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Watchdog Laws for Pet Rescuers?

Times Staff Writer

As more and more activists try to save unwanted pets, strays and other animals from being euthanized at shelters or abandoned on the streets, animal welfare experts worry that although some will be helped, others could be harmed.

“When you say an animal has been rescued and is not going to be euthanized, everybody thinks it’s wonderful,” said Kate Pullen of the Humane Society of the United States. “But there’s still an inherent responsibility to make sure those animals aren’t just alive but are living a good life.”

Pullen said more and better regulations were needed to ensure that rescued animals did not wind up in overcrowded or inhumane conditions while being transported or held awaiting adoption.

But not all rescuers agree, and some fear that overregulation could shut down a burgeoning grass-roots movement.

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“I do not trust the current politicians, nor the current structure of animal control to sensibly enforce any regulations,” said Bonita Berger of Northridge, who rescues feral cats. “The volunteers who do it police themselves.”

The growing divide among animal lovers came to light recently after a story in The Times recounted the rescue and transport of a stray dog named Paddy, who was shipped from a Tennessee rescuer across six states to California in 60 hours.

The journey ended at the home of Sherry Meddick, a well-known Orange County animal rights and environmental activist. The night Paddy arrived at his new home, Meddick already was caring for 26 other animals, including three sick kittens and a litter of puppies, in her 900-square-foot home and backyard in Silverado Canyon.

She has a permit from Orange County to keep 25 adult animals, and passed a pre-arranged inspection in January after canceling it several times, according to a county animal care spokeswoman. Meddick has said that she keeps dogs in plastic crates for up to 14 hours at a time while she drives long distances to pick up other animals from shelters, take them to other rescuers, or bring them to her house.

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In an e-mail to The Times she said, “I crate when I am not available to supervise animals who I have not had long enough to know are safe with other animals (most of my animals leave my home in less than two weeks).

“It beats the alternative, being put to death in a shelter.”

Other animal activists have said that although crating for a few hours a day over a short period is fine, it is wrong if a dog spends long stretches -- or the rest of its life -- confined, simply to avoid euthanasia.

“Dogs are social animals, they need to exercise, they need human contact, and for them to live years and years and years in isolation in a cage is a terrible quality of life,” said Annette Rauch, a professor at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine.

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Meddick’s work with rescued animals, as described in the story, prompted an outpouring of support as well as criticism.

Berger called Meddick a “dedicated rescuer” who saved dogs and cats “that would never have a chance of adoption.” But Kathleen Demshar of Apopka, Fla., wrote in an e-mail to The Times: “I feel so bad for that poor dog Paddy. That woman has a good heart, but her actions are totally wrong. Can’t the authorities do something about that?”

Some said Paddy and the other animals should be removed from Meddick’s home. Several people offered to adopt them.

Asked if she would be willing to place Paddy in a home with fewer animals, Meddick wrote that “Whether or not there are other animals does not answer the question of whether or not a home is appropriate for the individual animal.” She would not say how many animals she now has in her home.

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“I believe my care is both adequate and beneficial for these otherwise-homeless animals,” she wrote.

Animal control officials in Los Angeles and Orange counties say they have good working relationships with scores of rescue groups, and have regulations governing those who keep large numbers of animals.

“I think [licensed, nonprofit rescue groups] are a valuable assistance to the department in reducing the number of animals euthanized,” said Brenda Jimenez, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Control, which has extensive regulations governing small, home-based or independent rescuers.

“We’re not talking about the ASPCA. We’re talking the miniature pinscher rescue, or the German shepherd rescue.”

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Jimenez said Los Angeles County had a growing relationship with 80 rescue groups that took 2,500 dogs from their shelters last year, out of about 40,000 there.

There are no simple solutions for handling the estimated 6 million to 8 million animals that end up in shelters annually, experts say. Of those, about half are euthanized, according to data gathered by the Humane Society.

Rauch, of Tufts University, an occasional rescuer herself, said: “I think every person that’s involved with animal rescue has to wrestle with that very problem. There are more animals out there that need to be saved than any one person can save.”


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