Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Part Two: The Scope of the Problem

"A puppy awaits adoption"
(c) Jean Ballard 2009
Note:  This is the second of a series of think-pieces on the importation of dogs to Canada, and its effect on the lives of dogs already in our local shelters and rescues. Part One, "We Canadians Kill Dogs", generated far more interest than I ever anticipated - with the blog receiving more than ten times its usual number of visits per day as well as dozens of comments, many of which I declined to publish due to the offensive language and disrespectful tone.  In addition, the post has been shared on countless facebook pages and on four online newspapers that I know of. 

Before continuing this series,  I wish to point out that my purpose in writing the series was not to engage in debate with a bunch of people I don't know - who could, for all I know, be brokers importing dogs for profit - but to throw some ideas and information out there in the hopes that at least some people considering adopting a dog or bringing dogs here from other countries may think carefully about their choices. 

Part Two:  The Scope of the Problem

In Part One, "We Canadians Kill Dogs", I introduced the reader to the fact that while thousands of dogs are being imported to Canada in the name of 'rescue',  we already have dogs in Canada languishing in shelters month after month, shot in annual culls across the northern provinces and territories, or euthanized by the very organizations and facilities charged with their care and protection.    

But how widespread is this problem? 

According to the BC SPCA, approximately 9% of just under 10,000 dogs in British Columbia's SPCA shelters were euthanized last year (Bob Busch, BC SPCA, cited in The Province , July 2013)).  This is well below the national average of 31%, and those figures only include SPCA shelters, not other municipal or private 'pounds' about which I'll comment shortly.  

In a semi-annual survey by the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies (CFHS), which again was limited only to SPCAs and Humane Society shelters (of which only 60% responded to the survey), about 14% of dogs in the shelters were euthanized in 2010 - almost 6300 dogs.  Their surveys do show a drop in the number of euthanasias from 2004, reflecting, I suspect, public pressure to warehouse dogs longer and/or to release them to local rescue groups.  

But more importantly, the figures quoted above mask the true scope of  euthanasia in our country's shelters.  As the CFHS notes, their survey
...did not include municipally-run animal shelters (or "pounds"), which collectively take in at least as many stray animals in Canada as do the humane society and SPCA shelters....Therefore, the number of abandoned, abused, and stray pets entering animal shelters is much higher than what is shown in our survey results. 
In BC, for example, the majority of  contracts for animal control are held not by the SPCA but by private for-profit companies, and anecdotal evidence suggests their rates of euthanasia are much, much higher than those run by not-for-profit organizations like the SPCA.  

Many of these for-profit organizations have other pet-related businesses such as boarding kennels which not only allow them to underbid the SPCA for animal control contracts, but also may take priority over keeping certain impounded dogs alive.  When one is trying to make a profit from impounding animals,  those that are deemed "unadoptable" for reasons of health, behaviour, or old age are cheaper to euthanize than to provide costly care for.  

The same reasons for euthanization  - health, behaviour, and old age - occur in the SPCA.  It is not a "no kill" organization, and in some provinces cannot even be said to be "low-kill".  Approximately  3% of euthanized dogs in the CFHS 2010 survey were physically and behaviourally healthy, while 80% were classified physically or behaviourally unhealthy.  With the right medical care or the right training many, perhaps most, of those 'unhealthy' dogs could have an excellent quality of life.  However,  the costs involved in getting the dog to that point may be considered too great, especially when 'the hounds are at the door' - be it more dogs needing in, or vets and suppliers waiting to be paid.  And when conditions get crowded and transfer to another facility is not feasible, the least adoptable is the first to get the needle. 

As the website for the Ontario SPCA states: 
Sadly, in some cases animals may be euthanized due to shelter overcrowding.  Overcrowding threatens the lives of all animals in our care due to stress, weakened immune systems, and increased risk of disease transmission. 
Similarly, while the  BC SPCA states it is "committed to achieving zero euthanasia of adoptable animals", this by no means claims to be no kill, and the defnition of 'adoptable' is left vague.  The BC SPCA notes that current challenges within BC include insufficient homes for the proper care of all animals born in British Columbia and consequent overcrowding in animal shelters.

Meanwhile,  more and more animals are being brought into Canada from shelters and rescues in other countries.  The vast majority of the facebook messages and media hype surrounding foreign dogs in need of help begin with sensational statements like “This dog will die tomorrow!”  And someone, for whatever altruistic or egoistic reason, will rush in to help.  

Statistics on importing are hard to come by - there are very few regulations for bringing dogs into this country, and no federal or provincial agency keeps track of how many have entered.  As a recent article in Macleans magazine so eloquently put it: 
Somehow, without notice, Canada has become a refuge to the huddled masses of the canine world, as thousands - perhaps tens of thousands - flood into the country each year.  It's a Wild West sphere, with no one tracking the numbers of rescuees entering the country,  nor their countries of origin.  
One Vancouver Island rescuer recently did a quick search of  rescues listed on, the most comprehensive search tool for people looking to adopt a dog in Canada or the US,  and by checking websites and facebook pages compiled a list, in just a couple of hours,  of over  forty British Columbian organizations importing dogs to this province - twelve just on Vancouver Island. And that doesn't include people importing dogs under the rubric of 'rescue', who flip them in parking lots and on free online classifieds without ever joining the larger rescue venues. 

Strangely, Bob Busch of the BC SPCA was recently quoted as saying he didn't think the numbers of imported dogs were enough to effect our shelters.  I would argue that he is out of touch with the non-SPCA world of rescue. 

A count of the 'Happy Tails' on the pages of one Vancouver Island import rescue I checked shows they imported over 100 dogs  to the island in the last year alone.  Unconfirmed reports name another BC individual who has personally imported over 900 rescue dogs.  And on the same day that considerable media coverage was given to "dozens of surviving Whistler sled dogs still waiting for homes",  one Vancouver Island rescue in conjunction with a local pet store was celebrating the importation of a husky from an American shelter.  This week another Vancouver Island rescue reportedly imported eight more pitbulls from the States.  Like we didn't already have enough huskies and pitbulls in BC's shelter and rescue system?

And that's just in BC.  Judging by media reports, many more import to Ontario - even though it has one of the highest euthanasia rates and is located next to the province with the worst record for puppy mills and one of the worst for animal welfare in Canada.  After my first post in this series, I received a comment from an Ontario reader who said 
I think a lot of rescues look locally for dogs in need first.  But if there are open foster homes and not enough dogs locally to fill them, why not import the dogs, save some lives -- even if they are American?
I have no idea what utopian community she lives in, or what absolutely amazing rescues she is affiliated with, but every single ethical rescue I am familiar with finds no shortage of local dogs to fill their far-too-few foster homes and I know the situation is even more dire in Ontario. And we're not just talking about large dogs - the rescues in both BC and Ontario have many local small dogs available as more and more unscrupulous back yard breeders and puppy mills grind out small little dogs, sell them to the first person with cash, who then dumps them when the dog becomes an inconvenience.  The shih tzus and yorkies and smorkies and malti-poos and daschunds and puggles and jack russels are taking over the kennels and foster homes. 

Are the dogs coming in from other countries directly responsible for the deaths and excessively long shelter stays of dogs already here?  No, of course not.  But the importers may well need to bear some of the responsibility.  If they were as quick to help dogs here as to garner publicity from their so-called compassion for animals in the streets of Sarajevo or Mexico or California, perhaps dogs here would not be euthanized at the rate they are or spend months, even years, in shelters here. 

But still, one can argue, a dog’s life was saved. If not one from Canada, one from elsewhere. It made a difference to that one dog. 

And that may be a valid argument.  Until you look at the bigger picture – the problems that occur when dogs are brought in en masse, or without places to go, or without medical or behavioural assessment, or by inexperienced rescuers, or from culturally and environmentally very different regions.  And those are some of the problems I’ll address in the remaining posts in this series.  

While every attempt has been made to ensure that my information is accurate and that my opinions are based on valid perspectives (I am a retired social scientist whose whole career centred on teaching and evaluating research and reports), the material presented here is by no means comprehensive.  One could spend twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, researching and writing about the importation of dogs.  I think my dogs would object.