Reshaping the expected outcome for animals in shelters in this country includes rethinking "conventional wisdom". We're not going to reshape a nation that has spent decades killing animals in shelters by thinking about things exactly the same way.
And Kim Wolf's presentation at the Best Friends No More Homeless Pets Conference created a different perspective for which to view "at risk" animals for shelters. For anyone not familiar with some of Kim's work, you can see many of her thoughts on her website/blog: Beyond Breed.
In Kim's presentation, she took a look at animals that are "at risk" in our shelters, and the societal factors that are leading to them being at risk. Many of these thoughts are Kim's, with a few of my thoughts sprinkled in. I'm going to do my best to differentiate between to the two as to not try to put words in Kim's mouth (or to take credit for her thoughts).
Kim's presentation started by noting that the single most dangerous place for a pet in this country is sadly, in an animal shelter. And what is it that drives shelter euthanasia? Shelter intake. In order to save animal lives, you need help in not only keeping animals from coming into the shelter, but also in not doing things to prevent them from getting out.
So Kim highlighted 7 key factors that in her opinion was a risk for pets in today's society:
#1) Prevelence in the community. One of the key reasons pit bull terriers are at risk in shelters is in part because of their prevelence. According to Banfield Pet Hospitals, the popularity of pit bull terriers increased by 47% from 2000-2010 based on breed information collected in their nationwide veterinary clinics. According to Vet Street, Pit Bull Terriers are among the top 5 most popular dogs in 33 of the 50 states, and in the top 10 in 46 of them. Pit bulls are at risk in shelters in part because there are so many of them. This is the same factor that puts cats and big black dogs at risk also.
#2) The second factor highlighted by Kim is poverty. In the US today, 1 in 6 people live in poverty. This isn't "struggling to get by" or "living paycheck to paycheck" -- it's pure poverty as in, I'm not sure where my next meal is coming from. To give you a gauge of this, if you are a single person in the continental US, to be considered living in poverty you must make less than $11,490. If you're a part of a family of 4, it's $23,550. That's $23,550, for an entire family of four. For a year. I have no idea how someone lives on that. Let alone, 1 in 6 people in the US.
Those most at risk of living in poverty in this country are minorities, women and children, and those in very urban and very rural environments. Not coincidentally, states with the highest poverty rates tend to coincide with states that are still killing the most animals in their shelter systems.
#3) Factor #3 is lack of housing. First of all, living in poverty can make housing difficult to find. Secondly, 1 in 3 people in the US rents. And the availability of pet-friendly rentals is very limited -- particularly if you own a large dog, or one of a targeted breed. Renters are also likely to be lower income, minorities, young adults, and singles. Many shelter workers will tell you that people who rent tend to make up a high number of people surrender pets to shelters, often because a change in living situation causes them to not be able to find a place to live where they can keep their pet. For the most part, I don't think people don't seem to realize just how hard it is to find pet-friendly, affordable rentals.
Interestingly, last week Bad Rap had an example of someone that they began helping that was about to become homeless and begin living in their car because of the challenge of not being able to find a place to rent with their dogs, and an unwillingness to part with their pets. I know a lot of people say they would live in their car to keep from giving up their pets -- but would you really? Being homeless is a tough pill to swallow.
#4) Resource Deserts -- The USDA started using the term "Food Deserts" several years ago to describe areas where people had little access to fresh foods. Resource Deserts for pets are areas where people lack access to affordable veterinary care (or any veterinary care for that matter). This is most common in urban and rural areas.
Interestingly, awhile back a Kansas City city council member noted that there were very few veternary clinics in some of the neighborhoods he represented that were selling city licenses -- and was shocked to find out that the reason why was that there weren't any vets in those areas. Recently Kansas City received a grant to help with the spay/neuter of pit bulls in two specific zip codes. Interestingly, these two zip codes combined have only one veterinary clinic.
When people of low incomes don't have cars, and cannot take pets on the bus system, and there are no veterinarians around, this lack of resources and animal care education takes its toll (it's also a primary reason why mandating spay/neuter always fails because the resources just simply aren't readily available for the people who are in most of need of help to get the services they need).
#5) Lack of adoption diversification -- According to data gathered by HSUS's Pets for Life program, in the underserved neighborhood they reach out to, 2 out of 3 pet owners got their pet from an acquaintance, as a stray, or pets from their own litter. Only 1 in 3 got their pet from a breeder, pet store or online.
In talking with people I know and respect in Kansas City, many of the people they see in their inner-city outreach programs got their pets through informal networks -- ie, they adopted a stray, or took in a pet from a family member or friend who could no longer keep them, or when a neighbor left a pet behind.
One place they didn't tend to get pets was through adoptions. Many people in low-income communities were unable to make it to a shelter to adopt (and couldn't get the pet home on a bus even if they wanted to). Many wouldn't be able to adopt because they would be denied due to race, income, neighborhood or living arrangement that would be seen as "undesireable" by a rescue group. Thus, many rescues don't seek out these neighborhoods as a place to do off-site adoptions.
I understand why rescues or shelters may have concerns about adopting to people with very low incomes, but I believe they need to overcome those fears.
Kim would say that whether or not you think low-income people should own pets is irrelevant -- because the fact is they ARE owning pets. So your decision is whether or not you want the pets to come from you or not.
I'll take it a step further. In most communities in the US, literally hundreds, or thousands, or sometimes 10s of thousands of lives are being lost in area animal shelters. If pets are dying in your local shelter while you cling to a moral high ground by not allowing people who live below a certain income threshold the opportunity to adopt (most of whom will end up with a pet anyway), then it's time to reconsider what problem you think you're solving. And yes, these adopters may not have the resources for the worst case scenario when it comes to a pet's health -- but why not be a resource for them IF this situation arises instead of denying a pet a chance for a loving home because of what MIGHT happen? Not only can you find a pet a home, but you can also become a resource to help overcome the "resource dessert" problem they face. You can be that resource.
#6) Barriers to Length of Stay -- far too may shelters are still denying the ability of pit bull terriers to leave the shelter, or are putting more challenging requirements on those that seek to save them. This is getting better, but it is still far too prevelent. If your shelter is making it harder for pets of certain types to get out, they need to re-look at that policy. Yesterday.
#7) Ineffective Messaging -- I'm not going to get into a lot of this for the purpose of this post, but suffice it to say, many of our messaging tactics regarding bullies pit bull terriers is not helping. Marketing dogs in a way such as "pit bulls are harder to adopt because no one wants them" are not only inaccurate (see point #1), but actually help create the situation where people think they shouldn't adopt them.
According to Kim, the biggest issue facing pit bull terriers in this country is not breed-descriminatory laws, it's poverty. And lack of resources. It is a driving factor for how the dogs end up in shelters in the first place, and keeping them out is certainly easier than trying to save them once they're there. But even then, we have a lot more outlets for them as shelters/rescues than we allow ourselves to access.
I really enjoyed this presentation and it was a different perspective than is usually provided at animal welfare conferences. And it's a story that badly needs to be told.
For further reading:
Very Good Sentences - thoughts on poverty and animals -- KC Dog Blog
The Revolving Door: A poverty problem, not a pet problem - Beyond Breed