Are Shelter Animals “Broken”?

It’s been nearly two and a half years since I began volunteering at the Animal Rescue League of Boston (ARL), and almost a year for the Great Dog Rescue of New England (GDRNE). The idea of animal shelters had flitted across my mind growing up. I often thought that volunteering at a shelter meant nothing more than cleaning kennels and occasionally cuddling a puppy. Goodness knows, I didn’t even consider how many cats are in shelters. Small animals never even crossed my mind. Part of it was that I didn’t have any animals growing up that didn’t live in tanks, and those came from a local pet shop or from our garden. One friend had a dog that was a “buy at the side of the road” type of puppy from someone whose dog had had a litter. Another neighbor ended up adopting a dog that was super shy—at the very least “quirky.” Not exactly a great shelter example. Only one of my parents’ friends had “normal” rescue dogs (and it turns out, were fostered for GDRNE), and that seemed to be because he was an excellent dog trainer. So I understand the stigma against shelter animals, because as much as I champion for them now, I never knew what to expect growing up.

My mom, as much of an animal lover as she is, is still wary about shelter animals—dogs in particular. (In this instance, dogs get the worst rap.) It didn’t help that this happened just down the street from where I grew up:

A 75-year-old Westchester County woman sharing a quiet evening at home on Friday night with her landlord was attacked and killed by the landlord’s pit bull, the police said….

…Mr. B did not chase cars or bikes and got along with other dogs, neighbors said. Mrs. Delaney, advised by doctors to take frequent walks with a dog, visited an animal shelter recently and adopted Mr. B, who had been abandoned.

”It was in the shelter for a year and showed no aggressive behavior ever, but they had no idea what happened the first year of his life,” Investigator Listner said.

New York Times archive, 2003

That was always—and continues to be—my mother’s argument against shelter dogs (particularly pit bulls). “You don’t know where it came from, or what will set it off.” What happened with Mr. B. is extremely unfortunate, and it sounds like there’s no obvious answer for what went wrong. But this is the exception to the rule when it comes to shelter dogs, and it seems unfair to discredit them all because of one or a handful of individual cases.

I recall reading a book back in high school—back when I thought I’d become a zoologist and study bears in the wild—called No Room For Bears, by Frank Dufresne (1961). In one of the articles, he describes the “twenty-fifth bear,” a concept that elaborated on the idea that only one in every two dozen bears will consider attacking a human that intrudes on its space, or as Joe Doggett put it, “cop an attitude.” I’m not sure why this particular concept stayed with me all these years, but this isn’t the first time I’ve thought back to it, especially in relation to animal shelters.

There aren’t any statistics on the matter as far as I can find. But along Dufresne’s concept, for every dog at a shelter with behavioral issues, there are plenty of dogs that are wonderful, loving animals that were abandoned through no fault of their own, who are behaviorally as perfect as any individual animal can be. Shelters receive animals as strays (that were either lost or purposefully abandoned), or from owners for a plethora of reasons: landlord restrictions, money, owner health or death, new babies, allergies, no time, etc. That’s not to say all of these reasons are good ones or unavoidable. But it’s not a reflection on the animal, just the owner. And even dogs who are rescued from bad situations are more often than not loving, trusting companions.

For years, animal rescues and advocates having been trying to communicate this idea:

From all of the animals I’ve worked with over the past couple years, there have only been a small handful of adoptable cats and dogs whose behavior has overwhelmed me. For those animals, the shelter staff worked tirelessly to find the right home for those animals. For dogs, it means dog-savvy owners who will do extensive behavioral training with their new pet. For cats, it sometimes means alternative placements such as barns or outdoor housing. But even these “special needs” animals are not beyond help. And when they’re given the chance to succeed, the rewards are endless for the humans who help them.

I know that my mom will never see my side of this issue until I one day adopt a pit bull and show her what I mean. Even then, she’ll probably say something like, “Well, sure, this dog is okay.” But what needs to be said for dogs like Mr. B. and other worst-case animals is, “Oh, well that dog happened to make a mistake.”An unfortunate mistake, but not a reflection on shelter animals as a whole. So-called “bad dogs” or even “bad cats” are not the norm. They are the twenty-fifth exception.

My mom is not the only one who I’ve had this conversation with. One of my best friends said very recently, “Isn’t a shelter dog going to do things like pee on my carpet?” And she wasn’t saying it to be mean; it was a legitimate and heart-felt concern.

So I know that it’s still a long, up-hill battle. Changing people’s minds, especially when they haven’t had the positive experiences to associate with shelter and rescue animals, isn’t easy. But even working with one person’s opinion at a time, it’s still worth it.


5 Replies to “Are Shelter Animals “Broken”?”

  1. Thank you for spreading the word. These animals have personality, spunk, charm and SO MUCH LOVE to share. I have three shelter animals – all wonderful creatures who keep me grandly entertained. I hope you don’t mind it I share this post.

  2. I saw the perfect sign for you the other day: Man sitting on chair “I wonder what it is like winning the lottery?” Dog laying beside chair thinking “Like getting rescued from the shelter”…

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