When it comes to the region’s rise to power in the last few months, most observers have been focused on populism in Europe, from the declining fortunes of the far-right in France, to surging nationalism in Italy. (Right in the middle of the movement is Germany’s sometimes surprising coalition with the AfD.) Instead, it is in Europe’s social security systems, and especially its treatment of dogs, that the outcome of those elections may well have the most lasting impact. Most leave the details of health care and immigration policy to figures in big political parties. But look around the European continent and you’ll find that some dogs benefit much more than others from what little social safety nets exist. Consider this fact: Every year in Europe, a terrier-sized proportion of abandoned dogs is taken in by nonprofit, private shelters. Across all of Western Europe, a dog’s life expectancy can be on average 25 years, nearly double the figure for cats. Shelter dogs as a proportion of the continent’s stray dogs have similarly spiked, from about 15 percent in 1982 to nearly one-quarter in 2017.
That’s unfortunate; shelters with small populations risk euthanasia (and often death-by-chain-link!) when unselective intake criteria leaves them to fill just half their beds. Yet a fast-growing tide of stray dogs, spurred by a crisis that some attribute to economic conditions, has caused a number of emergency shelters to sprout up across the continent — from Sweden to Spain — leaving many dog lovers frustrated, and many more uninformed, when it comes to what can or cannot be left behind. Anecdotal accounts suggest that some dog owners blame their own short-sightedness on the fault of the shelter. “If you love your dog and don’t think about it, there is no problem,” says Axel von Hartwig, co-founder of a Swedish shelter called Ökizoo, which offers emergency support to a growing number of these would-be rescues. “If you love your dog, there is a problem. And this can be solved only by taking into account your own dog’s personality, not your neighbors’.”
But treating stray dogs or strays simply as a social problem can lead to serious unintended consequences. One case at a fire station in a village on Spain’s Canary Islands is instructive. One of the shelter’s rescue dogs in the emergency department wasn’t so much surrendered by a dog’s owner as by a woman who worried about the large number of stray dogs walking down her street. The dog — called King — spent the night inside the back of the fire station, among the bedrooms and the emergency room, and by the morning, nobody knew who owned him. To the staff, King, a retired wolfhound, was too used to the attention. Within a few hours, with the help of the local zoo, King had been walked, brushed, groomed and welcomed into the home of an owner. But, as animal advocates have long pointed out, what happens to homeless dogs — whether that happens in emergency shelters or by adoption — may be just as important as the particular circumstances of the dog.
There is evidence that the rescue of pets and the acceptance of unwanted ones may have played a role in recent voter trends, but it is not yet clear how much. On the democratic side, while populism from the far right soared in Germany in December, the ascent of the far left in Italy was more nuanced, and while the far right rose in other countries in December, the increasingly authoritarian movement failed to clinch a majority in elections in Hungary and Austria. All these elections in Europe are part of a broader phenomenon of mounting challenges to established political elites on all sides of the aisle, and across global issues like immigration and environmental protection. But beyond any national questions, the results of the polling suggest that few if any dog owners’ early support for these far-right candidates was due to a willful disregard for dogs. Across the continent, it seems, voters were rallying around at least one animal — the rejector of European politics, perhaps, but a pet in need, nonetheless.