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  • Mike Fry

Call It What It Is - Not Pet Overpopulation



There was a time in my life when I uttered the phrase "pet overpopulation" several times a day. My family and I, after all, had spent many years of our lives fighting to end the "pet overpopulation" crisis. The thinking was, at the time, that animal shelters in the USA killed between 8 million and 10 million animals annually. That was evidence enough to prove there were too many animals and not enough homes for them. We never stopped to ask ourselves if pet overpopulation existed in reality, or if the killing in animal shelters was caused by something much more insidious. Looking back on those years that seems odd, because we had plenty of evidence that animal shelters were killing for all sorts of reasons, that did not relate to any kind of "overpopulation" problem.

There was, for example, the time when my mother was trying to save a little Sheltie from one of our local humane societies. A volunteer there knew the dog was scheduled to be killed because it had mange, a very treatable ailment. The humane society would not release the dog because they had determined he was "unadoptable." The volunteer was exasperated and had called my mother for assistance. My mom, therefore, called the shelter director. He, too, told her... "No, you cannot adopt the dog. He is unadoptable." After going round and round, she eventually screamed, "He can't be unadoptable if there are people trying to adopt him."

That shelter would go on to kill that poor dog. And, his body count would be added to the number of animals killed in animal shelters annually, which were used to maintain the belief that so-called "pet overpopulation" was real, which assumed shelters would never kill healthy or treatable animals if there were other options.

During those early years of our animal advocacy we had many experiences with many shelters like that one: shelters choosing killing in spite of easy alternatives that were readily available to them. Therefore, looking back on it, it seems surreal that we never questioned whether "pet overpopulation" was actually real or an imaginary windmill we were fighting, Don Quixote style. But, we didn't. We went along with the cultural mindset of the time which said there are too many animals and not enough homes and therefore many shelters have to kill animals. We also believed that the ultimate solution was spay and neuter so that at some distant point in the future, it could result in a day when shelters didn't "have to" kill animals any more. That began to change when I read Nathan Winograd's book Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America. Note: That "pet overpopulation" is a myth is right there in the title. For me, those were fighting words and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I still read it with an open mind. And, I learned a lot.

Since that time, other people have done the hard work of quantifying the supply and demand of companion animals, objectively proving that there are plenty of homes in the USA available to save every single healthy or treatable pet that enters an animal shelter. And, that has certainly been true all of my life. The real reasons shelters kill healthy and treatable pets is because they have failed to implement the programs that will save them. Too many shelters like to talk about so-called pet overpopulation, because doing so excuses the killing they are doing. It implies there is some terrible thing outside of their control that makes them respond in this fatal way. But, it is just not true. What people think of as "pet overpopulation" is actually "shelter overpopulation" which occurs when animal shelters take in more animals than leave alive. That happens for two primary reasons: They take in animals that do not need "rescue" (like healthy free-roaming cats) and they make getting animals out alive too difficult. They also fail to help people keep their pets in their homes, don't do what they should to return stray animals to their families, and more. By changing those things, any animal shelter can stop killing overnight. For all of those reasons, animal advocates should stop using the term "pet overpopulation" and call it what it really is: Shelter overpopulation.

#petoverpopulation #semantics #shelterreform