by Wendolyn Aragon, president, Pet Assistance Foundation
Soon after the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. nearly two years ago, in 2020, most U.S. animal shelters adopted some variation of managed admissions, an approach long promoted by the “no kill” movement, only admitting animals in need of emergency care.
This was concerning, since it was breeding season for cats, and leaving them on the streets would result in a tsunami of kittens and suffering, yet in light of the uncertainty we all faced, it was somewhat understandable – at first. But when lockdown resulted in an unexpected surge of adoptions and new foster homes, many shelters chose to leave cages empty, rather than offer refuge to homeless animals.
(See COVID-19: India feeds stray dogs; ASPCA says “don’t fix them”; COVID-19 suspensions of shelter intakes & spay/neuter: at what cost?; We need to open up spay/neuter – now!, by Bryan Kortis; and COVID-19: animal shelter “experts” circle back toward pet overpopulation, by Ruth Steinberger.)
Dangerous & damaging transformation
We struggled, along with rescue groups and compassionate individuals everywhere, to fill the need caused by shelter lockouts. But where we saw need, heavyweight “no kill” organizations like the Best Friends Animal Society and Austin Pets Alive saw an opportunity to advance their agenda. Soon a dangerous and damaging transformation of our municipal shelters was underway.
First we heard rumors that pandemic policies would continue indefinitely. That a new program called Human Animal Support System, started by Austin Pets Alive and endorsed by other “no kill” activists, would redefine our shelters, divorcing them from their duty of care to all animals in need. That isn’t true, we thought. They can’t just decide to drastically reduce services to the communities that built them and pay their bills. But we now know that it is true.
What is “managed admission”?
Simply put, the so-called Human Animal Support System is a method of creating obstacles to avoid or delay admitting animals in need of refuge. Managed admission shelters will generally only take in animals on an emergency basis if they are sick, injured, or pose a threat. The public must jump through a series of hoops to release an animal, filling out lengthy paper work on line or in person and housing the animal themselves for days while waiting for an appointment at a taxpayer supported shelter.
One caller to our Pet Assistance Foundation hotline described how she rescued a blind Chihuahua in the middle of a busy street. She had to keep the dog for five days in her parents’ back yard before she was finally able to get him into the local public shelter.
Those surrendering their own animals, even for justifiable reasons, are advised to find another home or rescue. If they persist, they are told to make an appointment, which may be months away. If their dog or cat is accepted, the turn-in fees can be steep (over $300 at the Orange County public shelter), an insurmountable barrier for many facing eviction or other economic hardship. These pets are then at great risk of being given away randomly, or simply abandoned.
90% “live release rate” equals more suffering animals
All of this is to achieve a specific “live release rate” of shelter animals to appease public officials and the general public. A 90% “live release rate” sounds impressive, until one realizes that it only pertains to the animals they choose to admit, and bears no relation to the number that actually need help.
The thousands of animals now being turned away from our shelters are not counted; their deaths are not counted, nor is the fact that those deaths––by starvation, dehydration, predation, etc., often involve intense, prolonged suffering.
For the “no kill” movement, that one statistic––the 90% “live release rate”––is more important than the animals themselves, or their quality of life.
Felines bear the brunt
“No kill” policies have resulted in a deluge of suffering for cats. Many public shelters simply will not take in found cats unless they are injured, sick, or motherless, unweaned kittens. In all other cases, the public is told to “Leave the cats where you found them. They can take care of themselves.”
Often these cats are intact. Those who survive continue to breed, so the suffering continues.
Many public shelters now practice Return to Field (RTF), a bastardization of Trap Neuter Return (TNR). Both include fixing and releasing cats, but there are crucial differences.
TNR is used for truly feral or unsocialized cats living in relatively safe locations, with dedicated caregivers to feed them (if they need feeding) and monitor their health.
RTF gives shelters license to alter and release any cats they choose to, including friendly and affection-seeking cats and kittens, back to the streets and fields with no arrangements for food or water, even in areas where residents have warned that their neighbors are hostile towards cats.
The terms TNR and RTF are used interchangeably by some, or lumped together under the term “community cat programs,” in a deliberate attempt to confuse the public. Those promoting RTF realize most people are shocked and appalled by shelters abandoning animals, even though it is supported by familiar, well-endowed organizations under the guise of “save them all.”
Rescues maxed to the brink
There is no way rescues can take up the slack of shelters failing to admit animals. Already at full capacity, they are bombarded daily with frantic calls for help from people the shelters have refused.
Many rescuers already suffer from “compassion fatigue.”
Yet the “no kill” agenda counts on rescue groups to continue relieving shelters of a good percentage of the animals they deign to admit. This situation is not sustainable.
California governor Gavin Newsom has signed the Shelter Assistance Act, which recently awarded a $50,000,000 State Grant to the Koret School of Veterinary Medicine at U.C. Davis for the purpose of “ensuring that all California animal shelters have access to the training and resources needed to transform their organizations…to meet a two-decade-old state policy stating no adoptable or treatable dog or cat be euthanized in an animal shelter.”
Good news/bad news
To our great dismay, the complete focus is on shelter management and adoption, while ignoring the primary cause of shelter overcrowding and high euthanasia rates: pet overpopulation.
Shelter personnel will be trained in “best practices,” via interactive groups and seminars to promote the “health and well-being of animals living in shelters” with a focus on adoption.
While this state money will undoubtedly improve conditions for animals lucky enough to gain shelter admission, it is likely to make things worse for those outside the shelters.
U.C. Davis’s approach to shelter management hinges on the importance of keeping shelter populations low. They are strong promoters of both managed admissions and RTF.
U.C. Davis will oversee the fund distribution and be paid to design and provide the training, but who will oversee U.C. Davis?
What the Pet Assistance Foundation is doing about it
We regret having to firestorm ANIMALS 24-7 readers with so many disturbing issues at what should be a joyous time of year, but we feel we must, including because many ANIMALS 24-7 readers also manage animal shelters or shelterless rescue organizations, and are facing the same issues we are.
We cannot turn our backs on the animals, or rest while problems continue to multiply. And we won’t.
We will petition Governor Newsom to form a review committee, so that taxpayer money won’t be frittered away without addressing the key issue.
We will continue our efforts with pro bono attorneys to get the courts to officially affirm that RTF is animal abandonment.
We will continue answering our hotline and subsidizing spay/neuter and teaching empathy and finding homes for discarded animals and reporting cruelty and contacting our legislators.
And yes, we will say things that are uncomfortable to hear, but only in the hope that it will help to make things better for the animals who rely on people to survive.
About Wendolyn Aragon
Wendolyn Aragon is president of the Pet Assistance Foundation, begun, she writes, “in 1955 with the pioneer mission of curtailing the tragic pet overpopulation problem in greater Los Angeles through education, referral and subsidy of low cost spay/neuter access. In the past 67 years, we have played substantial roles in spay/neuter assistance, serving as a model for other local spay/neuter help organizations.”
The Pet Assistance Foundation has also advanced “local and state legislation,” Wendolyn mentions, “including helping to draft the Los Angeles City and Long Beach breeding control ordinance). We have branches in five counties throughout Southern California.”
Wendolyn herself, she told ANIMALS 24-7 when we asked, has “served as a volunteer for Pet Assistance Foundation since 1969, as a board member since 1982, and as president for nearly 25 years.”
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