Killing Fido

The Seattle Times
July 9, 1991
By Alex Tizon

IT WAS A SMALL ACT THAT COULD easily have gone unnoticed. The office of the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) in Lynnwood was abuzz with typical daytime activity. Near the middle of the room, a tiny black spider lowered itself from ceiling to eye-level and stopped, suspended by a single line of web. It was an ordinary spider. The kind many people would swat by reflex.

A staff worker spotted it, gently scooped it up with a sheet of paper and escorted it out the room, balancing the paper like a teacup. She went through a series of corridors, dodging co-workers and furniture along the way, and out the front door. She brought the paper to the ground and set the spider free. An isolated act of compassion? More like a sign of the times.

This way of thinking — that every creature, even a spider, has a right to life and liberty — seems no longer just a credo of the animal-rights fringe, but of mainstream Northwest, where spotted owls and sea lions have been allowed with popular support to rule the day, where salmon habitat is a political issue and vegetarianism is the rage. Where even talking to dolphins and other species is not considered a far-fetched notion.

Now the Northwest may become part of the vanguard in the newest front in animal rights. Activists, who have fought for the welfare of such exotic animals as whales and gorillas, are now fighting to save the lives of ordinary dogs and cats. It is the animal-rights movement brought home to our front steps, our back yards, our living rooms.

Last year in the greater Seattle area, 60,000 dogs and cats, half of them puppies and kittens, were euthanized in animal shelters — the result of massive pet overpopulation. Strays not brought to shelters live and die in alleys, parks, fields and ravines. Many die of exposure or starvation. Some are hit by cars or eaten by wild animals. Survivors usually don’t last long.

PAWS earlier this year convinced King County Councilman Ron Sims that something needed to be done. In a move that has opened up a storm of debate, Sims introduced a law that would impose a six-month breeding moratorium and require spaying and neutering of all dogs and cats in unincorporated areas. Breeding would require an annual $100 license for each breeding animal, male and female. Violators could be fined up to $250 and spend up to 90 days in jail. The goal, using a term usually reserved for human populations, is “zero growth.”

A coalition formed to hammer out the details of the proposal will present recommendations to Sims this month. Public hearings, certain to be long and loud, will follow. The council will likely vote on the law in the fall. If it passes, King County would be among the first. San Mateo County in California, the originator of the measure, passed it late last year but is still working out the mechanics. Counties and cities all over the country, including Seattle, are waiting to see how the process unfolds.

SIMS HAD ENTERED THE MAELSTROM OF animals and ethics before. In 1986, as a newcomer to the council, he successfully lobbied to pass a law banning the sale of shelter animals to research laboratories. That caused a considerable stir among researchers and others in the scientific community. His latest plunge affects a much broader spectrum.

“Nothing, nothing, I’ve done has brought this much public response,” says Sims. Inside his office sit several boxes and bags of doggy biscuits, each biscuit representing someone opposing the law. The campaign was organized by local breeders in hopes the sheer number would send a message to Sims. But the biscuits have been literally buried by letters of support. For weeks, Sims was receiving 200 letters and 60 phone calls a day. About 80 percent, he estimates, are in favor of the law.

Every major local television station has done at least a half-hour segment on it, including a “Town Meeting” on KOMO-TV that attracted the third-largest studio audience in its 10-year history. Local dog-and cat-show organizations have mobilized. The American Kennel Club has contacted lawyers to check the constitutionality of the law. In small-town King County, coffee-shop debates have been fast and furious. Two men arguing about the issue reportedly came to blows in a veterinarian’s office near Kent.

All this between people who consider themselves animal lovers, and who agree that too many healthy dogs and cats are euthanized every year. The polarization has broken down this way:

On one side are PAWS and other animal-rights groups, such as the Northwest Animal Rights Network (NARN). They view the problem as a national disgrace and their personal Achilles’ heel. Says Mitchell Fox of PAWS: “It’s a little embarrassing and it hurts our credibility to fixate on saving elephants and dolphins half a world away when the wholesale slaughter of dogs and cats is taking place in our very own community.”

On the other side are hobby breeders and pet fanciers whose animal-breeding practices have never been regulated. They see the owner-pet domain as a last private sanctuary from government meddling. The proposal has Big Brother written all over it. And chances are, they say, they will be unfairly targeted because they are more visible than most pet owners.

Thoughtful and responsible people have taken opposing sides. Although the debate is not occurring on a philosophical level, the most crucial differences are, at their root, philosophical. The issue at stake has to do with the moral status of dogs and cats. The outcome could change that status and, therefore, change the nature of the owner-pet relationship.

In general, those backing the law come from the standpoint that animals, especially dogs and cats, are sentient creatures that have their own intrinsic worth outside of their use by people. In short, they are moral beings that have the right not to be caused to suffer or die. (Euthanasia, it is said, is the lesser of two evils: better to die painlessly in the hands of a caring person than to die a slow, tortured death in the streets or the wild.) The words used to define our relationship to dogs and cats is companionship or trusteeship.

In general, those opposing the essence of the law come from the traditional view that animals, while they may be lovable creatures with sentient characteristics, are, in the end, personal property, to do with whatever the owner pleases outside of cruelty. The defining word here is ownership. Laws generally support this viewpoint.

“Since when is it Ron Sims’ responsibility to dictate my rights to have and breed unregistered pets?” writes one pet owner in an angry letter-to-the-editor. He says the law would be “a direct attack on our personal rights as citizens to choose what we can, or cannot, do with our animals.”

Jerry Esterly of NARN says the uproar is to be expected because the law threatens our own long-standing traditions and beliefs instead of others’.

“It’s easy for us to condemn someone in Africa for killing elephants. Elephants are abstracts,” Esterly says. “This issue hits us at home. It becomes a personal thing. People are angry about it because all of a sudden we are the ones that need to change.”

NO ONE WANTS CHANGE MORE THAN shelter workers who must do the community’s dirty work. The law was born from the anguish of killing healthy, breathing, vibrant dogs and cats night after night. This is done by people whose sensibilities drive them to save the lives of spiders.

“Can you imagine what it does to our mental health,” says Fox, who has euthanized hundreds of dogs and cats at the PAWS shelter, “to care for these animals, to clean and feed them, to play with them, and then kill them?”

Fox says the message must be spread that the seemingly harmless act of having a litter of puppies or kittens, to witness the miracle of birth or what not, has the “deadly effect” of taking homes away from other dogs and cats. Someone wanting a cat, for example, will almost always choose a kitten over an older cat. The point is to reduce the number of choices so that existing dogs and cats will stand a better chance of being adopted.

“Opponents are calling this a `radical law.’ But what’s radical is how we’ve been dealing with the problem,” Fox says. The solution, by forfeit, has been to kill the surplus, and then not dwell on it.

The common lament among shelter workers is this: If only people knew. If only people knew what it’s like to lead a dog out of its chain-link run, down the cement aisle and into the euthanasia room. To comfort it while it shakes with fear, and to look into its eyes as the needle is inserted into its foreleg. Often there is a last whimper, a lick. Then the body and head go limp, like a deflated balloon. The eyes remain open. They turn dull and still.

The syringe is pulled out of its leg and inserted into the heart. Another dose of sodium pentobarbital is pumped in. The syringe is left dangling from the chest like a tiny spear. The syringe throbs to the beat of the heart. When the heart stops, the syringe stops. That’s the signal. The syringe is pulled out.

The dog is lifted up and lowered into a plastic barrel. Once the barrel is full, it’s carted to an outdoor freezer. Inside the freezer are other full barrels. Twice a week someone comes by and dumps the contents — contorted, bloody and still staring — into a truck.

The truck hauls the load to a rendering plant. There, the contents are separated, run through a cooker and ground up into meat and bone meal for farm animals and pets. Some of it is turned into fertilizer or industrial oil.

Rendering trucks pick up about 15 tons of dogs and cats every week from animal shelters between Bellingham and Centralia, most from the Seattle area. The shelters pay renderers to make the pick-ups. Renderers make little money from dead pets. “All hair and hide, low yield,” says Charlie Frame, manager of a local rendering plant. “We’re in awe at the number. It’s a shame.”

It’s easy to see why shelter workers grow resentful of the excuses given them day after day. Of the tens of thousands of animals brought to shelters every year, about half are strays, the other half are turned in by owners. The most common reasons have to do with moving or having no time. But many are turned in for less excusable reasons: Going on vacation. Got bigger than I expected. Smells bad. Want a kitten. Tired of changing litter box. Color doesn’t match new carpet.

Perhaps the most formidable obstacle is the throw-away attitude that encompasses living beings — a natural consequence, animal activists say, of viewing animals as merely property. Part of the reason for the law would be to change that way of thinking. And such changes happen when education is backed by the legal system. Example: drunk driving. A massive educational campaign was combined with the passage of tough drunk-driving laws. Police will never catch every violator. The point is to lead society down a certain path. The actions of many imply that, for them, turning an animal over to a shelter is equivalent to donating a toaster to Goodwill. At best, only one in five shelter animals is adopted. The majority are euthanized.

“What does this say about our humanity?” says Sims. “The way we treat animals is a measure of human character. If we can discard this many animals with this much ease, something is deeply wrong.”

COUNTY ANIMAL-CONTROL officers know this more than anyone: The farther out from the city, the more the frontier spirit abounds. Among the thickly wooded hills and valleys of unincorporated King County, this is where the law would face its toughest test. Around these parts, the underlying argument against the measure goes something like this: No one is going to tell me what to do with my animals.

Bob Precious says almost as much. He lives on five acres just off a country road southeast of Kent. He is an old-fashioned guy with old-fashioned values. He wears cowboy boots, smokes cigars. He is blunt and likable. His parents bred Great Danes and boxers. He bred Labradors for 15 years. For the past 13, he has bred Newfoundlands. He has five champions in his kennel.

“Look, I’m all for animal rights, but if PAWS has anything to do with it, you might as well forget it,” he says.

Precious is convinced that PAWS has a hidden agenda. He says the anti-breeding law is just the top of a slippery slope that would eventually lead to no more ownership of animals, no more meat-eating, no more hunting. Before you know it, the argument goes, Fido will be sitting at the dinner table demanding an equal share of the pie. Such rhetoric is not uncommon among opponents and is reminiscent of tactics used by the National Rifle Association when it was opposing a ban on armor-piercing bullets. Before you know it, the argument went, they’ll be banning BBs.

Precious and others believe the extreme is possible. And perhaps they have reason to believe. Who would have known that a single kind of owl would take precedence over a 150-year-old logging industry? Or that the life and liberty of a sea lion named Herschel would be given priority over the recreational needs of legions of sports fishermen? It’s animals over people. That’s the way some people see it.

BUT EVEN IF YOU TAKE PAWS and the animal-rights agenda out of the picture, Precious and other breeders would still have a problem with the law.

Precious says his kennel is tops because he cares for his dogs, not because the county requires it. In fact, he’s about had it with county bureaucracy. The new ordinance would be the last straw. He says there’s no way he’s going to pay $100 a year for each breeding animal in his kennel.

Some years he has brought in as many as 15 females from all over the country to be serviced by his males. The females, owned by people wanting champion-quality puppies, are bred here but have their litters in New York or Montreal. Next time, Precious will have to pay $1,500 – just for the females? He laughs at the idea. He chews on his cigar. Then he turns serious.

“I would go underground. I would no longer abide by any of the rules,” he says. “Right now, I’m complying with every rule. But they’re not going to shove this down our throats. I’ll move if I have to. I’ll sue.”

Precious insists money is not the main issue. In the past three years, he has spent $62,000 on his dogs, for food, traveling and health care. He runs his own landscaping business. He can afford the expenses. It’s the principle. And the principle, voiced over and over by hobby breeders, is often stated as a question: “Why should responsible breeders be penalized for a problem they didn’t create?”

Precious he has a waiting list of people who want his puppies. Prospective owners are carefully screened and required to get their new pet spayed or neutered. The chances are, he says, someone who pays $500 to $1,000 for a dog is not going to let that animal end up in a shelter.

If you want to get at the root, he says, the county must go after the irresponsible pet owner who lets his dog or cat roam the neighborhood and countryside. Incidental or accidental litters account for the vast majority of supermarket give-aways and roadside cast-offs that eventually become strays.

Dr. Henk Kunnen, veterinarian at the Spay and Neuter Clinic in Seattle, agrees that responsible pet owners and breeders who license their animals would be unfairly targeted. Only 10 percent of the estimated half-million dogs and cats in unincorporated King County are licensed; nearly all licensed animals are spayed and neutered. There is no way to track the other 90 percent, which probably cause much of the overpopulation problem.

“So the fines to be hit when it comes time to enforcing the ordinance,” says Kunnen, “will be the ones in the books.”

Kunnen, part of the coalition assigned to study the measure, has been a voice of perspective. He reminds that the problem used to be much worse. Statistics show that the number of dogs and cats euthanized in the county in the past two decades has steadily decreased during a time when the human population has increased by more than 100,000. Kunnen says this is proof that education and low-cost spay-and-neuter programs have had an effect. Still, the county is light years away from zero growth.

Bob Precious laughs at the term. He repeats it derisively, zero growth. “It’s never going to happen,” he says. “In reality, when it comes down to the bottom line, you cannot enforce any law that involves people’s animals. Not out here.” Precious says this with utter confidence, almost as if he knows something that the shirt-and-ties in the city who sit around thinking up ordinances could never know.

OFF A LUSH BACK ROAD NEAR MAPLE Valley, a woman who does not want her name revealed sits in her 12-by-72-foot trailer planted in the middle of three grassy acres. She is 59. She is wearing a yellow shower cap, a knitted vest, aqua stretch pants and black rubber boots. Friends say she is a little eccentric but kind-hearted. She is talking about a television show she watched about the pet overpopulation problem.

“It’s awful how they put the animals to sleep,” she says. “Some people don’t care. It broke my heart. I just bawled.”

As she speaks, the sounds of yelping and scurrying are all around. There are 38 dogs in her trailer: a half-dozen adults and six litters, ranging from a few days old to four to six weeks old. They are confined in blanket-covered boxes, cages and portable kennels. One litter is in an infant playpen. They are mostly poodles, toy and miniature. They all look healthy.

Outside are 15 more dogs, all adult, most kept in an open 8-by-10-foot pen made up of scrap wood and chicken wire. Part of it is covered by a tarpaulin. On the lawn is a white Samoyed and the property watchdog, a large Doberman pinscher. The woman says she allows only 10 litters a year, selling each puppy for $200 to $300 apiece. A friend says her dogs have more like 30 litters a year, possibly more.

There is no way to know for sure how many dog and cat breeders there are in the county, but field officers say there are probably hundreds, and most are not licensed. They range from premier show breeders to back-yard breeders who dabble to make a little extra income.

This woman’s operation is what animal control officers call a “puppy mill” — not in the classic Midwest style, in which dogs are basically bred and sold like livestock, but in a style that is distinctly Northwest: small, secluded, laid-back. Affection mixed with production.

“I love these dogs. They’ve helped me through some horrible times, emotionally and financially,” the woman says. Her husband was sick for many years and died just recently, she says. “These dogs bring happiness to other people, too. I’ve made a lot of people happy.”

She has heard about the ordinance and is against it. But she is not at all worked up about it. From the road, one can’t see a thing. Unless she is reported, county officials would never know she existed. Bob Precious doesn’t know the woman, but he does know this: In the rural Northwest, there is too much land and not nearly enough animal-control officers. And this, he and opponents say, is what makes the proposed law useless. Like so many other animal-control laws, it would be all bark and no bite.

ANIMAL RIGHTS ARE GREAT, BUT “Why pass another unenforceable law?” says Mike Cronin, a county animal-control officer. He and his colleagues would be enforcing the ordinance. He says most of the officers are against it. Cronin says he can’t keep track of the laws already on the books. Animal control contracts with 23 cities in the county. He says between state, county and city codes, there are 208 pages of animal-control regulations.

If he can’t remember all of them, he says, how can he expect it from the public? Only a fraction of pet owners obey the county’s most basic animal-control law — licensing dogs and cats. Many don’t know it is required. Laws are not very uniform. Some counties, including Snohomish, don’t require licensing of cats.

Cronin says if he started enforcing every law in a hard-nosed way, not only would he alienate his public, he would run himself into the ground. On weekdays, only 11 officers cover the entire county. On holidays, there are only two — one in the north, one in the south. Between making pick-ups, catching strays, answering dozens of service requests and hundreds of calls, who has time to see if every dog and cat is licensed?

“At least society has come out of the Cro-Magnon stage when people would put unwanted cats and dogs in a gunnysack and throw them in a river,” says county animal-control chief Dan Graves. “Forty years ago people did that and didn’t think much about it.”

Mitchell Fox of PAWS would question whether the modern way of disposing of pets is really more civilized. If anything, the efficiency makes it more diabolical. “Homogenized death,” he calls it. In this way, he says, shelters have contributed to the problem by giving society such an easy way out.

“We have all failed,” he says. “We should all be indicted.”

The hopeful news is that admissions of complicity or complacency are being conceded on all fronts, even from breeders and others opposing the law. Precious, for example, admits that some breeders need regulating, and while he doesn’t like the Sims proposal, he may be open to other proposals. It’s a signal that at least on some level in this emotionally charged and multi-tiered issue, supporters and opponents of the controversy agree that some kind of change is necessary, if not inevitable. And the public, too, seems open to change. The letters and calls to Sims, as well as the qualified endorsements of the measure from the state’s three largest newspapers, attest to that.

The arguing and jostling may be part of the process of finally coming to an agreed-upon path. Most of the players know instinctively that, whether or not this particular proposal becomes law, the process of deciding the status and future of dogs and cats has just begun.