Archive for February, 2012

Recently there have been a number of commercials that are offensive to those of us in animal welfare.

Now, on the one hand, I’m all for freedom of speech. I have no doubt that I have offended my share of people, and mostly I don’t really care if people say things I don’t like. If I don’t like what they say, I either tell them off or ignore them. Simple.

But this is different.

Animal welfare advocates spend a lot of time and energy trying to educate the public about adoption, vaccination, spay/neuter, proper treatment of animals, and a host of related issues. One of our biggest hurdles is convincing a certain segment of the population that homeless animals don’t have something wrong with them. They end up homeless because humans fail in their obligation to provide for them, not because they are flawed in some way.

So when a company like DirecTV chooses to make fun of animal welfare advocates by essentially saying we’re all hoarders with mental problems as a result of poor life choices (ie, not having their product), it bothers me.

(See the stupid commercial here to decide for yourself if it’s annoying and inappropriate.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VObFc64OnEk

In the last year or so, I have really begun to discover the power of the media when it comes to this sort of issue. Michelin Tires rolled out an obnoxious commercial featuring dozens of cartoon animals getting squashed by drivers with bad tires, then magically re-inflated, then dancing about gleefully (with tire tracks on their little cartoon bodies), it really bothered me. I wrote them an email explaining my issues with it. Some flunky replied, and condescendingly told me that I missed the point, which was that the Michelin Man was SAVING them. I sent another email, in which I included quotes from several animal welfare people who were repulsed by the commercial. I have no idea if I had any effect, but the commercial is gone now.

When the evil puppy sellers tried to invade Montgomery County, I reported the details in my blog and suggested action. I was delighted to see my online animal welfare community step up. They wrote blistering emails to the seller and the facility, organized a protest, and generally made it very unpleasant for the puppy sellers to be here. And it was all legal! My source (a neighbor who knows the campground manager) tells me that the morons only sold ONE PUPPY and that the campground management is eager to host adoption events. Mission accomplished!

So if you, like me, are really irked by the implication that helping stray animals equals mental illness or antisocial behavior, may I suggest that you let DirecTV know how you feel?

Here is the link to their online feedback form: http://support.directv.com/app/ask

And here is their phone number: 1-800-370-3587

The email I’m sending, which you’re welcome to use:

(Dear DirecTV,)

“I work in animal welfare. I take in stray animals. I walk into traffic to save them, I stay up nights when they’re ill, I spend a fortune at the vet’s office. I volunteer at the shelter. I raise funds to care for homeless animals. I educate people about the ways to help homeless animals. And I do little in comparison to what so many other volunteers, shelter employees, and foster families do. The county shelter where I live takes in over 20,000 animals a year, and we save thousands of them BECAUSE people “take in stray animals.”

I am dismayed that any socially responsible company would portray all those of us who work to care for homeless animals as being antisocial hoarders. Hoarding is a mental illness. Animal welfare is a calling to help those who cannot help themselves. Such an ad could potentially lessen the impact of our efforts to educate the public about the value of helping homeless animals. I’m sure that’s not your intent.

Please reconsider the value of this ad.”

It will be interesting to see if I get a reply. Or if you do.

Monday at the vet’s office, one of the techs told me that they had seen a recent surge in distemper cases. My first question was where the dogs were from, as sometimes a serious outbreak can be traced to a particular facility.

All over, she said. The affected dogs were coming from multiple shelters, as well as among dogs acquired in other locations (flea markets, roadside vendors, wherever).

I have also seen several people post commentary about their distemper survivor foster dogs. Generally, there are very, very few distemper survivors. The disease has roughly a 90% mortality rate, which is why traditionally veterinarians have recommended euthanizing animals who contract the disease. Those dogs who do survive often have permanent neurological issues ranging from minor twitchiness to full-body spasms that impede the dog’s ability to walk or eat.

So what exactly is distemper?

Canine distemper is a virus that attacks certain systems in the body, primarily the respiratory system, the gastrointestinal system, and finally the central nervous system. The virus also suppresses the dog’s immune system, leaving him vulnerable to a variety of secondary infections that make it even more difficult for the animal’s body to fight the disease.

Within a week of infection, the dog will run an acute fever, which will last for roughly four days. It will recede temporarily and then come back hard around the twelfth day. Additional symptoms include respiratory issues (including runny nose and eyes, coughing, or difficulty breathing), gastrointestinal issues, and rapid weight loss due to lack of appetite.

As the disease advances, the neurological symptoms kick in. Twitching is common, and over time the twitches and tics may worsen. Dogs may convulsively work their jaws in a pattern often referred to as “chewing gum syndrome”, and the neurological complications can develop into full-blown seizures, sensitivity to light and touch, and circling. Loss of motor function comes next, with the affected animal being increasingly uncoordinated until he becomes unable to walk or even swallow.

Animals that reach this stage of the disease have a very poor prognosis.

Treatment

Treatment of distemper is mostly supportive. Fluids to combat the dehydration, medications to help with the fever and other secondary symptoms – that’s about all we can do.

Prevention

If a dog in your kennel or home does contract distemper, please realize that the disease is transmitted by airborne nasal droplets and by body fluids. Sanitation is crucial to protect your other pets. Wash all bedding and use a bleach solution or other disinfectant to clean the areas where the infected pet has been.

It is heartbreaking that this disease continues to run rampant when there is a good vaccine to prevent it. Unfortunately, the disease is most prevalent among young puppies between three and six months of age, whose immune systems are less developed and who are less likely to have been vaccinated. The older the dog, the less likely the dog will contract the disease, and the more likely they will survive if they do. The vaccine is most often administered as part of a combo injection that also protects the animal against parvo.

Please get your dogs vaccinated regularly, beginning as soon as your veterinarian deems appropriate.

I know that most of my readers are animal welfare people, and thus I’m doing a certain amount of preaching to the choir. But I’m hoping this information will give some of you the ammunition you need when you’re trying to educate people about shelter animals.

Last year’s statistics for the Montgomery County Animal Shelter:

INTAKE:                                LIVE RELEASE:

Jan       2102                            55.16

Feb      1704                            51.56

Mar      1847                            46.97

Apr      1644                            49.14

May     2136                            43.63

Jun       1944                            41.65

Jul        1996                            47.22

Aug     1995                            52.37

Sep      1751                            60.86

Oct      1743                            57.98

Nov     1548                            62.38

Dec      1586                            62.28

Total in: 21996                        52.6 (percentage of total 2011 intake that went out as live releases)

Yes, you read right. In 2011, the Montgomery County Animal Shelter – just one shelter in just one county – took in almost 22000 animals. 52.6% of those animals got out alive. That percentage sounds low until you realize that 11570 animals were saved.

Unfortunately, 10426 weren’t. That is NOT a criticism of the shelter. I volunteer there every week, and I see for myself how hard everyone there works to save every animal they possibly can. In most shelters, serious illness or injury earns a guaranteed trip to the euthanasia room for any animal that a rescue won’t salvage. In this one, they routinely save and rehabilitate animals that most shelters would put down as fast as possible. And I am pleased to note that the save rate rises in the later part of the year, which means our efforts are paying off, at least a little.

Where do they all come from? Strays and owner surrenders are the largest groups, but there are also bite cases and seizures from unfit owners.

Why don’t more of them get adopted?

Funny you should ask. Here is a list of “reasons” based on my observations of how people acquire their pets and on comments about why people hesitate to adopt from shelters and rescues (followed by a debunking of these excuses):

“I want a purebred with papers.” I have three purebreds. They are all rescues. Unless you plan to show your dog, you don’t need papers. They’re a status symbol, often from an inferior registry that exists to allow puppy millers to claim they’re selling “registered” dogs.

“Shelter dogs have something wrong with them or they wouldn’t be in the shelter.” Sure they do. What’s wrong with them is that they are the victims of neglect, abuse, and sheer human stupidity, selfishness, and irresponsibility. With love and care and veterinary attention, the vast majority of them make wonderful pets.

“I did rescue a pet. I bought her on the side of the road.” And by doing so, foolish impulse buyer, you perpetuated a puppy mill, thus helping to guarantee that more dogs will suffer. If you’re lucky, the roadside purchase will be healthy. If you’re lucky, the roadside purchase will grow up to be the breed you think you were buying. If the dog is lucky, you won’t dump her at the shelter as impulsively as you bought her.

“Going to the shelter is too depressing.” Think how the animals that live there feel. And think how good it feels to save one. Or several. If thinking about the animals in the shelter bothers you, do something to help instead of ignoring the problem.

The shelter employees and volunteers will keep working hard to save every one that we can, but the fact remains that the shelter takes in an average of 60 animals per day, seven days a week.

With numbers like these, why on earth would anyone choose to buy from a breeder or pet store?

In my last column, I told my readers about an upcoming “truckload sale” of puppies at a local KOA campground. I’m proud to say that my readers took action.

Several of us emailed the campground and asked them not to promote puppy mills by holding this sale. The campground didn’t cancel the sale, but they did forward our emails to the “responsible breeder” responsible for organizing the event. The breeder sent all of us the same email:

“To Whom It May Concern,

“I guess I should have worded the ad better, Sorry.  I am one of 10 Responsible Breeders getting together to sale our beautiful puppies on Saturday, February 11, 2012 at the KOA Campground.  I am the one putting this show on.  We do this about every month or so.  This gives families or individuals looking for a new member of the family a chance to walk around & look at all the beautiful puppies & decide which breed they might like.  A lot of people are not sure what kind of puppy they want when they come to these shows, so they get to interact with these puppies & meet the Breeders. We have healthy, loving & happy puppies it would be great if you could come see our babies & meet the Breeders.

“Thanks Virginia Toomer”

This so-called responsible breeder hawks her puppies from a website called “texaspuppies2go”. She takes cash, credit, paypal, you name it. She’ll ship puppies to anyone, anywhere, who has the cash.

Many local animal welfare people emailed her directly to express their disagreement with her business practices and to tell her that puppy millers and roadside vendors are not welcome here. Not while we’re busting our butts to save the more than twenty thousand animals that come into the county shelter each year, plus all the ones that come into other shelters or directly into local rescue groups.

Well, she came anyway. Some of the other breeders apparently didn’t, however, as witnesses say there were definitely not ten breeders in evidence.

She and her nasty puppy miller friends got a warm Montgomery County welcome, in the form of a small group of protestors across the street. The protestors didn’t disrupt anything. They merely set up shop, with the permission of the apartment complex facing the campground. They had banners and handouts promoting the shelter, recommending adoption over purchase, and explaining how to identify a bad breeder.

Some of the visitors to the puppy sale stopped in to check out what the protestors had to say, and even to tell them that the puppies were dirty and looked unhealthy. At least one couple left the puppy sale to go to an adoption event (success!). The puppy millers closed down by mid-afternoon, and the campground management enthusiastically offered to host adoption events at the campground.

I call this a rousing success. The puppy mill idiots know they are not welcome here, and I doubt they’ll be back, since they apparently did very little business. The campground and some of its patrons have been recruited for the cause of saving animals instead of selling them.

It was a good day for animal welfare in Montgomery County. (Special thanks to Jeannette Toombs, Anne Collins, and Ashley Clark.)

Next: I’m going to write to KOA corporate and suggest that they make a policy forbidding puppy sales and encouraging adoption events.

It has come to my attention that our roadside puppy seller problem in Montgomery County may be growing. And that’s just not acceptable.

Every afternoon, on my way home from work, I pass someone selling puppies on 2978 just north of Woodlands Parkway. Usually it’s a litter of dachshunds, shih tzus, or yorkies. This week it’s a large litter of yellow lab puppies. Doesn’t matter what the weather is. Hot, cold, rain, sun…those puppies sit in a playpen beside the road, waiting for some uninformed soul to hand over several hundred dollars apiece for them.

Another rescuer says that a group of puppy sellers has made camp in a parking lot at the intersection of highway 59 and 1314.

And now we hear that a known puppy miller from Brazoria County is advertising that he will have thirteen different breeds of puppies for sale at a local KOA campground in Montgomery THIS SATURDAY, February 11. (http://koa.com/campgrounds/lake-conroe/photos/) It is, in fact, being referred to as a “truckload sale.”

Did I mention that this is just not acceptable?

In case the term “puppy mill” is unfamiliar to you, a puppy mill is a place that breeds their dogs over and over in unsanitary conditions. Their sole purpose is to produce as many puppies as possible, and to sell them as fast as possible. The dogs are unhealthy, often unsocialized, poorly tended, often malnourished, and prone to disease. Inbreeding is common, and with it the genetic problems that result from a small gene pool. The unsold puppies are either thrown back into the breeding pool, regardless of health, genetics, and disposition. The older breeding dogs keep having puppies until they are simply used up. Then they are often dumped at shelters or abandoned on the side of the road somewhere.

Puppy millers, as far as I’m concerned, are evil.

So what brings this influx of evil puppy sellers to Montgomery County? I’m pretty sure this is a trickle-down from Harris County’s expulsion of roadside puppy vendors. Harris County kicked them out, so they simply moved out a layer to the counties around Houston.

I wish we could do likewise, but under current state law, the population of Montgomery County isn’t large enough to be allowed to make that decision. Only those counties with a population in excess of 1.3 million can ban roadside puppy sales. Only four counties meet that criterion: Harris, Tarrant, Bexar, and Dallas. The rest of us are stuck with them.

And that brings me back to our local puppy seller problem. If the law won’t help us remove them, we have to resort to more mundane measures. Like education, public protests, demonstrations, and media pressure. Most people don’t know all the risks and problems of buying a roadside puppy, which makes education a key factor. Property owners can often be convinced to prohibit puppy sales on their property, especially if the possibility of negative media attention is hovering just offstage. Organized groups of protesters carrying anti-puppy mill signs can run the sellers out of town, at least for the day. And if we peacefully disrupt them often enough, they will eventually find someplace else.

When they do, we stage another round of protests.

Now, about this puppy seller who is apparently going to come to the KOA campground: I would suggest that my readers contact the campground and POLITELY ask the management to prohibit this puppy miller from using their facility. If enough of us draw attention to the problem, it’s quite likely that the property management will decide that allowing the puppy sales is simply too much trouble and potential negative publicity.

If that doesn’t work, get your posterboards ready. If we don’t stand up for the dogs, who will?

(And by the way, if you need a Ban Roadside Puppy Sales shirt, check the store link at the top of the page. I sell them at a discount.)

One of the greater frustrations in animal welfare is unprosecutable owner cruelty. We know what they did. We know who did it. We can prove it. But we’ll never prosecute.

Why?

One of two reasons. One, even though it’s cruel treatment, the law doesn’t recognize it as such. Two, the owner voluntarily surrenders the animal to animal control or a comparable agency.

Fancy is a prime example of the first situation. When she was found, she had been shot in the face and left for dead. We’ll never know how she survived the bullet that went through her face, shattered a growth plate, and left an open hole through her palate.

What we do know is that by the time she was captured and able to be treated, she had been living with that hole in her face for at least a month. Seems like open and shut animal cruelty, doesn’t it? And if we knew who had done it, we could prosecute them for shooting her.

Guess again. As I understand it, under Texas law, if the shooter actually owned her, then killing her with a bullet would have been perfectly legal. IF prosecution had been possible, it would have been for not finishing the job. And to be perfectly honest, I doubt that most district attorneys would even be willing to prosecute, due to the difficulty of proving that the intent was to cause suffering.

And that’s just wrong.

Bailey and Otis are my representatives of the second group. Both of these dogs were turned in to animal control.

Bailey was surrendered by her owners. Per her paperwork and the shelter worker who did her intake paperwork, they claimed to have taken her to dozens of veterinarians in the attempt to treat her condition. When I pulled Bailey out of the shelter, she had almost no hair and reeked of skin yeast. She itched uncontrollably. It was patently obvious that she had not been treated, as these were far from her only problems.

Bailey was so underweight that her skin hung in scaly pink folds – readily visible because she was so bald. She literally had loose skin on her feet and ankles. Her toenails had gone uncut for so long that they had grown in complete circles and were cutting into the pads of her feet. Her damaged skin showed no signs of washing or antifungal ointments. If she had been under treatment, these secondary signs of neglect would not have been in evidence.

Given Bailey’s condition, had she been seized rather than surrendered, the owners could have been charged with cruelty and neglect. Because they voluntarily signed her over, with accompanying (if less than credible) claims of having sought treatment, they were safe from prosecution.

Otis was a slightly different story. He too was turned into Animal Control in a state of hairless, yeasty itchiness. However, he had clearly been eating well. And the people that turned him in claimed to have “found” him in that condition. Obviously, if they merely found him and delivered him to Animal Control, then they didn’t commit a crime.

Right?

Not so fast. They called back the next day, having re-thought their decision. They wanted Otis back. And when they learned that Otis had been sent to rescue on medical release, they were not happy. They threw a loud and verbally abusive tantrum at the unfortunate ACO who answered the phone, threatening all sorts of legal mayhem if Otis was not returned to them.

Unbelievably, it seems that they wanted to breed him. And in the course of their fit, they revealed that Otis had been in their “care” for at least six months, which means that legally, they were responsible for his pitiful state.

Interestingly, when it was explained to them that their failure to vaccinate and treat Otis for that period of time constituted actionable legal neglect, they suddenly lost interest and went away. As “Good Samaritan” finders, they were untouchable. As negligent custodians, they were prosecutable.

So why don’t we prosecute negligent owners who turn in the Baileys and Otises of the world?

Because if we were to prosecute those who voluntarily surrendered their neglected pets, many of them would resort to dumping dogs on the side of the road. Or worse, they might go the more drastic route taken by whoever shot Fancy. So in most cases, the decision is made to let them evade prosecution because it’s more important to get the animals out of the situation.

I’m not sure how to close these loopholes, but it’s one more area in which the law fails to protect the animals.

Dog fighting hit the headlines in a major way with the downfall and subsequent conviction of Michael Vick. For the first time, the question of dog fighting was laid before the public in a nationwide heated discussion. The dogs rescued from Vick became media darlings, with every step of their rehabilitation carefully documented. Retailers who supported Vick or hired him to endorse products found themselves boycotted. (I still won’t eat Subway.) 

My personal opinion: anyone who can find entertainment in watching animals fight to the death has a serious void where his conscience should be. And that void is not something that can be repaired or filled.

Even more than most animal cruelty crimes, dog fighting frustrates law enforcement and animal cruelty investigators. In the State of Texas, participation in any aspect of dog fighting is illegal. A person can be convicted of a state jail felony for making the dog fight (for the purpose of making money), for running a fighting facility, or even for allowing someone to use their property to host a fight. They can be convicted of a class A misdemeanor for making a dog fight under any circumstances, or for owning or training a fighting dog, even without financial gain. They can be convicted of lesser misdemeanor counts for simply attending a fight.

With all these laws on the books, why don’t we convict more people of dog fighting?

Bluntly, unless there are actual witnesses to the fight or overt and incontrovertible evidence of fighting such as video, it is very difficult to prove under the law. Owning a dog with scars from fights is not enough proof. Sometimes dogs just fight each other. Or the owner might claim the scars were already there when he acquired the dog.

Another challenge of catching, stopping, or prosecuting dog fighters is their highly secretive and mobile lifestyle. Fights change location constantly, and entry to the fights is closely guarded. Their very mobility is a defense, not just because the location changes, but also because they cross jurisdictional lines regularly, meaning that different agencies would be responsible for different offenses. Law enforcement has historically found it difficult to infiltrate the world of the fighters because of the extreme secrecy involved, combined with the violent tendencies and other criminal enterprises of those associated with fighting. Gambling, drugs, money laundering, prostitution, and illegal weapons are all known to be closely linked to the underground dog fight world. In fact, many of the fight rings actually get busted in the course of police investigating these other crimes.

For example, in 2006, home invaders shot a man here in Texas and let him bleed to death in front of his family. In the course of the murder investigation, it was discovered that the deceased owned a dog fighting operation with over 300 fight dogs in two states. Investigators believe he was killed as a result of his dog fighting ties.

A secondary but equally difficult issue is the housing of confiscated fight dogs. I have been told by several cruelty investigators that fighters often try to bribe or threaten employees into releasing confiscated dogs. Others send their girlfriends or relatives in to claim the dog, under the guise of being its legitimate owner who plans to rush the injured animal to the vet. The agency housing such dogs requires heightened security for the protection of the animals and employees against fighters who may try to retrieve their dogs. Those dogs can be worth thousands of dollars apiece, so the risk is worth the reward to their unscrupulous handlers. Again, some agencies simply want no part of such investigations because they have neither the space not the budget to handle them.

Texas has enacted laws prohibiting ownership of dog fighting paraphernalia or equipment. Those laws were designed to give law enforcement better ways to prove intent to fight and thus more power to prosecute fighters.

Per Texas Code of Criminal Procedure – Article 18.18, prohibited items include:

               “(A)  equipment used for training or handling a fighting dog, including a harness, treadmill, cage, decoy, pen, house for keeping a fighting dog, feeding apparatus, or training pen;

               “(B)  equipment used for transporting a fighting dog, including any automobile, or other vehicle, and its appurtenances which are intended to be used as a vehicle for transporting a fighting dog;

               “(C)  equipment used to promote or advertise an exhibition of dog fighting, including a printing press or similar equipment, paper, ink, or photography equipment;  or

               “(D)  a dog trained, being trained, or intended to be used to fight with another dog;”

Obviously ownership of a dog harness or a printer is not proof of dogfighting. But when taken in conjunction with a combination of other items from this list, it can be one more nail in the legal coffin of a fighter on trial. Judges and juries have accepted sworn testimony of cruelty investigators and other law enforcement agents that certain pieces of equipement have no use other than the training of fight dogs. Blood-stained fight rings, crates, and other paraphernalia can be considered corroborating evidence, as can the collection of vitamins, steroids, and antibiotics fighters normally feed the dogs.

And yet this underground bloodsport continues to flourish.

What should you do if you suspect there is a dog fighting operation in your neighborhood?

  • Stay away from them. Far away. The humans are more dangerous than the dogs.
  • Call the cops. Report times and dates of activity you observe.
  • Call Animal Control or the local investigative agency. Again, report times, dates, and activities. Are the dogs wearing heavy chains? Battle scarred, especially on their front ends? Have you heard the sounds of fighting or seen crowds gathering? Have you seen any other suspicious activity?

Do not try to rescue the dogs yourself. Do not try to go see the fight. Do not take pictures if anyone can see you.

Remember that dog fighting attracts all kinds of criminals – and anyone who can do that to a dog might well be ready to do the same to you.