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The Goals of an Animal Shelter

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Letter to the editor from Sandpoint vet Dr. Rob Pierce

Having worked in Mexico, where animal shelters are virtually non-existent, I have come to truly appreciate the system in the United States. The vibrant web of public and privately funded shelters networked across our nation is a tangible symbol of civilization.

Working towards a national system in Mexico has prompted me to take an objective step backwards and ask: What is the goal of an animal shelter system? Achieving success can only be accomplished when a goal has been clearly established.

Is the goal to control the animal population so that there are no stray dogs and cats in our local area? Does this mean that part of the effort must be towards educating the community, on enacting more regulations to discourage “back-yard” breeding, or on aggressive media campaigns to bring the issue to the forefront?

Or is the goal of a shelter to protect individual animals, to feed and house them until they are recovered by their families or until suitable homes for adoption can be found - to give them a chance for life?

Both of these goals -the first dealing at the population level, and the second at the individual level - are reasonable and justifiable. The problem is that they may be mutually exclusive. How do they differ and why is it difficult –if not impossible – to do both?

Shelters which work on the population level use euthanasia – killing by lethal injection – as a necessary tool. No one wants to use this tool, it is extremely hard on the people involved, but it is deemed necessary when animals are sick, aggressive, or in other ways not adoptable. It is necessary to conserve the miniscule resources (money) used for facility operation. For “Population” oriented shelters, money must also be utilized for educating the public on spaying and neutering with the goal that, in the future, the problem will be lessened. Money may also be utilized to better care for the animals in the shelter and to sterilize all of them before they are adopted. In addition, working to change local laws (to make it very expensive to own non-sterilized animals) and continually bombarding the media – and thus community members – about the over-population problem may be employed. These are tremendous goals; however, in the short term, the individual animals (and the people involved) suffer. This is especially severe when there are so many animals arriving at a shelter that even young and healthy animals may be euthanized. Under this scenario, enough empty kennels must be kept available for the tide of animals continually entering the system. These shelters never turn animals away.

Shelters which work on the individual animal level (such as Sandpoint’s Panhandle Animal Shelter (PAS)) take a far different approach. These facilities focus on the animals in their care and often refuse euthanasia as an alternative. This is highly effective publicly –as it is far easier on the personnel as well as the animals – in attracting volunteers who are able to maintain a certain philosophical loftiness and avoid the chronic depression suffered by many shelter personnel involved in euthanasias. Anyone with any sense would rather work in one of these facilities; however, there is a major problem which abruptly precludes their success –THEY FILL UP. Since animals are never removed from the facility, other than by adoption, they become increasingly crowded and unhealthy. The shelter personnel may resort to “window shopping” animals at local grocery stores or community events in an attempt to reduce the over abundance. They are reluctant to increase adoption fees, which might preclude some adoptions, thereby further limiting their own resources. They stop spaying and neutering pets until after adoption to avoid the additional costs. Regardless of their methods, eventually they fill up and must turn animals away. This is the current state of affairs at PAS.

The “Individual” shelters, unless aided by another local “Population” shelter, become little more than boarding facilities and adoption centers for a limited number of animals. Even attempts at creating foster homes (which also eventually fill up) fail miserably at controlling the animal over-population issue and the resulting continual flow of stray animals needing help.

In conclusion, if an area can support only one shelter, it needs to be a “Population” shelter. Ideally, however, more than one shelter may be feasible and thus the “Individual” shelters can operate successfully. In Spokane, the Spokanimal shelter operates as a “no-kill” facility but they strictly refuse any animal considered un-adoptable and close their doors when they are full. The Spokane Humane Society fills the necessary role as a population control facility.

The board and the staff of PAS are well-intentioned and compassionate people whose refusal to deal at the population level has pushed the “killing fields” to local veterinary hospitals and into the woods and fields of our community. Starvation and exposure, especially during our winters, will once again serve to limit the populations.

Few people, even those working at our local shelters, understand the distinction of these two goals and the enormity the problem in North Idaho. In the last year at North Idaho Animal Hospital in Sandpoint, the numbers of stray animals brought into our facility by frustrated community members, turned away by the shelter, has increased dramatically. The sheriff’s department has reported a dramatic rise in animal related calls and has also displayed frustration at the situation.

It is time that we in Bonner County demand either a county-run shelter or another private shelter whose goal is firmly tied to the population problem and, through education and legislation, to ceasing the continual propagation of unwanted animals. Currently the situation is not widely noticed or understood, but the problem is growing. If not for the severe North Idaho winters our streets might come to resemble those of Mexico.

Robert Pierce, DVM

North Idaho Animal Hospital

Sandpoint, Idaho

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