A new year, a new vision. I have spent the last 12 years finding myself in animal welfare. While my journey started many years before that rescuing sick birds and caring for frogs, or playing endlessly with my guinea pig, I didn’t really find animal welfare until I was 30.
I began in a wildlife sanctuary learning how to tube feed baby possum and structuring diets for cougars. I moved to my county animal control. Petrified of what I would find, but too passionate to stop myself. Eventually, I transitioned to an international organization, Best Friends Animal Society, and made my way as a Web Reporter where I found myself at an Amish puppy mill auction. And, that is when much of my life changed.
For years, I fought for legislation to protect breeding animals and to close pet stores. I fought holding back tears and I fought crying myself to sleep each night. Along the way I wrote a book and I had the opportunity to meet so many amazing people. Eventually, I found myself volunteering for a breed rescue, NorthStar Shih Tzu Rescue.
I guess you could say that is where I ended 2014. But, as I learn more about lost dogs, the more I realize there is a whole new arena for animal welfare: returning lost dogs to their owners.
It has been acceptable for shelters and rescues to take in lost dogs and assume them to be strays. But, the truth is dogs don’t fall from the sky. They just don’t. Every dog IS someone’s dog. Sure, there are some owners who set them “free” and don’t want them anymore, but I believe the majority of strays are truly lost.
Organizations, such as Lost Dogs Illinois, founded by my dear friend, Susan Taney, has taught me that it is critical we change our mindset. Think lost NOT stray.
Lost Dogs IL reunited 5200 dogs in IL in 2014. That is 5200 dogs who didn’t enter into the shelter program looking for new homes. They didn’t need new homes, they needed to find their old home.
Unfortunately, some large municipal shelters are refusing to take part in the reuniting of dogs. Quick to pass ordinances of shorter holding times meaning less time to find the owners before being put up for adoption, transferred to private rescue or sadly, euthanized.
Lost Dog organizations are begging shelters, vet clinics, police departments, etc… to review their daily posts and help reunite lost dogs with their owners. Many have participated and have helped thousands of dogs return home, but there are still many unwilling to make the move.
When I worked at my animal control, we had a binder full of lost dog reports. ANY time a dog or cat showed up at the shelter, we checked the binder. It is, undoubtedly, an antiquated system, but it worked. My shelter maintains one of the highest return to owner rates in the state.
Large city shelters like Chicago Animal Care and Control have told me there just isn’t time for that. They have explained that the shelter I came from is small compared to theirs and since they take in so many more dogs than MCAC ever did, I have no idea what I am talking about.
I agree that I have never worked in a municipal shelter as large as CACC. My county has 300,000 people and the shelter employed about 15 people. Chicago has 10 times that population and employs about 40 people. There is no question that there is a shortage of resources.
But, for a brief moment, walk with me…
For every dog that enters any shelter there is an average timeline, a basic chain of events. A dog comes in, gets put in a kennel, gets a number, gets necessary vaccines, sits in the kennel for 3-5 days being fed, maybe walked outside and kept somewhat clean. Once the holding time is up, the dog gets temperament tested. If it passes, it goes to the adoption side where it might sit for weeks. If it doesn’t pass the temperament test, a rescue might come in to save it or it will get euthanized. Even euthanasia costs the shelter money and resources.
Now take a different path with me… a shelter institutes a pro-active approach to lost dogs. They dedicate an employee to the project. This employee monitors Lost Dog Facebook pages and websites each morning. They monitor newspapers. They foster relationships with the public making it easier for people to report their lost dogs into a database. Each day, after monitoring the lost dogs posts, the employee walks thru the kennels making note of any who match the descriptions and calls owners to double check the findings.
One employee could easily help reunite tens more dogs at a shelter. Right now CACC reunites less than 10%. Even if just 25% of the dogs were returned to their owners in less than 3 days, there would be an immediate return on investment. Less dogs sitting in the shelter needing care, taking up space and costing money And, by keeping lost dogs out of the shelter intake, there is room for dogs who truly need to find new homes.
I think about the dogs I have adopted in my life…and now I wonder, “what if there was a family looking for them?”
When our rescue agrees to take a dog from a shelter, we never question if anyone searched for its owner. I guess we always “assumed” they did. But, the reality is they probably didn’t. Now, the dogs travels from Chicago to Minnesota – never to find its family again.
I believe that rescues have the best intentions, most of the time. Everyone just wants to help a homeless animal be not homeless. But, maybe they were never homeless to begin with.
It takes a village to raise a child and it takes a village to find a dog. Lost Dog organizations are popping up across the States offering resources and the power of social media to families searching for their beloved, lost pet. These organizations are to be commended. Not just for what they are offering, but for what they are teaching and for the questions they are raising.
It is time ALL shelters and rescues think LOST not stray and put programs and procedures in place that help foster reunions not just adoptions. 2015 is the year to be found and reunited.