Editorial feature: How hard times affect animal rescue
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 2008:
The October 2008 ANIMAL PEOPLE editorial, “The humane community can
handle hard times,” focused on the institutional side of coping with
the global economic crisis. How animals themselves are affected also
“Foreclosure pets” and “abandoned horses” have been the
topics of at least one major daily newspaper feature apiece per week,
by actual count, since late 2007.
There is not much of a “foreclosure pets” crisis in affluent
suburbs where the few foreclosures tend to be on townhouses in
developments that did not allow pets to begin with. Across town
though, handling animals surrendered by distraught people who have
abruptly become homeless is an increasingly urgent issue. Typically,
a young family of insecure income reached for the house-yard-dog
dream by taking out a sub-prime mortgage. Then someone lost a job,
often just because the economy skidded.
Many and perhaps most shelter surrenders of “foreclosure
pets” could be prevented through “bridge fostering.” Bridge
fostering volunteers temporarily house animals for people who need
time to recover from a crisis.
This is hardly a new idea. Mary Tealby founded the Temporary
Home for Lost & Starving Dogs near the Holloway Debtors Prison in
London in 1860 to care for the animals of the inmates. Relocated six
years after her death, Tealby’s Temporary Home became the Battersea
Dogs & Cats Home, one of the wealthiest and largest animal charities
in the world–but the idea that started it remains neglected.
In the U.S., the notion has prevailed that people who for
any reason surrender their animals are inherently “irresponsible,”
and should not get the animals back, even if the alternative is that
the animals are killed due to lack of adoptive homes. Bridge
fostering only appears to have gained acceptance in U.S. within the
past 20 years, to care for the pets of victims of domestic violence
and military personnel who are deployed abroad, and has rarely been
extended further. Yet bridge fostering is an appropriate approach to
assisting families who after losing a home are temporarily obliged to
share housing with relatives, rent smaller accommodations in
buildings that do not allow pets, and/or must relocate long
distances on short notice.
Some people who have lost homes to foreclosure have been
“irresponsible,” but most have just had bad luck. Helping them to
keep their animals is often what will be best for them and the
animals–and fostering animals is a way to involve more volunteers in
humane work. Many donors who cannot give as much money now as in the
past can afford to feed another pet or two. Senior citizens who are
reluctant to acquire a pet who may outlive them often find fostering
more appropriate to their situation.
Donor studies show time and again that people who volunteer
for a charity or have been helped by a charity are most likely to
become significant donors later, or to leave a bequest, even if
they have never donated money in life. This helps to make bridge
fostering a win/win approach for everyone, the animals most of all.
The purported “abandoned horses” crisis is unequivocally
bogus. Yes, some people are abandoning horses, as always. Yes,
proponents of reinstituting legal horse slaughter for human
consumption in the U.S. are banging the drums long and loud about
every horse abandonment case as an alleged result of the 2007 closure
of the last three U.S. horse slaughterhouses. Yes, some horse
rescuers are taking advantage of the publicity to appeal for funds in
the name of addressing this alleged crisis. And yes, horse
sanctuaries, like every other type of shelter and sanctuary, are
perennially full, trying to cope with greater need than anyone has
the means to fully address.
But no, real numbers do not support any claim that horse
abandonment has increased. ANIMAL PEOPLE has tracked horse
impoundments due to neglect and abuse for decades. The trend has
been steadily downward. In 2005, for example, when the horse
slaughterhouses were open all year, 1,890 horses were impounded in
U.S. neglect cases. The 2008 total, at Thanksgiving, was 1,343,
including 100 removed from “rescuers” who took in more horses than
they could feed. The latter is actually a low figure, as in past
years some individual “rescuers” have neglected that many and more.
Hard data showing the full effect of the present global cash
flow crunch on shelters will not become available until 2010, after
all current fiscal years end and the numbers are released, but the
aftermath of 2001 shows what might happen.
When collapsing high-tech stock prices preceded the terrorist
attacks of September 11, 2001, one visible outcome was that
foundations gave less to dog and cat sterilization. Humane societies
restricted eligibility for participation in discount sterilization
programs, or suspended them altogether. Within two fiscal years,
U.S. shelter killing of dogs and cats rose from 4.2 million to 4.9
million, erasing five years’ worth of progress.
Since then, the U.S. humane community has ramped up
sterilization outreach, and has pushed the dog and cat toll in
shelters back down to 4.2 million–but holding that level, and
making further improvement, requires keeping low-cost and free
sterilization programs operating at full speed.
More surrenders & neglect cases
Of the approximately eight million dogs and cats coming to
U.S. shelters in 2008, as many as half will have been surrendered by
their caretakers, either as surplus births, for behavioral reasons,
or for economic reasons. Inability to find appropriate rental
housing may fall into at least the latter two and sometimes all three
of these categories.
More than two million animals brought to U.S. shelters in
2008 will have been feral cats, most of whom could have been
accommodated by more effective neuter/return programs, managed to
minimize conflict with neighbors and other users of multi-purpose
public space. More than one million will have been dogs found
running at large.
Publicity and public sympathy raised by cruelty and neglect
cases tends to be the major fundraising magnet for humane work, but
fewer than 20,000 dogs and cats per year arrive at U.S. shelters as
result of criminal cruelty and neglect. Going into the 2008 holiday
season, just over 300 dogs and 150 cats have been rescued this year
as victims of reported criminal violence, exclusive of dogfighting.
Among the 300-plus abused dogs, nearly 20% were pit bull terriers,
who make up about 5% of the U.S. dog population.
As of Thanksgiving 2008, 854 alleged fighting pit bull
terriers had been impounded during the year, very close to the
totals for seven of the past 10 years, which have ranged from 791 to
916. Contrary to common belief, dogfighting arrests and fighting
dog impoundments have not increased since the Michael Vick
dogfighting case broke in April 2007. However, strengthened state
and federal anti-dogfighting legislation inspired by the Vick case
may be helping to bring more convictions with meaningful penalties.
The numbers of dogs and cats impounded in neglect cases rose
faster in the first 11 months of 2008 than in any year since 1982.
At Thanksgiving 2008, 3,911 dogs, including at least 758
pit bulls (19%), had been impounded from hoarders, along with 3,787
cats–but this was about the same as in other recent years.
3,323 dogs and cats were impounded from failed animal rescue
charities in the first 11 months of 2007, and 3,410 in the first
11 months of 2008.
But seizures of dogs from breeders exploded from 2,798 in the
first 11 months of 2007 to 7,834 in the first 11 months of 2008–with
cases involving more than 4,000 dogs seized in past years still
before the courts, and many of those dogs still in mandatory shelter
custody pending the conclusion of their cases, unavailable for
Stronger legislation in several states and increased public
concern drummed up by humane societies were probably involved in the
2008 surge in seizures, yet it is difficult to argue that stronger
legislation and increased concern had an effect against puppy mills
without having a comparable effect against dogfighting.
Puppy mills & backyard breeders
Taking a closer look at prosecutions of breeders suggests
that the deteriorating U.S. economy has hit the most marginal
operators hardest. Many of the breeders running into trouble have
been breeding for years, but few if any have consistently reinvested
profits in improved dog housing, food, and care. Neglecting the
health and socialization of their dogs has cut into their ability to
compete with other breeders, and with the expanding adoption
outreach of the humane community.
Backyard breeders tend to be part-timers, who try to pose as
breed fanciers, in order to claim the highest possible price for a
dog, yet survive by underselling pet stores who get puppies from
high-volume commercial breeders. Backyard breeders gain a
competitive edge by not investing a fraction as much in facilities
and advertising, and often by avoiding paying sales tax.
High-volume commercial breeders cut costs by raising dogs much as
factory farms raise pigs and chickens, hiring minimum wage workers
to provide minimal care. Backyard breeders typically have no paid
help. Either modus operandi easily slips into neglect.
The major market for yard-bred dogs may now be much the same
as it was for sub-prime mortgages, among people just struggling into
the middle income brackets. We are unaware of any recent studies
that have investigated who buys yard-bred dogs, but there is market
research suggesting that recent increases in adoption market share
have come mostly among middle and upper income families, and that
the higher adoption fees charged in recent years tend to discourage
lower income people from seeking a shelter pet.
There is also considerable belief among the humane community
that the major source of pit bull proliferation is speculative
backyard breeding among lower income people who sell dogs chiefly by
word of mouth.
Pit bulls already made up close to 25% of the U.S. shelter
dog population and close to half of the dogs killed in shelters
before the economy went bad, according to three ANIMAL PEOPLE
surveys of shelters nationwide done during the past five years. Now
shelters that formerly made every effort to save pit bulls are
concluding that they no longer can. Even if there were no behavioral
issues and no insurance issues involved in adopting out pit bulls,
rehoming so many dogs of any one breed would be difficult.
Already hugely over-represented in neglect and abuse cases,
and the only breed used much in dogfighting, more than a million pit
bulls are likely to be killed in U.S. shelters in 2008, up from
about 900,000 in 2007.
Pit bull sterilization programs may be subsidized and
promoted more vigorously, or may be mandated by legislation, or
both, but one way or another there must be far fewer pit bulls born
to have any realistic hope of reducing the toll.
Though real estate and investment values have crashed,
animal charity donors still want to help. A cash flow squeeze does
not change what people want to do, only what they are able to do.
A donor whose ability to help favored causes in hard times is
restricted will often give more later, in times of plenty.
This may be of small use and comfort for animal charity
directors here and now, trying to balance decreased revenue with
increased need, but taking the long view can help in deciding how to
prioritize, in order to survive until donations pick up.
If historical patterns prevail, humane societies are likely
to continue to receive about 1% of total charitable contributions in
2009, both in the U.S. and globally. The sum given to charity will
be less this winter, and thin times may continue through the spring,
perhaps even into the summer, but as the economy turns around,
donations may be stronger than ever next fall and winter.
This is not a time to gamble against hope. Yet it is a time
to invest hope in a happier future, when people will be back at work
and in secure homes, where animals are safe and well-fed, and there
is something left after paying the bills to send to animal charities.