Author Peter Zheutlin never wanted a dog, let alone a rescue. He had always believed, as a lot of people do, that rescue dogs are damaged goods.
Now Zheutlin can’t imagine life without a dog, and he’s become so driven by the issue of stray dogs that he’s written two books about it. He tells Here & Now’s Lisa Mullins the number of stray dogs has “cascaded out of control” in some parts of the U.S.
“People are often very often surprised when I tell them that the picture … of dogs running on highways and so forth, this is not just a third world problem — that exists here in the United States,” says Zheutlin, author of the new book, Rescued: What Second-Chance Dogs Teach Us About Living with Purpose, Loving with Abandon, and Finding Joy in the Little Things.
There are more than 200 million stray dogs worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates about 3.3 million dogs enter U.S. animal shelters every year.
While Zheutlin makes the case for adopting dogs that are abandoned, he also acknowleges there is no easy answer to the problem. He says the supply of stray dogs greatly outweighs the demand.
“These shelters, they’re dealing with an incredibly difficult problem where they may have a shelter that can hold 100 dogs, and every week a hundred more strays are coming in,” Zheutlin says. “And where do they go?”
The no-kill movement has contributed to the population growth, as the number of dogs and cats that are euthanized has decreased from 20 million to 3 million each year. As NPR previously reported, there are nearly 14,000 shelters and pet rescue groups in the U.S. that acquire almost 8 million animals each year.
Stray dogs also present safety issues when they roam in packs, causing traffic accidents, attacking residents and spreading disease. WHO estimates nearly 55,000 people die from rabies every year.
Spay and neuter laws that vary by state have also driven the increase of abandoned dogs, especially in more rural, southern states.
“The South still has a lot of work to do with spay-neuter laws, and getting people to feel that pets are more companions and parts of their family than yard dogs or that kind of thing,” Laurie McCannon, director of Northeast Animal Shelter in Massachusetts, told NPR in 2015.
Several city and local governments have adopted mandatory spay-neuter ordinances, but Zheutlin points out that the stray animal issue is low on the priority list for some cash-strapped cities.
“This problem has escalated to the point where it would take decades of a concentrated spay-neuter program in a city like Houston to begin to reduce the numbers,” he says. “The shelters are not often high priorities for governments either when they’ve got competing demands from the school department, the police department, the fire department, parks, sanitation. Who speaks for the dogs?”
According the ASPCA, approximately 1.6 million dogs are adopted from U.S. shelters each year, but 34 percent of dogs obtained as pets still come from breeders.
Many adopted dogs come from difficult circumstances, Zheutlin says, which means they could suffer from separation anxiety, barking and a lack of socialization skills. Critics of the no-kill movement say some dogs are just not fit for adoption.
“At some point, you begin to adopt out animals that have serious health issues or serious temperament issues that you should not,” Patti Strand, director of the National Animal Interest Alliance, an organization that represents dog breeders, told NPR in 2014.
While rescue dogs can present challenges, rehabilitation programs have led to an increase in the percentage of animals adopted, according to the ASPCA. Zheutlin suggests obtaining references before working with a rescue organization.
“Those organizations work hard to make sure these dogs are socialized and ready to be placed in a home,” he says. “In the vast vast majority of cases they are so ready to be loved, and to love back dogs, I think, draw us out of our own heads and [can] help us to live more in the moment.”