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Feb. 3, 2014

Detroit's stray pets overwhelm rescue workers

Detroit’s stray dog and cat problem is much too large for animal welfare workers and volunteers to solve without more money, public education and people willing to foster and adopt pets, indicates research by a Michigan State University scholar.

A survey of animal welfare groups by Laura Reese, director of MSU’s Global Urban Studies Program, found Detroit has an estimated 7,500 dogs and 18,000 cats roaming free in the city. While there have been other estimates – both higher and lower – Reese said the important point is there are far too many stray animals to care for in the current system.

And it’s not just strays. With the recent subzero temperatures, tethered dogs have been found frozen to death in Detroit backyards – proving the need for better education, said Reese, a longtime volunteer at her local animal shelter in Washtenaw County.

“The number of stray animals in Detroit isn’t the important piece of this – the fact is, there is an unacceptable number of strays and the city as a whole isn’t doing a very good job taking care of them,” said Reese, professor of political science. “But underneath it all, there is a whole bunch of volunteer groups doing great work on a shoestring. That’s what I’m focusing on.”

Detroit has only four animal control officers. In a bankrupt city struggling to provide basic services such as child welfare and police and fire protection to its residents, other services such as animal welfare are bound to suffer, Reese said.

But there also is a “pretty strong force of 300 volunteer groups that provide the bulk of animal welfare services in the city,” she said. The nonprofit groups range from Chained Inc., which works to protect dogs kept outdoors, to Detroit Bully Corps, which rescues and rehabilitates pit bull breeds.

According to Reese’s survey of these groups, the most serious animal welfare problems in Detroit are, in order: abandonment; the need for humane education for youth; organized dog fighting; outdoor tethering of dogs; and animal abuse and neglect.

The groups said the size of the animal welfare problem in Detroit was their biggest barrier to success. In addition, they identified lack of foster homes for dogs and cats; insufficient money and resources; and the role of pet stores, puppy mills and home breeders in contributing to the stray problem.

Similar to serving as foster parents for children, people can house pets until a permanent adoptive home can be found. Reese went through the foster home selection process with the Humane Society of Huron Valley in Washtenaw County, which involved being interviewed by the shelter and having a “home study” completed. She has since served as a foster home for dogs and cats for the past five years.

She also belongs to a volunteer group that spends its own money and time caring for a colony of feral cats living in the woods along the Rouge River. The cats were trapped, sterilized, immunized and returned to the woods, where they are fed and cared for regularly (new strays are taken to the shelter). The goal is to allow them to live humane lives until the colony dies off. Years ago the colony was up to 35 cats; it’s now down to three.

Reese said there should be better cooperation between animal rescue groups and the city of Detroit to get animals off the street and into good homes. One possibility, she said, is for the city to contract with the nonprofit organizations for services such as sheltering, adoption and community education.

“We use public-private partnerships for all sorts of things, from housing provision to health to education,” she said. “Why not animal welfare?”