• Gayle

Let's Create a Better Future for Shelter and Other Homeless Animals...

Kuma was a "shelter dog."

Great Dane and German Shepard mix, most probably. Anywhere from 13 and 15 as far as we could guess, when he died. A surrender, if memory serves. My mother and daughter being the ones who brought him back, making the trek to the Animal Welfare League in the City from Northwest Indiana. During his first few years with them, he was always nervous, often shaking, running upstairs at a glance or entreaty to "come here." Our thinking being it because he was most likely abused, verbally anyway, and left outside, bored, scared, chained up. He was skinny, malnourished. There was a beautiful soul of a woman at the shelter who "sold" them on Kuma (then called "Bosley.") Going on what a great dog he was and how he would make a fine pet.

Seems too, that "time's up" may have been approaching for him. While not solidly black, Kuma was a darker colored dog with black-as-night nails (excepting one on one paw). Kuma didn't immediately present as either Great Dane nor German Shepard. Just a "mutt."

A tall "big" dog, though it would take awhile until he reached 120 lbs at his peak.And while recent studies have shown no significant difference in adoption rates between darker and lighter coat dogs, it does affect euthanasia prioritization.

Outside the "strays" my dad was found of rescuing when we were growing up, Kuma was the first "homeless dog" we adopted (though a long familial history of adopting "homeless" cats).

Otherwise, we were mostly dog people. Typically pure breeds. German Shepards growing up. Before Kuma, there was Pepper. An Akita. My own dog at the time was, a Bichon Frise. He lived until nearly 17. My first dog, a Samoyed Husky, we also bought from a pet store. Only he had major health issues, including one near death experience, during his scant nine years on Earth.

I took Kuma in, for what we thought would be temporary, when my mother got sick. But then three months later she died. Then the day after Christmas last year, my beloved Bichon Frise Cody had to be put to sleep. And now this, almost two years after I took him in, Kuma had to be put to sleep. His health had been deteriorating for a while. During that time, I thought that I would not get another animal for a long bit. Most likely when I retired.

But you don't have companion animals for thirty years of your life and then instantly not have them. And be okay. At least I wasn't.

So within the month, I thought well, maybe. And because Kuma got a chance at a full life he might never have had--combined with being such a great, beautiful soul of a dog, I made a trip to the local shelter to test my feelings, taking a case of unopened food he never got to eat to donate. I found a dog on their website that I had in mind to see. But turns out he was at an event, 30 minutes away. But by the time, I got there, he had been adopted. I saw some more dogs, a couple with possibilities, but knew this couldn't be a decision that I should jump into.

In the end, with the help of family, I realized that my initial decision was the best one. I work full-time. My place is small. I'm often gone a lot (including business travel). Now was not the time to adopt (or otherwise get) an animal.

You Gotta Think "Outside the Crate"

Still the deep need to do and share in the ways I had with Kuma were strong. To help shelter animals. Because he had made a profound difference in our lives, and I believe--us in his.

So I started looking at what other possibilities outside of adoption were possible.

Including revisiting that local shelter. Three times.

I saw a senior dog on their website that I thought maybe I could sponsor. I even visited him, but then no one got back to me about if there were things he needed. There was another dog that I felt an instant connection with--a five month old pit bull mix puppy. So adorable. Sitting serenely at the front of her cage and listening attentively while I talked with her. Different timing, different circumstances, I would have seriously considered adopting her (despite telling myself no more big dogs).

But she wasn't on the doggie day out list, so there was no way I'd be able to connect with her. So all I could do is hope someone else would find her as enchanting as I did. And would be commit to her for the long haul (she wouldn't be a cute small dog forever, after all). UPDATE: She has been adopted.

For all my trying, let's just leave it that developing a relationship with that particular shelter just wasn't going to work out.

So back to thinking outside the crate.

For example, I considered dog sharing. But remember ideally I am looking to make a difference in the lives of shelter animals. And shelters aren't in a position to provide dog sharing. Their ultimate goal is adoption. Or in shelter parlance, improve their live release rate.

I looked for another organization to get involved with. Found a couple that seemed promising. Except they are a distance from my home. And while I might start off with the greatest intention, knowing myself, the best chance of my volunteering or walking shelter dogs on a regular basis would be with an organization close to home.

Then I had an "aha moment." Maybe start something myself. Part passion project. Part social enterprise.

For example, animal enrichment and nourishing physical environment (a.k.a. environmental enrichment) are two things I feel passionately that shelter animals need. And wonderfully, one of the latest developments in animal sheltering. At least among the best shelter and animal welfare organizations. Some of the dogs at the shelter I visited had been there for six months or so. Not good. Some research and certainly anecdotal stories suggest that richer animal environments help improve shelter animals' quality of life as well as live releases.

My first thought was starting a small doggy day camp with agility equipment and homey kennels. Based on a concept like "Dogs Playing for Life." Building out one is a big hairy goal for now. But what is doable is finding organizations that share a passion about the animal enrichment solution like I do and fund raising to donate quality toys and equipment (which are on many organizations' wish lists) as well as sponsoring people who can come to help seed the concept and provide training.

So all of these ideas are on my wish list for Chicago South P.A.A.W.S., a pet adoption advocacy and welfare society.

Emptying the Shelters

It's not all fun and games, of course.

I started thinking about other ways to support the quality of shelter animals lives while in shelters. Whether that is six days or six months, shelter animals desire the best quality of life that's possible.

When you think about it, shelter animals need high quality food and and an environment that supports their comfort and care with walks, cuddles and products [like Kongs and Kuranda beds. These efforts increase their chances of being adopted as well as decrease shelter animals length of stay (LOS). And also why fostering is a such a great thing.

Often animals come into shelters with special medical needs (many times because they have been abused or neglected). Donations that go to medical care and rehabilitation not only means circumventing a possible euthanasia, but enhances their chances of adoption too.

Everyone who cares about animals wants to end animal homelessness and empty the shelters. The reasons are multi-faceted and interconnected. The number of euthanized animals in this country is down, but still heartbreaking high. As are the numbers of animals that are abused, neglected and end up in shelters for understandable (and not so much) reasons.

There is some good work being done to get dogs out of shelters and into loving homes. And there is work being done to cut down on the animals having to go into shelters in the first place. Like pets for life programs and spay-and neuter assistance.

Yes, this is a pretty big bone to gnaw on.

That's why you can never have too many voices and activists working to uncover and solve these challenges in my opinion. Which is why I believe there is a place for The Chicago South P.A.A.W.S.

Using Education, Advocacy and Practical Action

So I also envision this alliance being devoted to education, advocacy, and practical action.

Many local animal sheltering organizations would love to do more to spread the words, but whose time and resources go into the everyday work of intake, animal husbandry, getting animals adopted, fundraising, and occasional events. As they should and we need.

Chicago South P.A.A.W.S. will also emphasize human-pet bonding by providing opportunities for connection and companionship, including opportunities outside traditional pet ownership.

Another goal ties into my other passion--social justice. The animal welfare community has a mixed record when it comes to reaching across the aisle to ensure all voices are heard and welcomed. Unfortunately, there are many biases and misconceptions about who cares about and takes care of companion animals--especially in low income and minority neighborhoods. So we're aiming to create an inclusive, collaborative effort that reaches across groups. One where folks we don't usually associate with animal advocacy and activism would feel welcomed. Especially given the multicultural nature of the Chicago south suburbs.

Will You Join Me?

To go from one voice to many, I started this site to reach other people who feel like I do. Perhaps, like me, you're a newbie in the cause. Or an animal welfare activist who also has long felt the need for more proactive efforts and progressive programs in the Chicago Southland. If so, I hope you'll reach out.

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