Killing for a Myth

In my recent correspondence with a pet rescuer who has yet to embrace No-Kill, I saw firsthand the phenomenon that Nathan Winograd discusses in Redemption: that we hear so much about pet overpopulation, but has anyone seen it?

The e-mailer wrote:

[Shelters] only kill the animals because THERE ARE TOO MANY! Hello? Have you heard of the overpopulation problem?

Why yes, I’ve heard of it quite a lot. I’ve also heard extensively about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. If the modus operandi of the shelters in this country were to throw dogs off cliffs because the Easter Bunny commanded it, there’d be an uproar. If you had to trade Santa Claus a euthanized shelter dog for each present, the tragedy of “Christmas Puppies” would have a much darker and more sinister outcome.

I’ve heard a lot about “pet overpopulation,” but I’ve never seen a feral dog colony or a single dog starving in the street. I’ve never seen a dog abandoned at the dog park. Every loose and stray dog that I’ve picked up has always had a tag and an owner. I’ve never seen a pet store going out of business. The breeders I got my dogs from two decades ago are both still in the breed with occasional litters. Every breeder I met in the last few years who are active in some aspect of the dog world are actually “growing” their business. They are all expanding their activities and having more frequent litters. The only breeder I know who is “getting out of the business” was paralyzed in an accident.

Last October I became a dog breeder and just a few weeks ago I became a dog seller. I certainly didn’t get any hint that there was a Border Collie overpopulation problem. I had to go out of state for both of my last two dogs, and I sold two of the four puppies out of state. If I were just out for money I could have sold my litter five times over in one week. That’s all it took to find really good homes. One week. And I’m only catering to a very small fraction of the dog owning and buying world. People who are interested in purebred Border Collies who have had the breed before, who have a good sized yard, who won’t have to leave the animal at home for long periods of time, who are active and healthy themselves, who are willing and able to offer vet care to a high standard to the pup, who are willing to sign a contract, who agree to spay and neuter their pets or who pay a premium to keep them intact, who are willing to pay a premium for pedigreed dogs, who are willing to pay a premium for extensively health tested dogs, who are willing to put up with my interviewing them, who are interested in dog sport, etc.

I found four really excellent homes for four really excellent puppies and a handful of other A+ to A- homes that I’d gladly sell a dog to, and by that I mean make a contractual and emotional commitment to for the lifetime of that dog. Around 10 homes that would probably make excellent homes for a Border Collie but who just didn’t outshine the best homes, or excellent homes who just weren’t ready for a Border Collie now (new baby or too many very young children which would mean little time to train the dog during the crucial early months, their current dog is old and infirm and probably wouldn’t appreciate a new puppy, excellent experience with other breeds but brand new to Border Collies, too many Border Collies already, etc.). And then a slew of people who may or may not be great homes but who were either too far away, too inexperienced with dogs or Border Collies, or who were uninterested in training for dog sports for me to take a chance and who would be better served by a breeder in their area or a different breed of dog. And that doesn’t count the legions of callers who just wanted a price quote on a puppy.

In other words, if an aspiring Breeder like myself, first time breeding, who is an elitist, ultra picky about where my puppies go, selling puppies in the $450-600 price range (unregistered BCs go for $100, average price for a papered dog off of a Ranch is probably $250-300, show quality pups being sold to show homes sell for $600 and up, and rare colors like Merles go for about twice the market price for each of those classes), selling dogs in a relatively unpopulated area of the country, can find homes and put people on a waiting list in only a week, I have no evidence of a pet overpopulation problem.

The very existence of all these new designer dogs speaks volumes against a pet overpopulation problem. If there are mutts overflowing our shelters, filling the streets, and bringing about their own destruction, why are people paying $1200 for “designer” mutts? Perhaps it’s a shelter advertising problem, not a pet overpopulation problem. If shelters have too many dogs coming in, why are they importing them from overseas, and across our borders?

If I had to go out of state for my last two dogs, and so did two of my puppy buyers and many of the potentials, that speaks to a greater demand than supply, not an overpopulation problem.

I’ve licked my finger and placed it in the wind, and every indicator tells me that dogs are getting more popular, more homes are opening up their doors to them every day, and as we grow as a society our animals are becoming even more significant and being given higher status at every turn.

If we wouldn’t throw dogs off cliffs for the Easter Bunny or sacrifice puppies for Santa Claus, why are we so accepting of killing dogs for another myth that there is little evidence for: the “pet overpopulation” problem?

The Myth of Pet Overpopulation

“Custom will reconcile people to any atrocity.”

— William Shakespeare (circa 1600)

Sometimes the obvious eludes us. We are told something so often that we accept it a priori. We ignore evidence to the contrary, even overwhelming evidence. It is so because we believe it is so. And we believe it is so because we have been told it is so for as long as we can remember. Each time we say, read, or write it, we reconfirm it. It is so. It is so. It is so. But pet overpopulation is not so.

There is little reason why most people, your average animal lovers in the United States, would know pet overpopulation is a myth. The one fact that would dispel the myth is something they almost never see consistently because they do not go to shelters everyday. But animal rescuers see it. Animal activists see it. And others in sheltering do also. They see it daily, but still believe in pet overpopulation. What do they see every time they go into animal she
lters? They see empty cages. Shelters kill dogs and cats every single day, despite empty cages.

The City of Los Angeles Animal Services Department kills every day despite empty cages. A veterinarian who tried to keep more animals alive by keeping the cages full was fired in 2005, in part, due to staff complaints of “too much work.” In September 2006, the Department killed twenty-five kittens because they had a cold, despite empty cages. In Eugene, Oregon, activists noted a high percentage of empty cages at their local shelter in the summer of 2006 due to killing that shelter management blamed on pet overpopulation and lack of a cat licensing law. The Lane County Animal Regulation Authority kept all but a half dozen cat cages empty at the height of the busy season, even though it killed approximately 70 percent of cats during the last year, many of them ostensibly for “lack of space.” According to local activists, doing so makes it easier for staff to clean. In Philadelphia before a new leadership team took over later that year, I counted over seventy empty cat cages in February of 2005 on a day they were killing “for space.” These are not isolated examples. They are epidemic–and endemic–to animal control.

Empty cages mean less cleaning, less feeding, less work. Some shelter directors simply don’t care and do it for that reason. Others do it because they falsely believe that no one will adopt the animals anyway. Still others kill because they believe the cages will get full. And others–such as Tompkins County before my arrival–require a certain number of animals to be killed in the morning to make room for the new animals they expect that day–animals who might or might not come, animals who might come after those animals killed could have been adopted, lost animals who might be reclaimed, thereby opening up space without the need to kill, animals who instead could have been transferred to rescue groups or placed into foster care.

There are many reasons why shelters kill animals at this point in time, but pet overpopulation is not one of them. In the case of a small percentage of animals, the animals may be hopelessly sick or injured, or the dogs are so vicious that placing them would put adoptive families at risk. (This killing is also being challenged by sanctuaries and hospice care groups, a movement that is also growing in scale and scope and which all compassionate people must embrace). Aside from this relatively small number of cases (only seven percent of the animals in Tompkins County), shelters also kill for less merciful reasons.

They kill because they make the animals sick through sloppy cleaning and poor handling. They kill because they do not want to care for sick animals. They kill because they do not effectively use the Internet and the media to promote their pets. They kill because they think volunteers are more trouble than they are worth, even though those volunteers would help eliminate the “need” for killing. They kill because they don’t want a foster care program. They kill because they are only open for adoption when people are at work and families have their children in school. They kill because they discourage visitors with their poor customer service. They kill because they do not help people overcome problems that can reduce impounds. They kill because they refuse to work with rescue groups. They kill because they haven’t embraced TNR [Trap, Neuter, Release] for feral cats. They kill because they won’t socialize feral kittens. They kill because they don’t walk the dogs which makes the dogs so highly stressed that they become “cage crazy.” They kill them for being “cage crazy.” They kill because their shoddy tests allow them to claim that animals are “unadoptable.” They kill because their draconian laws empower them to kill.

Some kill because they are steeped in a culture of defeatism, or because they are under the thumb of regressive health or police department oversight. But they still kill. They never say, “we kill because we have accepted killing in lieu of having to put in place foster care, pet retention, volunteer TNR, public relations, and other programs.” In short, they kill because they have failed to do what is necessary to stop killing.

What allows them to continue killing without total condemnation for doing so is the religion of pet overpopulation. It is the political cover that prevents even the animal rescuers and advocates from demanding an immediate end to the whole bloody mess. And, at its core, it is an unsupportable myth. The syllogism goes as follows: shelters kill a lot of animals; shelters adopt out few of them; therefore, there are more animals than homes. Hence, there is pet overpopulation. It is as faulty a syllogism and as untrue a proposition as exists in sheltering today. But people believe it, and because they do, local governments under-fund their shelters, appoint and retain incompetent employees in animal control, and give shelter directors the carte blanche they need to kill because the problem is portrayed as insurmountable.

This also begs the question of why pet stores and commercial breeding operations (sometimes referred to as “puppy mills” or “kitten mills”) are still in business. Hobby breed enthusiasts notwithstanding (since these groups often support No Kill and assist in animal rescue), pet stores and puppy/kitten mills are motivated by profit, and they would not go into the business if homes weren’t available. In addition, the more animals dying in a given community) which traditionalists claim means lack of homes), the greater number of pet stores that sell dogs and cats (which show homes readily available). Generally, pet stores succeed when a shelter is not meeting market demand or competing effectively, and because animal lovers do not want to go into a shelter that kills the vast majority of the animals as this is usually accompanied with under-performing staff, poor customer servie, and dirty and unwelcoming facilities.

– Excerpt from Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America by Nathan J. Winograd

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About Christopher

Christopher Landauer is a fifth generation Colorado native and second generation Border Collie enthusiast. Border Collies have been the Landauer family dogs since the 1960s and Christopher got his first one as a toddler. He began his own modest breeding program with the purchase of Dublin and Celeste in 2006 and currently shares his home with their children Mercury and Gemma as well. His interest in genetics began in AP Chemistry and AP Biology and was honed at Stanford University.