This afternoon, I’m spending my time advocating for a dog named Snoopy. Snoopy landed on death row in a California shelter. I tracked his status with the shelter, which was a maddening back-and-forth with others on his status. I landed on the moment when a fellow rescue advocate sent word that a rescue has stepped up to pull him from the shelter this week. I breathed a sigh of relief that the good people at this California rescue would indeed follow through and save Snoopy.
No sooner did I get word on Snoopy being cleared, than another dog – Dexter – came through. Another red code on the euthanasia list – which means, he could be killed at any time. He was at another California shelter, which just so happened to be one I’d spoken with last week, about the euthanasia policies, behavioral assessments rendering a dog aggressive, and the timeframe allowed by the powers-that-be for an animal to live.
The woman at the shelter said,
Oh, I don’t know how they’re going to handle that dog – I’ve seen the intake video – he was code red from the beginning.
Of course he was. As my fellow rescue advocate said, They can smell the euthanasia room right next door.
In other shelters – in Utah, for example – literal gas chambers are used to take the life of a homeless animal. It can take up to thirty minutes to die while the animals are tossed inside in a dark chamber, clawing and pleading, as their lives slowly terminate. For any animal lover, it is a horrific nightmare throwing us into sleepless nights for weeks on end.
The dogs and cats in these shelters are terrified – they know they are unsafe, not in the hands of people with their best interests in mind. The behaviorist on staff at the shelter is looking for signs of problems or aggression, which quickly becomes an excuse to put them on a euthanasia list.
How would you react?
I think we can all agree — we’d be nervous, stressed, wary, defensive, disoriented, fearful, and fighting for every breath within us. Especially if I realized that death was literally just down the hall. Any animal pulled from a shelter by a rescue – or an adopter – needs decompression time, adjustment period and lots of tender, loving, patient care.
In response to these dire, desperate, dramatic circumstances, rescues all over the country are frantically running pell-mell, hither and thither, at mock speed and in high-adrenaline, always in emergency mode, to save the next dog before the shelter determines their red code status and puts a needle in their tender paw. They share the status of any particular animal on social media – Instagram, Facebook, Twitter – connecting up with the urgency of a wildfire about to burn through a valley.
In many instances, it is only a matter of a few days before an animal is euthanized.
Does it have to be this way? I believe we should be doing better by our animals, better by each other, and better in the higher interests of a more conscious, compassionate society. We may not be there yet, and sociopolitical challenges notwithstanding, we are going in a positive direction.
And yet, the policies in these shelters have to change. The mentality creating them must be the starting point. The mentality viewing dogs and cats as expendable, if they fail to meet human standards for behavior, is as eschew as the way we treat ethnicities different than the Caucasian one. The ethos allowing the powers-that-be to cast judgment on the life of an animal in its custody through no will of its own, holding it captive in the unlikely event of its reclamation by its guardian, is immoral, inhumane, cruel and unethical. These animals are sentient beings, and while shelters have a place in society – to be a temporary holding facility until an animal may find its forever home or be returned to the one they had – they have now become killing institutions.
According to California-based Bella Vita Rescue:
Of the approximately 800,000 dogs and cats killed in shelters each year, half of them are in just five states…
North Carolina, 62,000
Is it politics? Funding? Abuse of power? I don’t profess to have all the answers. I know there are hundreds of rescue organizations actively involved in trying to save all the dogs in these high-kill shelters in many of these states. I know there are rescue coordinators in shelters that they work with, people in charge that they contact to pull a particular dog. I know there is an hourly drama, each and every day, around the life and death struggle of each dog. And I know that hundreds slip through the cracks, because the rescues are busy tending to the ones newly saved. They simply aren’t resourced sufficiently to save them all.
Where does the problem lie? It’s complicated – and yet – not.
Backyard breeders, for one thing, are creating an overpopulation of animals for which there will be no home. Certain patriarchal cultures prohibiting spaying and neutering, those allowing animals to reproduce without intervention (spaying and neutering) – a dog may have five or six puppies from the time she reaches maturity (between six to twelve months). With a gestation period of only sixty-days – you get the picture — many of these animals will never find a home, some of them may wind up at these high-kill shelters. Or more simpler yet, the guy obtaining a puppy from his friend, who has refused to spay or neuter his own dog, who says,
I just can’t imagine them taking his cajones – while grabbing his own crotch – thus, refusing to spay and neuter his own puppy, when of age.
All of these actions and a few more are creating desperate situations. Shelters are reacting with lethal force, citing anything from lack of homes (and yet, the foster-based rescues do indeed find homes for these animals), lack of space, medical situations or aggressive behavior. The dogs are suffering, ultimately paying the price, when they wind up homeless and in the hands of these shelters. Policies in place allowing them to discard these as animals is a tool they’ve created in response to an extremely complicated situation that fails to ever place the animals’ well-being on any kind of level playing field.
So, what’s needed? Obviously, more laws requiring spaying and neutering – and enforcement. Denver, for example, has laws prohibiting breeding without a license. Is it enforced? That’s a good question. At least, having it in place is a start – without such laws, there can be no remedy or restriction. Denver laws also require that a dog be spayed or neutered – again, a good step to prohibiting the consequences of an accidental close encounter.
Making spaying and neutering more affordable, especially in areas socioeconomically challenged – yes, poor, rural areas. Denver has Spay Today, Neuter Now, for instance. Best Friends Animal Sanctuary just raised over $2 Million in funding for low cost spay and neuter programs – an amazing effort to address the problem at its birthplace.
What’s also needed is training for these animals. Many come from places where they were never properly taught how to be good canine citizens, and wind up in high-kill shelters for fighting with another dog in the household, or showing reactivity mistakenly termed as aggression to perceived threats. Training is crucial to showing these animals not just that they are safe, but for how to control their instincts – chasing prey, protecting their people, reacting to intruders. Some favorites:
And finally, a change in these policies must be made. Shelters must not use the remedy of euthanasia as the easy, go-to solution for sending a stressed, disoriented, terrified dog to its death. Gas chambers as an answer to euthanasia are everyone’s nightmare – and must be abolished. Euthanasia has become a remedy being abused at the dogs’ ultimate peril, and will never cease to be utilized so long as people are permitted to use it with such liberty and abundance that it becomes the norm. It must change – and we must support the foster-based rescues, trainers, and others on the frontlines, until then. Advocating for the lives of animals is an uphill, long-term commitment – requiring communities and people to work together in service of the common goal of bettering the lives of the animals.
Namaste, and thank you for reading.