Archive for September, 2011
The animal rescue shelter I run includes a veterinary hospital for shelter animals and pets of people who can’t afford private veterinarians. Almost all the low-income people who use the hospital take excellent care of their pets, though money is often tight. But every once in a while, like any vet office anywhere, we see clients who make us ask, “Why does he even have an animal?”
One walked in last week. A man with a kindly demeanor, he brought in a cat, who at age 18 months had already mothered at least one litter of kittens. Her name was “Kitty” (and all four of her kittens were named the same thing). The man said that he planned on giving the kittens to his girlfriend, though I wonder who would want to get four cats all at once. But that was his plan.
As for Kitty the mother, she was in our hospital because she had fallen off a balcony three days before and was limping. The likely reason that Kitty fell from the balcony was that she was having trouble walking straight because one of her front legs had gotten stuck in her flea collar. Although anyone with eyesight could see that the leg was stuck in the collar, it had been there long enough to become embedded in the skin under her leg. Of course, this doesn’t happen overnight.
So here’s a case of a man with a cat who had never before seen a vet, had never been vaccinated—nor had any of her kittens—had limped around with her leg stuck in her flea collar for at least a month, had fallen from a balcony, and even then had to wait three days before getting any help.
The man, as I said, seemed like a generally kind person; he was certainly no monster. Although he didn’t have a lot of money, he worked as a barber, and I imagine that his clients liked him and so did his family and neighbors. And oddly, he seemed very concerned about his cat.
Occasionally our legal system will mandate that someone has lost the right to keep animals. Michael Vick is the most famous example, and courts often apply the same rule to animal hoarders. But other than that, anyone is free to get a dog or a cat, or even several. It doesn’t always work out well, as Kitty’s story illustrates. That’s why we in the animal protection field often ask ourselves if keeping pets is a right to be enjoyed by all.
I think, in the end, it should be, at least for those who have not been legally convicted of animal abuse or neglect. We don’t, as a society, want a law restricting the keeping of pets any more than we want to restrict people’s right to have children. But sometimes, we all agree, children have to be removed from some parents to protect them. Same with animals. But by then, the damage is done. The animal has suffered, and some die of abuse and neglect.
So clearly there is still a pressing need for education on the most basic needs that animals have. And the responsibility for doing that education falls first and foremost on animal protection groups, like the Washington Animal Rescue League, where I work. That’s why we have a humane education program that teaches school children kindness and responsibility. And it’s why all our staff know that they’re to drop whatever they’re doing to talk to anyone who will listen about proper animal care whenever the chance arises. It’s what I spend a lot of my own time doing.
We often hear that “it takes a village to raise a child.” I believe that. And I think you could say that it takes a village to raise a dog or cat, or any animal, too. We all have to be on the lookout for animals who are not being treated well and intervene when possible. Often, a little education, proffered gently and with kindness, is all that’s needed. But sometimes, you have to call the police or local humane society. In the end, that also has educational value, not only for the abuser, but for family, neighbors, and the rest of us.
We contacted the local humane society to follow up with Kitty’s owner on the fate of her kittens. Meanwhile, he surrendered Kitty to us. She’s had surgery to fix her wound, has been spayed, vaccinated and cared for, and soon she will be looking for new home. At this point, her story has a guaranteed happy ending.
And maybe her ordeal has taught some people something about caring for animals. We can only hope.
Here we go again. And this time it wasn’t on purpose, unless you consider that we know it’s a strong possibility every time we take in new puppies. We’ve got parvovirus again. The signs go up in the lobby, the low-cost vaccine clinics for the public get cancelled, and the shelter gets broken up into three levels of quarantine, like we’re in the middle of the movie “The Hot Zone.”
This is the hard part of bringing in animals who have “nowhere else to go.” Which is more than our motto at the Washington Animal Rescue League; it’s an everyday reality. And rescuing puppies. Puppies that act completely nuts (like puppies do) and who look perfectly healthy at the overwhelmed shelters we travel to every week to lend a hand and bring home the animals who have no time left. Truth is, the 42 healthy-looking, energetic puppies we brought back from two separate shelters in West Virginia last week, were already as much as dead at their shelters because the clock had run out. Not because those shelters were bad places and their staff didn’t care. Quite the opposite. They were already doing all they could to save an ever increasing number of animals whom the public has essentially discarded by overbreeding, under-spaying, never neutering, and rarely vaccinating.
And we don’t have to go far to run into this. We open our doors to puppies who prance in with their owners from our own neighborhood, or we get them from our partner shelters who also want to save every last one. Unfortunately, it’s a never-ending river of homeless, “throw-away” animals. The world—at least the developed world—has been well-educated in spaying and neutering and the tragedy of companion animal overpopulation. And vaccines have been around since the turn of the last century. So if it’s not ignorance (which it’s not), why is it that we still have too many puppies and kittens, and far too many discarded dogs and cats? And why such poor preventive medical practices when the most easily avoidable animal disease, parvovirus, is so rampant in our shelters?
I have a one-word answer: accessibility. Or lack of it. This country—and the world, too, but let’s stick with the U.S. for now—is critically lacking in accessible veterinary care. And it’s not the vets’ fault. It costs a fortune to run a practice. And most new vets are in extreme debt to the tune of several hundred thousand by the time they get out of at least eight years of higher education. But if it costs you $100 to get a puppy examined and vaccinated or, heaven forbid, $600-800 if your dog starts vomiting in the middle of the night and you have to go to an emergency hospital, that’s very hard—if not impossible—for many, many people. And never mind that spaying a dog can cost hundreds of dollars. Again, not your vet’s fault. Try doing any of these things (well, not spaying) at a human hospital, and veterinary medicine will seem like the best bargain in the world.
We need accessible veterinary care in this country. Last week, I asked my medical director to come up with a list of veterinary hospitals in the U.S. who offer subsidized or reduced cost services to low-income populations. She found only four. And of those, none of them offered the kind of discounts that we offer here at our shelter. Because they can’t. It simply costs too much. But when we look into the faces of our clients who are bringing in the one thing they haven’t lost in this exhaustingly tenacious recession, it’s clear they can’t afford even the 80 percent reduced costs we offer. So how can people do it in rural West Virginia, or bayou Louisiana, or central Missouri? No wonder these shelters are so full. And it’s the innocent who suffer—the puppies and kittens no one ever had space or money for, with diseases that are wholly preventable, except they never got a vaccine. Life is already hard enough for people who are just making it as “working class,” never mind the poor or the ill.
The result is all around me as I walk through the shelter, where we have forty puppies quarantined for at least ten days because they’ve tested positive for parvo. We lost one of them to the disease last week, but we hope we will save the rest, who will go on to wonderful new homes with families who want them and can take care of them. But who is going to save those thousands, ten thousands, millions, all across the country, who will never get that chance unless animal health care is supported, subsidized and prioritized, as it should be in a truly civilized society? For those of us trying to staunch the flow, that question is the toughest pill of all to swallow.