Febrary 2008

The pet-overpopulation problem: Who's helping

By Gail Binkly

The small tuxedo cat was dying by inches – literally.

DAVID STOLZ OF CORTEZ SHOWS OFF KOKO, A STRAY CAT HE RESCUEDAt first the fur was missing from about three inches of his tail, torn off by some traumatic injury. The bare skin bled in patches. Then, as the days passed, the tip of his tail fell off and the stump bled.

Every day he darted among the cars in the Ute Mountain Casino parking lot, begging for scraps from passers-by. Several people tried to help him, but he was too wary to be caught.

If a benefactor brought him food he would gobble it, wash his face and roll playfully on his back in a sunny patch of pavement among the ice. Then he would slink away to whatever hole he had found where he could avoid the roaming dogs, the moving cars and the bitter cold.

But with a bare and rotting tail, he could not keep warm. Finally, during a stormy spell in late January, he stopped showing up for the daily feedings.

A short life

The lives of stray and feral animals are nasty, brutish and short. Yet dogs, cats and other pets are turned loose by the thousands throughout the Four Corners –by people who are moving, whose new paramours don’t like pets, who inherit an animal from a deceased relative. They may believe they’re giving the creature a chance. But actually they are condemning it to a painful death.

A STRAY DOG SEEKS SCRAPS IN A MONTEZUMA COUNTY PARKING LOT“The animals that aren’t contained have the shortest life expectancy,” said Bill Williams, a board member of For Pets’ Sake, a Montezuma County nonprofit. “They’re more likely to get hit by cars, injured, attacked by other animals — and they're more prone to disease and infection, especially if they’re not neutered.

“An unneutered male cat’s life expectancy is about a year.”

Although pet animals are descended from wild ones, they are generations removed from the wild, and most lack the instincts, skills and physical traits they need to survive. A brown-andwhite domestic rabbit or a jet-black cat will stand out from its surroundings, easy prey for hawks. A cocker spaniel has little hope of hunting game as its wolf relatives do.

Of course, some people find it difficult to care about the welfare of stray pets in a world of wars, famine and environmental catastrophes.

But there are reasons other than simple compassion to worry about roaming cats and dogs. They can wreak a terrible toll on wildlife – cats decimate songbirds; dogs harass deer. Packs of feral and stray dogs also kill livestock and even threaten human safety; Montezuma County has one of the highest rates of reported dog bites in the state.

Yet Montezuma County has not a single animal-control officer, leading to some heart-rending and potentially dangerous situations.

For instance, on the afternoon of Jan. 29, a collarless hound running across Highway 491 south of Cortez was struck in the hindquarters by a southbound pickup. Yelping, the dog dragged itself to a nearby ditch.

A bystander tried to call for help. Law-enforcement dispatchers said the dog was outside city limits and advised calling the Cortez Animal Shelter. A woman there advised calling dispatch – again because the dog was outside the city.

Local Humane Society volunteers — lacking dog-control implements such as a noose on a pole — tried to ease the wounded animal onto a litter, but it snarled and lunged, then staggered off into the county — perhaps to make its way home, perhaps to die, perhaps to bite some unwary person.

Reservation dogs

Pet overpopulation is a nationwide problem. There are an estimated 35 to 40 million feral and stray cats in the U.S. According to the Humane Society of the United States, some 6 million to 8 million dogs and cats are taken to shelters every year, and about half of those are euthanized.

But in the Four Corners, the problem is particularly acute.

“I think we have a bigger problem here than elsewhere,” said Earl Scott, president of the board of For Pets’ Sake Humane Society. He said there are two reasons.

One is an attitude among the farming and ranching community – “to some extent,” he said, “certainly not always” – that animals are disposable property, a commodity.

“If they don’t perform, they get shot,” he said. “If a dog wanders onto their place, it gets shot.”

For example, he said, a rancher recently brought a border collie to a local vet to be euthanized for a cracked pelvis it had sustained while learning to herd cattle. (An animallover offered to take it in and help it heal instead.)

Rural residents tend to think pets should roam free like Old Yeller.

“Typically a person living in the country will not have a fenced yard, and those animals will wander,” Scott said.

A STRAY CAT IN THE UTE MOUNTAIN CASINO PARKING LOT PARTAKES OF A BENEFACTOR'S HANDOUTThe other reason for the Four Corners’ stray-pet situation, Scott said, is the Ute Mountain Ute reservation, where animal control is minimal and in the past has consisted largely of shooting problem dogs.

The Ute reservation is not unique. Hungry, half-wild cats and dogs roam Indian reservations throughout the West – there’s a reason the term “reservation dogs” was coined. Stop along the road through Monument Valley on the Navajo reservation and you’ll likely be beset by starving mutts. Where poverty is rampant and unemployment over 50 percent, animal welfare is not a high priority. And on the sprawling Navajo Nation, it can be many miles to veterinary clinics in Shiprock, N.M., or Window Rock, Tuba City, and Chinle, Ariz.

However, things are changing. For instance, the Navajo town of Kayenta, Ariz., is building a 1,500-square-foot animal-control building.

And, through the efforts of For Pets’ Sake, Ute Mountain residents are getting their pets spayed and neutered for free. Dr. Sue Grabbe and two volunteers travel to Towaoc every other Thursday, except in the summer, to provide the services in her mobile veterinary clinic.

Grants for neutering

Everyone agrees that spaying and neutering is critical to solving the pet overpopulation problem, and it’s the main thrust of For Pets’ Sake.

The Pet Overpopulation Fund gave For Pets’ Sake $40,000 in grants last year for spaying and neutering, $10,000 of that earmarked for Towaoc, according to Williams. Donations and other grants provided more funds, allowing for a total of 754 procedures.

Williams said part of the local problem stems from the high cost of veterinary care in the Four Corners.

Williams, who writes grants for the group, said he submitted an application to PetSmart recently, and they told him, “Your estimated cost of procedures is extremely high compared to other areas.”

“I said, ‘If you live in a metro area there’s a lot more competition and prices tend to be lower.’ “Our vets here have been nice to work with and have done some discounting for us, but care tends to be really high. This puts some families in the situation of, do we put gas in the car or do we get the dog spayed?”

However, low-income families in Montezuma and Dolores counties can get help with spay-neuter costs, even off the reservation. They can fill out a “SNAP” application form (Spay-Neuter Assistance Program) at any local veterinary clinic and be qualified on the spot. No proof of income is required, and there is no limit on the number of pets per family that can receive assistance.

For Pets’ Sake pays half the cost of the spaying or neutering, up to $50; if the procedure costs more than $100, the group pays the rest.

The nonprofit works with all area vets, but particularly with Dr. Don Schwartz of Mancos Valley Hospital and Dr. Angela Porter of Vibrant Pet in Cortez.

For Pets’ Sake also provides financial help, when it can, for other veterinary care in extreme cases, Scott said. “To the limits of our resources, we help animals with indigent owners, like the old lady whose Pekinese’s eye popped out. We try to help those animals that would otherwise go without proper care.”

The group’s third focus is foster care for homeless animals, but it is hamstrung by the lack of a facility. “We don’t do that as well as we wish we could,” Scott said. “If we had $300,000 to build a nice shelter, we could do a bang-up job. Most animal-lovers’ homes are already full of dogs and cats. Our great need is for foster parents.”

‘Feral’ cats?

That’s the other side of the stray-pet problem: what to do with the animals that are already here. Many people, faced with an unwanted litter of kittens or a stray dog, balk at taking them to the shelter, knowing the odds are they won’t get adopted. Still, their death at the shelter will at least be humane — and there is always a slim chance of adoption.

“Why turn them loose when we’re here?” asked Mary Carter, manager of the Cortez Animal Shelter. “That’s what the shelter is for. If you have an animal you want to surrender, give me the reason why. We have a list, and we’ll call when we have room.”

In 2007, the Cortez Animal Shelter took in some 760 to 780 dogs, according to Carter. Of those, TAFFY AWAITS ADOPTION AT THE CORTEZ ANIMAL SHELTER308 were euthanized. The remainder were claimed by their owners (253), were adopted (199), died naturally or were transferred to other shelters.

But while fewer than half of the dogs at the shelter were euthanized, the picture is quite different for cats. Of about 967 who came through the shelter, three-quarters (721) were put to death. Just 18 were reclaimed by their owners.

Carter said the easiest animals to adopt out are probably small dogs, while the most difficult are black puppies and black cats. She said the vast majority of the euthanized cats were feral.

“People come in and say, ‘Somebody dumped this cat last year and now she has five kittens,’ or, ‘We moved to a new house and the barn is loaded with cats.’ A cat can have up to 30 kittens a year. So we get the unpleasant task of euthanizing them humanely.”

But according to Barbara Williamson, media-relations specialist with the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, many cats judged feral are not. “They may not have been born and raised in the wild,” she said by phone from the sanctuary in Kanab, Utah. “A lot of the ones you see living out there are the cat that got dumped on the street or the tom who went looking for love and couldn’t find his way home. They’re scared and wary.”

She said the sanctuary just finished its largest cat rescue ever, of more than 800 felines, and “our guys have been turning on its head the whole idea of feral cats. They have developed a way of working with these cats and they’re now in homes.”

As a little girl in Albany, N.Y., Louise Long used to walk home from school via a shortcut through the city dump. There, she often picked up strays.

“They would follow me home,” she said. “I’d find some mangy cat or stray dog, and my parents would come home and it would be eating tuna fish off my mother’s china, and she would have a fit.”

She’d go to school and the animal would be gone when she returned. “It must have gone home,” her mother would say. Long was in college before she learned her mother had actually been calling the pound to pick up the creatures.

She’s made up for the loss of those pets since then. Long worked as a dietitian for 20 years, but animals were always her first love. So, 25 years ago, she helped found For Pets’ Sake in Montezuma County.

“I thought the area needed a Humane Society and it seemed like the time was right,” she said.

Five years after that, she built a pet boarding kennel on the 9-acre parcel she and her husband owned in McElmo Canyon, and also began running a no-kill shelter for homeless pets.

Jack died in 1996 and Long’s operation split off from For Pets’ Sake 10 years ago, but Long is still a tireless advocate for animals. Her nonprofit Noah’s Ark shelter currently houses 55 dogs, 22 cats, one pot-bellied pig and one bunny, as well as a few geese and chickens that were either 4-H projects or were brought to her by Cortez residents who couldn’t keep them in the city. Her animals are available for adoption, but few find new homes.

“Usually we end up with ones that are too old or too shy to go out of here,” she said, “and since we’re non-kill, they stay forever.

“If they’re 5 years or older you cannot get them adopted. People just will not risk it. They say, ‘We’ll get attached and it will die.’ But they’re missing out on a lot of quality time with these animals.”

A 125-pound dog was brought to her at the age of 6, she said, and lived to be 20. A “wonderful” Doberman that came there at the age of 7 lived 10 more years. A cat stayed with her 20 years and died at 25.

“I’m a sucker for the old-timers,” Long said. “I take them in because nobody wants them. If they go to the pound they’ll be put to sleep.”

Long said the only animals that are easy to adopt out are “little lap dogs.” “Probably 99 percent of my calls are for a Shitzu or a Pomeranian or a dachsund. They’re gone instantly.

“But we’ve got a whole county full of medium-sized mixed-breed reservation dogs, and nobody wants them.”

Long continues to run her boarding kennel, St. Francis, the oldest kennel in the area, as well as a crematorium, St. Elmo’s Fire, and a cemetery for small pets. Funds from those businesses help support her and Noah’s Ark. She scrapes by with the help of occasional donations.

“We don’t seem to qualify for grants because we’re always in the red,” she said, laughing. “If you have any checks returned for insufficient funds, and we always do, they disqualify you. If you really need the grant money, you can’t get it!”

Long and two other persons comprise the Noah’s Ark board of directors. One of them, Bud Crawn, helps her by doing needed repairs and making weekly visits to area vets to pick up deceased pets to be cremated. “He’s a godsend,” she said. A friend grooms the Noah’s Ark “orphans,” and another handles Long’s computer work and washes bowls.

Otherwise, she’s on her own, a petite woman doing the grueling work required to care for nearly 80 animals.

“I was tromping through a blizzard the other week to get funeral services done [she gives all the cremated animals a service], and I thought, ‘Am I crazy or what?’ I’m getting too old to do this.”

She has decided to reduce the number of her animals, through natural attrition. She is not taking any new strays. But her orphans need her, so Long keeps going.

Last year, she suffered burns on her chest and hands in a propane explosion when she didn’t have a valve turned off entirely. “All the doctors and nurses said I should have been killed in such an explosion, but it wasn’t my time,” she said. “Who’s going to take care of all these animals?”

 

Cats, with their non-groveling, independent nature, are less likely than dogs to let humans approach them and are often judged wild when, with patience, they could be gentled. “We know in our heart that they could be adopted,” Williamson said, “but the shelters are on the front lines” and don’t have time to train pets.

“Society has turned its back on these cats,” she said.

But a new trend for stray cats is “trap, neuter, return, maintain.”

“A lot of people support that,” Williamson said. Having cats in barns and business or industrial areas keeps rodent populations down, and if the cats don’t multiply, they cause few problems.

“Barn cats, cats on golf courses, are a wonderful thing,” she said. “We had a situation where a house was torn down in a town in Utah and it was full of feral cats.

“We put out a PSA for people who wanted outdoor cats and we got them (after spaying and neutering) placed in garden nurseries, lumberyards and with a theater company.” Care for life

Best Friends is the largest no-kill animal shelter in the country, according to spokesman John Polis. It houses around 2,000 animals: 500 dogs, 450 cats, plus parrots, bunnies, pot-bellied pigs, horses, and a few burros and goats. The shelter, which has been in existence 25 years, sits on 3,700 acres surrounded by 30,000 acres it leases from the BLM as a buffer.

With 400 employees, it is the largest employer in Kanab. “We’re kind of a shot in the arm to the local economy,” Polis said.

Yet, big as it is, Best Friends can’t care for all the strays out there. Most of its animals come from shelters in other areas. “It’s not like we’re open for business and people can just bring animals here,” Polis said. “We have to turn down animals every day.”

But each beast that’s taken in is regarded as ultimately adoptable. Polis said a bulldog with neurological problems that “walked like a drunken sailor” and couldn’t control its bowels very well even found a home.

And those animals that don’t get adopted from Best Friends are cared for for life.

Animals from all over

The no-kill philosophy is popular, but not yet practical at the Cortez Animal Shelter, which serves both Montezuma and Dolores counties. The city of Cortez shoulders the bulk of the shelter’s $221,700 annual budget, which doesn’t include such items as workman’s compensation, retirement and unemployment insurance, according to City Manager Jay Harrington.

Montezuma County contributes $55,000 annually. The Ute tribe and other municipalities contribute nothing. However, quite a few of the animals come from outside Cortez. According to Carter, in 2007, 326 of the shelter’s stray dogs were picked up within the city, while 183 were county strays, and 38 were from Mancos, Dolores, Dove Creek, or out of state. (The remaining dogs were surrendered by their owners.) Of the stray cats, 336 came from within Cortez, 233 from the county, and 38 from the three towns or out of state.

“Animals from Shiprock, Bluff, Blanding – I don’t refuse them,” Carter said. “It’s easier to put them to sleep than to let them starve.”

Animals are kept at least five working days to see if an owner will claim them before they are put up for adoption, she said. Then the amount of time it will be kept varies.

“I put them down when the animal decides it’s time, when they go kennel crazy and can’t live here any more,” she said. “One dog might last three months back there and be happy, while another might not. I give it as long as the animal’s happy and we have room.”

Space usually isn’t a problem, she said. In the summers she sometimes gets full of puppies, but she tries to send those to other shelters. Kittens are another story, though, and are often put to sleep.

Cortez is one of the few municipalities in the region that operates an animal shelter, according to Harrington. In La Plata and Archuleta counties, the local Humane Society chapter runs the shelters, he said.

In Telluride, where he worked before coming to Cortez, there is just a small kennel for dogs found running at large. They are either released to their owners or sent to other shelters.

“Our (Cortez) facility, for this region, is really nice and I think the city got a really good value on its construction,” Harrington said. “It’s clean and wellrun and the animals are well cared for.”

He said animal advocates would like to see it open for longer hours and offer more volunteer opportunities, but that’s difficult when it’s run by a government entity on a government budget.

Taking responsibility

Ultimately, of course, there will be no solution to the pet-overpopulation problem until people take responsibility for their animals.

“If people would just spay and neuter, at some point we could stop having all these abandoned animals,” Carter said.

“My feeling is if you’re going to take on the ownership of a pet you need to be responsible for it,” said For Pets’ Sake’s Williams.

“It needs to be spayed and neutered and vaccinated and have appropriate medical care and shelter, warmth, food and water.”

And, as pet owners already know, a well-loved pet offers much in return: a warm lump at the foot of the bed during lonely nights, an amusing playmate romping through the house to make you laugh, and a companion to offer quiet comfort during your darkest hours.

“One can measure the greatness of a nation and its moral progress by the way it treats its animals.” — Mahatma Gandhi