Archive for April, 2012

Let me say this right up front. I am not an Obama supporter. Before my Democrat friends get all riled up, I don’t much like Romney either. In fact, let’s get Romney out of the way first so we can talk about what I want to talk about.

Romney strapped a crate to the roof of his vehicle and stuck his dog in it for a lengthy drive. The poor dog became ill, and Romney was inconvenienced by having to hose down the dog and the crate mid-trip. Do I approve? Hell no. Do I think that, depending on the exact circumstances, this should have qualified as animal abuse? Should it have been illegal? Yes, quite probably. (And I only qualify it as probably because I do not know the exact circumstances.) I also do not approve of the additional information provided by Romney’s sister; according to her, the dog regularly went walkabout and ended up in the pound.

Admittedly, standards of animal care were different 25 years ago. But not that different. This information is indicative of of irresponsible pet ownership at best and neglect/abuse at worst.

And I am not impressed.

That having been said, let me address the Obama Dog Joke Debacle.

When I first saw references to the “pit bulls are delicious” joke online today, I thought it had to be false information. Surely, I thought, no sitting President of the United States of America would exhibit such bad taste and poor judgement.

I was wrong. He did. As did his handlers, if they knew he was going to say it.

The President of the United States of America should have more dignity and more class than to make a “joke” guaranteed to offend millions of Americans. Is he really that out of touch with his constituents? (I didn’t like his comments about Hillary Clinton drunk texting him either. Tasteless, tasteless, tasteless.)

So why is this so offensive? First, millions of Americans are fierce animal advocates. We don’t appreciate weird unfunny jokes about eating what we consider family members. Second, in the United States of American, dogs are not edible. It is not culturally acceptable, and in fact it is one of the great cultural separation points between us and some cultures who still view dogs as meat animals. Americans on the whole view eating dogs as barbaric and disgusting. I’m no lawyer, but I’m pretty sure that it would be illegal abuse of animals to kill and eat dogs in this country.

Some Obama supporters are claiming that he made the joke to deflect the Romney camp’s attacks.  It seems that Romney’s people want to distract the voters from the Romney Dog Trip Disaster by pointing out that Obama ate dogs instead of simply scaring them into incontinence. I don’t care why he made the joke. It was wrong. (And let me reiterate that I don’t care why Romney tied a dog to the roof. It was wrong.)

Yes, we understand that Obama ate dog meat as a child in a foreign country. It was put on his plate, he ate it, that’s how things were. I do not blame him for that. I do absolutely blame him for being out of touch enough to think that the American public would find humor in it. I do blame him for joking about what, for this culture, is animal abuse. It undermines and diminishes the efforts of animal advocates everywhere. We spend our days covered in dog hair and dirt and worse. We fight every day to prevent animal abuse. Our President dresses up in a tux and makes juvenile jokes (on tv, no less) that trivialize the violation of a major cultural taboo.

Inappropriate. Tasteless. Insensitive. And unworthy behavior from anyone holding or aspiring to hold the most important office in this nation.

Once again, the local animal welfare community has run afoul of an internet troll with nothing better to do than attack people for putting all of their time and resources into animal welfare.

This particular troll trotted out the usual nonsense:

  • It’s “just a dog.”
  • How can we care so much about dogs when CHILDREN ARE BEING ABUSED?
  • If we had real lives, families, children, we wouldn’t be so foolishly obsessed with stupid animals.
  • And my favorite – who the hell do we think we are to judge how other people treat their animals?!

Well, let’s take these one at a time.

“Just a Dog”

There is no such thing. Dogs are members of my family. They think, they feel, they live and breathe. And more than that, the dogs (and the cat) for whom I am responsible are exactly that: my responsibility. When I took these animals into my home, I made a commitment to make their lives as safe, happy, and healthy as I possibly could. That commitment is unbreakable. Regardless of how my life evolves, I will plan for their care and well-being. They are totally dependent on me, and I will not let them down.

Anyone capable of uttering the words “just a dog” cannot comprehend the profound nature of such a commitment.

“But Children are Being Abused!”

Yes, they are. And it is a terrible thing. But why would anyone think for a moment that caring about animals somehow takes away from the cause of abused children? The people who use this argument seem to be saying that by caring about animals, animal welfare people are willfully ignoring the plight of abused children (or battered women or starving people in Africa – you get the idea). I do not find helping people and helping animals to be mutually exclusive.

“If We Had Real Lives…”

Really? That’s just insulting. Taking care of animals is a crucial part of my very real life.I integrate animal welfare into my day job, my evenings, my weekends. And I do so much less than many other AW advocates of my acquaintance. We deal with injured animals, neglected animals, homeless and frightened animals. We pay vet bills and raise funds for the care of the animals, we hurt when they hurt and we suffer when their suffering ends in merciful death. And since my animal welfare community includes people who are single, married, divorced, have kids, don’t have kids, have lots of money, live from one check to the next…clearly there is no “I don’t have a life” prerequisite for loving animals.

Who Are We to Judge?

We’re the people who give up our weekends to walk dogs at the smelly animal shelter. We’re the people who open our homes to animals in need. We’re the people who pay vet bills for animals who are not even our own. We’re the ones who stop traffic to get a dog out of the road. We lay face down in puddles in the rain to get baby animals out of a drain. We give up date night to take a homeless animal to a safe place. We sit up nights with sick animals. We find homes and families for animals in need. Above all, we do our best to save as many as we can, all the while knowing it will never be enough.

So when someone belittles our life’s work, when someone implies that our lives are less important because we devote them to “just dogs”…damn right we judge. For anyone who cannot grasp how vital it is to model and live kindness to animals, we judge that you lack certain qualities of true humanity.

How we treat those who depend on us for food, shelter, water,and love is a clear indicator of what kind of person we choose to be. And I choose to be that person who speaks up every day on behalf of my furry friends and family who cannot speak up for themselves.

Every animal welfare person has a reason we do what we do. For many of us, it’s just a way of life we have always lived. For others, it’s one animal that touched us so deeply that we made a lifelong commitment to helping other animals in their honor.

Most of us also develop preferences for certain breeds. No matter how much I love all animals, I have a soft spot for Pekingeses, Golden Retrievers, and Anatolian Shepherds. Another friend loves Chihuahuas – in fact, when the shelter gets in a “mean one” that no one else can handle, they call her to come work her magic. It doesn’t mean we don’t love other animals; it just means those particular breeds have an extra hold on our hearts.

Nothing wrong with that. Many animal welfare people with a strong preference for a specific breed end up working in breed rescue, where they can devote all their time and energy to saving dogs of that particular breed. I did that for a while myself, but I find that for me, working at the shelter in person with a wide variety of dogs and humans is more satisfying and interesting.

Here’s what I don’t like:

Some animal welfare people with a strong breed preference take it too far. They don’t just support their breed. They openly speak ill of other breeds.

Take a look at these two sample statements:

Option A: “I don’t work with pitbulls much, because I prefer smaller long-haired dogs like cocker spaniels. Let me introduce you to the volunteer who knows the most about the bully breeds.”

Option B: “I hate pitbulls. Everyone knows they’re all aggressive. That’s why I only work with little dogs. You need to get a little dog.”

Which of those two statements is more useful? More appropriate? More conducive to maintaining a positive adoption environment?

Option A is a perfectly reasonable statement, based on a stated personal preference, and without expressing any overt negativity toward the less favored breed. A potential adopter seeking information would walk away from that statement with an introduction to a resource from which he or she could get could information about a dog they’re interested in. The person who says this is still being helpful, and is not being negative about the potential adopter’s breed preference.

Option B is not a reasonable statement. It expresses a blind prejudice on the part of the speaker, and it in fact conveys false and dangerous information to a potential adopter. It may completely turn the potential adopter away from the shelter. It may endanger a dog that MIGHT have gotten adopted by that person and now is still stuck in a kill shelter. It may perpetuate negative stereotypes about a particular breed or type of dog. It also conveys that the speaker thinks the person inquiring about the breed in question is WRONG, which is never good for public relations.

Speaking as an adopter and as a volunteer, I’ll say very frankly that there are some breeds I do not care for because their breed traits don’t work for me. That doesn’t make the breed bad, nor does it mean that anyone wanting to adopt a dog from one of the breeds I don’t care for is wrong or stupid. It means those dogs are not right for me.

Every dog, regardless of breed (or mix of breeds), has the perfect home waiting somewhere. Please, don’t reduce their chances of finding that perfect home by saying the wrong thing to someone who might be just right for a dog that wouldn’t be right for you.

Like it or not, every one of us represents animal welfare to the public. Let’s do it well.

Most weekends find me at the Montgomery County Animal Shelter, walking dogs and taking pictures of them to help get them adopted. For years, I have worked rescue in various capacities, and I have taken a close look at a wide variety of different animal charities and volunteer groups.

Here’s what I’ve learned. In every group, some volunteers are wonderful, helpful, and hard-working. Some are more trouble than they’re worth.

The volunteers in the first category are the ones who literally make it possible to save more animals. The ones in the second category are the ones who make it harder for the good ones to do their job.

Good volunteers can do an incredible variety of things to help. Animals shelters and rescues always need people to do the following:

  • Foster pets waiting for adoption.
  • Walk dogs.
  • Take photographs for online adoption profiles.
  • Bathe and groom dogs.
  • Clean runs and cages.
  • Wash towels and bedding.
  • Solicit donations and do fundraisers.
  • Run adoption events.
  • Do publicity.
  • Donate food, money, towels, bedding.

What makes a good volunteer? A good volunteer learns the parameters and protocols of the organization and works within them. A good volunteer always fulfills his or her commitments; if you say you’ll run an event or do a time-sensitive job, make sure it happens. Lives literally depend on you. A good volunteer learns to handle animals properly so that neither people nor animals are put at risk. It is not helpful for animals to get loose and run through a shelter. It can actually be dangerous, when you think of how many people off the street walk through a shelter, and how many animals from unknown backgrounds are all in one place.

A good volunteer sees what needs doing and finds a way to help without getting in the way of others doing their jobs. If there are already more people than space walking dogs, then go do laundry or bathe dogs. There is always something productive to be done in the shelter.

One thing that every good volunteer needs to realize is that animal welfare people often have better skills with animals than with people. That means you may find yourself working beside people with loud, overtly expressed opinions, or with poor conversational skills, or who are just plain annoying. Keep an open mind (easier said than done) and remind yourself what you have in common: the need to help animals.

Now let me say what everyone tries to avoid saying. Here’s what NOT to do.

Don’t get in the way. If, for example, someone is trying wrestle two uncooperative eighty pound dogs down the hall, that would not be the moment to walk a 5 pound chihuahua past them on a loose leash. You could provoke a fight, endanger the little dog, and jeopardize the big dogs’ adoptability status. It could even cause a volunteer to get bitten.

Remember that the shelter is not a daycare. I was horrified recently when a new volunteer showed up with a very small child and allowed the kid to run unsupervised through the shelter. We all realized what was happening when several loose dogs showed up in the lobby. The kid was opening cages. The adult? No idea where she was. After we solved that problem, I later found the adult allowing the little kid to walk a dog he couldn’t handle – right in front of the sign that said all dog walkers had to be at least sixteen. We also had someone come in to be a volunteer, but then she told the shelter that she would have to bring her new infant to the shelter with her. Nope!

Don’t do stupid things with animals (like the aforementioned). Last weekend, I saw a volunteer tie a small dog to a fence with a slip leash. The little guy was panicking and about to strangle himself. Why did she do this? Because she and her daughters had brought out more animals than they could comfortably walk and decided to leave that one tied to a fence while they walked the others. It was dangerous, careless, and wrong. The little dog could have hurt himself or gotten loose. The dogs running loose on the other side of the fence could have tried to attack him through the fence. The volunteer was more concerned about accomodating her daughters than taking care of the dogs.

Don’t come in to the shelter and announce that we’re doing everything wrong. Don’t show up and tell us that if we really cared about the animals, we would instantly become no kill. Don’t assume that we don’t know what we’re doing. Unbelievably, I have seen perfect strangers do these things. And yet the people who are in that shelter day after day, who rehabilitate the damaged, who stay up nights with the sick and injured know more and care more than anyone off the street can possibly know.

Please, be a good volunteer. And bring your friends to do likewise. We deeply appreciate our good volunteers, we need you, we save lives because of you.

Not sure how to help? Just ask!

Repeat after me: Pets are a lifetime commitment.

I don’t know why people don’t get this. When you get a divorce, you keep your kids, so why would you not keep your pets? When you move to a new home, you don’t re-home your kids. When you get a job, you don’t dump your human kids at the shelter.

I know sometimes circumstances change, and emergencies happen. I’m not talking about those occasions when circumstances drive someone to a painful but necessary decision. I’m talking about people who either took on commitments they were unprepared to handle or who simply didn’t choose to honor those commitments. I’m talking about people who treat animals as expendable, without a thought to their needs and feelings.

Every day around the country, animals are brought to shelters and surrendered by their owners. Stupid pseudo-reasons commonly include:

  • “She doesn’t like my new boyfriend.”
  • “My apartment manager found out I had a pet they didn’t know about.”
  • “I’m getting a divorce.”
  • “I changed jobs and don’t have time for the dog.”
  • “She’s old and I don’t want to watch her die.”
  • “He doesn’t match my new couch.”
  • “My realtor says the house will sell faster if I don’t have pets.”

And a personal not-so-favorite:

  • “We’re having a baby, so we can’t have pets anymore.”

Every time I see one of these “reasons”, I want to scream. Seriously, what is WRONG with humans? How do you take an animal that you have loved, fed, bathed, groomed, and taken care of for years and dump them in a place where the odds of a lonely and frightening death are way too high?

Even worse is when people who purport to be animal welfare workers do the same thing. One poor foster dog was dumped at the shelter by his “family” and then sent to what we thought would be a permanent foster home. A few weeks later, the foster returned the dog in worse condition, saying that he had acquired a contagious skin disease. The disease is easily treatable. The foster’s dogs had all been previously exposed to this dog, which meant that dumping him at the shelter was not going to protect the other dogs from contracting the disease. And the real kicker is the dog did NOT have the skin disease when he left the shelter the first time.

The dog’s foster parent knew that leaving him at the shelter in that condition was almost certainly a death sentence. Didn’t care. Knew that the shelter vets could provide any necessary meds. Didn’t matter.

All that mattered was dumping a dog who once again found himself abandoned in the shelter by humans he trusted.

Let’s try this again. Repeat after me: Pets are a lifetime commitment.

I will never understand how anyone can abandon a family pet. And yet every day, dumped dogs, found dogs, dogs turned in by owners – they all wind up in the shelter. In our local shelter, which is run by hardworking staff who try their very best to save every animal they can, the employees have the heartbreaking task of euthanizing roughly 35 percent of the unwanted animals left to their custody.

I have seen several cases lately of animal welfare people not meeting their responsibility for foster or personal pets. It is especially upsetting to see the people who spend their lives publicly fighting against treating animals as expendable privately doing the very thing for which they criticize others.

Bottom line: If you adopt pets, you take them on for life. You commit to care for them, feed them, love them, and take care of their veterinary needs.

If you foster, that is necessarily a bit more flexible, but you make sure that you only take on those commitments you can meet, or that you set clearly defined parameters so that the parent organization knows for how long or under what circumstances you are willing to keep the animal.

You never, ever do anything that places the animal in greater jeopardy. You never, ever neglect veterinary needs. You’re not doing an animal any favors by placing him in a home that cannot afford to care for him or does not have time to meet his needs.

Pets are a commitment. Until we all choose to honor that commitment as unbreakable, the shelters will continue to fill up with the innocent victims of irresponsible humans.

And that is NOT okay.

*I originally ran this column in February of 2011. Now here we are smack in the middle of puppy season, and I have seen a number of puppies and young dogs succumb to these two awful diseases. So it seemed like the right time to run it again.*

As we move into puppy season, lots of people will be adopting new babies from shelters, and lots of foster families will be taking home entire litters of little guys.

Unfortunately, puppies do not have fully developed immune systems, which makes them very, very vulnerable to a host of illnesses that older animals either might not contract or might have a much better chance of surviving.

Two of the most common are parvovirus and distemper. It is absolutely critical that any puppy or adult dog – especially those coming from a shelter environment, where they have probably been exposed to illnesses that other animals were incubating – be vaccinated with the DHLPP virus, which immunizes pets against both of these.

Be aware that other illnesses can produce similar symptoms to some of the ones produces by parvo and distemper. I have had a veterinarian misdiagnose parvo, simply because she assumed that any shelter dog presenting with acute diarrhea must have parvo.

Fortunately, I had enough experience to know that his real problem was depleted gut syndrome from having taken a course of strong antibiotics. Laboratory tests confirmed my suspicion. I also knew that the odds were low that this dog could have contracted parvo; it was an older dog that had already been vaccinated for almost two months and out of the shelter for several weeks. He simply did not fit the profile.

The following is a quote from the veterinary chapter of the Rescuer’s Handbook © on common medical conditions of rescue dogs:

“Parvo primarily affects very young dogs under a year old, especially puppies coming from a shelter environment. If a young dog (unvaccinated or very recently vaccinated) begins to vomit and have diarrhea within about 10 days of arrival, RUN to the vet’s office. Immediate treatment is the only hope, and even then the odds are against you. The dehydration from the constant loss of body fluids is the killer in this case. Expect that the patient will need to spend several days in isolation on iv fluids at the clinic. Then go home and disinfect EVERYTHING to limit the possibility that your other animals might contract the disease.

Distemper is a virus which attacks the dog’s neurological system. Again, it has a very high mortality rate and is very contagious to unvaccinated animals. Early symptoms of distemper include fever, mild seizure activity, and eventually loss of neurological function. A common neurological result is that the dog “doesn’t know where his feet are.”  Basically, the dog becomes increasingly less able to walk, chew, drink, and even breathe properly.  Treatment is only minimally effective. The survival rate is less than ten percent, and many of the survivors suffer permanent neurological impairment, especially in the form of twitching and jerking. Survivors often look like they have a canine version of acute Tourette’s syndrome, due to the prevalence of facial tics. It is also very expensive to treat. The combination of the high cost of treatment, in conjunction with the high mortality rate and the risk of contagion, means that most veterinarians will recommend euthanasia.”

Please don’t take this information as a reason to avoid adopting or fostering shelter puppies. I am providing it strictly to help you keep your personal pets, fosters, and new arrivals as healthy as possible.