Of all the stress-inducing, morally angst-ridden vocations one might pursue to make the world a better place, running an animal shelter has to be in a league of its own. Critics of animal shelters—yes, there are a lot of them—insist that there’s a loving owner out there for every needy animal. It’s just a matter of bringing the two together. I suspect this is true, much as there’s also enough food available to feed every hungry mouth in the world and that, come on, all we have to do is evenly distribute all those global calories. Were it only so simple.
Reality, of course, gets in the way. And for animal shelters that reality is a new order of grim. On one end of the spectrum there are breeders. These creeps will customize your designer dog to meet every aesthetic wish your status-seeking heart desires and then sell him to you for a mint, leaving you less inclined to pick up a loving if less anatomically appealing friend at the local shelter. No one is damming up this mill.
On the other end you have another breed of creep who forces his pit bull mixes into a procreative mash-up for the sole purpose of fighting, guarding, or otherwise menacing civil society. Not the dogs’ fault, I realize, but it’s the shelter that we call on to clean up the mess and find a secure home for a dog who spent the formative yeas of her life behind a chained link fence frothing at the mouth. Then there’s money. Shelters are seeing funds dry up faster than a cattle pond in West Texas.
That snap you may have just heard is me bending over backwards to make it clear that I know animal shelters are trying to do heroic work under dismal conditions. I make this clear because I’m about to be critical of them. Please note: what I’m getting ready to put out there is by no means a universal problem; it’s an incipient one. What follows is not a blanket condemnation but a plea to nip a problem in the bud. It also works from the premise, one that I try to live my life by, that the best approach to pretty much everything except poker and chess—be it a job, family, love, or whatever—is to be transparent. And hence my point: turns out many shelters, for fear of bad publicity, are not being transparent. Shocking! Well, no, but worth highlighting nonetheless.
The issue is this: there is an ominous if nascent trend developing whereby animal shelters are limiting public access (largely by ending or carefully limiting the use of volunteers) and obtaining legal authority to operate as a holding facility. This transition happened recently at the Lancaster County Animal Control Center in South Carolina after a volunteer leaked a photo on Facebook of a dog sitting next to her own feces in a cage. I never saw the photo but it evidently suggested poor treatment because the shelter was flooded with angry messages from the general public. The shelter responded by removing its Facebook page, reviving it with strict limitations, requiring a massive insurance policy for new volunteers, and limiting those volunteers to employees of the Lancaster Humane Society, not the general public. This turn of events, by the way, is not limited to Lancaster County or South Carolina. It’s happening elsewhere as well.
Whether or not this a story that will have long legs in the national media remains to be seen. What we can safely state is that public access to animal shelters that are financed (however poorly) with public funding is not only a basic right, but also an essential motivation to encourage shelters to lower kill rates. Additionally, given that volunteers are possibly less likely to be jaded and desensitized to animal suffering than full-time employees (I stress possibly here), it is further incumbent on the public to protect access to shelters, either as volunteers or visitors, in order to ensure the most sensitive vigilance to mistreatment.
At this point, I will simply keep an ear and an eye open for more stories that suggest a closing of the shelter doors upon both animals and the public who wants to see them adopted rather than killed. Please let me know if you have information to add or subtract. And for those who toil daily in shelters under the most difficult conditions, I salute you.
Thanks to Jennifer Mora for the tip.
Tomorrow: dog books