Kodiak and Courtney

It’s Time to Recognize, Promote, and Actively Support the Human-Animal Bond

–by Courtney Wennerstrom, aapp Contributing Editor

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated”–Mahatma Gandhi.

My friend and colleague, Tom Van Winkle, a seasoned animal welfare professional with 20 years of experience, often says that pets are an indicator species–meaning that our treatment of non-human animals reveals a lot about what our society prioritizes; how it is structured; and who and what we hold sacred. I always say that we cannot help people without helping animals, or help animals without helping people. Of course, Tom and I agree.

At the heart of both of these philosophies is a profound understanding that our relationships with animals matter, and they matter in ways that resonate in every aspect of our existence. As pet parents, we deem our companion animals family members. As such, they ought to be considered in every aspect of government and social work–from city planning and development, to social services and public health initiatives. Family structures are dynamic and complex, and we need to redefine the family unit to include the furry sentient beings with whom we share our hearts and homes. In this light, animals need and deserve better legal protections, access to resources, and community support and intervention when their families are in crisis. Everyone loses when humans and pets are torn apart. Instead, we must find creative ways to provide social services to families with pets, and above all, to keep animals out of the shelter system and in their loving homes, where they belong.

Natural Disasters, Pandemics, and Systemic Inequality

Hurricane Katrina shined a national spotlight on the profound significance of the human-animal bond. The nation watched in horror as countless pet parents were forcefully dragged away from their babies, leaving them to fend for themselves in the aftermath of a category 5 hurricane. Images of dogs howling on rooftops; cats clinging to trees; and horses stranded in standing water, are seared into our collective memory. It took weeks for local and national animal welfare organizations to get into the affected areas and begin rescue efforts. Of the pets who miraculously survived, many never made it back to their humans–adding a second layer of trauma to an already devastating storm. In response, lawmakers passed the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards or PETS Act in 2006–an important federal law that requires states, cities, and counties to consider household pets and service animals in disaster preparedness in order to receive federal funding for disaster relief. As the Animal Legal Defense Fund explains, this vital legislation helps to keep pets and people together through “the creation, operation, and maintenance of pet-friendly emergency shelters, along with other emergency preparedness actions for companion and service animals. FEMA is also permitted to reimburse state and local governments for rescuing, caring for, and sheltering animals in an emergency”. The PETS Act thus acknowledges how deeply we love and need our animals and reflects tremendous social progress. But we still have a long way to go to protect companion animals.

A year into Covid-19, millions of families across the United States are facing eviction, unemployment, food insecurity, and homelessness. Just like hurricanes and other natural disasters, pandemics highlight and exacerbate systemic inequalities. When disaster strikes, it almost always hits vulnerable populations the hardest. Unfortunately, because pets are left out of most social services, they are slipping through the proverbial cracks of a system that has not traditionally valued the human-animal bond. Arbitrary breed and weight restrictions, combined with prohibitive pet deposits, make it difficult if not impossible for pet parents to find affordable housing.

Veterinary care and medication for one-off injuries, major illnesses, or even routine dental work can put a tremendous strain on finances, especially during a time when so many people are without a regular income. Lacking resources to care for them, people are being forced to say good-bye to their best friends. Even when pets find new families, the magnitude of the anguish is impossible to quantify, for both the animals and the humans involved–including shelter employees who are literally in the trenches, doing everything in their power to save countless pets every day, without the proper funding or infrastructure necessary to find homes for every animal that comes through their doors. Unsurprisingly, the compassion fatigue in animal welfare is harrowing. Due to poor policies and a lack of understanding of the depth and scope of the problem, society is separating families and burning out highly-trained, sympathetic individuals at once.

But there is a better way: if we meet people where they are–providing affordable veterinary care, nutritious pet food, training for cat and dog behavioral problems, pet-friendly housing, and other meaningful assistance–we can end the senseless euthanasia of healthy, adoptable pets and keep them with the people who love and need them most.

Community-Based Sheltering–the Future of Animal Welfare

“If Covid-19 has a silver lining, it’s the fact that it’s accelerated some exciting improvements. What were previously considered ‘interesting ideas’ have now become formal programs. The long-term goals of involving the community, modernizing shelters, and harnessing technical capabilities–so much lip service with so much inaction until Covid–are becoming reality. So-called ‘community-based sheltering’ has driven some significant shifts that have been enacted not in spite of but because of the pandemic”.   –Jill Dyché, from Community-Based Sheltering in a Post-Covid World: How The Pandemic Sparked Animal Shelter Reform (2020)

In her free e-book quoted above, Jill Dyché–the executive director of Outta the Cage–explains how the animal welfare industry is getting a life-saving makeover, from the inside out. While Dyché writes primarily for shelter staff, reading her will give anyone a glimpse into the challenges shelters face, and the new direction we are heading in. Animal welfare professionals often joke that we are actively putting ourselves out of business. Nothing would make us happier. Doing so calls for a dramatic shift in ideology.

For decades, our focus has been on adoption: we have spent most of our energy finding animals new homes rather than helping them stay in their current ones. Adoption will always be important. But the way forward requires a transition from an adoption-driven model of animal sheltering to a community-based sheltering model in which relinquishing pets is the absolute last resort for anyone experiencing hardship, financial or otherwise. Shelters need to become resource centers with pet-retention programs designed to keep pets in their already-loving homes. Like Katrina, COVID-19 is ushering us into a new age, and has reinvigorated efforts to provide affordable pet healthcare and insurance, pet pantries, pet-retention grants, service agencies that accept or place pets in temporary housing; transportation to veterinarians; and other social services. With compassion and creativity, we can be proactive–and not merely reactive–to pet overcrowding in shelters.

We Can Save Animals, Together

Meaningful change requires reevaluating our cultural biases, policies, and attitudes. Too often, fellow pet parents judge others in crisis, and believe that no one living in poverty deserves to have pets. But companion animals are sentient beings, and thus indispensable members of our packs and prides. They are not luxury items or toys. They cannot be cast aside without emotional devastation. All responsible pet parents, whether they live in mansions or on the streets, love their babies and would do anything in their power to ensure their well-being. This issue hits close to home. In graduate school, despite working constantly, I spent nearly two decades surviving just above the poverty line. My dogs, Maddie and Kodiac, were my lifelines. They kept me grounded and sane, and just like my current pets, were my babies. In 2006, Kodiac tore his ACL, an expensive repair that I could not afford on my own. Luckily, I had parents and friends who donated to his care. I also had pet health insurance that covered half the costs. During those challenging years in academia, other illnesses and injuries lead to astronomical vet bills; but again, my tribe came through for me–and their empathy meant everything. I am not sure where I would today had I surrendered my canine sidekicks. Instead, I got to call them mine, even as they took their last breaths in my arms. That is something I will never take for granted. Not ever.

Kodiak and Courtney                                    photo credit: Christopher Nagle

Courtney and Kodiac, 2014    

Tragically, not everyone has this kind of support. Until I worked in an animal shelter, I never understood how it was possible for so many animals to find themselves in concrete cells–confused, terrified, and alone. In fact, I once judged “those people who surrender their pets” pretty harshly. Now it’s clear as day that we need to revolutionize and transform animal shelters into places that would merit that kind of judgment–where only the cruel, not the desperate or disenfranchised–would abandon their pets because shelters would be able to rely on and refer pet parents to other social services and programs for secondary support.

Community-based sheltering models work, as I have witnessed firsthand as a shelter worker. Armed with funding from a generous donor, I was once able to intervene on behalf of a frantic family whose 12-year old chihuahua, Jalapeno, was in significant pain and needed expensive dental work. By awarding them a pet retention grant, the little popper-pupper had several rotten teeth pulled, received antibiotics and pain medication, and remained with his family. I have never seen a five year old child cry harder from gratitude than I did in the moment she and her parents picked up Jalapeno from the vet’s office and proudly carried him home.

Above all, we need a new cultural mentality: one that recognizes pets as family members and treats them as such. We cannot ask humans fleeing abusive partners or experiencing homelessness to leave their companions behind. We should not judge other pet parents experiencing adversity for making wrenching decisions if we do not offer other options.

In short, it is well past time for us to implement policies, laws, and programs that recognize that our lives are only worth living when every single one of our family members are safe and protected. By turning the sheltering model around, we will make the world a kinder, more beautiful place for animals and the people who love them.

How You Can Help

  • Join American Association of Pet Parents (aapp) to support our partner shelters, fund innovative outreach and pet-retention programs; and follow our work as we build partnerships with organizations doing the important work of keeping families together.
  • Foster–contact your local shelter or rescues to sign up to care for an animal in need. Many have Guardian Angel programs that provide temporary housing for pets whose humans are in crisis.
  • Donate to your local shelters so they can stock their pet pantries with nutritious food.
  • Contact your legislators and encourage states to implement pet-inclusive homeless and domestic violence shelters.
  • Encourage your representatives to pass ordinances for pet-inclusive housing–including rental properties that do not enforce arbitrary breed or weight restrictions, and require only reasonable, refundable pet deposits.