Guest blog by ASPCA President & CEO Matt Bershadker
With somewhere between 5 and 7 million homeless animals entering U.S. animal shelters, it’s unconscionable to suggest, as one writer did in the Washington Post, that adopting a pet from an animal shelter is a bad idea. (See a comprehensive refutation from Washington Humane Society’s Lisa Lafontaine.)
But as ridiculous as anti-shelter arguments are, they reveal destructive myths about shelter animals that need to be called out every time they arise. I’m sharing some of the most persistent ones below, and have enlisted help from ASPCA shelter science experts to help dispel them.
Myth: The major reasons dogs end up in shelters is because they were seized in criminal cases, or were too aggressive to own safely.
More than half of all dogs and cats in shelters were received as strays, but that doesn’t mean by any stretch they’re automatically aggressive, come from abusive environments, or have medical challenges. What’s much more important than an animal’s history is its current behavior and medical status. This information is typically well-known and shared by shelter staff who’ve been caring for the animal.
Myth: Shelter animals are not as clean as pet store animals.
Not only is this untrue, but the conditions of many breeding facilities or puppy mills (which supply pet stores that sell dogs) are nothing short of horrific. Puppy mill operators may fail to remove sick dogs from their breeding pools. As a result, puppies from puppy mills sometimes come with congenital and hereditary conditions including epilepsy, heart disease, kidney disease, and respiratory disorders.
Puppies born in puppy mills are usually removed from their mothers at just six weeks of age, denying them critical socialization, and housed in overcrowded and unsanitary wire-floored cages, without adequate veterinary care, food or water. Make no mistake: Anything purchased at a pet store that sells animals—even supplies—is keeping this vicious industry in business.
Myth: Older cats and dogs will not bond with new owners.
Again, simply untrue. Age is not a determining factor in an animal’s affection toward humans or its ability to bond with them. Just ask anyone who’s adopted an older pet, visit a shelter and ask to see their older animals, or simply look into the face of an older dog or cat. Organizations like Susie’s Senior Dogs are trying hard to connect more senior animals with loving homes. Believe me, they’re ready for you.
Myth: A shelter animal should never be given as a gift.
To the uninformed, this may makes sense, but data shows otherwise. A scientific study we published last October found that 96 percent of people who received pets as gifts reported it either increased or had no negative impact on their attachment to that pet. Also, 86 percent of the pets in the study are still in their homes, a percentage roughly equivalent to that in standard adoption.
The survey also showed no difference in attachment based on whether the gift was a surprise or known in advance. This is supported by previous studies conducted in the 1990s and 2000, which found that pets acquired as gifts are actually less likely to be relinquished than pets acquired directly by an individual owner.
This misconception is particularly harmful because it not only prevents shelter animals from going into loving homes, but may drive potential adopters toward pet stores that almost always get their inventory from puppy mills.
Myth: Adopting big or very strong dogs is a bad idea if you have little children.
There’s no evidence that big dogs are more likely than small dogs to harm children. Chances are, you already know some very sweet big dogs, and if you don’t, the ASPCA or your local shelter would be happy to introduce you to one.
There’s been some recent debate about the inherent natures of pit bulls in particular, but again, there’s no evidence to show that pit bulls are more likely to cause harm to humans than any other breed. A dog's—any dog’s—behavior is a function of many factors, including breeding, socialization, training, environment and treatment by owners.
Myth: Getting animals from breeders is safer because the breeders know the animal’s bloodline and family history.
First know that, as a result of their breeding, purebred dogs very often have genetic disorders and medical issue predispositions, certainly no less often than shelter dogs. Also, while bloodlines and histories are useful tools to assess an animal’s value, they are limited in terms of predicting behavior. On the other hand, shelters are motivated to save lives and make strong matches. Some use science and sophisticated tools to appropriately pair up animals and owners, and are happy to share everything they know about each animal.
Good breeders are focused not on profit, but on the health and welfare of the individual animals they handle, and we applaud that. But the plain truth is you’re helping to save and protect more lives if you make adoption your first option, so please match your open home and open heart with an open mind.
In my job, I see a lot of pit bulls, whether at an Austin shelter, a rescue in Los Angeles, or here in our New York City offices, where we occasionally foster dogs from the ASPCA Adoption Center.
I look forward to each visit, not just because I'm typically greeted with a clownish grin, big open paws, and a wildly flapping tail, but because each pit bull I meet is also an individual, distinct character.
This is why prejudice against the pit bull breed, which is really a combination of many breeds,makes no practical sense.
This isn't just a rhetorical debate; the lives of millions of animals are at stake. So it's important to identify what we actually know about this maligned and often misidentified breed, as well as what we don't know.
We know, for example, that every dog—even dogs within the same breed—is different. That's what makes each unique, special and beloved by its human family.
We also know that dogs' personalities aren't based on just a single influence any more than our own personalities are. A dog's behavior is a function of breeding, yes, but also just as strongly affected by socialization, training, environment, and how it's treated by its owners.
Historically, some pit bulls were bred to fight other dogs. Early bulldogs, forbearers of the modern pit bull, were pitted against bulls, bears and other large animals. When these fights were banned in the 1800s, people turned instead to fighting their dogs against each other. But even these dogs, bred to be aggressive to other dogs, were not bred to be aggressive toward people, since fighting dogs must tolerate frequent handling by the humans who train and fight them. Meanwhile, other pit bulls were bred expressly for work and companionship.
Pit bulls have long been popular family pets, noted for their affection and loyalty, but you don't hear much about gentle, loving pit bulls in the media because a well-behaved dog doesn't make headlines.
In American shelters, you'll find lots of pit bulls—with lots of different personalities. What they share in common is a sad fate. Because shelters and animal control facilities take in more pit bulls than any other breed, innocent pit bulls are euthanized more often than any other kind of dog.
At the ASPCA, we've seen and we study many factors that contribute to behavior development in dogs, resulting in sharp behavioral variations—even between dogs of the same breed. A pit bull bred for generations to fight may not fight, just as a Golden Retriever bred for generations as a service dog may bite.
But there are consistent measures owners can take to prevent or curb aggressive dog behavior. For example, if you chain or tether your dog outside, and isolate it from humans, you increase the risk that it will develop aggressive behavior. We also know that early, positive behavioral conditioning, including socialization, is probably the best way to reduce the likelihood of aggressive tendencies in dogs.
Puppies that learn to interact and play with people and other dogs are less likely to show aggression as adult animals. Finally, we know that no matter its breed or background, every dog needs to be raised responsibly, including early socialization, proper training and supervision.
States across the country largely agree that targeting breeds serves no useful purpose. Currently, no statewide policies discriminate against certain dog breeds, and 18 states have taken the extra step to ban breed-specific legislation, or BSL, most recently South Dakota and Utah. Even the White House has weighed in against laws that target specific breeds. Last year, the Obama Administration put out a clear statement saying, "We don't support breed-specific legislation -- research shows that bans on certain types of dogs are largely ineffective and often a waste of public resources... the simple fact is that dogs of any breed can become dangerous when they're intentionally or unintentionally raised to be aggressive."
The statement also noted that the Centers for Disease Control concluded "the types of people who look to exploit dogs aren't deterred by breed regulations" and "it's virtually impossible to calculate bite rates for specific breeds."
The ASPCA supports breed-neutral dangerous dog laws that focus not on breed but on individual dog behavior, as well as laws that prohibit prolonged chaining and tethering, and legislation that holds dog owners accountable for the behavior of their pets.
Ask pit bull owners about their pets, and you'll hear the same things you'd expect from proud owners of beagles, retrievers, pugs, Labradors, or any blend among them. I encourage you to read about Domingo, Blue, and Spike through the words of loving owners who recently adopted those pit bulls from the ASPCA.
I've fostered a number of pit bulls over the years, many of whom were rescued from horrific cruelty. I'm reminded of Dawson, the white pit who was kept in a closet and beaten with weights; Taz, a brindle pit who was found in a dumpster in 2003; and Champ, a caramel-and-white pit who was being trained to fight. Each of them was loving, playful, loyal, and affectionate. And each was, at one time, on a short and certain path to sadistic abuse or euthanasia, but is now in a loving home.
Not every dog is a good match for every prospective owner, so educate yourself before adopting. Compare a dog's need for exercise with your availability to take it on frequent walks and runs. Compare its medical requirements to your ability to provide that care. And compare its behavior, as documented and explained by shelter staff, with your family's ability to maintain and manage that behavior. When taking in a new pet, ask questions, consider potential challenges, and remember that small children should never be left unsupervised around animals.
Understanding dog behavior, providing dogs with the care they need and the supervision expected by family and neighbors—these are the best ways to keep pets and people safe, to celebrate the joy pets bring to our lives, and to end the myths that unfairly and tragically cost so many their lives.
Not all families will open their homes to a pit bull, but I hope many will open their minds.
Most of us find acts of animal abuse so shocking and horrific that the thought alone makes us wince. But most is not all, and judging by recent acts of deliberate, depraved cruelty in our own backyard, we’re disturbingly far from all.
In May, King, a one-year-old male cat, was lured over by a young Brooklyn man and then brutally kicked 20 feet into the air as he and his friends laughed. We know this because one of those friends recorded the moment in a video that was posted on Facebook on May 5, prompting a strong and justified public outcry. With help from the North Shore Animal League and other rescuers, King was soon located, and the New York Police Department brought him to the ASPCA Animal Hospital on May 6. He was immediately given medical and behavioral care and made a full recovery.
Another cat, Quattro, was much less fortunate. On May 7, in Paterson, N.J., Quattro was allegedly tortured by three children, all under 12. According to news reports, the kids threw bricks, stones and sticks at the cat. After older children rescued Quattro from the abuse, he was cared for at Chance at Life Cat Rescue, a local animal rescue group. Suffering from broken legs, a broken jaw, a fractured eye socket and head trauma, Quattro was euthanized on May 15 to end his suffering.
These are not isolated acts of cruelty. Just look at each of the previous three months.
In April, Roxie, a young Rottweiler, was brought to the ASPCA after being slashed, stabbed and dumped in a trash can. Roxie is receiving medical treatment at the ASPCA.
In March, Otis, a young pit bull mix, was brought to our animal hospital by the NYPD after he was abandoned in upper Manhattan. A veterinary examination determined that the dog had multiple blunt force trauma injuries and multiple fractures. Otis is continuing to undergo daily rehabilitation exercises.
And in February, a 13-week-old goldendoodle puppy named Miley was seized by the NYPD and brought to the ASPCA Animal Hospital. Although the dog’s caretaker claimed she fell down stairs, a veterinarian who examined the puppy observed a number of injuries more consistent with being kicked or thrown. Miley was fortunately able to make a full recovery in our care. She was adopted shortly thereafter.
Sometimes, acts of cruelty stir such attention and outrage that positive change results. I think of Justin, a cat who was lit on fire just over a year ago in Philadelphia. Though he lost his ears, Justin recovered and is now a symbol for the horrors of animal cruelty, but also for the perseverance of animals and humans to overcome it. Justin has over 135,000 fans on his Facebook page and frequently makes public appearances to bring attention to pet welfare issues.
I also think of Patrick, a pit bull who was found near death at the bottom of a Newark apartment building’s trash chute in 2011. Weighing less than 20 pounds when he was found, Patrick recovered and is the inspiration for New Jersey’s “Patrick’s Law,” signed last year by Gov. Chris Christie. The law increases penalties for animal cruelty offenses in the state.
Both Patrick and Justin were inducted into the 2014 New Jersey Veterinary Medical Association’s “Animal Hall of Fame,” and I was honored to meet them and their caretakers at the Animal Welfare Federation of New Jersey’s annual conference back in March.
But to truly end animal cruelty, we need to look beyond institutional remedies in our government and courts. The truth is, longer prison terms and stiffer penalties – while absolutely necessary as law enforcement tools – are less effective when it comes to stopping suffering as it happens or even earlier.
To make necessary and meaningful change, we can look to the histories of other social causes.
Drunk driving laws have been on the books since the early 1900s, but without a reliable way to measure sobriety and – more importantly – a public outcry for such laws to be strongly enforced, there was no momentum to abide by or to enforce them. Just consider the phrase “one for the road.” But in the early 1980s, Candy Lightner and her organization, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, put intense public pressure on state and local governments to effect change, which shifted attitudes. As a result, arrests went up more than 220% from 1970-1986, and the number of drunk driving deaths in America has been cut in half since Mothers Against Drunk Driving was founded in 1980.
Now consider domestic violence, which, for decades, was seen as a family matter, and at worst, a man’s prerogative. Things only started changing toward the end of the 20th century, when the women’s movement and domestic violence victim advocates exposed the pressing need for life-saving laws and dedicated law enforcement. By 2005 non-fatal domestic violence incidents were reduced by nearly 50%. There was also a 51% increase in the reporting of domestic violence. It all started with people – regular people, like me and you – putting these issues on the forefront of our national consciousness.
I believe these two examples and others illustrate a roadmap for those of us who care about animal welfare. At the end of that road, animal cruelty will not be the problem just for people who care about animals, but a problem for everyone who believes a civilized society has inherent and necessary standards of humanity. Basically, if we can evolve societal attitudes about drunk driving and domestic violence, why can’t we spark a continual evolution of thoughts and values on animal cruelty?
So how do we get there?
One step we must take is to strongly encourage the public to report animal cruelty, just like we encourage them to report suspicious packages or people. Having accessible, visible avenues to report animal abuse – strongly supported and promoted by the media, community, law enforcement, and within the family – not only saves lives but reinforces the message that animals deserve our concern and protection.
If the older neighborhood kids who intervened in the torture of Quattro knew enough to step in, then anyone can do the same, regardless of age or background. You don’t need a degree in veterinary science or animal welfare experience to spot and stop animal cruelty – for most of us, that sensitivity is built into our internal values.
Here in New York City, thanks to our in-depth partnership with the NYPD, anyone can dial 311 to report suspected animal abuse (or 911 to report crimes in progress). The NYPD is trained to respond and investigate. Here are more ways to report animal abuse where you live.
The next step is to share these stories. We know pets have a unique ability to move all kinds of people. I believe King, Quattro, Roxie, Otis, Miley, Patrick, Justin, and the thousands of other victimized animals they represent across the country can still make a deep impact on a closed mind or a callous attitude. And one open mind leads to another, and another.
We may never live in a world where every animal is treated humanely, compassionately and respectfully, but that doesn’t mean we should ease up on our vigilance. If anything, we need to double down on our efforts – in legislation, in our courts, and in law enforcement– but even more so in our social circles, which are becoming wider and wider by the minute.
Our animals deserve it, and our humanity demands it.
It’s not uncommon—though frankly still bizarre—to see live and personified chickens in fast food commercials that encourage their own processing and consumption (Saturday Night Live illustrated that bizarreness well in a 1993 parody).
But even more disturbing are recent ads that celebrate specific and unquestionably cruel chicken raising practices. Clear cases of abject animal suffering are being played for laughs, but you can bet real chickens don’t think it’s funny. And nor should we.
Take the latest Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s spot “Large Breasts” for their Big Chicken Fillet Sandwich. In it, chickens walk around with their breast areas blurred, as an announcer explains, “The FCC prohibits showing large breasts on television…unless, of course, it's in a sandwich. Introducing the biggest, tastiest chicken breasts in fast food.”
The alarming truth about big chicken breasts, as explained in our “The Truth About Chicken” campaign, should inspire repulsion, not rejoicing.
These days, chickens intended for consumption are strategically bred to maximize the amount of breast meat, even at great—sometimes fatal—cost to their welfare. Thanks to a horrific combination of selective breeding and rearing practices, most of today’s chickens are growing at a rate three times faster than they were 60 years ago. The clean, healthy, chickens you see in that commercial bear very little resemblance to actual broiler chickens ultimately winding up on your tray or in your bag.
This rapid and unnatural growth rate strains their hearts, lungs and bones. Unable to support their massive bodies, many have trouble standing, and spend much of their lives lying in their own waste with open sores and wounds.
In some cases, the birds’ breasts grow to such extreme sizes that they can suffer from conditions like “green muscle disease,” in which parts of the breast muscle dies and rots from lack of circulation, even while the chicken continues to live. As our campaign explains, there are better, more humane ways to raise chickens.
Another perplexing new parody comes from Burger King, called “Subservient Chicken.” In it, a formerly popular chicken—actually, an actor in a chicken suit—faces hard times, ultimately finding itself in a satirical cockfight.
The satire isn’t designed to enlighten audiences about animal fighting; it’s designed to sell more chicken sandwiches. In May, while the ad was portraying cockfighting as a light, comical occurrence, we were in Virginia, assisting authorities in raiding a major cockfighting ring involving more than 500 birds. Just last February, we assisted with the sheltering of as many as 4,000 roosters and hens associated with cockfighting in the largest cockfighting case in New York State history.
Cockfighting is crueler than you might think. Injuries include punctured lungs, broken bones and pierced eyes. Gaffs—long, dagger-like attachments—are attached to the birds to make them more deadly, and steroids or other drugs are often administered to make the birds more aggressive.
At the triumphant end of the Subservient Chicken commercial, our resurrected hero, now named “Chicken Big King,” finds himself not only back in the spotlight, but “back with Burger King’s new sandwich, aptly named Chicken Big King.”
So Chicken Big King is back…and wants people to eat him for lunch. Still bizarre.
In a civilized society, whether its members eat chicken or not, people shouldn’t tolerate animal abuse anywhere, for any reason. Selling more sandwiches is no justification for minimizing or lampooning abject suffering, even if the effect is inadvertent, or exists because not enough people are aware these funny fictions are actually real-life cruelties.
Fast food gives people the opportunity to buy cheap chicken. As you watch these commercials, I only ask that you consider the price chickens are paying as well.
Nearly 150 years ago, ASPCA founder Henry Bergh stopped a cart driver from beating his horse, resulting in the first successful arrest for horse mistreatment on April 26, 1866. Protecting horses has been a core part of our mission ever since, but we also rely on a strong public voice—people playing direct roles in their communities and through government to save these majestic, loving animals from cruelty and neglect.
This commitment is the driving force behind Help a Horse Day, our nationwide contest on April 26 awarding five $10,000 grants to equine rescues and sanctuaries that succeed in saving lives and raising awareness about at-risk horses. More than 80 groups in 32 states are participating—probably some near you. Their ideas include parading rescued horses down a local main street, having a community “horse wash,” running a horse-themed carnival, and hosting a rally on the steps of a state capitol.
Behind these celebrations is a sad truth: Thousands of equines become homeless each year through no fault of their own, and many end up at livestock auctions where they’re purchased for slaughter overseas. Last year, more than 144,000 American horses were sent to cruel deaths by foreign industries that produce unsafe food for consumers.
This is why ending horse slaughter has been one of our strongest recent campaigns. While the practice is effectively banned in the United States, there’s still more we can do to permanently ensure no horses are slaughtered here, or sent overseas for slaughter. You can help by actively supporting the Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act, bipartisan legislation that would end the export of American horses for slaughter abroad, once and for all.
Americans overwhelmingly disapprove of the slaughter of U.S. horses for human consumption, and it’s no wonder. These are typically young and healthy animals that could go on to live productive lives. Instead, they’re often transported without food, water, or rest in dangerously overcrowded trailers. Some are seriously injured or killed in transit. The slaughter process is also inherently cruel, as horses are difficult to stun properly and may be repeatedly injured or stabbed during the procedure.
Horse soring—nothing short of the deliberate infliction of pain—is another reprehensible practice that requires our immediate attention and action. Soring is when trainers use purposefully painful methods, including filing hooves down to the nerve and inserting sharp objects into the hooves, to force horses to exaggerate their gait with high strides. You may have seen this at exhibitions and contests, but that high step is actually the horse’s flinching attempt to avoid pain. Some contests actually reward this tragic training with medals and ribbons.
Finally, there’s the equine event we’re all familiar with: horse racing. However you feel about the sport, there’s no denying that the use of performance-enhancing drugs is unacceptable. The Jockey Club, the organization that maintains the breed registry for all thoroughbred horses in North America, released a study which determined that racehorses in the United States die at a rate twice that of any other country. Horse welfare advocates know that lax drug rules are partly responsible, and have called for a ban on drug use for horses on race day, including a permanent ban for repeat offenders. Unlike human athletes, horses have no say in what’s injected into them for the purpose of glory and human profit.
Unscrupulous trainers take full advantage of America’s weak legal protections for horses, routinely and repeatedly violating medication rules. While the European Union, the Middle East and Japan all ban the use of drugs for horses on race days, the United States has no uniform rules on the practice.
Again, there’s good legislation waiting in the wings; all it needs is strong public support. The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act would prohibit the use of performance-enhancing drugs in horse racing and improve the safety and integrity of the sport. The bill would also create “one and done” and “three strikes, you’re out” penalties for strong enforcement. Learn how you can help protect racehorses by supporting this legislation.
Our commitment to horses is steadfast, and takes more forms than words alone. Last year, the ASPCA awarded $1.4 million in grants to support equine rescues and sanctuaries in 43 states and the District of Columbia. The grants were primarily awarded as part of the ASPCA Equine Fund, which provides life-saving resources including financial help, in-person and online training, and sharing of best practices to non-profit equine welfare organizations in America.