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Members of the California Animal Welfare Association Want to Kill More Dogs
In support of a Petition for Rehearing filed with the Court of Appeal, groups like Best Friends Animal Society, American Pets Alive (Austin Pets Alive), Maddie’s Fund, the San Francisco SPCA, the National Animal Control Association, Petco Love, and others — in and through the California Animal Welfare Association, their lobbying group — are asking the Court to reverse its recent ruling in favor of dogs and their rescuers and allow shelters to kill more dogs.
As The No Kill Advocacy Center reported,
In a lawsuit by rescuers against the Los Angeles County pound, the Court of Appeal unanimously ruled that California shelters cannot kill animals rescue groups are willing to save by claiming those animals have “behavioral problems.”
Specifically, the court ruled that “the County lacks discretion to withhold and euthanize a dog based upon its determination that the animal has a behavioral problem or is not adoptable or treatable.”
The Court of Appeal decision is both legally sound and ethically justified.
But groups like Best Friends Animal Society, American Pets Alive (Austin Pets Alive), Maddie’s Fund, the San Francisco SPCA, the National Animal Control Association, Petco Love, and others — in and through the California Animal Welfare Association, their lobbying group — are supporting the County of Los Angeles which petitioned the California Court of Appeal to reverse its recent ruling in favor of dogs and their rescuers and allow shelters to kill more dogs. And they are being dishonest with the Court of Appeal as to why by:
Misrepresenting the ability of shelter staff to determine whether a dog is aggressive;
Misrepresenting the motivations of shelter employees;
Rehashing arguments made in opposition to Hayden’s enactment in the first place, which were rejected by the Legislature in 1998, disproven in the years since, and not the province of the courts;
Claiming that shelters will be forced to give “dangerous and vicious” dogs to rescue organizations, even though “dangerous and vicious” dogs are explicitly exempt from the rescue rights mandate; and,
Scare tactics. Despite fear-mongering about vicious dogs, there are no studies or other evidence to support their assertions of danger to public safety, the shelters cite none in their request to the Court of Appeal, and there was no evidence of any such threat in the record of the lawsuit.
The Hayden Law
In 1998, the California Legislature passed SB 1785, commonly called the “Hayden Law,” to reduce killing in animal “shelters.” Among the many provisions to achieve that goal was a prohibition against killing animals that non-profit rescue organizations were willing to save. Despite the opposition of virtually every shelter in California, including the County of Los Angeles, the bipartisan bill — sponsored by a Republican Assemblymember and Democratic Senator — overwhelmingly passed and was signed into law by then-Governor Pete Wilson. It made no sense to senators and assembly members from both parties that bureaucrats were killing animals at taxpayer expense, who, at private cost, had an immediate place to go.
The Legislature also enacted three exceptions to the rescue rights provision: dogs with a history of vicious behavior, irremediably suffering animals, and orphaned kittens and puppies needing supplemental care who were impounded without their mothers.1
Although Bruce Wagman, the attorney for the California Animal Welfare Association, writes that the decision will allow the release of known dangerous and vicious animals, such animals are explicitly exempted from the right of rescue.2
What the law does not allow is for pounds to kill dogs by simply claiming they have “behavior” problems. The Legislature considered giving pound employees that power but rejected it because it would have created an exception that swallowed the rule. Vindictive employees could deem animals “unadoptable” to retaliate against rescuers who expose inhumane conditions — as frequently happens in states without rescue rights legislation. This would eliminate the whistleblower protections of the rescue rights provision and eviscerate legislative lifesaving intent.
Before enactment of the law, regressive pounds like Los Angeles County and others punished rescuers who exposed cruelty in shelters by firing them or killing the animals they wanted to save. In one case, a Southern California shelter manager killed a mother cat and kittens as a show of vindictive force:
I went to the shelter because I was told they had a mother cat and four kittens that they had scheduled to be killed even though they were healthy. When I arrived to pick up the cat and kittens, the shelter manager asked to see me. She told me that a member of our rescue group wrote a letter complaining about the shelter to the Board of Supervisors and that they didn’t appreciate it. She told me I could therefore only have one kitten. I begged her to let me take them all, but she said that I couldn’t. She told me to pick one and she was going to euthanize the rest, including the mother cat. I didn’t know what to do. And so I picked. My hand was shaking as I filled out the paperwork. After I got the kitten, I went outside and sat in the car. Then I threw up all over myself.
In another case, when a rescuer went public about neglectful staff allowing a dog in its custody to die of starvation (“marked emaciation”) and untreated pneumonia, Marcia Mayeda, the director of the Los Angeles County pound, fired the rescuer. (The No Kill Advocacy Center sued, and the court ordered her reinstated.)
Most Dogs Labeled “Behavior” Are Normal
An exception is also unnecessary. Studies prove that most dogs labeled “behavior” in shelters have nothing wrong with them as “surrenders often say more about the people doing the surrendering — about ‘owner-related factors, needs, and expectations’ — than the dogs being surrendered.” Instead, these dogs are being surrendered because of lifestyle incompatibilities with the person they lived with.
Research also demonstrates that “Even in well-managed and funded facilities, dogs are likely to encounter an array of stressors including noise, unpredictability, loss of control… disruption of routines,” and unfamiliar people and surroundings. Without rigorous efforts to remedy these issues, such as through intensive enrichment programs, which most California Animal Welfare Association members do not provide, as many as eight out of 10 dogs fail their behavior evaluation. By contrast, these dogs will likely pass if provided enrichment, including those initially deemed “potentially quite dangerous.” As such, many dogs capable of being safe, dependable pets are wrongly labeled as “behavior,” “aggressive,” and “unadoptable.”3
Even in well-managed shelters, however, it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine whether a dog will be aggressive outside of the shelter based on behavior inside the shelter. Studies prove that “displaying concerning or dangerous behavior was not significantly associated with return to the shelter, and positive predictive values were low, implying that many positive tests will be false positives.” Indeed, there is “no evidence that any canine behavior evaluation has come close to meeting accepted standards for reliability and validity.”
Some tests were wrong more often than they were right — essentially “no better than a coin toss” — which should not be surprising since the tests rest on a “fatally flawed” premise: “that the provocations used at a single time during a dog’s stressful experience in a shelter will predict future behavior at a different time and place.” In general, dog behavior evaluations — or “temperament tests” — are ineffective and lead to unnecessary killing. Not surprisingly, researchers have called for ending their use.
Unmotivated and Unskilled Shelter Staff
In addition to flawed testing methods, there is the perverse motivation of many of those making the determinations. A study found that animal shelter managers often oppose efforts to reduce killing — indeed, “attempting to find alternative methods to this type of unwanted animal ‘solution’ really was seen as challenging the dominant paradigm” and discouraged. As such, managers tend to hire people who do not care about animals because caring workers try to improve conditions, and when they are prevented from doing so, they quit:
I find the best employees here are the ones that have done some normal work outside, like worked for McDonald’s [and] realize, ‘Hey, you do as you’re told, you get on with it, you follow the procedures, and you don’t make up your own mind [about how to do the work and whom to save]’.
The study also determined that most pounds operated without guidelines and were haphazard in deciding which animals to kill. Instead, killing decisions often depended on the whims of individual staff, some of whom looked for reasons to do so. For example, a study examined whether existing research into what dogs need for good welfare while housed in kennels led to policy improvements in shelters. Study authors found that it did not.
While research demonstrated that socialization and exercise were vital to dogs in kenneled environments, staff and managers were most likely to support “limiting social opportunities for dogs housed in kennel environments,” even though doing so undermines dog welfare.
These beliefs put dogs at risk: “What people believe is important will influence their behavior, with direct relation to care provided to animals.” And given inconsistent, unenforced, and, in many cases, non-existent regulations that mandate a commitment to dog welfare, what dogs need “may not be successfully translating into evidence-based changes in industry practice.”
Of course, employees overwhelmingly claimed they were concerned about the welfare of dogs, as Mr. Wagman claims about California Animal Welfare Association members. One would not expect them to say otherwise. They also said, however, that dogs in kenneled environments were not at risk for poor welfare and didn’t need socialization. This finding is tragic, though perhaps not surprising, for staff in kennel environments where dogs are mere “things” to serve human ends or to maximize profits, such as laboratories and breeding operations. Unfortunately, these findings also apply to animal “shelters” where dog protection, dog welfare, and treating dogs kindly are supposed to be the mission.
At the Los Angeles pound at the center of the lawsuit, animals have been starved to death, cats have contracted panleukopenia because they were not given an examination, treatment, or vaccinations on intake, animals have been left with torn ears and gouged eyes without rehabilitative care, and animals have been warehoused in filthy conditions. There’s more: staff physically assaulting animals and staff clocking in and then going home, getting paid for sleeping during their shifts while animals are sick, dirty, and hungry.
And on a day that staff called “Spinal Monday,” a volunteer found a rabbit in a back room outside of public view suffering from an exposed spine and being cannibalized by other rabbits. A subsequent investigation uncovered that the rabbit had been left alive in her cage for one week in that condition. Also discovered in the cage were a dead rabbit, his decomposing body covered with flies, and another rabbit with an eye popping out of his socket, who was being attacked by the others. None of these animals had food or water. Employees claimed to be unaware of these conditions, even though they were required to clean the cages daily. Out of sight is out of mind for staff. During an unannounced visit to the same facility two years later, attorneys from The No Kill Advocacy Center found filthy rabbit cages and empty water bowls, apparently once again “forgotten” in an out-of-the-way back room.
Given this disconnect between what animals need and how many shelters are run, we need to stop assuming that managers and staff at poorly performing shelters are there because they love animals and are passionate about doing what is best for them, as these groups ask us — and the California Court of Appeal — to pretend.
Rescue Rights Laws are Consistent with Animal and Public Safety
The California rescue law — when followed — has been an unqualified success, resulting in a nearly 700% increase in lifesaving — from 12,526 animals a year before the law went into effect to 99,783. That increase corresponds with yearly cost savings of $4,450,107 for killing and destroying remains.
A study that analyzed more than 11 years of data also found no evidence to support the notion that the California rescue rights law posed a threat to public safety. This conclusion contradicted the arguments made to the Legislature at the time of Hayden’s passage, which these groups are now rehashing to the Court of Appeal. Instead, the study provides ample evidence that the law saves many dogs and is doing so safely and effectively.
Likewise, a study of a rescue rights ordinance in another state found that while the placement of dogs climbed from 69% to 98%, the percentage of dog bites deemed moderate or severe declined by 13%, with the most significant decline in the number of bites classified as “severe,” which fell by 89%. The study concluded that the legislation was not only consistent with public safety but also improved it, noting positive impacts on “public health, social capital, and community engagement,” all of which have “important implications for [a city’s] ability to promote and sustain the health and well-being of both its human and non-human animal residents.”
But Los Angeles County managers stopped following the law and claimed they could kill any animals based on a claimed “behavior” issue, including dogs like Bowie. When Bowie — a 10-pound, three-month-old terrier — was surrendered to the Los Angeles County pound, the family informed staff that they could not keep him because of their landlord’s no-pet policies. Bowie was terrified, but no staff members socialized him while he sat at the shelter for over three weeks in one of the country’s wealthiest and most cosmopolitan communities. No one walked him. No one showed him the compassion and kindness that studies prove make a life-and-death difference. Instead, Bowie sat in a cage by himself, locked away from public view.
Still, Bowie had an out. A rescue group offered to take him, train him, and find him with a loving home. It would be of no use. The same day they expressed interest in Bowie, the shelter — which labeled him “behavior” and “unadoptable” — killed him. The rescuer who offered to save him was devastated, calling it a “gut punch.” And instead of a new beginning, the little dog who should have had his whole life ahead of him, who never tried to bite, who posed no threat to anyone, was injected with an overdose of poison and turned to ash. He was barely 15 weeks old.
With the Petition for Rehearing, groups like Best Friends, American Pets Alive (Austin Pets Alive), Maddie’s Fund, the San Francisco SPCA, the National Animal Control Association, Petco Love, and others are arguing that is how it should be. And if the Court grants the appeal, this much is certain: more dogs like Bowie will die. And more rescuers will be punched in the gut.
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In Los Angeles County, which had falsely claimed that most animals, including those with highly treatable conditions such as cats with diarrhea and conjunctivitis, were “irremediably suffering,” a lawsuit by The No Kill Advocacy Center resulted in a judicial determination that irremediable suffering requires a medical condition causing severe, unremitting physical pain despite prompt and necessary veterinary care.
The attorney also knows that the Court’s job is to interpret the language of the statute, not substitute its policy judgment for that of legislators. The Court of Appeal did that correctly, as it is a fundamental canon of statutory construction that when a legislature sets out enumerated exceptions to a policy, a court’s inquiry is at an end: it cannot add others, as these groups want, especially given that they asked for this power during hearings on the Hayden Law and the Legislature rejected doing so.
In addition, studies confirm that medical conditions “can trigger aggression in a nonaggressive dog.” This includes, for example, hyperthyroidism, neurologic issues, exposure to distemper, skin problems, and microbiome changes. Study authors called on animal shelters that claim a dog has “behavior” issues to “include a thorough physical examination to rule out painful conditions, a neurologic examination, a complete blood count, and biochemistry” — “a complete medical checkup is needed to make a proper diagnosis.” Many animal shelters do not do so, choosing to kill dogs based on temperament tests that are “no better than a coin toss.”
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