Friday, May 17, 2013

Northward Bound

A couple of the dog books I’ve read lately have addressed the transport of shelter dogs (mostly puppies) from mostly rural shelters in the south to private shelters in the northeast.  Both the authors are journalists living in the New York area who adopted puppies relocated from the south.  One, Kim Kavin’s Little Boy Blue, is focused entirely on the story of how her dog Blue got from North Carolina to New Jersey.

The other, John Homans’s What’s a Dog For?, discusses the background of his dog Stella (from Tennessee) as one piece of a larger discussion on contemporary humans’ relationships with dogs.  In their discussions of the transport movement, both authors raise some important and difficult issues about dog rescue, breed identity, and more.

 Homans calls the transport movement “The Great Migration.” a catchy but inaccurate term.  The movement of dogs from south to north (or as Homans puts it, from red states to blue states) is not really migration as much as a redistribution of resources.  Some authors use the term “underground railroad,” again catchy but inaccurate, since the transport network is not illegal, as was the movement of slaves from south to north.  Nor is moving dogs around an act of civil disobedience, although it can certainly be seen, at least from some perspectives, as an act of protest against shelter conditions, the methods used to kill dogs in some counties, and the scale on which the killing occurs.

Both books (published in fall 2012) sold well and were generally well reviewed, and Little Boy Blue has won several awards.  I found both smart, interesting, and ultimately unsatisfactory.  Part of my dissatisfaction came from the fact that neither author dug deeply enough, or thought hard enough, about the larger questions raised by their own dogs’ histories and the larger transport movement.  The biggest issue, perhaps, is raised by a Pennsylvania activist quoted by Kavin.  After pointing out that over 70,000 dogs entered Pennsylvania shelters in 2009 alone, she asks “Why the hell are these rescue groups bringing more into the state?”  In other words, is it ethical to transport puppies hundreds of miles to places where thousands of other adoptable dogs are already waiting for homes?

Behind this big question lurk a host of more specific issues, including the fact that transport spreads disease and the fact that the whole movement is largely unregulated, decentralized, and thus ripe for abuse.  All of these issues deserve attention (and to her credit, Kavin does address the last issue in some detail).  I want to focus here on two questions: one about geography and another about breed.

Regarding geography, both Homans and Kavin take for granted that there is a clear-cut and dramatic clash between northern and southern culture regarding the treatment of dogs, as most other issues.  As Homans puts it, “Most fundamentally the dog market is an ongoing transaction between the red states and the blue states, and it’s based on the same basic differences in core values that make our presidential elections so dramatic.  The flow of dogs, in general, is from south to north, and from flyover country to the coasts.”  Homans’s New York-centric view of the world, including a casual contempt for people who live anywhere but the coasts, is hard to stomach.  Both he and Kavin find southerners to be a foreign species, radically different from those in the civilized north in every respect, including their attitudes toward dogs. As Homans summarizes, “In many places in the south and west, a dog’s life just isn’t worth as much as it is on the coasts.”

Homans’s view of the south (based on his visit to Tennessee to see the shelter where his dog Stella came from) is a combination of Mayberry and Southern Gothic.  Most importantly, he believes all southerners live on small farms, which is the root of southern attitudes toward dogs: “The dog belongs on the farmyard, and the farm belongs to the farmer, and that’s the way it’s always been.”  Homans apparently does not know that a large and growing proportion of southerners live in cities.

Homans’s perceptions of the South, which Kavin echoes (albeit with less disdain), only harms dogs by making it harder to build bridges, to educate people, and even to identify the real problems.  Animals are abused and neglected in every part of the country, including New York  and Boston as well as Tennessee, California as well as the Carolinas.  The world does not (thank goodness) divide neatly into callous farmers and responsible Manhattanites.  There are callous New Yorkers and dog-loving farmers – and the vast majority of Americans are neither farmers nor New Yorkers. Most important, the large majority love dogs and want to do right by them.

Homans's unquestioning embrace of stock images of southerners is a result of a larger sloppiness about sources, data, and the generalizations to be drawn from them. This is evident as well in his attitude about breed.  He and Kavin both accept without question the (apparently) common wisdom that first, the vast majority of available dogs in northeastern shelters are pit bulls – or as Homans puts it, in New York, “mutts that aren’t part pit bull are from red states.”  Second, both Homans and Kavin assume that these “pit bulls” are not going to be adopted by ordinary people looking for family pets – including themselves.

Here is Homans’s discussion (or dismissal) of the New York Animal Care and Control website of adoptable dogs (or, as he puts it “the condemned animals”): they “are mostly alert, young, healthy-looking pit bulls (at least they look healthy in the pictures), either strays or dogs surrendered by their owners.  Most of them peer at the camera with the pit’s distinctive look of confident inquisitiveness – adorable.  The pictures were, of course, hard to look at, one reason I didn’t look at them."

Homans never explains why his family did not bother even to visit NYACC but instead chose a puppy imported from Tennessee. His Stella arrives as a young pupy and grows into a large, short-haired, high-energy adult.  Charming as Stella appears, nowhere is it clear how she differs radically from the New York-born “condemned animals” he could not bear to view, let alone visit or consider adopting.

(On a side note, the notion that Stella is mostly Labrador Retriever is oddly important to him, although he never mentions having had her DNA tested.  He spends a whole chapter on the breed origins of Labradors, even though his faith that Stella is a Labrador appears based only on visual identification – and in terms of behavior, he points out that she does not, in fact, like to retrieve.)

Kavin offers a slightly longer, though no more satisfying, discussion of breed.  Pit bulls, she says, “are so difficult to place with families because of stereotypes about the breed.”  (This comment comes up in her discussion of the Northeast Animal Shelter in Boston, which she describes as a “utopia,” other than the fact that they refuse to accept dogs they label as “pit bulls.”)   Pit bulls, she points out, are often wonderful dogs, victims of unfair stereotypes.  Surely this plight is not too different from the earlier plight of mutts and shelter dogs, as she describes it:  “Shelter dogs have been unfairly maligned for years as less valuable or less worthy than purebreds, when in fact they are often wonderful dogs like Blue who have simply found themselves in a tragic situation."

The image – and thus the life prospects – of shelter dogs has changed dramatically in recent years.  Many dog lovers in the northeast and elsewhere, including affluent professionals like Homans and Kavin, head first to the shelter or a private rescue for their pets.  This preference for rescued, usually mixed-breed dogs, is not an accident.  It is the result of concerted efforts by animal advocates to change perceptions about shelter dogs and also about the "purebred" dog industry.  Most Americans no longer see mixed-breed dogs or shelter dogs as inferior or damaged, and a large percentage of Americans – not just on east and west coasts – head directly to rescue groups or shelters when they are ready to add a dog to their family.  (And they are also increasingly willing to adopt adult and even senior dogs, another change from a couple of generations ago.)

Given the successful transformation of attitudes about shelter dogs, the next obvious step would be to take on the destructive stereotype about pit bulls.  Many groups have done this directly, and there are countless excellent models for successful campaigns, by nationally known groups such as Animal Farm Foundation, Stubby Dog, and BAD RAP.  And perhaps even more effectively, in many places – including southern towns like Gainesville – pit bulls are increasingly seen as ordinary dogs.  This shift has happened without much deliberate effort, simply because there are so many of these dogs that almost everyone knows one (or many) and the frightening stereotypes do not survive the reality.

Why, then, do Kavin and Homans take for granted the notion that “most people” will not even consider adopting a dog labeled a pit bull?  I asked Kavin about this directly in an email, quoting the Pennsylvania activist in her book who criticized the transport network.  In response to my question, Kavin wrote:  “She [the Pennsylvania advocate] believes that if only rescues would stop bringing cute beagles, terriers, and Labradors from the shelters in the South, that more people would adopt the pit bulls in the shelters in the North. I just don’t believe that’s true. I don’t think that people want 'any' shelter dog. I think that people want the kind of dog that they want, and that if they can get it from a shelter, fine. If not, then they’ll go to a breeder.  Do I think that’s fair to pit bulls? Of course not.  But I do think that it’s the present reality.”

Even if it is true that “people” just don’t want pit bulls, the moral response to injustice is not simply to throw up one’s hands in resignation.  (Imagine if advocates from other movements, ranging from women’s suffrage to civil rights, had been this sanguine about their "present reality.")  However, I don’t believe it’s true that people “want the kind of dog they want.”  Or rather, the kind of dog they want can change, when they have accurate information, positive experiences with both dogs and rescue organizations, and plenty of support before, during, and after their adoption. Kavin gives in way too quickly – fortunately for the dogs, many other people don’t.

So what's a dog lover to do?  Our shelter behavior group recently discussed this issue, and we all agreed that, first, it is never a bad thing for a dog (or any animal) to have a chance.  The transport movement has given a future to thousands of dogs who would otherwise have died before their lives had even begun.  And many of us in the group had in fact "transported" ourselves -- helping dogs from Gainesville get to rescue groups elsewhere, for example, or pulling dogs from rural shelters in surrounding counties, where the euthanasia rates are much higher than in Alachua County.  These transports, however, area almost always of adult dogs who are already on euthanasia lists, due either to overcrowding or to health conditions such as heartworm or demodex.

All of us had trouble embracing the transport movement in any unambivalent way.  While we talked about a number of problems (including the spread of disease), in the end what bothered us most about the transport movement was the fact that it creates a de facto caste system, with life or death as the result. Well-intentioned people dedicate truly enormous resources to save certain dogs without even a passing thought at other "condemned animals" much closer to home.

As Kavin points out, her little brindle puppy Blue was certainly not any less deserving than purebred dogs sold by breeders -- or even than other puppies fortunate enough to be born in the northeast ... and to be fortunate enough to look "the right way," to be "the kind of dogs people want." In the end, it's the willing acquiescence to injustice that makes both books so disturbing.

And on the other hand, it's the willingness to challenge injustice that makes many other dog advocates so inspiring.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Share the (foster) love

We love, love, love our foster families.  Without them, we couldn’t do anything.  A good foster is worth her or his weight in gold and most rescues will do everything possible to make fostering a good experience so it continues.  Like all volunteers, fosters do what they do for love.  They don’t get paid for their time or inconvenience, and many go above and beyond the minimum.

Most foster parents are amazing, generous, committed people who do everything they can to make things work well.  They know that the other folks working for rescue groups are also volunteers, with jobs, family commitments, and their own pets (and often foster pets as well).  They know, in short, that we're all in it together, and that we can only achieve our shared goal of helping animals if we all treat each other with respect, patience, and friendship. 

The majority of wonderful fosters more than make up for the occasional difficult experiences – which usually result not from bad intentions but from people committing before thinking it through completely.  To make things even better, here are a few tips that can help reduce the challenges.  Most rescue groups have gotten a call from a foster saying “come get my dog.  Now.”  Usually this is because the dog is more difficult than the foster anticipated, and they don’t have the patience to wait for things to get better. 

When you get a dog straight from the shelter, you need to be prepared for surprises and for a transition period that can last several weeks (or more).  Your foster dog may never have lived in a home before.  She or he may never have had kind treatment from humans, may have been on a chain or in a pen and unable to socialize normally with other animals, may have been hungry or abused, or may just be very confused and scared.  Please do not offer to foster if you are not able to cope with common issues and problems with patience and a sense of humor.

Most problems can be resolved if you are consistent and patient. However, if you are going to throw in the towel the first time your foster dog howls when left alone, growls at your own dog (or vice versa), or has an accident in the house, then please do not volunteer to foster!  We would love to have you volunteer in other ways that are less stressful for everyone concerned.

Perhaps the most common reason that fosters want to return their foster dog is issues with their own dogs.  We recommend giving it at least two weeks before you give up!  During this time, please keep the foster pet separated from your dog(s) and follow our instructions for carefully managed interactions.  We have had good success with slow introductions even for dogs who were reactive and growly at first.  It’s hard for your dogs to accept a stranger into their turf, and it’s scary for the new dog to try to fit in.  If you are not willing to follow instructions and stick it out for a couple of weeks, then please do not try fostering.  The same goes for other common issues, including house training, leash walking, jumping up, etc.  If you follow instructions and it still isn’t working out, we will find a new foster home – but it may not be immediate.  Please keep dogs separated during this time and we will do our best.  We cannot always work miracles, but we try.

Remember, there is no backup home.  If you really have tried everything and cannot keep your foster dog, we will do our best to find a new foster home but it may take time.  Please understand this before you commit to fostering.  (The exception is when we take a dog from a current foster to try in a new foster home.  We do this especially for fosters with cats.  We can arrange this, but otherwise we take dogs from the shelter’s euthanasia list directly to the foster home and there is no backup.)

Okay, now for the happy part.  First and foremost, we love you.  We want you to be happy and we want you to keep fostering.  Please let us know whenever you have questions or concerns, about health, behavior, or anything else.

To keep you and your foster dog happy, we try to supply everything you need, from food and crates to advice about training and behavior.  We often arrange for playdates or group walks if you’d like your foster dog to socialize with other dogs in a controlled environment.

And finally, a few requests (you knew this was coming).

First and foremost, talk to us!  We want to know if you need more food, if you are worried about that red patch on your foster dog's back, or if you are about to lose your mind because he won't stop harassing your cat.  We can't say it enough:  we are more than willing to do what it takes to make this work, but we need to know what's going on.  If you talk to us, we promise that we won't judge, we won't ignore you, and we won't take away your foster dog (if you don't want us to). 

All the other requests are really more specific versions of "talk to us."  For example, we need you to tell us about health concerns -- and we need you not to take your foster dog to the vet without first getting approval (unless it is a life threatening emergency and you cannot get in touch with us). We also need you not to take your dog to off-leash dog parks without checking first.  Dog parks can be great fun but they can also be dangerous.  We cannot afford vet care or a lawsuit if something goes wrong!  Some of our dogs are experienced and well-socialized and do great at the dog park, but not all are ready for it.  Talk to us!

And as a corollary to talking, please listen to and follow instructions.  Don't second guess us about exercise, food, medicine, or other issues -- the rules are there because of past experience, not an arbitrary desire to be bossy.  This means you may not be able to do everything with your foster dog that you do with your dog. For example, do not let your foster dog off-leash in any other setting besides a fully enclosed yard or dog park.  No exceptions, no matter how calm and well-behaved the dog is.  It’s not worth the risk of having your dog hit by a car, attacked by another dog, or lost.  For similar reasons, please don't start or stop medicines, change a training routine, or otherwise alter your dog's routine unless we have talked about it and agreed.  You live with your foster dog and know her/him well, and we are happy to learn from you -- but at the same time, we need you to be willing to learn from our experiences (and understand that we are the ones who have to pay the bill or deal with other unpleasant fallout when things don't go well).

As always, we will try to work with you to make the situation better.  Please be patient with us and with your foster dog.  Did we mention that we love you?