The controversy surrounding the Niagara County SPCA, the protests and the publicity, might lead one to believe the evil alleged -- that staff regularly euthanized healthy or treatable dogs and cats -- was a local problem specific to that facility.
According to the ASPCA, however, across the nation animal population control has been part of the larger, true function of animal shelters for decades.
The numbers, for those who have never studied the issue, are perhaps a little surprising.
Although it appears no one has exact figures, the American Humane Association estimates that annually "4 to 6 million dogs and cats are euthanized in animal care and control facilities in the United States."
According to the ASPCA, "Approximately 5 million to 7 million companion animals enter (approximately 5,000) animal shelters nationwide every year, and approximately 3 million to 4 million are euthanized (60 percent of dogs and 70 percent of cats)."
Of those euthanized, most of them are healthy or could be healthy with proper treatment.
According to the ASPCA, "Five out of 10 dogs in shelters and seven out of 10 cats in shelters are destroyed simply because there is no one to adopt them."
According to the AHA, "This problem is pervasive, and it remains a source of shame for our country."
So much for this being a local problem.
Taking even the lowest estimates, a minimum of 2.6 million healthy or treatable dogs and cats are euthanized annually because there is not enough space to accommodate them in shelters and no one coming forward to adopt in the time period allotted by the shelters, a time period often set by space considerations and budgetary constraints.
It is irresponsible to focus on the Niagara County SPCA and its euthanizing practices, without an understanding of the national challenge, or "shame" -- that of having millions of cats and dogs being born in America that are ultimately euthanized.
The Niagara County SPCA, like all SPCAs, is not a government agency, but a not-for-profit, private corporation, funded by donations. Like most, if not all SPCAs, it has an open-admission policy, meaning they accept all animals, whether they are sick, injured or unwanted, regardless of age, breed, sex, health or temperament.
Typically, shelters use three designations to classify dogs and cats. These are "healthy," "unhealthy and untreatable," or "treatable," with curable or chronic health issues.
Most SPCAs euthanize animals in all three designations.
There are, of course -- and it is the buzz-word of animal rights activists -- "no-kill" shelters, often touted as saviors of the cruelty industry.
Most "no-kill" shelters will not euthanize healthy or treatable animals, although they often euthanize unhealthy animals.
Many, if not most "no-kill" shelters are limited-admission shelters. Limited-admission "no-kill" shelters take only those animals they know they can adopt out, leaving problem animals for open-admission shelters like the SPCA to euthanize and, as it often happens, to take the blame for cruelty, while the "no-kill" shelters can advertise being "no-kill" and make money accepting only higher-quality animals that they can charge fees to adopt out.
Sometimes "no-kill" shelters ship their unadoptable pets to a shelter that euthanizes pets, hence making their "no-kill" designation an utter deception.
In any event, an owner who wants to relinquish a pet that is turned away by a "no-kill" shelter will likely find an open-admission shelter to accept his unwanted burden, or he might simply abandon the pet on the street to languish or be picked up by animal control, brought to the open-admission shelter and then euthanized.
If there was a single point that seemed to be lost in the local controversy surrounding the Niagara County SPCA euthanizing treatable dogs and cats, it is this: This is the norm rather than the exception.
Around the nation, I found numbers that consistently verified this.
For example, just at random, the Tampa, Fla., SPCA. August: 402 dogs and cats were euthanized, 102 of them met the definition of untreatable, with conditions like distemper or aggression. The rest -- 388 -- were classified as treatable, if given extra care. Among treatable conditions, according to the SPCA's website, are ringworm and behavioral problems like failing to use a litterbox.
The Tampa SPCA handled about 15,000 animals last year and adopted out 50 percent. The other 50 percent were euthanized. Some, perhaps most, of what the Niagara County SPCA was being blamed for as a unique atrocity is happening all over the nation.
While local people certainly can attempt a remedy, starting in Niagara, the general public, as opposed to the presumably better-informed ardent animal rights activists, need to understand the problem a little better. Or even -- and this is written at the risk of incurring the hateful, cruel and vengeful wrath of intemperate animal rights activists -- to understand if it really is a problem.
I offer no opinion whatsoever on the latter and only care to report that there are some, perhaps many, perhaps even the silent majority, who believe (or would believe if they were properly informed) that the euthanizing of unwanted dogs and cats is, under the circumstances, the best or perhaps only solution to the challenge of having a society where millions of unwanted pets exist.
At the root of this issue is not the shelters themselves, or their practices, but rather irresponsible pet owners.
Cats and dogs wind up in shelters because someone at one point wanted a pet and did not care for it properly, let it get ill, let it go free, failed to neuter it, and was not prepared to take responsible care of the pet.
Here are some facts to consider: According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, 63 percent of households in the United States have a pet. According to the Pet Food Institute, there are 75 million dogs and 85 million cats owned in the United States.
It is impossible to determine how many stray dogs and cats live in the United States. Estimates for cats alone range up to 70 million, meaning there are almost as many stray and feral cats in America as there are owned cats. Most of these strays are not spayed or neutered.
According to the ASPCA, while about 75 percent of owned pets are spayed or neutered, only 10 percent of animals received by shelters are. Strays are producing more strays or feral animals, in many cases producing up to 12 kittens or six puppies per year.
If people want to end the traditional American model of euthanizing healthy, or treatable, unwanted or stray companion animals, the first step would be to foster a more responsible society where pet owners are considerably more conscientious.
People rush to acquire a dog or cat, because they need love or want companionship or think it will be fun. Then they find out it is work and time and money. Circumstances change. They have to move, their landlord wants them out, they suddenly found they do not have time for their pets, or suddenly discovered there are now too many pets in the house. They could not train their pet properly and it creates problems in the house. Their life changed, they have personal problems, and problems they expected the cat or dog to solve are not any better, maybe worse. All these reasons and more prompt the pet owner to unleash his pet and let him go -- on the street or to the shelter.
She took on a pet, thinking it was for life, then she changed her mind. She failed to neuter her animal and it had a litter, and now she needs to unload living burdens.
If it is an attractive pet, usually the pet owner can get somebody to adopt it. She does not need a shelter to give away a handsome pet. It is the unattractive pet, often with behavioral problems, often in need of treatment, that winds up in a shelter.
This selfish lack of planning -- emblematic, some might say, of the immature American -- the desire for instant gratification through the happy prospect of a dog or cat, without the necessary judgment to realize this is, morally, a lifetime obligation, is perhaps the real American shame, and not easily curable.
In a society where dogs and cats are disposable, people merely bring them to the SPCA and ask no questions.
Easier to remedy, perhaps, than the maturing of a nation of immature pet owners is to change what happens to pets after they are abandoned.
If the animal rights activists are in the moral right -- that cats and dogs that are treatable should be treated, and that none of them should be killed, and no expense should be spared to do it -- then what is the remedy?
If America became a true no-kill companion pet society, then the people (and hopefully not the government), through volunteerism, would have to build literally millions of additional square feet of, in effect, "retirement homes" to accommodate the millions of unwanted dogs and cats, or as an alternative, volunteer their own homes for unwanted animals.
According to the ASPCA, the average cost of basic food, supplies, medical care and training for a dog or cat is $700 to $875 annually. That does not count the cost of shelter, or the cost of labor, which is presumed free from the pet owner.
If Americans were to stop the euthanasia of healthy or treatable strays, it would require perhaps $5 billion the first year alone in order to build more space for shelter, plus to care, neuter and feed the 2.6 million cats and dogs that would otherwise be euthanized this year.
By the second year, these shelters would be caring for all the first year's survivors, plus another 2.6 million from year two. By year three, there might be 7 million animals needing permanent shelter.
After about 10 years, the number would presumably level off, with about as many cats and dogs dying of old age as coming into the shelters, perhaps peaking at about 25 million unwanted animals in various retirement shelters, or dog and cat "farms" -- all being permanently cared for, all of whom would have been euthanized under the old model -- at an annual cost of care and feeding of about $25 billion per year.
Presently, 7,123 healthy dogs and cats are euthanized every day. About 20 healthy dogs and cats will be euthanized in America while you are reading this.
You might take the first step and adopt into your home the next 20 cats that are going to be euthanized, or donate $20,000 to feed, clean, provide veterinary care, and house them for a year.
Of course, the dream of animal protectors is to get some of the estimated 17 million people who are going to get a new pet this year to adopt an unwanted pet.
This will not likely succeed.
According to a study done by Ralston Purina Inc. and the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy, of the people getting new pets, 10 percent to 20 percent are already adopting them from shelters and rescues. Twenty percent of cats are acquired as strays.
The majority of owned pets are obtained free or at little cost from acquaintances and family members. That leaves only a thin margin for finding more to adopt from shelters.
About 15 percent to 20 percent of dogs are purchased from breeders, and 2 percent to 10 percent of cats and dogs are purchased from pet shops.
It is unlikely that a pet fancier who goes to a breeder for a purebred is going to adopt a stray. Those who buy that kitten or puppy at a pet store are not likely to want an adult, hard-to-adopt dog or cat.
I suspect most people, including many of the ardent companion animal protectors, do not want the haggard, ugly, unwanted, ill-trained, unkempt, neglected, aging stray dogs and cats that wind up in shelters, when they can afford a purebred puppy or handsome healthy kitten for a pet. When shelters get these healthy handsome young animals, there is never a problem getting someone to adopt them.
Here is the problem in a nutshell: While many people claim to want to take on a less-than-perfect pet, very few actually do.
Most of the 2.6 million companion animals being euthanized that are designated as healthy or treatable are much less than perfect, and consequently have a very poor chance of being adopted.
The secret to the solution of this problem seems to be to find enough people to donate enough money to create permanent rest homes for the ugly, elderly and challenged dogs and cats.
Or those who care must be prepared to take millions of unwanted animals into their homes and care for them for their lifetimes.
Either that, or continue with the traditional American policy, which is to euthanize the unadoptable, unwelcome millions of American dogs and cats that once were somebody's pet or the descendants of a pet.