The New York Times Column: ‘Are We Loving Shelter Dogs to Death?’

Are We Loving Shelter Dogs to Death?

No-kill policies can be helpful, but without assistance for struggling families, they may be making things worse for America’s pets.

By Carol Mithers

Ms. Mithers is writing a book about dog rescue and poverty.

  • Aug. 18, 2018
The Los Angeles’ North Central Animal Shelter dog kennels.CreditCreditBrian Vander Brug/Los Angeles Times, via Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — On the night of Aug. 6, someone tossed a 5-year-old black pit bull from a car onto a South Los Angeles street corner, where she lay unable to move. A nearby resident found her and called Ghetto Rescue Foundation, a nonprofit active in the city’s low-income communities, and a volunteer took the animal to an emergency vet. The dog was badly dehydrated and had injuries that a veterinary technician said indicated sexual abuse. Despite treatment, she died a few hours later.

While examining her, the veterinarian found a microchip lodged beneath the dog’s skin, which identified her as Valerie. She had been adopted two weeks earlier from a public shelter during a cut-price “clear the shelters” weekend.

Valerie’s story spread quickly around Los Angeles and Orange County, where Valerie had been adopted. A subsequent report by the Los Angeles Police Department’s Animal Cruelty Task Force, which contradicted some of the story’s details, did nothing to calm tempers.

Valerie’s case highlights a larger problem with pet adoption presented as the only alternative to euthanasia. It’s appealing to believe that all we need to do is find those animals new homes to reach the goal of “no kill.” The reality is a lot more complex.

Since the late 1990s, reducing animal shelter populations through adoption has been a prime piece in the “no kill” strategy. Shelter hours have been extended to accommodate working people in the hopes they’ll visit and find a pet. Volunteers and staff members post cute photos and videos online; supervised dog “play groups” let would-be adopters see animals happily romping together, rather than caged and lunging at the bars. Thousands of independent rescue groups of all sizes have taken custody of shelter animals; they have fostered, groomed, spayed and neutered them, medically treated and trained them, and found them homes.

All of this is a good thing. The problem is that while regions like New England and the Pacific Northwest report shortages of shelter animals, nationwide it’s a different story. Because of the continued high intake volume in many states, the United States still euthanizes up to two million dogs and cats a year, with rates highest in disadvantaged communities. Not coincidentally, shelter intake is higher in those communities as well.

Take parts of Los Angeles, which has had an explicit no-kill policy for its shelters since 2012. At the moment, every public shelter in the city is full, and the South Los Angeles shelter, in one of the most densely populated and disadvantaged parts of town, has been crowded for months, with dogs being housed two and three to a cage.

A big part of the reason shelters fill is poverty: An estimated one-quarter of shelter animals are there after their owners have surrendered them because of family dysfunction or financial pressure. A dog may be sick and there’s no money for a vet; a landlord may be threatening eviction. The animals of the poor end up in shelters even when their owners desperately want to keep them. If a dog gets out and is picked up by animal control, for instance, impound and reclamation fees and fines can make retrieving it unaffordable. Ignorance and misinformation about sterilization, and not enough affordable, easily available surgery options, result in even more dogs that no one can care for.

Adoption promotion and events like low-price giveaways address none of these issues and can create problems of their own by enabling abusers and, far more commonly, impulse buyers. Adoption becomes a feel-good “numbers” game, in which we carefully and proudly track only how many animals have left the shelter. No one notes how many of them end up back in the system. The head of a well-established rescue group told me that just days after a “clear the shelters” event, she saw three recently adopted dogs being returned to two Los Angeles-area shelters. “The adopters had ‘changed their minds,’” she said. Indeed, no one knows how any of these animals fare at all. A longtime Los Angeles shelter volunteer observed that “had Valerie not come across the path of the Ghetto Rescue people, no one would even know her story.”

Perhaps most significantly, continued overemphasis on getting animals out of the shelter obscures the fact that we need to acknowledge the connection between animal and human struggles before we can prevent so many from coming in.

Models exist. Downtown Dog Rescue’s Shelter Intervention Program, at the South Los Angeles shelter, offers financial assistance to pet owners who are considering animal surrender, including vouchers for vet care and cash to pay reclamation-related fines. In the past five years, the program has helped keep nearly 5,000 animals at home. More attention to educating communities about spay and neuter, more information about training, and especially more access to spay and neuter through community clinics and mobile vans are tactics with proven value: Before the first wave of mass pet sterilization in California in the 1970s, the shelter expert Peter Marsh has pointed out, 21 percent of the state’s entire population of dogs and cats was killed each year.

Twenty-four hours after she died, Valerie had a memorial Facebook page. It featured an original adoption promotion photo that showed her heartbreakingly bright-eyed and eager. Several foundations offered thousands in reward money for information leading to an arrest and conviction of her abusers, and activists swore they’d keep up the pressure on authorities. Meanwhile, the shelter from which she was adopted announced it was joining the latest nationwide “Clear the Shelters” day, scheduled for Aug. 18. With dogs as with much else, Americans cling to our simple, comforting narratives and our old and easy solutions.

Carol Mithers is a Los Angeles-based journalist writing a book about dog rescue and poverty.

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