This is a picture of me and my dog Gilbert, taken in the late 1990s. I’ve been thinking a lot about Gilbert lately because his story reminds me how much animal welfare still needs to change when it comes to the ‘owner surrender’ process. I got Gilbert from a friend who found him tied up to a car. I took one look at him and fell in love – he got along great with my other dogs, adored just about everyone he met, and was an all-around lovely dog. He loved to lay upside down in my lap he was one of those big dogs who thinks he weighs 10 pounds. Things were going great for a little while, but after several months, I discovered he liked to chase and bite things made of rubber.
It sounds funny, but as a young person who knew next-to-nothing about dogs, it was quite frightening when he would unexpectedly bite a tennis shoe, a bike tire, or even a stroller wheel. He was never aggressive towards people or other animals, but over time, he began jumping my fence to chase bikes so he could bite the tire and walking him was tough because he would fixate on wheels and shoes. I felt scared and helpless. I called the local pound, who advised owner surrender “for euthanasia” was the most responsible thing to do and I did just that. I signed him over to the animal shelter. For what it’s worth, I did recognize the terrible mistake I had made, but by the time I called them just an hour after I surrendered, it was already too late.
Over the past 23 years since this happened, I’ve held on to a lot of guilt and shame for that decision. I have imagined his death (they used a gas chamber at the time) a thousand times and I still get teary when I think of what a great dog he was and what I did to him. At the same time, this experience has been a catalyst to help me try to change the way we treat animals in shelters.
It’s helped me think about how the entire process of giving up an animal to shelters is completely broken. It often ends in needless death. It results in long term shame and even trauma for the person ‘surrendering.’ Almost 100% of the time, it results in complete and forever separation of the animal from its person. While we’ve made strides towards fixing it, there are many other things we can do to de-stigmatize owner surrender and make it more humane for people and animals. Here are some of my ideas. What are yours?
ALTERNATIVES TO SURRENDER. First and foremost, animal services agencies need to build pet support centers to provide resources to keep animals and people together whenever possible. When maintaining the human-animal bond isn’t possible, the next best solution is to provide supported self-rehoming services, where the owner can retain the animal temporarily while the shelter helps market the pet and assist the owner with getting their pet adopted without it having to enter the shelter system. For many cases, these strategies will all the owner to keep or rehome their pet, without the stress of being entirely separated from the first owner and living in a shelter kennel. In my situation, I probably did need to rehome Gilbert. I was overwhelmed with life and even if I had been offered training or other support, I’m not sure I would have accepted it because I was just in over my head. For some people, they will need to rehome their animals and this is where animal services can do so much more to help.
LANGUAGE MATTERS. We need to call it something other than “owner surrender.” We’ve been talking about “supported rehoming” but that’s just the start. We need to whole, new vocabulary to talk about how animal services assists in transitioning a pet from one home to another. If you have ideas about this, please share!
BUILD BRIDGES. We must build a new system that allows caregiver 1 to maintain a relationship with caregiver 2 if both parties are amenable. This accomplishes two things. It builds a wide safety net for the animal and in many cases, could allow for the animal to maintain a relationship with caregiver 1. You can accomplish this by inviting caregiver 1 to write a profile of their pet with their contact information to be shared with the new foster or adopter. You can also create a public Facebook group where old and new caregivers can connect. You can encourage people who are surrendering to be part of the rehoming process and to help market their pet.
SEE THE PEOPLE WHO ARE SURRENDERING. The top reasons people surrender an animal to a shelter include inability to find pet-accessible housing, inability to afford medical care, behavioral challenges, and life crises. It’s incredibly easy to become jaded and condemn people who are giving up their animal companions, and our industry needs to provide a wide range of support services and training for staff and volunteers who work in this area because ‘intake’ is one of the most emotionally challenging places to work in a shelter.
MANDATORY HOLD PERIODS. We need to have mandatory hold periods, even for surrendered animals. My story is a perfect example of why. While stray holds offer protection for un-owned animals, in almost every shelter in the country, animals can be ‘dispositioned’ immediately upon surrender. This means intake-to-euthanasia is a very common practice and because so many of these animals are ‘owner requested euthanasia,’ they’re not even counted in the live release data.
FOLLOW UP. Once we have rehomed an animal, volunteers can be engaged to call the previous owner and let them know the outcome. Because surrendering a pet is so stigmatized, many people just live with terrible guilt and shame. They’re afraid to call us because knowing what happened might be worse than what they imagine. What if we just made a quick call to tell them their pet is okay and is loved? How much could just that tiny act create a more humane community? No shelter that I know of is doing this yet, but in a couple of years, I hope we all will be.
Director at Pima Animal Care Center