How Many Public Shelters Are There?

[Dear Readers – This is the first in a series of occasional posts on shelter data. Not statistics on individual shelters, but more general things such as how to calculate success rates, how adoption rates have changed over time, and, today’s topic, the number of animal shelters in the United States. I get so many requests from people for this kind of data that it seems as though there is really a need for it, and it can be hard to find. I will collect these posts – and a few older posts on data topics – in a “Shelter Data” tab in the blog’s header.]

Did you ever wonder how many public shelters there are in the United States? By “public shelter” I mean a shelter that is charged with impounding strays and other animals taken in by animal control, and usually takes in owner surrenders as well. A public shelter may be run by a city or county government, or the government may contract with a private entity to run the shelter. The surprising fact is that no one seems to know for sure how many of these shelters exist in the United States. One estimate often cited is about 5000 shelters. This estimate was made by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy for surveys they did in the 1990s, but about 1/4th of the shelters included were private. In 1999 HSUS developed a list of about 3500 shelters, although some of these were duplicates. Today we usually hear one or the other of these figures cited as the number of public shelters in the United States.

The 3500 figure correlates pretty well with the number of counties in the United States plus the larger cities. We have 3144 counties in the United States according to the United States Census Bureau. The National League of Cities, using a slightly older census, has identified 3033 counties that have governments. There are about 300 cities in the United States with 100,000 or more people, and another 362 cities with a population of 50,000 to 100,000. If you reduce the number of counties slightly to account for the few counties that have no animal shelter, you could derive an estimate of about 3500 for all counties, plus cities of 50,000 or more.

This estimate of 3500 is probably good if you don’t mind missing small shelters, but it may be too low if you want to capture all public shelters. The National League puts the total number of city/town governments in the United States at 19,492 (this does not count townships or special districts). If we subtract the 662 cities of 50,000 population or more, that leaves 18,830 small jurisdictions that could potentially have small shelters. Many of these jurisdictions (probably the great majority of them) do not have their own public shelters because they are served by a larger nearby jurisdiction, but some of them do have small community shelters. Thus, the estimate of 5000 shelters in the United States may be closer to the mark if you want to cover all public shelters. But as you can see, both the 3500 and the 5000 estimates have a wide potential margin of error.

Is there any easy way to get an actual count or a better estimate of the number of public shelters in the United States? One way to get a better estimate might be to look at states that have reporting requirements for public shelters. There are several states, including Colorado, Michigan, California, North Carolina, and Virginia that require public shelters to report to the state each year. In theory one could figure out the number of public shelters in all of those states and then extrapolate to the United States population. In practice, this would be time consuming because many private shelters and rescues are also subject to reporting requirements, so a lot of research would be involved to sort out the public shelters. Plus, there is no guarantee that states that require reporting are representative of the other states.

Another way might be to find out from the makers of the various shelter software programs how many shelters use each program, and add them up – or to count the shelters on Petfinder. The problem is that, as with the state databases, there are a great many private shelters that use shelter software, and a great many private shelters and rescues that use Petfinder. There is no easy way to separate out the public shelters from the rest.

One could make an actual count by looking at every county and every city and town, but with over 20,000 of those jurisdictions in the United States it would be an enormous task. Each community would have to be researched to find out if it has a public shelter. In many communities telephone calls would have to be made to determine where strays and owner surrenders from the jurisdiction are sheltered, because the information is often not easily accessible online. And even if we could derive an exact number and create a list of public shelters it would be something of a moving target, since governments frequently change their animal sheltering arrangements.

Another problem would be how to account for large private shelters that voluntarily take in owner surrenders from the public but do not take in strays and do not have any contract with a city or county. These large humane societies might take in half or more of the homeless animals in their jurisdiction, even though they are not municipal shelters and do not contract with the local government for animal sheltering.

Why is it important for us to know the number of public shelters? If we want to measure how we are doing in the United States at saving the lives of homeless animals, we have to know how many homeless animals there are each year and what happens to them. If we look at all shelters, both public and private, then we have a lot of transfers of animals from one shelter to another, making it difficult or impossible to know how many animals we are dealing with. What we need to know is the number of animals impounded by animal control plus the number of owner surrenders in each jurisdiction, and that means limiting our inquiry to those public shelters that have animal control duties, plus any private shelters in the community that take in significant numbers of owner surrenders directly from the public (since they are serving a public function). Without that data we will never know for sure how we are doing.

I think if we are ever going to be able to have accurate, up-to-date counts of animals coming into shelters in the United States we may need to rely on private organizations doing counts on a state-by-state basis. The Michigan Pet Fund Alliance has a project of this sort, where they list shelters each year by category. They have a head start on this project because Michigan is one of the states that requires shelters to report, but they have also invested the time to determine if each shelter is public or private and how it handles admissions. The shelter federation in New Hampshire records data for the state’s public shelters, although they make only aggregate data available and not the data from each shelter. Best Friends could probably tell us how many public shelters are in Utah and their intake and disposition of animals. State alliances and organizations are ideally suited to simplify the task of identifying public shelters, because coalitions of people who work on sheltering within a state will have a great deal of knowledge about local situations starting out and will need to spend much less time on research than an outsider would. Perhaps one of these days one of the big national organizations will offer grants to state alliances to collect such data in a standard format and make it available. State alliances that would pitch in and do this task, especially where combined with state reporting systems, could quickly solve our data-collection problem and give us valuable information about how we are doing nationwide at shelter lifesaving.

News Roundup 9-27-15

The animal control and sheltering situation in the state of Delaware is in transition. A private organization named the First State Animal Center and SPCA (formerly the Kent County SPCA), which has been in operation for many years, had acquired animal control and sheltering contracts for Delaware’s three counties (Kent, Sussex, and New Castle) and the city of Wilmington. But the state government decided last year to take over animal control for the entire state, and this past summer it started the process of forming an animal control unit and hiring its own animal control officers. The state takeover of animal control was supposed to be phased in gradually in the different counties as the First State animal control contracts (which still had 6 to 18 months to run at that time) ran out. Then the First State board of directors abruptly voted to cancel all of its animal control contracts effective September 15th. First State reportedly made the decision to end its contracts early because it was concerned that its employees, who had been looking for other jobs since the state announced its intention to take over animal control, would resign and leave it without enough staff to service the contracts. This meant that the state had to implement its plan to take over animal control much sooner than it had expected.

September 15th has come and gone, and a temporary plan is now in place. The new state agency, Delaware Animal Services, will handle cruelty cases, rabies enforcement, and animal control calls throughout the state starting January 1, 2016. In the meantime, each county has made its own plans to cover animal control for the rest of the year. Kent County and Wilmington entered into a temporary contract with the Chester County SPCA in Pennsylvania. First State has agreed to cover animal control for Sussex and New Castle counties for the rest of the year.

There will be potential advantages to having animal control centralized in the state, but it is not clear at this time where and how strays picked up by animal control in each of the four jurisdictions will be sheltered. In July, First State announced that it was getting out of the business of housing strays, and that after its animal control duties ceased it would take in only owner surrenders and would become a No Kill shelter. First State is also reportedly pushing a bill that would take away or modify the status of cats in Delaware as free-roaming.

In other news:

  • The Franklin County Dog Shelter in Ohio (Franklin County contains Columbus and has over 1 million people) is reportedly running at an 87% live release rate. Shelter director Kaye Dickson, who started with the shelter last March, says that only dogs with health and behavior problems are euthanized. Statistics on the website show an 81-82% live release rate for June, July, and August, not counting owner-requested euthanasia. In 2014, owner-requested euthanasias represented about 5% of the 11,000 dogs taken in to the shelter.
  • Maddie’s Fund has an article about how shelters in another Ohio city, Cleveland, have an informal partnership to help each other with emergencies such as hoarding busts. The lesson is that even in cases where the organizations in a city do not want to invest a lot of time in crafting a formal coalition, informal arrangements can accomplish a lot.
  • More from Maddie’s — the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida is reporting a record enrollment in shelter medicine courses of 427 students for 2014-2015, plus 111 students who have completed the certificate program, and the launch of a brand-new Master’s degree in shelter medicine. Here is a report on this and other news from the program.
  • The Million Cat Challenge is closing in on 300,000 cats saved by the shelters enrolled in its program. I still run across people active in animal sheltering who have not heard of the Million Cat Challenge. How can that be?
  • Arin Greenwood reports in the Huffington Post about one smart landlord who has figured out how to acquire long-term, grateful tenants: rent only to people who have pit bulls. With so many landlords reluctant to rent to owners of “pit bulls,” this is a market waiting to be captured.
  • Sarasota County in Florida is discussing a possible law to regulate commercial sale of animals by stores. The most recent commissioners’ meeting on the topic was standing-room only. A public hearing will be held in January.

Modern Life: Dog and Cat Version

In the last 30 to 40 years there have been great changes in how most owned dogs and cats live their lives in the United States. Those changes raise some important questions about the quality of life of modern cats and dogs.

Dogs first arrived in the United States some 9,000 years ago, and they lived and worked with Native Americans. More dogs arrived with European settlers beginning in the 1600s. Cats were brought over on ships with the earliest European explorers, so their history in the United States is measured in hundreds of years rather than thousands.

Up through the mid-1900s, the great majority of dogs and cats spent at least part of their time outdoors. This was partly tradition, since dogs and cats had always been allowed to roam. It was also partly practical, since flea control was sketchy and kitty litter had not been invented. Sterilization of dogs and cats was rare in the mid-1900s and earlier, so people had to deal with behaviors like marking, spraying, and caterwauling that made cats and dogs undesirable to have in the house full-time.

In the mid-1900s society underwent a revolution in the way people lived, with a move from farms and small towns to the suburbs and cities. During that time sterilization for pets remained rare, largely due to the belief that the surgeries were harmful to animals and the fact that (in the days before antibiotics and good anesthetics) the surgeries, especially spay surgery, were somewhat risky.

By the 1970s the population of dogs and cats had reached what was seen as crisis proportions – unsurprising given that cats and dogs were still typically free-roaming and unsterilized at that time. A movement began, supported by the traditional shelter industry and virtually all of the humane organizations, to get people to spay and neuter their pets and start keeping dogs on leash or otherwise under control. This movement was extremely successful, and from 1970 to 2000 we saw a rapid cultural change. By the year 2000 it was considered socially unacceptable in most neighborhoods for people to allow their dogs out to roam by themselves. Also by 2000, substantial majorities of pet owners had their cats and dogs sterilized. Free-roaming dogs and cats were no longer at crisis levels in most places.

The changes in where people live and the growing prohibitions on allowing dogs and cats to be free-roaming have resulted in major changes in how dogs, and to a lesser extent cats, live their lives. One hundred years ago dogs had a great deal more freedom than they have today. They could choose how they spent their time, what they did, and who they associated with. Many dogs had routines that they carried out on their own, such as patrolling the neighborhood, hanging out with their dog friends, rummaging in the garbage, or going to meet the kids coming home from school or their owners on the way home from work. The routine of most cats concentrated more on hunting than socializing, but cats too could go where they wanted and do what they wanted.

Today, responsible owners walk their dogs on leash and the dogs are only allowed to run free in a fenced yard or a dog park. Cat owners are urged to keep their cats entirely indoors, and pacify them by building elaborate cat play areas. In some ways what has happened to dogs and cats mirrors what has happened to children. Up until perhaps 30 or 40 years ago it was routine for parents to allow their children to roam the neighborhood unsupervised. Children as young as six were allowed to walk to school by themselves or with friends, and the only rule for play time was to come home in time for dinner. Today, of course, children are much more closely supervised, and the supervision is enforced by law. In Maryland the parents of two children, ages 10 and 6, were threatened with having their children taken away because the parents allowed the kids to walk home from a park by themselves in an upper-middle-class neighborhood. Even parents who disagree with the choices of the Maryland parents may be concerned that the close supervision of today’s children inhibits their ability to learn independence, social skills, good judgment, and problem-solving.

Similarly, with dogs and cats who live in a constantly controlled and supervised environment, their socialization skills, confidence, judgment, and independence can suffer. With dogs we can see this manifested as hostility to strangers, unpredictable behavior, separation anxiety, and an inability to understand social cues from other dogs, among other behavior problems. With cats kept indoors we can see stress and boredom.

There is no doubt that the modern, more confined life of dogs and cats is physically safer for them. With increasing population density and more and more cars in the environment, the danger of being killed or badly hurt by a car is a constant threat to free-roaming cats and dogs. There may be other benefits to confinement as well, such as a greater attachment between person and pet. But there is no doubt that dogs and cats have lost a great deal in losing their freedom. If I had to choose whether to live as a dog in 1915 or 2015, I would choose 1915 hands down, in spite of the possibility that my life might well be shorter.

Is there anything we can do to give dogs and cats back their freedom? With cats, I think the answer is yes. Cats who are sterilized and have had their shots should be allowed to roam free if they want, in my opinion. If a person’s home is simply too dangerous to allow a cat to roam due to vehicular traffic, interfering neighbors, or aggressive animal control, then a move to a more accommodating neighborhood may be in order. For dogs it is a much more difficult problem. Dog parks, dog beaches, and other places where dogs can roam free may help. Intensive socialization of the young dog with many different people and dogs, in many different environments, may help. If a dog has to be on leash, then the owner might want to take the dog on one or two long walks a day where the dog gets to lead and gets to decide where to go and what to do. Some doggie day care places do a great job and are like spas for dogs, but they can be expensive. I’m sure dog behavior experts could come up with many more suggestions.

Perhaps the most important thing is simply to recognize the problem. No Kill shelters today do a good job at matching dogs and cats to the temperament and lifestyle of their prospective owners. Simply preventing mismatches could go a long way toward ameliorating the problems of the modern lifestyle. And urban planning needs to begin to include better accommodations for pets. Ten years ago disaster management agencies simply ignored pets, but that changed after Katrina. If people today really value their pets as family members they will seek out neighborhoods where pets are welcome and where design considerations such as green space, walking trails and dog parks have been incorporated. Those things will help people too, and they should not be restricted only to wealthier neighborhoods.

Bird Conservationists – What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Bird conservationists are perhaps the most effective opponents of Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs for feral cats. The conservationists argue that scientific studies show that cats kill huge numbers of birds, and that therefore cats must be removed from the environment to protect birds. TNR supporters argue that estimates of cat predation are overblown and, in any event, TNR is the only successful way to manage cat populations. Although most of the bird conservationists won’t come right out and say it, what they all seem to want is to round up and kill all homeless and feral cats and to force people who own pet cats to confine them indoors. Current estimates are that there are at least 80 million pet cats and tens of millions of feral cats in the United States.

Recently I began studying the science of the cat-predation issue. Because the science is controversial I expected to find what I usually see in scientific controversies, which is evidence on both sides of the issue. What I actually found ran completely counter to my expectations, and shocked me. In journal article after journal article, and book after book, I found cat-predation studies that were flawed by small sample size, samples that were not shown to be typical, unjustified generalizations, a failure to account for confounding factors, and a tendency to assume that predation of individual birds necessarily resulted in damage to bird populations at the species level.

After perusing the studies and writings of many bird conservationists I came to the conclusion that they were unable to see the data clearly. As someone who is a great believer in the scientific method, and who respects scientists, I don’t say this lightly. I’m used to scientists being the people we can rely on to look at issues dispassionately and give us objective conclusions based on data. I had always assumed that there must be some “there” there in the cat-predation controversy, simply because there are reputable scientists who strongly believe that cats harm bird populations. So it was a very rude awakening when I began to study the data and saw how unconvincing the evidence against cats in general, and TNR in particular, actually was.

I don’t have the space in this blog post to dissect the weaknesses of all the scientific studies, and others have done that anyway (see Peter Wolf’s “Vox Felina” blog, linked in the left sidebar). The point that I want to make here is somewhat different, and that is that the bird conservationists, regardless of the validity or lack of validity in the studies they publish in journals, exhibit contradictions in their own writings about cats that are clear evidence of their lack of objectivity on this issue. As a case in point, we need only look at John M. Marzluff’s book “Welcome to Subirdia.” Marzluff is a respected professor of Wildlife Science at the University of Washington. I thought “Welcome to Subirdia” was a delightful and important book, and I would recommend it to anyone. The thesis of the book is that green suburbs are unexpectedly wonderful habitat for birds, and nurture a wide variety of bird species.

But in spite of Marzluff’s happy message of birds doing extremely well in the suburbs, his book is marred with inexplicable internal contradictions when he talks about cats. To start with, we know that there are probably as many free-roaming cats in the suburbs as there are anyplace on earth, except possibly for some neglected urban areas. Given this, how would you complete the following syllogism:

In the suburbs we find an abundance of bird species, cats are also abundant in the suburbs, so —

  • Choice A:  cats do not harm and may even help bird species, or
  • Choice B:  we need to confine or kill all the cats in order to save the birds.

It seems to me that any rational scientist would pick “A” to complete the syllogism, but Marzluff pretty clearly agrees with “B.” In fact, on page 85 of the book he says that cat predation on birds is “horrifying.” On page 173 he says that the “most uniformly serious” peril to birds and other animals in the city is the free-roaming domestic cat.

But wait, Dr. Marzluff, wait! Didn’t you just explain to us in a very well-written and convincing way that green suburbs are among the best habitats for birds? Didn’t you tell us on pages 15-16 that you found more bird diversity in Central Park in New York City than you did in Yellowstone? And aren’t there a whole lot more domestic cats in the suburbs than in Yellowstone?– my head is hurting.

There’s more. One of Marzluff’s students did an experiment to examine causes of mortality of fledgling birds (pages 91-93). Unlike many bird-mortality studies, this one seems to have been designed and carried out fairly well. It was perhaps a bit small, with a sample size of 122 fledglings, but that number is large enough to be at least indicative, although not conclusive. The best thing about the study design was that the birds were radio-tracked. This allowed Marzluff and his student to determine the location and movements of the fledglings for the approximately three to nine weeks that the batteries lasted. The period of a few days when a bird is learning to fly is one of the most vulnerable time periods of its life. If cats really do account for 10% of deaths of all birds in the United States (as Marzluff maintains, see pages 85 and 188) then we would expect cats to kill a substantially higher percentage of fledglings – 20%, 30%, perhaps even upwards of 50%.

The results were extremely interesting. What the study actually showed was that cats were “implicated” in the death of only one fledgling. And Marzluff admits that it was not clear that the one fledgling was actually killed by a cat, and it could have been killed by another mammal or even another bird. Now, one would think that a good scientist like Marzluff, on receiving this data from an experiment that he and his student performed themselves, might scratch his head and say — maybe cats really aren’t as bad as we thought. Or at least — this is interesting, we need to study this in more depth. But that isn’t what Marzluff said. Instead, he dismissed the “rarity” of cat predation in the study (by which I think he means the “non-existence” or “near non-existence” of cat predation in the study) by opining that it was due to the presence of coyotes in the area.

If coyotes were prevalent enough in the area of the study to chase away or kill off all the cats, then one would think that coyotes would have killed some of those fledglings themselves. Perhaps they did. But Marzluff believes that coyote predation is good for bird populations (page 199). According to Marzluff, cats kill birds (bad), but coyotes “cull” their prey, which is good because it is nature’s way and they only kill the injured, weak and overly abundant. Predator coyotes are wonderful, while the slightly smaller predator cat is horrible. Okay, now my head is going to explode.

I really don’t mean to pick on Marzluff. Others are worse than him. I’m discussing “Welcome to Subirdia” in this blog post because it happens to offer a particularly clear example of the way the cat issue seems to twist the thinking of even good scientists. So, back to the question – why does this happen? Why are bird conservationists, who make their careers by being logical and fair and sticking to the data, seemingly so blinded by their anti-cat emotions that they cannot see the data clearly?

If I were going to study the issue I would start with two hypotheses. One is the hypothesis that bird conservationists have an animus toward cats because they view cats as an “invasive” species. As I discussed in a blog post last month, there is recent thinking that the whole “invasive species” thing is really just mother nature’s reaction to the massive changes that humans have made in the environment. My second hypothesis is that there is a prejudice against cats due to the perception that they are cruel killers because they sometimes seem to torment their prey or play with it before killing it. Scientists ought to know, if anyone does, that species do not survive and thrive the way cats have if they waste energy. Therefore, there is probably a reason for the way cats sometimes make their kills. One obvious reason would be that they are learning or improving hunting skills. Cats are not very big, and in some habitats they need to kill prey animals, such as rats, that are almost as big as they are. A cat does not have the luxury of the size and weight of a coyote or wolf. Since cats cannot always overpower their prey by brute force, they have to fight with skill and tactics – which takes practice.

Whatever the reason or reasons for the animus that bird conservationists have toward cats, it has consequences. We need look no further than Washington, DC, where a battle is now being waged between TNR advocates and conservationists who want to round up cats and take them to shelters (where the feral ones would be killed) and force owners of pet cats to keep them indoors on pain of death (death to the cats, not the owners, although sometimes one wonders).

This is already a long blog post and I don’t have space here to get very deeply into the related question of why bird conservationists reject TNR. There is one glaring logical contradiction here, too, though, that I want to touch on. Even if we all were to agree that cats are damaging bird populations at the species level (an idea that Welcome to Subirdia very neatly refutes), one would think that bird conservationists and cat advocates could nevertheless agree on TNR, because TNR not only reduces the number of cats, it also reduces the need of cats to hunt, since colony caregivers feed the cats. Moreover, probably 99% of the labor and supplies that are expended on TNR and colony care are donated by volunteers, without costing taxpayers or businesses a dime. Catch-and-kill methods have to be repeated every two years at least, they are expensive, and the advocates of the catch-and-kill method have not figured out how to keep people from sabotaging it by very naturally doing everything they can short of going to jail to save their neighborhood cats.

The bird-conservationist ranks do not seem to contain enough people who are willing to catch and kill cats all over the country with volunteer labor and supplies, so the bird conservationists expect governments to pick up the tab for their cat-killing program. This adds insult to injury, because it means that citizens who pay taxes are forced to pay for killing cats, when in fact the majority do not approve of the wholesale slaughter of cats. This is not a winning scenario for the conservationists. It can only lead to long, drawn-out, pitched battles that the conservationists will ultimately lose, because they are not only in the wrong, they are in the minority. One would think that the bird conservationists would realize that TNR is the best solution that is actually possible to achieve, even if it is not their favorite solution. Instead, they continue to oppose TNR, holding out for the unrealistic option of somehow finding, catching and killing every cat that wanders outdoors, and forcing people who disagree with them to pay for it.

We can’t send all the bird conservationists back to science school, so all we can do is hope that eventually rationality will prevail. In the meantime, pick up a copy of Welcome to Subirdia. I’m sure you’ll love it. It’s a very convincing argument that birds do better with cats around.

News Roundup 9-13-15

On September 8th, San Antonio’s Animal Care Services (ACS) announced that it had met the No Kill standard of a 90% live release rate (LRR). Sounds great – but the news report, and another report, said that the shelter is defining the national standard for No Kill as 90% of healthy and treatable animals. That’s wrong – the generally accepted No Kill standard is 90% of all intake. I’ve never heard of No Kill being defined as saving 90% of healthy-treatables. My perusal of the stats posted on the ACS website did not indicate that they will be at 90% or better for their latest fiscal year, which ends at the end of September – instead it looks more like the LRR for the year, calculated by the standard Asilomar method, will be closer to 85%. I’m a big fan of the San Antonio effort – they are working really hard and the 85% or so that they have achieved so far is a fabulous accomplishment under the circumstances they are dealing with. They want to do even better. They are transparent, posting their full statistics online, and I do not think they were intentionally trying to deceive anyone. In fact, San Antonio would be on my short list of amazing American cities working to improve shelter lifesaving. But I don’t think they should be saying that saving 90% of healthy-treatables is “No Kill,” because that isn’t a generally accepted definition of No Kill. And the LRR for any individual month should not be used as a basis to claim No Kill, in my opinion, since LRR can vary a lot from month to month during the year. So ACS – keep up your wonderful work, but please wait to claim No Kill status until you have chalked up an LRR of 90% or above based on total intake, for an entire year. I’m sure that will be soon.

The six public shelters in Los Angeles take in about 55,000 animals per year. For fiscal year 2014-2015, the “save rate” was 78.5%. For dogs the number was 88.4%, which is encouraging, but for cats it was only 68.7%. Best Friends announced last July that they had run the numbers from 2014 and decided that the best way to increase lifesaving for cats would be to open a second kitten nursery. Best Friend’s existing kitten nursery in Los Angeles is currently caring for about 2150 kittens per year, but they want to add another 4400 kittens each year to the effort. If that plan is successful, it should make a huge difference in the Los Angeles live release rate.

The Humane Society of Silicon Valley, which won the Shorty Award earlier this year in the Best Social Good category for its “Eddie the Terrible” marketing campaign, is back with another bizarrely hilarious proposal. This time they are looking for fosters for ringworm kittens.

I posted a couple of weeks ago that two of the four counties in Michigan that still used a gas chamber to kill shelter animals had stopped the practice. Now one of the two remaining counties, Cass County, has announced that it will stop using its gas chamber by January 1, 2016, if not sooner. The remaining Michigan county that still uses a gas chamber, Branch County, had its shelter damaged by a fire last May, but unfortunately the gas chamber was not damaged. County officials may bar the use of the chamber once the shelter is repaired and reopened. Meanwhile Sandy City, Utah, will stop the use of its gas chamber beginning next year.

The leaders of the city of Waco and McLennan County had a “state of the city and county” dinner recently. The major achievement mentioned by the Waco mayor was how the city has increased the live release rate at the public shelter since taking it over two years ago. There has been a trend in the past year or two for cities and counties to realize that having a No Kill public shelter is an important asset. Kudos to the Waco mayor for understanding the value of what Waco has achieved and how much it says about the city.

Another city that realizes the value of No Kill is Atlanta. This story quotes the chairperson of the board of LifeLine, the non-profit contractor that has revolutionized Atlanta’s shelters, on the importance of a lifesaving shelter in attracting new people to Atlanta. LifeLine has recruited over 100 rescue partners since taking over the contracts in 2013 for the two shelters that serve Atlanta.

The American Bird Conservancy strikes again, as a participant in a stealth plan to try to destroy TNR in Washington, DC. The nation’s capital has come a long way toward No Kill in recent years, and TNR has been a big part of it. Now the city’s Department of the Environment is asking the city to adopt its proposed Wildlife Action Plan, which, on pages 145-146, asks that government-sanctioned TNR programs in the district be re-examined. Instead of returning the cats to their territory after sterilization, the plan suggests that they be taken in by shelters (this is code for saying that the cats should be killed, since most of them are feral and not adoptable) and that the government should support the “cats indoors” program. I hope the city doesn’t fall for this. Adams Morgan, a neighborhood in DC, was the site of a groundbreaking TNR project in 1990 that led to the formation of Alley Cat Allies. The TNR project gradually reduced the number of feral cats and now there are none where the original colony was. I’m sure that Alley Cat Allies and other groups will present the overwhelming evidence in favor of TNR as not only the most humane but the most effective and least costly method of feral cat control. The Washington Humane Society, which currently does TNR, was blindsided by the plan (they were not consulted) and they are arguing against it. There is something a little absurd in the idea of the District trying to make itself into a replica of how nature was in the time before people poured concrete over everything. If the bird people really want to protect the birds, they would be better off using their energy to promote “smart growth” for new construction in the District rather than persecuting cats.

There are several other important cat-related stories this week:

  • The New Yorker has a video on TNR that does a good job of showing how much work and care goes into TNR. Unfortunately the video cites the cat predation numbers from the infamous 2013 Smithsonian study without comment on how unlikely those numbers are on their face, but that is a flaw in an otherwise good video.
  • The Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners has found that veterinarian Kristen Lindsey (whose name you may recall from a controversy over an allegation that she had killed a cat with a bow and arrow) committed an unspecified violation. More details will be announced in October.
  • HSUS has two “Rethinking the Cat” symposiums coming up, on September 18 in Indianapolis and September 24 in Madison, Wisconsin.
  • A recent study posted on PlosOne points out that there are lots of people who are feeding feral cats but not taking them in for TNR. Dr. Emily Weiss connects the dots by asking if we should be seeking ways to recruit these people, not necessarily to do TNR themselves, but to take responsibility to contact organizations that do TNR.
  • Asheville’s city council has unanimously approved Brother Wolf’s bid for permission to open a cat cafe in the “heart of downtown.”
  • Don’t miss this blog by Dr. Kate Hurley on what makes a “good and worthwhile life” in animal welfare.

A few more news bits in what has been a busy week:

  • A rescue group that started helping the Smyth County Animal Shelter in Virginia last year reports that it has decreased the shelter’s euthanasia rate from 89% to 14%.
  • The Elizabethton/Carter County shelter in Tennessee has a new director with big plans to increase its live release rate.
  • El Paso, Texas, may be the worst city in the United States for shelter animals.
  • Here is a thoughtful article about some of the problems in Dallas with free-roaming dogs.
  • “Urgent” pages have saved a lot of lives, but they can also create a lot of counterproductive drama. This post on the Maddie’s Fund blog describes one shelter director’s innovations for running a more effective Urgent page.
  • This article about the new Virginia law on animal shelters gives more attention to PETA’s views than to the proponents of the law, but it gives an idea of the battle currently being waged.
  • Hillary Clinton, pet parent to two mixed-breed dogs, had a great response to a question about puppy mills, saying that they are terrible places for animals and we need to do more about them.
  • Hand2Paw, a Philadelphia non-profit, helps young people who have aged out of foster care at age 18 with no place to go by providing volunteer and intern experience working with homeless animals at local shelters. Some of the young people have been hired as shelter workers.
  • The Charlotte-Mecklenburg animal shelter has successfully implemented a managed admission plan. The plan, which includes helping owners to retain their pets, has reduced admissions by a startling 30%. The shelter reports that the community has embraced the new plan.

The Historical Role of Spay-Neuter in No Kill

Back in the 1970s it was not common for people to have their dogs and cats sterilized, and it was common for people to allow their dogs and cats to roam as they pleased. This resulted in a lot of dogs and cats. Shelter intakes back then were about 5 times higher than they are today. Shelter statistics from those days are sketchy, but our best guess from the available evidence is that the situation for homeless pets reached a crisis point around 1970 due to their massive numbers.

Killing was the default solution that shelters used for the overwhelming number of animals they received. The Lane County shelter in Eugene, Oregon, was receiving 100 animals a day, for example, even though animal control officers did not take in cats. Shelter intake in Lane County today is a tenth of that number or less. Shelter intake relative to human population back in the 1970s was about 110 per 1000 people, if not more. By comparison, average shelter intake today is estimated to be about 22 per 1000 people.

But the number of animals coming into shelters was not the only problem. An even bigger problem was the number of animals that were in the streets, that shelters did not impound. For example, James Child did a study on cats in the early 1980s and found 725 to 1813 free-roaming cats per square mile in one northeastern city. If you wanted a cat or dog in the 1970s all you had to do was wait, and before long you would hear of a friend, neighbor, or relative who had a litter of puppies or kittens to give away. Or you would see someone on the street hawking free or very cheap puppies and kittens. Or you might find a litter of feral kittens in your backyard, or be adopted yourself by a homeless stray. There was no need to buy a dog or cat unless you wanted a particular type of purebred, and there was no need to go to the shelter to adopt because animals needing homes were in your neighborhood.

Could shelters have saved all of their animals in the 1970s? Of the No Kill shelters I’ve studied, the ones that have intake per 1000 people of 40 or 50 or more generally seem to use transports a lot, or adopt animals to people outside of their own jurisdiction, in order to get to a 90% or better live release rate. In the 1970s all the jurisdictions were full of animals, so transports and out-of-area adoptions would just take homes from other homeless animals. Shelter workers in the 1970s were not enthusiastic about adoptions generally, because with so many animals needing homes, finding a home for a shelter puppy meant only that another puppy was left out. Adoptions in the 1970s were like a giant game of musical chairs, with not nearly enough chairs. A shelter adoption just meant that a different animal was left standing.

In order to save all animals who were admitted to shelters in 1970, one out of every three people who currently owned a pet at that time would have had to adopt another one from a shelter. Then in 1971 another one out of three would have had to adopt, and so on. And with shelters putting intact animals into the environment (because back then shelters did not have the veterinary support to spay and neuter all of their animals), the pet overpopulation situation might well have gotten even worse. In a world where most dogs and cats were intact and a high percentage of them were free-roaming, shelter killing was about the only means that communities had to contain pet population. Shelter killing did not keep homeless dog and cat populations from growing, but it probably did make them grow more slowly than they otherwise would have.

Could shelters have simply left animals on the street rather than taking them in only to kill them? In the 1970s, many shelters, perhaps most of them, did leave cats in the street. Cats were typically considered free-roaming and were not impounded except in cities where residents considered them to be nuisances, or public health officials considered them to be health threats. As to leaving dogs in the street, or leaving cats in the street in the cities where they were considered to be nuisances, it is doubtful that citizens in the 1970s would have tolerated that approach. A survey that was done in 1973 of city mayors found that animal nuisance complaints were the number-one complaint that mayors received on any issue. In 1970 there were very few spay-neuter programs and veterinarians did not routinely recommend that people spay and neuter their pets. At that time veterinarians were just getting adjusted to new technologies in anesthesia that made spay surgeries safer than they had been in earlier decades. Very few if any veterinarians were doing pediatric spay-neuter in the 1970s, and even people who did get their dogs and cats spayed often did not do so until after their pet had had a litter or two.

That is a very depressing picture. Shelter workers who loved animals and did not want them killed faced options in the 1970s that ranged from bad to worse. So what did they do? They started a gigantic spay-neuter campaign. Today we tend to be bored with spay-neuter. We hear about it all the time, and sometimes it seems as though the “spay-neuter” mantra is just being used as an excuse not to put programs in place to get animals out of the shelter alive. But in the 1970s, the spay-neuter campaign changed the culture, and changed the world for homeless pets. We went from a country where only a minority of people sterilized their pets to a country where more than 80% did. And at the same time people began to value their pets more. That probably was not a coincidence, because the spay-neuter movement included an educational component to encourage the idea that the lives of cats and dogs had value.

By the year 2000, shelter intake had plummeted by close to 70%, at the same time that the number of owned pets had more than doubled. If you look at shelter intake in 2000 relative to the number of owned pets, it had declined almost 90% since 1970. It was not the spay-neuter clinics themselves that did all those spay-neuter surgeries – what happened was that the free and low-cost clinics that were popping up all over in the 1970s inspired the veterinary profession to start to recommend spay-neuter as a routine part of health care.

Even more important than the startling decline in shelter intake was the decline in homeless, free-roaming dogs in the environment. By the year 2000 feral and homeless dogs (as opposed to dogs who had homes and had strayed) were down to a miniscule number in most places, and continued to be a problem only in a few large urban areas and a few very rural areas. The number of homeless cats stayed high, possibly due to migration back and forth between the domestic and feral cat populations. But in the 1990s TNR became common and it offered a way to control community cats and reduce their nuisance behaviors.

The decline in shelter intake, the decline in the number of dogs in the environment, and the growing acceptance of TNR were the factors that made No Kill theoretically possible. The growth of the internet, particularly Petfinder, and the groundbreaking work of shelters like the San Francisco SPCA made it possible to implement No Kill as a practical matter. The first No Kill communities appeared toward the end of the 1990s in San Francisco, New England, and the Denver metro area, plus many small communities in Colorado and one in Michigan. In order for shelters to increase their live releases, they had to have a “market” for their animals. The disappearance of homeless dogs from the environment allowed shelters to adopt out dogs to people who otherwise would have acquired their dog from an unwanted litter in the neighborhood or by adopting a stray. TNR provided an alternative living arrangement for cats where they would be tolerated and even supported in the environment, thus increasing their market as well. The number of adoptions from shelters and rescues went up from about 5% or so of intake in 1970 to over 40% today. This appears to have been largely due to the disappearance of “competing” animals from the environment.

It is no accident that the No Kill movement started in the early 1990s, because it was at about that time that the pet overpopulation crisis had abated in the most progressive communities. In less progressive communities – those where spay-neuter rates lagged, and TNR was not in use – No Kill has taken a little longer to get a foothold.

In thinking about this history, what stands out to me is the massive effort on the part of thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people who devoted a great deal of their time and effort to change the tragic situation for homeless pets. In the 1970s this army of people worked on spay-neuter efforts. Beginning in the early 1990s, with the pet overpopulation problem having been greatly reduced in many places, the army began to work on increasing live releases. No Kill, more than most movements, is made up of lots of individual heroes. It is a true grass roots movement. As Rich Avanzino would say, the founders of No Kill were the American people.

News of the Week 8-30-15

We hear a lot about police officers shooting family pets with little or no provocation. In a recent case in Round Rock, Texas, a police officer answering a call at a private home was bitten in the leg – twice – by an excitable Aussie that lunged at him when the owner’s child opened the door. Instead of shooting, the officer backed up and tried to calm the dog. Fortunately the owner got to the door quickly and collared the dog. The only consequence of the incident is that the dog will have to do a 10-day home quarantine. The officer, Randall Frederick, received a well-deserved medal for the way he handled the situation. Police officers in the town received mandatory training in how to handle dog situations after several complaints. (Round Rock is a No Kill community, with animal sheltering provided by the Williamson County Regional Animal Shelter.)

The Clear the Shelters event on August 15th, which was sponsored by NBC and Telemundo, found homes for more than 19,000 pets. The Richmond SPCA, one of the many participating shelters, had only 3 dogs left at the end of the event.

County shelters in two counties in Michigan – Berrien and Van Buren – are permanently ending the use of gas chambers. In Berrien, it took a resolution of the county commissioners to force an end to the practice. In Van Buren the current director says she has never used the chamber, and now it has been dismantled and sold for scrap.

In a short interview, Tawny Hammond, the new Chief Animal Services Officer for the city of Austin, talks about her short list of goals. She wants to increase adoptions by fine-tuning social media based on her experience in Fairfax County, Virginia, solve the problem of dogs not getting enough attention by an all-hands-on-deck effort to walk dogs and recruit more volunteer dog walkers, and “stay flexible.”

Discover has an interesting article on the explosion in recent years of research on dog cognition and how dogs and humans co-evolved. The article discusses a new book which suggest that dogs might have been the secret weapon that allowed humans to replace Neanderthals in the evolutionary battle for survival. It also describes the rise of “citizen science,” which involves ordinary people providing information about their dogs. Scientists can then use the information to create large data sets on various topics of research about dogs. In other dog-research news, this journal article that appeared in PeerJ reports on a brain imaging study that found that dogs, like humans and monkeys, have an area of the brain dedicated to facial recognition. The facial recognition area in dogs responds to both human and dog faces. The authors posit that this brain development may be what allows dogs to interpret social cues from humans so well.

Belinda Lewis, who runs the shelter in Fort Wayne, Indiana, is resigning early next year. This might be a good opportunity for someone who feels that they have what it takes to turn a shelter around. Some progress has reportedly been made in recent years in Fort Wayne but there is much left to do.

The Gainesville newspaper has a nice feature on the progress made by Alachua County Animal Services after joining the Million Cat Challenge. Alachua County is home turf for Dr. Julie Levy of the University of Florida, one of the founders of the Million Cat Challenge. Gainesville has had several organizations working hard for years to bring up its live release rate, and with help from the Million Cat Challenge it may finally reach its goal of stopping the killing of healthy and treatable animals.

The ambitious renovation project for the Waco city shelter recently got a boost from McLennan County, which gave the city two pieces of land adjacent to the shelter grounds. The renovation is expected to cost $2.6 million, and the project will go up for bid shortly. The city hopes to award the contract in October. According to Wiley Stem, who has been one of the driving forces behind Waco’s No Kill effort, the shelter’s live release rate is now around 85%.

LifeLine’s Fulton County shelter in Atlanta, which is closing in on a 90% live release rate, received a $40,000 donation from an Atlanta company, Anisa International, to build a meet-and-greet area and more outdoor play space. The county shelter was built long before LifeLine took over the contract, and is showing its age.

As you no doubt know, this August marks the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Brent Toellner of Kansas City Pet Project has posted his trip diary as a volunteer in Louisiana taking care of dogs evacuated following Katrina. Toellner will be writing more about Katrina this week.

“Invasive” Feral Cats Aren’t So Bad After All

These days, almost everyone involved with trying to increase live release rates for cats supports Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) and Return-To-Field (RTF) programs for community cats. The barriers still in the way of TNR and RTF include old-fashioned ordinances in a lot of localities, and bird conservationists. Advocates for cats are chipping away at the ordinances, but the conservationists are stubborn. Many of them argue that all cats should be kept indoors and that any cat found outdoors should be captured and killed.

One of the arguments made by the conservationists is that cats have no place in the outdoors in the United States because they are an “invasive” species (also called “non-native”  or “alien”). Cats first came to the Americas in ships from Europe many centuries ago. The conservationists argue that non-native species such as cats destroy native wildlife because the native wildlife species have not evolved ways to protect themselves from the invaders. The idea that invasive species are bad is deeply ingrained in conservation biology, and it has been a difficult argument for cat advocates to address.

A new book by science journalist Fred Pearce calls the traditional thinking about invasive species into question. The book, “The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation” (Beacon Press, 2015), uses the term “green xenophobia” to refer to what Pearce considers to be an overblown concern about damage done by invasive species, and a failure to appreciate their value and their place in nature. He argues that the success of roaming species can be seen as a positive counterweight to environmental destruction caused by humans.

One of the non-native species that Pearce mentions is the cat. He challenges a cost-benefit analysis made by one scientist that purported to show that cats cost the United States economy $30 for every bird they kill, or $17 billion total each year. The $17 billion number itself is questionable, but Pearce points out that the considerable benefits to the economy that are provided by cats, including rodent control and the documented health benefits to people who have pet companions, were not weighed against the $17 billion figure.

Pearce has an interesting discussion of the unintended consequences of efforts to control invasive species on Macquarie Island, a remote island between Australia and Antarctica that is a nesting place for seabirds. The first invaders on Macquarie Island were rats who had stowed away on sealers’ ships. Then cats were brought in to control the rats, and rabbits were brought in for food for the sealers. Many years later the rabbits were eating a lot of the island’s vegetation, so conservationists wiped out most of the rabbits by introducing a disease. But then the cats, with few rabbits to hunt, started killing the birds. The cats were shot, and then the rats, with no cats to control their population, ate the birds. Meanwhile, the remaining rabbits, with the cats no longer there to keep them in check, began to multiply again. (Today the invasives are thought to be gone, but how long will that last?)

Much of the evidence that conservation biologists cite in an attempt to prove that invasive species cause damage to native species comes from islands like Macquarie. It is true that there have been some dramatic examples of bird extinctions caused or aided by non-native species on islands. Pearce notes, however, that new studies indicate that plant diversity of ocean islands usually rises after “invasions” by alien species, even in cases where the number of birds declined.

Moreover, what happens on islands cannot and should not be generalized to mainlands. Cat advocates for years now have been pointing out the weaknesses in the argument made by conservationists that cats are doing damage to birds at the species level on the United States mainland. This important new book supports the arguments that have been made by advocates, but it goes beyond them in arguing that the success of invasive species is an example of the power of nature to change and adapt. Something to be welcomed, perhaps, rather than feared.

Houston’s Problem

According to a 2005 mayor’s task force report for the city of Houston and Harris County, animal shelters in the area killed 80,000 animals in 2004. The 2005 report gave total intake for the city and county’s 5 shelters as almost 120,000 animals in 2004. These numbers do not account for inter-shelter transfers, and the coverage area of the shelters may not coincide exactly with the boundaries of Harris County. And we do not know how much has changed since 2004, or exactly what was included in the 2004 intake numbers. But if the 2004 intake numbers still hold true today (as many local advocates claim), then with the county’s human population of 4.1 million there is shelter intake of about 29 per 1000 people. This is near the top of the estimated average range of 15 to 30 for shelter intake expressed as pets per thousand people (PPTP).

There are communities in the United States with intake of 30 PPTP or above that manage to save all their healthy and treatable animals, but none that I know of that are as big as Houston and Harris County. The size of  the city is important because larger, more densely populated urban areas tend to have proportionally fewer housing units that allow pets, and therefore their adoption potential per thousand people is lower. The largest community I’m aware of that manages to maintain a high live release rate at a high PPTP is Washoe County, Nevada, which has a population of about 420,000 people and PPTP of 36. “No Kill” large cities generally have substantially lower PPTP than 30. Austin, for example, with shelter intake of about 17,000 last time I checked, and population of about 900,000, has a PPTP of about 20. Fairfax County, Virginia, in 2013 had a PPTP of 3.5. The Portland metro area has a PPTP of about 15. Atlanta is about 10. Even San Antonio appears to have had intake of only 23 PPTP recently. The state of Colorado, which was at a live release rate of 89% in 2013, had intake of 32 PPTP. The Colorado figure is not comparable to the large cities cited, however, since it includes intake from some private rescues as well as many small towns.

In addition to the high shelter intake, there may be another factor at work in Houston, and that is the permanent stray population. The Houston shelters admit that they are not able to take in all the homeless animals in the city. When there are a lot of homeless animals in a city that are not being picked up and impounded, they compete with shelter animals for homes. If someone has three or four neighborhood cats hanging around, that person may be just as likely – or more likely – to take in one of those cats as to go to the shelter to adopt. If a rescue takes in a pregnant stray dog from the street and finds homes for her and her five puppies, that will be six less potential adopters at the city shelter. Thus, when we are trying to figure out how many animals a shelter in a particular city can adopt out, we must include the number of permanently homeless strays in with shelter intake, since all those animals are part of the pool of animals that potential adopters have available.

How bad is Houston’s stray problem, and can it really be bad enough to seriously hamper the city’s effort to improve its live release rate? In the 1970s there was a nationwide pet overpopulation crisis, with shelter intake on average estimated as being some 5 times higher than it is today, plus a large number of dogs and cats in the environment who were never taken into shelters. A survey of mayors in 1974 showed that animal control issues were the number one complaint of citizens. Public health officials were concerned with the zoonosis threat from the large numbers of strays. Animal advocates reacted with a huge grassroots effort to get people to sterilize their cats and dogs. The effort was very successful, and animal shelter intake plummeted from an estimated 26 million nationwide in 1970 to 7 million in the year 2000. The number of animals killed in shelters during that time period dropped from roughly 23 million to 5 million.

But there are still some places that never managed to fix their pet overpopulation problem. One of the people who is central to San Antonio’s No Kill effort told me that he had heard an estimate of 150,000 stray dogs in the city. Based on the number of dead dogs picked up by animal control in San Antonio my guess would be closer to 50,000 stray dogs, but whether it is 50,000 or 150,000, the city is not going to be a safe haven for all animals until it solves its stray problem.

The estimate that you usually hear for Houston is that it has from 600,000 to 1.2 million stray dogs. At least one effort is ongoing to better quantify the number of strays. Sometimes estimates of strays are wildly overblown, and that may well be the case in Houston. The estimated numbers are not outside the bounds of possibility, though. In the early 1970s a respected scientist, Alan Beck, did an ecological survey of the free-roaming dog population in the city of Baltimore. He estimated a stray dog population of as many as 1,690 free-roaming dogs per square mile in one neighborhood and an average of up to 750 per square mile for the city as a whole, including wealthier neighborhoods with few strays. Houston has 600 square miles of land area according to the US census bureau. If Houston did have 1.2 million stray dogs that would be 2,000 strays per square mile. The lower end of the estimate of stray dogs in Houston of 600,000 would be about 1,000 per square mile. It may be that Houston’s lack of a zoning code (it is unique in this regard) and its geography, with four major bayous and their tributaries running through the city, have produced an environment that will support a large number of stray dogs.

I suspect that the true number of stray dogs in Houston is less than 1.2 million, and perhaps even less than 600,000, but the higher number does not appear to be completely impossible given what was found in Baltimore in the 1970s. More importantly, the fact that the 1.2 million estimate may be overblown should not cause us to throw the baby out with the bathwater. All indications are that Houston does have a serious problem with a permanent homeless dog population. We cannot simply say that because the 1.2 million number may be overblown, therefore there is no stray crisis and the shelters are just making up an excuse to kill. On the contrary, whether the number of stray dogs is 1,200,000 or 600,000 or even less, it is still a serious problem that cannot be ignored in the city’s effort to reduce its kill rate. Look at it this way – even if the number of non-impounded stray dogs is only 120,000, that number is enough to crush the city’s animal sheltering system. If all of those stray dogs were impounded in one year, the PPTP for the county would be 59. No community I’m aware of has achieved a 90%+ live release rate with a PPTP of 50 or higher, except in a few cases of small communities that exported a large percentage of their shelter intake to other jurisdictions. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t see how any shelter director on earth, no matter how talented, could achieve No Kill in a jurisdiction the size of Harris County at an intake rate of 59 PPTP per year. At least not without transferring tens of thousands of animals out of the jurisdiction each year.

So what can be done? In cities where owned dogs have a high sterilization rate the number of feral and permanently stray dogs declines almost to zero. It appears that the reproduction rate for stray dogs (unlike community cats) is not high enough to sustain a high stray population, given the hazards of cars and shelter killing, without input from unsterilized owned dogs. In cities with high rates of sterilization of owned dogs, almost all of the “stray” dogs that come into the shelter are not permanently homeless street dogs, but instead are lost or recently abandoned dogs. In Boulder, Colorado, for example, some 90% of stray dogs are returned to their owners. Houston’s apparently high population of permanently homeless street dogs may be an indication that unsterilized owned dogs are seeding the population of strays. In other words, Houston may be one of the few cities in the United States that has never fully dealt with the pet population crisis of the 1970s. It may be that the reason the number of stray dogs in Houston today is reported to rival or exceed the number of stray dogs in Baltimore in the 1970s is that Houston is still back in the 1970s in terms of spay-neuter rates for owned pets.

Houston has recently made an agreement with Emancipet in an effort to get a large sterilization program going. This is a great step in the right direction, but the question is whether it will be enough. In the short term, until the stray problem is conquered, the city may need to redouble its efforts to transfer dogs out of the city to places that have a more manageable PPTP number. Houston already has a transfer program to send dogs to Colorado, and maybe they need to seek out other transfer partners as well. As for cats, BARC has joined the Million Cat Challenge, and if BARC fully implements the program that will go a long way toward reducing the rate of cat killing. There are four other shelters in the area, though, that do not appear to be implementing the Million Cat Challenge program.

Only a few years ago the southern part of the United States was the place where No Kill hopes went to die. In the last five years we’ve had large jurisdictions like Austin (and nearby Williamson County), Atlanta, Jacksonville, and Tampa either getting to a 90%+ live release rate or making major progress. With Houston (and perhaps other cities in the south), however, we seem to still have the lingering problem of large numbers of strays, apparently being seeded by the owned-pet population. It’s a problem that needs to be fixed, both figuratively and literally, before Houston can truly be No Kill. And it is a problem that the entire community needs to tackle, not just the city, and not just the shelters. The shelters need to take responsibility to do the best they can, including full participation in the Million Cat Challenge and seeking out more opportunities for transfers, but the shelters are going to keep being overwhelmed as long as their intake is so high.

News of the Week 08-16-15

The Humane Alliance of Western North Carolina, located in Asheville, has provided low-cost spay-neuter in the area since 1994, and reports that it has sterilized 350,000 animals. The Humane Alliance has long been recognized as a national leader in high-volume spaying and neutering, and many veterinarians have trained in its techniques. Now comes word that the ASPCA has acquired the Humane Alliance. The ASPCA has supported the Humane Alliance in the past, and the new arrangement is expected to provide additional ASPCA funding.

Site plans for Brother Wolf’s future sanctuary in Asheville are on view today at the city’s VeganFest. In addition to being a leading city for No Kill, Asheville is also one of the most vegetarian- and vegan-friendly cities in the United States. Brother Wolf founder Denise Bitz believes that the vegan lifestyle shows a commitment to compassion for all animals.

The Weatherford/Parker County animal shelter in Weatherford, Texas, has announced that it has had a 90%+ save rate for the past year. The shelter participated yesterday in the national Clear the Shelters event.

Washington, DC’s cat cafe, Crumbs & Whiskers, continues to get publicity on important mainstream news sites. It was featured in an article on Vox recently, and then a few days ago it was featured in an online article on the WTOP website. It is somewhat unusual for the DC press, which is generally full of political news, to take as much of an interest in a pet-related phenomenon as they have shown in Crumbs & Whiskers. The WTOP article reports that reservations for time with the kitties are in so much demand that they are hard to get on weekends, and even on week nights. The cats at Crumbs & Whiskers come from the Washington Humane Society, and they are fostered at the shop until they are adopted. In seven weeks, the cafe has adopted out 16 adult cats and a couple of kittens. That is a rate of about 135 cats per year, not to mention the publicity for the shelter.

The Animal Care Centers of New York City (formerly Animal Care and Control) are getting a new adoption partner. Best Friends will open an adoption center in the SoHo neighborhood in early 2016.

Broward County, Florida, commissioners will consider a measure on September 10 to amend county law to allow the release back into the community of sterilized feral cats (scroll down to “other action” in the link). This could be a big step in the right direction for Broward County’s flailing No Kill effort.

Here’s an article from someone who is concerned that the “crazy cat lady” stereotype may be hurting the adoption chances of cats. The stereotype is certainly offensive, but is it affecting adoption rates for cats? I tend to doubt it. The effect, if it exists at all, must be very small because I don’t recall it ever turning up in research on why people do or do not adopt.

The 2015 Veterinary Behavior Symposium, put on by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, was on July 10th this year, the day before the AVMA’s yearly convention. Steve Dale offers a brief look at some of the presentations at the symposium in this article. One of the presentations addressed how leashed dogs may interact differently in dog greetings than unleashed dogs, and how this may have a bad effect on some dogs’ social skills.

There has been a lot of interest lately in the health and behavior effects of spaying and neutering (see this roundable as one example), with studies suggesting that there may be both good and bad effects from the procedures. The discussions are especially pertinent to early-age sterilization. This is an important topic for animal shelters, as there is no way to guarantee that adoptive owners will sterilize their pets if it is not done before the pet leaves the shelter. And before pediatric sterilization became accepted in the 1990s, shelters were sometimes reluctant to adopt out puppies and kittens less than 6 months of age (the traditional minimum age for sterilization surgery) because so few adopters followed up on sterilization, even when it was free. So shelters have a big stake in pediatric sterilization. A 2014 study provides some favorable news for early-age sterilization, finding that cats did not show behavior differences based on whether they were sterilized early or at 6 months. Follow up was for 2 years.

There has been renewed interest in chemical sterilization in recent years, driven mostly by the expense and invasiveness of traditional surgical sterilization, but also to some extent by concern with the side effects of surgery. This article in Cat Watch provides a summary of where we are with alternatives to the traditional surgical methods of sterilization.

Animal shelters and rescues transport animals all the time, and at last we have a study on the safety of crates and carriers in accidents. The bad news is that most of the crates and carriers tested failed to meet the successful-outcome standard for the test. The good news is that some did. More good news is that standardized tests like this will no doubt encourage manufacturers to make safer crates and carriers in the future.

The Animal Compassion Team (ACT), a No Kill group in Fresno County, California, that currently runs a No Kill shelter, is expected to be approved soon to take over the contract for animal control and sheltering for the county. Brenda Mitchell, who is the director of ACT, says that achieving No Kill for the county will not happen overnight, but she is optimistic for the future. The county badly needs a new shelter, and a county supervisor says one may be constructed within two years.

Animal Rescue Rhode Island is helping to make a South Carolina shelter No Kill with its Bark and Ride transportation program. Since the program started it has saved over 700 dogs.

Canine flu (H3N2 variety) has appeared in Atlanta. Vaccines against the flu are being developed. The appearance of the H3N2 virus, which is thought to have originated in Asia, stimulated this article about dog importation in the Clinician’s Brief. The author of the article appears to be unaware that the number of homeless dogs in the United States is rapidly coming into balance with the number of homes available. Even so, the article is a timely reminder that, if rescuers are going to increase importation of homeless dogs from other countries in the future (as I believe we should), we need to pay very careful attention to quarantine and vaccinations to make sure that imported dogs do not pose a health risk to dogs in the United States.

A New Jersey shelter that had its water cut off asked the community for help and the community literally lined up to answer the call. Problem solved.