After a century of working from the gut, animal welfare has now fully embraced a faux analytics to prove that everything our gut told us was, in fact, true. The web, the source of all serious data, is full of claims based on research which allows us to continue believing precisely what we did before, but now based on facts. Overpopulation is the problem, check! People are bad and irresponsible, check! Overpopulation is not the problem and every pet would have a home if people would just adopt, check! Things are just as bad as they’ve always been, check, check, check!
There is one particular set of studies undertaken by National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy which is used repeatedly online to tell us why animals are brought to shelters. These studies are referred to and used again and again and again to explain, justify and berate, as suits the user. I will say up front I’m ignoring the the original studies, as well as just looking dogs for the most part for no reason other than for ease of making my little point, and will just be addressing how the data as used to further the lies we tell ourselves in animal welfare.
Using data found on a Petfinder page, we are see that the top ten reasons for dog relinquishment are, by percentage: Moving (7%), Landlord not allowing pet (6%), Too many animals in household (4%), Cost of pet maintenance (5%), Owner having personal problems (4%), Inadequate facilities (4%), No homes available for litter mates (3%), Having no time for pet (4%), Pet illness(es) (4%), Biting (3%).
The majority of the surrendered dogs (47.7%) were between 5 months and 3 years of age and majority of dogs (37.1%) had been owned from 7 months to 1 year. Approximately half of the dogs (42.8% of dogs) surrendered were not neutered. Many of the pets relinquished (33% of dogs) had not been to a veterinarian. Most dogs (96%) had not received any obedience training. Those surrendering were found to be heterogeneous and representing all ethnicities, and social and economic classes. Just the facts, ma’am.
Petfinder, to their credit, simply put this information out there, as is, and offers no conclusions. Instead, they leave that to the commenting hoards with their torches and pitchforks who brand anyone interviewed as heartless bastards who should have known better and should be jailed or worse for abandoning their pet. Mostly, they just take the chance to tell us how saintly they are for not giving up their own pet. Kudus to you.
Other websites opt to wade in with their own “obvious’ interpretations of the data. I was surprised and disheartened to see that the American Humane Association website was among the most shallow and knee jerk, stating or implying that this data (and although they don’t identify where they pull their data, it is likely from this or a similar set of studies) is proof of “irresponsible breeding”, “disposable pets”, and people “choosing not to adopt”. Summed up, people are very, very bad.
First, let’s remind ourselves that compared to the 1970’s there are twice as many cats and dogs in American homes yet it’s estimated that there are between one fifth to one third the number of animals being euthanized each year. Seems to me like people are pretty good, or at least clearly getting better. Maybe AHA just means that the people who are used for this study are bad, although they can’t seem to make up their minds about that, like many shelters. But in nearly 1,200 words about the bad reasons for relinquishing a pet, a mere single line states that only “hundreds of thousands of pets are relinquished to shelters each year simply because they have become an inconvenience or because the owner did not consider the time and financial commitment required to properly train and care for them.”
Wait, what? Three or four million a year are euthanized of the millions more surrendered, but for all the hue and cry on the AHA website and many or most others that bad people surrender pets, only a few hundred thousand make up surrenders which are not “absolutely necessary for an owner to relinquish a pet”? So most pets are surrendered because of non-selfish and non-evil reasons? But those stupid reasons from the survey are clearly crap! We know those people must be lying about moving and cost and no time, the reasons which accounted for the majority of surrenders, right?
Why can’t it be both?
The top ten list for dog relinquishment makes no sense when taken in the context of the other data collected on age and length of ownership. The reasons given would appear to be circumstances which should be extremely random. People randomly move, loss jobs, run out of time. One might even argue dogs could randomly bite or get ill. If this is the case, wouldn’t we see a random distribution of age among the dogs left at shelters which reflects the population distribution of the community? We don’t. Half the dogs are under three years. This makes no sense unless the average lifespan of all dogs is six years, which we know it isn’t.
If we say that these people are just callous, shouldn’t we assume they are callous at any point in their pet’s life? Shouldn’t they bring in their twelve year dog when they move as likely as they’d bring in their one year old dog? Shouldn’t these random life events strike at any time in a pet’s lifespan? Apparently they do not. Why then would we see this slice of the pet population disproportionately represented in relinquishments and why would people say it’s because of all these various reasons which make no sense?
God forbid, might we want to consider that the reason animals are brought to shelters is because many of them are part of the actual problem? Moving is a lot harder with a bad dog. Working too much is harder with a dog that isn’t properly house trained. A “new child” is a pretty good reason to bring in a dog that has been allowed to bite up to that point. The obvious counterpoint is that these must clearly be poor pet owners. You bet! We know that; heck, I bet they know that and might readily check a box on a survey that said, “I did a bad job raising this dog”.
But it raises an important set of issues which shelters have avoided addressing. First, it is highly likely that these surrendered pets have very real and very significant health and behavior problems which- through no fault of their own- do make them tough to keep at home and tough to adopt once they’ve been surrendered. Second, unless we are going to surrender to the notion that all the people giving up their pets are all heartless sociopaths incapable of caring or change, what are we doing to prevent and pre-empt them from bringing their pets to our shelters? Are we saying we can’t keep pets out of our shelters or is that something which most shelters don’t even want?
Sheltering and animal welfare organizations are in the business of sheltering animals or hawking the notion of sheltering. Like a surgeon cuts, a psychiatrist prescribes, and a hammer nails, we have focused on the thing we do. We shelter. And we have a vested interest as an industry in maintaining the status quo and perpetuating the myths, lies, and boogey men of the past. Most do it out of ignorance, many do it out of misguidance, and some do it very cynically to fill coffers or boost egos. But the old truths are no longer true, if they ever were, and by not recognizing that and finding new approaches and paradigms based on reality instead of fantasy, we are slowing the pace of progress and we are striving for an endgame which will never come. Either because it can’t, or because deep down, our industry doesn’t want it to.
Yes, there is a crisis for animals in the US. But it is quantitatively and qualitatively less severe than it was one, five, ten or twenty years ago and it is improving. Yes, there are bad pet owners, but most are not intrinsically so. There are great adoptable animals in shelters, but many are not. There are also huge factors which are being utterly ignored in these statistics- one third of dogs relinquished had never seen a vet and 96% had no obedience training (more on that next time) and, yes, even breed- and which could, if addressed, have a much larger impact than focusing on handing people pet friendly apartment lists with a sneer. My experience tells me most people wanted to succeed with their pet. We failed them as much as they failed their pet.
Even a dummy like me who runs a couple dinky little animal shelters can see these numbers don’t add up. So why is shelter after shelter, organization after organization, big and small, run by people at least as smart as me, still clinging to and promoting old ideas?