Monday, March 3, 2008

Too Many Dogs in Shelters?

Absolutely. I don't think anyone would argue that. There are way too many dogs and cats in our animal shelters. One is too many.

I'm writing this post in response to a comment I received about an earlier post on mandatory spay/neuter. In that comment, Symsess said, in part:

So I guess what I'm saying is that I don't believe this problem is being exaggerated. I don't think we need a law, nor do I think it will be effective, but we certainly have a problem here and dogs and cats are the ones suffering the consequences.
I agree that we have a problem, but as I see it, PETA is exaggerating and manipulating public perceptions of the shelter population in order to gin up uninformed support for measures like mandatory spay/neuter--measures that have little to do with resolving shelter populations and instead take us one more step toward PETA's real objective of eliminating companion animals entirely.

(I'm not going to argue about PETA. I'm convinced by PETA's own statements that its ultimate objective is to "liberate" all domestic animals from human ownership, including dogs and cats. For those who want to explore that matter, there's plenty of stuff out there, online.)

PETA and its supporters say, "There are more dogs and cats in shelters than there are people willing to adopt them." As I hope to show, that is a flat manipulation designed to lead us to support even drastic measures.

One, the truth is that nobody knows the true ratio of adoptable dogs to homes willing to adopt. (I'm only talking about dogs in this post.) It has never been measured. The ratio simply can’t be inferred from the number of dogs in shelters, and it can’t be inferred from the intake-to-euthanasia records that shelters keep, either. Analogy: If I tell you that I have 25 TVs in my bag, can you tell me how many buyers of brushed nickel finish, 40-inch, plasma screen Samsung HDTVs are there in Maricopa County, AZ? See the problem?

The ratio of shelter dogs to willing adopters has never been measured partly because there are simply too many variables to take into account. For instance, I might adopt IF my shelter has my preferred breed on hand. On the exact day I visit. Or if it has my breed AND my preferred sex. AND my preferred age. AND color. Or, I might adopt IF the dog matches all that AND is health certified. Or temperament certified. And Free. Spayed. Not spayed. Because the truth is, when it comes to dogs, one size doesn't fit all.

I’m sure a study could be designed to account for all those and other variables, but it won’t be, because such a study would be prohibitively expensive to conduct, tabulate, analyze, and publish. Nevertheless, some folks continue to claim, falsely, that there are more dogs in shelters than there are homes willing to adopt them. That is false because it is not known and not knowable from the data we have, and cannot be inferred from the fact that many dogs remain unadopted.

The fact that dogs remain in shelters after a given year’s adopters have come and gone absolutely does not mean that all willing adopters have met and rejected each and every one of those dogs. It doesn’t even mean that that all the adopters who saw them actually specifically “rejected” them all. In order for that to be true, every adopter would have to be equally ready to adopt every dog. But again, it doesn't work that way. I might go to the shelter ready to take home a Beagle puppy and find no Beagle puppies. That isn’t the same thing as rejecting the Bassets and the Collies and the mixed-breeds, because I’m not in the pool of willing Basset, Collie, or mixed-breed adopters in the first place. I’m a willing Beagle PUPPY adopter, but that fact is not accounted for in the crude measure, “dogs euthanized annually,” and it is absolutely erased in PETA's propaganda.

Two, although nobody argues that the number of animals being euthanized by shelters is acceptable, many of those animals are not adoptable in the first place. In fact, many were taken to the shelter specifically to be put down—a tax-payer subsidized alternative to paying your own vet to do that painful service. These are sick, elderly, and “untrainable” animals, and these conditions will occur in any animal population, always--unless we eliminate all animals, of course.

And this is an important, generally neglected consideration in any ethical discussion of the ethics of shelter euthanasia: Do we know what percent of dogs brought for that purpose had already lived the best lives possible in their specific circumstances? No. PETA wants us to assume that they are all victims of neglect, abuse, and callousness. I think a fairer assumption is that while some certainly are, some certainly are not, and that in a significant number of cases, euthanasia is an act of mercy. I would personally appreciate that option, and use it if I were in unmanagable pain, terminally ill, or simply worn out by age, and I have taken four beloved companions to the vet to be euthanized for one or more of those reasons. Some people can't afford the vet or stand the considerable agony of remaining with their animal for the final moments, but that doesn't make them abusers. So what percent of euthanasias should be defined in that way? We don't know, and PETA would like to obscure that consideration.

Three, no county that I’m aware of has ever gone all out to find homes for all the adoptable dogs in its shelters. In other words, to some unknown degree, the problem is a marketing problem. It’s a public information and access problem. We need to confront the rampant myths about shelter animals and make the adopting experience as risk-free and pleasant as possible without reducing the security measures designed to prevent shelter dogs from ending up with Michael Vick. That won’t happen to the necessary extent because your county and mine have other priorities. But all our counties could do a better job than they do, I’m sure. Until these steps are taken, we can’t know whether dogs are euthanized because there aren’t enough homes out there, or because the willing buyers for those dogs simply aren’t aware they’re there in the narrow timeframe available.

Four, in many counties, shelter populations have actually steadily decreased as those counties take steps to educate the public about dog ownership and breeds and shelter adoption opportunities, and offer subsidized or free spay/neuter clinics. But it would undermine PETA's longterm objective to make this fact clear and fund public education campaigns, wouldn't it?

By claiming that there are more dogs in shelters than there are homes for them, PETA creates the impression that we have a crisis, a gridlock. Given that scenario, we are ready to take seriously even the most extreme propositions, such as mandatory spay/neuter. It takes one second to realize that if virtually all dogs are mandatorily spayed or neutered, there won't be anymore dogs, and the dogs that do breed will constitute a dangerously small gene pool that can only ensure severely damaged offspring in the future. Which gets us back to PETA's longterm objective.

So. Tell me how mandatory spay/neuter will address the problem of dogs in shelters. What it WILL do is ensure the virtual genocide of intentionally bred and homed animals while it totally ignores feral animals whose offspring account for at last half the dogs in shelters. And that makes sense how?

It will also punish owners like me, who already spay and neuter, while utterly ignoring the scofflaws and freeloaders who are mostly responsible for dogs ending up in shelters. Why? Because these people already ignore licensing and responsible breeding practices. Why on earth does anyone think they'll suddenly sit straight and fly right?

There are too many dogs in shelters and too many of them are euthanized needlessly. Concerted, sustained public education programs coupled with vouchers for spay/neuter and free spay/neuter clinics gradually result in sustained declines in shelter populations. We know this. It is a fact and it is demonstrated time and again in shelter population studies. That's the direction to take.

Will it ensure that every dog prospers? No, but then were you born with a guarantee? Neither was I. Life's hard truth is that some of us make it and some of us don't make it. Beloved home companion animals are hit by cars or accidentally poisoned or die prematurely from diseases. My point is that it is unrealistic to expect that some dogs won't end up in shelters. Our task, it seems to me, is to work consistently to: (a) educate the public about breeds and responsible dog ownership; (b)provide accessible and friendly adoption options; (c) ostracize, criminalize, and penalize irresponsible owners; (d) stop running ads that make cruelty to animals seem inevitable -- as ASPCA's popular "In the Arms of the Angels" ad inadvertently does -- and instead, run ads that show the practice and the people who do it as unacceptable, criminal, and disgusting -- like a very effective series of ads about meth users; (e) teach respect for animals and nature as automatically as we (used to) teach respect for people; (f) encourage and subsidize spay and neuter; and (g) encourage adoption, and when purchasing is desired insteand, encourage purchasing from reputable, informed, and ethical breeders which can be found by contacting the breed club in your community or nearest you. That's what telephone books and the internet are for.

I'll end with saying that to some extent, I see the fact of dogs in shelters as symptomatic of a sick culture--much they way school shootings are symptoms that something bigger than we seem willing to confront is amiss in how we choose to organize our world. But that's a whole other post, about commodification of animals, wives, and children, and our addictive consumer culture. However, enough for now.