Getting Control of Animal Control

2007 by Craig Brestrup

Audience: Executive Leadership, Foster Caregivers, Public, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers, Veterinary Team

On May 8, 2006, I began work as Interim Director of Animal Care Services (ACS) in San Antonio, Texas. "Animal Care Services" is a resonant, heart-warming phrase, but in this case referenced the City's Animal Control Department. It has been considered by some to be one of the worst such departments in the country. Every year, some fifty thousand dogs and cats have the unhappy experience of "checking in" to ACS, and for 90% it is their final destination. Until recently their ticket out had taken them into a carbon monoxide chamber, but progress was imposed a few months before my arrival and sodium pentobarbital now eases them out of this life.

What was I doing in such a place? Although active in animal protection for a dozen years and having been executive director of the Progressive Animal Welfare Society near Seattle, among whose programs were a shelter and spay/neuter clinic, I have never worked in animal control. I have also been a determined advocate for no-kill, and ACS was not a likely candidate for conversion to that philosophy and practice. Nevertheless, when the opportunity arose I took the job and worked four months until a permanent Director was hired. My purpose in this essay is to describe my experience in this role and to offer a few observations about what might be effective in conditions resembling those in San Antonio.

Life and Death at Animal Care Services

Occupying two and a half acres adjacent to a freeway and across from the San Antonio Zoo, the facility consists of two kennels with about 90 small runs in each for owner-released and stray dogs, another similar structure for quarantined dogs and cats, an adoption building, a portable building for puppies and cats (other cats along with occasional raccoons and opossums are sequestered in a room at the end of one of the dog kennels), a small clinic/office arrangement, a tumbledown building with locker room and meeting and eating space, and the reception/administration building. No one - people, dogs, cats, wildlife - has adequate space: too few square feet, too many feet and paws having been there over too many years. In my view, the inadequate facility accurately mirrors what I considered to be a lack of esteem or even concern for the work that has been done there.

I failed to mention the physical structure at the geographic and functional center of the facility - the killing room, formally designated "EBI" for Euthanasia by Injection. A low box of a building, about fifteen by twenty-five feet, with an open covered area behind it where wheeled cages are brought in convoys from the kennels, each filled with anxious and, one hopes, unknowing dogs. The room has six stainless steel tables and four or five employees bringing animals in, sedating and killing, then removing corpses bagged in plastic. A busy place, eight to five every day but Sunday, around 140 dog and cat lives terminated daily.

It is difficult to imagine the impact of disease on the animal population at this facility. Animals often died of distemper and other ailments shortly after adoption or transfer to other shelters or rescue groups, even if healthy upon arrival at ACS. Others were killed as soon as any sign of disease appeared, whether in themselves or a kennel mate. It was well known that the City's streets were populated by legions of diseased animals, who once picked up, contributed their deadly microbes to a facility that was doing less to eradicate germs than to kill their hosts. One of my mandates was to remedy this, and to the extent possible under the conditions set by the always overcrowded facility, we did.

Animal (mis)handling was an equally pervasive problem. To understand this requires awareness of the context. Dogs and cats arrived at ACS through both front door (that is, the reception area) and back (on animal control trucks) as at all animal control facilities. The front presented the usual scenario: boxes of puppies and kittens, agitated cats in carriers, hapless dogs on leashes, a few relinquishers in tears and others seemingly unaffected, a few people seeking lost animals, and a few wanting to adop. Standard fare for places like this.

As a newcomer to the world of animal control, it was the back door that I found shocking. Because of the Texas summer temperatures and the open-air vehicle cages, the trucks had to leave and return twice daily else their passengers would overheat and dehydrate. All were scheduled at the same time, so at 11:30 and 3:30 some twenty trucks lined up, idled, crept forward. The facility site is small; a roadway runs from the entry and exit gate in an oval that circles the EBI room and runs past the kennels and back to the gate. The veterinarian stands at the apex, views the caged animals as each truck rolls up, makes notes on paperwork, assigns some to kennels and directs others straight to EBI. Then, trucks to kennel buildings, dogs to dipping vats, cats to cat room, trucks disinfected, jobs done.

Now kennel attendants take over. Dog runs are two and a half by four feet, barely adequate for a single medium-sized dog. With over 100 dogs arriving daily on average and a 72 hour stray holding period and about 160 available runs, two to four dogs in a run is not uncommon. San Antonians also happen to have a predilection for pit bulls, too few of which are kept under restraint, so disproportionate numbers of these come in and must be singly housed. In short, kennels are overcrowded, resound with barks and wails, and are ugly and worn out. It is a dismal and depressing environment, and newly hired attendants sometimes quit their first day on the job. Animals suffer, employees suffer.

The symbol and most common instrument of mishandling was the snare pole, used virtually indiscriminately on any animal needing to be moved from one point to another. Symbol because it keeps animals at a distance and dominated, and it obviates any need to individualize or relate. Animals pushed, pulled, or hoisted, not as a last resort but a first, so habitual that even small, friendly dogs were managed with it - the pole had the aspect of a tool-for-any-occasion, a dependency object. The problem was both overuse and misuse, and that its acceptance beyond the necessary and appropriate use not only caused direct harm to animals, but indirect as well since it reinforced the alienation between creatures and those who had taken responsibility for them.

As in zoos and research institutions, there are people at ACS who care to make the animals' lives as good as they can be within their inherently unjust and deprived surroundings. Their character and courage are light in the dark. But a most striking feature of the Department - particularly to one who has worked in an animal protection organization - is that so many people are hired to work with animals without their beliefs and feelings about animals having been influential in either their application or their hiring. Neither job ads, job descriptions, nor organizational culture reflect much awareness that the "clients" of animal control happen to be sentient beings. What I saw instead were the daily commonplaces of institutional existence and not all that different from the parks, streets, or solid waste departments.

The City of San Antonio

"Why is it that San Antonio has always had so many homeless animals and seemingly been so indifferent to their fate?" A good question, but not one that I will try to answer. Rather, the important thing to recognize is the systemic nature of the problem. That certain neighborhoods always have an abundance of stray and loose dogs on their streets, and other neighborhoods tolerate people setting out traps that catch wildlife and homed, outdoor cats as well as ferals, and that city government knowingly sponsors the killing of 40,000 or so dogs and cats annually, and that the city's environmental services department routinely picks up 20,000+ dead animals off the streets every year, suggests to me that it is the communal fabric rather than any individual threads that best explains the depth and persistence of companion animal suffering in San Antonio. And it points as well to its recalcitrance and to the necessity of a sustained, comprehensive, community-wide strategy for altering it.

Although it will be the community that finally must make itself a caring and responsible place where companion animals actually have companion humans in lieu of the streets or abandonment to the "pound" and the needle, ACS can provide important leadership and resources toward the goal. Above all, it must cease serving as chief enabler of irresponsible behaviors toward animals and as the compliant executioner of the victims. For this to happen, once again we have to look at the systemic context that supports its habitual ways of operating and that resists efforts to change them.

"Bureaucratic" is a word used to describe a variety of administrative structures and functions, not all of them harmful or negative. At its best, it speaks of organization that is predictable, nonarbitrary, efficient, specialized, and meritocratic, all of which are characteristics that complicated systems need in order to do their work well. But the dictionary provides an alternate definition that is apt for many municipal governments, most certainly including the one in which Animal Care Services has operated: "...a system of administration marked by constant striving for increased functions and power, by lack of initiative and flexibility, by indifference to human needs or public opinion, and by a tendency to defer decisions to superiors or to impede actions with red tape..." Such a system almost seems designed to impede change and discourage initiative.

The Plight Revealed

In the fall of 2004, an exposé in the local San Antonio newspaper revealed not only the incredible number of killed animals but also their method of dispatch and the conditions they endured before being killed.

Media exposure brought out animal advocates and soon the person who had been ACS Director for over two decades retired. But city officials did not grasp the seriousness of the situation nor of people's feelings about it. They transferred another city employee into the position, one with thirty years of city tenure and no experience in animal welfare or control, but who was thought to be good at defusing difficult situations. He lasted slightly over a year.

In the spring of '06, responding to public criticisms, the Department engaged two outside specialists to evaluate its procedures. (A few years before, in response to a smaller scale rebellion, it had contracted with the National Animal Control Association for an organizational assessment, which produced a comprehensive and critical, albeit disregarded, report.) One consultant focused on disease prevention procedures and the other on animal handling. The first discovered systemic deficiencies in cleaning and disinfecting practices and recommended solutions. The second found eighteen "areas in need of change" because they were "outmoded, inefficient, or nonsensical." It noted lack of proper equipment, lack of training in use of proper equipment that was available, inhumane handling (e.g., incoming dogs were immediately forced into a tank for immersion in a parasite control solution; over-reliance on use of snare poles with both cats and dogs, whether large or small, obstreperous or not), substandard euthanasia drugs and techniques, and use of animal control vehicles that were flat-bed trucks with open-air cages that were considered anachronistic by approximately half a century.

My Tenure Begins

When I interviewed for the Interim Director position, I was emphatic that serving simply as a caretaker was not my interest. Rather, it seemed possible that the time could be productive - that it must be productive in light of the daily mortality level.

The people to whom I would become accountable stated their agreement, although time would reveal that, though the words may have been sincere, they ultimately yielded in the face of fundamental bureaucratic aversion to change. Nonetheless, it was good fortune that the public attention to what was happening at ACS remained intense. In addition, the community agitation combined with a newly aroused ACS Advisory Board and a popular Mayor, who had a soft spot for animals, led to a City Council mandate for creation of a blueprint that would lead to reduced killing. My first day on the job coincided with the first day of formal work on development of a Strategic Plan. Such good as occurred over the following four months owes a lot to the more hospitable ambience created by the planning process and the intense desire of city authorities to end the long period of bad press and angry citizenry.

In my early weeks at ACS, I was acutely aware of the daily carnage inflicted only fifty yards behind my office. It caused immense pain and not infrequently tears. Of necessity, I had to compartmentalize my grief if I was to continue the work. These were very difficult weeks emotionally. But as I worked through this period and came to a better understanding of crucial dynamics and dysfunctions of my Department, which led to formulating proposals for change, I hit the wall of bureaucracy. Having worked for two decades in human services and then for a dozen years in animal protection, I was accustomed to work on behalf of two- and four-legged clients who were suffering and to doing that work within nonprofit organizations designed purposefully to alleviate their pain. ACS, however, was one department among many within city government, and that its role and actions had distinctively moral texture and results - that lives depended on it, in other words - was, it seemed to me, lost on my superiors. I sometimes thought that we could as well have been talking about traffic problems, potholes, or garbage pickup as about death and suffering. Initially, I thought that the logic and rightness of acting decisively to avoid filling the kennels and then killing for space - which would only be promptly refilled ad infinitum - would assuage any anxieties about change and lead them to hear as I did the ticking clock: every 3-4 minutes we killed a dog or cat, during an hour another 15-20 died, every day close to 140 (one day almost 300 were killed) - the unconscionable revictimization of the victims. But it did not. I failed.

To be fair, it was not complete failure and considerable learning came from the experience that I hope might add to the learning coming out of progressive animal control departments around the country. San Antonio's may have been among the worst situations for animals, but one advantage of something so distressing is that it can clarify issues and potential interventions in ways that other situations may not. But before reflecting on this experience, let me enumerate a few changes that are in motion at ACS and for which the City deserves credit. Mostly these were initiated before I arrived, although I was very active in the strategic planning process.

The ancient facility will be closed next summer. Ten or so million dollars are being spent to construct something new, which will include a spay/neuter clinic. Also, the animal control field trucks that look almost like something out of a 1930s cartoon are scheduled to be replaced during '07 with modern, air conditioned units. The city is spending close to $200,000/year to subsidize s/n surgeries. And the City Council has affirmed a Strategic Plan that calls for San Antonio to become a no kill community by 2012. As a portion of the city budget these expenditures are minor but they are new and they support change.

These physical and fiscal changes are important but do not yet represent philosophical or attitudinal change nor do they embody the urgency that is so vital when one listens to the ticking clock and that will save more lives. The question has to be asked: What should we expect from Animal Care Services? Do its standard operating practices simply palliate symptoms while reinforcing the underlying syndrome and in so doing support and facilitate human irresponsibility and animal homelessness and thus, ironically, help to perpetuate the problem?

When I said that I had failed to persuade my bosses to allow me to make certain changes, I had in mind three specifically. The following is a slightly edited copy (for space and clarity but not content) of a proposal that I argued for and ultimately failed to receive approval to implement.

Animal Care Services

A Plan to Reduce Killing of Surplus Animals and Foster Community and Owner Responsibility

I began the memo with acknowledgement of progress to date and recognition that internal initiatives (increased staffing, more and better equipment, and so forth) as well as extra funding for s/n surgeries were positive steps that promised to help resolve the problems. But more was needed:

    An animal control department that passively accepts all animals brought to its doors while actively sweeping harmless loose and stray animals off the streets is a department that assures itself of plenty of work for the future, for its activities do not confront the causes of animal overpopulation and abandonment. Rather, they treat symptoms and in doing so enable the "disease" to continue. A "no questions asked, open-door policy" for animal relinquishers communicates an attitude that animals really are disposable commodities and that it is a proper city government function to provide easy means for disposition. As mentioned above, we are changing that message [through counseling people wanting to leave their animals at ACS]; as we treat relinquishment as a serious matter, we begin to alter community culture and reduce admissions, which reduces killings.
Other dimensions of traditional ACS practices may have similar unintended consequences, which require new thinking:
1. Shelter capacity: Operating under the disposability assumption and with little regard for animal welfare effects, animal control departments have traditionally taken in all dogs and cats offered to or found by them and steadily killed the animals to make room for more. Until recently, when we restricted admissions due to a census approaching 700, ACS has followed this practice. Stuffing animals into overcrowded facilities, providing poor care during their brief and suffering tenure, and then killing them-once again, what message does this send to the community about animals' need to be treated with care and respect and the community's obligation to take responsibility for its animals?
    ACS is required by City ordinance, as well as by a commitment to improve conditions and practices at its facility, to maintain animals in "humane conditions." Crowding animals into runs or cages where they have little room to move or to lie down without contacting urine or feces violates our responsibility. It also makes an already difficult job even harder for the staff whose job it is to feed, clean, and care for them, and it seriously impedes efforts to contain contagious diseases.
[Here I counted kennels and evaluated total space availability for dogs and cats under varying conditions, such as the presence of sick or vicious animals.]
Recommendation: ACS should define its capacity as being approximately 340 dogs and 180 cats, with slight variations up or down from these figures based on the nature of the resident animals; whenever supervisors recognize that we are within 15% of capacity we should cease admission of owner relinquished animals and ACO pickup of any but those who are sick, injured, or vicious.

    2. Animal traps: Like most traditional animal control facilities, ACS has loaned traps to citizens at no charge for as long as anyone remembers. The presumed rationale for this is that any so-called "nuisance" animal can and should be removed, even if only to an already full facility for killing. It is hard to imagine any valid rationale for continuing this practice in the indiscriminate fashion that we have. Reasons for saying this include the following:

  • These traps catch wild animals who have generally adapted to urban life and represent little or no danger to anyone. Many of these are mothers whose babies are left to starve.
  • Traps capture an abundance of cats. Although we don't keep statistics on how many are feral vs. those who are not, a survey of ACO's suggests that half or more are not feral and probably have a home in the neighborhood from which they are allowed to roam. Virtually all cats brought to ACS on trucks were trapped. So, thousands of cats every year would never arrive at ACS except for traps, and many are trapped as part of neighbor-on-neighbor disputes.
  • Depending on the district anywhere from 20-30% of ACO calls are to pick up traps and the animals they contain. Thus, we generously loan (and sometimes deliver) traps free and then provide free pick-up and disposal of animals captured (whether in our traps or the public's), and around a quarter of an ACO driver's time is spent in this activity. Thousands of homed cats undoubtedly are brought in and killed annually as the fruit of this service.

    Insofar as these traps collect wildlife, ACS inadvertently teaches that urban wildlife is a nuisance that residents have no reason to learn to live with-and the City will rid them of that problem. When they collect cats, large numbers of whom have (or had) homes, we teach that cats too are disposable and that neighbors needn't be neighborly. Taken together, we convey a message of disrespect for animals and do so at the cost of a quarter of the ACO budget and time-not to mention the cost of killing several thousand cats needlessly every year.
    Recommendation: ACS should cease loaning of traps except in cases with clear public health or safety implications. Citizens who have traps of their own should no longer be provided free pick-up service. If they have caught a wild animal they should be referred to Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation; if they have caught a cat they may bring him or her in themselves and must provide complete information as to where and why the animal was caught and pay a fee.

    3. Field operations: A casual walk through Kennels 2 and 3 on any day will reveal a large number of dogs, many small to medium sized, whose appearance and demeanor do not suggest that they represent a threat of any sort to the public. They will include homeless animals and an indeterminate number who simply escape backyards and go out for what very often turns into a deadly stroll, meeting their demise either on the streets or at our facility. (Consider the irony and injustice of this-The dog most likely to be caught is the one most socialized, friendly, and trusting; a wary street dog is unlikely to be captured.) One may define the "control" function in animal control along a continuum running from sweeping the streets clean of any stray or loose animal to focusing on only those who are sick, injured, or vicious. The reality is that, even if we wanted to adopt the "clean sweep" end of the continuum, staffing levels do not allow for it (if priority calls are to be adequately responded to) and a growing animal welfare ethic in San Antonio would discourage it.
    Furthermore, what are the effects of picking up apparently harmless loose or stray dogs and killing up to 90% of them? In some cases, owners lose a four-legged friend. In others, the easy availability of dogs being practically limitless, they will simply be replaced and their successors, being similarly uncontained, will repeat the cycle. To use an ecological analogy, the emptied niche will usually be filled. And finally, these dogs contribute to a high census at ACS and the high killing rate.
    Recommendation: ACO's should focus their attention on public health and safety functions and respond first to calls involving sick, injured, or vicious animals. After these priority matters are properly attended to, they should respond to other stray/loose dog calls and issues with an orientation toward problem-solving, reuniting animals with homes when possible, education, and individualized responses to each call, as opposed to routinely apprehending animals and bringing them to a crowded shelter, which offers no lasting solution to the problem.

    Each of these initiatives provides a strong contrast with traditional ways of doing things at San Antonio's animal control facility. What are the possible downsides that they present? Animals turned away from a full shelter might be abandoned on the streets. Dogs and cats not trapped or otherwise caught might have litters or bite people. Citizens long accustomed to having their animal problems relieved by ACS, even problems that mostly are the result of their or their neighbors' irresponsibility, will be upset. These are possibilities. But how great a danger do they represent? What are the alternatives if San Antonio genuinely wants to move forward toward a time when its citizens take more responsibility for their animal-related choices and ACS operates professionally and humanely and kills fewer adoptable animals? The risks are not high and careful monitoring of effects under the changed regime can reveal problems and point toward modifications that will resolve them.
    The benefits, on the other hand, include reducing the census of animals at ACS who do not belong there but are killed anyway. In addition, responsibility for San Antonio's animal overpopulation problems can be shared by the citizens themselves. ACS can operate more effectively if fewer animals arrive and disease can be better prevented. There will be an immediate and significant reduction in the numbers killed and energy and resources can be focused on responding to causes rather than symptoms of overpopulation. Finally, San Antonio can begin to shed the reputation it has across the country as a kind of backwater when it comes to companion animal issues. It can, in fact, become a leader along with other progressive communities in creatively handling these matters.
    These initiatives provide an interdependent, mutually supportive set of reasonable responses to animal overpopulation and homelessness in San Antonio. They can be announced with fanfare as part of ACS's new way of operating and of acting more creatively to fulfill its mandates. They will strengthen the momentum that has already begun toward facing and solving the problems and will energize existing volunteers and encourage new ones to become part of the solution. Rather than continuing its perennial role as defender of the status quo and recipient of scorn for hidebound practices, ACS can act as a community leader toward best practices and creativity, and as an inspiration to others to join us.
~ ~

I have included this rather lengthy memo for two reasons. First, I still believe that its recommendations were valid and would have had immediate impact on ACS shelter conditions and killing rates. And second, its rejection demonstrates the degree to which risk aversion determined policy and practice. The clock ticked, but no one listened.


I recognize that animal control has a unique function within the community: It has the legal role of guarding public health and safety in regard to dogs and cats. That is a valid and important responsibility. But it is not the one that ACS spends the majority of its resources carrying out. Rather, it has expanded its domain ever outward and become the equivalent of the solid waste management department in relation to surplus companion animals. Such is the natural bureaucratic impulse and one exacerbated by the existence of this particular bureaucracy within city government, where the demands of one part of the public for "services" will tend to be met (it being the course of least resistance to keep those constituents happy) unless a larger segment of the public intervenes.

The memo I transcribed above describes the counterproductive practices at ACS: no-questions-asked acceptance of owner-released animals; loaning and servicing of traps that capture animals that at worst are a nuisance rather than a danger and that result in thousands of cats being yanked from their home neighborhoods and killed at ACS; field officers randomly capturing the most catchable of loose dogs, about whom no complaint had been registered, and delivering them to usually unhappy fates at the facility. In each instance, the city and animal control communicate to the public that dogs and cats and urban wildlife count for very little. Whatever city government may feel about the suffering and deaths of these animals, surely it can see that it results in an immense waste of city resources - a waste that goes on wasting indefinitely.

With these thoughts in mind, what should we expect of ACS and of animal advocates who want to help it (and similar animal control departments in other cities) reform?

What Can Be Done to Create Change?

As mentioned, bureaucracies do not easily embrace change. They are most comfortable with stasis except when new realms of authority can be pulled in and, once absorbed, become part of a new stasis. Protecting the status quo tends to protect jobs and relieve the anxiety of change. Animal control is a bureaucracy within itself and within the larger municipal bureaucracy as well. Ultimately, then, two levels have to do what does not come naturally to either, i.e., adapt to changing circumstances and demands. Change can be initiated at either level but must eventually include both.

  • It takes a community: For change to occur with the speed, efficacy, and durability that the situation calls for (remember the ticking clock - in the time that I have been writing hundreds more innocent creatures have been killed, bagged, disposed of), there needs to be comprehensive participation: city council and city manager; private centers of influence and resources (business, churches, neighborhood associations, etc.); and all individuals and organizations representing animals, whether from a rights, protection, welfare, or any other perspective (this matter is too important and doable for side issues to intervene; all should sit at the table and remember the goal). Initiative necessarily will come from those who feel the strongest - animal advocates - but one of their jobs is to help others see that no one's interests are served by continuously sacrificing these innocent animals. Sustained, rational, persuasive, forceful, and civil actions have to be engaged over months and years. Letters, emails, meetings, and city council chambers overflowing with concerned citizens session after session, on the one hand, combined with helpful engagement on the other (volunteers, rescuers, fosterers, TNR groups, fundraisers, ...). While compassion is the fuel for many, others will be moved by fiscal effects, political considerations, and appeals to community image and pride.
  • Setting a no-kill path and goal for the community: Planning is an activity that even bureaucracies can feel safe about. Plans involve meetings and take time; if inconvenient they can usually be evaded or ignored, and if compelling they provide cover. A Plan whose creation involves representatives from city government, animal control, animal advocates, and regular citizens can be made compelling and will provide tasks and directions along with accountability and timelines. A good Plan is vital and should be treated as "gospel" for moving steadily forward. In addition, as happened with San Antonio's Plan, one of its objectives should be transforming animal control into an ally of animals and animal advocates and into an effective department that meets city standards for fiscal prudence, mission accomplishment, and citizen satisfaction. If other steps along the way have been successful, this will mean that fewer animals arrive at animal control, that solving companion animal issues - attacking their roots - rather than perpetuating the symptoms has become mission central, and that killing steadily declines toward what can honestly be called euthanasia. In short, animal control performance will be measured externally as well as internally, and it will march to the beat of an awakened community's drum: it will join the life-saving band.
  • Never rest: Getting control and accomplishing the Strategic Plan's no-kill goal are possible if there are sufficient people who care. But all of the considerations above, and sustaining all of the changes that are necessary, require one essential quality that is hard but essential to sustain. I refer to a sense of urgency. And I should add as well, the leadership to help maintain that urgency. Lives are at stake. Every moment the clock ticks and hearts cease beating. That makes this a qualitatively different cause, and by keeping the image of those bagged and barreled dead cats and dogs before people's eyes, we maintain momentum. Once the goal is reached a different sort of motivation takes over; that will be the time to ensure that all of the parts that have been put in place, at ACS, other animal protection organizations, and in the community, are supported and continually reinforced. Human carelessness and animal fecundity are ever present, and the structures to prevent regression must be established and supported.
  • Public health and safety: The City must define precisely what this covers and support the department in humanely serving this function. Vicious, diseased, or injured animals must be removed from the community and handled appropriately. Other issues and other animals require a different approach.
  • Quality rather than quantity:

    1.  The entry of a dog or cat into Animal Care Services represents multiple failures - Humans who didn't keep the animal contained or prevent the births or sustain a lifetime commitment; a community whose values have not sufficiently supported responsible relations with nonhuman creatures; city government and other local institutions that are indifferent; an animal control department that has been indiscriminate in catching or accepting animals when they have little more to offer than a brief period kenneled or caged before ending their lives. Among these failures, advocates can make the most dramatic and immediate difference in the killing rate when they help ACS remedy its distinctive failures. I recognize that some of my suggestions will seem radical or unrealistic for an animal control department, but in my judgment, the scope of San Antonio's problem is such that seemingly radical approaches may be necessary. For example, limiting incoming animals to those that meet the public health and safety criteria will immediately reduce numbers enormously. At the same time, it delivers a new message to the public that citizens are responsible for caring for and controlling their animals and that it is not government's job to replace them in this role, especially when it can mostly offer only death to the victims of their irresponsibility. New and better enforced laws will reinforce this message. The usual response to the idea of limiting admissions appeals to the vision of multitudes of abandoned and suffering animals who, but for their rejection by callous shelters, could have enjoyed the benefits of humane killing. But try another vision: if every shelter in town, including animal control's, limited admissions to those animals for whom they could actually ensure a good outcome (or who placed the public at risk); if every message they issued to the public were consistent with one another's and all were life affirming and emphatic about the responsibilities as well as satisfactions that accompany having an animal companion; if community self-perception were of being a place (a "caring community") where the weak, needy, or vulnerable (children, animals, old folks) would be safe and given the protections and care they needed - what will be the effect if this vision guides decision and action about companion animals? How long before people respond and behaviors change and the so far endless cycle of unwanted, uncared for, and killed animals winds down? It is remarkable what can happen when dysfunction is no longer enabled.

    Quality rather than Quantity:
    2.  While emphasizing the importance and reasonableness of taking fewer animals into ACS,  advocates must also address other issues and offer help where they can.

    • If animal control is to stop providing and servicing traps, then supporters of TNR and wildlife rescue and protection must step forward and work with people who are troubled by these animals and who transmit their aggravation to city officials who care more about the aggravation than the animals.
    • Rescuers, fosterers, and volunteers of all sorts must come forward and redirect animals to other venues and hasten adoption for those admitted.
    • Cities, businesses, foundations, wealthy individuals, and anywhere else that resources are gathered should be encouraged to support massive spay/neuter campaigns.
    • Animal control officers in the field must be trained to serve as problem-solvers, educators, and resource referrers as well as, when necessary, "dog catchers."
    • Cost savings from reduced admissions, rather than disappearing into the city budget, should be redirected to improved facilities, better training and pay for employees, and programs that educate, assist, and prevent re living responsibly with companion animals.
    • Compassionate animal care and handling practices are required whenever an organization interfaces with animals, just as civility is expected in relations among humans. Resources and high expectations must follow, wherever an animal goes.
  • Open the doors and windows: Transparency, with an emphasis on media availability, should become ACS's second nature. With the changes discussed above, there should be less bad news, but it is essential that all issues related to animal overpopulation, homelessness, abuse and neglect be broadcast at all available opportunities, including success stories as well. People are bombarded with consumer messages all day and all night, so it provides relief when they are exposed to animals, even when the tales are not happy. Information and inspiration can be effective change agents for that great gray area of distracted but potentially sensitizable people, people who may not be preoccupied with animals' welfare but who are offended when they see them suffer and pleased to learn ways that they can help.

Last Words

The propriety of sanctioned killing of healthy dogs and cats in shelters has been vociferously questioned for nearly twenty years. Where once the conventional wisdom complacently accepted its necessity for "relieving the suffering" of surplus animals, and no-kill alternatives were put on the defensive, the burden has shifted to where those who continue the practice must defend and explain. And why not? Half the animals entering many of these facilities are not homeless until the leash or the carrier leaves "owners'" hands and is accepted by the shelters'. And where is the credibility when these groups proclaim that companion animals must be accepted as lifetime commitments, that they cannot rightly be considered as mere disposables, but then facilitate the breaking of that commitment and the ending of that life?

There has been vast progress among these groups in moving toward more energetic life-saving measures, measures more consistent with their core values. The 70% decline in the so-called "euthanasia" rate over these past two decades testifies to major change. But the continued killing of four or five million each year tells us that there is more to do. It is not enough for private groups to alter their practices if public animal control departments go on as before. They must be held to the same high standards, and animal advocates must help them get there. Consider an analogy: Child welfare and protective service agencies are expected to provide excellent and individualized services to children whether they are private nonprofits or governmental. Should it be different when the clients are companion animals?

When animal control extends its "services" beyond public health and safety and animal-related problem solving, it strays beyond its mission and subverts the ultimate good for dogs and cats. For not only does it kill the ones in its hands, it lays the groundwork for endlessly repeating the ritual. Reverencing life, we must protect it. Accountability begins with those who choose to bring animals into their lives, and it continues on to those institutions that would relieve individuals at the cost of a creature's existence. Fortunately, change is in the air, but it is too early to rest. Animal control is the next frontier when it comes to companion animal protection.

Because I lack comprehensive knowledge about the amount and kinds of change occurring within animal control departments around the country, I have not attempted to speak about them here. My impression is that immense progress is in the works and that, despite their mostly woeful histories, these departments are joining with animal advocates to help bring a new world for companion animals within this country. Nonetheless, with several million dogs and cats still dying in shelters every year, we cannot rest.

This essay addresses specifically only one city, one with a particularly deplorable record in this area but which is seemingly on the cusp of change. There are times when efforts to ameliorate society's dysfunctions are illuminated by examining the worst of situations, just as at other times we do better to look at the most improving ones. I have elaborated at the length that I have on San Antonio's plight because it has been so bad, because it appears to have grasped that fact and is ready to change, because others might learn from the negatives and positives of San Antonio's experience, and finally, because I worry whether its new enlightenment will be fulfilled and durable. Animal advocates everywhere, including those in San Antonio, need to accept the responsibility that comes from caring. For too long advocates in San Antonio looked the other way when they of all people should have been beating at the doors of complacency and cruelty. Whether change occurs and lasts will crucially depend on their persistence over the long term. Cultural attitudes may slowly change toward making a more compassionate world, but until they do it will be up to those advocates to remain actively engaged to ensure that victims are not voiceless.

Postscript: 2008. Since this article was written, an animal welfare coalition was formed (that included animal control) to end the killing of healthy and treatable shelter dogs and cats in San Antonio. Maddie's Fund awarded the coalition a Shelter Data Grant in 2008 for collecting shelter statistics using the Asilomar Accords. The group has also submitted an application for a Community Collaborative Grant. This request is currently under review.

Craig Brestrup

Craig Brestrup worked for 20 years in the public sector of the mental health profession, first as a psychotherapist and later as CEO of mental health clinics in Texas and California. He has been executive director of five nonprofit organizations since 1980. In 1989, he received a Ph.D. in medical humanities, with a concentration in medical and environmental ethics and the philosophy of nature, from the Institute for the Medical Humanities at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston In 1994, he left mental health for animal protection, becoming executive director of the Progressive Animal Welfare Society, an organization with major programs in three areas: wildlife rehabilitation, animal advocacy, and companion animals (shelter and vet clinic). He published a book, Disposable Animals, in 1997 that was a study of animals and culture, emphasizing the plight of companion animals, millions of whom are killed in animal shelters annually. Subsequently, he became head of Fossil Rim Wildlife Center near Glen Rose, Texas. Craig is on the board of the Association of Sanctuaries, the national accrediting organization for animal sanctuaries. He currently is consulting with nonprofits on fund development and management issues.


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