Animal shelters serve a variety of purposes. They take in stray and surrendered animals; they provide veterinary care, they sometimes seize animals who have been victims of cruelty or neglect and they often educate the public on humane treatment of animals. Most shelters prioritize either minimizing the average length of stay for an animal or maximizing the number of lives saved through adoption or rescue or both of those. Since most shelters are nonprofits that always struggle to raise the funds necessary to support all aspects of their mission, the quality of life for animals in shelters often falls to the bottom of the list of priorities. Of course, the animals’ basic needs including medical care, food and shelter must come first but too often quality-of-life is relegated to the status of “optional,” viewed as a luxury they simply cannot afford. In addition, many granting organizations – those that provide critical funding to animal shelters – are increasingly requiring that shelters seeking grants demonstrate and quantify how many more lives will be saved if a particular grant is awarded. This funding for lifesaving is certainly valuable but it adds fuel to the argument that the only thing that matters is getting the animals out the door alive and any expense that doesn’t directly accomplish that should be cut.
Because of this, in many shelters (but certainly not all), enrichment and out of kennel time, other than for cleaning purposes, is left entirely to volunteers. There is little or no staff time allocated to take dogs out or give cats any human interaction. It is seen as not vital to life saving because, even if a dog doesn’t get outside or a cat gets no human interaction in a day, they will still be alive when you get back in the morning, so it is not necessary to expend those resources. And this decision can then repeat itself day after day. While it is easy to understand the need to conserve resources and use them efficiently, we at Hand2Paw believe strongly that providing a decent quality of life during an animal’s stay in the shelter is a vital part of every shelter’s mission and, in fact, a moral imperative. If a shelter decides that it must rely on volunteers to provide enrichment and exercise, then management should develop a strong volunteer base by communicating and collaborating with volunteers frequently and respectfully. Some shelter managers view volunteers as an intrusion and often criticize them for not following rules and procedures or not understanding the big picture. But it is within the shelter’s responsibility and capability to establish regular two-way communication that avoids these problems and puts mental stimulation and physical exercise back on the priority list. Even if the number of lives saved remains the top priority, enrichment and out of kennel time is still valuable. Studies have shown, for example, that dogs who get out of the kennel enough to remain house trained in the shelter have lower stress levels, making them easier to adopt out and less likely to be returned. That study is discussed here on ASPCA’s blog aptly titled “Talkin’ Poo.”
You will see more on this topic in posts to come, as it is Hand2Paw’s mission to help fill this need and be the voice for quality of life for shelter animals. What is your view? Please join the conversation.