The Dogs’ Home Battersea: A Dickensian animal shelter

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 1999:

LONDON––Wedged between the massive brick
Battersea coal-burning powerhouse and the dilapidated
Battersea train station, dating to circa 1855, the Dogs’ Home
Battersea had literally Dickensian origins.
To present Londoners, the powerhouse and the
neighborhood are metaphors for each other, and for failed great
expectations. Begun in 1929 and first fired up in 1937, but not
completed until 1955, the art deco powerhouse ran at full
capacity for just 18 years before it was shut as a health hazard
on Halloween 1983. Politicians and developers have sought
ever since to find a purpose for the building.
The neighborhood was originally characterized,
however, by the now empty Battersea Pumping Station, built
in 1830 to feed the first London water mains. Now near the
heart of the city, it was then believed to be far enough out to
provide clean water from the Thames.

The Dogs’ Home Battersea actually began on the far
side of London, in the shadows of Holloway Prison, built in
1852. Prisoners’ dogs, having nowhere else to go, begged
near the gates. Mary Tealby, 59, described by the official
Dogs’ Home Battersea history as “a divorcee with no money
who was dying of cancer,” opened a stable yard shelter for
those dogs and others in 1860. She called it The Temporary
Home for Lost and Starving Dogs.
“The Home received bad press when it first opened,”
recounts the official history. “It was deemed immoral that time
and money was spent helping dumb animals while starving
women and children dwelled on the streets. Help came from
Charles Dickens,” for whom helping the innocent families of
prisoners was a lifelong concern.
Dickens, the history explains, “published an article
in support of the home called Two Dog Shows, comparing the
forerunner of the Crufts dog show to what he had seen at The
Temporary Home for Lost and Starving Dogs. Attitudes began
to change. Mary Tealby died in 1865, at age 64. Little more is
known about her,” but the friends she had recruited to help carried
on her work.
“In 1871,” the history finishes, “the Home moved to
its present site, and was renamed The Dogs’ Home Battersea.”

Hard times
The history skips the next 115 years––but Dogs’
Home Battersea director general Duncan Green told the
International Companion Animal Welfare Conference about it
recently in Sofia, Bulgaria. The Dogs’ Home took in cats as
well as dogs after 1883. By 1906 the intake rate was up to
20,000 animals per year. Almost all were killed.
“Eighty years later,” Green said, “the Dogs’ Home
Battersea took in 23,000 animals, and was still killing most of
them. The trustees finally realized that merely taking in the
animals was not solving the problem of homelessness. Their
emphasis changed then to our current focus on rehoming.”
The Dogs’ Home Battersea expects to handle 14,000
dogs and cats in 1999. About 38% will be returned to their
owners; 53% will find new homes; and roughly 15% of the
dogs will be killed as too old, sick, injured, maladaptive, or
dangerous to rehome.
At times, Green admits, the Dogs’ Home still kills
dogs just because they have gone cage-crazy. Few cats are
killed, however, partly because the Dogs’ Home receives relatively
few; partly because adoption demand for cats is higher
now than the demand for dogs. Dogs wait an average of 23
days before adoption. Cats wait just 16 days.
No animal in need is turned away, Green insists. A
fleet of bright red trucks picks up animals around London every
Green is most proud of the Dogs’ Home record with
ex-racing greyhounds, considered hard to retrain and place.
“Since 1992,” he says, “we’ve gone from rehoming 27% to
rehoming 70%.”

Bleak house
The Dogs’ Home Battersea still shelters the dogs of
prisoners, but this oldest Dogs’ Home program was long since
shoved into the background. The prisoners’ dogs, whose lives
likely were bleaker than those of the adoptable dogs before
coming and will be bleaker after leaving, occupy rows of
gloomy rusting steel cells with bare concrete floors under the
arches of the railway embankment, shaking beneath the rumble
of trains from Victoria Station, Britain’s busiest, a few miles
north. Their quarters are not normally shown to visitors.
Instead, visitors are funneled through a pet supply
store, where they are charged admission of about $1.50 U.S.
for adults, $1.00 for children, to see the dogs and cats.
The mercantile approach is echoed in the Dogs’
Home terminology: animals are not “adopted” but “sold.”
Higher prices are charged for purebreds.
Found animals up for reclaim are housed in one
end of the intake facility. Animals up for adoption are housed
in a separate building, the first floor of which contains a computer
matching service for prospective adopters.
The idea, instead of letting visitors roam the kennels
until they meet a dog or cat they like, is to electronically
match them to the animal the program deems most likely to suit
their lifestyle. It works, more or less, placing on average
about 20 dogs and 10 cats per day from among an inventory of
up to 450 dogs and 80 cats on site. The adoption failure rate,
based on returns of animals to the Dogs’ Home, is said to be
Another several hundred dogs and cats are kept at
two branch facilities outside London––but can be brought in if
the computer suggests a possible match.
The dogs up for adoption are kept in heated, welllit,
almost odor-free cement-and-glass kennels. About 50 volunteers
walk and exercise them. Professional trainers give
them additional workouts and obedience training in indoor and
outdoor doggy gymnasiums.
Cats, however, occupy double banks of cramped
animal control-style cages. The most privileged 20 or so enjoy
fresh air and sunshine, by turns, in a runway.

A tale of two cities
Overall, the Dogs’ Home Battersea facilities are
close in age, type, and sort of location to those of the San
Francisco SPCA before the 1997 construction of the $7 million
Maddie’s Adoption Center. Most of the Dogs’ Home percentages
are similar to the combined statistics from the SF/SPCA
and the San Francisco Department of Animal Care and Control.
There are, however, immense differences.
The SF/SPCA has neutered every animal prior to
adoption since 1976, at no extra fee since 1986, and has
offered low-cost and even free neutering for pet owners
throughout San Francisco since 1987, extended to feral cats in
1988. All cats have been fixed free during kitten season (MayAugust)
since 1994. Since 1996, the SF/SPCA has actually
paid $5.00 to anyone who brings in an unneutered feral cat.
The SF/SPCA neutering program began when the
SF/SPCA had an annual budget of under $1 million a year and
almost no reserves. It now has a budget of $8.6 million and
reserves of $34 million––but nearly half of the wealth has come
since 1994, when the SF/SPCA initiatives brought the city of
San Francisco to formally adopt a no-kill animal control policy.
The Dogs’ Home Battersea handles comparable numbers
of animals on $7.3 million a year. It has $67 million in
cash and investments, however, making it the third wealthiest
animal sheltering organization in the world, behind only the
Massachusetts SPCA ($70 million) and the Animal Rescue
League ($98 million), both of Boston.
Despite that, the Dogs’ Home Battersea does not
neuter all animals before adoption. Neither, to be fair, does
the North Shore Animal League, the leading adoption shelter
in the U.S. Both organizations neuter most adult dogs and all
adult cats before adoption, and issue vouchers redeemable for
free neutering to adopters whose animals are not already fixed.
North Shore, however, follows up all adoptions with
in-home visits to insure that animals adopted out intact are
fixed before they have a litter. In addition, North Shore funds
other neutering programs around the U.S. and Canada, and
operates the national Spay/USA hotline.
The Dogs’ Home Battersea, Green admits, does no
post-adoption follow-up. Neither does it have any neutering
outreach program.

A Christmas carol
Green, a career British Army officer before coming
to Dogs’ Home Battersea in 1983, told ANIMAL PEOPLE
that he retained from his army days a lack of patience with people
who say they “can’t do” something.
But barely five minutes later ANIMAL PEOPLE
publisher Kim Bartlett asked him why he didn’t get all the dogs
fixed before they go home.
“I can’t,” he said.
Why doesn’t the Dogs’ Home Battersea do North
Shore-level follow-up?
“We can’t,” Green said again. But he didn’t explain
why not, on either count, nor why the prisoners’ dogs don’t
get better housing with $67 million sitting in the bank.
One can imagine the ghosts of Mary Tealby and
Charles Dickens visiting the trustees on Christmas Eve.

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