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Ellen Susman Headshot

Animal Welfare and the Dog Days of Summer

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Years ago I watched Al Pacino in a film called Dog Day Afternoon in which there were no dogs; just a botched bank robbery and a sad ending. Lately, it seems that there are a lot of sad endings for dogs and cats and any animal that doesn't have a caring or responsible owner.

Pictures and stories of pets being abandoned in apartments, houses, and backyards are all over newspapers, the Internet and television. At various shelters nationwide, but especially in large urban areas, overcrowding and lack of finances means that the animals are all too often euthanized very quickly with no chance at finding another home.

In Houston, Texas, the Bureau of Animal Control BARC) has euthanized more than125, 000 dogs each year. I am not even bothering with the statistics for other animals right now. Despite the many animal groups who valiantly come in and pull out the dogs and cats they try and personally adopt out, it's a ripple in the ocean of need.

We all know what must be done. Just as providing universal health care so that all people can have medical treatment, or trying to balance our budget so that future generations don't carry the burden of debt we have saddled them with, or making sure that we finally get a handle on global climate disruption, we must also begin to really create legislation that guarantees unwanted animals some basic rights. And this is needed not just in Texas, but all over the United States. What can we all do?

Make spay/neuter mandatory. Enforce it.

Educate schoolchildren so they learn and understand that having a pet means accepting responsibility. When you have a pet, you are responsible for its life. Just like a child. Pets need food and shelter. They need medicine, and regular vet visits and deserve to die a dignified death when the time has come.

We need to shut down all the puppy mills and leave dog breeding to breeders who care about the viability of their breed. These breeders will take a dog back if the owner has to give it up and want to be responsible for finding it another home. I don't ever want to see another picture of some poor female dog in a squat cage, where she can't even stand up whose life has been spent pushing out puppies. And by the way, I am sick of labradoodles, and pugapoos, and cockapoos being marketed as viable breeds. I have no problem with mixed breeds -- but why buy an animal that otherwise you could find at the shelter?

Let's stop the backyard breeders who think a quick litter of pups is just another way to earn a quick buck. These poor pups often carry diseases, are not properly inoculated and the new owners have no recourse should the dog die. And because the dogs are bred with no sense of temperament or breed guidance, there are often problems. What happens when the dogs don't work out? In Houston, there is a beleaguered section of road called the Corridor. A valiant team of people headed by Deborah Hoffman patrol that area and tries to help the animals that are dumped there. That's' right. Just dumped. You can find dead pit bulls wrapped in blankets and put into trash bags, you can find purebred dogs at a loss as to how they got there, you can find lots of smallish, white scruffy dogs that are a few breeds short of Heinz 57, but close, and on and on. You can find, as Deborah did, dogs buried and still alive under construction debris, and dogs just left tied or chained to posts, trees and empty houses.

We need to be creative! There are thousands of veterans who are returning home traumatized emotionally and physically. Dogs have been shown to be effective as therapy. That's right. Sometimes a person would rather talk to a dog than a human therapist. There are plenty of dogs that need to give love, and plenty of veterans who need the kind of unconditional love an animal can deliver.

And what about our prison population? There have been a few programs, which have placed puppies with incarcerated men and women. Those puppies are given their basic training as guide dogs and then moved on to help people who need them. In today's world, many families that used to foster and train puppies for specialized programs are not available since both parents work. With "Pups in Prisons," a sense of purpose and achievement is the end and very positive result.

And what about cities or towns that don't have many dogs or cats to adopt? Why can't they be identified and have overcrowded shelters send them excess animals so that they can find a home?

I was so thrilled when President Obama originally suggested that the First Family would go to a shelter and pick out "a mutt like me." Although that didn't happen because of Malia's allergies, there are plenty of purebred rescue groups. Name your breed from Irish Wolfhounds to Basset hounds, Basenjis to Yorkshire terriers and there is a rescue group fostering plenty of dogs that need good homes.

While my daughter was at college last year, one of her friends fostered a golden retriever. After the dog got placed, he fostered another. This is a wonderful way to assist in your community if you have the time and space.

All over the country there are amazing people saving animals. Madeleine Pickens is saving the wild Mustang. In many communities there are a myriad of rescue groups for various purebred groups, or for just dogs. Cat rescue abounds as well. I have been stunned to see housetrained rabbits at the shelters hoping for adoption, and other small pets as well.

I so admire and respect Sarah McLachlan for all of her work for the ASPCA, but I would be thrilled if I never had to see those ads, and dogs and cats behind bars anymore. All of us need to work to change a system that is severely broken.

Maybe along with health care reform, and education reform, we can add animal welfare reform. Maybe someday a dog day afternoon will mean a happy wagging tail, not a sad tale.
As the great Mahatma Gandhi said, "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by how it treats its animals." If we are to be judged by his adage, then we have failed.

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