October 13, 2010
Categories: Animal Welfare
Yesterday I took Jimmy, a new dog from California, to the beach for a walk. About a half mile up the shore I noticed something a little out of place - a black and white, roughly spherical object on the sand about fifty yards ahead of us. I suspected it was an injured bird, which was confirmed when Jimmy and I came closer. Having been declared dangerous in San Mateo County after killing a couple of small animals in his neighborhood and being the kind of dog who would enjoy giving a bird a few, strong shakes, Jimmy was a bit of a handful, but I managed to get my shirt off and wrap it around the bird with one hand while restraining the dog with the other. (Fortunately I had a second shirt on underneath, lest my bare abdominal muscles and handsome nipples create a surge of desperate attempts at infidelity along the waterfront.) The unhappy bird, a western grebe, jabbed and snapped at me as I carried him back down the beach, and Jimmy begged for what he seemed certain was soon to be his for the shaking.
We approached a family we'd passed a few minutes earlier, and the father, not surprisingly, noticed the bird in my hand. "You caught a bird?" "Yeah," I responded, thinking it was a weird thing to ask a guy holding a grebe wrapped in a t-shirt, and then came the second question, "Why'd you catch a bird?" as if I could have captured a healthy grebe with nothing but my bare hands and wild animal reflexes. I explained briefly that the bird was injured and asked the man for help getting him and Jimmy back to my truck. He hesitated, seeming to have trouble deciding whether to be more afraid of the bird or Jimmy. "I don't know, dude..." "He doesn't have teeth. Just take him." Concluding that I was scarier than both dog and bird, he did what the big tattooed man told him to do. I instructed him to carry the bird the same way I had been doing, keeping its legs and wings wrapped in the shirt to prevent it from further injuring itself. We walked the rest of the way back to the parking lot, where the guy began asking me why the Twilight tour bus was there. "I guess it's not to annoy me, personally," I answered, "but sometimes it seems that way. "No really, why is the Twilight bus here? Does this beach have anything to do with Twilight?" "I don't know, I'm not a thirteen year old girl."
Jimmy went into the carrier in the back of the truck, and since I didn't have any small pet carriers with me, the grebe got a dog bed on the back seat. As I walked around to the driver's side, I heard the guy asking his wife why the Twilight bus was at the beach, and heard her answer, "I don't know, what are you asking me for?" He seemed like a nice guy, but seriously, dude, let it go.
Because the grebe was in severe shock, I had my doubts that he would survive the drive home, much less the trip to Sequim where he'd receive treatment. I spoke briefly on the phone to the area's wildlife rehabilitators and they asked me to keep him overnight, and if he lived until morning, to drive him over. As I pulled into my parking lot the bird's head dropped to his side and I thought he was dead, but when I opened the truck door to remove him, he perked up slightly. To my surprise the little grebe not only lived through the night, but had moved around his cage a little, defecated, possibly had a drink, and was alert, with his head held upright. I loaded him into a small carrier and delivered him to the vet's office in Sequim, and to be honest, I'll still be surprised if he lives, but we tried. I had only hoped that he'd die in a warm, soft resting place and not be picked apart by scavengers while he was still alive; despite what a natural end that would have been for him, I felt a little mercy was in order, mercy being that thing that we're told separates us from the lower animals.
I'm pretty good at spotting wildlife, injured or otherwise. The first time my friend Jason visited me in Washington, I pointed out twenty or thirty bald eagles a day, of which I believe he saw two the entire week. In Jason's defense, if instead of eagles it had been Volkswagen Rabbits or marginally attractive women ten years on either side of dateable, he'd have had me beaten hands down. But the point is that I've gotten increasingly good at noticing the things that other people miss, perhaps always looking for what's slightly out of place, like the contrasting black and white of a bird on land that's rarely seen out of water - one that dozens of people must have missed as they walked past, perhaps some of them wishing they were seeing more wildlife on their beach trip.
The ability to detect what's not quite right and respond appropriately will make a person effective in just about any profession, and it's certainly the case in companion animal welfare. Theoretically, dog and cat rescue isn't much different than wildlife rescue: one rescuer sees something not quite right, responds, enlists the help of the public if needed, and then hands the animal off to the people best suited to meeting its needs, in this case a veterinarian and a rehab center, who accept the animal without hesitation. Each entity does its part and fills its unique niche for the greater good and for the good of each individual animal.
But if dogs and cats are like birds along the beach, then companion animal rescue is a colossal oil spill, with more floating lifeless in the water and sitting listless on the sand than flying overhead, and those lucky few who are in flight had better fly far, or it's only a matter of time before they join their doomed counterparts. It doesn't take a professional to see that something is wrong, but it might take one to find what isn't. When faced with a scene where far more is wrong than right, where do you start? Do you focus on containing and removing the oil that's already spilled? Do you try to stop the spill at its source? Do you pick birds from the beach, or do you receive the birds, clean and treat them, and then release them when their environment is safe again? Ideally people would be doing all of those things, working in concert to bring the disaster to a close. Emphasis on "ideally".
Animal shelters ought to be the equivalent of the rehab centers where the oil-saturated birds go for treatment and recovery. In theory, they take in homeless and wayward animals, returning them to the homes from whence they strayed or placing them with new, adoptive families, providing medical care and behavioral rehabilitation along the way as needed. It's important to note that some shelters do operate that way, but for some reason, most don't; they take in homeless and wayward animals, return a few to their homes, adopt out a few, and kill the rest before they can become a drain on resources - resources that, by the way, exist for the sole purpose of caring for homeless animals. They call all of it rescue, but such opposing courses of action can hardly be called the same thing. One animal is placed in a house with a family, while another is placed in a freezer - could both placements be considered rescue? Could anyone really believe them to be? Or could it be that the people responsible for increasing the length and quality of the lives of dogs and cats in America, who took on that daunting task of their own volition, have betrayed the public trust, and rather than admit their shortcomings, mistakes, and in some cases, crimes, have chosen instead to defend them, lie about them, and attack anyone who dares to suggest that killing healthy animals shouldn't be part of the rescue picture?
Did you ever hear someone, after the recent Gulf of Mexico spill or the Exxon Valdez disaster, suggest that the problem wasn't the oil, but that there were simply too many birds? Chances are you didn't, but talk to animal rescuers enough and you'll hear all kinds of crazy shit. 'We can't save them all.' 'Our kill rate is lower than average, so we're proud of that.' 'It's not fair to devote extra resources to one animal when we don't have enough as it is.' 'There are good dogs and bad dogs.' 'Maybe we kill them after five days, but we give them five more days than anyone else would.'
They'll tell you we're in crisis. They'll blame dog and cat breeders. They'll blame animal abusers. They'll blame local government for not throwing more money their way, despite their mismanagement of the money they've already been given. They'll tell you there simply aren't enough homes for all the animals, and that it's better they die at the shelter than take their chances on the street. Of course, no one has asked the dogs and cats what they'd prefer. And no one will point out that nearly all of them came from homes at one time, suggesting either that there actually are enough homes, or that the number of negligent or abusive people with dogs and cats is far higher than it would appear to even the most experienced rescuer.
Most shelter personnel would probably suggest the latter, but they won't tell you that if they increased their spay/neuter programs by a mere three or four percent there would be no surplus of dogs and cats, and they would actually save money that could be put toward the care of the special needs animals they so disdain. They won't tell you about the local rescues that they refuse to work with, or the way they've tried to stop others in the area from rescuing animals at all because it affects their intake numbers, with implications on their funding, if not their very relevance. They won't tell you about the dogs they kill based solely on their appearance, or the cats they kill because of easily treatable illnesses or injuries. They won't tell you about dogs that never get walked or dogs that get choked on the end of a catch pole or pepper sprayed daily because their staff don't know how to move them out of their kennels. They won't tell you about the wholesale slaughter of feral cats. They won't tell you about the cheap, toxic food the animals are fed. They won't tell you how they deny adoption applications from minorities. They'll just tell you there's been an oil spill, that dogs and cats are the oil, and that the public and the government are the tanker captains, drunk at the helm.
Then they'll congratulate themselves for having a lower kill rate than some other shelter in some other part of the country, or for being lower than the national average. They might even proudly proclaim themselves "low-kill", a term that belies an attitude that animals simply don't matter that much - certainly not enough to make killing them intolerable. They're just 'spilled oil' that needs to be cleaned up. No one in a homeless shelter or domestic violence shelter brags about only killing fifteen percent of the clients, and when someone is found to have murdered another person, rarely does anyone suggest excusing him on the grounds that he's not a serial killer. But those are people. Dogs and cats are just an inconvenient mess, and messes get wiped up and thrown away, not saved, transformed, cherished.
Have you ever heard someone say, "I rescued my dog from a shelter"? I hear it all the time, and it's a very fitting way of putting it. At some shelters, adopters are treated like partners in rescue, working with the staff to locate and provide the best home for each dog and cat. But far more often people feel like subversives, trying to save an animal in spite of the shelter staff's desire to kill it. Adopters, not shelter staff, are the rescuers. Foster care groups and other, small, independent organizations have been formed across the country to rescue animals from shelters where they'd otherwise be killed, some specializing in the most desperate cases - the ones that aren't worth the shelters' resources. In the oil spill that is companion animal welfare, they have the feel of first responders, even though, technically, they aren't. Maybe that's because they're the ones actually engaged in rescue. They're the ones that see the spill for what it is: they do triage, dogs and cats are the birds, and adopters provide long-term care.
And where do the shelters fit in? They're certainly not rescuers, and they don't provide long-term care. They lack the organization, effectiveness, or clarity of purpose of even the most inept government agency, or the skill and discipline of a drunken sea captain, and in our extended metaphor, that leaves only one possibility...
They're the fucking oil.