If only Americans could vote for “first dog.” Anyone who has been lucky enough, as I have, to share a home and life with a rescued pooch—and discovered what unique, friendly, smart and affectionate animals they are—would no doubt have voted to send a shelter dog (or two) to the White House. Instead, our nation’s top dog is the adorable but purposely bred 6-month-old Portuguese water dog who was given to the Obama family by Sen. Ted Kennedy.
So what’s wrong with that?
Not everything. While the first family missed a golden opportunity to set an example by adopting a castoff from a shelter or breed rescue group (although they could still adopt a companion for Bo), it was a relief to learn that Bo will not contribute to the glut of unwanted dogs.
Bo has already been neutered—a fact that should be shouted from the rooftops. By letting the public know that the first dog is the “last dog” of his line—and encouraging others to get their own pups spayed or neutered as well—the Obamas can help “fix” the animal overpopulation crisis that is plaguing our nation and killing some 4 million dogs and cats every year at taxpayers’ expense.
For years, animal protection organizations and shelters have been politely encouraging, urging, nagging and pleading with animal guardians to spay or neuter their dogs and cats. We have talked about the myriad benefits of spaying and neutering—including fewer unwanted behaviors such as spraying and marking, decreased aggression and territoriality (which is why sterilized dogs are less likely to bite) and a reduced risk of many types of cancers.
We have published heartbreaking appeals to help people understand that allowing animals to breed—even “just one” litter—is a death sentence for dogs and cats in shelters waiting for their forever homes. We have even shown how spaying and neutering can save taxpayer money that would otherwise be spent picking up, sheltering and ultimately euthanizing unwanted animals.
But it isn’t working. Open the classified section of nearly any newspaper and you will find litter after litter of puppies and kittens being given away “free to a good home.” You’ll see ads from backyard breeders trying to make a quick buck off “purebred” puppies. Whenever a breed becomes fashionable—as Portuguese water dogs now surely will—breeders and puppy mills are only too happy to satisfy the whims of people who do not consider what is truly at stake.
Not only do these “fad pets” steal potential homes from animals in shelters, many of them will also end up in shelters themselves when the people who bought them on impulse find out that they require time, patience, love, training and expensive veterinary care. How many breeders tell potential customers that “Porties” are rambunctious dogs who would gladly run several marathons and swim the English Channel—all before breakfast? They are hardly ideal companions for busy families.
Breeding more dogs is irresponsible, to say the least. But dog breeders won’t stop cranking out puppies until we stop buying them. Sadly, by some estimates, only 10 percent of the dogs in our homes—and 18 percent of the cats—were adopted from animal shelters.
Please, if you truly love dogs—not just the idea of owning one or the particular look of one—visit your local animal shelter or PetFinder.com and give a homeless dog a second chance at life. While I am partial to mutts (they are unique!), if you have your heart set on a particular type of dog (or cat), shelters and rescue groups have those too. An estimated 25 percent of dogs in shelters are purebreds, and a quick search on PetFinder.com even turned up some Portuguese water dogs.
Once you’ve adopted your new four-legged friend, become a part of the solution and have him or her fixed, as Bo is. It won’t happen overnight, but if we vow always to do these two things—adopt and “snip”—then together, yes, we can end animal homelessness once and for all.
Daphna Nachminovitch is the vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ Cruelty Investigations Department, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.HelpingAnimals.com.