“How can you euthanize animals?”
“You can’t adopt your way out of killing.”
“Rescue animals are damaged.”
“Animal rescue is all about ego.”
“Pet overpopulation is a myth.”
“They’re in it for the money.”
The animal welfare world is full of controversy, drama, and passion. The above quotes are based on real accusations that various groups have leveled at one another as they all strive to meet the best interests of the animals. Each group has their unique viewpoint, which they often believe to be the only correct approach. However, each group also contributes to the overall cause of animal welfare; remove one, and animal welfare would suffer. History has shown us that progress has been greatest when cooperation has been greatest.
THREE MAIN GROUPS
SHELTERS: A shelter is a place where stray, lost, abandoned, or surrendered animals are housed in kennels and rehabilitated until they are either adopted or euthanized.
It’s sometimes easy to forget that only about 150 years ago, homeless animals in the United States were completely unprotected. Patricia Curtis writes in her book The Animal Shelter about the treatment of stray dogs in New York City in the 1860s, which she says were rounded up by dogcatchers, thrown into large crates and lowered into East River to be drowned. In other cities, Curtis says, stray dogs were chained up and clubbed to death.
Two key names stand out in the early history of animal welfare. The first is Henry Bergh who in 1866 successfully pushed for the criminalization of animal cruelty and then three days later chartered the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The second is Caroline White who in 1869 set up an offshoot group for women. Her group opened the country’s first animal shelter, which served as a model for all that followed. Today there are an estimated 5,000 shelters.
Curtis also describes other issues that shelters have tackled besides animal homelessness. For example, shelter leaders fought to end dog fighting, animal baiting, and medical testing on animals. They also advocated for more humane ways to capture and euthanize animals, the hiring of skilled professionals (animal control) to do this job, and for humane education. Shelters have also expanded their services to include animal enrichment, wildlife rehabilitation, and even animal behavioral support.
Shelters tend to fall into one of two main categories:
- Municipal animal control agencies: Town agencies are run by government entities. They tend to be open admission, which means that they must take in any animal surrendered to them. Unfortunately, the number of animals relinquished to shelters far outweighs their resources, and so for many animals the result is disease, kennel craziness (when an animal becomes mentally unstable due to being confined to a kennel), or euthanasia. The latter has earned these type of shelters the unenviable label of “kill shelters”. Open admission shelters are typically funded through local taxes and pet licensing fees.
- Private, nonprofit agencies: Governed by a board of directors or by a government contract, these agencies can choose to be open admissions or limited admissions. The latter means that the shelter can refuse animals for behavioral or health issues or because it lacks space for them. Limited admission shelters typically don’t euthanize to control disease outbreak or population. Any shelters that achieve a live-release rate of 90% or greater are deemed ‘no-kill’. Private shelters are typically 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations that must fundraise from the public.
RESCUES: An animal rescue is a nonprofit organization run by volunteers who are dedicated to re-homing animals.
I couldn’t find much information on the first animal rescue. However, Maddie’s Fund states that as far back as the 1930s, “independent caregivers began rescuing and sheltering homeless animals with the intention of keeping them alive”. For about fifty years, these grassroots efforts were typically independent of one another. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, however, there was a growing recognition of the need for rescue groups and shelters to work together. From this, a movement began that is today known as the no-kill movement.
Two key names stand out in the early history of the movement. The first is Richard Avanzino, who in the early 1990s used his position as president of The San Francisco SPCA to establish a working relationship between the SPCA and animal control with the intention of making San Francisco a no-kill city. The second is a group of about twenty friends, who in the same decade, made a promise to one another and to the animals already in their care to build an animal sanctuary, “where they could dedicate their lives to housing and finding homes for unwanted pets while advocating the importance of no kill”. This animal sanctuary eventually became the Best Friends Animal Society, the largest no-kill animal sanctuary in the United States. Today two states are recognized as no-kill, in addition to several counties and cities.
Rescue groups are often misunderstood. They’re often considered the same as no-kill shelters and so are expected to have facilities one can visit. While some do, the majority must depend on volunteers who open their homes until a suitable adoptive family is found. For this reason, rescues can only accept surrendered animals if volunteers are available to take them in. Rescues often get their animals from owner surrenders or through partnerships with shelters. In addition, each rescue group might focus only on a specific species or breed. As with private shelters, rescues are 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations that must fundraise from the public.
Rescues comes in two formats:
- Foster Care Homes: Rescues often start as a small group of volunteers who take animals into their homes temporarily, then expand to include foster care providers within the community. A rescue that is overseeing a foster care program will typically require a foster care provider to fill out an application and undergo a home study. Once approved, a foster care provider is usually expected to attend adoption events until the foster animal can be placed in a permanent home. A foster care provider has been legally defined as “a person who provides care or rehabilitation for companion animals through an affiliation with an animal welfare organization”. Those who take on this responsibility must provide animals in their care with adequate shelter, food, water, and medical attention, as well as abide by any local animal laws. Rescues often cover all the expenses for the animals in foster care.
- Animal Sanctuaries: The mission of sanctuaries is to serve as a forever home for animals that likely have no other option. Sanctuaries may offer rehoming services if the right adoptive parent is found, but more typically provide permanent housing to animals. The general practice is that the animal comes first. As such, the public isn’t allowed unescorted access. Sanctuaries often also have the goal of humane education.
SPAY/NEUTER PROVIDERS: A spay/neuter provider finances a surgical procedure, performed by a veterinarian, that renders an animal incapable of reproduction.
Spay/neuter providers have existed since at least the 1930s, according to Maddie’s Fund, as a way of addressing pet homelessness. However, the first low-cost spay/neuter clinic didn’t open until 1971. The establishment of one by a Los Angeles shelter sparked a national debate about the issue. To understand why it took so long for such an effort to happen, let’s take a brief look at the history of pet overpopulation.
One potential reason for our dog overpopulation stems back to puppy mills. These came into existence after World War II as an opportunity for farmers to make money in the face of a stressed economy. When pet store owners began to realize their income would increase from the sale of puppies, they began to turn to the farmers on a regular. As time went on, the demand for pet store puppies continued to rise, keeping puppy mills across the country in business from the 1940s through today.
One potential reason for our cat overpopulation is that, despite the fact cats can reproduce at a faster rate than dogs, cat owners have historically been more reluctant than dog owners to have their cats altered. For example, in the 1930s, the mistaken belief existed that a female cat should produce a litter of kittens for health reasons before being spayed. In addition, a document written in the 1990s stated that neutering agreements with shelters were “notoriously difficult to enforce” among cat owners because owners would renege, move, or ‘lose’ the cat. An estimated 50% of adopters failed to have cats neutered. For this reason, shelters began to take the step of neutering kittens before rehoming them, and the results have been positive.
According to The Humane Society of the United States, before 1970 animal shelter populations and euthanasia rates were rising so quickly that shelters were routinely euthanizing over 100 dogs and cats for every 1,000 residents of the communities they served. By the 1990s, when sterilization had become routine, euthanasia rates of dogs and cats in shelters had dropped to 10 per 1,000 people.
Spay/neuter providers might take these forms:
- Low-Cost Spay/Neuter Programs: Recognizing that low-income families often can’t afford to have their pets altered, these programs offer spay/neuter procedures at reduced rates. A local example is that of Lincoln Animal Ambassadors, which serves Lancaster County in Nebraska. The group requires clients to pay only what they can afford and covers the rest of the veterinarian costs with money raised through donations. The group has covered 2,641 total spay/neuters since its inception, 500 of which were in 2016.
- Trap-Neuter-Return: This program traps, sterilizes, and medically treats free-roaming cats and then returns them to the colonies from which they came. One of the organizations that stands out in the early history of TNR is Alley Cat Allies, founded by Becky Robinson and Louise Holton. Alley Cat Allies serves as a national advocate for community cats; it introduced trap-neuter-return as the most humane and practical method for managing their numbers. Many examples of successful TNR programs exist, a notable one being the Merrimack River Feline Rescue Society. One of the first groups in the nation to use TNR, this group began in 1992 when a few people “decided to come to the aid of the 300+ free-roaming cats barely surviving along the Massachusetts waterfront”. Thanks to the work of a handful of individuals, the final cat in the waterfront colonies passed away of old age in 2009.
OTHER IMPORTANT GROUPS
Aside from the three types of animal welfare groups listed above, there are many others.
Animal Rights Activists: Standard dictionaries define animal rights as the rights of animals to be legally treated like humans and to be protected from exploitation and abuse. Animal rights might take the form of campaigning for the end of organized animal fights, puppy mill breeding, use as a food source for people, and animal testing and research.
An historical timeline credits the publication of Animal Liberation in 1975 as the inspiration for the animal rights movement. Some significant milestones of the movement include: the decision by major cosmetic companies to stop testing their products on animals, the end of horse slaughter, and the public exposure of various animal abuses including the use of dog and cat hair by the fur industry.
Two active Midwest animal rights groups include Bailing Out Benji (Iowa) and Harley’s Dream (Colorado). Both organizations campaign against puppy mills. The groups advocate against puppy mills due to the poor living conditions and medical treatment of the dogs, and the practice of euthanizing dogs who can no longer breed.
Humane Educators: The teaching of compassion for people and animals, along with a respect for their environment, is known as humane education. The idea behind such programs is that education will help people make thoughtful decisions about the care and protection of animals. Topics covered might include bringing a new pet into your home, pet safety, dog bite prevention, traveling with a pet, relinquishing a pet, and caring for a senior pet.
A few key names stand out in the early history of humane education. The first is George Angell, who strived to end animal cruelty through education. He’s best remembered as being the founder of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA), the American Humane Education Society (AHES), and Our Dumb Animals. In addition, he created one of the earliest magazines on the humane treatment of animals. Two more players are Milton and Edith Latham founded the Latham Foundation for The Promotion of Humane Education. Still in existence today, this agency collects, maintains, and distributes materials related to the human-companion animal bond, animal-assisted therapy, and the connections between child and animal abuse. A final important figure in the early history of humane education is William O. Stillman instituted the Be Kind to Animals Week® campaigns in 1915.
Financial Assistance: When owners can’t afford to care their pets, a host of programs available to help. The Humane Society of the United States lists assistance by state: Resources for Pet Owners in Need
Financial assistance might take the form of contributing towards or paying the cost of annual vaccinations, de-worming and flea control, microchipping, pet food, nail trimming, transportation, and emergency vet care.
A local example is that of the pet food bank offered by Lincoln Animal Ambassadors to the Lancaster County area in Nebraska. The pet food bank provides free pet food to those who qualify. The group’s ability to provide food support depends on donations and volunteers. Lincoln Animal Ambassadors distributes about 3,000 lbs. per month and has helped about 230 families in 2017 alone. Another local example is that of the dog emergency care offered by Sadie Dog. The organization was founded by Pam Hoffman, who believes that through education, prevention, and emergency grants, pets can be kept at home with their owners. Support is provided by vet-referral only.
Medical Assistance: A veterinarian is qualified and authorized to provide the medical and surgical treatment of animals. In addition, they might provide humane education, develop policies and promote legislation to improve the care and welfare of animals around the world, research veterinary vaccines and drugs, and ensure food safety, food security, and safe world trade in animal products. A local example of veterinarian involvement in animal welfare is Lancaster Ask-A-Vet, a free service offered by the Pet Care Center of Lincoln. The goal of the service is to “provide a way for local pet owners to obtain information and advice about their pets from a trusted source”.
Many people may not realize that veterinary medicine is a relatively recent development. The first veterinary school was established in the United States in the 1870s with the goal of protecting the public from infectious diseases, eradicating diseases in animals, and improving the quality of livestock. As late as the 1930s in Great Britain, many veterinarians voiced the opinion that “the ‘dear little doggy’ stuff is a futile line to take with our profession. Some of us, thank goodness, have a real job of work to do.” Around that time, however, other veterinarians began to view the treatment of dogs and cats alone as sufficient to support a business. By the 1960s, the Small Animal Veterinary Association was formed in Great Britain. Fast forward to 1985, for the first time a majority of American Veterinarian Medical Association members reported working primarily with pets.
Researchers: For the purposes of this article, I’m defining a researcher as an individual who promotes and advances scientifically-based animal medicine. Such researchers are interested in studies related to animal well-being and health.
If you’re like me, your knowledge of researchers is probably negative. According to the book Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare, during the 1960s the media revealed that pets were being kidnapped and sold for research. By the 1970s, even more allegations had risen, this time of animal abuse in laboratories themselves. Finally, in the 1980s, legislation began to pass that set requirements for the proper care and use of research animals. To this day, however, the subject remains controversial.
For that reason, you might not be aware that researchers are responsible for many of the medical breakthroughs associated with animals. Just this month the Winn Feline Foundation announced that a cure may be on the horizon for Feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), a fatal disease that affects cats. Two years ago, the International Renal Interest Society (IRIS) released news of a test called Symmetric dimethylarginine (SDMA), which can detect kidney disease when there’s only a 40 percent loss of function and when treatment can still be effective. These discoveries may be life-changers.
THE PUBLIC’S ROLE
“There are no bad pets; just bad people.”
“If people only knew….”
Best Friends Animal Society states that 17 million animals were killed in 1985 today, that number has dropped to 2 million. That incredible decline is due to the work of shelters, rescues, spay/neuter providers, and other animal groups. And yet the American Humane Society of United States reports that from 1973 to 2007, the number of cats and dogs in U.S. households more than doubled. Americans love their pets. Obviously, there’s one more major group who plays a part in animal welfare: the public. Americans own more pets than ever, but fewer animals are being euthanized. We’ve listened to the organizations urging us to ‘Adopt, don’t shop.’ We’re proud that we are adopting our pets from shelters and rescues. For every horror story of animal abuse and every aggravating story of human apathy, there are hundreds of stories of pet owners who love their pets—to the point that they will sacrifice their health, finances, and even well-being to care for them. Clearly, we’re changing how we view and care for our animals.
Best Friends Animal Society says that together “we can help save them all”. Another way of saying this is: “It takes a village.” True, extremists exist in the animal welfare world. There are groups who don’t really care about animals or who care so much that they’re willing to use any means possible to achieve their goals. Groups do need to show wisdom in whom they align themselves with; they might even have to denounce those who in the long run will hurt the cause of animal welfare. But history also shows that strength lies in numbers. The more groups work together, the more we’ll achieve the permanent change we seek. The Best Friends Animal Society became a national leader not through the efforts of one group, but through the number of working relationships it forged with groups across the county. Their success should serve as a model. By uniting in one common voice we can establish lasting and positive change for animals.
Let’s be a village.