Animal Advocacy

A Study of Animal Shelters in Oklahoma: What are the Numbers?

posted July 15th, 2007 by
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By Ruth Steinberger
 The fate of animals in shelters across Oklahoma remains a hot topic, with euthanasia rates, rescues,
 
 A 2006 survey of all Oklahoma counties, Focus Oklahoma, revealed that the collection, handling, release and disposal of unwanted animals disparate from one area of the state to the next, humane concerns often fall through the cracks and laws intended to protect unwanted animals, including the 1986 Dog and Cat Sterilization Act, are completely ignored throughout much of the state.
Yet, few Oklahomans realize that much of our state is not served by any animal shelter at all. That fact, combined with a lack of record keeping many shelters that do exist, renders a vague and disturbing picture for unwanted animals across much of Oklahoma.

quality of care and methods of euthanasia open to discussion. The issue is an emotionally charged one.

Oklahoma law allows counties with populations over 200,000 to establish an animal shelter. However, currently only five of the 77 Oklahoma counties have a public animal shelter for residents of the entire county. These five include Tulsa, Oklahoma, Washington (Bartlesville), Carter (Ardmore) and Pittsburg (McAllister).

In the remaining 72 counties, some towns have animal control and a shelter, others contract with other towns or private entities to collect unwanted dogs and some simply do nothing. Alfalfa, Dewey, Grant and Harper Counties have no towns or cities with animal shelters within their borders.

However, while roughly 150 cities and towns throughout Oklahoma operate city pounds, residents who live outside of the city limits have noplace at which to release an unwanted dog or cat.  

While it is difficult to get a picture of the accurate number of animals entering Oklahoma shelters, it is impossible to get the numbers of those that fall through these cracks. Limited accurate euthanasia records may be available (based on method, or combination of methods, and therefore payment), but records of animals entering the shelters are actually rare outside of larger municipalities.

Additionally, a 1981 Oklahoma State Court decision exempted cities with populations under 10,000 from the state euthanasia law, essentially upholding the right of these cities to use shooting as a method of killing unwanted dogs, deeming it to be humane. Strong public opinion, and a lack of mandated record keeping, means that many cities simply do not reveal the method they use to dispose of dogs and how many dogs are involved.

The fate of unwanted pets in rural Oklahoma is largely unknown, and often tragic. Jamee Suarez Howard, President of Oklahoma Alliance for Animals said, “We have some idea of the numbers entering shelters. And some idea of how much of the state has no access to shelters. Combined, these numbers show the size of the issue. It is a terrible thing any time that animals are suffering.”

Animal disposal in places without shelters (which includes over half of rural Oklahoma) includesabandonment, shooting, giveaways and drowning. A limited number of “adoptable,” animals go,into private shelters. However, for older, large, sick, or ugly dogs, there is little refuge.  Dogs, and even some cats, are collected by dealers for sale at flea markets or to research labs or animal fighting rings.

Additionally, Focus Oklahoma found that between one third and one half of the estimated 150 municipal facilities collect strays only, refusing owner surrenders.  Outside of large shelters, relatively few public shelters in Oklahoma accept cats.  Without any continuity, people needing to release an unwanted animal call around in desperation, leading to a windfall for some fraudulent organizations that offer inadequate care to the animals in their custody and again, ignore the sterilization mandate for Oklahoma animal shelters.  Additionally, the lack of facilities has caused some public officials to actually rely on unacceptable “rescue” channels, an issue tied to some largescale animal removals in rural Oklahoma in recent years, including notorious ones in Stigler and Vici, Oklahoma.

Disturbingly, Focus Oklahoma research revealed that an estimated less than one fifth of rural shelters comply with the 1986 state law requiring sterilization of animals released from shelters.  Animals are released without mandatory contracts and deposits, without sterilization and with no follow up.

Currently, outside of Tulsa and Oklahoma counties, roughly 51% of Oklahomans live in areas in which public services are provided by the county.

The percentage of people served by municipal animal control facilities varies from one portion of Oklahoma to the next. Southeast Oklahoma has the highest rural population, and the lowest is in the Oklahoma City metro area.

Roughly 64% of households in southeast Oklahoma have no place at which to release an unwanted animal. According to Animal Control Officers in rural areas, county residents typically abandon unwanted pets within town limits at night. Although this activity is against the law in Oklahoma, it is nearly impossible to catch the perpetrator.  According to Mark Harman, Animal Control Officer of Bristow, OK, “Unwanted animals in rural areas never even enter the discussion about shelter animals in our state. They are conveniently invisible. No one is speaking up for them.”

Harman gets calls daily from county residents who have a dog they no longer want or that is a stray. He is not permitted to accept the dogs and advises callers to complain to their county commissioners. He said, “These dogs just disappear from the radar screen and everyone seems to be comfortable with that. Obviously, this has to involve tens of thousands of dogs each year because this lack of services involves half the population of Oklahoma.”

Harman added, “These animals are literally ignored by officials, rescues, humane societies, everyone. If a dog is cute and an adoption fee can change hands, someone will find a place for it. But for the ones that are not cute or small, and that involves most of the calls I get, there is a big blind eye turned toward them. It is unconscionable that our county officials refuse to face this issue.”

In August 2005, Harman received a call from a Creek County woman. An injured stray dog lay in a ditch in front of her home; the temperature was over 100 degrees. Unable to leave city limits Harman tried unsuccessfully for hours to get the sheriff’s office to send out an officer or to locate someone able to euthanize the dog. No one was authorized to go; the dog ultimately remained in the ditch until it died.

Harman pointed out this issue leads to terrible animal suffering or people takingmatters into their own hands and killing animals by inhumane methods. He said, “This is not just an animal control or taxpayer issue;the lack of county wide animal sheltering is a very, very serious humane problem.”

The Dilemma of Homeless Cats

posted January 15th, 2007 by
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Free-roaming cats without owners have recently become the center of a national controversy. Some groups see these animals as victims that should be provided with food and shelter, while others see them as villains that should be eliminated by humane euthanasia. Many of these cats are feral or “wild,” the descendants of unaltered tame cats that were abandoned and gave birth to kittens that never had contact with humans. Although ferals are fearful of humans, they are still domesticated and ill-equipped to live on their own. Feral cats do not die of “old age.” They fall victim to disease, starvation, poisons, attacks by other animals, mistreatment by humans or are hit by cars.

It is estimated that the number of free roaming abandoned and feral cats in the United States may be as high as owned cats (about 73 million). Since most owned cats are sterilized, these unowned cats are the primary source of cat overpopulation. Many people who encounter feral cats start feeding them, but feeding alone can actually make the situation worse by increasing the birth rate of kittens. Animal shelters nationwide receive several million unwanted cats each year. Due to a shortage of available homes, approximately 75% of these cats are euthanized. Locally, the cat euthanasia rate at animal shelters is about 90% and less than 1% of these cats are ever claimed by owners.

The impact of both owned and unowned freeroaming cats upon the environment is an ongoing subject of debate. Even well-fed cats will hunt and kill prey. These predations cause a significant and preventable loss of birds, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians.

Free-roaming cats pose a small but important threat to human health. They can carry and transmit to humans such diseases as rabies, cat scratch fever, plague, tularemia and ringworm. Also, serious injuries can occur if feral cats are handled without precautions or experience.

Historically, communities have responded to feral cat colonies by capturing and euthanizing these unowned animals. In areas where there is a natural food source (mice), this resulted in the influx of more cats as the resident feral cats were removed. As long as there was a food source, the feral cats would repopulate the area. In areas where feral cats are fed by humans, a strong bond is created with these cats and usually the feral cat feeders will not cooperate with control strategies that involve euthanasia.

Most veterinarians and animal welfare groups now support managing these colonies by trapping, neutering, releasing and monitoring feral cats. The goal is to eventually reduce the feral cat population; however, eliminating the colony may not be possible due to immigration of new cats. Ideally, these colonies should be located in an area where the cats do not pose a threat to wildlife. The location should be inconspicuous so as not to encourage abandonment of pet cats. All cats within the colony are humanely trapped and receive a health exam, tested for feline leukemia and feline AIDS, neutered/spayed and vaccinated against rabies. Socialized adult cats and kittens should be adopted out to permanent homes and those that cannot be adopted should be returned to the colony. Most importantly, a monitoring program must be in place to identify new cats joining the colony, as well as cats requiring medical attention.

Stitch in Time is a local spay/neuter program for feral cats run by Street Cats, a local non-profit organization. Vouchers are issued that will cover a spay or neuter and a rabies vaccination. Over 50 vouchers are issued each month and once issued are good for three months. To receive a voucher call 918-298- 0104 and leave a message for Stitch in Time. Other local organizations that offer feral spay/neuter programs are Spay Oklahoma (918) 728-3144 and PAWS (Pet Assistance and Welfare Society) 918-376-2397.

- Dr. Judy Zinn