Public misconceptions about animal shelters are rampant. And in a field dedicated to saving lives, misinformation can have negative consequences for animals.
The general public has a tendency to see many animal welfare organizations as bleak and dreary. But in reality, every one of these places is really about happy endings; every shelter or rescue group works towards finding loving forever homes and ending euthanasia of adoptable pets. People choose to work at these places because they love animals. I strongly believe that anyone who deeply cares for animals should love all shelters.
I work for The Anti-Cruelty Society. The organization began in Chicago in 1899 and is very well known; yet when I’m in social settings, people hear where I work and often respond with negative comments like, “I don’t know how you can work there.”
Explanations for these comments range from people believing that shelter work exposes staff to negative things that happen to animals (by that rationale, the same stigma would follow anyone that works at a hospital, but it doesn’t), to people simply having incorrect information. Here are some of the common myths that my colleagues and I often hear:
Note: These truths pertain to The Anti-Cruelty Society—every shelter has different programs/services, but this table can help anyone inquire about specifics at local shelters.
Myth 1: Animals are euthanized if they don’t find a home within a week.
Truth: The Anti-Cruelty Society has no time limit on animals to be adopted.
Myth 2: It’s like jail for pets
Truth: Every shelter is meant to be a temporary home until an animal is adopted, but during their stay pets are provided with food, water, shelter, veterinary care, enrichment (stimulating games/toys), and lots of TLC from staff and volunteers. Particularly stressed animals can stay in foster care.
Myth 3: Shelters only see abused/damaged animals.
Truth: Pets are surrendered to shelters for many reasons—guardians move, encounter financial difficulties, or even pass away. Shelter pets can be sweet intelligent animals with no history of abuse. 25% of dogs in shelters are purebreds. Every animal has a unique story.
Myth 4: Shelters are just an awful place to work.
Truth: I get to see cute cats and dogs every day at work, I work with lots of other people that love animals, and our work makes a positive difference in the world. Sometimes we see animals in dire circumstances, but we’re at the rescuing end of those situations. I’d say all that makes shelters a pretty great place to work.
Myth 5: Animals are euthanized for minor issues, or just for being Pit Bulls.
Truth: People work at a shelter to save lives. Veterinarians and behavior experts at the Anti-Cruelty Society have performed amazing feats to rehabilitate pets. Volunteer foster homes and breed rescue groups provide additional outlets to help animals in need beyond the ones you physically see at the shelter. There is no data to support breed bias so Pit Bulls and other “bully breeds” are vetted and adopted through the same process as all other dogs.
Public misconceptions like the ones above can negatively impact animals for a number of reasons:
In order for animal welfare organizations to save animals, they need people. People have to adopt animals and donate their time and resources. In order for people to make a difference for homeless pets, they have to connect with shelters, and people will be less likely to do so if they see these organizations as depressing places aligned with the misconceptions above.
Animals in need have to be brought to shelters where they can get treatment, rehabilitation, and a second chance. I’ve worked at animal-related nonprofit organizations for seventeen years and sadly, I’ve had many children confess to me that their parents turned animals out onto the streets or “released” them in parks because somehow they saw that as giving them a chance.
Pets are not wildlife—they are dependent on people for food and care. Animals on the street are at risk of being hit by cars, injured by wildlife or harmful people, or simply starving. When stray pets are caught, they are brought into a shelter. Anyone that has exhausted all their options and must surrender a pet should know that they can always turn to an open-admission shelter.
Aside from perpetuating misconceptions that deter public support, negative impressions of animal welfare organizations can also deter talent. Skilled veterinarians, behavior experts, grant writers, educators, and other animal care professionals work at shelters to save the lives of companion animals. Talented individuals may leave organizations where they are saving lives because they succumb to the pressures of the general public believing there is something dismal about their work.
No matter how much a person loves his/her job, it can get exhausting constantly defending a negative misperception.
How to Help
If you love animals, thank ALL shelter workers for rescuing animals and be glad they exist to help our furry friends.
Tatiana Garrett grew up with Borzoi, a rescued Standard Poodle, cats, hamsters, parrots, rabbits, guinea pigs, and an iguana… just to name a few pets. She began her professional career with animals in 1995 at Brookfield Zoo. She has studied wild dolphins in Australia and rescued wildlife in Florida, but people are truly at the heart of her work. If it walks, hops, or slithers, Tatiana cares about it. She currently oversees the Humane Education programs at The Anti-Cruelty Society and hosts “Chicago Tails“ on Watch312.com.