Late last night, I saw a post come across my Facebook feed. It was by Shirley Thistlewaite at Yes Biscuit!, and it was about a new sign that had appeared near the front door of a shelter in Texas.
The sign, pictured at right, reads as follows:
Arlington Animal Services cannot guarantee placement of your animal. Animals turned into the shelter may be euthanized (killed) after the legal hold period.
The same message is then repeated in Spanish.
Now, Shirley doesn't like that sign, and I read her post and agreed her criticisms of it. I posted as much, shared it publicly on my own Facebook profile, and went to bed.
I got up this morning to see that two people I respect enormously, and who are very active in sheltering, rescue, and the no-kill movement, thought I was on the wrong side of this issue.
One of the points of disagreement that both of them had was that I assumed the shelter and its director were doing a bad job. One of them is familiar with the shelter and director, and assured me they are progressive and oriented toward lifesaving.
I regret I didn't look into that before I weighed in. I don't like to pile on anyone who is trying to do a better job, and it would have been a good idea to get some context for the appearance of the sign before I assumed anything. For that, I'm very sorry.
That said, I still think the sign's a problem. Let me tell you why.
The two friends who commented on my Facebook post believe the sign is part of a program of transparency. I am in full support of transparency. I think shelters and animal control agencies should indeed be posting their stats on the front doors, just as restaurants should post nutritional information, including calorie counts, on their menus and at the point of purchase, including fast food drive-thru windows.
But to me, this sign is more like posting, "If you eat here, you'll get fat" but not giving the calorie, carb, protein and fat counts for their food, or fully disclosing the ingredients (pink slime and sugar, anyone?).
If we want disclosure posted on shelter doors, and I do, it needs to be within a context guiding people to specific action to channel the feeling the sign evokes.
In her post, Shirley asked:
If this sign deters someone from surrendering a pet, are the circumstances that lead to the shelter visit suddenly going to change? Will the terminally ill owner become healthy again? Will the evicted family be allowed back into their home? And if it’s a case where the surrendering party is truly irresponsible and uncaring – and I don’t believe that most owners are – will they transform into a responsible and compassionate owner after seeing the sign?
These are perfectly valid questions. What does a sign like this do to people in bad situations, except make them feel even more trapped and despairing than they already do? And what effect could it possibly have on the last group? They won't care.
But giving people the information transparency demands, while at the same time channeling them into the action you want them to take, actually has the potential to get the end result you want -- which is, in most cases, for the pet to be kept by the owner or adopted into another home without ever entering the shelter. That's because however good a shelter is, it's still going to be a stressful and potentially unhealthy place for pets.
This is a bit too long, but is the kind of information I'd like to see included in such signage:
X percent of the animals who come into this shelter leave alive, and X percent leave dead. We want your pet to be one of the ones who lives. Please visit our planning desk, or call 555-5555, to discuss how we can help you keep your pet, or find him a new home.
We can offer: (list the ones that apply in your area)
A simple program to find your pet a new home yourself, using our resources* Low cost/free help with behavior or training problems Help with pet food, cat litter, and other supplies Help with fencing, kennel runs, dog houses, etc. Low cost/free help with veterinary care Low cost/free spay/neuter services Scheduled surrender to one of our partner rescue groups or no-kill shelters
*"our resources" would include things like the Best Friends package on finding a new home for your pet (here and here) as well as sharing available owner-fostered pets through the shelter's social media, website, Petfinder account, posters, etc.
This way, the sign doesn't just become a form of guilt trip, but truly educates people to the options that are out there, and frames the shelter as an appropriate place to seek help while still creating the mental impression that leaving your pet there isn't a great idea. At the same time, it leaves a way out for people who truly desparate or simply don't care about the pet at all, because the people at the planning desk can help make those determinations.
Now, the two friends who disagreed with me are in the trenches on this issue, and I'm not. One posted on my Facebook page that a sign like this is called for in the Companion Animal Protection Act, model legislation aimed at shelter form that I actually support. I didn't know that, but it doesn't change my view.
She also said her shelter has a sign like this, and that it has in fact been effective in educating people about alternatives to shelter surrender. I certainly can't argue with those facts, but I would guess that's less because of the sign and more because she runs a progressive shelter that takes the steps I laid out in my proposed language. Even if it's not on the sign, it's still what they do. It's those programs and policies that work, not the sign.
I truly believe that this kind of language, however good the intentions and however much it's framed as being about transparency, perpetuates the idea that the public is to blame for shelter killing, not the shelter. It also potentially feeds self-righteousness on the part of people who work in a facility that has a sign like that.
Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe people take the sign in a good, instructive way. But I don't think so, and one of the reasons I don't think so is the comment thread under the image of the sign on the shelter's public "Friends Of" facebook page. It's full of people rejoicing that the sign will wake people up to their own irresponsibility, not that it will motivate improved performance at the shelter. Some of the comments are things like:
"very good idea. hopefully people will think twice.. if not then they really don't care at all!!"
"I love that they spelled out what euthanized is so that no one can fool themselves."
"It is about time John Q Public is forced to see the message. Hopefully, a few pairs or rose colored glasses will be removed."
"Long over due...unfortunately the shelter is a temporary shelter that has a definitive expiration time !! People think that it's all warm and fuzzy..it's not!! It means death so i hope this awakens the peeps who resist responsibility of caring for their domestic pet."
Honestly, from a psychological viewpoint, doesn't that just sound like a milder version of the infamous Peninsula Humane Society "killing kittens on the evening news" stunt of the 90s, where the director said she had to do that to hit pet owners on the head with a two-by-four so they'd understand that the shelter was being forced to kill due to their irresponsibility?
If language like this is part of CAPA, don't you think it was put there to force badly performing shelters to disclose that they are doing a bad job in order to inform people who think because they have "shelter" in their name, they are doing the best they can for the animals?
And wouldn't something more like my proposed language serve transparency and community-building more -- and save more pets -- than the language on that sign now?
What do you think?