BELLINGHAM, KENAI––How far apart are the Whatcom Humane Society, of Bellingham, Washington, and the Kenai Animal Shelter, of Kenai, Alaska?
Both are just five or ten minutes from airports. Measured in flight time via Alaska Airlines, the distance between them is seven hours, twenty minutes.
Both are open-admission, both hold animal control housing contracts, and both are believed by humane professionals who know their work to be moving in progressive directions.
But measured in one significant aspect of humane philosophy, the distance between them may have recently widened to centuries––and both have strong practical and historical arguments for moving in opposite directions.
Opened in mid-2013, the state-of-the-art Whatcom Humane Society shelter may be the newest in the U.S. to include a night drop-off facility that allows people to anonymously relinquish found strays and pets.
The Kenai Animal Shelter on December 31, 2014 permanently closed a night drop-off facility that over the past 10 years had received more than 3,000 animals.
1,000 years of debate
“Drop boxes,” as they are most often called, especially by critics, are among the oldest controversies in humane work––and have been controversial for almost 1,000 years.
Horrified by the numbers of drowned infants discovered in the River Tiber, Pope Innocent III in 1198 ordered that the first known “drop boxes,” then called foundling wheels, be installed at the Santo Spirito hospital serving Vatican City and at convents elsewhere throughout Italy.
Foundling wheels enabled mothers surrendering infants born out of wedlock to leave them anonymously in a manner that rotated them immediately from the cold outdoors to warmth and security indoors. The motion of a foundling wheel would also ring a bell to bring nuns to attend the surrendered child.
St. Vincent de Paul
More than 400 years later. St. Vincent de Paul introduced foundling wheels to France. By the 18th century foundling wheels were common throughout western Europe and had been introduced to Brazil by Portuguese immigrants.
As humane work expanded from rescuing orphans and other indigent humans to rescuing animals, the equivalent of foundling wheels came to be standard equipment at animal shelters. Much as Pope Innocent III saw foundling wheels to be far preferable to infants being drowned, humane animal rescuers from the early 19th century to the present day argue that the alternative to allowing animals to be anonymously surrendered tends to be that animals are drowned, clubbed, shot, or otherwise disposed of by whatever method the people abandoning the animals find convenient.
But even in Pope Innocent’s time, foundling wheels and drop boxes were criticized for allegedly stimulating immoral and irresponsible conduct.
Public opinion and political momentum had already begun to turn against foundling wheels in 1811, when Napoleon Bonaparte felt compelled to expressly favor them by imperial decree. Many had already been taken out of service when in 1863 the globally influential Hôpital des Enfants-Trouvés in Paris replaced the foundling wheels at its facilities with the mid-19th century equivalent of today’s animal shelter surrender interviews.
The Hôpital des Enfants-Trouvés anticipated, much as many animal shelters do today, that the surrender interview could become an opportunity to help keep children in homes, by enabling the staff to dispense advice, some material aid, and often considerable moral suasion, also known as shaming.
By 1949, when Brazil abolished foundling wheels by law, they had fallen out of use in almost every society that considered itself progressive. Drop-off facilities for animals gradually fell out of favor during the next 40 years.
Recommendations for the construction and maintenance of such drop-off facilities, with diagrams, appeared on page 193 of the 1989 first edition of the National Animal Control Association Training Manual, but were omitted completely from the 2001 second edition, after two 1999 episodes involving drop-off facilities were among the early animal-related causes celebré of the online era.
First, Dale and Cheryl Brainard were each fined the maximum $750 and ordered to perform 50 hours of community service for leaving their starving and ill Great Dane in a drop-off pen outside the Medina County Animal Shelter on the subfreezing night of February 25, 1999. The dog died six days later.
The Brainards testified that they did not see leaflets warning that animals should not be left after hours in cold weather. Initial condemnation of the Brainards was eventually tempered by questions as to why the Medina County Animal Shelter had facilities where animals might be left to freeze in the first place.
Six months later, international online protest against drop-off facilities at Murfreesboro and Smyrna, in Rutherford County, Tennessee, led to a rally reportedly attended by 300 people at which an organization called Volunteers for Animals presented 70,000 petition signatures to county officials asking that the drop-off facilities be removed.
The Murfreesboro was demolished within two weeks, while the Smyrna facility was closed for renovation.
Somewhat overlooked amid the controversy was that both the Murfreesboro and Smyrna drop-off facilities were many miles from the animal control agencies responsible for maintaining them. Lack of close supervision appeared to be the major issue associated with both facilities.
Nonetheless, by the end of the 20th century “drop boxes” remained standard at animal shelters only in Japan, mostly for the same reasons that the Kenai Animal Shelter abolished them.
Kenai Animal Shelter
“Kenai animal control officer Stacie Mallette said that the kennels were originally intended as a last resort for when someone needed to put an animal in a kennel quickly,” reported Ian Foley of the Peninsula Clarion. “However, she said that it has become an easy way for people to get rid of a pet. Mallette said that when people leave animals in the after hour kennels, they rarely leave information about the pets, which makes adopting them out to a suitable family more difficult.
“When no information is provided,” Foley wrote, “the shelter does not know if an animal is unwanted or a stray. If there is no information, the shelter brings the animal in and keeps it at the facility it for 72 hours before adopting it out in case an owner claims it.
“Another reason for the kennel’s closure is to prevent animals being exposed to dangerous elements,” Foley continued.
“Marianne Clark, an animal control officer at Soldotna Animal Control, said the Soldotna facility used to have after hours drop-off kennels,” Foley added, “but closed them down many years ago. She said one of the reasons Soldotna no longer uses after hour kennels was because children started playing in them and once a child was accidentally
locked inside a kennel. “Clark said that there are many reasons people use after hour drop-off kennels, but she believes one of the biggest is to avoid paying the fees associated with giving up a pet.”
The Humane Society of Elkhart County, in Bristol, Indiana, reportedly removed nine night drop-off kennels in September 2010.
Executive director Anne Reel “referenced recent incidents of abuse related to the deposit boxes that contributed to their closing, including a suffocated kitten and an abandoned group of dogs and cats who had been without food and care for at least a month,” reported Rachel Terlep of the Elkhart Truth.
“People were dumping off animals at night like garbage, with no concern for their well-being,” Humane Society of Elkhart County board president Stephanie Krol said.
“Along with dumping mistreated animals,” Terlep continued, “an HSEC found that people were dumping pets to avoid paying the $20 intake and care fee, using the deposit boxes for pets instead of strays, and dropping off animals from outside Elkhart County.
Concluded Reel, the drop-off kennels were “like a magnet that attracts people to do what is not right.”
Ely, Nevada removed two drop-off kennels at about the same time in 2010, coincidental with opening a new city shelter. Part of the issue in Ely was that abandoning animals at the animal shelter was a misdemeanor, potentially punishable by fines up to $1,000.
The American SPCA in 2013 introduced a 60-minute webinar called Beyond the Box: Closing After-Hours Drop Boxes, urging shelters to get rid of them: http://www.aspcapro.org/webinar/2013-11-14/beyond-box-closing-after-hours-drop-boxes.
Whatcom Humane Society goes the other way
But there is an opposite perspective, voiced and demonstrated by a shelter manager widely regarded as one of the best.
Whatcom Humane Society executive director Laura Clark, while acknowledging the potential problems with drop-off facilities, views them much as Pope Innocent III viewed foundling wheels: as perhaps not the ideal solution to humane issues which would not exist in an ideal world, but preferable to animal abandonment, with no drawbacks that cannot be rectified through good design and good management.
The Whatcom Humane Society drop-off kennels, Clark told ANIMALS 24-7, are used chiefly by police and animal control officers on night duty who need to leave animals somewhere safe while responding to other calls. The kennels may be used to temporarily house the animals of people who have been arrested, homeless people picked up off the street in subfreezing weather, victims of automobile accidents, and victims of pre-dawn fires.
Of course the Whatcom Humane Society drop-off kennels are also used by members of the public, including members of several of Bellingham’s many ethnic communities who may feel inhibited about approaching humane society staff or animal control officers.
But Clark does not believe the risk that pets may be abandoned or that the shelter may not collect surrender fees outweighs the risk that otherwise an animal in need may not come to the humane society.
The Whatcom Humane Society drop-off kennels are monitored continuously by security cameras. Plentiful signage explains how animals are to be left. Surrender forms, with pens, are present on a lighted counter. Users are encouraged to fill them out, and to provide all of the information that can help the Whatcom Humane Society to rehome an animal.
There are separate kennels for dogs and cats. Once the doors are closed, the animals are securely locked inside, with bedding and heat lamps.
Door of Hope
Foundling wheels, almost a forgotten technology, have come back into use in many parts of the world since July 1999, when Door of Hope Children’s Mission pastor Cheryl Allen reintroduced the idea at her missionary church in Berea, South Africa. Though the foundling wheel may not be the perfect solution to preventing child abandonment and abuse, it provides a needed service in societies otherwise lacking in support and tolerance for unwed mothers, or indigent parents, often ill, who simply cannot feed and look after their children.
Drop-off kennels at animal shelters may make a similar comeback.
Says Marian’s Dream executive director Esther Mechler, who has founded or co-founded at least nine humane organizations in more than 40 years of involvement in animal work, “I certainly do not feel good about the idea of drop boxes at shelters – the fear the animals must feel – but think perhaps it is better than just dropping the animals off in some alley, the woods or a farm. Maybe they are not a bad thing? I just don’t know enough.”