Like many, I was very touched by the Subaru television commercial “The Underdogs”—a feat of marketing wizardry. These days, there are rescues for blind animals, disabled animals, neonate animals, senior animals, and even dying animals. When Home for Life® (HFL®) began many years ago, these were mostly the animals that needed our help. They were the last choice of potential adopters, even if they were put up for adoption at all. HFL® remains committed to this population.
But now, something different is going on in animal welfare. Rescues are highlighting animals with disabilities and the message being conveyed is that “if animals with obvious problems are being showcased, then surely the masses of healthy animals are easily finding homes without needing to be promoted.”
The picture looks much different from inside animal welfare. Each week, pleas go out asking organizations to step up for dozens of dogs and cats
who will otherwise be euthanized. These desperate souls have no obvious problems aside from the fact that nobody wants them.
Such was the case with Caden, a three-year-old hound who came to HFL® from the Anti-Cruelty Society in Chicago.
The All-American Dog That No One Wanted
Caden was a Southern boy, born in Alabama, who was sent north to Chicago to try his luck finding a home. As a young dog who should have been in his prime, Caden arrived in Chicago from the Alabama shelter, positive for heartworm and having what appeared to be a dislocated left hip. He was admitted to the Anti-Cruelty Society facility in February 2018. There the Society’s veterinary staff treated his heartworm and obtained x-rays of his left leg and hip. Caden became a staff favorite with his gentle face and humble demeanor.
For months, Anti-Cruelty personnel tried to find an adopter for Caden or a rescue to take him on. But no one was interested.
Was he not distinctive enough? Too big? Too old? Too young? A mixed-breed hound? Was it the medical history? Or did his photos, when shared and networked, fail to convey what a good dog he was?
Months went by, and NOT ONE individual or rescue group from around the entire country expressed ANY interest in him! It was crickets wherever the staff at Anti Cruelty turned to find him a place, whatever avenue they tried.
Finally, the week came when those who must make the tough calls at the shelter told the rescue coordinators and staff that they would have to let go of Caden and give up the hope that he could find rescue. He was to be euthanized and his date was scheduled, before the July 4th holiday when the shelter staff knew they would see many new animals admitted and surrendered. Caden had been in the shelter kennels for months with no interest and other dogs needed to come in and have their chance too. It made logical sense but was a heartbreak for all those involved, to see Caden fall through the cracks despite their best efforts.
The day before Caden was scheduled to be euthanized, a friend and colleague at Anti Cruelty reached out to Home for Life,® one last time, to plead for Caden’s life. We had previously turned her down, believing that a three-year-old dog could be adopted, right? But he had not been and was not going to be alive next week if help wasn’t offered soon. Home for Life® hastily put together a transport for Caden and welcomed him just a few days later—the week of Independence Day.
What Does It Mean To Be “Rescued”?
“Rescued” in animal welfare is not the same thing as being saved. Look at Caden: he had been “rescued” twice: first by the Alabama shelter, then by the shelter in Chicago. Those are the rescues we know about. In addition, he’d had at least two adoptive homes—all by the age of three. Much of the
anguish animals experience occurs not from abuse, as depicted in still more dramatic commercials, but from cycling in and out of the system and homes, forsaken and unwanted.
Increasingly, it is dogs and cats, like Caden, who are most in need of sanctuary—those who have nothing “wrong” with them but are nevertheless deprived of options through rescue. When we started our sanctuary, those who needed our help were the animals with obvious disabilities or medical conditions. More organizations are extending themselves to “rescue” these animals with great drama and fanfare, while allowing those like Caden to twist in the wind.
Maybe it’s social media and the need to have a visual impact with a very extreme case to be heard above the noise. Maybe with so many rescue organizations, competition is driving this circumstance. The more extreme and dramatic the “rescue,” the more heart-wrenching, the greater the leverage for donations.
Rescues compete to scoop up a particularly sympathetic case, knowing what that will mean for donor goodwill and ensuing financial support. The public assumes if a rescue can help the very extreme cases, then the average cat or dog is surely finding placement. But it is turning out that these “normal” ones ARE the animals who need help, but aren’t finding it with “rescue.” And they are the ones, the invisible animals, who are being left with nowhere to turn, often euthanized because they have been overlooked.
It’s difficult to understand why some animals are so easily dismissed or ignored. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why some well-behaved, sweet-natured dogs or cats get bounced around various rescue organizations for months or years before finally being put down. What is going on here? The reality is an animal is NOT adoptable if no one wants him. In other words, people’s interests, tastes, and the current trends decide the fates of dogs and cats much more than the animals’ own worthiness.
What is One Life Worth?
We live in a market-driven world, catering to the interests, tastes, and desires of people. Our problems and solutions are defined in terms of the marketplace. It can be hard to recognize when this framework is creating more problems.
Success in this world is measured by moving your product. Marketing is a useful tool but not the appropriate basis for saving lives. Each animal, like each person, is a unique being whose value can never be measured in market terms. Treating animals as consumer goods has consequences. The adoption-as-success metric hides a sad story: only 1 in 10 dogs born will find a home for their entire lifetime.* One very likely reason for this shocking statistic is that animals rely on people, and people’s tastes and interests change rapidly, depending on what is marketed or promoted. Our attention is curated, and our focus is drawn by whatever is served up. But the problem of unadoptable animals can’t be solved with the same market mindset that created it. It is the wrong system to solve the problem of animals at risk, and the entire strategy that is widely pursued to save animals from euthanasia is creating its own problems. Why? Because such a system where rescues function as the new pet stores is made to close deals, move products, make profits. It is not a system made to honor the intrinsic worth of living beings. We cannot allow the very structure of animal welfare to operate based on a flimsy and false foundation where living beings are commodified and treated like consumer goods, and where success is measured by how many units are processed.
*Do Something, last updated September 2023.
To see Caden and learn about his story shines a light on a widespread phenomenon in animal welfare that leaves scores of cats and dogs just like him adrift with their lives at risk. It’s real, rather than data. As a care-for-life sanctuary, standing at the end of the funnel when animals can’t find a new home but shouldn’t be put down, we hear about cases like his that may escape the notice of the average animal lover. Home for Life’s® focus on overlooked individuals and the intrinsic worth of all living beings has enabled us to spot gaps in the animal welfare system where cats or dogs are underserved and vulnerable, to identify where change needs to happen, and where there is opportunity for widespread improvement.
Home for Life® has always taken a different approach to addressing problems in animal welfare. We believe that it is impossible to benefit animals as a whole without caring about each individual animal. While we are mindful of the broad factors affecting animal populations, our focus and service have always been directed toward individual animals. And by serving individual animals, we have been able to exert widespread influence on the direction of animal welfare practice.
As a care-for-life sanctuary, we can do things other groups cannot as exemplified by Caden’s case.
Thinking about all the animals who lose their lives each year is overwhelming. The estimate is that close to a million cats and dogs are killed annually because no one wants them. Even people who care are challenged to understand how they can make a difference with a problem of this scale.
When we look at animal homelessness and the vast numbers being killed each year through a wide scope, it’s difficult to see the individuals. They become numbers and abstractions. If we operate only from this frame, we begin to lose the sense of our original mission and that’s when dogs and cats like Caden fail to find the help they so desperately need. Because they are only one animal, it is easy to turn away and ignore them or justify their death as if they are collateral damage. But the truth is, we’re only able to understand the depth of a problem through an individual who is experiencing the problem firsthand and through their story.
The millions of suffering, lonely and unwanted animals are made up of individuals like Caden. Whenever we disregard or devalue one of them, we place all animals in jeopardy, since any dog or cat can lose their home, become old, injured or ill and unwanted. What keeps animals safe and cherished is our attitude towards them, and our capacity to care, recognizing them as spirits in their own right deserving of life and respect—rather than constantly evaluating dogs and cats only in relation to ourselves and what they can do for us and discarding them when they become inconvenient or a nuisance or can’t achieve a price point, a consumer good instead of a living being. For animals who are vulnerable, everywhere, we can’t turn away from tough cases like Caden or consider their fate of negligible consequence. Saving an animal is more than a metaphor or marketing slogan. It is meaningful because preserving the chance for one animal takes a stand for all animals in similar situations and makes visible and practical what is possible.
Just a few days before we went to print, Caden died of inoperable liver cancer. This summer, when his spleen was removed, the surgeon and pathologist were worried about some suspicious areas on his liver, but he seemed to bounce back so well that we were shocked one morning when he wouldn’t eat and was very jaundiced with a soaring temperature. His blood values were off the charts, indicating terminal liver failure and ultrasounds revealed the liver was very misshapen. We had no choice but to let Caden pass peacefully, so he wouldn’t suffer. He was only 8 years old. We considered writing about a different HFL animal, but decided that Caden’s life and death were meaningful, his story emblematic of many animals like him with so much love to give who are forsaken by rescue. Rest in peace Caden and run free now, knowing we have told your story and that we will never forget you.