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The pet's rights

The pet's rights


Gays and lesbians are famous crusaders for fairness and notorious pamperers of pets. So why not lead the fight for pets' rights?

Gay men and lesbians have long fought for justice, equality, and compassion. After all, they know what it's like to be treated unfairly regardless of race or sexual orientation--or maybe even species. "We have experienced what it's like to be the outcasts, to be the underdog," says Marcello Forte, 37, executive director of the Animal Haven shelter in Queens, N.Y.'s Flushing neighborhood. "And one of the injustices gays and lesbians are sensitive to is animals dying simply because there aren't enough homes."

Forte is part of a national movement for "no-kill" animal rights policies that spare healthy and adoptable animals from being euthanized. Nationwide, millions of healthy cats and dogs die in shelters every year because they have nowhere to go. Now many gays and lesbians are fully involved in the effort to stop euthanasia.

In 1994, San Francisco became the first city in the United States to implement a no-kill approach to dealing with stray, abandoned, and abused animals. San Francisco's Animal Care and Control Agency and the city's privately run Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals work together to significantly reduce the number of euthanized pets by encouraging adoption, instituting low-cost spaying/neutering programs, investing in foster care and medical treatment, and vastly improving shelters. When adoptable animals cannot be placed in a timely manner through city shelters, they are transferred to SPCA facilities until homes can be found for them.

Since then, similar no-kill policies have gone into effect at select shelters in Illinois, Virginia, Texas, and Utah as well as throughout several Florida counties. Now New York City and Los Angeles are vying to become the next citywide no-kill havens, and gay and lesbian advocates in both cities are leading the effort.

Since 2000, Forte, a former speech pathologist, has worked with Jane Hoffman, president of the Mayor's Alliance for NYC's Animals, and animal rights attorney Mariann Sullivan to stop euthanasia of the city's adoptable animals. "It should be unacceptable that healthy cats and dogs are killed in NYC shelters simply because there is not enough space," says Hoffman from her Greenwich Village apartment, which she shares with her partner, Ellen Celnik, four rescued dogs, and as many cats.

Hoffman, a former Wall Street attorney, gave up a lucrative practice in 2002 to head the Mayor's Alliance, a coalition of over 100 no-kill shelters and rescue groups, including Forte's Animal Haven. Hoffman and Sullivan wrote a letter to the newly elected Bloomberg administration in 2001 outlining opportunities to improve New York City's policies toward animals. That led to the formation of the Mayor's Alliance and, in December 2002, a landmark agreement to create a no-kill city by 2008. "The idea was to bring together the many rescue groups in the city that were doing good work but were struggling," says Sullivan, 56, whose girlfriend, Robin Bernstein, rescued their pit bull Rose from almost certain death after the dog was found abandoned and tied to a tree in Washington, D.C.--the District's humane society classifies pit bulls as "problem" animals and routinely destroys them, according to a 2005 report by the George Washington University Law School.

In the four years since the Mayor's Alliance was formed, with the help of a $15.5 million grant from the pet rescue foundation Maddie's Fund, New York City has seen a 25% decrease in euthanasia, a dramatic increase in adoptions, and an increase in funding for its shelters, some of which compete with pet stores by offering trendy services for pampered pets while showcasing hundreds of adoptable animals.

At press time Animal Haven was slated to open New York's largest retail adoption center on December 12. In addition to grooming, training, and accoutrements for pets, the 7,000-square-foot storefront located in SoHo will also showcase hundreds of adoptable animals. "We get upset that people buy animals from pet stores. So why aren't we competing with them?" says Forte, who shuttles between homes in Manhattan and upstate New York with his partner, Ben Geboe, and their four rescue animals: three dogs and one cat.

Not all animal advocates are working for a no-kill nation. "A better goal is a 'no-birth' nation," says Dan Mathews, out vice president for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The overpopulation crisis has become so out of control, he says, that finding a suitable home for every needy animal has become virtually impossible.

Instead, ending the needless suffering of shelter animals requires a commitment to preventing unwanted births by investing in spay/neuter programs and making sterilization mandatory by law. Most important, Mathews adds, prospective pet owners--gay and straight--need to refrain from getting a pet on a whim. "People should get an animal because it's a lifetime of companionship, not because it matches your drapes," he says.

Jeffrey Prang, an openly gay councilman of West Hollywood, Calif., agrees. Reducing overpopulation and achieving no-kill in the Los Angeles area means that LGBT people need to adopt from shelters instead of buying "designer" pups from backyard breeders. "If you buy a dog from a pet store or breeder that's bred and pampered, you have companionship, but it doesn't [help] the problem of animal overpopulation in the urban environment," Prang says.

Prang's city is notoriously pet-friendly. More than a decade ago it declared itself an "animal cruelty-free zone" and changed references in the local animal law from pet owner to pet guardian. And since 2005, cats can't be declawed within the city limits.

But West Hollywood sits in Los Angeles County, where the department of Animal Care and Control took in an estimated 40,000 dogs last year, euthanizing almost half of them. The crisis is a huge heartache for West Hollywood animal rescuer Paul-Carlos Palenzuela, whose Puppy Chulos Placement rescues "flat-faced" breed dogs such as French bulldogs and shih tzus--specialty breeds that are too often dumped when they are no longer a novelty. "The responsibility of the LGBT community is to volunteer, work with rescuers, or open up your homes to foster if you cannot commit to an entire lifetime of an animal," he says.

Palenzuela, who is pushing for no-kill shelters in Los Angeles, encourages gays and lesbians to create pet trusts with their partner as a trustee, to ensure their animals don't wind up being euthanized in a shelter. Laws in 35 states--including New York and California--and the District of Columbia allow owners to establish trusts for their pets, though the degree of enforceability varies from state to state. "Too often, people rely on a verbal promise," says Rob Blizard, director of donor marketing and outreach for the Humane Society of the United States. In case of death or disability, Blizard says an enforceable trust gives the court the right to monitor the process and ensure that the money is being spent for the animal's care.

Caring for unwanted animals is a great way to make things better for everyone, Hoffman says. "The better we treat our animals, the more humane and caring society we are."

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