The No Kill newsletter: Pet overpopulation is a myth

While I like the idea that there are enough of the right homes out there for all the companion animals who need them, I’m a bit of a skeptic. So I subscribe to the No Kill Advocacy Center newsletter and try to learn as much as I can about how to reduce the number of dogs and cats in shelters.

Pet overpopulation: A myth?

The crux of the No Kill movement is that pet overpopulation is a myth, and last week’s newsletter promised a response to those who use the notion of overpopulation as justification to euthanize homeless companion animals. I see first hand (or at least thought I did) that we have too many dogs and cats and not enough people who want them, so I clicked the newsletter link to see where I was mistaken.

No Kill provides these stats in order to prove there’s no overpopulation problem: Out of the 5 million animals who enter shelters each year, roughly 3.5 million are euthanized. During the same period, approximately 23 million families add dogs and cats to their homes, 17 million of which do not have set ideas about where to acquire these animals. So even if the majority of people obtain their pets from places other than shelters, that should still leave plenty of homes available for the 3.5 million who aren’t going to make it out.

The No Kill Advocacy Center website sums it up this way: “The data shows that every year there are six times more people looking to acquire an animal than there are animals being killed in shelters.” Assuming those numbers are fairly close to accurate, the situation is astounding. Why aren’t we connecting those 3.5 million dogs and cats with the families who want them, considering 23 million people are bringing pets home annually?

I went back to an oft-quoted Petsmart Charities study released in 2010. It found that 53 percent of those who bring animals home get them from family, as strays, or “other” (perhaps friends?) — not from shelters, or even breeders or pet stores. And that made me wonder: Are those 53 percent actually “looking to acquire animals”?

It’s an important distinction. There’s actively seeking a pet, and then there’s agreeing to take one in from a family member — or even finding a stray and deciding to keep him. It’s the difference between being planned and being unintended. I’m not suggesting those animals are now unwanted, but I do think it’s fair to ask: Can we legitimately count that 53 percent (12 million homes) as “people looking to acquire an animal”?

Instead, might they be people who had not intended to acquire an animal at all, but for whatever reason, wound up with one? If so, the numbers and percentages must be analyzed differently.

And then there’s the 20 percent (according to the study) who go to breeders or pet stores — buyers, presumably, who have very specific age and appearance requirements for the animal they’ll bring home. Although I’d like to think my influence is powerful and far-reaching, on two occasions in the last two years, two separate acquaintances of mine each bought 8-week-old purebred French Bulldogs. Do I think those individuals could’ve been just as happy with a shelter dog — purebred, puppy, or other? Absolutely. But they didn’t ask me.

Point is, both acquaintances are quite aware of the homeless pet population and opted for very specific types of dogs that weren’t readily available at shelters. People want what they want, and it’s their legal right to get it. In an exquisitely articulate blog post, Berks County Humane Society’s Karel Minor expounds on that phenomenon and explains why there’s more to this issue than a face value interpretation of the numbers.

But back to the newsletter and the No Kill Advocacy Center’s repeated assertion that overpopulation is a myth. I guess my question is this: What’s the value in such insistence? The fact is, we have too many animals who need homes — some with looks or behaviors or years behind them that are not considered desirable by a fair portion of the animal-acquiring public. And that’s a problem.

The site also says that we have a moral obligation, even if we don’t believe no kill is possible, to try. And with that, I completely agree. We must try.

However, demonizing shelters or oversimplifying the process or claiming it can be remedied over night or implying that euthanasia is always a matter of uncaring shelter workers isn’t accurate or helpful. No question a great many shelters are poorly, if not abysmally, run. However, there are also shelters who have not achieved no kill numbers and who are doing everything they can — low-cost spay/neuter, TNR, working heavily with fosters and rescues, etc. — to keep animals healthy, alive, and sane.

With nearly 80% of dogs claimed to be unfixed, we need to hold the public just as accountable as we hold shelters. We need to vote in ways that demonstrate we are committed to homeless animals. We need to volunteer and donate our resources to the shelters in our communities. This is not an “if only they would just do it right, we’d be fine” situation. We all have an obligation.

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