Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Assuming the Worst of People is Killing Animals

It is an idea that is so entrenched in the minds of many animal rescuers and advocates that it is seldom questioned: “the public” is irresponsible and uncaring, and they alone are the cause of all the deaths in animal “shelters.” This theory would have us believe that the poor “shelters” have absolutely no choice but to do the public’s “dirty work” of killing the “surplus” dogs, cats, rabbits, and other animals who are “dumped” on them by this unworthy “public.”
There is an “overpopulation problem,” so this story goes, because the public refuses to spay and neuter their animals, they don’t really care about animals anyway, but see them as throwaway objects, turning them in to the pounds for frivolous reasons. These people are the scum of the earth, and the shelter workers are saints who must “euthanize” (a word that has been hijacked from its true meaning, and is now used to soften the reality of the killing) these animals.

I am on a number of email lists for networking animals needing homes, many of whom are currently in the pound, some of whom are being given up by their guardians, and rescuers are stepping in to try to find a home before the animal is taken to the pound. In the vast majority of these emails, the sender has added his or her own editorial comment, most of which go something like, “This scum is giving up his dog,” or “I’d like to get my hands on the bastard who turned the dog in in this condition,” or “I hope whoever turned this poor elderly dog in to the pound is put in a home and forgotten by his relatives when he gets old,” or simply the ever-popular, “I hate humans.” Many of the emails actually say, with regard to animals in the pound, “help, please rescue this dog/cat before the public gets their hands on him/her and he/she goes to a horrible home.” They just assume that if a member of the public adopts, the home will be horrible. I also see, time after time, emails that say, “these people brought this animal in to the shelter claiming he was a stray...yeah, sure, they probably just didn’t want to pay the relinquishment fee.” As if no one ever actually found an animal and brought him to the pound, and the world is full of nothing but lying bastards.

Of course, one major reason for this is that this is the propaganda we have been fed for so long by the pounds themselves, and as rescuers or advocates for animals, we tend to latch on to it because we are angry and frustrated about the killing and need a focus for our anger, and it is so easy to blame an amorphous, semi-anonymous “public.” This is, of course, in the best interest of the killing establishment, as it deflects the blame away from them.

Another reason is that rescuers tend to see a disproportionate number of examples of disregard for animals. Because yes, there are irresponsible, selfish, clueless people out there. No one in his right mind would deny that. Rescuers see this every day and it tends to warp their viewpoint and blind them to all the loving potential guardians looking for companions, who will provide them with wonderful homes. It also sadly robs them of compassion toward caring people who give their animals up to the pound because they don’t know of anywhere else to turn, or because they believe the word “shelter” means what it says, and that they are doing the best thing for the animal.

When you are surrounded by something, even if it isn’t a fair cross section, it becomes your reality. And that becomes the story you tell yourself. It isn’t a case of seeing is believing, but rather of believing is seeing.

But is the public responsible for pounds killing animals while they have empty cages? Is the public responsible for pounds killing animals when they have been notified that a rescuer–or even the animal’s own guardian–is coming to get the animal out? Is the public responsible for the pounds’ lack of basic sanitation protocols that cause animals to get sick, and then not treating them? And is it the public’s fault that the pounds kill animals with minor and treatable conditions, such as kennel cough?

So go ahead and continue to blame the public instead of the pounds, and here’s what happens:

1. It takes the onus off the pounds, excuses the killing, thereby perpetuating it. It plays right into the hands of the killing apologists. Only by putting the blame where it belongs can we put an end to the killing.

2. It alienates the people who might otherwise be responsive to working with rescuers/advocates to solve the problems that are causing them to give up their animal, thus lessening that animal’s chance of survival.

3. Blaming the public also creates heartbreak on an individual level. For instance, I recently received a forwarded email that had originated with a woman who had found a dog on the freeway and taken him to her local police station. She then sent out a mass email, which was forward on and on, pleading for someone to take this dog before he went to the pound. Almost immediately thereafter another email was sent out saying that she had found the dog a wonderful home–not a foster, mind you, a permanent home. I emailed her asking if she had tried to find the dog’s guardians, and she responded saying that she was sure he was "dumped" because people in that area didn’t care about animals, and that he had been at the police station for several hours, and if anyone was looking for him they would surely have found him by then. I emailed her again stating that the people might have been at work and not even known the dog was missing yet, or might not know to look at the police station, and she might want to think about putting up signs, that someone might be heartbroken. She assured me that no one cared enough about the dog to want him. There was nothing more that I could do but hope that there wasn’t someone out there with a broken heart, wondering where his or her best friend was, and if he were dead or alive. But there well might have been, all because this woman was so convinced that there wasn’t even the possibility that someone living in “that” neighborhood could care about his or her animal. This is just another sad result of the “irresponsible public” attitude.

4. And finally, it adds more unnecessary hate and vitriol to the world. It is mean, rude, insulting, and often undeserved. It doesn’t see nuance, but is a heavy-handed, black-and-white world view that is always counterproductive.

Not to mention the fact that it is simply not true: we have all seen people come together to help search for a dog or cat who was lost, or donate money to a rescue cat who needed funds for medical care, or stop to save a dog running in the street. On a recent visit to a city pound to pick up a mother dog and her litter for a rescue, I saw the following:

–three people bringing in a dog they had found, who were obviously feeling badly about having to leave him there, but not able to keep him where they lived. I could sense the sadness in the woman’s voice as she said good-bye to him. And he wasn’t even her dog.

–A man relinquishing his dog because he had been given an ultimatum by his landlord. The man was in tears as he filled out the paperwork.

–A woman who came in carrying her large dog (like a baby, wrapped in a blanket). The dog was very sick, and the woman could not afford to have him treated by a vet. She thought that if she surrendered the dog to the pound, they would treat him, make him well, and then place him in a good home. She didn’t want to part with him, but she wanted him to get well and was willing to make a sacrifice to see that he got help.

This doesn’t look to me like an uncaring and irresponsible public. The funny thing is, though, that many of those who are stuck in the "I hate humans," "irresponsible public" mind set would probably have immediately judged them all as bad people.

People are called “irresponsible” because they lack the financial means but dearly love the animal and want to do what is best. Or because they lack the education, but, again, love the animal. These people are not irresponsible. They just need a little help and/or guidance.

Instead of accusing the public of being irresponsible, why don’t we find out how we can help them be responsible. Why don’t we look more deeply at the person’s situation, and drop the superior and self-righteous “I would live in my car before I would give up my animals” mentality. Maybe you would, but not everyone is like you, and the fact that they are not does not make them irresponsible.

If we could first try to help before we jump to conclusions, and then, even if we find that the people are truly irresponsible, we don’t waste our energy spewing anger toward them, but rather put it toward damage control and helping relieve the situation ourselves, more lives will be saved. And isn’t that what we are working towards?

Instead of blaming the public, the pounds should be providing resources regarding pet-friendly rentals, trainers, financial vet assistance, and other ways to help people keep their pets. If the shelters were what many people think they are–what they should be by any logical standards–then the people who brought the animals to the shelter wouldn’t be seen in such a bad light. In other words, because the "shelters" kill these animals when they could be instituting life-saving No Kill protocols, the people who bring animals in, thinking the "shelter" actually is a shelter, are the ones who are condemned. Interesting way of looking at things.

As long as we erroneously see the public, and not the regressive pounds, as the cause of the killing, we will continue to tread water, trying to save as many animals as we can, all the while “knowing” that “we can never save them all.”

It is absolutely essential we start right now to put the blame squarely where it belongs: on those shelter administrators who refuse to implement the protocols that have proven, time after time, to end the killing, and who have a vested interest in keeping us believing the public is to blame, and, not least of all, on those of us who continue to buy into this myth.

Note: For more views on the myth of the irresponsible public, I refer you to two wonderful blogs from several months past:

John Sibley writes about this subject and gives more examples of how caring the “non-caring” public is here:

And this three-parter from YesBiscuit! is well worth reading:





  1. Great post. It takes a lot of courage to stay open to a worldview that is not black and white, not full of easily-recognizable good guys and bad guys. Everyone has this courage inside of them.

  2. Thank you so much for this post. A few years ago I found myself in the position of having to rehome my dogs (6) and cats (3) due to bankruptcy and imminent foreclosure. I tried to find a place to rent, but there were none that I could afford that would let me keep them all, and I couldn't afford the additional fees either. I also couldn't afford the surrender fees at the nearest no-kill shelter, and refused to take them to our local shelter, where I knew their chances of adoption were slim. I couldn't find a rescue group either that was able (or willing) to help me. An ad on Petfinder got me several spam emails, but fortunately also a wonderful family that took all 3 cats. I put up full color flyers I made myself at all the area vets' offices and found homes for all but one of my dogs -some spiritual force must have been on my side because I found the perfect home for each dog, except for my first, Thunder, who as it turned out had cancer so I kept him with me and lavished attention on him for as long as I could. I have received negative feedback on some sites I have posted on because I "gave up" my pets, but I had unfortunately reached a point where I could not provide a quality life for them, even if I could have kept them. It absolutely broke my heart- every one of them were rescued or adopted and they each had such unique personalities. Even now, I still miss them terribly, and NO ONE can say I didn't love them enough.

  3. Cops can get into the mindset that every teenager is a crack dealer, every man a wife-beater, every woman a hysteric who will knife you if you turn your back.

    The term is "sampling bias."

    One may choose a career that puts one in contact with an unrepresentative segment of the population. It is not reasonable to project those characteristics on everybody.

  4. Many municipal shelters were built decades ago, and are meant to hold animals for 3 days before they're killed. They were not meant to house dogs and cats for adoption for long periods of time as more come pouring through the door every day. Many shelters are trying in vain to keep the animals healthy and get them adopted, but what are they to do when they're designed to hold 60 animals and are actually holding 200 animals with yet another person bringing in a litter of half-grown unsocialized puppies? That's not the fault of the shelters. Yes, often "the public" is spoken of too harshly by embittered, tired volunteers or shelter employees. Usually it's after someone brings in a litter of puppies that are half dead from parvo. Or perhaps it's someone who's turning in a dog they had no business getting as a puppy when they work all day and now the untrained dog is bored and destructive. And yes, there are plenty of folks who turn in dogs because they remodeled the house and don't want the dog's nails scratching the new wood floor. We in rescue and at the shelters have heard story after story and excuse after excuse. People would rather rehome a dog than "put it in a cage" aka crate training. IF the dog is lucky enough to find a spot in rescue, crate training is the first thing that will happen to him. Anyway, we'd be much better off if some of the well-meaning public would step up and foster a dog rather than give us the "oh no I'd want to keep them all" excuse and foster nothing. Sorry for the ramble. I could go on for days.

  5. Your post makes me want to cry and tell anyone I'm sorry for any assumption I have ever made. Maybe I'll print this out and leave a few copies when I do my Shelter visit today. Thank you for making me slow down and think.

  6. Terrific post. I had bought into the "rescuer" mindset for awhile before I began to see and hear the other side. I think the most striking was with our most recent adoption. When we first started to "foster to adopt", we were told of her horrible diet, bad mats, and how she was "dragged" into the shelter by a big mean owner. How she was terrified then, and then shut down when in the kennel. All very sad, and angering.

    When we adopted her, we were given her papers. In those papers were a transcript of everything that happened... which included numerous calls to the city pound from a worried owner, with the comments "worried that dog will be PTS". Also comments that she was relinquished because the owner couldn't find anywhere to live with his two dogs, and had to surrender one of them. That put an entirely different light on the entire situation - here I had been thinking "poor dog, bad owner" when it was really an owner put in a bad situation where he couldn't keep both dogs. I felt for him, and still do. I imagine he was torn up, and I wish to this day I could let him know his dog is loved with all our hearts and will live a good life.

    Long story short - it was a first hand experience about something that is very true. And another bullet point for reasons to change the attitude to save lives: NOT treating people horribly when they relinquish animals will inspire them to *tell the truth* about their pet, which will help save its life. Why? Owners want to put the best light on their pets, hoping that they'll get adopted. This isn't necessarily the truth though... and the more correct information a shelter gets about a pet will help save its life, by sending it to the best possible home. Shelters need to make sure that people coming in don't feel guilty, that they are working *with* the person surrendering, not against. They already feel guilty enough - I hope to see more of them work with these folks, and get the most accurate information and history about the pet as possible.

  7. I agree with about 50% of your article but I think the other 50% is way off. I am in the UK (I assume you are in USA?) so perhaps things are different over there, but from my experience, most people working at the pounds do not want to kill the dogs (what kind of sicko would?).

    These establishments (in the UK at least) receive a set amount of funding per dog from the government (in the UK dogs have to be cared for for 7 days, after this most Local Councils will not continue to fund a dogs care).

    Once that funding is gone - how do the pounds continue to care for the dogs? Heating costs money. Dog food costs money. Staff to walk and care for the dogs costs money.

    You say that the 'public' should not be blamed - then who should be blamed? Surely the pound workers cannot be blamed for the initial situation? The fact is dogs are being massively OVER BRED by ignorant and often greedy individuals.

    You stick up for people who have to rehome their dogs due to financial problems - would it be considered acceptable to dump your child on social services because you're poor? No. It happens too often for it to be forgiveable.

    In a better society we could feel sorry for people who cannot afford to care for their animals, but in this society there are too many people taking this route, and too many people bringing pets in to their homes when there is a good chance they can not or will not be able to provide for it in the future. This is not acceptable. This should be more carefully considered BEFORE getting a pet.

    I agree that many people giving their pets over to rescue/shelters do not deserve to be hated, but I don't think that pound workers and rescue workers should be criticised for holding negative views on 'the public' when these views are justified in probably 50% or more cases.

    Working in rescue is a very heartbreaking and frustrating job and it takes a special person to deal with that every day.

  8. arc8iablue, thank you, and I'm so sorry that some people have given you negative feedback. When I forward an email from someone who is trying to rehome an animal, I always try to remove the person's contact information, and instead serve as the go-between so that I can filter out the negative comments. It's doubly sad because not only are these people being hurtful, they usually have nothing helpful to offer, and just take up time and energy that could be put toward helping the animal. I'm so glad to hear that things worked out for you and your animals.

  9. Heather, that's interesting. I orginially had a paragraph in the post which I edited for length, but I talked about a conversation I had once with a man who lived next door to a police station. One day he found a bunch of discarded police records in the trash and out of curiosity took them home and read them all. He said for days after that he thought everyone he came across was a thief or murderer.

    South Bay Purebred: There is so much that can be done that is not being done by the shelters as far as getting animals adopted and keeping them out of the shelter in the first place, even in small shelters, and it has been demonstrated repeatedly. I understand, as I said in the post, how people who deal with this day in and day out can begin to see that as the only reality. Sometimes it is difficult to stand back and get perspective.

  10. Girl from Mars:

    No, most people working in the pounds don’t WANT to kill animals, but unfortunately, they have been brainwashed by the false idea that there is no alternative, and that they are doing the best thing for the animal by killing him. This couldn’t be further from the truth. There are proven tactics that can end the killing in pounds no matter what the funding level of the pound is. This has been demonstrated over and over.

    You ask who I would blame if not the public, but I think I made it perfectly clear: yes, I DO blame the pound - not the workers, necessarily, but the administrators who adhere to the archaic policies of killing when alternatives exist.

    And as far as “dumping” a child on social services because you’re poor, I feel the same way about all members of the family, whether they be human or non-human. What I hoped I had conveyed in my post is that, rather than excoriate people for their actions, it would be far better to try to help them by giving them the tools to help them keep their family member. I would have the same compassion for and desire to help someone giving up a human child as I would someone giving up an animal.

  11. Very interesting article! As someone in the rescue field, I must admit I have been guilty of an anti-public bias. It's very difficult to combat when what you're seeing abuse, neglect, and abandonment so frequently. However, you're absolutely correct that many shelters and pounds are not doing enough. I have witnessed this first hand as well, and left a volunteer position because of it. At this particular shelter, there was very much an attitude that the problem would not be solved except at the spay/neuter level, placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of the public. And yet, I also witnessed resistance to volunteers trying to get cats out to rescue, to off-site adoption events, to foster homes. There were key members of staff who were more concerned about their image, and their ego, than actually making a difference. I would contact rescues only to hear back from them that when they called the shelter, they were told by shelter staff that their help wasn't needed. There was an attitude among many at the shelter that no-kill rescues were hoarders, and that euthanasia was necessary for both the physical and mental well-being of the animals (???!!! no joke!)
    It's interesting - as I was writing this reply, I was reminded of a story I've heard from almost every shelter/rescue I've worked with - it is one of a woman who surrenders her cat to the shelter because it doesn't match her new furniture. Each place I've been to seems to claim the story for their own, and it's always told with bitterness and scorn as an example of just how terrible people are. This story, which clearly could not have taken place at EVERY rescue/shelter, is certainly an example of the attitude you're warning against.
    I agree that many shelters could do more, but I also believe that many members of the public need to step up their game. I'm going to squarely place the blame at 50/50. However, this article has been a wake up call for me to more closely examine the roll attitude and mindset can play in the success of shelter and rescue efforts. Thank you!

  12. I think it would probably help (and help animals in a practical way) if shelters more frequently operated a low-cost veterinary clinic as an adjunct to their sheltering activity.

    That would solve at a stroke the problem of the good owner with no money who has to relinquish their animal because it's the only chance of getting some treatment (or at least euthanasia instead of dying slowly). It would also improve shelter worker morale and help to convince them that there are a lot of very incompetent people out there (who need teaching) but very few cruel ones.

  13. cambstreasurer: I couldn't agree more!

  14. This is a vital subject. Thanks for presenting it. In my opinion, this is all about secrecy.

    For 100 years people have worked hard to create an industry with paying jobs. The problem is that the industry comes from the perspective of animal CONTROL, not animal CARE. That history runs deep and is very prevalent today.

    Animal CONTROL is historically about killing. It is not about sheltering. A few more years and maybe this crap will die out.

    As for blaming the public, I find the accusation that the public is irresponsible and uncaring to be insulting at best.

    Think of shelter directors everywhere: they hide the killing way in the back and work hard to suppress any word of it leaking out. Well, how is the public supposed to know what is the result of their actions (death to animals by the millions every year) if it's hidden from us?

    Whenever I see someone hiding something from me it makes me think they're guilty of something. Shelter directors, if this isn't your problem you are causing, why are you working so hard to hide the killing?

    Secrecy - the greatest enemy to change in animal sheltering. Read this = http://www.arc-na.org/the-secret-world-of-animal-sheltering