In March, a 7-year-old dog named Zelda endured what must have been an extremely lonely, frightening and uncomfortable five days. A man - who happens to be a former UFC champion - allegedly tied her to the inside of a truck bed and left her in a Texas airport parking garage. When authorities connected him to the dog, he claimed that Zelda belonged to his mother, who could no longer care for her, and that he had been trying to find the dog a new home. He said that he had called "every shelter and no kill pet center within 200 miles" but that none would accept her.
There is never any excuse for abandoning an animal. But scenarios like this one are becoming increasingly common as more animal shelters are operating like exclusive clubs or boutiques instead of refuges. Some shelters have drastically reduced their hours, have changed their policies to exclude cats or now require people to make appointments, wait for months or pay a fee - often very high - to surrender an animal. Some even encourage people to leave homeless animals on the streets, which is illegal in many areas.
When shelters make it difficult for people to do the right thing, animals suffer. Many rejected cats and dogs are simply abandoned, leaving them to starve or die of disease or injuries. Others remain in the hands of people who don't want them and may mistreat, neglect or even kill them.
A shelter in Florida reportedly turned away a couple trying to surrender a 6-week-old kitten last March because they hadn't made an appointment. The couple left the kitten in the shelter's parking lot, where he was run over by a vehicle and found hours later with severe injuries, including a crushed skull. He died a few days later.
Taxpayers - who fund public shelters - are increasingly told, "Sorry, we're full," or, "We'll have to put you on a waiting list," when they try to take even stray animals to shelters. In a small, impoverished area of Virginia, an elderly man who was trying to feed and care for more than 40 stray cats resorted to pleading for people to adopt the cats on a TV news station because animal control apparently wouldn't help him.
Why are so many shelters refusing to shelter?
It's undoubtedly connected to growing pressure from a small - but extremely vocal - group of people who are opposed to euthanasia under virtually any circumstances. "Life at any cost" crusaders harass and vilify shelter workers who have the extremely difficult (but necessary and compassionate) job of euthanizing some animals in order to keep their doors open to all comers.
It may be easier to turn animals away than to endure persecution from armchair activists. But can shelters really be called "shelters" if they close their doors to the animals who need them the most?
Animals need caring people to speak out against this harmful trend. If your local shelter has started implementing restrictions or rejecting animals, please get involved. Write a polite letter expressing your concerns to the shelter's director. If the response is inadequate, write to your elected officials and alert the media.
If a shelter has refused to accept an animal from you, required you to pay a surrender fee, put you on a waiting list or instructed you to abandon an animal, document your experience. Note the time and date of the incident, the person you spoke with, what you were told and other pertinent details, and share them with elected officials and the media. Collecting statements from others who have been negatively affected by a shelter's restrictive policies can help build momentum for change.
Changing entrenched policies can take time, persistence and patience. But our involvement can determine whether animals in our communities will ultimately be sheltered or shunned.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Teresa Chagrin is manager of animal care and control issues in the Cruelty Investigations Department at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.PETA.org.