Animal Rescue: The Ultimate NONprofit.

Recently I saw a comment from an animal shelter volunteer (who should have known better) indicating her belief that rescue groups are in it for profit. I was stunned. How anyone can volunteer at a shelter or with any other type of animal welfare group and still believe that a rescue could possibly make a profit is just beyond my comprehension.


If this confusion still lingers among our own volunteers, the general public (aka civilians) must be even more confused. So let me tell you how rescues really work.


First, where do rescues get their animals? Most groups pull animals from local shelters. This in turn frees up space in crowded shelters, which helps the shelters avoid euthanizing animals due to space constraints. It also means that the rescue group pays for any veterinary care the animal might need, which lifts that burden from strained shelter resources. Some animals may also come to rescue groups as strays picked up by good Samaritans, and some are surrendered by owners who can’t or won’t keep them, but don’t want to turn them over to a shelter.


One of the most common questions rescuers face is why their adoption fees are “so high.” They are NOT high, in most cases! Adoption fees for most rescue groups in my area run between $150 and $250, whereas shelter adoption fees tend to run $80 – $100. Here’s the difference:


For a shelter adoption fee, your new pet is spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and probably microchipped. However, in many cases, the shelter knows very little about the animal’s past, behavioral needs, and any underlying health issues. That’s not the shelter’s fault. It’s just what happens when hundreds of animals coexist in cages while waiting for adoption.


For a rescue adoption fee, your new pet is spayed or neutered, vaccinated, microchipped, and evaluated by someone in the rescue group. The rescue pet has probably been in a foster home, where they’ve had more opportunity to see how how he interacts with dogs, cats, kids, people. They should have been able to address any behavioral needs or issues, and the animal will have been vetted much more extensively. Very often, animals released to rescue are the ones with medical needs that shelters can’t handle.


One example would be Sofia. Sofia was a beautiful young mastiff who came into our local shelter in terrible condition. She weighed 80 pounds, when she should have weighed 130. She had an ugly mass on her face, and her eyes were swollen shut from an infection. The infection turned out to be bilateral entropion, which basically means that the lash line of each eyelid was rolled under. The lashes were literally in constant contact with her eyeballs, and the resulting irritation had become a raging infection. She needed major medical care, a suitable environment in which to recuperate, and time to gain back the other 50 pounds. None of those are available in a shelter that has several hundred animals in house at all times.


Sofia’s vet care cost around $2300. I know, because I did the fundraising to cover most of it. Her adoption fee was $200. Because she was in rescue, we had the luxury of choosing from several applications to find the most suitable home for her. We had the time to let her get truly healthy so that her real personality could come out, and she could recover from abuse and neglect. But the rescue sure didn’t make a profit on her or any other animal.


And now there is Darius. Darius is currently with the same rescue that saved Sofia. He’s a charming young tabby cat taken into rescue at the request of a small rural shelter. When someone found Darius and his siblings in a dumpster, the shelter already had ten other young tabbies in residence. They knew that Darius would not stand much chance of adoption with them. So they reached out to Smart Rescue, one of my favorite groups.


Smart was happy to take Darius, and he had been doing well in his foster home. But they noticed he was having some weird problems with his ear. It took some serious investigative work to figure it out, because what Darius has is very rare in a young cat. Finally a specialist was able to diagnose him with Apocrine Cystomatosis.  This is a disorder of the sweat glands that typically hits older cats, and the only treatment is surgical removal. The really unfortunate part for Darius is that the disorder produces constant cyst growth, and his are inside his ear. The cysts make his ear constantly inflamed and infected, and they are so severe that they have produced vestibular episodes, which are sort of like vertigo for animals. He is in constant pain. The vet has recommended removing the entire ear, inside and out. It will eliminate the source of his pain and allow him to be comfortable and healthy. The estimated cost – even after a rescue discount – is about $3000.


Tell me again how rescue is a for profit enterprise. Seriously. There is only one way for any rescue to pay the huge vet bills that regularly come their way. Donations!


If you feel the urge to help Darius, please click on this link. Every dollar counts.


A Catastrophic Betrayal at MCAS

Today is not my usual day for blogging. But something has happened that is so outrageously wrong that it cannot wait until Wednesday.


Last week, I said that I was hoping that Dr. Aubrey Ross would turn out to be the best thing to ever happen to the Montgomery County Animal Shelter. Today he has shown that he may well be the worst.


Anyone who has been involved with the shelter for the last several years knows who Minda Harris is. She started out as a volunteer, and became the best damn director MCAS had ever seen. She built a huge, thriving, active volunteer program, she developed relationships with dozens of rescue groups, and she fought like hell to save every animal she possibly could. Because of her, MCAS has weekly offsite adoption events. Because of her, the old, sick, and injured get a chance. Because of her, countless people have opened their homes to foster or adopt animals.


She is one of the main reasons that MCAS saw their euthanasia rate go down even as the intake rates continued to rise.


When Dr. Ross very suddenly, quietly, and unexpectedly purchased Care Corp in December, there was the usual concern that new ownership would mean sacrificing current employees to allow the new guy to bring in his own people. But Dr. Ross assured Minda that her job was safe. Tim Holifield, the founder and former owner of Care, personally assured me that Dr. Ross was a great guy who understood how vital Minda’s role is.


Today, February 13, 2015, Minda Harris was fired from Care Corp. because she just doesn’t fit into his plans.


And that was a huge mistake. A betrayal of catastrophic proportion.


Dr. Ross is the owner of a for-profit entity whose business model cannot succeed without volunteers – at least, not if he gives a damn about saving the animal lives for which he is responsible. The volunteer community was already seriously compromised because of policy and personnel changes made by Dr. Ross. This catastrophic decision makes it clear that Dr. Ross doesn’t understand how dependent his success is on the volunteers. It also showcases that either (A) he really has no clue that Minda is the heart and soul of the volunteer community or (B) he knows it and is threatened by the community’s deep loyalty and allegiance to Minda.


Either way, he has now guaranteed himself permanent status as the unwelcome outsider who is single-handedly destroying what hundreds of people spent years building.


Care Corp.’s contract does have an expiration date. I’m pretty sure today’s terrible error in judgement means it will never be renewed.


We will not forget. And we will not forgive.

Big Changes at MCAS

A couple of years ago, Montgomery County decided to privatize the county shelter. The theory was that privatization would allow the shelter to use the measly, minuscule, inadequate budget provided by the county more effectively. The management company would be able to hire and fire without going through civil service procedures. They would be able to make more flexible decisions about hours and staffing. And we were all hoping that the result would be more lives saved.


The existence of a for-profit management company became extremely controversial. Some people complained that Care didn’t live up to their promises, and some got worried when Care also acquired the management contract for the shelter owned by the City of Conroe. Many worried that the for profit structure would end up taking money away from the animals. Since for profit companies cannot accept donations or volunteer hours, this necessitated the establishment of the Montgomery County Animal Society, a nonprofit whose function was to serve as a hub for volunteers and donations, which in turn would fill those gaps left by the aforementioned measly, minuscule, inadequate budget.


Statistics do show that during Care’s tenure, live release rates rose, even as intake continued to increase, largely thanks to the shelter director and her army of employees and volunteers. (Intake finally dropped for the first time in years in 2014.) One of the best things about the Care Corp. era was that the original owners gave the shelter manager the autonomy to do what she does best: rally the volunteers, move animals to rescue, and save lives. Lots of lives.


Then we all logged in to Facebook one day and saw the announcement that Care Corp. had been sold to Dr. Ross, a veterinarian who had been employed by the shelter. And all hell promptly broke loose.


Who is this guy? What kind of experience does he have? Would it affect the staff? The hours? The volunteers? The work with rescue? The clinic? Hysteria reigned supreme, to the point that the former owner of Care Corp. sent out an open letter in the hopes of appeasing the outrage. Ironically, had he addressed the sale this directly in the first place, some of the initial panic might not have happened.


Predictably, the new guy wants to put his own stamp on the place. Equally predictably, every change has further fractured the employee and volunteer communities, because we still had no answers. Was he qualified? Competent? Willing to listen?


FINALLY, after several weeks of turmoil, Dr. Ross held a meeting with the volunteer community to address their concerns. It did help, but frankly, my observations suggest that it was a case of too little, too late. Especially in light of what happened next.


Residents of the greater Houston area have probably seen Dumpstergate on the news. Per the official story, a couple of employees were told or decided to clean out a storage area full of donations. They told Dr. Ross that the donations in question were damaged and unusable, so he gave permission to dispose of them. They did. Along with substantial quantities of undamaged donations, including a couple of cases of food just donated that very day. The employees were caught in the act by horrified volunteers, who spent the rest of the day dumpster diving to salvage whatever they could. This debacle went on for two days, because even after Dr. Ross was informed, he apparently did nothing to stop it.


Result: The employee and volunteer communities are seriously divided. Certain employees have taken to social media to criticize other employees and mock volunteers. Volunteers have voiced their outrage over the wasted donations and their concerns over the future of the shelter. There is an online petition seeking to kick out Care Corp. and give the shelter to a nonprofit organization. There are Facebook pages both for and against the new management. So what is Dr. Ross doing to quell the chaos? I don’t know.


The undeniable fact is that the Care Corp. contract will come up for renewal at some point. And if the volunteer community is not happy with his leadership, he will be in for one hell of a fight.


Dr. Ross needs to understand RIGHT NOW exactly how vital the volunteer community is to the success of Care Corp. He needs to cultivate a strong relationship with the volunteer community, because his business model is such that he literally cannot succeed without our support.


Understand me – I WANT Dr. Ross to be the best thing that ever happened to the shelter. If he’s not, it literally becomes life or death for the animals that come through the doors. Going back to direct county management would be catastrophic, and I’m undecided on the subject of nonprofit management. So I’m hoping to see him exhibit strong leadership skills, which would include listening to the volunteers, requiring appropriate employee behavior, trusting and empowering his shelter manager, and above all, learning how the MCAS family works before he tries to reshape it. I don’t envy the task ahead of him.


Especially since we’ll all be watching.

Airbnb – Culture With a Small “C”

Today’s column is for both my regular travel-loving audience and for my educator friends. I’d like to introduce you to one of my favorite online resources for culture with a small “c.” If you don’t know about, you really need to check it out.


AirBnB started out as sort a glorified clearinghouse for couch surfers, but has expanded into a huge international service that allows people to list any and every kind of lodging, from an ancient van fitted out as a tiny mobile apartment (that you share with its nouveau hippie occupants) to huge estates that rent at an astonishing $3000 per night. Per their site, they offer lodging in 190 countries!


From the traveler’s perspective, AirBnB is a fantastic opportunity to stay in unique places, spend time living the way locals live, and meet people you’d otherwise never see. For the cultural traveler, this is exactly what we’re looking for – not just trendy tourist spots, but total immersion into the lifestyle of your destination.


You can read the bios of the hosts to find out how much contact they’ll have with their guests and what level of service they offer. You can read very honest reviews from recent guests. You’ll see detailed pictures of the available properties, sometimes right down to the resident pets. Some of the more unique properties include igloos, treehouses, the aforementioned van, and even castles. You can share a room, or rent an entire estate. The service offers infinite flexibility and possibility.


Airbnb for Education


For my educator friends, this website gives me a way to show my kids what homes really look like in other countries. Those details (culture with a small “c”) are never accessible through textbooks. So far, my kids have learned that in many places, the washer and dryer are in the bathroom or the kitchen, because that’s where the water pipes are. They are fascinated by two-burner stoves, oddly shaped kitchen sinks, and refrigerators that are just tiny by American standards. They’ve deduced that people in Ushuaia like bright colors, and that Nicaragua has a lot more middle class housing than they would have thought.


Using AirBnB also gets the kids much more invested in looking at the geography of the country we’re studying, as they look to see which city the home is in, what the area offers, whether it’s safe for tourists, and how to get there. When they ask why a nice B&B is so cheap in some places and so expensive in others, it opens a dialogue about the value of the dollar against the country’s currency.


I use these lessons as a springboard to get my language students to discuss history, activities, daily life, trip planning, safety, money, and a host of related topics – all in Spanish. Even my quietest students are happy to tell me (in Spanish) where to click on the screen to help me navigate to their favorite property.


Best of all, several students have told me that our AirBnB days have inspired them to plan future travel to some of the places we’ve studied. And to tell you the truth, I’ve found new destinations for myself too. I would never have developed an interest in Ushuaia, Argentina, if we hadn’t spent some time looking at it on AirBnB. Now it’s on my list of someday places.


Go take a look. What do you want to add to yours?

I Travel By Myself.

I long ago realized that if I have a choice between traveling alone and not traveling…I’m traveling alone. I’ve traveled with friends, and sometimes that was great. Sometimes it made me wonder why the hell I was friends with that person at all.


I’m the first one to admit that traveling alone used to scare me. And there are still some places in the world where I am not entirely comfortable traveling as a single woman. But on the whole, traveling by myself is incredibly liberating.


From an entirely selfish perspective, when I travel by myself, it’s all about me. What do I want to do today? Where do I want to go? Where do I want to eat, shop, take pictures, people watch? Do I want to meet people, join a tour, or just be alone to take pictures and soak up the atmosphere?


As a teacher, I spend my life being responsible to and for other people. Especially when I travel with kids. Don’t get me wrong – I love the kids, and I enjoy traveling with them. But the responsibility of being the adult in charge of a wandering herd of adolescents is…HUGE. So when I have a chance to spend a few days being responsible only for myself, it’s a lovely change of pace and an entirely different experience.


Take my regular trips to Spain. First, I went with friends. It was awesome. Loved it. Then I went with students. It was beyond awesome, because I had the thrill of watching my kids experience another world. And then finally I went alone.


And you know what? I met people. I went into stores I would have missed. I took pictures I would have overlooked. I spent time in the small towns and the low-tourism rural areas I love – people told me regularly that I was the only American they had ever met. I had tapas in Basque bars, I hiked the mountain with a local guide, I rummaged the hardware store for local tools and handmade Basque ceramics. I convinced a pair of mounted policemen to let me photograph their horses, and I listened to taxi drivers tell me their life stories in the matter of a few blocks.


Because I was alone and on my own schedule, if I found someone interesting, I could stop and talk. That netted me on of my favorite overseas experiences – the day I walked out of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilboa to find a dog rescue event in full swing. Since I live and breathe for my dogs, I went straight over. The Spanish rescue volunteers and I ended up having a fascinating conversation comparing the state of animal welfare in our respective countries. To be completely honest, the museum itself didn’t do much for me – the art was a little too modern for my taste – but the hour I spent with the rescue volunteers was priceless.


A few recommendations if you’re contemplating a one person trip: Be alert. Observe everything. Ask questions. Talk to strangers. Smile. Go where the locals go. Take pictures. Buy local handcrafts instead of hokey teeshirts. Say thank you. Dress appropriately. Follow local customs – which means informing yourself thoroughly ahead of time. Be respectful. And never, never, never complain about how the USA is so much better than wherever you’re visiting.


Give it a try…you’ll get to know the the culture you’re visiting on a whole new level. And you might get to know yourself better in the process.