Why you should care

Too much of something is never good. Even if that something is cute little puppies.

In the autumn of 2013, Raluca Bibiri was cruising the streets of Bucharest, Romania, shooting stray dogs with tranquilizers and shoving them into the back of her car. Sounds sketchy, at least — but it turns out, Bibiri was rescuing the animals from almost-certain slaughter. A pack of stray dogs had allegedly mauled a child to death, and in response, the city council launched a massive campaign to rid the streets of strays. It was informally called the killing law. Says Bibiri, who is in her 30s, “The city was suddenly divided between dog lovers and dog haters.”

Whether you love or loathe cats and dogs, it’s hard to ignore the evidence as it stalks the Moscow subways or chases birds on the rooftops of Delhi: We have a global pet problem. An estimated 600 million homeless dogs and 100 million stray cats share our world, and in cities from Buenos Aires to Muscat, the numbers are rising. At times, the animals cause serious trouble — not just attacking humans but also transmitting diseases and threatening entire ecosystems. According to the American Bird Conservancy, feral cats have already contributed to the extinction of 33 species of birds and could soon spell the end of New York’s highly endangered piping plover.

The reasons for the worldwide growth in the number of feral animals are complicated. Human population growth in cities means more urban garbage, which means more food for our feral friends. The global financial crisis, meanwhile, has reduced funding to pick up that garbage. It has meant less funding for sheltering, neutering and feeding as well. But the underlying reason, experts say, is that with the rise of a global middle class, more people than ever own pets. The number of pet dogs in India, for example, grew 58 percent between 2007 and 2012, according to Euromonitor. The more pets, the more likely they are to be abandoned.

Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, is an example of this perfect storm. Abandoning pets is normal there, says Nadia Stancheva, CEO of Animal Rescue Sofia, and packs of wild dogs have long been, um, a feature. “Yet lately we’ve noticed more and more pets ending up on the streets because of the economic crisis,” Stancheva says.

The epidemic of strays has pitted residents against one another. The “pooch putsch,” like the one Bibiri fought in Bucharest, has been a common reaction. A small Iranian city, for instance, paid local employees about $10 per dog they killed, and in Karachi, Pakistan, stray dogs are rounded up and culled. Japan’s Kyoto may soon starve its stray cats by fining people who feed them. Obviously, animal rights activists hate the killing, but ordinary folks aren’t so keen on it either.

That’s why some cities are developing new, less radical measures. In Houston, one group is using drones to track the movement of stray dogs and come up with better action plans. The main solution promises to be sterilization: Spaying one female cat can prevent as many as 370,000 births in seven years, though the $100 cost can be too much for low-income families. Now researchers are trying to develop cheaper birth control. “A pound of prevention is worth a ton of the cure,” says Alex Pacheco, founder of 600 Million Stray Dogs Need You, a nonprofit that is working on permanent, nonsurgical sterilization. Already, a professor at the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine has developed a $1 injection for sterilizing dogs and cats.

As for avoiding abandonment altogether, relaxing tenant laws could be a big step, says Dr. Kwane Stewart, chief veterinary officer for the American Humane Association. The organization says that the most commonly cited reason for pet abandonment in the U.S. — 29 percent for dogs and 21 percent for cats — is that a landlord does not allow dogs or cats. Responsible ownership can also be encouraged by fining owners who abandon their companions or by instituting a one-dog policy, as Shanghai did after 140,000 people claimed they’d been bitten by an unlicensed dog.

Some animal rights activists argue that animal breeding is the source of the problem — the idea being that breeding produces a glut of animals. “There is no such thing as ‘responsible breeding’ when animals sit languishing in severely crowded shelters,” says PETA U.K. associate director Elisa Allen. She urges people to stop buying pets from breeders and instead rescue animals from shelters. And while overpopulation may continue for as long as humans enjoy the company of loyal furry creatures, many of the nasty side effects may be avoidable through education.

As Pacheco puts it, “Dogs are not the only ones to need training.”

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