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Why Belgium's animal lovers are choosing to adopt their pets rather than buy
During World War One, British troops in Belgium asked what they should do with their sick or injured animals. Horses, pigeons and dogs were all used during warfare, and sometimes they could no longer serve. Belgium had no place for them.
And so, right there during the war, the country’s first animal shelter was founded. La Croix Bleue was based on the UK’s existing Blue Cross network of shelters. At one point there were more than 20 Croix Bleue shelters across Belgium. Now there are three: in Brussels, the Antwerp area and Floreffe, near Namur.
Croix Bleue is one of the country’s largest shelters, housing between 2,500 and 2,750 animals a year. Mostly they are dogs and cats, but there are also horses at the Floreffe site – a former coal mine. The shelter also sees rabbits come through and the occasional “trendy” animal, says Croix Bleue president Guy Adant, such as ferrets.
“It’s unfortunate,” he says of the latter. “These kinds of animals really shouldn’t be pets. They’re wild animals. After a few months, people realise this because they are destroying things in their home. And then they wind up here.”
Adant is a volunteer, like many of the people working at Croix Bleue. The organisation has no government funding; it survives on bequests, donations and adoption fees.
Animal adoption has been in the news over the past few months, as animal rights group Gaia launched a campaign against puppy mills. The organisation strongly encourages people to adopt a pet from a shelter rather than buy one from a breeder.
Croix Bleue does brisk business, with some 2,000 adoptions a year. It recently started a dog training programme, the only shelter in the country to do so, which has seen the number of adoptions increase. “When dogs come here, maybe they have been neglected or abandoned,” says Adant. “They are nervous and scared, and then they get adopted by a family, where there are perhaps children or other animals. That can be a very difficult situation.”
And it leads to families bringing the animal back. The new programme, carried out by experienced dog trainers, has made a huge difference. The Brussels shelter is on a cul-desac in Forest, and every Saturday morning it carries out training in the street in front of the public. “It’s a beautiful thing to see,” says Adant. “Quite wild dogs who were brought in just a few weeks before are so well-behaved. That is one of the most positive aspects of our shelter.”
Another is a commitment to not euthanise animals. Croix Bleue puts about 25 animals to death every year, a negligible number compared to many shelters, which can euthanise up to two-thirds of dogs they get every week. The number is even higher for cats. Croix Bleue only euthanises animals that are terminally ill or have proven to be dangerous.
Contrary to popular belief, most of the animals in Belgian shelters were not lost or abandoned – they are brought to shelters by families who no longer want them or can no longer care for them. Sometimes a family moves house and has no garden or an older person goes into a care home.
Adant is well aware that people often go to a breeder because they want a puppy or a kitten. “But we have those, too!” he insists. Cats often give birth to a litter after they arrive at the shelter. “A few months ago, we had a German Shepherd who had nine puppies. They were gone in a week.”
Could you foster?
If you can’t commit to adopting a pet, consider fostering. Cat Rescue in Woluwe-Saint-Lambert offers the service. You open up your home to a cat for as long as you can. “We’re a bit commitment-phobic because we like to travel,” says Paula Dear, a freelance journalist in Ixelles. She and her husband are now fostering. The couple previously had a cat who lived to the age of 22. Not having expected him to live so long, they made long-term travel plans and were forced to give him to relatives.
“That was really hard, and we didn’t want to go through that again,” says Dear. “It just felt irresponsible to adopt another one.” But Dear largely works from home and was craving company. Peach is perfect because “she’s very chatty,” she says with a laugh. “If you speak to her, she’ll make a noise back.”
For safety reasons, foster cats are not allowed to go outside, so apartment dwellers are perfectly able to foster. “We provide something a lot better than them having to wait in a cage in a shelter until someone adopts them,” says Dear.
But fostering with Cat Rescue comes with responsibilities. It’s up to you to assess potential adoptive families. Fosterers post information and photos of the animal on the Cat Rescue website and take inquiries. Because they know more about the cat’s behaviour and needs than the shelter, it’s considered the most efficient way of finding the right home. In return, Cat Rescue provides everything the cat will need, as well as paying for all vet bills and food.
This article first appeared in The Bulletin spring 2019. Photos: Paula Dear