How many pound dogs are there really? Ambitious Australian study the first of its kind.

July 20, 2017

"There is no national system for monitoring numbers of dogs entering municipal council pounds and shelters in Australia, or their outcomes. This limits understanding of the surrendered and stray dog issue, and prevents the evaluation of management strategies."

I've been following animal welfare in Australia for like 100 years. And for that entire time anyone wanting to take a scientific approach to animal management, rather than just repeat tired platitudes about 'overpopulation' and 'irresponsible pet ownership' , they've found one startling and almost insurmountable reality;

... pounds and shelters don't want you to know how many pets they're processing.

It's why council pounds rarely publish data. It's why FOI's to councils for data often go unresponded to, or refused outright. It's why the RSPCA compiles globs of statewide data from dozens of shelters and releases it months out of date. It's why the Lost Dogs Home didn't publish data for literally decades. It's why many, many, many charity pound providers (hellooo... Cat Protection Society VIC, etc) ask you to 'give generously' but are anything but generous with their monthly or yearly animal outcome statistics.

And it's why this new report released last week was so ambitious; 

Link - 'Surrendered and Stray Dogs in Australia—Estimation of Numbers Entering Municipal Pounds, Shelters and Rescue Groups and Their Outcomes'

We aimed to estimate these in 2012–2013. Dog intake and outcome data were collected for municipal councils and animal welfare organizations using annual reports, publications, primary peer-reviewed journal articles, websites and direct correspondence. A refined methodology was developed to address the numerous limitations of the available data. 

How easy was it to get this data?

Data for municipal councils and animal welfare organizations that operated shelters that received surrendered and stray dogs were obtained from their websites, where available. When unavailable, data were solicited by direct communication with the organization by email and/or telephone using contact information from websites. Contacted organizations were assured that their anonymity would be preserved, and that data, which were not publicly available, would not be released in a way that allowed identification of the individual organization without written permission.

The study had to declare that it wouldn't give the secrets of how pound and shelters operate away, because heaven forbid! the public find out what their charity and tax investment is being spent on.

And what was the response?

(The) New South Wales, aggregated council data had been collated by the New South Wales Department of Local Government...

Interestingly, this years NSW data is largely incomplete, due to councils choosing not to offer transparency to their community, for what we can only assume is concern that their operations will be criticised for being too deadly to pets.

for South Australia, the Dog and Cat Management Board provided pooled data for both municipal councils and animal welfare organizations... but numbers transferred, rehomed and euthanized for councils were not included in the pooled data

I've dealt before with the Dog and Cat Management board SA and their response was, and I quote: "The euthanasia figures you are querying are based on data shared with the Board by a range of service providers... this data was supplied by each agency on a confidential basis but we stand by the figures..." - or in other words ... don't worry your pretty little head about the detail, trust us...

Not all municipal councils provided complete data and some councils provided no data.

Shocked.

... we could only obtain actual data for 9 (6%) of the 141 Western Australian municipal councils

Because WA councils, with few exceptions, are genuinely useless at animal management and are cagey as fuck with their data. Not to mention many of them still shoot dogs and cats because who cares, right?

But despite these enormous obstacles, researchers came up with some pretty smart algorithms to fill in missing data and determine trends nationally (the end report is 28 pages long and took two years to complete).

There were 515 possible sources of data: 496 municipal councils (excluding those identified as not having pounds or whose pounds were run by other organizations), and 19 animal welfare organizations thought to have ≥1000 dog admissions per year. Of these 515, we obtained data from 307 (60%), comprising 289 (58%) of the 496 municipal councils and 18 (95%) of the 19 welfare organizations

And what did they find?

The full breakdowns are available in the report, including breakdowns between council and charity outcomes (and I recommend strongly that if you're in the pound animal advocacy game, that you take the time to read it in full, especially regarding your own states outcomes), but a general summary is below;

Outcomes nationally (breakdown)

NSW kills far more dogs than any other state. They also have the least amount of reclaims (37%). Something is very wrong in NSW.

VIC manages nearly the same number of dogs annually, but has a kill rate percentage half that of NSW.

SA, despite having a very, very small number of intakes (not even 15,000) and a high reclaim rate (52%) still manages to maintain a high kill rate. They also kill nearly as many dogs as they adopt out, which is quite a feat of the fails.

But the most noticeable detail is the 18 percentage point difference between the best performing and the worst performing state. While the overall number of dogs requiring care is completely irrelevant to outcome. Just in case you were still maintaining the idea that 'less pets' means 'less killing' in pounds - the only good predictor of pound outcomes, is the processes of that pound.

Next, is the same table, but in order of order of the percentage of pets reclaimed.

Surprisingly, the NT is leading the way in reclaims with 61%

Again NSW is dragging behind, with just 37% of dogs finding their way home.

Now the national figures

What do these tell us about pound operations?

Well, if we reference them with the Pet Ownership Survey of the same year, we find that there was 4.2 million pet dogs in Australia at this time.

211,655 dog intakes is just 5% of the overall dog population.

About half of these were reclaimed, leaving just 2.5% of the dog population using the pound in anything other than as a lost pet retrieval service, being either surrendered or unclaimed.

Just 2.5% of the dog population, were abandoned, unfound or were simply requiring a new home.

Think about this in comparison to the communications you often hear from animal welfare agencies, council animal management departments or anti-breeding advocates. Those groups who often maintain there is a massive overpopulation of pet dogs, that there is an epidemic of pet owner irresponsibility causing an unmanageable burden on the pound system, that millions of dogs end up unwanted every year and that pounds have no choice to kill because there is simply too many dogs being carelessly abandoned.

But why would these groups say something that wasn't necessarily strictly... you know... true?

Remember back at the beginning when I said...

... pounds and shelters don't want you to know how many pets they're processing.

This! is why. 

Multi-tender pounds rely on the 'overpopulation' rhetoric to justify high rates of killing caused directly by a financially-motivated strategy of over-tendering to multiple councils, and running facilities that are under-capacity for the number of pets they're processing.

Charity pound providers need the 'overpopulation' excuse add a sense of urgency to their donation solicitations. Only by maintaining they are helpless to stop their shelters running overcapacity, can they present themselves as the victims of the situation, maintaining high kill rates, while they simultaneously bank literally hundreds of millions of dollars every year in profit.

While local councils need 'overpopulation' to be the accepted reality for the public, so that they can pass more and more draconian legislation to discourage pet ownership, and run pounds that offer no solution to unclaimed pets other than death.

A final word from the study researchers

This study emphasizes the need for an ongoing standardized monitoring system with appropriate data routinely collected from all municipal councils, animal welfare organizations and rescue groups in Australia. Such a system would only require data that are easily collected by all relevant organizations and could be implemented at relatively low cost. This could facilitate ongoing evaluation of the magnitude of the surrendered and stray dog problem, and allow assessment of strategies aiming to reduce numbers of admissions and euthanasia.

It is recommended that a strategy of state-based reporting of pound and shelter statistics in a standardized and epidemiologically sound manner be adopted, and the results made publicly available, incorporating rescue organizations where possible. Once such data are available, a detailed investigation of how management strategies impact on dog admissions and outcomes, especially live release and euthanasia, is warranted. The findings could be used to identify low-performance areas and to guide the development of targeted surveillance and interventions. Results from our study provide a starting point for Australia to benchmark its dog management policies and performance against comparable countries, and to re-evaluate existing strategies to improve the efficiency of managing stray and surrendered dogs.

Having such a system would be an excellent and extremely useful tool for determining scientific and fact-based solutions for pound killing. 

It could be implemented for a low cost. 

But the obstacles are not whether it is needed (it is). Or cost. Or resourcing. The major obstacle to a completely transparent animal management system is that those that profit from the system as it is now, are keen to maintain the system as it is now. And an essential part of maintaining this system as it is now, is an unquestionable belief overpopulation, and a obscuration of any data which would be damaging to this assertion or prove it to be untrue.

It's not that the data on how many pets enter pounds and where doesn't exist. Or that it can't be obtained. It's that pounds and shelters don't want anyone to actually have it. This data proves without any doubt, that they are the ones - the pounds and shelters themselves - who are the determining factor as to whether pets live or die in their facilities.

And they will work to avoid that level of accountability at all costs.

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