On November 4, Downtown Dog Rescue posted a story on its Facebook page about a man who came to the shelter to retrieve his lost dogs. He did not know the shelter charged a redemption fee, and only had enough money to get back one of the dogs. So DDR commented,
This is not s shelter problem or a pet problem, this is a poverty problem. From what we see, we think that a lack of money, lack of full time permanent employment is killing more shelter pets than any other factor. What do you think?
(Just FYI, it all ends happily. The man said he would come back the following week for dog #2, after payday, but money was found to redeem both dogs together.)
I am sure that poverty plays a role, perhaps a large role, in why people surrender their pets. If it’s a choice between feeding your kids and feeding your dog, any functional parent will choose the kids. When people lose their jobs, get evicted, or fall seriously ill and can barely afford treatment for themselves, never mind someone to care for the pet, animals end up in shelter because people lack money for other choices. (Which is why Fairy Dogparents is my favourite animal charity– their sole purpose is keeping people and pets together when money gets tight.)
But how big a role poverty plays, I don’t know. Now, I have no statistics or studies to back up what I’m about to say, so feel free to disagree. I think the reason many pets end up in shelter is the attitude of the owner. And that attitude can be summed up in four words:
“It’s just a dog.”
“It’s just a cat.”
For many people, it’s a decision of convenience. They want a smaller home, and the Great Dane just won’t fit. The cat had kittens– how did THAT happen? The dog needs a $2,000 operation. Yes, he’ll recover, but that will blow summer vacation, so let’s just put him to sleep.
People bring dogs and cats into their homes without understanding they are now, in fact, responsible for the physical and emotional well-being of living creature. It isn’t a toy you play with until you get bored, or something better comes along. I have been asked, multiple times, “But– you’d get rid of the dog/cats for the right man, wouldn’t you?” Through these people I have perfected my Laser Stare of Death. I can see it– reluctantly– for someone young, if Mr. or Ms Perfect has allergies beyond his or her control. But I really don’t get why anyone who loves animals would hook up with someone who doesn’t. It’s such a fundamental difference in character I see it as a red flag. (Maybe someone in a mixed marriage can set me straight.)
Other people, on the other hand, will do whatever they need to do for their furry friends. I know people at the dog park who have spent thousands on vet care. Some dogs made it, some didn’t. I think Blanche is still paying off Princess’s final visit to the vet, but she has no regrets. “I would never have been able to live with myself if I hadn’t tried,” she told me. Years ago, My Dearest Friend spent $3,000 she didn’t have on Blackie. “How could I tell my kids,” she asked, “that I put their dog to sleep for something that could be fixed?” So people do it, even when it’s hard. It’s a matter of attitude.
* * * * *
According to Petfinder, one of the top reasons people surrender their pets is because they’re moving (see full study here). In this bizarre city, about 90% of leases run July 1 – June 30. Every year, as people move, there is an explosion of animals brought to various city shelters. The SPCA estimates that their intake almost triples from 600 animals per month to almost 1,600 in July. This does not include the animals found abandoned in apartments. Sometime people honestly can’t find an apartment that allows pets; this is especially true for people of limited income with limited options, which supports Downtown Dog Rescue’s poverty assertion. But some people just don’t care, no matter how much money they have. They want the better building, or the urban setting on the 20th floor that isn’t conducive to dog-walking. And the dog is history.
I think a society can be judged on how it treats its most vulnerable members, and treating a dog or cat like an object rather than a living creature is a sign of selfishness. Handing it over to a shelter, regardless of whether it will live or die, without a second thought, without researching other options, (or worse, abandoning it) is a terrible way to repay the love and trust that animal has put in you. I struggled forever with whether or not I was the best “dog parent” for Our Best Friend; I spent a lot of time trying to convince myself that he would be better off with someone who fed him better and walked him more often. It took my vet to convince me that OBF, in her words, “would rather stay with his family.” She’s right. You’re not just caring physically for an animal– there’s an emotional bond as well. When I leave town, the dog stops eating. I don’t understand how people disregard that.
Three times in my life, I have been forced to give away cats (twice they weren’t really my cats– they just landed on me, and I couldn’t care for them). Each time, I made absolutely sure it went to a no-kill shelter. And all were adopted. But each time, the decision was agony and left me in tears. I cry to this day, thinking about them. So yes, I get it; issues of poverty or health or life stress will force many owners into a decision that is acutely painful. But the key is, it should be a difficult decision. It should not be something you do without a second thought. Because people like that shouldn’t own pets in the first place.