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Let's Save Our Best Friends

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I once rescued a little dog I named Harry, an older yorkie, from a county animal shelter here in South Florida. Harry was blind in one eye, and had a cataract in his other eye. He had kennel cough, and pneumonia. I could not bare to see him squeezed into a small cage. My heart just lept out for him. So I brought him home -- home with Chickie, my chihuahua/pug mix who I rescued from that same shelter several years earlier; and two rescued cats, Crystal and Mitzvah.

I immediately took Harry to the vet where he received a shot and some meds better than the non-meds he was receiving at animal control. When I brought him home, Harry revealed a very great intelligence and in spite of how sick he was, he immediately began to snoop around the house, curious about everything. But more, he sensed he was in a home, and he showed his perkiness and happiness to be "home".

A few days later, I gave Harry a warm bath, and upon towel drying him, wrapped him in a large bath towel and placed him upon my soft mattress. He was in heaven, oohing and ahhing at the great comfort he was enwrapped in and lying upon. I could sense a great deal of negative energy and tremendous stress leaving Harry, and he fell asleep for the next 12 hours.

Thereupon, for the next four months, Harry was restored to complete health. He loved being walked outside, and he displayed a kind of dance, which was the dance of celebration of being alive, and being loved. I frequently held Harry in my arms, and rocked him like a baby. He loved it. When I brought him in from a walk outside, he was so happy to be home, and he would approach Chickie and the two cats and caress their faces with his. Harry was a sweetheart.

Then one day he began coughing, non-stop coughing, where he could barely breath. I rushed him to the vet and she reported he had a collapsed trachea. She did not think he would make it, but gave me tranquillizers for him to quiet him in the hopes that the tension upon the trachea would quiet. It didn't work and a few days later, Harry had a severe tracheal attack where I had to rush him again to the vet, where he was desperately choking and gulping for air. I knew Harry needed to be relieved from this suffering, and gave the vet consent to put him to sleep. Before she did, I spoke to him and told him how much I loved him, and thanked him for coming into my life and giving me such joy, and the opportunity to heal him. Seeing him die was very painful for me, for Harry was the epitome of life; and I prayed over Harry's warm body. I prayed very hard that he would now move into the Light and be comforted by angels and heavenly caretakers.

Harry was abandoned and betrayed by someone -- someone who didn't care enough. He might have fared better had he not fallen into the hands of the shelter -- a shelter that at that time had no heart for its inhabitants -- a shelter that was in effect a disposal unit -- and not an adoption facility as it should be.

The Harry's of the world, and those younger and healthier than Harry was, are the beloved and comfort of millions. They connect us to what is natural and spontaneous and unconditionally loving in our lives. They take us out of our busyness and complexity, out of our everyday stresses, out of our heads, and bring us into the wonder and joy of each moment.

Dogs are members of more than 43 million households in America, and cats of more than 37.5 million. These feeling, intelligent, loyal creatures give comfort to people of all kinds -- to the young, middle-aged and elderly, to families with children, to couples without children, and to those living alone. When they are brought into hospitals caring for children with grave illnesses, or into nursing homes tending to the aged, they become healers who bring smiles to faces. They defend homes as faithful watchers. They save lives, whether on the battlefield, or as brave aides to firefighters.

The fact is, each year we kill 3 million healthy and treatable dogs and cats at our shelters. If we are agreed that these animals are precious individuals who have a right to live, then we can also agree that a fundamental paradigm shift must take place at all animal shelters. The new underlying principle must be no-kill.

For those who don't believe it is possible to transition from kill to no-kill, look at other shelters who've done it -- in Charlottesville, Va., in Tompkins County, New York and in Reno, Nev. They've done it. They show it is possible.

Here are strategies needed for a transition to succeed:

Hire a director who embodies humaneness towards animals in his or her philosophy -- someone committed to no-kill. This is the linchpin element in a successful conversion, and in the implementation of the other essential elements that must follow. The director must support a "culture of life."
Hire staff people who are likewise committed to humaneness, and the no-kill principle. This means a review of the people on staff to determine who would support the new principle, the weeding out of those who don't, and the recruitment of those who do.
Make comprehensive adoption programs central to the shelter strategy. Some examples:
Ongoing and intensive public relations/marketing programs. The new director should hire a director of PR/Marketing equally committed to the no-kill principle. If budget precludes a hire, enlist the support of a retired PR professional. This individual should enlist a team of other volunteer PR pros. Consultation with chapter leader of the local Public Relations Society of America can help pull a team together, as well as outreach to the heads of local PR agencies.
Outdoor or indoor adoption events. Work with local Petsmarts, Petcos, pet supply stores, community wellness centers, festivals and carnivals to set up booths presenting dogs and cats from shelters, and literature about the shelters.
Arrange ongoing creative vehicles, and redesign a shelter's website to reflect new culture of life, with a new name, e.g., "Friends of Best Friends."
Conduct an active search engine optimization campaign for the website.
Air public service spots on television and radio, and complement those with animal photos on major websites like Craigslist.
* Recruit animal/pet loving celebrities and politicians who consent to appear on these PSAs
Follow-up with speaking appearances by shelter officials at PTAs, churches, synagogues, Kiwanis and Rotary clubs, as well as in-studio appearances on radio/TV. Use those venues to announce off-site adoption events, and incorporate effective signage allowing traffic to shelters.
Help to increase pet retention. The shelter must be perceived by the community as a place to turn to for advice and support on how pet owners can keep their animals at home. Advice can include everything from discipline and house-breaking training programs to neutering programs to food budget savings.
Volunteers. An impassioned, dedicated and large group of volunteers needs to be the lifeblood of the shelter, often complementing too few-in-number paid staff. Recruit volunteers at booths showcasing animals at festivals, carnivals and local pet supermarkets. Heading the Volunteer Corps should be a humane, paid (or retired) director of volunteers. Reports from other shelters indicate that more enthusiastic volunteers will be recruited after it's known that a transition to no-kill has occurred.
* Rescue groups currently account for only a relatively small percentage of animals saved. They need to be encouraged to pull as many animals as possible from a shelter -- and not get discouraged from doing so. And that includes not only purebreds but the many greater-in-number and wonderful mixed breeds as well. Rescuers free up cage and kennel space, and reduce costs for feeding, cleaning -- and killing. They need our support, not our discouragement.
Feral cat TNR programs. Trap, neuter and release programs have been effected by a number of communities across the country to reduce death rates.
Proactive redemptions. Often overlooked are lost animal reclaims. Sadly, besides having pet owners fill out a lost pet report, very little effort is made in this area. Becoming more proactive has proven to have a significant impact on life-saving and allow shelters to return a large percentage of lost animals to their families.
• It is essential that those who oversee these shelters are not of an anti-life culture, where the fate of these sensitive, unconditionally loving and vulnerable animals are an absolute non-priority. Shift to staff, from top to bottom, of those who wish to find loving homes for these wonderful animals, and who embody a culture of life.• Read animal advocate Nathan Wingrad's book, Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation.

Ultimately, the best way to ensure change is a massive campaign by voters who are pet lovers, in a well organized and orchestrated way. It will take leadership. And it will take funding from private citizens. Nathan Winograd can point the way.

There are millions of Harrys who are murdered each year at our county shelters. "Euthanize" is too bland a word for what occurs. Dragging innocent, vulnerable dogs to the killing rooms, screaming along the way -- knowing their fate -- where they are laid on cold metal tables and injected with poison, all the while trembling with fright. This is an atrocity -- and it must end.

When you visit an animal shelter, walk up close to a dog or cat, and really look at it, appreciating it for its life and being. You can see and feel that you have simply connected with life, not only its life but your life. Then you can love it as you love yourself.

Mike Schwager is a writer, editor-in-chief of www.Enrichment.com, host of The Enrichment Hour on Sedona Talk Radio, publicist, TV interview trainer and last, but not least, animal advocate. E-mail him at: mikemaven@comcast.net.

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