Mandatory Sterilisation: It's Not Magic

The Companion Animal Population Control Imperative

Many years ago, I read an outstanding book about the nature of cures in medicine, entitled ‘Beyond the Magic Bullet’, in which Bernard Dixon showed that the notion of a single remedy for a single malady was incompatible with the complexity of medical practice. He also showed that single-discipline approaches to any given problem in medicine were inevitably short-sighted, since every disease, particularly chronic disease, was multi-faceted.

Some years later, I was to research and adopt the Goldratt problem-solving methodology, which I developed into a set of strategic tools, the basis of which had three core components:  critical thinking, complexity, and value definition. Central to the methodology I developed was the idea of interdependence, the fact that nothing happens in isolation, that every outcome is defined by a set of necessary conditions achieved by the interaction of a number of interdependent processes. This is true of any problem you can imagine, whether it is the correction of a golf swing, the curing of disease, or the reengineering of a political or social system. There is no such thing as an effect occurring as the result of a single cause. In other words, there is no such thing as a ‘magic bullet’, a remedy that always works in solving a problem of a certain nature.

There are those who believe, for example, that bringing back the death penalty for capital crimes will bring down the incidence of violent crimes. There is ample evidence to show that this is simply not true. :

  1. Laws are merely rules for behaviour – they are not causative unless people understand them and are willing to obey them. We have had many laws in place for centuries that are disobeyed every day because people either do not respect the law or think they can get away with contravening it.
  2. Criminals do not contemplate the possibility that they will be caught when committing a crime, and in many cases violent crimes are crimes of passion, knee-jerk responses to a given set of circumstances; there is no consideration of consequences in these cases. Death as a deterrent is only useful if the criminal believes there is a reasonable probability that they will be apprehended and then found guilty; the more incompetent and/or corrupt the police and judiciary are seen to be, the less likely the criminal will take them seriously.
  3. If the police and/or judiciary are incompetent or corrupt, then the chances are that many injustices will result, and the death sentence becomes even less desirable.

The introduction of a rule cannot be an ‘end’ or outcome – it is certainly not an end in itself. It is a means to and end, the desirable outcome being a reduction in input volume of new animals so that the aggregate population is reduced, thereby reducing the number of unwanted animals.

Typically, humans tend to focus on symptoms. This tactic is ubiquitous and consistent and in my work in Government and the private sector over the last 20 years it has caused me much frustration and loss of hair. It would be funny if the consequences not so morally damning, since the effect of our focus on symptoms is that we do not solve the core problem.

For some, the solution is to destroy the symptoms, as if this can cure the underlying malady, much like the drugs you’re likely to get from the pharmacy when you have flu. They hide the symptoms, but your body still has to fight the disease – they make you feel better, however, while your immune system does it’s work. Mass euthanasia effectively destroys the symptom, i.e. the fact that there are too many unwanted animals, but it simply cannot do anything to correct the underlying cause of the problem. By removing and hiding the symptom, we make society feel better about itself – after all, ignorance is bliss – and fail to address the underlying cause which is, after all, the responsibility of society itself. I have some sympathy for the view that ‘kill’ shelters are not directly responsible for the glut of animals and the lack of resources that demands such an atrocious remedy. On the other hand, if you do not tell the perpetrators – the same society that is unwilling to provide a greater resource base or stop the indiscriminate breeding – that they are at fault, and prove it by publishing statistics, then you are unlikely to bring about change.

Others focus on rescuing and homing, and while their efforts are thankless and heroic in many cases, it’s still a focus on symptoms. The numbers that are homed are insignificant in comparison to the huge volumes put to sleep in kill shelters and that die in various states of neglect or abuse. To argue that pro-life is not responsible for the carnage is basically a lie – when an animal is turned away by pro-life because they have no more capacity, where is the animal consigned to? That’s right, to a ‘kill’ shelter…

Effectively, the only ones focusing on the core problem are the organisations and individuals who practice mass sterilisation. Problem is, there are too few of them. And a lack of capacity is a lack of effectiveness in dealing with the root causes of the core problem. The problem of the volume of unwanted animals is increasing because we are barely treading water as the tide of animals rushes in, aided by puppy mills and backyard breeders. Growing this capacity to reduce the volumes will take resources and time - we have neither - and the industrialisation of puppy mills with larger and larger capacities will render such efforts futile.

Mandatory sterilisation legislation is the ‘magic bullet’ called for by many in animal welfare, and it simply cannot work on its own. There are far too many obstacles in the way. These include the prohibitive cost of sterilisation, lack of capacity for mass sterilisations, lack of governance with regard to breeding and trading in animals, lack of governance in the animal welfare sector, and lack of education among the public.

These obstacles can be overcome through Government subsidies in sterilisation and building of capacity to augment the private sector capacity for mass sterilisation; introduction of legislation with regard to breeders, not only with regard to sterilisation but also primary care prerequisites and home checks for breeders and traders like pet shops, both of which will go a long way to dissuading people from being involved in the trade of animals for business; improved governance of animal welfare organisations including keeping of records with regard to sterilisations, particularly of puppies; and a major focus on educating the public with regard to animal welfare issues. Lastly we need better policing, ideally a specialised police force who deal only with animal issues, or we need to give AW inspectors more power and there should be more of them.

But to implement any of the above remedies in isolation will lead to failure. Laws without policing and governance of breeders, traders and the animal welfare sector, policing without subsidies and additional capacity, and subsidies without education, will all create new problems rather than obviate the crisis.

When introduced in the US, the following problems were noted:

  • Limited evidence to support the effectiveness of the laws.
  • Concerns about risks, including health and development problems in some pets.
  • Efforts push responsible breeders out of licensing systems, reducing the availability and increasing the cost of well-bred, healthy puppies and kittens.
  • Encourages importation of puppies and kittens from unregulated sources.
  • Constitutional challenges of laws that force owners to get surgery performed on their pets.
  • Increased costs for enforcement.
  • Increased number of pet surrenders to shelters because of fear or cost concerns.
  • Increased risks of rabies and other communicable diseases preventable by regular vaccinations when owners fear taking unaltered pets to the vet.
  • Mandatory spay/neuter laws are practically unenforceable.

In addition, when people cannot afford a procedure that is mandatory, they will use workarounds, like strangling dogs’ testicles using rubber bands, leading to the dogs suffering from bleeding and rotting tissue from this type of neutering, causing life-threatening injuries.

As stated above, passing a law does not automatically lead to compliance. If we mean business in reducing the population of unwanted animals, we need an orchestrated strategy that puts all the conditions in place for such an outcome. To leave out any single element of the above would compromise the sustainability of the strategy.

Firing a single, supposedly ‘magic’ bullet can never win the war against ignorance, neglect, and cruelty…