How much real progress toward eradicating cat & dog overpopulation has been lost through a focus on the wrong bottom line?
(Gerry Childs, now retired from a long career in sales in many different parts of the U.S., recently celebrated 50 years of volunteering at every stop for animal shelters, spay/neuter projects, and feral cat neuter/return programs.)
I have been troubled for some time about the squishy numbers we now get for shelter intakes and euthanasia. The stats cited by the Best Friends Animal Society and Maddie’s Fund are questionable at best––and they are calling the shots and organizing the data.
Intake statistics from many shelters are skewed because so many shelters now routinely turn away found cats and dogs, and refuse to accept potentially dangerous owner-surrendered dogs in particular, so that they don’t have to kill them.
What becomes of the turned-away animals, & how many more do they breed?
My huge question is what happens to those turned away, how many are there, and if unneutered, how many offspring will these turned-away animals produce?
The acknowledged number of euthanasias is way down because the shelters just won’t take in more animals than they think they can adopt out. But we have no clue as to where the “invisible” turned-away animals end up.
Back in 1990 there were about 12 million dogs and cats euthanized per year in U.S. shelters, according to the annual American Humane Association postcard surveys done from 1986 to 1993, but the numbers were falling fast.
ANIMALS 24-7 did more comprehensive data collection for the years 1992 and 1997 through 2014 that showed a steady decline down to 2.7 million, but then quit doing annual surveys of animal shelter euthanasias because so much of the data that shelters reported had become glaringly suspect due to the advent of “return-to-field” of found cats, refusals to accept owner-surrendered pit bulls, and careless turnovers of impounded animals to shelterless rescues furnishing no accountability data.
Lost focus on lowering the numbers
There was a huge amount of activity to increase spay/neuter rates during the 1990-2010 time frame, including conferences both regional and national, generous grants from the Petco Foundation and PetSmart Charities, and inspiring stories of people organizing successful spay/neuter programs even in the most remote, impoverished, and educationally backward areas.
High volume spay/neuter clinics were built, mobile clinics covered large rural areas. People such as Ruth Steinberger developed unique models like her “in-clinic clinics,” which used regular veterinary clinic facilities to host spay/neuter clinics serving the pets of means-tested low income people on weekends, when those clinics would otherwise have been closed.
No progress on non-surgical contraception
There also appeared to be significant progress made in developing non-surgical approaches to dog and cat contraception. The Alliance for Dog & Cat Contraception emerged, and medical industry entrepreneur Gary Michelson offered incentives of $75 million toward producing dog and cat contraceptives meeting a set of strict but necessary criteria for efficacy.
Recently the only significant advances on that front appear to be coming from the afore-mentioned Ruth Steinberger, and she is not yet ready to make any big announcements.
Most of the talk about non-surgical dog and cat contraception these days consists of implausible claims made in fundraising appeals by Alex Pacheco. His big idea, if he ever had one, originated with others who, unlike Pacheco, actually had legitimate scientific credentials. Those others presented it to the Michelson team, who rejected it as unsafe and unviable more than 15 years ago.
COVID-19 is an excuse, not a reason
Many ardent no-killers blame COVID-19 for the current spay/neuter backlog, a deficit of millions just to get back to pre-COVID spay/neuter rates.
To be sure, there are not nearly enough vets now working to get kittens and pups ‘fixed’ before they reach puberty.
(See “Spay/neuter deficit” of 8 million run up in COVID crisis: is there a fix?, 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.)
Burden is on the shelters, not the vets
But a bigger factor which those blaming COVID always ignore is that no-kill shelters have turned away unneutered animals by the tens of thousands. These cats and dogs go “out there” and procreate just as much as they did in the past, before the birth prevention movement took hold.
The no-kill folks, in their zeal to reach a high Live Release Rate, give animals to people who can ill afford to feed them, let alone spay them and give them vet care. That burden is on the shelters, not the vets!
Adoption screening went from reformed to abandoned
The goal really should be to treat cat and dog adoptions as we treat human adoptions. That should be the model.
And for decades it was, in theory, when the American Humane Association distributed to shelters an adoption screening form adapted directly from the form previously used by AHA-supervised orphanages, consisting of more than 100 questions.
Unfortunately this questionnaire was so unwieldy that it tended to screen out many well-qualified would-be adopters, at a time when so many cats and dogs were entering shelters that nine out of ten were euthanized, nationwide.
The North Shore Animal League on Long Island and the Helen Woodward Animal Center near San Diego managed to reduce that old clumsy screening process down to just 20 questions plus a quick credit check. As their techniques spread, cat and dog adoptions soared nationally to between four and five million per year––and then leveled off, after spay/neuter steeply reduced the numbers of accidental litters coming to shelters.
The majority of animals coming to shelters came to be feral cats and owner-surrendered problematic and often dangerous dogs: much harder to rehome and often inappropriate for any rehoming.
Instead of re-orienting spay/neuter programs to target the unadoptable animal populations, many shelters stopped enforcing any adoption criteria whatever.
Social workers would never give a child to just anyone who said they ‘wanted that child’!
Nor would they neglect to follow up to see how things were going in that new home.
Why cannot companion animals be given the same respect? Is that not what animal welfare is about?
We now have a bad double-standard: the cat or dog can be adopted out anywhere, no matter how bad, as long as he or she is out of the shelter.
Where can we get the true story?
There needs to be a call for improved standards as a best practice. But that would mean fewer adoptions, so would be a really hard sell in this climate.
The bottom line: can we measure how things are going at grassroots-level shelters and rescues?
Not from some high mountain far from the dingy allies and dumps of the cities, but to get the true story?