Editorial: Sick & injured animals hide. Shelters need to be seen.
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 2010:
Two members of the ANIMAL PEOPLE team had recent occasion to
deliver an injured rabbit to a world-renowned wildlife rescue center.
The drive should have taken less than an hour, including a 20-minute
ferry boat crossing. Unfortunately, no one at ANIMAL PEOPLE had
ever been there before. There was neither a map nor a physical
address on the center’s web site. Instructions received from center
staff before beginning the journey proved to be incomplete.
Directions downloaded from Google maps proved to be wrong. Also,
the center is located on a dead-end street whose name we were given,
but there are two dead-end streets of the same name within about half
a mile of each other, probably once connected but no longer.
Altogether, finding the wildlife rescue center took four
hours, eight telephone calls, and half a tank of gasoline. Along
the way, the ANIMAL PEOPLE expedition met another carload of people
with another injured animal who also could not find the center. Each
call to the center brought a different set of directions.
Whether a quicker journey could have saved the rabbit will
never be known. Upon arrival, all that could be done was euthanasia.
This might be considered an extreme and unusual experience,
except that ANIMAL PEOPLE staff have often encountered similar
runarounds in making our frequent visits to animal shelters and
rescue centers all over the world. It is not surprising that small,
desperately underfunded animal care facilities in developing nations
are occasionally difficult to locate. On balance, however, the
most unexpectedly hard-to-find animal care facilities are in the U.S.
and other affluent nations.
It is understandable that animal care facilities are often in
out-of-the-way places. Traditionally animal shelters have been
located on inexpensive land far enough from neighbors to avoid
complaints about barking dogs and animal odors. Frequent barking and
bad smells can be prevented by progressive design and good
management, but even the best designed and best managed shelters may
be consigned to the boondocks by zoning laws written decades ago to
keep stables and slaughterhouses out of residential areas.
The reality that a shelter or sanctuary may not be
conveniently located is not by itself an insurmountable obstacle to
public access. Increasing recognition that improved access brings
more visitors, more volunteers, and ultimately more donations is
why the majority of animal shelters in the U.S. now offer dogs and
cats for adoption through the 700-odd PetSmart Luv-A-Pet in-store
boutiques, which have rehomed more than three million animals since
1990. The idea is that if bringing visitors to the shelter is
difficult, a microcosm of the shelter can be taken to them.
Because a major “secret” of success in business is being
conveniently located, every PetSmart store is easy to find, with
prominent signage, plenty of parking, and maps of how to get there
at multiple local web sites. But even if the nearest PetSmart store
is several hundred miles away, an animal care facility whose
management understands the importance of encouraging access can
attract visitors by the busload.
The founders of Kanab, Utah, were polygamist Mormons who
moved there in 1848. The Mormon church renounced polygamy in 1890,
but polygamist enclaves persist near Kanab to this day, a location
so far out in the desert as to seemingly ensure isolation.
Hollywood film makers found Kanab about 80 years after the
polygamists. Ironically, the movie moguls were attracted for a
similar reason: expansive western movies could be made near Kanab
with little risk of accidentally incorporating anachronistic scenery,
such as power poles or passing cars. Westerns were made in Kanab for
about half a century. But after the studios that used Kanab quit
making westerns, the film sets fell idle. The site remained unused
for more than 10 years–until the Best Friends Animal Society
discovered it, bought it, and built the most visited animal
sanctuary in the world. More than 27,000 people per year find their
way to Best Friends, 7,000 of them for multi-day stays as
volunteers, even though Kanab is still several hours from the
Knowing that visitors to shelters and sanctuaries tend to
become the most generous and loyal volunteers and donors, Best
Friends actively encourages guests with every device and method that
a chamber of commerce might use to promote tourism. As well as
advertising the sanctuary itself, Best Friends advertises scenic
national parks and monuments that might be accessed from the same
highways, distributes lists of local restaurants and overnight
accommodations, and–above all else–offers maps and directions.
It is often facetiously said now that if one can find Kanab,
one cannot miss finding Best Friends; but if one cannot find Kanab,
just go to Best Friends and ask where the town is.
Through extensive web-searching, ANIMAL PEOPLE discovered
that hundreds of animal shelters and sanctuaries do not have a
physical address on their web site, just a post office box, and
only about half offer any sort of map or directions for visitors.
Yet the importance of maintaining visibility and
accessibility is actually among the oldest lessons in humane work.
The success of Best Friends, the fastest-growing U.S. animal
advocacy group for about 15 years now, echoes a lesson also taught
by Henry Bergh, who founded the American SPCA in 1867 and is usually
credited with founding the U.S. humane movement. Bergh, a very tall
man for his time, always wore a top hat, even when top hats passed
from vogue. He wore the top hat, he often explained, so that
everyone could see where he stood, so as to stand with him. Then he
would take off the top hat and pass it, collecting donations enough
to keep the ASPCA alive.
In truth, Bergh did not really found the U.S. humane
movement, in the sense of starting the first influential
organization. Elizabeth Morris and Annie Waln had founded the Animal
Rescue League of Philadelphia in 1858. This, not the ASPCA, was the
first U.S. humane society with surviving descendants. Among them are
the Morris Animal Refuge and the Women’s Humane Society,
and–indirectly–the Philadelphia SPCA and American Anti-Vivisection
But Morris and Waln are not well-remembered, largely through
their own tendency to avoid becoming well-known. Frequently
overwhelmed by the volume of animals abandoned at their doorstep,
Morris and Waln struggled all their lives against a tendency to
recluse themselves, which they apparently recognized as
counterproductive. Their tendency to hide became most pronounced
when they briefly held the Philadelphia animal control contract.
Initially trying to save every animal, Morris and Waln later used
chloroform to kill the many animals they could not accommodate.
Troubled by killing animals, like generations of humane workers who
followed them, and fearing their actions would not be understood,
Morris and Waln retreated even more from public contact.
Under Bergh, the ASPCA never held an animal control
contract, and barely engaged in animal sheltering. But Bergh did
found the U.S. humane movement in the sense of inviting, attracting,
and encouraging public participation. His overt emphasis was upon
enforcing the first New York state humane law. His actual focus was
upon using law enforcement–and the attention attracted by crime
reportage–to educate the public about how animals ought to be
Realities of wildlife rescue & rehab
From Bergh to Best Friends, animal advocacy and humane work
have proceeded between recognition of the need for effective,
enthusiastic outreach, and the tendency toward the depressed and
embittered self-isolation that afflicted Morris and Waln.
Unfortunately, throughout most of this time the majority of shelter
workers have perceived–or at least have been trained to accept–that
the job includes an obligation to kill large numbers of animals,
some young and healthy, others grievously neglected or abused.
Transferring grief and guilt by blaming the public became a
time-honored and institutionalized coping mechanism.
Though shelter killing has now been reduced to about a
seventh of the peak numbers reached circa 40 years ago, mistrust of
the public remains endemic among humane animal care providers.
Spirits are much higher now among those who handle dogs and cats,
who are today as likely to be rehomed as killed, but wildlife care
providers may never have been more dispirited. Most wild animals
brought to rescue centers do not survive the combination of injuries
or illness with capture and transportation stress. Even those who
are restored to health tend to have little chance of successful
return to the wild, after weeks or months of depending on humans for
food and security. The few who are released have high mortality–and
the successes are usually never seen again. Meanwhile, wildlife
rescuers continue to see victims of hunters, trappers, and reckless
motorists, newborn fawns orphaned by people who thought the fawns
were abandoned by mothers who were usually just quietly grazing
nearby, rabbits and squirrels who have been mauled by dogs allowed
to run off-leash in inappropriate places, and birds and small
mammals who have been injured by free-roaming pet cats (rarely by
true feral cats, who tend to quickly kill and eat their prey).
New Hampshire attorney and animal advocate Peter Marsh
observed at the first Spay USA conference in 1993 that people who are
intensely concerned about particular kinds of animal tend to take on
the characteristics of those animals. Marsh went on to describe how
feral cat neuter/return practitioners tended to defeat themselves by
working furtively, in the shadows, insufficiently communicating to
the public what they are doing and why. This tendency continues to
inhibit neuter/return work, and has contributed to enormous
misunderstanding among birders, in particular, about the behavioral
differences between feral cats and free-roaming pets.
Marsh could have made the same observation about wildlife
caregivers. No one, in theory, could do more to educate the public
about how to avoid harming wild animals through thoughtless behavior,
including conditioning them to seek food handouts. Wild animals can
be safely fed by providing habitat where they may find their normal
diet. Some wildlife charities teach how to do this. But teaching
requires engaging the public.
Several years ago ANIMAL PEOPLE profiled nature centers in
the Chicago and Milwaukee areas, some of them more than a century
old, which welcome and teach tens of thousands of visitors per year.
We are aware of many other such centers in other parts of the
country, that combine wildlife rescue with wildlife education, and
allow the rehabilitated animals who cannot be released to help do a
lot of the teaching.
On the other hand, there are those like the facility that
could not be found. The ANIMAL PEOPLE delegation were told that it
does not publish a physical address lest vandals come to harm the
animals. Indeed, vandals do occasionally raid shelters and
sanctuaries, harming animals–but such crimes are almost always
committed without forethought by local delinquents. And if a
psychopath was inclined to seek out an animal care facility to
attack, that person could call for directions just like anyone else,
using a false pretext.
The facility in question also, as a matter of policy
apparently originating long ago with the founder, does not allow the
public to see more than a token few of the animals in care, and does
not use animals in public education, even those who can never be
released and are thoroughly habituated to handling. The stated idea
is to protect the animals from stress, but the net effect is to
neglect educational opportunities–and to leave wildlife education
using live, interactive animals to keepers and breeders of wildlife
ANIMAL PEOPLE believes, as did Henry Bergh, that while
enormous good can be done for individual animals through providing
conscientious care, by far the greater role of humane work is to
educate the public to appreciate animals and live in a manner
considerate of animal well-being. Rescuing every animal who suffers
as result of human ignorance, indifference, or deliberate
mistreatment is far beyond the ability of the humane community at
this time–much less the ability to save animals hurt in “acts of
nature”; but each rescue, and each adoption of a suitable companion
animal, is a chance to teach lessons that reduce the numbers of
animals in need of rescue and rehoming.
Effective humane institutions want the public to learn from
everything they do. Since people learn most from what they
experience, effective teaching begins with accessibility.