Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Thinking outside our boxes is animal welfare's biggest challenge

Home or Heaven: Are those the only two choices we have?

I have yet to watch the recent documentary film made about our municipal animal shelter, the Animal Services Center of the Mesilla Valley (ASCMV), by the local City of Las Cruces Channel ( It is called Home or Heaven, and what that refers to is whether a sheltered animal finds a new home or is instead sent to heaven by way of lethal injection. I know the shelter director's answer to someone who inquires about a specific animal that has been put down is often, "He (or she) is in heaven now."

Sadly, those who work in shelters see the world in this black and white way and don't often think of what other choices there may be. By also imagining a nice, heavenly place where these animals must surely go, it may also lessen the sting of the reality of killing so many animals per day. That shelter workers do this to cope is understandable, but this complacency also leads them to believe there are few alternatives to death. They often say that the animals HAD to be euthanized for a lack of homes. It paints a very simplistic picture.

If a shelter had 50 interested adopters one day and turned away 25 of those for either arbitrary reasons or perhaps via bad customer service, can we really say that the picture is that black and white? And, why are the only choices home or heaven? They'll say it is because of a lack of space, and there's no doubt our shelter often does take in more animals that can comfortably fit under one roof at one time.

But, is there another choice to housing the animals when emergencies happen, such as the influx of puppies that supposedly came from an animal control raid through a neighborhood? Perhaps if the shelter reached out to the community and asked for help with finding other choices besides death and heaven, less animals would "have" to be put down. Maybe temporary holding pens could have been erected, maybe boarding facilities could each have taken in one litter of puppies, maybe people would open their homes to one litter of puppies ... at least for a week or two until a lifesaving plan could be implemented. In other words, an immediate permanent home is not the only option that exists.

So, when I do have a chance to watch the film, I will write more comments about the information presented and the challenges presented and how an animal-welfare system run from a progressive perspective may approach those challenges. More to come on this film later.

TNR setback points to great need for bird/wildlife and cat advocates to unite in shared goal

I heard that the County Commission tabled the updates submitted to them for changes to the animal ordinance that would have allowed for responsible TNR efforts. I am not sure why this decision was made, but I know that in doing this, our commission swept away hours of work of cat advocates, and it dashed many hopes we all had that our community could finally start approaching the cat population control issue in a more progressive and humane way.

TNR stands for trap-neuter-return (or relocation) of free-roaming cats, and it started in England about 55 years ago as an alternative to traditional catch-and-kill models of cat population control, which have failed miserably after being tried for the past few decades here and abroad. We realize we are losing this battle when we look at the number of cats estimated to be living in the U.S. today and when we look at our own animal shelter’s statistics over the past few decades.

An estimated 70−80 million cats live as family pets in homes in the U.S. today; an additional 70−80 million cats roam free. In our own community, our animal shelter has consistently killed hundreds of cats a month for the past few decades with no end to the killing in sight and, sadly, little reduction of our free-roaming cat population over time. The reality is that cats breed, reproduce, and thrive as outdoor animals at a far faster rate than we catch and kill them.

In 1980, TNR was introduced in the U.S. by the nation’s leading cat advocacy group, Alley Cat Allies. As more TNR success stories are experienced across the nation today, and as more municipalities are implementing TNR-friendly ordinances, we also have a success story in our own back yard: the NMSU Feral Cat Management Program (fCaMP). Still, some controversy and arguments against TNR persist, mainly from bird /wildlife advocates and people in the general public who do not understand how and why TNR offers a solution.

In a nutshell, properly-implemented TNR programs result in the following: decreased population and eventual elimination of homeless cats by preventing new litters, which is a benefit to affected wildlife as well; decreased complaints about homeless cats by eliminating behavior that some people find bothersome, such as territorial spraying, fighting, and mating; improved health of the existing homeless cat population via vaccination, which reduces public health risks; and decreased shelter intake (and killing), thereby freeing shelter/rescue space and funds. Traditional catch-and-kill models do not come close to producing these kinds of results.

Locally, we kill 80+% of the cats that end up in our animal shelter, many of which come from being trapped by our AC departments or individuals. Like it or not, we are losing the battle, and the impact is a great cost on our animal-welfare system in terms of dollars and the emotional toll this killing takes on our shelter’s staff. The director of the Animal Services Center of the Mesilla Valley even says that what we are currently doing is not working, and we should consider all options available.

Isn’t it time for local bird/wildlife and cat advocates to sit down together to work on the complicated issue of cat overpopulation in our community instead of engaging in the simplistic battle of animal vs. animal that has gotten us nowhere? It’s time to find solutions that benefit all those affected—humans, cats, and birds/wildlife. Some communities have cat/wildlife cooperative undertakings that we can emulate, such as the Burlington County Feral Cat Initiative in NJ and the feral working group in Pinellas County, FL.

In the end, all of us want the same thing – a reduction in our free-roaming cat population. If we work together instead of against each other, we will reach this goal. Right now, we are still spinning our wheels, and the losers of our uncooperative spirit and verbal battles are all the animals we claim to protect.

Local groups in favor of TNR are as follows: The NMSU Feral Cat Management Program (fCaMP), ACTion Programs for Animals (APA), the Humane Society of Southern New Mexico (HSSNM), the Dona Ana County Humane Society (DACHS), the Spay and Neuter Action Program (SNAP), and Safe Haven Animal Sanctuary (SHAS). Local groups and others opposed to TNR are the Mesilla Valley Audubon Society and some wildlife rehabilitators. Notable national groups that support TNR are the National Animal Control Association (NACA), Alley Cat Allies, Best Friends Animal Society, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), and SpayUSA.

To learn more, start at these websites:,, (Focus on Felines outreach campaign);; and

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