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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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.

Life and Death Decisions… Daily

Imagine: You are the director of an animal shelter. During the last week of February, your shelter took in 48 dogs. Now the spring birthing season — when intake numbers traditionally spike — is  upon you. You’ve been working hard to increase the shelter’s adoption rates, but you can’t call the shelter No Kill – not yet, not by a long shot; healthy dogs are still put down daily to make room for those that will inevitably come through the door. Unfortunately, your situation is echoed throughout the United States, primarily in the South, where studies show spay and neuter rates are lower than in any other region. This leads to more dogs having more litters, and that, of course, leads to more crowded shelters.

Now in comes a pregnant stray. Shelter volunteers name her Maple – she’s a friendly retriever mix with red-gold fur and a sweet disposition.

You get that all-too-familiar sick feeling deep in your stomach.

The law prohibits you from adopting out dogs that have not been spayed or neutered.  That means you can’t release Maple unless she is spayed, and spaying will kill her puppies.  If you hold Maple until she births her pups, you will have to kill other dogs to open up space for her litter.

You ask yourself:  Does it make more sense to euthanize puppies yet to be born or to euthanize those that are already living?  The decision is yours; you must make it.

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In too many shelters across the country, shelter directors make life and death decisions daily.  There is just not enough room in overcrowded shelters to house all the dogs that are picked up as strays or surrendered by their owners.  These are healthy dogs, adoptable dogs, dogs that would make great pets.

Finding homes for the country’s homeless dogs must be a priority, or shelters will continue to use euthanasia to control their populations, and euthanasia due to homelessness will remain the leading cause of canine death in the United States. But as the spring mating season is upon us, there is something dog owners can do to stem the flow of new litters: Spay and neuter your pets, and encourage others to spay and neuter theirs. Veterinarians say you and your pet will reap the benefits:

  • Altered pets live longer, healthier lives. (Females will not get ovarian or uterine cancer; males will not get testicular cancer and are less likely to suffer from prostate disease.)
  • Altered pets are easier to train.
  • Altered pets have less desire to roam, making them less likely to become lost or hit by a car.
  • Altered pets have fewer behavior and temperament problems.
  • Altered pets tend to be less aggressive, yet they remain protective of their families.

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There is an abundance of information online regarding the reasons to, and the benefits of, spaying and neutering your pet.  Here’s a link to get you started, should you want to learn more:  American Humane Association.

Dogs aren’t the only ones to drop the ball

Albuquerque, New Mexico has a puppy problem. In December, city shelters took in 347 abandoned or surrendered puppies. That number, of course, doesn’t include all the adult dogs that also entered the shelter that month. So what will become of all these potential pets? The shelters and rescue groups will do their best to adopt them out. But the reality is that a number of the dogs – and puppies – will be killed.

According to the city’s Animal Welfare Department, “Every year, thousands of kittens and puppies are born into short lives of suffering and death in Albuquerque because people did not spay or neuter their pets. There are simply not enough homes for the animals that are born because of this type of neglect.”

This “neglect” is certainly not unique to residents of Albuquerque; all over the country there are people who find one reason or another not to spay or neuter their pet. But the city is launching a campaign it hopes will result in fewer litters. The campaign is one part media blitz – public service announcements, banners on buses, and water bill inserts will proclaim the import of spaying and neutering – and one part action – the Animal Welfare Department will offer free and low-cost surgeries to low- and moderate-income residents.

I learned about the public service announcement via a KOAT-TV news story on the web. I love the PSA. I dislike the news story.

First, the PSA. The idea behind it: If you think an unintended pregnancy is a serious problem for you, you should know it’s just as serious for your pet – and its offspring. In one scene a good-looking young couple sits at a kitchen table with an open pregnancy test in front of them.

Woman: I can’t believe this is happening.
Man: It was your responsibility.
Woman: I should have gotten her spayed when I had the chance.
Cue the cat: It jumps onto the table and meows loudly.

In another scene a man is watching TV when the phone rings. Upon answering it he hears a male voice yell, “Your boy got my girl pregnant!” The “boy” is the handsome husky viewers see chewing a bone on the couch. “I knew I should have gotten you neutered,” the man says to his dog.

It’s a great ad: Hopefully the humor will get people watching and the message will get people acting.

Now to the news story, which you can watch here. It got my journalism hackles up for two reasons. First, the light, fun tone of the story belies the seriousness of the issue it’s covering. For example, the reporter leads into her story saying of the city’s problem, it’s “a cute one.” Second, and this is really what’s most significant, is nowhere in the news story does the reporter explain the tragic consequences of pet overpopulation. It’s not crowded shelters, as mentioned in the piece. It’s the unnecessary euthanizing of healthy animals. This fact – perhaps the most important in a story about pet overpopulation – was completely left out.

What do you think? Am I critiquing this story through an advocate’s eyes rather than a journalist’s? I don’t think so. What I do think is that the city of Albuquerque deserves kudos for its campaign. As for KOAT-TV, it dropped the ball on a very important story.

Louie, Louie

If Louie could talk, perhaps he’d tell us how he and two friends found themselves wandering along Franklin Blvd., the main thoroughfare through Gastonia, North Carolina, on a hot day in August. But since Louie is a dog, unless someone comes forth to claim him, all we know is that Louie is a stray.

Vet techs at Gastonia’s lone low-cost spay-neuter clinic, located on a busy stretch of the thoroughfare, spotted Louie and his two friends, a female Labrador Retriever mix and a male Australian Shepherd mix, navigating their way through parking lots and traffic. Three techs grabbed leashes and corralled the dogs into the safety of the clinic.

That’s where Louie and his friends said their good-byes.

Kathy Cole, a clinic employee and long-time animal advocate, had little trouble persuading Lucky Labs of Charlotte to take Louie’s female friend, and she placed the Aussie with a mixed breed rescue. But she couldn’t find any takers for Louie. Perhaps, she says, that’s because she first identified him as a Chow, a breed with a reputation for being aggressive. Kathy’s since revised her initial assessment and now thinks Louie may be a cattle dog mix, but without DNA testing, there’s no knowing for sure.

Galen

I met Louie when I was in Gaston County researching my own dog’s background. I adopted Galen almost two years ago in New Jersey, but she’s a native Gastonian. She and her siblings were pulled from the county shelter and transported north thanks to two women who devote much of their time and some of their own money to rescuing dogs and cats from kill shelters in the South.  My reporting led me to the clinic, which is the brainchild of the Animal League of Gaston County, a non-profit animal welfare organization.  The group hopes that clinic veterinarians will spay and neuter so many dogs and cats that there will be fewer litters, like Galen’s, that end up in the county’s shelter, where they have a better chance of being killed than adopted.

Louie, at the Animal League of Gaston County’s spay/neuter clinic

I’m no dog expert, so I couldn’t add much to the discussion of Louie’s lineage. The color of his thick golden-brown coat is as Chow-like as it is Golden Retriever-like, and he has a big block head with a line of white fur from his forehead to his snout.  His dark eyes lack the sparkle I so often see in Galen’s, and his demeanor is gentle, his facial expression sad.

When I first saw Louie, he was in the rear of the clinic in one of the metal cages that house dogs and cats recuperating from surgery.  The clinic was serving as a temporary shelter, while Kathy and the other vet techs called everyone they knew to find him a foster home.

If I found a stray dog in my central New Jersey neighborhood, I would have no qualms taking him to St. Hubert’s animal shelter. My town outsources animal control work to St. Hubert’s, which is a non-profit animal welfare organization, and I know the folks there would do all they could to find him a good home. First, per New Jersey law, they would hold him for seven days to give his owner time to find him. Then, if no one claimed him, they would put him up for adoption and work tirelessly to find him a forever home.

Kathy Cole won’t turn Louie in to Gaston County Animal Control, because, she says, he will be killed. Unlike St. Hubert’s, the county’s shelter is simply a holding facility and a very crowded one at that. As a stray, Louie would be held for three days, and if no one claimed him, he would likely be killed to make room for newcomers. It wouldn’t matter that Louie is neutered – Kathy had one of the clinic’s veterinarians take care of that – and that Louie has all his vaccinations – she took care of that, too.  In other words, it wouldn’t matter that Louie, who Kathy guesses is about two-and-a-half years old, is a perfectly healthy, adoptable dog.

Perfectly healthy, adoptable dogs are being killed in Gaston County and throughout large swaths of the South because too many people cannot afford to, or will not, spay and neuter their dogs, and too many shelters are not equipped to be adoption centers for reasons ranging from a lack of money and staff, to old and decrepit facilities, to a fatalistic view by some shelter directors that there are simply too many dogs to save.

The good news:  There are people in many of these communities who will no longer accept the killing of healthy animals and who are taking actions to address the problem, people like the folks at the Animal League of Gaston County whose three-year-old clinic has already spayed and neutered more than 10,000 dogs and cats.

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As I write this post on Sunday afternoon, September 9, Kathy Cole is driving the streets of Gaston County looking for Louie.  She found him a foster home a little over a week ago, but within an hour of being there, Louie jumped the fence and ran away; the foster found Louie sitting under a tree three days later.  Louie returned to the clinic and lived there until Friday, when again, Kathy placed him in a foster home.  Again, Louie stayed an hour before running away. At least now Louie is wearing a dog tag with the animal clinic’s name and phone number, so we can only hope that whoever finds him contacts Kathy, not Animal Control.

If only Louie could talk, he could tell us who he’s looking for and where he wants to go.

The Fix

In September of 2000, Gryffin was on death row. I was just too naïve to know it. When I met him at an Atlanta-area shelter, I saw only an adorable 12-week-old puppy awaiting a home. He was black and gold and as friendly and clumsy as most puppies, but compared with his littermates, he was remarkably calm.  His paperwork revealed he was a Retriever/Chow mix; the shelter named him Rebel.  He was irresistible. I called Kevin, who was then my fiancé, and pleaded my case – Rebel’s case. The next day, Gryffin – the dog formerly known as Rebel – came home with me.

Gryffin using a sleeping Kevin as his pillow.

But what if we hadn’t adopted him?  What if no one had? Then Gryffin would likely be dead, because each year in Georgia, more than 80% of dogs and cats at county shelters are killed, an estimated 300,000 animals, at a cost to state taxpayers of $100 million. Pregnant dogs and cats are killed upon drop-off.

“An epidemic is what it is,” says Ginny Millner, one of the founders of Fix Georgia Pets, an organization tackling the crisis of pet overpopulation, and “euthanasia isn’t the answer.”

For those of us living in the Northeast and on the West Coast, spaying and neutering dogs is common.  In fact, Nora Parker, at New Jersey’s St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center, says it’s rare for dogs dropped off at its shelters not to be fixed.

That’s not the case across much of the South, where attitudes about dogs reflect the region’s rural and agrarian history. “People thought of dogs as animals, not pets,” says a good friend raised on a ten-acre farm in north Georgia. “A pet is something you care for. It lives inside the house; it is a companion.” Growing up, she says, people had “yard dogs” for protection. “If they didn’t protect your house they weren’t any good.” Healthcare for a dog, including spaying and neutering, was unthinkable.  “People didn’t have extra money to spend on their kids, forget their dogs,” she says. So dogs lived outside the house, roaming freely, procreating at will.

Unfortunately today, much remains the same throughout large swaths of the South, resulting in females birthing litters that give rise to more litters.  The numbers are so great that the ASPCA reports that “areas of the south are overwhelmed with more dogs than loving homes.”  That’s why several rescue groups in the Northeast pull dogs from southern shelters, usually just days before the dogs are scheduled to be killed.

But rescue isn’t the solution, according to Ginny Millner, and no one in rescue disagrees. The term “band-aid” is bandied around a lot when talk turns to rescue. The solution – and the challenge – is getting dogs spayed and neutered.

Fix Georgia Pets, founded in March, is a non-profit organization devoted to raising awareness about responsible pet ownership and providing grants to clinics and organizations that provide low- and no-cost spay and neuter services to Georgia residents. Its goal:  raise $5 million dollars to spay and neuter 100,000 animals in the next two years.

“It’s got to be done and it’s got to be done soon,” says Ginny Millner, “because the more you wait, the more animals you have.” And that means more animals living on deathrow.

Gryffin, about four months old: spoiled, happy and very much loved.

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Ginny Millner hopes Fix Georgia Pets will be a model replicated throughout the South. To learn more, go to www.fixgeorgiapets.org.