Madrid unanimously approves region-wide animal euthanization ban

Story by Julia Guilardi

MADRID–Nacho Paunero has spent the last 20 years fighting to ensure that homeless and stray animals in Madrid would no longer be killed only 10 days after their rescue.

Nacho Paunero, , sits with a colleague and one of the dogs that his shelter, El Refugio, helps protect. Photo courtesy of El Refugio

Nacho Paunero sits with a colleague and three of the dogs that his shelter, El Refugio, helped protect from euthanization.
Photo courtesy of El Refugio

“Any animal found on the streets, even if it was in a perfect condition, could be slaughtered after 10 days,” said Paunero, who spoke through a translator. Paunero serves as the president of El Refugio, an animal rights organization that specializes in the rescue, care and support of abandoned cats and dogs.

Now, after two decades of unrelenting advocacy, Paunero is finally witnessing this dream become a reality.

On March 12, the Madrid Assembly passed a law banning the euthanization of abandoned dogs and cats, allowing for the entire region, called the Comunidad de Madrid, to become a no-kill zone. This was the first time the government of Madrid unanimously approved a popular legislative initiative: a proposal submitted to Madrid’s Parliament that has garnered at least 50,000 signatures from citizens who support it. The Comunidad de Madrid and Catalonia are now the only two regions in Spain that have approved no-kill, or “zero sacrifice,” legislation.

El Refugio spearheaded the campaign to make Madrid a no-kill city. The organization began raising awareness for the cause in 1996, when Paunero learned of homeless animals picked up from the streets and killed. He and fellow activists were shocked by this policy, so they developed El Refugio as a means to rescue these animals and make sure they wouldn’t be euthanized.

“We created this organization 20 years ago with the purpose of picking these animals up without killing them, obviously. This has been our job so far,” said Paunero.

He shared many stories of the stray animals that El Refugio has saved, such as Balto, a puppy who was shot by a hunter and left on the street before volunteers with El Refugio found him and brought him in. Even though he has lost all mobility in his hind legs, he is able to move around with the help of a cart-style walking device. He is living happily in the El Refugio shelter, waiting for a family to adopt him.

There are about 800,000 stray dogs in Spain, according to the European Society of Dog and Animal Welfare, and although there is no recorded estimate of the number of stray cats, they are ubiquitous on the busy streets of both Spain’s urban areas and small villages, often roaming around and scavenging for food.

Paunero explained that while the organization was succeeding in saving some stray cats and dogs, it was failing in communicating with the regional government to make no-kill a universal mandate, despite the Madrid regional government’s reputation for supporting the advancement of animal rights movements.

“Madrid was the first Spanish region to have a comprehensive animal welcoming center, called the CIAAM,” said Jose Ramon Santamarina Gonzalez, a spokesman for the Ministry of Environment & Spatial Planning in the regional government of Madrid, who was reached via e-mail by a translator for comment. “[This organization] works hard to promote adoption instead of purchase option and to promote responsible ownership.”

According to Santamarina, the work of the government-sponsored CIAAM has led to a 64 percent increase in adoptions and a 38 percent decrease in the admission of animals to shelters.

Balto, saved by El Refugio, was shot by a hunter and lost all mobility in his hind legs. With the help of a cart-style walking device, he's been able to regain mobility and play with the other dogs. Photo courtesy of El Refugio

Balto, saved by El Refugio, was shot by a hunter and lost all mobility in his hind legs. With the help of a cart-style walking device, he’s been able to regain mobility and play with the other dogs.
Photo courtesy of El Refugio

Although the CIAAM has promoted the implementation of the no-kill policy in all shelters in Madrid in the years since it was founded, the government did not require it, which was the ultimate goal of El Refugio and other animal rights advocacy groups. Activists realized that they had to adjust their method of campaigning.
“A certain change started from Catalonia in 2003,” said Paunero. “That led us to examine carefully how was it working for them, and we copied the model they were implementing.”

Alba Jorné, who works for FAADA, a Barcelona-based foundation that advocates for social, legal and educational respect for animals, admitted that even though no-kill is a legal policy in Catalonia, some government-run organizations take advantage of the exceptions to the rule, such as the allowance for the euthanization of animals with incurable diseases and aggressive animals, by putting down those whose diseases are not terminal or whose aggression may be situational rather than chronic.

“There are still a lot of centers, especially government-run centers, that still euthanize animals by using these excuses,” said Jorné, who spoke through a translator. Jorné is a member of FAADA’s Department of Domestic Animals.

She explained that public shelters have a more prevalent overcrowding issue than private shelters, which can lead them to be more lenient with euthanization exceptions.

Most animals, according to Jorné, exhibit aggression when they are first delivered to shelters, but these common behaviors should not be the deciding factor regarding euthanization.

About 20 animal shelters operate in the region of Madrid, most outside of the capital city. This includes private shelters as well as government-run shelters, such as CIAAM.

The government of Catalonia approved no-kill legislation in 2003, but the law did not go into effect until Jan. 1, 2007. Jorné blames the flaws in the region’s no-kill policy – namely, the overcrowding of shelters and the euthanization of animals who do not fit the criteria of no-kill exceptions – on the failure of the regional government to prepare for its implementation over these four years.

“If all local governments had done their homework, now we wouldn’t be in this situation,” said Jorné.

Many are concerned that Madrid’s no-kill policy will face similar setbacks to Barcelona’s. Manuel Lázaro, a veterinarian in Madrid, supports the idea of no-kill shelters in theory, but worries that the execution of this new law won’t be as simple as animal rights groups claim it will be.

“Animal welfare cannot be guaranteed,” said Lázaro, who spoke through a translator. “We have to examine how many animals there are and what the situation is in the shelters to decide if this is really better for them than killing them and making sure they do not suffer anymore.”

According to statistics from El Refugio, about 130,000 stray dogs and cats were euthanized in the city of Madrid from 2006 to 2011.

Those who are critical of the no-kill movement concede that people have the right to be upset about the euthanization of animals but insist that creating no-kill shelters is not the solution to this problem. PETA, or the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, is one of the most prominent animal rights organizations in the world. Its representatives are vocal about their opposition to the no-kill movement.

“It’s not a no-kill movement,” said Teresa Chagrin, PETA’s animal care and control specialist in the United States. “It’s a slow-killing, cruel-killing movement.”

According to Chagrin, PETA believes that the no-kill label is responsible for the death of many homeless animals that are forced into cages in overcrowded shelters or simply turned away because of a lack of space and resources. Then, they are sent back out onto the street and eventually killed in a way that is less humane than euthanasia.

The organization suggests that anyone who is shocked about the number of animals euthanized should ask if they are spaying and neutering their own pets to prevent overpopulation.

“The only way to make our community no-kill is to make it no-birth,” said Chagrin.

In order for Madrid to succeed in its endeavor to become a no-kill city and still treat its animals humanely, the region must do what Jorné claims that Catalonia did not: ensure it has the appropriate resources and funding to take care of the animals that will no longer be killed.

“We have to assess what are the resources that are viable in Madrid, for example, or any place where this could be put into effect,” said Lázaro.

Still, El Refugio and similar groups maintain that with the right resources and enforcement, no-kill is a viable option, even more so than euthanization.

“What is being done at this moment is easy: animals are killed, and thus removed from the streets – this is the easiest procedure, but not sensitive or even right,” said Paunero. “By the way, this is expensive. This costs money.” The cost of a euthanization can range from $50 for cats and small dogs to $120 for large dogs, according to statistics from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Money spent on the killing of animals can instead be funneled into advancing their lives, Paunero claims. If Madrid is able to do this, the region will uphold its position of being at the forefront of animal rights in Spain.

“We want resources spent on killing animals to be spent instead on sterilizing them, on campaigns aimed at raising awareness about the situation, and on adoption campaigns, so that there’s a decrease in the abandonment rate of animals, and so those abandoned are not killed, but relocated in a new family,” said Paunero. “This is our goal.”

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