Knowledge is power, a little bit of knowledge is dangerous, and clinging to outdated myths can be fatal. The animal sheltering field is rife with assertions regarding animals and people. For many years this was driven by the lack of accurate information on a wide array of issues and situations. In an information vacuum, impressions and prejudices arising from a limited range of individual experiences played a significant role in the development of a belief structure. These “beliefs” were frequently passed from one generation of shelter worker to another, with repetition adding the illusion of truth. In many cases these myths obscured the real issues at hand, wasting time and effort.
Myth #1: We are losing the war on pet overpopulation
This statement is probably at the top of this list. Simplistic and plaintive, this is more often a statement of frustration than it is of fact. We know that in most communities where shelters have kept statistics for some period of time, the numbers of animals coming into the shelters is decreasing, and fewer are being euthanized. This downward trend, most evident along the northeast Atlantic coast and along the Pacific coast, has taken place even though the overall pet dog and cat populations have been increasing. Shelter intakes are increasing in those areas that have seen growth spurts in the human population. Continued insistence that the problem is getting worse everywhere is counterproductive and defeatist. It fails to recognize that the tools we have in hand are effective. Educating pet owners on responsible care of their animal companions, and making spay/neuter available in an efficient and cost-effective fashion, while not sexy and new, do work.
Myth #2: “She was returned because she didn’t match the new curtains.”
It doesn’t take long to get a shelter worker to tell you about the person who brought in the cat who no longer matched the new curtains. When the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy conducted a survey of several thousand people relinquishing their pets at 12 different shelters in 6 states, no one gave this as a response when asked about why they are relinquishing their pet. There was in fact no single reason given that accounted for the majority of animals relinquished. While I do not doubt that it may have happened somewhere, sometime, dwelling on it does not address all of the other issues that we can do something about. Broadly defined, behavior problems were the most common reason given for the relinquishment of animals. Given this, let’s concentrate on training and socialization for pets, not interior decoration.
"Behavior problems were the most common reason given for the relinquishment of animals. Given this, let’s concentrate on training and socialization for pets, not interior decoration."
Myth #3: Shelters are flooded with puppies kids got for Christmas
Just about every year I get a call from a reporter in early January. They want to know if the shelter is flooded with puppies kids got for Christmas and who were now being discarded. Of course, we are not flooded with puppies right then. A careful examination of the extensive data collected from animal shelters reveals that pets given as gifts are at a reduced risk of surrender to an animal shelter when compared to pets acquired from other sources. If many of us think of our first pet, we may recall that it was a very special gift for a birthday or holiday, and was a cherished companion for many years. If gifts are a sign of love and caring, it is not surprising that companion animals will be chosen. Let’s try to help people make a good choice that will be a part of the family for years to come.
Myth #4: Spaying and neutering are simple and inexpensive procedures
Spaying and neutering are simple and inexpensive procedures. These are in fact surgical procedures that require anesthesia and aseptic surgical conditions. The book fees generally quoted by veterinarians are typically a fair price for procedures of this complexity. Those veterinarians who participate in reduced cost or subsidized sterilization programs are making a substantial and important contribution of time, skill and resources.
Myth #5: Witches try to adopt black cats on Halloween for nefarious purposes
Quite a few shelters hide their black cats in the back the week before All Hallow’s Eve to protect them. There is no reason to believe that these cats are at risk. While it is true that animals too often become the victims of holiday pranks and cruelty, there is no reason to believe that witches are involved, or that shelters are a source. Normal adoption counseling procedures should be able to screen out those applicants with bad intent. Continued publicity on this tends to make adoption counseling procedures look arbitrary and silly.
The next time that a truism rolls off your tongue to defend a policy or belief, think about whether you are working with fact or fiction.
Stephen L. Zawistowski, PhD, CAAB
Dr. Stephen L. Zawistowski spent 26 years as a senior executive at the ASPCA. A well-known speaker on a number of animal shelter and animal welfare topics, he is a certified applied animal behaviorist and chaired the Animal Behavior Society’s Board of Professional Certification from 1998-2007. Dr. Zawistowski is founding coeditor of the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science and coauthored a history of the ASPCA, Heritage of Care.
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