It’s a convenient get out isn’t it? You cannot keep a companion animal for some reason and as painful as it might be to relinquish them, you know there is that place where you can hand them over. Perhaps hoping they may find a new ‘forever’ home or knowing that they may be killed due to breed/behaviour/age, but it’s not on your watch, so you can live with that. Instead you try to think about them living happily ever after on that imaginary farm.
You justify it with the invalid reasons; a new baby, moving to a new house, you don’t have time, suddenly developed an allergy, relationship broke up etc. And the staff are so professional, he or she is in the best hands now and will have a better life right?
Millions, if not billions of unwanted animals are handed into shelters every year. They may stay there for a week or languish on the tiled or concrete floors for years, hoping that one day someone might adopt them. This fantasy solution is the result of our fascination with keeping animals. If the pet industry did not exist then neither would shelters. People who relinquish dogs because the puppy grew too big or she doesn’t fit with apartment living are treating dogs as commodified objects, that can play a transient role in their lives until it is no longer convenient. The price society pays isn’t just financial, although the burden to maintain shelters is huge. Each and every one of these animals, is a thinking, feeling and emotional being that has to grieve for his former life, adjust to a shelter regime and then maybe start all over again in a new home. They are the lucky ones. An estimated three million animals are killed every year because for one reason or another they cannot be rehomed. That’s over 300 an hour and society as a whole has to take responsibility.
The shelter system is a constantly evolving jigsaw of different types of organisations. Some are government funded, many NGO’s who are reliant on funding through a charity, individuals running sanctuaries or fostering, all doing their bit to help. Breed specific rescues, blind or deaf dog rescues, hunting dog rescues, the list goes on. It has become an industry in its own right, with each organisation fighting for enough financial aid to be able to continue saving animal lives. Some shelters are relatively plush, well equipped and well-staffed, but many others are not, and animals live in awful conditions to the point where you would think they would be better released to take their chances. I hear with disappointing regularity, cases where rescue proprietors have been charged with animal cruelty and fraud. Making money from animal suffering under the guise of saving them.
There are some very good shelters too, with high welfare standards and low kill rates (don’t believe the myth of no-kill shelters) where animals are given the best opportunities to thrive. You can see the animals and feel sad but not horrified as you might in the low-grade versions. These shelters may focus on happy, smiley dogs and stories of hope rather than portraying the suffering and despair, telling a rather deluded story for the public’s benefit. Pierce (2016) asks the question whether shelters enable the dysfunction of pet-keeping? And in some ways yes, there is always the fall-back option of the shelter. Shelters often say they want to be empty yet that would mean self-sacrifice as they would then close.
'There is a moment, when the paperwork has been completed, and the animal is being handed over to shelter staff . . . if you watch carefully, you can sometimes see the exact moment when the animal comprehends what is happening, when he finally realises that his guardian is leaving and he is staying; the exact moment when the confusion in his eyes is replaced by understanding, and then turns to panic, desperation. Sadness, that will turn to grief as the days unwind, while he waits for another chance that may or may not come.’ (Pierce, 2016, p.170)