As an investigative journalist who helps out in the animal rescue world, I field a lot of questions from people who want to expose poor conditions at their municipal or county shelters. Emails from volunteers concerned about overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, inhumane treatment and even animals who are euthanized painfully or unfairly, have filled my inbox over the years.

Sometimes people who care about animals just want to know what their local municipal shelter is up to, but don’t know how to find out. It’s something very important because if no one inquires about it, you may have no idea what’s going on in your own community.

In my line of work, I rely on videos, pictures, and public records to tell a factual story. If you want to prove what’s going on in a shelter, you’ve got to prove it. You don’t have to be a reporter to do so, you just need to be brave and keep reading. I’m going to tell you the secrets of how you can be your own pet shelter detective.


Take Pictures or Video

If you see a problem in a shelter, whip out your cell phone and take pictures. Document what you see. Are animals being kept in unsanitary conditions? Are their cages too small? Do the animals appear malnourished? Having visual confirmation of this is invaluable. Documenting the conditions is the best way to prove your case and share concerns.

Make Public Records Requests

If you suspect something fishy is going on at a specific shelter, you can find out through public records what has been going on behind closed doors. Like how many animals are being euthanized. Or the ratio of adopted animals versus euthanized animals.

Sometimes officials make this sound “scary,” like you need to be an attorney or a journalist to make public record requests,  BUT you don’t! Anyone can make a public record request. Each state has different laws, but essentially you just type out a relatively simple request and email, mail or fax it to the city, town or county agency in charge of the shelter. Every state has different laws, but this guide gives examples of different state request letters.

Expose the Evidence

If you have SEEN mistreatment firsthand, do something about it. Make it known!

Go to the Media

Email or call local media outlets near the city or town where the shelter is located. If you’ve got a favorite investigative reporter or station, you can try contacting them first. Offer them an exclusive on the story. Nothing intrigues a journalist more than hearing “exclusive”. That little word combined with a tipster telling them they have pictures, video, and documentation exposing a situation, will generate more interest.

Make a Stink to Municipal or County Officials

Take your documentation to public hearings and show those in charge what’s going on. Call the mayor’s office or the county commissioner. Bring all your evidence.

Use Social Media

If a shelter is FOR SURE mistreating animals, Tweet about it or write about it on your Facebook page. Social media is often the quickest way to get their attention and get in touch with their volunteers and staff.


How to help a shelter become a “No Kill” shelter

I spoke with Nathan Winograd, founder of the “No Kill Revolution.” He says any city or town shelter, regardless of the town’s size, wealth, or demographics can become No Kill. He told me success comes from dedicated volunteers and good leadership at the top. He stated, “You need a passionate director at the pound who doesn’t hide behind ‘too many animals, not enough homes’ and works to tap into the compassion of the community.”

Winograd’s goal is for shelters to have a 95 to 99 percent save rate. If a shelter doesn’t have that, he says to ask questions. “When someone says, ‘Well I can’t get enough foster homes,’ that tells me someone is doing something wrong, they aren’t being effective in their recruitment. There’s a huge disconnect in this movement from people who work incredibly hard but aren’t saving animals, this could mean they aren’t working strategically. It doesn’t matter what you want to work, or what you hope will work, we know what does work! Communities are saving lives and they all recruited their foster homes the exact same way, you want to make sure you follow in those footsteps.”

Winograd’s organization developed an entire toolkit to help communities house a no-kill shelter. This guide can help you evaluate how your city or town is doing. Once you have the big picture, go to the toolkit for other resources to help. He says the days of “catch and kill” animal control can be eliminated by this generation if people care.

If you have firsthand knowledge of animal abuse, neglect or mistreatment, DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. Animals cannot help themselves.

Most shelters and organizations are doing a tremendous job. Many go above and beyond, giving the animals love, affection and a safe place to stay until forever families can be found. Do not approach shelters with a bad attitude because you don’t like the idea of dogs in cages or loud barking. These types of situations cannot be helped. Want to do more yourself? Volunteer to become a foster parent! Start a fundraiser or donation drive. Many shelters just need basics like blankets, towels, dog beds, food, and toys.


By: Mary Schwager aka “Watchdog Mary”

WatchdogMary TV and print journalist now watchdogging for animals is honored to have won 14 Emmy, 7 Edward R. Murrow and Associated Press awards for investigative reporting & writing. To send Mary story ideas, please contact her on her Facebook page.