A reader writes (in part):
OK well, it sounds like you’re saying that individual people should never be accountable at all? For anything they do with the animals they don’t want? Is it EVER their fault when they act irresponsibly? Or is it always the shelter’s fault?
I’m glad for the opportunity to address this issue: Yes, individuals should be accountable for their interactions with pets – everyone from the owner of a single cat to the rescuer of 50 cats to the shelter director responsible for hundreds of pets per day. And while I believe the concept of the “irresponsible public” is greatly exaggerated, I absolutely acknowledge that there are indeed some pet owners who behave irresponsibly. I’m not sure if we should include those who intentionally torture/maim/kill pets in that category but they exist too, albeit as a tiny portion of the general public.
But beyond dispelling the myth that the pet owning public is generally a bunch of scallywags, I want to understand why some owners behave in what appear to be irresponsible ways. To my mind, addressing the reasons why a pet ends up abandoned is sometimes more important than finding out who did the abandoning so we can launch an online crusade to smear the person’s character and prevent him from ever getting another pet. (By the way, you will never, ever prevent anyone from getting a pet. You can circulate your DNA postings until your keyboard turns to dust but people who want pets will get them.)
If I had a shelter and I noticed the same woman coming in with a box full of puppies every six months, I’d ask myself – Do we offer low/no cost spay-neuter? Have I made her aware of this service? Do I know if she has any means of transporting her 90 pound mama dog to and from the clinic? What can I do to make it possible for this owner to get her dog spayed?
Unfortunately some shelters would simply wag their fingers and guilt trip the owner, ultimately discouraging her from returning. The result of which is a mama dog who still isn’t spayed and the next litter of puppies being taken somewhere probably far less desirable than a shelter. I would much rather hold this person “accountable” by helping her achieve a solution.
Let’s look at a specific example. Someone recently tied a Lab mix in the median of a busy street in Florence, SC in the middle of the night. The dog’s neck was severely injured due to a collar that had become embedded over time. Neighbors rescued the dog, took her to the vet for treatment, and are caring for her. Police are looking for the person who abandoned the dog.
While I think we can all agree that allowing the collar to become embedded and abandoning the dog were both wrong, I know some people will immediately take it a step further and condemn the person responsible and perhaps even everyone in the south. But if we pause for a moment, we must admit we know very little about this person. We don’t know if the person who tied the dog in the median is the same person who allowed the collar to become embedded. We don’t know if the person lives in Florence or even in SC. Care to speculate?
Maybe the person who owned the dog was terribly cruel and intentionally allowed the collar to become embedded over time just to torture the dog. Then, growing weary of the dog’s barking, decided to abandon her in a median where he hoped she’d be run over by a car or suffer some other horrible end.
Maybe. But that doesn’t seem likely to me. Most pet owners are not aberrant freaks.
Perhaps the owner became seriously ill after getting the puppy and was hospitalized for several months. Maybe well meaning relatives who really weren’t “dog people” were bringing the dog food and water during this time in an effort to help. It’s possible no one gave a thought to or even noticed that the collar was too small for the growing dog and becoming embedded in the skin. By the time someone did notice, the injury was severe and the person panicked. Knowing that the dog needed help, he decided to leave the dog somewhere he knew she’d be found – the median of a busy street in the city of Florence.
Not the best decision by any measure but one made under highly stressful circumstances and with the hope that the dog would receive the help she needed.
Other possible scenarios off the top of my head:
- Someone found the dog with the collar embedded but was afraid to seek care for fear of being blamed for the dog’s condition and so left her in a public place.
- The finder was financially incapable of getting treatment for the dog and feared taking her to his local animal control facility where he knew injured pets were gassed. So he drove to a nearby city and left her in a highly visible area to be found.
- The owner was horrified when he realized the collar had become embedded without him noticing. He felt too ashamed to take the dog in to his local shelter for fear of being judged harshly and/or charged with a crime so he abandoned her in the median with the hope that someone would care for her.
None of these scenarios reflect good decisions and I’m not excusing the actions that led to this dog being tied in a median. What I’m trying to do is understand how something like this might happen and how it could be prevented from happening to another pet in future. To my mind, if we had a sheltering system in this country that was known for saving pets, we might avoid more cases like this. A shelter should be a place people can feel good about bringing a pet they find who needs treatment. Shelters should be continually reaching out to the public to send the message: If you know of a pet who has no one to responsibly care for her, we are here. We will take care of her. She’ll be safe with us.
Instead, we have many shelters doing the opposite – making the public feel that they are irresponsible and unwelcome at the shelter. We have shelters telling the local paper, “We kill our friend every day”. Does that sound like a place you’d take a dog in need of care?
So, in answer to the original questions, I do want people to be held accountable for their interactions with pets. But I want to reserve my outrage for those most egregious cases of willful neglect, apathy, and harm. I want to remind myself to try to understand the reasons why good people sometimes end up making bad decisions for their pets. I’d like to work toward preventing things from heading down the wrong path in the first place. To my mind, it’s a community effort and a community responsibility.
Public animal shelters are the institutions we pay for with our tax dollars to take care of our communities’ pets. While individual owners might make bad choices, they are not being paid by the community to care for pets in need. Many “bad” pet owners can be made into good owners simply by giving them a hand up. The shelter must be held to a separate standard. The shelter is the fall back, the fail safe if you will. If they do not stand strong for the voiceless victims of homelessness, neglect and cruelty but instead kill the victims and blame those who pay their salaries, how can we expect things to improve?