The United States used to have a nationwide dog overpopulation problem. In the early 1970s humane advocates started mass spay-neuter campaigns, which by the year 2000 had greatly decreased the population of free-roaming dogs. In most cities today we do not see large numbers of dogs wandering the streets. There are some places, though, where the spay-neuter campaigns were not effective, including parts of Dallas, Houston, Detroit, and San Antonio. A consulting group recently estimated that there were about 8700 free-roaming dogs in South Dallas, for example.
The problem of large numbers of stray dogs in the streets is linked to poverty. In poor communities and communities that have few veterinary services available, pets are much less likely to be sterilized. And poor people don’t have the money to build and maintain fences, so their dogs are much more likely to be allowed to roam. Poor people love pets as much as anyone else, and if their free-roaming dogs are captured and killed by the city, they get more dogs and the cycle is perpetuated.
The key to solving this problem is not to try to sanction poor people with fines they cannot pay – it’s to help them take better care of their pets. There are several approaches that have been growing in popularity in recent years that do exactly that. These are programs that can help communities everywhere that have a problem with free-roaming dogs, particularly large cities that have extensive areas of poverty.
One of the programs is Pets for Life, a project of the Humane Society of the United States that receives support from PetSmart Charities. The idea of Pets for Life is, as they put it, to not only reach out to underserved communities, but to move in. Pets for Life staff members go door-to-door and build relationships with people who have reason to be wary of animal control. They gain the trust of neighborhoods by starting with individual contacts. They might drive a person’s dog or cat to the vet when the owner does not have a car and the nearest vet is miles away. They may provide free pet food. For behavior problems they offer free dog-training classes. They give away new collars, complete with ID tags. The individuals they help in those ways then talk to their neighbors. The result is that when Pets for Life does a big neighborhood event like free spay/neuter or vaccinations, they have people lining up to participate. Pets for Life is now in 34 cities, including Atlanta, Detroit, San Antonio, and Dallas. The program offers a practical way to help reduce the free-roaming dog problem in those cities, which will immeasurably help with No Kill efforts.
Another program that works with poor people rather than penalizing them is the Coalition to Unchain Dogs. This organization grew out of the realization by a woman named Amanda Arrington that many people who chain their dogs don’t do it out of negligence or cruelty, but because it’s the only way they have of keeping their dogs safe and at home. In 2006 Arrington and a group of like-minded people met in Durham, North Carolina, to discuss how they could get anti-tethering legislation passed. They realized that the legislation would be accepted much more easily if it was paired with a positive effort to help people fence their yards. In March of 2007 they built their first fence. Now the Coalition is building fences for poor people in North Carolina and Atlanta, and they help similar programs in other parts of the country. Fences for Fido, which built its first fence in 2009, is another group carrying out this important mission.
One important benefit of programs like Pets for Life, the Coalition to Unchain Dogs, and Fences for Fido is that they are alternatives to the strong-arm enforcement tactics that cities have historically used for animal control. Studies have shown that mandatory spay/neuter laws and heavy fines for non-compliance with dog ordinances don’t work. They just make the problem of free-roaming, unvaccinated, and unregistered dogs worse because they penalize people for being poor and drive them and their pets underground.
Breed-specific legislation (BSL) is another heavy-handed enforcement tactic. As Bronwen Dickey discusses in her recent book Pit Bull (Knopf, 2016), society has a long tradition of labeling dogs commonly kept by poor people and racial minorities as dangerous. In our society today the breed that is the victim of this stereotyping is the pit bull. We can see the results in shelters that are overflowing with pit bulls who have been forced away from their families by BSL. Even in cities that don’t have BSL, anti-pit-bull rental and insurance policies can force people to give up their dogs. Progress is being made as more and more scientific studies show that there is no basis for the idea that some breeds are inherently dangerous. City leaders are increasingly realizing that all dogs should be judged as individuals, and hopefully landlords and insurance companies will follow.
If we understand the problems faced by low income dog owners, we can make progress toward No Kill even in poor neighborhoods. Poor people love their pets just as much as financially secure people, and a good pet safety net can help poor people keep their families together.