Tuesday, August 16, 2011

History, the Dogcatcher, and Solutions

At one time, in America, we had farms across most of our land, and only a few towns with town squares and markets, and farmers drove good to market and bought stuff they could not grow or spin, and drove that home with them.  In those times, there were farm animals such as dogs and cats, who were working members of the farm community.  These dogs and cats patrolled to guard against vermin and against marauding fox and other predators, keeping cattle and henhouse safe and productive.  Then as America industrialized, more and more of our population moved to the towns and cities.  Tenements and boarding houses sprung up.  Immigrants teemed at our ports.  "Dogcatcher" became a job that towns needed, in order to keep stray dogs from spooking carriage horse teams and plundering town fruit stands or groceries.  Dogs caught by these dogcatchers met pretty gruesome ends (I'll spare you the details).

Today, we have largely eliminated those small, family farmsteads.  We have CAFOs (Commercial Animal Feeding Operations) that mass-produce sides of beef or pork and breasts of chicken from animals that never even see the sun or a field of grass.  With that commercialization come all kinds of issues from food deserts, to depleted nourishment in our diet, to a more cultivated view of some species of animals.  MOSTLY, today, people think of dogs and cats as pets.  People adopt or purchase a puppy or kitten, or older dog or cat, so that they have company at home, get exercise by walking the dog or playing with the dog or cat, and to help teach children about kindness and caring for others. 

The "dogcatcher" role, the need to keep animals from spoiling crops or eating up the profits of the family farm, has waned.  But in many respects, the attitudes of the organizations that did dogcatching, still prevail today in many animal control operations. 

Here in Prince George's County Maryland, we had a rural character to the area until relatively recent times.  This was horse country and tobacco country (and sometimes also corn field country).  Someone observed to me, that not so very long ago, "everyone who worked in Upper Marlboro at the County Administration Building had a farm."  And now, you'd be hard-put to find a soul that fits that description.  We are condominium dwellers, apartment tenants, or live in houses in suburban development tracts, with tiny lawns so that we get a great big house and not a lot of grass to bother mowing!

Most adults today can recall that when they were growing up, lots of families owned pets.  Often the pet was a dog, but some families owned both dogs and cats, and a few, particularly families living in apartments, had one or more cats as pets.  Even today, neighborhoods tend to be happiest and healthiest when neighbors know one another's children and pets.  We look after them for one another.  We'll see one another while out walking the dog, or we'll see the cat waiting at the doorway as we come home from work.  And if a pet goes missing, neighbors team up to look until the lost pet turns up again.

As recently as the late 1970s, in Prince George's County, people were not aware of cats in any great numbers living out of doors.  It is likely that there WERE some such cats, but because there were a lot of green spaces and green corridors (areas where animals can travel from one location to another without crossing roads or residences) we didn't know they lived among us.  Maybe their numbers were lower too.

In PG County, it was in the 1970s that humane organizations proliferated.  This was around the time that an animal control agency was created within the local government.  Apparently very shortly after the county began impounding animals found roaming, citizens grew concerned about the care of those animals.  Or at any rate, organizations began to form in which the care of animals was a point of discussion.

Today, Prince George's County impounds plenty of dogs, but also plenty of cats.  However, the philosophy of the agency remains that of a dogcatcher.  Humane groups are more or less unhappy with the level of care and attention given to dogs by the county.  And county bureaucrats placate leaders of humane groups with minor gestures such as letting them take dogs and puppies out of the impound facility and adopt them to the public, or permitting some special occasion gathering now and then that the county helps promote.

Although several of the humane groups seem to take dogs out and, somehow, manage to provide them with foster care in private homes, efforts at fostering for cats seem to not fare well in Prince George's County.  When you look at the current animal control ordinance, it doesn't seem to make fostering very appealing at all.  Add in the "pet limits" provisions, and if you foster a single pregnant animal, once that dog or cat gives birth, you're probably violating county ordinances (by having enough animals that once the litter reaches a certain age, you're above the pet limit).

By and large, humane groups have been complacent about the situation, whether because of those occasional bribes I mentioned, or because they just don't have expertise in what to do to voice opposition.  There is also a concerted "divide and conquer" approach that works in favor of animal control in the county.  By providing benefits to well-behaved organizations, animal control bureaucrats very effectively can control what programs and services county people have access to.

For many years, the scuttlebut has been that "feral cats are nasty" and "TNR, that's illegal" and "if you feed them, you own them" as far as neighborhood cats are concerned.  And that has been enthusiastically embraced by most humane groups.  It seems none of those groups ever bothered to look at what real people in our community were looking for help with.  Over and over again, you hear animal-lovers here say, "I found a kitten, and I want to help it, but I won't call the 'shelter' because I don't want it hurt."  (Dog lovers will also often temporarily provide housing and care for a stray, and advertise without reference to the pound, because similarly, they do not want the dog at risk of being killed for the "crime" of becoming lost.)

Across the United States, feeding bans have shown themselves not to work, to be unenforceable, and to be considered cruel.  It does not seem as if it's worked very well to scold citizens in PG county either.  When many of us were growing up here, you didn't see any cats roaming the shopping centers or neighborhoods.  That's changed today, however.  With a sharp eye, almost anywhere you go at the right time of the day you'll be able to spot one or more cats.  This is NOT because the county embraces feral cat programs or helpful cat ownership initiatives!  On the contrary.  There are many more cats outside, today, probably because of the overall neglect of cat welfare in the county. 

What animal control has done is that when someone complained loudly and long enough about cats somewhere, they'd be handed a box trap.  A citizen would awkwardly fool with this box trap a while, and might or might not catch a critter.  Sometimes it was an Oppossum.  Other times a Raccoon.  Sometimes the neighbor's pet cat out for the evening.  Rarely, a particularly hungry and unwary feral cat would be trapped.  The complaining citizen would feel she had done the right thing, the animal would be toted away (usually to be destroyed), and that, people would think, was the end of it.

But nature hates a vaccuum.  And where one animal out of the group has disappeared, that creates a vaccuum.  To fill it, the remaining cats breed, because they aren't spayed or neutered, in an UNMANAGED colony situation.  Where there once was ONE cat, now you had FOUR.  A typical litter is three to four kittens. Multiply this scenario by many times over many years, and you have a virtual population explosion of cats in neighborhoods without indoor homes!  In other words, by its ineffective and reactionary approach, Prince George's County Animal Control has NURTURED A PROBLEM RATHER THAN SOLVED ANY.

Sure, humane organizations have fought to keep pace over the years, fostering and re-homing pet cats and now and then assuming care for a kitten or a litter or one pregnant cat at a time.  But that's nothing compared to the population growth rate for the cats.  And where most humane organizations have turned away from neighborhood cat issues, citizens grew more and more frustrated.

Some of us decided, over the years, that either we should just "do our own thing," or that we should establish some kind of self-help resources.  The "do our own thing" crowd often have would up with several more unsocialized house cats than they initially wanted.  The folks who wanted to establish shared resources are now part of the PGFF TNR Program.  It's received grant funding from PetsMart Charities in the past, something no other county group achieved for work with community cats.  And PGFF has successfully stopped the breeding, addressed neighbor concerns, and increased the health of the neighborhood, cats and all, because we designed a program, to do just that.

It's almost funny that with their "in the industry" braggadocio, the county bureacrats have only a population boom to show, while the "amateurs" from our community, most of whom never worked in a pound or animal control unit, are providing the services to the public that are working.  I say "almost" because it is so tragic that animal control insists ITS way is the right way.

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