Sheltering Animals and Living Through It

THE REAL SHIT

A huge part of my life for nearly 5 years was my work for an not-for-profit corporation-run animal shelter (NoFoProAS for short). Suffice it to say, it was physically, emotionally, and spiritually demanding work. I was not unscathed by my work there, and it has taken over a year to heal from the strange sort of gas-lighting that is reinforced in this “FeelGood” industry. Funnily enough, my healing was not from euthanasia or sad stories, but from the dramatic denial of reality which was at the core of the culture in this NoFoProAS.

IMPORTANT POINTS BEFORE DIVING IN

First, I NO LONGER work at this NoFoProAS going on a year and a half. This is a good development, of which you will soon be convinced (or not, I don’t care). I have heard from folks still there that the situation is worse and better – packed more tightly with animals (worse), but staff is getting paid a living wage for the area rather they live, rather than the poverty wage I and many endured for “the mission” or something like that.

Second, due to my experiences at this NoFoProAS, I have a very strong bias against this particular institution. This is obvious, and if you needed this stated, you didn’t read the one above. I own my bias. My bias doesn’t change my experiences, but rather was informed by my experiences.

Third, I am pro-euthanasia. If this offends you, I will ask you to be uncomfortable and read on anyway.

Humane Euthanasia, The Animal Welfare Apparatus, and The Five Freedoms

I am an advocate of humane euthanasia in animal sheltering facilities. You and I may agree/disagree on a fundamental/necessary tool of the animal control apparatus. During my time working within this apparatus, at a non-profit corporation, I came to know burnout. However, I didn’t experience this burnout from the day to day grind, or the loss of residents. I obtained burnout from the side effects of running an operation based on ideas that exist as feelings not fact, through the labeling our efforts as “good work” in the face of blatant classist/racist policies and without statistical justification, all while actively denying other contributing factors that create the overpopulation problem – specifically the human behaviors of not spaying/neutering their companion pets, economic practices which have created – among many horrors against humanity – the engine of subprime lending, and subsequent loss of homes (for persons, and therefore, their animals), and general dismissal of responsibility towards our community members and the economic upheaval at the core of much of the displacement of companion animals we see.

The Five Freedoms

Before we get into further details, here’s the Five Freedoms – the guiding principles to aspire to while acting within the animal welfare apparatus. The Five Freedoms outline five aspects of animal welfare under human control, as follows:

  1. Freedom from hunger or thirst by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour;
  2. Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area;
  3. Freedom from pain, injury or disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment
  4. Freedom to express (most) normal behaviour by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind
  5. Freedom from fear and distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering

Lots of discussion can be made around these principles in conjunction with the use of humane euthanasia in shelter settings. Many persons are opposed to the practice of euthanasia. However, I have seen what happens when a shelter does not practice euthanasia. It’s ugly, horrid, and worse than death. I have walked into city-run animal control facilities to find dogs and cats dying and dead in cages, cages far too small for their inhabitant’s size/stature, rampant stress behaviors, and disease run rampant. I watched animals go crazy, only to see a handful of decision-makers literally fail to see the animal’s suffering and fail to act until the subjects were beyond rehabilitation.

In summation, shelters are not great places for animals to live. They are a stop-gap for crappy human behavior. Some are better than others, some might even look aesthetically pleasing to the human eye (marketing and design at work for the wrong principles). But no matter how well-decorated a place is, it doesn’t negate the fact that the longer an animal stays in a shelter, the less likely that the shelter apparatus will be able to continue providing the Five Freedoms.

An animal who enters a shelter begins to lose access to the Freedom to express (most) normal behavior. Most shelters are cramped affairs. Kennels are narrow, space is a premium. Dogs pace. Dogs spin. Dogs have just enough space. Like being crated all the time, except when you’re on walks or visiting potential adopters. Then back into the cramped living space. Some shelters have larger spaces for dogs and cats to live, and this has a tendency to dramatically improve the quality of life and length of stay – unfortunately, most shelters don’t have the same resources to offer, and space is a huge resource.

Secondly, that many stressed animals in one place produces a “stress bomb” effect – lots of whining, barking, stress pacing, etc.. And the dogs feed off each other. While many programs are implemented to reduce stress, the structure of a shelter can make it exceptionally difficult to produce good effects even while implementing calming procedures. Residents that can endure, and don’t get sick, make it quickly to adoptions, but if they don’t, it swiftly becomes torture for the long-term residents. As a result, Freedom from Fear and Distress is one of the hardest to achieve for dogs that cannot trust humans, and/or generalize that trust beyond the staff and volunteers, and to potential adopters. Sheltering animals isn’t about securing their basic needs – its a waypoint on the road to a home where the five freedoms can be met more readily. If only we acted like that towards humans we might have more more homes for homeless companion animals.

Third, many shelter environments are like a willing “host farm” for respiratory diseases. As these disease whip through populations, they generally increase length of stay and general discomfort of the population of animals. In addition, as length of stay increases for larger sections of the population, the Five Freedoms begin to erode even further.

I know I am leaving out many other influences that work for and against the well-being of animals in shelters. This is a basic rundown, not a full tilt analysis. But it gives you a sense of the gravity of the situation.

My intent in writing this is not to cause harm to any particular shelter, but to draw out the problems that were only problems because they were failed to be acknowledged and addressed. Animals walk a fine edge of health and well-being when they are no longer in a home, but instead remanded to the care of the shelter aparatus.

Systemic Awful Working Against Us

The work at this NoFoProAS was made more difficult by the inherent of racism and bigotry behind decisions being made – from what breeds of dogs we kept at which facilities (urban vs. suburban facilities), to being thanked for “chasing away the bad folks”. Persons I worked with, mostly leadership, verbally judged and denigrated those that walk through the doors. I understand the desire to ‘explain’ what you see, especially with individuals that register as “disinterested” or perhaps the odd person that threatens to abandon an animal in our parking lot unless we take them in NOW. It is made more difficult by the fact that, while this NoFoProAS professed to be moving towards a brighter future in animal welfare, we consistently failed to enrich and enlarge the programs that lead to directly influencing the end game of this “over-population” problem – changing human behavior.

Funnily enough, I can’t blame an unfixed dog/cat for trying and successfully breeding. But I can the blame a lack of ideas to engineer a solution to this problem, and I can blame supposed leaders in the industry of animal welfare for not getting more radical in their approaches.

In the last two years I worked there, I saw our organization, once again, go through a cycle of losing people (and firing people). And most folks will blame “compassion fatigue” or some bullshit on this brain drain, but it starts with how those individuals that do the job are treated, and how they are ill-trained and not supported in the delicate work required of them. Its a huge joke to think anything about that organization is comprehensive. As a previous employer once told me about the smoke and mirrors games we played with environmental law “Its the Illusion of Comprehensiveness.” And that is so true.

It Wasn’t All Bad, Then It Was

To be fair, there was an attempt to move the culture towards embracing difference and moving towards the uncomfortable. There was a period of time that this job felt like rocking the shit, doing good work, engaging in amazing, educational conversations that really connected with adopters. Hell, I would see folks I adopted animals to from time to time walking around, and I had made enough of a connection to get a greeting (though I admitted I vaguely remembered them, more remembered the dog – the difficulty of engaging in single-serving conversations with many, many folks). So, yeah, there was a year of awesome.

Then staff started getting fired. The culture took an abrupt shift towards awful. Remember how I said I am pro-euthanasia – when the Five Freedoms are all but a concept in your head and not the animal’s actual experience, its past time. I get that folks can get overwhelmed – sheltering is fucking hard work.

It is however, made exponentially more difficult with irresponsible, unethical decisions that aid the rendering of animals to environments that remove all of the Five Freedoms, save that they can eat and shit and sleep. Good job, heroes, you plugged that hole in your sunken ship! If only that were enough. But instead, I name these individuals cowards – because that is what it is to run from such pain – to ignore it and do nothing. Its a jarring experience to be around folks that cannot see the suffering, or have convinced themselves that this is all “GOOD WORK” because the residents are still able to eat/shit/sleep. That’s not living.

So yes, I saw some horrific, vomit-inducing atrocities – in a CITY shelter, which had permission and directive to euthanize when conditions were severe. Instead, animals, dogs and cats, dying in cages, dead in cages. Because of cowardice. And our organization was actively helping them! We would take animals, but we had to promise not to euthanize! I cannot begin to explain to you the betrayal that would form in your heart, to see the very principles upon which the mission was based on be thrown aside and corrupted in service of cowards that through their desire to do good kept animals in torturous situations. You may ask how this could happen at a City-operated shelter, and its all about the “we can save them all” mentality, in a world that doesn’t match that expectation in space or resources.

We, the line staff, questioned – at staff meetings – loudly, and we were placated with non-sense. Saving lives, helping animals, blah blah. They would use logic like “we are awesome because we give animals a place to eat/shit/sleep. Heroes, one and all!” Most of us didn’t feel like heroes. We felt like underpaid slaves to this insanity that had taken hold of the organization from within… oh wait, never mind. PLOT TWIST – This is where we shall introduce, well, can’t use the actual name, so let’s say we shall use the name Darth Vacant – appropriately gender neutral – gives the sense that I am labeling someone as inept sith, which is about on par with my thinking here. (if only a true sith would have seen this mockery!!!)

Darth Vacant (who was the top of pyramid scheme at the non-profit corporation), was the head of the problem, a horder in their own right, would constantly bring animals into the shelter that were on a trip to Meltdownville, and even though many of these ‘projects’ would attempt to attack staff, they were deemed “doing okay” by Darth Vacant’s opinion, and thus left to suffer in the shelter. This was a cycle that would repeat ad naseum after the leadership staff that stood in opposition to this behavior were fired, and the rest cowered into submission to this dangerous and destructive set of ideas that somehow a shelter is a place to heal.

Some animals will do well there. Most do not, and its a matter of time. What we were encountering was a post-fact reality, one of which we, the staff that ran the place, were denied a voice in reshaping, denied the ability to say no to this suffering, and a voice that ended with many of us leaving the shelter as it literally fell on inept ears of Darth Vacant.

SO – taking all of that – knowing that ‘sheltering’ an animal is actually saying “this animal has a variable time frame of staying alive in this space before they go crazy”. The axiom upon which we would push was in getting these animals out of the shelter as efficiently as possible. That meant only taking a few hard cases at a time, not getting over-burdened with impossible fixes (behavior cases that couldn’t be remedied in our environment and program). This made a lot of sense to me – work WITHIN our constraints, focus on what works for us and slowly expand efficiency and capacity around that model.

This idea also REQUIRED embracing difficult convserations with potential adopters, so you could get animals out of the shelter, and into homes they were well-matched with, which, shocker, leads to animals staying in homes.

Darth Vacant Thanked Me for [Racial] Profiling

It doesn’t help that some of the ways in which we were doing this work includes racial profiling. One of many examples: A group of individuals came in to adopt a dog. The dog they wanted was going to be a lot of work (pit mix, very strong). And they were very new to the concept that some dogs have needs greater than being fed and taken on a walk once a day. Some dogs need more things to do, different types of experiences to get that energy out (e.g., enrichment, training, socialization). I spent over an hour with them, working to find a match for their expectations and current knowledge level (this being demonstrated in both interview questions and in their own words). My goal was to have them leave with a companion animal that made sense for their situation, or at the very least, a better idea of the type and temperament of a dog that would suit that purpose. These individuals happened to be black. They had a previous engagement, and had to leave prior to any adoption taking place. But we had a great conversation, narrowed in on the type of dog they wanted (a cuddly lap dog) and I helped set them on the path to getting what they wanted.

Later that day, I was THANKED personally by the top of the pyramid for discouraging them and getting those bad pet owners gone. This made me extremely uncomfortable and put me in a huge bind – my goal was to send them home with a companion animal, not run interference until they left.

To say I was surprised by this particular individual thanking me would be a complete lie. I had watched them and their words carefully, and heard the dog whistling of bad pet owners and rough types which in my neighborhood meant young folks, folks with tattoos and too much pigment in their skin, or too much slang in their vocabulary.

I relayed what I wanted for the outcome (to adopt them a dog), and why I knew that would work (because of our lengthy conversation and the trust I built there in such a short time). The surprise on this person’s face was noticeable, despite years of concealment practice. It was at that moment that I realized there was little hope to change the culture of my workplace for the better without changing this person’s mind. This bigotry was deeply rooted, and wasn’t going to give way for one of the lowly grunts such as I. Perhaps a cavalcade of us, but I digress into idealism. And this wasn’t the first or last instance of such behavior.

We Profiled The Dogs, Too

We actively shipped the “nice dogs” to the branch of the NoFoProAS located in an affluent neighborhood/region. This was a practice that I questioned as it had no observable reason other than we shipped the purebreed dogs to the affluent folks (mostly white folks), and kept the city dogs (chihuahua mixes & pitbull mixes, and random-weird terrier mixes) at the branch of the shelter located in the rougher industrial part of a less-affluent neighborhood/city.

This was a practice I started to question at staff meetings as to the reason behind it, and soon after it stopped. I think when I stated aloud that the practice could easily be interpreted as demographically motivated (e.g., move the pretty dogs to the rich folks cuz the hood folks can’t take care of a dog they adopt by default) and not about creating a diversity of choice at each of our branches. Small victories.

Mission: Marketing!

The Animal Shelter Aparatus had a shift in the mission. It stopped being about building towards a no-kill frontier. Not the ground work necessary to end the over-population of animals, educate around animal training – you know, shit that actually ends animal suffering. Instead, the program was focused on marketing and getting out the word about how awesome and cool we were, so that we could market how awesome and cool we were, and then get more money to continue being awesome and cool. However, even the marketing team didn’t believe the bullshit they were shilling. Mostly due to this next horror I unveil.

THE REAL HORROR – MEAT DOGS FROM KOREA

The summation of long months post sheltering work = moping. This is common. Having experienced some of the things I saw, and the way in which others described these things (incongruent to the reality of the experience), were equal cause in a very weird, tangled net of LETS QUESTION REALITY, and other fuck-awful loops of thinking it precipitated. Nonsense doesn’t ever make sense. So let’s attempt to describe said nonsense.

REWIND TO THE LAST YEAR I worked at the NoFoProAS. The staff were in a bit of open rebellion against some sudden shifts in idealogy at the shelter. This rebellion nearly became riotous over the acquisition of several dogs from a meat farm in a country that still eats dogs.

It was months of excruciatingly watching resources and time being spent on several of the animals that were completely unfit for adoptions, and by the ethics of sheltering, really needed euthanasia. I KNOW THAT’S NOT A PLEASANT TOPIC. I don’t fucking care what any one else thinks about euthanasia. A GOOD DEATH is the literal meaning. Every euthanasia I attended, I did so by choice, and because of an attachment to the animal, and every time I agreed 100% with the decision to do so. I KNOW what long lengths of time in a shelter does to a dog and cat. Bad things. Mentally unsound things. So please, no thank you to your no-kill short-sightedness – if there was ever a time for euthanasia, THIS WAS IT.

Back to the dogs. Several were saved, sorta. Saved enough for NoFoProAS so we stamped “adoptable”. I hope that was the case. The behaviorists had doubts, they went forward anyway. Glad they left the shelter.

However, the dogs that couldn’t make it to adoptions were kept in a ward of kennels on their own. Each kennel had towels clipped to the fronts and backs of the cages, to prevent the dogs from being startled by our presence. And there they stayed – terrified of everyone around them, shitting their bedding when they saw us, constant bouts of giardia/coccidia, zero changes in behavior. Months on end, this was their life. This was their living torture that we rescued them into. Fear, constant fear, all day fear. No matter the positive reinforcement. Four months of fear. After being SHIPPED TO THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. FEAR FEAR FEAR FEAR.

This – somehow objectively better than being slaughtered and eaten. Or even euthanized. 

The experience of FEAR was the same, but we added a terrifying air-transport, and no sunlight living accommodations, and lots of disease! We were the big heroes, plugging another a hole in our sunken ship.

This was all called “an attempt to rehabilitate”. But what I came to find out, was that the NoFoProAS that our NoFoProAS partnered with had come to an agreement that the dogs were NEVER TO BE EUTHANIZED. The implication was – bad for business if this venture didn’t ‘succeed’. This information was leaked to me by a member of leadership staff.

Literally, understanding this, and understanding why sheltering exists, is to understand that this ‘directive’ flew in the face of best humane practices. Horrible nonsense, being described as achievement – press-worthy achievement. Sick profiteering from torture. Of course, no one described this as torture (or gas-lighting for that matter). No, that would have been admitting that this was awful and horrible to experience, knowing that a few of those terrified, broken animals needed release from their torment, and they had no place. Which is a fundamentally horrific thing to see, because you know it is one of those human creations that is truly terrifying. WE breed these animals, and our actions cause this suffering to occur. But some take part in the suffering more directly than others.

Why I learned to perform humane euthanasia was to both shoulder part of the grave responsibility of ending life, and having the knowledge/training to do that in a humane, gentle way. Watching these dogs suffer, knowing the PR gambit that was being played, made this one of the worst burnout cauldrons for me. We were subjected to this torturous situation for the prestige they were buying with it in the press.

Several of us quit. Abruptly. It was a domino effect. But BURNOUT IS YOUR FAULT. I say Fuck that noise! Working for 12 bucks an hour IS my fault. Devoting time and energy to an idea, and to have that idea perverted for reputation profit – knowing that made it real easy to draw a line in the sand. When you see an entire structure focus its actions through the lens of marketing, you can see how it informs horrible decisions. Non-profit corporations don’t make profit, you say. Ha. Ha. Ha.

In essence we had decided on a vampiric-style business model, where we courted the harm human behavior caused (i.e., too many dogs/cats), and then profit on the misery (marketing/donations, adoptions). I cannot fully blame the culture of my workplace on a single individual. It is, after all, working within the confines of the normalization of predatory economic practices, where non-profits compete for donations against essential services such as animal control – yes we competed against animal control donations simply by competing for donations in a context where animal control is not being fully funded and therefore has to solicit for donations.

The nature of that system is this NoFoProAS is in DIRECT competition with the animal control agencies for donations. That means our super bad ass marketing department was driving the show, not evidence based action.

I decided to research our board of directors – all but 1 of them were marketing executives from a variety of companies. This is not about the mission, folks, its about Talking About the Mission!

Gas-Lighting Galore

As the situation grew worse over the months for these dogs, and several of us would raise hell at our weekly staff meetings about the mockery we were forced to watch, we were told of the good work we were doing. We were “halp-eeng animuls!” or something.

After sessions of listening to alt facts/retcon of what was happening right in front of our eyes, we would have a second meeting in the lunch room where we would basically vent about the lack of action, all stand around pissed off that they were so calm about the whole situation, and awkwardly shut up when “eyes” of Darth Vacant walked in the door. This is the state of insanity we were working within. To put this korean dog situation in context, it happened on the coattails of working with that county shelter I spoke about above (where the dead animals were found in their kennels, overcrowding, and disease ridden), and the staff was still VERY sore about the situation there, and the animals we had to hold onto because of the agreement not to euthanize Darth Vacant had made. We were always made to shoulder the impossible, unethical burdens of this individual’s decisions.

When we talk about compassion fatigue, they don’t talk much about the apogelgetic cult around conditions at animal shelters, the bullshit wages, and the hell inflicted by short-sighted leadership upon animal and human alike. Compassion stress gets insurmountable to buffer with good things when you and your fellow workers are being treated like firewood thrown in to keep the engine moving. There’s always more workers, and ones more easily fooled!

Eventual Flight & Trying to Be Well

The cult members continued to drink the kool-aid, or at least found a way to dump it down the drain when Darth Vacant and their eyes weren’t looking, because as machines go, this particular one employs 100+ persons – MANY of whom I rather think are amazing individuals. The context of where and how the organization they work for operates raised very problematic questions – like “Why aren’t we focusing efforts on spay/neuter as birth is the literal cause of over population of animals?” “Why are we keeping unadoptable dogs in our kennels while local, adoptable dogs are being euthanized?” These are difficult questions to answer, especially when you flat out refuse to answer them, and make policies that profit on the opposite of humane sheltering values, but focus on marketing outcomes.

So, after several key adoptions staff left, I left and got another job. I still wake up with surging anxiety, still breathe through panic attacks before they begin, battle invasive thinking, etc., all fueled by this intense gas-lighting connected to a thing I loved.

Worst of all, after all the emotional crap is ash, you’ve got persons you feel alienated from – leaving the shelter aparatus state-of-mind is like leaving a cult. You go through the trenches TOGETHER, a sort of insane workload plus trustfall type of experience, mixed with shared horror and intense emotional periods. Bonding together made it easier, familial. That was the good stuff.

There’s always good memories from my time sheltering – and those memories almost entirely centered around the conversations I had with my coworkers. So much power and thoughtfulness and intellect in the voices and actions of many in that field – I was very happy to have worked with some amazing folks. Very happy to still call so many of them friends.

LOOKING BACK

With the current shitshow unleashed in D.C., and the parade of pale drek that keeps twerking for position near the naked imperor…

I keep asking myself – why write about this now?

I think it was time not to be alone with these thoughts any more. I have so many other thoughts to explore, and I kept coming back to these experiences – it was clear they weren’t finished with me. But I am not alone with them any more.

And I’m writing again. Even if its a bit long-winded and rambling.