Thursday, September 18, 2014

The 66 Dogs Project

     Animal overpopulation. What a dry term-no hint of the size of the problem or the suffering of the 3-4 million dogs and cats in the U.S. that live their last days in a cage and ultimately are killed each year. 
     A problem of this magnitude can seem overwhelming. Yet many animal lovers find a way to make an impact, a dent in the problem. Some volunteer for animal rescues or in shelters, some donate money or toys or food. Jenny Williams is donating her talent.
     Jenny is a Colorado-based freelance writer, editor and illustrator who spent some time working at a local shelter. After a while, she began to think, "I could spend every day there and still not feel like it was making a difference in a bigger way."
     So, she came up with an idea-something she named, 
"The 66 Dogs Project." Jenny decided to paint watercolor portraits of 66 dogs in shelters or rescues that, for some reason, were being overlooked by potential adopters. She hoped to cast a fresh light on these hard-to-adopt dogs, in hopes that her portraits would help them find forever homes.
    Some dogs from the Baltimore area have gotten in on the action, including two from the Baltimore Humane Society, and Molly, a dog rescued from the Baltimore County Animal Shelter and boarded at a local kennel while her rescuer looked for a home. You might remember Molly from my first blog post and video. 
     Here's the story of the 66 Dogs Project with its very own Baltimore happy ending.

      Jenny has a website, "" which includes the portraits of all the dogs she's painted so far. Her Facebook page allows shelters and rescues to download the portraits to share on their own sites. 
     Every time a dog is adopted, Jenny sends the original portrait to the adopting family as a gift. If you look on the 66 Dogs Project webpage, you'll see many have found loving homes. 
    In case you're wondering, there was no reason to pick the number, 66. "It just felt ambitious enough that I was really committed, but not all-consuming," she explains. 
     Jenny says she felt driven to paint dogs because some, like pit bulls, have a particularly difficult image to overcome. 
     "Part of the motivation for the project," she says, "is focusing on dogs that tend to have a stigma against their breed." She feels her portraits combat stereotypes in a positive way. 
     I was struck by Jenny's story because so many of us experience the same feeling that Jenny described-a desire to positively impact the problem of unwanted dogs and cats.
     Jenny says, "Each of us finds a way to feel useful because that's the only way to keep going. It's allowing me to stay connected to this world in a way that feels good."
     For me, this blog is a way to achieve that feeling. If I can educate and inform, and perhaps even help an animal, I will feel I made a difference.
     As June Carter Cash once said, "I'm just trying to matter." For all the people like Jenny who are finding their own way to make a difference, you matter. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

WOW! Look what they've done in Montgomery County!

     What can you get for 17 million dollars? In Montgomery County, the answer is, a lot. Montgomery County opened a brand new county-funded 17 million dollar animal shelter this past March and the wow factor is huge. 
     For starters, the Montgomery County Animal Services and Adoption Center is over 49 thousand square feet, is energy-efficient, has radiant floor heating in the canine areas, and HVAC systems which provide ten air changes per hour to prevent the spread of odors and disease. There are private animal holding and treatment areas, plus classroom, conference and office space. There's a walking trail and outdoor fenced exercise runs. Take a look.

     I wanted to see the shelter in Montgomery County partly because Baltimore County is getting ready to build its own new 6 million dollar shelter facility. Clearly, 6 million is not 17, but it would seem that 6 million dollars could buy you a lot, as long as the county makes great effort to do it right. 
     One county official tells me the deadline for bids to build the new shelter is September 18th. The county hopes to break ground around Thanksgiving of this year with completion of the new shelter expected (weather permitting) around September of next year. The county expects to have more answers about the building's features within the next couple of weeks, and I'll keep you posted. 
     The current facility is old and needs replacing, so a new building is a great thing. But while the physical plant is important, what goes on inside the shelter is just as important as the walls that enclose it. As a result, the county needs to give great thought about shifting toward the kind of sheltering philosophy that guides the shelter in Montgomery County and a growing number of other animal shelters around the country.
     That means things like extensive coordination with rescue groups, the creation of a vibrant foster program, ample use of volunteers, and the use of enrichment to reduce kennel stress. 
     Kennel stress is not some new age concept. Think about what solitary confinement can do to a human being. The SPCA of Texas website defines kennel stress as a similar kind of thing...a kind of insanity that results when animals are confined in cages for prolonged periods without ample human contact or opportunity to exercise, think, and rest. 
     Kennel stress manifests itself in all kinds of negative behaviors, sometimes even aggression. An animal's mental health can deteriorate so profoundly, the pet may no longer be suitable for adoption. 
     To combat kennel stress, animal experts recommend what's known as enrichment, things like social interaction with staff and volunteers, obedience training, opportunities to play outside and interactive toys where dogs must find ways to get to treats tucked inside of them. 
    To put it simply, as Baltimore County prepares to build an updated facility, it needs to embrace the kinds of programs that help animals mentally thrive as well as survive.
     On another front, my visit to Montgomery County brought me face to face with an unexpected question; whether or not the best solution for Baltimore County's shelter is a public/private partnership (PPP). Under a PPP, a non-profit group (private) would form to run the shelter, receiving some funding from the county (public), then raising the rest of its operating revenue on its own.
     This system works very well at many shelters like BARCS (the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter) and the 
Washington, D.C. Humane Society. Both of these are similar to Baltimore County's facility in that they must accept all animals surrendered by citizens, as well as the strays picked up by animal control officers in their jurisdictions.
    As it turns out, Montgomery County's shelter is not operated through a PPP. It's owned and operated by the 
Montgomery County Police Department. And yet, the lack of a PPP doesn't prevent it from employing the kinds of programs that put animals' needs first. 
     So, while many have been calling for a PPP at the Baltimore County shelter (and I have been one of them), I'm no longer sure whether a PPP is necessary to create the kind of shelter we want. 
     When all is said and done, what matters is the philosophy set forward by those who run the place. If we have a shelter administration that really wants to create a modern-day operation, that may be enough. It's a question of the county's commitment to this goal. 
     How does Baltimore County begin to move in this direction? Perhaps what's warranted is a measure like the one adopted in Pasco County, FL. As I've written earlier, county commissioners there approved a plan in 2012 requiring their shelter to achieve a 90% live release rate. They set the standard, then left it up to those in charge of the shelter to achieve it. 
     Surprise! It's working. The Pasco County shelter's live release rate has jumped from  22% to 80%, with efforts continuing to reach the 90% target.
     Because of recent calls for change, some Baltimore County Council members are considering legislation concerning our shelter. Perhaps new laws should include a mandate for a  90% live release rate. 
     For this to be ultimately successful, there would have to be a shift in mindset in the county…a dedication to adopting new ways of thinking, more transparency, and a real belief that every animal matters. 
     Those who are angry that this has not yet happened need to understand human nature.  Even though county government is supposed to be answerable to residents, no one likes to be told how to do their job, especially by people complaining that everything is wrong and nothing is right. With time, I believe county officials will see the benefit in bringing the shelter in line with today's best practices.
     If that happens…if our shelter implements programs to keep all animals mentally and physically healthy, expand its volunteer program, increase cooperation with rescues, become transparent, and greatly move the live release rate from its current 50% to 90%, I think most animal advocates won't care how they do it. 
     PPP or no PPP, 90% survival is surely good enough for me.