Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Labels: When They Don't Add Up

This is Nina. We met her her just days before she was put to sleep in a local shelter. Her temperament, according to breed standards (and, to our standards), was not only good, but, sublime. I would've given my eye teeth to have her in our program - She was that good. But, she wasn't kenneling well, so her time was up. And, sadly, we didn't have a foster home ready for her. The next weekend, she was euthanized and a shelter worker recorded her as untreatable - In other words, unadoptable.

I can't stop thinking about this dog. First, her home failed her, and then, the limitations of the shelter setting failed her. Even worse, her shelter notes - her obituary, if you will - labeled her in a way that implies that it was all her fault.

Untreatable. Unadoptable. Bad dog.

Why the label?

Shelters use labels so they can keep track of adoption and euthanasia numbers, including the reasons that animals are put to sleep. The labels are highly subjective though, and their meaning varies from shelter to shelter. According to the Asilomar Accords, the definitions for both “treatable-rehabilitatable” and “treatable-manageable” animals refer to those pets that can succeed with a standard of care “typically provided by reasonable and caring pet owners/guardians in the community.”

Would 'reasonable care' have made Nina 'treatable?' Absolutely!
But with high numbers of dogs pouring into shelter doors, limited resources for 'treating' their needs (exercise, in Nina's case), breed bias, slow adoption rates and increasing pressure to show reduced euthanasia rates, many shelters choose to mark larger dogs that aren't adopted or rescued as untreatable. Human-friendly pit bulls fall into that category ALL the time, especially if they kennel poorly, like Nina, or, if they react to other dogs or show interest in cats while at the shelter (ie, 'terrier traits').

To keep adoption rates high (big donors love high numbers) many focus energies on smaller, 'desirable' dogs that get adopted quickly. Some private shelters in CA even go so far as to travel out-of-county to find small desirables to fill their kennels, leaving their community pit bulls and other 'undesirables' behind. Good for the small dogs, bad for the Ninas.

The opposition to CA's mandatory spay/neuter Assembly Bill 1634 believes that dogs like Nina aren't plentiful enough to be considered a problem. Organizations like the UKC (United Kennel Club) have stated, "There is no firm evidence that California even has such an overwhelming surplus of unwanted dogs." Of course, we disagree. Physical evidence aside (just take a peek into any central valley shelter), we're guessing that the UKC is referring to the labeling practices that render our breed and other larger breed dogs as 'untreatable' when they claim that adoptable dogs aren't dying.

Dogs many consider to be 'undesirable' (those that are all or part pit bull, german shepherd, rottie, chow, akita) make up a good portion of the dogs that are put to sleep in CA shelters, and their numbers add up into an estimated half million pets destroyed in shelters each year.

The authors of the Asilomar Accords, which promotes the keeping of shelter records, did the right thing when they made their brave challenge to shelters to reduce the euthanasia of healthy and treatable companion animals in the United States. But the fact that we keep tripping over the word 'treatable' is a constant reminder: We aren't doing our job. We're still failing our companion animals.

If we had our way, Nina's obituary would read very differently. Instead of 'untreatable,' she was

"A good dog. Let down by humans."

Rest in peace, my beautiful friend.


Anonymous said...

Sweet Nina, hope you fond a resting place where there's no place for pain or sadness.

I also hope that your story may save other bullies.

Rest in peace dear.

Anonymous said...

Sigh, Poor NIna, I volunteer at the Sacramento City Shelter and unfortunately, we see so many dogs just like Nina....So deserving but often passed over for a home. As this blog so truly states, " A good dog. Let down by humans."

Anonymous said...

Thank you Donna for posting this. As animal control officer I see this happen all the time to wonderful dogs like Nina.It's a very sad reality.