What’s to Be Done About Urban Strays?

By Lisa Wogan, January 2012, Updated February 2015

Will Doig’s column “The Secret Lives of Feral Dogs” (Slate, 1/17/12) opens with a jolt: the revelation that Harrisburg, Penn., police officers have been instructed to stop bringing strays into the city shelter and, among other options, shoot them instead. It’s a shocking development, something you might expect to read about in the developing world, not here.

But despite all the dog spas and yappy hours in the U.S., there is a fast-growing population of stray and feral dogs and cats in our urban centers, especially collapsing Rust Belt cities. These cities have a host of problems and a lack of money that pushes stray animals down the priority list. When there are no easy, inexpensive or quick solutions to a problem that can become dangerous for citizens, the unthinkable becomes not only thinkable but official policy.

I first came to understand the extent of the problem when I wrote about Gateway Pet Guardians (Bark, Sept/Oct 2010), a handful of volunteers who feed, spay and release (when they can) and/or find homes for some of the many strays in East St. Louis, Ill. The tales of flea- and tick-infested and malnourished strays living in a landscape of fallendown buildings, burned-out houses and urban prairie was heart-wrenching.

Until then, I’d understood the homeless dog issue in terms of individual surrenders of dogs at shelters, dogs taken in puppy mill raids and lost dogs. I hadn’t ever appreciated the role played by these urban feral packs. Nor their unique challenges.

As long-term street dogs, many are not adoptable. Trap-neuter-release programs may help slow the population growth but they leave dogs in conditions where they are very likely to suffer and may injure people. I appreciate Doig’s bringing the situation to our attention but I wish there was more to be said about solutions.


Lisa Wogan lives in Seattle and is the author of several books including Dog Park Wisdom.