All Commentary
Tuesday, December 1, 1998

Pound Scum

Public and Private Enterprises Face Different Incentives

With 7.5 million dogs and cats euthanized each year in U.S. animal shelters, it’s hard to be turned down when you try to save one from the gas chamber. But my family managed to be turned down, making us “pound scum.” Our trip through the world of dog adoptions and purchases teaches some valuable lessons about private and public enterprises.

When we set out to adopt a dog we thought we were just the types of owners anyone would want: my wife is a veterinarian, we are experienced dog owners, and our schedules often allow one of us to be at home so our dog would not be a “latchkey” pet. Because we didn’t want our future pet to become a stray, we needed a fence. After investigating several alternatives, we settled on an invisible fence. A wire is buried around the perimeter of the property; a collar worn by the dog administers a mild shock if the dog tries to cross the wire. We spent hours talking about the product with the salesman who, hoping for referrals, worked hard to persuade my veterinarian wife that the fence was safe, effective, and humane. With the fence on order, we were ready to get a dog.

Our first stop in our search was the Animal Protective League (APL), a private charity. Their building was clean, the walls lined with photos of pets and plaques honoring donors. The staff was friendly and helpful but the APL didn’t have any dogs that fit our needs. So we left and headed down the street to the county pound.

The World of Bureaucracy

Although just a few hundred yards away, the county pound was worlds apart from the APL. Uniformed employees wandered aimlessly about, chatting with one another and ignoring the people peering into cages. Nonetheless we found a dog we liked. Five or six pound employees were milling about in the hall, but it took several minutes to find one willing to help us, a sharp contrast to the friendly, helpful folks next door at the APL. An animal-control officer finally gave me a form to fill out; after I completed it, he sat me down in the hall to interview me.

One of the questions on the form asked if our yard was fenced. When the animal-control officer noticed our plans for the fence, he refused to continue the interview. “I really got chewed out for letting someone with one of those adopt a dog,” he told me. “You’ll have to talk to my supervisor.” We pointed out that officials of the National Association of Humane Societies use this type of fence, but he was unmoved. We offered to cancel the order for the fence. Didn’t matter.

Ironically, it turned out we didn’t need a fence at all—it appears that just about anybody except those who mentioned the words “invisible fence” could adopt a dog. Once you said those words, however, there was nothing you could do but talk to a supervisor. Of course, there was no supervisor available on Sunday; she was away until Tuesday. (When our fence salesman talked to the pound supervisor later that week, she denied there was a policy against the product.)

The Private Breeder

Our final stop was a private dog breeder. What a difference! She spent about an hour talking with us, evaluating how we interacted with her dogs, and discussing our plans for the puppy. Only then did she agree to sell us a pup, an Australian Shepherd whom we call Cinnamon.

Our experience says a great deal about the differences between private and public enterprises. At the pound we were treated like obstacles to a quiet day; at the private charity and the business we were treated like customers. The county employee arbitrarily enforced a non-existent rule and preferred leaving a dog at risk of death to getting “chewed out.” The APL and the breeder wanted to know about the kind of home we would provide the dog. While I’m sure most folks at the pound love animals or they wouldn’t be working there, bureaucratic incentives get in the way—avoiding reprimand, not saving dogs, becomes the goal. With over 60 percent of dogs in U.S. shelters euthanized, that’s a disgrace.

But it’s not just dogs and their owners we need to worry about. Our society regularly faces choices between public and private means, from welfare to education. The same incentives that made us “pound scum” threaten our neighbors in the welfare system and our children in public schools. Whenever we have the opportunity to rely on private means to provide services, we ought to do so in order to keep others from being treated as we were. While my family is fortunate enough to have the economic means to escape such treatment usually, others are not. We need to be open to alternatives to public enterprises. Unless we are willing to condemn the least fortunate among us to treatment as “pound scum,” we can’t afford not to be.

  • Andrew P. Morriss is the D. Paul Jones, Jr. & Charlene A. Jones Chairholder in Law and Professor of Business at the University of Alabama. He is coeditor (with Roger E. Meiners and Pierre Desrochers) of Silent Spring at 50: The False Crises of Rachel Carson, forthcoming from the Cato Institute.