Kiki's Story and What Animal Shelters Can Learn From It
Photo: After a year in captivity, there was still always a bit of fear in Kiki's eyes.
Sitting at my feet is my dog Kiki, which is particularly appropriate, because she has a fascinating story worth telling that animal shelters everywhere could learn from. It is a really unusual story that cuts right to the core of the human/animal bond and highlights ways that animal shelters can and should better serve their public and pets.
For complicated reasons, Kiki was live-trapped on a Native American Reservation as a feral, wild, adult dog. My staff was on the reservation doing a TNR project for community dogs and cats. Kiki was supposed to have been trapped, sterilized and released. Again, for complicated reasons, that didn't happen for Kiki. Instead, the staff brought this terrified, wild dog back to the shelter, where everything was foreign, frightening and overwhelming. For other complicated reasons, she ended up coming to live at my house. Behaviorally, she was a mess. Born in the wild and never having been near people, she was terrified of everything about captivity. She could not be humanely crated for any period of time. Terror would set in. She would chew off any harness or collar anyone could get on her. She would panic if anyone so much as spoke to her or tried to touch her.
In spite of all of that she and I ended up bonding very strongly fairly quickly... so much so that she developed severe separation anxiety if I left her alone. And if I did leave her alone, I absolutely could not crate her, because of her absolute terror of being caged. In short: Kiki had more severe behavior issues than a person could possibly imagine. She would be destructive in the house if left alone, but would have severe panic attacks if crated. Introducing her to new people was a challenge, to say the least.
I realized early on that one thing I could *never* do was discipline or (as some people would call it) "correct" her in the way that term is generally used in dog training. The only way I could successfully interact with her was to always and only praise and reward her. As a result of that decision, she began feeling more safe in more settings and contexts and with more people. She began to realize that this new weird world she was in was safe. People were safe, the food was great and life was good. Ultimately, while I have had some wonderful canine relationships in my life, there is something genuinely unique and special about Kiki. She has become a remarkably social, loving and well-behaved family member. When we travel, we bring her and her dog sister and cat sister with us and she is the most calm and easy-going of the bunch. She is perfectly happy and easy to have around. She meets new people and pets (dogs and cats) affectionately and calmly. She listens to us intensely and really tries to do everything we ask her to do... even if it is the first time we have asked it and she does not exactly know what we are asking. She will listen and try to figure out what we want so she can do it. She is currently the best big sister to Bella (wire-haired terrier) and Jasmine (domestic short hair). Both of them see her as their leader and she is very good to them. She was also BFFs with Chico, who we lost a while ago at the ripe old age of about 20 years. She was his friend and protector up to the end. Here is a video celebrating these relationships, and others.
Kiki is now going on 12 years old, and the years with her have been a blessing for our whole family. The first year was challenging. But, OMG it was worth it! Our home and family would never have been the same without her. Every minute we spent helping her through her difficult times has paid off 1,000 times over. I feel like we are better people and a closer family for having brought Kiki home to live with us, which brings me to the point about what animal shelters can and should learn from her story.
What Animal Shelters Can Learn From Kiki's Story
Animal shelters in the USA routinely kill animals for far less behavior challenges than Kiki had, which is both ironic and tragic, because many people consider animal shelters resources to look to when experiencing issues with their pets. Rather than helping people to create the kinds of outcomes we experienced with Kiki, they promote surrendering pets to the shelters, often recommending "euthanasia" as the appropriate response. In short: they complain that people treat their pets as "disposable," then, they themselves treat the pets as disposable. In so doing, they fail at one of their most important roles: educating and guiding the public to be better stewards of their companion animals. Only about 7% of what people learn comes from what they are told. The rest comes from their experience, and watching the examples set by others. For that reason alone animal shelters should be role models of responsible animal care, training and guidance. Telling people they "should be responsible" and then modeling irresponsibility sends entirely the wrong message.
Every animal shelter should be experts in creating positive outcomes like Kiki's. Instead, most animal shelters have "intake" areas, often staffed by entry-level employees trained simply to check boxes on intake forms to facilitate the relinquishment of animals and where minor and common behavioral issues, like inappropriate soiling, are often used as reasons for killing. It is a paradigm that fails at the key job of animal shelters to teach and model responsible pet stewardship. Even worse: it teaches and models the opposite of that. After all, when those organization that profess to be the voice for the animals engage in or enable the easy disposal of pets for minor behavior issues it sends the message that it is the correct and appropriate action to take, which is particularly problematic, because most pet behavior challenges are caused by the people in the home, not the pets. A great example of that is inappropriate urination in cats, a challenge that is often brought on by feeding poor quality dry cat foods that cause irritation in the urinary tract. This can lead to dribbling of urine in the home, and that, in turn, can result in cats marking places where urine has dribbled. As frustrating as cat urine smell can be, people facing this challenge do not need to get rid of their cats exhibiting this behavior. And, shelters that take in those cats and kill them are doing a disservice to the people and the cats they are supposed to serve. Even worse: because the people have not learned that feeding low-quality or dry cat food is not good for cats, and the likely cause of the behavior, they are likely to get another cat and cause the problem all over again. People experiencing this and other pet issues need help and guidance in resolving the issues, not a quick and easy disposal of their pets. Cats with inappropriate urination need a veterinary check up, the odor in the homes needs to be eliminated, the cats need quality high-protein, grain-free wet food, preferably raw meat and organ meat. And, they need to be retrained to use the litter box exclusively. None of that is particularly difficult. And, ironically, all of it offers opportunity for animal shelters to generate funds by selling the best products in these categories that can help, like this.
In short, animal shelters need to adopt entirely new models for intake and public interactions. Every animal shelter in the USA should be prepared to help coach people into having the kind of experience we had with Kiki. What they are currently doing creates situations where everyone loses, including the pet, the owner and the shelter. Even more than that, the whole community loses because if animal shelters became actual stewards of responsible pet care more people would follow the example and the animal care standards in the community would rise. Everyone would benefit and no one would lose. Animal shelters should replace their "intake areas" with "pet help/support desks" where intake is one of many possible solutions, but not the automatic go-to solution. These areas also need to be staffed by people knowledgeable about common pet issues and who possess good customer service and communication skills. In effect, they need to turn those areas of shelters into comprehensive pet retention programs. Doing so will help them support and grow human/animal bonds that should be at the core of their missions. And that is why I believe that comprehensive pet retention programs are one of the most important components of the No Kill Equation. Unfortunately, they are also one of the most often ignored.
If you are an executive or board member at an animal shelter and are interested in exploring transitioning your intake area into a pet help/support desk, I would love to talk to you. If you mention Kiki's name, I'll give you an hour of free consulting time.