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Pets and good intentions often share same grave

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By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 28, 2002


Some days I really wonder about the common sense of people.

I had one of those days last week.

A dog in Plant City bit a 4-year-old-girl. When Hillsborough County animal control officers picked up the dog, they also took her three 2-week-old puppies.

The mother dog was euthanized immediately so the dog could be tested for rabies. The puppies were also put to sleep because, with their mother gone, there was no way, and nobody, to nurse the puppies until they could be weaned.

That's when the phones began to ring at animal control's office. That's when the e-mails began to fly. For the story had appeared on the TV news. It wasn't the mother dog that people were excited about. It was those puppies. Why couldn't they have been saved?

Animals evoke such pure, simple feeling in us that we tend to think that all that is required when dealing with them is pure and simple. Not so, not so, not so.

The straight and simple fact, according to the pound's director, Bill Armstrong, is that dear sweet litters of kittens and puppies regularly appear at the front door. And most of them have to be put down.

"This is not an animal problem," Armstrong said. "It's a people problem. They're good folks, but they're not good pet owners."

Typically, the owner never had their pet spayed. When the litter comes, the owner doesn't know what to do. Where else are the animals going to end up?

The litters present an urgent and practical problem. You need people to feed puppies and kittens by hand. In a facility that handles as many as 29,000 animals a year, workers have other things to do. So the kittens and puppies end up dying, put down by chemical injections and then cremated.

Before last week's fur fly, Armstrong was already trying to find a solution to the litter problem. He had a few foster parents, mostly workers from some of the county's private veterinary clinics, who had agreed to take in some litters and keep them until they are weaned.

What Armstrong needs now is more foster parents. After last week, you'd figure Armstrong would be up to his neck in volunteers. He's had all of 10 or so offers.

So much for putting your money where your outrage is.

The foster parents for these animals keep them until they're about 8 weeks old. Then the animals go back to the county. The animals are put up for adoption, but if nobody claims them, they are put down. All that effort will have gone for naught. All that will have been accomplished is delaying the dog's death.

So you see, the fix for this problem is not quick or simple.

Working for animal control must be something of a calling. To work here you have to really believe you're looking out for the welfare of animals.

So when people get angry, the people at animal control are a little thrown.

"Anytime the public comes out and says we're terrible guys, it hurts us," said Jim Dickey, the field manager for the agency.

And it's frustrating, because pet owners need to see their role in what happens and too often they don't.

That's what I mean about common sense. If animals get neutered, they don't reproduce.

If they don't reproduce, they won't abound in such numbers that death is the only outcome. Of all the animals that pass through the agency's kennels at Falkenburg Road, only about 5,000 are adopted.

You do the math. That's just one-sixth of the dogs and cats those supposedly heartless people take in from us well-intended, animal-loving citizens.

-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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