Editorial: Introducing a different needle
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2000:
A gathering of moment to the future of humane activism on behalf of dogs, cats,
and wildlife occurred on stage at Bentley College in Waltham, Massachusetts, on July 8,
brought together by Esther Mechler of Spay/USA.
Meeting for the first time––with animal advocates and with each other––were
immunosterilant researchers Richard Fayrer-Hoskins, Ph.D., of the University of Georgia;
Terry Nett, Ph.D., of Colorado State University; and Stephen Boyle, Ph.D., of the VirginiaMaryland
Regional College of Veterinary Medicine.
University of Florida at Gainesville researcher Julie Levy, DVM, founder of
Operation Catnip, made the introductions. Operation Catnip surgically sterilized 1,575 feral
cats in its first year, Levy explained, and then picked up the pace. It is an all-volunteer project,
depending like thousands of others on donated resources. It can do more than most
because Levy herself is a veterinarian. But like everyone else, she must earn a living. There
are limits to the number of cats she can fix, even when others catch the cats, return them to
their habitat after surgery, and monitor their well-being for the rest of their lives.
As a vet, Levy continued, she soon realized surgical sterilzation is an awkward and
expensive stopgap. Surgery works, having hugely reduced unwanted animal births and animal
control killing wherever it has been made affordable. But surgery still takes more veterinary
time, training, and equipment than many places have to offer.
Affluent societies can find the resources to control animal populations through
surgery, with sufficient persuasion, but animal birth control elsewhere depends upon attracting
outside help––which is not always available or dependable, whether in rural Appalachia or
the underdeveloped nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Even if most of the people in poor locales accept the value of animal birth control,
neither they nor their public institutions may have the wherewithal to invest in it. Policy-makers
might know that fixing animals is cheaper and more effective in the long run than simply
killing strays and ferals, but economic and political reality may preclude long-term thinking
when 14 children have already been bitten by one mad dog, there isn’t a dose of post-rabies
exposure vaccine within hundreds of miles, and a mob is forming in the street to kill suspect
animals and any humans who get in their way.
This occurred in May 2000 in Flores, Indonesia, and in June 1999 in Kabwe,
Zambia. It is a daily reality in parts of India, where even though rabies vaccines are widely
available, deployment is impeded by cost, lack of refrigeration, and localized corruption,
which sometimes means the supposedly free vaccinations administered by government are
unavailable, while vaccines are diverted to fee-charging private clinics.
Contraceptive vaccination, Levy pointed out, would be much less expensive than
surgery, posing much less risk of infection when clinics operate without refrigeration, running
water, or electricity. Clinics cope with such conditions throughout the underdeveloped
world, from the Baja Animal Sanctuary in Rosarito, Mexico, an hour south of San Diego, to
the Visakha SPCA in Visakhapatnam, India, on almost exactly the opposite side of the earth.
Levy did not mention rabies vaccination, but reality is that this is as urgent a priority
for dogs and cats as sterilization. In the maelstrom of a rabies panic the sterilized dog or cat is
at the same risk as any other. Even dogs and cats wth good homes may be killed.
Yet another reality is that vaccinating all of the animals of both Rosarito and
Visakhapatnam against contraception and rabies would probably cost less than improving and
expanding their humane clinics to meet U.S. and European standards.
Upgrading animal care facilities in the underdeveloped world needs to be done too,
but reducing the numbers of animals and frequency of rabies outbreaks must come first.
Otherwise, the clinics will never catch up to the ever-expanding need for their services.
Sterilizing enough feral dogs and cats to reduce the numbers at large is inherently
difficult using surgery because sterilization––by any method––doesn’t begin to bring a population
decline until approximately 70% of the breeding population are fixed. Up to that point,
reducing the number of litters born tends to enhance the survival rate of the rest. Pregnant and
nursing mothers have less competition, so find more prey and take fewer chances in hunting.
Better-nourished puppies and kittens are less vulnerable to disease and––because they are
nursed longer and leave their mothers later––less vulnerable as well to predation.
Until half of a population of feral dogs and/or feral cats are altered, sterilizing some
but not all can actually bring reproductive surge, to the dismay of rescuers who think they can
make a difference by fixing one or two at a time as funds allow.
Likewise, there no escaping the need to start fixing cats at as fast a pace as can be
managed, even if few cats are evident among a teeming population of street dogs. Rescuers
working to reduce street dog numbers in parts of the world with few visible feral cats are often
under the illusion that they can think about cats later, if ever. What they often don’t realize is
that street dogs keep feral cats invisible by restricting their comings and goings to night, confining
their habitat to rooftops and attics, and killing any cats they can catch. Once the dogs
are removed, the cats quickly take over the sources of food and shelter, and reproduce at a far
faster pace. In the U.S., for example, as recently as 1960 about 90% of the animals entering
shelters were dogs––but as the number of dogs received fell steadily from the mid-1960s until
the present, cat intake soared until the early 1990s. By then most shelters were receiving two
or three cats for every dog. The advent of neuter/vaccinate/return feral cat control finally didbring
cat intake sharply down, but most shelters still receive far more cats than dogs.
Failure to anticipate population surges caused by eliminating causes of feral dog and
cat mortality can completely undo neuter/vaccinate/return projects, as occurred in July when
the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Norfolk, Virginia asked animal control to catch and remove
about 100 cats who had been fixed a few at a time by shipyard machinist Cynthia Moose and
friends with the Meower Power Feral Cat Coalition. The five-year-old effort to fix the cats
wasn’t reducing the population fast enough to suit other shipyard workers, some of whom
were reportedly hospitalized due to allergic reactions to fleas.
Too many cats and dogs still at large also recently undid neuter/vaccinate/return projects
in Patras and Corfu, according to the Greek Animal Welfare Society, when someone
clandestinely poisoned “large numbers of neutered, vaccinated, well fed strays…devastating
those who have worked responsibly to care for these animals.”
The advent of contraceptive vaccination, especially via bait-ball delivery, should
eliminate the surge effect by enabling rescuers to reach the 50% and 70% targets relatively
quickly and inexpensively.
Coincidentally, 70% is also the level of vaccination coverage required to eliminate
rabies within an animal population. At 70% vaccination, the virus tends to die with infected
animals rather than spreading rapidly enough to new hosts to survive.
Combining species-specific vaccinations to achieve both sterilization and rabies protection
with a single baited dose is accordingly a Holy Grail for some researchers.
Species-specific oral rabies vaccination has already existed for more than 20 years,
but is just coming into vogue, after spectacular success in eliminating canine rabies from
western Europe and in limiting rabies outbreaks among wild canids in the U.S. and Canada.
Oral vaccination has the potential to eradicate rabies altogether, which not only kills as many
as 40,000 humans per year in Asia and Africa, but is also responsible for the prejudice against
dogs prevailing in much of the world, leading to brutal episodic purges of street dogs, and
stimulating some human consumption of dogs, whose meat is believed in some cultures to
confer immunity to rabies.
The introduction of oral rabies vaccination to the U.S. was unfortunately delayed for
six years by legal actions brought by the National Wildlife Federation and Foundation for
Economic Trends. Each professed concern that oral rabies vaccines are genetically engineered.
But NWF, the national umbrella for 48 state hunting clubs, may have been more concerned
that vaccinating wildlife against rabies would eliminate a pretext for hunting and trapping.
Immunosterilization of wildlife even more directly threatens hunting and trapping,
to the point that hunting organizations won passage of a law against wildlife contraception in
Illinois, and have fought wildlife contraception programs in many other states.
As the immunosterilization methods used to fix feral dogs and cats could also be
used to sterilize wildlife, and have also been developed through genetic engineering, opposition
from hunting, trapping, and anti-biotech organizations is certain to intensify. An obvious
avenue of attack, the Spay/USA speakers noted, will be for opponents to argue that vaccines
deployed to sterilize dogs and cats might also inhibit the reproduction of closely related endangered
species, such as red wolves or Florida panthers (whose species designations are questionable
in view of genetic evidence that the red wolf is actually a hybrid coyote and the
Florida panther is merely an inbred subpopulation of puma).
The Spay/USA speakers agreed that broad use of immunosterilants in dogs and cats
is “two to five years away,” depending upon the success of present experiments with speciesspecific
delivery methods and the amount of further work required to satisfy regulators.
Putting care ahead of purity
The humane community could become a powerful influence in favor of immunosterilization,
but this will require a radical break from the doctrinaire positions against animal
research and biotechnology favored by the anti-vivisection wing of the animal rights movement.
As immunosterilants are pharmaceuticals, Julie Levy explained, U.S. and international
law requires that they be tested on animals. And it is biotechnology that makes them possible.
The Spay/USA conference in Waltham was in effect a seven-year reunion of several
hundred animal rights activists assembled by Esther Mechler at Bentley in 1993. Many were
then just beginning hands-on work, after long commitment to advocacy. Most, then and now,
would probably define themselves as anti-vivisectionists. Immunosterilant research was
already entering the trial phase in 1993––but no one talked about it.
Only two years earlier, in 1991, the Humane Society of the U.S. retreated from public
involvement in funding the development of injectible chemosterilants for dogs and cats,
under pressure from Friends of Animals, whose surgical sterilization program was then the
largest in the U.S. but has since been eclipsed by others.
Julie Levy explained this year that she and other immunosterilant researchers have
not previously addressed the humane community because they anticipated a hostile reception.
She explained that she too has a lifelong commitment to animal advocacy, made tangible by
Project Catnip, but has reluctantly accepted that circumstance requires ethically difficult sacrifices
of the lives of some animals in testing which may prevent the births and population control
killings of millions. She asked the audience to appreciate that her fellow researchers on
the stage were equally concerned about the moral dilemma inherent in their work, and that
they had also chosen to put preventing suffering ahead of maintaining personal purity.
Many in the audience might have recognized in Levy’s position a mirror of the rationale
shelter workers use for killing healthy animals because there are not enough homes to
adopt them. Shelter workers, however, have for too long killed animals with little hope of
accomplishing more by it than emptying cages so that more can be captured and held for
killing. Immunosterilization promises to end that cycle.
When Levy finished, there was a long moment of silence, as if the whole cause was
debating with itself whether to remain consistent with a history of rigid emphasis on rights and
wrongs, or to accept troubled compromise.
A longtime militant antivivisectionist rose to shout––but words never left his mouth,
as he found himself engulfed in the first of a series of standing ovations for the panel speakers.