The imperfect animal advocate

Posted by: Kathy Powelson Tags: , | Categories: News


When you work or volunteer in animal rescue you often feel like you bare the brunt of other people’s poor and/or selfish decisions. A common conversation among animal rescuers is the ridiculous reasons people have given when surrendering their pet. In fact, just this past Christmas we published a post that discussed this very issue. And I think many of us, at some point in our career, will experience a sense of martyrdom. We are picking up people’s messes. We are saving the abused and neglected. We are speaking on behalf of the voiceless. If not us, than no one.

Because of this degree of responsibility many of us feel to protect and advocate for animals we place unreasonable expectations on ourselves. But we are human, and we cannot fix everything. There are issues and problems that are simply beyond our control. Recently I was faced with this and through this experience I learned some valuable lessons.

When Molly’s profile appeared on Facebook, my partner and I were immediately drawn to her sweet face. A victim of a divorce, Molly, at no fault of her own, ended up at the shelter. She was a young shepherd mix who lived with children. The perfect dog for us and our four year old daughter. I sent a note to my contact at the shelter and ask if they could cat test her, and both times she was introduced to a cat at the shelter she did not react. Perfect. Molly was perfect. We brought our daughter to the shelter to meet her and she was amazing. We filled out an adoption application, and two days later we were informed that we were approved.

Molly and I leaving the shelter

We were beyond excited, and I went to the shelter first thing the next morning to get her. Stopped by the pet store on the way home to buy her everything she would need to be comfortable in her new home. When we arrived at home our senior chihuahua was not phased by her presence, our cat Cinnibar was not that impressed and while on leash Molly appeared a bit interested but nothing that caused me to be concerned. Everything was perfect.

Molly and Chili meeting

Until Cinnibar moved.

Molly’s high prey drive kicked in and chaos ensued. I was not prepared for this in any way, and luckily Cinnibar was able to find safety on our daughter’s top bunk bed. Over the next few days, upon advice from many colleagues and friends I implemented a number of controls and routines to keep Cinnibar safe and provide opportunities to try to work on Molly’s prey drive. It didn’t work. Molly was the most amazing dog in EVERY OTHER ASPECT. She knew commands and followed them. She walked well on a leash. She was active, yet very relaxed. She was so good with our daughter. She was good with our small dog and even tried to instigate play.

But she wanted to eat our cat.

How could I return her? In addition to falling madly in love with her, I felt this internalized pressure that because of my work with Paws for Hope I had to make this work. What would it say about me if I couldn’t make it work and had to return her to the shelter? I would be a hypocrite wouldn’t I?


Management control

Key to improving the lives of animals is making sure they are in the right home, and it doesn’t automatically follow that when you fall in love with an animal that you are the perfect home for them. We could have kept Molly and made arrangements to manage the situation with crates and gates (which we initially did), but not only is this unfair to the animal who is confined, if the behaviour does not change, the situation could potentially end in disaster. Tragic stories of when management ended in disaster were also shared with me.

And what if we changed the perception of returns? When I shared my experience with Sheila Koukan, manager at Best Friends Society’s NKLA Pet Adoption Center her response provided an important perspective, and helped me understand that I would not be failing Molly by returning her to the shelter.

It’s important to change the perception of returns. We want what is best for the animal and the adopters. At least returns allow us to learn more about the animals and find them the right home moving forward.

And she’s right. Now, the shelter knows Molly absolutely cannot live with cats. They also now know that she is good with small dogs, does very well with structure and needs her daily walks.

Finally, perhaps the most important lesson was giving myself permission to not be a martyr. Next to raising my daughter, advocating for the welfare of animals is the most important thing in my life. I have worked day and night over the past six years to make Paws for Hope into a credible organization that will make a meaningful and sustainable difference in animal welfare. Admitting that I would not be the one who would give this shelter dog a second chance at life felt like the biggest failure. But in fact, I would have failed Molly if I did not return her to the shelter to give her the opportunity to be raised by the perfect family for her. A family with no cats. A house where she could therefore roam freely. I would have also failed Cinnibar, by creating an environment that would cause her ongoing stress. One where she could no longer run and play. One controlled by the presence of another. And as many of my colleagues reminded me, Cinnibar has to come first.

This experience showed me the best of the animal welfare community. When we were in management mode, there was an army of rescue folks ready to help in anyway, and when we accepted that we were not the right home for Molly and made the decision to return her, that same army was there to support me. Sharing my experience publicly also seemed to give people permission to share their stories of adoptions or rehomings that did not work. Some admitting that, like me, they felt so ashamed because of the work they do, they never told anyone.

Cinnibar enjoying the return of her freedom

Accepting that there are limits in what we are capable of is essential to helping animals effectively. When we take on too much we may do more harm than good. Because of lack of funding and government political will to make animal welfare a priority, the system often operates in crisis mode. To respond effectively and to make meaningful steps to move towards a more sustainable animal welfare system we need to know and work within our limits.

And Molly? Twenty-four hours after being back at the shelter she has gone home with her perfect family.

Kathy Powelson
Executive Director

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