One Simple Change to Shelters Has Made a Big Difference for At-Risk Dogs

The pound as we know it was designed to contain or dispose of strays. These days, most of us think the goal is to save and eventually find new homes for them. But especially if a shelter is to be deemed “no kill,” holding a dog can entail locking an intensely social creature alone in a cage, perhaps indefinitely. Jail time can make any dog mean, fearful, compulsive, and depressed—in a word, nuts. Which makes it less adoptable. Which means it’s trapped.

That’s where a program called Dogs Playing for Life comes in and why, on some mornings, a fenced yard at the L.A. County Animal Care Center in Downey resembles a dog park. Two scruffy mutts circle each other, sniff butts, and exchange kisses. Two more race madly. An old male tries to hump every female in sight, but his legs keep giving out. The shelter, which serves two dozen, mostly poor, communities, is so physically grim—pale yellow barracks, the pervasive scent of pee—that the sight of joyful canines almost doesn’t compute.

Conceived by dog trainer Aimee Sadler, the program is based on the premise that enhancing the quality of dogs’ lives will help save them. Promoting a no- kill policy is fine, Sadler says, “but there’s nothing humane about keeping dogs alive if that means letting them go crazy in a kennel.”

Sadler, who’s 50, was working outside of New York City in the late 1990s when the idea came into focus. A wealthy client paid her to train some dogs at a local shelter. There were many and time was short, so Sadler decided to let them play together first in a loosely supervised group. The roughhousing seemed to transform the dogs: They were relaxed. Happy. Training them was easier than she expected. Sadler took note. So did her client, who for the next 17 years paid her to work with any shelter that was interested.

Persuading shelters to let her experiment could be a challenge. Vets worried about dogs fighting, and staff resisted change. Sadler’s own attitude probably didn’t help. “I can be pretty abrasive,” she says and laughs. But then they saw how dogs that participated in the program bounced around to contented exhaustion and didn’t fight. They became more social and less hyper, barky, and loud. Dogs that had seemed shy turned out to have been cowed by the kennel din. Others that attacked the bars were desperate to move. Their true personalities emerged. Employees liked watching the animals play, and that outside time meant outside pooping, keeping sleeping areas clean. Would-be adopters liked that they could see how dogs behaved in a more natural setting. And for shelter administrators, the optics were great.

PHOTO BY JOE TORENO

Word spread. Over years spent largely on the road—by the end of 2017 she will have worked for some 200 shelters in multiple states—Sadler distilled her methods into a concise program aimed at “open admission” shelters (facilities that don’t turn away any dogs, regardless of their age, health, or behavior) and paid for by grants. It includes classroom training for staff (which, Sadler says, involves “lots of videos that make everyone’s heads explode as we pry open entrenched attitudes”), a manual with equipment lists (flat collars, leashes, an air horn to halt conflicts that could involve the use of teeth), and rules for grouping canines in the yard: Dogs whose play style is “gentle & dainty,” for instance, should not share space with the “rough & rowdy.” In August, the ASPCA and Petco Foundation gave Dogs Playing for Life a $1.5 million grant to expand to municipal shelters across the country, beginning in L.A.

In theory, dogs calmed and socialized through play get adopted more readily. The county doesn’t have supporting numbers yet, but members of rescue groups, which for years have had nothing good to say about the county system, offer that they’re visiting its shelters to find animals to place more often. “I like going to Downey because the dogs there aren’t going apeshit,” says one. “You get notes on what a particular animal is like. Your first visual is them outside playing.” Animal-care attendant Amber Chute, who’s worked at the Downey shelter for eight years, gets tearful talking about the change: “This work can be so stressful. We see animals come in in horrific condition. Out here we get to see them happy.”

The morning passes; dogs cycle in and out. Three jump into a filled kiddie pool and lap up dirty water. A pit bull rolls over for a belly rub. A skinny shepherd scrounges up a rock and begs for a game of fetch. All are animals whose lives have somehow gone wrong, leaving them homeless and facing uncertain futures. For a few minutes, though, in the yard, they are the pets they once were and might again be.

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.