Sunday, September 19, 2010

Death Row to the Jail House

A young scared three-month-old dog sits petrified on the euthanasia table not knowing his life is about to come to an end. What this young dobie/lab mix needs is obedience training and socialization. What he needs is the time to learn, but in this shelter his time is about up.

Over 3000 dogs a year are killed at Gwinnett’s Animal Shelter – their once healthy bodies turned to ashes. Over the years our animal welfare policy’s that are supposed to advocate and protect our community’s homeless pets has evolved into a policy of justifying the best we can do is “save a few” while giving the rest a gift of a humane death.

Ernest T Bass
Ernie, with those sweet eyes, is about to be killed because our animal control policies have determined he is “un adoptable” (in the short five day period the law requires he be held). What Ernie needs is just a little more time to become all the dog he’s supposed to be. More time to find that perfect home – that perfect master – a family of his own.- a life with purpose - his life complete. Instead, in a few quick seconds that is about to be over.

This past spring the Society of Humane Friends partnered with the Gwinnett County Detention Center in “Operation Second Chance” to save “death row” dogs from Gwinnett’s Animal Shelter.

In this collaboration, the Gwinnett County Detention Center would function as a “foster home”, the inmates would care for and train the dogs and the Society of Humane Friends would then find them homes.

I had an opportunity to observe first hand an innovative new program that seeks to provide these dogs with a real second chance. My observations paint an entirely different picture indeed.

On this warm summer afternoon a miracle is about to happen. Space has opened up in this innovative new program for young Ernie, with his luck and time running out he is snatched from death’s door and whisked away to a waiting jail cell for his second chance.

Ernie’s New Leash on Life

Behind the walls of the county’s detention center inmates would discover a new sense of purpose working with dogs rescued from the local kill shelter. Instead of being killed, Ernie would become one of dozens of dogs who have benefited since the “Operation Second Chance” program’s inception earlier this year.

The Operation Second Chance program is collaboration between the Society of Humane Friends working with the county detention center to provide training and socialization for at risk shelter dogs utilizing inmates as trainers.

Dogs chosen for this program all share something in common – they have been labeled as “un adoptable” and sentenced to die for a crime of being unwanted.

Sentenced to Salvation – Operation Second Chance
Behind the walls inmates, inmates find a renewed sense of purpose saving dogs who would be otherwise would be dead.

I witnessed Ernie when he first entered the cellblock 1-C. His lack of socialization was obvious but not surprising for a young dog fresh out of the shelter. Watching Ernie gain more and more trust with each day of training only reaffirmed how wrong it is to kill these dogs simply because they haven’t been trained properly.

This lack of training and/or social skills would not have been a death sentence in a shelter that had a No Kill philosophy where training would be provided to increase Ernie chances of being adopted.

They were animals facing a death sentence even though they’ve committed no crime, but they will be punished unless someone steps forward ands gives them that second chance. Those someone’s are young men living in confinement for reasons of their own – be it anger issues, drug abuse or other crimes who in time, are looking for that second chance of their own.

Once matched with a dog, the inmates are fully responsible for the dog’s care, feeding, grooming, housetraining, and most importantly obedience training. After a few short weeks or months of this round-the-clock care, dogs like Ernie are ready for adoption.

Both dog and inmate face isolation and rejection, but when their backs are to the wall they offer each other hope and salvation for each other.

It would take only a few days before this sweet boy would endear himself to everyone he met. Life was exciting with all his new friends.

It would only take a few short weeks before Ernie would be rewarded with a family of his own.  Thanks to Operation Second Chance this sweet boy has a whole life of second chances in front of him.

Many a year has past and gone – many a gamble has been lost and won

In a small way the “Operation Second Chance” program operates on the same program techniques as a “No Kill” facility. It utilizes a fostering and training program directed off site through a licensed rescue group to completely change the results of a dog that would be killed to a dog who finds a new home.

Who are these “convicted dogs” being rescued from death row and housed and rehabilitated in our detention center? They are the un adoptable – the damaged – the neglected – the abused – that society has historically chosen to provide “humane euthanasia” in an effort to save them from ourselves.

Meet some of the amazing Jail Dogs rescued from death row and the inmates who are their companions until they are adopted - presented by Karmalized Pictures

“Easy as it is to tell black from white – it’s also easy to tell wrong from right”

Their stories are heart wrenching – healthy dogs that enter our shelter with the hopes of finding a new home – a new family – a new beginning - are instead shamelessly slaughtered. The picture of survival for any pet entering our shelter is bleak with an animal welfare program that quickly and inaccurately labels these dogs as un adoptable thus sealing their doom.

Instead in a simple concept, prison inmates receive training to, in turn, train dogs from our local high kill animal shelter. The prisoners learn a joy, a compassion and a responsibility that can come only from raising and training a dog, as well as skills that can help them find a new passion and perhaps a job.

Repeated over and over – this program becomes a win-win-win program for the community. The county taxpayers win by killing one less healthy adoptable dog, the inmate wins by gaining new insight and confidence in their own ability to make a difference and the family wins by being rewarded with a wonderful lifetime family pet.

The dog, already scheduled to die, is the BIG winner as he settles in and becomes adoptable. Some lucky local family gets to adopt a well-trained dog that, just a few weeks before, would have been put to death merely for being unwanted. The shelter reduces the numbers of dogs killed every year (which totals in the thousands).

Meet Bonnie, a sweet, loving boxer mix. Bonnie has a long permanent scar that runs down the length of her back probably the result of an acid burn. Despite whatever abusive happened to this sweet girl in the past she holds no grudges towards humans. She certainly wasn’t bashful in sharing a whole bunch of kisses when extended a friendly hand.

The sad reality is the person who abused Bonnie was never caught and never punished, yet Bonnie faced an uncertain future on the streets and a predictable death at our county shelter. Fortunately, Sheriff Conway saw Bonnie walking down the road and brought her to cell Block 1-C where she too was given a “Second Chance”.

After completing her training Bonnie was adopted by her handler. Not only is Bonnie in a better place but her trainer has gained new insight on himself as well. Bonnie is now able to love and be loved – that’s all a dog really needs.

It’s tempting to think about whether the lives of these young men and women would be forever changed if the opportunity to volunteer for animal welfare programs had been promoted prior to their run ins with the law. Are we doing enough with helping our next generation find their rightful place in society rather then punishing them when they fall?

Many of these “un adoptables” include the misunderstood pit bull that has been maliciously exploited by the media, politicians and even the national animal rights groups as well. All have set standards, passed laws and made adoption requirements that are all but impossible to meet.

Many are the much-maligned “pit bulls” who Shelter Director Lt. Respess describes as the “most common breed at the shelter”. Sadly, they are also the first to be killed as well.

Over the years our animal welfare policies that are supposed to advocate and protect our homeless pets has evolved into a policy of justifying the best we can do is provide them with a humane death.

While not all dogs chosen for the program are pits, they do share a common trait of being targeted for failure with a faulty temperament-testing program implemented at the shelter.

Those who fail this test are labeled as un adoptable expediting their fate with a certain death. Gwinnett Shelter uses an overly broad, meaningless definition of “un adoptable” or places unrealistic demands on potential adopters who would take a pet that the shelter otherwise would kill.

They ignore the fact that people want to help saving the life of a pet who someone else failed to love and protect.
Meet Jake
Jake is a border collie, red in color with white spots and white feet. Although blind in one eye this does noty stop him. Jake is full of energy, and is a very loyal dog who understands all his commands. Many of night Jake would his head on my lap and fall a sleep with one eye open.

Shelters with leadership or staff that is lazy tend to bend the unadoptable curve in the direction of how many dogs they simply want to kill. Eventually, the measurement becomes meaningless. Eventually good obedient dogs like Jake fall victims to this curve as well.

This systematic destruction is done under the guise of “public safety” but are these “killers” really the danger they are made out to be? Are these dogs “too dangerous” or not capable of being “socialized”?

Sadly the life saving programs not implemented by shelter management leave killing as the only viable but repugnant option for these dogs. Programs that would encourage moving trainable dogs into volunteer foster homes (off site fostering) or bringing in volunteers and experts for training to help socialize shelter dogs (improving adoptability) are noticeably lacking in the shelter’s “life saving” arsenal.

There is enough compassion, caring, kindness and love in our community to overcome the obstacles these special needs dogs face. Operation Second Chance” proves that kindness exists and that it does make the difference in placing these dogs back into the community rather then simply killing them.

We need to shift our community focus from excuses that kill to life saving solutions that nurture’s our compassion instead. With an emphasis on problem solving rather casting blame a goal of saving 100% of healthy dogs and cats can be a reality almost overnight.

Assisting and rehoming dogs and cats should be the only missions of shelters – especially those who function with the publics trust and tax dollars.

On sunnier days I envision a community that incorporates animal welfare programs that saves animal lives with volunteer programs directed at misguided young men and/or troubled young woman that help them visualize their future before they end up part of our penal system.

A system where our next generation saves the lives of animals facing death who in return save the lives of our next generation facing no future. They give each other hope – they become each other’s salvation as well.

Shelters need to be seen – not heard….

Animal advocacy and humane work have proceeded for years between the recognition of the need to be effective, enthusiastic outreach programs, and a tendency towards depressed and embittered self-isolation. We have been programmed not to speak ouit against the atrocities of killing in the hopes that a “few more” can be saved.

Unfortunately, throughout most of this time marked by the sounds of silence from the advocacy community has been drowned out by shelter management perceived or at least to accept – that sheltering responsibility includes an obligation to kill large numbers of animals, many healthy and young, others grievously neglected or abused. Transferring grief and guilt by blaming the public has become a time honored excuse to institutionalize the killing mechanism.

The “Second Chance” program proves that even the worst of the worst, like Ernie, like Bonnie, like Jake, are all adoptable if they are simply placed in a setting where their true qualities are accented.

While a fostering, training, adoption program like the Jail Dogs program will successfully place dozens of otherwise slaughtered pets into new homes an effective volunteer fostering program in our county could save hundreds perhaps thousands of pets that are currently STILL being slaughtered.

I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.
Thomas Jefferson

We the Pet Owners of Gwinnett recognizes the significance of off site fostering, an inclusive volunteer program that rewards and encourages community participation while raising awareness of the thousands of wonderful pets needing rescue (from our own shelter system) and a renewed working partnership with the licensed rescue groups in our community. These are the basic steps needed to turn our county into a NO KILL community for our pets.

If untrained inmates can make such a dramatic difference for these jail dogs and give us new hope that with innovative programs aimed at our compassionate community of animals lovers can create life saving miracles too.

Our voices demanding change for ALL the dogs and cats still being slaughtered are needed. We must insist that we have an obligation to explore ALL the life saving options that are available before even considering killing as a last resort.

With the increase in shelter killing in our new shelter mistrust by the public remains endemic among citizens and pet lovers in our community. We don’t want to volunteer for a shelter that kills without rhyme or reason, we don’t want to donate money to a shelter that offers these dogs and cats little hope for survival, we don’t want to visit or adopt knowing that all we leave behind most likely will die.

Spirits are much higher when the public is given hope that these dogs will be rehomed – that there will be a “success story’ at the end. Americans love heroes and they love pets – the Jail House Dog program gives us both.

Stay turned, as We the Pet Owners of Gwinnett moves forward in arming an army of compassionate volunteers with the life saving tools we will use in the future as we build a No Kill Gwinnett for future generations to cherish.

To learn more about other successful jail dogs programs:

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