“I feel like I spend half my life telling rehomers that X behaviour is not a legitimate reason for killing a pet, and the other half telling rehomers that they absolutely should not be placing the animal in question as a pet”
If I had a $5 for every time I have said the above phrase, or thought it following a day of discussing the nitty gritties of animal behaviour with rehomers from various walks of life, I’d have enough money to renovate my (ancient but tiny) home in the bush. And I’d probably have enough left over to buy a shiny new Toyota Landcruiser too.
Part of me is grateful that the balance is now it’s closer to a 50:50 split, rather than the majority being some version of ‘stop killing stressed out pets because they looked at you the wrong way’. The thing is, I’ve simply swapped from discussions about the needless loss of lives, to those about ‘mostly predictable and preventable human and animal trauma caused by poor rehoming practices’.
Largely due to the pressure exerted by animal rights advocates, the sheltering scene has become a much more compassionate and empathetic place for animals than it once was. ‘Boots on the ground’ people within the system work hard to implement evidence-based practice in the logistics of improving animal welfare while they are in care, reducing Length Of Stay, helping animals stay in their homes so they don’t need to enter the system at all, or helping them succeed in the their new homes post adoption, and more. These practices have been developed over time by dedicated people who know an enormous amount about how to do sheltering well, and (finally) the science surrounding companion animal welfare is entering the realm of veterinary medicine and behaviour specialty qualifications. Much of this would never have been possible without the sustained pressure on the system that created enough driving force within the community to demand a change from a population management approach to saving pets. And that pressure came from animal advocates.
Thanks to a lot of love, sweat, tears and passion from animal advocates, people within the companion animal welfare and management system, and scientists and vets who probe practices and push boundaries to work out what really works and what just feels right, I am pretty optimistic about the future of animal management in Australia. We’re absolutely not there yet, but there’s a growing appetite for striving for best practice in how we manage companion animals in the community, both from animal management people and animal welfare people.
We also know the direction we need to head in – sink the majority of our resources into keeping animals in their homes by supporting them and their people, and when we absolutely must take animals into care, work hard to get them into good homes who can meet their needs and then support them in place to help them be successful. The thing about this model is, it only works when as a community we provide ALL of those services. If we don’t work hard to find alternatives to intake, the consequence is capacity issues and poor animal care and welfare standards within the system. If we don’t prioritise animal welfare while they are in our care, then animals become physically or behaviourally sick and euthanasia rates spike. If we do a poor job in placements or don’t provide quality post-adoptive support, animals aren’t successful in their new homes and the animals and their new people pay the price. Good sheltering means working with our community and for our community – good sheltering is community-minded.
The ‘community-minded’ part is where we are currently trending in entirely the opposite direction to what we need to be. Myself and many of my colleagues who specialise in companion animal behaviour are seeing this all unfold in real time and frankly, more than a few of us are horrified by what one of my friends, Trish McMillan, calls the ‘outsourcing of euthanasia’. Put simply, this is when organisations send out animals they either suspect or know have behaviour problems back into the community, in the hopes that the ‘right home’ will stack the odds heavily in their favour and all will be well. Then, when this predictably goes terribly wrong, it’s up to the owners of said pet to make ‘The Impossible Choice’.
Some organisations simply ‘ask no questions and take no notes’ then send animals off to volunteer-run, self-funded community groups who refuse to accept the default killing of pets – if you don’t write it down, it never happened and you don’t need to take responsibility for it. Right?
Others ask a few questions and when the answers aren’t clear-cut and indicate that there may be stormy waters ahead, instead of asking more questions, committing more resources and potentially finding out that animal is either too dangerous or too sick to succeed as a pet within the community, they cross their fingers, send them off and count themselves lucky that their statistics look better for having taken the chance.
Some know the exact nature and extent of the significant behavioural problems that animals in their care display. Perhaps the animal was surrendered with a damaging bite history or other severe behavioural abnormalities. Perhaps the animal has bitten, mauled or killed another animal or person while in their care. Or they’ve displayed significant anxiety or separation distress that is not responding to treatment. Perhaps they predate on their own kind. I know I’ve forgotten more situations than I remember, where an animal’s significant and often dangerous behaviour problem has been handballed to another group, an adopter, or even to one of the organisations own foster carers (who promptly became ex-carers when they were left holding the ‘hot potato’ with no support, or worse, became the target of focused attacks by the organisations supporters).
Rehomers handballing complex or dangerous behaviour cases to anyone and everyone has become such a common occurrence that within my circle of professional friends and colleagues, we have running tongue-in-cheek jokes about euphemisms used in adoption advertisements… ‘not good with small dogs or cats’, common code for ‘will actively predate on and kill smaller animals, including other dogs’ is one of my current favourite targets for black humour.
While some of us use dark humour to try and lessen our frustration and emotional distress over our latest case of ‘adopted dog blasted through the closed flywire door and killed a neighbour’s dog in the front yard on their second day in the home’ or ‘couple haven’t left their house together in over 6 months because their adopted dog self-mutilates when left alone, even when heavily medicated’, there’s not one of us who isn’t deeply affected by repeatedly having to sit down and have ‘The Impossible Choice’ conversation with an adoptive owner. And we do it often. Too often.
Every time we do this, the pattern is much the same… person wants to do the right thing so adopts rescue pet because that’s what we’ve told them to do if they want a great pet from an ethical source. The animal has serious behavioural problems and goes on to cause trauma so significant that the adopter is faced with the very real prospect of euthanising their newest family member. Sometimes this happens quickly, sometimes within a few weeks or a couple of months, and some owners stick it out for extended periods until they finally concede that the situation is too dangerous or their pet’s welfare is too compromised to continue. Sometimes, owners return their pets (or attempt to) and are subjected to intense judgement, derision and even outright hostility by the organisation they adopted from – the ugly side of the companion animal advocacy world isn’t just reserved for owners who choose to euthanise.
Meanwhile, the social groups of those families watch their traumatic experience unfold in real-time, and while some will blame the adopters for not doing enough of X, many others take note of where that animal was adopted from and get their future pets elsewhere. And unlike take-away shops or retail stores, people don’t tend to avoid just that specific organisation but instead swear off ‘rescue pets’ for life. Not a great advertising strategy by anyone’s standards.
As you can imagine, being the behaviour nerd I am, I’ve spent a lot of time over the last decade thinking about, discussing, studying and at times, arguing over why playing ‘hot potato’ with dangerous or severely welfare-compromised animals is becoming such a common occurrence. Here’s a little of what I’ve learned:
- No single type of organisation (private rescue group, Not-for-profit shelter, or council-run facility) does this universally poorly or well, but organisations from all walks of life are doing this increasingly often. In some circles, it’s even a badge of honour to take the most behaviourally unstable, dangerous or welfare-compromised dogs and get them into homes in any way possible, even if it means lying to people. Guess what these organisations are also typically very bad at? Post-adoption support!
- The consequences of outsourcing euthanasia are felt equally by the animal management community, as they are by the behaviour/training community. This topic is currently a solid wedge between the people responsible for keeping communities safe and those responsible for making life and death decisions for animals in our welfare system. Speaking personally, it’s difficult to remind myself that someone somewhere was (in their view) acting in good faith when I’m talking a deeply traumatised owner through the complexities of their situation. It’s hard not to be angry on behalf of everyone involved when laying out impossible choices… and I am usually involved after the fact when the blood has been cleaned up. Animal Management Officers aren’t always that lucky.
- Many (many…) organisations don’t have anyone on staff with the education and skillset to make informed decisions about these things or provide proper pre-adoption counselling and post-adoption support to adopters of ‘grey area’ dogs. Many organisations don’t let that hole in their service provision capabilities stop them from taking on or placing these dogs anyway. If you don’t provide follow-up support, there’s no feedback to inform you that you aren’t doing such a great job at placements and your Live Release Rate looks fantastic!
- Many more complex behaviour cases stem from a physical or physiological cause than is currently assumed to be the case. By not having a skilled professional with qualifications and appropriate experience assess and work up these cases properly, just like we would engage a vet for a medical concern, these organisations are needlessly subjecting a lot of dogs to a life of substandard welfare due to untreated conditions.
People will justify some truly horrendous ‘training’ and management practices in the name of saving an animal’s life (side note for another discussion – animal rights and animal welfare are not the same thing, and believing strongly in one says almost nothing about your beliefs about or literacy in the other).
For many organisations who outsource their euthanasia, the primary motivation for doing so is statistics. Specifically, keeping their euthanasia rate below whatever number is currently trending as ‘proof’ that an organisation is performing well (just an FYI, warm bodies are not proof of great welfare in animal shelters any more than they are in factory farms).
- Some organisations and people understand and accept that euthanasia is sometimes necessary, as long as they aren’t the ones doing it. This is no different to the owners who when facing The Impossible Choice, elect to send their pet to a shelter and hope for the best. It’s mentally and emotionally easier to target your sadness about an outcome at someone else, even if you know that you would have done the same thing in their shoes.
- Some organisations and individuals simply don’t believe that behavioural euthanasia is ever a moral choice, based on their beliefs about an animal’s right to life. There is no situation in which the suffering of people or pets post-adoption justifies the taking of a life for people who believe that human and non-human animal life should be maintained at all costs.
- Lastly and almost universally, these organisations and people believe that their practices are not problematic because they don’t have any data to prove otherwise, or they have a little data from happy adopters and that’s enough for them. Here’s the thing though. Unless you commit to providing quality, non-judgemental post-adoption support for every animal you place, you just don’t know.
Complicating all of this is that we don’t have any scientifically valid and reliable systems for assessing behaviour of companion animals, dogs specifically, in a welfare environment. We do have sound general behaviour assessment principles with strong scientific support from other species or contexts, that we can use to guide our decision-making processes (if we have a working knowledge of them and enough knowledge and skill to apply them well). We also have increasingly good quality education for trainers to train them in how to safely manage, assess and treat complex behaviour cases. Neither of these is particularly widespread in the sheltering and animal management world though, so we also have a substantial group of people who built their skillset and learned the boundaries of their capabilities through painful experience.
What we don’t have is a system that ensures that the people tasked with making life and death decisions about pets within the welfare system, get their education and experience before they learn via their own traumatic experiences and by inflicting trauma on others. We try and make it easier by advising decision makers to think about whether they want that pet living in their street, or whether they can honestly picture a home in which the animal is both safe and has good welfare. Our imaginations are just not THAT good though. I still haven’t worked out an effective way to ‘put an experienced head on inexperienced shoulders’ when it comes to making these decisions, but I’m willing to bet that valuing the skillset of behaviour specialists enough to provide a supportive learning environment would probably help.
What I am absolutely sure of is this. No pet deserves to live their last days being cared for in a shelter, regardless of how fantastic the staff and care provided are. Equally, no pet owner deserves to shoulder the burden of trauma and the heavy weight of responsibility that comes from loving a pet who is too dangerous or damaged to live a pet life. Our job is to minimise both as much as is humanly possible.
I know it’s a tough call to ask anyone in the animal welfare world to choose death over life. I know I didn’t devote my life to improving companion animal welfare and management so that I could spend my time trying to convince people to let an animal go.
So, instead I’ll ask you this – how much human and animal suffering is your hope worth?
This week’s featured image is my wise old man, Sisco Miyagi himself