7 Hard-Learned Lessons about Animal Shelters, Euthanasia, and the No Kill Movement
DogTime is pleased to bring you an exploration of one of the most polarizing issues in animal rescue today. This 8-part weekly series, by DogTime editor Leslie Smith, is for anyone who feels passionately about animal welfare, wishes to see a reduction in the number of homeless pets, or remains conflicted or confused about the No Kill movement in the United States. We urge you to read each segment (a new one will be published every Tuesday between now and June 21), and we hope you will add your comments, stories, and perspectives to this important discussion.
Introduction to the series
by Leslie Smith, DogTime editor
Every day in this country, a population the size of the capital of Vermont dies at the hands of humans. Every single day, 10,000 companion animals are put to sleep. Not because they are dangerous or unhealthy, but because nobody wants them. Four million dead dogs and cats per year because we have yet to institute a better solution. Some say euthanasia, others say massacre.
There is much debate over who bears responsibility for these deaths, and there is passionate discussion as to how to humanely unburden our overcrowded shelters. There is no shortage of opinions, but sadly, adoptable animals continue to die.
One of the voices in the discussion belongs to the country’s growing No Kill movement, which seeks to eliminate the euthanasia of “healthy, treatable” animals. Its goal — a “live release rate” of 90%* of all animals who enter private and municipal shelters — is lauded almost universally. But the intricacies of how, and even if, this percentage can be achieved are at times controversial, complex, and misunderstood.
This series recounts my struggle to understand the gray areas of the No Kill movement. It’s not a substitute for the volume of material on the subject already out there. Rather, it’s a personal journey involving ten years of volunteering in shelters, along with much researching, reading, interviewing, and ultimately, soul searching. Its purpose is to explain where I’ve landed on these issues, how I got there, and where I see solutions. Undoubtedly, I will ask more questions than I answer.
When I started down this track many years ago, I knew little about shelter life and had no background in animal welfare issues. My volunteer experience began even before I had a dog of my own, well before I became a vegetarian and then an ethical vegan. Since then, I’ve become intimately involved with the staff and residents in shelters and sanctuaries across the West and Southwest. I’ve cheered as dogs I never expected to see adopted went home to loving families, and I’ve sobbed witnessing the life waft from bodies of perfectly healthy animals. That said, I do believe there are blurry lines when it comes to making decisions for other species about living and dying.
The anecdotes at the beginning of each segment aren’t meant to demonize — or deify — shelters (or those of us who work inside them), only to offer a glimpse of reality. My goal is not to convince anyone to join a movement or take on a label. The intent is simply to share what I’ve gleaned in hopes of explaining DogTime’s editorial point of view — and to move us one step to closer to becoming a more humane nation.
Editor’s note: I’m infinitely grateful to Nathan Winograd, Michael Mountain, Richard Avanzino, and Helga Schimkat for providing me context, background, and insight. And I thank them for giving to me their time — graciously, readily, and free of charge.
*There are as many definitions for No Kill in this country as there are shelters. For the purposes of this article, I will refer to 90% as the minimum live release rate, the number used by the No Kill Advocacy Center.
My 1st lesson: No Kill is a very complicated ‘simple concept’
by Leslie Smith, DogTime editor
A big, blonde Retriever mix died in his kennel today. He’d been at the shelter for just over a week, picked up as a stray. During his time there, I never once heard him growl or noticed him standing. I never even saw him sit up. Every time I passed the cage, he was crouched, cowering, in the farthest corner from the door.
I know nothing about his history, or how he came to be a stray, but I imagine it would’ve taken weeks of slow, cautious interaction to eventually gain his trust. Few shelters have the resources it would have required to turn the dog into an attractive adoption candidate and there are few foster families who would have had the time to devote to his rehabilitation. He was not aggressive, simply terrified and large, and therefore considered a safety risk.
The only week that I knew this dog, the last one of his life, was spent shivering in fear at the back of a kennel. His final moments became a futile attempt to dodge the ring of a catchpole — the device animal control officers use to capture potentially fractious dogs. It's also used by shelter staff to keep an unpredictable dog at a safe distance as he's being tranquilized.
The Retriever ducked his head and writhed, trying to avoid the snare, but the ordeal finally culminated with the ring around his neck. A moment later, the tranquilizer, and then, a lethal injection.
Does No Kill mean what I think it means?
The answer is yes. (Mostly.) The No Kill movement aims to end the practice of euthanasia by city, county, and private shelters as a means of population control for companion animals. That is, don’t kill dogs and cats because they don’t have homes. Instead, find them homes.
At face value, No Kill is a very easy notion to get behind; no one wants healthy, adoptable dogs and cats to die. But scratch the surface just a bit and the matter of pet homelessness is at once complicated, heartbreaking, hazy, and polarizing. At issue are the very definitions of healthy and adoptable, the question of how long we can humanely expect a dog or cat to remain in a shelter, and the dilemma of how to effectively allocate our very limited resources. (See sidebar.)
The movement began over fifty years ago but didn’t really appear on the national radar until the mid-1990s when San Francisco SPCA President Richard Avanzino transformed the city, for a time, into the nation’s first No Kill municipality. Since then, a handful of cities around the country have attempted to do the same, with varying degrees of success and permanence.
No Kill advocacy
If you’re looking for comprehensive reading material on the topic, the online No Kill Advocacy Center is the place to start. It contains hundreds of documents — some philosophy, some practical application — for communities, shelters, and individuals wanting to learn more about the movement, its tenets, and prescription for success.
On a theoretical level, the No Kill recommendations indeed make sense and appear simple to institute. Among them:
- Extended shelter hours
- Increased off-site adoption fairs
- Pet retention programs
- "Comprehensive vaccination, handling, cleaning, socialization, and care policies"
Actually implementing these programs and services, however, presents a massive logistical, organizational, and often political challenge. Where does the money come from to extend shelter hours? How many extra volunteers — and volunteers hours — does it take to staff off-site adoption fairs? Who establishes and monitors a pet retention program?
The fourth bullet above — a direct quote from the No Kill Advocacy Equation document — in and of itself requires huge human resource reserves, which are already in meager supply. Success depends heavily on public involvement in the form of committed volunteers, an extensive foster family network, plenty of willing adopters, and a tireless shelter staff.
If all, or even any, of those critical elements were easy to come by, we probably wouldn’t have this problem in the first place. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to solve it now.
My 2nd lesson: People love dogs. As long as they’re cute, convenient, and easy-to-care-for.
Doesn't matter what time of year or what day of the week. On any given afternoon, there all always more dogs in the Intake building than I have time to visit. Today I focus solely on the Pit Bulls, and even then, there are still too many to attend to.
The assortment is striking, from young pups to old geezers, from needy to shy to outgoing to hyperactive. Two have come in together, both pretty beat up. It isn't clear whether they'd been made to fight or had just gotten into a scrap somewhere along the way. One has the saddest eyes I've ever seen — and a golf ball sized tumor on his hind leg.
Not far down the run is another pair, arrived attached at the hip. One's ears are clipped, but neither looked malnourished, nor like they'd been forced to fight, thankfully. And in the next run over, I play "find it" and "stretch" with an orange pup in a pink collar. Clearly she'd had a home. By the looks of her, she'd been at least adequately cared for. So where is her owner?
By the time I reach the Pit Bull/Shar Pei mix on the far end of the runs, it’s nearly the end of my shift. We go for a quick session in the park, off leash, and it does us both good to play chase in the sun. I leave her in her kennel with a tennis ball and a peanut butter Kong. It makes shutting the door only slightly less heart-wrenching.
Pet overpopulation: real or myth?
While no one disputes the fact that millions of animals are put down each year, the No Kill movement asserts that pet overpopulation is a myth. Shelter administrators, on the other hand, claim crippling numbers of dogs and cats are overloading their facilities, that we have a serious pet overpopulation problem. In a way, they’re both right.
There are more people who want to bring an animal into their home than are animals available in shelters. Each year, Americans take in seventeen million pets while there are “only” eight million animals in shelters. So why don’t these figures add up to empty shelters? Why are approximately ten thousand animals put down every single day?
The fact is, many people don’t want shelter dogs and cats. Or at least think they don’t. Sadly, only about a quarter of the pet-acquiring population goes to a shelter to find their animal. The rest buy from breeders and pet stores — or acquire them from friends and family members whose pets have had litters.
I know many educated, compassionate people who are only interested in getting a dog from a breeder. They’re not in it to save a life, they’re in it to enhance their own life. That’s not a judgment, simply a reality. And that’s fine, but it leaves us with a very real predicament:
The particular population of animals that people want is not the same population of animals available in overwhelming numbers. So, when we speak of companion animals as a whole, we have a surplus of shelter animals with regards to supply and demand. In that sense, overpopulation is real. Painfully real.
If we shifted the public’s perception of what they think they wanted, this wouldn’t have to be. If people understood that a shelter dog is no different from a breeder dog — an adopted animal will provide the same amount of joy, love, and satisfaction as a purchased animal — we could solve this problem right now. Overpopulation could become a myth today.
My 3rd lesson: Shelters could be doing (a lot) more
A huge gray Pit Bull arrived as a stray at the shelter last week. Her ears were cropped, jagged and sloppily, so you know the job was done with scissors in someone’s yard. A long, unsightly acid burn stretched all the way down her back — another common practice intended to make a dog look tough — the streak now scabby and furless.
By law, she was confined to her kennel for seven days, so for that week, I sat on the other side of the cage bars, playing games and tossing her treats. But by the following Tuesday, the shelter behaviorist had evaluated her and granted me permission to take her for a walk. The dog was big and strong and had probably never in her life walked on a leash. She pulled me around for about ten minutes, before I (overpowered) managed to return her to her kennel.
I decided that on my next shift, I’d take the gray Pit out first thing — that way, I’d have enough energy to give her a decent walk. Friday I went straight to the dog's kennel, but when I got there, her door was open. I ran to the euthanasia room and, breaking all established protocol procedures, knocked on the door.
"Is the gray Pit already gone?" I asked when the vet tech opened the door.
"No, I just tranquilized her. She's still woozy," he said.
He nodded and left us alone in the room.
At this point, she could barely lift her head, but her eyes were open and I laid down with her, spoon style, and cooed and petted her. After a minute or so, she started convulsing. A small number of dogs (but not so small that I’d never seen it before) react this way to the tranq. As her head shook, the heavy metal chain around her neck clinked against the cement floor. So, with one hand I held the chain up off the floor and with the other I cupped the her head. Her eyes were still open.
After a few minutes, the vet tech returned. I asked if I could stay and hold her while he administered the lethal injection, but he said no. (Some techs allow me to stay, others don't.) So I left the dog, still convulsing, to die on a cement floor, a stranger shooting poison into her vein. I wondered if when she saw the vet tech coming toward her kennel with a leash, she thought she was going for a walk again. Instead she was led to a tiny room, drugged, and killed.
The gap between what shelters are doing and what they need to be doing: Is it conquerable?
Nathan Winograd, the prominent animal welfare thinker who literally wrote the book (two, actually) on the No Kill movement, asserts there’s a nationwide dearth of competent, dedicated leadership in our shelter systems. At one time, I would’ve whole-heartedly disagreed with him. At each and every facility I’ve worked in, I’ve witnessed tremendous sacrifice and incredible devotion.
But the longer I’ve volunteered and the more hours I’ve put in, the less convinced I’ve become that we — the shelter — are doing all we can in an overwhelmingly difficult situation. Outstanding efforts are made, at times, but they aren’t the norm. Shelter policies (often created by municipal bodies outside the animal welfare arena) aren’t deliberately cruel, but often are not in the animals’ best interest. And the lack of true leadership isn’t blatant, but its absence takes a toll at every level of shelter management.
Over ten years, I’ve begun to see room for improvement. Lots and lots of room.
Who’s to blame? Everyone.
Not the least of our troubles in overcoming this crisis: People are human. We put ourselves or our families or our financial stability above all else. Can you blame us? How do you fault someone for being a parent or spouse or friend first, shelter administrator second?
So part of the challenge is prioritization. But even among those for whom animal welfare is paramount, fixing the system is far from easy. Case in point: me. I’m passionate and dedicated and consider animal welfare my ultimate purpose. I’m educated and I have experience with many aspects of shelter life. But there’s no way I could successfully run one. I simply don’t have the skill set.
Endless fundraising, overseeing daily operations, maintaining a reliable volunteer and foster base, and working with government-funded animal control is just the beginning. All this as fiscal support declines, and shelters are asked to do more with less. It’s not a task for the somewhat skilled or the B+ worker. We need organized, uber-competent, development-minded rock stars.
In most communities, however, fundraising wizards with endless energy, incredible leadership skills, charm, experience, and an MBA aren’t just sitting around waiting to be hired by their local animal shelter. That doesn’t mean current administrators aren’t trying their best or giving all they have — it just means their best isn’t good enough. There are very few people (myself included) with the precise combination of skills and education who would succeed.
Meanwhile, the animals keep coming and coming and coming. Many need medical attention. All need food, water, and clean cages. And if you want to get the animals adopted — not to mention, run a humane institution — all need mental and physical exercise, socialization, attention, and training.
A shelter is no place for an animal
Shelter life is extremely stressful for a dog — more on that later. Yet in order to offer a selection of animals who are attractive (read: manageable) enough to compete with what breeders’ offer, we have to ensure our animals get sufficient care and attention that they remain easy-going, polite, healthy. And that requires a significant amount of time for each animal, every day. In the majority of counties around the country, running a shelter is more than a full-time job, it’s a life.
So where once I was offended by Winograd’s assertions about shelter management, I now find myself agreeing that there simply aren’t enough qualified people in positions of shelter leadership. What’s more, there aren’t enough tax-payer dollars or private donations to do this right. Our shelters desperately need help. For open admissions, No Kill facilities to become the norm, a lot of people have to want it badly. And a significant portion of those must be willing to work for it.
My 4th lesson: Suffering is rampant
A family in our neighborhood keeps their dog on a chain, probably twelve feet long, attached to a stake in the ground. Their unfenced backyard butts up to the largely deserted arroyo where I walk my own dogs, Uno and Maybe. Whenever we pass by, the Shepherd mix barks like crazy, racing as close to the arroyo as he can until his chain is pulled taut.
He has a small, slightly run-down doghouse in which to take cover when it rains. I don’t know for certain, but I’m guessing this is also where he goes (as opposed to inside the family trailer) when winter temperatures fall below zero at night. I’ve never, ever walked past and not seen the dog chained to his stake.
His fur is scraggly, but he doesn’t look malnourished. And I’d be anthropomorphizing if I said he appeared sad, lonely, and desperate for attention. I’m convinced he’s bored out of his mind, gazing at the same barren stretch of land day after day after day, but again, that’s just speculation.
The dog has water, food, and shelter. By law, in many states, that’s all that’s required.
A ‘fate worse than death’: whose definition?
As a shelter volunteer, I see situations on a weekly basis in which I wish an animal would’ve been euthanized as a newborn instead of having to endure the trauma he did. I see animals that have been starved, burned, maimed, and beaten. I’ve seen dogs that were purposely run over by cars, puppies who were chained and abandoned without food or water, Pit Bulls whose ears were cut off with a pair of scissors.
Undeniably, there are fates worse than death. Abuse may not be the norm, but sadly, it isn’t rare — the pervasiveness of cruelty astounds me. No question, it’s more merciful to euthanize an animal than to sentence him to a life of abject suffering.
But what about when the pain is not so acute, more like an ache than a stab? The animal isn’t being fought or starved. It’s not a terrible life — the dog isn’t physically abused or denied veterinary treatment. But it’s not a great life, nor even a particularly good one. The animal is very often lonely and bored. He spends much of his time by himself in a confined area, ignored for long stretches each day by his “family.”
A fate worse than death? Hard to conclude without specific circumstances or knowing the animal. In my own neighborhood, I see this all the time — dogs who spend all day alone in the backyard. Maybe some animals are ok with such an existence. Others, I’m quite sure, are not. It’s the are-nots I worry about.
Adoption, adoption, adoption
Critics of the No Kill movement claim too much emphasis is placed on adoption: Get the animal out of the shelter and into a home to make room for the next stray, feral, or owner surrender. They say the quality of the home is sacrificed, often to the detriment of the animal, in order to move inventory. I say: a fair criticism.
There is no standardized method for evaluating a potential adopter, no reliable way to predict where on the spectrum that potential home will fall. Each time an animal is adopted from my shelter, we silently hope he’s ending up in one of the great, or even one of the good, homes. A home where mental and physical stimulation, companionship, affection, and medical care is amply provided.
We hope that only a few animals end up in adequate homes — where luxuries like companionship and stimulation are a little less frequent — and those who do land there are equipped to deal with it. And we hope that no animal ends up in a poor or inadequate home. But the fact is, there are plenty of these.
In many cases, it’s not intentional cruelty on the part of the owner. Perhaps they’re just busier than they thought they’d be. Or maybe they weren’t told that living in the yard, segregated from the family, is especially lonely for social animals like dogs. Or could be they just don’t want to think that a pet needs more than ten minutes of attention a day to be healthy and happy.
So what do you when a dog has already spent weeks or months in a crowded shelter? Do you send him to the inadequate home? What about taking it a step further: Do you remove an animal from such a home only to euthanize him?
It’s impossible to make these decisions or even evaluate specific cases without anthropomorphizing. The fact is, I’ll never know what it’s like to be a dog. How can I make a compassionate decision about whether I would want such a life, viewing it through my own human sense of perception? And my answer — what sort of life would be acceptable to me as a dog — might not match yours.
The right balance: difficult to strike, somewhat elusive
Here’s what I know. Shelter adoption screening shouldn’t be so tough that it scares away potentially great guardians. Nor should it be so lax that no precautions are taken to ensure an animal is going to a decent, appropriate home. But to leave this issue for shelters alone to handle is the wrong tack. As a nation, we need to redefine what it means to responsibly "own" an animal.
You’ve heard this before: not everyone should be a parent. The same goes for having a dog. To a certain degree, the responsibilities are comparable. Providing food, shelter, and water is not enough. Consider:
We’re horrified to hear of parents who neglect their child or fail to provide love and security. Likewise should we react to dog owners who keep their canine family member isolated, chained, or otherwise deprived.
We guarantee our kids an education (at least until a certain age, right?). Dogs too — thinking, feeling, sentient beings — should be guaranteed regular mental and physical exercise. (Don’t have time? Don’t get a dog.)
No, raising a child is not equivalent to raising a dog. Humans are complicated; canines, less so. Their minimal requirements for health and happiness are easier to meet. But animals do experience loneliness, boredom, fear, and stress in a similar manner to people. Animals suffer tremendously. And for this reason alone we must tolerate nothing less than engaged, responsible owners.
So the solution is not merely more adopters — it’s more responsible adopters. (And fewer animals.) But here’s the good news. It’s a lot easier to regulate animal havin’ than it is child havin’. We can, from an ethical standpoint, decide not only how many but which dogs and cats should go on to procreate. And we can do so responsibly, humanely, and economically.
My 5th lesson: There are no responsible breeders
Last week a tiny Chihuahua was left in the “after hours drop box” at our shelter. Many people are appalled that such thing as a drop box even exists, but our staff assures them it’s essential. For example, when a stray is found in the middle of the night, a person can leave the animal in the drop box, knowing he’ll be brought inside first thing in the morning.
The drop box, really more like a tiny closet, is heated in the winter with a bowl of water and a toy inside. About three times a week, a dog or cat is waiting there in the morning when the first staff member arrives. It’s impossible to know whether the animal’s been there an hour or five hours or twelve hours.
There are other, more critical reasons for the drop box, but we don’t advertise them. Like the fact that it reduces the number of animals who are simply discarded somewhere. The drop box saves owners from having to pay a relinquish fee and shields them from what they think will be the scorn or judgment of an in-person surrender. Sadly, some people are more likely to abandon an animal than to face the possibility of disapproval.
So while the idea of it breaks my heart, I’m grateful that we (and other shelters) provide a drop box. I feel much worse for the animal abandoned on the highway median. Or for the dog left tied up in the back yard when his owner is evicted. And for the kittens collected in a rubber-banded pillowcase and deposited on the snowy shelter steps in the middle of January.
Why DogTime lists “kill” shelters
Open-admissions shelters (see sidebar) exist for one or both of two reasons:
- There are not enough homes in a particular area willing or wanting to adopt animals in need.
- There are not enough effective shelter administrators or human or financial resources in these areas to match up would-be owners with homeless animals.
Either way, this is not the fault of the animal. So it’s our obligation, to try every way we can, to find homes for these dogs and cats (birds, ferrets, rabbits, etc.). And yes, in some cases, this assistance is to the benefit of substandard shelters.
As frustrating as that fact is, it is not our goal to put open admissions shelters out of business. (We need open-admissions shelters to ensure all animals have a safe place to go should their owners no longer be able — or want — to care for them.)
So with that logic, why doesn’t DogTime list breeders? Don’t those animals also deserve a happy home?
Indeed, they do. The difference is, breeders are actively adding to the number of animals in need of homes. Not only that, they’re profiting from the venture. While we are still euthanizing millions of dogs and cats each year, there is no reason to increase the companion animal population. And there’s no reason to help breeders stay in business.
Even responsible breeders who genuinely love and want the best for their animals you ask? I know this statement will raise some hackles, but it needs to be said: There are no responsible breeders. At least not now, while our shelters are full and perfectly adoptable animals are dying (some of which came from breeders).
It doesn’t matter that you’ve grown up with Collies or that a German Shepherd once saved your life. I don’t care what breed you love above all others. Your passion for wanting to see that breed proliferate is irrelevant when it comes to the welfare of a single animal. Breeding is a hobby for humans. It’s morally intolerable to value the worth of a breed over the worth of an individual. No exceptions.
Pit Bulls are my favorite kind of dog. I see one on the street and I have to fight the urge to race over and nuzzle him. I look at a Pit Bull’s photo and I burst into tears at her beauty. But I’d rather see the breed go extinct than for one more to be euthanized in the name of pet overpopulation.
Next installment: We can’t continue to rely on adoption any more than we can kill our way to No Kill
My 6th lesson: Adoption is not the (best) answer
Down the road from the animal shelter sits Santa Fe's only enclosed dog park. A huge expanse on several acres, it features a small gated holding pen which walkers must pass through before entering the main run.
Monday morning, a friend of mine arrived at the park with her own dog, but instead of the usual early risers, she'd found a frightened Rottie mix standing alone in the holding pen.
There's no way a dog can get in or out of that pen on his own, so with no human in sight, it was clear he'd been left there intentionally. The dog gazed expectantly out at the parking lot. His eyes darted from one side to the other, searching for the owner he'd witnessed drive away.
My friend sat with the dog inside the pen, hoping a person would appear and explain the whole thing had been a misunderstanding. But no one ever materialized. Finally, she called Animal Control, and waited with the dog until an officer arrived.
As law requires, the Rottie was still being held as a stray when I showed up for my Tuesday shift. Like all strays, the dog must wait a five day “stray period” before he is officially property of the county; during this wait time, volunteers can’t legally walk him (or any stray). So, I sat outside the big dog’s kennel as long as I could, hoping to help him feel less alone.
He was still there on Friday when I came for my next shift. Again, I stayed for quite a while, tossing him treats through the cage bars and cooing reassuringly. The following Tuesday, however, the Rottie was gone. The staff behaviorist told me he’d tested “dog reactive.” I knew what that meant for a Rottweiler mix, and I dreaded having to tell my friend: The gentle, frightened dog she’d sat with at the park had spent his final days alone in a kennel, never again knowing affection from a human hand.
There is a solution to this crisis. Adoption, however, is only a small part of it. Perhaps that’s my biggest ideological deviation from the No Kill movement. Unless we’re prepared to operate in a perpetually frantic state of trying to place unwanted animals in a finite number of homes, prevention — not adoption — is where we need to focus our resources.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting we euthanize instead of finding homes for the massive number of animals currently in need. We can’t kill our way to No Kill. But to keep the population under control, generation after generation, comprehensive spaying and neutering — outreach and education in communities where spay/neuter has yet to become commonplace — is crucial. It’s inefficient, expensive, and ultimately inhumane to go about this any other way.
A sobering realization first brought to my attention by the Doris Day Animal League: An unspayed cat can give birth to up to three litters per year and averages about five kittens in each litter. Assuming none of her offspring are spayed or neutered either, in theory she could be responsible for adding 420,000 cats to the population in a mere seven years. And of course, she’s not the only unspayed cat trolling the alley.
There’s simply no getting around this math — nor any way to possibly keep up.
Yet as we allot more resources to spay/neuter, we can’t let down our current population of dogs and cats in need. We must find homes —good homes — where humans have the time and inclination to provide all that’s needed for their animals. An impossible task? I’m not sure. But I do know that piecemeal efforts aren’t enough. Without an aggressive, pervasive spay/neuter initiative, this crisis will only worsen exponentially.
In the meantime, we must work extra hard on two fronts: spay/neuter and education on the one, finding quality adoptive homes on the other. The latter, with emphasis on quality, is way more difficult than it sounds (more on that in a moment).
Putting all eggs in the adoption basket
I said earlier that shelters are full of amazing animals, every bit as valuable and worthy as a pet who comes from a breeder. That’s true, but among the shelter population are animals who need a bit extra. Many of these dogs and cats have come from less than ideal homes, have experienced life on the streets, or have already spent too many weeks or months in a shelter. Adoption may prove a difficult adjustment into yet another unfamiliar situation with a new set of strangers and new rules.
The reality is, most people looking for a dog want a puppy, not a project; there are some shelter animals who simply will not make a good match for families with little spare time. A few are willing to consider the tough cases, the dogs with issues, but the majority want an easy, well-adjusted companion who will enrich their lives with relatively little effort. Face it, we’re a busy population with enough trouble budgeting time for our children, our jobs, and ourselves. The majority of Americans simply don’t have the hours in the day, let alone the knowledge and skills, to take on a project dog successfully.
So in terms of adoption, we have two very challenging obstacles to overcome:
- a limited number of good (or great) adoptive homes
- a limited number of days in which to find those homes
Fourteen days is generally accepted as the amount of time a dog can be sheltered before he begins to experience serious mental or physical unraveling. After about two weeks in such an environment, an "easy" dog quickly becomes a dog with issues. The stress becomes so intense he starts to deteriorate, and the anxiety, panic, loneliness, and extreme boredom can manifest in a variety of ways (see sidebar).
Not every dog declines so drastically, but even for the animals who fare better, a shelter is nowhere near a satisfactory environment. And so the question remains: How many days or weeks or months must pass before it becomes inhumane to house a dog in a shelter, hoping the right family will come along? Is there a threshold at which it’s more humane to euthanize an animal than to hold him isolated in a small kennel? Perhaps. But there’s no way for us, as animal caretakers, to determine that tipping point. More importantly, we shouldn’t have to.
The fact is, many, many shelters do have long-term residents, and the vast majority of these facilities do not have the human resources — whether paid or volunteer — to do what it takes to maintain the mental health of every dog who’s been there longer than two weeks. If we can’t count on shelters — already stretched thin — and we can’t count on an unlimited supply of quality adopters, what becomes of these long-term residents? Who undoes the cumulative mental (and sometimes physical) stress to make this dog, happy, healthy, and supremely adoptable?
Humans have already failed these animals at least once; morally, we can’t continue to euthanize. Our only humane choice is prevention
My 7th lesson: No Kill must cast a wider net; first step is a name change
On Thursday, a man brought a Heeler mix he called Jack to the front counter. The sight horrified those present, and the stench permeated the entire shelter grounds. Jack’s right front leg had been mutilated, and the injury was clearly not new. According to the man, the dog had been hit by a car about six weeks ago, and he was now worried maggots would begin eating away at the infected limb.
From the socket hung what looked like a partially-eaten chicken drumstick. In places, no skin, no cartilage, no tendons. Just completely exposed bone with a knob at the bottom where his paw turned under and a round, deadened area at the top connecting the leg to what was left of his shoulder. (Photo here. Warning: extremely graphic.)
This is not a wealthy community, and the actual shelter building reflects the area’s depressed economic conditions: cement floor, blocky brick walls, makeshift signs, and ramshackle shelving. What it lacks in beauty and warmth is made up for by an utterly devoted staff.
When Jack arrived, there was no question they’d do everything they could for him, despite knowing his medical care would cost thousands of dollars. The dog would not be failed by humans again.
This, from a “kill” shelter.
Every statistic is a story
When it comes to declaring mission accomplished, No Kill success boils down to a numbers game: We measure our progress in quantifiable steps forward (and backward) until we get to a nationwide live-release rate of 90% or higher. That is, 90% of all treatable animals who enter a shelter, leave the shelter alive.
But this is not a numbers issue. Every statistic represents a real animal, real suffering, real death. Imagine if you hadn’t gone to the shelter that day and your own dog was now the one now being led to the euthanasia room instead of lying at your feet as you read this. Every animal who receives the gas chamber or the blue juice is the one you might’ve adopted. Every dog or cat is someone’s almost chosen one.
Better shelter efficiency, adoption, and certainly education are all part of the equation. Changing the shelter experience, while not immediately doable in most places, is also key. (Facilities like ARF and the Humane Society of Silicon Valley have done an amazing job of transforming the perception of “animal shelter” from depressing to inspiring. Their campuses offer an extensive menu of animal-centric activities, everything from kids’ day camps to public walking trails to pet-friendly cafes.) All of the above are important items on the grand to-do list.
But in one generation, and with relatively (I said relatively) fewer human and financial resources than it takes to install new shelter leadership or make over our municipal facilities, we can get this epidemic under control. Yes, it all comes down to spay/neuter and in the end: fewer animals for whom to find homes, great homes for all who need them.
“No Suffer”: the new No Kill?
I’d like to see the U.S. become a No Kill nation. But my even greater hope is that we become a No Suffer nation. No animal deserves to die simply because the shelter is full, but neither does he deserve a life devoid of exercise, companionship, security, and medical care.
The success of a No Suffer movement would be harder to measure, but its impact, at least as profound. We’ll have achieved it when our animal cruelty legislation is strictly imposed and enforced, when our shelters are all but empty, and when euthanasia is a reprieve from incurable affliction, not a method of population control.
No Suffer would mean we’re not classifying animals in terms of how adoptable they are, but instead, we're devoting resources to any dog or cat who needs extra care. Ultimately, we’ll know we’ve become a No Suffer nation when we’re no longer keeping track of those animals we, as humans, have failed. When the reality is truly a humane society, where every creature is respected and treated with compassion.
DogTime's No Kill series: Afterword
The last segment in the DogTime No Kill series posted several weeks ago, but readers’ reactions to the various articles are still very much on my mind. That's a good thing, as my goal was to elicit discussion, awareness, and thought from people who are troubled by the crisis in our shelter system.
As for what I'm still thinking about...
This is too complicated an issue to speak for anyone but myself.
Some within the movement expressed disappointment that I characterized No Kill as primarily adoption-focused. Several prominent No Kill voices wrote to say that isn’t true, that spay/neuter, among other goals, is just as central to their message. Fair enough.
My conversations with leaders in the movement led to me gather that adoption was the highest priority. We talked largely and at length about shelters not doing enough to promote adoption, and I learned about various adoption techniques and strategies the movement advocates. A good portion my No Kill posts drew from those conversations (as well as from my years of hands-on shelter volunteership), as I approached this series less as a reporter, more as a philosopher.
That said, this is not about misrepresenting any individual’s or organization’s mission or purpose — the goal is to find out where we agree and to leverage those shared beliefs to end the suffering of shelter animals.
For an unmitigated, direct explanation of what No Kill is all about, please visit their website:
Perceptions about breeding animals vary widely
Some readers were offended by my use of the word irresponsible in referring to breeders. I think it’s important for me to again stress that there are many compassionate, caring people who breed animals. A significant number are involved in rescue; many donate money, time, and valuable resources. I wholeheartedly applaud that.
That doesn’t mean I agree that adding companion animals to the population is a good idea at this time, a time when so many animals are needlessly suffering and dying. I’m not asking you to concur — only to continue to think about and discuss the issue so that we may respectfully work together.
To achieve a humane nation, humans need humans
Finally, I’ve learned that it’s incredibly tempting to dismiss those with differing opinions. The relative safety and anonymity of the internet means disagreements might unfold more contentiously online than they would in person.
But I’ve realized that the opposing views I pay most attention to — and contemplate most seriously — are the ones expressed with respect and a true desire to educate. My personal resolution is to emulate those who’ve dissented without disparagement, who’ve raised points without sinking to insults and invective. If we can’t treat members of our fellow species with decency, how can we expect to muster and synchronize the tremendous energy it will require to solve this crisis?
As I stated at the outset of this series, these posts developed from personal experience — a journey involving years of volunteering, intense reflection, and direct talks with leaders of the No Kill movement (as well as with advocates unhappy with the movement). The goal was not to represent a particular side of the debate, but rather share my perspective and hear from others who care deeply about animals.
Not one person has all the right answers nor can one individual solve this crisis. That’s why it’s so important to me to keep this discussion alive, and to share best practices in hopes of getting closer to a solution.