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How ‘saving’ animals at all costs can be a dangerous proposition

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By Ingrid E. Newkirk

All across the country, people are hearing calls to raise the “save rate” at animal shelters. But beware: As warm and fuzzy as that sounds, a shelter’s high “save” rate does not reduce by one puppy or kitten the number of unwanted animals born every minute in private homes, in puppy mills, in breeders‘ kennels and catteries, on the street or under a porch. In fact, it can increase that number, to the detriment of dogs, cats, taxpayers and law-enforcement officials.

Shockingly, pressure to raise shelter “save rates” actually increases the “pet” overpopulation crisis. How? To reduce the number of animals it euthanizes, a shelter must reduce the number of animals it takes in by charging high “surrender” fees, putting people on waiting lists, sending unsterilized animals to “foster” homes and more. Many people cannot afford high fees, and those evicted from their own homes or entering a women’s shelter or nursing home can’t wait for weeks or months for their animal to be admitted.

Cities learn the hard way that to play the “high-save-rate” game, something has to give. Because the number of homeless animals far exceeds the number of available homes, no matter what is done to try to conjure up more adopters, facilities are always full. Sick, injured, old, aggressive and other “unadoptable” animals are turned away—since accepting them would hurt the “save” statistics.

Shelter operating hours are also often reduced to decrease intake, leaving anyone who can’t take time off during the day out of luck. Elderly people on a fixed income and others who cannot afford the fees charged by veterinarians for euthanasia are left with nowhere to take their old and ailing dog or cat for a merciful release.

In San Antonio, Texas, where the shelter has gone “no-kill” and many strays are left to fend for themselves, animal wardens report that thousands of stray animals are breeding, forming packs and dying on the streets, with more than 28,000 dog and cat bodies scraped up in the last year alone.

Shelters trying to achieve a high “save” rate invariably stop requiring verification that previous animal companions have received veterinary care and stop conducting even basic home checks—vital safeguards that prevent animals from falling into the hands of people with evil intentions. And animals are handed over to anyone who can “foster” them, including to animal hoarders who stack cages in their house, basement or garage. This situation creates nightmarish scenarios, such as the recent Florida case in which 100 cats burned to death inside individual plastic crates, unable to flee as the plastic melted onto them, and the Angel’s Gate “animal hospice” in New York, where police found caged animals who had died in agony without veterinary care. Every week brings news of more little houses of horror.

Shelters that cram more animals into runs and cages than can safely be accommodated become so severely crowded that the dogs fight and injure themselves, the cats contract upper respiratory infections and disease outbreaks sicken healthy animals, as has happened in Washington, D.C., and is happening in Hillsborough and Miami-Dade counties in Florida now. In Austin, Texas, the city shelter stopped accepting cats and then, two weeks later, dogs. Where do they all go? In parts of Oregon where shelters have stopped accepting stray cats, they go into the woods or into a bucket of water.

There are literally hundreds more unwanted animals born every minute of every day. Once every available home or basement has been filled with animals from the shelter, where are all the new animals and their litters going to go?

What’s a community to do? To truly save dogs’ and cats’ lives, let’s reject this shelter “save-rate” nonsense and get to the root of the problem: the population explosion. Open-admission shelters, solid animal-control services, community education and reduced-cost spay-and-neuter programs are the keys to a real “save” rate.

Ingrid E. Newkirk is the president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.PETA.org.

Can your dog or cat count on you if disaster strikes?

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By Ingrid E. Newkirk

In the course of just a few days, PETA’s headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia, was rocked by a 5.8-magnitude earthquake and then clobbered by Hurricane Irene. Half of the underside of our headquarters blew away, and renting out rafts on the river that was once our road could have kept us in dog treats for a year. Luckily, all the building’s occupants, including Brandi, Bubbles and Marshall, the cats who live on the top floor, emerged unscathed. The cats were already wise to sudden shake-ups: They had been left homeless before, dumped by residents of New Orleans in the aftermath of the BP oil spill. They weathered the last two emergencies, thanks to well-rehearsed emergency procedures.

Natural disasters are unpredictable and uncontrollable, which is why it’s crucial to make emergency plans for everyone in the family—including our animal companions—before a disaster strikes. It’s not a responsibility to shrug off.

Most people did the right thing, taking their dogs, cats and other animals with them if they evacuated. But others decided to leave town without making plans and left animals behind to “fend for themselves” in the high winds, pounding rain, lightning, flying debris and floods. One person even asked us for “a heavier chain” to tie down his dog because his other dog was swept off her feet during Hurricane Isabel in 2003.

PETA staffers worked day and night rescuing animals who were left behind. We found a dog who had been left in a pen with only a sheet of plywood above him for “shelter” for three days, as winds neared 70 miles per hour. He is now indoors with his new foster parents, who report that he will not leave their side.

We found a puppy tied so tightly to a grill by a shoelace that she had to stay standing in order to avoid strangling. She had been left like that all night in a flood plain that had been evacuated. What if we hadn’t found her? We took her to our headquarters, dried her off, gave her a good meal and found her a foster home. She’s only 10 weeks old. What an introduction to human nature.

Two dogs named Angel and Sasha were left tied on a tiny metal balcony all night on Friday as the hurricane barreled toward Norfolk. The eye of the storm was only an hour away when PETA arrived at the apartment, where the woman who came to the door said that she wouldn’t let the soaked, terrified dogs inside because they were “destructive.” She signed them over to us, and we took them to a local open-admission shelter.

Early Sunday morning, a call came in from a fire department. A dog had wandered in, old and covered with mange, and collapsed on the floor. The firefighters gave him more love than he had probably ever had in his whole life. Mr. Jones, as the dog is now called, is now resting on a cushy bed at PETA’s headquarters. Who knows what awful memories and worries he has as to what humans will do to him next.   

These are a few of the “lucky” ones, although their trauma manifests itself in many ways—aggression, timidity, separation anxiety. Many other animals suffered and died in the hurricane because their humans couldn’t be counted on to protect them. Leaving animals behind in an evacuation—especially if they are tied up, caged or confined outdoors—is no different from signing their death warrant. They can’t escape rising floodwaters, fire, falling or flying debris and other dangers, and they are likely to starve to death if conditions prevent their owners from returning. The nightmare for them is in having been deserted and left helpless in the face of imminent danger.

It’s crucial to plan ahead. Human shelters often refuse animals, so it’s best to keep a list of places where you can stay with your animals during an evacuation, such as friends’ homes, hotels and campgrounds. Have a disaster kit ready for each animal, including carriers and leashes, water and food bowls, enough food and medication for a week and a favorite toy or blanket. Have your animals microchipped, and put secure, legible ID tags on them. Make sure they are current on their rabies vaccinations, and carry documentation of this with you.

As those of us on the East Coast have experienced, it’s not a question of if a disaster will strike, but when. Please, plan now so that your animals will be safe when an earthquake, hurricane, tornado, wildfire or whatever else Mother Nature dishes out comes your way.

Ingrid E. Newkirk is the president and founder of PETA, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.PETA.org.

Written by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

September 8, 2011 at 4:47 pm

Dear Mr. President: Remember the elephants

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By Ingrid E. Newkirk

Britain’s last remaining “circus elephant,” Annie, recently packed her trunk and went to live her final years on hundreds of acres of rolling lawns on a country estate. Her retirement came after the release of undercover video footage showing that circus workers kicked and thrashed her and jabbed her in the face with a pitchfork. Annie is almost 60 years old and has spent her life in a circus, which, for elephants, means “in chains.” The look on her face as she was forced to pose with the circus owner is enough to break any kind person’s heart.

Meanwhile, Ringling Bros. is still dragging its “beast wagons” around the U.S. Anyone who cares about animals should stay away from this, the “Saddest Show on Earth.”

Three elephants who are traveling with Ringling, Karen, Nicole and Sara, suffer from what veterinarians say is chronic lameness and other problems, including arthritis, cracked toenails, which make putting weight on their feet painful, and scarring on their chins, the result of being struck many times by bullhooks—weapons resembling fireplace pokers with a metal hook at one end. Forty-two-year-old Karen also has a type of tuberculosis that is communicable to humans. She was banned from entering Tennessee earlier this year, but other states have failed to take similar action, putting children at risk and surely exacerbating the stress on Karen’s immune system. 

Pop star Pink has written to President Obama, urging him to get the U.S. Department of Agriculture to act to stop circus cruelty. She included with her letter a copy of the 16-page complaint that PETA has filed with the USDA Office of General Counsel (OGC) detailing three cases of egregious animal abuse by Ringling.

The incidents are shocking. Riccardo, an 8-month-old baby elephant, had to be euthanized after breaking both his legs while being put through a rigorous “training” regimen. Clyde, a lion, baked to death in a boxcar when Ringling refused to stop the train—simply because it was running late—to cool him off and give him water during a long journey through the Mojave Desert. And Angelica, another elephant, was beaten by one of her handlers, despite the fact that she was chained and could not move.

These are all violations of federal law and need to be acted upon. In 2006, the USDA assured then-Sen. Obama, who had contacted the agency on behalf of his constituents, that if violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) were found, prosecution would follow. The agency’s own investigators found AWA violations and recommended enforcement action, but nothing happened.

In the case of Riccardo, Ringling employees were quick to say that the baby pachyderm broke his legs while playing and that he hadn’t begun training, although it was later revealed in a lawsuit over beatings inflicted with bullhooks that Riccardo had in fact been undergoing a training program and had had ropes tied to his legs and trunk when he fell. In the case of Clyde, a former Ringling lion handler described in an affidavit how Ringling tried to deceive the USDA by installing a sprinkler system inside the boxcar in which Clyde perished after the fact. According to USDA investigators, Ringling also refused to hand over crucial evidence, even after receiving a subpoena. 

There is much more, but the key issue is whether our new OGC General Counsel Ramona E. Romero will do the right thing. As Pink points out, it is high time that the USDA made good on its promise to protect animals used and abused under the big top. Elephants may be the symbol of the Republican Party, but people of goodwill on both sides of the aisle should stick up for these sorely abused animals.

Ingrid E. Newkirk is the president and founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, 1536 16th St. N.W., Washington, DC 20036; http://www.PETA.org.

Written by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

April 28, 2011 at 5:00 pm

A fate worse than death

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By Ingrid E. Newkirk

First, there was the jaw-dropping story of a British woman who was caught on camera tossing an affectionate cat into an outdoor trash bin. Then, it was an Eastern European girl slinging crying puppies into a fast-moving stream. Now, right here in America, some people have imprisoned a dog inside a box barely bigger than his own body. The box has solid sides, and the dog can only see out if he jumps up and peers over them. He has been locked in the box for months. To add to the mental torture, the dog has worn his teeth down to the nubs from biting at his prison, so his owners occasionally take him out of the box to drill painful holes vertically into his teeth in order to irrigate them. And right there by the side of the box, the dog’s keepers also manually extract sperm from him and use it to breed other dogs to sell. There’s more, but the abuse I’ve already described is enough to make any decent person sick. 

Take a look at Google Maps and you can look down into the container and see the dog lying there.

Why, you may ask, aren’t these people in jail? How is it that the local humane society has not swooped in and seized the dog?

Oh, I’m sorry. Did I write “dog”? I meant to write “killer whale.” And the people perpetrating this horror are SeaWorld executives. So why exactly does swapping one intelligent animal for another or swapping an average Joe for rich business executives lessen the horror of this orca’s ordeal or the injustice of the situation? Answer: It doesn’t.

Tilikum is the killer whale. He killed a human being—for the third time—earlier this year. Perhaps there’s a reason why killer whales are called “killer” whales. Tilikum didn’t give his keeper, Dawn Brancheau, a little playful toss or misjudge and hold her under water just a second too long for her to survive. He shook her like a rag doll, slammed her into the side of the pool, stopped her from surfacing and tore her body apart. My bet is that he knew exactly what he was doing. Having seen how he is kept and knowing where he came from, it’s not hard to comprehend the depth of his anger and frustration.

Tilikum is 32 years old. When he was just 2 years old, he was caught by marine “cowboys” who kidnap dolphins and orcas to sell to amusement parks. He was taken from his family, his pod, in the open waters off Iceland, and he’s lived in a cement pool ever since, unable to use his echolocation, unable to swim away, to travel the oceans, to hear or see his relatives. He is “trained” to eat what he’s given and do what he’s told.  He is also trained to roll over, which allows trainers to masturbate him with a gloved hand and collect his semen in a container. His semen is frozen for later use or used immediately to inseminate female orcas at one of SeaWorld’s parks so as to provide additional animals to use in shows.

Life in a tiny concrete tank is no life at all for these animals, as evidenced by the recent death of Tilikum’s 12-year-old son at SeaWorld San Diego. Twelve! This orca would likely have lived to be 50 or 60 in the open sea, his rightful home.

After the third human being lost her life to Tilikum, SeaWorld reduced his meager “world” even further. Tilly is now relegated mostly, if not solely, to the “F pool,” a solid-sided concrete pool that measures just 36 feet long and 25 feet wide. Tilikum is 22½ feet long with a big wide orca girth. He weighs more than 12,000 pounds. So he has to scrunch just to turn around. And once turned, there he is again, nose against the other wall. He has been condemned to hang in place in the water indefinitely.

PETA is calling on the local humane society and the state’s attorney to free Tilly. After all, cruelty to animals, whether to a dog or to an orca, is illegal in all states.

Ingrid E. Newkirk is the president and founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; PETA.org.

Written by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

October 4, 2010 at 8:23 pm