A boy and his dog romp across a field on a hazy August afternoon. This scene of innocent, pastoral pleasure is romanticized in poetry, prose, and art -- and in reality -- countless times throughout the country. It's the soft, warm side of a friendship that, unfortunately, is often short-lived.
Too often after summer holidays families return home, kids go back to school, and the once-loved pets are discarded like paper cups.
The problem of unwanted and abandoned animals is particularly acute during certain times of the year -- the Labor Day weekend when families leave vacation areas, the first of October when leases are up for renewal in some cities, and in spring when college students return home.
The coming weekend is an alert time for humane societies across the country. ``Parents often leave dogs in parks and recreation areas this time of year,'' says Phyllis Wright, vice-president of the Humane Society of the United States for Companion Animals in Washington, D.C.
``These family pets,'' Miss Wright continues, ``are usually over their `cute' period [when they are disposed of]. Once they are turned loose, the ones that do survive become wild themselves and start chasing wildlife, farm animals, and destroying property. They're most often not neutered and end up having litters in the woods in November and December. You can see how the tragedy just multiplies.''
What happens is that families see ads in the paper offering ``free'' pets. ``Oh, wouldn't Johnny love a little puppy for the summer?'' many parents say, sometimes before they consider the responsibilities involved, she explains.
When families tire of the pet or they find it becomes an expense or a burden, they simply abandon it, according to Miss Wright, who saw more than 500 animals rescued from the wild during her seven years working with the humane society in Loundoun County, Va.
Dennis White, director of the Denver- based American Humane Association's (AHA) Animal Protection Division, has these suggestions for families who find it necessary to give up a pet.
Never turn it loose. Domestic pets cannot cope when left to forage on their own. It's a cruel practice. And many animals become victims of heavy traffic in both city and rural areas, according to Miss Wright.
Place an ad in a newspaper. It's usually fairly inexpensive, and the advantage is that you can screen the adoptive family.
Put a fair market price on the pet. People tend to give more thought to an animal they have to pay for. This also helps keep animals from falling into the hands of a vivisectionist.
Remember, a spayed or neutered animal is far more marketable.
If you give your pet to an animal shelter, be honest about any behavioral or housebreaking problems, otherwise the pet may be returned by the new owners. This, Mr. White stresses, just adds to the problem.
For families who want a pet, it's suggested that they check the town or city pound. Many fine pets, both purebred and mixed, are available there at nominal fees.
The average length of time an animal is held in a shelter before it is euthanized is five days. In New York City, it's 48 hours.
``Not,'' says Miss Wright, ``because they are quick to do away with animals, but because of the size of the problem.'' On one day in New York City, Miss Wright saw a fleet of 20 trucks impound 150 dogs.
Mr. White advises that no pet be bought or adopted on impulse or emotion.
``Remember to think through whatever is involved,'' he says. ``A pet is time consuming and can be expensive to feed. And then there are leash-laws, neutering, veterinary fees for required shots, and licensing fees to consider.''
Although dogs get most of the publicity, cats, says Mr. White, ``are the invisible victims.''
``Cats, by their nature, are apt to wander off and people tend not to take the time to check shelters because they don't miss them for several days. By this time, they are often euthanized, as most shelters can only afford to keep an unclaimed cat for a matter of days. The fact that cats don't wear collars, are not as identifiable as dogs, and do not respond to their names,'' he adds, ``makes it more difficult to track down their owners.''
But there are some positive notes on the horizon, according to Mr. White and Phyllis Wright.
Miss Wright says that neutering of pets has increased around the country. For example, in the city of Los Angeles, 50 percent of licensed dogs are neutered today. ``That's up from about 10 percent in the 1970s,'' she explains.
Some states have differential licensing -- a policy whereby a license costs less if dogs and cats are neutered. Florida recently passed a state law requiring that all animals adopted or bought from a shelter be neutered.
Some states post warnings in parks and recreation areas stating that abandoning animals is illegal. ``Montgomery County, Md., has a fine of $1,000, and Connecticut has a $750 fine'' against the practice, says Miss Wright.
In New York State the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has posted signs that read, ``It's more than cruel to abandon animals; it's against the law,'' in both English and Spanish.
``Animal-control officers are better trained and educated today and are working to promote responsible pet ownership,'' Mr. White says.
``Many folks are going into animal control as a career change. They like the freedom of being out-of-doors, the community contact, and especially because they genuinely love animals. This is doing a lot to beat the old Walt Disney stereotype of the dogcatcher who's out to chase and lock up dogs.''
Mr. White also cites lectures in schools around the country to inform and educate children about all aspects of animal welfare. These talks should help cut down on abandoning practices.
The AHA, in conjunction with Gaines Dog Food, is carrying on its third annual fund-raising drive to aid animal shelters around the country and increase pet adoption programs. During last year's drive, more than $175,000 was raised.
A toll-free number, 1-800-842-4637, has been set up by the AHA society so dog owners may learn the names of participating local shelters and receive more information about the program.