Editorial: Pet overpopulation: it’s win or lose now

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 1993:

The latest shelter statistics, presented on page twelve of this issue, suggest that at
present about four million cats per year are euthanized for population control––about two-
thirds of the total number of animals euthanized because they have no homes.
The significance of this number is not only that it is low indeed compared to the
best estimates of feline euthanasia published only a couple of years ago, and almost unbe-
lievably low compared to the estimates of 15 years ago. Records of kitten survival in both
private homes and feral colonies indicate that only about half of the kittens who are born
live long enough to be weaned. Only about half of the kittens who survive that long reach
sexual maturity, so that no more than 25% of all the cats born eventually join the breeding
population, even without neutering. Further, according to data ANIMAL PEOPLE col-
lected and published in 1992, while conducting the cat rescue project described in our lead
feature for this month, only about half of all feral mothers live long enough to bear more
than one litter, and only half of those live long enough to bear more than three litters. Our
cat rescue records indicate that only one feral mother in a hundred lives longer than three
years, so four to five litters appears to be the normal outside limit to feral reproduction.

If non-spayed mothers, both pets and ferals, have on average two litters, and if
on average two kittens from each litter survive to sexual maturity, the entire cat surplus
could be produced by just one million mothers per year. What’s more, the present rate of
removal of cats from the feral breeding population via euthanasia, disease, accidents, and
neuter/release is such that the homeless cat population may already have been reduced to
equilibrium, the point at which removals equal reproduction. The ANIMAL PEOPLE
survey of cat rescuers’ estimates of the population under their care, published last
November, confirmed that this seems to be the case. Although the population of individual
colonies varied from 1991 to 1992, the total numbers each year were almost identical.
This suggests we have reached a critical and long awaited juncture in the struggle
against pet overpopulation. During the past decade a variety of innovative and aggressive
discount neutering, public education, and breed rescue programs have cut the number of
euthanasias of dogs and cats by two-thirds––and dog euthanasia numbers have fallen even
more dramatically than those for cats. We are now at last at a point where elimination of
pet overpopulation altogether within the next five to ten years is a reasonable goal.
On the other hand, as our May issue warned with a screaming headline, we are
also only a few years away from losing all the ground we’ve gained if the present momen-
tum is halted. Euthanasia statistics from Los Angeles, in particular, demonstrate that pet
overpopulation is not a problem we will permanently “solve”; rather, like the spread of
contagious diseases, it is a problem we can contain, and keep contained, so long as we
remain aware of the risks and remain dedicated to maintaining preventive measures. As
soon as the effort slackens, homeless animal numbers and euthanasia rates skyrocket.
Unfortunately, as our May issue noted, Los Angeles closed its 20-year-old city-
operated neutering clinics a year ago due to a civic budget crisis. The immediate result
seems to be a drop of five to 10% in the total number of neutering operations performed in
Los Angeles, which could quickly translate into an increase of 30% to 60% in the number
of homeless animals. At that point the fecundity of dogs and cats is such that the growth of
the homeless animal population could become exponential, until the carrying capacity of
the often hostile habitat is exceeded and disease and starvation again become the primary
population levelers, at tremendous cost in both animal suffering and dollars spent for ani-
mal control.
As this issue points out, beginning on page one, model anti-pet overpopulation
programs in the cities of Chicago and Macon and the state of New Jersey are also in bad
financial trouble, simply because their respective communities are in trouble and animal-
related services are politically easier to cut or just not budget than services to voting human
beings. The Los Angeles experience, which proved over two decades that every dollar
spent for neutering saves ten on animal control, is apparently not enough to convince
politicians that cutting anti-pet overpopulation program funding just because it can be cut is
penny-wise but pound-foolish.
In the long run, as guest columnist Margaret Anne Cleek argues on page 5, we
must convince both politicians and the public that properly funding the most cost-effective
approach to animal control––population control––is as much in the public interest as funding
maintenance of roads, sewers, police, and fire prevention service. Pet overpopulation is an
“animal issue,” yes, but is is also an issue vital to public health and safety, whether the
threat comes from the roving dog packs that terrorized many American cities 150 years ago,
or from the quiet transmission of parasites.
In the short run, the job is still up to us, all of us, by whatever means we have
available. Work on the political front may take many different directions. Our May issue
reviewed a wide variety of legislative approaches to pet overpopulation that have been tried
here and there, measured the results attributable to each, and pointed out that no single
approach appears to be universally and absolutely successful. This month, guest columnists
Cleek and Lewis R. Plumb offer more ideas. One way or another, it should be possible to
develop an acceptable and feasible anti-pet overpopulation plan for even the most financially
stressed communities––maybe not the ideal, but something to at least help insure that the
problem doesn’t get worse.
At the same time, it is equally necessary to continue the many private charitable
initiatives that provide the models and inspiration for public efforts. On our first letters
page, Friends of Animals advertises one of the oldest and most successful of the anti-pet
overpopulation programs that brought us to the present point; on our back cover, the North
Shore Animal League is announcing a newly formed alliance with another successful chari-
table program, Spay USA. Together, FoA, Spay USA, and NSAL’s own neutering assis-
tance program for humane societies and animal control agencies are helping to neuter
approximately 400,000 pets per year. Such large-scale national efforts are only the most vis-
ible part of a quiet ad hoc crusade involving tens of thousands of dedicated volunteers,
more than 2,000 sympathetic veterinarians (who comprise approximately 10% of all licensed
small-animal veterinarians in the U.S.), and hundreds of smaller local and regional pro-
grams, who collectively neuter several million dogs and cats per year at discount rates.
Successful anti-pet overpopulation programs, large and small, have one universal
element. From individual humane cat trappers who provide neutering to neighborhood fer-
als to high-volume clinics like the one operated by the Animal Foundation of Nevada in Las
Vegas, which neuters more than 7,500 animals a year, people of compassion and foresight
are giving their time and money to correct a situation caused by other people who have nei-
ther compassion nor foresight. As Cleek writes, “We all have to pay for the irresponsible,
because by definition they won’t take the responsibility.”
Poverty is one reason why many people still fail to neuter their pets without a
nudge from someone else, but it is not the only reason, nor, in our experience, is it the
major reason. We gained much of our own hands-on experience with pet overpopulation in
the inner city of Bridgeport, Connecticut, one of the poorest neighborhoods relative to the
regional cost of living in the whole U.S.––and vividly remember elderly women who hadn’t
even a warm coat to wear in winter pressing $20 bills on us in gratitude that we’d fixed their
cats; whole families living in single rooms who would somehow produce a fiver or a ten-
spot; rag-tag children who interrupted their games in the street to run knock on doors and
locate other cats who needed fixing. For these people, the biggest problem wasn’t lack of
willingness to pay, even if the means was hard to come by; it was simple lack of access to
veterinary clinics, discount or otherwise, in an area with little public transportation and no
vets within many miles.
Nor was lack of money the problem for the man with a new house and two sports
cars who ordered us to cease catching and fixing ferals who made their homes on his proper-
ty (although we caught them on the property next door), or for the countless people in
wealthy suburbs who asked us to neuter their pets at our expense. Because selfishness and
irresponsibility know no class structure, the rest of us must unfortunately continue to subsi-
dize neutering the pets of a certain number of the rich as well as the poor until and unless we
can devise a socially acceptable way to hold every pet owner to account.
When we do, enforcement will more likely be through moral approbation than law.
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