Thursday, March 24, 2011

Confiscation Should Be Last Resort

I work at a nonprofit sanctuary for farmed animals. We get calls on a regular basis about cruelty or neglect to farmed animals. Sometimes we can go out to the farms or homes ourselves and just observe the animals - more often than not, they are not being neglected. Sometimes they are, and we will do our best to help those animals. In the first few years at the sanctuary, as the point person for these calls, my initial inclination was always to call animal control. Call authorities. Document the neglect, abuse, whatever, and pass it along. It's always been a punitive response to, in most cases, an unknown situation.

Now certainly there are situations in which intervention from authorities is absolutely necessary. Cases of extreme cruelty and neglect warrant confiscation of animals and possible criminalization of their guardians. Allowing an animal to slowly starve to death is a cruel fate and should be punishable.

But! In recent years, I have changed my tune. Part of my change comes from the reality that faces farmed animals confiscated from cruelty cases. There have been cases in which "rescued" animals were subsequently slaughtered or sent to auction for the shelter's profit. How can we be a humane society when we rescue animals and then literally slaughter them. Sometimes I thought the animals were better left at their previous location where they may not have thrived, but they would have survived alive in acceptable conditions. And sometimes the animals were humanely killed, although they were healthy and otherwise adoptable.

This did not sit well with me. We could not take in all the animals we tried to help, of course. And while we work tirelessly to place needy farmed animals into permanent homes, a neglected solution wheedled its way into my head. Why not work to keep the animals IN their homes? In the absence of neglect or cruelty, many people who call us about their unwanted farmed animals are just overwhelmed and unsure of what to do. Some are moving or being evicted, and for them, we network to find homes for animals.

A couple months ago, a woman emailed me about her friend. The friend had a lot of farmed animals on a small plot of land. There were goats, pigs and horses. The horses were in a lot of muck and mud. The goats were inbreeding and, in one case, a goat had retained a dead fetus and was slowly expelling it. The pigs were inbreeding and starting to become a problem, population-wise. It was a clear case of a person with too many animals, not enough money, and too little land to properly house them.

So I asked the woman who emailed me if she thought her friend was cruelly neglecting the animals or if she normally provided good care for the animals, and was "merely" overwhelmed by the sheer volume of animals. The return email indicated the latter.

Instead of encouraging her to contact authorities to remove some of the animals, I offered some suggestions. Find out if some friends were willing to go out and clean up the horses' stall and pasture. I offered referrals to vets who might be willing to come out and castrate some of the goats and pigs, to prevent future breeding. And we offered to assist in rehoming animals, if necessary. Since the woman was having a hard time selling the offspring, I suggested friends come out and build an extra enclosure to keep the males and females separate...and I discouraged breeding animals for profit, of course!

I didn't hear from her and, with everything else going on, ended up forgetting about the situation. But recently, the woman emailed me with an update. All those suggestions? They worked! The horses' stalls were cleaned up - no more mud to get stuck in. The baby goats were castrated (and while I oppose banded castrations, in these types of situations the pros outweighed the cons) by a vet who came out. Friends came out and built a separate enclosure for the adult male goats. While not everything was done that I wanted to see done, so many victories were achieved that made life much better for a lot of animals. It turns out the woman really cared about her animals, doing her best to make sure they were fed - sometimes to her culinary detriment - but the economic times made things tough.

But in the end, keeping those animals in that woman's care was the right thing for everyone. No messy court cases. No depressing interventions. No animals on their way to the auction yard and slaughter. No over-running a small shelter with a large "neglect" case.

So if it can be done with simple solutions for 50-60 farmed animals on one woman's property, I have great faith it can be done for individual dogs and cats. There are certainly times when confiscation is the best for the animals, but there are times when it is not. And there are times when dropping an animal off at a shelter is in the best interest of the animal and times when it can be avoided. Offering reasonable solutions to what may seem like insurmountable problems can mean the difference between life and death. Keeping dogs and cats in their current homes with a little verbal or small financial assistance can avoid the burden of sheltering that dog or cat, caring for that dog or cat, and trying to find a home for that dog or means fewer dogs and cats entering the shelter system. It means fewer dead animals. That is a good thing.

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