By: Anna Whitehead
Class of 2011, Ross University
The management of stray animal populations is a sensitive subject. People have deep-seeded opinions on what is ethical and/or practical. Most are unwilling to compromise. But pet overpopulation within shelters is detrimental to the health of its animals and inhibiting of their proper socialization and care. For better or for worse, the current methodology for control is to euthanize the animals for which there is not room in the shelter.
When pets are shunted into an overcrowded shelter system they are at risk of contracting contagious diseases and do not receive the important socialization that is key to a successful adoption. Respiratory diseases are high on the list of ailments spread from animal to animal in shelters. They are easily aerosolized and thus difficult to contain. Furthermore, with such a high volume of animals cycling through the shelter, sterility is often compromised simply because the staff cannot keep up. A lack of proper sterility will naturally lead to the perpetuation of disease. The biggest challenge, though, is to give every animal the socialization and training they need to become adoptable. This ultimately comes down to a matter of hours in a day. Every member of the shelter staff must divide their time among husbandry chores, medical care, and office work. Unfortunately, proper training and socialization comes last because it is not always considered a basic need. But, the success of training and socialization is dependent on the number of quality hours one puts in. There is no way to substitute two hours of quality time with a half an hour. The animals that are neglected become predisposed to behavioral problems that may render them unadoptable. If the physical or mental health of an animal is compromised, often through no fault of their own, the animal’s fate will most likely be euthanasia.
I have been party to discussions on the building of an animal shelter on the island of St. Kitts. There is a rather large roaming dog and cat population that results in severe animal welfare and public health issues. As an officer of a non-profit organization called People for the Animal Welfare of St. Kitts (PAWS), I have been approached by many people about the need for an animal shelter. The brainstorming surrounding the creation of an animal shelter has led me to a new understanding of the appropriate use of one.
When used improperly, shelters become dumping grounds for unwanted animals. This was vividly illustrated in a conversation I had with an animal rescue worker on the nearby island of St. Maarten. The issue of whether to build a shelter had divided the animal welfare group of St. Maarten into two camps; those that wanted a shelter and those that did not. She told me there had previously been a shelter on the island, but it soon became so overwhelmed with animals dumped on its doorstep that it quickly ran out of money. It is true that some of the animals were strays and dropped off by good Samaritans, but many others were owned and relinquished. A poorly-run shelter can provide a means for owners to deny responsibility of their pets. Naturally, one cannot fault an owner who cannot afford to care for an animal for giving it up. But it is critical to ensure that people understand the extensive obligation of pet ownership. Furthermore, the community must comprehend that a shelter is not a building full of infinite cages and resources for stray animals. Every shelter has a maximum capacity and a budget. Before building a shelter, you must ask what you are going to do with all the excess animals that inevitably will end up on your doorstep.
In St. Kitts, we are not in a position to open a shelter because there would be a deluge of stray and unwanted animals. In the United States, we may not have a deluge, but there is certainly a steady trickle of animals for which there is no space or money. However, the problem in both countries is in essence the same, and so is the answer: prevention. The key to preventing pet overpopulation is to make people aware of the commitment of pet ownership and the importance of neutering their pets. Perhaps those in the States have become more complacent about spaying and neutering, because our many shelters make us believe there is always a place for the animals to go. Thus, in any nation, we must become active as veterinarians and animal welfare representatives and educate our communities about the critical importance of spaying and neutering animals. We must appear at schools, rotary clubs, churches, or community centers. We must present honest truths about the fates of animals that are abandoned or not adopted. We must also be generous in giving our time to low-cost spay/neuter programs. We must make it so that pets are a rare commodity and thus precious.
It would be naïve to believe that we will never have a need for animal shelters. But my hope is that one day, on St. Kitts and in the United States, animals entering shelters will be an exception and not the rule. With a small enough shelter population, we can provide sustainable medical care and socialization. In order to attain this goal, we need to stop treating the symptoms and instead, eliminate the disease. We need to stop trying to cope with the overpopulation and instead, prevent the proliferation of the surplus population.