Twig Mowatt covered the drug war in Colombia for the New York Times and the Associated Press and now writes about animal issues. She works closely with dog rescue organizations in Puerto Rico and with GREY2K USA.
Dog's Life: Humane
Nationwide spay/neuter project adds to Bhutan’s canine Gross National Happiness.
September 21 2016
Walk along the terraced rice fields of Pana, hike the switchbacks to the 17th-century Cheri Monastery in Thimphu or explore the back alleys of Paro and you see the same thing: dogs. In Bhutan, they are everywhere. Some nap soundly during the day, conked out on median strips and sidewalks and in the centers of traffic roundabouts, oblivious to the people and vehicles swirling around them. Others seem to have busy schedules, heading up to the monastery for the morning, then cruising back down to meet friends in the parking lot and head off on afternoon adventures. Near temples and tourist sites, they follow visitors in hopes of handouts, or seek shade under parked cars.
Look a little closer and you’ll notice something unusual: most of them—in fact, about 75,000 of the country’s estimated 100,000 dogs—have a triangular notch in their left ear. This distinctive mark identifies the dog as having been spayed or neutered as well as vaccinated against rabies. It also represents a huge milestone in the world of animal welfare.
Straddling the Himalayas, tiny Bhutan is perched between China to the north and India to the south. It may be best known for its Gross National Happiness index, in which Buddhist cultural and spiritual values are applied to socioeconomic development. The fact that these Buddhist values extend to all sentient beings is one reason Bhutan is now seven years into the world’s first—and arguably, most successful—nationwide spay-and-neuter effort, the reverberations of which are almost certain to be felt well outside its borders.
In partnership with Humane Society International (HSI), Bhutan has now sterilized about 75 percent of its total estimated canine population, hitting the critical tipping point at which most animal welfare experts believe a population stabilizes (meaning that growth stops and overall numbers decline). Maintaining that percentage will require about 3,200 sterilizations per year. The Bhutanese team, which now consists of highly experienced vets, vet techs, administrators and dogcatchers, intends to do that and more—to reach between 10,000 and 12,000 dogs per year and achieve its dream of both reducing the dog population and improving its overall health.
“Because the Bhutanese government was so welcoming and so supportive, we had a huge opportunity to tackle [canine population management] on a scale that was really unprecedented,” says Kelly O’Meara, director of HSI’s companion animals and engagement department. “Now we have this goldstandard model for a program covering an entire nation that we can use as an example for other governments who are looking for a real solution to their dog overpopulation problems.”
Dogs in Bhutan aren’t typically owned, as we define it in the United States. But they aren’t really strays either. Although most households have dogs in the yard, these animals don’t go indoors, wear collars or chew on squeaky toys. Furthermore, Bhutan does not have dog breeders; the few purebreds in evidence likely come from India, Thailand or Nepal.
The majority are “community dogs,” meaning that they hang out in a specific locale—a city block, on the grounds of a hotel, at a temple or bus station—and the people who live and work in that area feed them, in accordance with Buddhist practices. The Junction Bookstore in the capital city of Thimphu, for instance, prominently displays a change jar on the counter to collect money to feed the eight dogs in its immediate area, all of whom have notched ears. Most community dogs are a healthy weight and reasonably well socialized, but that doesn’t mean they have easy lives. Among other things, almost no one takes responsibility for them if they’re injured or ill. (See the sidebar for an inspiring exception.)
Prior to 2009, Bhutan’s dog population was exploding. Overall economic development, including a proliferation of meat markets, had resulted in new sources of food scraps and garbage. Females were having multiple litters, and their puppies were wandering into traffic, with predictable results. The sight of so many dead puppies along the roadways upset both the locals and visitors flooding the country as a result of its push to expand tourism. Tourists were also complaining that they couldn’t sleep because of incessant nighttime barking; some tour groups and guides even suggested that their clients bring earplugs. (Unneutered male dogs bark and fight over females.)
Eager to appease the tourists and also to have cleaner streets in preparation for the 2008 coronation of a new king, the government began looking for ways to deal with its dog-population problem. As Buddhists, they rejected widespread killing in favor of impoundment, rounding up thousands of dogs and confining them to facilities in which they mingled freely. The result was dreadful; disease spread quickly, fights and injuries were rampant, and adult dogs routinely slaughtered newborn puppies.
HSI had cautioned against impounding, and about a year into the experiment, Rahul Sehgal, director of HSI Asia, did a status check with the government. He asked to tour the sites with government officials and religious leaders, all of whom were sickened by what they saw. “We knew that if they saw the conditions, it would have an impact,” says O’Meara.
Impounding isn’t just inhumane, it’s also ineffective. So is culling; killing dogs does not control the population in the long term. Both simply provide short-term relief from the symptoms “We really struggled,” recalls Sehgal. “But [then] we started recruiting and training local Bhutanese, people who could breathe easier, for one thing, speak the language and climb mountains. And it all began to take off.”
As part of the program, the Bhutanese government launched a massive public education campaign to explain the goals to its citizens. The national cable television network ran public service announcements about the importance of spay/neuter in decreasing sexually transmitted diseases and reducing injuries from dogfights. In television spots and in the local papers, officials described the meaning of the ear notch and announced that Tuesdays were “Love Your Dog Day.” Every Tuesday, people are encouraged to bring their dogs—however loosely that ownership is practiced—to the local clinic for free sterilization, health checks and vaccinations.
At the end of three years, the HSI/ Bhutan team had reached its goal of 50,000 sterilizations. The only problem was that the team’s field experiences had showed that initial estimates of the population size were way off— rather than 70,000 dogs, there were more like 100,000. With that in mind, both parties agreed to a Phase II extension from 2012 through 2014. Phase III followed and is set to end in 2018. Over the years, the makeup of the teams has shifted until it is now almost entirely Bhutanese; Sehgal provides oversight and can board a plane to Paro at a moment’s notice.
As Phase II began, the Bhutanese vet students were completing their educations in India and starting to join the national campaign. To hone their highvolume sterilization skills, they were all trained by HSI vets from India.
These techniques were on full display one Friday last May at a small clinic in Paro, where veterinarians Sangay Dorji and Bhakta Bdr Gurung made quick work of their 10 patients, who had been netted in the neighborhood that morning and soon thereafter, anesthetized and prepped for surgery, which included ear notching and cauterization. Post-surgery, vet techs placed the dogs on blankets in an outdoor recovery room. Each dog also received a rabies vaccination, ivermectin for parasites and skin problems, and a B complex injection. Once the dogs were back on their feet, the team returned them to the area in which they were originally caught.
Ten patients was actually a slow day. These roundups, which take place in every precinct of Bhutan every Friday, typically net 20 dogs, and Dorji has seen as many as 50 dogs come in a single day. He has performed 5,000 procedures since joining the program in 2013—he can spay a dog in less than 15 minutes and neuter one in less than 10. (Compare that to 45 minutes and 30 minutes, respectively, using a traditional method with a larger incision.) With a female patient on the operating table, he demonstrated a technique for keeping the stitches on the inside of the skin to reduce the likelihood of infection.
Dorji says that he and his team spend a lot of time out in the community, talking about animal health and spay/ neuter at schools, temples and hotels, sometimes even going door to door. They almost always have a receptive audience. “We’ll go to a temple and explain it to the monks, tell them it may take an entire day, but in the long term, it will be much better for everyone,” says Dorji. “Then all the monks work with us to bring us their dogs. Once people understand what we are doing and why it’s important, they always agree to help.”
That may be because animal welfare is already an integral part of Bhutanese culture. “As Buddhists, we believe that a dog could have been your parent in a former life, so we feed them and treat them with compassion,” says Dorji. “If anyone is seen abusing an animal, that person would be immediately challenged by other people.”
By now, most “owned” dogs in Bhutan are sporting notched ears. So, the remaining challenge is to target the dogs who have repeatedly evaded even the most expert dogcatchers. Dorji hopes to engage the community in that effort as well. He thinks that the people who regularly feed dogs in certain areas may have enough of a bond with them to be able to bring them in.
Kunzang Choki, who runs the dogfriendly Junction Bookstore, agrees. She and her coworkers have set up crates for the local dogs to sleep in outside the storefront, and dogs are welcome to lounge inside and partake of an occasional belly rub—not to mention regular meals, courtesy of the change jar. “We’re a small country,” says Choki. “If everyone took the initiative to take care of the dogs in their own area, we could solve this problem.”
For anyone worried that this effort is going to deprive Bhutanese of canine companions in the future, never fear. Even an effort as comprehensive as this one isn’t going to catch and neuter every dog in the country. “It will never happen that there won’t be dogs in Bhutan,” says Sehgal. “As long as there is garbage and an ecosystem to support them, there will be dogs, no matter how many we spay and neuter.”
Jamie Vaughan fell in love with Bhutan on a visit in 2005 and decided she wanted to live there. A native of Virginia, Vaughan had been working for the local water district in Colorado, but figured she could take advantage of Bhutan’s incentives for attracting foreign investment to open a hotel. She just didn’t realize that her “hotel” would have long-term guests and that those guests would be animals.
But, these days, as founder and head of the Maya Foundation, which runs Barnyard Bhutan Animal Rescue & Sanctuary in Paro, she takes care of about 240 dogs, 25 cats, 14 horses and mules, 45 goats, 19 pigs, 18 cows, two mice and a pigeon.
“In the U.S., we just aren’t exposed to this kind of suffering. I started seeing dogs on the streets who had been hit by cars or injured in a fight or had horrific skin conditions, and I couldn’t leave them, so I brought them home,” she explains. “And then one dog turned into seven, which turned into 50, which turned into 100, and then I stopped counting.”
An ardent animal lover with no previous experience in animal welfare,Vaughan taught herself basic first aid, such as cleaning and bandaging wounds. She’s trying to secure Bhutan’s first-ever X-ray machine for animals, and works closely with Animal Ortho Care in Virginia, which makes prosthetic legs for her dogs and equines. She even helps build the new pens and enclosures that are constantly being added.
In a country with no animal shelters (as there is no culture of adoption) and no long-term-care facilities, Barnyard Bhutan serves a critical need. Vaughan collaborates closely with the government vet hospital in Paro, taking over nursing duties for animals who have been seriously injured or have had surgery at the hospital and keeping them at her sanctuary as long as needed—even if that’s for life.
Though she tries to return as many rehabilitated dogs as possible to the sites where they were originally found, that often isn’t possible. Dogs with permanent disabilities—such as amputations or brain damage from distemper or head traumas—can’t fend for themselves on the streets. One of her star residents, a dog who looks like the Himalayan cousin of a Bernese Mountain dog, was found at the iconic Tiger’s Nest Monastery by a filmmaker/tourist named Tim Gorski, who brought him to Bhutan Barnyard. The dog, named Tim in honor of his rescuer, is now the picture of health, with a glorious fur coat. Returning Tim to Tiger’s Nest would require him to exercise skills that he’s likely to have lost during his many months of rehab—namely, establishing himself in the existing pack—and Vaughan doesn’t want to risk it.
For more information about the Maya Foundation’s Barnyard Bhutan Program, or to arrange a visit to meet Tim, find the group on Facebook.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Harvard study makes it official: dogs are good for us.
June 25 2015
If you live with a dog, chances are you’re familiar with canine de-stressing techniques. Perhaps you’ve felt a wave of relief from burying your face in fur after a difficult day at work, or experienced a release of calming chemicals after being met with a particularly enthusiastic greeting. And maybe those daily dog walks have helped you shed a few pounds or led to some welcome social interactions with other people and their dogs. And doesn’t life seem to have more meaning because there’s a living creature depending on you?
To dog people, the emotional, physical and even spiritual benefits of canine relationships tend to be obvious. These benefits feel as real to us as the saliva-soaked tennis ball we’re holding in our hands. That’s why it can be so hard to understand why the non-dog world hasn’t caught on to all these life-altering advantages. Even worse is the fact that many people who have never lived with a dog seem to think we may be making all this up—that the only place these benefits exist is in our heads.
Science in Action
Thanks to a special report from Harvard Medical School (HMS), we now have something important to share with these nonbelievers—proof! Get Healthy, Get a Dog is the first publication to compile hundreds of research studies from around the world that document the physical and psychological benefits of dog ownership. Taken together, these studies provide the most complete picture yet of the many ways in which dogs enrich human life: from lower cholesterol and improved cardiovascular health to weight loss, companionship, defense against depression and longer lifespans.
“The most common reaction we’ve been getting from people about this report is that they are so grateful that someone has finally put into print what they’ve known intuitively all along,” said medical editor Elizabeth Pegg Frates, MD, who supervises the Lifestyle Medicine Interest Group at HMS, teaches a college course on lifestyle medicine at the Harvard Extension School, and directs the Wellness Programs at the Spaulding Stroke Research and Recovery Institute, an HMS affiliate.
The 50-page report is the result of a collaboration between HMS and Angell Animal Medical Center, a leading veterinary hospital based in Boston. Get Healthy, Get a Dog approaches the dog/human relationship as a two-way street, so half of it is devoted to the human—what the dog does for the person—and half is devoted to the dog—what the person should do for the dog. Frates tackled the former, and Lisa Moses, VMD, who heads the Pain Management Service at Angell Animal Medical Center, covered the latter, which includes sections on nutrition, exercise, training and responsible pet ownership. Moses also makes a compelling case for adopting a dog rather than going to a breeder or pet store.
“We didn’t want to create the impression that a dog is some kind of tool for achieving better health,” says Moses in explaining the dual focus. “We wanted to emphasize that it’s the relationship that provides these benefits—it’s not the pet. And for that relationship to develop and be sustained, you have to do your part.”
Doing your part often means going for walks in the rain, sleet or snow, at all hours of the day and night. In fact, one of the primary health benefits of owning a dog is that it boosts your activity level. There have been about a dozen studies conducted on the link between dogs and human exercise, including one that compared 536 dog owners with 380 non-owners. Those with dogs were found to be fitter, thinner and less likely to have chronic health conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes. A study in Missouri that paired public housing residents with certified therapy dogs for five 20-minute walks a week found that participants lost an average of 14.4 pounds without changing their diets. (The report points out that most weight-loss programs and anti-obesity drug trails can’t boast such good results.)
Of course, the fact that regular exercise helps people lose weight and get healthy isn’t exactly breaking news. The insights come from the critical role the dog plays as a fitness partner—offering everything from enthusiastic encouragement to obnoxious pestering. Unlike a human partner, a dog is not going to suggest ducking out to a movie. “The dog support was always positive, while the human support could be positive (friends, family), negative (saboteurs) or inconsistent,” wrote Frates. Another reason that people tend to adhere to an exercise program if a dog is involved is the perception that the dog needs them. In one study, 72 percent of participants cited this as the reason they stuck to the activity schedule for the full 50 weeks of the trial.
“Sometimes people find that the dog becomes the excuse for taking care of themselves,” says Moses. “It may not be acceptable to them to be so self-oriented, but if it’s about the dog, then it’s okay.”
The American Heart Association (AHA) uncovered another piece of canine magic: a dog appears to help someone who is obese overcome his or her embarrassment about being seen in public doing physical activity.
It’s likely that increased exercise plus the calming effects of dogs (which we’ll get to later) contribute to lowering blood pressure. One study actually tested dog ownership as a treatment for high blood pressure. Thirty people with borderline hypertension were randomly assigned to either adopt a dog right away or defer adoption to a later date. After five months, the segment of new dog owners experienced significant declines in systolic pressure (the top number, which measures the highest arterial blood pressure). The group that had been asked to defer adoption experienced these same declines once they had taken their new dogs home and spent time with them. In 2013, the AHA went as far as to say that pet ownership “is a reasonable strategy for reducing heart disease risk.”
And there’s more good news on the cardiac front. A study of nearly 6,000 men and women in Australia found that dog owners of both sexes had lower triglyceride levels than non-owners, and male dog owners also had lower total cholesterol levels.
Beyond these formidable physical benefits are the psychological ones, which according to Frates “are hard to overstate.” Dogs make us feel less isolated. They pull us into a social world inhabited by other people walking other dogs. (Seventy percent of dog walks lead to at least one spoken interaction with a stranger.) And they help us meet the basic human need for companionship. Two large, long-term studies that followed people from childhood to old age found that those who were more engaged with others—whether those others were people or animals—lived longer. Those longer lives may also be more purposeful. A dog’s total dependency can make that person feel wanted and give life a sense of meaning.
Moses knows this phenomenon first hand. Her grandfather spent more than a decade as primary caretaker for his wife, who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and cardiovascular disease. During all those years, he had a succession of dogs to care for—or was it the other way around? After his wife died, his beloved Terrier mix Lady succumbed to kidney failure. “At age 92, unbeknownst to us, he went out and adopted another dog,” Moses says. “Having a dog was the reason he got up in the morning. It was his entire life. He was a living testament to the power of the human/canine bond.”
There are other indicators that dogs are particularly helpful to older people. The HMS report cites a year-long study from Canada that found elderly dog owners to be more capable of performing daily activities, such as dressing and feeding themselves. This is likely because in attending to their animal companions, seniors are reminded to take care of themselves. They also have a structure in place, thanks to the need for regular pet meal times and walks, which reinforces their own self-care habits.
At the other end of the age spectrum, children learn important life skills from early bonding with the family dog. That bonding can lead to stronger human connections later in life, according to a Tufts University study, which also found that kids who’ve forged emotional connections to dogs have more empathy, feel more self assured and do better in social settings.
“How else would you get your kids to touch and love something?” asks Frates, the mother of two teenage sons. “For boys especially in this culture, there are very few acceptable ways of encouraging this type of bonding and intimacy.”
There is even evidence that exposure to a dog from infancy onward reduces the likelihood that even the most allergy-prone kids will develop problems. Only 19 percent of babies living with dogs developed pet allergies, compared to 33 percent of babies who grew up in dog-free homes, according to one study.
As those babies grow up and become college students, the dog benefits continue. Several psychological studies have found that college-age adults tend to find more stress relief in turning to their dogs than in seeking comfort from parents or siblings. Still other adults were found to shake off the blues just by thinking about their dogs … which brings us to the magic of oxytocin.
Having a dog can be like having your own a prescription for oxytocin with unlimited refills—except that rather than dispensing this drug, your dog incites you to release it. Also known as the “love,” “bliss,” and “bonding” hormone, oxytocin inspires positive feelings. It helps stave off depression and limit the release of the stress hormone cortisol. You can get an oxytocin infusion by petting your dog, by laughing at the silly things she does, and even by looking into her loving eyes, a conclusion confirmed by recent study
Dogs also offer an alternative to meditation sessions and yoga classes when it comes to learning the Buddhist practice of mindfulness. Every dog walk is typically an exercise in experiencing the present moment: savoring an especially aromatic fire hydrant, having a satisfying roll in the grass or interacting with a new neighbor. Dogs put us more in touch with nature and help us put aside our worries about the future and regrets about the past to focus on the here and now.
While all the information contained in Get Healthy, Get a Dog has been meticulously reviewed and objectively compiled, Moses and Frates are hardly dispassionate observers. Both say their lives have been greatly enriched by their relationships with their dogs. They do, however, come from very different ends of the dog spectrum. Moses, who shares her home with a rescue named Rudy, describes her love of canines as developing “in utero.” This was due largely to the influence of her grandfather and the fact that he treated his Beagle mix, Friday, like one of the grandchildren.
Frates, on the other hand, was terrified of dogs after being bitten on the shoulder by a Doberman. The experience, which happened when she was eight years old, was so traumatizing that she spent the next three decades crossing the street to avoid close contact with a dog, even a little one. Finally, though, it wasn’t any particular dog who changed her mind, it was her commitment to health. As a physician specializing in lifestyle medicine, Frates thought she had all the bases covered—diet, exercise, meditation. But when she took a health and longevity quiz to determine her “real” age (as opposed to her chronological one), she was surprised that one of the questions concerned dog ownership.
Intrigued by the implications, she began to review the existing literature, much of which has been summarized in this special report. She also purchased a Goldendoodle she named Reesee, from a breeder in West Virginia. “Everything has been different for me since then,” Frates says, adding that she and Reesee are regular running buddies. “When we go running, she is so happy and I’m happy because she’s happy. You just appreciate the world in a much different way.”
Frates believes that if something like the Harvard Health Report had been available years ago, she would have explored the joys of dog ownership much sooner. Now, she hopes that the report will encourage other non-dog people to reconsider their position. “We’re hoping to encourage people to take the leap of getting to know a dog,” she says. “And perhaps we’ll also be able to encourage more dog adoptions—that’s a focus that Lisa brought to the project.”
That’s because the nonprofit Angell Animal Medical Center, where Moses works, is part MSPCA, the nation’s second oldest humane society, and has a very active adoption component. (Now that she realizes the situation for homeless dogs, Frates says she would adopt in the future.) Get Healthy, Get a Dog includes a section on “Adopting a Dog,” which provides information on determining the right breed for your home and suggestions on finding breed rescue groups and shelters. It also urges people to stay away from pet stores, where the dogs typically come from puppy mills.
Moses hopes readers will follow the report’s suggestions and reap the amazing benefits of dog ownership.
“Dogs are more important now than ever before,” she says. “Because people are living longer and so many live alone and don’t have kids. This is the moment for the human-animal bond.”
The report is available as a printed document, a PDF or both and can be purchased online at health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/get-healthy-get-a-dog.
Dog's Life: Humane
Animal Welfare Network helps Trinidad and Tobago’s dogs by teaching its children about the value of spay/neuter
December 25 2014
There comes a moment during Mitra De Souza’s class on animal welfare when she can tell by the faces of her Trinidadian elementary school students that they have grasped the concept of spay and neuter. It happens during the “overpopulation activity,” when she holds up a poster board “animal shelter” filled with pink and blue paper puppies.
One student is allowed to “adopt” two pups—one blue and one pink. But, because these paper dogs have not been sterilized, De Souza quickly gives this same student four more puppies, asking him or her to find good homes for them among the classmates. That’s easy at first, because every child wants to adopt a puppy. Then De Souza tells the class that each household is limited to only one dog. As the students scramble to redistribute the new litters, De Souza keeps doling out four new puppies to every student with a pink “puppy.” As in real life, the homes fill up rapidly, but the paper puppies keep coming.
“It’s like a light bulb goes off, and they realize there are many more puppies than homes; they start worrying about what is going to happen to them,” says De Souza, coordinator for Animal Welfare Network’s Primary School Education Program. “I will have told them about spaying and neutering their pets earlier in the program, but this is when they really understand what it means. When I ask them if something could have been done to prevent this puppy explosion—every hand goes up.”
This is also the point at which many of these young people become animal welfare ambassadors within their families, schools and communities. After De Souza taught the class at Tacarigua Presbyterian Primary School, Vice Principal Deryck Kistow recalls that one nine-year-old girl started making her own paper cutouts and doing the game with her friends, while another lectured his mother about spay and neuter for a month straight.
“They spoke a lot to their friends in other classes about the overpopulation activity, and also about what types of things stray animals need,” says Kistow. “They want Mitra to return and they want us to start a group to raise funds to help buy food for strays.”
The Animal Welfare Network (AWN), a nonprofit dedicated to reducing pet overpopulation and promoting responsible pet ownership in Trinidad and Tobago, launched its education program in November 2012 with the blessing of the Ministry of Education. The program has since been presented to more than 1,000 five- to 12-year-olds at nine schools ranging from private academies to public schools in low-income neighborhoods throughout Trinidad. There are plans to take the program to the neighboring island of Tobago.
Schools can chose from three options: a 30-minute assembly that includes a visit by a trained shelter dog and certified handler; a 30- to 45-minute classroom presentation customized for three different age groups (ages 5 to 7, 8 to 10, and 11 to 12); and the simple distribution of educational materials. (These materials are also provided for options one and two.)
The presentation for the youngest children focuses on how animals feel, while the two older groups learn about the issues of overpopulation. In some sessions, there are role-playing exercises in which a student might pretend to be a dog chained outside in the hot sun, or one who has fleas. There are also guided discussions about understanding the needs and feelings of animals. Students are encouraged to think about what it means to treat stray dogs with kindness and dignity.
Most sessions end with tips on how to safely approach strange dogs and how to protect against aggressive ones. As a special treat, adopted mutt Clio often puts in an appearance to demonstrate her obedience training and let the students practice their new skills. Each child goes home with a coloring/activity booklet and a note for parents that debunks myths about spay and neuter. (Intact males do not make better guard dogs; spayed female dogs are not destined to become fat.)
AWN developed the program by adapting some of the activities found in the Humane Education Guidebook of the Federated Humane Societies of Pennsylvania, and De Souza worked out the kinks by presenting it to different classrooms at her daughter’s school. A promotional video featuring two kids and a dog, posted on Facebook (see it at bit.ly/awnv1), helped get the word out to the island nation’s primary schools, and the section on safety has proven particularly helpful in marketing the program to school administrators. Current demand is so high that AWN is in the process of training at least two more facilitators.
For Sara Maynard, a founding member of AWN, the educational program has become a critical component of the organization’s overall mission to promote spay and neuter. Like so many of its Caribbean neighbors, Trinidad has a terrible problem with animal overpopulation and abandonment. Maynard believes that children have a critical role to play in addressing these issues— adults are more receptive to the concept of animal welfare, particularly the spay/ neuter message, if it comes from their kids. “If you teach the kids, you’re teaching the parents,” she says. “Our goal is to follow up the educational course by holding a free spay/neuter clinic in a MASH tent in the same community.”
A pilot program intended to make this goal a reality is already planned for the low-income town of Cocorite, west of Trinidad and Tobago’s capital city, Port of Spain. The regular educational program will be presented to students at the local school. Then, the entire community will be invited to attend a presentation on responsible pet ownership and watch a video on the importance of spay and neuter. As an attendance incentive, there will be plenty of pet supplies and pet food giveaways, and a certified dog trainer will be on hand to answer questions. AWN will also distribute vouchers for free or low-cost spay/neuter procedures. In Trinidad and Tobago, the cost of a single spay can equal one week’s salary, so the organization has worked hard to forge good relationships with local vets to ensure reasonable rates.
Given the effectiveness of the Primary School Education Program, these vets are likely to have plenty of clients for decades to come. To test the program’s effectiveness, AWN recently conducted a follow-up assessment of student attitudes toward animals. Before participating in the program, students scored an average of 78 out of 104 on an animalwelfare scale. Four months after they took the class, the same students scored an average of 87, indicating that the program had not only changed attitudes, but also, that the attitudinal changes were holding steady.
That’s great news for adult animal lovers like Tiffany Llanos, who teaches at Dunross Preparatory School. After inviting De Souza to her classroom, Llanos said, “It warms my heart to know that perhaps the next generation will be equipped to help and be more sensitive and compassionate towards homeless animals in our community.”
Dog's Life: Humane
Moving on up North to new homes
August 20 2014
Most Monday afternoons, a van arrives at Animal Shelter, Inc., in Sterling, Mass., with a rare and coveted cargo: mixed-breed puppies. The 30 to 40 dogs that are unloaded come in all shapes and sizes, and display traces of most major dog types, from Hounds and Heelers to Shepherds, Labs and Collies. These pups—who are moments away from nail clipping, fecal testing, and blood work, and hours away from being spayed or neutered—may not feel lucky at the moment; the 10-hour drive from south-central Virginia leaves many of them car-sick and confused. But by week’s end, when most of these little guys are in their new “forever” homes, their travails will have been well worth it.
Balancing supply and demand
Since the van first began pulling into Sterling in July 2001, thousands of dogs and puppies have made the trek north through the Homebound Hounds program of Southside SPCA in Meherrin, Virginia. With few exceptions, each of these dogs has been placed. And Sterling isn’t alone in importing from the South; shelters and individual adopters from Maine to Washington, D. C., are increasingly looking southward for adoptable dogs. That’s because spay/neuter campaigns in the Northeast have been so successful, and the message to adopt from a shelter rather than a pet shop or breeder has been so forceful, that there aren’t enough adoptable dogs to meet the demand. That’s good news, as far as the animal community is concerned.
The inverse is true many sections of the rural Southeast, from Virginia to Louisiana. In these areas, minimal spay-and-neutering efforts, combined with a predisposition toward purebreds and an aversion to adopting from shelters, have resulted in soaring numbers of unwanted dogs.
Sunniva Buck, manager of the Cape Ann Animal Aid (CAAA) in Gloucester, Mass., was prompted to look south when she realized that CAAA’s generous kennel space was increasingly underused. She called shelters around the state of Massachusetts and in Connecticut, but couldn’t find any who had adoptable dogs to offload or who weren’t already working with another rescue group to bring in animals. Though firm data on the number of dogs surrendered on a state-by-state basis does not exist—at least according to the Humane Society of the United States—anecdotal evidence of a slowdown in the Northeast is widespread. When Sandra Dollar, director of Save the Strays Animal Rescue in Bethune, South Carolina, tried to find homes for six Lab-mix puppies, she emailed rescue organizations in the Northeast and received 75 positive responses.
Five years ago, Leigh Grady, director of the Sterling shelter, took in as many as a dozen local litters. Last year, she accepted a total of two locally surrendered pups. Farther north, in Maine, rescuers report that the puppies and young adult dogs available locally tend to be Rottweilers, Pit Bulls, Chows and Akitas, breeds whose reputations for aggressive behavior, whether fair or not, make them hard to place.
“There is a severe shortage of placeable animals in New England,” says Melanie Crane of Biddeford, Maine. “If someone [says] otherwise, they’re kidding themselves.” Crane is co-director of Golden Retriever Rescue Lifeline, Inc., which, despite its name, rescues any dog—pup to senior—as long as it has “a pulse and a good temperament.” Crane works with Gulf South Golden Retriever Rescue in Bourg, Louisiana, and has found homes for about 250 dogs in the last two years. Though that figure is impressive, it barely registers against what Crane says are the gassing deaths of 750,000 companion animals (dogs and cats) annually in Louisiana.
Local attitudes influence numbers
Unfortunately, the Bayou State is not unique. Much of the Southeast is prime hunting country, with seasons that stretch from October to January. Dogs are an integral part of this tradition—Walker Hounds on the trail of deer, Beagles chasing down rabbits, and Pointers and Setters stalking doves and turkeys—and people tend to view their hunting dogs more as livestock than as family companions. “There are plenty of good hunters out there who take great care of their animals,” says Donna Prior with Animal Control in Madison, Georgia, who sends dogs north to two shelters in Massachusetts. “But if the dog isn’t doing what it’s supposed to, there are … hunters who just leave it in the woods.”
Many hunters believe that a spayed or neutered dog is not as effective on the trail, which leads to sizeable populations of “unfixed” dogs, and in turn, to litter upon litter of mixed-breed puppies. This problem is further exacerbated by another popular belief, that mutts don’t hunt as well as purebreds. If they’re very lucky, these mixed-breeds go straight to shelters like the Southside SPCA—if they aren’t so lucky, they end up in dumpsters or thrown out on the side of the road.
Searching for appropriate partners
Pairing the southern surfeit with the northern dearth sounds like a match made in heaven, and it is, but that doesn’t make it easy. The first step to success is finding a good fit, not just between dog and new owner, but also between the rescuer in the South and the shelter in the North. Dollar, of South Carolina, for example, had to search to find a group that would agree to return to her any dog that could not be placed.
Ideally, northern shelters look for southern rescuers who are spot-on judges of canine character and will provide reliable information on a dog’s health, as well as take steps to ensure that health. “Some people want to cut corners on costs, and therefore on health, and I just can’t risk taking a load of parvo pups,” says Grady. “Though we’ve worked together for years, I’ve never met Sandy, but I trust her implicitly and she trusts me. I know that we both want what’s best for the animal.”
Clearly, both parties need to do their research. Beyond that, state and federal law require that the receiving shelters be inspected and approved. The Virginia state veterinarian, for example, required that the Massachusetts state vet inspect and formally approve the shelter in Sterling. Fortunately, that wasn’t a problem. Sterling is one of the few to have a full-time vet and spay/neuter clinic on the premises, thanks to an arrangement with the VCA Animal Hospitals. In addition, the hard-working women behind these rescues work diligently to ensure that every dog transported across state lines is up-to-date on vaccinations for its age (distemper/parvo and rabies), and has been dewormed; treated for fleas, ticks and parasites; and has a health certificate issued by an examining vet.
Often, southern rescue organizations and shelters need help in providing round-the-clock, hands-on care for their youngest charges until the animals are 10 weeks of age and old enough to travel. In Meherrin, Sandy Wyatt counts on a network of safe houses with stalwart foster parents, such as Marian and Larry Burke and Anne and Jim Balfour. Neighbors and relatives, the Burkes/Balfours typically have 20 pups in their combined care. Jim frequently finds abandoned dogs along his paper route, and all four check dumpsters regularly. They do a lot of bottle feeding, vaccinating, deworming and socializing. “We just love that we’ve been able to get so many dogs out of here and on to better lives,” says Anne.
On the road … again
But passing state inspection, developing a network of foster homes, and giving flea and tick baths pale in comparison to the most formidable logistical problem: How do you get a dog safely from Hattiesburg, Louisiana, to Biddeford, Maine? Some groups have tried cargo flights, which have the advantage of taking less time and therefore inflicting less trauma on the dogs being transported. But cargo is expensive, and space limits the number who can travel in this fashion; Wyatt found that she was only able to move about a dozen dogs on a cargo flight, a small number when juxtaposed against her weekly goal of 30 to 40. That leaves driving.
Groups tackle the thousands of miles of driving in different ways. Some split the drive between two drivers. Others, like Dollar, have southern drivers who meet the northern drivers halfway. As a relatively new player in southern dog rescue, she despairs that there isn’t a more coordinated effort among the rescue groups. “The transportation is so hard—it seems like it’s all being done at the grassroots level and everyone is basically reinventing the wheel.” she says.
Sometimes, prospective adopters will make the trip, as Gail Belfiore of Johnson County, Tenn., has found out. She places her dogs using petfinder.org, and if the new parent can’t make the trip, Belfiore does it herself. “Nothing is going to keep me from getting these animals into better situations,” she says. “Nothing.” Gail snatches dogs from the jaws of death every week on “kill day” at the local shelter, then adopts them out to homes as far away as Florida, Massachusetts, Delaware, even Ontario. She’s placed nearly 650 dogs and cats.
Belfiore’s ferocious dedication is not unusual. Virginia Grant and Stephanie DeArmey share driving duties for the shelter in Bourg, Louisiana, that works with Melanie Crane in Maine. They log 4,000 miles on a typical trip, during which they drop off as many as 60 animals along the way. They stop every five hours to feed, water and change “piddle” pads. On one trip, Grant contracted pneumonia, but soldiered on. On another, their van broke down and they had to shift their crates of dogs, cats, guinea pigs and birds to a rental vehicle. Lynda Conrad has made the 10-hour drive from Meherrin to the New Jersey border 50 times a year since July 2001, leaving at 4:30 AM with up to 40 puppies. And when she’s not driving north, she’s doing local low-cost spay/neuter driving runs across 13 counties.
“When Sandy and Leigh got the Homebound Hound program up and running, I was the one doing the ‘running,’ ” explains Conrad. “And I’ll do these puppy runs as long as I can—it’s my purpose in life at this point. I love dogs; I wouldn’t be who I am if there weren’t dogs in my life.”
Grant is similarly motivated. Asked what could possibly make her hit the road so often, she simply points to Charlie, a Bloodhound relinquished from the Georgia prison system because he wouldn’t track. He went up to Maine, then to a foster home in Roanoke, Virginia, from which he was adopted. On that same trip, Grant and DeArmey left two hound mixes at Sterling; both went to forever homes within a week.
The adoption rate is just as robust at CAAA, and it’s not only the southern dogs who are benefiting. Buck notes that her canine imports have had an unexpected, but welcome, effect: “They bring people in here and they have a good experience, and then tell their friends; pretty soon, we’re getting exposure for all our dogs and even our cats,” she says. “It also exposes people to how many dogs out there need homes, and why spay and neuter is so important.”
And what about the impact on the South? Are these programs improving the overall situation for dogs there? Victoria Horn, chief animal control officer for Amelia County, Virginia, thinks so. Horn, who has worked with Wyatt for five years and oversees a small county shelter, says the number of dogs turned in to her is on the decline—813 were surrendered in 2001 and only 699 in 2003. “You just don’t see as many stray animals around or being brought in,” says Horn. “I definitely attribute that to Sandy—she works really hard to make things better for these animals.”
For her part, Wyatt stays motivated by reading her mail. Every week brings news of another happy ending for a Homebound Hound. “I send Walker Hounds up north that would be hunting deer down here, and tied to some stake outside,” she says. “And I get photos of them [from their new owners], sprawled on the living room sofa surrounded by toys. These letters are a lifesaver.”
And she intends to keep them coming.
Dog's Life: Humane
Our Companions Animal Rescue
March 19 2014
The first time nicole and Brian Baummer took their newly adopted black Lab, Finn, to the vet, the clinic staff’s reaction surprised them. Finn is particularly social and well behaved, yet the receptionist looked stricken as she pulled out a folder bearing a bright-red “caution” sticker.
“We caused quite a stir,” says Nicole. “They immediately remembered Finn from a visit to their office with his previous owners—and not in a good way. Apparently, he had been very aggressive and interacted negatively with everyone. They even had to muzzle him.”
It’s true that Finn had been well on the road to juvenile delinquency when his first owners decided to give him up. At five months, rambunctious, unruly and overstimulated, he had acted aggressively toward one of the three small children with whom he shared a chaotic household.
Shelters everywhere are full of dogs like Finn, and their prospects are particularly grim. But thanks to a new model for animal rehabilitation and adoption being launched in Connecticut, Finn didn’t become a euthanasia statistic— he became a success story.
Such successes are mounting at Our Companions Sanctuary in Ashford, Conn., a key initiative for the nonprofit Our Companions Animal Rescue. Modeled after Utah’s world-renowned Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, the Ashford facility is on track to become New England’s first large-scale rehabilitation and adoption center for homeless companion animals with nowhere else to turn.
Situated on over 43 acres in rural Connecticut, the sanctuary will one day comprise 16 animal-rehabilitation cottages, a dog park, walking trails, a nature preserve and a center for humane education. The first cottage opened its doors in October 2012, and two more were completed a year later. The cottages are designed to offer animals an enriching, homelike environment where they can physically and emotionally recover from past traumas and become great candidates for adoption.
“Homelike” isn’t hyperbole here. The cottage where Finn spent 27 days has a refrigerator stocked with treats, a flatscreen TV tuned to Animal Planet, and cozy nooks for napping and lounging. During most waking hours, volunteers are on hand to administer belly rubs, offer words of comfort and tuck the guests in for the night. Each dog has his or her own room and crate, gets plenty of exercise in the play areas and outside trails. Upon arrival, each dog is evaluated by director of canine operations, Marie Joyner, who creates an individual behavoiral training program and then works with the staff and volunteers on its proper implementation. The environment is peaceful and supportive, with enough people coming and going to help even the shyest dog develop solid social skills. One cottage house cats and two of them are homes to dogs.
“Our goal is to provide an environment where homeless animals won’t feel homeless and where we can address needs that are not being met in the traditional shelter system,” says Susan Linker, CEO of Our Companions Animal Rescue. “Animals that linger in shelters often exhibit frustration and stress, which can lead to fear, which can turn them into ticking time bombs. We want to defuse that.”
After visiting Best Friends to participate in a workshop on sanctuary building, Linker was inspired to focus on rehabilitation as a solution to euthanasia. However, rehabilitation isn’t possible if an animal is feeling anxious. Linker knew that housing animals in rooms, as opposed to cages, would largely eliminate stress, but she also suspected that a shelter-type facility with rooms instead of cages would not be enough to address the rehabilitation component. For that, she wanted an actual house—a place where animals could be themselves, warts and all. The behaviors that emerged would likely be the same ones to pop up in a home placement, and the same ones that could torpedo that placement. A dog could learn not to fear the sound of a dishwasher, for instance, or be weaned away from barking at the television.
The dog’s behavior in the simulated home would also provide staff with important information on the best fit for a permanent placement, which, in turn, would reduce returns. “Every time a dog is returned, a little piece is gone,” she said. “We want to do everything possible to keep them whole.”
The organization pulls most of its dogs from municipal shelters, but also accepts owner surrenders of dogs who may be difficult to place. In addition to animals with behavioral issues, the sanctuary welcomes seniors, those with medical problems and those who, for whatever reason, are perennially overlooked in traditional shelters.
Recent sanctuary guests included Lucas, a Cocker Spaniel with a penchant for guarding his many treasures; Tinka, an elderly Chihuahua whose original owners were unable to deal with her Cushing’s disease; and Suzie, a Pit Bull whose hyperanxiety, which stemmed from having been caged for 15 months, caused her to aggressively protect her meager turf. Especially touching was Lucy, an abused Pit who was terrified of people. At the shelter, she cowered in the back of her kennel and emitted a continuous low growl. Her breakthrough came after nine days in Ashford, when she melted her 50-pound body onto the lap of a caring volunteer. The sanctuary refers to such milestone moments as the “personality blossom.”
Though Best Friends Sanctuary does not operate the same type of homebased facility, it does offer something related: a sleepover program in which prospective adopters can spend quality time with the pooch of their choice at one of the local pet-friendly hotels. Faith Maloney, Best Friends co-founder, characterizes it as one of their most helpful programs, not just from the dog’s point of view, but from the potential adopter’s as well. That’s because the experience of walking past row after row of kennels and being buffeted by a constant din of barking can make even the most committed adopters feel as though they are adrift in a giant sea of dogs in which no one animal is distinguishable. Removing a dog from that environment immediately changes the perspective.
“If you look at a dog racing around in a kennel, you can’t picture them in your home,” says Maloney, adding that there is an 80 percent adoption rate for sleepovers. “So even in a hotel room, you get to see the dog’s individual preferences— does she like the bed or the couch? Does she snore? Does she look out the window? Suddenly, the dog looks like she belongs in a home—and maybe that home is yours.”
The Baummers couldn’t agree more. The calm environment of the sanctuary gave them a chance to see the real Finn, the one who immediately hopped onto a couch and asked for a belly rub. Also helpful, since they have an elderly cat, was the fact that Finn could be tested in a home setting with some of the feline guests in the neighboring cottage.
Of course, facilities like this aren’t cheap. Our Companions has embarked on a $5 million capital campaign to complete the sanctuary village, which is expected to eventually accommodate about 40 dogs and 160 cats. That population level is projected to result in the rescue, rehabilitation and adoption of 160 dogs and 1,200 cats annually.
Aside from fundraising, Linker’s biggest challenge now is adjusting to the program’s success. “We thought it would take several months for the dogs to rehabilitate from past physical and emotional trauma, but it’s actually happening very quickly, and people are incredibly eager to adopt them,” she says, adding that the dogs spend, on average, just 40 days at the sanctuary.
The unexpectedly speedy turnaround caught the design team off guard. The first cottage had given significant space to common areas, in the hope that long-term canine guests would benefit from the ongoing camaraderie. But, the typical shorter stays didn’t give dogs enough time to gel as a cozy pack; instead they were forced to make constant social adjustments as dogs were adopted out and new ones arrived. To better manage this dynamic, the second and third cottages were built with more individual living quarters for dogs who need additional stability away from the pack disruptions.
The need for a redesign doesn’t much bother Linker. “Actually,” she says, “this is a nice problem to have.”
Dog's Life: Humane
Mall Adoptions: Shelters expand into retail locations
March 8 2013
When Camille Limongelli and her boyfriend Ted Drummond decided to bring a new puppy into their home, they knew exactly where to find one: the mall. Specifically, the Freehold Raceway Mall in Freehold, N.J., an upscale retail paradise that includes everything from Victoria’s Secret to Abercrombie & Fitch, known locally as a puppy mecca. In fact, when the couple arrived, they found themselves among a horde of shoppers jostling for space beside a wall of cages occupied by adorable pups. Soon enough, a love connection was made and 13-week-old “Tibet” was off to his new home in Brick, N.J.
While Tibet is clearly special to Limongelli and Drummond, he’s also special in the evolving world of animal welfare. That’s because Tibet isn’t a typical petstore puppy—he didn’t come from a puppy mill, where young female purebreds are used as puppy-producing machines and live in deplorable conditions. Rather, he and his abandoned siblings were rescued from the streets of Puerto Rico by a San Juan-based animal welfare organization. Moreover, Tibet wasn’t purchased, he was adopted, and this took place not in a pet store, but at the Freehold Adoption Center, a satellite site of the Monmouth County SPCA (MCSPCA), which serves the northern Jersey shore.
A New Approach
“The concept was that by giving people what they want in terms of the retail experience, you can save more lives,” says Ellen La Torre, director of finance for MCSPCA. “The fact is that if people come to our main shelter and don’t see what they want, which is often a cute, cuddly puppy, they may end up going to a pet store, which just perpetuates puppy mills. So, from an animal-welfare perspective, we figured, why not give them what they want, where they want it?”
While it’s difficult to know how many such retail-based adoption sites are now in operation, variations on the concept are clearly beginning to take hold and grow. The MCSPCA mall site opened its doors in April 2012, about six months after Humane Society Naples (HSN) expanded into Coastland Center, an enormous shopping hub in southwestern Florida. AniMall Pet Adoption and Outreach Center of Cary, N.C., began developing a slightly different model in 2005, using rent-free space in a nowdefunct outlet mall to provide local rescue groups with a centralized location to showcase their adoptables. Three years ago, AniMall made the bold decision to move into 3,000 square feet in Cary Towne Center, where they pay market rate. That move was so successful that the nonprofit plans to expand into 4,000 square feet of space in the same mall this February.
With neighbors like Nordstrom, Macy’s, Sears and JCPenney, these adoption sites have had to learn to embrace a full retail model, starting with merchandising. Most stock an array of high-end pet supplies, from logo-wear and gourmet treats to dog beds and designer leashes. AniMall specializes in organic and specialty pet foods that contain no wheat, corn or other potentially harmful additives. The sales of these products are critical to funding the overall operation, as well as supporting rescue and adoption efforts.
Greatly extended hours are another component of the new retail model. Like their mall neighbors, these adoption sites are typically open seven days a week, and in the evenings, as late as nine. On “Black Friday” 2012, the Freehold Adoption Center racked up $600 in sales between midnight and 8 am on its way to a record-breaking $2,695 day. And AniMall is so serious about building customer loyalty that it recently launched a rescue-rewards program, where up to 6 percent of every sale is donated to the rescue group of the client’s choice.
The adoption sites have also become adept promoters. Last summer, a fashion show at Coastland Center paired adoptable dogs with runway models wearing styles from tenant collections, and was so popular that it is being restaged this year with a “Furry Valentine” theme. “It’s really nice to incorporate [the animals] into these events because it makes it fun for the whole family,” says Melissa Wolf, Coastland Center marketing manager and herself the owner of a rescued Doberman. “We have had some wonderful events here … that showcased many of our tenants and also helped many pets get adopted.”
The sum of these retail efforts—from sales and promotions to convenience and creation of a loyal customer base— supports the main goal: saving the lives of animals.
By the Numbers
The Coastland Mall adoption site placed 775 puppies in its first 12 months, essentially increasing Humane Society Naples’ total adoptions by nearly 40 percent and putting it on track to reach 3,000 in 2012, up from 2,200 in 2011. HSN executive director Michael Simonik says that the organization reaches out to high-kill shelters in rural parts of the state that don’t typically do many adoptions. They pulled 1,300 animals from death row last year alone. HSN also showcases adult dogs under 20 pounds, a size limit dictated by the site’s cages, which were constructed by the space’s previous tenant, a pet store. In both Florida and New Jersey, the animals are housed on-site, but are cycled back to the main shelter if they have not been adopted within about 10 days.
AniMall has facilitated about 5,000 adoptions over a six-year period using a variation on this model. Rather than representing a single group or shelter, it serves as a central resource for about 50 local organizations, including breedspecific dog groups, sanctuaries, shelters and animal-control facilities, and a host of specialized rescue outfits for animals ranging from llamas and pigs to rabbits and reptiles. Most of these groups pull their animals from local high-kill shelters, where the euthanasia rate averages about 70 percent. AniMall gives its members blocks of time on weekends and high-traffic days to showcase their animals to prospective adopters.
“We have a very active rescue community here, and people are doing great work, but they are very spread out. We wanted to support their efforts by bringing everyone together in one central space, and providing what they need most, which is exposure,” says Jeremiah Adams, executive director of AniMall. “So here, we can give them space in a high-traffic mall.”
Much of that traffic is actually driven by AniMall. “We have become a destination stop,” he says. “We don’t rely very much on walk-in traffic anymore. People are coming in specifically because we are here.”
“One of the best things about the setup is that we are educating the public,” says La Torre. “People come in saying they want to ‘buy’ a puppy, and that opens the door to talking about adoption and where our puppies come from and why they need our help. It’s almost as if you can see a light bulb going off in their heads.”
“People were telling us that there would be a lot of impulse buying, but we actually have fewer returns from the Coastland site than we do from the main shelter,” said Simonik. “People worried that our donations would dry up if the shelter profile was lowered, but now we have many more donors because so many more people know about us. It’s 100 percent positive feedback.”
Even at the mall, potential adopters are subject to the same requirements they would face at most shelters or through most rescue organizations. These typically involve questionnaires, reference checks and either proof of home ownership or written permission from a landlord to have a pet.
After being approved as adopters, Limongelli and Drummond took Tibet home. Intrigued by his origins, they have since educated themselves about the terrible situation for abandoned animals in Puerto Rico and have connected with All Sato Rescue, the group that originally saved Tibet from the streets. “It has been a wonderful experience and we appreciate all of the people who work so hard to find these animals homes,” says Limongelli. “Tibet is the most loving dog we have ever met—he is the perfect addition to our family.”
Dog's Life: Humane
Add your voice to the calls for more humane care
January 4 2013
For years, those of us who work on animal welfare issues in the U.S. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico have wondered what it would take to get the attention of the island’s governor, the police, the courts, the media and the rest of the country. The daily atrocities—from abandonment and gross neglect to beatings, shootings, burnings, machete attacks, poisonings and more—carried out on dogs, cats and even horses would be top stories anywhere else. How much worse would it have to get?
We found out in October. That was when municipal employees and workers from a private animal control agency, hired by the mayor of Barceloneta to rid three public housing projects of animals, seized about 80 family pets from their homes. What happened next is hard to fathom. Some of these animals—mostly dogs—were thrown to their deaths off a 50-foot bridge. (Three of the animal control workers go on trial for animal cruelty in May.)
Suddenly, people were paying attention. The “pet massacre” was news around the world. Organizations like mine, the Save a Sato Foundation (sato is slang for “stray dog”), fielded e-mail from across the U.S., Europe and even Australia. “This inhumane brutality is making your country appear savage and brutal in the eyes of the world,” was a typical sentiment.
We urged everyone to write to Puerto Rico Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá to beg him to find a solution to the deplorable suffering of the island’s animals. An online petition demanded the same thing; the goal was to reach 1,000 signatures—to date, 51,000 people have signed it. Acevedo Vilá, who has demonstrated a shocking lack of compassion during his years in office, answered every letter the same way: This was an isolated incident.
But he knows better. For years, rescuers from Manos por Patas and Amigos de los Animales have been tending to abandoned and brutalized animals on a strip of eastern coastline known as “Dead Dog Beach.” Acevedo Vilá has been sent the evidence: photos of the remains of dogs stuffed into garbage bags. (The situation north at Los Machos beach is just as bad.)
All this abuse carries a financial toll. In 2002, the nonprofit Puerto Rico Hotel & Tourism Association, a long-time proponent of addressing the issue, estimated that the island lost some $15 million a year “as a consequence of the stray animal problem.” The Barceloneta incident has surely sent this figure soaring.
At first, it seemed as though something positive might happen. The government-run Puerto Rican Tourism Company (PRTC)—famous for sending glossy brochures to tourists who wrote to complain about animal suffering—announced the formation of a coalition to address the problem. What emerged was a plan long on animal control (which means massive roundups and killings) and short on education and sterilization. Another problem was the PRTC’s budget for this effort: zero.
Another entity, the government’s Office of Animal Control, created last summer after years of haggling, could have seized the moment to effect real change. But it’s so disempowered that it doesn’t even have permission to use its meager $1.5 million in seed funding to fulfill its mandate of creating animal services in all 78 municipalities.
In the meantime, rescuers report seeing the massive dog sweeps they feared, especially near tourist spots. We know that not every dog can be saved. But, without addressing the root issue—overpopulation—these sweeps will only be followed by many more. Raising public awareness about sterilization is critical, as is making the procedure widely available.
The newly formed Coalition for the Wellbeing of Pets (CWP) is trying to do that. This mix of animal welfare groups, vets and shelters is seeking a waiver from the Veterinary Medicine Examining Board to allow off-island vets to conduct an initial spay/neuter project that could become a model for the future. (A ban on off-island vets has thwarted many earlier attempts.)
Puerto Rico also needs to raise its citizens’ awareness about animal welfare. There are shelters on the island, but with euthanasia rates topping 90 percent, people refuse to take their unwanted animals there. Instead, they prefer to dump pets on the streets, where there is at least the illusion of survival. But it is an illusion—stray animals suffer horribly.
Most importantly, we can’t let this issue go away. Bark readers can help. Please write to Gov. Acevedo Vilá; PRTC’s Executive Director of Tourism, Terestela Gonzalez; and Congressional Representative Luis Fortuño, who will be challenging Acevedo Vilá for the governor’s office next fall. And visit Save a Sato’s website to find out more about Puerto Rico’s dogs and what’s being done to help them.
Dog's Life: Humane
Working on behalf of street dogs
May 11 2012
On a steamy June morning, employees of the Bali Animal Welfare Association (BAWA) are engaged in one of the most rewarding parts of the job: delivering puppies to an enthusiastic group of new owners—all sixth-graders—in the town of Ubud. The students have completed a course in animal welfare, making them eligible to participate in the second annual “Bali Dog Idol” contest to see who takes the best care of a family pet. Last year, 18 students completed the six-month challenge, which required them to answer questions about responsible dog ownership and strut their pup in front of a live audience. The event proved to be such a success that this year BAWA, the sponsor, has increased the number of contestants to fifty.
“I’m so excited,” says 10-year-old Dayu Bintang, after selecting a female puppy from the BAWA van. “My family is going to help me take care of it. It’s our first pet.”
Though the young girl has never before shared her home with a dog, she knows that many stray dogs roam the streets. In fact, two forage through trash near her as she holds her new puppy. If the power of education—and the joys of pet companionship—work their magic as hoped, then it’s not just this one puppy who will benefit from the “Idol” experience. Bintang and her family may also begin to look more kindly on the dogs outside.
“Education is by far the most important program—and the one I care most about—because it’s the only hope for lasting change,” says California native Janice Girardi, who founded BAWA in 2007 after doing years of her own animal rescue work following her move to Bali to start a jewelry business. “But it’s the program that I end up giving the least amount of attention to because the other problems are so much more pressing.”
Most pressing by far is the excruciating balancing act that requires Girardi to weigh the importance of preventing dogs from being born against preventing dogs from being killed. That is, does she direct BAWA’s limited resources into the spay-and-neuter effort that stops endless litters from being born and then dying on the streets, or does she put her effort into a massive rabies vaccination campaign to save dogs from being killed by strychnine under the government’s “elimination” approach to rabies control?
Life was bad enough for animals in Bali before rabies arrived for the first time last November. For starters, the tropical climate leads to nasty skin problems and parasites. Dogs are killed and maimed every day by crushing traffic. Poverty prevents people from getting the medical care and food they need for themselves, let alone for dogs, and some restaurants still serve dog meat. Then there are religious factors: The Muslim minority considers dogs to be haram, or dirty, while the Hinduism practiced by the majority encompasses animism and animal sacrifice. And while nearly every home and business is casually linked to a dog or two who may bark at an intruder and receive a scrap of food in return, few Balinese realize they should put water out for these dogs or treat their wounds.
Add to this backdrop the arrival of rabies. Nine people have now died from the disease in the capital area of Badung/Denpasar. The government’s initial reaction was to ignore international recommendations for a comprehensive vaccination campaign, electing instead to kill thousands in a mass culling.
“It’s very simple: You have to do mass vaccinations, because dogs are here to stay in Bali,” says Dr. Elly Hiby, head of Companion Animals for the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA). “It [a mass campaign] is not ridiculously difficult and it’s not even that expensive, but if you haven’t done it before, then the idea of implementing it can be overwhelming.”
Meeting regularly with government officials, Girardi and her staff are trying to convince the government that BAWA could play a key role in that implementation, and they are making some headway. So far, officials have agreed not to kill any dogs in the affected area who have orange collars, signifying that they have been vaccinated by BAWA, which is catching, tagging, vaccinating and collaring about 600 dogs a week. Girardi has begged the government to let BAWA take on the whole island. “We’ll do it,” she says. “I don’t know how, but we’ll do whatever it takes to save dogs.”
Coming from Girardi, these aren’t idle words. Before she founded BAWA, she spent years loading injured dogs onto makeshift cardboard stretchers and driving them over an hour to the vet in Denpasar. Now she can call the 24-hour animal ambulance that she funded through BAWA.
A highly acclaimed jewelry designer, Girardi creates collections for Sundance, Red Envelope and other high-end outlets and puts most of the profits into BAWA, an organization whose programs include a 24-hour clinic that provides low-cost treatment to local animals and cares for rescued puppies and kittens until they can be rehomed, and the ambulance, which is staffed with a vet and dog-catchers (mercifully adept at using a net). The ambulance responds to calls from around the island and treats street dogs for skin and internal parasites, wounds and starvation.
With funding from the Bali Street Dog Fund of Australia, BAWA also runs a spay/neuter van that goes into the field six days a week, conducting up to 40 procedures a day in “M*A*S*H”-style setups, and treating skin conditions and wounds.
Other BAWA initiatives include an educational campaign, which Girardi is hoping to expand—in part by videotaping a public service announcement on animal welfare with a well-regarded local high priest. She is also trying to help craft Indonesia’s first animal welfare laws, and she oversees a feeding program in which at-risk dogs get daily meals. (Girardi herself feeds about 40 dogs a day on her commute.) BAWA staff members rescue puppies in immediate danger, sometimes socializing them in the offices of the jewelry company. (Employees often share their in-boxes with napping puppies.)
Because not enough adoptive homes exist—particularly for adult dogs—Girardi treats and returns older dogs to the locations at which they were found.
Treat-and-release works here because the “Bali Dog” is a pretty savvy and resourceful animal, who—if health and food requirements are met—can have a perfectly fine life without the trappings that most dog-obsessed Westerners would consider essential. Similar to the dingo, they’re indigenous animals beautifully adapted to their surroundings. Typical Bali dogs are long and lean, with very short hair. They’re also super-smart, naturally wary and inexhaustible barkers. In other words, Ubud isn’t overrun with Shih Tzus and Golden Retrievers that would be helpless on the streets.
“True Bali street dogs—those who have never had a home—can be happy if they have their own corner of pavement and if they have access to clean water, food, medical care and sterilization. That’s our goal,” says Paula Hodgson, co-founder of the Bali Street Dog Fund. “I have seen many street dogs who are well-fed and healthy (thanks to BAWA) and are happy to sleep on the warm pavement.”
Of course, reaching this goal takes a lot of manpower. BAWA employs 30 full-time staff members and could easily keep twice that many busy around the clock. With funding so precarious in this economy, Girardi is increasingly turning to volunteer help. Any enterprising animal lover can be put to immediate good use. Vicki Parker of Melbourne, Australia, is so committed to the cause that she goes twice a year, typically helping set up for operations and walking the beaches to assist dogs in distress.
“It can be very heartbreaking,” she says. “But the work is challenging and very rewarding and Janice is such an inspiration.”
Though the pace of progress may be achingly slow, there are clear signs that BAWA’s message is taking hold. For instance, Girardi now receives calls from community leaders two or three times a week, requesting help with unsterilized or ill dogs; even a year ago, it would have been BAWA’s job to initiate contact. BAWA’s outdoor traveling clinics overflow with repeat clients, along with their friends and neighbors. At one outpost, a little boy is given a liver treat for one of his dogs, and he carefully breaks it in half to share with the other dog at home. Dogs with collars, and some on leashes, are becoming a common sight on the streets of Ubud.
“I grew up never wanting to touch or even look at a dog,” says Nidya Viani, who works in Girardi’s jewelry company and was raised a strict Muslim. “But I’ve learned from Janice that if you love a dog, it will love you right back.”
Viani did some research after finding herself in the midst of dog lovers and learned that haram had its roots in rabies prevention rather than an innate dislike of dogs, and that the Prophet Mohammed actually encouraged the love of animals. “Now I don’t have to be afraid that I’m going against my religion,” she says. Viani has even become a frequent cuddler with office fixture and Bali Dog ambassadress Tina Turner (who has great legs and a throaty bark).
“BAWA is making a lot of progress in changing the way that people take care of their dogs,” says Dr. Son Soeharsono, a vet who has been practicing since 1974 and works with BAWA on many issues. “But there is still a lot to do.”
And that’s what keeps Girardi up nights. She is particularly frustrated by people who love animals but won’t take action because they don’t think one person can make a difference in the face of centuries of entrenched beliefs. This was the case with a government official who privately endorsed mass vaccination for rabies, yet refused to speak out against culling.
“I told him that there are countless examples of people acting alone and having a huge impact,” she said.
In fact, he was looking at one.
Dog's Life: Humane
The McKee Project’s innovative methods forge new bonds to help Latin America’s animals
February 23 2012
Over the past decade, as Christine Crawford has been developing her unique animal welfare model and rolling it out across Costa Rica, she has noticed some significant changes. For starters, these days, it’s rare to see a dog lying dead along the highway, and the dogs she encounters are generally much healthier than they used to be. At the same time, she’s seen a host of new veterinary clinics open up in almost every neighborhood of San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital city — something she interprets as a clear sign of the growing value being placed on companion animals. But what really caught her attention was the recent arrival of upscale doggie boutiques and the introduction of canine couture.
“We went from a culture where people would kick and starve their animals to a place where you can now buy dresses for your dog in shops in San Jose,” says Crawford, who moved to Costa Rica from her native California in the mid-1990s. “Never in my life would I have thought it possible. It’s like night and day.”
Acknowledging these positive developments in Costa Rica is about as effusive as Crawford will get in describing the impact that the McKee Project (mckeeproject.org) — the animal welfare organization that she founded in honor of her “second” mother, Mary Ann McKee, in 1997 — has been having on the lives of animals. While legions of animal advocates are unflinching in their praise for what she and her dedicated staff are accomplishing, Crawford isn’t likely to view McKee as a success until every village in every country in Latin America and the Caribbean has its own well-trained vet with a long line of clients eager to have their dogs and cats spayed or neutered.
Crawford herself was just such an eager client in search of just such a well-trained (or even competent) vet when she first settled into life in San Jose and realized the deplorable conditions companion animals faced. From emaciated dogs hunting for scraps to abandoned pregnant females and newborn puppies tossed on the trash heap: she couldn’t escape the daily parade of misery. Her first response was to carry dog food with her at all times. Her second was to reach out to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). PETA told her that the only sure way to improve the lives of animals was to stop the cycle of procreation. They sent her literature on spay/neuter and suggested she find a local vet who would help her launch a sterilization campaign.
Crawford followed that advice, scouring the city of some 4 million people for vets to enlist in her cause. She found just 10 who even treated small animals. (Because Costa Rica’s economy is primarily agricultural, most vets focus on large animals.) Of these 10, only five seemed competent, and even those five tended to approach a spay surgery as though it were a heart transplant. A typical incision ran the length of the animal’s rib cage all the way to the pelvic bone in a brutally invasive procedure that required an array of equipment, supplies and personnel, and took about 45 minutes to complete. Even worse, the trauma was so severe that mortality rates were shockingly high. The whole thing was barely tolerable for an individual animal, let alone a viable model for a large-scale campaign.
That’s when she first approached the Veterinary Licensing Board of Costa Rica and met its president, Dr. Yayo Vicente. A former official in the Ministries of Health and Agriculture who also ran his own veterinary clinic, Vicente is a pro at navigating the tricky waters of business and government bureaucracy. Most importantly, he shares Crawford’s vision of spay/neuter as key to improving the lives of animals. Soon enough, with the assistance of some of Crawford’s animal-welfare contacts in the United States, they were able to send a few Costa Rican vets north for advanced surgical training in high-volume spay/neuter techniques.
Fast-forward a few years, and the growing McKee team had mastered and then surpassed these techniques, developing their own surgical method that today may well be the most efficient on the planet. For starters, using their technique, the incision on females is very small — less than one inch — and its location can be easily and precisely determined by measuring against some stationary physical “landmarks.” This dramatic reduction in incision length correlates to similar reductions in every other aspect of the procedure. The surgery itself is so much faster — a well-trained vet can spay a dog or cat in less than 10 minutes — that much less sedation is required.
Rather than an inhaled anesthesia, which is used to keep an animal under longer, the vet can now administer an injection that lasts 20 minutes. Without the need for an inhalant, there is no need for a $20,000 anesthesia machine, and without that machine, there are no power requirements, which means that the whole thing is portable. In fact, McKee teams can go to even the remotest areas, packing their tables into boats to reach destinations only accessible by water.
The simpler, shorter procedure also means that little additional manpower is needed. These cascading reductions translate into a cost per procedure that is about one-third to one-fourth the cost of traditional methods. (The main innovation comes in the spay; neutering procedures are fairly standard the world over. However, the use of an injectable anesthesia likewise reduces the costs of a neuter.)
For the patient, of course, the faster, less invasive technique means significantly less trauma, less risk of postoperative complications and an all-around speedier recovery. The only element that isn’t reduced is safety. “Even when they set up in a tent rather than an operating room, their technique is extremely safe,” says Patrick O’Marr, regional director of Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean for the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA). WSPA sponsored a McKee project in Guatemala in 2007.
“And that’s been the challenge — how to provide the highest standards on a shoestring budget so we can reach as many animals as possible. I think it’s the best model out there.”
So does Aldo Wilson. A veterinarian who specialized in birds in his native Peru, Wilson now works on the emergency response team at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah. Best Friends sent him to Costa Rica in 2011 to learn from McKee’s chief of surgery training, Dr. Blas Rivas. Wilson practiced for a week on assorted sizes, sexes and ages of dogs and cats and became so adept that, during one session, he performed 118 procedures in 11 hours — an average of one every six minutes. A highly efficient vet in the United States might need 20 minutes for each operation (39 hours) to achieve the same result. (This rate is recommended only for extraordinarily proficient vets.)
“You probably know about Jehovah’s Witnesses — they are so committed to their cause that they go door to door and try to convert people, and it’s all they ever talk about,” Wilson said by cell phone en route to help animal flood victims in Tennessee. “Well, I’m a McKee witness.”
Wilson is one of more than 500 vets who have received training in the McKee Advanced Spay and Neuter Surgery Protocol. They hail from Argentina, Belize, Curacao, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama and Peru.
In some cases, they flew to Costa Rica for the training; in others, McKee vets traveled to the trainees’ home countries. Any vet who agrees to offer regular low-cost spay/neuter clinics in his or her own neighborhood may attend the McKee training at no charge. During training, the student vet performs at least 10 surgeries and may also assist in a mass-sterilization event, in which he or she may operate on dozens more animals. The training costs of $150 per vet are typically paid through private funding, or with the support of international organizations like WSPA and Best Friends.
Dr. Miguel de León Regil, who works with Mayan families in the town of Panajachel on the shores of Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan, received McKee protocol training in 2007. He was motivated by a desire to end the weekly killing of strays being perpetuated by local authorities.
They agreed to stop the carnage if he could come up with a more humane way to address the problem. He knew that spay/neuter was the answer, but he typically performed only four or five sterilizations a month and, given the invasive technique he was using, felt the procedure was very risky for the animal. Today, he does more than 50 procedures a month.
“We just didn’t have any education about sterilizations, so we hardly ever did them,” he writes in an email. “The new technique changed everything radically — it’s much safer and more efficient, and my costs have been reduced by 60 to 80 percent.” Regil reports that the population of stray dogs and cats is considerably diminished in his community, and he hopes to expand the program into neighboring areas.
As important as the spay/neuter program is, it is only part of the McKee model; equally critical is broader community training. As Crawford likes to say, the project “trains vets and people.” For this, McKee brings together various factions — from government officials and local authorities to representatives of nonprofits and business leaders — as well as local vets and educators in a series of meetings to frame animal welfare in terms of public safety, health and economics. Many communities recognize that for many reasons, large populations of abandoned animals are undesirable, and seek to reduce their numbers. But, with few resources and limited knowledge of alternatives, they often resort to mass killings, using cruel methods like poisoning. In the meetings, Vicente explains that culling is both inhumane and ineffective. Killing an area’s stray dogs simply leaves territories open to be claimed by new roamers, and the cycle continues.
Moreover, mass spay/neuter campaigns play an integral role in bringing about noticeable declines in the incidence of rabies.
Once these societal issues have been explained, Vicente reveals the pièce de résistance: not only will his program address animal overpopulation, but it will also provide local vets with a new way to make money. That’s right.
There is now a financial incentive for vets to address the problem of animal overpopulation. To die-hard animal activists everywhere, this amazing development is like hearing a lock’s tumblers fall into place after spending years searching for the right key.
As Crawford and others know, any serious animal-welfare effort must involve spay/neuter. Those procedures can either be done by sending in foreign vets, which is usually an expensive, one-off event, or by using local vets. And here’s where it gets tricky.
Regil, Wilson and other notables aside, most vets don’t choose their profession in order to be agents for social change; they simply want to make a living. The idea of offering low-cost sterilization services has seemed like unaffordable charity as well as a direct threat to their own businesses. Veterinary licensing boards have been known to stop such efforts in their tracks, much to the dismay of the animal-welfare community.
“This is a common barrier, but it’s not insurmountable,” says O’Marr, referring to the standoff between vets and animal-welfare activists. “Rather than pointing fingers at each other and creating a hostile relationship, McKee has been able to get these two groups to the same table.”
A McKee-method spay costs a pet owner as little as $10 to $12 while still earning the vet a profit, which means that a whole new socioeconomic market can now afford to have their animals altered. Moreover, that initial procedure often leads to a long-term relationship between vet and pet owner.
Crawford says that about one-quarter of the people who have had their animals sterilized by a McKee-trained vet return for additional services, such as vaccines and emergency care, and to buy products. In Dr. Rivas’s own practice, for example, he has expanded his regular client base by 900 during the time he has been using the McKee protocol.
This conversion from one-off to regular customer represents another critical element of the McKee approach. When a pet owner — even one who would be considered lax by U.S. standards — makes even a small financial investment in an animal, that animal’s perceived value grows accordingly. And the more valuable the animal becomes, the better he or she will be treated.
“We have seen that going to a vet really changes the dynamic between animal and owner, between owner and vet, and between vet and community,” says Crawford. “It happens as people
meet a vet for the first time during the course of this procedure, and then as they begin to see the impact that the procedure has on their animal — the change in her behavior, the improvement in her coat, and the fact that they no longer have to figure out what to do with multiple litters. It’s a complete cultural shift.”
Of course, in most of these communities, there are stray dog and cat populations. Even in this case, the low sterilization cost makes it much more likely that local animal nonprofits or even municipal authorities will underwrite the costs. And most of the McKee-trained vets make a habit of conducting at least one low-cost clinic per month targeted to this population.
Orchestrating and conducting these training sessions, as well as meeting with diverse community members, raising awareness, conducting outreach to new areas and providing follow-up, falls to a remarkably small crew of dedicated staffers. Yet, with each training session, the number of supporters and advocates grows. “McKee is a collaborative effort, and it’s much like a table — without one leg, it tips over,” says Crawford. “McKee truly comprises hundreds, if not thousands, of selfless and committed community veterinarians, community leaders and animal lovers.” One thing the McKee program does not endorse is the creation and maintenance of traditional animal shelters.
Without the cultural predisposition toward adoption, such shelters fill up immediately with unwanted cats and dogs who have virtually no hope of ever finding homes. Living in cramped conditions, the animals suffer terribly, and most are euthanized. Euthanasia rates of 99 percent throughout Latin America and the Caribbean are not uncommon.
In fact, shelters in these areas may actually perpetuate the problem of animal overpopulation by removing the incentive for spay or neuter. If someone has a place to dump successive litters of unwanted puppies, why bother to get the mother fixed?
“The thing is, if you have a shelter, people will treat it like a dumpster and they won’t fix the problem in the long term,” says Wilson. “If you take the limited resources that these countries have and invest them in more strategic areas like spay/neuter and education, then you won’t fill up shelters in the first place.”
As a “McKee witness,” Wilson probably has a pretty good idea where he would like to see those limited resources directed.
CYCLE 4 STRAYS
For the past three winters, Davide Ulivieri has spent a few weeks living like a stray dog. Starting and/or finishing in Costa Rica, he rode his bicycle thousands of kilometers in all types of weather, climbing mountain passes, crossing hot deserts and wading through swollen rivers. Traveling without a support vehicle, he aims to be a pedaling example of the hardships faced by homeless dogs in the developing world, and his quest is to raise awareness about responsible ownership and the need for compassion.
He also hopes to raise financial support for the McKee Project, the National Association for the Protection of Animals of Costa Rica and Spay Panama. His 2010 ride, launching from Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah, where he’d been a Dogtown caretaker, started in the snow. He rode 5,000 kilometers in 70 days through Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
While Ulivieri usually rides alone, this year, he is launching an additional series of less-demanding cycle tours (called Ciclo-Turismo Animalero) so more riders can join him. The seven-day tours in Costa Rica will include plenty of cycling plus stops at a spay/neuter clinic, a shelter and a wildlife refuge. All profits, after costs, will be donated to the McKee Project.
Dog's Life: Humane
New approaches to overpopulation
Last year, when the animal welfare group, All Sato Rescue, Inc., held a low-cost spay/ neuter clinic in Pinones, P.R., it took 10 weeks of planning and fundraising, a dozen volunteers, $1,750 in donations, and about 60 secondhand towels and sheets. By the end of the day, a total of 38 animals had been sterilized: 28 female dogs, four male dogs and six female cats. That total represented more than eight hours in surgery on the part of Dr. Gwen Davis, one of only a few local vets trained in high-volume procedures, who drove three hours each way to participate.
Ensuring that 38 animals will not be contributing to the cycle of overpopulation, abandonment and abuse on this island, whose unfortunate record on animal welfare is well documented, is a huge achievement by any measure. Most animal advocates are painfully aware of the procreative powers of female companion animals: over their lifetimes, one unspayed dog and her offspring can produce more than 6,000 pups, and one unspayed cat and her offspring can produce more than 400,000 kittens, according to SPCA International.
Which means that this single event in Pinones is likely to have saved hundreds of thousands of animals from lives of misery on local streets and beaches. But the herculean effort required to achieve these 38 procedures doesn’t bode well for Puerto Rico’s estimated 150,000-plus stray dogs. Apply this same scenario to every country on the planet that has an animal overpopulation problem — which is most of them — and the task of humanely addressing this problem feels utterly overwhelming.
Is There Another Way?
That is, in fact, the holy grail being pursued by a smattering of researchers, scientists, veterinarians and animal welfare professionals. These highly motivated individuals are trying to come up with a new product or products that will provide permanent or even significantly long-term contraception, delivered as a single treatment that doesn’t require a veterinarian to administer.
“The idea of birth control for straydog populations is almost magical,” said Laura Simpson, founder of Harmony Fund, an international animal rescue charity that supports sterilization and rescue efforts around the world. “It’s a pulse-racing possibility to fundamentally transform the fortune of hundreds of millions of dogs.”
Making magic a reality is the goal of the Alliance for Contraception in Cats & Dogs (ACC&D), a small, Portland, Ore.–based nonprofit. Its president, Joyce Briggs, describes her organization’s role as a catalyst in introducing nonsurgical sterilization methods and supporting their distribution and promotion. To maintain objectivity, the group does not conduct the actual research. Rather, it keeps a finger on the pulse of who’s developing what and for what, how far along it is in development and how promising it is.
“The goal is not to eliminate cats and dogs, of course, but to prevent the births of unwanted cats and dogs — of which there are millions upon millions around the world,” says Briggs. “The reality is that many communities lack the resources to provide appropriately for the number of cats and dogs being born in them today. Our ideal would be to achieve a balance between numbers of animals and resources.”
The group has received a thumbsup from almost every major animal welfare group in the nation, if not the world. Its website is a virtual “Who’s Who” in support letters from everyone from the ASPCA and HSUS to WSPA. Likewise, its board of directors and scientific advisory board include leading experts in animal welfare, animal health, veterinary medicine, international dog and cat population control, regulatory processes and public health. And then there’s its partnership with billionaire businessman turned animal advocate, Dr. Gary Michelson, whose Found Animals Foundation has pledged a $25 million award to any scientist or company who can crack the code, and $50 million in grants to advance promising work.
“This gift has made a dramatic difference in terms of the number of laboratories involved and the range of approaches being undertaken,” says Stephen L. Zawistowski, PhD, CAAB, science advisor for the ASPCA and member of ACC&D’s board of directors. He notes that the focus had been squarely on a hormonal approach, something akin to the pill for women, but now, multiple biological mechanisms are being considered. “I think the most exciting thing is that we now have people concentrating on [nonsurgical sterilization], whereas over the past 20 years, people worked on it, but on the back bench. Now it’s on the front bench.”
Briggs is bent on keeping it there. Part of ACC&D’s mission is to reach beyond traditional animal-health circles, appealing to researchers in diverse disciplines who have fresh eyes and approaches to a problem they didn’t even know existed. Two recent ACC&D-sponsored think tanks, for instance, brought together a diverse group of top academics, senior scientists at biotech companies, cancer researchers and specialists in infectious diseases. “What we found in the think tanks is that people were fascinated by the intellectual curiosity of the whole thing,” says Briggs.
“We’re trying to overcome the most potent force of nature — the essence of life,” says Julie Levy, DVM, director of Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “Reproductive success drives evolution, so reproductive forces are the strongest biological factors [in] any species. That’s why no one has figured this out yet — it’s hard.”
Levy, who has been researching contraception in cats for the last eight years, now oversees clinical trials of promising products, including a vaccine formulation that was originally developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to humanely manage wildlife populations, such as wolves and deer. GonaCon™ worked in about 75 percent of cats for two-and-a-half years, but fell to 27 percent at five years. In dogs, however, it tended to cause infection at the injection site. Levy is trying to make it both more effective and safer.
Another product being used in the field is an injectable sterilant for male dogs called EsterilSol™, which has U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval (under the name Neutersol®) for dogs age three to 10 months. ACC&D has helped fund projects using EsterilSol in dogs from three months to adult in Guatemala, the Galapagos, the Dominican Republic and the Samoan Islands. Data reported back by grantees help increase knowledge on best practices in EsterilSol use. The price for EsterilSol can be as little as four dollars per dog (or even lower for small dogs), and only light sedation is needed to inject the drug. As many as 200 male dogs can be treated in just several hours. Moreover, maintaining an intact male dog (with its male parts and behaviors!) helps overcome cultural objections to the perceived emasculating effects of castration.
Vet Gwen Davis, who is also founder of the Puerto Rico Animal Welfare Society, used Neutersol on more than 300 stray male dogs. She found that about one in every 100 reacted with a bad inflammation at the injection site — a figure that she says might be acceptable in strays, but not in owned animals.
Then there’s the fertility-control product, ContraPest™, which was developed by the biotech company SenesTech to humanely control rodent infestations in rice-producing countries in Southeast Asia. As ChemSpay™, this product is being expanded for use in other species; ultimately, it will be used to address overpopulation of dogs and cats. The active ingredient, which is based on an industrial chemical, has been shown to cause permanent sterility in female rodents by depleting egg follicles in the ovaries without adverse effects to either the animal or the environment.
A dose of ChemSpay in the form of dog biscuits doled out over 15 days was given to 18 dogs by its co-developer and SenesTech’s chief scientific officer, Loretta P. Mayer, PhD. The dogs, who had been rescued from the Navajo reservation and subsequently adopted, were then spayed by traditional surgical procedures to analyze their ovarian egg-count levels. Each dog showed 73 percent depletion, which results in sterility in other species. However, Mayer is quick to point out that this sample does not provide conclusive proof. To get that, the dogs would have to have been artificially inseminated and then tested for subsequent pregnancies. In mice and rats, the dosing number has been reduced to three days, which is promising for other species as well.
“This isn’t a pill sitting on my desk: this is a technology based on scientific fact that we believe can be developed,” says Mayer. “We believe that anything that decreases eggs in the ovary of one mammal can also deplete them in another mammal, but that is an academic argument that hasn’t been tested yet.”
Mayer would dearly love to do that testing. In particular, she wants to see the technology further developed to be effective as a single exposure — injection, implant or biscuit. But finding the funding necessary to continue development and then get the product through the many U.S. regulatory hurdles is challenging. SenesTech has allied itself with the nonprofit rescue group 600 Million Stray Dogs Need You to bring attention to the issue and appeal to potential donors.
“We know from surveys that the reason some people in this country still don’t sterilize their pets is primarily cost, but also convenience, such as transportation to and from the clinic,” says Zawistowski. “We also know that even people who intend to get their pets sterilized can end up with what we call the ‘oops’ litter.” That’s “oops” as in, “Who knew a four-month-old kitten could get pregnant?” In the United States, this accounts for about threequarters of kitten births and about half the puppies.
Zawistowski envisions a return to the days when families slogged over to the local armory to stand in line for their polio-vaccine sugar cubes. Or perhaps teams of vet techs could fan out into rural areas, going door to door, offering health exams and services to companion animals. A permanent sterilant would be just one of many tools in their portable health kit. Of course, it’s in the international arena where the impact of a nonsurgical sterilant is the most critical. It has the potential to do for animal welfare what Facebook did for social interaction. That’s an idea that makes a rescuer’spulse start racing. For years, major cities around the world have resorted to mass poisonings, shootings and worse in their efforts to reduce the number of dogs on the streets. Not only are these methods barbaric, they are also ineffective.
“The field is so exciting because if an affordable, easy-to-administer product is developed, it will reach all corners of the earth and improve animal welfare in a way that we have never seen before — and really never thought would be possible,” says Levy.
If, rather than a single product that meets every need, there were several products with specific complementary targets, the world’s strays would still be better off by several orders of magnitude. An injectable sterilant for male puppies, for instance, and an implant that keeps female cats sterile for three years would be huge steps forward.
“It’s like you’re working toward a car that will get 100 miles per gallon and in the meantime, someone comes up with one that gets 60. That’s pretty great,” says Zawistowski. “I’d still get pretty excited about that.” Briggs and others think it will be about 10 years before an effective, all-purpose product is approved for use in the United States, with much of that time consumed by regulatory issues.
For many veteran animal rescuers, the idea of handing out dog-biscuit sterilants instead of appealing for donations, volunteers, operating space, a skilled vet, anesthesia and towels would be a lifetime dream fulfilled.
“After 25 years in animal welfare in Puerto Rico, I have probably spent thousands of hours and much of my personal income on getting as many dogs and cats sterilized as possible — because it’s the only way we can begin to address the horrible problems we have here,” says Edilia Vazquez, president of All Sato Rescue. “If we could stop that and put all our time and money into other programs, like education and enforcement of our animal cruelty laws, we would have a real chance.”
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