Amanda Thurber sees a lot of children afraid of pet animals.
The director of humane engagement for the Humane Society of Marion County works with kids, using outreach events through the organization to both educate children and provide them a chance to interact with shelter dogs and cats.
Many of the kids are initially hesitant to play with the puppies and kittens, afraid of getting bit, but as they spend more time with the animals, the terror falls away.
“We introduce them to a whole new outlook,” Thurber said. “And it’s like this light just goes off.”
The Humane Society of Marion County continues to combat stereotypes around animals, especially strays, through engaging with community members and promoting educational interactions with children. The commitment to community education coincides with a trend in the United States regarding the treatment and attitude toward stray dogs and cats over the past decade.
Eddie Leedy, the executive director of the HSMC, said animals usually come either as strays, owner surrenders or transfers to no-kill shelters. After some medical and behavioral checks, the animals join the ranks of those looking for a new Marion County home.
As someone who grew up on a farm, Leedy never felt any hesitancy about where an animal came from. After all, he lives with two African sulcata tortoises and a thousand-pound pet pig among other pets.
“I don’t care about the origins, so much, of an animal as I do its personality,” Leedy said.
Not everyone grows up in a self-described zoo, however, and the world doesn’t always share Leedy’s sentiment about an animals’ origins. A 2013 survey from the Best Friends Animal Society in Utah found that 46% of young adults ages 18 to 34 found stray animals less desirable and preferred to purchase a pet from a breeder or a store. The same study revealed that, while 86% of Americans advocate for pet adoption, only about 60% actually look to adopt as a primary option.
Burnett began working as the outreach manager for the HSMC in early 2020, during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, so the community events went on hold at the same time he was hired. But since then, Burnett has noticed a surge in engagement.
“Last year at this time we had very little events on our calendar,” Burnett said. “But this year, as of now, I’m booked up all the way through May, so it’s definitely, there’s a lot more going on in the community.”
Not every event the humane society puts on is a roaring success, Burnett added. Last year, the HSMC held its third annual ‘Howl-o-ween’ event. Burnett praised the community turnout, saying well over 1,000 people came, and over 600 hot dogs were sold within the first several hours. Two months later, however, the HSMC’s ‘Santa Paws’ event failed to produce a similar turnout.
Thurber focuses on combating misconceptions about stray animals from the ground up — by educating children.
Two of the humane society’s biggest community engagement programs center around children. The Doggone Good Reading Program invites children to read books to dogs on the Bark Bus, a decorative bus that drives to elementary schools and daycares around Marion County.
“They saw these dogs as working dogs, guard dogs, being aggressive,” Thurber said. “Other stereotypes that have been forced upon our older generation and now, with the younger generation, we’re able to correct some of that.” (move up)
Even if a dog doesn’t find a forever family through community events, Thurber added, the extra socialization benefits the animals.
“The dogs eventually become institutionalized, almost, just from being here and being in those kennels,” Thurber said. “When we change their environment for a little bit and give them that time to be out and get the interaction with people, they stay more calm, more level, they’re not as stressed.”
The HSMC isn’t the only group in the area trying to reframe the world’s opinions of dog behavior. Julie Hughes, the founder and owner of Dog’s Play Training in Levy County, is a certified professional dog trainer, a certified behavioral consultant and has earned a degree in canine ethology from The University of Cambridge.
When Hughes began working at a shelter 15 years ago, about 85% of the dogs and 90% of the cats were euthanized at the shelter.
“Most veterinarians and people in the shelter didn’t really think that dogs had feelings, believe it or not,” Hughes said. “They were just more like property, that you could just take a dog in and you could euthanize it and there was no discussion of whether the dog was viable or not.”
According to an article from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), euthanasia numbers peaked in 2011 with a staggering 2.6 million shelter animals euthanized. As recently as 2021, however, the national save rate rose to 83% and roughly half of America’s shelters are no-kill, just like HSMC, according to BestFriends.org. The site also said shelter killings dropped down to about 347,000 in 2020, the most dramatic single-year reduction in history, but euthanasia remains the leading cause of death for dogs and cats, Hughes reiterated.
Hughes doesn’t want to just change the way people think of dogs ready to be adopted; she also wants to change the way people view the dogs they already own.
At the end of the day, Hughes doesn’t believe adoption should be the only path to people finding pets, nor should it be everyone’s preferred choice, but she cautioned buyers to seek out reputable breeders and adopters to choose wisely.
“Go to your shelter, but do it wisely,” Hughes said. “Get someone to go with you that understands dog behavior so you pick out the right dog.”