“…and they dropped that dog off at the front desk and asked if they could see the puppies. They had no heart, they did not care…”
And so went my dinner conversation the other night. I was out with friends who had invited along a couple who ran a very successful rescue organization. They came with the perspective that those who relinquish their pets to the shelter don’t care and are inherently different from them – and are in many cases, outright inhumane.
It felt like an affront, as my perspective is just so different from theirs. I thought back to the groundbreaking research of DiGiacomo, Arluke and Patronek (1998) on the relinquisher’s perspective of surrendering pets to shelters. The perspective of the relinquisher was not as my new friend had described – instead, each of the relinquishers interviewed for the study had gone through an extensive process that began long before the animals were turned over to the shelter. What shelter professionals were seeing as uncaring and apathy was a person who, through a variety of avenues, had built a wall so they were able to leave the animal at the shelter. It pulls at my heart even as I write it now.
After a glass of wine, I shared my perspective based on the research, and my new friend said, “You know, I never thought about what that person might have done before they got to the shelter…that sure can change perspective.” Agreed.
We just finished collecting data on 100 relinquishers of large dogs entering the open-admission Washington Humane Society in Washington, D.C., and are working on gathering the same data in New York City. While we are just starting our data analysis, we too are finding that those coming to relinquish did not come by the decision lightly. The focus of this research is to identify potential programs and processes that would have supported those folks before they had made the decision to relinquish – so they keep their pets.
What if we dropped the assumptions and the division of “us” and “them” and instead focused on figuring out how we can make it better for that person coming through our doors?
It can be really tough for many of us to understand how someone cannot just ‘figure it out.’ How is it that when we are confronted with a situation we usually can noodle through a solution that lands us right back on our feet, and others stumble and fall? Some people are bound by pressures and boundaries that we cannot see – from physical, social and mental limitations to financial and cultural restrictions.
I recently had the opportunity to see a clear avenue to safety where the person I was interacting with did not – the avenue was a simple payment of x dollars that would free this person from a series of consequences that would occur if the money was not paid. It was such a moment of clarity for me – for I not only saw the path to safety, but I had the means to provide it. The person had recognized that avenue, but since the finances were the restriction, they had shut that door and put their head down to face ‘the inevitable.’
Imagine all it takes to decrease the number of dogs and cats being relinquished is to be there for those humans with dogs and cats – to be their eyes, their road to safety, and… if they need it, their hand to help. It puts a new spin on what it is to be humane. But if all we do is make assumptions about their level of caring and empathy, we shut the door to them, and open the door to yet another dog or cat in our shelter. I don’t see a win in that.