It was four in the morning and I felt a weight on my tummy slowly moving towards my face. Before I could react, I felt a tiny, wet, salt paper like object on my chin. In my half-awake, half-asleep state I realized it was my cat – licking me. No matter how much I hate being woken up at four a.m. on a winter morning, something warm and tender melts inside my ribcage, I felt being loved.
Whether it’s a ‘meow’ or a ‘woof’– animal share an intimate and intricate relation with humans since time immemorial. In modern, urban life the most common animal we share our lives with are cats and dogs, who have evolved with us from being our cave companion to our Netflix buddy.
The pet culture
The pet culture has grown remarkably around the world in last few decades. Companion animals play a huge role in diminishing depression, anxiety and loneliness. In USA alone, as of March 2017, an estimated total of 89.7 million household dogs and 95.6 million cats live as household pets. In 2017, some 68 percent of all households in the United States owned at least 1 pet, up from 56 percent in 1988. There is another side to this promising story.
Approximately 6.5 million companion animals enter U.S. animal shelters nationwide every year. Of those, approximately 3.3 million are dogs and 3.2 million are cats. Along with growing number of pets in homes, the instances of abandoning pets have also increased. Behind every stray animal, there has been a lost or abandoned domestic animal which multiplied with time.
Hope and home for homeless animals
Do the homeless animals have any hope? Yes – the bridge between life and death for these helpless, homeless creatures stands, the shelter.
The modern day shelters have their roots in ASPCA or the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which was the first animal welfare organization in the US founded in 1866. Fast forward 2018, there are approximately 5,000 animal shelters in the United States, however, no exact number can be found as they are not regulated by any federal system. Some shelters are solely run by dedicated volunteers from private homes; some has fully paid staff which runs from large/small facilities. Some can afford to have their own veterinarian team whereas others have to rely on voluntary service from local veterinary practices or vet students. In the United States there are three major types of shelters- municipal shelters, private shelters, rescue groups.
Municipal shelters are more commonly known as ‘animal control’ which falls under municipal control funded by dog license fees, special funding and/or local taxes. They are ‘open admission’ centers, which means they cannot refuse any animal brought to them.
Be it of any species, dangerous or sick they must take them in even if the facility is already full. Lost animals are also housed here for 7-10 days for their owner to reclaim them. This may seem like an ideal arrangement, however, no facility has infinite capacity hence ‘euthanasia for space’ is the common practice. The downside of housing varied animals together is spread of diseases and hence sometimes to protect rest of the shelter animals, some are euthanized for disease control.
“Kill-shelters”? Not at all.
Lack of public awareness about this policy has created a stigma around municipal shelters as being ‘kill-shelters’. However, in reality these type of shelters leave no stones unturned before making a decision for euthanasia. Many Animal controls have collaborations with other private rescue groups/shelters that regularly pull adoptable animals from here.
Moreover, many well-funded animal controls these days have their own adoption team, foster care system to get animals out of the shelter. Euthanasia is indeed the last resort. In addition to that, myriad services are offered to reduce the number of animals surrendered. These include trap-neuter release program (for cats), low-cost veterinary care like vaccine clinics and spay/neuter services, pet food bank etc.
Helping out municipal shelters are private shelters and rescue groups. These shelters are usually 501(c)(3) non-profits. They often have limited admission as they do not euthanize for space. They promote the animals they pull from the local municipal shelters, in social media, adoption events to help them get adopted. Their main sources of funds are donations from general public. Limited funds, small facilities and lack of manpower are some common challenges faced by these shelters. Rescue groups function like private shelter, only their main target is specific breeds or a particular species.
Despite many challenges, the existence of the shelter system is a huge benefit for an abandoned, homeless animal. The shelter system whether municipal or private, is highly needed in densely populated countries like India to alleviate the deplorable conditions of strays.
The situation in India
India has 25 to 30 million stray dogs and countless stray cats. Resources are not readily available for shelters in India to provide ample care for strays. Also, the other problem is (not just in India, all over the world) the culture of “shopping” for pets rather than adopting them. A stray animal comes with the stigma of being from the streets and not “fluffy” enough. Buying pets from breeders is a common practice more due to aesthetic reasons than love for an animal. If more people adopt a pet – these shelters will thrive. Adopting a pet from a shelter means one less animal on the street. Their love for us will be same no matter where they come from — a breeder or a shelter. Something to think about, especially, if the four legged furballs melt your heart.
[Photographs by Bidisha Mukherjee]
(Author’s photograph: courtesy Bidisha Mukherjee)