Not a week goes by (and in some weeks not a day goes by) when I don't see a post or comment on social media about use of the phrase "no kill" and about shelters where animals are destroyed for space or convenience. These posts generally have a lot in common as they tell us that the public is to blame for the fact that animals die in shelters and that there is no other way for shelters to function because they lack funding, donations, staff, volunteers, etc. I've written many times about the subject of no kill shelters, about the words we use related to animal advocacy and about cognitive dissonance as it relates to how people view shelters. I won't rehash all of that information here.
I do want to address some comments made in a social media post originally made three years ago which is now making the rounds again. The post was made by a woman who works as a kennel supervisor at a city animal shelter in Virginia.
News flash: healthy and treatable animals don't have to die in our tax funded animal shelters.
I don't care how you phrase it, how you justify it, what words you use, what excuses you use or how you rationalize the process. Healthy and treatable animals do not have to die because the programs which can be used to save them are known and have been known for decades. Any animal "shelter" which still destroys animals for space or convenience while making it sound like they are performing some Orwellian public service is engaged in daily betrayal of the public trust if for no other reason than they have failed to function consistent with public values using public funds. When places which have been killing animals for space stop doing that, it is not because the public suddenly and magically became more responsible overnight. It is because the shelter where the killing has taken place has decided to change the way it functions. Does it help for the public to be brought to the table so that people can be encouraged to make better and more responsible personal choices which affects how the shelter operates? Absolutely. That is why the programs and services of the No Kill Equation all involve the public in some way or another. But in the end, the burden of change lies with the organization, leadership and people who are doing the killing.
On to some of the comments made by the kennel supervisor.
1. To classify as a "no-kill" shelter, the shelter must have at least a 90% save rate of all animals and euthanize 10% of their animals or less.
No. To classify as a no kill shelter, the shelter must stop destroying healthy and treatable animals regardless of any statistics because what's what no kill means
do no[t] kill healthy and treatable animals
There may be months when 98% of animals are saved. There may be months when 88% of animals are saved if there was some mass intake event of genuinely suffering animals from a collector, puppy mill or dog fighter. The measure of a no kill facility is one of method, not of math.
2. But the reality is, some shelters have to euthanize for time and space.
No. They do not. Any shelter which says it must destroy animals for time and space is really not a shelter at all. It is a disposal facility and it should call itself exactly that so the public being served is very clear on what happens with their money. The ways to stop destroying animals for "time and space" have been known for decades. Any shelter can stop killing animals through introspection and planning.
3. The reality is this—animal shelters, both private and municipal—do not always get the funding, donations, staff or volunteers they need to operate at the level they would like to. Some of my favorite shelters I've ever visited are in the rural areas of North Carolina. Shelters that some would call "kill shelters" with the sound of disgust in their voice. These are shelters with practically no funding, no volunteers and no community support. These are actually my favorite shelters to transfer cats from. I have never met staff members more grateful, loving and hard working as I have at some of these shelters. Can you imagine having to euthanize 90% of your cats because you have no space, no adopters and no funding? I'm sure you can't. To say that these workers go home with heavy hearts every night is an understatement.
It is no argument to say that animals have to die to to lack of funding, donations, staff or volunteers as if there is no possible way to change that. If shelters want that to change, it is up to them to use proven programs to overcome those obstacles. Even if there is no more funding to be had, shelters can and should still save animals by using no kill programs which increase adoptions, fosters, volunteers, donations and which bring the public to the table to help the shelter to a better job. As far as advocates having the sound of disgust in their voice, call me guilty. I spent years advocating for change in the city where I work and when the live release rate was 25%, I was disgusted. And angry and exasperated and livid. Now that the live release rate is above 90% and has been for some time, I still have issues with the shelter but the tone of my advocacy has changed - because the shelter has changed. If workers at a shelter which destroys 90% of cats go home with heavy hearts, my advice to them is this: either be part of the solution to change the shelter from inside the operation or get another job. You will get no sympathy from me if you keep killing healthy and treatable animals and act like you have no say in the matter; that process is both unnecessary and inhumane.
4. I am grateful for euthanasia. While everyone who is certified in euthanasia has their own way, I always do it the same. Ritualistic as it may be, I find that it's truly important to me to give an animal some of his or her best last moments. After all, it's a life—and to me, that's absolutely worth something.
I am grateful for true euthanasia which means that an animal is suffering and we end his or her life as an act of mercy. It is not euthanasia to destroy healthy and treatable animals for space or time. I know exactly what euthanasia means and what happens at shelters to animals who have the misfortune of finding themselves in a building operated like it is 1920 is not euthanasia. It is killing them and it is destroying them. Do I call the people who perform those acts killers? I do not. To take the act and apply it to the actor as a form of personal attack serves no purpose. But I genuinely believe that as long as we sugar coat the process by calling it something other than what it is, we are misleading the public and we are misleading ourselves. If the life of an animal is worth something, don't just "give an animal some of his or her best last moments." Keep that animal alive unless he or she is genuinely suffering or a genuine danger to the public.
5. If you're not spaying and neutering your animals or adopting from shelters, you are the real problem here. It's not the workers who have to assembly-line-euthanize due to lack of space. The lack of space is created from the lack of adopters, lack of spaying and neutering and the overall lack of education on this subject in general.
People should absolutely spay and neuter their animals. Their failure to do so is not THE source of the problem any more than "lack of space" or "lack of adopters" is the problem. The problem is shelter leadership and municipal leadership which has not kept pace with public expectations and which has not taken proactive steps to end the status quo.
If you work in a shelter where healthy and treatable animals die, ask yourself what you're doing to change that. If your answer is that you are powerless to change that, you may want to get another job and then consider changing the shelter operation through advocacy. It has worked across the country. With each passing week and month, more and more shelters are becoming the actual shelters they call themselves and are doing wonderful, live saving and live affirming work with public funds while engaging with the public in positive and empowering ways.
Lead, follow or get out of the way. The lives of animals depend on it.
I am an animal welfare advocate. My goal is to help people understand some basic issues related to companion animals in America. Awareness leads to education leads to action leads to change.
image courtesy of Terrah Johnson