By Darlene Duggan
I recently stumbled onto a fantastic blog, Letters of Note, dedicated to interesting correspondences. While perusing the posts I hit the jackpot when I found a letter from children’s book author E.B. White written to the ASPCA back in 1951. Apparently, he was cited for harboring an unlicensed dog, and his amusing response to the citation got me to thinking about animal licensing and identification, and a shelter’s role in it all.
I am just coming off a tour of duty at my local municipal control facility, and learned more than I ever thought necessary about animal licensing laws in my city. The thing that sticks out most for me is that no one really pays attention to the mandatory licensing law, and even with incentives built around spaying and neutering, and discounts for senior citizens, the compliance rate is pretty abysmal. In fact, according to this Sun-Times article Chicago’s compliance rate is under 5% of all dogs in the city, and that is even after a 2005 upgrade of the licensing software to cross reference against the county’s rabies vaccination list.
Obviously, the city and its citizen’s are not paying attention, so what is the point? From experience, the only time fines are imposed for not having a city dog license is when a dog has a run-in with animal control for some other reason (bite, off-leash, noise ordinance violation, etc.), and of course, licensing fees are imposed for any stray animal reclaimed by its caregiver.
That leads me to the meat and potatoes of this post: redemption rates.
According to the Chicago Animal Shelter Alliance (CASA), return-to-guardian rates at Chicago Animal Care and Control hover around 10%. This is slightly worse than the suspected national average of 15-20%.
Although not the primary reason municipalities require dog licenses, one of the benefits of it being law should be a higher stray redemption rate because (in theory) we have ownership information about the dog. To put this in other terms, we can measure a direct increase in Live Release Rates if more dogs were licensed. However, because we have such low compliance, Chicago is never going to see an increase in its rates. And to make matters worse, some people who do have licenses may not actually put them on their dogs’ collars as eloquently hinted by E. B. White:
“She wears her metal license tag but I must say I don’t particularly care for it, as it is in the shape of a hydrant, which seems to me a feeble gag, besides being pointless in the case of a female.”
I am proposing it is in the animal shelter’s best interest (regardless of whether they accept strays or not) to encourage their municipality to explore alternatives to dog licensing—not enough people follow through with it, so it becomes an inadequate tool for reuniting lost pets with their guardians.
What is the better alternative? Microchips!
While not a new technology, and already thoroughly embraced by the animal welfare community, microchips provide the perfect substitute for licenses: they are permanent, they are reliable, and they are gaining in popularity. Many studies have time and again reported a higher rate of return for stray animals with microchips.
It appears that legislators and local government leaders are aware of the benefits of micochipping, but the new laws are targeted in the wrong direction, or at the least, not in a helpful direction. I find it odd that a new measure was signed into law in Illinois requiring all animal shelters in the state to scan for a microchips at least two times during an animal’s stay in an effort to reunite lost pets with their guardians.
Most shelters and rescues actually have stronger and even more thorough microchip scanning procedures in place. So, I really don’t see the point to this law—it’s missing the first step: require all animals to be microchipped in the first place! And again, this is where I see the role of shelters acting as consultants to legislators to steer them in a more productive direction.
I am not naïve enough to think microchipping is anything more than a substitution of municipal dog licenses; nor do I think it will solve all our animal identification problems. The same compliance and enforcement issues exist, but from the perspective of the animal shelters responsible for reuniting lost pets and their caregivers. Microchipping will go a whole lot further at effectively accomplishing that task than will paper licensing alone.
I’d love to have a conversation about the pros and cons of mandatory microchipping, success and failures of communities that already have this as law, compliance, and enforcement issues, etc. All thoughts welcome!
Darlene Duggan worked for many years behind the scenes at The Anti-Cruelty Society in Chicago overseeing volunteer programs, problem solving shelter issues, and laboring tirelessly for the welfare of animals. Her bi-weekly column, The Shelter Voice, explores the complex concepts surrounding animal rescue and welfare usually reserved for discussions amongst those at the very front lines of the industry.