Posts Tagged ‘animal welfare’

Dogs vs. Cows

August 28, 2012 Leave a comment

While the battles of small animal welfare are never ending, they’re very rarely life threatening. Of the thousands of sick dogs and cats I’ve picked up, I almost never have to tell people that they should be worried about getting sick.

Folks dealing with large animals have things a little different. They still see the same owners mistreating their animals, but they also see the potential for an infected food supply, and therefore a hugely impacted public. No, the diseases they see won’t necessarily transmit directly to humans (though a few can). But they can wipe out a herd of cattle, and that can raise panic in the public and havoc in the economy.

Why am I writing about cows? Because for the past two weeks, I’ve been interning with the Arizona State Department of Agriculture’s Animal Services Division. Under the guidance of the State Veterinarian, I’ve learned about livestock issues and regulations. And what I’ve learned has both impressed me and worried me, because this department is in charge of securing our food supply, and they’re woefully under-equipped to do it. But despite their daunting task and limited resources, these folks remain cheerful and upbeat, reminding me that attitude really does impact productivity.

While the Animal Services Division is charged with the health and safety of some very big animals, their real battle is against microscopic ones. Viruses and bacteria—those little buggers keep trying to take over the planet. The fact that they don’t succeed is because of the combined efforts of a handful of inspectors, investigators, doctors, and scientists.

Controlling the chaos of impending disease requires the cooperation of so many agencies it made my head spin. The idea that government was not designed to be efficient was brought home to me again and again. And though it felt overwhelming, when I sat back and thought about it, I couldn’t come up with a way to make things more streamlined. After all, it’s not just cow safety here. It’s people safety too. Which means involving human health agencies, local and state law enforcement, veterinarians, doctors, laboratories, the press… It’s really an impressive conglomerate. More impressive is the way in which all these agencies work so well together to get everything done. Got a rabies scare? No worries—six government departments will have it solved in no time. I’ve never been a fan of technology for technology’s sake, but I have to say, thank God for email.

At the end of my two weeks, I was pleasantly surprised that despite keeping up with all the regulations and disease control, the people of the Animal Services Division haven’t forgotten that at the heart of their work are living creatures. I saw care and compassion from every person there. I saw a genuine interest in the health and wellbeing of cows, pigs, sheep, goats, and horses. And I saw a wealth of knowledge about them all.

I was also pleased to discover that whether you’re working with dogs or with cows, some things don’t change. You have to be able to read the animal you’re looking at, to know if it’s going to charge you. You have to be able to get creative with your budget, because no matter how much our society says they love animals of all sizes, they’re not quite willing to fund the agencies to the full extent. And you have to be able to connect with people in order to improve the lives of their animals.


Curiosity and Construction

A row of nails point fiercely at my eye as I peer down a darkened wall to a narrow space below. I’m wedged between a dusty shelf full of rusty hedge clippers and random pieces of plywood. If it were nearer to Halloween I’d suspect I was in a makeshift haunted house. If I were in Hollywood I’d suspect I was on the scene of the next Hostel movie. But neither of those is true. It’s springtime, and I’m in someone’s plain old shed in plain old Phoenix. And at the bottom of the crack into which I stare are two young kittens, trapped after falling down a few days ago. As long as I remember to stay on my tip toes, I manage to keep my eye just above the nails thrusting through the wall and threatening tetanus. And so, handicapped by space issues created by unthinking humans, I begin the task of rescuing animals from another human mess.

I am not an architect, engineer, professional organizer, or landscaper. But I have learned a little about those professions over the years of rescuing animals.

I have learned that attics are not segregated rooms above our ceilings. Rather they’re a continuation of the spaces between walls. And they’re not often sealed from the outside. To an outdoor cat, attics look like an ideal place to give birth to a litter of kittens. They’re quiet. They’re protected. They’re filled with fluffy insulation that makes a fantastic bed. But cats aren’t blessed with the concept of forethought. Attics make great nurseries until the kittens are old enough to start toddering around on unsteady legs. With heads equal in weight to the rest of their bodies and a line of site that doesn’t extend over the top of the insulation, newly walking kittens walk themselves right off the support beams and plunge down inside the walls of the house, unable to climb back out.

Chimneys, storm drains, irrigation tunnels. These are all similar versions of the same story. Fantastic hiding places for cats until… One wrong step as a cat excitedly chases a bug/bird/lizard and loses track of the gaping hole beneath them, and voilá, they’re stuck.

Dogs aren’t much better. Though less likely to pick a hiding spot due to safety reasons, dogs often let their curiosity get the better of them. In an attempt to see what’s happening on the other side of the block wall, dogs jam their heads through the tiny openings in the drainage block at the base of the fence, and then can’t get back out. Caught early enough, this is a fairly easy situation to correct, involving the strategic scrunching of skin and ears to slide them back through. But left for long and heads and necks begin to swell, and I have to chisel the dog out of the fence.

Like so many of the problems I face every day, these rescue scenarios are so easily avoidable. Chicken wire. Yep, simple chicken wire will prevent you from wondering if you’re losing your mind when you hear an animal crying from inside your walls or chimney. Chicken wire over the top of your chimney and over the access points to your attic. Chicken wire over your drainage blocks. No airflow is prevented or light diminished. But this simple pattern of honeycombed wire is just the right size and strength to keep animals out of places they’d rather not be.

Any time I move into a new home, I search the property for potential animal traps. And I do everything I can to fix those and prevent causing new ones. The last thing I want to discover is a cat/dog/bird/other in a place it doesn’t belong. Because I’d have no one to call for help but myself.

Categories: Pets Tags: ,

Cat’s Don’t Cry; They Give You the Finger

April 21, 2012 Leave a comment

Photo by Thepriest at nl

A disclaimer: I love cats. I think they’re the coolest species on the planet and I admire their independence. Consider any negatives mentioned here to be the equivalent of someone complaining about their own family: I alone am allowed to complain about my family. Other people are not allowed to complain about my family. And just because I do it, it doesn’t mean that I don’t love them. That said…

My neck is killing me. In the past two days I’ve spent over five hours looking straight up. Why? Because a cat named Indi*has spent the last five days stuck in a tree. Night after night he has kept the neighborhood awake with his pleading meows. And after several hours and all the equipment I could muster (including the local fire department), he is still stuck. Indi is not cooperating.

This is ultimately the nature of the cat. When it’s crunch time, cats have a tendency to look out for number one. Survival instincts kick in, and for a species that is still despised by so many humans, survival means keeping some distance from people.

What that means for Indi is that even though he desperately wants to be out of that tree, he’s not willing to work with me to make that happen. A ladder against the tree spooks him to go higher up. A long pole in the tree spooks him to go higher up. A human climbing the tree spooks him to go higher up. A can of tuna fish being opened at the base of the tree makes him look down and lick his lips. And then he goes higher up.

Indi’s response to climb isn’t as dumb as it sounds. He’s anatomically built to go up and not down. The curvature of his claws makes upwards movement a piece of cake. But it makes the downclimb impossible. (Imagine trying to go face first down a telephone pole with prosthetic hooks for hands.) Could he turn around and go backwards down the tree? Yes. But he doesn’t know that. And any animal used to being prey isn’t about to walk backwards into anything.

Being treed isn’t the only situation in which cats need help but don’t want it. I take a net with me to every cat call I respond to. A threatened cat is a dangerous cat. And if a cat can’t run away, he feels threatened. This therefore, applies to every cat I meet, since my job is to respond to sick, injured, or trapped cats. They are the masters of, “I don’t feel good so leave me alone.” Since I can’t morally leave them alone to wallow in their given woes, I have to scoop them into a net to avoid being shredded like confetti by their teeth and claws.

I don’t begrudge cats their attitudes. In fact, I find it generally endearing. I like their ingrained sense of stranger-danger. I like the fact that I have to practice patience and subtly in order to help them. I like the fact that I have no influence in their timeline. To cats, I surrender. I let go of my notions of time, space, noise, light.

But I try to block off their escape routes first.

As Indi stares down at me from sixty feet above, I try to remember all of this. But it’s tough. As the daily temperatures increase, my patience decreases. Come on, Indi, I think. Help a girl out. In response to my thoughts, he goes higher.

*name changed to protect the innocent

Categories: Pets Tags: , ,

The Downside to Declawing

April 9, 2012 Leave a comment

Despite the fact that many private-practice veterinarians will tell owners that declawing their cats will have no ill effects, shelter workers around the world have a different take. In our experience, cats who have been declawed have some pretty significant behavioral and emotional hurdles to jump over, and some of them just can’t make the jump. Those are the ones that we see in the shelters. And here’s why we see them.

They bit someone.

A cat’s usual line of defensive tactics goes something like this:

      1. Hiss.
      2. Swipe with the claws.
      3. Bite.

Take away their option to use step 2 and they’ll use step 3 instead. They bit someone because they were scared, threatened, or angry, and they didn’t have claws to help express those emotions. So they had to resort to using their teeth to get their point across.

They won’t use the litter box.

After having their claws (and first knuckle) removed, their feet were tender. Walking into a litter box filled with regular clay litter hurt. (Would you feel happy if your toes were just amputated and someone made you walk barefoot on a pebbly beach?) So they started associating the litter box with pain. Their solution: don’t walk in the litter box and they won’t be in pain.

In a shelter environment, cats are stressed to the maximum level, so these bad behaviors are likely to increase. Sometimes they even surface for the first time while at a shelter. I’ve seen cats do fantastic in their own homes after being declawed. In a comfortable and safe environment these guys can act just like any other cat. They’re loving and playful and a huge part of their families. But owners need to be aware of potential problems with this surgery, especially in a stressful situation. Often in shelters, these cats act out so much that it’s not safe to put them up for adoption. Which means that they have to be euthanized. It’s a horrible decision to make, but most shelters don’t have an environment within their facilities that allows cats to destress enough to change their aggressive behavior.

Options to declawing

For those owners who are fiercely protective of their furniture, you have options besides the drastic step of declawing your cat.

  • Give your cat something else to scratch on. Most cats love having a designated scratching post or two around the house. Experiment with different textures, angles, and lengths to find your cat’s favorite scratching surface.
  • Trim your cat’s claws. Yes, this involves a bit of labor on your part, but I’m talking very minimal work here. I trim my cats’ claws every one to two weeks, depending on how fast they grow. Now that they’re used to the procedure, it takes less than a minute per foot. Start slowly with a new cat to get them used to having their feet handled and in no time you can prevent those damaging daggers from getting ahead of you.
  • Deter your cat from being on furniture etc that you’ve deemed off-limits. There are motion-sensing devices that emit loud noise or that vibrate. There are sprays that smell bad to cats. There are a whole host of products specifically designed to help protect your furniture investment from being damaged and that won’t damage your cat.
Categories: Pets Tags: , , ,

Pets are a Privilege

March 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Juvenile hounds scramble for rare attention from their small pen.

Chile the pit bull is a year old this month. She has spent the last eight months of her life tied up in a backyard. Her life exists within a four-foot radius of dirt, excrement, and flies. She has a piece of plywood leaned up against a wall that serves as her only protection from sun, wind, and rain. A shallow plastic dish used to contain water but now just contains caked layers of dried mud. Chile gets excited when people come to visit her, which isn’t often, and tries to jump on them, craving contact and attention.

Chile’s owner is an overworked, underpaid single mother. When asked why her dog is living in such deplorable conditions, she sighs. The kids wanted a dog so she gave in. But they won’t take care of the dog now and she doesn’t have time. She can’t afford food for the dog, so it eats random table scraps that the kids toss out to it. But the family really loves the dog, so they don’t want to give it up. Kids ranging from thirteen to three years old cry at the thought of giving up beloved Chile.


For all those parents who assign their kids the job of caring for the family pet, wake up. Legally, morally, and financially, any pet in your household is your responsibility. Law enforcement will not cart your child off to jail for not feeding the dog. They will take you instead.

Pets can teach kids a lot. Responsibility, compassion, patience…the list goes on and on. Growing up with pets can build lifelong bonds with animals and family members and help mold kids into valuable members of society. But kids usually don’t learn these lessons on their own. It’s up to parents to remind them, guide them, and enforce the rules. Sometimes the lessons are tough to learn, traumatic even.

Surrounded by Chile’s family of crying kids and an exhausted parent, I remind them that sometimes, doing the right thing for a pet means giving her up. Living things can’t survive on love alone; they require food, water, and medical attention too. When families aren’t in a position to take care of the tangible aspects of life, then they need to make the tough decisions, for the sake of the pet. Forcing an animal to remain in miserable conditions for the sake of love isn’t fair, and it isn’t legal.

Humans seem to have a habit of missing things that are right in front of them. So pet owners, I ask you to see your situation with fresh eyes. If you find yourself in a position where you have to choose between food for the kids, or food for the pet, consider your options and find an outlet for your pet. If friends or family are unable to take on another mouth to feed, then seek out your local animal shelter.

No, Chile’s family won’t be able to keep track of her once they surrender her. No, the new adopter will not send them updates and holiday cards with pictures of Chile. But the family will be able to rest knowing that the shelter will do everything in its power to find an appropriate home for Chile. In her new home, Chile will receive proper nutrition, exercise, and medical attention. And of course, she will receive love.

The Ones We Don’t Forget

March 15, 2012 1 comment

You see me referring to “Fluffy” or “Fido” a lot here. That’s because we hardly ever get to learn the actual names of our patients. For the nameless thousands who haunt our dreams, their stories never leave our memories or our hearts.

1a.m. is a bad time to be hit by a car. I picked up a female white and tan pit bull with a severe femur fracture. The driver who hit her was long gone. She had soft, kind eyes. Despite her pain, she tried to wag her tail when she saw me. Her leg swelled and bruised at the fracture site as I watched, giving a hint of severe internal bleeding. I knew there was no doctor on duty to administer pain medication or treatment. My options were crushing: put her in a kennel to suffer with pain and possibly bleed to death until a doctor arrived in the morning; or euthanize this sweet dog to prevent her from having to suffer more. I sobbed at the thought of either.

Her condition continued to deteriorate en route and by the time I reached my shelter, she was very pale and depressed. I sat on the floor facing her, her front paw resting in my lap and her head on my knee. I knew she wouldn’t make it through the night. I injected euthanasia solution into her vein. Neither one of us moved after it was done. Her suffering was over. But my heart still ached for not being able to save her.

We may not be able to save them all. But we don’t forget them.

Arizona, the Land of Cats. Part 2: The Bystander

March 11, 2012 Leave a comment

You’re awakened every night for a week by yowling cats performing acts in your front yard from which you have to cover your toddler’s eyes. Despite the fact that you don’t own a cat, your yard has become a litter box. There are streaks of tomcat urine on your front door. And your car has little footprints and claw scratches on the hood. Is the neighborhood going to hell? Well, no. But your neighbor is feeding a colony of feral cats.

If you don’t like the cats around…

You’re not alone. Most of the neighborhood feels the way you do. And there are a few things you can do. But be aware that as long as someone in the neighborhood feeds the cats, you’ll never be completely rid of them.

Manage your property. Keep your property free of clutter. If the cats don’t find any place to hide on your property, they’re less likely to hang out there. To prevent the cats from using your yard as a litter box, experiment with different products. There are lots of cat-repellant products out there. Sprays are designed to smell bad to cats, discouraging them to come around. Garden spikes are small clear plastic spikes that you can cover your garden with to prevent cats from walking there. There are other tricks out there, so do your research and be prepared to put in some time. Some work for some cats but not others. You may have to try a few to find the right combination.

You’re allowed to humanely trap cats on your own property and remove them. But here’s the rub. No shelter will accept feral cats for free. Just as they’re a burden to your neighborhood, they’re a burden to the shelters, so shelters have started asking for funds to help with that burden. So call your local shelter before you start trapping to find out what the fees are. They may be too high for you to decide to trap all the cats and you may just decide to focus on a particularly troublesome kitty. You cannot take the cats out into the desert to release them. If you plan to release them anywhere other than to a shelter, you must release them into an environment to which they’re familiar. Basically, this means taking them to someone else’s neighborhood. While it solves your problem, it creates one for that neighborhood, which isn’t fair to them.

You cannot poison, shoot, or otherwise cause any harm to the cats. Squirting them with a hose on a warm summer day is okay. Drowning them is not.

Contact your city councilman. Or your congressman. Or the mayor’s office. The people who make the laws need to know that feral cats are a problem. Use your voice to make them aware of the problem. Ask for laws regulating the movement of cats. Maybe we need laws requiring that cats be licensed and neutered. Maybe we need laws that require cats to be indoor only, or contained to the owner’s property, like dogs. Government agencies are not likely to devote any funding to cats if they don’t have to. The only way to get them to respond to the cat problem is to pass laws that require them to respond.

No matter which side of the argument you find yourself on, remember that the other side exists. The cats are stuck in the middle of the human debate. So keep an open dialog going with your neighbors. Come together to develop a solution that works for everyone.