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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

The Perspective of the Rescuer

In many communities rescuers are the backbone of the No Kill effort. They pull animals from the shelter, including the ones most in need of medical or behavioral rehabilitation before adoption. They work hand in glove with shelter staff to manage emergencies. In an increasing number of communities, rescues and humane societies have a formal partnership with the municipal shelter.

But there are quite a few communities where the relationship between rescuers and the local shelter is adversarial or where there is a split among rescuers, with some in favor of the local shelter and some opposing it. Often this opposition by rescuers continues even when a shelter is making progress. It’s easy to see why rescuers would oppose a high-kill shelter, but why would they be critical of a shelter that is rapidly improving? A first step in understanding and addressing the concerns of rescuers is for shelter directors to look at things from the perspective of the rescuer.

Very few rescuers get paid for their work. Most of them have jobs and families and are trying to fit rescue work into their busy lives. They don’t have time to go to No Kill conferences or read about No Kill trends at the national level. Rescuers may know very little about No Kill innovations, especially the most recent ones like RTF and managed admission. They may work with several shelters, and they probably don’t have time to keep up on current statistics for each shelter, much less long-term trends in intake and live releases. Burnout is high among rescuers, and as a result many of them are relatively new at it and don’t have much institutional memory of how things were, say, 10 years ago.

Rescuers usually have a constant stream of animals coming at them. It can feel like a fire hose with no end. Rescuers get tired and angry, and it’s only natural for them to resent the sources of the fire hose — the shelter and the general public. It’s easy for rescuers to develop an “us against them” attitude, with shelter staff being part of “them.” A new director might expect that rescuers will automatically support a No Kill effort, but rescuers who are not familiar with how No Kill actually works and who have no experience with innovative programs may balk at what we in the shelter world know are lifesaving techniques.

Each community is a little different, but there are three types of concerns that I hear from rescuers in the context of new directors who are making a No Kill effort. First is a lack of trust. This can be made worse if there are mistakes while a new director is settling in. A couple of recent examples of this were an animal control officer who wound up in the local news for lifting a dog using a choke pole, and a mistaken euthanization of a family pet. The shelter director must be transparent in these cases, and take quick and decisive action. If the director gets on top of the situation as soon as a mistake happens, makes all the circumstances public, and takes action to fix whatever caused it, the harm can be minimized.

The second type of concern is that rescuers may feel displaced by a new director’s rules. Sometimes when a shelter has had bad leadership and rescues have had to step in and fill the void, rescuers (and volunteers) may resent the imposition of a new way of doing business because they see it as hindering their flexibility and effectiveness. This is best fixed by a new director making changes gradually and holding frequent meetings with rescuers to get their input. For example, if rescuers are no longer allowed to enter the shelter after regular hours, the new director might hold a meeting with them, explain the safety and liability issues, and ask for their suggestions on how to deal with the situation. Even if the director can’t reach an agreement that makes both sides happy, the opposition from rescuers will likely be less intense because they now understand the situation and had a chance to be heard.

The first two types of rescuer concerns are relatively easy to deal with, but the third is harder, because it involves a fundamental conflict between the role that rescuers see for themselves and the role that No Kill has for them. Many rescuers seem to feel that if a shelter needs to rely on rescues to get it to a high live release rate, then the shelter is failing at its job. They see the need for rescue as something that exists solely due to a dereliction of duty by shelters. No Kill, by contrast, sees the relationship between the shelter and rescuers as an ongoing partnership where each has a defined role. The obvious problem here is that rescuers may expect a new No Kill director to quickly put them out of business by saving all the animals herself or himself. They may be disappointed and infuriated when they find out that the shelter needs them as much as ever.

One way to address this concern is for the shelter to make rescuers part of the team, working with the shelter for the same long-term goals. A strategic plan can be a helpful way of setting this out. Making rescuers part of the team means that the shelter director must be aware of rescuer burnout and take steps to prevent it. That entails not asking more of rescuers than the director would ask of shelter staff. If a shelter has an emergency — say a natural disaster or a large hoarding bust — and shelter staff are working around the clock, then it’s appropriate to ask rescuers for their maximum effort too. Working together to meet that kind of crisis can help make rescuers and shelter personnel feel united. But when a shelter constantly operates in crisis mode and expects rescuers to bail it out, it is not a sustainable situation any more than it would be to ask shelter employees to constantly work 100-hour weeks.

Another part of the solution to this third concern is to educate rescuers (and shelter workers and volunteers) about the key role of the private sector in No Kill. Rescuers sometimes complain that they are forced to spend their money on saving the lives of strays and owner surrenders, something they see as the responsibility of the local government. This issue may become acute during a No Kill effort, because No Kill asks for community support to save animals who have expensive medical and behavior problems. The relationship of local governments to animal care and control is complex, and it differs from state to state and locality to locality. A handy (although somewhat oversimplified) way to look at it is that the core duty of local government is limited to animal control. That core duty can be expanded by state law or local resolutions or ordinances to include aspects of animal care and lifesaving, but laws and ordinances that put obligations on public shelters may wind up structured by legislators to make them difficult to enforce. The bottom line is that if we want a safety net for pets in our communities, the private sector is generally going to need to take a large role in creating and sustaining it.

There’s a trend, particularly in larger cities and counties, for the local government to contract with rescues and private shelters to take a certain number of animals each year from the public shelter. This is a great way to deal with the situation, as it recognizes that lifesaving for strays and owner surrenders has benefits for the entire community. A new No Kill director may want to float this idea to local officials as a short-term or long-term goal.

Every jurisdiction is different, and what works for a new No Kill director in one place won’t necessarily work in another. Understanding and sympathizing with the perspective of the rescuer is crucial, though, in creating a team dynamic. And in order to achieve peace between warring factions one side has to take the first step. It behooves those of us on the shelter side to be willing to take that first step — and as many more as are needed.



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