Guest column: We can learn from Detroit

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 1993:

by Margaret Anne Cleek
An open mind is damned near
impossible either to have or to find. The
response I’ve received to my September
ANIMAL PEOPLE guest column, “Don’t
call me a pimp” bears out the opening
premise of it: that we all have our own per-
ceptual set which colors our view of reality.
This leads to stereotyping and prejudice,
which in turn can produce polarization and
counterproductive strategy in pursuit of
mutually accepted goals.
To re-introduce myself, I am by
profession an industrial/organizational psy-
chologist. I am by avocation a dog enthusi-
ast––not just a purebred dog enthusiast.
While I have concerns about the adoption of
unsuitable dogs, the true mutt is just plain
fine in my book, and I would urge the
adoption of the right mutt over the wrong
purebred in a heartbeat.

I feel that what I know about dogs
and what I know about social science can be
integrated in a manner useful to all of us
who are concerned about pet overpopula-
tion. And I see a likeness in the evolution
of approaches to this issue and the evolution
of strategies in the automobile industry, for
which I was a consultant in the early 1980s,
when U.S. auto makers were at the depths
of crisis. The purpose of my work was to
break down existing culture and attitudes,
to demonstrate the pointlessness of blaming,
and to refocus the adversarial relationship
between management and unions to develop
a new, more effective social technology. In
specific, when the U.S. auto industry hit the
wall, the reason for their problem was
labeled, “Japanese Imports.” With the
problem thus labeled, the solution was set
as import restrictions and trade tariffs, and
it now became the U.S. government’s
responsibility to impose restrictions. I can’t
tell you how many times I heard this song-
and-dance. The rank-and-file believed we
needed to stop the flow of imports, PERI-
OD––situation solved.
Once a problem is labeled and
blame placed, many people feel their work
is completed. The belief that the problem is
caused by the blamed party is continually
reaffirmed with rhetoric. Attention is now
focused on a simple, one-step solution:
changing the behavior of the blamed party.
The development of alternative approaches
is ignored. But most problems are not
amenable to simple, one-step solutions.
If the U.S. auto industry had suc-
ceeded in placing the blame for its woes
squarely enough on Japanese imports to
obtain a trade embargo, I suspect I would
now be driving a piece of crap from G.M.
that cost me $50,000. Instead, the U.S.
auto industry gradually recognized that the
problems it faced were multifaceted, com-
plex, and influenced by the larger context
of economics. Reviving sales of U.S.-made
cars required responses to many issues, not
just one, among them high interest rates,
the strength of the dollar, government regu-
lation, poor labor/management relations,
outmoded technology, lack of touch with
consumer needs, a centralized decision
process, and awkward work design.
Much as the auto industry initially
focused upon simply placing blame, I feel
many humane organizations have focused
too intently upon purebred breeding per se
as the cause of pet overpopulation, and con-
sequently have promoted legislative action
to halt breeding before fully understanding
which animals are surplus, where they
come from, and what approaches are most
likely to effectively reach the people
responsible for their existence.
Help needed
While there is no question that we
need to encourage and maintain a lower
birth rate, the humane community has to
learn which births are most essential to
reduce, much as the U.S. auto industry had
to learn what kind of cars to build. I do not
believe the expertise the humane communi-
ty needs in order to do this is to be found in
the advocacy sector, whose raison d’etre is
campaigning rather than doing analysis.
Nor can shelter and animal control staff be
expected to have the necessary overview:
like the garage mechanics who could readily
diagnose the repair and maintenance prob-
lems with Detroit cars a decade ago, the
people in shelter work and animal control
often have an excellent street-level under-
standing of the symptoms of the problem
they deal with, but cannot be expected to
have equal perspective on matters of eco-
nomics and sociology that have a longterm
hidden influence upon how the cats and
dogs they handle came to be there.
Unfortunately, until recently hardly anyone
else has cared about homeless animals. In
the absence of leadership capable of taking a
multidisciplinary open-systems approach to
pet overpopulation, the humane community
has focused understandably but somewhat
naively upon simply reducing euthanasia
numbers by preventing births. This
approach has brought dramatic positive
results, yet the widely accepted philosophy
that all dogs and cats are created equal and
are therefore equally worth preventing from
being born has resulted in some rapid and
unintended shifts in dog demographics that
may make further progress difficult.
We must bring the expertise of epi-
demiologists, operation control experts,
marketing specialists, responsible breeders,
and industrial/organizational psychologists
to bear, along with that of the humane com-
munity. We have to consider what segment
of the population is neutering pets and what
pets are being neutered, which has an
immense if unseen influence on the nature
of the animal population still out on the
streets, unneutered.
I have never maintained that only
the purebred dog population should be
allowed to continue. The purebred simply
increases the odds of predictability of type
and temperament, in turn increasing the
odds that a person will choose the right dog.
My family could never have afforded a
purebred when I was a child, yet getting a
dog was the most important event of my
childhood. (Paradoxically, my first dog
was a purebred, given to me free by a show
breeder who knew I was bonkers for dogs.
This dog was much loved and never bred.)
I have always been in favor of
affordable and even free dogs to approved
homes. And just as I maintain that healthy,
wanted purebreds do not displace shelter
dogs, I believe shelter adoption does not
affect the show breeder’s market. People
have different reasons for getting one dog or
the other. I do have definite concerns that
people buy or adopt the right dog, and am
concerned that as surplus numbers drop,
more unsuitable dogs will be placed in
homes. Animal behaviorists and
knowedgeable dog people can help shelter
workers develop means of more accurately
assessing dogs. We need experienced peo-
ple who can tell the difference between a
good dog in the wrong home, a snooty
juvenile delinquent who needs to be shown
how to straighten up and fly right, and a
dog who is truly unable to function as a
family companion.
Some of my best freinds are
mutts. I really like the “Heinz 57,” as dogs
of indeterminate ancestry are often called,
and would never suggest that they have less
intrinsic value than a best-in-show pure-
bred. But not all dogs are created equal.
There are bad dogs, including purebreds,
crossbreds, and mutts who are genetically
bad, not just bad as the result of having bad
owners. In our efforts to reduce the surplus,
we have not addressed which dogs have
been removed from the breeding pool and
which have not. I believe that current prac-
tices are creating a demographic shift in the
dog population that can result in a crisis of
vicious and unsuitable dogs.
I maintain that our shelters had
mostly surplus dogs 20 years ago, but our
past efforts have created a situation where
more and more, shelters contain unwanted
animals. We have created an overnight
change in the evolution of the dog, produc-
ing not an across-the-board reduction in the
dog population, but rather a restriction of
range, skewing the distribution toward
larger, more aggressive dogs.
If all factors were equal, as the
surplus numbers dropped we would have
had an across-the-board decrease in the dog
population. But all factors are not equal.
For example, large dogs may average nine
or ten pups per litter. Small dogs may have
only two or three pups per litter. There are
many other factors, such as ability to live in
semi-feral conditions, which favor the large
dog over the small dog, even though fewer
and fewer people are able to afford or
accommodate large dogs. Whelping small
dog pups is often difficult, and medical
problems necessitate spaying mothers who
were intended for breeding. One commonly
advanced suggestion, that breeders should
be limited in the number of litters that they
register, would assure the demise of some
small breeds. Two litters of Salukis may be
22 pups, but two litters of pugs may be
only four pups, and there is a much greater
market for pugs than Salukis.
When random breeding occurs,
larger and more aggressive dogs are more
likely to cover bitches. Add to this the
human element. Certain segments of the
public want large, aggressive dogs, who to
some degree may vicariously live out their
sexual fantasies.
The role of mutts
If we are successful in eliminating
the mutt, as some advocate, then the only
dogs available will be expensive purebreds
(both well-bred and poorly bred), and acci-
dental liasions between purebreds. A recent
Massachusetts SPCA survey indicated that a
whopping third of dog births are accidental,
which argues for education about the diffi-
culty of confining a bitch in season, as well
as about neutering. I believe that some
combinations of purebred dogs are inherent-
ly unpredictable and potentially dangerous
because of the combined characteristics of
the two breeds. Individually the parents
may be sound representatives of their breed
type, but the cross may be risky.
Shelters have a responsibility to
protect the public from any combination of
breed traits that have the potential to result
n a dangerous dog, such as a highly reac-
tive herding dog crossed with a large guard
dog, or a terrier and large guard dog cross.
Who needs a 90-pound family pet who is
easily pissed off?
Multiple factors have worked in
favor of the large aggressive dog. Now I’m
not saying there is no place for the large
aggressive dog, but anyone with any shelter
experience will tell you that while there may
be a waiting list for small dogs, there is
never a shortage of big dogs. In my com-
munity some individuals are purposely
breeding small mixed-breed dogs and selling
them for up to $125. There is a WANTED
ad for small mixed pups run continuously in
our paper by a local pet store. We have cre-
ated a shortage of small dogs and easily
adaptable family mutts. And when a
demand is created, people will produce
pups to meet the demand.
Let me illustrate how this demo-
graphic shift has come about. Back in the
days when parents could send their children
to the store without worrying that their faces
would turn up on milk cartons, neighbor-
hoods had dogs like Suzi and Buddy––each
a Heinz 57. Whatever breeds were among
their ancestry were so mingled that no
specifically developed traits were evident.
They were just plain dogs. And they were
great. Suzi stayed in her front yard without
a fence, and Buddy had his route, which he
set out on every morning, but he knew just
when to come home so he could meet Billy
and follow him around his newspaper route.
Suzi and Buddy hadn’t been to
obedience classes, yet despite the crude and
unsophisticated methods of their respective
owners, they learned how to please the fam-
ily and be good dogs.
Suzi’s family and Buddy’s family
loved them and were good people, but in
those days people were not aware of the
need to neuter and responsibly confine their
pets. In fact, Suzi’s family was thrilled
when she had pups, and of course Buddy
was the dad. Suzi was a great mom, and so
proud when all the neighborhood kids came
to see her litter. Those pups spent more time
in someone’s arms than they did on the
ground. And every kid in the neighborhood
pestered his or her parents for a Suzi pup. A
grieving Billy carried home one pup, as
poor old Buddy was killed by a car. The
streets were getting busy.
There were far too many Suzis and
Buddys, and ever-increasing numbers of
pups were being destroyed because the num-
ber of available homes could never match
the number of pups being born.
Accordingly, concerned groups including
breeders initiated the LES program
(Legislation, Education, and Spaying).
People like Suzi and Buddy’s owners, being
caring and responsible, responded. Suzi
and Buddy’s grandbabies if not babies were
neutered. And that was the end of Suzi and
Buddy’s gene pool.
Meanwhile, in the heart of the city
where Queenie and Spike lived, crime was
increasing and people were scared. Tough
dogs became a symbol of empowerment and
a mode of defense. It wasn’t long before
they became a mode of offense, too.
Queenie and Spike and other kick-butt dogs
became the dogs of choice in deteriorating
urban areas. Their owners were not as easily
reached by the LES message, and these
dogs were not neutered. Because of high
population density and lack of fenced yards,
random breeding was frequent. Offspring
were given away and they too reproduced.
Many were marginal members of their fami-
lies and became semi-feral. Unlike Suzi and
Buddy’s pups, Queenie and Spike’s became
fruitful and multiplied.
This is just one element of the
broader picture that emerges when systems
analysis is applied. Going to a systems
approach to pet overpopulation would allow
us to break out of presently unproductive
approaches to the problem, and would
enable us to anticipate and monitor the
effects of our policies on dog population. It
would enable us to assess and intervene to
assure that appropriate dogs are available to
accommodate the needs of the dog-owning
Alternatively, if people either buy
or adopt inappropriate dogs, shelters will be
dealing with an endless flow of dogs that
they may label surplus, but are in fact recy-
cled: unable to adapt to any family situa-
tion, they are returned to a shelter (often not
the same shelter), or are abandoned or left
to wander for eventual pickup by animal
control. Humane advocates then blame the
people, who certainly are not blameless,
but it must be recognized that the dogs
themselves may be unsuitable. The policies
and practices that we adopt to control dog
populations should assure the survival of the
fittingest in loving homes, not the survival
of the fittest when left to their own devices
by the irresponsible.
Taking a systems approach
requires that we keep data bases on the type
of dogs wanted and the type of dogs avail-
able, and intervene with educational pro-
grams as needed to keep dog populations in
line with demand. We may determine that
we need to educate specific groups of own-
ers and provide incentives to stop breeding
of certain populations more than others.
Certainly we must provide neutering ser-
vice, along with incentives to neuter, in the
communities that animal control records
indicate have the highest rates of stray dog
and litter pickups. We may need to inform
people about the availability of recently
developed chemical abortion technology
when accidental breeding is suspected. We
must transport dogs as needed to accommo-
date market shifts, and we must market
shelter dogs effectively to insure that all
those who could be placed well are placed
in good homes.
The transport of shelter dogs is a
topic. The North Shore
Animal League initiated the practice on a
large scale some years ago, and has been
under continuous attack from some quarters
ever since. But we should expect to find
different dog demographics in different
areas. If my hypothesis is correct, high
density urban areas would have a shortage
of small dogs and an excess of large dogs.
If the demand for small dogs is not met,
people may adopt large dogs who don’t
work out and end up back in shelters, or
people will intentionally breed small pups
for sale. In another area, there may be a
surplus of smaller dogs. It is a waste of life
to euthanize dogs in one area and create a
need for breeding in another, when market
analysis, communication, and transport
could meet the need.
If we maintain that we do not have
the time or the money to do a systems analy-
sis and address the multiple issues involved,
we are doomed to face an unending stream
of unwanted animals as we burn up our
energy and resources on misplacing blame.
An open systems approach
requires hard work and detailed analysis. I
am encouraged that the Council on Pet
Overpopulation recently formed by the lead-
ing national humane groups and breeders’
associations includes noted epidemiologists.
I hope this task force does not take the usual
“my agenda versus your agenda and let’s
compromise” approach. I am an advocate of
collaborative problem solving, not compro-
mise and accommodation to appear political-
ly correct.
I would urge the inclusion of an
even wider range of professionals. The
complexities of pet overpopulation are
and the contingencies
extensive. But I am convinced that only
such a complex approach complete with
flow chart analysis, good data, and contnu-
ous monitoring and adjustment of tactics in
line with shifting needs will bring us control
of the problem. Pet overpopulation is a con-
tinuous phenomenon, and continuous phe-
nomena require continuous monitoring and
flexible response. Properly approached, dog
breeding and the prevention of overpopula-
tion are not mutually exclusive.
[Margaret Anne Cleek, of
Sacramento, California, is a fancier/breed
er and breed rescuer, and a member of the
Alaskan Malamute Club of America. This is
her third guest column for ANIMAL PEO-
PLE examining various aspects of pet over
population, following “Alternatives to
breeding bans” in June and “Don’t call me a
pimp” in September.]
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