Bottle Racket

Lisa Clarke was not a dog person. Didn't have a dog. Didn't want one.

Then she met Klondike. Just two and a half weeks old, he was part of a litter of seven orphaned pups. Clarke's husband and kids were smitten, and the orphan soon had a home.

Now a robust 95-pound mix of Lab and Akita, Klondike celebrated his second birthday last week. And even Lisa Clarke is a convert.

"He's the sweetest dog you'll ever meet," she says. "He doesn't chew on anything. He doesn't bark at anything. He has got to be the best dog in the whole world."

Good thing Klondike wasn't born this year. He'd have been a goner. Klondike and his siblings were "bottle babies": Maricopa County Animal Care and Control relied on a volunteer foster mom to bottle nurse them until they were six weeks old and ready for adoption.

Now that aspect of the foster program is gone, jeopardizing the life of any pup in need of bottle feeding who crosses the threshold of the county pound.

The change in policy apparently took place after a change in administration. Farming out bottle babies to volunteers was standard procedure under former Animal Care and Control director Ed Boks, who left the agency in January. Boks, reached at his new job running New York City's animal control agency, confirms this.

And Julie Bank, director of public programs and development for Maricopa County Animal Care and Control, says the agency isn't giving those babies to volunteers now. She confirms that her agency explained to some foster moms six weeks ago that it's shifting focus. Bottle babies take too much time to grow and have too many behavior issues. The agency wants its volunteers to take older dogs instead.

Without foster moms, Bank admits, bottle babies are being killed.

Obviously nervous about a backlash, Bank couches statements about the "new focus" in a series of abstractions. She claims that unweaned pups were never really given to foster moms in the first place, so nothing has changed.

Boks directly refutes that. He says he personally set up the program for bottle babies four years ago. And an Animal Care and Control newsletter from November 2001 profiles three foster moms, specifically describing their work bottle feeding.

"We look at everything on a case-by-case basis," Bank says. Yes, she agrees, some foster moms have worked mainly with bottle babies. And yes, agency staffers did recently tell those moms they'd be assigned older dogs instead.

"But the policy has always been no babies, except on a case-by-case basis," she says. (It's the same for cats.)

The reason: A bottle-fed puppy, Bank says, often grows to be a bad dog. "We found out their behavior was not appropriate as they got older," she says. "Talk to people across the country. They'll say the same thing."

But Boks says he's never heard such a thing. And Sheila Segurson, a doctor of veterinary medicine and resident at the University of California-Davis, says she knows of no formal research supporting Bank's claim -- "and I spend time looking at research." Orphans can have more problems, but a good foster home can often mitigate them, she says.

Jacque Schultz, an adviser with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, says talk of behavior problems in bottle babies is based only on anecdotal information. The biggest problem, she says, occurs in puppies whose every whim is humored, rather than getting the socialization of jockeying with their siblings. If raised among other puppies, Schultz says, orphans have a much better chance.

Schultz understands, however, why Maricopa County officials might decide that bottle babies aren't the best use of limited resources.

"If you only have x number of foster homes, you'd rather see them go to a pregnant mom than orphan puppies. The chance of creating the best possible pets is more likely," she says.

The routine killing of orphaned sucklings is hardly unusual. Ex-director Boks says it was standard procedure when he took over Animal Care and Control in 1998. (The county no longer keeps statistics on its reasons for dog euthanasia, Bank says, but records indicate nearly 1,000 suckling deaths in 1999 and decreases in 2000 and 2001, the last year such records were kept.)

"It's certainly more difficult than just euthanizing them," Boks says. With volunteers, though, it costs the county nothing. "And what it does for staff morale and community support -- that's important."

It meant a lot to field workers, agrees Martha Bern, a former Animal Care and Control deputy director. "They'd be crawling into drain pipes to rescue puppies, so it was very disappointing to them if those puppies ended up being euthanized. Now, we weren't always able to find homes for the puppies, but they tried."

Despite a higher rate of adoption than the national average, Animal Care and Control still euthanizes nearly 30,000 animals every year, according to its Web site. Many are sick or ill-tempered, according to the county, but several thousand are healthy, adoptable pets.

For bottle babies, those numbers may be a bigger problem than alleged reports of antisocial behavior. "If we send a bottle baby to a foster, it may take eight weeks to get them ready for adoption," Bank says.

Meanwhile, older dogs are being killed. "I don't know that it's okay for them to die for that reason," she says. "It kills us to euthanize any animal, much less little babies. But if we have a mom with puppies, and they're a little bit older, that's what we need the foster mothers for."

However logical, Bank's argument is hardly gaining traction with some foster moms. Clarke, Klondike's owner, says she's part of a group of nearly a dozen would-be volunteers who attended a county seminar in October. Most have no interest in taking older dogs. "We fill this little niche," she says. "The bottle-feeders are what we want to do."

When Clarke heard about the policy change, she contacted agency director Rodrigo Silva several times. She never heard back. Nor, she notes, has the agency offered her or anyone at the October meeting any animals to foster.

Some foster moms didn't want to speak on the record for fear of losing the chance to volunteer. Not Clarke. She's mad that the county won't give puppies a chance, mad that guys like Klondike are being written off as future delinquents.

"To think I would not have Klondike if they had this in effect two years ago -- I can't say I've ever had a problem with him, and I'm not even a dog person," she says.

Then she corrects herself: "Now I am a dog person. And I think it's absolutely horrible."

E-mail [email protected], or call 602-440-1130.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske