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Changing the stories we tell about pet ownership

Amy Mills, CEO of Emancipet, challenges us to quiet our judging minds and open our hearts with the 30-Day Story Cleanse

For the last decade, I’ve served as the CEO of Emancipet, working to keep people and their pets together and healthy by making veterinary care accessible and affordable. We do this by opening low-cost veterinary clinics in underserved neighborhoods. Emancipet now runs six clinics in Texas, and our first clinic outside of Texas will open soon in Philadelphia.

Like many of us, I came to this work with a heart for animals. I wanted to change the world so no animal ever had to experience pain, fear or loneliness. Early in my career, doing outreach in impoverished areas, I would inevitably see pets in bad shape. I’d look into their eyes and they’d look back in that soul-piercing way animals have, and I really believed they were saying, “Rescue me.”

But now, after years of getting to know thousands of pet owners from all walks of life, I know better.

At Emancipet, we serve working families, military personnel, homeless people, homebound seniors, the unemployed, veterans with PTSD, college students, and people who have fallen on all manner of hard times.

I’ve met people who feed their pets before themselves, who live with their pets in their cars because they can’t find rental housing that welcomes pets, and who have risked their own lives in natural disasters to stay with their pets. I’ve watched the joy and ease between people and their pets, even when those pets were not cared for in the way I was taught to view as “responsible.”

Now I know those pets I saw years ago were never asking me to save them. Those sad-eyed dogs weren’t saying “Rescue me.” They were saying “Go change the world, so I won’t need to be rescued.”

Dang it.

That sounds much, much harder.

To change the world for animals, we have to change the neighborhoods they live in. We have to address the underlying systemic issues that keep pet owners from accessing medical and other care for their pets—poverty, economic injustice and lack of infrastructure such as veterinary clinics and pet-welcoming rental housing. It requires us to think like social change makers: developing programs, services and messages that will change the behavior and habits of huge segments of the pet-owning population. It requires us to audit our organizations for inclusivity and cultural responsiveness and embrace new ways of doing business.

But none of that is as challenging as transforming our own ideas and beliefs about pet ownership and working to quiet our judging minds and open our hearts to people.

It took me a long time to become conscious of my own mind’s habit of judgment. After a series of experiences that proved my assumptions about people were often completely wrong, I began to cultivate a habit of “compassionate curiosity” instead.

I started to see that my belief about the “right” way to care for pets inhibited my ability to help pets whose owners’ lives were vastly different from my own. Even today non-judgment is a practice for me, not something I have perfected. However, now I see that the old framework of putting a certain kind of pet owner in the “responsible/good” bucket and everyone else in the “irresponsible/bad” bucket just doesn’t make sense anymore, and it doesn’t help us achieve our goals. We aren’t truly protecting animals if we aren’t also protecting the bond between pets and their people. We must protect love itself.

I believe that love, in any form, transforms us. But when love is embodied in the form of a silly, loyal, joyful, hilarious, adorable pet, it has a unique and special power. Loving a pet allows us to grow more patient, compassionate and kind. It improves our sense of humor (thanks for pooping on the couch!), our connection to nature (yes, we can go for another walk!), our awareness of the present moment and the passing of time.
The alchemy of love between people and pets transforms bad days into good ones, loneliness into connection, sadness into joy. We have all experienced the softening that happens when our hearts are opened by the love of a pet, and broken by the loss of them.
There is a higher purpose of our work, beyond helping animals and people. It is to make more space for love in this world. To ensure that every dog and cat is connected, for a lifetime, to a person who is empowered to care for them. To ensure that every human heart has the opportunity to be transformed by sharing a life with a pet.

That’s why I’ve become so passionate about changing the words we use and the stories we tell about pet ownership. We came up with the idea of the 30-Day Story Cleanse based on the trend of juice cleanses to jump-start a healthier lifestyle. We want to jump-start a movement to tell stories that reflect a more diverse and authentic picture of loving relationships between people and pets.  

To do the Story Cleanse, for one month, you will actively seek out and tell only a certain kind of story. It must celebrate the bond between a person and their pet, feature pet owners who have been underrepresented in positive animal welfare stories (like people of color, low-income people or homeless people), and include only images of people and their pets together and happy.
Let’s tell stories that honor the true, joyful spirit of animals; celebrate the human-animal bond and lift our spirits. I believe that telling different stories will lead to different outcomes, and I believe those outcomes will be awe-inspiring.

Are you inspired to take the 30-Day Story Cleanse, either as an individual or an organization? Have you already done a Story Cleanse? Let us know in the comments!

To hear more from Amy Mills, watch the special session from Animal Care Expo 2016!


About the Author

Amy Mills is the CEO of Emancipet, a non-profit on a mission to make veterinary care affordable and accessible for all pet owners. Amy leads the organization’s strategic growth initiatives: opening new clinics in underserved communities, providing training and consulting programs to animal welfare organizations and advocating for strategies and public policy that improve the lives of pets in underserved communities.