Friday, October 9, 2015

I Got Spoiled When We Stopped Killing Dogs...

Technically, the title should really be 'I got spoiled when we stopped killing all animals'. Five
Max, available for adoption through
years ago, I attended the very first No Kill Conference in Austin. I went because I wanted to have a book signed by the author and guest speaker, who I now consider a long-distance friend, Nathan Winograd. Unfortunately, Nathan lost his sweet dog, Top Top, just before the conference and was unable to attend, so the forum changed to a variety of caring Austinites who spoke on the need for No-Kill efforts in our city.

At the time, we were killing around 50% of the animals that entered our only city-run shelter, Town Lake Animal Center (which has now been moved to a new location and is called Austin Animal Center). This first meeting changed the scope of our city, as it brought new individuals, including myself, into the No Kill fight. I honestly was unsure of what No Kill really meant and the accusations brought forth by the No-Kill opposition did make me question what this would mean for animals entering our city-shelter. Did it mean we would be warehousing animals? Did it mean that animals that were truly aggressive and dangerous would be adopted out into society? Does no kill mean animals are suffering through painful terminal medical conditions simply to meet a quota? What is the difference between killing and euthanasia?

Those questions, of course were all answered during the conference and I immediately headed out ready to do research and learn more about this life-saving alternative. As it turns out, The No Kill Movement is exactly what it sounds like - a fight to ending the killing. It's a fight to promote adoption and to ensure animals are cared for while they wait for that adoptive family. No Kill is partnering with rescue organizations, promoting spay and neuter initiatives and finding foster homes. No Kill means working with dogs and cats that may be deemed aggressive to find the underlying issue - does this animal need medical attention, does it need to work with a trainer or, unfortunately, is this dog truly untreatable? No Kill defines the difference between euthanasia and needless killing. 

One of our community cats at the
Williamson County Regional Shelter.
As I sat in that meeting, next to someone I can only assume either worked for PETA or (at least at the time) was a huge advocate for killing animals, I couldn't help but wonder if all these people sitting in front of me were nuts for thinking that they could change the way the Austin City Council looked at our animal shelter. The conference did light a spark in me, one that I have not seen in awhile since both Austin and neighboring Williamson County proudly and successfully have reached and sustain their no kill goals. This spark led me to join forces with the group that led this conference and shortly after, I was invited to help admin the No Kill Texas social media network. The next few years were a turning point for Austin and Williamson County and I was able to see changes happening every day. At the time, every blog post, every post on social media, every city council meeting really made an impact and helped us save lives. 

I am not going to get into the many, many details that happened between then and now, you can read some excellent blogs that share the story of Austin becoming No Kill here and here. However, as the shelters reached their No Kill goals and celebrated success month after month, the fire started to die down. My personal contributions changed and the shelters that surround me continue to save the lives of nearly every animal that enters. 

I still care very much about No Kill and I am very involved as a volunteer at my favorite open admission, No Kill shelter (Williamson County Regional Animal Shelter), but I find myself blogging, posting and sharing No Kill success less and less as time goes by. When I walk through the hallway at WCRAS, I see the faces of the dogs and cats in our care and I know that each one of these animals is going to have a happy ending. There isn't a sense of urgency anymore because we have developed and grown into a community of compassionate individuals. When our shelter has a month where we take in "too many animals" we don't simply kill them because we ran out of kennels, we reach out to the public and to our partner rescues and save lives. It's part of our mission now and has become the normal, every day activities of the shelter. Our routine is saving lives. 

Zeus, adopted!
From time to time, however, I am reminded that the fight isn't over. Thousands of animals die all across the country every single day for no reason at all. Many shelters are still stuck in the past, as Austin once was, and choose to kill out of convenience rather than embracing the No Kill philosophy. Some shelters claim that the public doesn't care or doesn't want to be involved. Some shelters are afraid of change. 

This week, a friend shared an excellent note written by the director of the Humane Society of Fremont County (located in Canon City, CO). This note was shared earlier this year on their social media page, shortly after announcing a 100% save rate in December 2014 for their shelter - something which should be celebrated, but instead was met with suspicion and concern. I think this note really shares why it is so important to dismiss the criticism and move forward. Lives depend on it. 

Doug Rae is the current director of the Humane Society of Fremont County, under his leadership, he has made true life saving changes. When he took his position as director the save rate / kill rate within the shelter was around 50%. Last month, this shelter saved 97% of the animals that walked into their facility! That is astounding and just an incredible accomplishment. Some people may wonder how they do it month after month, but reading this story from Doug puts it perfectly: 

"When we announced our 100% Save Rate for December, we assumed it would be met with enthusiasm and joy. Some people, however, found it hard to believe we truly saved every animal last month. 

This week someone said to me, “You cannot tell me that you and your staff have not experienced a dog that is dangerously aggressive."

Another person said, “Duncan was not aggressive, give me a break she kissed you. Plus she is tiny."

Another said, “…try working with aggressive Pit [Bulls] and let me know how it went from your hospital room…”

But the one that really hit home, "... we have to euthanize cats and dogs that show aggression because it is the best death we can give these animals. I wish we didn't have to kill aggressive dogs but there are no other options for shelter workers …. your high save rate must not include aggressive animals.”

Aggressive (adjective) … ready or likely to attack or confront; characterized by or resulting from aggression. 

Our shelter has received animals that are “ready or likely to attack“ over the last four months. And those animals are included in our reported save rates.

We don't play games with the numbers here in Fremont. We don't limit our reports to “adoptable animals” only. There are no games of any kind. We report 100% of the animals in divided by 100% of the animals out. No animals are removed from that equation. EVERY animal that comes through our front door is included in our save rate. And to be highly transparent, we report two sets of numbers; one set includes “all” deaths (including owner requested euthanasia -- owned animals), and another number which excludes owner requested euthanasia deaths.

As a private agency, contracted to perform animal services throughout Fremont County, Canon City, the City of Florence, Wiliamsburg, and the Towns of Coal Creek, Rockvale and Westlcliffe, CO, Animal Control Officers bring in animals of all shapes and sizes and in every condition imaginable. Some animals are healthy. Some are sick. Some are injured. Some require surgery. Some need help behaviorally. Some are “aggressive". But in Fremont County, we believe all animals deserve life.

When we have a growling dog, a loudly barking dog, a dog showing teeth, a dog staring us down from inside of his kennel… we don't throw our hands up in the air and say, “This animal is going to bite someone, kill him.” 

Here’s why…

Last Monday, Kelly, my Kennel Manager, asked me to look at a dog that was, what some would tag as, "aggressive." The dog liked Kelly and one or two other people, but no one else. I said “sure”, and walked to the kennels to meet the dog. Unlike tiny, growling, teeth-showing Duncan, this dog was a rather large dog. 

He was a 4-year-old unaltered Pit/Lab male named Forest.

As soon as Forest saw me walk in front of his kennel, he charged the kennel door and showed me a great set of teeth. It was too late in the day for me to go further with Forest, so I asked Kelly to move him to a double-sided kennel. If I was going to work with Forest he would need more space to feel secure, and, for safety reasons, I would need more space as well. 

I promised Kelly I would take a closer look at Forest the next day.

Many shelter directors would have taken a quick glance at Forest and thought, “There is nothing we can do with this aggressive dog.” In many shelters, Forest would have been systematically and routinely destroyed. Why? Because killing is an easy way to create cage space and killing is the only option some consider when a dog is growling at them and won’t allow them near their kennel.

The following day, Kelly asked me, not once, not twice, not three times, but four times, if I had looked at Forest yet. I had not. So I stopped what I was doing, grabbed my dog leash and went to Forest’s kennel. When Kelly left the kennel area, Forest looked at me standing outside of his kennel, and, like the first time we met, he charged the kennel door.

So I sat on the floor “outside" the kennel, pulled out my phone and quietly replied to emails for the next 10 minutes. Forest paced the double-sided kennel the entire time I sat on the floor. Back and forth, he never stopped. He seemed to have one eye on me at all times. If our eyes locked, even for a second, he showed me his great set of teeth again.

It was time to enter the kennel. I stood up and tried to open the kennel door, but when I did, Forest charged the gate. I quickly closed the door and sat on the floor outside of his kennel again.

Eleven minutes later, I stood up and slowly opened the kennel door for a second time. This time, though, Forest didn't charge. He stood stiff as a board and stared me down. He did allow me to put one leg inside of the kennel while the other leg remained outside (in case I needed to make a quick escape). I stood in this position for about 5 minutes and did not move a muscle. 

I’d be lying if I said I wasn't concerned about my own safety with the way he was looking at me. But his life was at stake. So I took a deep breath and stepped completely into the kennel closing the door behind me. Forest then moved around the large kennel like a lion stalking his prey in the wild.

Crystal, my office manager, found me in Forest’s kennel seconds after I closed the door behind me. Forest was pacing the kennel with a low head. Crystal quietly, and ever so slowly, tiptoed away from his kennel, stopped, and softly said, “Do you want a radio so you can 911 staff if he comes after you?” I declined. 

After about 10 more minutes, as I was standing with my back against the inside of the kennel wall, Forest sat down. Being just seven feet away from him, I knelt down to match his body language. 

Four minutes later he laid on the kennel floor. So I also laid on the floor. 

I immediately sent a text to Crystal, “Sitting on the floor now and he just laid down. Old guy wins round one!”

About six minutes later, I reached over and slowly grabbed the soft bed in the middle of the kennel. Forest lifted his head off of the floor looking concerned that I was touching his bed. I slowly pulled the bed close to me, waited until he was fully looking at me, patted the bed two times (saying come sit next to me).

Less than 60 minutes after Forest was charging the door not allowing me into his kennel; it happened ...

Just like it has happened hundreds of other times….

Forest slowly raised his body and gently walked toward me. It took him about 20 seconds to walk seven feet. He then stepped onto the bed right next to me, stood very stiff for a long three seconds, probably second-guessing his decision to trust me. So I reached out and gently stroked the top of his head twice, and then he moved his large head close to my face, since I was sitting on the floor.

Though I should have been focused on Forest at this point, I was also taking pictures of him. My concerned face in one picture tells the story of how scared I was feeling at this moment.

I then petted his head several times since he was right next to me. Then his neck. Then I rubbed his left ear. 

Forest politely gave me one gentle kiss to my face. Unlike Duncan who kissed me for the first time and then ran away from me to hide after the kiss, Forest paused for a brief second, looked at me and started licking my face like I was a cold Popsicle in the middle of an Arizona summer. He licked me so hard and for so long that my glasses popped off my head. 

Soon, Forest was lying on his side with his feet in the air and I was giving him belly rubs with one hand and texting with the other. The text message I sent out was a simple “Face kisses from a growling dog. Nothing better!!!!!” I sent the text to several people. The responses: “totally awesome” … “You the man”… “Thank yoooooooou Doug,” And “Yah!!!!”

Unlike “tiny” Duncan, where it took me days to get her to trust me, Forest, a “large“ unaltered male dog, that I guarantee would have been destroyed in thousands of shelters across the world, showed me and everyone else, who he really was in less than 60 minutes of working with him. 

When you consider these statements ...

"I wish we didn’t have to kill aggressive dogs but there are no other options for shelter workers."


"Try working with aggressive Pit [Bulls] and let me know how it went from your hospital room…“ 


“You cannot tell me that you and your staff have not experienced a dog that is dangerously aggressive” …

… I ask you to consider this. It is a conscious decision to choose death over life for an animal in a shelter. It is also a conscious decision to choose life over death for an animal in a shelter. There is no middle ground. Here in Fremont County, we chose life. 

If your cat or dog was ever lost and brought to a shelter, became petrified due to a shelter's scary, new environment (like Forest), and was tossed into a caged kennel (like Forest), and was separated from his or her family making it hard to trust the strangers imprisoning him or her (like Forest was), wouldn't you want shelter staff and volunteers to explore every option possible before killing your dog?

I like to think we all would want this for our own animals. 

For this reason, we explore every option available for every animal that comes to us. Forest and so many other animals are safe and alive today because we do what we need to do to get animals past the anxiety of being dropped off in a terrifying building like an animal shelter.

For those who still question why we do this, the ultimate reason is simple. Because it’s the right thing to do for the animal and because it’s the only thing we know how to do in Fremont County, CO. ~Doug"

Never stop fighting. Dogs like
Luna depend on all of us! 
Admit it, the story made you a little emotional. I definitely had tears in my eyes as I read the words above. Success, like the success they are achieving in Fremont County should be met with celebration. They are not hiding anything, they put their statistics out into the world and in doing so, they have push back and criticism. Now, I am not saying don't question your local shelter - questioning killing has changed the scope of hundreds of communities in the United States. Perhaps, though, instead of challenging a shelter that so obviously cares and is offering transparency, let's shift the focus to helping other shelters make positive changes. 

As I read this beautiful story, written by a truly compassionate director, I realized how little I feel that passion in myself anymore. I realized how infrequently I bring No Kill into the spotlight now that I live in a No Kill community. I want to say Thank You to Doug for sharing this sweet story and inspiring the many other individuals that have fought so hard, and those that are continuing to work to make No Kill a reality for their communities.
It is critical to keep that spark lit and to stay in the No Kill fight to keep from going back to the time of convenience killing. 

Stephanie Conrad
Pet Studio Art | Owner | Artist 

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