We don’t have a real way of knowing how many unwanted dogs are euthanized each year in the United States. Educated guesses? Close to 4 million for dogs and cats combined, and more than a million of those might be dogs. When I think of the space two dogs take in my life — center stage mostly — it is hard to even grasp a million just being thrown away each year.
It’s natural to think about this after hearing news about Americans rescuing dogs from overseas. The coverage makes it seem like foreign adoption of dogs is becoming a growing trend, even fashionable, but why are those dogs somehow more worthy or rescue that the castoffs from our own communities? But rather than make some kind of snap judgment, it is important to look at both sides of the issue. People pull their ethical feelings from different places, and that doesn’t mean one person’s choice is wrong and the other is right just because we respond to different kinds of dogs in need.
Should we accept overseas rescue as an option alongside adopting dogs closer to home? We’ll start with the arguments for it.
When you see stories about someone who has gone to extraordinary lengths to help a dog found overseas, it normally begins with an encounter between one person and one dog. While commenters often criticize these efforts, pointing out that this person could go home and rescue a local dog from a shelter with much less effort and expense, I don’t think this is necessarily a fair response.
If we are creating a compassionate society, full of compassionate people, they will inevitably try to rescue an animal they see in front of them — especially if that dog is in pain or in danger. This innate empathy applies equally to a Cuban street dog seen during a holiday, a Haitan dog seen on television after an earthquake, and any other dog. The existence of diverse and international efforts to rescue dogs shows that we as a nation are made up of people with empathy, and that is not something we can just turn off for economic or other rational reasons. Nor, I would argue, should we.
A dog in a foreign country doesn’t necessarily have nothing to do with the United States. When dealing with populations of animals, there is often an international influence into a group of dogs’ situation. For example, the international spotlight turned to Sochi, Russia, for the Winter Olympics, and that put stray dogs at risk of extermination. The officials trying to make Sochi look good for our media and sports tourists saw the street dogs as a kind of trash that should just be discarded. No matter how unwittingly, the arrival of international visitors signed the death warrants for these dogs. So it is only reasonable that this same international attention should be used to fund and develop a more humane solution and maybe find some homes for the displaced dogs. Directly or indirectly, other countries often have a hand in creating problematic stray populations, and surely that should mean we are obliged to be a part of the solution.
A person who saves a dog in need is helping a member of the dog nation, which is a nation without borders. So, while our level of enthusiasm might vary, a dog has been saved. It reminds me of the story of the girl throwing starfish back into the sea on a beach covered in thousands of stranded starfish. Asked why she was bothering, because her efforts cannot make a different given the numbers, she replies by throwing one more back and saying “I made a difference to that one.”
We can get caught up looking at trying to fix the system. Taking one dog out of many surrounding a military base in Afghanistan, for example, won’t affect the general plight of unwanted dogs in that village. It won’t stop them breeding, it won’t stop them starving, and it won’t stop officials killing them to control their numbers.
Just the same, it will take one dog from a state of uncertainty and suffering and give that animal stability and comfort. That is a good thing.
Now the arguments against adopting dogs from overseas:
Despite what I wrote above, this is still important. Simply removing adoptable dogs does not address the root cause of having too many stray, roaming, or neglected dogs in a region. So a case can be made for investing in dealing with the causes, such as neutering, animal control, and owner education. Doing this, rather than remove one dog from adversity, you directly address the causes. If you adopt one dog, that’s good. If you adopt one dog and fund low-cost spay/neuter for five others, that is even better. Realistically, delivering and maintaining programs to eliminate the problem (which is undeniably difficult) is generally higher with domestic programs. The U.S. has a model for success when it comes to population control as seen by a halving of our nation’s stray dog population in less than 10 years and near-eradication in many large cities. But such programs still await a lot of American communities, including urban areas such as downtown Detroit and rural areas such as Native American reservations.
It can be argued that we have a greater duty to animals near us. Dogs within our own communities should naturally have a stronger hold on our ethical attention. We are members of the community that allowed these dogs to be bred and to be deserted. On what basis can we aim to solve the world’s problems when he have not dealt with them in our own backyard? There was a time when ethics was merely a matter of coldly weighing outcomes. But these days we understand that duties and relationships are also ethically relevant. And in this framework American dogs, members of our American family, should perhaps be placed first for rescue rather than being left stray or euthanized as unwanted.
In theory, more dogs can be saved by removing the cost of moving animals between countries. Costs aside from transportation include quarantine and veterinary care. Foreign dogs are often more likely to have dangerous diseases that require extraordinary treatment. This treatment and transport can be extraordinarily stressful for animals who might be poorly socialized and accustomed to fending for themselves. We should consider whether the same investment, applied locally, might help more animals at less cost in terms of animal suffering. We might even consider that in some communities the life of a street dog is not all that bad, and some of these dogs might not need rescuing at all.
In the end we should make local dogs more adoptable rather than resent the rescue of foreign dogs.
Sometimes I wonder whether some dogs are victims of the success of the American pound and shelter system. Animal control and rescue efforts vary, but in many areas, you see no stray dogs wandering in the street. Thus many people who might be a sucker for a pair of brown eyes never get to see them because that dog is “safely” housed in a clean and tidy shelter. Some of these “homes of opportunity” would be good homes, some would not, and dogs living stray generally have a miserable and short existence — but, at least those left stray would have that small chance of finding a home for themselves by their own efforts.
Rescues try to simulate these encounters by taking adoptable dogs to pet stores and community events, by using the news media and social media, and by posting pictures on places such as Petfinder. But that is never going to replace the experience of finding that dog who followed you home or begged for scraps or took shelter in your doorway. That is one thing strays in many foreign cities still can do.
The U.S. has, in many regions, made enormous progress in dealing with stray dogs as a danger to public safety, and there has been progress (albeit excruciating slow) in reducing the suffering of strays and the problem of overpopulation. The progress from the brutal pound-masters of 100 years ago to modern humane societies and shelters is remarkable. Just the same, the effect of the recession on some rural areas and cities in crisis has shown how quickly that progress can be lost. So I do not want to overstate the downside of effective animal control and the modern animal shelter system. But every decision has consequences, and the mass euthanizing of unwanted dogs in this country is a consequence that occurs behind closed doors. It’s one that should continue to hang heavily on our collective conscience.
So should we rescue foreign dogs? I believe that a compassionate act to help another animals or person is never wrong. Local rescues clearly recognize the need to find a way to engage that impulse here in the U.S.
What do you think? Tell us in the comments.
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About the author: Emily Kane is a New Zealand-born animal behaviorist of the throw-back radical behaviorist type, albeit with a holistic-yuppie-feminist-slacker twist. She spent many years as an animal behavior researcher and is now more of an indoor paper-pushing researcher. Her early dog-related education came from Jess the Afghan Hound and Border Collies Bandit and Tam. It is now being continued by her own dogs and extended dog family and some cats (and her three aquatic snails Gala, Granny, and Pippin — they think of themselves as dog-esque).