Lori Weise of Downtown Dog Rescue pretty much wrote the book on helping people and their pets stay together, and keeping animals out of shelters. And with the publication of First Home, Forever Home: How to Start and Run a Shelter Intervention Program, that’s not a metaphor anymore.
Weise has been written about, awarded, and used as a role model for her efforts to help pet owners and the animals they love in South Los Angeles, a community struggling with massive problems of poverty, joblessness, homelessness and crime. While nationally, owner surrender accounts for 30 percent of shelter intake, in areas like South LA, that percentage is much higher, and almost none of it is voluntary. She writes:
(W)e in the rescue movement have not focused our energy on helping pet owners in those communities. Instead, we’ve demonized those who surrender their animals, calling them ‘uncaring’ and ‘irresponsible,’ without taking the time to understand the very real challenges they face. When I walk through a shelter and see the dogs and cats in their cages, I know that many of them were loved, and that the person who loved them saw no alternative to surrender because he or she faced eviction, homelessness, overcrowding or destitution.
Hitting another note, Weise points out that it costs only $50 on average to keep a pet out of a shelter, usually far less than housing or even killing that pet in a shelter. What if we spent that money keeping families together, instead of ripping them apart?
So she did. And in this short, powerful book, she shows how you can, too. While the book is full of highly personal stories that will inspire and move the hardest heart and most skeptical reader, it’s also written as a how-to manual, with clearly-explained steps starting with how to get started, how to recruit your team, how to work with your local shelters, how to find money, and how to survive emotionally while doing this tough work.
She also cautions people who want to start a shelter intervention program not to decide in advance that people who show up to surrender their pets don’t want to keep them, no matter how they seem to feel or what they say at first.
“No one can tell me this was a case of ‘these people’ not caring,” she writes of one family. “Our own data shows us that 75 percent of those who learned about our program when they arrived at the shelter to surrender their pet accepted our help.”
In the book’s closing words, Weise writes about her vision for a totally different system of animal sheltering, “a place where pet owners can come for help, a community resource, a place where people in difficult situations can board their animals and keep them safe for a week or two. A shelter in the truest sense of the word, and one that brings in the enormous number of people who love animals but aren’t currently involved in the animal welfare movement — homeless people, poor people, recent immigrants. They will help us if we just reach out.”
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