Recently a news story about an abandoned puppy in Michigan “went viral” because of a sad note attached to that pup.  The note told a story of an owner who had a stroke and a puppy needing a new home because of it.

While this is a heart-breaking situation, it is also very common.  This easily happens hundreds of times a day in Michigan alone.  The reality is that our companion animals get stuck in the crosshairs of our messy lives.

The part of the note that bothered me was at the end, it read “Please don’t take me to a shelter.”  What a tragic statement to be made in 2018.  Animal shelters are supposed to be havens—providing love, expert care, and second chances to the lost, hurt and alone.

So many extraordinary people, paid and unpaid, dedicate themselves to do exactly that, and there has been much improvement in Michigan over the last decade.

But animal shelters have a pretty gruesome history.  For many decades, they did little more than exterminate.  Today, even with wide-spread change, there remains huge variation by community and region of the country.  And nearly everywhere, local governments are loathe to fund animal services with anything more than table scraps—despite overwhelming demand; complex, high-stakes services; great public expectations; and the need for skilled, compassionate and resilient leaders and staff.

Because of this history and continuing challenges, loving owners may actually choose abandonment over a shelter—or may unwittingly give their animal to a hoarder posing as a rescue group.

I get it.  Even though the no-kill movement has swept the country (thank goodness), there are still many animals put to death for reasons other than mercy or safety.  For instance, cats are now America’s most popular pet.  Yet 76% of animals put down in shelters are cats.  This is because our nation’s sheltering system simply isn’t investing enough in life-affirming solutions tailored to our feline friends.

Plus, being a no-kill shelter doesn’t automatically equate to good animal welfare.  Keeping an animal alive isn’t difficult.  Regardless of the label, most shelters are very scary places for animals; and often cause sickness and distress.  As they say, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”  With so many now staying in shelter for extended amounts of time (months instead of days), we are obligated—more than ever—to invest in enriched housing, high-quality care, and innovative programs based on the Five Freedoms.  For the sake of the animals and the eventual adopting families, shelters need to commit to not just getting animals out alive, but to following standards of care based on current science and best practices ensuring physical, behavioral and emotional health.

Additionally, too often the weight of this hefty work is carried on the backs of too few.  They are usually women, often unpaid or minimally paid, who sacrifice their own well-being for the cause.  When we work toward being more humane, we shouldn’t forget the humans.  Of course, volunteerism is vital, and this work will always be difficult.  But wrecking people to save animals shouldn’t be an industry norm.  We need to do better at valuing the work and the folks doing it.

It’s resoundingly clear that the public wants compassionate, life-saving care.  While change is headed in the right direction, we need to address the mismatch between what we invest in animal welfare and what we expect in return.

We are extremely fortunate at HSHV to have you, our generous supporters, who want homeless animals protected; and community leaders who value the many ways a compassionate shelter strengthens the fabric of the community.

I hope one day that Washtenaw County will not be so unique and the next note that goes viral reads: “Please take me to the shelter.”