law & politics
News: Guest Posts
Husky’s future home to be decided by the courts
Microchipping dogs is a great tool for reuniting people and dogs, but only if people do the responsible thing and check dogs that they find for the presence of a chip. That didn’t happen in the case of a Husky who is now at the center of a lawsuit to decide who gets to keep the dog.
In 2010, Michael Gehrke bought the dog who he named Mya. She lived on his 10-acre property with his horses and two other dogs. Mya was best buddies with one of them, Rex, and the pair had two litters of puppies together. In 2013, she wandered off and Gehrke’s attempts to find her by posting signs and visiting the local shelter were unsuccessful.
Mya had walked to the local elementary school. Instead of checking her for a microchip or attempting to find her family through any other channels, a staff member at the school passed her on to her son’s friend, Ashlee Anderson. Anderson had just moved from the town where Gehrke and Mya lived to a town 200 miles away, and was in the market for a dog.
In 2017, the dog (who Anderson calls Sitka) wandered off again and was picked up by animal control. Because she wasn’t wearing any tags, the animal control officer checked her for a microchip, which identified her as Gehrke’s dog Mya. Gehrke assumed that since she was traced to him, and he showed all his vet records and photos of Mya as a puppy, that he would get his dog back, but that is not what happened.
Instead, the animal control officer returned the dog to Anderson. Her rationale was that there was no evidence of a crime and that her job is not to act as a judge but to get dogs off the streets and back to a safe home. Gehrke has filed a lawsuit in order to require that Anderson return the dog.
Anderson offered to pay Gehrke $1,200 (his original purchase price for Mya) to keep the dog, but he informed her that he is not interested in the money. So Anderson has responded by hiring attorneys to argue her case so she can keep Sitka.
A judge will hear the case on June 2, 2017. Both people clearly love this dog, so whatever happens, she will end up in a loving home. However, one of the people—Gehrke or Anderson—will be saddened by a legal decision that means they must live without her. All of this mess, including the impending heartbreak for a person who loves this dog, could have been avoided if Mya had been checked for a microchip the first time she wandered off.
Who do you think should end up with the dog?
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
A vet speaks out on genetically modified pet food.
Most dogs now dine on some type of genetically modified (GM) food, often in the form of corn and soy in their kibble. As these ingredients increasingly enter the food supply, we have one more reason to wonder if our shopping choices might be harming our pets.
More animal feeding studies are needed, experts say, and a recent long-term, peer-reviewed report points out why. It found that a diet of GM corn and soy led to higher rates of severe stomach inflammation in pigs, which are physiologically similar to dogs.
Robert Silver, DVM, a Boulder, Colo., holistic vet, tackled the issue earlier this year when he presented his paper, “Genetically Modified Food and Its Impact on Pet Health” at the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association conference in Kansas City, Mo. Why did he choose this controversial topic, one that few vets even acknowledge?
Silver—a pioneer in the field of holistic veterinary medical practice—says he was inspired by a seminar he attended in Boulder on GM foods and human health. The speakers included Don Huber, a Purdue University professor, and activist Jeffrey Smith, who discussed problems, including reproductive difficulties, that have occurred in livestock fed GM crops.
“I found this seminar mind-opening,” says Silver, the lone vet in attendance. “I had always believed the PR about GM foods—that they are going to feed the world and are a good outcome of our genetic technology.”
The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates the safety of GM crops consumed by humans and animals, considers most GM plants “substantially equivalent” to traditional plants and “generally recognized as safe.” Their regulation involves a voluntary consultation process with the developer before products are brought to market.
Smith, founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology, disagrees. On its website (responsibletechnology.org), he warns that “nearly all GM crops are described as ‘pesticide plants.’ They either tolerate doses of weed killer, such as Roundup, or produce an insecticide called Bt-toxin. In both cases, the added toxin—weed killer or bug killer—is found inside the corn or soybeans we consume.”
Silver says that while “allergies, GI problems, increased risk of cancer, neurodegenerative conditions” and other ills could all be, in part, related to GM foods, “there is no objective evidence of this yet” in dogs. “However, all vets will agree that there has been an uptick in [these diseases] in the past 10 to 20 years.” The advent of GM foods in the 1990s “fits into this timing of disease increases,” he says.
His presentation referred to studies that raise doubt about the safety of biotech crops, such as one reported in 1996 in the New England Journal of Medicine, which found that genes inserted into crops can carry with them allergenic properties.
Silver says that genetic modification introduces foreign proteins that may encourage allergies, and the widely planted Bt corn, which makes its own insecticide, “could possibly cause leaky gut, the gateway to chronic disease.” Corn is a major component of most commercial pet foods. “The big problem with commercial foods is that they are manufactured at high temperatures and pressures,” which alters them and makes them “potentially more allergenic.” And commercial foods contain industrial ingredients that are “more likely to contain GM and herbicide contaminants.”
A study published last year found that GM crops engineered to withstand the toxic herbicide Roundup must now be doused with even more herbicide, since weeds have also developed resistance to it. Residues of these chemicals on crops can find their way into pet food.
A 2013 study published in the science journal Entropy reports that the heavy use of Roundup could be linked to Parkinson’s, autism, infertility and cancers. It goes on to report that residues of Roundup in food can interact with, and enhance, the damaging effects of other environmental toxins. “Negative impact on the body is insidious and manifests slowly over time as inflammation damages cellular systems throughout the body,” the study’s researchers say.
According to Silver, heightened sensitivity to dietary ingredients “is probably what we are seeing with GM foods. It is of concern that this may be driving the increase in GI problems in pets.” Although gluten probably does account for some problems with grain consumption, “I think that grain-free diets, if they are also soy free and contain protein from animals not fed GM crops, can help many dogs, due to being GM free—and not due to some allergy or gluten issue.”
To a holistic doctor, food is medicine, and Silver strongly recommends home meal preparation from individually sourced ingredients to avoid feeding GM ingredients, especially to pets who have other health problems. “I am truly a holistic practitioner in that I believe an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Benbrook, C.M. 2012. Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the U.S.—the first 16 years. Environmental Sciences Europe 24: 24.
Ordlee, J., et al. 1996. Identification of a Brazil-nut allergen in transgenic soybeans. The New England Journal of Medicine 334: 688–692.
Samsel, A., and S. Seneff. 2013. Glyphosate’s suppression of cytochrome P450 enzymes and amino acid biosynthesis by the gut microbiome: Pathways to modern diseases. Entropy 15 (4): 1416–1463.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Citizens fight for off-leash recreation in Golden Gate National Recreational Area
A contentious fight for off-leash recreation has raged for decades in Golden Gate National Recreational Area, with the National Park Service threatening to severely reduce access to dogs. New evidence proves that the battle has been fraught with bias, faulty studies and collusion.
San Francisco has a reputation for being dog friendly. More dogs than children live within its city limits, and many companies, especially tech start-ups, encourage employees to bring their dogs to work.
But San Francisco, surrounded on three sides by water, is also the second densest city in the country. As a result, recreational open space is at a premium, and that has led to squabbles in San Francisco’s urban parks, especially over where dogs can and cannot be walked.
Dog advocates have been fighting for years to preserve gains in recreational access made in the ’70s and ’80s. We have always felt the deck was stacked against us, but recent revelations have shown us that the situation was even worse than we thought. These revelations also forced a federal agency to delay implementation of the severe dog-walking restrictions it wanted to impose.
An Urban National Park
In 1972, Congress created Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), initially a hodgepodge of land in San Francisco and Marin Counties, to “concentrate on serving the outdoor recreation needs of the people of the metropolitan area.” It was part of a Nixon administration’s campaign to “bring parks to the people” and increase outdoor recreation in urban areas.
San Francisco transferred all public oceanfront land within city limits to the National Park Service (NPS) for inclusion in GGNRA. In return, the NPS promised to protect and preserve the land’s traditional recreational uses, which included off-leash dog walking.
In 1979, as part of this promise, GGNRA developed a “pet policy,” which allowed people to walk dogs, including off-leash dogs, at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, Fort Funston, Marin’s Muir and Rodeo Beaches, and on miles of trails in the Marin Headlands—somewhat less than 1 percent of the total holdings. For decades, people hiked these parklands with their dogs, played with them in the surf, and enjoyed the sense of community that arises in areas where people and dogs have fun together.
But, by the 1990s, the NPS management mindset at GGNRA began to move away from the original focus on recreational access. Senior staff argued that they needed to manage this highly modif ied, urban recreation area the same way that remote, pristine wilderness is managed. Since dogs are not allowed in places like Yellowstone or Crater Lake, the NPS claimed, they should never have been allowed in GGNRA. In their view, earlier promises no longer applied.
In 1995, the NPS began fencing off areas at Fort Funston to all visitors (not just people with dogs). Then, in 2001, it rescinded the pet policy by administrative fiat. In neither case did GGNRA staff bother to seek public input before making their decisions, despite being required by law to do so. In both cases, dog advocates went to federal court to force the agency to follow the law. In both cases, we won.
The Fort Funston case, in particular, embarrassed the NPS. Internal emails, uncovered in the lawsuit, showed that GGNRA staff had knowingly lied to the public about their plans, repeatedly telling people no more closures were coming while actively planning more fenced-off areas.
A New Plan
In the nearly 20 years since, the NPS has single-mindedly pushed forward with a plan to ban entirely or reduce significantly where we can walk with our dogs in GGNRA, partially as payback for dog-walkers daring to take them to court— and win.
In the final version of its “Proposed Rule for Dog Management in the GGNRA” released last year, the NPS called for drastic cuts of up to 90 percent in the few places where people could now walk with their dogs. It put even tighter restrictions on those who walk more than three dogs, prohibiting them from doing so on evenings or weekends anywhere in GGNRA. While targeting professional dog walkers, this provision would also have a huge negative impact on rescue groups and fosters, whose volunteers often walk larger groups of dogs.
According to this plan, if the NPS decides that there hasn’t been enough compliance with the new restrictions, GGNRA’s superintendent can change access status from off-leash to on-leash, or no dogs at all. The superintendent doesn’t have to show that dogs have caused any problems, just that too many people are walking dogs in areas where the NPS doesn’t want them. Within a few years, under this plan, all GGNRA dog walking could be prohibited with the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen.
And, as GGNRA continues to rack up tens of millions of dollars in deferred routine maintenance— deferred because of a lack of funding— the NPS was willing to spend $2.6 million each year to hire more rangers to enforce the new restrictions on people with dogs.
It would be an understatement to say that the proposed plan did not go over well with those who have enjoyed walking their dogs in GGNRA for generations. We organized protests and marches. We attended public meetings and reached out to local elected officials for support. At every stage of the process, public comment—including comments from nearly every local elected official—was overwhelmingly opposed to the proposed restrictions.
We pointed out that there was no evidence of significant negative impacts by dogs at any GGNRA site, and that there were serious errors and mistakes in the dog plan’s environmental analysis. We showed that the NPS did not analyze the impact on surrounding communities if the thousands and thousands of people who walked their dogs on parklands moved into the much smaller city parks. That analysis was the only thing the San Francisco Board of Supervisors had asked of the NPS, yet the agency did little more than compile a list of nearby parks.
Despite everything, the NPS made only a few, mostly cosmetic, changes to the dog plan it first officially proposed in 2011. None of those changes benefited people with dogs.
In July 2015, hearing that a draft rule was coming soon, a coalition of dog and recreation groups, including Save Our Recreation, San Francisco DOG, Marin County DOG and Coastside DOG of San Mateo County, submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the NPS, seeking documents related to the development of the dog plan.
When nearly a year passed with few documents released, Chris Carr, head of the Environment and Energy Practice Group at the prominent law firm Morrison & Foerster, sued the NPS for violating FOIA.
As a result of the lawsuit being filed, the agency finally began handing over the requested documents. They were damning. You can see them at WoofieLeaks.com. The website’s name may be cute, but the contents raise serious legal and ethical questions about how the NPS developed its plan. What clearly comes across is the agency’s complete and utter contempt for people and for public input. In their emails, NPS staff routinely mocked dog walkers, calling them “rattlesnakes,” and derided anyone—even elected officials— who dared question their plans. A staff biologist suggested leaving scientific information that supported fewer restrictions on dogs out of the plan’s environmental impact statement. A senior GGNRA official directed staff to delete emails about the dog plan, saying, “These conversations are best done by phone.”
But perhaps most troubling was the revelation that more than one GGNRA official used a private email account to conduct official business on the dog plan, apparently thinking the private emails would be hidden from any FOIA request. (They’re not, and you can read those on WoofieLeaks.com, as well.)
One senior staffer (who, ironically, served as GGNRA’s FOIA officer and director of communications and partnerships) used his private email account to collude and coordinate with special-interest groups opposed to dog walking. He did this in an effort to drum up public comments and support for GGNRA’s proposal at a time when the agency was supposed to be impartially analyzing alternatives. That same staffer may also have engaged in unlawful grassroots lobbying by advising those same groups on how to communicate with a member of Congress.
Shine a Light on Bias
The emails and other FOIA documents clearly proved that, as we always suspected, the NPS staff members who developed the dog plan were unfairly biased against dog walking and people with dogs. The surprise, however, was their level of active engagement with only one side in the debate: those opposed to dog walking.
Similar collusion is likely happening in other places where dog walking is under attack, and dog advocates should be on the lookout for it. Don’t be afraid to use whatever open-government laws exist in your jurisdiction, from FOIA to local “sunshine” laws, to ferret out bias and impropriety. Look what FOIA did for us.
The day before the NPS planned to sign the rule and put it into effect, the agency announced that the rule was being postponed indefinitely while it conducted an investigation of the private emails and their impact on the development of the dog plan.
Given the NPS’s long history of bias in this matter, there is serious doubt about the agency’s capacity to fairly and impartially investigate the actions of its own staff. To prevent a whitewash of GGNRA misdeeds, many people, including Congresswoman Jackie Speier (whose district includes GGNRA land in San Mateo and San Francisco Counties), have called for an independent inquiry by the Department of the Interior’s Office of Inspector General, not by NPS staff, as the agency has proposed.
The decades-long process to create a new dog management plan for GGNRA has been so seriously flawed by outright bias, collusion, omission of data and intentional subverting of the public process that any plan that comes out of it is similarly tainted. The NPS’s proposed plan can never be lawfully adopted and implemented.
Had it not been for our FOIA request and lawsuit, however, we might never have been able to prove our suspicions about the NPS’s unfair and predetermined process.
The fight is by no means over, however. The NPS could decide next week, next month, or anytime in the future to try to move forward with the same restrictive plan that it’s been pushing for nearly 20 years. But if they do, dog advocates— and our lawyers—will be waiting, ready to continue the fight for our right to walk with our dogs in places enjoyed by many generations of people and their pups.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Legal pet custody issues continue to evolve in divorce courts.
We all know that breaking up is hard to do. It’s especially difficult when animal companions are part of what is distributed or shared between two newly separate households.
Recently, a divorcing Canadian couple could not agree over custody of their two dogs. After inundating the court with pleadings describing the several pets they had cared for over the years (and who had done most of the caring), the wife asked the judge to treat the dogs like children, awarding custody to her with visitation for the husband. Clearly frustrated with the request and the case’s drain on limited judicial resources, Justice Richard Danyliuk of Court of Queen’s Bench for Saskatchewan wrote a lengthy decision that made headlines in Canada and the United States.
The judge began his decision by declaring his love of animals. “Dogs are wonderful creatures.” He then went on to say, “Many dogs are treated as members of the family with whom they live. But after all is said and done, a dog is a dog. At law it is property, a domesticated animal that is owned. At law it enjoys no familial rights.”
The same is true in most jurisdictions across the United States.
Animal law specialist Adam Karp of Bellingham, Wash., is familiar with the Canadian judge’s reaction and position. Because courts are overburdened, judges are reluctant to tackle issues they don’t have to, including custody of pets. Divorce trials are also low on the judicial popularity list, and asking for a ruling on pet custody sometimes pushes the limits of their patience. “The inexact fit of child custody statutes calls for ingenuity, what some reject as a type of ‘judicial activism.’” Karp says. “Judges may look for a cookie-cutter approach to quickly dispose of such cases, and categorizing an animal as mere ‘property’ allows that. But these issues go to the core of our hearts and hearths.
“Though the Canadian judge’s opinion was not entirely dismissive, and he assuredly spent a long time on it, one wonders if the time taken to author the opinion could have been better spent doing justice to the parties’ situation. Regardless, his attentiveness to the legal issue shows that animal lives matter and seriously elevates the dialogue within courts and society.”
Family vs. Property
Closer to home, I spent more than 30 years practicing family law in Washington and Idaho, focusing much of my practice on representing the interests of children whose parents were fighting over custody and visitation. For most of those years, I observed that family pets were the forgotten victims of divorce. Very rarely were they mentioned in property distributions, even though in both Washington and Idaho, as in most states, pets are considered property and so could have been listed along with household furnishings, vehicles and retirement benefits. If a divorcing couple had kids, typically their pets stayed with the parent with whom the children were going to reside the majority of the time.
More difficult are the cases where there aren’t any children and the couple lived together without the legal status of marriage. When they break up, they generally must reach agreements on dividing property, including pets, without court assistance. Perhaps they acquired a dog while together. Both bonded with the dog—and the dog with them— and while they’ve decided to break up with each other, neither wants to break up with the dog. What to do?
Some couples come up with informal agreements. For example, they agree to alternate custody, meeting weekly to make the exchange. It might work for a while, but just as with shared custody of children, all it takes to upset the plan is for one person to move a significant distance away (making traveling to exchanges a burden both in time and expense) or to become involved with a new human (setting off a storm of jealousy).
In a Washington state case, a couple who had lived together and then separated agreed to share custody of their dog. This arrangement was stressed when one of them moved, and broken altogether when the woman became involved with a new man. The former boyfriend not only refused to return the dog at the scheduled time, he took the dog and disappeared. The woman hired a private investigator to locate her dog, and an attorney to bring legal action to regain possession of him.
The case opened with a temporary court order requiring both parties to “possess and care” for the dog on a week on/week off schedule pending trial. While it was shown at trial that both had been very involved in all aspects of the dog’s care, the court determined that the woman was the owner and possessor of the dog— the property—but would have to reimburse her former boyfriend for the amount he had originally paid toward the dog’s purchase. (The boyfriend’s unwise decision to hide the dog likely influenced the judge’s decision to deny him guardianship.)
What’s Best for the Dog?
Litigation is expensive and traumatic for all involved. “This is my area; I practice animal law,” says Karp. “While I do not endorse litigating custody disputes in a week-long trial while enlisting multiple experts and character witnesses, chastisement, as done by the Saskatchewan judge, does nothing to help the quite real emotions and investments made by the parties to the litigation. And, yes, there is a risk (as in many family law disputes) for litigators to turn such a dispute into a clownish fiasco. A sense of proportion and moderation are critical. But more importantly, all involved should do their best to objectively ascertain the perspective of the one who does not get to take the stand—giving voice to the animal’s best interests, something we often currently miss.”
Yet, there’s hope for positive change in this age-old legal approach of treating pets as property in family law cases. In January of this year, new statutory provisions with regard to divorce and legal separation in Alaska became effective, requiring courts to consider “the well-being of the animal” owned by the parties in final agreements or judgments. The provisions allow for sole or joint ownership post-divorce, and provide a broad a definition of an animal as “a vertebrate living creature not a human being,” which would include almost any companion animal or livestock a couple might own.
This language opens the door for Alaskan courts to make custody, visitation and cost-sharing provisions for family pets and any other animals owned by a couple, similar to those made for children. It may also allow the court to appoint special advocates for pets in particularly contentious cases, just as it does for children.
What if you don’t live in Alaska or a jurisdiction with similar statutes? If, instead of reaching agreement, the parties go to trial and leave the issue for the court to decide, the judge’s only option in almost all states is to award the property—the pet—to one party or the other. There are no provisions for visitation or shared cost because the law allows a court to make such awards only for children, not animals.
However, divorcing couples can agree to many things that courts can’t force them to do—either on their own or with the help of a mediator—and if those agreements are included in the divorce decree, they’re legally enforceable if one party breaches the terms.
Any good family law attorney will recommend trying to settle a case outside of court to avoid the trauma and expense of trial, and this is especially true when it comes to pets. You might get lucky and find a judge more sympathetic than the judge in Saskatchewan, one who will award custody based on the best interests of the pet. But without a legal basis for that award, it’s a risk, because the decision could easily be appealed, adding more trauma and expense.
“Resolving custody disputes through a third-party neutral or even mediation or arbitration might be best,” Karp says, because mediation allows everyone to focus on the best interests of the pet. “I was once asked to mediate a catcustody dispute,” he continued. “I brought the parties around to considering the cat’s perspective, thinking about who could best provide for him and [asking them] to suspend vengeful thoughts for one another.”
What if you’re not married but in a relationship and have (or want to add) pets?
What can you do to avoid a custody dispute if you split up? If your state’s laws allow, you can enter into a binding and enforceable custody agreement (if cohabitating), a prenuptial agreement (if contemplating marriage), or a separate property or community property agreement (if already married). Any of these contracts can set forth who is the pet’s owner if a couple breaks up; whether visitation will be allowed, and on what terms; and whether they’ll share costs for boarding, day care and vet expenses while together and post-split.
If you don’t want to enter into such a formal agreement, be sure to maintain very clear records that document any pet-related expenses you paid: purchase or adoption fees, licensing, food, training, exercise, boarding, vet care and so on. At least for the foreseeable future in most parts of the country, pets will continue to be treated as property that courts can’t force people to share if they don’t want to.
Given how many households have pets and how integrated they are into our daily lives—they are far more to us than a television or a computer, after all—we can hope that more states will quickly adopt Alaska’s enlightened approach.
Good news: more states are following Alaska’s lead. On February 16, 2017, legislators in Rhode Island submitted a bill that would add a new section to state laws regarding divorce and separation [PDF]. If passed, judges would be required to consider the best interest of a family’s domestic animals in divorce or separation proceedings where custody was an issue.
News: Guest Posts
It turned out to be a costly mistake
You don’t need to be a vengeful person to feel great satisfaction about the consequences faced by an Illinois man who used his drone to tease his neighbor’s dog repeatedly. The man flew the drone past the shared eight-foot privacy fence and then close enough to nearly hit the dog. The dog became stressed out by it, especially after many experiences with the man making it dive low to a position just over the dog’s head, pulling out of the dive and then circling around and performing the same maneuver multiple times.
The dog’s guardian said that for many months after getting the drone, this neighbor “insisted on flying like the biggest jerk possible” and the description is apt. In addition to going after the dog over and over, he would position his drone right in front of other people’s houses, including at their windows, and also race cars down the road.
Though the dog’s guardian asked him not to fly it into his yard, explaining that it was scaring the dog, the neighbor’s only response was to tell him to go away and to laugh at him. Though the guardian contacted the police, they were unable or unwilling to do more than ask the man not to fly over his neighbor’s house and yard. The situation might never have been resolved if the dog hadn’t taken matters into his own mouth.
One day, when the drone was buzzing over his head, the dog (a 70-pound Malamute) caught the drone and destroyed it. It may be a powerful machine, but a dog’s jaws can easily tear a drone into pieces, especially with the proper motivational factors of fear, annoyance and frustration. Naturally, the owner of the drone was upset, even though most of us would say he had it coming.
The drone owner reacted in two ways. First, he came over to the house where his drone had died its untimely death, swearing up a storm and threatening the dog’s guardian. Second, he served the dog’s guardian with a summons to appear in small claims court. His demands were $900 to replace the drone and $300 for not being allowed access to what was left of his drone for several hours.
Suing the dog’s guardian did not go as planned for the owner of the drone. The judge did not accept claims that the dog’s guardian had purposely trained his dog to destroy the drone. Furthermore, the dog’s guardian had sought legal advice and countersued the drone owner for the costs of veterinary care for his dog ($700 for an x-ray to determine if the dog had swallowed any hazardous part of the drone, $250 to sedate the dog for that procedure, $400 for a full dental exam plus cleaning and repair, miscellaneous costs for anti-anxiety medication and wet dog food in case he had hurt his teeth and couldn’t eat his regular kibble). The guardian brought in receipts along with videos documenting the months of torture his dog endured being pursued by a drone in his own yard.
Not only did the drone owner have to pay nearly $2000 to the dog guardian, he is being investigated by the FAA for a variety of infractions. These include not registering his drone, flying a drone within five miles of an airport, flying it too close to other people, flying it out of his own line of sight and flying it far above the maximum allowable altitude. He is banned from flying a drone over the property where the dog and his guardian live.
It’s a joy to find out that the person who treated a dog (and various people) so badly not only did not get away with it, but got what he deserved.
Dog's Life: Humane
The labels are often wrong.
In most shelters, each dog’s kennel run or cage has a card on which the dog’s likely breed (or breeds) is indicated. Sometimes, they’re generic: Shepherd mix or Terrier mix. Sometimes they’re more specific—Husky/Dalmatian cross, say. And sometimes, they indicate a specific single breed. These labels can also be found on shelter websites and search sites like Petfinder.com.
The fact is, nearly all of these labels are guesses. Yes, there are DNA tests, but shelters can’t afford to DNA test every dog. Instead, they rely on staff members’ judgment; they look at a dog, pull out a breed book or consult an array of mental images, and choose a breed or two off the list required by their software.
Some shelters have changed their labels to try to make this clear: “Looks like …” or “We guess that …” However, others go further and eliminate breed labels entirely. As a result, they say, the adoption process has been improved; in some places, adoption rates have improved as well.
What’s the argument for eliminating breed labels? For many, the issue started with Pit Bulls.
Looks vs. Genes
Most shelters are full of the mediumsized, short-coated, blocky-headed dogs who tend to get labeled as Pit Bulls—a type for which there is no legal or kennel club definition. But a number of studies have shown that people’s guesstimates often don’t match a dog’s true genetic heritage. In one study, staff members at four shelters were asked to guess the breed of 120 dogs. Fiftyfive of the dogs were identified as some kind of Pit Bull, but when they were DNA tested, only 36 percent had ancestry from one of the recognized bully breeds (generally, American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier and Staffordshire Bull Terrier). Five of the dogs who did have one of these in their DNA hadn’t been labeled as such; the guesstimates missed 20 percent of the 25 actual Pit Bulls.
In this context, making a mistake about breed type is a big deal. There are places where it’s against the law to own a Pit Bull, or where you can’t get home or pet insurance if you have one. Even where that’s not the case, the name still carries a stigma.
A recent study—“What’s in a Name: Effect of Breed Perceptions and Labeling on Attractiveness, Adoptions and Length of Stay for Pit Bull-type Dogs” —showed that in a shelter where breed labels were eliminated, the adoption rate for Pit Bulls went up, their euthanasia rate went down 12 percent and their length of stay at the shelter was reduced. Another interesting finding was that while adoption rates increased the most for Pit Bulls, they went up for other dogs as well. “All the dogs benefited,” says Lisa Gunter of Arizona State University, Tempe, one of that study’s authors. “That was something that we weren’t anticipating.”
Others who’ve seen the effect labels can have might not be surprised by those results. “We would notice that people would walk through the kennel and they weren’t looking at the animals inside, they were looking at the kennel cards,” says Kristen Auerbach of Austin Animal Services. “And then, depending on the breed, they literally never even looked inside the cage. It quickly became clear that this wasn’t a Pit Bull issue, it was a bigger issue.”
It’s frustrating for many reasons to watch shelter dogs being rejected purely on the basis of breed stereotypes, particularly since most breeding now selects for appearance rather than function. “The more that we breed purebred dogs for looks, the less likely those things we started the breed for are going to hold true,” says Barbara Hutcherson of Fairfax County Animal Shelter in Herndon, Va. “So you might have a dog in front of you that’s a lovely quiet dog that you’ve had in foster and you know [the dog’s] not noisy—but try convincing someone, when you say ‘Beagle’ and they think ‘noise.’”
Relying on traditional breed characteristics is even more absurd when you’re looking at a mix. “We don’t understand how individual breeds play out in the behavior of the dog,” says Gunter. “A first-generation cross of Labrador and Border Collie doesn’t mean [the dog is] going to swim well and herd sheep. That’s not how genetics works.”
Too, we all seem to share an unspoken assumption that a mixed-breed dog is a dog with two purebred parents, when usually nothing could be further from the truth. Gunter is involved in a study that DNA tested more than 900 shelter dogs. Results for nearly 80 percent of the dogs showed two-plus breeds (the plus indicates that no specific purebred could be distinguished for at least one great-grandparent) and ranged up to five-plus breeds. On average, a single breed contributed around 30 percent of a dog’s heritage. Gunter feels strongly that the usual cage cards are a huge oversimplification. “It does a disservice to the complexity of shelter dogs, and to who these dogs are,” she says.
Changing the Conversation
Given that most of the labels are complete guesses, it begins to make sense that some shelters have decided to remove breed from the conversation. “I think the real benefit of not talking about breed is that it allows you to talk about the dog as an individual—that this is what we’ve observed about this dog,” says Hutcherson. Shelters that have eliminated breed labels report having better conversations with potential adopters, conversations that in some cases might not have otherwise happened.
“What this does is … force people to go through the kennels and come back and ask us, ‘What breed is that dog?’” says Lauren Lipsey of the Washington Humane Society (WHS) in Washington, D.C. “Previously, they … wouldn’t have had to engage us in conversation and could just walk out because they didn’t like the answer.” Now, Lipsey says, when people ask about a breed, staff can dig down into what they are really looking for. “What is it about that breed? You want a dog you can run with? Great, we have a ton of those. A dog that is good with children? Let me steer you toward these dogs that have lived with children. Just because that animal looks like a Lab doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good with children.”
Still, some of us really do want a particular breed. Auerbach doesn’t consider that a problem for those people, or those dogs. “In the shelter, people can walk through and they’re going to make their own identification anyway: ‘That looks like a Poodle and I want a Poodle.’”
Gunter suggests that without labels, potential adopters might actually be more likely to find their desired breed. In considering the reasons why adoption rates went up across the board in her study, she says that it’s important to remember that people disagree on visual breed identification. So breed labels may actually steer people away from dogs they’d otherwise consider.
Leave it open, and they may see that dog in the shelter after all. “If they view a dog as a Cocker Spaniel, then the dog’s a Cocker Spaniel, and if someone else views [the dog] as a Springer, and that’s what they would like, then that dog is there,” she says. “By removing the breed labels, the dog can be whatever that person wants that dog to be.”
New Code Needed
One apparent contradiction is that nearly all shelters still display breed labels for the dogs on their websites. This is because most software programs used by shelters require a breed label to create a record, and automatically display the label online. WHS is one of the few to have figured out how to get around that programming demand, which required writing their own code. Still, their dogs still show up with breed labels on search sites.
Auerbach, who has participated in eliminating breed labels at two shelters and gives presentations on the topic at industry conferences, finds shelter software companies’ reluctance to make changes frustrating. Greg Lucas of Shelterluv.com says that while his company’s software is one of the few to allow a shelter to designate a dog as purely a mix and choose not to display breed labels on their own websites, that’s not the end of the problem. They still have to find something in the search site’s breed list to match up to, or the posting will be rejected. A representative for Petfinder.com points out that the site does allow more generic breed group designations like “Terrier” or “Hound,” and says that the company is “looking into” the idea of being able to eliminate breed designation entirely.
It’s possible that people who are looking for a dog via these sites are a different population from those who come into the shelter to browse. “I do think that the audiences are different,” says Lipsey. It’s also true that these search sites aren’t the only way to find a dog online anymore. For many shelters, promoting individual animals via social media has become a big part of their outreach. The Fairfax County Animal Shelter found that 50 percent of adopters came in after seeing a pet on their social media, where they don’t talk about breed. And Lipsey says that while the majority of their adopters come in to adopt a particular animal they’ve seen online, they’ve typically accessed the information on the shelter’s own website, which does not have the breed labels.
Eliminating all breed labels may seem radical, but there’s no reason a shelter has to go all the way. “What we’re arguing is that shelters should have an option,” Auerbach says. Label an obvious Pug as a Pug, but why be forced to make a wild guess about a dog who is probably a mix of many breeds? And it seems that shelters are enthusiastic about the possibility; Auerbach says that the conference presentations she gives on this topic are packed.
In a sense, there’s nothing new about the idea. In fact, it’s the practice of pigeonholing all dogs into a mix of two breeds that’s new. Auerbach thinks that the reason so many medium-sized, short-coated dogs are called Pit Bulls is that we’ve lost much of the vocabulary we used to use to talk about dogs. “We all remember that for our grandparents, the dogs were mutts, they were mongrels. We had more language to describe mixed-breed dogs,” she says. “Pit Bull has kind of replaced mutt, and that’s a problem.”
Our grandparents didn’t need DNA tests to recognize the complexity of mixed-breed dogs. “When they talked about ‘Heinz 57,’ that’s what they meant,” says Auerbach. “Not two breeds mixed with each other, but many.”
A ruling in an animal abuse case in Oregon should have far-reaching ramifications because the Supreme Court of that state ruled recently that pets are not just “mere” property. The case involved the conviction of a dog owner who was starving her pet. In this instance the owner had appealed her conviction for second-degree neglect because a veterinarian had drawn the dog’s blood (without her permission).
According to the Court’s summary of the case:
The case at issue began in 2010, when an informant told the Oregon Humane Society that Amanda L. Newcomb was beating her dog, failing to properly feed it and keeping it in a kennel for many hours a day. An animal-cruelty investigator went to Newcomb's apartment in December 2010 and, once invited in, saw "Juno" in the yard with "no fat on his body." The dog, the investigator reported, "was kind of eating at random things in the yard, and trying to vomit."
The investigator asked why, and Newcomb said she was out of dog food but that she was going to get more that night, according to the summary of the case.
The investigator believed that defendant had neglected Juno. He asked her for permission to take the dog in for medical care, but defendant, who thought her dog looked healthy, refused and became irate. The officer therefore took protective custody of Juno without defendant’s consent, both as evidence of the neglect and because of the “strong possibility” that Juno needed medical treatment. He transported Juno to the Humane Society, where Juno would be housed and medically treated as appropriate. From medical tests, the officer expected also to be able to determine whether neglect charges were warranted or whether Juno should be returned to defendant.
The vet gave Juno food, charted his weight and measured his rapid weight gain over several days. The vet also drew Juno's blood and ruled out any disease. The investigator concluded nothing was wrong with the dog other than it was very hungry.
Newcomb was then convicted of second-degree animal neglect, a misdemeanor. Among other problems with the conviction, Newcomb argued, authorities violated her constitutional rights to be protected from unreasonable searches of property by drawing blood from her dog. Under Oregon law, animals are defined as property.
The prosecutor Adam Gibbs had argued that taking the dog to the veterinarian office was similar to care in suspected child-abuse cases. And further argued that a dog is not a container—like an inanimate piece of property—that requires a warrant. Rather, Gibbs argued that a dog "doesn't contain anything"—and that what's inside a dog is just "more dog."
The Supreme Court’s ruling agreed with his, stating that the chemical composition of Juno's blood was not "information" that Newcomb "placed in Juno for safekeeping or to conceal from view."
And concluded that the “defendant had no protected privacy interest in Juno’s blood that was invaded by the medical procedures performed.” And while dogs are considered personal property in Oregon, the ownership rights aren’t the same as with inanimate property, imposing other limits. “Those limitations, too, are reflections of legal and social norms. Live animals under Oregon law are subject to statutory welfare protections that ensure their basic minimum care, including veterinary treatment. The obligation to provide that minimum care falls on any person who has custody and control of a dog or other animal.”
Also interestingly the court added,
“As we continue to learn more about the interrelated nature of all life, the day may come when humans perceive less separation between themselves and other living beings than the law now reflects. However, we do not need a mirror to the past or a telescope to the future to recognize that the legal status of animals has changed and is changing still[.]”
See the full opinion here.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
It’s now legal to break into cars to rescue pets and people
The governor of Florida just signed a law making it legal to break into a car to rescue a person or a pet who is “in imminent danger of suffering harm.” It applies to vulnerable people and pets (including cats and dogs), but does not apply to farm animals. Many people and pets die each year because they have been left in overheating cars, so this law could save many lives. It is especially important in a hot southern state like Florida with the summer months approaching.
The law specifies procedures that must be followed in order for a person breaking into a car to be protected from civil liability for damage to the vehicle. If you are trying to help someone in danger, here’s what you should know about the law. It is required that you check that the car is locked before breaking in. If you do break in, the law requires that you do so with the minimum force necessary. You are required to call 911 or law enforcement before or immediately after rescuing the person or pet from the car, and you must stay with the rescued pet or the person until first responders arrive.
I’m delighted to know that Floridians are now protected by this law if they see an individual in danger in a car and choose to act. Many people would rescue the pet or person regardless of the risk to themselves, but it’s far better to give legal protection to such potential heroes.
News: Guest Posts
A little girl and her service dog vs a school board
The US Justice Department filed suit yesterday against a public school district in upstate New York for refusing to permit a student with disabilities to attend school with her service dog unless the family pays for a dog handler to accompany the pair.
The lawsuit alleges that the Gates-Chili Central School District in Monroe County, NY, violated Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which states that a public entity must permit the use of a service animal by an individual with a disability, except under specific exceptions.
The child at the center of this debate, Devyn Pereira, 8, was born with Angelman Syndrome, a rare disorder that results in developmental delays, seizures and autism. Her mother, Heather Pereira, a single mother of two, spent more than a year raising the $16,000 for Hannah, a 109-pound white Bouvier trained to perform numerous tasks for Devyn, including alerting school staff to oncoming seizures, preventing Devyn from wandering or running away, and providing support so she can walk independently.
Pereira, has spent three years trying to convince school officials to allow her daughter’s one-on-one school aide to provide periodic assistance in handling Hannah—primarily, tethering the service dog and issuing limited verbal commands. The dog is trained to last the school day without food, water or bathroom walks.
The lawsuit requests the school district permit Devyn to act as the handler of her service dog, with assistance from school staff. It also seeks compensatory damages of about $25,000 for Pereira for the ongoing cost of the dog handler.
Announcing the suit this week, Vanita Gupta, principal deputy assistant attorney general and head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said: “Honoring an individual’s choice to be accompanied by her service animal in all aspects of community life, including at school, promotes the ADA’s overarching goals of ensuring equal opportunity for, and full participation by, persons with disabilities.” In hearing the news of the department’s decision, Pereira responded, “knowing the United States of America is not only sympathizing with our situation, but willing to take this all way to the top to fix it is an amazing feeling.” And she added, “I have so many dreams for my little girl and with the DOJ’s help, they are all within our reach. It is so exciting to think we are blazing a trail for all those that follow with service dogs.”
For more information about this lawsuit, or the ADA, call the Justice Department’s toll-free ADA Information Line at 800.514.0301 or800.514.0383 (TDD) or access its ADA website at www.ada.gov. Complaints of disability discrimination may be filed online at http://www.ada.gov/complaint/.
Dog's Life: Humane
The first week of September saw a heartwarming example of positive political action when California lawmakers of all persuasions voted to make shelter animals the new official state pet. In both the Assembly and the Senate, the votes were all ayes, no nays.
ACR-56, introduced by Assemblymember Eric Linder (R-Corona), is numbers-driven bill. As it points out, there are currently around 8,000,000 abandoned pets living in animal shelters in the United States, and of these, 3,000,000 to 4,000,000 are euthanized every year.
Like shelters everywhere, those in California stretch to help the animals who come into their care, and it's a big, big job. It's hoped that greater public awareness will get more dogs and cats (and the occasional rabbit, guinea pig or chicken) out of shelter care and into forever homes.
Though the numbers are daunting, keep this in mind: every single adoption makes a difference. The dogs and cats who find new homes also find new lives. For them, it's a 100 percent win.
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