Each year, millions of animals are surrendered to adoption centers nationwide. Many of these animals are nameless. The history sections on their intake forms remain blank. Their identities are a mystery.
I spent more than five years meeting thousands of these animals and provided names to the chosen few that would be placed in the media spotlight.
You may feel that assigning names to these animals is inconsequential in the midst of the intake process. They will be poked and prodded as veterinarians and adoption counselors search for ailments as simple to fix as fleas or mange or more challenging diagnoses of internal lumps or causes of severe weight loss. As various experts weigh each animal’s future, it is often the name that can make all the difference.
As the head of media relations for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), I was part of a team that understood the importance of names. A name will become an animal’s narrative in its search for a new home. It will be prominently displayed, clipped to each kennel or cage alongside columns of checklists highlighting vaccinations, attitude, bowel movements, and so forth.
In our shelters, it was always the name that was boldest, standing out in large black font. For many staff members, volunteers, and visitors this told their whole story.
Naming the animals that would eventually be photographed, filmed, and sometimes humorously interviewed was a task I embraced. These names served a singular purpose: to encapsulate their story. The tricky part was ensuring that their story would be understood and shared to several different groups of people.
The three main audiences for which names matter most
The first audience was the internal staff. These were the caretakers of each animal and they needed to see a personality first and foremost. I’ve seen volunteers coo as they approached a caged kitten only to draw back their fingers when they see that he has been named Mad Max or Taz. The injured animals that went by Bump or Dunlop usually received the most cuddles.
The second audience was the press. Each time I drafted a press release or called a news desk it was usually the name that broke the ice. It became the first question a reporter asked when I called with yet another case of animal cruelty. Fluffy would not sell papers, but a puppy found in a snow bank named Good Humor would.
The third audience was the public. The best outcome for a name was that it conveyed a serious story regarding animal welfare, while being playful enough to be shared. The names often became the reason why people read further than the photo caption in the newspaper.
A successful name meant that a reader or viewer would spend a few seconds more on an animal’s story before clicking through to another headline. If the name really hit home, it would mean that our switchboards would light up with potential adopters. It’s exactly why I named a six-week-old kitten Newton after staff members discovered that his bruises resulted from tumbling out of a window and falling three stories.
Names that resonated
Given the extreme levels of cruelty that we saw, these names often took on the necessary gallows humor. It is also a trait among many pet owners to take away the power from a moment of suffering.
With that in mind, a few of the more memorable names that turned hugs into coverage, and coverage into homes, were:
• Edison, a six-week-old kitten that suffered injuries after being “cooked” in a microwave;
• Nemo, a two-month-old Chihuahua mix that nearly drowned in the ocean;
• Elma (pictured above), a four-week-old kitten that weighed only 12 ounces after starving and becoming dehydrated while stuck in a glue trap;
• Postina, a two-pound kitten found by a postal worker in a city mailbox;
• Nubbins, a four-month-old kitten born without hind feet; and,
• Trent, a snake found nailed to a telephone pole (that one took the press a few hours to make the connection).
Every name tells a story. Which names have told your favorite stories?
Brian Adams consults with nonprofits, including Komera Project, regarding communications strategy. Brian was previously senior director of communications at United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley and the head of media and community relations for the MSPCA-Angell. This story first appeared on Medium.