Humane or Insane?

Humane or Insane?

Importation of foreign stray animals into US shelters threatens health, sustains ‘overpopulation’


By: Patti Strand  Date: 01/30/2003 Category: | Animal Welfare | Canine Issues | Shelter Issues |

If you don't know what's happening at your local animal shelter, or what local pet rescue groups are doing, it's time to find out! New practices are emerging that threaten public health, sustain 'pet overpopulation' and undermine responsible dog ownership and breeding.

Finding out what's happening in the world of animal sheltering and rescuing, however, is not always that easy. Although most shelters use the issue of 'pet overpopulation' to raise funds, it turns out that few of them have sufficient records to support the term. In fact, a major impediment to solving the US stray and surplus pet problems is the lack of reliable shelter statistics.1

Many shelters combine dog and cat statistics, thus making it impossible to track dog or cat trends individually. Shelters also tend to lump together all shelter deaths regardless of the reason for euthanasia, even though their data would be of far greater statistical value if categorized, for example, as: 1) owner requested due to health, temperament or old age; 2) shelter mandated because the animal was judged too sick or too dangerous to be rehabilitated and placed; 3) and, shelter mandated because insufficient resources existed to continue maintaining an animal even though it was healthy and adoptable. Of these three categories, only the last, the adoptable pet that died for lack of a home, signifies a surplus animal problem. But muddled euthanasia statistics combined with fundraising campaigns to stop 'pet overpopulation' encourage the public to believe that all shelter deaths are part of a massive 'pet overpopulation' problem.

The practice of relocating pets from a crowded shelter to one with empty runs within the same community also leads to confusion if the source of the animals is not reported. The practice itself may be reasonable and humane if it increases adoptions, but too often all participating shelters count the same animals in their totals inflating the number of shelter animals reported for a given community.

Over-representing shelter impounds hinders the development of an accurate baseline for shelter populations. Without an accurate baseline it's impossible to get a handle on pet population trends and difficult to identify remaining problems, much less to plan appropriate strategies to solve them. Over-representing shelter impounds or shelter euthanasia statistics generates few negative consequences for shelters, while higher numbers and the appearance of a crisis buoy donations and budgets.

Another confusing factor is that the actual number of euthanized adoptable dogs (surplus dogs) varies enormously from one region to another and from rural to urban areas within states and regions. Generally speaking, many of the larger cities in the Pacific Northwest, New England and the Great Lakes region have dog population dynamics that are in balance, meaning that the demand for dogs equals or nearly equals the supply of dogs in their regions. This may seem incredible to people living in cities or regions where shelters are still brimming with surplus animals, as in some of the farm belt states and  parts of the South - but it is true.

In many US cities today, campaigns to end 'pet overpopulation' have been so successful that the demand for dogs far outstrips supply. In fact, shelters in many of these cities would have a significant percentage of empty dog runs were it not for the mushrooming practice of moving dogs around from one region to another and from one shelter to another within regions, an activity known somewhat euphemistically as humane relocation.

Humane relocation began as a common sense method for helping animals to get adopted through cooperative efforts among city shelters. It made no sense for the humane society to euthanize dogs for lack of room while the local animal control agency had the space and resources to help get them adopted. Over time, as the number of surplus dogs in some cities continued to drop, they began taking in animals from greater distances. For example, some shelters in the greater Portland metropolitan area routinely accept dogs from other counties in Oregon, Washington and sometimes from states as far away as Hawaii.

As long as participating shelters publicly disclose what they are doing so that taxpayers and donors can assess the risks and benefits, and as long as exporting municipalities and shelters increase their commitment to the responsible pet ownership programs in their areas, humane relocation can be a helpful tool. However, if exporting regions do not increase local spay/neuter and public education programs, humane relocation could amount to little more than a constant reshuffling of dogs and resources and would not lead to further reductions of surplus animals. Irresponsibly used, humane relocation could be used for maintaining the status quo and increasing bottom lines instead of solving long-term shelter problems.


The Flies in the Ointment

Unfortunately, humane relocation is not being conducted responsibly by a small but growing number of shelters and rescue groups. The answer for some shelters with empty runs has not been to contact shelters in their own regions or in other areas of the continental US, but to institute programs of importation from other countries and territories. According to their own records, one foundation, the Save a Sato program championed by PeTA, has already sent 14,000 dogs to the US. Satos (a slang term for mixed-breed street dogs in Puerto Rico) arrive in US cities practically every day. Dozens of shelters are involved. Some of the shelters NAIA is tracking bring in 100-200 dogs each month and are placing them for $200-$250 each.

From Florida, Texas and Michigan to New England and the Pacific Northwest, more and younger Puerto Rican dogs and puppies are finding their way into American shelters every month. Massachusetts in particular is a magnet and a distribution center for relocated surplus pets and strays, but other states with empty shelter runs are picking up the cause as well. This is not a phenomenon that can be brushed off lightly as a passing phase. If you examine the evidence and connect the dots, the steady influx of foreign strays reveals an evolving plan.

New 501(c) charities devoted to rescuing dogs from distant lands are popping up in states across the US. They are not being formed to place only Puerto Rican dogs, but also to save dogs from as far away as Taiwan 6 and other Asian countries. Several shelters and rescue groups in the Northwest knowingly accept dogs from Taiwan, Puerto Rico or Mexico.

There is another disturbing pattern developing, a trend toward importing progressively younger dogs. Two years ago when NAIA first began researching the issue, the foreign imports depicted on shelter web sites were of varied ages. Today, most of them are puppies. It is easy to speculate that if no one is capturing and altering the illusive strays that produce these orphans, then enterprising rescuers and shelter directors could help developing countries become breeding grounds for stocking US shelters.

Long-term flooding of US cities with foreign dogs has unavoidable implications for pet population dynamics in the US. The practice of importing dogs from developing countries not only prevents us from making further progress against 'pet overpopulation,' in time it could also diminish the responsible breeding and placement of well-bred, healthy dogs and cats.Many conscientious dog breeders are so concerned about 'pet overpopulation' they have already accepted the idea that a good breeder is one who seldom breeds. The problem with this conclusion is that it does not recognize the basic marketplace reality that demand drives supply. When responsible breeders quit breeding, it means only that in the future someone else will supply the public with the dogs or cats they want. In this specific case, it also means that the public will have fewer reliable sources for healthy, well bred and socialized purebred dogs.

In the two years since introducing the subject of stray importation, (see /articles/archives/redefining.htm) the practice has taken off, with the result that some animal shelters are clearly operating as pet stores today. Whether they acquire their inventory from distant states or foreign countries or territories, they operate like commercial businesses, not charities formed to serve the public good.

They acquire their stock at little or no cost, advertise their product using time-tested campaigns against 'pet overpopulation,' rotate inventory quickly, restock immediately and bring in staggering amounts of money. Projecting from figures on the web site of one active shelter, gross revenues from imports that include a constant supply of satos, will total more than $500,000 this year alone!

It is also disturbing to see the animal rights party line being used against breeders to justify importation. The following quote was taken from the web site of the Humane Society of Snohomish County, a Seattle-area importer of dogs from Taiwan.

"By saving Taiwan dogs, we do not feel this takes away from saving a dog at our own shelters. The majority of dogs from Taiwan are small and our own shelters do not have many small dogs. At this time we have over 38 people on our waiting list for small dogs. We feel it is better to bring small dogs in from another part of the world than to have these people going to a breeder. Many people, sadly, still do after they have been on our waiting list for an extended period."

The Buddy Dog Humane Society in Massachusetts shares the anti-breeder sentiment and offers a similar rationale on their web site: "Many people ask why we are taking dogs from Puerto Rico. The answer for us is simple. Most of the dogs are small, usually under 30 pounds, thus enabling Buddy Dog to find many adopters looking for a smaller dog, a new companion, without going to a pet store or breeder. At the same time we are helping homeless dogs get off the streets and into a caring home."

A certain picture begins to emerge when reviewing Buddy Dog's statement of priorities: 1) to have the right product to fill consumer demands; 2) to prevent the public from getting a dog that was deliberately bred, whether from a pet store or a private breeder; and 3) to help a homeless dog.

When coupled with the stated goal of the animal rights agenda to eliminate the purposeful breeding of dogs and cats, the anti-breeder mantra echoed throughout this enterprise should convince even the most skeptical of readers that stray importation is only part of a far more ambitious plan. The oft-repeated vision for pet ownership espoused by PeTA's founder, Ingrid Newkirk makes humane relocation a moral imperative. "If people had companion animals in their homes, those animals would have to be refugees from the animal shelters and the streets."

Eliot Katz, president of In Defense of Animals and the foremost advocate of 'guardianship,' states a similar goal, "to convince people to rescue and adopt instead of buying or selling animals, to disavow the language and concept of animal ownership." IDA's leader says that it is essential for people to understand that, "an owner buys, a guardian adopts or rescues." Katz is currently leading the campaign to get Los Angeles to adopt 'guardian' in all of its municipal codes.

NAIA unequivocally opposes the importation of stray dogs (and more recently cats) into the US for adoption. Importing strays is a dangerous and irresponsible practice and should be outlawed immediately. The only reason that laws don't already exist to prevent such destructive rescue activities is that no reasonable person could have imagined a scenario in which anyone would be irrational enough to do it.


Health Matters

Even before considering the health issues, it is a reckless and indefensible practice to import stray animals into a country that pours hundreds of millions of public and private dollars annually, (and has for decades) into animal control and 'pet overpopulation' problems! Imports from other countries displace American shelter dogs that need homes, too. The importation of strays does not save lives, it sustains overpopulation and assures that adoptable dogs in US shelters will be euthanized.  

The current scale of importation also poses significant public health risks. These animals, destined to be domestic pets, are from countries where the standards of veterinary medicine are not as high as they are in the US. Diseases and parasites that are not found here may be endemic in poor or tropical countries. If the fundraising materials accurately describe the rescued dogs, they are not pets from private homes but strays from the streets and therefore are among the most likely reservoirs for parasites and diseases. In addition, they are bringing them into communal shelters where they are most likely to pass on whatever diseases or parasites they have to other companion animals or to their caregivers.  

Some diseases and parasites pose serious health risks for human health as well as for dogs and other species. Dogs are a leading vector for rabies in many poor countries. Currently, the only thing required for a dog to enter the US is a health certificate and proof of a rabies shot. Given the incubation period for rabies, from five days to several years, with 20-60 days being the norm, unquarantined importation of street dogs from poor countries with low rates of vaccination for rabies, is a disaster waiting to happen. Exotic parasites, worms, protozoa and certain ticks pose significant risks as well.  

Living in a country where it is difficult to get a banana through customs, (especially since 9-11) and where livestock importation is strictly regulated and animal protection groups seek ever-tighter regulation of dogs from breed enthusiasts along with commercial breeders, it is a sick and intolerable paradox that poorly bred, often diseased, foreign-bred dogs enter our country by the thousands with the barest of regulation - often on airlines that fly them to the US at no charge to help out the 'cause.' Seemingly, the only unregulated operators in the animal world today are the 'animal dealers' working in the animal protection groups that fundraise on overpopulation while importing dogs from overseas. Indeed, the only thing that puts the madness into perspective is the fact that importing groups and the national animal rights groups that support them are still fundraising on the issue of 'pet overpopulation!'

At NAIA we salute anyone working to improve the welfare of animals so long as they conduct themselves responsibly. If groups such as PeTA that support importation of strays want to help animals in poor and developing countries, though, we recommend that they take a fraction of their millions and fund spay and neuter clinics or launch public education campaigns. Those initiatives might actually help. Importing Satos or Taiwan strays, on the other hand, does little more than displace US shelter animals with ones that are more suitable for fundraising.

NAIA recognizes that most people working in animal shelters and rescue conduct themselves honorably while performing a difficult and often thankless job. This article is not intended to tar the whole sheltering community with the irresponsible actions of a few. Even so, if the good people who work in animal control and protection remain silent on the issue, they are culpable as well. For too long, extreme groups like PeTA have co-opted the animal movement and brought shame to the cause of animal protection. It's time for reasonable people in animal welfare to separate themselves from the corrupt and radical fringe and bring respect back to their cause. The public needs to know that being humane doesn't't have to mean being insane!

For more information on this and other issues affecting dog and cat owners and breeders, visit the NAIA web site at www.naiaonline.org NAIA and NAIA Trust will continue to work on the issue of stray imports. NAIA will pursue researching and reporting on the subject and NAIA Trust will set out an agenda for dealing with it legislatively and legally. If you have information on the subject, please contact naia@involved.com  If you would like to work with NAIA Trust on this issue, contact naiatrust@involved.com.




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