Focus on keeping animals out of shelters means more dogs and cats will be left to run at large
LINDSBORG, Kansas––The words “wildlife” and “rabies,” and the phrases “public health” and “running at large” never appear among the 1,688 words comprising the new National Animal Care & Control Association [NACA] “Guideline on Appointment-Based Pet Intake Into Shelters.”
The phrase “public safety” appears just once.
But the word “pet” is used 49 times, mostly as a synonym for “dogs and cats.”
This is a clear indication of mission drift from what NACA founding president Mike Burgwin defined in 1978, and many times thereafter, as “fighting for the right of society to govern itself” by enforcing what “may seem to be just a leash law or barking dog violation,” but has a much deeper meaning in enabling society and urban environments to function.
Burgwin (1929-2016), a public servant for most of his life as U.S. Marine, police officer and animal control officer, saw animal care and control work as one of the front lines in maintaining democracy and civilization.
Dog-&-cat rehoming service
The National Animal Care & Control Association of today apparently sees itself only as a dog-and-cat rehoming service, with a strikingly narrowed vision of why animal care and control agencies exist and what the work they do means, when done well.
The animal care and control role in rabies prevention, to be sure, has diminished since Burgwin’s time.
Indeed, the two most recent human deaths from canine rabies contracted within the U.S. were a 13-year-old boy who was bitten by a rabid dog in Kansas in 1968 and a seven-year-old girl, bitten by a rabid dog in Texas in June 1979.
Nonetheless, more than half of all the animal control districts in the U.S. were formed originally in direct response to canine rabies outbreaks, often under the auspices of public health departments.
Most of the rest of the U.S. animal control agencies existing today were formed in compliance with state laws passed many decades ago, when rabies remained a common threat, mandating that communities have dog pounds and enforce vaccination requirements.
NACA ended the “dogcatcher” era
The advent of post-exposure vaccination to save victims of rabid dogs, and of dog vaccination to prevent canine rabies outbreaks from occurring in the first place, meant that as long as 100 years ago rabies was not a factor in most dog attack fatalities.
But the value of hiring dogcatchers to stop dogs from running at large, menacing humans, horses, and other domestic animals, had become sufficiently self-evident that animal care-and-control agencies became enduring public institutions.
Among the first and most successful of NACA campaigns was to replace the term “dogcatcher” in common use with “animal control officer,” partly in recognition that animal care and control work had come to be a lot more than just catching and impounding dogs running amok.
The “What is NACA?” web page still “recognizes that today’s animal field services officers provide a wide array of services to their communities, including saving pets in danger, protecting human health and safety, enforcing laws and ordinances, providing support and education to community members, disaster response, helping lost pets get home, and helping wildlife, livestock, and exotic animals.”
But “saving pets in danger” is put ahead of the functions that Burgwin and the other NACA cofounders ranked first and second, specifically protecting public health and safety and doing animal-related law enforcement.
The redundant added phrase “helping lost pets get home” adds emphasis to what current NACA leadership imagines taxpayers hire NACA membership to do, even though barely half the households in the U.S. have either pet dogs or pet cats.
Rehoming pets is not the first duty of an ACO
Rehoming pet dogs and cats is an important animal care-and-control function. No one pretends that it is not.
At the same time, animal care and control officers who crave recognition as public safety personnel, earning the same status and pay scales as police officers and firefighters, need to understand that their most important duties serve everyone, not just pet-keepers, and center on law enforcement to protect public health, safety, and our shared environment, including urban and suburban wildlife.
That recognition appears to be all but absent from the “Guideline on Appointment-Based Pet Intake Into Shelters,” published on December 28, 2021.
“How has shelter pet intake evolved over the past 25 years?” asks the NACA “Guideline,” before answering itself that, “Historically, animal services agencies have provided on-demand shelter impoundment of owned and loose or lost pets.”
The NACA “Guideline” contends that, “Some of the consequences of on-demand, immediate intake include animals being unnecessarily impounded; families and pets being needlessly and often permanently separated; increased stress, disease, and death in shelter animals; poor customer experience; compromised staffing efficiency; and decreased organizational effectiveness.”
But the unwritten presumption of the NACA “Guideline” is that most of the dogs and cats captured by animal control officers or brought to shelters by the public are “owned and loose or lost pets.”
Pounds & jails
Indeed, most dogs and cats in the U.S., and most of the rest of the developed world, are kept as pets. But it does not necessarily follow that most impounded dogs and cats are “pets” in the normal sense of the word, any more than it follows that because most people are law-abiding citizens, most people who land in jail are law-abiding citizens.
Much as most people who are arrested and jailed have somehow acted outside the normal parameters of behaving as law-abiding citizens, most impounded dogs and cats have acted outside the normal parameters of pethood, by trespassing, biting, chasing, or doing property damage, all of which are socially unacceptable behavior whether done by animal or human.
Homeless animals are not “pets”
Many impounded dogs and cats, moreover, are no longer claimed as pets by their former owners, who often are no longer anywhere to be found, having abandoned the animals at large, in a recently vacated apartment, or with family and friends who are often neither willing nor able to keep the dogs or cats indefinitely.
Further, cats especially may never have had a home or been pets. Those cats––feral cats––typically neither want nor need anything from humans, and will be healthiest and happiest in a neuter/return situation, but meanwhile may be neither safe nor welcome where found by a member of the public.
“Given the numerous harms and risks associated with unscheduled intake,” the NACA “Guidelines” continue, “we recommend all animal shelters replace this practice with an appointment-based system that includes individual assessment and a case management approach for all non-emergency requests.”
Finding a stray is an emergency
No definition is given for “non-emergency requests,” but to most people encountering a stray dog or cat on their way to work or school, the need to take the animal to a shelter is urgent and immediate, with the only alternative being to allow the animal to continue running at large among traffic until either killed or picked up by someone else who will face the same dilemma.
“Over the past several decades,” the NACA “Guidelines” rattle on, “as animal services agencies move away from treating pets as simply a public nuisance and increasingly recognize a full 98% of pet owners value their pets as much as human family members, there has been a shift in how agencies manage intake processes.”
Perceived constituency shrinks
Note the change of perceived animal care and control constituency from the whole of the community and indeed civilization itself, as Mike Burgwin saw it, to just the claimed “98% of pet owners [who] value their pets as much as human family members,” who most often are not the people allowing their dogs and cats to run at large, or simply abandoning them.
Note also that people who do “value their pets as much as human family members” typically also value an animal care and control agency that will immediately impound a potentially dangerous dog found running at large, and will immediately take in any other animal found at large, scan the animal for an identifying microchip or tattoo, and list the animal as “found,” with a photo, on social media.
Abdications of duty
According to the NACA “Guidelines,” developments such as “Closing of overnight ‘drop boxes,’ a shift to providing pre-intake counseling, and appointment-based intake management are all reflections of the evolving role of animal services and the high value our communities place on the human-animal bond.”
Actually these are often mere abdications of the basic duties of an animal care and control agency.
“Drop boxes” are obviously not the ideal way for an animal shelter to receive animals, but they are equally obviously preferable to leaving dogs and cats to run at large.
“Pre-intake counseling” may be appropriate if the reason for someone surrendering an animal is that the animal defecates on the floor and/or scratches the furniture, but requiring it is asinine if the animal belongs to someone who has just been hospitalized or died, whose close relatives live far away in “no pets” housing.
Avoiding euthanasia by avoiding animals
“Appointment-based intake management” under most circumstances in which animal care and control agencies may be asked to take an animal, not just a few now and then, really just amounts to the agencies doing everything they can think of to avoid having to take in an animal who cannot be safely rehomed, and therefore will require euthanasia.
The NACA “Guidelines” pay lip service to the notion that “managed intake frees up shelter resources to ensure emergencies and critical situations are handled promptly and effectively,” but reality is that fatal and disfiguring dog attacks on both humans and other animals have been soaring throughout the 21st century in part because, instead of handling dangerous dogs “promptly and effectively,” animal care and control agencies have rehomed or released to “rescues” more than 80 dogs who went on to kill more than 50 people, disfiguring more than 450.
This compares to just two people killed by dogs who were previously impounded during the 19th and 20th centuries combined.
Nice if true
The NACA “Guidelines” outline a procedure for people bringing animals to shelters which, apart from being excessively bureaucratic, centers on trying to “identify a solution that does NOT involve the pet coming to the shelter,” exactly the reverse of the message promoted by animal shelters since animal sheltering began that animals should be brought to shelters, not just left at large to suffer whatever fate may befall them, and meanwhile to do whatever harm they might.
(See also San Diego showdown: trap-neuter-return advocates sue vs. return-to-field and “Return to Field” from an animal care & control perspective, by longtime San Diego animal care and control director Dawn Danielson.)
“Does scheduling intake mean closing your doors?” the NACA “Guidelines” ask, responding “No. Effective intake management practices do not involve closing doors or cutting off access to the public. It also doesn’t mean organizations refuse to help or turn away sick or injured pets, animals in immediate danger, or dogs that pose a threat to public safety,” which would all be nice if true.
Threat to wildlife
Reality, unfortunately, is that trying to keep dogs and cats from coming to shelters inescapably means that more dogs and cats left at large will be sick or injured before any shelter accepts them, more loose dogs will join packs posing a threat to public safety, and more pit bulls, in particular, will be left at large to menace other animals and people, with or without a pack behind them.
This is not just a gloomy prediction; it has already been happening for many years now.
The most overlooked of all aspects of the NACA “Guidelines,” however, may be not the threat that more dogs and cats at large will be left to suffer, and to harm humans and pets cared for as pets, but rather that it may reverse the recovery of native wildlife in urban and suburban habitat underway for more than half a century now as direct result of a steady reduction in the numbers of dogs and cats at large.
Spay/neuter, especially neuter/return of feral cats, has reduced the outdoor cat population to the lowest ebb discovered yet in population surveys undertaken since 1908.
All urban animals are not dogs
Impoundment of stray dogs means that, as former Humane Society of the U.S. senior vice president Andrew Rowan blogged on March 13, 2022, that it is “now relatively uncommon to see un-leashed and un-collared dogs roaming American cities and their suburbs.”
This led Rowan to theorize, opposite to the evidence, that “Likely, the only animals to be observed in modern cities across the globe will be birds and the occasional carriage horse in the decades to come.”
Carriage horses, however, have all but disappeared from modern cities.
The animals to be seen now in U.S. cities and their suburbs, especially, include almost the entire suite of native North American wildlife who survived the 19th and 20th centuries.
Effective animal control made urban wildlife possible
Among the species almost absent from urban and suburban habitat in the mid-20th century, but now thriving and common, are birds from the smallest, such as wrens, nuthatches, and hummingbirds, to the biggest, including bald and golden eagles and great blue herons.
Predators as large as pumas prey on deer more abundant now than at any time in the past 500 years on the outskirts of almost every western city.
Bears meander into yards increasingly often from coast to coast.
Wildlife abounds in urban and suburban green spaces and treetops, often at greater density than in rural areas, because foraging dogs and cats no longer monopolize the food resources, and dogs no longer “hound” perceived rivals such as raccoons, foxes, and coyotes out of town.
Effective animal care and control made this possible. Adhering to the NACA “Guideline on Appointment-Based Pet Intake Into Shelters,” resulting in more dumped dogs and cats at large, threatens to take much of it away.