Does Social Media Help Or Hurt Homeless Animals?

May 5, 2016: Milo needs your help! This 1 1/2 year-old dog needs a foster or adopter. His requirements are no kids, no dogs, and no cats. If we can find a home willing to work with him, we will provide a trainer to get him over his issues. This is an opportunity to save a dog’s life AND learn how to train. He is currently at a shelter and only has until this Thursday to find a place.—Nebraska No Kill Canine Rescue

miloMany of my friends and I often share pleas from animal rescuers. Unfortunately, we often never find out the results of our shares. Last spring I had a different experience. I directly contacted Nebraska No Kill Canine Rescue with a list of rescue groups that might take Milo. When none of them wanted to take on a dog that had growled at a child, I proposed another alternative. I recommended an open-policy shelter with a high adoption rate. I knew it was a risk, because open-policy isn’t no-kill, but I thought this shelter would be able to give Milo the time he needed to find a new home. I was happy when my hunch was proven right: Milo found a new home within a month!

“Social media has changed the lives of thousands of animals,” wrote an associate editor for the website Mashable. One rescue group featured in the article credited its sheer existence due to Twitter. Why? Because social media played a role in getting out its adoption message out “minus the steep advertising costs”. Furthermore, a featured shelter noted that a homeless pet’s average stay is just 10 days –in part due to use of Instagram. Social media “gives followers a behind-the-scenes glimpse, encouraging them to donate or volunteer, as well as adopt.” There’s even a study by Miranda Workman and Christy Hoffman (Canisius College) that shows the influence of internet profiles. The results revealed that 82.5% of people who have adopted a cat said that Petfinder influenced their adoption. Ah, the power of social media!

August 21, 2016: Poor Shine has been overlooked. A friend forwarded my pictures to a family who travelled quite some distance yesterday to meet him. They were at the point of signing the adoption papers when his excitement bubbled over and he jumped at Dad too excitedly. The ACO could not let him go with them. He is so depressed in the kennel that he has chewed the end of his own tail off. He shows no aggression to people just desperate excitement. He needs a rescue by 9/1 or a difficult decision will be made for his quality of life.–Sarah Matula, HeARTS Speak

shineWhen I first began to read about the power of social media to save animals, I mostly collected anecdotes. There’s the story from Ireland of an animal lover who rescued a cat with extensive injuries, posted the details online, and within 24 hours collected enough to pay for the cat’s surgery. “This Irish-American lassie feels great pride at this show of Celtic hospitality and spirit for a sweet kitty in need. Cara surely would have died on that road without help.” Closer to home, there’s a story of a professor from New York who took a year to photograph homeless dogs and post their pictures online. At the time of the article’s writing, 56 of the 73 dogs were in foster care or adopted. There’s also my own anecdotal evidence. In the case of Shine, the dog from Connecticut whose story I learned about from an animal photographer, many bloggers reached out on the dog’s behalf to their friends on Facebook. An acquaintance of mine even offered to drive to Connecticut if a foster provider would step forward. In the end, thanks to Shine’s post being shared extensively online, Shine was adopted by a truck-driving couple. The photographer announced the exciting news in an update: “Sharing worked! A great couple with fantastic references adopted this boy today—he’s their new long haul buddy after they lost their previous beloved pit.”

tnr_catad

tnr_catadtextAs I became sold on the power of social media to save animals, I also started to pay attention to how to effectively use social media. In 2015, a debate ensued between members of an online Trap-Neuter-Release Community. One lady had posted the first of these two photos accompanied by a bio written in all-caps, lamented that no one had shown interest, and asked for ideas. Some simply encouraged her to persevere, while others recommended that she rewrite the bio, and a few suggested she enhance the photo. Although I normally like to stay in the shadows, I finally added my two-cents worth. First, I reassured her that just because she hadn’t received any responses didn’t necessarily reflect a bad design. “Some of the most beautiful and moving posts I’ve seen have failed to generate immediate response. There are simply too many cats with too few homes.” But then I did concur that the all-caps heading had the effect of shouting at readers. In addition, I tweaked the bio and, as you can see from the before and after versions above, her photo.

More and more articles are cropping up these days about the right and wrong ways to use social media. A few commonly-agreed wrong ways are:

  • Responding to a post if you can’t help. Why? Because doing so just adds clutters.
  • Sharing a post from miles away. Why? Because most adopters won’t drive the distance.
  • Writing overly dramatic posts. Why? Because while such posts may spur people to action, they can also make people feel hopeless to the point that they stop following shelters and/or rescue groups
  • Emphasizing restrictions such as “No children or other pets”. Why? Because people may draw the wrong conclusions. For instance, does the animal require a child-free and pet-free home because it’s easily frightened, or because it’s aggressive?
  • Combining adoption counseling (“Probably a feral cat and not well-socialized”?) with marketing. Why? Animal Farm Foundation has written an entire article on the topic. They contend that the mistake is equivalent to a resume which lists all your flaws.

A few commonly-agreed right ways are:

  • Share to the right audience.
  • Update: Mother Nature Network says that by sharing positive news, people will see how groups are finding forever homes for homeless pets. “This just may inspire them to look for ways they can help too.”
  • Use everyday language in your marketing.
  • See this as opportunity to make the right match.
  • Draw attention to a homeless pet by telling a story. Best Friends Animal Society offers this example: ‘BIG baby Burley! All muscles and cropped ears, but he’s a lap dog if you give him the chance. He’s all about the love and cuddling, and isn’t liking living in a kennel at all and prefers to snooze on a pillow up in the office. He’s ready to be in someone’s warm home, and he’s going to protest that fact until someone adopts this handsome boy.”
  • Turn the good into bad. How? HeARTS Speak recommends that when addressing any disadvantages, try writing as though you’re discussing your own beloved pet’s issues, and offers this example: “A little on the chubby side? More to love! Senior? Time to retire and reflect on a life of achievements. Uncomfortable with being handled? Parties best with the grown-ups.” Best Friends Animal Society elaborates by saying that if one needs to list a restriction, be gentle about it, and offers this example: “Joe is such a goofy bundle of energy, he might be a little too much for small children.”
  • Include relevant contact information.

To return to the study by Miranda Workman and Christy Hoffman (Canisius College) about the influence of internet profiles, the researchers also discovered that cats with Petfinder profiles averaging more than one click per day typically waited only nine days for a new home, but cats with profiles averaging less than one click per day typically waited 23 days. This suggests that as the importance of having a good photo or teaser for an animal’s profile. Specifically, the presence of toys in a photo were discovered to have an impact. “Shelters may benefit from including toys in photographs of cats who may otherwise be overlooked, while refraining from including toys in photographs of cats of a popular age or color. Placing a toy in a photograph of an older cat or a solid-black cat may be useful for drawing attention to that cat’s profile.”

July 31, 2016 Can anyone help cats in Ohio? My husband and I were on our return from vacation and saw three feral cats when we stayed at a hotel there. There are at least three cats. A black cat bolted from behind a garbage bin and under a truck. A white and black cat hid at the end of the row of rooms where we stayed. A third brown-patched cat slept outside of a hotel room. I’m guessing that they’re used to people. When we arrived at night, two of the cats were visible and made no attempts to leave. I’m also guessing the hotel isn’t bothered by them. There was a bowl of food outside one of the rooms. However, at least one cat needs medical help. It was stiff, thin, and injured. I don’t live anywhere near them, but hope someone in Ohio can intervene. PM if you need further details. Thank you!

ohiocatsFor those of us who are novices, we’re more than likely still going to stumble about in our use of social media. When my husband and I saw feral cats who needed help, I did almost all the wrong things. Instead what I had going for me is the determination to find help. I kept asking questions until I found a lady who stepped forward.

ohiocats_moonbeamDespite my mistakes, all cats in question received alteration and vaccinations. One even found a home! Since my initial contact with Terri Guidera, I have received updates telling me that the cats are okay and are being cared for by residents.

Anyone who is truly passionate about saving animals would do well to do their research. The use of social media to bring the plight of homeless animals out of the shadows has been around long enough now that there’s even an entire website, Animal Rescue Marketing, dedicated to the topic. In addition, Maddie’s Fund hosts dozens of resources about best practices. We owe it to animals to make our efforts count.

Editor’s Note: Please watch for follow-up interviews with Sarah Matula and Terri Guidera

EFFECTIVE SOCIAL MEDIA

Experiences of Dog Rescue Groups with the Mighty/Tiny Breeds

As the recipient of a grant from the Best Friends Animal Society, Lincoln Animal Ambassadors created The Mighty and the Tiny Project whereby the group will spay/neuter Chihuahuas and American pit bull terriers at a cost of only $25 per dog. These two breeds are most at risk for relinquishment and euthanasia in the United States. This fall, as part of helping to promote The Mighty and the Tiny Project, I reported on my research into both breeds and even included interviews with two of their owners. To wrap up my coverage for 2015, I’ll highlight below what other local animal welfare groups shared with me regards their opinions of and experiences with these two breeds.

Yes, I think that Chihuahuas and pit bulls are the most difficult to place.—Carol Wheeler, Hearts United for Animals

Pit bulls are harder to place than Chihuahuas. Partly because of size and breed restrictions where people live. Young Chihuahuas have found homes through us fairly quickly, but the older ones have taken longer.—Holly Harpster, Nebraska No Kill Canine Rescue

To start my research, I sent out emails to various local dog rescue groups. Groups that responded noted varying experience. For the Chihuahua, some groups either had little contact with them or limited difficulty placing them. In contrast, for the pit bull, some groups either had just started working them or outright didn’t even accept them.

The two animal welfare groups I chose to interview were Nebraska No Kill Canine Rescue and Hearts United for Animals. Nebraska No Kill Canine Rescue, a group dependent on fosters and adopters, is a non-breed specific dog rescue. Hearts United for Animals, a no-kill shelter near Auburn, has rescued almost every breed that is commonly known in the United States. My thanks goes to Holly Harpster and Carol Wheeler for taking time to answer interview questions.

I asked Holly and Carol about their experiences placing Chihuahuas and pit bull terriers. Both women confirmed that these two breeds have been difficult to place. Holly also added, “With any breed, the personality of the dog has a lot to do with the ease of placement. A dog that is small, fluffy, house-trained, and loves everybody will quickly find a home. Throw in ‘non-shedding’ and we’ll have multiple applications in a day!”

Why have Chihuahuas and American pit bulls been such a challenge to place? With Hearts United for Animals the biggest challenge in placing Chihuahuas, Carol frankly stated, is that they can often be unfriendly to would-be adopters. “There are people who know the breed well and understand its nature, but a lot of people do prefer a dog that shows some regard for them at the first meeting.” Carol also pointed to the sad fact that Chihuahuas are way too numerous. “The worst breeders have pumped out litters onto society without a speck of conscience from knowing that there are way too many of them. People will buy the tiny dogs but, when there is difficulty with them, they don’t keep them.” According to a recent check on Petfinder, over 13,000 Chihuahuas need homes.

For pit bulls, Carol referred to multiple issues. First, she pointed out that the breed has an earned reputation for not getting along well with other dogs. “Pit bulls are terriers and share some attributes with other terriers, like Yorkshire terriers and Jack Russell terriers, but they’re bigger and far more powerful. When there is a spat between a pit bull and another dog, it can be a bad one.” Second, there is always concern about insurance coverage that may not be available in a home with a pit bull. “I think the problem for pet parents can happen when there is some incident involving a pit bull, and they receive notice that their insurance is going to be cancelled.” Last, there is the pit bull overpopulation issue. According to a recent check on Petfinder, over 17,000 pit bulls need homes.

With Nebraska No Kill Canine Rescue, the biggest problem in placing any dog has always been simply having a foster available to work with the dog and get the dog ready for a new home. “Especially with the pit bulls, there are so many people looking to give them up that rescues are flooded with them.” If the group does have a foster, the next problem is screening potential adopters. Naturally, the group is looking out for the best interest of the dog and so a lot of questions are asked on the application to better understand the lifestyle of the potential adopters. “With the bully breeds, we have to check city ordinances and look for any apartment/condo/duplex restrictions that could keep them from adopting the dog.” An additional complication happens with military families, because of the chance they could be transferred overseas. “Because many countries do not allow bully breeds, we need to know if they have a plan for the dog if that happens.”

This is really how most Chihuahuas act, although maybe not as adamant as Turbo. They might not welcome someone new, but they’re very loving to their own people.” —Carol Wheeler, Hearts United for Animals

My best memories of pit bulls are their big smiles and happy eyes when they’re with their family.—Holly Harpster, Nebraska No Kill Canine Rescue

Despite challenges with the Mighty/Tiny breeds, Hearts United for Animals and NE No Kill Canine Rescue have had special moments involving both breeds. Carol told the tale of Turbo. “He is adorable with ears almost as big as the rest of him. He has been living in the Central Care Room of the Homeward Bound Building and built quite a reputation by nipping at the legs of almost everyone who is new that enters the room. However when Chico is out of that area, he becomes most amiable, and so we know he is simply protecting his environment. Anyway, he is most loving and precious to those people that he knows.”

She also shared the story of Axel, a pit bull who was brought in by a city official. “Axel was running the streets of a small town causing some havoc.  I knew from the first look exchanged with Axel that he is a profound fellow, full of love and loyalty, so anxious to give his heart to someone who would care about him. The more I have learned about him, the more I find that to be the truth.”

Turbo_HUA

Holly affirmed, “There have been a lot of memorable Chihuahuas and pit bulls during my four years in rescue.” She told the tale of Marley and Cuddles were two Chihuahuas who came from the same home. “We thought they might need to be placed together, but tested them apart and found that they were just fine. Cuddles was an energetic young Chihuahua who was placed very quickly. Marley was an 8-year old with a wonderful, friendly personality who had the energy to play, but mostly loved to sit on your lap.  We had Marley for 8 months before he found his home. As it turned out, Marley was waiting for a special home and that is exactly what he got.  His new mistress is a quadriplegic who is comforted by having a dog on her lap and Marley has been her constant companion since they met. He even lets her mom know if he thinks there is a problem and persists until she’s checked on his mistress. He is a 10-pound package of love and loyalty and very happy now.”

Marley&Cuddles

She also told the story of Reja and Jewels, a bonded pair of pit bulls who were adopted out together. “They’re two of the sweetest dogs I’ve ever known. They love everyone and really enjoyed going for car rides.  Their preference was to sit in the front seat and with both of them trying to ride on one of my front seats, they kept setting off my seat belt alarm.”

Jewels-and-Reja

Holly emphasized that Nebraska No Kill Canine Rescue’s adoption process covers a lot of information and the group coaches new pet parents on how to best acclimate their new dog to their home. “We have been very successful in placing both Chihuahuas and pit bulls in homes that they thrive in. We stress that dogs we place need to become part of the family. A dog who alives inside with his family and takes part in their daily activities is usually a smarter and happier dog.”

Korra is a Pit who we had for 2 years before finding the perfect home. She had been in several foster homes prior to finding the home that had everything she needed.
Korra is a Pit that Nebraska No Kill had for two years before finding the perfect home. She had been in several foster homes prior to finding the home that had everything she needed.

Celebrity dogs, aka designer dogs, are very popular with puppy mills. They’re the latest trend and they can get high prices for them.—Holly Harpster, Nebraska No Kill Canine Rescue

No discussion of Chihuahuas would be complete with addressing the issue of celebrity dogs. According to Mill Dog Rescue, largely due to media influences the Chihuahuas accounted for 2.4% of the dogs offered for sale or adoption by 2010. Yet sadly overbreeding has saturated the demand for these tiny dogs. When I asked Carol about her opinion of celebrity dogs, she didn’t mince words with her reply, “Promotion of celebrity dogs is irresponsible because it lures people into seeing only the glamorous side of pet ownership without the responsibilities that go along with it, and the most irresponsible people are susceptible to that.”

Holly was just as outspoken. “If you want a designer dog, I urge you to actually see the place they were bred. Websites will always look good and are NOT an indicator that your dog isn’t coming from a puppy mill. If you aren’t allowed into the facility or allowed to see both of the pups parents, that should be a red flag. Ask lots of questions, get health and vaccination records, and be prepared to walk away if things don’t feel right.”

I think breed specific legislation needs to specify what every dog needs and not promote an outright ban.—Carol Wheeler, Hearts United for Animals

No discussion of the American pit bull terrier would be complete without addressing the issue of Breed Specific Legislation, a rule which animal welfare groups tend to not support. Carol is of the belief that, “Dogs that are kept safe and comfortable don’t cause a problem. They have a human house to live in and a securely fenced yard that protects them and protects the public from them.”

Holly stressed that, “BSL is not the way to prevent dog bites.  The way to prevent dog bites is to place the responsibility and accountability of people’s dogs on the people who own them.” To decide for yourself about this issue, please check out my article on the topic: Is the Pit Bull One of the Most Aggressive Breeds?

Focusing specifically on the pit bull, Holly added that she doesn’t believe that the pit bull breed is any more dangerous than other breeds. “Any breed of dog that is not properly socialized and trained can bite under the right circumstances. Understanding the characteristics of a breed is key to getting a dog who fits your lifestyle and if you aren’t willing to put in the time to train and socialize your dog, don’t get one.”

I think it’s a great thing that LAA is making the low cost spay/neuter possible for dog owners of these two breeds.—Holly Harpster, Nebraska No Kill Canine Rescue

You have now read the highlights of what local animal welfare groups shared with me regards their opinions of and experiences with Chihuahuas and the American pit bull terriers. In previous posts published this fall, I reported on my research into both breeds and even included interviews with owners of Chihuahuas and of American pit bull terriers. Armed with all this information, the question remains: What can the average person to do?

If you have an unaltered Chihuahua or a pit bull, please take advantage of the below offer from Lincoln Animal Ambassadors. As the average spay/neuter can cost between $100 to $200, depending on the breed and the vet, the savings to an owner is obviously substantial.

If you don’t need to have a Chihuahua or pit bull altered, please help LAA’s The Mighty and the Tiny Project reach as many dogs as possible by donating. Let’s all work together to reduce the number of unwanted dogs.

Also, should the cute stories and photos make you interested in owning a Chihuahua or pit bull, please educate yourself first to determine whether the breed is right for you. Then contact your local shelter or one of Lincoln’s numerous rescues.

They’re all dogs!  They all have their own individual personalities and quirks and they all need good homes. Some breeds are more popular to adopt than others, but Chihuahuas and pit bulls are not hard to find in rescues. There are plenty available for adoption! –Holly Harpster, Nebraska No Kill Canine Rescue