Elma was surrendered after she was found stuck to a glue trap.  Photo: Brian Adams

What’s In A Name?

Each year, millions of animals are surrendered to adoption centers nationwide, many without names. 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 sometimes it is the name that can make all the difference.

As the head of media relations for the Massachusetts SPCA, I was part of a team that understood the importance of names. A name will become an animal’s narrative in their 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, 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 across several audiences.

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 cooing 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 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. After awhile it became the first question that I was 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 sell papers.

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 captioned photo 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 it 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.

Given the extreme levels of cruelty that we saw, these names would many times take on the necessary gallows humor. It is a trait among many pet owners as well 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? Let me know on Twitter (@brianadamspr).