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Redefining “Normal” Through Humane Education


This summer, we are beyond proud to have interns working simultaneously at two different animal shelters.  Every intern who comes through our program teaches us something and helps us improve our program and we are grateful for that. Some show us where more guidance is needed. Others highlight the humane education aspect of our work in a whole new way. Let me explain.

Our interns go through an interview process just like they would for any job. We talk about their schooling, work experience and their experience with animals. Most of them have had pets as well as other kinds of exposures to animals. Sometimes it is difficult to disguise what I am feeling when young people talk about their personal experiences with animals.   When we ask them if they have had pets, most will say they have had many pets. Unlike most of us who have grown up with a few animals who lived out their lives with us, most of the youth that we work with either have experienced an unstable housing situation that led to surrendering their animals to shelters and replacing them when they could or simply a family economic situation that meant their animals frequently were given away to friends or family members who might be, at least temporarily, in a better position to care for them.  Each of these stories is moving as we think about how we would feel if our beloved pets had to be given away. Then, there are other times when the humane education element of our mission really comes to the fore.

First, there was the young man who proudly told us he had ten dogs, 8 of them puppies. He said he tried to keep the male and female dogs apart when he knew it was “that time” but he had messed up. He was grateful to learn about programs where could get free or low cost spay/neuter services. Then, there are the more painful stories when it is difficult to keep from wincing. Just recently, we asked one young interviewee about her experience with dogs, and she told us about a relative who had dogs that he kept outside on the lot of his auto repair business. He wanted them to be “tough” so they would provide security for the business so she told us that he beat them “so they would be mean.” When the dogs responded to these ”training” methods by biting a friend, her relative got angry and shot and killed them. She reported this as you or I might report a normal childhood event. She disagreed with what he did and was sad about it but it was an otherwise unremarkable part of her growing up. Another candidate mentioned that she had rescued animals herself. We asked about that and she calmly told us about some neighborhood kids finding a small stray dog and saying “let’s go kill that dog.” She instead talked her mother into taking the dog in, at least temporarily.

This is what we have to work with. For many of our young people, we need to redefine what is “normal” treatment of animals. No, it’s not normal to beat animals as a means of training. No, it’s not normal to shoot or kill animals when they misbehave or you are otherwise done with them.   We usually highlight the fact that our program provides better lives for shelter animals and job training for young people who need to get a leg up but it’s times like this that remind us that humane education– –teaching youth about respect and compassion for animals and how to pass it on– –is an equally significant part that mission.


Why should you do something if you can only do a little?

So many of the problems we face seem insurmountable. People become convinced that the choices they make and the actions that they can take as individuals won’t have any meaningful impact. I don’t believe that that is true for any of the world’s problems that we face and I can prove that is not true for shelter animals or homeless youth.

Let’s assume that you have your own family, a job, a home to take care of and feel that you do not have any extra time to volunteer in an animal shelter or take responsibility for the guidance of a homeless young person. With the limited time you have, is there still something you can give that would make an impact? You bet there is and here are some ideas to get you thinking.

For the animals, how about you try one of these

1.  Foster kittens. Kittens are short-term fosters, are easy to adopt out and most need a home for just a few weeks until they’re big enough to be spayed or neutered. You can work with a shelter or rescue that will take you take them from you and place them for adoption in a retail location and your job is done. Fosters directly and immediately save lives.

2.  If bringing kittens into your home is too much, how about doing a linen drive among your family and friends or at your workplace? You will directly impact the quality of life of an animal waiting in a shelter who would otherwise be sleeping on a tile floor or newspaper in a cage. It only takes one trip to drop them off and you’re done.

3.  You can be an advocate. Speak up to your friends who are considering going to a breeder or buying an animal on the Internet.  Tell them that they are unknowingly supporting keeping the parents of those puppies in cages with no access to the outdoors, no human contact and often without necessary vet care. Be nice, be firm, do your research and offer them options.

For at risk youth,

1. Can you become a remote mentor? Partner with a young person who needs guidance. Check in with each other by phone or email once or twice a week. You can help keep them on track and let them know that someone cares about what happens to them.

2. What about an evening of service with a few friends? Service is easier in pairs or groups. Do you know how to do anything that one of your parents taught you that you could pass on to a young person? A craft? How to cook a great dish for a crowd? Young people living in a shelter would love to spend an evening having a caring adult pass along some family wisdom. You pick the night. Everybody can give one evening.

3. Have a drive to collect professional clothing so that young people have something appropriate to wear for interviews. Strive for a variety of sizes with everything in good condition – something you would wear yourself. More than once, we have witnessed our young volunteers wearing shoes that are too big and pants that cover their feet because the shelter did not have a sufficient selection of interview appropriate clothes for them.

Do not let yourself sink into the belief that what you do does not make a difference. Remind yourself that, if everyone did just one thing, the world would be a happier and more comfortable place for everyone.

The Parallels Between Homeless Youth and Homeless Animals


Our original rationale for pairing homeless teenagers with shelter animals was our founder’s observation that many young people living on the streets and under bridges had pets with them. Witnessing the strength of that bond, there was obvious potential to reach these young people through their love of animals and, at the same time, help chronically understaffed animal shelters through bringing in these young people as volunteers.

But the bond goes beyond young people’s love of animals.  There is a kinship between the two groups that we continue to learn about every day. In doing our work over the past five years, we have grown to see many parallels between the life experiences of the young people and the homeless animals we serve; similarities in how they arrived at their current situation in life and in how that makes them feel.  The same collection of reasons that lead to youth homelessness also send millions of animals to shelters each year.  For example, some of the young people end up homeless having fled an abusive home, choosing the uncertainty of the streets over the known danger of home. Others arrive at the shelter after a lifetime of more “benign” neglect or after the adults responsible for their care have disappeared from their lives to jail, drugs, another family or the unknown. In other cases, their families didn’t abuse them but were just ill equipped to provide them with the support, financial and personal, that they needed.

In the case of animals, the reasons for homelessness run a similar spectrum. Many of their guardians reluctantly gave them up, having no choice because of an inability to obtain pet friendly housing (or housing at all) or inability to afford their care, particularly veterinary care which is beyond the means of a significant percentage of people.   In other cases, the animals were seized from cruel owners who abused them, fought them or worse. Others were actively neglected through their guardians’ failure to provide adequate food, shelter or medical care.  Indeed, most of the animals in shelters end up there through the kind of passive neglect that leaves so many kids out on their own before they are ready. The adults that were responsible for both the kids and the animals were not sufficiently committed to their care to stick it out when things got tough,

Because of our work connecting these two groups., we are privileged on a regular basis to see that “I am not alone” light bulb go off in a young person’s eyes when looking into the eyes of a homeless animal. Even if before that moment, they may have felt that they had little value and nothing to offer, they clearly don’t feel that way about the dog they are playing with and they often make the connection that their lives also have value and that they too can bring another living being happiness and companionship. And, that, my friends, is the essence of Hand2Paw.




A Former Foster Child and Current Caseworker Talks about Aging Out of Foster Care

This article is poignant and informative of the plight faced by many of the youth that Hand2Paw serves.  She states

“[A]dolescents in foster care are often forgotten. They become “lost” in the system, unless they become behavior problems and are referred to the juvenile justice system. But what about the children who are not a behavior problem and who can’t go back home? What happens to them?

In many cases, a youth will have a relative or other important adult in their life who will guide them through the transitional stage of emancipating from the foster care system. That adult will provide them with guidance, advice, advocacy and assistance in reaching that next step in life. Some youth will consider vocational training or college, while others will choose to enter the work force. The supportive adult will guide them through this process, helping them fill out college applications and financial aid forms, or help them find a job.

However, the reality is that not everyone will have this opportunity. Not every foster child will have a caring, responsible adult in his/her life. It’s really the luck of the draw.”

Hand2Paw seeks, in a small way, to be that supportive force in an adolescent’s life.  We welcome your support in our efforts.