By Charles A. Hatfield with Makwell
A few years ago, I was doing some volunteer work for the St. Francis Society, an animal rescue organization, located in Tampa, Florida. One day, I was asked by the Society if I would transport an abandoned Chihuahua from the Hillsborough County Animal Shelter to a nearby foster home. I was certainly happy to help, but totally unaware of just how emotionally charged this little errand was going to be for me.
When I arrived at the shelter, I identified myself and was quickly escorted to the area in which the abandoned Chihuahua was being kept. Once there, I was asked to wait while the proper paperwork was prepared.
While standing there amidst all those cages filled with barking and whining dogs, I got that funny feeling that I was being watched. As I turned to look around, I noticed a yellow Labrador Retriever quietly staring at me from the corner of a nearby cage. She was alone in a large cage, sitting quietly with her body turned toward the back corner of the enclosure. She had turned only her head to gaze at me over her shoulder. As she looked at me and I looked back, she and I froze in place for a moment, locked in a mutual gaze. She was an older dog, whose expression wore the weariness and hopelessness of a soul long lost. Her yellow fur was dirty and unkempt, she was thin and haggard, and had apparently been wandering the streets for some time. What a shame, I thought, that her life had come to this. Motionless, we stared at one another, and familiar feelings of dread and grief began to wash over me – the dark sorrow I saw reflected in that tired, old dog’s eyes was palpable. How had she come to be here, I wondered? Did she once know the joy of a loving family that she had somehow come to lose? Did she have no one to care that she was now trapped in a cage, alone, dejected and facing an uncertain future? I could so clearly see her hopelessness and despair - it was obvious that she had simply given up. After what seemed like maybe sixty seconds, perhaps sensing that I was not there to take her home, the old dog slowly turned her head to once more stare stoically into the dim recesses of her cage. It occurred to me then that certainly she could not be aware of her likely fate, but perhaps somehow she was resigned to the fact that any real life for her was over. After all, who was going to adopt a beat up, old lady like her?
When the kennel technician returned, I avoided her eyes so as not to betray the tears that had begun to well in mine. Pull yourself together, I thought, as the technician gestured for me to follow, and led the way to the little dog that I had come to save.
As we approached the cage containing the little Chihuahua, I was reminded of a visit to the reptile exhibit at the zoo. If you’ve ever visited a reptile exhibit at the zoo, you know that you typically have to strain your eyes to peer through thick glass, illuminated only by a warming bulb, to spot a well-camouflaged, little beastie tucked deep in the enclosure. Yes, it was a lot like that - only in this case, it was a very small dog tucked deep in the corner of a very large, dimly lit cage. If it weren’t for the uncontrolled shaking, a passer-by probably wouldn’t even have noticed the frightened little dog cowering in the corner of that huge enclosure. I don’t remember the little dog’s name, but for our purposes, I’ll simply call her Rose. Little Rose struck me as being just about the most pathetic specimen on which I had ever laid eyes. She was attempting to hide in the back of the cage and was absolutely terrified. When the kennel technician picked her up and handed her to me, Rose quickly crawled up my chest and sought security by pressing her head under my chin. The poor thing was shaking so badly that she was making my head vibrate. To comfort her, I held Rose firmly against my chest and began to stroke her neck and back. Slowly, I felt her shaking begin to subside as she pressed back against me with all her might.
When I got her to the car, I placed Rose in the passenger’s seat, but she insisted on crawling out of the seat and into my lap. Once there, Rose began to relax - she became much calmer and even seemed happy. Several times during the course of our trip to the foster home, Rose insisted on climbing my chest and licking my chin - a gesture which I interpreted to be her way of thanking me for getting her out of that hellhole of a shelter. After a twenty minute car ride, we arrived at the warm security of Rose’s foster parent’s home. In retrospect, I must admit, even though a Chihuahua would never have been my first choice as a new “best friend,” I’m afraid that little charmer could have easily changed my mind. In fact, if I didn’t already have two dogs at home, Rose probably would have gone home with me that day.
As I kissed Rose on top of her little fuzzy head and handed her over to her new foster parent, I began to worry about what might eventually befall Rose. I was very relieved, however, when I later learned that she had been placed in a “forever” home. Sweet little Rose became one of the lucky ones - I try not to think about that tired, old Lab that I couldn’t save that day.
I’ve shared this story of my trip to the shelter with you in an effort to remind you that thousands of domestic pets, mostly innocent and loving creatures, are being needlessly “put down” in shelters across this country every day. Every year, an estimated six to eight million pets enter shelters and about four million of those are euthanized (twenty-five percent of those euthanized are purebreds). When one thinks about the most helpless and innocent of God’s creatures, certainly puppies and kittens often come to mind, and one might naturally assume that any puppy or kitten brought to a shelter would be the first to find a home. Unfortunately, most people don’t realize that when a litter of kittens or puppies is brought to a shelter, the shelter usually has no foster program available to care for the newborns until they are of adoptable age. Therefore, the shelter typically has no recourse but to euthanize these most innocent and pure of God’s children.
An animal lover might wring their hands when they hear about the plight of literally millions of innocent, unloved pets being put to death in this country each year. Those who care, however, might take some solace in knowing that there is a growing movement in this country to slow and perhaps someday eradicate the needless killing of our pets. Thanks to the tireless efforts of animal advocacy groups and animal welfare organizations, such as the ASPCA and the Humane Society of the United States, a plethora of spay and neutering programs have been created in this country to address the problem of pet overpopulation. There is, of course, a direct correlation between too many pets and too many pets being euthanized. As a result of this grand, concerted effort on the part of so many, the percentage of pets in this country being euthanized each year is on the decline. In the 1970’s, as many as twenty million cats and dogs were euthanized each year out of a pet population in this country of about 67 million. Today, an estimated four million cats and dogs are euthanized each year out of a pet population of about 135 million. This represents a reduction from about a quarter of America’s pet population being euthanized each year to three percent of our total pet population being euthanized. While this is undoubtedly a very significant improvement, the fact remains that four million innocent cats and dogs are still being needlessly killed in this country every year. Obviously, more must be done.
It is easy to see how our pet population could quickly get out of hand - cats and dogs are indeed very prolific breeders. If left alone to reproduce, a female dog and her offspring could potentially produce 67,000 dogs in six years. A female cat and her offspring could potentially produce 420,000 cats in seven years. That’s a whole lot of dogs and cats! There is one way and one way only to reduce and control the pet population in our country, which is the principle reason that so many animals are killed: birth control. It is absolutely incumbent upon every single pet owner to take responsibility to ensure that their pet does not become part of the problem by not being spayed or neutered. There are no excuses for every pet, except those in well-managed breeding programs, not to be “fixed.” I like the term “fixed” because in many ways, the pet being spayed or neutered benefits significantly from the procedure. For example, spaying a female dog or female cat greatly reduces their risk for urinary tract infections, as well as ovarian, breast and uterine cancers. Neutering a male dog or male cat significantly reduces the risk and severity of prostate problems, reduces their risk for perinea hernias, as well as testicular cancer. Dogs and cats that are neutered at a young age are less likely to have the desire to escape and roam (80% of all pets hit by cars are unneutered males), and neutered males are generally less aggressive and more sociable. Also, it’s a myth that being neutered will make a pet fat and lazy - pets become fat and lazy as a result of overeating and lack of exercise. I can tell you from my own experience as an owner of two male Australian Shepherds, that my two boys are agile, well-muscled, energetic “play addicts,” even though they were both neutered at a young age.
There is no downside to spaying or neutering your pet - doing so can only make them healthier and most likely more comfortable and content. Even the cost for the procedure can be made quite reasonable, if not totally free for low-income pet owners. There are plenty of low-cost spay/neuter clinics throughout the United States and an interested pet owner can easily locate those in their area by going online and doing a web search in their city. Friendsofanimals.org and spayusa.org are two national websites that can provide a list of low-cost spay and neutering clinics in a pet owner’s area. Pet owners can also call their local animal shelter or humane society, which will be more than happy to provide them with a list of veterinarians and mobile clinics in their area that offer free or low-cost spay and neutering services.
There certainly is no logical reason for a pet owner not to have their pet spayed or neutered. On the contrary, there are a slew of good reasons why they should have their pet spayed or neutered, with perhaps the chief reason being the fact that it is the moral and humane thing to do. Try to imagine with me a time when all pet owners, again with the exception of responsible, well-regulated breeders, accept the responsibility to have their pets spayed and neutered at a young age. What do you think would happen? No doubt there would be a whole lot less unwanted pets, that’s for sure. In fact, there’d be so many less unwanted pets that the supply of wanted pets would start to come into line with demand. As you know if you’ve ever taken an Economics 101 class, when the supply of any product begins to keep pace with the demand for that product, the value of the product increases. Now what would happen if every hapless stray and every unwanted pet were, as a result of increased demand, to become wanted? All the would-be pet owners, who can’t necessarily afford to purchase a pet from a breeder, or who may prefer to adopt a homeless pet, would be visiting their local shelters to snatch up a limited supply of some very lucky creatures. Think of it - most of the money that we taxpayers now spend to house, feed and euthanize unwanted pets at public shelters could be saved, and the charitable contributions that we make to animal welfare societies to save unwanted pets could be spent on other, equally valuable objectives. Most importantly, unwanted pets like little Rose, and that old Yellow Lab, both of whom had been left abandoned, dejected and broken by irresponsible owners, could be given a new lease on life - the life that every single pet deserves.
Such a beautiful scenario may seem a little far-fetched to you, but if everyone who cherishes the creatures that brighten our lives were to pull together, it could happen. Fortunately, many public agencies are trying to make it happen right now by making it mandatory that every pet owner within their jurisdictions has their pets spayed or neutered. Unfortunately, you and I know that such regulations are difficult to enforce, and that there will always be irresponsible pet owners ignoring the law. Even still, it’s absolutely incumbent upon you and me, and everyone who wants to see an end finally come to the needless slaughter of innocent pets, to make a promise – a promise to stand up and support strict laws and regulations governing not only the breeding of pets, but the spaying and neutering of all those pets already among us.
The term Euthanasia comes from the Greek eu + thanatos, meaning “good death.” The word is usually associated with a painless form of mercy killing carried out when a creature is suffering in terrible agony. Unfortunately, the killing of unwanted, perfectly healthy pets in America today is neither a good death, nor a form of mercy killing - it is nothing more than a needless, diabolical act. Therefore, for the sake of your own humanity, and for the sake of the creatures we all hold most dear, please do what you can to help us end this practice, once and for all.