth, you need to know who to support. Simply put, you should support the shelter closest to your own community that does the best job of caring for homeless pets, adopting out the adoptable ones, and educating the public. (Most well-run shelters do LOTS more, too.) Do some research and find out about your local shelter’s policies and procedures. Do NOT decide whether or not to support a shelter on the basis of euthanasia policies alone. (This is as bad as choosing a dog based on its looks alone.) Try to separate your emotions for a bit, and ask questions, before you decide. The best shelters are truly in it to help the animals AND people of the community. (Some shelters and rescue groups claim to be all about the animals, including trying to “save every one,” and yet treat people like criminals and abusers.

There are bad apples in every bunch, of course. Some shelters put up a good front, but their policies are severely lacking. Or they misrepresent themselves (or lie about what other groups are doing) to gain sympathy and support for themselves. Some shelter workers are passionate about animals, but have no idea what is truly best for the animals and the people of the community. This is why it is important for you to get involved with the shelter closest to you that matches your goals and ideals, and to research the shelter before you commit. Become a volunteer for your local shelter to get a first-hand look at what it does. Rarely do shelters refuse volunteer assistance! Most could not keep their doors open were it not for their committed volunteers. Volunteering is very rewarding.

The bottom line is that local shelters are typically underfunded and understaffed, and they need our help. Time and money are what are needed most, and must be given directly to the shelter itself. Find out about your shelter’s volunteer programs, and how you can become involved. You may not need to “work” more than a few hours a month, and a well-run facility will try to tailor your desires to their needs (but please try to be flexible).

Money is always a welcome gift. If you are not familiar with the shelter, find out what your money will be funding before you give. A reputable shelter will disclose its pertinent financial business if requested. You can also check with local charity “watchdog groups” to find out how well your donations are stewarded.

Please visit your local shelter(s) and see what they have to offer if you haven’t already done so. Ask questions! Working in (or just going to) a shelter can really change your perspective.

In the perfect world, there would be no need for animal shelters, because there wouldn’t be any homeless pets. All pets would belong to loving, caring people who raised them and cared for them until the animals’ death, or found suitable homes for them if they could not keep them. No pets would know the horrors of trying to live without human assistance: being struck and killed by cars, foraging through the trash, trying to survive cold and heat and predators, and missing the Most Important Thing, human companionship. The sad fact is that pets cannot survive on their own. They depend on people to meet their basic needs, and this includes companionship, and belonging.

The homeless pets that make it to well-run shelters are the lucky ones. They have a chance to find a home where their needs will be met, and while they wait for that home, they will be fed, securely and comfortably housed, and have some attention paid them. It ain’t perfect, but it is better than a short life (and painful death) on the streets. Anyone who honestly believes that a dog or cat is “better off” foraging on his own instead of being taken to a shelter is misguided at best, and heartless at worst. The “specter” of euthanasia frightens many people, and they cannot accept that, in this world, it is truly a blessing that we humans have a painless, humane way to lovingly end an animal’s life when it is necessary. Euthanasia is not the horror it is made out to be. In this world of too many pets and not enough responsible homes, there are far worse things than a humane death. Good shelters should do everything in their power to rehome adoptable animals, and make euthanasia rare.

I hope this article has helped to debunk some of the common myths you may have heard about animal shelters and what they do. Whenever someone tells me that they “love animals too much to work or volunteer at a shelter,” I tell them, “I love animals too much NOT to.”