Imagine a crowded animal shelter—concrete kennels full of stressed out dogs, many with unknown histories and probably an equal amount of unchecked veterinary needs. They’ve been abandoned or surrendered and this shelter is possibly their last opportunity for a second chance. No one wants these dogs to die but there is nowhere left for them to go.
Now picture two buses pull up outside this shelter and the staff inside are told that the would-be saviours “can take as many dogs as our buses can hold and we will find them good homes in Canada.” The shelter staff are elated. They will not have to kill any of the dogs. And so they fill crate after crate with dogs that they believe are now destined for a second chance and a wonderful new life that all dogs deserve.
Visualize these two crate-laden buses driving for 24 hours north to Canada and then straight to a major pet store chain for a massive adoption event—an event that has been promoted widely across the media: Families Scoop Abandoned US Dogs at Langley Adoption Event; 2 bus loads of rescue dogs travelling to Kelowna tomorrow for adoption event.
The same crates all the dogs were transferred in are now placed on display at the massive pet store. All of the animals are tired and completely stressed out. Many are barking and lunging, some are shaking uncontrollably. A few others are quite sick and some are even injured. But this reality is lost on the pet store staff and the volunteer rescuers who have neglected to spend any time getting to know even one of the 50 dogs they have just “saved” and delivered—the same people who neglected to provide any veterinary assessments or care in advance of the massive adoption event. As a result, the truth of this neglect is also lost on the line up of people who have come out to see the display of animals.
The excitement and happiness of everyone involved distract from the very obvious trauma these dogs are displaying. Despite the fact that there is little to no information about the histories or health status of these dogs, people line up to adopt them. They all feel good knowing that they are playing a part in saving a dog’s life. And by the end of the weekend, all the dogs will have found a home, the organization is already planning its next trip to the US, and the pet store chain is patting itself on the back for supporting the community.
But how are the families doing with their new pets? A handful of them aren’t able to get anywhere near their new dog because he’s so stressed out that he keeps biting them. One family realizes that their dog has stopped moving because he has a serious injury. Another family is concerned that their dog is not eating and they take her to see their veterinarian only to find out that she has a massive tumour in her stomach. A number of families grow concerned because their dogs are coughing and they worry that the cough will spread to their other pets.
The dangerous lure of saving lives
Knowing you have helped to rescue an animal from harm, distress, or even death is an amazing feeling and it is easy to get caught up in the excitement that these massive adoption events promote. But the reality is that many of these dogs do not actually end up in a better place. Because their needs were not assessed before they were adopted out, they are often placed in inappropriate homes. As a result, they are either placed back into the rescue system or they are cared for in ways that only exacerbate their unknown trauma. Even worse, some families that unknowingly adopt a dog with health issues become faced with veterinary expenses they had not planned for and ultimately choose to euthanize their new pet because they are unable to pay for the care that is required.
We can do better.
There is no doubt that adoptable dogs die simply because so many shelters in the US and across the globe are completely full. And it is true that there are often homes available in Canada for these dogs. But the solution isn’t as simple as the story above. There must be standards in place for how animals are transported and there must be requirements for health and behaviour assessments prior to those animals being made available for adoption. There are real public health and safety risks to people, wildlife, and other domestic animals when dogs are brought in from outside of Canada with no quarantine periods or behaviour assessments. For example, a new strain of distemper recently arrived in North America from a dog imported from South Korea.
We must do better.
Over the years, I have written a lot about the structural and systemic flaws of the animal welfare system and the fractured, unregulated, unaccountable, and underfunded environment that has been created as a result. Even though many, many of us have similar goals, the system remains fragmented and our work is inhibited by the difficulty of developing valuable partnerships and alliances. There are a number of reasons for this.
Domestic pets are the only living creatures that do not have governing bodies regulating their welfare. All levels of government have abdicated their responsibility for the welfare of animals to the community. With no provincial or federal funding to support the protection and well-being of animals, the responsibility lies upon individuals to organize themselves. Not only are animal welfare and rescue organizations expected to sustain their operations without financial support from our governments, but they also operate without any formal regulations or accountability.
A commitment to do better
In 2017, the Animal Welfare Advisory Network of B.C. (AWANBC) was formed to respond to these systemic issues. Since then, our growing network of committed and passionate members has been working towards creating a more professional and accountable animal welfare system. Over the past year, we have been developing rescue standards of practice which will help guide organizations in their operations, establish an accreditation process, and provide the general public with a way to adopt pets through organizations that are committed to operating responsibly.
There are well over 170 community-based rescue organizations in BC. For the average person, it can be difficult to know how to identify a responsible rescue organization when they are looking to adopt a pet. In the absence of any formal regulations or standards of practice, No Puppy Mills Canada has provided a checklist of things to look for.
Until the system changes in necessary and substantial ways, it is up to us to hold each other accountable. We need to strive to do this work in a way that ensures the results of our actions are just as good and noble as our intentions. Improving the lives of pets is important to all of us, but we need to do so in a way that does not cause more harm than good.