Friday, July 16, 2010

We Take From the Poor - And Give to the Rich (What's Wrong With This Picture?)

I just finished reading an article in the latest edition of Best Friends magazine (link not yet available) regarding the City of Calgary's Animal Services division. This is only the latest in a string of accolades for the department and for it's director, Bill Bruce. I have followed the stories closely, both out of a sense of national pride ( I am also Albertan) and an immense admiration for the success that the program has had. I have listened to Bill Bruce speak at national conferences and I enjoy his no-nonsense style.

I totally agree with Ledy VanKavage, senior legislative analyst for Best Friends Animal Society in a recent blog - Bill Bruce and his department would be  good candidates for cloning.

What I want to highlight is the numbers from this latest article - nothing short of amazing. In 2009, Calgary picked up 4291 dogs and 3711 of them were returned to their people. Of those dogs, 1163 were driven directly home and never saw the inside of the shelter.  (That means -  it never cost the taxpayer money in vaccinations, drugs for upper respiratory infections, spay/neuter costs if adoptable, euthanasia drugs, cremation costs, body disposal costs; let alone the labor costs for caring for the animal during the stray hold period or while awaiting adoption).

I would like to clear up any confusion for those of you newer to animal welfare to a couple of definitions and the problems with them.

Animal control is a service provided by the local government that was originally designed to protect the public from dangerous dogs and rabies outbreaks from stray animals. It is paid for with tax dollars and the level of service varies upon the municipality or county where you live. The term animal control is outdated and implies that the animals are "out of control". Some newer more progressive agencies are changing their name to Animal Services or other variations.

Animal shelters may or may not hold the animal control contracts for the county or municipality that they serve. So the funding they receive may be partially taxpayer, all taxpayer, or all donations. I think the name "animal shelter" can also be deceiving because it implies that the animals are "safe" once they have arrived there. Of course, we know that nothing is further from the truth. But, orginally, animal shelters were designed to protect animals from irresponsible people.

So, in a nutshell, animal control protects people from animals. Animal shelters protect animals from people. Two very different concepts. Watch the 20 minute video Strayed - How Animal Welfare Lost It's Way for a more indepth look at this.

To make ends meet a lot of animal shelters need to hold animal control contracts. Animal control contracts provide a stable source of income, whereas income from donations can fluctuate widely depending on a number of factors.

Humane societies and animal shelters are interchangeable terms. There is no national governing body for any of the above although there are several national agencies that provide resources and guidance.

Okay - on to the new stuff:

We have focused for so long on adoption numbers in the past - that we have overlooked the number of animals brought in to a shelter as an opportunity to reduce shelter killing. By bringing down the "intake" numbers they can't be killed. You don't believe the strange looks I get from people when I talk about this. I guess they can't wrap their heads around it yet.

They think that every "stray" dog and cat out there needs to be "saved". But is bringing them into a shelter "saving" them? I see it as a sort of reverse Robin Hoodism. Let's snatch the pets away from the irresponsible poor people of the inner city and find them "better" homes with the rich people in the suburbs. Hmm. Arrogance at it's finest.

Works fine for the highly adoptable dogs - but not so fine for the majority of mid to large breed mixes. We can't expect every one to want to adopt a large mixed breed dog.

Why not return them to their owners?

Once an animal is at animal control - the dollars (reclaim fees) start to quickly add up. Some shelters charge a call out fee, every animal must be vaccinated and then there is daily boarding. It is not unusual for the costs to reclaim your dog to be well over $100 for a 24 hour stay at "the pound". Then of course, there is a strong likelihood that your pet will come down with an upper respiratory infection common in overcrowded municipal shelters.

Start to multiply this by a few days and pretty soon you could be looking at what would equal the car payment or the rent for a lower income family. Don't forget - not every one has a credit card or the money in the bank. They might need to wait until the next payday to come and get their dog. Pretty soon - it's become more than they can afford.

Here's a few more reasons for unclaimed dogs:

1) no transportation (and you can't take your dog on the bus)
2) no computer or access to the internet to see if the dog is there
3) work several jobs and are not able to get the dog during business hours
4) do not speak English and by the time they figure out where their dog is and how to get it back they can't afford to
5) have outstanding warrants and are concerned about coming to a government agency to reclaim their dog
6) are illegal immigrants and are concerned about coming to a government agency to reclaim their dog

What does it boil down to? The dog gets left at animal control. Taking up the space of a needier animal when it had a perfectly good home that it could have gone back to. 

I'm not talking fighting dogs or mistreated dogs here. I'm talking about family-friendly mid to large breed dogs that have not been abused and are showing up by the hundreds in our shelters.

And the reality is: these were dog-loving owners. So at some point - they're going to go out and get another dog. And the cycle begins again.

What can be done to improve the system?

An aggressive licensing program that helps animal control officers immediately know where dogs belong. Calgary has a 94 percent licensing rating. This income is what funds the department. Many dogs are never brought to the shelter - they are immediately driven back home.

Animal control officers that love people as much as they love animals. They become a resource in the community and have an established "beat". They spend their days on the streets getting to know the residents and their pets. They show an interest in people and willingness to educate instead of the attitude of disgust and arrogance that is so prevalent in animal welfare.

Animal control officers that are comfortable in the communities they work in - that understand the cultures and speak the languages.

Return the pet, hand them a voucher for low cost spay/neuter and vaccinations, maybe even offer to arrange transportation to the clinic. Start to end the cycle instead of perpetuating it.

Will we still have to take some animals away for their own well-being? Of course. But if we could only return 20 or 30 percent more to owners - just think of the impact that would make.

Okay, I'm going to stop there today. And next will focus on how this same problem is affecting the elderly and their ability to keep their small dogs in our inner cities.


  1. For some reason the video link didn't work. Here it is:

    I really agree with you here.

  2. Thank you Angela! I think I have it fixed.

  3. You're welcome! I enjoyed the video too. I feel so bad when you see that the reason for surrender was couldn't afford to feed or pay for vet visits.

    I think WHS has a program for low income people to apply if they need help feeding their pets. These are great things to offer and would likely keep many animals out of the shelter.

  4. Fantastic article! Such simple changes that would obviously work well once we, as a culture, let go of old ideas. Very smart Kathy. My favorite part is the idea of just giving the dogs a ride home to return them to their owners. Thanks for speaking out for animals and the poor people who love them.

  5. When I worked at a shelter the biggest reason why dogs came in as strays is that they had no identification. We simply could not contact the owners. All a person had to do was pick up the phone and report the dog missing, but for some reason many did not.
    Also I do want to mention there were quite a few times people brought in their own dogs and surrendered them as strays, one woman who I recall very well left the tags on the dog when she told us she had never seen it before in her life. True Story

  6. Identification is only one part of the equation. There are many, many things that shelters can do to help get lost pets back home (most through volunteer labor). Also, most shelters do not have reclaim-friendly procedures. They reclaim fees are high, their hours are bad, they don't post pictures of "strays" on line and they are in hard to find areas. So the "shelter" that is supposed to protect the homeless animal until his owner finds him ends up adopting him out or killing him instead.