Laws, morals, and rural reality
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2002:
Thirty-eight of the 49 Washington state senators voted on
February 19 to repeal the Washington anti-trapping initiative–passed
in November 2000 by 34 of the 49 Washington counties, and approved
by 55% of a record voter turnout.
If the Washington house of representatives agrees, which it
may not, the anti-trapping initiative would become the first
initiative in state history to be repealed by the
legislature–although the lawmakers weakened a 1996 initiative ban on
hunting pumas with dogs.
Hunters, trappers, and ranchers won over the Washington
senate by contending that the anti-trapping initiative prohibits
lawnkeepers from using mole and gopher traps which cut the animals in
half underground. The disembowled animals display no visible blood,
guts, or animal suffering. Displaying a distinct lack of guts
herself, Humane Society of the U.S. regional office director Lisa
Wathne insisted, against the view of the Washington Department of
Wildlife, that lawnkeepers could go on slicing and dicing moles and
gophers all they wish.
HSUS could and should have held the line: cruel
body-gripping traps are banned, period. HSUS also could and should
have pointed out that any lawnkeeper, gardener, or farmer who
wishes to kill moles, in particular, is an ignoramus who should
find other work. Moles are among nature’s great aereators of
topsoil, redistributors of humus and worm castings to maintain soil
fertility, and voraceous predators of the insect larvae and grubs
which lawnkeepers, gardeners, and farmers would otherwise try to
kill with pesticides.
HSUS could and should have taken the opportunity to teach the
public that humane values and sound ecological practice coincide.
Politics may be the art of compromise, but the essence of
successful political compromise is keeping the moral high ground and
The National Institute for Animal Advocacy, recently formed
by longtime Fund for Animals representive Julie Lewin, promises to
impart much needed savvy about the difference between gaining
strength through forming a coalition among allied interests, and
sacrificing moral high ground by concealing values and objectives.
(Get details about NIAA at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.) This lesson needs to
be learned, and soon, as also exemplified by the fate of a bill to
extend state agricultural inspection to egg farms, advanced to a
hearing before the Washington house rules committee by the Pasado’s
Save Haven sanctuary.
The bill was endorsed by food safety advocates as well as
animal defenders. It would have protected Washington egg farmers
against the risk that a filthy and neglected facility like the now
defunct Amberson’s Egg Ranch, which was near Pasado’s, might allow
an outbreak of any highly contagious avian disease to become an
epidemic afflicting either hens or people. USDA Animal and Plant
Health Inspection Service emergency management specialist Thomas E.
Walton warned more than 20,000 public health veterinarians, just
hours before the egg farm inspection bill was defeated, that an
outbreak of avian influenza causing Hong Kong officials to cull
almost a million chickens could spread to the U.S., and was of the
same strain as the 1997 flu which made an apparently unprecedented
jump directly from birds into people, killing six of the 28 known
human victims. An even more serious threat comes from
antibiotic-resistant salmonella, mostly carried by poultry products.
Unknown just a few years ago, antibiotic-resistant salmonella now
kills more than 550 Americans per year.
“Don’t push the ‘animal rights’ angle. Do mention [that] the
health of the hens affects the health of the eggs we eat,” Wathne
advised animal advocates who hoped to testify.
ANIMAL PEOPLE publisher Kim Bartlett warned that this would backfire.
“If you want to make this bill a food safety issue,”
Bartlett responded, “you should find people who are really
interested in that topic, and not try to get people who don’t eat
eggs to pretend they are concerned about the health risks. I care
deeply for the egg-laying chickens. I believe they are treated worse
by the food industry than any other animals. It would take torture
to get me to pretend that I don’t care about animals, and it would
be obviously phony.
“Downplaying the ‘animal rights angle’ will be
counterproductive,” Bartlett continued. “If the legislators believe
the charade, it perpetuates the notion that nobody cares much about
animals. If they don’t buy it, it confirms the view that animal
suffering is so inconsequential a concern that even animal advocates
are afraid to acknowledge their true interests.
“I don’t want to discourage anyone from trying to pass
legislation,” Bartlett concluded. “But we need to learn from
previous efforts and also learn to discriminate between true progress
and ‘victories’ that gain nothing. Too much so-called humane
legislation is compromised in passage until all it does is allow
whichever animal use industry it supposedly regulates to cite the new
law–which it bitterly fought–as proof that animals are not being
abused, because there is a law to protect them, and the industry is
in compliance. In this way the public has been lulled for decades by
the federal Humane Slaughter Act and Animal Welfare Act, for
example, into believing that all is goodness and light in
slaughterhouses.” Indeed the Humane Slaughter Act is hardly
enforced any more, and in laboratories the exclusion of rats, mice,
and birds from the definition of “animal” (see page one) excludes
more than 95% of all the animals used from receiving any protection
whatever. “Such weak so-called humane legislation can actually
impede progress on behalf of animals,” Bartlett continued.
“Unfortunately, animal advocates will often settle for anything
they can ‘spin’ into a ‘victory,’ even if it means sacrificing the
possibility of real progress in the future.”
Yet another example of an at least partially self-defeating
“victory” meanwhile emerged in New York. Activists rejoiced in
November 2001 when after years of struggle, New York governor George
Pataki signed into law a bill repeatedly reintroduced by Alexander
Grannis (D-Manhattan) which requires shelters to sterilize dogs and
cats before releasing them for adoption. Similar laws exist in many
other states, and are widely credited with reducing shelter killing,
by reducing the volume of adoption failures resulting from
aggression, territorial marking, and other reproductive behavior,
while increasing the numbers of non-reproducing pets in homes.
Previously, according to data developed by the late Bob Plumb, of
Paradise, California, non-sterilized former shelter animals
accounted for about 7% of all shelter admissions. Their litters
accounted for one shelter admission in five.
Yet laws mandating sterilization of shelter animals have
succeeded only after most shelters in the states which have such
legislation already developed the in-house clinics or arrangements
with outside veterinarians that they need to comply. Nearly half the
shelters in California, for instance, had in-house sterilization
facilities a full decade before the mandatory sterilizaton law
passed. This meant that the law merely pulled a small minority of
shelters into alignment with the policies of most, instead of trying
to restructure standard procedure.
Also necessary was–and is–a requirement that animal control
facilities must offer healthy and non-aggressive impounded animals
for adoption. Such requirements exist in many states from the
long-held hope of taxpayers that adoption income will defray some of
the costs of maintaining a shelter. To this hope has been added a
growing cultural expectation that animal shelters, public and
private, will make their best efforts to avoid killing animals.
There is no requirement that animals should be offered for
adoption in New York, however, and this is also true of most other
states which do not require sterilization before adoption. Most of
these states, including New York beyond the New York City suburbs,
are poor and rural. Most of the rural areas have long had abundant
yard puppies and barn kittens, free for the taking. The only way
their animal control shelters ever gained income from animals was by
selling them to labs. Selling to university labs any animals wanted
by researchers and instructors was in fact mandatory in New York from
1952 to 1977, and is still legally required, if no longer often
done, in several other states.
Between 1977 and 1988, at least 13 states, including New
York, turned about and banned selling shelter animals to labs, as
the practice encouraged people to abandon unwanted pets instead of
taking them to shelters–albeit that an even greater factor behind
pet abandonment was awareness that most shelters then killed more
than 90% of the animals they received.
Ceasing the sale of animals to labs increased public faith in
shelters, adding to the growing success of sterilization and
adoption programs. Nationally, the numbers of dogs and cats killed
by shelters per 1,000 Americans fell from a high of 115 in 1970 to
16.8 in 2000.
In poor rural areas, however, there usually are no
nonprofit sterilization clinics. The few veterinarians tend to be
livestock specialists, neither very experienced nor very interested
in doing low-cost dog and cat sterilization. There is little donor
base to support humane work, and the tax base is narrow and often
declining, with disproportionate numbers of people retired, below
voting age, and/or on public assistance. Road maintenance and
police and fire protection cost far more per resident than in cities
because of the amount of territory to be covered. Even keeping
schools and hospitals open may be a losing battle. Between the lack
of resources and the traditional rural view that animals are merely
meat, pests, or property, the fate of homeless animals is not only
a low priority but no priority for public officials.
In these areas, halting shelter sales of animals to labs
merely meant that more animals were killed by shooting, drowning,
or gassing with hot car exhaust, at “shelters” which consist of mere
sheds. Adoption programs rarely go beyond giving away dogs for the
cost of tags. That often remains the only way that rural dogs are
licensed, since door-to-door canvassing is cost-prohibitive even in
cities. Many small rural animal control agencies do not even handle
cats, unless to shoot a cat suspected of being rabid.
Orleans County, New York, halfway between Buffalo and
Rochester, is among the poorest and least populated parts of the
state. Learning that sterilizing dogs before adopting them out would
cost $50 to $100 per dog, more than most local people would be
willing to pay, Orleans County sheriff Merle Fredericks simply
stopped offering strays for adoption. All unclaimed strays are now
killed. Similar “no adoption” policies may have been quietly adopted
at other rural shelters throughout New York.
ANIMAL PEOPLE is aware that “no adoption” policies were
already in effect at many rural animal control shelters in other
states, especially in the South, for a variety of reasons
associated with sterilization mandates, liability, and staffing
costs, distilling down to the deadly combination of lack of money
with lack of a sense that animal life has moral worth.
Legislators who have historically shown little interest in
adequately funding schools and hospitals probably cannot be expected
to produce the funding needed to bring rural animal control
departments up to the fast improving national norms–which is not to
suggest that the effort to persuade them to do so should be abandoned.
New Hampshire shows what can be done when a rural state
adopts legislation funding a statewide low-cost dog and cat
sterilization plan. Since the New Hampshire plan drafted by attorney
Peter Marsh started in 1994, shelter killing has fallen 78%. In
2000, New Hampshire shelters killed just 2,575 dogs and cats: 2.2
per 1,000 residents.
By contrast, as South Texas Animal Sanctuary founder and
no-kill advocate Bob Sobel tells anyone who will listen, the
shelters of Hidalgo County, Texas, killed 34,026 dogs and cats, or
63.6 per 1,000 human residents. Comparable counties in Alabama,
Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee killed from 70 to 85 dogs
and cats per 1,000 human residents.
Until relatively recently, focusing dog and cat
sterilization resources on the big cities made sense, because that
was where most of the dogs and cats were, and where most of the
killing occurred. But the paradigm is changing. While big cities in
the U.S. are on average killing only 15% as many animals per 1,000
residents as 30 years ago, and have collectively achieved a 25%
reduction in the past five years alone, the toll in poor rural areas
has declined only slightly, and amounts to an increasingly large
share of the national total.
As the volume of shelter killing falls in urban areas,
well-funded regional and national humane organizations need to do
more rural outreach.
The North Shore Animal League America pioneered one approach
worthy of emulation more than a decade ago, when it began bringing
dogs and cats from rural shelters to Long Island for adoption, in
exchange for sterilization funding. Similar arrangements were
already in effect with many local animal control agencies. About a
dozen other big city high-volume adoption shelters now have parallel
programs, and there is need for many more.
Also showing the way were the rural outreach sterilization
efforts of mobile veterinarians Jeff Young, Peggy Larson, Hugh
Wheer, John Caltibiano, and Arnold Brown–along with non-vets Jean
Atthowe, of the Montana Spay/Neuter Task Force, and Sean Hawkins,
of the Houston-based Spay/Neuter Assistance Program.
Such work desperately needs more funding, and needs to be
accompanied by vigorous and fearless humane education, including
about the ecological value of moles and the sentience of chickens,
as well as about the proper care of dogs and cats. Sterilizing and
vaccinating dogs and cats to end shelter killing even in poor rural
regions can be the beginning of effecting the same profound change in
how rural people perceive the value of animal life that has already
begun to transform the whole concept of what urban animal sheltering
is all about–and, we hope, will soon begin to make more meaningful
gains in legislation.