For years, most people in the United States have been told that that there are “too many pets and not enough homes”. We have been told that there is a pet “overpopulation” problem. We have been told that the reason that America’s animal shelters are killing millions of pets every year is because of this “overpopulation”. We’ve heard this over and over and we have accepted this as truth without question.
Until a few years ago, I too believed that there was a pet overpopulation problem. After all, I have seen the large numbers of animals at shelters, and who would believe that an animal shelter would kill thousands of animals every year if there actually were enough homes for all of them? The caring and rational people who work at animal shelters would not do such a thing……. would they?
The truth is that pet “overpopulation” is actually a myth. It does not exist. I know this sounds heretical to many people especially to those who have fostered many animals, or to the people who watch animals being killed by the thousands at shelters every year. The first time that I read that pet overpopulation was a myth on a book cover, I thought it was crazy. I am sure that people felt the same way the first time someone suggested that the earth might actually be round, not flat. It is hard to change our belief system when we’ve been taught one thing our entire lives. But, people finally realized that the earth really was not flat after all, that people were not sailing off the edge of the earth and people will soon realize that pet overpopulation is a myth as well.
But, let’s look at the numbers to make some sense of what the true facts are. According to a national study done by Maddie’s Fund and the Humane Society of the United States, 23.5 million people in the US will get a new pet each year. Some of those people have already decided where they will get that pet i.e. they will adopt from a shelter, go to a breeder or get a pet from free to good home ad etc. However, 17 million of those people have not yet decided where they will get their new pet. So these “undecideds” are the homes that are up for grabs. These 17 million people could be convinced to adopt.*
Today, between 3 and 4 million animals are being killed in “shelters”. So it’s pretty clear that the “demand” for pets each year (17 million) far outnumbers the “supply” of animals being killed in shelters (3-4 million).
And the supply of adoptable shelter pets each year is actually even less because a large portion of that 3-4 million being killed are actually lost pets that should be reunited with their owners. For example, Washoe Co., NV animal control returns 65% of pets to their owners. Conversely, most shelters in the US average a return of only about 5%. If Houston’s animal control i.e. BARC would utilized the same Return to Owner program as Washoe Co. with the same success, it would save the lives 8,100 more animals every year; that’s 8,100 animals that BARC would not need to adopt out or put in foster care and 8,100 empty kennels for the animals that truly are homeless. It is also a savings of $972,000 every year which could then be directed to programs like free spay/neuter or a Help Desk to keep animals from being relinquished by their owners.
In addition, that 3-4 million “supply” could be further reduced if all shelters TNR’d (trap, neuter, released) feral cats instead of killing all of them, as many shelters do.
That 3-4 million “supply” could be reduced further still if shelters had pet retention programs that kept many of those animals out of the shelter in the first place, as mentioned above.
So we can see that adopting out all animals entering shelters is doable. And the fact is that it is already being done in many communities. If pet overpopulation really existed, there would be no open admission, No Kill shelters. They could not exist. But, they do exist.
So let’s break these numbers down and get a perspective on what it means for Houston.
According to the U.S. census, there are 310,895,000+ people in the U.S. As we discussed above, 17 million people who will get a new pet each year, have not yet decided where they will get that pet. Those “undecided” new pet owners equal about 5.4% of the U.S. population.
The latest census shows that Houston has just under 2.2 million people. The “undecided” new pet owners in Houston would equal about 118,800 people. That is 118,800 people who could be convinced to adopt their next pet.
We also know that approximately 80,000 pets are being killed in Houston’s five kill shelters each year. Again, we can see that the “demand” for pets by the “undecideds” in Houston (118,800) far outnumbers the “supply” of pets being killed in Houston’s shelters (80,000).
This means that there is no pet “overpopulation”. It just means that the 80,000 pets being killed in Houston shelters each year could be saved if they were better introduced to the people who would be willing to adopt them.
And the numbers above are a worst case scenario because again this does not take into consideration the feral cats that should be TNR’d; it doesn’t take into consideration the number of pets that “should” be returned to their owners but who are not (see above); it does not take into consideration the number of animals that could be kept out of the shelter entirely with a proactive “help desk”.
I’m not saying that there aren’t a lot of pets entering Houston’s shelters each year. Of course there are. And I’m not saying that there aren’t irresponsible people in Houston. Of course there are. I am saying that just because 80,000 pets are being killed in Houston shelters each year does not equate to “too many pets and not enough homes”. The numbers prove that this is false. It is myth and propaganda perpetuated by kill shelters.
I’m also not saying it is easy to save all healthy and treatable pets entering shelters. To the contrary, it is hard work. But therein lies the true heart of problem ….. saving all healthy and treatable pets is hard work and most shelter directors in the U.S. still refuse to do everything necessary to save them. Continuing on the same path of “save a few and kill the rest” is easier. Continuing to blame the public for pet “overpopulation” is easier.
So while I will admit there is an overpopulation problem, it is not a pet overpopulation problem. The problem is an overpopulation of ineffective shelter directors who refuse to join the 21st century and put into place the programs and services that we know will save all healthy and treatable pets.
That overpopulation problem could be solved fairly quickly…. with a pink slip.
If you would like to learn how every shelter can transform themselves into No Kill shelters, please join us at our Building a No Kill Community workshop on April 30th. Learn how we can stop the killing in our shelters.
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