Taking Action for Animals – What “Action” Means For Us

When I was invited to attend the Humane Society of the United States’ (HSUS) annual Taking Action for Animals (TAFA) conference here in DC this past weekend, I eagerly looked up what lectures were being offered.  One session called “Saving Pets” stood out to me (and luckily was on the only day I was able to attend). This workshop featured four speakers: one about increasing adoptions in shelters, one about decreasing the number of puppies from puppy mills sold in pet stores, one from HSUS’s Pets for Life program about helping under served pet owners, and one from Coalition to Unchain Dogs, a group that builds fences for dogs who previously lived on a chain.

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I was impressed with how much of this conference truly revolved around the word “action.” In the “Saving Pets” workshop we were not only told about current welfare issues, but we were also given ways we can take action ourselves. What can I, as your average animal lover, do to help those dogs being bred purely for money? What can I do to increase the quality of life for dogs who need to live outside? What can I do to help people who might not be able to provide for their pets? Of course we can write checks (which is also needed!), but TAFA gave us some tools to go a step further.

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While the presentation about sheltering and puppy mills were full of great (and heartbreaking) information, it was the Pets for Life and Coalition to Unchain Dogs speakers that really stood out to me. Like I wrote about a few posts back, one issue in animal welfare that is currently at the forefront of my interests is helping under-resourced pet owners keep their pets instead of having them end up in shelters. Pets for Life and Coalition to Unchain Dogs both do just that. For more information about the two groups, I encourage you to follow the links to their websites in the previous sentence. I’d like to focus on some common themes behind the action that these groups are taking that translate to just about any work done when helping animals:

Leave your judgements at the door. I’m serious. All of them. Every single assumption you want to make about someone, all those stereotypes you believe in even if you swear up and down that you don’t – get rid of them. You will help more animals. I’m not saying it’s easy, in fact many times it can be quite the opposite – but when you go into a situation with your guard down and with no judgements, enormous changes can be made. That person might not take care of their pet the way that you do, but you sure as heck better realize that they love them just the same. Us having the mentality, “If they can’t afford to take it to the vet, they shouldn’t have it,” isn’t going to change anything about the situation at hand. So move on and start figuring out how you can help.

Relationship building is the most important task on your to-do list. Helping animals usually starts with helping their owners, and a lot of times the best way to get through to someone is to have a relationship with them. Relationships build trust and break down walls. Dolly’s Foundation is an amazing organization that offers owner support in Florida, and they report that it can sometimes take months before someone agrees to get their pet spayed. Dolly’s goes in judgement-free (ding ding ding!) and takes what little victories they can get, all the while building the relationship.

It is important to have the core belief that people love their pets. As Neya Warren of Coalition to Unchain Dogs said in her presentation, “A lack of resources does not equate to a lack of love.” Believing that people want the best for their pets – whether they can provide that or not – makes it that much easier to shed judgements and start helping.

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Ask open-ended questions. This is a tool I recently learned that I now use in all aspects of my life, but especially when doing application reviews with potential adopters. If you ask someone a yes or no question, it almost immediately removes an opportunity for discussion. Plus, you sort of make it seem like there is a right or wrong answer. Open-ended questions are amazing at getting people to open up and feel comfortable – plus it makes for a much more productive, two-sided conversation. We’ve all been there where we feel like we’re talking at someone. Open-ended questions put it on the other person to do some talking which, when working to help them or their pets, can be very important!

Nothing beats face-to-face interactions. I suppose I already covered this in the previous points, but the folks who make a huge difference are the ones who have their feet on the ground and who are out there meeting with the people who need their help. Facebook, tabling events, flyers, etc. are great, but they’re not going to get the job done. Laurie Maxwell from Pets for Life made the point that we have to get rid of the, “If you build it, they will come,” mentality. Most of the time it is knocking on doors that is needed most. It’s volunteers in the neighborhoods. It’s that face-to-face conversation and relationship building. It’s meeting them where they are.

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Those points are just a few snippets of the expertise from this workshop. I jotted down some phrases that came to mind as I listened to the presentations – concepts that came up over and over again – and the list included: feet on the ground, face-to-face, benefits everyone, non-judgmental, inspiring, conversation, dignity, listening, respect, open mind – and more. Do you see a common theme here? It’s time to start realizing that action for animals – especially those in shelters or who might end up in shelters – means action for people as well.

For more information about how you can help the people, and therefore the pets, in your community, check out HSUS’s Pets for Life program, including their extensive toolkit. I recommend you see if there are existing organizations in your community, like Ruff Riders in New York City, who are already working to keep pets with their families. If you prefer a different route for helping animals, I still encourage you to keep these “action” points in mind when you are working with pet owners, potential adopters, whoever. A little open mind goes a long way.

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P.S. – Check out who made it into HSUS’s All Animals Magazine!

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Spreading Love to the Little Ones

Today a group of about twenty children, ages 5 – 10 years old, showed up to the shelter. Because of super limited space we’ve had to cut back the number of shelter tours we do, but they had made dog treats and really wanted to look around, so my coworker Nevie obliged. Of course they also asked about meeting a dog. Having faith in my handy little foster dog, I offered Baxter up for the job.

After asking all the kids to please sit still until I tell them it’s okay, I brought Bax out. He loves when we move around the office for whatever reason because it means he gets to say hi to all his staff member friends, and this time was no different in producing his infamous tail wag. The kids of course loved him, seeing how happy he was to be in their presence. They all followed the rules and sat politely as I told them a little about Baxter.

I asked them if they had heard of a pit bull before. Most said yes. I asked if they thought Baxter was a pit bull. Most said yes. I told them that because Baxter was a stray, we aren’t sure what kind he is, and that we can’t put a label on him just because of what he looks like. I asked who liked Baxter. Everyone raised their hands. I even got to drop the “never judge a book by its cover, no matter what they’ve heard in the past” line.

This whole time Baxter had been standing patiently next to me, wobbling from side to side as he wagged enthusiastically. I finally let him go greet the kids, and he calmly walked forward and licked all of their hands one by one. Each one squealed with delight as he sniffed their face and slurped on the palms of their hands. I felt like a proud mom watching him do so well with all the kids!

After all was said and done, I thought, “Huh. Well Bax, we may have just made a little bit of a difference there.” I’m so happy that these and many other young kids are getting exposure the the world outside of stereotypes through Humane Education programs. Experiences like this, no matter how small, are vital to the way they look at animals, pit bull type dogs included. I hope they went home talking about the little black dog with the big square head that they met after school today, and how great he was.

I know it was a brief meeting and we could only do so much, but I’m proud of my little monkey for being such a great advocate, and I can’t believe how far he has come. It was one of those days where you have to sit back and remember to appreciate the small things – like your once very shy foster dog tolerating twenty little ones : )

For more information on adopting Comeback Kid Baxter, click here or email peacelovefoster@gmail.com.