A Statement on Community Cats

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Oakland County Animal Control and Pet Adoption Center, according to reports published by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, saves more animals than any other municipal shelter in the state of Michigan. We are, and remain, partners in animal welfare alongside them.

The Michigan Humane Society, however, strongly opposes their stance on community cats.

Oakland County euthanizes feral cats and those not selected for adoption citing animal welfare and public safety concerns. MHS believes that community cat programs are viable alternatives to euthanasia.

Adoption should always be the preferred outcome for every animal, but that is not always a possibility. Sometimes a healthy cat is unsocialized or otherwise temperamentally unsuitable for a home, and in those instances, research has shown that death need not be the only possible outcome. Community cat programs are sustainable, effective, and a lifesaving outcome when adoption isn’t appropriate. 

Historically, it was thought that community cat programs would spread disease, lead to increased suffering, and were ineffective at controlling stray cat populations. This simply is not true. Animal welfare is an ever evolving field and our practices must evolve with it. MHS believes community cat programs are both humane and effective and should be a part of any progressive animal shelter’s programs. We are here to save lives, and community cat programs do just that.

The outdated method of euthanizing all feral and unsocial cats is ineffective. Unless the environment is changed, these outdated programs simply create a temporary void in which other community cats, typically unsterilized and unvaccinated, will soon fill. It does nothing to reduce population and does nothing to create healthier populations.

No more harm occurs in a community when a sterilized and vaccinated cat is released to where she came from. In fact, if she was owned, she has a better chance of finding her way home through a return-to-field program rather than at an animal shelter where, nationally, the reclaim rate for cats hovers around 2%. In addition, cats as part of a community cat program are vaccinated and sterilized therefore creating a healthier population and one incapable of reproducing.

At MHS, our community cat programs are viable, proven programs designed to save lives. Given what we know about community cats, we have an obligation to incorporate these initiatives into our services. When needed, we evaluate each cat as a candidate for these programs and look at her health, experience outside and behavior, while considering external factors like location, climate and time of year. Community cat programs are beneficial to the community and to the cats.

MHS opposes ineffective philosophies in animal welfare and strongly encourages the Oakland County Animal Control and Pet Adoption Center to adopt more progressive community cat programs in line with emerging best practices. A municipal animal control department has the overriding responsibility to public safety in addition to a responsibility to the animals. There is no evidence that these policies improve public safety in any way and community cat programs create healthier populations – which will exist at some level anyway – within that community. With no negative impact on public safety, the course of action that should be taken is both the most humane and effective one; that is a progressive community cat program.

A Note from Matthew Pepper on the Old MHS Detroit Building

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Earlier this week, I attended the Detroit City Council meeting. One of the last items on the agenda was, in my humble opinion, one of the most important. The Detroit City Council unanimously accepted a gift from MHS – in the form of our old Detroit facility – that will dramatically improve the care for animals at Detroit Animal Care and Control (DACC) which, in turn, will give us the opportunity to impact even more lives. MHS’s old facility will become the new base of operations for DACC once they leave their current building.

While our new facility has incredibly enhanced functionality and is the very definition of state-of-the-art, our previous Detroit shelter has been meticulously maintained and has functional years left. The current DACC facility, at best, fails to meet even the most basic needs of animals. This is about ALL the animals of Detroit and not just those housed at MHS. The functionality remaining in the old facility is best put to use by Detroit Animal Care and Control. In this way it will have the most impact.

This is an incredible time for MHS, the city of Detroit and, more importantly, for the animals we share the city with. We are proud to be working with Detroit Animal Care and Control to save even more animals and create the most effective, functioning and humane model of animal welfare throughout Detroit and the region.

– Matthew Pepper, President and CEO

A Note from Matthew Pepper: Animal Cruelty Must Be Taken Seriously

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You may have seen the recent news regarding two high school students from Grosse Isle High School facing felony animal cruelty charges for slitting the throat of, and then beating a guinea pig with a bat.

In response to the charges, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy stated that, “The alleged facts in this case illustrate much more than a youthful prank or a pre-game antic. We must take these cases seriously.”

We walk the line of not wanting the lives of two young men to be ruined permanently because of “one mistake.” It was clearly a horrible mistake, and whether poor judgment or intentional malice, one that we all need to take seriously. The suffering put upon this animal was inexcusable, and there is an unquestionable correlation between animal cruelty and human violence. It cannot be ignored.

If you would like to learn more about the link between human violence and animal cruelty:
National Link Coalition
ASPCA
National Sheriff’s Association
Animal Legal Defense Fund

What can we take away from this incredibly horrific act?

There is much work to be done. We know that we need to instill compassion for all living creatures – to a level that the thought of torturing an animal for any purpose is unthinkable. We all share the responsibility to speak out against animal cruelty and neglect. We all must be their voice. Humane education and teaching empathy for the animals we share our lives with has been a focal point of the Michigan Humane Society for decades. As we look toward the future, it is critical that these programs become even more robust and impactful.

We must also continue to build upon a basic understanding among law enforcement and government officials of the correlation between animal cruelty and human violence. Prosecutor Worthy’s comments are spot-on. Unfortunately, that level of understanding is not as widespread as we would all want it to be. This is not by intent or ignorance. Law enforcement is overwhelmed with their responsibilities under normal circumstances and, given the current climate in America, it is understandable that they could see these issues as less important.

In reality, animal cruelty is linked to serious violent behavior in our communities, and is a clear indicator of other criminal activity. Whether two-legged or four, victims are victims, and violence is violence. In response to this need, MHS provides a professional training to law enforcement that has been approved by the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement.

MHS sincerely hopes that this incredibly heartbreaking incident acts as a catalyst to change. We know that it happened – now, as a community, it is our collective responsibility to stop it from happening again. Regardless of whether animal welfare is an issue close to your heart, individuals who intentionally cause the suffering of any living creature pose a threat to your safety and to your quality of life.

– Matthew Pepper, President and CEO

A Statement Against Breed Specific Legislation

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This photo of Diggy with his new adopter started controversy about whether or not Diggy is a “pit bull.” Pit bulls are banned in Waterford Township, the city he now lives in.

Recently, the story of Diggy, an adopted dog, has been in the news due to questions about his breed and the city in which his owner resides, Waterford Township, having restrictions on specific breeds of dogs in their community. The Michigan Humane Society strongly opposes Waterford Township’s stance in supporting breed bans and asks that Diggy be able to remain with his new, adoptive family.

Michigan defines, under MCLA 287.321, a “Dangerous animal” as “a dog or other animal that bites or attacks a person, or a dog that bites or attacks and causes serious injury or death to another dog while the other dog is on the property or under the control of its owner.” Diggy has not engaged in any of these behaviors. He has done nothing but become part of a family.

The public argument now is whether Diggy is an American Bulldog or a pit bull/pit bull mix. That in and of itself is controversial, as a pit bull is not a widely recognized individual breed, and it would depend on where you based the definition. However, the larger issue is this: it shouldn’t matter.

The spirit behind Waterford Township’s pit bull ban is noble: create a safer environment. It is, however, a misguided effort. Breed bans have proven to be, at minimum, ineffective and more appropriately, a misallocation of public resources and trust.

Our position on breed specific legislation is not unique. The ASPCA, The HSUS and the American Veterinary Medical Association all hold similar positions.

Having an officer with the Waterford Township Police allocate time, in response to a situation where a family pet was being nothing more than a family pet is irresponsible and a reaction to misguided perceptions about animal behavior and temperament.

Painting a breed with a broad brush may seem like a viable solution, but it does not address the core issue. While genetics certainly plays a significant role in any dog’s personality, who that dog becomes is influenced primarily by their owner and their environment.

If Waterford Township wanted to truly impact public safety, they would discard the notion of a breed specific ban and focus on real issues involving companion animals and public safety. Officers should be looking at cases of cruelty and neglect (regardless of the breed). Not only is animal cruelty strongly correlated to acts of violence directed at people, but the animals subjected to long-term abuse or neglect often are not appropriately socialized and may develop behavioral characteristics that make them potentially dangerous. In addition, officers must aggressively enforce existing laws, such as those concerning dogs running at large, for example. The fact that a dog is a pit bull is not a problem; however, a pit bull running loose in the streets is a problem, just as it would be a problem if the dog were a Labrador or a golden retriever. It is the actions of the owner that should be held accountable.

The Michigan Humane Society strongly opposes Waterford Township’s breed specific ordinance. It is ineffective, misguided and serves no true purpose other than to perpetuate myths.

The Michigan Humane Society stands firmly behind Dan Tillery and Diggy and would condemn any action to remove him from his loving home absent any violations of existing State law governing dangerous animals.

Don’t Eliminate Animal Control

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Earlier this year, we saw Grand Traverse County remove their two animal control officers from the budget, effectively eliminating animal control from the county. Now, Montcalm County finds itself considering the same course of action.

Elected officials and government leadership have difficult jobs; I know firsthand, having spent a majority of my career within municipal animal care and control departments. These departments are often asked to do what seems like the impossible by balancing services with limited funding. Animal care and control departments and their associated personnel are often seen as low-hanging fruit when it comes to budget cuts. They are, therefore, often the first to get hit when challenging financial times present themselves.

Eliminating or dramatically cutting municipal animal care and control departments is extremely short-sighted and potentially permanently damaging to the health and well-being of the community.

Animal care and control plays a vital role in both public safety and the overall quality of life for each and every community in Michigan.

In the absence of trained, compassionate personnel tasked with responding to animal-related issues in a community, the responsibility will most likely fall to local law enforcement and/or will be taken on independently by citizen volunteers. Neither provides the appropriate level of protection to either the citizens or animals of our communities. Local law enforcement is often not trained in handling or dealing with animals in the field, nor trained to recognize animal cruelty and its subsequent correlation to human violence – a focus point of the Michigan Humane Society’s Law Enforcement Training Program.

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While highly compassionate, trained and committed volunteers are the lifeblood of organizations such as MHS, they should not be expected or positioned to take on a municipal, tax-payer funded responsibility. This most often leads to untrained individuals, with little or no oversight, acting in a public safety capacity. Even highly trained law enforcement officers often lack the specific training and expertise needed to handle animal-related issues in an effective, efficient and humane manner.  This is in no way to be seen as a slight on law enforcement or volunteers – they are doing what they need to do to be a resource to their community, but they are simply not properly equipped to do so.

Furthermore, when the number of animals who need care increases due to the lack of an animal control officers and resources, these animals often end up at local animal welfare organizations – nonprofits whose resources are already severely strained.  A community is most effective in caring for their animals when private animal welfare organizations, volunteers, law enforcement personnel, and the local animal control officers are each able to provide their specific services to the community.

Additionally, animal control officers are specifically trained to handle animals in a public safety capacity, and in cases of cruelty. They are uniquely trained in handling animal-related disease issues. For example, animal control officers know the rabies protocols and quarantine procedures designed to keep you safe. Keep in mind that, while uncommon in modern times, rabies still exists and is 100% fatal if not appropriately addressed. Furthermore, animal control officers are trained to address the suffering in neglect and cruelty cases – suffering that would continue to exist if the responsibility fell to those without the training or the authority to address it. The spread of infectious disease and animal victims of violence are, unfortunately, common concerns throughout Michigan, and communities must invest in the resources to appropriately address these situations.

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Cutting the programs that protect us from animal-related injury and disease and provide appropriate protection to the community’s animals is a shortsighted solution to the financial issues facing many communities in Michigan. Is there an easy solution? No, there is not. That said, the ramifications of eliminating animal control functions from our communities often reach much farther than one might expect. If we are to provide our communities with appropriate protection, needed public safety, and protection for the animals our citizens clearly care deeply about, we must invest in our animal care and control departments and ensure that they have the tools necessary to be successful.

 

Matthew Pepper
President and CEO
Michigan Humane Society

A Note from Matthew Pepper on Animal Surrender

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We aim to keep happy families like these together for a lifetime.

Surrendering an animal is hard.

It should be hard. A pet is a commitment and not one to be taken lightly. It can be easy to vilify someone who surrenders an animal.

While it is true that there are people who, frankly, should not own animals and do not value them as companions, many people who come to the Michigan Humane Society to surrender an animal are good, compassionate people in bad situations. Often, I would say it is one of the highest forms of compassion to admit a beloved pet is better served by living with another family.

At the Michigan Humane Society, our intake lobby, more appropriately titled our “second chances center”, is not a place of lost hope, but rather the pathway to various important programs we collectively call “keeping families together” and an introduction to our incredible placement programs.

Let’s start with the process.

When someone makes the difficult decision to surrender an animal to MHS, we schedule an appointment for them. In the time between the call and the appointment, our “keeping families together” programs are mobilized. An MHS representative will contact that person and dig deeper into the situation.

Not “do you want to surrender your pet?” but rather “why are you surrendering your pet?”

Perhaps the person has lost their job, a very real issue in Detroit in recent years, and cannot afford to feed their pet.

Thanks to our generous supporters, community members and our friends at Purina, MHS has a pet food bank for families in need. We can help you.

Perhaps there are behavioral issues the owner feels unable to correct.

MHS has experts in animal behavior that can talk you through various issues. We can help you.

Perhaps there is something medically wrong with your pet, and you don’t know where to turn.

MHS operates three veterinary centers adjacent to our three animal shelters. We have incredibly skilled and compassionate veterinarians. We can help you.

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Affordable, accessible veterinary care helps family pets stay in their homes.

“Keeping families together” is core to who we are. A true community animal welfare organization does not just function within the walls of a shelter – it functions as part of a community. Keeping animals OUT of even the most advanced shelters and in good, loving homes is just as important as the work we do caring for the animals in our facilities.

Surrendering a pet should, without exception, be a last resort. MHS is not intended to be an organization of convenience. With that said, there are instances for which keeping the pet is not an option. We no longer should view that as the end of the story, but rather the opening of a new chapter.

MHS has an incredible team that provides model care for animals at all of our facilities; from diet, to veterinary care, to socialization, the list goes on. From there, healthy and treatable animals fall into our various placement programs. In 2015, MHS placed more than 11,100 animals. In 2016, we are on pace to place even more and, so far this year, every healthy AND every treatable animal has found a new home!

One might read this and be concerned that I am encouraging people to surrender their animals. This could not be further from the truth. What I am saying is that MHS, and most shelters across the country, have become incredible community resources that are filled with compassionate professionals, hope, and well-managed programs to help address the complex needs of our diverse communities. MHS is committed to “keeping families together” above all and, at our core, we are a place of hope and second chances and a vital resource to the citizens, both two- and four-legged, we serve.

A Note from Matthew Pepper on “Vigilante Animal Rescue”

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I have spent my entire professional career in animal welfare, but I haven’t always been behind a desk.

For more than a decade, my focus was fieldwork – primarily animal cruelty investigations and public safety-related activities. I served as an animal cruelty investigator/field supervisor for several years, and then moved on to positions in animal control as an officer, supervisor and director.

Fighting animal cruelty has always been my passion. I have personally seen the worst things that people are capable of doing to an animal, as well as the best of humanity when hope, love and a second chance are given to the victims of cruelty and neglect.

Recently, I found myself chatting with filmmaker Tom McPhee. Our conversation gravitated to Hurricane Katrina – and the devastating aftermath to which we both responded, but in different capacities. I was there to assist the Humane Society of Louisiana, and he was there to document the events as they unfolded. It was truly a life-changing experience, and in many ways, it was also career affirming – this was what I was meant to do.

There was such an overwhelming need during Hurricane Katrina, and the subsequent emergency response to that need was incredible. People left their jobs, homes and families, for weeks and even months, risking their health and safety, all for the cause – to make a difference, to save animal lives. It was almost as if the relatively small, close-knit family that was animal welfare grew tenfold overnight.

In a disaster situation, there is so much adrenaline, and so much immediate need, that you find yourself jumping from one thing to another before you even have time to think much about it. Every minute of every day is an emergency. There is constant need, energy and direction.

But where did that energy go when it was time to turn home?

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In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the world of animal welfare saw an explosion of volunteer organizations striving to keep that energy alive in their own communities. Small volunteer-based organizations, once practically non-existent, became commonplace. This incredible influx of passion and energy was great for animal welfare, but was not without its significant challenges. The field of animal welfare is emotionally exhausting, physically demanding, and requires both the passion in our hearts as well as discipline in our heads. As these organizations began to appear in our communities, we gradually saw a divergence into two categories: those that evolved into professional organizations, and those that went down the path of “vigilante animal rescue”.

Oftentimes, perception is confused with reality, and it is no different in animal welfare. The problem is that the general public perceives all animal welfare groups to be the same – yet we are not. Furthermore, social media has blurred the lines between appropriate and inappropriate animal rescue – and quite frankly, between legal and illegal. It is easy to read a Facebook post about an organization that takes an animal from a backyard, perhaps because they believed another was not taking action, and consider those actions heroic. However, we must consider the moral and legal foundation that decision was based upon and its subsequent impact on all of animal welfare.

Across the country and right here in Michigan, you have many organizations taking possession of animals that they perceive are in need, when they do not have the proper authority or training to do so. When these unauthorized, untrained groups illegally seize animals, problems can quickly arise. And sometimes, all it takes for an animal to be provided proper care is having a straightforward conversation with the owner, perhaps providing them with some resources and making sure they understand the seriousness of their pet’s conditions. When an animal is simply removed from the owner in an unlawful way, this does nothing for the next dog that owner will have.

Furthermore, some groups fail to complete the legal process when they seize an animal and, as part of that, fail to rule out potential medical causes or external factors that would be paramount in any sound criminal case. This creates several significant problems. The act itself is likely against the law, but most concerning is that acting in this way could discredit any case against an identified owner. This would provide potential animal abusers the opportunity to return to their ways and put their current, and future, animals at risk. Finally, when a group acts illegally, it puts them in danger of not being able to continue their much-needed work. Acting illegally opens doors for loss of authority, credibility and trust. It leaves the group with little respect and the potential for legal ramifications that could prevent them from continuing to save animal lives.

At the Michigan Humane Society, our animal cruelty investigators are extensively and professionally trained in investigating animal cruelty. They are bound by our mission and their profession to always act in the best interest of the animals while also acting within the law. This can at times, however, create a misunderstanding for those who, like MHS, are deeply passionate about animals.

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Here is an example: A dog is being kept outdoors and on a chain. Let’s put aside, for the sake of discussion, our opinions and how anyone could believe that this is a compassionate and appropriate way to care for an animal. Legally, outside of extenuating circumstances, if the dog is provided proper shelter, food and water and appears in good health and weight, the animal cannot simply be taken just because it is being kept outdoors; even if the dog is not provided these basic essentials, in the absence of immediate danger to the animal, it still cannot simply be removed absent due process. What can be done, then, if an animal has less than proper, legally-required provisions? We take this opportunity to educate the owner, leave notifications, provide additional provisions for the animal (food, straw, a doghouse) and schedule check-back visits to ensure that proper care, as dictated by law, is provided. At its core our investigators are trained to educate first and enforce second. If improper care persists, our cruelty investigators then have the authority, as dictated by the City of Detroit, to remove the animal from this situation and work with local prosecutors on any applicable charges. We are adamant about scheduling check-up visits and thoroughly documenting what we witness, because if we do end up removing an animal, we are able to have the owner’s consistent behavior documented – a piece of evidence crucial to prosecuting anyone who puts an animal in harm’s way.

As you can imagine, these types of situations are incredibly frustrating for us at MHS, just as they are for you. MHS field services staff are on the streets 365 days a year. MHS will go to any lengths we legally can to help an animal in need. However, the instant we step outside the law, we compromise our extensive outreach and field programs, putting tens of thousands of animals at risk. The moment we act illegally, we put our credibility and authority in peril. The consequences of this would undermine our ability to successfully prosecute our current and future animal cruelty cases, all of our records would fall into jeopardy, as well as our ability to work with all entities for the good of animals in need. Because of this, we will continue to fight for these animals while ensuring our team of cruelty investigators and rescue team members are extensively trained with the tools to act within the law – enabling us to continue to operate and respond to the 10,000-plus cruelty complaints and emergency rescue calls we receive each year.

In the absence of serious and immediate danger, no one can just leap into a backyard and take an animal. Doing so is the equivalent of stealing, regardless of the motives, and is robbing that animal from an opportunity at true justice while undermining the processes in place that make animal welfare a true profession. Even the authority of Detroit Animal Control officers to enter a home or yard without a warrant, in cases of local ordinance issues, is being challenged by a group of dog-owning residents. If we do not think the system in place to protect animals is effective, then we must collectively work to improve the system – not subvert it.

I have roughly 20 years’ experience in animal welfare, and I am an animal control officer in two states, including Michigan. I have worked countless complex cases of animal cruelty and taught police officers in four states in the area of basic animal control principles and animal cruelty investigations. From experience, I can say that it is hard to see an animal at the end of a chain and say, “I’ll be back for you.” It is hard to not react instinctively with the suffering you see. Anyone who commits their time and efforts towards animal welfare has my respect. However, that compassion and commitment must exist within the context of laws that exist to protect us all, or we undermine the very principles we claim to uphold.

– Matthew Pepper, MHS President and CEO