More Animals than Homes…

“There are more animals than homes”, goes the standard lament from animal welfare workers, a condition of the status quo in South Africa that is used by some to justify euthanasia of the excess, like unwanted commodities.

The fact is, homings are down, except possibly for puppies; pro-life shelters are filling up or full, and the population of animals needing homes keeps growing. And it will get worse because few are attending to the root causes of these undesirable events. More and more, I see Facebook posts in which people complain about the worsening crisis.

This statement can be rephrased into two sentences describing the problem in respect of it’s two components, “too many animals’ and ‘not enough homes’.

 

Not Enough Homes

Among the solutions proposed in animal welfare circles are the following:

  1. Recruit more people as welfare workers and encourage people to start new welfare organisations.
  2. Work more closely together and enhance the existing network
  3. Merchandise the benefits of owning companion animals and adopting animals from rescue orgs rather than buying from breeders, pet shops or other vendors.

These are all important and necessary components of the overall fix, but they WILL NOT BRING THE CRISIS TO AN END, nor will they reduce the problem significantly. For a time, they have enabled those in welfare to ‘tread water’ but that time is coming to an end.

Why? Because the growth of the numbers far exceeds the speed at which capacity can be grown to absorb it.

Firstly it’s important to recognise a simple fact: An increase in welfare capacity does not lead to an increase in homes at the same rate. The number of homes is not dependent on the number of welfare organisations, it is dependent upon the willingness of the public to take shelter animals in.. Only 37% of SA homes have companion animals in them, and growing that number will require a change in culture as well as a change in economic conditions. While it is not known when, if ever, the economy will turn, changing a society’s culture with regard to animals takes a long time. If it takes 9 years to change a corporate culture, it takes generations to change a social culture. Increasing the numbers of welfare and rescue organisations also leads to competition for homes as the infrastructure becomes saturated. We are arguably already past that point.

In the same way, working more closely together and networking will certainly bring benefits, but it will not manufacture a significant number of homes, nor will educating people in the short term. The education process is a slow one and networking, while it does have the effect of connecting prospective homes to animals seeking homes, it does not create many new homes in the short term..

There are about 200 companion animal welfare organisations in South Africa, almost half of which are SPCA’s. If we assume that each of these organisations home 10 dogs a month, an extremely optimistic scenario, then 24 000 dogs will find homes a year. But the number of dogs is growing at a rate of more than 5% per annum, resulting in more than 500 000 extra dogs a year (very conservative). This excludes those that die as strays, in shelters, and in rural areas. When we say we home one in every 10 born, we may be hopelessly optimistic. It may be 1 in 20.

The NSPCA refuses to publish their number of intakes, number homed and number euthanized, so we can only estimate. But the aggregates already tell a sombre story: ‘MORE HOMES’  WILL NOT SOLVE THE PROBLEM in the short- to medium-term.

 

Too Many Animals

It’s great to see the number of Protests occurring around the country, and in the context of companion animals, specifically those against the trade in animals in pet shops. This is important to raise public awareness and people are educated as a bonus.

But we need to be real about the effects of these protests. While once in a while an extra dog or cat will be homed, and a few people will see the light and be converted to the rescue philosophy, the numbers are simply too small. In addition, the path from ‘protest’ to actually getting animal sales in pet shops banned is an immensely complex one, given the manner in which such legislation is promulgated in SA, which is either provincially or autonomously by each municipality. It means each municipality must be approached separately, although it may be useful to get ONE to enact such legislation, for then the others will follow, but it’s not that easy. Taking away from people the means to generate income is not something Government likes to do, and the constitutionality of such a move can easily be attacked. So the more likely scenario is that they will strengthen the governance so as to make pet shops more accountable. Besides, the trader’s response to the strategy of banning animal trade in pet shops is to use another channel, and one such channel is online shopping, already a burgeoning industry. Banning animal trade in pet shops will not stop or even reduce the breeding – puppy mills will merely find another way of reaching the public. The breeding process itself must be attacked directly.

The problem with all of the above is that they focus on symptoms. It’s like taking a Rennie for a duodenal ulcer – we remove the symptom for a time but we do not fix the underlying malady. Of course, were it not for the above activities the situation would be far worse, so they are necessary. But they are not sufficient. The symptoms are worsening – more and more surrenders of animals to shelters, more strays, more neglect, because the underlying cause – the rampant breeding of companion animals – is growing, and the welfare community does not have the capacity to absorb the excess. It will continue to worsen unless there is a coherent, cohesive, and necessarily collaborative focus on the root cause.

Core Problem

The core problem, then, is that there are too many new animals being input into a system that has insufficient resources, and the nett effect of this overflow is the suffering and death of the animals.

Anyone seeking a solution must focus on how to stem this tide. The most popular solution among welfare workers is ‘mandatory sterilisation’ and while it would certainly be an effective solution, it is not a viable one for a number of reasons. On it’s own, mandatory sterilisation will not solve the problem, because it gives rise to a number of other problems.

Firstly, the cost of sterilisations is prohibitive and a huge burden on the average person. Prices range from R750 to R2250 which is frankly reprehensible given that the input cost for the vet is less than R400. The SAVC have not seen fit to set reasonable tariffs for this procedure and effectively this makes the Institution and the vets part of the problem and part of the cause of the large number of excess animals. Government needs to subsidise sterilisations or the SAVC need to set tariffs.

Secondly, there is the problem of capacity. One of the issues the AACL face in PE after the law was passed there prohibiting the ownership of an unsterilised female, the demand from those wishing to comply with the law outstripped supply, mainly because of AACL footing the bill – it is likely to be the case everywhere else too.  There needs to be additional capacity, ideally created by Government, possibly using State Vets.

Thirdly, there is the obstacle of policing, more correctly, non-policing. Many people will not want to sterilise their animals, and the police can barely cope with their current workload, so adding another duty to their existing burden is probably impractical. A special task force or reservists should be given a mandate in respect of animal issues.

Fourth, if people cannot afford sterilisation, they will find workarounds. In the case of tail docking, which vets may not perform according to an SAVC ruling, people do backyard jobs, to the detriment of the animals. All we need are backyard sterilisations to add to the confusion and cruelty…

Lastly,  unless the public knows about the necessity to sterilise and the benefits thereof, as well as the laws and how they can be assisted to comply, ignorance will prevail and few will come forward. An education programme must be implemented to address this.

Unless all five of these prerequisites are satisfied and all at the same time, mandatory sterilisation simply will not work.

There is, however, more than one way to get the job done.

 

Real Solutions

It is not known why licensing of individual animals was set aside, but it provides an outstanding base for policing of legislation and statistical monitoring of both the industry and the population for planning purposes. In addition, breeders should be registered and governed by legislation and those complying should be licensed.

With such a database in place, complementary legislation can be implemented: Only licensed breeders should own unsterilised animals, private persons should be prohibited from doing so, and when an animal is transferred from a breeder to a private person, there should be a home inspection according to animal welfare criteria, perhaps even performed by the animal welfare infrastructure for a nominal fee.

Such processes would feed into the database and policing is merely a matter of monitoring transactions and conducting random inspections to ensure that the law has been complied with. Given that the long-term cost of resourcing this is a lot less than the cost of euthanizing the excess animals, it should be a no-brainer decision.

This control will give rise to a substantial increase in the demand for sterilisations, easily solved by capacity building by Government who arguably need to establish free veterinary clinics in all areas.

The above solutions take care of the future transactions; but what of the backlog, the large volumes of unsterilised animals already in the population? The only viable solution is that of mass sterilisations, and the private sector simply does not have the capacity. Once again, Government needs to step up and create capacity and in addition subsidise the cost.

Lastly, there needs to be Governance of the Companion Animal Welfare Sector, which includes policing of animal welfare organisations,  and this cannot be controlled by one organisation; it must be an independent body that has no affiliations to any NPO/NPC/Trust.

 

Threats

The companion animal welfare sector is woefully under-resourced, both financially and in respect of manpower. Just breaking even is a struggle, and every day the appeals for help with vet bills, food for shelter animals, and funding for additional shelter capacity increase. And every SPCA branch and independent shelter has too few personnel to cope with the incessant and increasing demands on their time. Bear in mind that most independent rescue organisations and individuals are run by people who do their welfare work for free and in addition to their jobs, unlike SPCA and NSPCA personnel who receive a salary.

One exception to the resources problem seems to be the NSPCA, who made a PROFIT in 2011 (R3.93M) and 2012 (R1.7M) and now have cash investments with Investec totalling R18 MILLION. An NPO that makes MILLIONS in profit? What, could they not find animals to help? I have explained before that mass sterilisation is the best way to prevent cruelty by stopping the unwanted animals from being born in the first place. With just 10% of the excess (R1.8M), at a rate of R500 per steri, my vet’s welfare rate, the NSPCA could have sterilised 3600 animals, probably more at their own rates. That could go a long way to reducing the overpopulation problem. Or the NSPCA could have assisted their struggling branches, or developed and implemented an education programme. It seems more money in the bank is more important to them than acting in the interests of the animals. On the one hand it makes sound business sense to have investments stashed away in case of hard times. On the other hand, these are the hard times, and animals are suffering while the NSPCA bolsters up its investment portfolio…

But there is a greater threat than the resource problem. It is the fractured nature of the companion animal infrastructure, with divisions everywhere one looks. Breeders dislike welfare, welfare is at odds with the SAVC, and welfare is itself divided. There are currently more than 200 companion animal welfare organisations in South Africa, and 90 of these are SPCAs, many struggling due to reduced income as a result of the economic conditions. With greater competition for resources, and a growing pro-life sector (The SPCAs call themselves pro-life but they are really ‘kill’ shelters where animals are treated as commodities) which now outnumbers the SPCAs, the NSPCA has resorted to labelling those with a differing philosophy as ‘no-kill’ and conducting political campaigns to discredit their straw man. One would think that a love for animals would unite the animal community; instead, lines are drawn on the basis of identity and the practical benefits of working together are ignored.

The fact is, there are threats in existence today that will get make the situation worse in time to come;  Those who love animals are a minority and there is a national priority to create jobs; just recently a call was made in parliament to restart the Cape seal hunt, on the grounds that it would create jobs. Expect more of the same sort of agendas from a society that for the most part sees animals as commodities and exploitation of them for income as a right. There has never been a time when education has become so critical and yet the organisation with the largest resource base and the widest coverage does very little of it.

There has also never been a time when there was a greater need for unity, so that the animals may be defended by a strong front. Sadly, this does not look likely because the NSPCA wants control, the breeders and vets want profit, and pro-life wants to ‘do their own thing’…

 

Bringing Change

It is up to those who see the necessity for sweeping, revolutionary change in the companion animal infrastructure if Government and Institutions such as the SAVC are to be approached and convinced. The NSPCA is not an agent of change, it has vested interests in preserving the status quo, particularly its status as the body that receives the largest donations from the public. Given that it has demonstrably failed, the evidence of such failure being the current companion animal crisis and the growth of non-SPCA affiliated organisations, it is no doubt the loyalty and the gullibility of the public that maintains their position as the dominant power in companion animal welfare.  Whether such dominance is desirable, placing them in a position of monopoly over the sector, is debatable. Monopoly of one mindset and approach to a given problem is arguably never good for a system. It is the very foundation of democracy that there should be equal weight given to competing arguments; this is not the case here.

In order to present a cogent case, it is necessary to have accurate, up-to-date information. To this end, we prepared, in conjunction with an animal behaviourist, several experienced animal welfare organisations, and an attorney, a questionnaire which once answered would provide us with aggregate information about existing populations and enable us to draw inferences and establish strategies for coping with and obviating the problem.

We received precisely TWO responses. This is both fearful and short-sighted behaviour from the companion animal community, fearful because clearly there is a concern that such information will be used against them in some way, a fear created by the NSPCA predatory attitude to anyone who isn’t SPCA. It’s short-sighted because unless we can provide evidence based on accurate information, we cannot present a convincing case for the changes that would remedy many of the maladies that contribute to the crisis.

Here is the questionnaire:

http://app.getresponse.com/survey.html?survey_id=13446

The second condition we need to satisfy, once we have the information in place and have analysed it and contextualised it to the proposed solutions, is that we need the collective consensus of the community that the proposed solutions are viable and that the companion animal welfare community will support them. One of the favourite arguments presented by Government is that welfare is divided on issues, and they will then use this lever to maintain the status quo. While it’s true that we cannot agree on everything, we need to reach consensus on the important stuff, and that requires dialogue. Instead, what we have is instant disinvestment the moment someone disagrees with the going convention or popular viewpoint. People arrive at confrontation because they have no skills in rational dialogue.

It is critically important that pro-life welfare organisations unite under a common purpose and identity, ideally one that is democratic and focused on the root causes of our companion animal problems.

 

Derek du Toit