Heroes Saving the Lives of Homeless Pets

Learn about people and organizations working to save the lives of homeless pets.

By Book of Odds from Divine Caroline

According to the Humane Society of the United States, approximately 77.5 million dogs and 93.6 million cats have owners. How many don’t belong to anyone—either because they have been relinquished, abandoned, or separated from their owners by dint of getting lost or stolen—these exact numbers are unknown because shelters are not required to report them. The best estimate is that between six and eight million animals end up in shelters each year, and between three and four million of those are euthanized. The odds an animal that enters a shelter will be adopted are 1 in 4.

As grim as these statistics are, they represent a dramatic improvement over the last forty years. In the 1970s, when the US dog and cat population was about half what it is today, between 12 and 20 million animals were put down each year. A number of factors have contributed to slashing these figures, including the increased spaying and neutering of pets to reduce unwanted animals (75 percent of owned dogs and 87 percent of owned cats are spayed or neutered), the dedicated effort of small armies of volunteers, and some savvy and very effective measures taken to highlight the fact that wonderful animal companions can be found as close as the nearest pound.

A bright idea coupled with a New Year’s resolution to help homeless animals led Betsy and Jared Saul to start Petfinder in 1995, an online service that posts snapshots and adoption information about animals. To date, Petfinder has helped find homes for almost 14 million animals. Currently over 13,000 shelters showcase their adoptable animals on Petfinder.

Betsy Saul originally conceived of the site as a Web version of the Yellow Pages. However, within a year she learned firsthand that the key element in getting a pet out of a shelter and into a home is the photograph. Many adopters had been telling her they’d fallen in love at first sight—an experience Saul soon had for herself, when she came across a big soulful mutt scheduled to be euthanized that same day. Just by looking at his picture, Saul was certain Kobe belonged to her.

Nanette Martin, a professional photographer, also got a real world lesson in what a difference a compelling picture can make in the survival of a homeless animal. A freelance photographer for People magazine for ten years, Martin was sent to New Orleans to document the devastation wrought by in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and ended up returning to help the more than 250,000 animals who were ripped from their homes and their owners in the wake of the storm.

“I was working with Muttshack, who had set up a shelter in a school with about sixty-plus dogs and thirty or more cats.” When the organization was told it had to vacate the school on short notice, Martin offered to drive a truckload of animals to Atlanta—but before she left, she photographed each one so their profiles could be posted on the Internet.

“Before I had even reached Atlanta, almost all those animals had been adopted,” she reveals. “I was told that my photographs had made the difference between life and death for these animals.”

The experience changed Martin’s life. She established Shelter Me Pet Photography (see Gallery), and now devotes herself to photographing animals in shelters—capturing their character and personality so people around the country can have the same experience as Betsy Saul and countless others—seeing a picture of an animal who needs a home and have it touch the heart. Martin will not take any money from a shelter; all expenses are paid for through grants and donations. “If you give five dollars to a shelter, it can’t make much difference. If you give me five dollars—that’s what it costs for me to go to a shelter, take a photo, and get it ready to be posted. Those five dollars could directly translate into an adoption.”

It is exhausting work. Martin often works seven days a week, twelve to sisxteen hours a day. She came back from photographing the animals in Elmsford Shelter, in New York, with 6,000 images that had to be developed, culled, and perfected. But the results keep her going.

“One shelter in Aurora, Colorado has had 100 percent of the animals I photographed adopted each of the three times I have been there,” she reports. And there was a particularly poignant outcome of her time at Elsmford Animal Shelter. Puppo, a dog who had been relinquished by his owners, had stayed in the shelter for four years, unable to attract an adoptive family—until a portrait by Martin that brought out his best changed all that. “Hearing that was like a jolt of caffeine to keep me going,” Martin reports. “And I don’t drink coffee!”

In addition to the push to get people to consider adopting animals from shelters, there has been a campaign to make pet owners aware of the need to outfit their animals with some form of identification, to increase the odds they will be returned in the event they are lost or stolen. The odds a dog that enters a shelter will be returned to an owner are only 1 in 6.33 and for a cat, the odds are an astronomical 1 in 50. According to a recent Ohio State University study, the return rate for dogs that have been embedded with a microchip is 2.5 times higher, and for cats it is 20 times higher. At present, only 1.8 percent of strays that end up in shelters have microchips. One lucky one is George, a cat who, in 2009, was found emaciated and roaming around a mobile home park. Thanks to a tiny microchip, George was returned to his astonished owner—after an absence of 13.5 years.

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