When Clifford arrived to Kindred Spirits Animal Sanctuary a year and a half ago from a Santa Fe, New Mexico shelter, his fur was coarse and dry and his joints stiff with fear. Now, the blind, old cattle dog mix wanders comfortably across the four-acre hospice for senior animals, his coat soft and clean.
“He can come and go as he likes, as opposed to if you set him off in a little cage. He’d probably be barking, anxious,” says sanctuary founder Ulla Pedersen, as she slips the wagging dog a liver treat, “then you get into depression.”
Photo courtesy of Hope For Paws
While Pedersen wants to make sure she’s not insulting shelters that rely on confinement to house so many rescues, she believes a cage-free environment helps the animals truly flourish. The 20 or so senior dogs at Kindred Spirits form a tight-knit community that will stay together through the end. “While they are getting older, they’re healing,” says Pedersen. “They’re healing in their spirit.”
Kindred Spirits is one of the many cage-free shelters and sanctuaries that have popped up across the country in the past 30 years. From the rural Southwest to the urban East Coast, more people are insisting that rescued animals need more space and socialization than living in a cage can provide.
Pedersen started her nonprofit hospice in 2002 after volunteering at Best Friends Animal Society, now one of the largest and oldest cage-free sanctuaries in the country. Founded in 1984, the Utah refuge made her reconsider what enrichment should mean for captive animals.
Sitting through most of the day is unnatural for most animals; they need movement. The situation is particularly bad for old animals, whom Pedersen saw get disproportionately abandoned and eventually put down at shelters when they were not adopted. Leaving them in a cell for the rest of their natural lives would be inhumane.
With these thoughts in mind, the retired nurse turned her property on the outskirts of Santa Fe into a sanctuary for senior dogs, horses, and poultry. While they all came there to die, they would at least get to spend the weeks, months, or years they had left mostly outside, living among their own species, which is important for pack animals like dogs.
In the mornings, the big dogs mill around as Pedersen cleans the stables; the rest of the day they spend napping under trees and exploring the fenced gardens and ranch land. Pedersen has seen the environment heal the animals. She points to a mutt named Lady rolling on her back so visitors can pat her stomach. Months ago, Lady would have snapped at them.
Photo courtesy of PAWS Chicago
More than 1,000 miles northeast of Pedersen’s shelter, rescue dogs play on a fenced-in rooftop in the heart of Chicago. They live in groups of two or three, in suites with bleachable latex beds and piped-in classical music, and get to take five walks a day. “The motto of PAWS Chicago is every dog is treated like it was your own pet. We don’t give up on them just because they’re in the shelter,” says founder Paula Fasseas. “We treat them as we would expect people to treat them in their own home.”
With nearly 6,000 adoptions last year, Pets Are Worth Saving, Chicago takes in about 100 cats and dogs per week. Fasseas founded PAWS in 1997 with her high school daughter with the intention of turning Chicago into a no-kill city. (Meaning a place where no healthy or treatable shelter animals are euthanized.) She says they have seen euthanasia fall by 77 percent in the area since. For Fasseas, keeping the shelter humane includes avoiding cages.
Strain from other dogs barking, bad smells and other activity around them can make rescue animals ill in conventional shelters. “No matter what you do, there’s going to be disease in a shelter,” Fasseas says. “If they’re stressed, their immunities are much lower, and they don’t just get sick, they get well much slower, and it also causes a lot of anxiety… [Here] you don’t have the smells; you don’t have the noise; they have windows and doors. It’s as close to a home as possible. It’s never as good as a home, but it’s close.”
“I don’t think, really, any people who are truly animal lovers want to work in an environment with cages,” says Kelly Perry of Lucky Paws Animal Rescue in Scottsdale, Arizona. “It looks like a prison, and I worked at a jail once.”
“It causes fighting, it causes aggression, it causes fear.”
Perry runs Arizona’s only cage-free shelter in a converted auto collision shop a block from old-town Scottsdale. Like PAWS Chicago, Lucky Paws takes in animals on the euthanasia lists of nearby shelters, as well as turtles, ferrets, birds and other pets. The shelter’s 82 canine residents are split among rooms with couches, daybeds and loveseats; its 52 cats wander the thrift store and a separate cat room; and a handful of rabbits hop around their own nursery with a slide.
“You know, rabbits live for 10 years,” Perry says. “Who wants to live their life in a cage? Nobody, really.”
Volunteers walk the dogs alongside a nearby canal when they aren’t playing in the shaded yard with a swimming pool, keeping with Perry’s vision of maintaining a home-like setting for formerly homeless animals.
While cage-free shelters and sanctuaries offer near-utopian refuges for previously traumatized animals, they face unique challenges. Unlike conventional shelters, cage-free operations typically get less funding and are unlikely to have as many paid staff or employee benefits. Smaller sanctuaries like Kindred Spirits are consistently at capacity and have to turn many animals away.
The cage-free model is simply more work. Shelter staff has to screen potential rescues for compatibility with the existing group, or their roommates if living in a suite like at PAWS Chicago. Animals that don’t get along with other shelter animals need their own rooms. Open spaces need more housekeeping compared to cages, which can be cleaned with a quick spray down.
For many founders, working at the shelter consumes their entire lives. Perry has sneaked kittens in her bra into jury duty to make sure they were bottle-fed every three hours. Other than when she’s at the schools, teaching classes on responsible pet ownership, doing interviews with journalists, or organizing fundraisers, she’s always to be found at PAWS.
“The animals are always thankful to you,” Perry says. “It’s not like dealing with people, and people are ungrateful and people are rude. Animals always give back to you what you give to them,” she says. “The benefit of what I do, you may laugh, is good karma.”
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