Under the cover of darkness, a man arrives at a stark concrete building. He reaches down and strokes a purebred Pomeranian dog. Those forever trusting canine eyes look up one last time, as the man hurriedly opens a door, like the kind found on an apartment laundry chute.
He places the dog in, and thud – the helpless pup drops two feet to a concrete floor. That’s when the barking starts, barking from other dogs who had been deposited earlier that night. Barking from dogs infected with who knows what, barking from dogs that might be aggressive to other dogs. The barking continues, as the man drives off.
For years, this is how many folks in Smyrna, Tenn. – located 20 miles east outside of Nashville in Rutherford County – relinquished their pets.
Cindy Hancock, who lives in nearby La Vernge, had no idea this practice existed so close to her home until one day out of curiosity she followed the barking sound located in a building next to the local recycling center.
She was shocked to learn, that it wasn’t only plastics and glass that were being recycled – but pets too. She learned a similar facility was located in Murfreesboro, another nearby town. Hancock, who is a server and banquet service manager at a nearby Holiday Inn, became an instant activist.
She gathered a paw full of supporters, who called themselves the Tennessee Volunteers for Animals, and initiated a local campaign to close the pet dumps. Local officials totally disregarded them, even mocking their efforts. Still, Hancock persevered, snapping pictures of the grotesque facilities, then sending them across the world on the Internet. She began an international petition drive, ultimately tallying more than 70,000 signatures. That’s more signatures than the total number of residents in Smyrna and Murfreesboro combined. When he read about Hancock’s efforts on the Internet, Burt Toporzisek, a psychiatrist in Kiel, Germany, was so moved he came to Tennessee to lend help.
Going undercover, Toporzisek documented neglect and cruelty. But that’s not what finally got the Murfreesboro dump shut down last August after 50 years of operation. A loophole in the zoning law provided the legal excuse. Still, none of the local politicians or animal control officials would concede these places were inhumane.
By September, the plight of Tennessee’s dumped pets hit national news when this columnist wrote about it. Meanwhile, the Internet site continued to inflame animal lovers from around the world who relentlessly wrote angry letters to local politicians.
“At that point the County Commissioners just dug in their heels,” says Julie Morris, vice president of National Shelter Outreach at the New York City-based American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
The Tennessee Volunteers organized a formal protest with 300 local residents marching in protest. Finally tired of being barked at, commissioners resigned, others relented, and quite suddenly a vote was taken to demolish the Smyrna facility. The shelter director resigned, and Tracy Hill, a shelter professional from Orlando, Fla. took over. By November, both the Murfreesboro and Smyrna infamous pet dumps were torn down.
“Okay, now what do we do?” asked Hill. “The truth is that the mentality that prompted people to use the dump sites hasn’t changed. People just aren’t considering their pets a part of their families around here.”
The pet dump practice isn’t limited to Tennessee. The Corpus Christi, Tex. animal control office has what they gently describe as a night depository. These are enclosed wooden boxes adjacent to the shelter building where pets are abandoned after hours.
It’s true that unlike the Tennessee dumps, these animals are gently delivered into a box rather than dropped into a chute. Also, the location is at the shelter, not at a smelly recycling center. Also once a single pet is inside a box, the door closes and locks, and you can’t add in any more pets.
Still, this is not a good thing, according to Morris. “The mind set is the same as the dump – I don’t care what’s it’s called. It’s just too easy to give up pets under the cover of darkness.”
“We have no choice,” argues Jeff Beynon, director of animal control in Corpus Christi. He agrees, the boxes are only the symptom the problem is cultural.
From August of 1998 through July of ’99, an astounding 24,000 pets (including strays and owner give-ups) were brought into the shelter, and 95 percent of those animals were euthanized. That is astounding. Corpus Christi is a city of just over 300,000 people. At the Anti-Cruelty League in Chicago, a city of about 2.8 million, 15,000 pets were brought into the shelter in 1999 (including strays and owner give-ups), and about 50 percent were euthanized.
It’s not unusual for the night depository to fill up, and people break down the doors of the individual wooden holding cages – tossing in their animal with whatever happens to already be there. When the night depository was closed for a short time for construction, pets were left in the parking lots, sometimes in a box or carrier, but usually just wandering. It’s no surprise, 25 to 30 road-kill dogs and cats are picked up on a daily basis.
“This is Texas, where farmers who find strays on their property shoot to kill, it’s legal,” say Beynon. “It’s even legal to kill your own pet if you do it fast, so there’s no long, drawn-out pain and suffering.”
Beynon guesses only about 20 percent of the Corpus Christi population spay/neuter their pets, and about 30 percent vaccinate for rabies. Two veterinarians, who did not want to be identified, concurred that his numbers are about right.
In Lebanon, Tenn., the night depository is a bit more upscale – four stainless steel cages. Sara Felmlee, president of the Humane Association of Wilson County says she agrees with Benyon – that a night depository is essential. “I know the pets would be dumped on the side of the road,” she says. She says the local spay/neuter rate might be 20 percent. Obviously spay/neuter is an issue; the shelter perpetually has 50 to 100 puppies and/or kittens available for adoption.
“It’s a matter of economics,” says Felmlee. “People just can’t afford $75 or more to alter a pet.” That’s why Morris is calling for more low cost spay/neuter clinics in rural parts of the country. “We already have them in the big city,” she says. “I remember when we had the first low cost clinics in New York, there was a stampede.”
Benyon, who his spent all his adult life in Corpus Christi, agrees. “Let’s be honest, we have a cultural issue; people around here don’t give a hoot, otherwise our shelter wouldn’t be overcrowded.”
Regardless what you call them – pet dumps or night depositories – Hancock feels they’re all the same. “The goal should be to eliminate these places, there is no good excuse to allow them,” she says. “I’m personally ashamed I live in a community that permitted this to go on for so long. But I’m proud that a few of us ordinary citizens were able to make a difference. The dogs and cats give us so much, we need to do this for them.”
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