Hurricane Maria Gets Personal

September 27th, 2017 | Posted by Karel Minor in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

I wrote in a recent post about how hurricanes and far away disasters can impact us locally.  Usually, it’s an economic impact as donors rightly extend their compassion and their donations to the people and animals in these hard hit areas.

Stephanie Desiderio helping animals and her community at a free vaccination and microchip clinic in Reading this year, made possible by the Giorgi Family Foundation.

But Hurricane Maria has now had a direct impact on Humane Pennsylvania and one of our own. Several of our staff members are natives of Puerto Rico.  One, Stephanie Desiderio, a certified veterinary technician at Humane Veterinary Hospitals Reading, took vacation time to travel to Naranjito, Puerto Rico before the storm to help her grandparents prepare for Hurricane Maria.  Unfortunately, once the storm took direct aim for the island, she couldn’t leave and is now one of millions of people stuck, with no electricity, no access to food, fuel, and (now, finally) only limited cell phone service.

Stephanie is a top notch vet tech, and as pleasant a person as you will meet. Just to give you a sense of what she is like, I’ll share one of the first things I remember about her:  Not long after she was hired I was walking through our hospital and heard a couple of people singing.  It was Stephanie and one of her coworkers, joyfully doing their jobs.  It was infectious, and that’s the kind of person Stephanie is–infectiously joyful.  That’s the only kind of infection you want in a veterinary hospital.

Thankfully, Stephanie and her grandparents are safe and sound, to the extent you can be in these conditions. Until the last day or two we couldn’t even reach her to make sure she was OK.  We know that this story is repeated for thousands of families in Reading and Lancaster, which both have large Puerto Rican communities.  It is nearly unimaginable that this many people–this many United States citizens–could be facing such a challenge and that we are helpless to assist someone in our own family.

We are doing what we can. We were finally able to speak to her in person today and I told her that we would keep her on payroll and insurance for as long as it takes to get her safely back.  I hope she will forgive me for sharing this, but when she heard this she began sobbing.  Like so many people, loss of a few days’ salary, let alone weeks’ salary, could result in personal catastrophe.  Humane Pennsylvania won’t let that happen to one of our own.

But I asked her to do something in exchange for this assistance. I asked her to help any animal she could, find any local group who was helping animals and help them, and to be ready to help any groups who we know of working in her area.  She, of course, said yes, because she has devoted her life and her work to helping animals.  We are proud to have such a representative of our organization available to help people and animals in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico in its time of need.

Naranjito, Puerto Rico, before.

We will share any news we get from her. She says the situation is terrible, that she has not seen a single dog or cat, and that she fears many or most drowned due to widespread flooding.  Survivors will need help, and we couldn’t ask for a better person to be there. (UPDATE 9/28/17:  Stephanie has a confirmed flight out October 8 and may have an earlier humanitarian flight for her with one of the several groups we are working with to provide assistance in Puerto Rico.)

This begs the question that has been asked again and again (and again and again).  Are we ready here in Pennsylvania, in Berks and Lancaster Counties, for “The Big One”?  Quite simply, the answer is no.  Despite our work since before Hurricane Katrina as the leader of the Berks County Animal Response Team, and our partnerships with the State Animal Response Team to support response in Lancaster County, despite our repeated sheltering deployments in our and surrounding counties, and despite being asked to support rescue efforts across the nation in the past ten years, the scale of our capability is small.

Naranjito, Puerto Rico, after.

We can count on helping tens, scores, maybe a hundred animals at a time in an emergency. But what about hundreds, or a thousand at a time, as we see happening in major catastrophes?  Can we–should we–count on big outside groups to get to us?  Or should we be prepared on our own?

I believe the answer is clearly the latter. We will want all the help we can get, but we should be able to deliver services on a large scale on our own in our own community.  Imagine the unimaginable.  Limerick Nuclear station has problem and tens of thousands of nearby residents are evacuated.  Or a local chemical plant has an accident, or massive fires break out, or a terrorist attacks, or massive flooding causes destruction due to a hurricane (remember Agnes in 1972)?

It can happen here and it will happen here, at some point. Humane Pennsylvania is currently working on expanding our emergency resources and I will be sharing those plans with you over the next year.  Until then, please remember that when disaster hits, we are here (and sometimes elsewhere, with folks like Stephanie). We can only be here with your help. Keep us strong, keep us prepared, and keep us ahead of the next catastrophe.  Please make a donation today.

Give to them. Then give to us.  Thank you.

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You might not think that a Gulf coast hurricane or New York City terrorist attack would have a direct negative impact on animal shelter operations here in Berks and Lancaster Counties. You’d be wrong.

After the 9-11 attacks, the animal shelter I worked for previously did not receive a check in the mail for 30 days. It was an unprecedented financial set back, and had it not been a fairly wealthy shelter with a few spare million in the bank, it could have been seriously damaging to our work.

Twelve years ago when Katrina ripped through the South, we saw a similar temporary drying-up of donations as people rightly turned their attention and compassion to people and animals in the storm zone. We understood this and we supported this giving by our supporters- with the reminder that they needed to keep supporting us because we are here doing our job every day.  In both these cases, and Hurricane Sandy and many others, we caught up as people remembered the local animals in need and made up for the lull in giving.

One thing we have never faced was a timing like we have right now, with first Hurricane Harvey and then Hurricane Irma. Past events occurred during periods of “general giving” or direct mail appeals.  These can be made up through later donations or the timing of mailings shifted.  Right now we are in the peak registration period for the Walk for the Animals.  More than half of our registrations come in during the three weeks prior to the Walk.

The “usual dip” in donations doesn’t get made up for when it comes to an event like this, because the event comes and goes. Just like in prior disasters, we are seeing the temporary impact.  Registrations dipped exactly as images of the hurricanes and displaced pets and people flooded the airwaves and internet.  Our registration numbers for the Walk are well below our usual numbers two weeks out (the Walk is Saturday, September 23).

It’s the Walk’s 40th Anniversary! The Walk for the Animals is one of the oldest animal charity walks anywhere and has grown from raising $12,000 13 years ago to raising around $100,000 a year now. It’s a critically important fundraiser for us!

Hurricane’s Harvey and Irma may have hit Texas and Florida, but they could potentially devastate us by bringing us up short on our Walk fundraising goals.  We don’t have millions in the bank to fall back on.  If we are a couple hundred registrations short for the Walk, as well as all the pledges those Walkers bring in, it’s a lot of very real money needed for very real animals, right here at home.

We are repeating what we’ve always said following disasters: give to local shelters in Florida and Texas, they need it.  Give to the national groups who are able to go in and set up big temporary shelters and transport animals who need it.  They need it, too.

And give to us or your local shelters where you live, because we always need it.  We are always here and we have work to do every day.  We will be the people who help take in displaced animals from these disaster areas.  And we are the folks who will handle disasters that happen here – if we remain strong with your support.

If you are already registered for the Walk, thank you! But please help us right now by getting a friend to register, by upgrading to a VIP Walker level, and by raising pledge support from friends, family, and coworkers.  Our FirstGiving fundraising page even makes it easy to ask for support from friends around the country.  As little as $10 each from five friends would make a huge (YUGE!) difference! These simple things would not just catch us up, it could put us ahead.

If you aren’t registered for the Walk, join us!  You can be a part of ensuring that we are here and ready to help animals today and tomorrow.  I hope to see you there!

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The Five Freedoms are a set of conceptual guidelines created in Britain in the 1960’s. They are periodically in vogue as guiding principles by many animal welfare organizations.  The American Humane Association refers to them as the “gold standard”.

The Five Freedoms are unique from most animal welfare standards laid out in the law because they are not specific directives, such as “a dog’s cage must be X feet long and Y feet wide.” Instead, they allow for an evaluation of the impact of the care, keeping, and housing on an animal’s state of physical and mental wellbeing.

The Five Freedoms are:

  1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst: By ready access to fresh water and diet to maintain health and vigor.
  2. Freedom from Discomfort: By providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
  3. Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease: By prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
  4. Freedom to Express Normal Behavior: By providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
  5. Freedom from Fear and Distress: By ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.

In an animal sheltering environment, the first three should be givens. We are supposed to feed the animals, we keep them warm and dry and give them a blanket, and we vaccinate them and keep them healthy.  Good animal shelters should be able to manage that or they shouldn’t be in the business.

What about the last two? What do they mean and can they even be truly addressed in a shelter environment?  In food production, “expressing normal behavior” for a cow might mean running around in a field with other cows, being free from “fear and distress”.  Right up until they run you through a cattle chute and pop a bolt in your brainpan.  But I’m here to talk about dogs and cats, I’ll leave that oxymoron to a vegetarian to argue.

In shelter settings addressing the last two freedoms has increasingly meant fancier and more palatial shelters. Bigger cages- sorry, kennel suites- and couches to lie on instead of blankets, maybe a water feature!  Dogs get to play in high-end play group yards.  Cats get indoor/outdoor “catios” (Get it?  It’s like a patio.  But for cats! So crazy.).  Space, “proper” facilities, company of their own kind.  Check, check, check.

The combination of the first four presumably leads to the final: freedom from fear and distress. This is the one that always leaves me suspect.  How much or how little mental suffering are we talking about?  None?  Do we, can we, ever make an animal in a shelter, no matter how spectacular the shelter, free from mental suffering?  I’m not sure we can.  We can make an animal suffer less.  We can feed it well, make it completely comfy, have veterinarians on call 24/7, and play with it till it drops from exhaustion.  But it’s still in an animal shelter and not in a home.  Since these are domestic companion animals, can they ever “express normal behavior” if they are any place but in a home?  Without a home can they ever be free of some level of mental suffering?  I don’t know.

There are many in the animal sheltering world who truly feel most animals are better off in a shelter than in many of the homes in our communities. It’s almost hard to argue considering some of these gorgeous shelters we see around the country.  What home has the amenities and care provided to the animals as some shelters?  Most pet caretakers can’t provide five walks a day, regular Reiki massage sessions, and high end nutritional programming.  If they can’t provide that, why not better off in a shelter?

And if these caretakers provide even less, they can’t afford recommended vaccinations every year, perhaps the food is lower quality, perhaps the exercise is being turned out into a yard and not a half mile walk with hugs, perhaps these animals really should be in a Five Freedoms shelter until they can be adopted into a new and superior home.  After all, if we presume that Freedoms One through Four lead to Freedom Five, freedom from mental suffering, shouldn’t default to the place that can best provide for the animal?

I don’t think so. I think we have turned the Five Freedoms on their head with our assumption we can ever truly provide what a domestic companion animal needs.  Because we can never actually be its home.  What if, instead of thinking we can achieve freedom from mental suffering in a shelter, we decide we can’t.  What if we apply our belief that the first four freedoms lead to the fifth, but only in a home?  What if we put all our efforts for most animals into helping the caretaker of every pet provide freedoms one through four in their own home?

But some people are crappy caretakers you may say. Maybe.  But we’ve all seen a dog that runs back to the owner that isn’t a good owner.  Even the one who abuses it.  Animals want to be in a home, even a crappy one.  What if we could make the home better?  Maybe not as great as an uber-rich, swanky animal shelter, but better.  Food in the dish, basic vet care, a comfy pillow to sleep on. Freedom One, Two and Three?  Check, check, check.

Then let’s assume that “providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind” means a being in a real home. Check.  And let’s assume that an animal’s mental state will always be better in that home, assuming it is fed, comfy, healthy, and it’s not being abused.  That the quality of life in always better at home than it is in a shelter, any shelter.  That means an animal entering a shelter is a failure on our part, not just the owner who gives up their pets, because we know we aren’t doing what’s best for that animal.

Maybe you’re willing to play along with this mental exercise but the fact that not every person can or does provide all those basic requirements is nagging at you. Me, too.  However, I firmly believe, and research backs it up, that the vast majority of people would provide properly for their pets if they could, if they had the resources, or the access, or the knowledge.

“But they don’t,” you might say. “What if they did, what if we gave it to them?” I would ask.  “But we can’t,” you might say.  “Why not?” I would ask.  Why couldn’t we give every pet caretaker food if they ask for it, basic vaccinations, even sterilization, if they ask for it?  Or any of a myriad of other supportive services.  It would be hard and expensive.  But there is a dollar amount that could be applied to these efforts.  There is a man hour estimate that could be applied.  It’s possible to estimate how many animals need medical care who don’t get it, how many animals are food insecure.

We could figure out exactly what it would cost, what it would take, and do it for every animal. I mean: Every. Single. Animal.  We could flip how we pursue the animal welfare model and break from the 150 year old shelter based model and build a home based model.  Welfare for animals.  Sure, why not?  We don’t penalize kids (OK, we aren’t supposed to) because they were born into a poor family.  They still get CHIP and public school and free lunch.  That’s because we would never pretend that the average poor kid is better off in an orphanage or foster home.  But we often say that about animals.

We will always need shelters and they should always be palaces that strive to attain the Five Freedoms for all pets. They should also be the last option after we’ve done everything possible to ensure that an animal has everything it needs in its own home, that a caretaker knows how to obtain the basics to keep an animal in its home.

Humane Pennsylvania is looking at what it would take to do just that in Berks and Lancaster Counties. We are tired to stealing victory from the jaws of a defeated animal welfare model that doesn’t help animals until they’ve already been utterly failed.  This might have been a fantasy exercise ten or twenty years ago and it might still be one in many parts of the country today.  I don’t think it’s crazy in our community.

We are put a price tag on helping every animal in every home.  If we choose not to do it as a community, maybe it’s time to stop pretending we really give a damn about animals at all.

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No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

September 6th, 2017 | Posted by Karel Minor in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

Have you ever spent an hour on 2,000 words of dripping sarcasm just to decide it was 1,910 words too many?  I did and decided I could leave it at this:  Libre’s Law was a very good, if not perfect bill.  It did not change the status of pigeon shoots in Pennsylvania.  Humane Pennsylvania and I are happy to have played a small role in gathering the support needed to obtain near unanimous passage.  And Plymouth Rock is missing a Puritan.  It must be tiring.

Look at that, only 90 words.

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