February 13, 2014

PARANDEKAR | Options for Feral Animal Population Control

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By NIKHITA PARANDEKAR

Feral animal control has been quite the hot topic in the media lately. From the negative attention surrounding the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics concerning the city’s proposed extermination of thousands of stray dogs –– out of fear they may endanger the athletes –– to a recent Washington Post magazine article about killing stray cats in the Washington, D.C. area, the issue of feral animal population control has reached worldwide awareness.

Feral animals, specifically dogs and cats, can be a problem in communities for many reasons, including their ability to destroy property and to spread infectious diseases to other animals and humans alike. The welfare of the animals themselves can also be a concern –– they may be sick, parasite ridden, emaciated or hurt. Leaving them alone to deal with these problems is not an option. First of all, we have a responsibility to care for feral animals because they’re a part of our communities. Secondly, dogs specifically have become so domesticated by humans that they are no longer able to survive on their own.

It’s difficult to come up with a set of rules to outline how to control the population of feral animal colonies. I think the right answer is probably a mixture of all of the techniques mentioned, … and the ratios of these methods will probably vary dramatically among communities based upon their specific needs.

Granted, the proper method for the population control of stray animals is still highly debated, even within the veterinary community. Some suggest that the best practice would be to capture all of the strays, provide them with medical attention, place them in shelters and find them homes. In an ideal world with limitless resources, this method would be the perfect solution. But realistically, this costs too much manpower, money and time to realize.

Others advocate for the implementation of trap-neuter-release programs in which animals are trapped, spayed or neutered, vaccinated and, finally, released after they’ve woken up and recovered from the procedures. The hope is that if enough animals are fixed, their numbers can be managed. The problem with these programs, however, is that it takes a massive effort to fix enough animals to impact the growth of the population. Also, these programs don’t inhibit stray animals from getting hurt or acquiring diseases, so their welfare still remains in question.

Another option is the euthanization of all feral animals. This would essentially eliminate the problem of population control, because there wouldn’t be animals reproducing, spreading diseases or starving. However, this raises a serious ethical dilemma –– is it right to just euthanize these animals? Opponents will say things like, “If you asked the animals, they would say that they wanted to stay alive, even if they had to be miserable.” But I think that this perspective anthropomorphizes the animals (and this is coming from someone who regularly has conversations with her cats). We often make decisions about euthanizing our pets, and most people don’t believe that it’s ethically wrong to do so: We are saving our animals from pain. Should we evaluate feral animals any differently? I don’t know the right answer –– or if there even is a right answer –– but I do adamantly believe that if animals are euthanized, they should be trapped and euthanized humanely.

It’s difficult to come up with a set of rules to outline how to control the population of feral animal colonies. I think the right answer is probably a mixture of all of the techniques mentioned above, and the ratios of these methods will probably vary dramatically among communities based upon their specific needs. For example, maybe in some places, euthanizing the very sick strays and making a concentrated effort to regularly fix the rest would be a good solution. In areas without the resources for spaying and neutering, however, perhaps more animals may have to be euthanized.

There was a massive outpouring of support for the dogs in Sochi, and the forum has been opened for a more involved discussion regarding the stray cats in D.C. But there are countless other places all over the world that face similar situations and that need to find the most humane way to maintain the health of animals in their communities. This issue reaches past treasured international celebrations and our nation’s capital –– once the Olympics are over and D.C. has moved on to its next soundbite, stray animals will still be there, needing our help.

Nikhita Parandekar graduated from Cornell in 2011 and is a third-year veterinary student in the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine. She may be reached at nparandekar@cornellsun.com. Hoof in Mouth appears alternate Fridays this semester.

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