If, as Einstein once said, insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then there was a whole lot of craziness going on recently in a nondescript conference room near Reliant Stadium.
The craziness wasn't exemplified by the slightly manic edge of nervous energy that always seems evident in people who really love pets and are stuck in a conference room without them, although that crackle was present. Instead, the insanity came with the droning monotone of committee reports being read and "action recommendations" being solemnly announced.
Why was this insane? Because the subject of the meeting was the City of Houston's animal pound. And suggestions were being made for improving the department and the facility. And people were actually believing something good will result.
"I think this is absolutely wonderful -- it's a great start and I can tell you all are very sincere and I know this is going to be implemented," says Kappy Muenzer of Citizens for Animal Protection.
To which Einstein might reply: Dream on, Kappy. Efforts to improve the Houston pound have been put forth for decades. Nothing happens.
Two years ago, the Houston Press took a look at the dismal conditions and incompetence at BARC, the Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care. (See "In the Doghouse," by Wendy Grossman, November 7, 2002.) Officials pounded their chests and promised corrections would be made. Two years later, it seems none have.
"It's gotten to the point where it's very obvious that they're not going to do anything," says Kelly Cripe, who's headed an effort to reform BARC. "There are clear indications [the city] is not serious about solving problems at BARC."
Cripe and other critics who volunteer at the facility have detailed the misuse and even abuse of animals in the past few months, providing stories that could have been told five years ago, ten years ago, even 15.
It's not just Houston -- news stations across the country regularly air tearjerkers showing dirty facilities filled with sad-eyed, hungry, impounded hounds scratching fleas. It's a sweeps-month staple.
But Houston holds a special place -- more than 90 percent of the animals taken to the pound don't come out alive. A few subcommittee reports aren't going to change that. A new facility, scheduled to open in a few weeks, won't change that (especially when BARC head John Nix admits the construction project "has been kind of a Keystone Kops movie almost"). More spaying and neutering won't change much either.
So let's end the pretense. Let's just kill the damn dogs. Oh, and the cats, too.
We're not talking about offing your beloved Fluffy or Rover. Christ knows it would be terrible to kill the family pets. So keep on being part of the group of Americans spending more than $34 billion a year on pet food, care and supplies -- including more than $2 billion annually on grooming and boarding.
Continue buying the expensive name-brand products from companies tapping into this lucrative market. If you think your dog deserves Paul Mitchell hair care supplies, Omaha Steak Co. meat or Old Navy clothing, don't let your conscience bother you for a second.
If you want to imagine that your cat actually cares for you beyond your can-opening ability, go right ahead. If you enjoy cleaning up feces from an animal who enjoys drinking toilet water, that's your privilege.
But facts need to be faced -- There Are Too Many Damn Dogs. Oh, And Cats, Too.
If you have 28 dogs penned in a small yard, you're not doing those "pets" any favors. If you have enough cats that you've ever -- even momentarily -- wondered whether you have too many, then you have too many.
The world, and specifically Houston, needs to thin the herd.
Now there are a couple ways you can go about it. You could make it a fun thing: Declare open season on unleashed little yapper dogs and enjoy some father/son bonding as you roam the remaining ungentrified streets of the Heights, hoping some hanger-on grandma has mistakenly let Puddles out.
But that's only going to work with the yapper dogs. Ain't no hunter gonna pull a trigger on one of them bigger dawgs -- they'd tear up like they's watching Bambi.
So you could do it the City of Houston way -- spend a lot of time, effort and taxpayer money pretending you actually give a rip about these animals before you put them down.
No one knows for sure how many dogs and cats are euthanized in Houston each year -- activists accuse officials of fudging the numbers greatly, but it's thought to be about 60,000. The killing gets done at five facilities: those operated by the city, the county, the Houston Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Houston Humane Society and the Citizens for Animal Protection.
Public and private agencies can come up with a myriad of sub-categories to make it seem like they kill fewer pets than they do. Some don't include aged pets brought in by owners specifically to be put down; some don't include pets that come from other facilities.
"It's a frustration for us because there's no apples-and-apples comparison," says Alice Sarmiento of the Houston SPCA. "It's tough to figure out if you're duplicating services or not."
BARC, which has an annual budget of $3.2 million, says it killed 12,859 cats and dogs in fiscal 2004. That number doesn't include 2,620 pets put down at the owner's request, and hundreds of others sent to labs for rabies tests -- and likely death -- after biting incidents.
Of the 16,754 dogs and cats impounded in fiscal 2004, exactly 973 were adopted by folks who came into BARC looking for a pet. Another 1,350 were reclaimed by their owners.
Sure, you're saying, that's fairly efficient -- dogs and cats head in and after a few weeks, nine out of ten are dead. But it's not real efficient. BARC wastes a lot of energy mistreating the animals.
One BARC volunteer has been keeping daily logs of her visits to the facility:
"12/12/04 -- Adoption dogs were in outside pen. They had no water I noticed 2 water bowls [elsewhere] that had dead roaches floating in them."
"12/18/04 -- Little puppy with a bad case of mange was in the holding cell for the entire 30-45 minutes I was there. Other dogs were being put in with it."
"12/20/04 -- Three small dogs were in filthy, feces-ridden wet cages, but they had no water."
And then there was this, from BARC Advisory Committee member Cindy Shaw: "The lighting is so poor at the facility," she told other board members January 19, "that a person [recently] came in looking for their dog and couldn't see it in the dark, and the dog was euthanized the next day."
Kathy Barton, spokeswoman for the city's health department, is well aware of the issues raised by activists. "Animal control is often not a pretty picture," she says. "I know the humane activists complain a lot, but they are not nearly as loud as the complaints we get from citizens asking us to get animals off the streets. Our goal here is to protect humans from diseases caused by animals in the streets."
Deoniece Arnold, a quality control official with the city's health department, investigated the volunteer's complaints and others, such as a useless phone system and the lack of infection control at the BARC facility.
"Most major complaints were found to have some validity," she says.
And so subcommittees have been formed and studies undertaken. Again. "It's clear there was some administrative neglect going on out there and we're trying to correct it," Barton says. "In the short term, we have some money available to whip it into shape, and if it's not whipped into shape, then things will change."
"This is a huge city agency with 100 employees and it operates 24/7 -- change is going to happen slowly," says Sean Hawkins, an animal activist on the latest advisory committee. "But we are working on it We are going to get things done."
(Paging Dr. Einstein. Paging Dr. Einstein.)
Let's go out on a real shaky limb here and declare that past is prologue, that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, that some things never change. Let's predict that BARC will put out a lot of paper assessing how to improve things, and those things will remain decidedly unimproved.
In which case we can all come back here in a year or two and do another sad-doggy tale. Or we can nip this thing in the bud and crank up the killing machinery.
BARC isn't the only facility killing pussies and puppies -- Harris County sent almost 20,000 to Pet Heaven during the first 11 months of 2004 (and, with a budget about half that of BARC, did it cheaper and with fewer public complaints).
About half of the 10,000 cats impounded by the county in that time were "owner turn-ins," people dumping cats either because they've grown tired of feline haughtiness or there's a litter they can't get rid of.
"We have a running discussion about whether we should go to homes to pick up unwanted pets or not," says Colleen Hodges of the Harris County pound. "We figure if we didn't go, we'd just be waiting until [the owners] let them loose on the streets and then we'd have to pick them up, so we do it one day a week. It's a very busy day."
Private facilities such as the Houston SPCA and the Houston Humane Society have lower euthanasia rates than the county or city pounds -- they tend to have better adoption operations -- but they deal with large numbers of animals so the death count piles up quickly.
"Most people," says Kappy Muenzer, "are totally blown away when we tell them how many animals are euthanized in this city."
It obviously isn't enough.
Do we propose wholesale slaughter? No. We are not barbarians.
However, it might be worth looking at a redeployment of BARC staff. And what better time than the present, when city officials have decided to address the fact that "there is a lack of written standard operating procedures that fully define all aspects of the operation"?
(You may wonder how a government agency can exist for decades without such written procedures, but things are casual at BARC. Take, for instance, in December when an HPD officer accidentally shot a dog that was then taken to the pound. A staffer called the BARC vet, who decided it wasn't worth coming in to check on the animal at two in the morning. Dr. Bill Folger, an expert on veterinary ethics, told the city such cavalier treatment clearly violated his profession's guidelines. The health department's Arnold, on the other hand, said the incident didn't violate any city policy. "Is the current policy the best practice? Absolutely not," she said. "Are we taking steps to do something about it? Absolutely.")
So BARC is going to get a whole new set of written procedures to cover its operations. Why not be a little pro-active? Why wait for the problem to come to your door, or to get a call from some citizen?
Roving SWAT teams might do the trick. With strict guidelines, of course. Strays will be aggressively targeted, but there's no reason to stop there.
Pets that should be very careful, if they know what's good for them:
1) Any dog carried in a purse.
2) Any dog that takes a dump on the sidewalk or jogging path.
3) Any dog feeling the need to bark all night long.
4) Any cat.
The SWAT teams would be highly trained. "Excuse me, ma'am, is that a glittery neckerchief on that dog?" they'd ask, instead of just immediately taking the pet away. "I'm sorry, miss, but our equipment detected the smell of cat urine from a distance of 11 feet from your front door, indicating both too many cats and too many Lifetime movies." "Sir, it appears you've exhaled weed into your dog's face. He'll have to go in."
These guardians of humanity would be cold-hearted if necessary. "Sir, the dog's 16 years old, blind in one eye and lame. And he also, it must be said, is not human. Put him down, for crissake."
Sure, the SWAT teams might run into a little hostility from too-sensitive pet owners, but it can't be any worse than what tow drivers are putting up with on Houston highways these days.
And what is to become of all these animals? Simple: Food.
They have meat on their bones, the same as pigs and cows and lambs. Just because you think they have a personality doesn't mean somebody out there might not like to eat 'em.
Author Anthony Bourdain is a "food adventurer" who's traveled the globe for his book A Cook's Tour and a television documentary.
He's eaten live cobra heart in Vietnam, poisonous blowfish in Japan, and in Glasgow he ate haggis, a Scottish dish made from only the most repellent parts of a lamb.
One thing he didn't eat: dog.
"I saw several dog restaurants in Vietnam, but I made a point of never raising the subject, so I wouldn't be offered it," says Bourdain, who is always wary of offending hosts in foreign lands by being disgusted at their food. "I'd like to think that if I was at someone's home, or being hosted in a restaurant and the host comes beaming out of the kitchen with a platter of dog, and I had the option of offending a deeply proud host or dealing with my dilemma over whether something is a food or pet, that I couldn't offend my host. But I'm glad I wasn't put in that position."
Why not eat dog? "The thought is deeply painful and offensive and even horrible to me, the thought of a dog being killed for food," he says. "Dogs love you unconditionally. I grew up on Old Yeller and cute-dog movies. That's still one of the most profound betrayals of my life: I'm still mad at Disney that Old Yeller died at the end."
He doesn't say it's logical. "It's a completely arbitrary line," he says. "The spectrum of what people eat and what is cruelty to animals can be tough to understand when you're coming at it from a Western point of view."
Why is some meat fine and other meat disgusting? Short answer, no one knows. At least that's what attorney Edward Torpoco decided when he wrote a Harvard Law School paper on government regulation of food.
"The tremendous diversity of human food preferences the world over," he wrote, "and the prevalence of powerful taboos against the consumption of certain foods -- taboos which, at least to foreigners, oftentimes appear to be foolish, capricious and uneconomical -- pose a seemingly unresolvable intellectual dilemma for anthropologists."
Take horse. Americans generally won't touch something that reminds them of Mr. Ed or Smarty Jones, but folks in Italy and Belgium love the stuff. And the French, of course, revel in cheval.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture actually promoted the use of horse meat in a 1997 report entitled "Food Safety of Goat and Horse," blaming the distaste for the food on Pope Gregory III. In 732 A.D., he launched a campaign against what he saw as the pagan ritual of eating horse and the custom of avoiding horsemeat stuck in many areas.
"Retail cuts of horse," the USDA said, "are similar to those of beef. The meat is leaner, slightly sweeter in taste, with a flavor somewhat between that of beef and venison."
(Venison? Eating an innocent little deer? How disgusting!)
But cultures that eagerly eat a horse tend to balk at dog. Korea and other Asian countries, of course, are known for having men eat dog for its aphrodisiacal qualities, although they tend to be a little sensitive on the subject.
As professor Frank Wu wrote in a Gastronomica magazine article entitled "The Best 'Chink' Food -- Dog Eating and the Dilemma of Diversity," dog meat doesn't get much love.
"There is no literary champion savoring asosena ('dogmeat' in the Filipino dialect of Tagalog) as the specialty of a Manila street vendor, as M.F.K. Fisher would have savored a rustic repast of pate, cheese and a proper digestif at a Provencal inn," he wrote.
(Hey, maybe if they force-fed dogs like they do geese in order to get the livers to produce the best pate, people would take notice.)
Marshall Sahlins, in the book Culture and Practical Reason, says people equate dogs with themselves because dogs "climb upon chairs designed for humans, sleep in people's beds and sit at tables after their own fashion awaiting their share of the family meal." They're given names, too, and it all adds up to "metaphorical cannibalism" if we were to chow down on a chow.
There's no law against eating dog. Congress, Torpoco notes, "defined 'food' in the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act as 'articles used as food,'" which is a pretty broad description.
"Terms such as 'fit for human consumption,' 'edible' and 'filthy' are meaningless absent a cultural context," he writes.
Maybe you don't want to eat dog -- perhaps you prefer McDonald's, where the cows have no names -- but maybe someone in a starving country does. Ship the meat overseas.
We're just saying. It's a modest proposal, really.
There are some, of course, who will argue against the increased killing of stray (or even just slightly annoying) cats and dogs. It would be much, much better, they say, to simply spay and neuter those animals.
"If you can prevent ten litters in a lifetime, that's 70 or so animals that won't be around," says Barton of the city health department.
"There are so many homeless pets and unwanted animals coming in to our facility, so stopping that cycle is key," says Alice Sarmiento of the Houston Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Neutering also greatly reduces aggressive behavior, experts say. No more marking of territory or madly searching for what we can actually call, without fear of offense, "hot bitches."
"They're not going to be jumping over the fence every ten minutes," Sarmiento says.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Cut 'em in the crotch and all the worries go away.
It turns out that a lot of people want nothing to do with spaying or neutering. "There's this emotional attachment to a dog's sexuality, believe it or not," says Hodges of Harris County's animal control department. "You laugh, but if you were here you'd hear it five times a day -- 'I wouldn't deny my dog that.' Or even with female dogs -- 'Dogs want to be mothers, too.'"
Find that hard to believe? Then you've never heard of "Neuticles," which are testicular implants for dogs and cats who've been snipped. Over 100,000 pets around the world have been "Neuticled" in the past ten years, says the manufacturer, CTI Corporation. You'll be glad to know Neuticles come in two different models: "rigid firmness" at $60 a pair and "natural firmness" at $129 a pair or higher.
(A FAQ from the company's Web site delves deep into the philosophical dilemma of fake dog balls: "Q. My vet said Neuticles are not ethical. Is that true? A. We feel the removal of any God-given body part -- leaving a male pet looking unwhole after the traditional form of neutering -- is not only unethical but unnatural. With Neuticles it's like nothing ever changed." And in case you're wondering, CTI says dogs definitely miss their jewels: "Would he know if his foot was cut off? Of course he would -- it's only common sense.")
And so, just because some folks project their own sex lives (or lack of same) onto their pets, the rest of us are putting up with litter after litter of shit machines who are destined to bear their own future litters upon litters.
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"People know what to do, it's getting them to do it," Hodges says. "I think it's like smoking -- it took 20 years for it to get from this image of you had to do it to be sexy to 'It's like kissing an ashtray.' The country had to be bombarded with it. And that's what it's going to have to take with getting the message out about spaying and neutering."
Twenty years? Surely people will wake up to the need before then. Maybe BARC will even shape up before then. (Dr. Einstein? Hello?)
Neither seems likely at this point. Dogs and cats will continue to propagate rampantly, BARC will continue to admit it's been screwing things up and promise to do better in the future, and the rest of us will have to deal with the fallout.
But there has to be a better solution. A Fido Solution.