Abandoned pets find haven

Jan. 3, 2003, was Lito's day of reprieve. Abandoned by his owners, the spaniel mix with caramel-colored ears was delivered to a sprawling urban animal shelter where the air is acrid and the noise deafening. Anywhere else in the world, Lito's story would end here; after a week awaiting retrieval or adoption (unlikely, given his age), he would have been destroyed.

But Lito lives in Barcelona, and on the day he reached the shelter, the city implemented the Law for Animal Protection, an unmatched ordinance that forbids euthanizing abandoned pets.

For a decade now, Barcelona has been an innovator in design, food, and architecture. In the past 18 months, it has also led the way in animal rights. Since January 2003, the city has kept alive the great majority of dogs and cats retrieved by animal protection agents or abandoned at shelters. And last June, legislators from Barcelona helped pass a comprehensive Law of Animal Protection for the entire region of Catalonia, which prohibits declawing, pigeon shooting, and selling animals to minors.

That law also makes Catalonia the only European government above the municipal level to ban euthanasia as a means of animal control. Although the European Commission has approved measures that prohibit abandoning pets and that seek to assure the well-being of domestic animals, the provisions are broad and implemented unevenly. As Jonathan Owen, spokesman for the London-based World Society for the Protection of Animals, notes, one of his organization's biggest challenges is simply getting some countries to employ humane methods of euthanasia.

Although the Law for Animal Protection does not take effect for all of Catalonia until 2007, some of the region's cities have independently passed legislation to protect animals. The coastal town of Mataró, for instance, enacted its own no-kill law after a photographer published images of the city-contracted animal control group inhumanely destroying unwanted dogs. Both to limit the damage to its image and to enact genuine change, public health officials in Mataró sought the help of the Altarriba Foundation, an animal protection group. Altarriba assumed control of the town's shelter and immediately stopped euthanizing animals.

Two years later, the results are encouraging. Although keeping the animals alive is more expensive than euthanizing them, so far the regulation is functioning well, says Oriol Batista, the town's head of Public Health. "The citizens of Mataró understand that this is something we have to do," he says, "that this is a more rational, more humane means of treating animals."

Altarriba runs Barcelona's municipal shelter as well, and the effects here are even more striking. Of the 2,132 dogs rescued in 2003, only 35 were put to sleep, a drop of 94 percent from the previous year. Altarriba's active publicity campaign, with a website featuring photos of every dog and cat in Barcelona's shelter, has kept interest in adoptions high; last year, 1,788 dogs were placed in homes or returned to their owners.

The Law for Animal Protection comes with some real costs, however. "Right now, this shelter is receiving dogs not only from Barcelona but from all the surrounding areas," laments Yolanda Valbuena, director of the shelter. "People no longer take their dogs to Hospitalet or Badalona, because they know that they'll be euthanized there. Everyone brings their dogs to Barcelona. We're accepting six, seven, 10 times as many dogs as we're capable of handling."

The shelter's kennels are in fact overcrowded, with two and three dogs sharing cages built for one. Without adequate quarantine facilities, the shelter has been troubled by the spread of infectious diseases. Explains Manena Fayos, the shelter's veterinary assistant, "We don't have the infrastructure to deal with this problem properly."

The Altarriba Foundation has tried to address these concerns by creating additional refuges for animals that no one will adopt. Run by Altarriba president Gloria Casas, the Family Refuge near the town of Sant Feliu de Guixols, for example, is home to 31 dogs and 30 cats who will spend the rest of their days roaming the estate's olive orchards, swimming in its pond, and sleeping in the rooms of its spacious country house.

"All of the animals came here hurt or sick, even mutilated," she says.

"This is a place where we won't put them up for adoption," adds Foundation director Luis Luque, "because we think that it won't get any better for them than it is here." Mr. Luque and Ms. Casas are also putting the finishing touches to the Merlin Center, a stately, castle-shaped dwelling nearby that will be home to unwanted elderly dogs.

To foreigners, such idealistic efforts might seem paradoxical. Spain is, after all, known for its bullfights, a tradition that to many seems cruel. But Catalonia has long sought to distinguish itself as a progressive society in relation to the rest of Spain.

"As a coastal port, Catalonia has always looked toward the rest of Europe, so certain sensibilities and ideas enter here first," says Mr. Batista. One recent event proves his point: In April, Barcelona's city council voted to oppose bullfighting. Although its statement is not legally binding, the council intends to submit its position for formal consideration by the Catalan parliament. The Law for Animal Protection combats this particular tradition in its own way, forbidding anyone younger than 14 from attending a corrida - a move not unlike attaching an "R" rating to bullfights - to curb the appeal for young Spaniards of the nation's most iconic of entertainments.

In the end, Catalonia's innovative law might help more than just the region's unwanted pets. Though its own preamble declares that its purpose is to raise citizens' awareness of their obligations to animals, the legislation raises questions about the very nature of society, asking what it means to be a Spaniard - indeed, what it means to be a citizen. For those who have embraced the cause, the law may actually do more good for Catalonia's people than it will for its animals. Says Luque, "To fight in favor of animals is to fight for the human species."

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