By Dr. Becker
I’m back with bestselling author Ted Kerasote for the final installment of our three-part interview. You can see part one here and part two here. We’re discussing Ted’s wonderful new book just out in bookstores, called Pukka's Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs.
The problem of homeless pets.
One of the huge, complex topics Ted takes on in Pukka’s Promise is the “crisis” situation in North American animal shelters. I worked in a shelter as a teenager, and Ted’s treatment of the subject in his new book has caused me to view the situation in a very different light.
I asked Ted to talk about his research into how unwanted pets are handled in other parts of the world vs. in the U.S.
Ted said he’d first like to address the use of the word “crisis” to describe our homeless pet situation. While it’s true about 1.5 million animals are killed in shelters each year in the U.S., 40 years ago we were killing 20 million per year.
The point is, progress has been made, and Ted believes credit is due the organizations that have worked so hard to bring that number down so dramatically.
How dogs are cared for in Western Europe vs. North America.
As to the question of differences between how North America treats homeless animals vs. other areas of the world, Ted explained that he traveled extensively in Europe to see how the situation was handled over there. He says you don’t see stray dogs roaming all over Western Europe, as happens in some parts of the U.S.
And the assumption is that because Western Europe is so highly urbanized, it can’t have free-roaming dogs. Everyone by necessity must control his or her dog, which is why there’s no so-called pet “overpopulation” problem. But Ted says that actually, there ARE free-roaming dogs … in Hyde Park … at the Bois de Boulogne in Paris … the Villa Borghese in Rome … and the Englischer Garden in Munich. In all these places there are free-roaming, off-leash dogs running about, under the voice-control of their people, and they’re not spayed or neutered, either.
To the casual observer, this seems risky at best. After all, everyone knows how quickly a male dog can mate with a female dog, right? So, why aren’t countless unwanted puppies being killed in shelters? The answer is that in Europe, people sequester their female dogs when they’re in heat. It’s just what they do, because it’s their tradition.
The Europeans carefully manage their female dogs when they’re in season. The dogs stay at home – in the barn or the kennel. They are walked only on a leash. There’s no way you don’t know when your female dog is being mounted by a male dog, if she’s at the end of a four foot leash and you’re holding the other end.
Ted explained that like most Americans, prior to his fact-finding trip to Europe, he didn’t really comprehend that there’s a way to have intact dogs and not have litter after litter of puppies.
Ted further explained that according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. is number 27 out of 31 countries with respect to overall poverty and the amount of social justice its citizens enjoy. In Scandinavia, for example, there are no dogs killed in animal shelters. They have a very secure social services network that takes care of citizens “from cradle to grave.” Of course, taxes are high, but everyone’s taken care of, including pets.
By contrast, in the U.S., most dogs are killed in counties with low median incomes. It’s absolutely true that you can’t determine the number of dogs killed in a shelter by the amount of money per capita that is spent in that shelter. Some shelters spend $6 per capita and kill a lot of dogs. Others spend $1.50 per capita and don’t kill that many dogs. But it’s also true that for the most part, poor communities kill more dogs in their shelters.
No-kill solutions every shelter can (and should) embrace.
So the question becomes, how can we help the shelter system work better? Better social services across the board might help. Eliminating poverty might help. Those are long-term goals. Ted says that in the meantime, there are many people working on helping shelters operate better. There’s the No Kill Advocacy Center, whose solution involves hiring compassionate shelter directors who are committed to implementing ideas that have worked all over the country to reduce the number of shelter deaths.
Some of those ideas include keeping shelters open at least one day on the weekend. Keep them open in the evening – employed people aren’t available to come see adoptable animals during the workday. Implement a foster care program to reduce the number of kittens and puppies who are killed. Send the little ones out to foster families so they can grow up to be adoptable pets.
Other ideas include partnering with local pet stores to stop selling purebred dogs from breeders and instead feature shelter pets ready for adoption. The stores make money, a percentage goes to the shelters, and the animals find homes. It’s a win for everyone.
Another idea is to do outreach programs where the shelter takes adoptable pets to places like PetSmart and Petco for adoption events. The shelters that have implemented these techniques have low kill rates. But according to Ted’s research, many, many more shelters need to adopt these ideas.
Ted also mentioned Maddie’s Fund, which helps shelters and animal welfare organizations that are trying to reduce the kill rate. Maddie’s Fund sponsors a massive ad campaign, The Shelter Pet Project, to convince prospective pet owners to adopt a shelter animal. In addition, the CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, Wayne Pacelle, told Ted that ”a no-kill nation must be one of the greatest aspirations of this organization.” But according to Nathan Winograd, the head of the No Kill Advocacy Center, out of 3,500 shelters across the country, only about 200 have become no-kill, meaning 90 percent of the dogs and cats who come into the shelter are adopted, fostered, or find other suitable living arrangements.
Ted believes that ever so slowly, we are working on the problem of homeless pets. In my opinion, it boils down to how committed and passionate each shelter is to becoming a no-kill facility.
Pukka’s life as a young, athletic, free-roaming dog.
Next I wanted Ted to talk about the role of genetics in helping dogs live healthier lives, and specifically, how he has applied the principles of his research to his own dog, Pukka, who is now almost four.
I asked Ted if he has encountered any challenges with Pukka’s health he wasn’t expecting. Ted said that overall, Pukka is a vibrant, thriving dog, who according Ted, just happens to beat himself up a lot – he’s hard on his body. He’ll jump off something, and the next day he won’t be quite as fast when he runs. He’s like many young athletes in that he doesn’t know his own limits.
Ted went on to explain that when Pukka was two, he almost died from a self-inflicted wound. He was running with a stick in his mouth, and he jammed it into the ground going full tilt. The stick broke and its jagged end pierced his tongue, severing his sublingual artery. Pukka came into the house gushing arterial blood.
Ted got the dog in his car and drove about a hundred miles an hour to the animal hospital in Jackson, Wyoming. He had stuffed a dishtowel in Pukka’s mouth, but he was still spraying blood all over the car. At the animal hospital, the vet staff clamped off the artery, but they had some initial difficulty finding the injury because there was just so much blood.
So Pukka is a healthy, athletic youngster who injures himself from time to time. Other than that, what worries Ted most is Pukka’s potential exposure to chemicals in the area where they live. Grand Teton National Park and Teton County are sprayed with chemicals every spring to control spotted knapweed. During those times, Pukka is confined to the house and walked under Ted’s supervision, even though all the literature on those sprays claims they are non-toxic.
Ted believes that Pukka, like most dogs, was exposed to many potentially harmful toxins as a puppy, for example, by chewing on dog toys. And he’s exposed to environmental pollutants just as we all are. Ted explained that he’s tried to create a non-toxic house, but Pukka also roams around the village where they live, so it’s impossible to say what he might be exposed to.
People say to Ted, “You should fence Pukka. You should lock him up.” But for Ted, that’s not an option. He’s willing to assume certain risks so that Pukka can live as a free-roaming dog.
Fortunately, Ted has a very unique situation in that he lives in a small village that provides an almost picture-perfect environment for dogs to live independently and free and to make their own choices. Of course, not all of us are fortunate enough to have such an amazing living arrangement.
Ted explained that there are nonetheless risks associated with living where he does, and they are unusual, for instance, grizzly bears … mountain lions … and wolves, the wolves posing the greatest threat to dogs in northwestern Wyoming since wolves will kill domestic dogs. They consider them interlopers in their territory. When Ted and Pukka are hiking during the summer months, or mountain bike riding, Pukka is often a half-mile ahead, doing his thing. If he runs into a pack of wolves, it could be the end of him. But Ted explained that he’s willing to take those risks so Pukka can have his freedom.
What Ted is doing now.
Ted has put the last five years of his life, heart and soul into researching and writing Pukka’s Promise. Now that it’s out in bookstores, I asked Ted what’s next. He responded that he breathed about a five-minute sigh of relief after he finished the book, and then he went back to one he started years ago, before he met Merle, about a young jaguar named Jorge, who lives in Central America. He’s just putting the finishing touches on it now. The title is The Jaguar Who Ran.
As Ted’s story goes, Jorge the jaguar doesn’t like where he was born, because he can’t run in the jungle. He’s always running into trees and slipping in the mud. His mother tells him, “Listen, jaguars slink and crouch and hide. They don’t run.” Jorge responds, “But dad ran when he went up to the land of the Still Star,” which is what the jaguars call northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. Jorge wants to run. So he goes to the land of the Still Star and gets into loads of trouble, but manages to persevere. It’s a story for all of us who dream of living a life different from that of our families and cultures.
Ted said he’s also working on a book about street dog management in developing areas of the world, where extermination has traditionally been used to reduce the incidence of rabies transmitted to people. This has not worked. Nor can adoption work since people in such places don’t have enough money to adopt and care for a dog. Since the 1990s a different approach has been tried. It was pioneered in India. Street dogs are captured, sterilized, vaccinated, and then released in the exact location where they were captured. This strategy has been very successful and has reduced both the number of street dogs without harming them, while also reducing the incidence of rabies transmitted to people.
Ted explained that he has met some very interesting veterinarians doing this kind of work all over the world. He thought their story would make a good book and might be applicable to some extent here in the U.S. because we also have a large stray dog problem in some areas. Depending on whose numbers you believe, there are 5,000 to 50,000 stray dogs in Detroit. There are stray dogs in Watts, in Baltimore, St. Louis, and on Indian reservations. The Navajo reservation is home to a couple hundred thousand stray dogs.
What typically happens is we capture these dogs, put them in shelters, and kill the majority of them. Ted wonders if it might not be a better idea to capture them, sterilize and vaccinate them, and turn them loose again – especially if they’re healthy.
My sincere thanks to Ted!
I want to thank Ted Kerasote for joining me for this three-part interview.
I’m very excited about the release of his new book, Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs, and I’m so thankful I was able to get an advance copy to read. I’ve really enjoyed it, and I know our listeners and readers here today will as well.
You’ll laugh, you’ll cry … you’ll be informed and inspired by Pukka’s Promise.