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  • Mike Fry

Pet Help Desks are Essential to Saving Lives



Show the picture above to anyone who works the intake desk at an animal shelter and you will likely get an immediate heart-felt laugh. It depicts an intake area in which a pair of cats are attempting to return their owner to the shelter. The caption reads "Rufus returns his owner because he's moving." Rufus, the cat holding the human, is saying "They don't allow humans where we're going..."

The image is funny to shelter workers, because "moving" is one of the most common excuses used by people who are trying to surrender their pets. In a society where the majority of pet owners say they feel like their pets are family members; where large numbers of people celebrate their pets' birthdays; where we spend billions of dollars annually pampering our pets, "moving" - as well as most of the other top excuses used by people surrendering pets - sounds ridiculous. A reasonable person, after all, does not move to a place where they cannot accommodate all of their family members. Furthermore, ample pet-friendly housing exists in most every community.

"Moving" and the other top excuses for getting rid of pets all sound ridiculous for another reason: after talking to these people in depth and asking probing follow-up questions, it usually turns out that the first explanation isn't the real one. There is usually another underlying issue the people do not want to talk about, either because the issue is too complicated or it involves sensitive emotions they do not feel comfortable talking about at the intake counter of an animal shelter.

From another perspective the most common shelter response to owners lining up to surrender pets for ridiculous reasons is equally ridiculous: these people are met by entry-level staff who lack training in meeting these people with compassion and who are incapable of coaxing out of them what is really going on and who simply check boxes on an intake form.

I call this approach to intake "ridiculous" because if animal shelters want to claim pet ownership is a lifetime commitment and that pets are family members, then a family trying to get rid of a family member needs to be met with a different kind of response than this. It should be treated as a serious, potentially (at least in many shelters) life-threatening situation. They need to be met by staff who are not simply checking boxes on a form. They need to be met with compassionate people who can engage the families in open, nonjudgmental and supportive conversations about what is really going on. They need to be met by people who know the art of unraveling the real story that's going on behind the silly excuses people usually use when they first call or show up at the shelter. Shelters need a professional, trained help desk, staffed by individuals who love helping people and who are good and knowledgeable pet problem solvers. If shelters don't have that, they are taking in animals that do not need sheltering and they are failing to truly help their community to become better pet owners. They are basically failing to fulfill key aspects of their missions.

But, I get it: running a Pet Help Desk is hard. It is also time-consuming and ultra-complex. Families surrendering pets are often in crisis. Divorce, domestic abuse, death of a family member, loss of a job and other factors that can be emotionally intense can all cause people to come to a shelter and say, "We are giving up our pet because we are moving." Having enough finesse to get to the root of the issue, and then find alternative solutions for it creates a win/win for all parties involved.

Understanding that animal shelters rarely have the capacity to do this, No Kill Learning is expanding our Pet Help Desk services so that they now include all of the following:

  • Developing and training help desk protocols and staff

  • Helping owners one-on-one to resolve their pet issues without surrendering

  • Helping pet owners who need to re-home their pets to do it without surrendering the pets to a shelter

  • Providing free online resources to help solve pet problems

All of these services are essential to any comprehensive pet retention program. I, therefore, encourage all animal shelters and rescue groups that accept animals from the public to re-think their intake practices and to build a comprehensive pet help desk. If they can't, they can simply use ours. Feel free to give me a call toll-free to learn more. Or drop me an email. Together we can help keep animals that don't need shelter out of animal shelters and we can help people become better stewards of their animal companions. I look forward to hearing from you!

To learn more, watch check out the Pet Retention page.

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