We can feel the holiday season lurking around the corner, hawking its sparkly greeting cards and bow tied boxes. We dread the day you start to see Christmas tree stands pop up on every corner and hear jingly music playing everywhere you go. As you can probably already tell, we're not big fans of this time of year. Don't get us wrong, we love the cheer that lights up chilly December, but to the directors of a no-kill animal shelter in NYC, holidays spell little more than disaster for thousands of momentarily-loved pets in Manhattan alone. Christmas is the main offender, but this goes for Valentine's Day, Easter, and birthdays, too.
It starts out innocently. Well-intentioned but severely uninformed gift givers buy puppies, kittens, rabbits, and so on for their kids and significant others. These cuddly presents always make a big splash, but the novelty wears off before long and those gifts end up abandoned at kill shelters or sold to even less qualified pet owners via Craigslist a few weeks or months later. (Want to see for yourself? Check out the Pets section on Craigslist around mid-January). Animal abandonment is a year round problem too, of course. Dogs and cats are dumped on the street, left at kill shelters, and worse every day. Summer is the "busy season," as puppy and kitten populations explode and those doing the abandoning think it's more humane to offload their furry family members when it's warm out. Animal abandonment is a huge, gross phenomenon, and it's why our zany rescue community exists. But like many non-profits, we we wish we didn't exist. That is to say we wish the world was a kinder, more informed place where there was no need for our services.
We run Social Tees Animal Rescue in the East Village. We can't tell you how many people walk into our shelter and ask where our animals come from, how they could be abandoned in the first place, and why there are so many. Most of them gasp or look puzzled when we say "the kill shelter," having never even heard the term. We should back up a minute for those of you who are having the same reaction now. There are what we call "kill shelters" all over the country that euthanize animals every night in order to make room for the wave of abandoned animals that will arrive the next day. In New York City, Animal Care and Control (the ACC for short) is the city-run kill shelter with three locations, each in a different borough. The ACC has a very bad rap, but it exists because our system is broken, not because the people who work there are evil. In fact, a number of them are animal lovers like us just trying to make a difference, just trying to provide the animals that end up there with the care they deserve, and just doing their jobs. We run a small private non-profit animal shelter that takes dogs and cats out of kill shelters and provides them with safe haven and veterinary attention before finding them proper, responsible, loving forever homes. All of our dogs are in foster homes instead of cages. We don't ever euthanize for space reasons -- we hold onto an animal for as long as it takes to find the animal a family. There are many rescue groups like ours.
So why are there so many abandoned animals? The go-to reason is pet shops. They're the ones cranking out more and more animals via puppy mills etc. while millions are euthanized every year (2.7 million in the U.S., to be exact, according to the Humane Society). Breeders pose a similar problem. Anyone who walks into a pet store with money in his pocket can leave with whatever he wants. We always loved visiting pet stores as kids and still get a guilty thrill out of walking through the door and seeing all of the critters on display, but pet shops exist to make money, not to promote animal well-being. Pet shops encourage people to devalue life. You need a license to drive a car but not to care for a living breathing creature. It doesn't matter if a customer is qualified to keep a puppy, kitten, gecko, or rabbit alive. In fact, if one dies, another may be needed to replace it... Not that they're going out of their way to sell animals to unqualified buyers, but if you think about it, It's actually a conflict of interest for pet store owners to make sure their customers know how to care for their purchases. Planned obsolescence is not an unfamiliar concept for most of us, but we tend to think of it as one that applies mostly to material goods like electronics and automobiles. The day you wake up and realize that this concept fuels most of the pet industry as well is a terrifying one. We're talking about life here, not televisions.
The next heavy hitter is the lack of regulation in the pet world. There are no effective federal, state, or even municipal laws mandating that you neuter your pets or prohibiting you from breeding your pets. In many cultural and ethnic communities, you're raised to think that letting your pet breed is not only normal but healthy. You might want to see the miracle of life happen in your living room, and to share it with your kids. You might believe that it's an outrage to remove an animal's ability -- or right -- to reproduce. But don't the animals that already exist have a right to live? Neutering an animal doesn't damage it emotionally. Dogs and cats don't feel like they've missed out on something in life if they don't have children. Plus, many veterinarians will tell you that fixed animals have fewer incidences of prostate and mammary tumors among other life threatening health issues. Above all, neutering your animals is supposed to keep the population at a humane level. If you've got a bunch of unfixed dogs and cats running around, they reproduce. Simple math shows that this results in more dogs and cats, which isn't a problem in itself -- the problem is that those dogs and cats end up unwanted. Some land in kill shelters. Many stray babies perish on the street from hunger, disease, injury, or from being eaten alive by fleas or flies. (Yes, that actually happens.) To be fair, mandatory spay/neuter laws are difficult to enforce for a variety of reasons, not least of which is time and money. Kudos to Los Angeles for recent instituting mandatory spay/neuter laws which will hopefully help down the road, but for now it's causing more abandonment as many pet owners don't have the funds to get their animals fixed (or pay for annual vet visits, medical emergencies, etc.). Banning the sale of animals at pet shops could be an easier way to start.
Mega problem three is the fact that many pet owners don't know what they're getting themselves into in the first place and may have the wrong pet for their lifestyle -- or may not be ready for a pet at all. There is a plethora of serious misconceptions about pets and pet care that seem to plague most owners and owners to-be. We can't get into all of it here because you could literally fill a book with the crap people think they know about animal ownership, but we'll provide a few of the most common and poignant examples.
Number one: Rescue dogs and cats have been abused, so it's best to get a "clean slate" from a pet store or a breeder. Yes, many animals that get shuffled through the rescue system come from abusive or neglectful places, but not all of them. Some very well cared for animals end up with us for reasons like their very loving owner died or lost their job. Even some of the very neglected animals we rescue end up being nearly perfect. Miraculously, some arrive covered in matted fur and their own waste, underweight, and a little shy but open up pretty much immediately and turn out to be fully housebroken, friendly with everyone, not at all yappy, and don't chew anything but their own toys. It's a true testament to the strength of their faith and spirits.
Number two: Parents want puppies and/or kittens for their toddlers so they can grow together. This sounds like a reasonable idea on paper, but in reality getting a baby animal for a baby human often backfires. While you can socialize a young dog or cat to a certain degree, you can't shape its personality, likes, or dislikes -- just the way you can't really shape your toddler's. You might get a cuddly kitten that turns into a cat that does not want to sit in laps or be stroked vigorously by an overeager kindergartner. You might get a wiggly tolerant puppy that turns out to be a dog that nips when its tail gets tugged one too many times. No parent ever chooses the pet over the baby. We always advise families with young children to consider getting a young adult dog or cat. At a year or two old, you'll know a lot more about its personality.
Number three: You want a kitten because you want a single, tiny, cute companion. Just one little fuzzball, you don't have room (physically or emotionally) for any other pets. Here's a potent recipe for disaster because single kittens tend to grow up frustrated by their loneliness and play too rough for kids and adults alike. It's completely unnatural for a kitten to grow up without its siblings or other social cats to play with, chase, and wrestle. Once a cat starts rough-housing and/or scratching you or your family members, it's adios amigo for the cat.
Number four: You want a puppy. You MUST have an infant. Anything older than 12 weeks is tainted. Some puppy parents have the greatest time ever and never regret a moment of the rearing process, and that's awesome. Others realize at some point over the first two years of the dog's life that they've made a horrible mistake. Sometimes it happens immediately. Who knew a puppy would be so demanding, loud, and messy? Like human infants, they cry, sleep, eat, poop, sleep some more, and poop some more. They're not a great option for most people with a 9 to 5 kind of lifestyle. A little further down the road, and you may realize that your young adult dog does not in any way match your lifestyle. You're a couch potato and your dog is a marathon runner. You're friendly and social, and your dog doesn't want anything to do with other people or pooches. You're a neat freak, and your dog is still going through that chewing phase. Again, had you adopted an adult (this is true with cats, too) -- let's say around a year or two, or older -- you would have been able to get a much better read on his personality and needs before signing your soul on the dotted line.
Number five: You have a small apartment, so you can't house anything bigger than a teacup Chihuahua. Ironically, loads of larger breed dogs are euthanized every day because people assume that it would be inhumane to adopt one. Precisely the opposite is true. Genetically, dogs are den animals and relish a warm place to nestle in winter and a cool one in summer. As long as your dog is getting the exercise, stimulation, and socialization it needs outside, it should happily chill and sleep when it's home. Different breeds and individuals have different exercise requirements, but any dog regardless of size needs to go out at least three times a day with one good workout. Big dogs actually tend to to be more sedentary at home than small ones. They don't think your apartment should be bigger, even if you disagree.
Number six: Keeping cats indoors is downright mean and nasty. "They're so curious about the outside world!" is a common concern. That's true, and we do actually feel sad about the fact that our own cats go nuts at the window when the see a bird and seem to yearn for freedom to explore. Cats like being outside, but they also do quite fine indoors. In fact they live over three times as long as cats allowed outdoors. You might think the major danger out there is cars, dogs, and other predators. Believe it or not, it's other cats. Silent, invisible, and deadly. Stray cats carrying infectious diseases that come out at night, rarely even seen. All your cat has to do is lick a leaf that an infected animal peed on and its curtains for kitty. Crack a window or put in a screen to give your beloved some fresh air. Play games with string and toys to stimulate her. She'll be grateful for those extra years without even knowing it. You'll be grateful too, of course -- for her presence and for having avoided the obscenely high vet bills you'd incur when she came home with a wound, disease, or parasite.
The last main reason that so many pets are abandoned is plain old ignorance. This is not to be confused with unintelligence (though there is a huge overlap here). Many people simply don't know about kill shelters and the pet over-population problem. They don't know that rescue groups exist as an option for responsibly acquiring a pet. All they know is pet shops and breeders because that's all they've been exposed to. Most school children aren't taught anything about these issues, nor are adults.
At our shelter, you adopt, not buy. (There is an adoption fee though that covers the veterinary care the animal has received.) You have to fill out an application. You must have good references, a legitimate source of income, proof that your landlord allows the kind of pet you're applying for, and identification that proves your age and address. You must be able to demonstrate that you have a certain degree of ability and knowledge when it comes to caring for a cat or dog. You must be amenable to a home check. At our rescue, you need to know how to be responsible for the life of another creature in order to be able to take one home. You need to open to learning, too. If you want a puppy or kittens and you're qualified to adopt, we'll probably give you the song and dance about why you might want to consider an older animal so that you know your options. Many of our adopters stick to their guns, which is fine, but some change their minds after absorbing our very hard won advice.
So how do we fix this massive, mostly overlooked problem? What we need is more education, whether formal or informal. If most Americans had even a rudimentary understanding of pet care or the problems with the pet industry, you can bet that we wouldn't be dealing with the challenges we face today. We'd have regulations and laws enforcing spay/neuter and preventing unqualified people from owning animals. Those considering getting a pet would know beforehand whether they're really ready for the responsibility. Those who do adopt pets would know how to take care of them. We would look back on this time as a grey area in our civilization where we were just starting to get it, just starting to wake up to the atrocities we were committing across the nation. It's by no means extreme to say that we are committing a genocide. But it's no ordinary genocide -- we are not wiping out a population on purpose, and we don't want it to stop. Unbelievably, we don't even know that we're doing it, and we keep replenishing the supply so the killing never ends. This goes for all animals you can buy in a pet store, not just dogs and cats.
If the next generation grows up aware of the horrible things that happen to unwanted pets every day and with an understanding of how and why to take care of their own, the perfect storm of pet industry problems that causes our rescue group to exist would vanish. And that would be great! We want desperately to be put out of business. Think about how weird it is that rescue has become a pillar of society. It's chic now. Celebrities and the untouchably wealthy proudly display their rescue dogs (and sometimes cats) for all to see. It's terrific that shelter animals get more exposure and that celebrities -- the authorities most Americans trust these days -- teach their adoring followers that rescue animals aren't just damaged goods. But at the same time, all of this hype makes rescue seem like a cool thing, which unintentionally condones the system that makes it imperative for us to rescue these animals in the first place. So we're asking you guys to take a look at the problem head on; to demand that politicians enact spay/neuter laws, outlaw the sale of live animals at pet stores, and put an end to backyard breeding and puppy mills; to "adopt not shop," and to spread the word. We know, it sounds like a tall order. But the hundreds of thousands of animals in need across the country deserve to have happy holidays, too.