The root cause of animal homelessness

Photo by Trusha Patel

Colleen Scala Ferguson was a foster parent to 19 kittens before she adopted two of them.


Before Colleen Scala Ferguson had children, she used to foster animals for the Toronto Humane Society. She stopped once she got pregnant with her first child, because handling kitty litter while carrying a baby wasn’t a safe option. Her kids are now ages 17 and 13, and both are very interested in animals. To fulfill her daughter’s wish, Ferguson fostered 19 kittens in the past summer, and recently adopted two of them from the Durham Humane Society.

According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), thousands of abandoned, neglected and abused animals are brought into animal shelters around the world. Based on the 2015 shelter statistics from the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies (CFHS), there was an intake of 139,433 animals around the country.

In order to reduce or end the cycle of animal births, homelessness and deaths, the root cause must be addressed. According to PETA, runaway animal birth rate is the source of the huge number of animals in shelters.

Danielle Johnson, the manager in the Humane Society of Durham Region says the birth rate is definitely contributing to the homelessness and deaths of animals.

“When unaltered animals are allowed to roam at large, such as stray cats and such like that, it definitely contributes to the increase of the shelter population, especially in the spring and summer months in this area dealing with cats and kittens,” says Johnson.

The Canadian Federation of Humane Societies statistics show 2,022 animals were born in shelters in Canada in 2015. That is almost six animals per day.

Caring for animals begins at home. Most people in Canada have good access to veterinary care, and according to the World Animal Protection organization, the best way to keep pets healthy is by consistently meeting their needs.

Johnson, who works with animals on a daily basis, says, “The best way to keep an animal healthy is to keep them in their environment, take them to the veterinarian regularly, feed them a good quality diet, give them a lot of enrichment and love that they need, proper exercise.”

A past foster parent to many kittens, Ferguson currently has five cats and one dog. She makes sure her pets’ diet is healthy and the vet appointments are regular.

Colleen's daughter, Tessa plays with four of their five kittens, Marbles (left), Patches (middle), Speckles (right), and Shady (top).
Colleen’s daughter, Tessa plays with four of their five kittens, Marbles (left), Patches (middle), Speckles (right), and Shady (top).

While adopted animals receive the care they need, there are many others who tolerate a lot of negativity.

In Canada and around the world, many pets suffer from inadequate care, abuse, neglect, and abandonment. According to the CFHS statistics, there were 5,604 cases of abuse and 36,698 animals surrendered by their guardians.

Stacey Dickson, an animal care attendant at Oshawa Animal Services, sees animals surrendered everyday.

“If people might have to give up their animal, it might be because of allergies, if their kids are allergic, or if they are moving, unfortunately, and they can’t take the animal with them,” says Dickson.

Johnson, who works with animals who have been surrendered by their owners’, says there has been many situations animals have been rescued from.

“(They have been) rescued from neglect cases, so just severe neglect, not being offered the necessities of life, without access to food and water, without access to proper medical care,” Johnson says. “We deal with different kind of animal abandonment, and stray animals, and we’ve had animals tied up to our front door abandoned outside of our shelter.”

According to Johnson, the local municipal animal services shelters or animal control typically takes care of animals found roaming at large. The Humane Society of Durham Region exists to take on animals surrendered by their owners.

Oshawa Animal Services also takes care of animals on the loose.

“There was this dog that came in, and he must’ve been outside for months, because he came in covered in maggots and could barely walk and was in so much pain,” says Dickson.

The animal care attendants got the dog shaved and it was as if he was a completely new dog. “He was happy,” says Dickson.

According to the Ontario SPCA, there are more than 18,000 cases of animal cruelty and/or abuse reported in a year.

For the Humane Society of Durham Region, the length of stay for an animal depends on the animal itself.

“Some animals come in and go out on the same day, some animals require medical procedures or behaviour modification and are here for a little bit longer, so it definitely varies,” says Johnson.

For Oshawa Animal Services, however, shelter animals have to stay in the shelter for 72 hours before they are put up for adoption.

“That’s how much time the owner has to come forward and find them,” says Dickson, one of the many animal care attendants who care and nurture the animals in the shelter.

Johnson, who manages the shelter operations, says, the Humane Society of Durham Region does not determine if an animal is unadoptable or not.

“We try to do our best to find a home for every animal. In cases where there are severe medical issues, that’s something (to be) discussed with a veterinarian, we have one in the staff and a decision is made about their quality of life and what’s humane for them,” says Johnson.

Dickson says if a really sick animal comes in the shelter, the animal care attendants take it to the vet and, get the proper medication, which may or may not include surgery. “We wait until they’re better before we adopt them out,” she says.

Not all animal shelters are the same. While there are open-admission facilities staffed with professional caring people, there are also “no-kill” or “turn-away” shelters that refuse animals deemed unadoptable.

According to PETA, the results of “no-kill” are often worse than a peaceful death through euthanasia. When shelters give in to the pressure of “no-kill,” there are various consequences.

Though some shelters refuse to euthanize animals once they have reached their capacity, animals still die, but in pain. Euthanizing animals brings a peaceful death in a caring person’s arms.

According to the CFHS statistics, euthanasia in shelters was 20,977 with 1,890 animals being healthy, 10,912 being unhealthy or untreatable, and 4,042 being owner-requested.

Johnson, who works in a no-kill shelter, says, “The only time we euthanize as a last resort when the animal is suffering or their quality of life is diminished.”

According to PETA, animals can begin to deteriorate psychologically and become withdrawn, depressed, aggressive or anxious after as little as two weeks in a traditional shelter. Even if these animals are adopted, there are chances they may be returned because of behavioural issues.

“Sometimes animals are adopted out and returned just because it doesn’t work out in their home or it’s not a good fit, it’s more than they thought it could handle,” says Johnson.

Dickson says animals being returned due to behavioural issues happens at the Oshawa Animal Services but not often.

“When that happens we try and find a behaviouralist who will work with the animal,” says Dickson.

Homeless animals are also found, tortured and killed by abusers and hoarders, who aren’t screened, according to PETA.

To increase the “save” rates, some shelters promote animal abandonment. According to PETA, not only are these abandoned animals at risk of infection, disease, starvation, being hit by cars, attacked by dogs and wildlife, and abused by cruel people, but also the ones who survive can eventually reproduce, resulting in more homeless animals.

For the Humane Society of Durham Region, Johnson says it depends on the capacity of their shelter.

“We function as a no-kill shelter, so we only have a certain capacity for care, and we do not euthanize for length of stay or lack of space in our shelter, so we often will provide other resources for people who are looking to surrender an animal if it’s something that could wait,” says Johnson.

All in all, the Humane Society of Durham Region works with everybody to come up with a solution for every animal.

PETA says profiteers that breed and trade animals for money are succeeding, because the voice of animal rights is being weakened and good activists are misled into attacking each other rather than the ones who make money off of pet shops, breeders, and phony rescues.

Colleen's two adopted kittens, Harvey (left) and Oreo.
Colleen’s two adopted kittens, Harvey (left) and Oreo.

Ferguson, who has adopted many animals, says all her cats except her Bengal have been rescues.

“I just believe that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with shelter cats or humane society cats at all, and they just need a home, and if you love animals why not just get an animal from a place where they can get out of the cages,” says Ferguson, who has five cats and one dog.

People working together to strike at the root cause, which is the high birth rate, can wipe out animal homelessness. According to PETA, laws that have been proved effective in reducing unplanned births and shelter intakes, and developing a free or low-cost sterilization program in communities can help stop animal homelessness before it even begins.

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Trusha Patel is a second-year journalism student at Durham College. She enjoys writing about campus, entertainment, and Op-Ed for The Chronicle. Trusha is an avid reader who loves hiking and travelling to new places. She hopes to cover entertainment, fashion, and lifestyle stories for a Canadian magazine.