March 02nd

Ending the Stigma to Appreciate Shelter Employees

This Friday is National Employee Appreciation Day, and I can’t help but think of the thousands of animal care staff in shelters across the country that have had a tough couple of years. In 2019, we could never have anticipated what the following two years would look like for animal shelters. But one thing is for sure, shelter staff–often first responders–are heroes. If only they were consistently treated that way.

I find it disappointing to see graphics reoccurring on Facebook stigmatizing animal shelters. They are posted by the very people that claim to be trying to save pets. If you are posting that we need save pets from “kill shelters” rather than buying from pet stores, you are missing the mark and throwing up a barrier for adoption. Labeling municipal shelters as “kill shelters” is literally driving the public away from them. These messages are also hurtful for shelter staff, the vast majority of which are first responders and heroes.

To truly help shelter staff, we all must get behind them. They are dealing with a more complex population of pets that need adoptive homes. We must help them make the community feel good about animal shelters, public or private, to get foot traffic in the door to see these wonderful pets. If the public is upset that their shelter is a “kill shelter,” why would they visit, get involved, or interact with staff that “kills” animals? This type of language needs to stop for the sake of the animals and the people caring for them.

We can achieve our goal without divisive language. We should always be transparent about euthanasia rates. Still, we can lift up the shelters that are working to save pets and help them disseminate accurate, constructive information to the community in a way that garners support, not hate and sadness. If people don’t visit, pets don’t get adopted and transport is becoming increasingly complicated. We must start looking at a whole community approach to animal welfare. This includes rescues, shelters, local officials, and the public. Placing a stigma on any of these is simply bad for pets. The shelter should be the cornerstone of animal welfare for all the above, the first point of rescue for the community, not the “kill shelter.”

While I understand that many people may share these graphics and use this language, thinking they are helping to save pets and get people to rush to the animal shelter to adopt, it is working against the pets and the people caring for them. We won’t get to a place where euthanasia for space does not exist if we stigmatize the shelters and drive the community away. We will also compound these issues by losing fantastic shelter staff if we label them as killers. There is a staffing shortage in animal shelters across the country. These messages also hurt the individuals we need most to save pet lives: shelter staff and veterinarians.

For National Employee Appreciation Day, let’s all commit to helping shelter staff to get pets adopted by supporting them. Let’s welcome the community into animal shelters with the truth, not sensationalized messaging. The truth is that adoptable pets are still being euthanized in our shelters and will not even get the opportunity to be seen by potential adopters if we don’t change our messaging.

I believe we will get to a place where every pet has a home through honesty, kindness, and support. Let’s do this for the animals and the people caring for them.

Until every pet has a home,

Cathy Bissell