“Ownerless animals must be destroyed. It is as simple as that.”- HSUS, the ASPCA, American Humane Association, 1976
To some, the notion of sterilizing and releasing dogs will be viewed as extreme. The reasons they give will be, ironically, similar to the arguments that used to be made for cats. As sterilizing community cats gained widespread acceptance within the humane movement and government municipalities, including many health departments, these arguments lost their credibility.
Past is often prologue, and when it comes to the sterilization of community cats, history teaches us that opposition by the sheltering industry and the large, national organizations which represent it proved no bar against its eventual acceptance by local governments and the cat loving American public. In fact, despite their intense opposition, it was these organizations that had to evolve their approach to ultimately embrace, rather than continue to thwart, this more humane and life-affirming approach. Their resistance did, however, result in delaying acceptance of sterilization programs for community cats and therefore needless deaths.
1976: The Humane Society of the United States, the ASPCA, the American Humane Association, the American Veterinary Medical Association and other “humane” organizations meet in Denver at a conference on “Dog and cat control.” Their report, copies of which were sent to shelters and health departments nationwide, embraces mass killing of community cats, community dogs, and other animals: “ownerless animals must be destroyed. it is as simple as that.”
Early 1990s: Following decades of successful programs in Europe, a small number of U.S. communities, such as San Francisco, begin sterilizing community cats as an alternative to impound and killing.
1992: HSUS promotes the extermination of community cats, calling mass slaughter in the nation’s shelters “the only practical and humane solution” and programs to sterilize them nothing more than “subsidized abandonment.” After asking rhetorically if HSUS would ever embrace sterilization in lieu of killing and if HSUS would cease promoting extermination, HSUS’ Vice-President for Companion Animals writes that the “answers to these questions are still, and will always be, the same: no, no, and absolutely not!”
1993: The Fund For Animals promotes legislation to criminalize outdoor cats in California and to empower animal control officers to kill cats in the field if they are not wearing proof of a rabies vaccine. locally, they embrace an ordinance to prohibit trapping community cats except “for proper disposal.”
1994: Calling sterilization of community cats “inhumane” and “abhorrent,” HSUS officials write a criminal prosecutor in Outer Banks, North Carolina, urging arrest and prosecution of cat caretakers for cruelty to animals. HSUS blames community cats “for traffic accidents, bites, spread of contagion, and enhanced municipal expenditures to retrieve them from public space.”
1995: American Humane Association hosts a “feral cat summit.” Dozens of local, statewide, and national animal protection groups from across the nation attend, with all but a few organizations embracing eradication programs.
1998: Over the objection of shelters and national groups such as HSUS, California passes legislation making it illegal for shelters to kill community cats if their caretakers come forward to reclaim them or if a rescue group offers to save them.
2001: Funded by the health department, the animal shelter in Tompkins County, New York, embraces a sterilization program for community cats. The deaths of community cats in the county’s shelter falls to zero, the first community in the nation to end their killing. Eventually, NYS health regulations would also embrace community cat sterilization, declaring it “to be the policy of New York State that every feasible humane means of reducing the production of unwanted puppies and kittens be encouraged.”
2004: HSUS, the ASPCA, AHA, and other humane organizations meet in Asilomar, California, to lay out a “vision” for the future of American sheltering. Ignoring over a decade of U.S. success, they classify healthy community cats as “untreatable” and demand that rescuers and caretakers stop criticizing shelters that kill them. Under the “Asilomar Accords,” community cats share the same category as animals who are irremediably suffering and the same fate: death.
Mid 2000s: Despite opposition from groups like HSUS, the practice of community cat sterilization becomes widespread, as municipal shelters and health departments across the country conclude that it furthers public and animal health, safety, and welfare.
2006: HSUS accuses cats of being a public rabies threat: “cats are now the most common domestic vectors of rabies;” of decimating wildlife: “free-roaming cats kill millions of wild animals each year;” of being invasive, non-native intruders: “cats are not a part of natural ecosystems, and their predation causes unnecessary suffering and death;” and, of causing neighborhood strife: “they also cause conflicts among neighbors.”
2007: A Harris poll finds that 81% of Americans support non-lethal community cat programs in lieu of killing.
2008: The town council of Randolph, Iowa, offers residents a cash bounty of five dollars for anyone who brings a community cat to the pound to be killed. When pressed for comment, HSUS states it “doesn’t have a problem with humanely euthanizing a stray cat.”
2012: An Associated Press national poll finds seven in 10 Americans think it should be illegal to kill cats (and dogs) who are not irremediably suffering.
2014: HSUS embraces community cat sterilization: “Programs that attempt to use lethal control to eliminate cat populations are inhumane, ineffective, and wasteful of scarce resources.”
2014: The International City/County Management Association, representing municipalities worldwide, embraces community cat sterilization.
2015: Shelters across the country embrace a “million cat challenge” to sterilize, rather than kill, one million community cats.
Today: Cities across the U.S. pass laws authorizing community cat sterilization and exempting both community cats and their caregivers from ownership, pet limit, anti-feeding, and leash laws.
Whether the humane movement learns from this deeply tragic chapter in its history by refusing to allow these organizations to slow the acceptance of a better and brighter future for community dogs remains to be seen. But this much is clear, the widespread acceptance of sterilization for community dogs in lieu of killing is, as it was for community cats, an inevitability.
Those who claim to care about community dogs must give them those things which history demonstrates do not always come easy for some but, when bestowed, embody love and compassion as nothing else can: an open mind, the courage to challenge untested beliefs and assumptions, and a willingness to embrace change.
In fact, many of the movement’s pioneers, including Henry Bergh, the great founder of the nation’s first SPCA 150 years ago, not only advocated against round up and kill campaigns for community dogs, they advocated leaving them alone. Others even raised money to bail community dogs out of the pound and release them back on the street. But one need not go back to the 19th century. Sterilization of dogs, in lieu of killing, is being done successfully by rescue groups in U.S. cities, on reservations, in U.S. territories like the Bahamas and Puerto Rico, throughout Europe, and in other countries.
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