Saturday, March 28, 2009

Nathan Winograd Seminar

Just home from an all-day seminar held in downtown Houston with Nathan Winograd, the renowned and outspoken voice for “No Kill Shelters.” Eight hours later, my head is aching from the statistics, the step-by-steps, the exhortations, and the swell of strong emotions that come from hanging around the rescue-and-shelter crowd all day long.

Much of what Winograd said—and emphasized, and re-emphasized—is found his book, “Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America” (2007), but the whirl of numbers and the constant references to the handful of shelter which have actually implemented the Winograd-style no-kill model makes me feel just a bit like I’m getting a hard-sell.

I know I’m supposed to feel empowered, but instead I feel a bit like I do after watching those infomercials for amazing home-gym sets or the Malibu Pilates chair—yes, it could happen, but probably not in my world.

Sure, I agree that “euthanasia” is a euphemism for killing. I avoid the term “killing” around pre-teens, but don’t hesitate to clarify it to those old enough to face the facts. I totally support Trap-Neuter-Release, although our shelter doesn’t formally offer any such program. And I whole-heartedly agree that changing the bureaucratic system requires patience, persistence and more tenacity than it takes to snatch a pig’s ear away from my miniature pinscher.

But emotions and enthusiasm aside, I wonder if the dedicated, hard-working rescue-and-shelter advocates I work with could set aside the rivalries, squabbles and back-stage tensions that hamper the effectiveness of our own volunteer programs and associated 501 c3 groups. The county’s bureaucratic machine tolerates all our efforts, but I’m not sure how seriously they would take us if we approached them with Winograd’s hard line. My feeling is that the County would just pat our collective heads and wait for us to tear ourselves apart from inter-group struggles.

Winograd mentions the problems of egos among those who control the reins of power. Of course, Winograd is no retiring wall-flower. Most rescuer-and-shelter folk (and I include myself in this group)are not immune to the crippling illness of egomania. I try to stay out of the petty dramas, but I have succumbed to temptation in the past.

I need to mull over Winograd’s message, and peruse his book again (I read it when it first came out a couple years ago). Right now, though, I need a break from saving lives. I simply need to cuddle up with my dogs (including my foster) before tomorrow’s off-site adoption event.
What’s your take on Nathan Winograd’s No-Kill Equation? Leave a comment and let me know.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Puppy Season at the Shelter

Q: How do you know that “Puppy Season” is here at the Animal Shelter?
A: When the “Puppy Carton” is set out by the mailboxes.

Sadly, people come by after hours—some folks truly don’t know the times the Shelter is open, but a large number of people slink in under the cover of darkness, or the soft light of dawn to deposit their litters. The Shelter generally charges a flat rate for surrendering a litter, and the intake staff person is supposed to record the person’s name and license number.

But the “Puppy Box”—or “Kitten Crate” as it is also named—is a necessity. We have a little “dog park” in the front, but the picket fencing is purely decorative. Puppies that are not contained are just a few yards from a major eight lane highway.

On my walk-through today, I counted four litters of six or more puppies, plus a dozen new young dogs under the age of three months. We’re out of canned puppy food and we’re short on fosters who can care for litters. I am not blessed with the patience to deal with puppies so I stick to the needy adult dogs. If you live in Montgomery County, Texas and would like to donate puppy food (canned and dry), puppy milk powder, or disposable puppy pads, leave a comment. If you want to foster, you can leave a comment, too.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Meet My Mutts

I have two rescue dogs of my own—a 9-year-old male stag red miniature pinscher (adopted in 2001), an avid hunter who has never figured out he’s been neutered, and a 5-year-old black-and-white rat terrier mix girl with fluffy hair and terminal cuteness (adopted in 2004). Taco is named after the southernmost Taco Bell in Louisiana. Cross answers to her rescue name--as a puppy she had a white "cross" marking on her forehead--which stuck because she was the group’s official mascot for two years. Both dogs like living in Texas, and they're tolerant of the fosters who cycle in and out of my house. Taco requires payment in treats, but Cross just wants a little lap time without having to share.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Tale of Two Dogs and One Puppy

A guy goes to an adoption event to pick out a dog as a companion for his grown neutered male dog.

He considered three choices from among the 10 dogs we had with us on Saturday at our local PetsMart--an adult female black-and-tan hound mix, an 8-month energetic female retriever mix, and a 12-week-old black lab puppy.

First, he looked at the black-and-tan hound—she was very playful and the guy’s dog seemed to like her. Next he looked at the young retriever—a beautiful, red-spotted girl with hound-dog ears, one blue eye and thick, silky fur. But the adolescent dog was wild on the leash and kept grabbing the strap in her mouth. The guy’s dog didn’t seem particularly impressed or put off by this dog. Then the guy looked at the black lab puppy. The puppy was a floppy, soft, bundle of sweet-smelling fur and big paws. The puppy was already exhausted from being at the adoption event, so he snuggled down into the guy’s arms and sighed with joy. The guy’s dog didn’t pay any attention to the black lab puppy.

The guy and his wife debated the choices—the black-and-tan hound (the choice I would have recommended, as I had fostered this girl for a week at my house and so knew her temperament) was dismissed without a backward glance. The guy’s wife was afraid that the 8-month old dog was “too hyper” and would be too hard to handle. Besides, the guy’s wife said, “Look how calm that puppy is.” Of course, the puppy would be as boisterous as red-spotted girl in five more months, but perhaps better trained, since the guy’s first dog appeared to have fairly decent manners. It was clear who was going home to be the new “companion” for the guy’s dog. As usual, the guy picked the puppy.

I hope this puppy won’t come back to us, or be turned over a few months later to some other shelter. Or end up on Craig’s List with ads saying, “He’s too energetic for us…” Or on a poster at the vet’s office that reads “Active Dog Needs a Big Yard.”

So, a great adult dog, a perfect “playmate” choice, and an energetic, untrained (but not hyper) adolescent dog are once again passed over.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

What I Do on Weekends

On Fridays, I go to the shelter, select some dogs from the Adoption Room and put “off-site” tags on their kennels, then on Saturdays and Sundays, I haul the dogs in the back of my minivan to various locations (PetsMarts, bookstores, pet-gift stores and the like) hoping to place dogs in good homes. Ideally, I am saving a shelter dog’s life by finding it a loving, forever home. The reality is that I’m doing the best I can NOT to rent puppies. In the dog-rescue arena, however, cute, cuddly puppies and small lap dog always win out over the adult dogs.

The big black dogs are ignored as people lift up the soft, floppy lab babies or the speckled beagle-mixes or the fluffy shepherd-hounds. The medium-sized brown dogs are passed over if there is anything—adult or puppy—that looks like a Chihuahua, even if that critter is too tall, long-backed, sickle-hocked and snappish. The nine-month old adolescent dogs—the ones who were smooched on and loved over as puppies—jump and bang against their crates, clamoring for attention because no one ever taught them basic manners.

People come in with amazingly detailed shopping lists—“I want a white female malti-poo.” Or “We’re looking for a black-and-tan dachshund puppy.” My personal eye-roller is “We want a dog that won’t get too big.” I generally ask the potential adopter, “Show me with your hand how big is ‘too big’.” The person may hold their hand at least knee-high, but they’ll often add: “I don’t want anything over 25-pounds.”

Meanwhile, my portable crates are filled with soulful eyed coonhound mixes, eagle-eyed Australian cattle dogs who need day-jobs, and, of course, the dime-a-dozen lab and retriever types who bring new meaning to the word “boisterous.” Not one of these dogs is close to weighing 25 pounds.
If they can’t find their shopping-list dog, people often fall in love with the puppies. And all too often those puppies end up in a shelter several months later as untrained, leggy, and wildly exuberant not-quite-adult dogs. These “teenage” dogs have it roughest—they don’t have the cuddle-currency of a puppy, and since they often are not quite housebroken (many owners take a lax stance on the potty issue, so the dog never quite gets the routine down) and lack even basic leash training, they’ll be passed up, again and again.

Even my best adult dogs don’t stand a chance against the puppies. Every shelter volunteer will tell you about the amazing, awesome, superb and wonderful adult dogs we have seen in the kennels. But it’s an uphill battle trying to match these animals with the right family—and those cute puppies don’t make the job any easier. Combine the puppy factor with the fact that many adult dogs enter the shelter system for shaky reasons (yard too small, schedules kids won’t care for the animal, people are moving, and it’s no wonder more animals than ever need loving homes.

So my weekends are spent with kennel-crazed shelter dogs. I put collars on them, spritz them with doggie perfume, then lavish as much attention on them as I can—walks, ear rubs, a little basic command-practice and lots of treats. And when an adoption match-up works, I know that I’ve at least done a small part in saving one dog. But I won’t rent you a puppy.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Returns and Refunds

Just back from the shelter, and I did a walk-through to check out the Adoption Room dogs. One of my adoptions, a hound dog mix female named “Cosmo” had been returned. It always knocks the breath out of me when the dogs come back, and it’s even worse when it’s one of the animals I helped place.

Our county shelter has an extremely generous adoption policy—most placements are “foster-to-adopt,” with a 10-day grace period where the adopter can return the animal at any point for any reason, and receive a full refund ($100 for female dogs; $95 for male dogs). The county takes checks, and will provide vet care for the animal on the condition that the adopter brings the animal into the shelter for treatment by the staff vets. If an adopter takes a sick animal to an outside vet without the proper clearance, there is no reimbursement.

The downside of this arrangement is that the transfer of responsibility from the county to the owner is dragged out. All too often, the policy enables the adopter to chicken out and return a dog for reasons that could be addressed through time and basic training. While the 10-day foster period is meant to build confidence, it also suggests that these animals are somehow less valuable than dogs obtained from other sources. We don't have data on returns, nor do we keep records on how many times any particular animal might cycle in and out.

Private rescue groups that I’ve worked with have much shorter return-with-refund policies. Of course, no one wants an unhappy owner to toss the animal on the street. Like the shelter, almost all private rescues will take back their animals if the owner wishes to surrender the dog. Often the owner who returns a dog to a private rescue group receives only a partial refund, if any refund at all is offered. Plus, a returned animal will prompt the group to red flag that adopter’s record, preventing or limiting the conditions for future adoptions.

Our county shelter’s policy is as good as Wal-Mart’s—as long as you have the paperwork and meet the 10-day foster period, you can return the dog and get your money back or select another dog. Which is fine, except that dogs are a more serious aqusisition than, say, a pair of shoes or a DVD player.

An older couple selected Cosmo and took her home on February 21st. I didn’t do a whole lot more than assist with the paperwork, but the application looked good and the husband was the one who had picked Cosmo out, so there was no sales pitch from me.

Meanwhile, we have no information on why Cosmo was returned—does she bark incessantly, chase cats or dig out? We’ll never know because the staff people who man the front desk simply don’t have time to make note of the answers to these questions. However, each time a dog is returned to the shelter environment, the animal runs the risk of getting the kennel-crazies. Certainly many returns are valid, but we’re not doing the dogs any favors by creating an environment that creates a revolving door for pets and adopters.

Monday, March 9, 2009

We Don’t Rent Puppies

I volunteer as an “adoption coordinator” for the animal shelter in my county, which lies north of Metro Houston, Texas. Our county took in more 20,000 dogs, cats, puppies, and kittens in 2008. The number of dogs placed in new homes is argued over, but it’s safe to say that, unfortunately, thousands of pets never made the cut.

The county is trying—truly—to reduce its euthanasia rate, and the paid shelter staff and all the adoption coordinators, dog walkers, bathers, groomers, puppy fosters, transporters, publicity folks, volunteer vets, and even most of the adopters, are doing their absolute best. However, the puppies, dogs, cats and kittens keep on arriving at the shelter.

The purpose of this blog is to chronicle the small part I contribute to help stem the tide of unwanted animals, along with my own observations about the animal-rescue business. And, no, we don’t rent puppies.