The first time Alex Pacheco (current president of 600 Million Dogs, former Chairman of PETA) volunteered at an animal shelter was in Columbus, Ohio, in the late 1970s. Shelters were often called “dog pounds” back then. Pacheco remembers the shelter as having 300 cages, and every day another 50 or 60 dogs came in, so that’s how many were killed every day. At first he volunteered to clean cages, but then he felt he had to do something to help the animals who were being killed, so he volunteered to work in the killing room, named “Room 500” so that the public wouldn’t be alarmed when they heard it mentioned. He wanted to at least give the dogs some comfort and decency in their final moments. But it was difficult. The dogs were so scared that they would shake and urinate on themselves. The people doing the killing didn’t care about animals. Pacheco’s job was to hold the dog down and hold the dog’s mouth closed to prevent biting. The “euthanasia” method was a stab to the heart with poison-filled needle, and the dog would scream in pain before going limp. It was a heartbreaking experience, but at the time he didn’t know what more he could do. When he moved to the Washington, DC, area, he volunteered at the shelter there, too. That’s where he met Ingrid Newkirk, and it was the beginning of PETA.
There is still killing going on in U.S. shelters today, but things have improved since then, thanks to the hard work of Pacheco and many others who desperately wanted to put a stop to all this nightmarish killing. But during the seventies, shelters all over the U.S. were like the Ohio dog pound where he worked. The work was generally done by local government employees, and caring about animals was not a job requirement. The dog pounds were typically smelly, dingy, damp, and depressing. The methods used to kill the animals included gas chambers, drowning, electrocution, and more. The Humane Society of the United States estimated than in 1973, 13.5 million dogs and cats were killed in U.S. shelters and that 25% of the dogs still roamed the streets.
In 1973, I was a kid. In order to convince my parents to get me a dog, I had practically memorized the “dog” section of the encyclopedia. It consisted almost exclusively of pictures of different breeds of dog. I read fiction and nonfiction books about dogs, but if they said anything about dog pounds, it didn’t make an impression on me. I didn’t know homeless animals were being killed by the millions each year. I knew there were “mutts” and “purebreds,” and purebreds were definitely supposed to be BETTER, so when my parents finally caved in and said we could get a dog, we figured we should get a purebred. “Experts” recommended that you get a puppy rather than an adult so that you could mess him up with your own bad training rather than somebody else’s. No, actually, they assumed you would have some idea of what you were doing, though I recall that commonly accepted methods of “housebreaking” included rubbing your puppy’s nose in the puddle of urine and yelling at him, maybe hours after his “accident.”
My parents let me pick out a purebred puppy from a local backyard breeder. Our vet never told us to get him neutered, as far as I can recall. I guess spay/neuter was not a thing back then. We made sure he had AKC papers because that was also something people thought was important, even though we never had any intention of showing him. I had never heard of puppy mills and didn’t know the AKC happily profited from giving papers to puppies born in cruel, filthy, cramped cages, where their parents suffered for their entire lives.
We didn’t know much about the teething stage, so he chewed up several couches when he was around 8 months old. We mainly fed him cheap dog food because vets and dog-food companies said that was balanced and better for him than “people food.” One time we went on vacation and put him in a kennel, where he didn’t eat for the entire time we were away. There were no petsitters. We were pretty ignorant, but then apparently so was everybody else. We really loved that dog, and he survived our ignorance and lived a happy life.
In 1980, along came Alex Pacheco and Ingrid Newkirk and PETA and the animal rights movement and then private rescue groups and the aggressive promotion of spay/neuter and adoption and the no-kill movement and the concepts that maybe people would go to visit animal shelters if the places didn’t look like dungeons and that maybe the public would be willing to pay for these shelter improvements. And people who care about animals made some headway in getting the American public to understand that mixed breeds are not inferior in any way to purebreds and that adopting an adult dog is a good idea. There has been a cultural change in the right direction. But it’s not over yet, and it has taken FORTY YEARS to get this far. Positive cultural change never seems to happen as fast as we would like it to.
There’s a lot of work left to be done. There are still millions of homeless animals being killed every year in U.S. shelters, but the number has dropped significantly, with some estimating the total number of shelter killings at 2 million, although accurate numbers are hard to come by. In many places outside the U.S., especially in poor countries, these changes have not happened, and the situation for homeless animals is dire. It’s not that people in these countries don’t care about animals. Many do, but they don’t have the money to pay for expensive spay/neuter surgery, which has been key in the U.S. to reducing the number of homeless animals. Hundreds of millions of dogs are roaming the streets, giving birth to more street puppies. The global dog population has been going up, not down, and surgical spay/neuter may never be an affordable, practical option in many areas.
Alex Pacheco has never forgotten his experience of trying to comfort the terrified dogs being killed at the Ohio dog pound. That’s one of the reasons why he has turned his attention to developing an inexpensive, oral, safe, permanent birth-control method for dogs. It’s an ambitious project that may take years to accomplish, but with enough funding and enough skilled scientists working on it, there’s no reason to think it can’t be done. The oral human birth control pill has been around for 60 years. It just wasn’t designed to be permanent, and interest in improving human birth control methods has been mired in controversy for many years. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to spay/neuter or interfere in the reproduction of animals in any way. But when the alternative is suffering and death, safe and permanent birth control is by far the better option.
On TV recently, newscasters were discussing government regulation of greenhouse gas emissions by cars and trucks. It sounds as if some of the technology to decrease greenhouse gas emissions already exists and just needs to be widely applied, and some of the technology doesn’t exist yet, but both the government and automakers are confident they can INVENT new energy-saving methods, as long as they have a decade or two to do it. We should apply that same confidence to the development of nonsurgical birth control for animals and get moving NOW so that the tragedy of dogs and cats suffering and dying due to homelessness becomes a thing of the past.
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