Millions of Pets Killed; Is There a Solution?

Joel Klose thinks the time has come to solve to the pet overpopulation problem, which leads to millions of cats and dogs being killed in shelters every year.

"Basically we've made life disposable, by saying we're just going to get rid these animals," says Klose, the Animal Control Sergeant for Elmira, N.Y. "I can't tell you how depressing it is."

Millions Killed Each Year

Even though animal control is seldom a top priority for local government, the problem is enormous.

According to the Humane Society of the United States, 6 million to 8 million cats and dogs are euthanized each year.

There are 68 million owned dogs and 73 million owned cats in the United States today, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association.

Shelters, of course, try to provide homes for their animals, but more often than not they end up euthanizing them.

More than half of dogs and nearly three-quarters of cats in shelters are killed, according to a shelter survey by National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy.

Those numbers are reflected in communities such as Lee County, Fla., where animal control officials expect a record 13,000 pets to arrive in their shelters this year, and two-thirds of those to be killed. And the programs are not cheap; county officials expect to spend almost $2 million in 2002.

"Things have gotten better over the last 20 to 30 years — a bit," said Betsy McFarland of the Humane Society of the United States. "We're still in a crisis."

Working Toward a ‘No-Kill’ Policy

Despite the daunting numbers, animal advocates like Klose are optimistic. His facility in upstate New York is one of a growing number of animal shelters that are rethinking their approach to cat and dog overpopulation, and working toward ending the killing of adoptable pets.

"I think it's very realistic to think it can be done," he says.

Years of working in animal control have convinced him that a "no-kill" shelter is not just possible, but also essential. Extensive euthanasia has lowered the morale of shelter workers, alienated the pet-loving public, and fostered the idea that cats and dogs are essentially disposable, he says.

"You're never really coming to a solution to the problem — with a kill program," he says.

More shelters around the country are coming to agree, says Gary Patronek, the director of the Tufts University Center for Animals and Public Policy.

"Essentially every shelter is trying to become a 'no-kill' shelter," he says.

Looking at Supply …

Shelters such as the Dumb Friends League in Denver (the name means "mute," not "stupid") are looking at both supply and demand in trying to lower the number of animals put to sleep.

On the demand side, much can be done to increase animal adoption rates, says the Dumb Friends League's Kristina Vourax. The organization places 90 percent of adoptable cats and dogs in homes.

Shelters are improving the ways they screen potential pet owners and match a particular animal to a person, and offering more services to help people deal with problem pets.

They are also trying to address owners' unrealistic expectations about their new companions, such as couch potatoes bringing home high-energy terriers that would be better off with a marathon runner for an owner.

"The largest grouping [of dogs and cats in shelters] are animals that [people] got at shelters and are bringing back to shelters," says Darlene Larson of the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy. "So something is amiss."

Luna, a rust-colored whippet-miniature pincher mix, was brought back to the Dumb Friends League by two separate owners, because the 8-month-old pooch played too aggressively. The shelter is now providing training and advice for Luna and her third owner.

Some shelters say improving their facilities has made it easier to find homes for their animals. The Richmond, Va., SPCA created a spacious, state-of-the-art environment for their cats and dogs, complete with classical music to soothe both the animals and humans. They found people felt better about adopting animals from the shelter and were more willing to adopt.

Shelters are also recognizing that the overpopulation problem differs around the country. Facilities in New England are bringing in dogs from other parts of the nation and even other countries in order to satisfy demand for canine companions.

… And Demand

But the problem cannot be solved with without controlling the pet population, particularly with untamed cats. Various estimates of the feral cat population put the number as high as 68 million.

"Overpopulation kills more cats than any disease," says Becky Robinson, the national director of Alley Cat Allies, which campaigns for nonlethal ways to deal with the problem.

Robinson's organization advocates "trap, neuter and release," or TNR, for feral cats instead of euthanasia. Although the cats are returned to the wild after being neutered or spayed, they will no longer produce new generations of homeless, starving kittens.

TNR, which advocates say is cheaper, more humane, and more popular among the public, has slowly drawn more support from city animal-control agencies and private charities over the past decade.

"I think you have to deal with reality. People are not going to help the trap-and-kill [programs]," says Jan Raven, the executive director of AZCats, a rescue organization that traps, neuters and releases homeless cats in Phoenix.

Critics, however, argue that "trap, neuter and release" just allow cats to kill more wildlife.

In September, a federal appeals court threw out part of a California law banning leg-traps, which are used against foxes, skunks, raccoons, and feral cats.

Groups such as the Audubon Society applauded the decision, saying it would help protect endangered bird species, but some cat advocates complain the traps are cruel and unnecessary.

Other animal-control measures have also attracted controversy. The Idaho Humane Society, for example, has drawn the ire of local dog breeders by pushing a proposal tripling the license fee for non-spayed and non-neutered dogs, from $20 to $60 a year.

Cutting the number of dogs and cats killed in shelters to zero remains a distant goal, animal advocates admit. Numerous obstacles remain, including getting cash-strapped government agencies to increase funding for animal control. But there are hopeful signs, such as the gradual increase in the percentage of pets coming from shelters.

"People want to do the right thing," says Robinson. "People love animals."