by Merritt Clifton
HOUSTON, DENVER––Are adoption transport and feral cat translocation truly intelligent free-market approaches to reducing shelter killing, or just the 21st century versions of taking unwanted animals to Crazy Cat Lady?
In India, cities without federally subsidized Animal Birth Control programs often covertly hire truckers to collect street dogs and illegally dump them in cities that have ABC, or in forest reserves where wild predators may dispose of them.
The Karwar Municipal Council, for example, ran into trouble in November 2014 for allegedly dumping 125 street dogs in the Dandeli-Anshi Tiger Reserve at Srinivasalu, near Bangalore.
In view that the home of a street dog is the street, and that either a street dog or a feral cat in unfamiliar habitat is at a significant survival disadvantage, how much does relocating impounded dogs from U.S. city to U.S. city in search of homes, or translocating feral cats to new neighborhoods, differ from the covert and illegal Indian practice?
Originated by longtime North Shore Animal League president Babette Lewyt more than 45 years ago, adoption transport began with the late Mrs. Lewyt collecting dogs and sometimes cats from poorly located municipal animal control shelters around Long Island where they had no chance of even being seen by potential adopters, and bringing them to the centrally located North Shore adoption center in Port Washington, New York, just a few minutes’ drive from New York City.
Making effective use of adoption transport helped North Shore to become the first shelter in the world to rehome 5,000, 10,000, 20,000, 30,000, and at peak 44,000 animals in 1991, before any other shelter was rehoming even 10,000.
In 1990 the North Shore Animal League began subsidizing other shelters around the U.S. to start their own adoption transport programs. The basis of the North Shore approach was a simple trade: “Bring us your unwanted litters of puppies and kittens, and we will spay the mother––free!”
North Shore encouraged others
North Shore had already helped to cut shelter killing in New York City and surrounding suburbs by more than 75% in two decades. The original 31 North Shore-subsidized adoption transport programs, operating on the same basis, had comparable dramatic effects in the communities they served.
The adoption shelters rehomed thousands of otherwise doomed animals, mostly from the South, where shelter intakes were and remain highest. The partner shelters in the South facilitated enough sterilizations with North Shore grants to reduce their puppy and kitten intakes by half or more by 2000. This did not come close to ending dog and cat overpopulation in the South, but represented the first substantive progress in a positive direction.
But the North Shore approach depended on finding shelter animals, especially puppies and kittens, who could relatively easily be rehomed. Seldom did an animal transported to North Shore spend more than a week at the North Shore adoption center before finding a home.
High-volume adoption modus operandi
The Denver Dumb Friends League, the Humane Society of Golden Valley in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, and the other major participants in the North Shore-inspired adoption transport programs enjoyed similar results––and do, to this day, by being relatively selective in choosing which animals to move.
Unadoptable animals, or animals requiring extensive rehabilitation, would clog the system, inhibiting each shelter’s ability to rehome animals in high volume, ultimately contributing to more animals being killed by the overcrowded shelters that send animals.
Because high-volume adoption and quick turnover were the goals, North Shore and other shelters doing adoption transport following the North Shore model have always emphasized moving animals safely and efficiently, in air-conditioned vans with experienced professional drivers, with veterinary examinations at both ends of the journey.
Eventually North Shore established a sterilization clinic in Virginia, so that animals being transported could be fixed before even arriving at the Port Washington adoption shelter, and could therefore be ready to rehome almost immediately.
Neither North Shore nor other shelters following the North Shore model ever expected to be able to save every shelter animal in other parts of the country. Recognized from the beginning was the need to prevent the births of animals for whom there might be no good adoptive homes anywhere, including feral cats, dangerous dogs, and dogs of any breed or mix more abundant than pet-keeping households could comfortably absorb.
Inspired by the North Shore paradigm, other organizations established their own adoption transport programs. The largest, the PetSmart Charities Rescue Waggin’ transport program, debuted in 2004, relocating 8,000 dogs from Indiana, Tennessee, and Kentucky to adoption centers in Michigan and Wisconsin, then expanding nationwide. By the end of 2014 the Rescue Waggin’ vans had relocated more than 80,000 dogs in programs involving shelters in 23 states.
But along the way, the highly successful adoption transport model based on market demand developed shadows.
Superficially the shadow models seem to be doing the same thing on a smaller scale: individual rescuers “pull” animals, mostly dogs, from animal control and other open-admission shelters, and transport them elsewhere in search of adoptive homes.
Raising their own funds and making their own transport and adoption arrangements, rescuers comb the inventories of shelters that do not participate in the established adoption transport programs, using web and Facebook postings to coordinate moving tens of thousands of animals who would otherwise not get a chance at adoption.
Instead of custom-built air conditioned vans, many of the rescuers of necessity move animals in their own dilapidated hatchbacks and station wagons. Instead of making use of mass media advertising to attract adopters, many rely on Craigslist or other online classified ads.
Market-driven vs. rescue-driven
Considerable initiative and creativity goes into finding animal placements.
Examined more closely, though, the resemblance of the small-scale programs to those of North Shore and Rescue Waggin’ is illusory.
Some are market-driven, directed by individuals who have learned to make their livings buying and selling dogs. But individual “rescue transporters” who always seem to have puppies and high-demand purebreds available for “adoption” and claim to rehome “rescued” animals in numbers rivaling major shelters are frequently suspect. Many, like Napier’s Log Cabin Horse & Animal Rescue founder Alan Napier, who was convicted of fraud on February 4, 2015, have been caught “rescuing” puppies by purchasing them from breeders.
Other small-scale adoption transport programs are driven not by market demand, but simply by the desire to save an animal’s life. The issue of most concern to the rescuers, evident in Facebook postings imploring others to help “pull” animals from “death row,” is not whether an animal has a reasonable chance of being rehomed and succeeding in an adoptive home, but rather whether the animal is likely to be killed if not “pulled.”
Well-intentioned though adoption transport programs motivated chiefly by saving lives may be, they tend to become overloaded with animals whose adoption prospects are poor in any community.
Worse, would-be lifesavers often “pull” animals from shelters that have excellent adoption programs, yet could not place these particular animals appropriately. The rescuers then try to rehome the hard-to-place animals in the same communities, or similar communities, where animals of much better prospects are readily available.
The animals most often involved are the hardest to rehome anywhere: feral cats and pit bulls with aggressive history, including bite history.
No community wants more feral cats, even in well-managed neuter/return programs, since the goal of neuter/return is to reduce the numbers of feral cats at large.
More transport coincides with more dog attacks
Hardly anyone is willing to knowingly assume the liability inherent in adopting a dog, especially a pit bull, who has already flunked out of one or more homes for dangerous behavior. For this reason many rescue transporters “lose” dogs’ bite history when trying to rehome them into new communities––and this is, in turn, a major reason why fatal and disfiguring attacks by shelter and rescue dogs have explosively increased in recent years.
Only two human fatalities involving shelter dogs occurred from 1858 through 1999, both involving wolf hybrids, one in 1988 and one in 1989. High-volume amateur rescue transport had not yet begun.
Three human fatalities involving shelter dogs occurred from 2000 through 2009, as amateur rescue transport was taking off, involving a pit bull, a Doberman, and a Presa Canario. Unclear is whether any of the three were transported.
There have been 36 fatalities involving shelter and rescue dogs from 2010 to present, involving 28 pit bulls, seven bull mastiffs, two Rottweilers, a Lab who may have been part pit bull, and a husky. About half of the dogs involved are known to have been transported at least once.
Also of note, there were 32 disfiguring maulings by shelter dogs from 1859 through 2009, 19 of them involving pit bulls.
From 2010 to present, there have been at least 123 disfiguring maulings by shelter dogs, 80 of them involving pit bulls. In 2014 alone, 37 shelter dogs killed or disfigured someone; 30 were pit bulls. Again, about half appear to have been transported at least once.
For every human killed by rescue or shelter dogs, hundreds of animals have been–about 14,000 animals killed by shelter dogs in 2013 and 2014 combined.
These realities, and trying to avoid the consequences of them, have gradually turned many amateur adoption transport rescue programs into thinly disguised pyramid schemes.
The success of shelters supplying animals in elevating their “save” or “live release” rates depends upon finding ever more adoption transporters to “pull” otherwise unadoptable dogs and cats.
The adoption transporters’ success, and personal stature within the adoption/rescue community, depends upon finding ever more volunteers to foster translocated animals, awaiting adoptions that may never occur.
Overburdened foster caretakers find that they can only escape looking after too many animals by recruiting others to look after some of them.
At the bottom of the adoption transport rescue pyramid are the “crazy cat ladies” and “pit bull rescue angels” who accept more animals than they can handle, fail to find enablers enough to cope with the influx, and allow their situations to degenerate into hoarding, rather than surrender unadoptable animals to shelters where they will be killed––or translocate feral cats, in particular, into habitat where they are unwelcome, and are soon poisoned, shot, or rounded up and returned to shelters by animal control.
Adoption transport and feral cat translocation motivated chiefly by wanting to give homeless animals a chance to survive have always had vehement critics, coming from three distinctly different directions.
Dog breeders and other representatives of animal use industries united under the umbrella of the National Animal Interest Alliance have unequivocally attacked adoption transport almost from inception.
Coincidentally, Oregon dog breeder Patty Strand formed NAIA at about the same time, in the early 1990s, that studies showed dog adoptions from shelters increasing, even as acquisitions from breeders decreased by about the same amount. Since then, the percentage of dogs acquired from shelters has held relatively steady, at just over 20%, while breeder market share has increased to more than half. The major categories of dog acquisition in decline have been puppies born into their homes and puppies given away “free to good home.”
Birders have been consistently critical of any feral cat control method other than catch-and-kill.
Evolving mainstream humane views
Criticism of adoption transport and feral cat translocation from within the humane community has tapered off with the retirement of the generation of shelter workers who early in their careers memorized the essay “Why we must euthanize,” written by then-Humane Society of the U.S. vice president for companion animal welfare Phyllis Wright in 1979, when shelter killing was near an all-time high. Wright died in 1992.
Most mainstream humane societies now embrace and promote adoption transport. Many of the biggest, including Maddie’s Fund, the Best Friends Animal Society, Alley Cat Allies, and to a somewhat lesser extent the Humane Society of the U.S., now also encourage or at least condone feral cat translocation.
But adoption transport and feral cat translocation simply to avoid killing animals has recently risen from no-kill sheltering advocates who see questionable relocation schemes as part of the problem, instead of the solution.
Of greatest concern is the introduction of public funding and political imprimateur to facilitate mass relocations that would not be undertaken because of market demand, and might not occur with donated funding alone.
Houston has a problem
Among the flashpoints for reignited debate is the Houston-based Rescued Pets Movement, founded in 2013, directed by local activist Laura Carlock.
RPM had reportedly already transported about 2,000 animals from the Bureau of Animal Regulation & Care shelter in Houston to adoption shelters and fostering partners in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming when in June 2014 the city of Houston appropriated $330,000 to underwrite and expand the program. Carlock told Sherry Williams of KHOU 11 News in Houston that the subsidy would amount to about $75 per animal transported, meaning an anticipated transport volume of about 4,400 animals.
Colorado adoption demand
Superficially the RPM program seemed to make sense. The BARC shelter alone kills more animals per year than the entire state of Colorado, the primary destination for RPM transports. Colorado already had the highest statewide adoption rate in the nation, and sufficient adoption demand relative to local intakes that 33% of the dogs adopted in Colorado were transferred in from out of state.
But Colorado adoption demand per 1,000 residents has been close to flatlined, rounding off to 16 (15.7 and 16.2) in each of the past two years. Total Colorado shelter dog and cat adoptions increased by 4,618, but the state human population increased by 83,780, almost a third of the entire U.S. population increase over the the same years. This kept the Colorado shelter animal adoption rate near the same level.
Only if the Colorado human population continued to increase at the nation-leading pace of the past several years, and if adoption transporters could capture almost all of the pet adoption demand from the newcomers, could the Colorado adoption market be expected to absorb another 4,400 animals, especially if many are pit bulls and/or feral cats.
Meanwhile, the Denver Dumb Friends League ranks second only to the North Shore Animal League in total adoptions facilitated during the 42-year tenure of Bob Rohde, the Dumb Friends League executive director since 1977. Only North Shore rehomed more dogs and cats in 2012 and 2013––yet Dumb Friends League adoptions in each year were nonetheless down about 2,000 from the peaks of earlier years.
Competition from the RPM adoption partners could not fairly be blamed for the decline, not least because it started before the RPM program began. But the decline in Dumb Friends League adoptions parallels the numbers brought in by RPM. More significantly, because the Dumb Friends League is by far the largest sheltering organization in Colorado, serving the largest human population concentration, what it experiences tends to be a harbinger for the rest of the state.
“How many could you s/n?”
“How many animals could you spay/neuter with that money and avoid doing more transfers?” asked No Kill Colorado spokesperson David Smith, suggesting to Williams of KHOU that some of the animals transferred from Houston might end up being killed in Colorado shelters instead, or might find homes in Colorado at cost of the lives of unadopted local animals.
Objected No Kill Houston president Bette Sundermeyer, “It’s essentially just transferring bodies, exchanging one body for the next. Dumping them on another city that’s killing as well, is not the solution.”
Said Sundermeyer to ANIMALS 24-7, “RPM’s foster parents are all for this because they are desperate to find ways to get animals from BARC’s kill list. They see the pictures of all the cute animals from the kill lists being loaded up and shipped off to “Mecca.’ No one seems to want to really look at what is happening at the other end of the transports. And a lot of southerners have the mistaken belief that there aren’t kill shelters in more northern states, and that they are just begging for animals up there.
“BARC shoved this through city council,” Sundermeyer charged, “because it is an easy way to make their live release rate look better with little or no work on their part. I’m sure city council is tired of being bombarded with complaints about BARC’s high kill rates, so they are probably desperate too, but uneducated about the situation. It is a lot of smoke and mirrors to make BARC look better at the expense of animals in other communities.”
The RPM deal won city of Houston funding, reported Craig Malisow of the Houston Post, even though “In December 2014, RPM took the unusual move of suing one of its own fosters,” in a case eventually settled out of court, and had transferred animals to New Hope Rescue, a Colorado organization that had been found by a Colorado Department of Agriculture inspection to have ““excessively dirty and cluttered” conditions, including “animal wastes in enclosures and many other areas of the facility.”
“We’re not dealing with New Hope any more,” BARC Director Greg Damianoff told Williams of KHOU.
Perhaps the most questionable aspect of the RPM transport program, however, is the extent to which it ignores the recipe for reducing shelter killing that had already succeeded as dramatically in Houston as in any other part of the world: high-volume, low-cost dog and cat sterilization.
The shelters serving Houston and the immediate Houston suburbs killed more than 100,000 dogs and cats per year, most of them puppies and kittens, when in 1985 the cities of Houston and Austin became the last jurisdictions in the U.S. to abandon the use of decompression chambers to expedite high-volume shelter killing.
Stepping up high-volume, low-cost sterilization, the Houston SPCA, Houston Humane Society, and Citizens for Animal Protection cut the annual toll to 90,000 by 1992, then in 1994 gained a strong ally in the Spay-Neuter Assistance Program. Initially a program of the Fund for Animals, SNAP was in 2000 spun off by founder Sean Hawkins as an independent charity.
From 1995 to 2013 the rate of shelter killing in the greater Houston metropolitan area fell from more than 28 dogs and cats per 1,000 humans, half again higher than the U.S. national average, to the U.S. average of 9.5––the second lowest rate of any metropolitan area along the Gulf Coast from Florida to the Rio Grande.
The rate of shelter killing in the city of Houston proper fell all the way to 5.7, slightly better than the 5.9 rate for the state of Colorado and the 6.2 rate for the state of Utah.
(See also http://www.animals24-7.org/2014/03/12/why-we-cannot-adopt-our-way-out-of-shelter-killing/ and http://www.animals24-7.org/2015/02/26/casualties-of-the-save-rate-40000-animals-at-failed-no-kill-shelters-rescues/)