Community organizing to help homeless pets

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Person talking to man over a fence

Note: This is a chapter in the Grassroots Advocacy Toolkit.

Adopt your next dog or cat. Foster a pet. Volunteer at your local animal shelter. These are all things we know we can do to help homeless pets. But what does it really look like to take action on behalf of animals in your community? What can you do as an individual?

How can you collaborate with your local shelter, community groups and local businesses to create long-term, lifesaving change? How do you know what kind of support to provide or what type of help is needed the most? How do you get other people to listen to you and join your movement? Can you really make a difference?

Anyone can be an advocate for pets as long as they are willing to learn, listen and connect with others. No one individual or organization can save homeless pets alone. But by working together with all of the different stakeholders in your community, you can inspire others, create a local movement, and ensure lifesaving progress and sustainability. Your voice is more powerful than you think. You just need to know how to use it effectively.

Connecting with your local animal shelters

When your goal is to help save pets in your community, developing a relationship with your local shelters is a critical first step. It can be easy to assume that you know what your shelter is or isn’t doing and how to fix things. But like any other community-based institution, animal shelters are part of an interrelated system of public services that usually operate with limited resources and under certain constraints.

To begin, identify all the shelters serving your community and find out where they are located. Depending on the size of the city you live in, there may be just one shelter or your community might be served by several. Next, seek out the answers to the following questions:

  • Are the shelters public or private?
  • How many animals are the shelters taking in each year and how many are they saving?
  • Are those animals mostly dogs? Mostly cats? An equal number of each?
  • Is your local animal control or protection agency also managed through the shelter or is it managed by another agency?
  • What lifesaving programs do your shelters already offer?
  • What kind of additional programming and support do they need?
  • Have you looked at the shelters’ websites to see what information they provide, what the structure of their leadership team is, and what kinds of community partnerships they currently have in place?

Whether your local shelters have already achieved no-kill or they are struggling to implement basic lifesaving programs, establishing a positive, judgment-free relationship is essential. Every shelter (and community, for that matter) faces different challenges and has different resources at its disposal. Some shelters have the luxury of operating as nonprofit organizations in resource-rich communities, while others are bound by the limitations of municipal contracts and serve densely populated areas with very few resources. Chapter 3 covers issues related to local laws and ordinances that affect pets in the community.

Meeting local shelters where they are, keeping an open mind and focusing on shared goals will help you build a working relationship with all relevant parties that can be sustained into the future.

Using the community lifesaving dashboard

Screen shot of the community lifesaving dashboard map of the United States, showing save rate statistics

Best Friends’ community lifesaving dashboard is the nation’s first comprehensive and dynamic data visualization tool for animal shelters across the country. You can use the dashboard to locate shelters in your city, county and state, and view critical information you’ll need as a starting point, such as how many animals are entering a shelter and how many of those are being saved.

Many animal shelters are familiar with this dashboard and have provided their data and information for it. Other shelters may not be aware that it exists, although their pages on the dashboard may still provide their data and information, retrieved from public sources. In either case, it’s best to use the dashboard to identify your local shelters first, with the goal of building a relationship with them. And once that has been established, the shelter’s lifesaving data listed on the dashboard can then be discussed.

When every shelter in a community achieves a save rate of 90% (or more) for all cats and dogs, that community is designated as no-kill. This provides a simple, effective benchmark for measuring lifesaving progress in shelters across the country.

Below are some things to look for and think about when viewing the dashboard and collaborating with your shelter.

Is your community already no-kill?
If so, it likely needs additional community support to help sustain and further increase that lifesaving success. This support may involve working to change local ordinances to prevent breed-discriminatory housing or zoning policies, or addressing the problem of local pet stores selling dogs from puppy mills.

Regarding the animals who are not being saved in your community, is the number greater for cats or for dogs?
If it’s cats, this might indicate that your community has a need for a community cat program featuring large-scale trap-neuter-return (TNR) or a newborn kitten program that helps keep fragile kittens out of the shelter environment and places them in foster care instead.

If dogs are being killed in greater numbers in your area, there may be a need for more affordable spay/neuter services to prevent unwanted litters of puppies or a behavior and training program to help dogs successfully transition from the shelter to homes of their own.

Is there data missing for your community?
If your community and/or local shelter has a status of “waiting on shelter data” on the dashboard, this means that some of the data hasn’t yet been provided. Your shelter can provide its data using the shelter data update form.

The dashboard contains an abundance of useful information. You can review frequently asked questions about the term 'no-kill' and the data methodology for the dashboard. It also includes national lifesaving data and an overview of the common elements of a no-kill community, both of which can serve as great conversation starters when connecting with fellow community members and stakeholders. In addition to viewing the lifesaving status of your own community, you can see where it stands in comparison to other communities across the country.

Connecting with community members and local businesses

Just like creating relationships with shelters, building relationships with others in your community is key to your success and can only be done by establishing trust, understanding and open dialogue. It’s easy to assume we know everything about the people we live near, but if your goal is to help more pets, save more lives and create lasting change, you need to approach things with fresh eyes and an open mind. So, don’t assume anything and try to lead with compassion.

Don’t assume anything. When Best Friends staff first started visiting communities in Coachella Valley in California as part of a new community cat program, they learned about a large cat colony living near a mobile home park. Up to that point, nobody had approached the mobile park residents about the cats. A local shelter volunteer claimed that the area wasn’t safe and that the residents would not be receptive to helping the cats. An advocacy team member hung some door hangers in the mobile park anyway.

In reality, the place was a cat-loving mecca. Cats were lounging happily around the homes and being fed by residents who had little to no income. The park manager confirmed that everyone loved the cats and would welcome a TNR program.

Whether it’s a specific neighborhood, type of business or local community group, nobody should be overlooked in your organizing efforts. You’ll be surprised and delighted to see just how many people are happy to help local pets, and how many are already doing so in their own ways.

Lead with compassion. When we see someone with a dog who has not been neutered, it’s easy to assume that that individual hasn’t taken his dog to be neutered because he doesn’t want to or doesn’t appreciate the importance of spay/neuter. Often, however, an unsterilized pet is simply the result of limited resources or lack of education.

Many communities lack affordable spay/neuter services for local residents. People who are struggling financially may be making a choice between paying for an expensive surgery or paying for their pets’ food. In some cases, food banks for people have seen local residents starve themselves because they are feeding their pets first. As a result, many food banks have created services for people’s pets, too.

There may also be people who are initially resistant to certain lifesaving programs because they don’t know how they work and are worried that they may conflict with their own personal needs. Check out this story about a veteran living in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. The man was initially resistant to a community cat program, but he embraced it once a program organizer took the time to talk with him.

Effective lifesaving programs and services for animals and people always go hand in hand. To help people, you often need to help their animals, too. To help animals, you often must help the people who care for them and share their lives with them. Judgment and bias close doors; trust and compassion open them.

Whether you’re interacting with local businesses and organizations or individual people, view everyone as a potential member of your action team, as someone with a unique set of skills and experiences to bring to your lifesaving efforts. When you think outside of the traditional animal welfare box and look to the full spectrum of community groups, local businesses and entities available to you, everyone becomes an ally and you increase your lifesaving potential exponentially.

Creative and data-driven programming to help save pets

When you’re thinking about programs that help pets and have major impact, think big, but also be practical, strategic and supportive. For many shelters, meeting essential day-to-day needs (e.g., feeding the animals, cleaning kennels and providing basic medical care) may be all-consuming, leaving no time to think about and plan for other things. Helping your shelter to first manage these basic day-to-day challenges is necessary before asking the staff to tackle big ideas and changes.

It’s also important to make sure that any programming you’re thinking about is always driven by your community’s actual needs. Be as innovative and ambitious as you like, but be sure that your ideas are always connected to a concrete need that will help more pets and people. For example, if the shelters in your community are already saving almost 100% of cats and have no difficulty finding homes for cats, but they are still struggling to get dogs adopted, then opening an adoptable cat café probably isn’t a priority.

For bigger projects that will require a lot of planning and resources, try breaking down the individual steps and pieces needed to make it more manageable for the people who will be implementing it. For example, starting a comprehensive community cat program can be overwhelming. Start by first gathering information using tools like the Community Cat Programs Handbook and then tackle the steps one at a time. These steps might include passing a local ordinance to allow trap-neuter-return, raising money to purchase humane traps, and recruiting and training a volunteer trapping team.

Following best practices and implementing programs that have been proven to save lives are always the way to go, but it’s also important to think creatively and look for new ideas for tackling tougher issues when the need arises.

A big piece of creating a compassionate community for pets and people is a willingness to think beyond the walls of the animal shelter. When most people think about ways to help save more pets in shelters, they think about what’s happening at the physical facility. But having a long-term lifesaving impact requires programmatic solutions that reach beyond the shelters themselves and into the surrounding communities. Below are some examples of creative community-based solutions for saving pets in shelters.

Dog running clubs at shelters. Some shelters struggle to provide larger, more active dogs with enough enrichment opportunities to keep them mentally and physically stimulated while waiting to be adopted. To address this problem and help get more dogs adopted, some shelters allow volunteers to take dogs for runs through the neighborhoods surrounding the shelter. In addition to providing the dogs with much-needed exercise, these programs create local awareness and visibility for the shelter (the dogs wear “Adopt me” vests while running) and lead to adoption matches and positive media coverage. For an example of such a program, read about the dog running club at the Best Friends Lifesaving Center in Atlanta.

Fence repair brigades to help lost and loose dogs. Picking up and bringing in lost and stray dogs can be a huge burden on animal control officers and a drain on resources when those dogs are admitted to the shelter. Often, the dog is just an adventurous spirit who escaped a yard with a broken fence or an unsecured gate. Some communities are creating networks of volunteers and participating hardware stores willing to donate time and supplies to repair fences and gates. By working together to complete simple repairs that pet owners might not have the money or skills to do, these community members are keeping pets with their people and helping to reduce the number of stray dogs entering shelters.

Community-based pop-up adoption events. Bringing adoptable pets to potential adopters rather than expecting people to come to the shelter is a great way to save more pets and increase community awareness and engagement. Pop-up events involve partnering with local businesses to host adoption and outreach events inside local retail stores and other public venues with heavy foot traffic. In many cases, people who are uncertain about going to an animal shelter to adopt will happily visit a popular local business to meet their new best friend. For an example, read about a partnership with Urban Outfitters to help find homes for adoptable cats from Animal Care Centers of New York City.

Familiarizing yourself with your community’s lifesaving needs, building collaborative relationships with your local shelters and fellow community members, and approaching things creatively and thoughtfully are the building blocks for a successful grassroots advocacy effort. Once those elements are in place, you’re ready to tackle some of the big-picture issues that are essential to community-based lifesaving for dogs and cats.

These 10 chapters make up the Grassroots Advocacy Toolkit:

Download the Grassroots Advocacy Tool Kit (PDF 4.25 MB)