When journalist Kim Kavin decided to adopt an adorable pup on Petfinder.com, she didn’t realize that her good deed would lead to a book exposing shelter practices as well as reporting on the amazing canine rescue network responsible for saving that pup. We talk with the author about her book, Little Boy Blue: A puppy’s rescue from death row and his owner’s journey for truth about what she learned on that “journey.”
Bark: Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’ve been seeing more purebreds especially with first-time dog people, than I have in the past (historically, mixed-breeds have been the city’s top dogs), and it’s a trend that concerns me. What’s your take on the best way to get the word out about shelter adoption?
Kim Kavin: That’s interesting, because in New Jersey, as well as all the way up the corridor to Boston, the trend is the opposite. Dog parks are filling with rescues, most of them from southern states. I interviewed the town clerk in New Canaan, Conn., a very upscale town, who told me that the trend toward adopting has been noticeable in terms of the new dogs who are being licensed. Rescuing a shelter dog has become the educated “thing to do” in more affluent areas.
Everyone I interviewed for Little Boy Blue told me that education is the answer. They were thrilled to hear about the book; they said they’ve been screaming like banshees about adoption for years, and finally, people are starting to take notice. We need to keep that level of education going, and growing. If people simply understand the options—what they’re buying into when they acquire a purebred from a breeder versus what they’re supporting when they adopt a rescued dog—most do the right thing. Education is the key.
B: What five things can shelters do to improve their adoption rates?
KK: From what I saw during my visits to the best shelters, as well as from reviewing research on this subject by experts, the top five are as follows:
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- Make adoption a priority. At the shelter where Blue was found, unless a rescue group intervenes, the annual kill rate is about 95 percent. It is accepted as policy that the majority of dogs will die. Shelter managers need to make it a policy that rescue and adoption are a big part of the job. Nationwide, this attitude is the first thing to change in shelters that improve their adoption rates.
- Hire people who embody the philosophy of rescue. Sometimes personnel changes are necessary, but sometimes people can grow through education. Either way, you need people on-site every day who care about adoption, and you need to give them the resources and job flexibility they need to succeed.
- Give the dogs names. At the shelter where Blue was found in Person County, N.C., the dogs don’t have names; they are given numbers and expiration dates. The adoption coordinator at Robeson County Shelter in Saint Pauls, N.C., told me that when she began working to turn their program around, the first thing she did was name the dogs, because a name shows that someone cares about them as individuals. It affects the entire staff’s attitude toward what happens there day in and day out. It is harder to kill a dog who has a name. It makes people want to do more to help the dogs.
- Tap into the nationwide rescue community via sites like Petfinder.com (full disclosure: Barron’s is donating a portion of the proceeds from Little Boy Blue to the Petfinder Foundation). Even if you’re in an economically depressed area and can’t find local adopters, you can find responsible rescue groups in other areas—even in other states—that are willing to transport and foster the dogs while marketing them for adoption. The pipeline exists. Use it.
- Take photos of the dogs outside of the shelter environment. With my own foster dogs, the photos I take of them just a few hours after they’ve had a chance to calm down and play in my back yard are far superior to those I get at the shelter. Anything you can do to help them relax will make them look happier and healthier in their adoption photos, and thus increase their chances of finding a home.
B: How does a dog benefit by being fostered?
KK: When I wrote Little Boy Blue, I’d had just two foster dogs, Izzy and Summer. I now have fosters number 16 and 17, Ginger and Sally, staying here at the house with Blue and me. So I’ve gained a good deal of experience in this area.
The shelter environment itself is stressful for dogs. On top of that, they’ve been abandoned by the only humans they’ve ever known, or perhaps they’ve been starved or intentionally harmed. Then they come to my home, and while they’re friendly and curious, they’re still stressed.
When they see how calm Blue is, they begin to understand that they are somewhere happy and good. In a very short time, each one turns into a completely different dog. Sometimes it takes a few days, or a week with the shy puppies or those who need medical care, but it happens every time. They know they will get their own bowl of food at mealtimes. They have a sunny, grassy back yard to run and play in. They have me hugging them and giving them toys. They have a big, clean crate where they feel safe and can take a nap in peace and quiet. They ride in the car, they go with us for walks at the park. They learn basic commands like “sit” and realize they can do things to earn treats.
That’s when their real personalities come out—the personalities that we can tell potential adopters about. We have a much better chance of matching people with the right dogs if the dogs come out of foster care, because we have a better sense of who the dogs actually are compared with what they were like in the shelter.
B: What tips would you offer those who might be interested in a shelter dog?
KK: I think the best way to adopt is through a rescue that uses a network of foster homes. As previously mentioned, you’re far more likely to know what kind of dog you’re getting.
It’s also good to work with rescues that ask you a lot of questions. They should check your references. They should thoroughly interview you and maybe even do a home inspection before approving you. This isn’t about being suspicious but rather, a sign that they are trying to be professional—that they want what is best for the particular dog, instead of just giving you a dog who may or may not be right for your family or your lifestyle.
B: Any ideas on how to improve spay/neuter rates? Groups around the country have promoted low-cost, accessible services but still, many people won’t neuter their pets.
KK: This was the experts’ biggest frustration. In North Carolina, where Blue is from, you can have a dog neutered for $20 at a mobile clinic that comes to your town. In New York City, where I interviewed an ASPCA vice president about their mobile clinics, you can have your dog neutered and spayed for free if you meet the eligibility criteria. And still people don’t do it.
There are a number of reasons why. First and foremost is a lack of education. People don’t realize that they are contributing to a massive national shelter crisis when they allow their dogs to produce unwanted puppies. This can be overcome. Education takes time, but it does work. As the founder of Northeast Animal Shelter in Salem, Mass., told me, education has gotten through in the Northeast, where spay/neuter has become as routine as daily tooth-brushing—and where shelters typically have far lower kill rates than in some other parts of the country.
Another reason I’ve heard more than once has to do with religion. I’ve had people tell me that encouraging spay/neuter is akin to “playing God.” They feel that it’s just as immoral to spay or neuter a dog as it is for a human to take birth-control pills or have an abortion, because God and God alone should decide which puppies are born. This is much harder to address, and I don’t know that anything will ever change those opinions. It’s like trying to convince pro-life and pro-choice activists to see eye-to-eye. It’s just not likely to happen.
One thing I think will help going forward is the research being done right now into how spay/neuter rates affect intake levels at shelters. The ASPCA is doing some great work on this in New York City, for example. I hope that sometime soon, researchers will be able to tell shelter directors that if they invest X amount of their budget in local spay/neuter initiatives, it will bring down the number of dogs in their shelter by Y amount. That will make spay/neuter a budgetary and policy priority in places where personal attitudes or lack of education may be getting in the way of solving the problem.
B: Beyond spaying and neutering, what more can be done to control pet population in shelters?
KK: One thing that we see in rescue is people giving their dogs back after a year or two. It’s more common than you might think. Sometimes it’s because people never really wanted a dog in the first place, but instead thought of the animal as a fun accessory who later becomes an inconvenience in their life. They say something like, “I am moving and I don’t want to be limited to apartments that only take dogs, even though my dog is really great and loves my kids a lot.” I have no idea what to do about those people, except maybe to ask their mothers why they never taught them proper respect for dogs who are members of their families.
The other main reason that people give dogs back to rescues or shelters, is that they say the dogs “turned out” bad. This tends to happen when the dogs are two or three years old—and almost always a result of the human failing to train the dog when he was a puppy. If a dog doesn’t know how to sit or where to go to the bathroom after you’ve had him for two or three years, it’s because you failed to teach him. The dog isn’t bad. It’s a lousy dog owner. If more people took advantage of training classes, which are usually just one hour a week, then far fewer people would be complaining they had “bad dogs.”
B: Did you gain any insights into why the AKC pushes back so vigorously on spay/neuter laws and puppy-mill legislation?
KK: I didn’t interview anyone from the AKC for Little Boy Blue, and I don’t want to speak for them or distort their position in any way. But what I can say from my personal perspective is that it appears to be a simple matter of business. If you force spay/neuter by law, or try to define a puppy mill versus what the AKC calls “responsible breeders,” you’re impinging on America’s very successful purebred-puppy industry.
The AKC has long been at the forefront of promoting that industry. So if the AKC is in fact pushing back against spay/neuter laws, to me that’s no different than big banks pushing back against credit protection for consumers, or health insurers pushing back against laws that force them to care for people with pre-existing conditions. It is to be expected as a matter of business. Spay/neuter laws would make it difficult for the AKC and breeders to do business as usual.
My suggestion to people who find this situation untenable is to adopt rescue dogs and mixed-breeds like Blue instead of buying purebreds. Encourage everyone you know to do the same. There will then be a point at which demand slows for the product that the purebred industry has marketed and sold for such a long time. Without customers, breeders will go out of business. We don’t need to pass laws to effect this change. We just need to educate more people about what they are buying into when they acquire a purebred dog from a breeder.
B: What are the most important things people can do to help their local shelters (along with adopting from them, of course)?
KK: Donate. And it doesn’t have to be money. Donate time. Go down there and take a dog out for a walk in the sunshine. Give a dog a bath so he will look better for his adoption photo. Volunteer to help write dog bios on Petfinder.com. Clean up your old leashes and dog bowls and give them to the shelter. None of these things will cost you in terms of dollars but they will help the shelter greatly.
B: What do you hope to achieve with your book?
KK: I hope that more people will adopt. I hope that more people will foster. I hope that more people will spay and neuter their dogs. I hope that more people will spread the message of what all the very hardworking volunteers in the rescue community are trying to achieve every single day.
And I hope that people will actually enjoy reading the book. That’s been one of the problems for rescue as a movement, in my opinion; the message of what these dogs face can be so depressing that people tune out. I intentionally wrote Little Boy Blue in a non-depressing way. A few parts are shocking, yes, but it’s not like those television commercials with the sad music and the sad faces that make you want to change the channel. One of the early reviewers said Little Boy Blue read like a mystery unfolding. My editor, after reading the first draft, said, “I laughed, I cried and I wanted to punch some people in the face.” I hope I have written a book that people will read all the way to the end, and that moves them to take action—not because they feel sorry for dogs like Blue, but because they learn how important it is to stand up and champion them.