The Path Ahead Animal Shelter Consulting

The official blog of The Path Ahead Animal Shelter Consulting

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Sunday, January 25, 2015

The perils of attachment


Every year in Northern California, over 320,000 animals enter shelters, most as "strays" or lost pets and owner surrenders, some as confiscations from arrests, hospitalizations, bite quarantines, and other sundry reasons. Some will be reclaimed by their owners, some will be euthanized, and some will go up for adoption. Reclaims and euthanasia will be topics for future blog posts, but today's post focuses on those animals in adoptions and the staff and volunteers who care for them.

Attachment happens without our knowledge. Each day when we, as staff or volunteers of an animal shelter, go in to work, we see the familiar faces of the animals who have been been there for more than a day or two. As time passes, we remember their names and habits, and we look forward to seeing them. We start to make special visits to our favorites, spend extra time with them. We start taking our favorite dogs to training classes, on offsite hikes, home for "sleepovers." This is good, right? Well, it all depends on your attitude. When attachment happens, we start to think of these as "our" animals, and to lose sight of our purpose in their lives.

A rescue friend once said, "We must remember that we are the stopover, not the destination." When we start thinking of ourselves as the destination, strange things happen. Suddenly no adopter is good enough. We start, unconsciously, discouraging people from adopting. We criticize them: they work long hours, don't have time, don't have a fenced yard. We play up the animal's flaws: she really shouldn't be in a home with children, she is too active for you, at her age she will require a lot of vet care. When the animal has a solid adoption possibility, we actually start to feel sad, and in doing so we put our own feelings of attachment and loss above those of the animal. When the animal is transferred to a rescue group or to another shelter where she has a better chance of being adopted, we worry, we call them, check the web site, want to visit to make sure the animal is all right.

So what's the harm? We just want what is best for the animals, right? No matter how you justify it, the harm is great. It's no secret that dogs and cats develop behavioral and medical problems as a result of confinement in a shelter. A great deal of research has been done on the subject with resulting recommendations for reduction in the length of stay (LOS). The shorter time an animal spends in a shelter, the better their chances of emerging mentally and physically healthy. Sadly, there are many cases of long-timer dogs finally being adopted and then returned due to psychotic behavior such as attacking their new owner or another family member. Also, what about all the other dogs and cats in need of help? In a high-intake shelter, keeping one animal in a kennel for months means that many others are put down, because even the best shelters have to consider "space" as a factor. In a low-intake shelter, the same situation means that many other animals are turned away, resulting in their being abandoned, taken to the high-intake shelter, or being given away unaltered.

Now what's the cure? On its face, there is nothing wrong with taking great care of the animals, including all the extra attention. What we need to change is our attitude. Our role is to get these animals adopted into forever homes as quickly as possible. There is nothing wrong with an adoption process and criteria, but we want to remove unnecessary barriers to adoption. There is nothing wrong with vetting rescue groups to make sure they are legitimate and have a history of quickly placing animals in quality homes, but we don't want to avoid transfers because we believe they are all hoarders or because we believe that no other shelter can do as good a job as we can.

Animals' lives depend on our ability to let go. After all, next year there will be another 320,000 in need.

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