My “Fishing Trip” with Nebraska’s Pet Shelters and Rescues

This past spring, two things in my life led me to email shelters and rescues across the state. First, I’d been training my youngest cat in agility but failing to generate interest with pet organizations. Because I knew that some shelters were doing agility with dogs, I considered approaching shelters about the idea of cat agility. Then, around the same time, I attended an Animal Welfare Summit led by Best Friends Animal Society, where the focus was on animal welfare groups networking with one another. At the end of the day, I found myself wanting to know about the condition of animal welfare in Nebraska.

And so, I emailed a list of basic questions to over forty of our state’s animal shelters and rescues. I asked them two types of questions: what do they want the public to know; what and how are they doing? In other words, I went on a fishing trip for animal welfare info. And, rather than keep my “fish” to myself, I decided to share the results here. This article won’t have a great deal of focus, but rather shares some raw information that I expect to lay the groundwork for future articles.

My utmost thanks to the five shelters and five rescues that took the time to respond to my somewhat random questions. Those shelters and rescues are as follows:

  • Blue River Pet Rescue, Seward, has “the overall goal of being able to provide care and shelter for homeless animals”. The rescue is run by Karen Winney and serves mostly dogs.
  • Capital Humane Society, Lincoln, “shelters animals, protects animals and teaches compassion and respect”. I spoke to Charleen Enger, Director of Volunteers and Education.
  • Coalition for Pet Protection, Lincoln, seeks to “reduce pet overpopulation and animal abuse in Nebraska by supporting the promotion of basic humane care and placement of animals, responsible pet ownership, prevention of animal cruelty and neglect, and public education. I spoke to Traci Cameron.
  • Dolly’s Animal Legacy Rescue, Lincoln, has the goal to “save orphaned and abandoned pets from overcrowded shelters and find them loving, forever homes”. Its emphasis is on pulling animals from high-kill shelters. The rescue is run by Kerri Kelly and serves dogs and cats.
  • Hearts United for Animals, Auburn, is a “national no-kill animal shelter, sanctuary and animal welfare organization”. The shelter serves dogs and cats with an emphasis on puppy mill dogs. The manager is John Adams.
  • Jeanette Hunt Blair Animal Shelter, Blair, has the goal of “promoting the humane treatment of companion animals, helping reduce the number of injured and euthanized animals, minimizing the feral cat population through sterilization, and increasing pet adoption”. The manager is Krystal Hilscher.
  • Muddy Paws, Omaha, “rescues, rehabilitates, and rehomes homeless animals”. It also runs a food pantry, offers free or discounted training services, and helps pet owners pay for emergency veterinarian vet care. The rescue is run by Terri Larson. I spoke to her and a volunteer, Heather Heald.
  • Paws and Claws Adoption Center, Columbus, has the goal to “promote education for the humane treatment, care, and adoption of animals; and to obtain joint efforts from all to aid and protect animals”. The manager is Jan Berry.
  • Paws Up of Nebraska, Wymore, is “committed to providing resources and education regarding the ever-growing pet population problem”. The rescue serves dogs. I spoke to Traci Cooney.
  • Town and Country Humane Society, Papillon, is a non-profit, no-kill shelter “dedicated to providing a safe and caring living facility for pets in need until a loving home can be found, as well as helpful information for those wishing to re-home or adopt an animal. The director of operations is Craig DenHerder.

What are the most common reasons an animal is relinquished to you?

In a study conducted by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy (NCPPSP) and published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science (JAAWS), researchers went into 12 selected animal shelters in the United States for one year to learn why people relinquish their pets. Five of the top reasons fall under the category of “life changes” and were also cited by the shelters and rescues I contacted in Nebraska.

  • moving
  • landlord doesn’t allow pet
  • too many pets
  • not enough time
  • owner having personal problems
  • cost of pet maintenance
  • pet not housebroken

The survey didn’t elaborate on the nature of the personal problems, but the animal welfare organizations I contacted for this article most often pointed to declining health or death. There’s a growing call for pet owners to have back-up plans and even pet trust funds, but also for nursing homes and hospitals to allow pets.

Muddy Paws cited one reason for relinquishing pets that wasn’t mentioned by the study: potty training; it takes a lot of work and therefore proves too much for some people to handle. “If you aren’t willing to put in the effort, then don’t get a puppy! Or if you know that you don’t want to deal with potty training anymore, the easiest solution is to adopt an older dog that’s already house trained.” Another reason for relinquishment mentioned by the Coalition for Pet Protection was allergies.

In addition to relinquishment on purpose, there’s relinquishment by unknown causes. In a word: strays. Capital Humane Society explained writing that “most arrive as lost animals brought in by Animal Control, other law enforcement, and Good Samaritans. Many lost dogs are reclaimed by their owners; most cats are not.”  Dolly’s Animal Legacy Rescue noted that they primarily take animals from rural shelters where there are no adoption programs; rescue is the only way for an animal to make it out alive. The group said that most animals at these facilities are unclaimed strays.

People go into pet ownership with unrealistic expectations, and when reality hits they give up and the pets get relinquished. People need to have a list of do and do-not wants when searching for a pet. Not that all people would adhere to the list, but I believe the majority would and that would significantly decrease our numbers of homeless animals.—Muddy Paws

What are the most frequently asked questions from potential adopters?

The answers to this question were separated into two parts, one being before an adoption and the other being after an adoption.

BEFORE

  • Where do you get your animals from?
  • How does the animal get along with other animals and with children?
  • What are some tips for introducing an animal to other family members—including pets?
  • Is the animal housebroken?
  • Does the animal shed?
  • How long before an animal can be adopted?
  • When can I meet with fill out adoption paperwork?

AFTER

  • How do I keep an animal from marking in the house?
  • What’s the difference between marking and using the bathroom in the house?
  • How do I potty train my dog?
  • Why is my pet not eating?
  • My pet is being naughty? How do I change its behavior?
  • Where can I get financial support?

Based on these frequent questions, Muddy Paws feels strongly that adopters should spend more time researching species and breeds before adopting. For example, it’s important to know what breeds tend to have the adopter’s preferred temperament and energy level. “Don’t just fall in love with the pretty face or the pet’s story. Make sure the dog is the right fit for your family and your family is the right fit for the dog.”

Just as some people will rush the decision-making process when choosing a pet, Paws Up notes that some people think the adoption process can be rushed That doesn’t happen due to the paperwork involved, but also because any health of behavior issues will want to be handled prior to an adoption.

What are the best ways the public can help you?

The two greatest needs are volunteers and donations. Volunteers might take the form of shelter workers, foster caregivers, handypersons, fundraisers, grant writers, and educators. Donations might take the form of money or wish list items.

The Capital Humane Society welcomes public assistance in two more ways:

  • Make items for the animals in its adoption program, such as toys or beds. See directions at Enrichment Items.
  • Hold fundraisers to support its programs. “For example, a local business recently let us know we were chosen for their Jeans Day event. Their employees get to wear jeans in exchange for a donation to Capital Humane Society.”

Muddy Paws sent me an extensive list of all the ways it utilizes volunteers:

  • web design volunteer
  • photographer for our dogs, cats, guinea pigs, birds, etc.
  • supply and food team
  • transport team called Muddy Rides
  • event-planning team
  • adoption coordinator
  • volunteer coordinator

The Coalition for Pet Protection similarly had a lengthy list of volunteer needs:

  • advertising and marketing
  • newsletter design
  • photography and photo archiving
  • recording secretary
  • designing images for its Cafe Press store
  • seamstress for pet bandannas
  • sitting at an event table
  • assisting with pet food pantry deliveries

All the person wanting to get involved just needs to say is, “I want to help in some way and here are my talents and could you do something with that?” The good ones are going to help a person find where they fit. A rescue is not going to turn away help!—Muddy Paws

What are the best ways the public can help homeless animals?

Number one answer? Spay and neuter! (This includes the establishment of trap-neuter-release programs for cats.) After that, answers included: adopt; microchip and train their pets; educate the public; volunteer; and give a lifetime commitment to their pets.

Dolly’s Animal Legacy Rescue called for bringing more awareness to the public of our pet crisis and how it impacts shelters. Across Nebraska, more and more animal shelters are responding to the call to become no-kill. Unfortunately, many are still too limited in resources to handle the numbers of animals brought daily to their shelters. Cats are at biggest risk; their live-release rate is substantially lower than dogs. “If people realized that the pets they surrender to shelters are killed, perhaps they’d be more committed to keeping them.”

Muddy Paws emphasized that one of the best ways to help the homeless animal population is to realize that pets are a LIFETIME commitment: “Not just until I get married or have children.” What if a pet is misbehaving? Muddy Paws advises pet owners to get help! If you can afford it, you can take your pet to “a positive reinforcement trainer to work through any issues you might be having.”

If you can’t afford a trainer, there are three local organizations that offer free advice online and over the phone: Capital Humane Society, Coalition for Pet Protection, and Nebraska Humane Society. Over the months ahead, LAA Pet Talk will carry articles specifically addressing pet owner concerns according to Nebraska’s animal welfare organizations. What if a pet has health issues? Lancaster County (Nebraska) Ask a Vet- Veterinary Advice Forum is a free online service; LAA Pet Talk will carry an interview with one of its veterinarians next week.

What kind of support do you provide to fosterers and/or pet owners?

The most typical forms of support are provided through handouts given to new pet adopters, and phone calls and emails. Some of the other types of support are:

  • Encourage visits to ensure the animal will be a good fit.
  • Place dogs as a “Foster to Adopt” for the first two weeks gives both the family and pet a time to adjust. For Blue River Rescue, this policy means that if after this allotted time the family decides the adoption isn’t going to work, the rescue will take the animal back and refund the adoption fee.
  • Host a Facebook group specifically for fosters.
  • Dedicate a newsletter to new owners.
  • Offer free training consultations to help the family and the new pet adjust to each other.
  • Provide obedience and agility classes for dogs.
  • Offer emergency boarding of dogs.

For those shelters and rescues that offer handouts, the information might cover introductions of a pet to its new home and to other family members, and typical behavioral issues.

For those organizations that have a foster coordinator, that person typically conducts home visits for foster care volunteers to explain the program and provides support and information as needed. For example, new fosterers are often trained how to give medication.

The Capital Humane Society has an animal behaviorist on staff. Its behaviorist noted that some behaviors are misunderstood and that people may take the wrong approach when working to solve them. For example, what is thought to be a house-training problem may be fear or excitement-based urination. The behaviorist will help adopters understand their new pets so that they don’t waste time or even cause harm treating the wrong problem.

The Coalition for Pet Protection provides adoption support, a food assistance program, and veterinarian emergency care. Although the organization currently does not offer foster services, it will help pet owners locate a new home for their pet. Support includes making phone calls, taking pictures, performing home visits, and social media promotions. In 2015, the coalition helped 250 families and 400 pets by giving food and supplies to animals in need.

We provide any support they need! It’s not up to what we do or don’t want to do; we do what’s needed!—Paws Up of Nebraska

What is your live release rate?

The norm for animal shelters is that they are an open admissions facility. This means they never refuse animals or have waiting lists. Every animal that arrives at their door receives shelter, food, and care. Unfortunately, it also means that when the shelter is full, animals are euthanized to make room.

I have no idea what the true picture of shelters across the state is, given that I heard from a fourth of them. Still, I was pleased to hear two were 100% no kill, one was “low no-kill,” and two were working towards the goal of a 90% release rate goal. Where the numbers were most disheartening were for the cats. The two shelters that had achieved a 90% release rate for dogs were nowhere near this rate for cats.

What programs do you have in place for cats?

The types of programs for cats in shelters varied from the simple to the complex. One shelter offered various rooms based on cat needs: quarantine, main, boarding, senior. Another had volunteers who came to play with the cats to socialize them and get them out of their cages. Here in Lincoln, the Capital Humane Society offers the following:

  • Spay/Neuter: In 2016, most of the cats that arrived at CHS were not altered. Nearly 1,400 were spayed or neutered before they were placed in the adoption program. The Low-Cost Feline Spay/Neuter Program is for cats owned by people who fall under federal poverty guidelines. The program provides low-income families the opportunity to have their cats sterilized so their pets are not adding to the overpopulation problem. CHS has also provided Trap-Neuter-Release assistance to Lancaster County farmers.
  • Foster Pet Parents: In 2016, 446 felines benefited from a stay with a foster family, and more than 1,650 cats were adopted from the Capital Humane Society.
  • Working Cats: This program started in April 2016, and to date 25 cats have been placed. It’s an alternate placement program for cats unsuitable for the traditional adoption program due to behavior issues or temperament.
  • Humane Education: Each year, CHS provide tours and presentations to hundreds of children. Topics discussed include responsible pet care and the role of the Humane Society. CHS uses educational books such as The True or False Book of Cats. “By teaching children facts about cats, they can be more informed and respectful caretakers of their own pets.”

While it’s good that several shelters have cat programs, one shelter’s response shows that there’s room for improvement: “For cats, we have no programs.”

Society needs to put a higher value on cats. There are some out there who hurt and kill cats because they consider them a nuisance. There are some who hurt them simply because they don’t value life. Some people let their cats wander outside. These people need to be educated about the hazards of being an outside cat: the threat of other animals, the elements, illness, lack of nutritious food, and the threat of humans. —Coalition for Pet Protection

What do you think needs to be done for a community to become no-kill?

The Best Friends Animal Society, the largest no-kill sanctuary in the country, has the goal of all fifty states reaching no-kill by 2025. When I asked rescues how a community can become no-kill, the number one suggestion was education: people need to know that shelters are overburdened and don’t have the room to keep all animals, and that the result is euthanasia. People also need to know the alternatives to surrendering their pet.

A second suggestion was low-cost spay/neuter services. While Lancaster County offers a few choices, the organizations offering them typically have waiting lists due to the need for more resources. These organizations may or may not work offer Trap-Neuter-Release programs. Across the state, there are minimal options.

Hearts United for Animals recommended stricter laws for owning pets and penalties for mistreating or abandoning them. As example of the importance of spaying and neutering, Hearts United for Animals said it should be a requirement for all except those licensed to breed.

Muddy Paws offered a detailed plan that, in addition to what I’ve already mentioned, includes the following:

  • Help people whose pets have behavior problems. This should reduce the number of pets being relinquished.
  • Provide behavioral and medical assessment training for shelter workers. These should reduce the number of animals put down that don’t need to be.
  • Partner with rescues which take animals into foster care when the shelter becomes full or when animals need extra training or time to recover from a veterinary procedure.

For a community to become no-kill, education, financial backing, and a group of people of similar mind who shout loud enough for a long enough time is needed.—Muddy Paws

Conclusion

I began this article by saying it would lay the groundwork for future articles. One thing that stood out to me in my research is how many dedicated animal welfare organizations we have in Nebraska, but how all of them could use more support. Another thing I realized is that I don’t know how much cooperation and sharing exists between these organizations. I’ve already been informed of some of their educational needs, and so plan to address those in upcoming articles. I’d also like to continue to build my own connections with the state’s animal welfare groups, and to explore what volunteer needs they have, learn about the statewide feral cat situation, and get a better idea of rural Nebraska’s attitude towards animal welfare. With what goal in mind? To improve dialog among everyone who is trying to improve the lives of animals.

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