Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2011 | 2 a.m.
They’re not able to talk, of course, yet animals in Las Vegas shelters are finding their voices online.
The animals, via their human caregivers, are tweeting and posting on Facebook, and it is helping them find new homes more quickly.
“I will be sure to let you know how much I love you every day,” a gray, medium-hair cat, Princess Ashlyn, wrote on Facebook alongside her photo.
“What is it like to sleep in a bed and have toys to play with?” said Donna, a 2-year-old petite Chihuahua.
“I trusted and loved them, but they threw me away,” said Chachito, a 4-year-old tri-color Chihuahua who was found in a crate on the side of a road.
The personal statements are mostly written by Doug Duke, executive director of the nonprofit Nevada Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which operates a no-kill animal sanctuary.
Despite his limited staff, small budget and about 800 animals on any given day to care for, Duke spends time taking photos of the animals, posting about them on the organization’s blog, nevadaspca.blogspot.com, then tweeting links and posting the biographies on Facebook.
“I just don’t want an animal to not have (his or her) story told,” he said.
The hard work seems to be paying off; the society saw a 5 percent increase in adoptions last year, and it’s not because the economy is improving, Duke said.
In July, the society had just 300 followers on the social media site Twitter; six months later, the organization has more than 2,600 followers and is planning to launch a redesigned website this week, compatible with cell phones and iPads.
“The last thing anyone wants from an animal charity is to hear a person,” said Duke, who always refers to an animal by name instead of ID number and by the proper pronoun, he or she, never it.
Since the economy collapsed, Duke said the society has seen more injured and sick animals, many left in foreclosed homes, abandoned in parks and hit by cars or brought to the shelter because their owners could not provide medical care.
Rather than putting down sick or injured animals, the Nevada SPCA arranges for veterinary care to restore the animals’ health. And once they recover, those animals have stories that need to be told, he said.
One dog arrived at the shelter with his leg shattered by a baseball bat.
“I don’t want to put him in a kennel and just say he’s ready for adoption,” Duke said. “I think people want to know what (the animals) have endured, what they’ve overcome. We show them triumphantly posing for the picture, they’re ready for adoption.”
Although including a cute photo is key to getting people to look at the pets, owners need to connect with the animal’s personality and individual characteristics, not just a breed or fur color, Duke said.
The posts require disclosing the animals’ flaws, such as not being good with children or other pets, but that information helps potential adopters find an animal with the right personality so it can join what Duke calls a “forever home.”
It also means people can find pets based on what they are going to do with the animal, he said. One couple might want a water-friendly dog they can take with them to Lake Mead, while another might want a lap dog to stay indoors and cuddle.
Some people are hesitant to come to the shelter because they are afraid of having their hearts broken by the adorable pets. Seeing the animals online allows these people to connect with the animals while sparing the possible anguish of visiting the kennels, Duke said.
“I don’t want them to make a decision out of pity that will end up being a bad decision and the animal will be brought back to us,” he said. “We’re hoping for the animal to go home and stay home forever.”
Seeing the pets online gives people time to educate themselves about the type of animal they are going to adopt before they come to the shelter, Duke said.
And when they come in and ask to see one or two animals by name, it helps the shelter’s staff serve them more quickly, he said.
The Animal Foundation, which operates the Lied Animal Shelter, the largest in the state, also has seen the benefits of social media, but is focusing on educating people rather than just the adoption numbers.
The foundation had about 400 followers on Twitter six months ago, but now has nearly 1,200. Without any other marketing or advertising, the foundation has seen its group of 250 fans on Facebook last October grow to more than 1,400 today.
The foundation has taken a slightly different approach than the Nevada SPCA, which posts multiple animals each day on its website. The Animal Foundation typically features one a week on Facebook — “Furry Friday.” By day’s end, the animal usually has found a home, said Meghan Scheibe, assistant director of development who oversees the organization’s Web presence.
The organization frequently posts information for pet owners, links to other animal groups and has even run contests, such as one on dress-your-pet day, said Scheibe.
“We are trying to be the go-to resource for the Southern Nevada region for all things animal related,” she said.
A web presence has paid off in other ways, Scheibe said.
Last fall, the Animal Foundation received a hefty cat named Maximus, which it placed with a foster family. They set up a Facebook page for him and he quickly got nearly 400 friends.
When Maximus required expensive medical care in December that the foundation couldn’t afford, the cat’s friends and other supporters on Facebook donated more than $700 to pay for his medical care.
Maximus died from complications after surgery, but the experience showed the effects of social networking.
“We don’t hound them for donations all the time, but they are responsive and that proved how responsive they actually can be,” Scheibe said.
When animals are adopted, Scheibe updates the Facebook post to let people know.
“It’s something people can come back to and see how our organization is growing and how the animals are getting out and finding homes,” Scheibe said. “We want them to feel a part of the program and part of the organization and a part of the solution to the problem that’s out there.”
The Internet is fundamentally changing the way animal rescue organizations do business, Duke said. “I don’t think we’re ever going back to where people walk into a shelter with their families and pick an animal. I think people are going to pick out animals using all the tools available.”
It also helps get people more involved, he said.
“Before, people could donate, volunteer, adopt, foster; now, they can help spread the word,” Duke said. “It initially didn’t occur to us that all these people could become warriors for the animals.”
It worked for Harli, a 13-year-old Siberian husky rescued when her owner became homeless.
Usually older dogs are hard to adopt, but Duke posted about Harli online, someone saw it and passed it on to a friend who has a soft spot for old huskies, and Harli had a new home 48 hours later.
The title of the blog post about Harli, posted before she was adopted, was, “I believe in the essential goodness of people.”