Monday, September 21, 2009

Pointing Fingers: A Roadblock to Change

(I've been trying to write and edit this blog post for about 2 weeks. It's a work in progress, as are all of my views about Winograd and No-Kill.)

An Open Letter to Nathan Winograd regarding his recent blog Good Homes Need Not Apply.

Preface: The animal welfare field seems to be one where shades of grey are difficult. This has always puzzled me- it seems that we're all "on the same side"- that of saving lives, improving lives, improving the relationship between animals and people, etc. If you read books or blogs, speak to trainers or rescuers, or animal welfare professionals, though, you'll see that huge, often fractious, rifts exist. Trainers will tell you that the only thing two trainers agree on is that a third trainer is wrong. Rescue groups will slam other rescue groups for their policies, and refuse to work with each other. Call an "animal welfare" person an "animal rights" person, and you might lose an eye. What's the point? The only thing I have come up with after almost a decade of my life devoted to this, and passionate about it, that the field (if you can talk about these things as "a" field) draws passionate, emotional people, and that we tend to lose sight of the big picture in favor of what We Believe is Right. As if there is a right. Our feelings become tangled in our goals, and it becomes extremely hard to separate "our" positions from larger goals, which leads to drama, politics and more drama.

In the midst of all of this controversy is the "no-kill" movement. Nathan Winograd and his No Kill Advocacy Center are right in the middle of the drama. Winograd really thinks that we can have a "No Kill Nation," like his eponymous book, and he wants to get there ASAP. I admire him for this. It's a noble goal, and if I could stop euthanizing animals almost every day at work, (killing, in Winograd-speak,) I certainly wouldn't complain. What I do find fault with is Winograd's almost incessant finger-pointing at animal shelters. I've discussed this before: my feeling that Winograd blames shelters for killing, and a recent Winograd blog leads me to the subject again (I'd rather bury my head in the lovely Winograd-free sand).

Winograd's recent post "Good Homes Need Not Apply" has been making the blogoshpere/twittosphere(?) rounds, and getting lauded in many circles. I'm just not feeling it. As usual, I agree with the over-arching feeling: Cut adopters some slack, or they'll go elsewhere for their puppies, kittens, birds, rabbits, etc. Shelters are often a great resource for adopting, especially with well done adoption programs. There are so many pets at shelters- those same puppies, kittens, birds and rabbits that can be picked up at pet stores and flea markets and on corners and backyards, can also be adopted at shelter, usually with many of their vet needs taken care of, at a fraction of the price. They are literally the same animals: a recent Petfinder article reminded us that most pets surrendered to shelter are young (between 5m and 1y) and unneutered. These pets came from somewhere, the shelters don't create the pets. Well done adoption programs will have counseling- should the adopters choose a young pet or an older one? What should adopters do when adolescent problems arise? And they'll adopt out altered pets. These unaltered pets that are coming TO the shelter didn't originate there. Here we go blaming the trashman again.

Winograd's point is well taken here: if shelters and rescues have harsh policies, the animals don't get adopted. They sit, and the adopters go back to those aforementioned spots to get their new pets. Winograd cites some pretty heinous adoption denials: the family that wants to adopt a cat and had waited a year after their senior cat died to adopt another. They were denied, without question or counseling, because they wanted to let the cat outdoors. The reason given was "because HSUS told me so." Sure, Winograd is right: there should ALWAYS be discussion with adopters. And there are surely drawbacks to having indoor only cats, just as there are drawbacks to having indoor/outdoor cats. He also quotes a rescue group that held onto a foster cat for 6 years, and the cat "seemed perfect." In both of these cases, I'm just not convinced that we're getting the whole story. In the first case, either the shelter or Winograd is being reductive- "HSUS told me to do it" is never a good reason, or Winograd is only telling part of the story; and in the latter, the rescue group was too strict, or Winograd doesn't know the cat, or the circumstances.

My question here is, should shelters and rescues not be allowed to have policies? I have worked at shelters that do not adopt out to indoor/outdoor cats. I have done adoptions at shelters that don't care if you keep the cat in even for one day. To me, the second policy is foolish and dangerous. I *do* want the animals in my care to be in safe, healthy, happy situations. And I feel like if you really don't want to adopt out to someone who is going to let their cat outside, it's important to have a discussion, ask questions, and offer other places where people can adopt cats with less stringent policies. It is, however, my experience, that VERY few shelters or rescues operate in the manner that Winograd describes: this extreme of denial and keeping animals for so long. It just doesn't really work that way. But it makes for a good, powerful, anti-shelter story.

Winograd has a way with numbers, and we all know when to trust statistics. He writes that because "only 4 percent" of animals in shelters come to the shelters because they are seized due to cruelty or neglect, the public should be trusted when coming to adopt a pet. There are a couple of leaps in logic here. First of all, there's the 4% number. I'm not sure what to think about this number- I wish it was 0%. Again, if I never euthanized another dog and never seized another animal, not only would I be out of a job, but I would be happy. I'd find another line of work, and not with a heavy heart. I'd love to know where this number comes from, what jurisdiction it comes from, and since it is apparently is only dogs and cats, how it is skewed (I'd say our rooster seizure numbers are the highest, and therefore not included). Also, is it really relevant to adoptions? Again, every animal should be adoptable, in the no-kill mentality, so the source of the animal is relevant in what way?

But in this article, Winograd's point is not about the source, it's about the outcome: shelter workers should trust adopters. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, and it's something I actually have to work on- I've been "worked" a lot lately by giving too many people the benefit of the doubt lately. So, if 4% of animals are coming into the shelter from cruelty/neglect cases, how many percent of people (i.e. potential adopters) did these animals come from? And how many people surrendered animals or had their animals come in as stray, who weren't charged with cruelty or neglect? To those who think there isn't an overlap, trust me, there is. I have had people surrender their dogs in terrible conditions (neglect cases) and ask me if they can adopt a dog in the same breath. And how can I do adoption screening without having an honest dialogue and policies in place to make sure that my adoptable animals don't end up in the same people's hands? Isn't that my mandate, as an animal welfare professional? I trust the public, but I'm faced with that "4%" number and the need to deal with that, as well. Those animals are real animals, that came from real people, not just a number. When I place animals, any animals, they are real animals, going to a real home, with real people. I have to screen these adoptions, using whatever method my facility feels is best. I absolutely agree with Winograd: "Most people are decent to animals, concerned about their welfare, and can be trusted with them."

Winograd has a picture of a poster that he saw "several years ago" in a shelter of breeds not recommended for children under 10. He doesn't say how many years ago, and I suspect that most shelters would use different literature now. He also doesn't mention the "fine print" at the bottom that states basically that there are exceptions to every rule. The poster comes from a rescue group, and the dogs are on the list are dogs that I imagine most breed specific rescue groups would also say probably shouldn't go home with small children from a all-breed shelter: chihuahuas, toy breeds, cockers, akitas, etc. Again, I agree with Winograd- some shelters have overly cautious restrictions about adopting with children. And an across-the-board breed rule would be ridiculous. On the other hand, this is where grey-area comes in. A more appropriately-worded poster to that same effect might be very educational: most toy breeds in the shelter are not appropriate for small children. A toy breed in a foster home would be a better choice, as it can be assessed in in-home situations with kids. Small dogs in the shelter are often overwhelmed, and hard to get a good assessment

I believe in public safety. If a shelter can't do appropriate assessments, and feels that an individual dog is not appropriate with small kids for whatever reason- then it shouldn't go home with kids. On the other hand, I have assessed dogs and felt, shoot, this dog really isn't appropriate with kids- it jumps excessively, it mouths, it is food possessive, etc- and then the perfect, most dog experienced family has come in and said "our last dog was a really big project. We have a trainer lined up. And we have a feeding schedule in place." I've seen the child interact with the dog, and the dog interact with the child, and it's been a good fit. But if that perfect family hadn't come along, the dog would have gone home with a no-kid or older-kid family. It's a safety issue. Winograd can talk about not-killing the dog, but I care about the no-bite home. When the dog comes back for biting the child over the food, the dog gets euthanized, and the family probably doesn't adopt next time, because "shelter dogs are too risky." There are no guarantees in behavior assessments or breed generalizations (boy do I know this!), but I'd rather set everyone up for success. Again, if a shelter has limitations in assessing dogs, I'd rather err on the side of caution. Breed specific rescues are great for small dogs and trickier to place dogs. (Hey, if Winograd can have rose-colored glasses, so can I.)

Lastly, I agree with Winograd here:
Shelter animals already face formidable obstacles to getting out alive: they can get sick in a shelter, customer service is often poor, a shelter’s location may be remote, adoption hours may be limited, policies may limit the number of days they are held, some may view the animals as “damaged” goods when the reason they ended up at the shelter often has nothing to do with the animal, and shelter directors often reject common-sense alternatives to killing
Let's up the ante, not by arguing with the shelter about their adoption policies, though there may be individual policies, but by encouraging adoption. It seems to me that slamming shelters *discourages* adoptions. Let's decrease these obstacles: encourage more funding to shelters and encourage lawmakers to do things like the Hayden Bill that (used to) increase holding periods for California animals. Once again, Winograd, let's stop pointing fingers, and start working together. I thought we were all on the animal team?


Sarah said...

Bravo! This is an excellent post.

I like to think that my shelter strikes a good balance between too little screening, and too much. I'm sure most people in this business feel the same: "We do it perfectly, everyone else is too strict or too lax."

There are so many grey areas. Is a dog better off being adopted into an outdoor only home, or living in a shelter long term while waiting for a better home to come along, or being euthanized? I know my answer to that question, but I also know that there is room for people to disagree with me, and that they can still be good people who do good work.

We cannot relax our standards so much that we let just anyone adopt. We owe the animals better than that. But I do wish that shelters and rescues would let go of some of their more stringent rules, and focus on counseling rather than screening. I've had some excellent adoptions that started with me telling an adopter, "I'm concerned about placing this animal in your home because..."

Mick O said...

Well-reasoned and thought out. I really admire your take on this one. It's too bad extremism gets so much attention.