The other California immigrants

From Linda Watkins, Ridenbaugh Press editor who works with rescue dogs through PEt Adoption Network.

Facebook and several Oregon news stations are full of updates today about a “rescue bus” that broke down in Grants Pass yesterday. The bus was carrying approximately 100 small dogs released from the East County Animal Shelter in Los Angeles and bound for Sunny Sky’s Rescue in Puyallup. Included is one Chihuahua who just had puppies, and another ready to whelp at any moment.

At the last report state police had arrived with water, help, and volunteers. Groups on Facebook have set up donation accounts to help the rescue with bus repairs, possible vehicle rentals, and/or housing for the dogs if needed.

It’s turning into a heartwarming story of people trying to help otherwise doomed animals and needing help themselves – another story of the community stepping up to help neighbors in need.

But the drama of the story overshadows the real question: Why in the heck are 100+ dogs being shipped out of California to Washington state for adoption? Aside from the fact that such a long drive can’t be good for small dogs who already have some health issues, surely with their population California shouldn’t have any problem finding homes for these dogs in-state?

Sadly the answer is “no” – the dogs are being shipped north because there are no homes for them in California. Nor is there enough space in the California shelters or rescues for these dogs.

In the last three years the number of dogs being shipped out of California has skyrocketed.

At first there were single-dog or at most a half-dozen to a dozen-dog transports from Northern and North Coast shelters. It made sense as these shelters are actually closer and more easily accessible for Oregon rescues. Then a few Central California shelter dogs were added into the mix. And that made sense too as they were usually sending breeds in high demand up north, but in short supply – breeds like Chihuahuas, small terriers, poodles, etc. It seems that most of the dogs in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia shelters were larger, outdoorsy, active breeds and the small house and lap dogs were hard to come by. So providing a few of California’s excess “ankle biters” the opportunity to have a good home seemed like a good thing to do.

As the rescue networks grew, and the transportation up I-5 became more established, the numbers of dogs increased, and they started coming from shelters further south: Stanislaus County/Modesto, Kern County/Bakersfield, Lancaster, San Bernardino/Devore, Los Angeles, and Orange County. And as word of the abysmal conditions in these shelters spread, more rescues (and shelters) offered to take more of these easily adoptable small dogs – resulting in multiple transports that regularly ferry 40 to 100 dogs per week to the Pacific Northwest.

There’s no doubt that these dogs needed to get out of the shelters: Each day I hear (and have experienced) more horror stories about the conditions in the California shelters: overcrowded and underfunded, many of them contain twice the number of animals they were built to hold; dogs sit in overcrowded cages and fight for food as they are not able to be fed separately; the lack of volunteers and shelter staff means little exercise or attention and minimal sanitation; dogs coming in as strays with broken bones or other injuries are left without medical treatment and at the end of their “stray hold” period are either euthanized or offered to “rescue only;” kennel cough is rampant because of the overcrowding and lack of sanitation. Dogs come out of the shelters dehydrated, underfed, severely depressed, suffering from PTSD, and severe upper respiratory diseases as well as parasites, parvo, and distemper.

A healthy, well-adjusted dog will have some chance of getting out onto the adoption floor, but for each dog that makes it that far, several will go into the “holding” area where they will eventually be killed unless a rescue can find room to take them. So it’s no wonder that shelters and rescues in other states are stepping up to help these dogs – but the cost is great.

There is, of course the actual, medical costs. One rescue just spent close to $1,000 on a younger female cattle dog who arrived with a pyometra infection, one eye destroyed due to glaucoma, and the other ulcerated and infected from some injury. She was an owner surrender – her owner had dumped her at the shelter along with two pit bulls who were put down immediately. Sandy was allowed to live another week without any vet treatment and in severe pain. The day before she was scheduled to be killed a rescue was found, she was pulled and sent on her way to Washington. She’s a lovely dog and after two surgeries (including removal of both eyes) and an ear cleaning that had to be done while she was under anesthetic because it was so advanced and painful, she’s going to be a wonderful companion for someone. But at what cost?

As Sandy’s foster mom commented when she saw the information on another dog in a nearby Washington shelter: “If I didn’t have Sandy, I’d take that one in an instant.” And that’s the other cost of bringing in scores of dogs from another state. I’ve talked with many of the smaller, more isolated shelters around Washington and Oregon and they’re all saying the same thing: They rely on the larger shelters and rescues in more accessible and heavily populated area to help get their dogs into more adoptable situations – but there isn’t as much room anymore because those shelters are now taking the California dogs – which they can move a lot more quickly than some undersocialized mutt from the Eastern Oregon desert.

The other issue is that no matter how many dogs are taken out of California (and similar situations exist in other parts of the country – dogs in crowded Southeastern shelters are shipped to the Northeast and eastern Canada, for instance) the supply does not appear to be lessening. In the last few years as efforts to put puppy mills out of business have increased, the owners of those puppy mills have done what you’d expect of irresponsible breeders: they’ve continued to breed, and any dogs they can’t get rid of, they dump at the shelters, or they dump them by the side of the road where they’re picked up by animal control.

The vast majority of these dogs are Chihuahuas and Chi mixes – the little dogs that became a fashion accessory for the Paris Hilton and Brittney Spears wanna-bes. When these little girls discovered that the dogs needed actual care and attention they got rid of them – at a shelter or in a dumpster – where ever it happened to be convenient to drop them off. And while the demand has somewhat waned, the puppy mills are still making some money and so are continuing to produce more dogs. But they’re not selling as many, and the national movement to stop folks from buying puppy mill dogs is building so they’re not even able to dump the dogs online or by mail order.

And there’s been another development: California’s Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed a “puppy mill” bill in 2009, but the state sentiment was strongly in support of the bill and in the years since four California cities (West Hollywood, Glendale, Hermosa Beach, and South Lake Tahoe) have passed ordinances banning the sale of puppy mill dogs within the city limits. So while at this stage it appears that the market for these puppy mill dogs is decreasing, there does not seem to be a reduction in the production and the excess is being dumped in the shelters.

There’s also a social/cultural element in California that many people forget: Especially in the central and southern part of the state, there are two deeply divided societies. When most people think of the state, they think of the ultra-liberal San Francisco Bay area and Silicon Valley; and the trendy, liberal, Hollywood/Los Angeles movie enclave. Remember, however that California’s roots are deeply planted in the agricultural areas of the Central and San Joaquin valleys – the areas where many of the large, overcrowded shelters are located. Within these areas the dominant culture is one of a more rural, farming, utilitarian nature – one that views animals more as tools or farm equipment than as the “furpeople” of their western neighbors.

Economically strapped, especially in today’s economy, the residents of the eastern agricultural valleys don’t have the time, the money, or the cultural imperative to get their dogs spayed or neutered. If the dog has pups and you don’t want the pups there are three alternatives: kill them, dump them, or drop them at the shelter. And if a dog wanders off finding it is not usually a high priority activity.

Between the valley culture and the puppy mills, there’s no wonder that California’s shelters are stuffed to the gills. The question now is what do we do about it? Because much as we’d like to, we can’t continue to clean up California’s mess – we don’t have the room, and we don’t have the money.

There are many fine rescue groups in California, and they’re doing the best they can to address the problem, but in a state of 37 million residents, the rescue community is a drop in the bucket and they have yet to find their voice to call attention to this issue. So they’ve reached out to their neighbors, and we’ve done what neighbors do: We’ve tried to help. Unfortunately, without some effort on the part of California to control the problem, our help will not be enough and there’s a good chance we’ll end up hurting our own states in the process.

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