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Animal Defenders of Westchester
P.O. Box 205
Yonkers, NY 10704


The Dirty Little Secret In Your Community  


All too often, shelters euthanize more animals than they save. In New York   City, we're changing that.

By Ed Boks


June 27  issue - When I was a 10-year-old kid in Harper Woods, Mich., I rescued a lost  dog from a busy street. The dog had a tag so I was able to call the owner, who  asked me to meet her at the neighborhood veterinary hospital with Sadie, her  beloved pet. I was stunned when she pulled a $5 bill from her purse to give to  me as a reward. I remember thinking, "Wow, you can make a living doing  this?"

That happy rendezvous introduced me to the staff of the hospital.  Their compassion for animals quickly made them my new heroes. At school, I even  started writing the letters "DVM" after my name. I went by the hospital almost  daily asking for a job. After several years of being told I was too young, my  luck changed. Irene, the kind lady behind the counter, asked me to wait a moment.

Her eyes were dancing and I knew something was up. She went to speak  with Dr. Tuck, who peeked around the corner. He looked me over, looked at Irene  and said, "OK." My heart leapt. Irene asked if I could start the next  day.

Those were the best years of my life. I worked my way through high  school and college as a veterinary technician. But there was a bitter aspect to  the job. The hospital also served as a local dog pound. The police brought us  the lost and homeless dogs and cats they found on the streets. We were able to   return many lost pets, but not all of them. I would not understand until much   later the impact that caring for healthy, happy animals prior to putting them to death would have on me.

I never did become a veterinarian. In 1976 I  moved to Phoenix, Ariz., and eventually became a pastor at a small church,  looking to rescue lost souls instead of lost dogs. When the time came that I  needed to take on an extra job, I returned to the career path of my  youth.

I took a job with Maricopa County's animal-control department.

The  suffering I'd seen in Harper Woods was amplified 10,000-fold in Arizona.

In  Harper Woods we rescued fewer than 50 homeless pets a year. In Maricopa County  we rescued 62,000 dogs and cats every year, and more than 70 percent of them  were euthanized.

I had discovered every community's dirty little  secret that hundreds, if not thousands, of healthy pets are killed simply  because there are not enough homes for them. Most people would never support  such a practice if they knew it was occurring. In fact, nearly 70 million Americans own pets. But because our shelters are typically tucked away near  sanitation facilities and power plants, the public remains comfortably  unaware.

I participated in the practice of unnecessary euthanasia until I  could bear it no longer. In 1993 I resigned from the ministry to find a way to  end it.

Five years later, as director of Maricopa County's animal-control  program, I helped transform what many called the worst animal-welfare community  in the United States into the most progressive. We provided free spay or neuter surgery for pets of owners on public assistance, we asked local vets to provide  pro bono or at-cost care for the many injured and abused animals we rescued, and   we helped needy owners get the resources they required to keep their pets.  

Before long, we were home to the first municipal "no kill" shelter and were   placing nearly 22,000 pets with new families annually. Only ill, injured and the most difficult-to-place animals were still being euthanized, and each year we  tried to reduce that number.

In 2003, I was offered a job as the director  of Animal Care and Control for New York City. I turned it down, but the call to  spread the no-kill message beckoned me. Where better to preach this message than  in New York?

(If we can do it here, we can do it anywhere, right?) In January  2004 I accepted. Within the year, pet adoptions skyrocketed and euthanasia  dropped 17 percent and an additional 25 percent so far in 2005. Fewer animals  are being put down now than at any other time in the last 130 years. When  shelter workers gather in the morning to hear the numbers, it can feel like a  revival meeting. As I read off the statistics, they often jump to their feet and  cheer.

Will we be the first major city to achieve the no-kill goal?

Time  will tell.

Pet overpopulation is a societal problem, and it will take the  community to resolve it. As a former preacher, I'm tempted to shout my message  from the rooftops: "This can be done in your city or town, too!"

If  Mahatma Gandhi was right, and the greatness of a nation and its moral progress  can be judged by how its animals are treated, then it is time we rejected the  mindless catch-and-kill methodology of the past. We must embrace preventive nonlethal strategies that reveal that at our core we truly are a humane society.

Boks lives in New York City.

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.
©  2005

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