When Cruelty Comes Masked as Animal Welfare
Posted by Richard Conniff on November 5, 2013
A few weeks ago I wrote an article, The Case for Culling Stray Dogs, arguing that one of the most important things we can do to protect wildlife is to get homeless dogs off the streets. The feral life is, of course, bad for the dogs and cats themselves. They often end up starved and sick, with painful, festering wounds.
But it’s even worse for other species. House cats alone have caused the extinction of 33 bird, mammal, and reptile species. Stray animals are also a threat to people. Estimates of the number of feral dogs worldwide run upwards of 200 million, and the World Health Organization says 50,000 people die of rabies every year.
Despite the outcry of concern from the animal welfare community about the treatment of strays, relatively few families step up to give these animals homes. (The outcry also generally doesn’t come from the poorer neighborhoods that often have to live with the problem.) That makes euthanasia the only practical way to protect ourselves and what’s left of our wildlife.
My article was about the campaign to control the stray dogs that are overrunning Bucharest, Romania—an effort that began after a stray mauled and killed a four-year-old boy out playing with his brother. The reaction to it was predictably colorful, and I got called some ugly names. Though this emotional response hasn’t changed my mind, I did hear one criticism that’s worth exploring.
A number of readers remarked that the methods used to catch and kill feral animals in Romania and many other countries are often brutal, including bludgeoning, gassing, poisoning, starvation, and even burning. If this is true, it’s inexcusable.
The response from decent people everywhere should be to push for the money, the training, and the anti-cruelty laws to change that. I phoned up Kelly Coladarci, a program manager for the Humane Society International, to ask about that organization’s approach to the feral dog and cat problem.
She made a number of points I agree with: It requires mass media education campaigns to help people understand responsible pet ownership. That should include proper laws for licensing, vaccination, and sterilization. It also means proper sanitation for the entire community, so there’s no garbage lying around to attract and support feral animals.
To my surprise, though, Coladarci opposed creating shelters as an alternative to euthanasia. The campaign in Romania involves holding dogs for 14 days, so they have some small chance at adoption rather than going straight to euthanasia. But Coladarci said those dogs often end up being starved and kept in isolation. I mentioned that actor Mickey Rourke has responded to the feral dog problem in Romania by pledging $250,000 toward a $2 million goal. He hopes to build a holding facility for up to 100,000 stray dogs.
“What’s going to happen when they’re there?” Coladarci wondered. Conditions will inevitably become overcrowded, and the dogs will be stressed. Judging from past experience, funding—and food—may run short. In such conditions, violence and even cannibalism are not unusual.
In the Humane Society’s view, euthanasia—the word literally means “a good death”—is a better last resort. The Society supports “euthanasia by injection” in certain circumstances. The accepted method is an overdose of sodium pentobarbital, which anesthetizes the dog or cat, puts it to sleep, and then painlessly stops its heart.
But the Humane Society’s preferred alternative is trap-neuter-release (TNR)—a method that detains a feral dog just long enough to neuter it and give it the necessary vaccines. Then it goes back out onto the streets. If that approach can reach 70 percent of the feral animals in an area, Coladarci said, the population will begin to decline. Killing stray animals just creates a “vacuum effect,” she said, drawing in other animals to replace those euthanized.
I tried out these ideas on Grant Sizemore of American Bird Conservancy, which is deeply concerned about the devastation feral cats inflict on bird populations.
The first problem, he said, is that no one in the real world manages to trap and neuter 70 percent of any feral animal population. So TNR never achieves the promised population decline. And if the “vacuum effect” is going to draw in replacement strays for animals removed by euthanasia, that’s no less true for animals dying naturally in a trap-neuter-release scenario. “We call it trap, neuter, and re-abandon,” Sizemore said.
Once they are back in the urban wild, he added, those feral animals return to their daily business of mayhem. It may seem as if they are doing what comes naturally. But early this year, researchers from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute analyzed the numbers just for feral cats in the lower 48 United States. They calculated the deaths caused by both feral cats and free-roaming cats (i.e., those that irresponsible owners let wander outside). Those cats kill an estimated 2.4 billion individual birds, along with 12.3 billion mammals, 478 million reptiles, and 173 million amphibians each year. It’s a feline silent spring.
The birds and other creatures they kill die out of our sight. They also die without our direct intervention. That makes it easier to pretend it isn’t happening. But for the victims meeting bloody, agonizing deaths at the tooth and claw of predators we have introduced into their world, this is no comfort whatsoever. For the good of the wildlife, the stray animals, and ourselves, animal welfare activists should work to get proper methods for prevention and control—including humane euthanasia—into the hands of the people struggling to deal with this problem around the world. The alternative of simply refusing to take feral animals off the streets isn’t animal welfare at all.
It’s just animal abuse by a different name.