Volunteering at a high-kill shelter isn’t easy. And I knew the statistics going into this. But that doesn’t make it any easier and it certainly doesn’t take the sting away. At BARCS volunteer orientation we were told the intake and adoption statistics from 2010. I can’t remember the exact numbers, but it boiled down to only about half the dogs and cats taken in by BARCS were adopted or rescued. BARCS has done an amazing job of lowering the euthanasia rate – before BARCS took over the city shelter, the rate used to be 98%! But there is still a lot of room for improvement and no matter how you look at it, a 50% euthanasia rate is a sobering statistic. It’s something many people don’t realize and many people don’t want to know about.
I volunteer at BARCS because these animals need me. They need a voice, someone to advocate for them. The sad truth is that half of the dogs I meet and photograph probably won’t make it out of BARCS. I try my best not to think about that – I try to live in the moment, spend time getting to know these dogs for the few minutes I have to spend with them. I enjoy those moments, giving them love, treats, and attention. I’m stupidly optimistic and truly believe that each photo I take will save the life of that dog. I know it’s not realistic, but it’s that frame of mind that keeps me going. If I stop to think about it – that half of the dogs I photograph aren’t going to make it out of there – I couldn’t do this job. I couldn’t keep giving a little piece of myself to these precious animals. I couldn’t volunteer at a high-kill shelter.
Most of the dogs at BARCS are pit bull mixes and after the wonderful experiences I’ve had down at the shelter, I can’t help but advocate for them. These poor dogs are so stigmatized because of the irresponsible actions of a handful of people. These dogs are not vicious killers. They are not ready to attack. They are awesome, fun-loving dogs that want to be petted and loved and given treats and attention. They aren’t any different than my own dogs, who are both lying at my feet as I type this. Their hearts, souls, and temperaments are the same. The only difference is their appearance – their breed.
Sunday was a terribly emotional day for me at BARCS. Earlier in the week, I had been down there taking photographs of adoptable dogs. One of those dogs was a spunky girl who had been at the shelter for as long as I had been volunteering. I was super excited to finally meet her and get her an awesome photo for the website. During the week, she disappeared from the website. I was hoping to see her name on the adoption board when I got down there on Sunday morning. No such luck. I asked around and no one knew (or maybe no one wanted to tell me) what happened to her. I don’t think anyone really wanted to know the truth – and to be honest, I didn’t either. I got looks of sadness when I asked about her. I knew it probably wasn’t good.
My heart dropped to the floor and I struggled to hold myself together. As I walked outside to take more photos – photos of dogs that may eventually face that same unthinkable fate – I cried. A lot. It physically hurt me to think that only six days ago, this precious dog was outside playing with me and having her “glamour shots” done for the website. Six days ago, I was optimistic – she was going to find her forever home. Six days later, she’s gone. It absolutely breaks my heart to a million pieces. I wasn’t prepared for the heartbreak I felt because I never allowed myself to stop and think about the reality of it all. It was easier to pretend that every dog was adopted and in a loving home. It was easier to look the other way.
Unfortunately, this happens at shelters all across the country, every single day. The sheer number of unwanted animals that find themselves at high-kill facilities is staggering and these facilities are forced to make hard choices. It’s truly unfortunate. BARCS currently has around 150 dog kennels – most of the time, they are filled to capacity with more dogs coming in each day. The adoption rates are not high enough to sustain this system. There are not enough rescues or foster homes to save all of these animals. Each day, all over the country, dogs are killed simply to make more room in the shelter. That’s right. They are put down for space. Not to put them out of their misery, not because they are aggressive, not because they are terminally ill – they are killed for space. Now stop and think about that. It’s extraordinarily tragic and it happens every single day, all over the country.
It gets me thinking about the importance of responsible pet ownership. I think shelters do the best they can with what they are given – but they are routinely overwhelmed, overcrowded, understaffed and underfunded. The staff and volunteers at BARCS are extraordinarily dedicated and strong. I just get extremely worked up about this sad situation, knowing that the animals are the true victims in this. I firmly believe that there are no bad dogs, just bad owners. The more I volunteer with rescues and shelters, the more I believe it. In my eyes, part of owning a pet is ensuring that they are taken care of for life. Not until they grow out of the cute puppy stage, not until it’s no longer convenient for you, not until they are old and the vet bills are piling up. For life.
I have worked with rescue groups for years now and the excuses for giving up an animal never ceases to amaze me. A pet is a commitment, a part of your family, just like a child. They need you. They can’t take care of themselves. Would you ever consider dropping off your child at a high-kill facility because they are no longer cute and cuddly? Because there is a newer addition to the family and there is no more time/room/money for them? Because they are getting older and you just don’t want to deal with them anymore? Because they shed too much? No. At least, I hope not. For some reason, these are acceptable excuses for leaving behind a once-beloved family member and loyal best friend at a shelter – where they have a 50/50 chance of being put down. Please remember, this is a part of your family – not just something you play with until you grow tired of it. When you commit to a pet, it needs to be a lifelong commitment. And dropping them off at a shelter should be the absolute last resort.
The emotional hit I took on Sunday prompted this blog post. Learning that one of the pups I had grown to know and love was simply gone, I knew I had to write about it. It’s part of my healing process. The work we do as shelter volunteers is hard. If it were easy, everyone would do it. Volunteering is not glamorous – it’s dirty work (literally). We are covered in slobber and poop and pee. It’s emotionally draining and all around hard. At the end of the day, we do it because we care deeply about these animals – despite the emotional toll it takes on us. We do it because we believe we can make a difference in the lives of the voiceless.
Responsible pet ownership starts with the promotion of spaying and neutering all animals. Bob Barker has the right idea! The only way to stop this vicious cycle is to ensure that all animals are spayed and neutered so that unwanted puppies and kittens do not end up in the shelter down the road. There are plenty of other things we can do as responsible pet owners:
- Consider donating a few hours of your time each week to walk some shelter dogs or cuddle with some shelter cats. They will love you for it and it may not seem like much, but every little bit helps!
- Consider donating supplies like old bed linens, blankets, towels, collars, leashes, dog food, cat food, treats, money to your local shelter… all of these donations, big or small, keep a shelter running.
- Spay and neuter your animals – and encourage your friends and family to do the same. This is the only way to control the population and avoid overcrowding at shelters.
- Consider fostering for a local rescue group or shelter – and encourage friends and family to do the same. It’s fun, easy, and totally rewarding – all you need to do is provide a safe, loving home while they search for their forever home. By fostering, you are saving two lives – the life of the dog or cat you foster plus the life of the dog or cat that can now occupy their kennel/cage!
- Consider adoption instead of buying an animal – and encourage friends and family to do the same. Do not support backyard breeders and puppy mills. There are plenty of wonderful dogs (and cats) who need homes waiting for you down at your local shelter. They are the unfortunate victims in this – it isn’t their fault that they are there. They are simply the innocent victims of irresponsible pet ownership.
Please share this post and educate your friends and family about the importance of responsible pet ownership. Together, we can save millions of precious lives.
In loving memory of sweet girl Holiday