It’s impossible to determine how many stray dogs and cats actually live in the United States. According to the Humane Society, between six and eight million pets end up in shelters each year; three to four million of them are euthanized. (The good news is that about the same number are adopted by new owners—and about 30 percent of shelter dogs, and two to five percent of cats, are reclaimed by their original owners.)

Certainly the need for animal shelters remains strong, especially in areas hard hit by foreclosure and unemployment. “On some weekends we take in more than 100 animals, between owner surrenders and strays,” says Gail Luciani, chief officer, public relations and outreach, for the Pennsylvania SPCA.

Modern shelters have evolved considerably from their origins in the “pounds” of 16th-century England. “Many parish churches had a Whipper, whose duty it was to corral unruly dogs that had followed their masters to services. The dogs were kept in a fenced-in area under his supervision,” explains Michael Moyer, Rosenthal Director of Shelter Animal Medicine and adjunct associate professor of shelter medicine. “In one parish, the position came with a free flat, so it was a fairly desirable” job. In colonial times, pound masters rounded up and detained wandering livestock until their owners reclaimed them for a fee. “Since these animals had economic value, most farmers were willing to pay the price for their release.”

The first animal-welfare organization in the US, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), was founded in 1866. Initially, its predominant focus was on the mistreatment of horses and other working animals. In 1874, the Philadelphia-based women’s branch of the Pennsylvania SPCA became the first animal-welfare organization established to focus on the humane treatment of shelter animals.

They had their work cut out for them.

As the number of free roaming dogs and cats became an issue of public safety (rabies and distemper vaccines were not mandated until the 1960s), cities implemented the pound system to round up strays—most of which were euthanized, frequently by clubbing or drowning, says Moyer.

“Up until the late 1970s, the veterinary community had little input into the management policies of shelters,” says Lila Miller, vice president of veterinary outreach at the ASPCA and adjunct assistant professor of shelter medicine. “Instead of focusing on providing humane veterinary care and treatment to the animals, the energies of many shelters revolved around providing a humane death for the many animals that were not reclaimed or adopted.”

Further complicating the tensions between animal control and animal welfare, many cities award contracts for animal control to municipal shelters. This model was challenged beginning in 1993, when the San Francisco SPCA relinquished its city-awarded contract for animal control to focus on ending the euthanasia of adoptable animals, giving birth to the “no-kill” movement.

The debate is far from settled and frequently pits open-admission shelters, which must accept every animal, against those that have the means to rehabilitate and re-home the animals they take in. In many ways, however, the dispute has been beneficial. “Despite the rift in the animal welfare community, the result of the debate has been a concerted effort by shelters and communities across the county to reduce the number of adoptable animals that are euthanized by focusing on programs that increase adoptions and reduce relinquishments and the number of unwanted animal births,” Miller says.

Veterinarians have played a part in this sea change, as many veterinary schools, including Penn’s, have begun to offer courses in shelter medicine. Since 2002, Penn Vet has spayed adoptable dogs in partnership with the city. (Many of the students who spay shelter dogs as part of their junior surgery course end up adopting them.)

In 2006, Moyer began offering a senior elective, Introduction to Shelter Medicine, that includes a surgery rotation. “Fourth-year students get true hands-on experience in all aspects of shelter medicine,” he explains. “They do surgeries at the shelters and administer vaccinations and wellness exams as part of the intake protocol.” In addition, they cover such topics as pet animal overpopulation, forensic medicine, infectious disease control, behavior problems and evaluations, wellness and animal cruelty, neglect, and hoarding.

The course is the second most popular elective and exposes students to an important aspect of urban veterinary medicine, Moyer adds. “At the very least they handle shelter animals and learn the importance of pro bono work in the practice of any veterinarian.”

Along with the emergence of shelter medicine as a career option for veterinarians, another factor helping to raise the quality of veterinary care in animal shelters across the country has been a societal shift in attitudes toward pets that has been evolving over the last century. “We’ve seen a linear explosion in pet populations in Western countries over the last 40 years,” James Serpell, director of Penn’s Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society [“Saving the Animal Planet,” May|June 2000], recently told New York magazine. “People are living more isolated lives, are having fewer children, their marriages aren’t lasting. All these things sort of break down to a social network and happen to exactly coincide with the growth in pet populations. I think that what’s happening is simply that we’re allowing animals to fill the gap in our lives.”

At the same time, animal shelters have made concerted efforts to make their animals adoptable. Many now screen pets for behavioral issues and work hard to match animals with suitable owners. Foster and rescue operations for most purebred dogs provide a stable pipeline out of the shelter system. “There has been a larger conversation about the fate of animals in general and dog lovers, in particular, have become engaged,” notes Moyer. “Within the last five to 10 years, shelters have finally realized that the public is a market, not the enemy.”—K.L.F.

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FEATURE: A Double Reward by Kathryn Levy Feldman
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