Okay, the first thing I need you to do before you read this post is park your anger somewhere. You’ll need to set it aside and listen with an open mind and heart. And remember that anger won’t solve this problem. Hate won’t help you either.
When we finally exited off the beautiful Natchez Trace Parkway and followed the interstate towards Jackson, I was already bracing myself. As we drove past the municipal facilities and a steel factory and finally pulled into the driveway of MARL (Mississippi Animal Rescue League), I had convinced myself I needed to go in with an open mind, leave my judgment at the door and listen well so I could hear the situation from the shelter’s point of view, or more specifically, the shelter director Debra.
The building looked relatively new but tired, with faded paint and plenty of worn places. The high ceilings in the lobby, bright paintings, and window-walled puppy and cat rooms had a welcoming feel. This is a busy place; the phone rang constantly as we waited to meet with Debra. MARL handles ten thousand animals a year. A sign in the lobby displayed their numbers for 2019.
I tried to keep myself from doing the math. Ten thousand animals arrived at the shelter, 1379 were adopted and 227 were reunited with their owners. I learned later that very few were ‘transferred’ (sent to a rescue or other shelter). Even with generous rounding that still meant that 80% did not leave through the front door.
Early on in our conversation, Debra stated quite frankly, that she tells everyone surrendering their animal at MARL that she “can’t promise a happy ending.”
That’s because MARL is an open admission shelter. They take everything—animals that arrive via animal control, strays turned in by good Samaritans, and owner surrenders. They never say no and they charge no fee. I can count on one hand the shelters that can make that claim (and I’ve visited over forty shelters now).
As Debra explained, part of MARL’s mission, hers even, is to “always be a place for any animal to come so it won’t be on the streets and has a chance for adoption.”
What happens to that animal after it arrives at MARL has a lot to do with what kind of animal it is, timing and luck. The intake manager happened down the hallway and Debra introduced us.
He seemed like a nice guy. I asked how many animals come into MARL each day for him to process and he said between 80 and 100. I had to ask him to repeat that because I was sure I didn’t hear him correctly. He has to assess each animal in terms of health, history, behavior, and adoptability. Processing that many animals in a day seemed like a challenging feat and I remarked about that. He nodded and smiled and continued down the hallway.
There are 24 adoption runs for big dogs and likely the same amount of spaces for puppies and small dogs in the room we passed in the lobby.
There are 30 big dog receiving runs (where dogs are held for a stray hold or bite hold or court case or to wait for an adoption run to be available) and similar spaces for small dogs and puppies in their receiving room.
Again I was doing math and swallowing the results.
Debra told us that they practice ‘hard medicine’ at MARL which means that they don’t treat for parvo, don’t bottle-feed babies, don’t do expensive surgeries or spend time on issues that require a lengthy healing time. They can’t. It’s not an I-don’t-care-thing, it’s numbers, plain and simple. Tying up resources or kennels means even more dogs will die.
Some dogs are automatically destroyed—pit bulls, nursing mothers and their babies (unless they are a small dog and then someone on staff might take them home to foster), and anything they would deem unadoptable. Sometimes if the puppies are old enough, they might keep the puppies but kill the mama dog.
It sounds heartless and cruel, but if you set aside your heart for a moment (I found myself having to do that often in our two hours at MARL) and use only your head—it’s numbers again. How long would a mama dog with heavy teats take up a coveted adoption run before someone might choose her and how many other dogs could have found an adopter in that time?
MARL gets 15,000 visitors a year, granted many of those are people surrendering pets, some of them are also there to adopt. MARL even allows out-of-state adoptions if it will get an animal a home.
They offer low cost (and no cost) spay and neuter and have spayed and neutered over 26,000 animals in the Jackson area. They have partnered with the Big Fix for thirteen years operating out of their mobile clinic in the parking lot and then rented space, but recently the Big Fix moved into their own digs that include an apartment for the visiting vets who perform the surgeries, a thrift store jointly run with MARL to raise funds that will have a small adoption center for events, in addition to the operating rooms.
There is much that MARL does that no one else in the area is doing. In fact, people come from Alabama, northern Mississippi and all over the five-county area to surrender pets because it’s the only place for 100-mile radius that will take any unwanted animal for any reason. MARL also offers owner requested euthanasia which is performed in a small room where the family can stay with their pet the entire time.
Debra acknowledged that plenty of people hate them and she receives all manner of bashing on social media, but she doesn’t believe in hiding what they do. I have to respect that. As she said, “Hiding it won’t help fix the problem.”
She is frustrated with people who don’t value their animals and other local shelters and rescues who operate with limited intake, leaving MARL to take what they won’t. She is certain that considering how many sterilization surgeries they have done their intake number should be closer to 7,000 by now if it weren’t for the trend of shelters switching to limited intake.
I suggested that perhaps northern rescues could help. She shared with us one terrible experience she had with a rescue that agreed to take seven dogs and then returned them shortly after because of a transport problem. MARL had already moved seven other dogs into their adoption runs and had to decide which dogs to kill—the ones who had been sent to the rescue or seven of the dogs who had gotten an opportunity to move to adoption?
I encouraged her to consider other rescues and tried to assure her that there are some that might be a better fit. A foster program could also help but she said they have tried that with little success.
Debra has been the director at MARL for 42 years. She has seen a lot. She oversees a staff of 15 full and part-time employees. When she started at MARL, the annual budget was $35,000; now it is 1.1 million. The building they are in is almost 13 years old and this year MARL will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary. There is a lot of history here.
Many of the local animal advocates, rescues and shelters do not like MARL. Debra doesn’t let that get to her and she is not opposed to working with them. In fact, with the recent floods last month, MARL partnered with another rescue, CARA (Community Animal Rescue and Adoption) to share resources and space to house displaced pets. CARA had room for more big dogs and MARL took in the small dogs, cats, and assorted smaller critters, and then both housed and then returned all the displaced pets.
As the flooding began, there was a report of a pit bull tied to fire hydrant in the flood plain, so Debra and her team went out and found the frightened dog, freed it, and took it to CARA.
Debra tells us about another recent adoption of a dog surrendered by someone being deployed by the military. She struggled with tears as she told us the dog’s time was nearly up when finally another military family stepped in and adopted the dog.
Debra started in this business when she attended a public meeting after the shelter was destroyed by a fire back in 1978. She began volunteering and then was asked to serve on the board and from there stepped in as the acting director even though she wasn’t sure she could do it and had to bring her kids with her to work. She is devoted to MARL and has sacrificed a lot, including her own paycheck during a few lean years.
It’s easy to judge this woman for doing a job very few ever could, but she is carrying out what MARL’s board has deemed to be the mission and the practices of this shelter.
As we wrapped up our time with Debra, I suggested that there might be some rescues that could help and hoped she would give rescue another chance. As we drove away, I was already envisioning a foster program that could hold the dogs headed to rescues until their transport could take them. MARL would need a rescue coordinator because it is more than clear that Debra doesn’t have enough hands or time to add another program.
The numbers though, they were eating at me as we headed north up the hallway. 80% is too many. That’s the bottom line. Even if you are open-admission. Open-admission isn’t an excuse for that much killing. There are other solutions.
Mississippi is a very different world in terms of not just iced tea, but also dog sheltering. People need to value their dogs and not permit them to be sold at flea markets. They need to give heartworm preventatives so that entire shelter populations aren’t heartworm positive. Obviously, they need to spay and neuter their pets.
And here, I know I’m drifting into Yankee-who-came-down-here-to-judge territory, but I have met enough good and resourceful and dog-loving people here to know that Mississippi can do better. I’m certain of it. I believe in them. They can fix this, but first they have to own it.
I think that’s where Debra comes in. She is honest about what is happening at MARL. She is not trying to hide what they do. Dogs are being killed—by the thousands, but as she said, “There are worse things than a humane euthanasia.”
There are. Accepting those deaths as necessary and the situation as impossible to change is much worse.
Okay, now you can pick up your anger again and use the energy behind it not to hate, but to help. Simply bashing the shelter and its leadership won’t save these dogs; MARL has heard it before.
Until every cage is empty,
Who Will Let the Dogs Out (we call it Waldo for short) is an initiative of Operation Paws for Homes. If you’d like to contribute to our work, we encourage you to click on the how to help link above and give directly to a shelter. You can also donate to our work via OPH’s donation page by designating Who Will Let the Dogs Out in your comments.
My upcoming book, One Hundred Dogs & Counting: One Woman, Ten Thousand Miles, and a Journey Into the Heart of Shelters and Rescues (Pegasus Books, July 7, 2020) tells the story of not only our foster experience but how Who Will Let the Dogs Out began. It is available for preorder now and a portion of proceeds of every book sold will go to help unwanted animals in the south.