It’s a well-known fact that thousands and thousands of domesticated animals die in California shelters every year because there are simply too many of them.
In my humble opinion, it is one of the larger problems in our society. It puts a lot of pressure on the economy to finance the care and housing of so many animals; the effort and resources required to dispose of these animals are immense; and it creates in our youth a sense that animals are expendable and something for which we aren’t responsible.
Our bad habit of allowing and encouraging the population growth of animals makes us think that when we give up an animal by sending it to a shelter, someone else will swoop in and take care of the problem. Sadly, this is too often not the case.
I believe we need to work together, educate one another and more importantly, educate our children and youth with hopes that in the future, change will come. Perhaps we can establish increased accountability and sense of responsibility to reduce these populations, and thus reduce the number of animals killed simply because there is not room for them.
Photos by Sarah Brewer Thompson and Rita Earl
Despite this darkness of our animal world, I feel optimistic about the changes we can make and hope for a future in which the shelter becomes merely a stop on an animals path rather than the end of the line.
I realize this is a tremendously touchy topic for many people, as it should be. As a passionate animal lover, I take this all to heart. It is a problem that breaks my heart yet empowers me to try to make a difference. It is not something I enjoy talking about, but the only way to improve the situation is to communicate with one another and understand there are things we can do to help.
Over the past five or so years, there has been a tremendous surge in the push for adopting animals. Thanks to various television shows and organizations, which promote adopting shelter animals and ending the cycle of purchasing pets from pet stores or backyard breeders, progress has been made. Awareness is spreading, and people are taking action by becoming advocates and more responsible pet owners. Although we have a long way to go, it warms my heart and soul to see more and more people realizing the enormity of this problem and actually doing something about it.
While adoption numbers have been on the rise over the past decade, and there has been a greater push and acceptance for minority demographics of animals (such as elderly animals, discriminated breeds such as pit bulls, and animals with physical or mental handicaps), there still is a great need to reduce breeding (whether by unregulated breeders or because animals are not fixed).
I feel we need to stop paying for the exploitation of animals and forcing them to mate. A simple browse through an animal supply catalog show the barbaric devices used to restrain females that do not want to mate, which are passed off as “devices for the animals’ safety.” It seems unnecessary and barbaric to force this upon animals for profit, especially when you can go to a shelter or rescue and pick up a companion that will fit into your home as well as any dog you pay top dollar for.
An animal’s nature is not dependent upon what it costs. This is evident in the many purebreds’ various health issues or temperament problems. Not that all rescued animals are perfect; this is far from the case. But paying for an animal does not offer you a guarantee of what you will get.
Having been a child in the 1990s, I have already seen a transformation over the years in how many people view animal breeding and rescuing. When I was a kid, people did adopt pets, but thinking back on it, many of the pets that belonged to my friends or family had come from a breeder or pet store. Trends in popular culture influenced the demand for certain species (such as Irish setters in the 1970s, German shepherds and Dalmatians in the 1990s, and Labradors, bulldogs and Chihuahuas in the 2000s), often creating chaos in the breeds for those not properly caring for their animals, breeding as often as they can just to make a buck.
As a dog lover, I completely understand wanting a specific type of dog. You might desire a specific trait such as size, behavior, personalities, trainability or overall appearance – and that preference is totally understandable. If you have a ranch and want a ranching dog, you probably wouldn’t want a teacup poodle to help protect your livestock. If you live in a small apartment, then perhaps a Great Dane isn’t for you.
However, the arguments I hear are often that rescues and shelters don’t have the breed someone wants, or they want a puppy and not an adult are invalid. The fact is that Los Angeles County shelters contain at any given time various breeds of cats and dogs (also bunnies, horses, chickens and more). You want a big German shepherd? Head over to Lancaster. What about a yellow lab? Try checking out Baldwin. What about a basset hound? Check over at Castaic.
If you are looking for a specific breed, age or temperament, odds are, one of the shelters or local rescues has it. My sister-in-law specializes in rescuing and fostering elderly large-breed dogs, and I have seen first-hand that you don’t have to adopt an animal as a baby to form a strong bond.
I encourage you to prove me wrong. Take a few minutes and peruse the county’s website (or other local rescue sites if you are so inclined). It is easy to use and allows you to search by breed, sex, location and more. If you are looking for a specific breed, there are so many animals in the system now that chances are, you will find it somewhere in the county, not even including the thousands more available in nearby counties such as Kern and Ventura. You will probably spot one, and if there isn’t one now, there probably will be in the not-to-distant future.
If you are specific, there is also a plethora of breed-specific rescues across the country, and California happens to be one of the states with the largest number of these rescues. Of course, you should always look into whatever rescue you may be dealing with, but I have personally worked with rescues for elderly dogs, pit bulls, Great Pyrenees, small breeds and more in the L.A. County area, and these are great options if you are in the market for a particular type of dog.
Since over-breeding is such as issue with overpopulation of dogs in particular, I would like to share a few stories from my personal experiences. I will openly admit that when I was a kid, we purchased our first two dogs, which happened to be two deaf Dalmatian sisters. They came from a legitimate breeder out in the Antelope Valley who worked with the studios, which is where my dad found out about them (because the “101 Dalmatians” live-action film was being made then and all of us wanted a real Dalmatian). Because we didn’t have any other dogs, one day we were surprised with two adorable (yet very wild) little spotted pups. We found out later that although they were papered, they had somehow squeaked through the cracks of the mandatory hearing test and managed to escape euthanasia.
Like other white-coated breeds, a substantial percentage of Dalmatians are born with hearing problems. They are hearing-tested as puppies, and breeders terminate those that are deaf as to not sell “defective merchandise,” so to speak, to paying customers, and to avoid passing on the deaf gene and exacerbate the problem.
While I understand wanting to limit the disability in future generations, I thank God that these two somehow managed to pass the hearing tests. (The fact that the woman gave us a large discount may attest to the fact that she knew, but figured she could still get paid for them. One will never know.)
Despite what you might think, a hearing disability was not really much of a problem for us. Their non-audio senses were fine-tuned, so they could feel you coming through vibrations on the ground. They actually understood pointing and would look wherever your finger was extended. Feeding was never a problem, as they could smell their food a mile away. In a few cases it was actually beneficial, as they couldn’t hear the neighborhood coyotes and therefore left them alone.
One of our girls made it to just shy of 15 years old, enjoying her old age as playfully as she was when she was a puppy. She was a shining example of how something that was normally considered by breeders a defect to be discarded, made an incredible family member for 14 years of my life.
I now have two dogs, which I love dearly. Although I had helped rescue various other animals in the past, I had never been able to rescue one of my own. This changed a couple of years ago when a small, scruffy, black ball of energy landed in my lap.
Zula, as I named her, came to me like a baby in a basket. In April 2012, we received a call from our local vet that two small dogs had been dropped off at the doorstep in a filthy old crate. One was as cute as could be – something like a Pomeranian/Chihuahua mix, with red, fluffy hair and beautiful eyes. The other looked sort of like a monkey, but with scruffy hair, a major under-bite, a big lower lip and big, round bug eyes. She was dirty and thin, scared of what was happening around her, and confused about where she was.
Needless to say, it didn’t take long for the brown one to get adopted, but the little black dog waited for hours for someone to show interest. She garnered interested questions and comments about how funny-looking she was (not in a malicious way, but in that she is simply different-looking from most other dogs).
I realized after holding this little dog for a while that I couldn’t let her go. She came home with me that night and has been my little shadow ever since.
It was remarkable how, within 24 hours, she became attached to me. I have no idea where she came from – if her owners hadn’t been able to keep them and had to give them up, or if she came from a backyard breeder and was the one that couldn’t sell. I will never know. But within hours, she knew she was mine and I was hers, and she has been the most loyal animal I have ever met in my life.
Watching her settle in and show me unconditional love has changed me. It is an indescribable gift to be able to change a little soul’s life for the better and show them love, and have them return this love to you tenfold.
This unflinching loyalty and gratefulness is an aspect that you get with rescued animals. When you raise an animal from its infancy, of course you often get this loyalty; it just often soars to incredible levels when an animal sees you as their savior, especially if they have been through so much during their lives prior to meeting you.
In a funny closing to my Zula’s story, I later found out she is actually a purebred Affenpinscher (a breed I encourage you to look up because they are hilarious). Affenpinschers are a somewhat rare and expensive breed, coveted for their playful nature and monkey-like appearance. They reached greater notoriety after one won Westminster’s Best in Show title in 2013, which will unfortunately probably cause a spike in their popularity, causing untrained breeders to sell as many as they can.
After talking with someone who bred them (and payed thousands of dollars for males and females), I figured out my Zula is just as sweet, playful, smart and adorable as any of her papered counterparts, and that thousands more are available through various Affenpinscher rescues across the country.
Friends and neighbors, I encourage you to better educate yourself on these issues if you are not familiar with them. Get angry and motivated to make a difference. Once you see what is happening, it becomes harder to sweep it under the rug. Efforts we make will make not only immediate change, but they’ll also have long-term effects.
If you have the means, try checking out an adopted animal. You will be rewarded in more ways than you can anticipate.
Sarah Brewer Thompson was born and raised in Agua Dulce, where she learned to love and appreciate nature and history. She is a master’s student at California State University, Northridge, and a docent at Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park. Her areas of interest are local history, archaeology and animal studies.
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