Foreclosure pets: People in need find some shelters unhelpful, judgmental

September 4, 2008

More than a million homes are in foreclosure, which means a million families of all kinds — including those with pets — are struggling to figure out how how to survive. While the media has reported on many of the sad cases of abandoned pets, the even sadder reality is that people who try to do the right thing may run into the buzz-saw of the culture wars when they try to take their pet to a shelter.

Our Christie Keith explores this situation in her “Your Whole Pet” column on the San Francisco Chronicle’s Web site:

Reasonably, pet owners who don’t want to abandon their pets to an uncertain fate seek help at their local shelter. But rather than being offered assistance, they sometimes are lectured about their “irresponsibility.” Some are simply told that their pets will be put down. This harsh scenario exposes a weakness in this country’s reigning animal-shelter philosophy, which may not be serving the unwitting animal victims of the foreclosure crisis well. But luckily, as in most crises, there are also signs of emerging strength and compassion.

The sheltering philosophy that has dominated animal control policy in this country since at least the 1970s is one that lays the blame for every pet problem, including large numbers of animals being killed in shelters every day, squarely at the feet of irresponsible pet owners.

Proponents of this approach believe that high kill rates in shelters are simply their best attempt at cleaning up after an uncaring and careless public. Their efforts to change people’s behavior come in the form of policies such as mandatory spay/neuter legislation, strict limit and licensing laws, restrictions or outright bans on breeding, and compulsory microchipping. They also rely on their own version of “shock and awe” to punish the public for bad behavior, as when the former director of the Peninsula Humane Society, Kim Sturla, allowed the killing of four kittens, a cat and three dogs to be seen on the evening news back in 1990. She justified her shock tactics by saying that if bad pet owners wouldn’t shape up, “It’s time to take a 2-by-4 and hit them over the head.”

They may have been trying to hit the pet owners, but it should be noted that it was the animals who died. And it’s no different now as they’re using the same tactics on the human and animal victims of the foreclosure crisis.

Here’s the rest. Links to Christie’s complete interviews with Bonney Brown, Cheryl Lang, Betsy Saul and Nathan Winograd, as well as her communication with Traci Jennings, are here.

Also: See Christie’s earlier post discussing how the shelter industry, its staff and volunteers almost universally embrace positive training methods — but respond to people in need with the human equivalent of a sharp and painful jerk of the collar. Guilty until proven innocent.

Filed under: pets, connected — Gina Spadafori @ 6:45 am


  1. exactly right, Christie, good post.
    This needs to be repeated endlessly. It’s of Winograd’s most important framing: the pet owner is only one side of the death equation.

    The job of killing animals in a “shelter” is a thankless heartrending job, I’m sure. But if the shelter isn’t part of the “no kill community” and making efforts to reduce killing to the minimum, I frankly don’t have much sympathy for listening to the whining of staff about hard it is.

    If no one was willing to kill healthy animals, then no healthy animals would be killed.

    And if shelter DIRECTORS had to do the job themselves, there REALLY would be no kiling

    Comment by EmilyS — September 4, 2008 @ 7:34 am

  2. Well … I’m not sure that’s fair. In fact, I DO know a lot of shelter directors who have put a LOT of time in the kill room, and who still take their turns in it even if they don’t have to, to show staff that they’re not alone.

    I would just hate to have people who want better for pets and people forget that the people who work in shelters need our support and help, too.

    In other words, call the shelter industry on their problems, but support and reward even small steps to getting them on track as “shelters” again, not “humane kill centers.”

    Let’s get to the point where shelters are shelters, and groups like PETA — with its 90 percent kill rate in its facility — are called to a higher standard when it comes to placing homeless pets.

    Comment by Gina Spadafori — September 4, 2008 @ 7:43 am

  3. Although … shelter directors who cannot see beyond blame, and who will not move beyond the “hit people with a 2-by-4” approach probably should move into a different line of work.

    Traci Jennings probably ought to be one of them. She’s already all over Christie’s piece on, blaming pet owners and citing “barrels of dead pets” — more “2-by-4” judgmentalism.

    Traci … what have you done BESIDES trash the poor people in Modesto caught in the worst housing crisis in memory? What have you done BESIDES kill their pets? Reno has tent cities, and yet the shelter there is trying to help, not condemn people for an economic downturn.

    How nice that you and I have jobs. What about people who no longer do? What about people who were sold a bill of goods by mortgage brokers and developers?

    Helping pets often starts with helping people.

    I remember when the advice for battered women was, “you made your bed, now lie in it.” Thank heavens that attitude has changed. Now, can we change the attitude towards pet-lovers who need help, too?

    Comment by Gina Spadafori — September 4, 2008 @ 7:49 am

  4. If, doG forbid, you find yourself in a situation where you can not keep your pet and don’t have a friend or family member who can keep it for you — I suggest that you search out rescue groups that specialize in the type of pet you own. Most breed clubs have active rescue groups and other organizations specialize in giant, small, hunting, herding or bully breeds.

    I’ve never had to re-home a dog, but have had clients and relatives who have. Those that have dealt with breed rescue groups have nearly always had more positive experiences than those who went directly to shelters.

    I realize that this is not always an option – but it is something to keep in mind.

    Please also – if you have to rehome a pet for ANY reason – be honest with the group who accepts the pet regarding any health or behavior problems the pet has. Foisting an aggressive animal off on innocent, well-meaning people without warning them is, well, a horrible thing to do. For the people AND the pet involved.

    Comment by Janeen — September 4, 2008 @ 1:32 pm

  5. When people call a shelter to relinquish a pet, its because they are desparate. Maybe they did wait too long, maybe they didn’t look hard enough – but how does that justify conduct from the shelter that will only hurt animals?

    People who are losing their homes don’t need to be lecturered about their failures. They are well aware of them already. They need help. And so do their pets.

    Is it any wonder that folks are leaving their animals in their forclosed properties or turning them loose, when the alternative is being kicked when you are already down and told your animal will be killed?

    Comment by 2CatMom — September 4, 2008 @ 2:17 pm

  6. I hope you go post that on, 2catmom, because there’s a lot of mean-spiritedness being expressed there. :(

    Comment by Christie Keith — September 4, 2008 @ 2:44 pm

  7. No matter how a shelter treats pet owners, it is NEVER an excuse to abandon pets in a foreclosed property or to turn them loose to fend for themselves.

    Comment by jessica — September 4, 2008 @ 3:47 pm

  8. Jessica, people who have been told that if they take their pets to the shelter, the pets will be killed, may imagine that, in the foreclosed property, or turned loose, the pets may at least have a chance to survive–rather than being executed by “shelter” workers to punish their owners.

    If you are a decent human being, you do not kick people where it hurts when they’re trying to do the right thing. And if you kill innocent pets in order to punish owners whom you disapprove of, you are, quite simply, a sadist.

    Comment by Lis — September 4, 2008 @ 5:20 pm

  9. Comment by Janeen — September 4, 2008 @ 1:32 pm

    “Those that have dealt with breed rescue groups have nearly always had more positive experiences than those who went directly to shelters.”

    This puts me in mind – once again – of the “no-kill COMMUNITY” concept v.s. the “no-kill SHELTER” concept. How much better it would be if all these various outlets came together to see what they each – individually – can bring to the table. The breed rescues can of course focus on providing a safety net for dogs of their breed. The shelters often have a physical facility that is easier for members of the general public to identify and locate if they have a need to do so. The dogs who come into this physical facility may or may not stay there – perhaps they’re passed on to the appropriate breed rescue. Or put into a foster home for care and evaluation until permanent placement. And so on.

    And if each of these groups could set aside their egos and resentments (for example, I’ve heard of shelters that refuse to EVER turn a dog over to any rescue organization because they find it offensive that a dog would need to be RESCUED from them! Oh, the horrors!) and be willing to look to the COMMUNITY to help find the most appropriate way to look out for the needs of any given animal that comes under their care, how much better for all the animals that find themselves cast adrift.

    Comment by The OTHER Pat — September 4, 2008 @ 5:45 pm

  10. I drove to MN to pick up my dad’s dog two weeks ago this weekend because he lost his house. If we couldn’t have taken her, I guarantee she would have been put down because she has issues with strangers. I’m blogging about it now and will post the link when I get the site posted. We have been introducing her to two cats and its going very well.

    It’s amazing how classist people can be. This is obviously not what my dad has ever wanted. He’s now nearing retirement age with no hopes of ever being financially stable. People just do not understand. You often die with the same income level that you were born into. He’s had his job for 15 years and this winter they were all partially laid off because its a window manufacturing facility and they depend a lot on the housing market. He lives in a rural area and couldn’t find another part time job and has health problems that require ridiculous amounts of copays. Things took a bad turn and my family doesn’t have a net because we’re all more or less in the same situation. I work 7 days a week and the results are not pretty. Tired and still broke because poor people don’t deserve to go to college and I went anyway, not understanding that it would cripple me financially forever.

    I am not lazy. I am lower class. I’ve been trying desperately not to be lower class: education, constantly working, trying to start my own thing. I am smart. It is still hard and at times I think its impossible. Haters need to figure out where there preconceived notions are coming from. The reality of the lower class is that it is a cycle of struggle that is difficult and sometimes impossible to break. We are people. Stop treating the poor like children or like morally irresponsible teenagers.

    ugh. sorry to rant. things have just been bad lately and this makes me so disgusted.

    Comment by Amy — September 4, 2008 @ 11:07 pm

  11. They have put men on the moon, and have sent pictures back to earth from the far reaches of the universe…

    and all they can come up with to solve pet overpopulation is to continue to put animals down in these “shelters?”

    There are alternatives (and I’m not talking about mandatory spay-neuter, and we already know that it doesn’t work), as we have learned about here on Pet Connection…when are they going to listen and give those alternatives (No-kill) a try?

    It’s already been proven that putting animals down doesn’t solve anything…it’s like using a “bandaid” on a massive wound.

    “Hello out there…is anyone listening???”

    Comment by Marcy — September 4, 2008 @ 11:32 pm

  12. It’s stupid to assume that people facing foreclosure are fundamentally irresponsible and just don’t care about their pets. We have a housing system in this country that does not provide adequate housing for the bottom third of the population, and that’s something everyone should take responsibility for. So many people took the only option available to them.

    I fault SPCAs and the Humane Society for not working to make a landlord who doesn’t accept pets as unacceptable as someone who smokes in a theater. Yeah, they’d get some flack from the real estate interests, but that’s better than beating up on some poor family that has to give up Fido because no landlord will allow him.

    Comment by PeonInChief — September 23, 2008 @ 10:04 am

  13. there are many pet funds that help people with no income if your type in the search website field and see alot of groups that provide food, or animal church by farms. you have to keep praying and look for transition places

    Comment by Teacher — November 22, 2008 @ 9:55 pm

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