Are We Loving Shelter Dogs to Death?

Are We Loving Shelter Dogs To Death?

Brian Vander Brug/Los Angeles Times, via Getty Images

Are We Loving Shelter Dogs to Death?

No-kill policies can be helpful, but without assistance for struggling families, they may be making things worse for America’s pets.

LOS ANGELES – On the night of Aug. 6, someone tossed a 5-year-old black pit bull from a car onto a South Los Angeles street corner, where she lay unable to move. A nearby resident found her and called Ghetto Rescue Foundation, a nonprofit active in the city’s low-income communities, and a volunteer took the animal to an emergency vet. The dog was badly dehydrated and had injuries that a veterinary technician said indicated sexual abuse. Despite treatment, she died a few hours later.

While examining her, the veterinarian found a microchip lodged beneath the dog’s skin, which identified her as Valerie. She had been adopted two weeks earlier from a public shelter during a cut-price “clear the shelters” weekend.

Valerie’s story spread quickly around Los Angeles and Orange County, where Valerie had been adopted. A subsequent report by the Los Angeles Police Department’s Animal Cruelty Task Force, which contradicted some of the story’s details, did nothing to calm tempers.

Valerie’s case highlights a larger problem with pet adoption presented as the only alternative to euthanasia. It’s appealing to believe that all we need to do is find those animals new homes to reach the goal of “no kill.” The reality is a lot more complex.

Since the late 1990s, reducing animal shelter populations through adoption has been a prime piece in the “no kill” strategy. Shelter hours have been extended to accommodate working people in the hopes they’ll visit and find a pet. Volunteers and staff members post cute photos and videos online; supervised dog “play groups” let would-be adopters see animals happily romping together, rather than caged and lunging at the bars. Thousands of independent rescue groups of all sizes have taken custody of shelter animals; they have fostered, groomed, spayed and neutered them, medically treated and trained them, and found them homes. All of this is a good thing. The problem is that while regions like New England and the Pacific Northwest report shortages of shelter animals, nationwide it’s a different story. Because of the continued high intake volume in many states, the United States still euthanizes up to two million dogs and cats a year, with rates highest in disadvantaged communities. Not coincidentally, shelter intake is higher in those communities as well.

Take parts of Los Angeles, which has had an explicit no-kill policy for its shelters since 2012. At the moment, every public shelter in the city is full, and the South Los Angeles shelter, in one of the most densely populated and disadvantaged parts of town, has been crowded for months, with dogs being housed two and three to a cage.

A big part of the reason shelters fill is poverty: An estimated one-quarter of shelter animals are there after their owners have surrendered them because of family dysfunction or financial pressure. A dog may be sick and there’s no money for a vet; a landlord may be threatening eviction. The animals of the poor end up in shelters even when their owners desperately want to keep them. If a dog gets out and is picked up by animal control, for instance, impound and reclamation fees and fines can make retrieving it unaffordable. Ignorance and misinformation about sterilization, and not enough affordable, easily available surgery options, result in even more dogs that no one can care for.

Adoption promotion and events like low-price giveaways address none of these issues and can create problems of their own by enabling abusers and, far more commonly, impulse buyers. Adoption becomes a feel-good “numbers” game, in which we carefully and proudly track only how many animals have left the shelter. No one notes how many of them end up back in the system. The head of a well-established rescue group told me that just days after a “clear the shelters” event, she saw three recently adopted dogs being returned to two Los Angeles-area shelters. “The adopters had ‘changed their minds,'” she said. Indeed, no one knows how any of these animals fare at all. A longtime Los Angeles shelter volunteer observed that “had Valerie not come across the path of the Ghetto Rescue people, no one would even know her story.”

Perhaps most significantly, continued overemphasis on getting animals out of the shelter obscures the fact that we need to acknowledge the connection between animal and human struggles before we can prevent so many from coming in.

Models exist. Downtown Dog Rescue’s Shelter Intervention Program, at the South Los Angeles shelter, offers financial assistance to pet owners who are considering animal surrender, including vouchers for vet care and cash to pay reclamation-related fines. In the past five years, the program has helped keep nearly 5,000 animals at home. More attention to educating communities about spay and neuter, more information about training, and especially more access to spay and neuter through community clinics and mobile vans are tactics with proven value: Before the first wave of mass pet sterilization in California in the 1970s, the shelter expert Peter Marsh has pointed out, 21 percent of the state’s entire population of dogs and cats was killed each year.

Twenty-four hours after she died, Valerie had a memorial Facebook page. It featured an original adoption promotion photo that showed her heartbreakingly bright-eyed and eager. Several foundations offered thousands in reward money for information leading to an arrest and conviction of her abusers, and activists swore they’d keep up the pressure on authorities. Meanwhile, the shelter from which she was adopted announced it was joining the latest nationwide “Clear the Shelters” day, scheduled for Aug. 18. With dogs as with much else, Americans cling to our simple, comforting narratives and our old and easy solutions.

I cared for my dying parents. How is caring for my dying dog just as bad?



I thought it would be easier to care for an old dog than an old human — or maybe harder. But almost a decade after my husband and I cared for and lost three parents and an aunt, tragedy has repeated itself as farce in the form of our aging dog.

Casey, the handsome, thickly furred red dog we brought home as a puppy, is 15 — in canine years, what gerontologists would call “the old-old.” Suddenly, we’re back in the place we named Elder World, as managers of his decline.

The bulging disc in Casey’s back has outpaced the medication we’ve given him since he was 12, and he struggles to sit and lie down. His tail won’t wag; his gait stutters. His hearing is shot, and cataracts have left him nearly blind. The past six months brought “canine cognitive dysfunction,” a.k.a. doggy dementia. He gets stuck behind furniture, paces at night, has forgotten there’s a backyard and will only pee in front.


I never imagined that senior dog care would prove a weird resurrection of something I already knew. Instead of the shower chair, water bowls set atop risers, to make drinking easy; instead of the walker, a sling. A trail of absorbent puppy pads leading to the front door to catch the inevitable accidents takes the place of adult diapers. The mental changes hold echoes, too. Casey, part chow, ornery and snappish, has forgotten that he hates the dog down the street and strangers who presume to pat his head.

The newly agreeable Casey evokes my once sharply critical aunt transformed into a matron who marveled, “Look at the size of it!” in reference to a ShopRite. When Casey starts his evening shuffle, to the door, outside, back in again, his endless search for something that eludes him, I hear my father-in-law’s voice: “What day is it? Where’s my checkbook?”

As we did then, we ask ourselves the same questions: “What does he want?” Who knows? “Does he suffer?” We don’t think so. “Is he happy?” We don’t think that, either. “Does he want to die?” Our old people held fiercely to life, and to their habits of living — endless cups of weak coffee, coupon-cutting, a daily vanilla ice cream cone. In August, Casey fought his way back from a facial abscess we thought would kill him. Every single day, around sunset, his old walk time, he staggers to his feet and demands to go out.


We move through the weeks, trapped at home because we’re afraid to leave Casey alone; sleep-deprived from listening for the sound of him trying to get up in the night. We are driven to rage by the click-clicking of his nails as he turns in endless circles. In Elder World, we told each other, “If they were dogs, we could be merciful and end this.” Now it is a dog, and we can’t pull the plug. Which makes me think of the old people again, and how insistently the will to hang on demands respect. And another thing they taught me: that although caregiving feels endless, it always ends, though the empty space after doesn’t.

When Casey disappeared a few nights ago, I searched the house, then the yards with a flashlight, increasingly panicked, calling his name, though I knew he couldn’t hear me. Finally, after 20 minutes, I found him hidden behind a plant, frozen in place at the very edge of our back deck. He sensed the drop before him but couldn’t figure out what to do next.

“This can’t go on,” we tell each other; it goes on. When Casey doesn’t make it outside, we wipe up the mess. We help him to his feet in the morning, feed him by hand. We walk him, coax him to the end of the block — 30 minutes for what used to take five. We watch him sleep, looking for movement to signal he’s still alive. Think “how much longer will he last?” — and “It would be better if it wasn’t too long.”

Then we carefully turn away from those thoughts and get out his dinner, because the old man will probably be hungry when he wakes.








Opinion: U.S. cities are overrun with feral cats, and magical thinking isn’t the solution

Los Angeles Times


The alleys, parks and vacant lots of this country are alive with so many stray and feral cats that we don’t even know the precise number. Thirty-two million, says one estimate; triple that, another. The felines are the offspring of pets we didn’t bother to “fix,” the animals we adopted then dumped or left behind.

In the past, we called them pests and tried — brutally, unsuccessfully — to wipe them out. Today, the accepted strategy is to catch and sterilize them, then send them back outside, where they were. “Trap-neuter-release,” as the approach is called, has been hailed by the no-kill movement, which opposes routine euthanasia by animal shelters. And it has been adopted by animal control departments in more than 400 cities and counties. (Los Angeles has its own plan in the works.)

In theory, the tactic seems like an easy solution that lets us all sleep well: We don’t want these animals, but we also don’t want their blood on our hands. In reality, and as emphasized by a recent flare-up over the practices of Orange County’s public animal shelter system, it’s not that simple.

Originally, the promise of trap-neuter-release was to reduce stray and feral populations by curbing their prolific breeding — cats are fertile by six months of age and can give birth multiple times a year. But for cat populations to fall, more than 50% of the females in a given “colony,” or living group, need to be sterilized. That’s not easy, given cats’ ability to hide — and the fact that known colonies become dumping grounds for more unwanted, often unfixed, pets. As a result, herd sterilization hasn’t ever been achieved on a mass scale.

The approach has skeptics for other reasons, too. Many scientists, birders and wildlife managers oppose trap-neuter-release programs in general, noting that free-ranging cats are destructive predators, annually killing billions of birds and mammals, while also spreading diseases like toxoplasmosis.

The programs have been successful in one way, however. They have enabled shelters to sharply reduce the number of feral cats they impound, then euthanize, at a time when public shelters face immense pressure to reach a no-kill ideal, usually defined as not euthanizing any healthy or adoptable animals. An added bonus is reduced taxpayer cost: sterilizing and releasing cats costs less than housing, feeding and then killing them.

How well the cats themselves fare is less clear than you might imagine. Contrary to popular belief, cats are not self-sustaining. That means colonies under the watchful eye of caretakers willing to devote considerable time and money to their welfare may thrive. Those without human guardians may suffer from malnutrition, infection and parasites. Some of the cats get hit by cars or eaten by coyotes. Even the authors of a paper lauding trap-neuter-release programs acknowledged that “the welfare outcome for cats returned to location of origin were not tracked … [and] little research on this topic could be found.”

Some shelters run neuter-and-return programs in which individual strays that are brought in by concerned residents aren’t put up for adoption, but rather are neutered and returned to where they were initially found. In October, a lawyer representing a group of animal rescues and individuals sent Orange County Animal Care, the county’s government-run shelter network, a demand that it stop its practice of “abandoning” these cats.

According to signatory Sharon Logan, some of the more than 1,000 cats Orange County released between September 2018 and June 2019 weren’t feral, but roaming, lost or abandoned pets, or kittens still young enough to be socialized and made adoptable. Some were sick, she said, and in many cases, communities where the cats were returned weren’t told the felines were coming. There was often “no obvious presence of a feeder or caretaker.” As a result, she said, the animals suffered. Carol Barnes, another signatory to the letter, shared photos of one cat she said was released by Orange County and later found malnourished, with broken ribs, an upper respiratory infection and an injured eye crawling with maggots.

An Orange County Animal Care representative declined to comment, but a research and policy analyst for Best Friends Animal Society, which runs similar programs, has called some of the critics’ claims “misinformation and scaremongering.”

The answer? No one who’s ever loved a house cat or felt moved to feed a hungry feral (that includes me) wants to return to mass killing. And well-run trap-neuter-release programs may be an important part of dealing with our national cat problem. But increased and organized efforts to educate humans about their responsibilities to their animals are also crucial. So is more rigorous enforcement of existing spay/neuter laws and far more access to affordable services.

Maybe most of all, we need to abandon what one cat lover described to me as “magical thinking” — pretending that the only thing that matters is keeping stray cats alive; believing that any one effort holds a simple, painless solution. These fictions serve mostly to comfort those responsible for our cat problem in the first place. That is, us.