Our Man in Washington: Pet Overpopulation Crisis

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In the early 1970s pet overpopulation began to attract the attention of policymakers.

“In today’s throwaway society, pets have become just another disposable item. “

With 90 million dogs and cats alive in the United States, pet overpopulation is beginning to reach crisis proportions.

No official pet census has ever been taken, so officials vary in specific head counts of dogs and cats. Some experts, however, fully expect the number of such animals to climb to 200 million in the U.S. during the next decade.

The birthrates are worrisome enough. Dogs are about 15 times and cats at least 30 times more prolific than people.

But the pet boom is also big business. Your local pet shop–which now takes credit cards–is part of a $4.5 billion annual business that is encouraging propagation, not birth control.

As a result the United States–with more pets than any other country–faces the very real prospect of some of its larger cities being overrun by cats and dogs, perhaps within the next ten years.

To be sure, the benefits of owning pets are personal and intangible. The animals bring pleasure and companionship to millions of people of all ages. But statistics show that the boom in pets also has its seamy side.

Each year some $350 million is spent on U.S. animal control programs, most of it for killing unwanted pets and disposing of their carcasses. Every 50 minutes, on the average, a dog or cat is “put to sleep” at each of 1,800 pounds and shelters scattered throughout the U.S.

Relatively few dogs and cats delivered to animal pounds or shelters leave them alive. In 1972, for example, 17 million cats and dogs were “turned in”. Of these, 13.5 million were destroyed. (The rest were returned to their owners, adopted by new owners, or sold to medical research laboratories.)

U.S. pounds and shelters are turning into animal death mills. Methods of execution include asphyxiation, electrocution, gassing, and drug injections. The Humane Society of the United States recommends a shot of sodium pentobarbital, which kills almost instantly, but many understaffed and penniless pounds are forced to devise jury-rigged death chambers which are more painful.

“There are just incredible cruelties that take place through ignorance,” says the Humane Society’s Karl Nordling. “Some pounds in smaller communities are pretty atrocious.”

Where do all these unwanted animals come from? Contrary to popular belief, it’s not mostly strays that are in shelters … but abandoned pets and recent litters. In today’s throwaway society, pets have become just another disposable item.

People unthinkingly purchase the animals as Christmas, Easter, or birthday gifts for their children … then give them up when they realize a responsibility is involved. Many animals are turned in to pounds complete with registration papers, shots, collars, leashes, toys, beds or houses, and food supplies. Within a few days, however–penned up in close quarters with numerous other animals–a well-fed, tamed cat or dog will go insane.

Other pets are turned loose in rural areas where their owners hope the animals will learn “to take care of themselves”. This amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Seldom do tamed animals survive alone in the wilds either as scavengers or predators. Those that do–especially dogs–often form feral packs which have become a growing menace to wildlife and livestock in many rural communities … threatening children and bringing down deer, cattle, sheep, and poultry.

What can be done about the pet population boom? Here are the latest medical and legal developments:

Surgical sterilization–spaying females and neutering males–is the only effective pet contraceptive method now available. But sterilization is expensive … between $15.00 and $75.00 depending on sex, size and species. Tax-supported public pet clinics could perform the operations at lower costs, but veterinarians so far have succeeded in opposing the clinics.

One possible alternative to expensive surgery is the “pet pill” contraceptive, which researchers say is still five years away. Syntex–the Palo Alto, California pharmaceutical firm which pioneered the birth control pill for humans–has developed a hormonal pellet for implantation under an animal’s skin to prevent both heat and conception, but it must go through a lengthy federal approval process.

Other approaches include: an injection given at puberty to immunize an animal’s sex hormones, possible use of radiation or laser beams to de-sex pets or the marketing of pet foods laced with contraceptive chemicals. The trouble with the last alternative is that as much as 25 percent of the pet food sold in the U.S. is thought to be eaten by humans.

Legal approaches to the pet population boom are numerous and ingenious, but no bills have been passed by either state legislatures or Congress. In California, where there are more dogs than in any other state, measures have been introduced: [1] to make license fees for spayed or neutered animals half those for unsterilized pets; [2] to provide $3 million for low-cost municipal spay clinics; [3] to provide research funds for pet contraceptive projects; and [4] to set standards for animal control programs. In the U.S. Senate meanwhile, Senator Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) has introduced a bill (S. 1032) in Congress to provide federal loans for pet clinics and grants to train para-professional pet medics … but Congress has taken no action on the measure.

So, the pet boom continues … for the benefit of people, not animals. Leonard N. Stern, 35–president of Hartz Mountain Corporation, the nation’s largest supplier of pets, pet food, and accessories–has amassed a personal fortune of more than $500 million in 14 years. “However, at this point,” says one expert on the subject, “we’ve pretty much reached the saturation point of the number of homes that can have pets.” So what will become of the more than 127,000 dogs and cats that were born yesterday?

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