“Shelter” Is a Noun

By Finnegan Dowling, January 2015, Updated November 2015

“I could never set foot in one of those places. They’re so sad. I’d want to bring all the dogs home.” When I tell people I work for Humane Society Silicon Valley, I hear this a lot, the “it’s-so-sad” card. This is usually followed by a tale of horror about a local city shelter or, worse yet, how they cry whenever they see that Sarah McLachlan ad on TV.

The Sarah McLachlan ad doesn’t make me cry, it makes me mad. Because it’s only a half-truth.

Terrible things do happen to animals. But presenting shelters as barred and caged places where these sad victims of abuse are jailed is not only untrue, it damages the animals it purportedly sets out to help. Who would want to set foot in one of “those places”? And what sort of sad, damaged beast would you be bringing into your home? Best just to send a check, buy from a breeder and leave the animals to their own devices in there. After all, you sent the check.

When I was 19 years old, I was stricken with late-stage lymphatic cancer. During my two years of treatment, I walked around yellow from jaundice, doughy from steroids and squeaky bald, a baseball cap covering my head. To see a picture of me taken while I was being treated for cancer and assume that it tells you something about who I am all the time is patently ridiculous. It doesn’t tell you that I have a wicked sense of humor and a foul mouth or that I’m a book addict and an unabashed dog geek who sings along to Lionel Richie on the radio.


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It just tells you that I was a victim— a damaged, benighted creature, a walking after-school special.

Yet, time and time again, these pictures of animals on the worst days of their lives are served up to the public as what they can expect to find at their local shelter. No one ever questions that they’re taken out of context. Instead, we’re presented with this idea that there are regular pets and there are “shelter pets” and the two categories are drastically different. And we wonder why more of America hasn’t embraced adoption as their first choice for their new pet.

Real truth? There’s no such thing as a shelter pet. There’s just a regular pet who happens to be at a shelter. The fact is, most animals in shelters are there because their owners’ lives have changed and not because of anything they’ve done. Most animals don’t come in abused or neglected. They come in from homes like yours and mine, and they behave like your pet and my pet. Shelter is a noun, not an adjective.

The ones that were abused or neglected? What happened to them doesn’t define who they are. Yes, I could post a picture of a smiling poodle and tell you that he’s a victim of domestic violence and the scar on his back is from where he was burned with chemicals. I’d rather tell you that he greets everyone with a wagging tail and loves kids and fetch because that’s the dog you’d be living with. Not the scar, but the living, breathing animal.

Those of us who work in our marketing department have hard-and-fast rules about what images we present. We won’t show beaten-up animals. We won’t show bars and cages (not that we have many of them—we have condos and suites instead). What we will show you is our truth: hopeful, normal pets who are at the launch pad of brand-new lives.

We know those shelters exist, the ones with the bars and cages. But we’re not one of them. We’re working to change the face of shelters and find new ways for those in our industry to think and do things differently. To be the happy places where happy animals come from, even on the worst day of their lives. To create a space where pets going through a transition can meet people who can’t wait to love them.

After all, our pets deserve only the best.

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 80: Winter 2014

Image by Elizabeth Laverty