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Some straight talk about shelters

September 24, 2010
By BARBARA WALLACE HUGHES, Messenger managing editor

As the Humane Society of North Central Iowa opens the doors of its brand-spanking-new facility, I feel the need to say a few things about why shelters exist and how they operate.

I'm not a full-fledged expert on the topic, but I have had dogs, cats and various others animals nearly all of my life. I've worked with a breed-specific rescue group. I've adopted shelter animals. And I've spent more money on veterinary care than some people pay to send their kids to private school.

There are some universal truths that people need to know about shelters.

An animal shelter is almost the last resort. Offering an animal "free to a good home" is worse. People often place no value on something they got for nothing. And, unscrupulous people sometimes do bad things with animals they didn't spend any money to acquire.

Even Laurie Hagey, executive director of the Almost Home shelter, will tell you a shelter is a tough place for an animal to live.

The best animal shelter in the world is not the best place in the world for a companion animal. Even the newest, cleanest, state-of-the-art shelter is not the same as a home. That's why the Fort Dodge facility is known as "Almost Home." Pets need their own people, their own dishes, their own spaces.

Animals who spend their days mostly alone in a small, confined space don't have the quality of life that companion animals should have. Sometimes, because of their confinement, they don't act like themselves. A scared, lonely dog - who used to be a loving, happy pet - may hang back in its shelter kennel. Shelter dogs sometimes show uncharacteristic aggression, not because they're mean but because they're terrified of the sounds, the smells, other animals and unfamiliar people.

Almost Home is a no-kill shelter, with a finite number of pets it can house at any one time. When it reaches that limit, it cannot accept more animals.

To maximize the number of animals for which it can find homes, the staff must be particular about which animals it accepts. I am aware of someone who was extremely disgruntled because the shelter staff wouldn't accept an older dog. As it turns out, this person found another home for the dog and was able to reassure its previous owner that her pet was going to a good home.

To me, this was the perfect ending. Let me tell you why.

Old dogs make great pets, but an old dog - set in its ways, separated from its longtime home, away from its owner - isn't a good candidate for adoption.

I once traveled to Illinois to adopt a dog from a breed-specific rescue group. I had chosen the dog I wanted; a cute, lively puppy who would make a great companion for my other pets. A couple came in and also spotted the puppy. Because I had arrived first (and believe me, I wasn't allowed to even visit the rescue house until I had completed a seven-page adoption application, complete with personal and veterinary references as well as a personal interview), I had first shot at taking the puppy home.

"That's all right," they said. "We'll just wait for another puppy."

I realized that if I went for the puppy, one dog would get a forever home. If I let the couple take the puppy, two dogs would get forever homes. Instead of the youngster, I let an old, rumpled, chronically ill dog lean up against my legs and choose me. Cash was a wonderful pet, and I loved him for the rest of his life.

But old dogs don't have much life left, and for many people, even the thought of saying goodbye is unbearable. So they avoid the senior dogs. Old dogs often have costly health issues. Cash surely did. So did his successors - all canine senior citizens adopted from the same group. Because of the increased costs and the reluctance of people to adopt older dogs, that rescue group no longer accepts senior animals, which is a shame. But it's also an economic reality. Accepting more healthy, young dogs means more dogs have happy endings.

Almost Home won't charge anyone to drop off a pet. Charging a fee might encourage people to dispose of their pets by less desirable means.

However, there are adoption fees, and while some people feel those are unreasonable, let me say what shelter people are generally too polite to say: If you can't afford the adoption fee, you can't afford pet ownership.

To adopt a dog from Almost Home will cost $130; adopting a cat will cost $75. If that sounds pricey, you apparently haven't been to your vet lately. An animal adopted from the Almost Home shelter will have been wormed (sometimes only the first worming; animals are usually born with worms and it can take more than the initial dose to get rid of all the parasites), vaccinated and microchipped. In checking with my vet, the costs for those services alone would be at least $100. In addition, some of the shelter animals will already be spayed or neutered. Cost for that service can easily reach more than $100.

Plus, if you can't pay the adoption fee, how will you afford to maintain your pet?

I offer a quote from Laurie Hagey: "I think everyone who wants a pet should have one. But you need to be practical about it. The upfront cost is only the beginning."

Pets need vaccinations, parasite preventives and annual health checkups; accidents and illnesses happen. Even smaller expenses like food, leashes, kennels and pet beds add up.

But don't think that the shelter's adoption fees have anything to do with the value of the animals housed there. Those animals, Laurie says, are priceless.

The adoption fees have a much more practical purpose, according to her: "The money helps us keep our doors open so we can help the next animal that needs us."

Barbara Wallace Hughes is the managing editor of The Messenger.



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