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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014

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Meet Shely the Pomeranian.
Meet Shely the Pomeranian.

To save animals, you have to like people

"Boy, I hate people."

I hear that all the time from people who work in animal welfare. I disagree.

I understand why they feel that way. When you do this work, you hear stories all the time that make you angry. Abuse and neglect. Domestic violence. Well-meaning stupidity. Even the simple failure to stick with commitments: "I’m moving out of town, so I need to surrender my 12-year-old dog."

These stories would make anyone mad, let alone someone who cares enough about animals to have chosen shelter work over other, almost certainly better-paying, options.

But here’s the catch, and it’s a big one. The only way you can save homeless animals is by liking people. By trusting people, welcoming people, inspiring people, and helping people keep their own animals and adopt more.

This insight is the core of a fundamental shift in animal welfare work in recent years. Like most powerful insights, it grabs you the minute you get it. Think about it: can you save the lives of more animals ...

  • By screening adopters strictly and allowing only the most qualified, or by believing that most people can give an animal a loving home?
  • By creating obstacles to adopting an animal that only the most dedicated family can surmount (long waits, home inspections, special requirements) or by making it easy to bring a homeless animal into one’s life?
  • By assuming every animal is better off in the shelter than staying with someone who is thinking about giving them up, or by working with families to find ways they can keep their animals?

Our shelter helped develop this approach, and now we are among many who follow it. We still get criticism sometimes from those who think we should make it more difficult to adopt an animal – but our low return rates, the great stories we hear from our adopters, the follow-up we provide for them, and the number of times we do decline to adopt all make us confident that the approach works. Liking people has saved hundreds of thousands of animals’ live…

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Phoebe, a beautiful 12-year-old cat at our Milwaukee Campus.
Phoebe, a beautiful 12-year-old cat at our Milwaukee Campus.

Not an ending - a beginning

In animal sheltering work, it’s easy to think of each adoption as a "happy ending" to that animal’s story. That’s one way to think about it – but it’s just as true to think of it as a "happy beginning." The love that begins between a person and an animal when they leave our shelter often lasts for many years. It doesn’t just save the animal’s life; it shapes the person’s life, forever.

I’m always reminded of this when we hear from adopters years later, often to let us know that their beloved shelter animal has passed away. Here are two samples we’ve received lately:

  • From our Facebook page: "I just wanted to share with you a puppy success story, many years ago a single mother and four kids adopted a German Shepherd/Collie from you. I just wanted to thank you for rescuing him and bringing Chives into our lives, he passed away two years ago and we couldn't have been happier with the memories we had with him. Thank you so very much!!"
  • In my e-mail: "I fell in love with a mutt named Midnight in March, 1999. His first two years with us were very challenging. I worked with him-retraining, reconditioning, rehabbing, for those two years because I loved him so much, I could not let him go. He was a brilliant dog. We put him to sleep last night. And I felt like sharing an old WHS story with you today."

Even better are the notes we get when a shelter animal has passed on ... and the family has come back to bring another shelter animal into their lives. Like this one from Facebook:

"Back in December, we lost our wonderful 15-1/2 year old Bailey, a Dalmatian/Border Collie mix. After just one week, we decided to visit WHS for some fuzz therapy. We ended up leaving that day with a new family member. Here is Mocha (formerly Moose) with our youngest daughter. He is such a great dog and he has fit perfectly into our family. Mocha has helped our hearts heal and helped us not miss Bailey so much."

Now that is a new beginning. What a privilege to hear that o…

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Shaka is available for adoption at our Milwaukee Campus.
Shaka is available for adoption at our Milwaukee Campus.

Hello from the Wisconsin Humane Society:  It's not what you think

Hello and welcome to a new blog! I’ve been the executive director of the Wisconsin Humane Society for just over three years, and I’m excited to share stories and reports of our work here.

I’ve learned so much since I entered this work, but perhaps the main thing I’ve learned is this: animal welfare work is different from what I thought it would be, and from what most people think it is.

Most people have an idea of what they think it’s like to work at an animal shelter. It might be based on the "pound" in their hometown, or on images from stories and movies. I call it the "Lady and the Tramp" vision of an animal shelter.

When my daughter was young, we had that Disney movie on tape, and one of its most memorable images – after the scene of Lady and Tramp falling in love while eating the same piece of spaghetti, one from each end – is the scene of a dark, depressing, unstaffed "pound" from which, we assume, animals rarely emerge alive.

It’s not like that. It’s actually pretty amazing. Contrary to what I thought, and what most people think, this work is:

  • Happy. When you’re finding homes for almost 10,000 animals every year, that’s a lot of great stories, great people and great animals. As I type this, I’m looking out my office door at our "whiteboard wall" with the names of all the animals who went home from our Milwaukee Campus in January. It’s colorful and joyful.
  • Challenging. Keeping animals healthy, making adoption easy while at the same time making sure animals are going to safe homes, launching new programs (like our new program to help animals of families entering domestic violence shelters), and raising the donations that make our work possible – these are big jobs for all of us, and challenging ones. I’m sometimes asked whether I get to spend more time with my family now that I work at a nonprofit – definitely not!
  • Changing. This is an exciting time of change and progress in animal welfare. Challenges that once seemed in…
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