I received an email on Friday from a shelter volunteer notifying me of some dogs at a local animal shelter who had been destroyed that day for "behavior." As of Thursday, the dogs were all still available for adoption or to be pulled by a rescue group. As of Friday, they were dead. This led me to what I can only describe as a moment of absolute clarity, thanks to something written by fellow No Kill advocate Eileen McFall of Austin, Texas. She had written to Don Bland, the Chief Animal Services Officer for the City of Austin about a dog scheduled to die in which she questioned how a dog could be adoptable one day and dead the next. In looking at the images of the local dogs who are now dead, I had to wonder: at exactly what point does any dog destroyed for what is called "behavior" go from being adoptable to having behavior issues so great they cannot be overcome?
If the dog is scheduled to die on the 30th day for displaying behavior issues but no rescue group or adopter steps up on day 29 to save the dog and the dog is killed, how can that dog have been destroyed for what can honestly be called "behavior"?
It cannot. And we can only presume that what led to the dog's death was not really behavior but related more to length of stay and having to devote time and resources to the dog to help him. This is a tragedy that happens in shelters across the country, both those that are regressive and those that provide the illusion of being progressive while engaging in population control killing. It is what happens when shelters that used to (or still do) co-opt the word "adoptable" to suit their purposes now co-opt the word "behavior" to suit their purposes and to justify the killing of dogs.
To be clear, I fully realize that not all dogs can be saved. There are some dogs who are cognitively impaired and present a genuine public safety risk. I've worked in the legal field for thirty years doing primarily municipal defense, dealing with city and county clients. I am fully aware of the not only the liability risk faced by a city or county which knowingly allows a dangerous dog to leave a shelter facility but also what can happen when dangerous dogs roam neighborhoods, causing injuries or even death. One of the most gruesome cases we handled involved an elderly man who went to check his mail was attacked and killed by two dogs.
But here's the thing. If a dog is genuinely dangerous, that dog will not be made available to the public and will not be made available to a rescue group absent some extraordinary plan for the rehabilitation of that dog away from the public. For the most part, we will never know about that dog. His or her face will never be promoted on social media and he will never be put in a foster home because he is dangerous. He will never be featured on a billboard or at an event. Why? Because he is dangerous.
Then there are the other dogs who do poorly in the shelter environment which is something we should fully expect and for which we should make plans to help them in order to save them. The National Canine Research Council tells us that "shelter evaluations [of dogs] may tell us as much or more about the effect of the shelter as they do about the individual dogs. Shelters are noisy, alien environments, filled with strange smells, unfamiliar people, and dogs they may hear, but not see. We should not be surprised that some dogs. . . may behave differently when confined in a shelter, with its barrage of stressors that the dog cannot control, than they will in the safe, secure, predictable environment of a home, cared for by people with whom they are able to form positive attachments." A shelter cannot possibly consider itself progressive if it fails to provide adequate housing, rehabilitation and enrichment to dogs and then kills them for the very behavior created by the shelter environment itself.
In the wake of my moment of absolute clarity, thanks to Eileen McFall, I learned of a new phrase I had not heard before thanks to her husband, Christopher McFall, which is completely accurate. On his Hound Manor Facebook page, Christopher wrote about what he calls a "kill budget." What this means in the simplest terms is the number of animals a shelter feels it can kill after having reached a false goal of 90% while claiming to have maintained No Kill Status. As was posted on the Hound Manor page recently,
the plight of dogs needing treatment for behavior is that they fit neatly within the 5% or 10% that average no-kill shelter directors view as their "kill budget." The numbers are small, yet the moral stakes are not. Helping dogs with behavioral needs takes money, time, patience, commitment, strong values, and good judgment. But given a choice between killing these dogs, warehousing them, or giving them the help they need, there is only one choice that is compassionate and that is consistent with no-kill principles."
I see this issue of using a kill budget to end the lives of shelter dogs as one of the biggest challenges in the No Kill movement today. There are dogs who end up in shelters who need our help to place them and to keep them from degrading while inside the shelter. They need patience and encouragement to gain trust. They need to get outside of the building for walks and to participate in play groups to reduce their stress levels when inside the shelter. They need to get out into foster homes as quickly as possible when those homes are available, even if just for weekends or short-term stays to learn more about their personalities to better place them in an appropriate home. This is a subject written about at length by the No Kill Advocacy Center and about which I encourage all advocates to become more educated. The Toolkit on the NKAC website has wonderful publications called No Dog Left Behind, What We Owe Traumatized Animals and the Animal Evaluation Matrix. Nathan Winograd shared an article on Substack recently called (Willful) Ignorance is Not Bliss on this same subject. Please read them.
When it comes to dogs needlessly killed for behavior, the blame lies squarely on the shelters doing the killing. The buck stops there. But there is enough blame to go around to apply it to the national organizations which continue to promote the lie that a shelter is a No Kill facility when it saves 90% of the animals entrusted to its care. I wrote about this recently and will not repeat myself here other than to say one word: stop. Please. Just stop. We all know the source of the 90% figure. We know that figure should not be used as a goal after which the last 10% are less important. Please stop using it to raise money and to proclaim places have become No Kill when you know they are not. The decision to continue to use that figure has consequences. It confuses the public, it perpetuates falsehoods in the media, it proclaims results which are not accurate and it is leading to what Christopher aptly calls the killing budget.
I know there will be people who read this who find it hard to believe that shelters that proclaim to treat all animals as individuals would be more focused on statistics than saving lives, but that is a reality of our animal sheltering system which is still full of broken parts and systems. Some will say I should focus on the lives saved and not on the lives lost, will say that I will never be satisfied no matter how hard shelters try and that I cannot possibly appreciate how difficult it is to keep dogs from degrading in animal shelters. All shelters which make progress and save the lives of 90% or more of the animals should be applauded for having done so. But there is no place for complacency here because that complacency comes with a cost. Once a shelter reaches the false goal of 90%, that is not enough. With each passing month and year, more can and should be done to continue to improve to save more lives as each animal is treated as having been, or being capable of, being someone's beloved companion.
How would your dog behave in an animal shelter? Would he or she cower in fear, shake, bark, growl or be difficult to handle? Think about it. Any dog I've ever loved would have been killed in a "shelter" for behavior. Which is not just a tragedy. It is unconscionable.
To learn more about Hound Manor, Promoting Integrity in No Kill Sheltering and The Final Frontier Rescue Project at these links:
I’ve written many times about what the phrase No Kill means related to animal sheltering. It means we save all healthy and treatable animals and we do not kill them. The foundation of the phrase is the meaning of the word euthanasia. If we end the life of an animal who is suffering or irremediably ill, regardless of where that takes place, that is euthanasia. We do not say we killed your beloved pet. If we end the life of an animal who is not suffering or irremediably ill, we killed that animal. That act has nothing to do with euthanasia. We should not use words differently based on the place where the act occurs.
It seems like I see some article, social media post or comment every day that says a shelter is No Kill if it saves 90% of the animals in the shelter. That is just not true. To understand why, we have to take a look back in time and to the source of the 90% figure. When the No Kill movement was first taking hold across the country, there was no benchmark for success. No indicators of how communities could be judged in terms of progress. As he covers in his recent Substack series called, “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow: Animal Sheltering in the United States,” it was Nathan Winograd (the founder of the No Kill Advocacy Center) who first made reference to the 90% figure. I suspect he regrets having done so because that figure is now being used in ways which have nothing to do with the moral imperative of the movement. Nathan referred to that figure because at the time it was an ordinary byproduct of saving all healthy and treatable animals - about 20 years ago.
That was then and this is now. With advances in shelter veterinary medicine and development of the programs and services of the No Kill Equation, some shelters are saving as much as 98 and 99% of animals entrusted to their care. They euthanize animals who are suffering or irremediably ill, including dogs who are not just scared or traumatized, but who are cognitively impaired and present a genuine danger to the public (about 1% of shelter intake). Gone are the days of destroying neo-natal animals who can be saved through bottle feeding programs. Gone even are the days of ending the lives of animals who have severe health issues but who are not suffering and who can have good quality of life in a Fospice (foster+ hospice homes) to live out their glory days.
I realize that there are some organizations like the Best Friends Animal Society which still refer to this 90% figure as an indicator of a No Kill shelter or No Kill community. I wish it would just stop. Use of the figure is not only recycled over and over by other organizations and the media, it is serves to encourage deceptive and unethical behavior. I know of shelters that claim to be No Kill when they use a fictional 90% figure to make themselves look good, having deemed some animals “unadopatable” so they will not count against the statistics. These places know the public wants and expects shelters to stop destroying healthy and treatable animals, so they use the 90% figure to act like they are doing better than they are. Some other shelters categorize large number of animals who were destroyed as having been destroyed at the request of the owner (owner requested euthanasia, called ORE) when there was nothing wrong with those animals and they could have been (and should have been) placed into new homes. I also know of other shelters where the focus is so much on the 90% figure that the last 10% does not matter. Once they are sure they will achieve the 90% figure in any given month, they are given tacit permission to destroy dogs who may need more help than others by deeming them dangerous or aggressive. When confronted about this, the response is not “we treated all animals as individuals and gave them every opportunity for a positive outcome.” The response is instead, “we are No Kill because we saved 90%.” No. And for shame.
I have long said this a matter of method and not of math. That if a shelter has a mass intake event from a puppy mill, dog fighter or collector and lots of animals are really suffering and euthanasia is performed as an act of mercy, the figure may fall below 90%. That happens sometimes but not often and is not typical of day-to-day shelter operations. If the live release rate at a shelter is 85% in one month related to intake of a large number of suffering animals, the number should not matter. We should never keep suffering animals alive just to look good on paper.
I did a search just now for organizations that still promote the 90% figure as being equivalent to No Kill. You can do the same. The hits included the Best Friends Animal Society, individual shelters from Los Angeles to Santa Fe to Atlanta to Jacksonville, the Washington Post and even Wikipedia. It is in my local news and it is in the national news. We read and hear this 90% figure so often that people just believe it without questioning it. They should.
Consider this. If it is your beloved dog or cat who is healthy and treatable ends up in a shelter whether it is due to no fault of your own or even due to your fault, and his or her life is ended, you would not care about a number on a form or a percentage on a piece of paper. You would care about the tragedy of the death of your pet which was both unethical and unnecessary. We should care as much about the needless deaths of all animals who end up in places we dare call "shelters," regardless of who they belonged to or how they got there. It is what the public expects and what we should expect of ourselves as a society.
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