02/13/2014 03:38 pm ET Updated Apr 15, 2014

Animal Welfare in Detroit: A View From the Trenches

A minor media battle has been raging regarding the "dog count" in Detroit -- that is, determining exactly how many stray and feral dogs are roaming the city's streets.

To get that part of the issue out of the way, estimates range from 3,000 to 50,000. Although the higher figure is unlikely (it would represent 14 dogs per resident), even 3,000 would mean 750 dogs for each of Detroit's four animal control officers.

The bottom line: Roaming dogs, whatever their number, are just the tip of an iceberg of animal welfare concerns in Detroit (and other struggling former industrial cities) that also include stray and feral cats, improper care of owned animals, dogfighting and animals losing their homes to foreclosure and other economic disruptions.

The debate over the dog count obscures the large number of animal welfare organizations -- most nonprofit and staffed by volunteers -- working tirelessly to find a solution. These groups provide a wide range of critical services, from adoption to sheltering animals to fundraising for spay/neutering programs. Yet, while many of the groups work together, there is lack of cooperation with the city of Detroit.

The Global Urban Studies Program at Michigan State University recently conducted a survey of the 300-plus animal welfare organizations working in Detroit and found the size of the animal welfare problem is the most significant barrier to their success.

However, the groups also identify lack of foster homes (69 percent of respondents) as a more significant barrier than even sufficient funding to address the problem (60 percent). Another frequently mentioned barrier is the role of pet stores, puppy mills and home breeders (also identified as hoarders by respondents). The surplus of animals bred and sold by these operations and the tendency of potential pet owners to buy from them is seen as significantly contributing to the number of stray and unwanted animals.

More than 60 percent of respondents say their organization advocates for an end to gassing in shelters as a means of euthanasia, more strict regulations of pet stores and puppy mills, and for local ordinances that prohibit the outdoor tethering of animals.

Although the groups see animal abandonment as the most serious animal welfare problem in the community (85 percent), the need for humane education for youth is the next most serious concern (mentioned as very serious by 80 percent of respondents) -- even more of a concern than organized dogfighting (78 percent), outdoor tethering of dogs (71 percent) and animal abuse and neglect (70 percent).

The nonprofits are primarily organized and run by women and have been around, on average, for 20 years (although one organization was started to address the working conditions of cart horses in early Detroit.)

Just over half of the groups were created because individuals saw the plight of unwanted animals generally or for specific types: retired racing greyhounds, senior and special needs animals, and other breed-specific needs.

However, 34 percent of the groups were formed specifically in reaction to shelter practices, particularly euthanasia. The groups felt they could do a better and more humane job and serve as an additional resource to overcrowded and underfunded shelters. Funding is most likely to come from donations, grants, merchandise sales and promotional events, social media and out of the pockets of the group members or leaders.

What does the survey suggest, then, about solutions to animal welfare conditions in Detroit?

  • Educating children in the humane care of animals is critically important and will provide a long-term solution.
  • Animal welfare groups badly need additional volunteer support, particularly individuals willing to provide foster care for animals in their homes.
  • Because organized dogfighting is seen to be a central problem in animal welfare, greater attention to combat these activities is needed.
  • Heightening community awareness of animal overbreeding and its impact on the number of unwanted animals is needed to help residents think about adopting rather than purchasing their family pet.
  • Finally, a lack of resources -- for animal rescues, licensed shelters and local animal control -- is a critical barrier to more effectively and humanly addressing animal welfare in the city.

Ultimately, the humane treatment of Detroit's stray animals is a goal that goes far beyond a simple "dog count."