Some people have phobias of flight, snakes or crowds. My phobia is dogs in pain. I simply cannot deal with a dog's suffering. The sound of a dog's cry causes a visceral reaction that I have no control over. From that first "yipe" sound, the bottom drops out of my chest and I simply weep openly and uncontrollably. Those of you who know me personally know this is saying a lot. I am not a weepy kind of person by any stretch.
The past few days have been extremely difficult for us. No sooner had I finished my last entry about the dangers of free roaming and feral dogs when there was a commotion outside by the chicken house. Peeking out the windows, I saw the same pack we've been having problems with on its way to the hen house. Michael, who had heard the commotion as well, grabbed his rifle and headed outside. As he did so, he called to me "Are you in the house?" Because I was still getting my shoes on, I told him yes. Thinking I was going to stay in the house, he went to do what we had agreed must be done. Knowing my nature when it comes to dogs, he hoped to spare me from the sight. What a good man I married.
Unfortunately I suppose I wasn't thinking. When I got my shoes on, I grabbed some peanut butter to bait the trap to capture one of the dogs and take it to the shelter. I guess the reality of the decisions we'd made and what Michael was about to do just hadn't sunk in. I rounded the corner just as Michael took the shot. It was a very quick death, but unfortunately it was not the instantaneous one that Michael intended. Rather, it took one more shot. But in those moments between the two shots, there was the screaming.
Have you ever heard a dog screaming his last? Have you ever seen it jumping and twitching as it tried in vain to escape the bullet that had created the fatal wound? Not just an obviously wild looking beast either, but a dog that would look perfectly at home lying on your couch with you and watching television or chasing a ball you've thrown. It is a mental picture and a sound that will haunt me for the rest of my life.
After a few days spent in the emotional equivalent of the fetal position I decided to spend some channeling this negativity into some attention grabbing and trying to do all that I can to help stop these tragedies from repeating themselves. I wrote a letter to the editor of our local papers, but since we do not pay to subscribe they will not accept it. I'm not big into the waste of newsprint (sort of defeats that whole sustainability idea don't ya think?), so I gave it a pass. Instead I will contact those few people I do know who have press access and see if they have any interest. Perhaps I can talk some local civic clubs into accepting me as a speaker on the issue. Whatever it takes to raise awareness anywhere and in any way. After all, this is not just a local issue. A national geographic article as long ago as 2003 reported the feral/stray dog problem as a national crisis.
Farmers who shoot dogs are often portrayed by well-meaning but uninformed animal lovers as heartless profit-driven sociopaths whose main source of entertainment is the suffering of any living being other than themselves. I once fell prey to such an ignorant way of thinking myself. It's easy to do when one lives in the suburbs and and is blissfully unaware of the difficulties and very real dangers farmers and ranchers face from feral dogs. After all, what could a defenseless dog do to a grown man? A dog that looked just like the dog asleep on my couch could never be a threat, could it? Let me be clear. A pack of stray dogs, however cute, is indistinguishable from a completely feral pack. They are often mixed breeds and may look deceptively like the family pet. But this is not Fido, or a little lost helpless doggie. This is a wild animal that will kill livestock (or your beloved pet) not even out of hunger, but in the spirit of play. Just last year, a Georgia couple was killed and partially eaten by stray dogs that a well-meaning neighbor had been feeding. Even closer to home, last year Michael personally witnessed a pack of dogs attempting to pull a child off of his bike. Fortunately he intervened in time and saved the boy (though the boy had to be stitched up).
I can only speak from our own personal experience, but I can assure you that shooting dogs is the last thing we want to do! We are not the canine's equivalent of the bogeyman, anxiously awaiting our next opportunity to have a little fun by killing an innocent animal. We simply have no alternative. If you can find one that we haven't already thought of and had to abandon as not viable we'd love to hear it. Here are the alternatives we've thought of and had to scrap, and the reasons for scrapping them:
Alternative 1: Talk to the owners. Reality check: We did, they don't care. Nothing was changed. Dogs continue to breed freely, come onto our property and try to kill our chickens our chase our horses. Chasing large livestock may seem like harmless fun to the uninformed. After all, what kind of damage is one dog pack going to do to a 1900 pound belgian draft horse? Consider these headlines. Dogs maul, kill horse. Dog Pack Kills Two Horses. Rottweiler Pair Kills Pony. Not to mention that if my horses got run into the street by a pack of dogs and were hit by a car what sort of injuries the driver would sustain (often such accidents are fatalities to both horse and driver).
Alternative 2: Trap the dogs and take to the shelter. Reality check: Our shelter is not a no-kill shelter, and those we have taken have been immediately destroyed. In addition, it is not open 24/7, and we have so many dogs coming in that we would have to have a full time holding area to keep and feed them while waiting for the shelter to open. All so that they could be destroyed anyway. Frankly, I think that scenario of being trapped and hauled into a strange building filled with the smells of terror, piss and shit before having a needle shoved in the arm is much more cruel than a shot to the head.
Alternative 3: Find no kill shelters and take the dogs there. Reality check: Last year when we trapped two puppies starved nearly to death in one of our pastures, we tried this approach. Not one shelter in the neighboring 3 states would take them. Even if they would, it is not my full time job to be a dog taxi. Would you be willing to quit your job and spend your days driving dogs from state to state to find them shelter? Well that's great news because I will offer you a room in our guest house and you can get right to work. You see, I can't do it myself because the hours I would spend in the car being a dog taxi are hours my animals are unattended and vulnerable to the rest of the packs coming in. We did keep one of the puppies, by the way. Her name is Jinkies, and she's currently asleep in Michael's arms.
Alternative 4: Find a local animal rescue to take them in. Reality check: We did that. None of them would take the animals, but "encouraged" us to be fosters. We already have 3 dogs (two of which, by the way, are rescued strays). We do not have time, energy, money or room to take more. What was even more disturbing was the instant email inundations I got from these organizations begging me to give a home to yet more dogs they were trying to place with forever homes or at least find temporary shelter. I've had to drop myself from all their contact lists and Facebook invites because I am doing quite literally all that I can do. I cannot do more, and it breaks my heart.
Alternative 5: Find a home for them ourselves. Reality check: Great idea! Thanks for stepping up! How many do you want? And when can you come get them? Point made.
So as you can see, there is not a lot of choice here. The only way to stop the senseless killing of dogs is to stop the problem at its source. It is a multi-faceted problem fraught with ignorance, impractical thinking, apathy and genuine callousness. It is not one that we farmers and rural homeowners can fix ourselves. So rather than blame us or vilify us for having to make such painful choices, how about working with us to stop it from continuing? Here are a few suggestions on how you can help.
If you are a cat/dog owner:
1. Spay or neuter your pet. If you cannot afford to do so, there are low cost clinics sprouting up all over the country. Local readers might be interested to check out the West Tennessee Animal Rescue organization, which has a spay/neuter clinic like this. Some even have free days. While you are waiting for this day, never allow your animal the opportunity to breed. If you cannot afford or unwilling to utilize these options, you should not be a pet owner.
2. Never buy a pet. Instead, adopt from shelters. If you have your heart set on a purebred for whatever reason, there are purebred rescues by the hundreds. If you have any room in your home or heart for more than one pet, every rescue organization out there is literally desperate for people willing to offer temporary homes for animals awaiting permanent adoption.
3. Do not allow your pet to free roam unless you have large amounts of land and are willing to accept the consequences of death by car, coyote or stray dog pack (common even in cities) or other landowners. Understand that if you allow your dog or cat to free roam, you are legally liable for any bite your pet inflicts on other animals or people regardless of the circumstances. You should also be aware that free roaming pet and feral cats are the single biggest cause of damage to small wildlife populations. In Britain it was estimated recently that cats alone are responsible for the deaths of over 70 million small animals and birds.
4. No matter what your reasons, never abandon a pet. Always take it to the shelter to be adopted out or humanely euthanized. Besides the obvious reason that it is cruel to doom your pet to death by starvation or being ripped apart by predators, to release your pet into the wild is only adding to the already unmanageable problems of stray and feral dog packs. These packs are becoming larger and more aggressive and are now responsible for several attacks and fatalities against humans.
If you do all of the above but want to do more:
1. Write your local government to encourage enforcement of leash laws. Where leash laws are not in effect, encourage them to be created.
2. Do not, repeat, DO NOT feed stray dogs or cats. You are not doing them any favors by allowing them to continue to breed more and more and get larger and larger packs. If you have any doubt of this, re-read this post or do some research on the ecology of feral domestic animals. If you see strays, call animal control to have them removed and humanely destroyed. A much better and more effective way to spend your time, effort and money would be to volunteer at or donate funds to your local shelter. Consider that the more financial help they receive, the more animals they can give a safe and secure environment until forever homes can be found.
3. Do whatever you can to raise awareness to the dangers of dumping animals and feeding strays.