What are we talking about? Defining the problem

What are we talking about? Defining the problem

Bear with me while I introduce you to my pet

Meet “peeve”.

It can be very difficult, when you are deep in the trenches, to step back and examine the bigger picture. When you are seeing the individual stories of families and animals in crisis, it’s really hard to step back. But in order to progress, and stop rushing around to put out fires we must examine the big picture first - thoroughly - and then take a look at our own situation. 

So here’s the pet peeve: Nothing drives me crazy more than when people recite (waste energy, take away attention from the real issues) the old mantras about “pet overpopulation”. 

There are about a million reasons and more (keep reading for the million reasons) for us to be working on behalf of animals in 2009. There is the financial crisis, people losing their homes, an always present segment of the population that should never have acquired a pet in the first place, shelters that kill before fully exploring lifesaving opportunities … I could go on and on…

…but what I won’t do is try to whack away at this multi-faceted problem with the poorly thought out, blunt object of an argument that is overpopulation.

Now I know that I’ve probably lost a few of you already but for those of you who have hung in there, let me explain. Pet “overpopulation” would mean: so many pets were being born that we have more than we could possibly place in homes and we were killing them just to keep our environment in check.

That is not correct and it’s just not that simple.

Once upon a time there was overpopulation … and I was a toddler

So where did the concept of pet overpopulation come from? At one point in time, we did have an overpopulation problem in this country. A handy and accessible visualization of this is a chart from a report on animal services in Los Angeles. On page six of this report you will see that in 1971 Los Angeles killed 110,000+ animals. More than 110,000 animals! If ever there was a time to run around screaming “overpopulation” - there it is…

As you can see from the chart though, accessible and affordable spay and neuter is one of the factors that dramatically reduced the deaths in shelters over about four decades to 15,000 animals. That is a simply incredible shift in numbers.

I can hear you getting annoyed as you’re reading (is she saying that somehow 15,000 deaths is acceptable and we don’t have to worry about things like spaying and neutering?) so let me make something very clear - any of those 15,000 deaths, if the animals were not vicious or irremediably suffering, is not acceptable and targeted sterilization programs are an important part of the answer.

But rather than mistakenly cry out “overpopulation” we need to root out the problem of who it is that is dying needlessly and why. Is it due to innefficient shelter management or policy? Is it due to lack of access to spay and neuter for a specific population of animals such as a lack of TNR (maybe there’s no puppies but an endless stream of kittens)? Or lack of access for a specific neighborhood within a city? Or a specific demographic of city resident? Or a combination of several factors? We MUST find the answers in order to solve the problem. That is getting to the root of the problem.

  • A dog that loses his home because of an eviction … isn’t in a shelter because of overpopulation …
  • A lost pet … isn’t in a shelter because of overpopulation …
  • A pet whose owners could care less and dumped him on the streets … isn’t in a shelter because of overpopulation …
  • A litter of kittens who dies because a shelter doesn’t have a comprehensive foster care and adoption program … isn’t dying because of overpopulation

That’s why shelters exist. It’s our job to work hard and help animals through those troubling situations.

Call the fire department!

If there’s a fire in your town … does the fire department just run willy nilly with hoses trying to spray down every house or does the fire department find out where the fire is located and drive to that address?

Well I really hope your fire department drives to the address.

Can you see what I’m getting at?

Doggone math will get you every time

So let’s take a close look at what we’re talking about by examining dogs. As of 2009, the generally accepted number of animals that are being killed in shelters is somewhere around 3 to 4 million or 3.5 million. I say generally accepted because no one really knows for sure.

One of the first errors people make when looking at this as-good-a-guestimate-as-we-can-get number is to assume that this means 3 to 4 million dogs. It does not. It means 3 to 4 million animals which includes cats.

And in case you haven’t noticed … there are a lot of cats.

The other error people make is assuming that these numbers are officially tracked so we are certain they are rock solid numbers. They aren’t.

So how many are dying and how many of them are dogs?

Good question. And that is the question I asked myself when this age old annoyance of pet overpopulation came up again recently. Handily, I realized I happened to have a year’s worth of statistics from a representative group of shelters so I decided to work the numbers. 

I won’t bore you with the spreadsheets, charts and graphs but I’ll give you the basics. I had data (anyone whose shelter uses PetPoint receives the PetPoint portfolio monthly that includes your shelter’s performance compared to national data) that averaged out (across the year) to 929.5 shelters (817 to start going up to 1042 at the end of the year).

In total there were 604,359 dog “dispositions” from those organizations using PetPoint. A disposition is anything that gets the dog out and “off the books” be it adoption, redemption or even death. Of those dispositions, 211,644 were dog “euthanasia”.

Now numbers vary as to how many shelters there are in the United States. There is a commonly accepted number of about 6,000 but a few years ago the HSUS did an exhaustive survey of multiple databases and follow up phone calls that identified 3,352 shelters (an organization with a building that housed animals). A little more than half identified themselves as private, 501(c)3 organizations, the rest were municipal. So the 3,352 number might be closer to the actual truth.

I also don’t know the exact make up of the organizations using PetPoint so let’s get back to figuring out a ballpark of how many dogs are dying in shelters and we’ll use a pretty broad range to account for some of the unknowns…

  • If the number of shelters is around 6,000 (929.5 x 6.46)  we can extrapolate the number of deaths to somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,367,000.
  • If the number of shelters is around 3,352 (929.5 x 3.61) … the number of deaths could be somewhere in the neighborhood of … less than a million.

That’s somewhere between 763,000 and 1,367,000. In a country with over 300,000,000 people this is a solvable problem.

Break out the champagne ladies and gentlemen. You’ve just solved the problem of pet overpopulation and now you have one million plus (cats!!!) reasons to work on behalf of animals and save their lives.

Now let’s get down to the real work and this is where you come in …

What is the problem?

In order to figure out what solution is right for your community, you must answer the question: what is the problem? I can’t answer that for you.

  • While one shelter sees many litters of puppies, many more will go months if not a full year or more without seeing a single litter - a localized overpopulation problem that a transfer program - matching supply with demand solves temporarily, eliminating puppy deaths giving the community with too many puppies a puppy-death-free time to come up with a spay and neuter strategy
  • Where one community is poor and residents have difficulty providing basic care to their pets, another is wealthy and basic care isn’t the answer. 
  • While one community’s shelters operate at peak effieciency, saving most if not all of the savable animals another community has shelters operating with a “catch and kill” philosophy, still others operate somewhere in between. 

The answer for your community might be more access to spay and neuter, better foster care networks, a pet food bank to assist people falling on hard times, a low-cost vet clinic, better access to basic pet care information and services, a new shelter administration… or increasing adoptions:

“Now, just 20 percent or so of dogs in homes come from shelters and rescue groups. If we raise this number to 35 percent, we would solve the bulk of the homeless dog problem…” Wayne Pacelle

And speaking of spay/neuter programs… how well targeted is yours? You can do the same type of analysis with spay/neuter programs. Are the animals you are spaying and neutering the animals who are dying in the shelter? If pit bulls and cats are dying, do you have programs that are geared specifically towards those populations because a marathon of yorkie, shih-tzu, puggle spay surgeries isn’t gonna cut it… You’ll be even more effective when you match your programs to the problems.

Didn’t your mom tell you life isn’t simple?

We’ve all wasted enough time on “overpopulation”, now let’s save some lives!

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6 Responses to “What are we talking about? Defining the problem”

  1. Yes! I would love to see more of the analytical approach you’ve modeled here: determine WHICH problem or is occurring, and work to find the appropriate solutions for that. What a concept!

  2. colliefan says:

    Thank you for a rational, reasonable, intelligent approach to this issue. A vocal minority has been beating everyone to death with the flawed concept of pet overpopulation for so many years that it has been accepted as the truth. Now it should be fairly clear that the emperor has no clothes.

    If enough people are exposed to the logic of your posting, maybe some real work can get done. After all, once the problem is defined it becomes much easier to find a solution.

  3. ~Barb, AnimalResources says:

    One of the first things I learned and shared years ago when researching solutions to help end animal homelessness and killing was to define the problem — third in the 19 factors and recommendations to save animal lives from Bob Christiansen’s 1998 book, “Save Our Strays: How We Can End Pet Overpopulation and Stop Killing Healthy Cats and Dogs,” downloadable at http://saveourstrays.com . He showed how to use shelter statistics to determine needed programs in a community. Incredibly, many animal organizations still have not defined the animal problems in their community and are not assessing their programs for effectiveness.

  4. I am so happy to see someone say what has been so obvious for so long. Overpopulation? The shelter director’s cop out…..Now that they have nothing to blame, can we save some lives?

  5. Michelle, webmaster for a rescue group says:

    Excellent article. Now I have somewhere to send people who [still] ask about pet overpopulation.

    It’s a joy to see a sign of common sense again on this emotionally burdened issue.

  6. Thank you for this article. It’s very hard to explain targeted programs and efforts, and this does an excellent job of inspiring us all to ask the questions and find the specific answers. How else can we address complex issues if we don’t look at what led to our particular issues and who we are killing the most of and why in any area? Reading this alone, I’m picturing the great Chihuahua fix over here as well as the great Pit fix that most areas need … or maybe the great Chihuahua exodus since these little dogs are more of rarity in other areas. Meanwhile, we tease they are the state dog of New Mexico!!
    PLEASE keep these articles coming, and share your sage advice with us all.

    I’ve still been looking for your Part II of kicking fostering up No Kill-style…especially how a community can work to get there.

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