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Citizen Servatius: Throwing Animals Away

Unless you're ready for strong commitment, resist the urge to buy that Christmas puppy

It was the most horrifying thing I'd ever witnessed. My dog's soft, plump little body hung from the jowls of a dog four times her size. It came at her out of nowhere, it seemed, sunk its teeth into the flesh of her hindquarters and whipped her tiny frame back and forth a full foot off the ground, as if she weighed no more than a paper bag. I screamed, but there was no one to help. I kicked it as hard as I could, but the dog barely noticed as my dog's blood seeped from its jaws. In desperation, I threw myself on its back, wrapped my arms around its neck and choked it so hard I saw stars.

It spit Sparkle out with a gasp and almost immediately buried its teeth into my upper arm. Because I wore several layers of clothing, it couldn't get a good grip, and eventually it ran off.

This all happened at the end of my driveway. My nine-pound dog was on a leash. But none of that mattered. My neighbor's neglect of her dog spilled over onto my property and into my life anyway. It took staples, stitches and hundreds of dollars to put Sparkle back together.

And Snowball? It's likely that Animal Control will have euthanized her by the time you read this. My neighbor had 10 days to put up a fence or prove she could secure her dog if she wanted Snowball back.

"I have four kids," she told the animal control officer. "I don't want her back."

So after a short life spent tethered to the ground on a seven-foot chain, Snowball was disposed of with as much thought as one gives to taking out the trash. If this were an isolated incident, or a unique attitude among many of the pet owners in this county, I wouldn't waste the ink it took to print this story.

But it isn't. Many of us are discarding our pets as if they were last season's fashions. If we continue at our current rate, the city's animal control department will euthanize over 140,000 unwanted or problem cats and dogs this decade, a staggering number when you consider that the county's total human population is 652,000.

In FY 2000, said Animal Control Supervisor Ron Simons, the agency took in 21,647 animals. When they arrived at the shelter, 60 to 70 percent didn't have identification tags. About 65 percent weren't spayed or neutered, and 96 percent had had no formal training. Of the 11,007 dogs and 8,439 cats that came through its doors, 14,320 went unclaimed or unadopted and were euthanized.

The next batch to be dispatched is waiting its turn, the animals chained to trees in about a quarter of the yards on my street. That's where last year's adorable little puppies wind up when they begin to chew, bite and bark and their busy owners lose interest in them rather than investing the time it takes to straighten out their problems.

To a dog, social interaction is everything. Their survival in the wild depends on their ability to maintain their place in the pack's social order, which guarantees protection, affection and food. In the wild, dogs spend a lot of their time reaffirming their place in the pack hierarchy. That's why constant reaffirmation is a necessary part of raising and training a dog.

A breeder once told me that chaining a dog for long periods of time without regular affection is a form of psychological torture.

"People take food out to them once a day and think they are helping solve a problem," said Simons. "That's not always the case."

Dogs chained outside because they chew furniture quickly develop barking problems in their attempts to reclaim their owner's attention. Every night I fall asleep to the constant high-pitched barking-cry of the chained dogs on my street. It's not an alarm bark, but a desperate plea for attention that rips at my heart. In time, dogs left this way can turn on their owners, other people or other dogs. If they haven't been spayed or neutered, these animals will often produce more unwanted puppies or kittens. But at a minimum, their lack of training and social skills limits their ability to fit into their environment.

Simons says many of these "problem" dogs and cats that never had consistent training change owners every eight to nine months, and have had several by the time they wind up at the shelter. With each successive owner, they get more aggressive and possessive of their territory.

"By two to two-and-a-half years old, we have a biter dog," said Simons.

My dog, Sparkle, was a chain dog before I convinced the neighbors to give her to me six months ago. About $50 in rawhide toys and many firm words cured her chewing problem. Hours of attention, affection and discipline helped her barking problem, though we still have a long way to go. It hasn't been easy, and she certainly hasn't been cheap. At this rate, she'll cost me about $10,000 if she lives another 13 years, and I'll spend thousands of hours with her before it's all over.

This is what that cute little puppy you want so badly is all about, folks. The truth is that many of us aren't responsible or interested enough, or have time enough, to humanely raise a dog or a cat. You've got to have a passion for it to do a halfway decent job.

So please, don't get a dog if you don't have a fenced yard for it to run in and the time to properly train it. Your dog will need to go out three to four times a day if you plan to keep it inside, and unless you already take regular walks, that will get old quickly, particularly in the cold and rain.

But if you must get a dog or a cat, count on having it spayed or neutered. Unless the people of this county begin to aggressively spay or neuter their pets, animal control will put down 140,000 animals by the end of the decade.

Surely, we can do better than this.

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