It was Joseph Stalin who said, "The death of one man is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic." If Stalin was right, the overpopulation of pets is a very big statistic.
Analyzing statistics can be pretty dry and unimaginable. For instance, about six million surplus animals are euthanized at humane shelters each year. This statistic is pretty difficult to picture. If an average dog weighs 40 pounds and an average cat weighs 10 pounds, the weight of the average animal is 25 pounds. That means that animals shelters destroy about 85,000 tons of extra animals each year. If that number seems hard to comprehend, maybe this one will bring it into perspective -- 85,000 tons is the combined weight of the Titanic and her sister ship, the Olympic.
If the magnitude of the problem has begun to sink in, try to imagine what the overpopulation of pets costs us. In the greater Phoenix area, local animal control and the Arizona Humane Society handle about 128,000 animals each year, at a cost of about six million dollars. That is about $46.87 for each critter. If this figure is at all an example of average costs across the country, then the national annual cost is about 600 million dollars. That's enough money to pay for four years of college for about 120,000 students or a combat-ready, battle tank made of solid gold.
In the face of such a huge problem, it is easy to assume that "something ought to be done". The first impediment to such a straight forward approach to pet overpopulation is that no one seems to know how to fix the problem. Over the last 20 years, humane groups have spent hundreds of millions of dollars without significantly reducing the vast number of unwanted pets. Many communities have subsidized the sterilization of pets and offered media campaigns, yet the animal population does not decrease. The main result of this two decades long effort has not been to end pet overpopulation, but to increase the number of humane groups competing for donations.
Largely because of the ineffectual results of media campaigns and public awareness programs, some communities have tried to prohibit the breeding of animals in their jurisdictions. Invariably these laws place major restrictions on "breeders" without differentiating between good breeders and bad ones.Since enforcement of such laws is largely impossible, the people most likley to comply are local breeders who feel a sense of community responsibility. Since it is almost impossible to enforce such laws on out-of-state puppy mills or backyard breeders, the people most likely to be controlled are the ones least likley to be part of the problem.
A popular solution to pet overpopulation is "humane education". Humane groups usually have an education department that sends out specially trained educators to visit local schools. These educators attempt to teach the benefits of spaying and neutering. In most communities, education funds represent a small fraction of a humane group's overall budget. The educators are lucky if they can see even a small percentage of children in the course of a year. Some groups offer lesson plans that allow the regular teachers to reinforce the humane theme throughout the year. Whether these programs have any effect on pet overpopulation is not yet known.
Unlike sporadic classroom visitation, proven programs, such as 4-H offer children many hours of structured contact with animals. These types of hands-on educational efforts are highly effective at teaching children about the care and keeping of animals. While humane groups may not approve of the ethics or practices of such groups, imitating their methods of teaching could be very useful. It is very possible that humane education patterned after 4-H methods could be an important factor in solving the overpopulation problem.
If the past is any indication, bigger shelters, bigger humane organizations, tougher laws and more money will not solve this problem. People who propose these types of solutions should double check the effectiveness of these non-cures. The real solution to pet overpopulation is probably far more basic. It starts with teaching our children to cherish and value living creatures. If we fail in our efforts to teach responsible pet ownership, the result may not be a tragedy, but it will certainly be a statistic.