Sunday, December 28, 2008

Roads less traveled

"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."

--Robert Frost


Rabies: Fears vs. Reality

I feel like I have to talk about this subject first before I address a comment I received about TNR and also in discussion of a recent case in our City where an owner of a wolf-hybrid was forced to kill her dog. Both illustrate how many of our fears far outweigh the reality of the threats and how the laws we have in our books are many times behind the times and not based on recent, scientific information.

For instance, the threat of rabies from a domestic cat is so rare that the last case of a cat transmitting rabies to a human was registered in 1975. There are several sources that cite this fact (including the recent book Shelter Medicine for Veterinarians and Staff, page 379). Even more significant than this, there has never been a case of a cat transmitting rabies to a human as long as that cat received at least one rabies vaccine in its lifetime. (All cats in any reputable TNR program are fixed and vaccinated against rabies, at the minimum).

According to Shelter Medicine for Veterinarians and Staff, in the chapter titled "Feral Cat Management", more than 90 percent of rabies cases occur in wildlife, primarily in raccoons, skunks, coyotes, foxes, and bats. Yet, rabies vaccinations for wild animals have not been extensively tested or administered, including for wolf-hybrids. Since 1981, rabid cats have outnumbered dogs in the U.S., with 249 cases reported in the year 2000 and 281 in the year 2004. Still, with an estimated 60 million ferals and another 90 million house cats, that's still only 0.00002 percent of cats found to be rabid.

The likelihood of a human getting rabies from a domestic dog or cat is almost as rare as the likelihood of getting mauled to death by a dog (yet our fears of both are grossly exaggerated by the media and others). For example, the odds you or anyone you love will get killed by a "vicious dog" are 1 in 11.5 million, which is also not very high considering the 80+ million dogs in our nation. We are more likely to get hit by lightening ... that number is 1 in 4 million. For those of us who get in cars to commute to and from work each day, that literal road is a far, far scarier place!

Two roads for feral cats

I received an anonymous comment from someone who said that I cannot answer how TNR addresses the threat of rabies from cats and that no one else can answer that either. Well, I don't mean to be rude to this person, but if you are online reading this blog, the answers you supposedly seek are readily available regarding feral cat management from most reputable animal-welfare websites. As I explained previously, the threat of rabies from feral cats is extremely rare, and this is especially true for any cat in a managed colony.

These cats are cared for and managed by a caretaker who traps the cats, takes them to a vet to get tested/spayed or neutered/vaccinated, etc. When returned to their colony, these cats are now less likely to engage in the behaviors that annoy people, such as roaming, fighting, mating, marking, hunting, etc. They are given discreet feeding stations and given fresh food and water on a daily basis as well as areas for litter boxes, which are also cleaned by their caretakers. Usually, these colonies are healthy and thriving, and their numbers start to decrease by attrition.

This is true for the cats being managed right now on the NMSU campus. There is a link at the left for this program's website (fCamp), and those cats get a full line of services: they are altered, microchipped, tested for the standard diseases, vaccinated, and then cared for on a daily basis. That program also has a database that shows the numbers! That means our area has a successful TNR model right here from which to get answers to questions.

The only other alternative to dealing with feral cats is to trap them and send them to the shelter to be immediately killed. This is the system that has been in place for decades and which has failed for decades because it is literally like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping, fatal, bleeding wound!

The problem is that a vacuum effect occurs when you remove some or most cats from an area. More feral cats quickly move in to take their place, and the cats mate to make up the numbers lost in the colony from those trapped and killed. That's why we've never had an overall effect over time with this old catch and kill method. Not only are the numbers of cats not decreased, but none of these cats are vaccinated, none are fixed, and the threat to both the human population and wildlife from unmanaged cats is greater than threats from managed colonies. Most studies now show that the threats to birds from cats are also small in comparison to the threats to birds from humans!

This should sufficiently answer your questions up to this point, and there is far greater and better detail available from the following sources online, all of which are linked to at the left-hand side of this blog: Alley Cat Allies, Best Friends Animal Society, SpayUSA, and the No Kill Advocacy Center. I suggest that anyone who is blindly against TNR who has not read a word about it needs to do that first ... have enough of an open mind to visit these sites and learn the facts. The answers are out there, including a busting of many myths you probably have regarding cats. These false beliefs are what leads to millions of cats killed in our shelters nationwide each year and thousands killed in our community.

Lastly, no one is saying that the lives of feral cats are ideal or the situation is wonderful, but when it comes to the two roads animal welfare can take to address cat colonies and overpopulation, it seems clear that one alternative is far superior to the other. What stands in our community's way is not that there aren't any people willing and able to manage the feral colonies ... I get calls all the time from people wishing to do it. What stands in our way is our antiquated laws and that neither our local government nor our AC departments are willing to change the laws for the better. That's one roadblock we all need to work to remove.

The foggy road of the wolf-hybrid

In a recent case in our City, a woman who owned a wolf-hybrid and was a very responsible owner to this animal whom she also loved dearly, was forced to put down her dog when she came home one day to find the dog got out of the yard and AC officers were accusing the dog of biting a neighbor. It is still unclear to me whether the wolf-hybrid was attributed to this bite because he was found running loose at the same time or if the dog himself was specifically identified. (Some reports I got were that the hybrid did not even match the description of the dog given by the bite victim.)

In any case, the wolf-hybrid was attributed for the bite for whatever reason. So, what our City decided was that this fell under a law that requires that any "wild animal" that bites a human must be immediately killed and its head sent off to a lab for rabies testing. This was the law that our City enforced in this case, and if you think of it in these simplistic terms, it seems pretty cut and dry--i.e., there is a law, so enforce it and apply it. (By the way, the test came back negative for rabies.)

Yet, nothing in animal welfare is simple or black-and-white, even the application of our laws and ordinances. There are gray areas and choices that can be made, and this case shows that there were many mitigating circumstances that should have given our leaders pause.

Wolf-hybrids are popular in our country as pets (no matter if we personally agree with this or not), and in our area alone, the laws differ. Hybrids are prohibited by the City (an ordinance of which many are unaware), yet they are permitted in the County with the proper permit. Nationwide, some states require permits to keep a hybrid, some states prohibit them, and then many others do not regulate them at all.

What makes this road even more foggy is that it is impossible to tell that a dog is a wolf-hybrid unless the owner says that their dog is a wolf-hybrid or has documentation from a breeder showing this. It is not a simple thing to identify by just looking at a dog, and it is unfair to the animal to do so by sight alone. DNA testing is now available, and in this case, the owner requested that her dog be allowed to be tested and agreed to pay the cost of the test. She was denied this request, but she was "allowed" to take the dog to her own vet to have him killed.

Even more fog appears on the horizon when animal control departments state that rabies vaccinations are not proven for wolf-hybrids and other wild animals. That is true ... but, they are unproven because no one sees the need to go through the expense to do these tests. (Does anyone else see the irony here? What does that say about the true threat of rabies to humans/domestic animals from wild animals?)

Then there is the human toll and emotion in this case. This dog was not some neglected yard dog. The owner had cared for this dog since he was a puppy, and he was taken to the vet regularly for his shots, yearly exams, etc. He was even a beloved staple at our Farmer's Market and said to be a very well-behaved and trained dog.

In other words, he was not some "wild animal" that was running loose each night with the threat of getting bit by another wild animal--which would have been the only way he could have contracted rabies. Also, in the case of the canis genus--wolves being canis lupus lupus and regular dogs being canis lupus familiaris--99% or more of the genotypes of these two species are alike. In this case, common sense would dictate that though untested and unproven, a rabies vaccination would probably work in a well-cared for hybrid! He could also have been checked over thoroughly by his vet to make sure he didn't have any recent bite wounds, etc., in order to protect his bite victim.

My point here is that our City leaders and AC department could have handled this case much more responsibly and compassionately and still protected the dog's bite victim. First, they should have been 100% certain the dog was the one that bit the neighbor; an ID in person should have been required. Second, the dog could have been put under strict home quarantine or under his vet's observation and a thorough exam given as well as the DNA test. If the dog had not shown any signs of rabies in the past year, then the only other way he could have gotten the disease was from a wild animal biting him. Lastly, when given a clean bill of health for both dog and bite victim, the owner could have been given a chance to comply with the City's ordinance. She could have re-homed the dog or sent him to a hybrid rescue or perhaps she might have chosen to move into the County and acquire the required permit.

(Remember the cat Buddha, who was put down shortly after being trapped and taken to our shelter because the pet cat was deemed feral? His owners were so disgusted by what happened, they have since moved from the area.)

When in doubt, our City should have looked to others for advice before making a final decision in this sensitive case. They could have put in a call to UC Davis, Best Friends Animal Society, or any other leading experts in this nation that could have offered sound advice. Instead, they chose to hide behind a "wild animal" law and apply that law in a case that was not as cut and dry as many would think.

Bad SNAP decision

It has been one case of bad news after another these days in the area of animal welfare in our community. Though the details are still murky, there was talk from the City of cutting its meager yearly funding ($14K) to SNAP (the local Spay and Neuter Action Program)--be it immediately or after the next fiscal year. Given that SNAP is the only low-cost spay and neuter program that administers vouchers and also has been funding the County's new spay/neuter van to run in outlying areas, this decision is very short-sighted.

Some reports were that some City leaders felt that since they just hired a new vet at the shelter, that the full demand for low-cost spay/neuter services in the City could be handled by the shelter. Anyone who works or volunteers at the shelter knows this makes little sense. Already overwhelmed with the number of animals coming into the facility, there is no way one vet can do the kind of high volume of surgeries that we need to start making a difference in the shelter's intake numbers and subsequent kill rate.

That said, the shelter does need to get back into the business of offering same-day spay and neuter services, but this should not replace SNAP's voucher and other programs and efforts. We need all of the above and more to get to the kind of volume in spay/neuter that will truly make a difference in the numbers of animals we kill each year.

As taxpayers, we have the right to speak up about this issue and how our City and County apply our tax dollars in our public animal-welfare systems. Prevention of cat and dog litters is money well-spent and costs less per animal than housing and killing them. The City is not doing any of us, including SNAP, a favor by funding these preventative measures. It is a sound fiscal decision to do so as well--they either decide to spend less money today to prevent animals being born or they spend more money in future years in the continued catch and kill systems our tax dollars now fund.

Let's hope our City leaders reconsider this decision. Let us also hope that any of our City and County leaders that are going to serve on the animal shelter's oversight board will feel that it is their duty to become very well-informed about all facets of animal welfare.

Comment for VR

I must say, this is the first time in a long time that anyone has accused me of being too nice in my criticisms of our animal-welfare leadership! I think that although I am tactful and respectful in what I say, I am probably the most vocal and frank critic of our system and not the most popular person because of this.

I agree that the decisions made by our leaders directly lead to our high kill rate and that decisions to implement modern, progressive programs would make a world of difference. I have been saying that so much that my face has turned blue!

However, I think it takes more than one person to speak up with the same message to finally be heard. If anyone out there feels even remotely the way I do, then please get your voice out there, too. Do so via letters to the editor and calls/letters to your local representatives and State representatives.

If you are upset about the cut of funds to SNAP, then say so. As another comment stated, let's go over our local leader's heads to the state level to see what funds might be available from other places. We can all do a small part, and the coalition we are forming next month will try to do just that -- organize ourselves into action groups that make a difference for our homeless animals starting NOW.

Today's last road

Ending on a good note, I've added a new link to the list of progressive animal welfare sites at the left-hand side of this blog--the Missing Pet Partnership site. Please visit the site to learn about Missing Animal Response and how this organization is making a big difference in how people who lose pets search and rescue their loved ones. There is also great advice on how our AC departments and shelters can play a better and more successful role in this as well.

Our recovery numbers are dismal, and as you'll learn, this is not solely because lots of animal owners do not care about their pets (which is what we've been brainwashed to believe). With only 2 percent of cats and 20 percent of dogs recovered from shelters each year, clearly our system is also lacking in how it deals with missing pets.

There are also great tips on this site you can share with your family and friends if they ever lose a dog or cat. Looking at the list of certified pet detectives on this site, there is one Missing Animal Response Certified Technician in Las Cruces who is also available to help. (I know Renee from my volunteer work, and she's smart and always willing to help people and their animals; I didn't even know she was a certified pet detective--modesty is another great quality she possesses!)

For the article about Missing Animal Response from the No Kill Advocacy Center, please follow this link: Missing Animal Response


Anonymous said...

You alway speak without facts
The report said the victim did ID the wolf-hybrid as the one that bit him.

Still did not answer the question on who is responsible for keeping all the rabies vaccination on your ferel cats.
As for rabies, A horse came down rabid in Lea County not to long ago and a few months ago at least ten bats came up possitive in El Paso County,TX and in silver city this past fall some foxes and one confirmed dog came up possitive. Rabies is deadly and should never be taken lightly.
Why do you think the numbers are small in domesticated animals, it is because of responsible pet owners keeping their animals vaccinated.
Are going to come over to my house and clean them mess your ferel cats make

Master Of The World said...

Well Mr. Anonymous; Who cleans up the bird crap in your yard? You are clearly so predjudiced against cats it's disgusting.

Look at all those Rabid animals your sighting. How I quiver! That's a whole 2 dozen in how many square miles are you babbling about???? Out of how many wild animals that do not have rabies????

Just get off it! Me think-est that perhaps you protest too much. Perhaps your a vet that wants to make scads of money off of unneccessary vaccines. After all the medical community doesn't advertise how small pets, especially cats get injection site sarcomas from shot they don't need. I guess having the boogie wabbies monster lurking, make all this palitable. While the little animals suffer cancerous leisons that kill them. BTW the same thing is happening with the microchipping crap too. The healthiest pets are those who stay away from the vets.

If you are so worried about rabies, why don't you get the vaccine yourself? There is a people version you know?

VR said...

I'm sorry, I directed the comment to the other comment poster. But I must say that people here are far to complacent and accept what the government has to dish out to them. If you don't speak up long and loud and stop backing down when the city bullies get on you, nothing will ever change here.

Have you tried to get PETA in on any of this?