A Cure for Euthanasia?
Science 18 Sep 2009:
Vol. 325, Issue 5947, pp. 1490-1493
A nonsurgical sterilant could reduce the global population of homeless dogs and cats, but there hasn’t been money to develop one—until now.
Ninety kilometers southwest of Montgomery and a few decades shy of the modern world lies Oak Hill, Alabama, the smallest town in one of the poorest counties in the state. There are 23 homes, one gas station (which doubles as a general store), and a post office staffed by a single employee.
Oak Hill doesn’t have much—but it does have cats. Cats that congregate in barns and under sheds. Kittens born in long-vacant restaurants and antique shops. Pregnant queens abandoned in the woods. Tomcats that fight raccoons for food.
There are no animal-control services in Oak Hill, so the cats keep breeding. And dying. Cars mow them down on the state highway; locals shoot them on site; and those that do make it to overcrowded, faraway shelters are euthanized within days.
A few fortunate felines find their way to the back porch of David Fuller, a retired electronics engineer who, as a contractor for NASA, spent years ensuring that rocket components destined for space survived their environment. These days, Fuller and his wife do the same for Oak Hill’s cats. They trap the ones they can and try to find homes for them. They bottle-feed kittens whose eyes have been glued shut by dust. And they drive an hour each week to the nearest Wal-Mart, where they load their pickup truck with 8-kilogram bags of dry cat food.
Thirty-five feral cats call Fuller’s property home, and he takes care of another 30 at his mother’s farm in a nearby town. Despite Fuller’s best intentions, however, he can’t possibly keep up. He’s running out of people to give the cats to, and the overflowing shelters will no longer take them. He’s spayed and neutered a few, but he can no longer afford the $100 surgeries. And so the cats keep breeding.
The problem isn’t confined to Oak Hill. Humane organizations throughout the United States can’t surgically sterilize homeless cats and dogs fast enough to control their numbers, and developing countries with dangerous feral dog populations—such as China and India—fare even worse. As a result, millions of dogs and cats are euthanized in U.S. shelters each year, and millions more are shot and poisoned around the globe. “There’s almost no hope of making any kind of dent in the problem with surgery,” says Joyce Briggs, the president of the Portland, Oregon–based Alliance for Contraception in Cats and Dogs (ACC&D).
For the past decade, ACC&D and other humane organizations have pushed for a nonsurgical alternative to traditional spay/neuter surgery—something cheaper and faster, such as a vaccine or a pill. “Something,” Briggs says, “that would let us reach far more animals with the same resources.” Researchers have developed similar products for wildlife, but they have turned out to be ineffective or impractical for use in companion animals. Lack of funding and interest has slowed further progress.