Stray Pets: A Complex Problem

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Several million dogs and cats are put to death in U.S. animal shelters each year. Spay and neuter programs are having some impact in some areas, but solving the overpopulation problem tests the resources of activists and animal-control officials.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

To put it simply, there are too many dogs and cats in the United States. Every day more than 11,000 unwanted animals are euthanized. California is considering passing the nation's first mandatory pet sterilization law. In the meantime, activists are trying to find homes for animals, if otherwise would be put to death.

North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN: It's early morning and the Texas heat and humidity here is just stirring, as Mark Timmers drives through the outskirts of Houston.

Lieutenant MARK TIMMERS (Harris County Constables Office): We're going to be out of Matagorda(ph) County the rest of the day. We are pretty late.

MANN: Timmers is a lieutenant with the Harris County Constables office, crop-haired and muscular. He used to work on drug enforcement jobs, but these days his specialty is saving animals.

Lt. TIMMERS: I tell you, it's such an emotionally charged situation. Several years ago on a seizure I was doing, a gentleman in his late 50s, a collector of cats, I knocked on the front door to serve the warrant, shot himself.

MANN: That kind of experience made Timmers cautious. He plans this morning's animal rescue carefully, going through the details with the taskforce of about a dozen people.

Lt. TIMMERS: It's pretty bad. Basically, they live in a little travel trailer and they have all the dogs in the house.

Unidentified Man: I personally don't think any of them are vicious. It's just that they are so unsocialized. And if lived down to their conditions, I'd bite any beggar(ph) within 20 feet of me.

MANN: The goal is remove more than 50 dogs and a huge number of cats from a cluster of shacks on the edge of Bay City, Texas. As the team pulls up, they find dogs everywhere. Dozens of Jack Russell terriers, and cages, and pens locked in bedrooms and bathrooms.

(Soundbite of barking dogs)

MANN: Timmers moves quickly from room to room, finding animals that are emaciated. Some are clearly deceased.

Lt. TIMMERS: If we do bloodhounds, we'll find that there is something contagious or there's a public health issue or something...

MANN: Some of the dogs are frenzy, but many lie listless and blank-eyed in the summer heat. The stench is nearly overwhelming.

Mr. BRIGHTON JAMES(ph) (Dog Owner): I love dogs as my own self. I'm proud of them.

MANN: Their owner, a big, unkempt man named Brighton James, looks on nervously as the rescue teams works. Just like the dogs' condition, he says he thinks that these animals as family.

Mr. JAMES: And this whole area right here is nothing but dogs - burial site for dogs. They are put in boxes, just like my own little gravesite.

MANN: James has never meant to collect so many dogs and he has chosen to give them up voluntarily.

Mr. JAMES: I need help. If I could only give them a good home, I hope.

MANN: Scenes like these are shockingly common in the U.S., daily occurrence for animal control officers. Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, says so-called animal hoarders are only the most graphic symbol of what he describes as a dog and cat overpopulation crisis.

Mr. WAYNE PACELLE (President, Humane Society of the United States): There are probably about four to six million euthanized in local Humane societies and Animal Care and Control facilities across the country.

MANN: That's four to six million dogs and cats killed every year. The vast majority, Pacelle says, are abandoned by normal pet owners.

Mr. PACELLE: You turn the animal over to a shelter, animal care agency and think that, well, that animal is going to be adopted. That's not always the case. Healthy and adoptable animals are euthanized for a lack of space and because you just run out of options.

MANN: This reality has sparked fierce debate within the animal rights movement.

Ms. MELINDA LITTLE (Resident, Saranac Lake, New York): For me, euthanizing is not a choice. I do think it's wrong.

MANN: Half a continent away in Saranac Lake, New York, Melinda Little(ph) is part of a growing network of foster homes organized to keep dogs and cats from being euthanized until permanent homes can be found.

(Soundbite of a cat)

MANN: Little is taking care of a momma(ph) cat and this small litter of fuzzballs the size of rolled sock.

Ms. LITTLE: The most important is that they'll get socialized to people and to a child, which is always a good thing.

MANN: But Little acknowledges that the number of stray and unwanted animals can be overwhelming. She already owns six cats and a dog herself. The local shelter where she's a board member has a no-kill policy but it's often so full that they have to turn animals away.

Ms. LITTLE: I really recognized the fact that there's such an overabundance of them, and I supposed if it were a question of an animal living in a very cruel environment versus being euthanized maybe that would make sense. I don't know.

MANN: Some progress has been made. In parts of the country, spay and neuter programs funded by donations on local governments have cut the euthanasia rate in half. The Humane Society's Wayne Pacelle says the next step is convincing more people to choose their pets from shelters rather than pet stores or commercial breeders.

Mr. PACELLE: Only about 17 percent of owned dogs come from shelters. And if we could get that number up to 25 percent or 30 percent, we could solve the pet overpopulation problem this country for the most part in terms of dogs.

MANN: The problem with cats is trickier, Pacelle says, because stray cats form feral colonies populated by animals too wild to be adopted.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

MANN: But the dogs rescued near Houston have a fighting chance of survival. Lieutenant Mark Timmers and his team have delivered dozens of desperately sick terriers to a Humane Society clinic on the outskirts of Houston.

Veterinarian Tim Harkness is struggling to keep them alive.

Do you have a sense for how long this animal would have survive without getting care?

Dr. TIM HARKNESS (Veterinarian, Human Society, Houston, Texas): Maybe another hour.

MANN: It turns out this entire pack of dogs is infested with parasites.

Dr. HARKNESS: This dog is going through an acute hookworm anemia. You can look at his gum.

MANN: Pearl white almost.

Dr. HARKNESS: Pearl white. So it's literally this dog is being eaten alive in the inside. He's got internal parasites, which are literally sucking the bloods and fluids right out of him.

MANN: Jack Russell terriers were popularized by the TV show "Frazier" so these dogs are fairly adoptable. Once they're nursed back to health and given a bit of training, they have a solid shot at finding a good and permanent home.

And that's the key, says Mark Timmers - putting the right pets with the right owners. Outside the Houston clinic, he sits in his truck, finishing paperwork and smoking a fat cigar. He says it helps to clear the stink of the day's work.

Lt. TIMMERS: It's hard to believe the mental stress that goes with this. I never lost a night's sleep in law enforcement until I started doing this. I mean, there's nights I go home and I just - I can't sleep because I haven't been able to get the animals off a situation they're in.

MANN: Timmers says he has another 40 animal rescue and abuse cases already pending, and roughly a hundred more that he's just begun to investigate.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann.

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