By Johnathan Comer
Street Sense, 02.26.2014
Giving Homeless Animals a Chance
In the months leading up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the Russian government hired a private company to cull stray dogs surrounding the newly constructed Olympic Village, according to news reports. In the U.S., such an act has been met with heavy criticism. For example, ESPN’s Keith Olbermann said the Olympic games were “stained with the blood of thousands of dogs.” Indeed, it is estimated that several hundred stray dogs were killed, and nearly as many remain. In response, several U.S. athletes have extended their stay in Russia to help facilitate the adoption of the remaining dogs by working with international animal rights groups.
While the D.C. area doesn't quite have the same problem of an over-abundant stray dog population as does Sochi, animal homelessness is still a very real issue. Each year, nearly 4,000 stray animals find their way to the doors of the Washington Humane Society. The reasons for an animal’s entry to a local shelter such as the WHS are varied, ranging from owners that surrender their pets to strays that are brought in by concerned citizens. Regardless, the WHS generally does not turn any animal away.
“We accept any animal, for any reason,” according to ChristieLyn Diller of the WHS. To bring this point home, Diller noted that the WHS found itself in the possession of 100 chicks last year that were mis-routed to D.C. by the United States Postal Service; all of the baby birds eventually found a new home at a New York farm sanctuary.
Also unlike Sochi, the D.C. area has a broad network of shelters and animal welfare groups working to humanely combat problems of animal homelessness. The Washington Humane Society, the Washington Animal Rescue League, Friends of Homeless Animals, the Animal Welfare League of Arlington, and Alley Cat Allies are just a few local groups that dedicate their resources towards improving the lives of animals, homeless or otherwise.
While these groups are independent of one another, they often work together when needed. For example, the Washington Animal Rescue League houses adoptable animals that come from local shelters, such as the WHS, when space is limited. Likewise, a portion of the adoptable animals at the Animal Welfare League of Arlington come from rural shelters.
“Our concern is for the best interest of the animal and their quality of life. We work with a large network of rescue partners, both locally and across state borders,” according to Kerry McKeel of the Animal Welfare League of Arlington.
While adoption is the desired outcome for animals that enter local shelters, sometimes reasons beyond a shelter's control will force an animal to be euthanized.
“AWLA is an ‘open-access’ animal shelter, meaning that we take all animals, for any reason. We never euthanize animals due to space. However, we do euthanize for medical or behavioral reasons,” McKeel said.
Diller said that the WHS must also take that step when needed: “An animal will stay as long as needed and [until it’s adopted]. However, if an animal is too unhealthy, sick, or severally injured, we do sometimes have to euthanize them.”
While each group is inclined to safeguard the future of all animals it encounters, some local shelters focus their resources on the humane treatment of feral cats. In many cities in America and around the world, feral cat colonies abound in alleys and parks. The District is no exception. In response, some local groups have launched “trap-neuter-release” or TNR efforts. A shelter will target a particular colony of cats, trap them safely in wire cages and have them neutered or spayed.
Kittens and young cats that appear adoptable will stay at the shelter and be put up for adoption, while all other cats who are less socialized are re-released where they were found. The end result is a colony of cats that cannot reproduce, thereby helping to ensure the population does not increase.
According to Diller, the program has been very successful: “Officers have noted a decrease in the number of feral cats they see. Last year alone we brought in over 2,000 cats from Northeast D.C. [to be sterilized and released]”
The WHS traps a cat as part of its TNR program in Southeast D.C. Cat food is placed atop a pressure sensitive spring connected to a wire "door," which is released when the cat enters. Cats are never forcefully captured, and the WHS is sure to use cages which are quiet and safe.
Rachel Gorlin, who has been caring for a number of colonies near Takoma Park over the past nine years, has noticed a dramatic decrease in the number of kittens in the colonies she cares for, which she believes to be the result of TNR. By partnering with local shelters, Gorlin has ensured nearly all the cats she cares for are neutered or spayed.
Stephanie DeMoss of the Washington Humane Society prepares traps to capture stray cats, which will be vaccinated, sterilized, and re-released. Last year, the WHS captured 2,000 stray cats as part of its TNR program, an effort to control the stray cat population in D.C.
However, some groups, such as the American Bird Conservancy, are critical towards the effectiveness of TNR programs. The American Bird Conservancy 's website claims that outdoor cats are responsible for the decline of bird populations near colonies. Also, outdoor cats which hunt rodents "affect birds of prey and other animals dependent upon this food source," their website further states. Finally, the group claims outdoor cats pose a health risk to humans, and should simply be left alone: cats which have a home should remain indoors, and feral cats shouldn't be fed by humans, nor should TNR programs be allowed to control the population of colonies, the group proposes.
Gorlin is skeptical of such claims.
"Outdoor cats have been around for quite a while, yet this hasn't been an issue until recently . . . Habitat loss [due to human development] is likely a more accurate explanation as to why bird populations have decreased," Gorlin stated. She further adds that "people really shouldn't be scared of cats they see outdoors. Most feral cats will avoid contact with people, and any cat that approaches a person on the street or an alley probably has a home – or did at one time. Most all outdoor cats are healthy, and pose no threat of rabies [or other disease]."
Tokama Park resident Rachel Gorlin has been caring for several colonies of cats for nearly nine years. Most stray cats are apprehensive of humans, but the cats Gorlin cares for recognize her and appear from the cracks and crevices of the alley near her house when she comes by to feed them.
Likewise, Alley Cat Allies, a national advocate of outdoor cats, notes that studies about the impact of feral cats are "irresponsible and biased," and that "the data has been manipulated to malign cats," according to their website.
Regardless of how TNR programs are perceived by outside groups, life for stray cats is indeed unpredictable and tumultuous.
“Life for stray cats is uncertain. The weather, certain predators . . . and starvation make their lives difficult,” Stephanie DeMoss of the Washington Humane Society’s Community Cats Program stated. Her sentiment reflects the urgency of the society's mission: to ensure that "people and animals live together with joy and compassion."
Rather than simply allowing feral cat colonies to grow exponentially and ignoring the problem, groups such as the Washington Humane Society, Animal Welfare League of Arlington, and Alley Cat Allies are dedicated to humanely approaching the problem. Aside from TNR, these groups also offer low-cost spay and neuter options to owners of both dogs and cats.
All stray or homeless animals – from dogs and cats to the occasional turtle or rabbit – face an unlimited number of uncertainties. Harsh weather conditions, disease, predators, and an array of dangers posed by humans – from car collisions to animal abuse – confront homeless animals each day.
Though the stray dogs of Sochi and the stray cats of Takoma Park aren't fundamentally that different, homeless animals in and around the District are fortunate enough to at least have a number of concerned groups and citizens working towards their well-being.
Stephanie DeMoss of the Washington Humane Society prepares traps to capture stray cats, which will be vaccinated, sterilized, and re-released. Last year, the WHS captured 2,000 stray cats as part of its TNR program, an effort to control the stray cat population in D.C. Vanessa, a 7-year-old Shih Tzu, vies for the attention of potential adoptees at a recent WARL adoption event in Georgetown.