Friday, December 16, 2011

How Did Dog Shelters Become Slaughter Houses?

 From the December 2011 edition of Dogs Today.  Illustration by Kevin Brockbank.

Why do we call places that kill dogs ‘shelters’ or ‘rescues’?

Like so many things, the answer goes back to the Victorian era.

The goal back then was to eradicate rabies, and the most obvious place to start was to round up all the stray dogs and kill them as quickly as possible.

Pet dog owners were instructed to always have their dogs muzzled, and to never have them off leash, which meant any dog found un-muzzled or off-leash was fair game for the dog catcher.

In the U.K. and in the U.S., dog catchers and dog pounds were subsidized by taxpayer funds, and budgets were always thin. Pound operators were told to keep overhead costs low or risk cutting salaries, and the simplest way to do that was to rush dogs to their death, thereby lowering food and staff costs.

And so, within a week of being caught, most stray dogs were summarily shot, gassed, clubbed, or drowned in wire cages shoved off the dock.


The good news is that rabies was eradicated from the U.K. by 1903. The bad news is that by then dog pounds were institutions with budgets, employees, real estate, and a fully developed ethos. Animal welfare had become a social cause and a business, and while improved treatment of horses and cattle was a concern, it was the plight of dogs and cats that really opened up the purses.

Of course one had to treat the issue gingerly! One could not be raising money to help subsidize a canine slaughterhouse, and so a new term was coined – a ‘shelter’ or “rescue’. Let people guess what actually happened there!

It should be said that from the beginning the ‘humane movement’ and the Kennel Club had a detente.

The Kennel Club did not decry the movement for pocketing taxpayer money for killing hundreds of thousands of healthy dogs, while the humane movement did not criticize the Kennel Club for encouraging the breeding of pedigree puppies. Both groups recognized that they were trying to milk the same group of upwardly mobile middle class and high-value donors, and both found it convenient to pitch their messages along class lines. Better people had pedigree dogs, while loose mutts and cross-breeds were the unfortunate canine flotsam cast up by the actions of the ignorant and the lower class.

In fundraising appeals, the humane movement always suggested that more money could ‘save’ a dog or a cat down at the ‘shelter” or ‘rescue,’ but the mechanics of such an operation were always vague, and for a very good reason; only a small percentage of money was ever spent on dog and cat welfare. Instead, the large humane organizations became almost pure legislative and political organizations. Stray dogs and cats? That was the job of the City pound, and never mind if that job involved endless killing.

If a consumer actually wanted to get a dog from the pound, of course, he or she had to cross the railroad tracks, pass by the town dump, and go down a dirt road or trash-strewn street to a nondescript building. There they would find a double row of cages filled with barking dogs. Each of these dogs had only a few hours or a few days to live before they were to be shot, gassed, drowned, or injected. If you wanted a particular dog, it was best to take it with you now!

Of course, the average person looking to get a pet for their child never considered subjecting them to the horror of such an experience. Instead most picked up an all breed book, flipped through the glossy pictures and romantic canine descriptions, and then thumbed through the local newspaper and dog magazine advertisements to find a breeder. Then, on a Saturday afternoon, the family headed off to a house or farm where cash was exchanged for a wiggling eight-week old package of fur.

What about the dogs at the pound, which had now been rebranded as a ‘shelter’? Out of sight and out of mind, they were dead and on the land fill.


The good news is things are changing.

In the last decade or so, the world of dog shelters has changed, and it is still changing.

To start, people have come to understand that the big direct mail organizations do very little at the local level to help shelter dogs and cats. If you are interested in helping those animals, stay clear of the national organizations and give to a local shelter where you have some chance of knowing where the money actually goes.

Second, the shelters themselves have come to realize that they need to be in the ‘sales” business. To that end they are creating more “store front” rescues and shelters which are less depressing and more attractive to young families with children.

Third, the social cues we now give each other about pedigree dogs and about cross-breeds have changed. While pedigree dogs were once seen as a sign of an upscale and informed consumer, the message going out now is that pedigree dogs are more likely to be expensive, inbred health messes, and ownership of such dogs is more likely a sign of pretension than sophistication.

Fourth, more and more people are spaying and neutering their dogs, and fewer unaltered dogs are running around at large. As a consequence, the number of unplanned litters has dropped remarkably in the last 20 years.

Fifth, the Internet has made it easy for shelters and rescues to post pictures and descriptions of available dogs online, where people are free to look through them without the terrifying emotional pressure of going to a shelter and choosing one among a hundred to save.

All of this is terrific news, and a true sea-change in the world of dogs.


The bad news is that while things are generally looking up for shelters dogs, that is not true for ‘Staffordshire Bull Terrier types,’ -- what we in America call ‘Pit Bulls’.

More Pit Bulls are killed in U.S. shelters every year than ALL dogs registered by the American Kennel Club and the United Kennel Club combined.

But it's not just an American story is it?

Last year less the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home put down more than 800 "Staffordshire Bull Terrier types".

That's more dead dogs of a single type at one shelter than the total number of Neopolitan Mastiffs, Pekingese, Chinese Cresteds, Portuguese Water Dogs, or Boston Terriers registered by the Kennel Club that same year.

And why are so many "Staffordshire Bull Terrier types" put down?

Simple: Because no one wants them.

And yet these dogs are still being bred by people who say they love them, and they are still being acquired by people who say they want them.

What happens next, however, is all too predictable: about half of these dogs end up on death row because they prove to be too much for their owners.

What is the dog writing community, saying about all this?

Not much.

The silence is pretty deafening.

And why is that?

Mostly it’s because folks who talk about “the Staffie problem” end up being aggressively bullied whenever they raise the issue.

"Blame the deed not the breed" the apologists for death wail.

But they don't mean the deed of actually breeding these dogs for cash, do they?

No, that's a sacred cow.

Talk about a ban on advertising these dogs for sale, and suddenly there is no concern at all about the dogs.

Now it's all about property rights. Now it’s all about business.

The dead dogs?

They offer up no solutions for them.

In the world of Staffies, at least, it’s capitalism that is being defended, not the dogs.


april 29 said...

Thank you for your honest thoughts on the Staffordshire/pit bull issue. Animal rights types and breed advocates are wrestling with the wrong end of the alligator in their push to place these dogs by any means. Best Friends has partnered with Petsmart charities in a huge, expensive effort to place shelter pit bulls. This effort includes regional coordinators to find new ways of talking people into considering a dog that they clearly do not want. Meanwhile, back at the AVMA, stats show that Staffies and pit bulls have the lowest rates of neuter and spay. This breed specific problem does not cause Best Friends and the AVMA to consider for one moment that their relentless advocacy for a these dogs is counter productive. The dogs die in shelters in horrifying numbers, pit bull victims are created in horrifying numbers as well. Our lives are changed by these attacks, some lives are ended by them.

Miss Margo said...

Dear Mr. Burns:

In the interest of full disclosure, I have no use for pit bulls and I believe the breed should be tightly regulated.

You are the only pit bull advocate I have ever heard make these eminently reasonable, principled, logical arguments. I have read all of your pit bull posts. Your position on this issue is very moderate. For the life of me, I cannot fathom the level of vitriol directed against you (and your positions) by other pit bull advocates. There is no doubt in my mind that you are fond of this breed and support its future in society. You give it more sympathy that I can, that's for sure.

I cannot say that I support your position(s) here, because I would be happy to legislate pit bull-type dogs out of existence. That said, I am completely convinced that if every pit bull owner and breeder shared your convictions concerning pit bulls and their stewardship, the pit bull 'problem'--attacks and overbreeding--would be tremendously reduced.

IMO, you are doing good and important work with this. What you say IS the truth. Most pit bull advocates don't want to hear it and won't be the slightest bit flexible or understanding, but in time, there will be a choice in their communities (depending on where they live, I suppose): regulation or BSL.

Best regards. I enjoy your blog! Check it a few times a week!

PBurns said...

I actually don't get much flak from folks who own Pit Bulls -- they KNOW this breed is going to death chambers in jaw-dropping numbers.

The sad part is not the noise; it's the SILENCE from the folks who claim to care about dogs. And yes, it's the silence about over-breeding in the pit bull community. No other breed is as liklely to be intact as a pit bull, but you will not learn that from the Pit Bull lists and boards, nor will you see illustrations of what a million dead pit bulls a year look like.

That's a shameful omission, I think.

So far as I can tell, most of my fellow dog bloggers are terried of being beaten up by "Pet Bull" breeders and property rights nuts if they so much as talk about the need to spay and neuter Pit Bulls.

The "Pet Bull" people are looking for a cause and have bought into the "breed discrimination" frame. Their argument, boiled down, can be summarized as: "Not every, or even MOST, pit bulls are dangerous."

Yep. That's true.

It's also true that most of the serious dog bites in this country come from Pit Bulls (see the lists >> ) and it's also true that most of the dogs being killed in "shelters" in this country (and the UK) are Pit Bulls.

Clearly Pit Bulls ARE a breed-specific problem. No other dog has ever found long-term success in the dog-fighting world. No other dog has gone 30 years with this level of shelter killing. No other dog has seen the tragedy spread across borders and continents.

YES the people who own Pit Bulls are often the problem, but so too is the genetic code within the dog. Put a tightly coiled strong dog genetic code in the hands of a bad or ignorant or pollyanna owner, and very bad things can happen pretty quickly

Pit Bulls folks say it's "the deed not the breed," but they do not mean the deed of breeding, do they?

And do they have ANY solutions they are ACTUALLY pushing to stop the madness of breeding Pit Bulls?

Not from what I can see.

The result: More death every day. This is the legacy of Pit Bull death apologists. They refuse to recognized that the dogs are being bred by people who claim they love them, are being acquired by people who claim they love them, and are being taken to shelters by those same people when they discover the dog is too much.

With Pit Bulls, SILENCE = DEATH.


Miss Margo said...

Hello again, Mr. Burns. Thanks so much for your lengthy and thoughtful reply.

I have seen you bashed on pit bull forums. That is what I mean when I say "vitriol." I realize that the bashers are not necessarily representative of the pit bull community.

I completely agree with all of the statements you've made in your reply save one:

""Not every, or even MOST, pit bulls are dangerous."

Yep. That's true.""

Unfortunately, this is not true from what I have researched about the breed, and from what I have personally heard from people who have owned pit bulls in my personal circle, and in my own experience. That last is anecdotal evidence, of course. Nonetheless, the pit bulls I have known all wanted to kill other dogs and pets. When they got loose, the pit bulls in my neighborhood were all a menace in that they terrorized other people's animals. Loose labs did not do this. Perhaps there were pit bulls around who were totally non-threatening and I never knew it. However, I could never say that most pits are "not dangerous." Even if they are not human aggressive, they are still dangerous to other pets and livestock. I have to ask: why are they worth having, when there are so many other breeds of dog (practically all of them) which pose virtually NO threat to either animals or people? What's the point of owning a pit bull, given the risk and liability?

Respectfully submitted,

PBurns said...

Miss Margo, the antidote to a lie is not another lie, and the antidote to ignorance is not the Internet.

You can go to any pet day care place and find pit bulls galore, I assure you. Not only are they not fighting, but most are asleep or at play. The key for most animals is simply socialization. Not all Pit Bulls, to be sure, but MOST.

In the meantime, for those who want to know where I stand, see >> Between Two Lies, Lost Opportunity for Pit Bulls >>

This blog is so reviled in the Pit Bull community, that it is featured on a few of Pit Bull boards as a feed! So no, I am not at war with Pit Bull owners in general, nor am I being bashed too much. Perhaps one reason for that is that I am sticking to the facts, which is that Pit Bulls are not as dangerous as wild lions, but ARE being dramatically over-sold and over-bred and, as a consequence, are landing in the wrong hands and in shelters where they are routinely killed at the rate of nearly a million a year.

I stand FOR dogs, which means I am not necessarily standing for either causal idiot owners who defend the dogs as a cause OR the fear-driven who have demonized the dogs as a cause. The dogs deserve better on all sides.

Anonymous said...

I read your blog every chance I get. I've learned a lot about dogs and how to raise or handle them fro here and for that, I am thankful.

I went to pet smart a few days ago and saw a cage that had two female pits in there for adoption. One was brown and white the other was a small brown breeding pit. Both pits had severe bite wounds because they were busted from a fight ring that were mostly healed.

The dogs were super sweet when I was in there with them albeit the little one was shy and I was saddened by their predicament.

I told the foster of the dogs that it made me sad to see dogs humped and dumped and that I've warned friends (who've bought and dumped) not to buy a powerful breed and to be sure to check the breeding line and individual pup for the soundest temperament. As soon as I mentioned genetic temperament a rough scowl came across the man's face as though I had blasphemed his dogs that I was obviously in love with.

I did not argue further, as we were obviously pit bull advocates with two completely different mindsets on the issue. But if he understood what you're saying here and advocated such, then those two dogs might not have wound up in that cage desperately hoping for a good home...

Miss Margo said...

Hi Mr. Burns!

I did not mean that your blog was reviled by the PB 'community,' and I also stated that I am aware that the derogatory posts I read are not representative of the 'community' or even the forum. I've seen your blog on pitbull-chat; the management there strikes me as pretty honest about their dogs.

There is no doubt in my mind that you are pro-dog. And I like the way your mind works. You are a solution-minded person, which is invaluable in policy implementation work (as you know). It's none of my business, of course, but I get the feeling that's what you do from your blog posts.

I will keep what you've said about pit bulls in mind. I do not want to be an ideologue.


Unknown said...


As a volunteer at a shelter that just recently made the decision to adopt out pit bull types, I commend you for talking about the people that really grate the staff/volunteers here.
They previously lacked the resources to do the extra checks on people looking for this breed, but as no dogs at the shelter had been euthanized due to lack of space since 2008, and pit types make a full half the dogs there, they set up a pilot program with an area pit-bull rescue.

This particular rescue aggressively promotes spay/neuter with fliers just about everywhere, and offer a low-cost clinic a few times a year as well as a training course for pit bull owners (mandatory for adopters, but open to other pit bull owners as well). They've been quite successful, actually, which is why the shelter had them help set up a reasonable adoption policy on the breed: potential adopters have to pay a little extra, do an interview, and submit to a home inspection in addition to the background check done for all adoptions.

The problem I see with most other rescues and shelters is they aren't nearly as vocal or honest with themselves/the public about the problem of over-breeding, bad breeding, and bad owners. And it certainly doesn't do the pit bulls or the public any favors to ignore such things.

Thanks for being honest!
Tacoma, WA resident

Meals on Wheels said...

'Tis the truth you write, thank you for that. I look forward to reading your entire blog. EXCELLENT!

Anton said...

Yes I agree with this piece. These pitbulls and their derivatives are bred far too much but why they are biting people I have no idea? perhaps someone can let me know?

I had the world changing good fortune to have owned a pit-bull called Lilly.

It was all a big mistake.

I had seen some very nice looking dogs on my walk with my nephew through some rice paddies collecting guppies for his tank. Very robust healthy looking dogs with wonderful colour, all colours. They intrigued me. I was in a country where I couldn't speak the local language or recognise any cultural signals. I ended up with a champion fighting dogs little bitch puppy. I had no clue what "breed" she was I assumed some native type of extraordinary health.

I never stopped marvelling at her gameness and athletic ability. She used to run in mid air if I picked her up and at the size of your average short legged JRT puppy of four weeks she was leaping from my desk to the floor to chase house lizards like an adult cat.

It was only when i took her for shots I was informed she was an illegal breed, a pit-bull. Not longer after the breeder handed me with pride tapes of her father and mother beating some top dogs in a fight across the border in China.

Luckily for me everyone loved her. The vet dotted on her as did anyone who came across her. She was a small pitbull, lithe and slim very game much like a large hunting JRT.

So I learnt she was an excellent snake catcher and dispatched every thing from King cobra to green viper with unashamed joy dozens and dozens of the poor animals. Never getting bitten. She could behead a wasp without being stung and she could neutralise a giant centipede sting in seconds. But she never ever ever bit anyone, and adored children.

I learnt that Pitbulls are not bred to bite, in fact if they do they are destroyed and never used to breed more fighting animals. Handlers are not in the business of being bitten.

I realise much too much dog for a pet in any but the most dedicated homes and I don't agree with dog fighting so why they are being bred in such numbers is also beyond me.

concretenprimroses said...

I started writing a long comment with examples, but gave that up. What I want to point out is that aggressive dogs are called pit bulls in the media even if they are not. I have even seen this locally in my small city.
Other than that I have nothing to add, I agree with what you have written.

Krigsrotte said...

Your POV on pit bulls is so deeply, sadly true! My family has a bullterrier bitch with excellent temperament, a cute, biddable, game little working dog of unknown parentage adopted from a BT rescue, and it's unbelievable how many people want to breed her. We spayed her early and I've never regretted that. Not after volunteering at a shelter and seeing how many amazing pits and bullies can't find a good home.

Re: euthanasia in shelters: there has to be some reasonable point between euthanizing all stray dogs and a ban on euthanasia. In my country [Poland] it's illegal to put down a healthy animal unless it has a proven history of aggression towards humans [or, to a lesser extent, dogs, but it would have to be really egregious with multiple fatalities]. Of course it's possible to find a vet who'll put down your healthy pet, just as you could find one to dock tails and crop ears [also illegal], but it'll take some time. As a result our shelters are BURSTING.
I'm somewhat unpopular in my volunteer group because they want to save every single doggy life, no matter how old or cancer-ridden; I see there aren't enough resources to go around, we're stretched thin, there are lots of dogs in subpar conditions while this same amount of resources could keep a smaller amount of dogs in a better state. But there's the issue of who's going to select which ones should die. Hell, I'd be willing to make these choices, even if it would mean putting down several shelter dogs I really love [can't hardly keep a territorial, xenophobic, 75kg Caucasian Ovcharka in my 11th floor downtown apartment, he needs a high fence, tons of room and a very firm, responsible, childfree household - yeah right, they're a dime a dozen!] but it's not up to me.
Pardon my ranting, it's a sore subject for me.