Every so often, in a newspaper, magazine or blog, you’ll read an essay by the owner of a much-beloved pet that has recently passed away.
Whether it’s written by a regular presence in those pages, or a high-profile figure (entertainer, athlete, politician), or a first-time contributor, the piece serves as a remembrance of that departed animal, typically propelled by amusing anecdotes, an inventory of that animal’s quirks and virtues, and, often, a sad but eloquent description of the pet’s final days.
It’s nigh impossible to read one of those animal eulogies and feel unmoved, and I’ve even heard of some readers getting teary-eyed. Not me, you understand. But others, I gather.
Now imagine, for a moment, a pet writing a comparable remembrance of its owner.
No, I haven’t gone off the edge of anthropomorphism. Not at all.
Heck, in a world that celebrates talking animals, it may not be that large of a leap to imagine a dog banging out such a remembrance. Or, at least, dictating it to a willing typist.
There’s a very serious thought behind this absurdist scenario: If a pet were penning a reminiscence over the passing of its owner, there’s a chance the pet in question might wind up a lot sadder—or worse.
Unless that owner has had the foresight to make arrangements for someone to care for that animal—or a family member or friend steps up to do so, with no such arrangements in place–that animal is heading to the shelter. And probably not getting out alive.
That’s where Amy Shever comes in.
She’s the founder of 2nd Chance 4 Pets.
“Our primary focus,” Shever explained in a Dec. 11 interview on Talking Animals, “is to provide awareness and create education and help pet owners understand how to plan appropriately for the possibility that their pets might outlive them.
“There’s about 500,000 animals every year that end up in shelters simply because their owners had not planned for the possibility that they would either pass away, or become too sick to care for them.
“I’m sure we all know people who end up in nursing homes, and they can’t take their animals with them. So it’s really critical that responsible pet owners think about this, and make appropriate plans, so that their animals don’t end up at the shelter.“
Founded by Shever in 2003, 2nd Chance 4 Pets is an all-volunteer (including Shever) nonprofit organization that “strives to reduce the number of family pets unnecessarily euthanized each year due to the death or incapacity of their human companions.”
That’s the official language on the 2nd Chance website. That’s their mission, in a sense. Placed in more colloquial terms: Hey, if you love your pet(s) so much, pal, make a plan so that if something bad happens to you, they won’t be shuttled off to the shelter where, realistically, they will be killed”
Uh, geez, kind of sobering when you put it that way.
And I should hasten to add that Shever doesn’t put it that way. But she absolutely wants to encourage people to ponder the notion of what would happen to their pets if they were unable to care for them temporarily—or permanently.
Until they run into Shever, or one of the 2nd Chance volunteers, or its website, this simply hasn’t occurred to most folks. It’s hardly uncommon for animal advocates to become passionate about a particular cause or critter they’re willing to work for. However, Shever’s is a very specific cause—singular, really—and I couldn’t help but wonder what drew her to it.
In other words, why this?
“I had been volunteering and helped start a rescue organization in California—this was in the ‘80s,” she said. “I figured out very quickly that I wasn’t quite cut out for the rescue world. But I did volunteer at the shelter, and I noticed that people would come in and their parents had passed away, or their loved ones had passed away, and they would bring in these pets from the people who had passed away.
“And, to me, one of the things that was really tragic was these animals who had been really loved and cared for–sat on people’s laps, slept on their beds–would just curl up at the shelter. They wouldn’t eat. They’d become despondent.
“And they were sometimes the first to be euthanized, because they were considered ‘not adoptable.’ I sort of thought of this as somebody else’s problem.
“Then, I was on an airplane in San Francisco a month after Sept. 11, 2001, and that day they were saying there’s a plane going out of San Francisco that’s going to be rammed into the Golden Gate Bridge. This is my first vacation in a very long time, and all I could think about was, ‘OK, what’s going to happen to my animals?
“And I opened the newspaper and read about 800 pets who had been orphaned in New York City on Sept. 11, and the average age of the person who passed away was in their 30s. Right then I thought, ‘This issue, of pets being taken care of when their owners pass away, is an issue for every responsible pet owner—it doesn’t matter how old they are.’
“So I started digging into figuring what resources existed, and I found out there was very little information and help out there for people to appropriately understand what they need to do to make sure their animals were always taken care of.”
Now you’re probably way ahead me in this story, but Shever has filled that void, creating all sorts of information and resources—the 2nd Chance 4 Pets website alone is chockablock with facts, figures and valuable data.
Still, I know tons of people, of all ages, who haven’t drawn up a will—some because they haven’t thought much about it, some because they have thought about it, but feel it’s something to worry about when they’re older.
So I was curious to learn from Shever what sorts of responses she’s elicited over the decade since she launched the organization, wondering if, say, twentysomethings or even thirtysomethings are dismissive of her entreaties, contending they’re fine and so are the animals in their lives.
In many respects, that would be a perfectly reasonable reaction.
“Actually,” she said, “the reason I’m still doing this today is because we’ve had nothing but an overwhelming [positive] response. People either have never thought about this before, or they have thought about it, but they’re not sure what to do.
“So it doesn’t matter the age of the pet owner. For every responsible pet owner we’ve come into contact with, including veterinarians who care for pets, animal welfare people—they all understand this, because they see so many animals that end up being left behind.
‘So, again, for any age pet owner, they sit up and listen. They want to figure out what can they can do to make sure their pets will be cared for. And to keep it really simple, and this is my little mantra–and there’s a lot of solutions we offer on our website—there’s legal options; there’s all kinds of planning that people can do.
“But our promise is that if every responsible pet owner could have a caregiver 100 percent committed to taking over the care of their pets, then thousands and thousands of pets would not end up without a home.”
Indeed, if you had to characterize Shever’s three top goals when it comes to animals whose owners have have died or become incapacitated: (1) Keep them out of shelters; (2) Keep them out of shelters; (3) Keep them out of shelters.
Even under the best of circumstances, shelters are an awful place for an animal. The percentage of animals adopted from a shelter can be small, sometimes very small. And every day, at damn near every shelter, lots of animals are killed. You can say “euthanized,” many people do. But those animals are killed.
And if you’re an animal who ends up in a shelter, you have lousy odds of leaving. And circling back to a detail Shever cited earlier, upwards of 500,000 animals annually arrive in shelters because their owners died or were rendered unable to care for them. With that background in mind, your odds of leaving are even lousier.
“The good news is pets do adjust,” Shever said. “But for a lot of pets, especially if they’re older, and they’re used to a certain schedule, they’ve been sleeping in a nice, warm, comfortable environment, and you put them into a loud, noisy shelter, a lot of them will shut down.
“And the other issue is that when people go to a shelter, and they see a hundred dogs, and they just walk through the cages, they don’t know the stories behind these animals.
“You see an animal that comes up, is wagging its tail and friendly, that could just be the stray dog off the street that’s happy as can be to get food and some attention. And then you see these animals that are curled up in a ball and not responding—or shaking—a lot of times those are animals that have come from home environments where they received a lot of love and care, and all of a sudden they’re very scared and frightened.
“So, again, it’s another reason to do everything possible to make sure [your] animals don’t end up without a home.”
In preparation for our on-air chat, Shever had sent me some material, including links to some videos. One clip featured Kiki and Kikapoo, a mother-daughter pair of dogs whose owner had died abruptly and were relegated to—yes—a shelter.
Kiki and Kikapoo, a mother and daughter that came to live at the Yavapai Humane Society after their human died. Video posted at YouTube by Bound Angels.
Even though I knew beforehand that they ultimately wound up adopted, watching this video focusing on their stay in the shelter made me pretty darn sad. Take a look and see if you don’t have a similar reaction.
It really drives home the importance of not leaving these matters to chance.
In, other words, the importance of making a plan—which might well be Shever’s mantra.
And, Shever explained, the key components of that plan would include:
*Identifying a responsible caregiver whom you know is willing to look after the animal(s) when you no longer can. Some owners who use pet sitters on occasion select them for this role, including in some cases naming them in their will.
*Putting all instructions—what the animal likes to eat, what medications it’s on, quirks and preferences, etc.—in writing
Providing some financial support for those animals’ food and veterinarian bills.
*Making clear information about behavioral background. For example, is this animal afraid of lightning? Does that one have food aggression issues?
Even if the owner doesn’t die, but is temporarily out of commission—in a car accident, let’s say, or otherwise briefly hospitalized—this sort of information can prove crucial for the well being of those animals, Shever noted.
“Even in case of an emergency, if somebody had those instructions, just think about how much better those pets are going to be cared for—people understand what they need, what kind of diet they have, when they need to take walks.
“So we really encourage people, in addition to making sure they have the conversation and have people committed to taking over the care of their pets, that they take that extra step and document their care instructions.
“And keep those updated, too. We all know that as pets get older, their diets may change, they may need more meds, etc., Keeping that information up-to-date and keeping it somewhere where everyone knows where to find it, leaving a copy with their pet sitters, with their veterinarians, that’s just going to make that transition so much easier on the pets.”
Veterinarians have emerged as a major 2nd Chance 4 Pets constituency. “Our biggest effort is working with the veterinary community,” she said.
“The reason being: they are our link to responsible pet owners. We’re never going to convince the guy out in the rural woods, with his dog chained up, to do anything. But if we could at least make sure that responsible pet owners across the country, who do regular visits with their vets, have these tools in place, then we’re one step ahead.
“So we spend a lot of time with veterinarians, we go to a lot of veterinarian conferences, and I’ll actually lead workshops at conferences, or do webinars, and we have close to 700,000 brochures in vet clinics today.”
With all those brochures, all the webinars and workshops she’s conducted, all the conversations and interviews she’s participated in, it might be mathematically impossible to calculate exactly how many 2nd Chances 4 Pets Shever is responsible for creating.
But we do know that many of those animals we imagined writing remembrances of their departed owners should be writing something else to Shever: A thank you note.
Duncan Strauss is the producer-host of “Talking Animals,” which he launched at KUCI in California in 2003, combining his passions for animals, radio, journalism, music and comedy. The show has aired since late 2005 on Tampa’s WMNF. Strauss lives in Jupiter Farms, FL, with his family, including four cats, two horses and one dog. He spends each day talking to those animals, and maintains they talk right back to him, an as yet unverified claim.