Beyond Rescue

Don’t get me wrong. I believe spreading the word about the need for more people to adopt dogs from animal shelters is vitally important, quite literally a matter of life and death for hundreds of thousands of dogs nationwide. So it’s wonderful that after the football game on Thanksgiving day, FOX television plans to air Cause for Paws, a two-hour celebrity-packed program devoted to the plight of shelter dogs. The show – the brainchild of a TV-producer who says his pit bull rescues inspired the project – is entertainment and fundraiser rolled into one.

But rescue alone isn’t going to solve the crisis of overcrowded animal shelters – a crisis that results in the euthanization of about four million healthy, adoptable dogs and cats in U.S. shelters each year. If we, as a country, are going to stop the killing, we must increase the number of pets that get spayed and neutered.

I’m sure Cause for Paws will address spay/neuter; I’m sure that a celebrity or two will urge pet owners to fix their pets. The problem is, not every pet owner has access to a spay/neuter facility and many of those who do simply can’t afford to pay for the procedure.

According to SpayFirst director Ruth Steinberger, fewer than ten states have accessible and affordable spay/neuter services available to pet owners. Accessibility, Steinberger argues, means having a veterinary clinic, a spay/neuter facility, or a program that transports pets to a facility within fifty miles of a pet owner’s home. Affordability means the cost of the surgery is less than what a low-wage or minimum-wage worker makes in a day, which is about $50.

A number of people I spoke with in the course of reporting Dogland – those on the front lines of the battle to save lives – lamented that not enough attention surrounding our shelter crisis goes to spay/neuter. As one shelter volunteer in Tennessee told me, “They’re making them twelve at a time and we’re adopting them out one at a time. So, we’ve got a math problem.”

Getting people energized about rescue is easy: Who can resist homeless dogs and puppies in all their adorableness? Getting people energized about spay/neuter is more challenging.

So I leave you with this thought: On Thanksgiving evening, donations will flood in to Cause for Paws, and that money will be granted to organizations doing the critical work of rescue. But this holiday season, if, like me, you are inclined to give charitably to animal welfare organizations, consider donating to a non-profit working to save lives in a way that may be less cute and cuddly, but is just as important.

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Here are several organizations working to make spay/neuter affordable and accessible:

Pets for Life  *  Coalition to Unchain Dogs  *  SpayFirst

Any well-regarded low-cost spay/neuter clinic, such as Gaston Low-Cost Spay/Neuter Clinic, First Coast No More Homeless Pets, and the Humane Alliance

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Autumn Book News

I’ve always loved the way autumn ushers itself into the northeastern United States: Leaves turn orange and amber and yellow; the sky, devoid of clouds, shines the brightest lightest blue; and summer’s heat and humidity retreat, leaving the air brisk and invigorating. This is also the time of year that the Jewish people celebrate the High Holy Days – Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. These are days of reflection, when we contemplate the year behind us and welcome the new one stretching before us.

Four years ago, Rosh Hashanah fell on a gorgeous fall day. My family had yet to go to synagogue, had yet to read the passage about this being the time of year when God makes his plans for how each of us will experience the year ahead. But apparently God had already made his plans for our dog, Gryffin, because that Rosh Hashanah morning, in the car with my husband and our eldest daughter, en route to the Sourland Mountains for an hour-long hike, a tumor that we hadn’t known was tucked behind Gryffin’s ribcage ruptured. Several hours later, our boy was dead, and we were sitting in a pew in our synagogue wrestling with our grief and our shock.

I didn’t know then that I would look back at that day as the start of a new journey – a journey that would begin with my family adopting Galen, a rescue dog from a North Carolina animal shelter, and that would culminate with the publication of my first book.

That book, Dogland: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Dog Problem will be released by Ashland Creek Press next autumn. (Despite living in the digital age, book publishing moves at a pace seemingly closer to that of the Gutenberg press than that of the Internet.)

Dogland is Galen’s story, and it is the story of the South, where, more than in any other region of the country, healthy, adoptable dogs in overcrowded animal shelters are euthanized to make room for the next ones that will inevitably come through their doors. And it is the story of humble visionaries who believe there is a home for every shelter dog, that spay/neuter rates can rise in the even the poorest communities, and that the South’s children – the next generation of dog owners – can transform a culture. What’s more, they believe that their ideas and their passion can transcend the South to the many communities throughout the United States where euthanasia is used to remedy the problems of shelter overpopulation.

In the coming months I will be moving this blog to a new website built to herald the release of Dogland. I hope you will come with me, that you will continue to support this blog, and that you will consider purchasing (and reading) Dogland. All the proceeds from the book will be funneled back to the people and programs working to end shelter euthanasia, which remains the leading cause of canine death in the United States.

-Jacki

The Dogs of Magnolia, Arkansas

They are malnourished. They have mange. Veterinarians who have examined them say they are in “deplorable physical and mental condition.” They are the dogs of the Magnolia, Arkansas city pound. Fifty-nine have been rescued. They are being vetted, rehabilitated, fostered. They will be adopted into loving families.

But what of all the other dogs finding their way into the shelter? What will their futures hold?

Here are the facts: Structurally, the city-run shelter in Magnolia consists of a metal roof over a concrete floor – there are no walls. The dogs live in chain link pens exposed to the elements. In a statement to the local newspaper, Magnolia’s mayor said the “pound” is meant to be a holding facility for strays, not a rescue shelter. The city, he said, appropriates no money for animal care. “If a dog comes in sick, there is a good chance that dog will infect the rest of the dogs in the pound. The pound doesn’t have the funding or manpower to prevent this.”

A single animal control officer runs the facility – the mayor calls him “a one man show.” He is charged with collecting strays, responding to citizens’ calls, cleaning the pens, and feeding the dogs. Should no one claim a dog within five days – the mayor says most pet owners don’t – the city is authorized to euthanize it. Only recently, this wasn’t happening. People familiar with the shelter say the officer was trying to save lives, to give the dogs every chance at adoption. So a facility built to hold fifteen-to-twenty dogs held nearly sixty. But the officer couldn’t – or didn’t – care for the dogs, and their health and their living situation deteriorated. (The cynic in me wonders if there might also have been external pressure from the city not to euthanize, as the procedure, done by a local vet, is paid for out of the city’s coffers.)

A volunteer with H&P Animal Alliance learned of the dogs’ squalid living conditions and fading health and went public, posting a video on YouTube. Then she persuaded the city to let the group rescue the fifty-nine dogs, and she found an organization larger than hers – Big Fluffy Dog Rescue of Nashville, Tennessee – to take them in, rehabilitate them, and adopt them out.

What now for the Magnolia shelter? The mayor says this “mistake” will not happen again: Dogs not claimed by their owners, adopted, or pulled by a rescue during the holding period will be euthanized. “We receive such a large volume of animals due to negligent owners that I’m concerned that we will not be able to keep the appropriate numbers at the pound without euthanizing some animals,” the mayor’s statement said.

In Magnolia – in communities throughout the country with overcrowded shelters – the answer to shelter overpopulation should not be euthanasia. What’s more, the answer will not be found inside the shelter. It must come from pet owners who no longer forego fixing their pets and from communities that make spay/neuter surgery accessible and affordable. Barring this, shelter euthanasia will continue to be the leading cause of canine death in the United States. That, like the situation in Magnolia, is as tragic as it is infuriating.

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U.S. shelters are a hodge podge of public, private, and public-private entities that operate under the auspices of the municipalities, counties, and states in which they are located. In many states oversight is insufficient and ineffective. In others, like Arkansas, there is no oversight, as there are no regulations regarding even minimal standards of care. It is with this knowledge that Big Fluffy Dog Rescue is asking people to sign a petition requesting the federal government hold shelters to the same minimal standards that the USDA holds commercial breeders in order to prevent cruelty and abuse. Says Jean Harrison of Big Fluffy Dog Rescue, “If the states will not act, the federal government must.” The petition can be found at change.org.

One more thing: According to Big Fluffy Dog Rescue, vetting the Magnolia dogs will cost the rescue upwards of $50,000 because the dogs are in such poor condition. Click on the links if you would like to learn more about the Magnolia dogs and Big Fluffy Dog Rescue or if you would like to make a donation.

Happy Birthday Galen!

My baby girl turned three this week, making it as good a time as any to reflect on our life together.

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Kevin and I adopted Galen in November 2010, when she was just eight weeks old. I hoped she would fill the void in my heart – and my life – that was created by Gryffin’s sudden passing. He was our first child, and we’d considered him pretty close to perfect, so Galen entered our life with a heavy burden to bear. That I’d tethered her with it was completely unfair, but she’s borne it beautifully, if quirkily. What’s more, she’s taught me far more than I’ve taught her.

I taught Galen basic obedience: to sit and to stay, to lie down and to come. I tried to teach her to shake, but at that I failed. She learned from a wonderful dog walker.

Galen taught me that just as people march to the beat of their own drum, dogs do, too, and that I should embrace marchers no matter their species and not attempt to redirect them.

She taught me that dogs can be just as stubborn as people, and reminded me that one must choose her battles wisely, a lesson that comes in handy when you’re the mother of two stubborn (human) daughters.

She taught me that a dog in the home, by its very presence, helps teach children empathy and respect, compassion and responsibility.

She taught me that a child never wakes up grumpy when awakened by a fifty-eight pound canine standing on top of her, digging her out from under her comforter, and pushing a cold, wet nose into her face.  (When the dog doesn’t wake up the child, the mother hears not, “Good morning, mom,” but, “Where’s the dog?”)

And she’s taught me to take risks. That’s why I’m writing a book about Galen, overcrowded public shelters (Galen was rescued from one), and innovative efforts to increase spay/neuter in rural and urban America, where rates are lowest. Here’s a quick overview of the crisis:

At least four million abandoned and unwanted dogs and cats are euthanized in shelters across the United States each year. That’s more than nine-thousand each day, about half the population that enters the shelters. Yet according to a recent study by PetSmart Charities, eight in ten Americans vastly underestimate the number of annual deaths, putting it at one million.

What’s perhaps even more devastating, according to animal welfare experts, is that a majority of those killed – up to ninety percent – are healthy and adoptable and would make great pets. But because not enough Americans adopt from shelters, because people relinquish their dogs and cats for myriad reasons, and because too many Americans don’t spay or neuter their pets, shelters are so overcrowded they euthanize simply to create space.

My hope is that my book will make more Americans aware of the crisis and provide solutions that communities nationwide can embrace and make their own. My hope is that I complete the book in the coming year…

Or at least by the time my baby girl turns four. For now, “Happy Third Birthday, Galen!”

A birthday card from some of Galen's favorite people -- the ladies who play with her at daycare.

A birthday card from some of Galen’s favorite people — the ladies who play with her at daycare.

My Black Merle Aussie Sheprador

I’ve always considered Galen a mutt, or in more politically correct terms, a mixed breed. I thought of Gryffin the same way. When people would inquire about his pedigree – and they often did because he was fabulously handsome – I would answer, “Pure mutt.”

But now I realize I wasn’t giving my dogs their due.

I should have answered with their “razas unicas” – their unique breed names. Thus, Gryffin was my beloved Golden Flag-tailed Chowtriever.

Gryffin

Gryffin

Galen is my quirky Black Merle Aussie Sheprador.

Galen

Galen

If you’ve never heard of such breeds, I’m not surprised. As I said, these breeds are unique.

Perhaps, I should explain.

A video by an animal rescue organization out of Costa Rica, highlighting its efforts to increase adoptions, is burning up the Internet. The organization – Territorio de Zaguates or Territory of the Street Dogs – runs a sanctuary for the country’s abandoned dogs. These are canines – there are upwards of 500 of them at the sanctuary at any given time – that if adopted, would make great companions. The problem – and the impetus for the campaign – was that the dogs weren’t being adopted, primarily because many Costa Ricans have a stigma against mutts. Such dogs are perceived as less valuable than purebreds and, according to a blogger who visited the sanctuary, are “widely referred to as rats.”

The innovative campaign, which includes social media, community outreach, a national art exhibit, and TV appearances, seeks to undue this stigma by highlighting the “razas unicas” of the country’s canines. “They only exist in our country,” a dog expert crowed on one of Costa Rica’s most popular programs. “They are wonderful specimens… they are unique breeds.”

The message, as simple and creative as it is, is being heard. Attitudes are shifting. Adoptions are up. And as the campaign continues, dog lovers everywhere can only hope these trends continue and, they might, perhaps, even heed the message themselves. After all, who wouldn’t want to own a Shaggy Shepherd Dachspaniel, an Eye-patched Australian Dalmapointer, or a Schnaufox Melenudo?

As for me, I’m very happy with my Black Merle Aussie Sheprador, because it’s not just her breed that’s unique — she has one heck of a unique personality, too.

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I’ve got lots of links to share. Click here to see the video and here to see Territorio de Zaguates’ facebook page.

Go to Buzzfeed to see photos of some of Costa Rica’s canines, along with their unique breeds. My eleven-year-old daughter and I laughed together, as nothing puts a smile on your face like close-ups of smiling mutts mugging for the camera.

Go to Travel Mother to read the story of one blogger’s hike with Costa Rica’s street dogs. “The herd of five hundred dogs pouring out of their enclosure is a spectacular site. The pack flows like a rapid river as they turn down the trail entrance and out to the open hills. We volunteers then follow them for a couple hours of exercise, fresh air, and doggy-human socialization.” (Added to my bucket list: Hiking with the street dogs of Costa Rica.)