What’s the Public’s responsibility in pet homelessness?

Who is responsible for the millions of shelter dogs and cats?

The first lines of this blog post, about robbing banks, caught my eye. Intrigued, I went on to read the entire entry. The crux of the post: The No Kill movement does and should focus on shelter reform because shelters are the ones killing innocent animals. The writer makes several great points, one of the main ones being this: Good sheltering practices are integral to saving the lives of dogs and cats and reducing the number of homeless pets.

The writer and I not only agree on the need for well-run shelters, we both want to see far fewer animals languishing there. We’re both ardent supporters of comprehensive spay/neuter campaigns and better pet-retention programs. We both have explicit expectations of the shelters charged with protecting, caring for, and re-homing our animals.

Where we differ is with the role of the of the community, what happens outside the shelter. I believe we — the public — must take further responsibility when it comes to ensuring an acceptable future for homeless dogs and cats. The writer argues that because shelters are the ones killing animals, shelters (not the public) are where we need to most concentrate our efforts. The public, she says, is already doing enough:

“We’ve done a really good job pointing out that most members of the public are responsible.”

According to a study by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy (NCPPSP) and published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science (JAAWS), the reasons animals are surrendered to shelters run the gamut, from no time to no money to no room for the litter. Moving usually tops the list (often a new landlord doesn’t permit animals). My guess is that behavior issues (in addition to biting) are also a big factor; of those surveyed, 96% had not taken their animal to any sort of training class.

Life is unpredictable. Stuff happens. We all need help from time to time — I get that. But the above indicates that the public, while perhaps a responsible lot in general, could be bit more proactively so in this area. In other words, if you’re committed enough to bringing home a pet today, you need to be committed enough to caring for him tomorrow. A dog or cat is a member of your family — yep, that’s what they are, not alarm systems or temporary entertainment or lawn ornaments — and it’s your responsibility, John Q., to provide for them as such.

Plan for their well being, mental and physical. Have contingencies in place in case of emergency. If you’re aware of how babies are made, it’s your responsibility to spay and neuter your pets. Should your local shelter make it easy and cheap? Yes, ideally. Still, is it your responsibility, ultimately? Yes. Ditto for planning for the time and financial aspects of pet care.

The writer goes on to assert:

“Animals are being killed by shelters, so that’s where we must focus our most intense efforts. Those other efforts [spay/neuter, TNR, etc.] are important in the long run, but they will not save the lives of pets in shelters right this minute.”

I understand her point. While we scratch our heads over the right strategies, animals die. But is putting the bulk of our efforts toward trying to catch the overflow really a sustainable approach? Relying on the safety net — which is what our shelter system was meant to be for homeless animals — quickly overwhelms our safety net. That doesn’t mean we don’t build better safety nets, but wouldn’t it make sense to reinforce vulnerable spots along the way?

Asking the public to take responsibility is not the same as blaming them for society’s troubles. Hospitals encourage patients to take their medication to avoid greater health care costs. Legislators make it illegal to drive drunk or behave recklessly in other ways. We expect parents to take care of their children. In all areas of our lives, we own our actions just as we work to improve the institutions and situations around us.

Should shelters be doing all they can to stem the flow of intake and get animals adopted into good, committed homes? Yes. Do they have an ethical obligation to do all they can, now, to keep them there? Absolutely. Does the public bear any responsibility in this effort? Of course. To pretend otherwise is irresponsible on everyone’s part.

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