It doesn’t have to be like this.
Friends and colleagues of the animal shelter and rescue world, I am talking to you. To us. This killing ourselves to do our work and functioning in a state of near constant panic. We have the power to make it stop and to do this work better, from a healthier place that allows us to be more effective for the animals and for one another. For ourselves. We do matter, you know? It’s not selfish to want, to need, space to breathe. It’s not selfish to want to sleep through the night without waking up in a panic about a dog or from a nightmare that feels like drowning. I learned a lot about these feelings and where they come from during my compassion fatigue class, something I think should be required learning for all shelter and rescue workers, be it staff or volunteers.
But today, I want to talk about how some of the habits we’ve gotten stuck in are creating our environment of constant crisis. About eight years ago, a colleague said to me during a conversation about program building and using it to move out of crisis mode, “But if we’re not operating in crisis mode, we’re not doing our jobs.” Eight years later, this still makes me want to go walk face first into a doorframe. No. Neither we nor the animals we care for are in a good place if we’re in a state of constant, high level stress. This is emotionally intensive work on a good day and layering on practices and mindsets that by their nature, push us into a state of panic is a terrible idea. It’s costing us valuable manpower, inhibiting the quality of life within the shelter environment for everyone, and costing dogs their lives.
It doesn’t have to be this way but to change it, we have to be willing to change.
THE RISK LIST
I hate the risk list. Truly, hate it intellectually and from some deep and visceral place in my soul. The risk list, in practice at many places, is a list of doggie death threats sent to staff and volunteers. Hey guys, here are the dogs we’re thinking of killing unless you do something. QUICK. The conventional wisdom is that unless we use the risk list to light a fire under volunteers and staff to do something, they won’t and the dogs who are at-risk for whatever reason will stay there in the shelter where they may suffer or get worse or cause a safety issue. It is forced crisis mode and it is terrible practice. It’s terrible for morale, it creates deep animosity among individuals we need to function as a team, and it pushes out the types of intervention and proactivity we should be developing as an expected and sustained part of shelter culture.
Threatening to kill savable and placeable dogs under arbitrary deadlines is not helping us like we think it is. It’s inhibiting us. That we have organized, comprehensive, and proactive intervention programs is critical. What we need are fully developed behavior programming, medical programming, rescue and sanctuary placement programming, surrender prevention services programming, foster programming, and codes and plans of action that correspond to that. We don’t need a risk list, we need a behavioral intervention list, a medical intervention list, and so on. And we need a culture that says every dog who comes through our doors gets the intervention that best fits their needs and the absolute quickest adoption of good fit possible. We need clear policy on behavior and medical cases and if a case meets our parameters for euthanasia with no alternative placement option available or appropriate, we need a last best day program that considers a given animal’s needs. If we are going to euthanize a dog, the reasoning must be clear and our practices must offer neither false hope nor threats.
The risk list as it functions in many places is a practice we can and should change. It is one of the single biggest sources of division, anger, fear, stress, and conflict and the first step to changing it is nothing but paperwork. The hope is that it’s a paperwork change that opens the door to the type of culture and programming we really do need.
When we wake up in a panic in the middle of the night, if we’re not thinking about the risk list, what are we thinking about? It is probably quality of life and more specifically, the flip side of that, animal suffering. Just as our stress level impacts the animals, so too does their stress level impact us. Those impacts are profound in both directions. Developing the type of programming listed above is not easy and it does not happen overnight. But for the well-being of all involved, it is an imperative. Another thing said to me in that same conversation eight years ago about program building was that this is fine, it’s shelter quality of life. It doesn’t matter if the dogs suffer while they’re here because we’re finding them homes and they won’t be here forever.
But it does matter. It matters for quite a number of reasons not the least of which is that facilitating, excusing, or normalizing animal suffering in any capacity is not okay. It also matters because that is how dogs deteriorate, how behaviors escalate, how length of stays increase, how they and we start to panic and live in a state of crisis. It’s why we think we need the risk list. He’s not going to make it much longer. We have to get him out of here.
I wrote in much greater depth about this years ago and I’m going to link that series here because I think any discussion of quality of life and shelter program building deserves more than a cursory call to just do it. It is the ladder we can climb out of crisis mode but it takes a sustained effort and a lot of working together to reach the top where we can look out towards the horizon for the next rung to build, the opportunity to reach even higher.
Ugh, but I work with dogs because I hate humans. They’re the worst. Really though? I feel you because I’ve said that. Out loud. More than once. But is it really true? If it is, you should probably find a different capacity in which to work with animals because if we are a field populated by people who genuinely hate one another, this is never going to work. If you’re struggling here, stop and think of all the people you love, the ones you like, the ones you admire. Think of the times someone did something and you were like wow, that was really cool/smart/generous/innovative/kind and any number of adjectives that at some point have inspired you, pushed you forward, or made you feel positive about a moment in time.
Humans do a lot of terrible things and we are oh so eager to hold others accountable while dodging that bright light when it’s aimed at ourselves. There’s a well known quote about that bad thing someone did not washing out all the good things they’ve done. Man is that hard to remember when you’re mad at someone or busy blaming them for something, but it’s true. There is a toxic and destructive trend to dehumanize one another that seems especially prevalent right now and it’s not just contained to the animal welfare world. But it thrives here because of the emotional nature of the work. I love this dog and what’s happening to him/her is YOUR fault. If you would just… We have to remember that in every decision and in every conversation, we are dealing with our fellow fallible humans.
I don’t say this as someone who has achieved nirvana and who trots around smiling gracefully and speaking patiently to everyone I meet. Frankly, I’m not sure what smiling gracefully even looks like and I’m pretty sure I’ve never done it. I say this as someone who’s opinion at times has come barreling down like a freight train and who’s jokes are definitely not funny to everyone. But I don’t actually hate humans. I often hate things humans do. I want us to evolve faster and to be so much better at empathy, to extend it far beyond our own species. But I love and am consistently inspired by so many of us. And I can forgive us, even myself, when we get it wrong. I might need a break sometimes but I hope I’m always willing to come back, to be here, to listen and to try and to want to work together. To keep my temper in check so we can have a conversation about what matters and find a way to move forward. I’m thinking of some of you as I write this and I know the same is true for you. I believe in you and in all of us, even though it sometimes feels easier not to.
And the thing is, even if humans do disappoint us and frustrate us and if working together is hard, we have to do it anyway. None of us can do this all by ourselves, tempting as that may feel sometimes. If we want to do our best work, if we want to save as many lives as possible as effectively and humanely as possible, we need each other. Damn, right? 😉 Take a deep breath, grab your wine glass if you need to, and then accept it. We’re stuck with each other and sustainable program building takes a really long time so we may as well look for the stuff we like and figure out how we can start moving forward as the team the animals need us to be.
*The thoughts and opinions in each post on this blog are those solely of the attributed author and do not necessarily extend to all program collaborators or to Ethics in Animal Care itself.*