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.
In one city, cats and kittens who are not adopted or removed from the animal shelter by a rescue group in a week are destroyed.
In another city, the shelter adopts out cats, has a barn cat/working cat program, seeks foster homes for cats who have just given birth (and their kittens) and seeks bottle feeders for kittens with no mother.
In one city, a dog who is fearful in the shelter environment and cowers in his kennel is destroyed for failure to make eye contact.
In another city, a fearful dog who cannot be touched is provided with a bed, a blanket, toys and is slowly fed pieces of hot dog by employees and volunteers to earn his trust and help alleviate his fear so he can be adopted or placed in a foster home.
In one city, an elderly dog surrendered by the owner who asked that the dog be euthanized is destroyed within thirty minutes of entering the building.
In another city, a dog taken in by the shelter whose owner wanted him destroyed is evaluated and placed in a Fospice (foster hospice) home to live out his glory days in comfort.
In one city, the shelter takes in any and all owned pets without any management of kennel space and the majority of those animals are summarily destroyed for space with no regard for their age or health.
In another city, the shelter requires pet owners to have surrender counseling to find alternatives to overcome short-term issues problems, to help the caregiver re-home the pet with the help of the shelter staff and takes in only those owned animals the shelter can reasonably care for and as a last resort.
So, what is the difference between these two cities? Does one have more money and resources than the other? Is one in a more affluent area than the other? The difference is one of commitment and communication with the public.
In communities where healthy and treatable animals are routinely destroyed, there is no commitment to life saving. People can say that “no one wants to kill animals.” Those are merely words. When the actions are to end the lives of those animals, in spite of clear alternatives to doing just that, the words mean little. The public is blamed for treating animals as disposable, when is the shelter which is doing just that. The programs which are used to save the lives of shelter animals have been known literally for decades. Any person who leads an animal shelter in this day and age who is not saving lives has either remained willfully ignorant of those programs at worst or should seek another occupation at best. I realize that some municipal officials know little about shelter operations or how to transition from "catch and kill" to saving lives. I see it as incumbent on shelter leadership to bring those people into the 21st Century by educating them and by explaining why money is better spent on saving lives and ending them.
In communities where healthy and treatable animals are saved, there is commitment to life saving which is built on a foundation of compassion. The reasons animals enter shelters are seen for what they are – people problems, not animal problems. The shelter exists not just for public safety purposes, but to help people make better decisions and to help them overcome obstacles. The shelter is seen as a place of support, hope and new beginnings. Because people do not fear the shelter, they are more apt to seek guidance, can be educated to keep their pets from entering the shelter and are less apt to abandon animals (a crime) out of desperation.
Nathan Winograd once wrote in his book "Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America," that the there is a three-step method to becoming a No Kill Community: 1) stop the killing; 2) stop the killing and 3) stop the killing. In the end, this is a choice and there are no excuses good enough to defend the destruction of animals who either were, or could have been, someone’s beloved companion. If we had no longer destroyed healthy and treatable animals in shelters and suddenly began doing that, people would be outraged. They should be as outraged by that business practice now as they are by other forms of animal abuse and neglect. It is inconsistent with public values and a betrayal of the public trust.
I hear all the time that we should not blame the shelters where animals die. Why not? Is that not he place where they are being killed?
Change starts and is maintained by the example set by the shelter itself. In places where the killing of shelter pets has ended, it's not because the public suddenly became more responsible. It’s because the shelter changed its culture, either by choice or as a result of pressure, and invited the public to be part of something bigger than themselves. When we help people find alternatives to surrendering animals, families are kept together. When we tell the public about the need for foster homes for special needs animals, neonatal animals, animals struggling in the shelter environment or just to get animals in a new location where we can learn more about then, people step up and make time and room to help those animals. When we tell the public materials are needed for animal enrichment - toys, treats (and yes, hot dogs) - people donate those items. Compassion is a powerful force which can be harnessed and used to change our society.
What kind of city do you live in?
If it is one where animals go to the shelter to die, I cannot encourage you strongly enough to speak out to make that stop. You are paying for the death.
If it is one where the shelter is part of the community and has embraced progressive ideas, count yourself fortunate. And do what you can to help maintain that culture. Make better personal decisions to keep your pets from ending up in the shelter, make sure they can be identified if lost, have a plan for their placement if something happens to you and consider adoption, fostering, donating and volunteering if you can.
It is obvious that our nation is in a state of crisis. The news of the COVID 19 pandemic is all around us. We’re all doing our best to get through this period together while changing our personal behavior to reduce the loss of life. The situation is evolving so rapidly that it’s enough to cause all of us to feel ill to some degree as we try to keep up. Stress levels are high. The pandemic affects every aspect of our daily lives and those effects extend to places we might not have expected.
I got an email from an author contact of mine this morning, Cara Sue Achterberg, wondering what we can to about reports we are hearing that some animal shelters plan to destroy their entire populations of animals in anticipation that they will not be able to manage the intake of animals. I’ve seen posts on social media to the same effect. I’m honestly not sure how pervasive this “mass killing” problem really is on a national level. I've also read about people surrendering pets to shelters because they fear they can get COVID 19 from an animal. The information from the CDC about that rumor is here.
Yes, this is a time of crisis. That’s the bad news.
But there’s good news. Now is the perfect time to makes changes in the culture in our animal shelters and our communities to keep animals alive. We know how to reduce shelter intake. We know how to increase shelter output. The methods have been know for years. We do those things using the programs and services of the No Kill Equation which was developed by Nathan Winograd and about which I have written many times.
Foster programs get animals out of shelters quickly. Many people are working from home. This is a great time for people to foster a shelter pet not only to free up shelter space, but to help the animal get adopted faster. Most animals behave completely differently in a home than they do inside a shelter, so fostering provides a great opportunity to learn more about them and to help them decompress. Photographs, video clips and information about the animals are then used for marketing purposes. I saw a Facebook post just this morning about the Kern County Animal Shelter which is doing drive-up foster pick up of animals to free up shelter space.
(image courtesy of the Kern County Animal Services)
Promoting adoption of animals is always important, but now it is critically important. Shelters can use the media and social media to let the public know how to adopt an animal and what animals are available using adoption specials and promotions. In a time of crisis like this, shelters do well to either waive adoption fees (while still doing screening) or drastically reduce those fees. Many shelters have used this opportunity to reach the public about adoptions using humor. These images are from Huntsville Animal Services in Alabama, which is my local tax-funded shelter; they were taken by Kelly Jo (an incredibly talented Lead Kennel Attendant) and posted on the shelter's Facebook page. Just like now is a great time to foster a pet, now is a great time to adopt a pet. With so many people working from home, it provides a wonderful opportunity to help animals decompress from their shelter stay and get settled into a new home.
(images courtesy of Kelly Jo)
Pet Retention Programs
Managed intake is more important now than ever. Most shelters are not obligated to take owned animals and they should not be taking them now. Shelters should be doing all they can to encourage pet retention to keep pets in existing homes or help people rehome pets themselves with family members, friends, co-workers of people they attend church with, know from social groups, etc. Now is a great time for shelters to share information about pet food banks or even partner with local rescue groups to provide free pet food to people who may have lost a job or otherwise be facing a financial crisis. Shelters can also share information about local veterinary resources (to resolve health conditions which may be causing undesirable pet behavior) and about local trainers and behaviorists (to resolve issues with pet behavior which may be the reason someone wants to surrender their pet to an animal shelter). In many cases, a desperate pet owner can be referred to a local rescue group for help. If an owner still insists they must surrender their pet, they should be put on a waiting list to do that once space becomes available.
Community Involvement/Public Relations
Shelters that work hard to keep their communities informed will always operate more efficiently, but now is the time to really ramp up public relations to get the animal-loving community involved. Use of the media - both television and radio - and social media is the bridge to connect shelters to the public which affects the number of animals entering shelters and the number of animals leaving shelters. Although many shelters assume the public is aware of the need to make better decisions and to adopt, foster, volunteer, etc. most people just don’t think about their local animal shelter unless it is put on their “personal radar” for some reason. If a shelter needs help from the community, it has to say so loudly, clearly and often. Tell people to take extraordinary steps to keep pets contained so they don’t end up in the shelter. Tell people what to do if their pet does go missing. Tell people about how the process works to foster and adopt animals. Tell people about the animals in the shelter who need to be fostered or adopted using images, video clips and information. An engaged public is a active public which can do amazing things in times of need, it only we tell people how they can help.
The programs I covered above are just some of the programs of the No Kill Equation. Now is the time to get progressive. Now is the time to make better choices to keep animals alive with the help of the community.
I hope that the rumors I’ve heard of shelters essentially “cleaning house” of both animals and bacteria are false.
As I told Cara this morning, I think shelters will go one of two ways. Shelters led by progressive people or people who genuinely care will rise to the challenge. They will get creative and do everything possible to help their communities and keep animals alive. Regressive shelters led by people who remain willfully ignorant of progressive programs will likely use the crisis as an excuse to kill animals while making it sound like they are performing some Orwellian public service.
What will your animal shelter do? Will it rise to the occasion or will it make excuses? No matter what happens at your local shelter in the weeks and months to come, remember that you are paying for it.
These links are not directly related to this blog, but may be helpful for
you regarding pets and COVID 19.
Animals and Coronavirus Disease 2019
COVID 19 and Animals FAQs from the CDC
COVID 19 FAQs from the American Veterinary Medical Association
How to Care for Dogs and Cats during Coronavirus
Some recent events regarding my animal shelter reform advocacy have led me back to the book which was a game changer for me. Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America by Nathan Winograd. The book was first published in 2007 (and has since been made into a documentary film). It changed my life when I read it in 2008 and learned about not only the history of the animal welfare movement (which began with Henry Bergh) but also about this wonderful thing called the No Kill equation. My copy looks like a used textbook with worn covers and highlighting. Nathan did not “invent” the No Kill programs and concepts so many of us live by today. What he did do was to analyze them and then present them in equation form for the very first time. He essentially created what I consider a blueprint for No Kill success in any place in the country. And therein lies the genius of the equation; we do not need Nathan Winograd to come to each of our communities and rescue us from ourselves. We need only learn about the No Kill equation, evaluate our existing resources and challenges, connect with those how have used the equation before us (in order to learn from their successes and mistakes) and then mold and shape the equation to fit the needs of the community.
I believe in the equation because I know it works. I know people who are using it at this very minute and are saving the lives of countless animals in the process. In spite of the success of the programs and services of the equation, opposition still abounds. I should no longer be surprised by the toxicity of the opposition, but I am. As Nathan has said before, this is not just some clash of egos. People who either promote or oppose No Kill concepts and programs can’t just get in a room together and talk and hug it out and all just get along. While those who promote No Kill as an ideal and as a cultural norm champion saving lives, those who oppose No Kill as an ideal (or even say it is not possible, ala “the world is flat”) champion the status quo and do so at an incredibly high cost.
Which leads me back to my point about Redemption. The afterword in the book talks about four groups of people who will oppose the concepts presented in the book. The observations about those groups are as relevant today as they were when Nathan wrote about them so many years ago and I’d like to share them with you, with Nathan’s permission, of course. Do you recognize any of this behavior?
- The first group will agree with the message, be sympathetic to the cause, and want the same goal. Nonetheless, they will claim it ignores the success of others and focuses too much attention on San Francisco and later Tompkins County, communities in which [Nathan] played a significant role in drastically increasing the live release rate for shelter animals. (Making this observation more current, the first group will say that Austin, Texas, had to spend a lot of money [when in fact it became No Kill with no initial cost output)] that Huntsville, Alabama is "different" because of the progressive and diverse nature of the community, that there is no one on Earth quite like Doug Rae in Fremont County, Colorado and that compassionate leaders like him are hard to come by or that there must be something magical in the water in Lake County, Florida for it to become a No Kill community virtually overnight.
- The second group that will take issue with the book are the animal activists who are intent on doing what they have always done, regardless of the facts. They will continue to blame the public and fight for more and tougher laws-once again buying into the false paradigm of pet overpopulation and public irresponsibility. They will argue that their community is different and that citizens in their community are particularly irresponsible. The evidence clearly shows that none of this is true. What is true is that shelters are filled with animals, in no small part because of a small segment of the public's throwaway attitudes about their pets. But that is why shelters exist in the first place. They are supposed to be the safety net for animals the same way orphanages and child protective services are the safety net for parentless and abused children. While people surrender animals to shelters it is the shelters that kill them, and one does not necessarily follow or excuse the other.
-The third group of critics of the book will be the shelter directors themselves - those who are involved in the killing of [millions] of dogs and cats a year and who erroneously claim that doing so is both necessary and proper. They will see this book as nothing more than a personal attack. They will argue that we should all get along, not fight each other, and focus on our common enemy-the irresponsible public which fills shelters with discarded animals. This point of view is nothing more than a smokescreen and is contradicted by the facts.
-The fourth and final group of people who will criticize the book are a group I collectively call “the naysayers.” The naysayers are those who have a predetermined agenda of support for animal control, regardless of how many animals the local shelter kills or how otherwise dysfunctional the agency is. They cannot be swayed by logic, facts or alternative points of view. They seek out that which fits their beliefs and reject everything else to the point of taking facts out of context - and in some cases, making up “facts” - to fit the story.
It is incredibly unfortunate that so many people expend so much time and energy fighting against programs which have been proven to save lives when fully implemented. Some of the most vocal and toxic opposition to animal shelter reform comes from people who claim to advocate for animals - which seems completely illogical. Because it is. I never cease to be amazed that people view free speech seeking better for shelter animals as "bashing" or an "attack." It is neither when it is done respectfully, diplomatically and it is focused on accountability and leadership (as opposed to being focused on specific people).
As I have written before, a time will come when we no longer destroy savable pets in America. When that fine day comes, will you look back and know that you championed life? Or will you look back and regret all those hours and days and weeks and months you spent defending the killing because you were more focused on people than on animals? Or worse yet, because you would not speak your personal truth to save innocents when that is what the situation demanded of you.
The Golden Toad. The Zanzibar Leopard. The Pyrenean Ibex. The West African Black Rhino. The Javan Tiger. The Spix's Macaw. The Round Island Burrowing Boa. The Dutch Alcon Blue Butterfly. What do all these creatures have in common? They are all extinct and have gone extinct in the last forty years. Gone. Forever. Remembered only in pictures and never to grace the face of the Earth again. On the critically endangered list are the Mountain Gorilla, the Mayan Tiger, the Orangutan and the Sumatran Elephant, among so very many others.
But stop and consider this for a minute: what would our world be like, our society, if dogs and cats went extinct? Yes, those dogs and cats. The companions with whom we share most of our waking moments and who, for most of us, are members of our families. What would our lives be like without the creatures who love us unconditionally on our worst of days and who provide us with companionship, comfort and humor? If you're telling yourself this would never, ever happen, think again and take the time to read Nathan and Jennifer Winograd's latest book: Welcome Home: An Animal Rights Perspective on Living with Dogs and Cats.
I had the opportunity to read a galley copy of Welcome Home before it was published. I admit that I didn't know much about the content when I began. I knew it would become part of my animal welfare library simply due to the authors. To call this book both an education and an eye-opener in 111 pages would be a vast understatement. I found myself shaking my head as I read and found myself nodding my head as I read further. At the risk of oversimplifying the content of the book, it is a story of evil and a story of good. I have not shared all of the content here, of course. I'd like you to read the book and process it yourself both mentally and emotionally.
I fully realize that "evil" is a strong word. I find myself unable to come up with another word which fits. The Winograds open our eyes wide to the fact that there are forces at work in our country which take the view that domestication of dogs and cats has been to their detriment and they would essentially be better off dead. The evil part of the book focuses on two of those forces: PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and animal rights attorney and law professor Gary Francione. If you're like me, the proposition that anyone would advocate the extinction of dogs and cats is both shocking and disturbing.
PETA is supposed to be an acronym for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The reality, however, is that PETA does not stand for what most people think when we look past the acronym and look at the philosophies of the organization. PETA is not a champion for animals and animal welfare. At all. In spite of public perception about the motives of the organization, PETA destroys more than 96% of the animals it impounds and has fought to defend the “right” of shelters to kill millions more. I remember years ago when a contact of mine was helping a shelter in Kentucky which was full and told the public help was needed to keep animals from being destroyed. PETA sent her a fruit basket and congratulated her on the proposed destruction of animals. The head of the organization, Ingrid Newkirk, was interviewed years ago by 60 Minutes about her controversial will in which she provides disturbing directions for the disposition of her remains. I wish that the program had come with a content advisory so I would have been forewarned.
Mr. Francione is a professor at Rutgers University and is also on the Board of Governors. He considers himself both an animal advocate and a No Kill advocate, yet he too seeks the extinction of both dogs and cats. He has stated that he would “not hesitate for a second” to cause the extinction of dogs and cats if it was within his power to do so. His argument is that sharing our homes with animals leads to such inevitable and severe suffering that they would be better of not existing at all.
To most people who like animals, love animals or just consider themselves concerned with their well-being, those who advocate for the extinction of the dogs and cats we love are seemingly existing on another planet. How can an organization name itself as seeking ethical treatment of animals while at the same time killing them and promoting others to kill them? How can a self-proclaimed animal advocate seek extinction of dogs at cats as some bizarre means of saving them from the lives they live with us? There are no good answers other than to say that both have become so entrenched in their own world view that they no longer share any of the values shared by most Americans.
So, why does any of this matter to you? The first reason this should matter to you is that money talks and big money talks loudly. PETA has millions of dollars and has shown the ability over a period of decades to seduce otherwise well-meaning people into supporting the PETA agenda because those people assume and presume they know what PETA stands for. I'm a huge fan of both Forrest Whitaker and Eddie Vetter, but I seriously doubt they have any idea that PETA would like nothing more than to cause our companion animals to go extinct while stealing dogs and cats from families to kill them. If you have not read about the case involving a family dog named, Maya, it serves as an example of what PETA really wants and stands for. The trial regarding the theft of Maya by PETA employees and her subsequent death is set for September 25th. The second reason this should matter to you is that not all who promote themselves as being animal advocates actually want to keep animals alive and you are well served to be able to separate those who share your values and those who do not. Particularly when some of those individuals hold law degrees and serve in positions where they educate our youth.
Luckily for all of us, Welcome Home does not stop with discussion about the disturbing components of the animal protection movement which seek to rid our lives and homes of companion animals in some Orwellian effort to save them from us. Welcome Home takes us one step further and helps us understand another perspective on how we live with animals to our mutual benefit. It is in this part of the book where we get back to some of what I consider the roots of Nathan's advocacy in written form as he explores the topics of shelter killing of animals, why spay and neuter is not the only solution to end the killing, the myth of pet overpopulation which continues to be used to justify killing in our nation's shelters which is both unethical and unnecessary and the No Kill Equation which can be used to save those animals.
For me, Welcome Home could not be more timely. It has been ten years since Nathan published his first book about the history of the animal welfare movement and he first introduced us all to the genius that is the No Kill Equation.
I can say without reservation that reading, Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America changed my life. At the time I read Redemption, I thought I was informed and educated on most animal welfare issues as an animal lover. Looking back now, I really just didn't have a clue. I read the book soon after it was published at a time when I was processing the unwelcome epiphany that animals die in our shelters not because we have too many of them or because something is wrong with them, but because we have been doing it for decades and it has become the status quo even though we are paying for it.
Much has changed in the years since Redemption was published. Nathan and Jennifer have gone on to publish other books which occupy space in my animal welfare library: Irreconcilable Differences: The Battle for the Heart & Soul of America's Animal Shelters, Friendly Fire and All American Vegan: Veganism for the Rest of Us. Add to that list the documentary film based on Nathan's first book and which I consider compulsory viewing: Redemption: The No Kill Revolution in America.
An incredible amount of progress has been made across the country to stop the needless killing of healthy and treatable animals in our nation's animal shelters in the last 20 years, due in large part to the values of the American public toward dogs and cats and the fact that people don't want their money used to end lives when those same lives can be saved. Welcome Home helps educate us on both the evil and the good so that we can recognize them for what they are, protect the animals we love from those who would seek to destroy them and make better collective choices for the benefit of us all.
Whether you consider yourself an animal advocate, an animal lover or you are just concerned about the power wielded by influence and big money, you must read Welcome Home. If we are ever to overcome the forces in our country which work against our core values related to companion animals, we must be prepared to defend those values while making the best possible decisions for the animals. And if we are ever to bring and end to the killing of healthy and treatable animals in our nation's so-called “shelters,” we must all learn about the programs and services which are working across the country to save the lives of the dogs and cats with whom we share our lives, our homes, our beds and our hearts.
(images courtesy of Nathan and Jennifer Winograd, Dana Kay Mattox Deutsch and Extinctanimals.org)
I became an animal welfare advocate in the summer of 2006 after we had our dog euthanized to prevent her from suffering. A series of events after her death led me to understand what was happening in my local animal shelter and shelters across the country that I just didn't know about before. I considered myself animal friendly at the time, but I was like most people: focused pretty much on what was on my personal radar and not really informed on issues which did not affect me personally in some way. One of the game changers for me as I began to educate myself on the subject of animal sheltering and the No Kill movement was a book by Nathan Winograd called "Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America." I consider this book to be compulsory reading for any animal welfare advocate not only because it covers the No Kill equation which I promote, but also because it sets forth the very relevant history of how our animal sheltering system got into the mess it is today. I think it's entirely relevant to learn about Henry Bergh and the Asilomar Accords and the positions of large national animal welfare organizations on how animals are managed in America. My copy of the book is a mess. It is tabbed, highlighted and looks like a college textbook. Much of the text is in my head and is there to stay, including a quote which appears at the beginning of a chapter called "Co-Option."
Ethics and honestly demand avoiding euphemisms. The challenge is not to do away with the troubling words "No Kill," and to white wash killing; rather the challenge is to do away with killing, which requires ceasing to pretend - to oneself and the public - that it amounts to anything else."
When it comes to animal sheltering, I believe that ethics, honestly and transparency are key to reforming our broken sheltering system. Because so many in the shelter industry blame the public for the fact that animals die - all while expecting that very same public to adopt animals, volunteer and donate - I think that being completely honest with the public is the cornerstone to change. That means that we don't say animals are "euthanized" or "put down" or "put to sleep" when they were actually killed in spite of being healthy and treatable. I know exactly what the word euthanasia means and it is offensive to me to compare the heart wrenching decision to have our beloved dog euthanized after sustained seizures caused by cancer to the decision to end the life of a healthy dog who could have been (or perhaps was) someone's beloved companion. To kill a dog for space or convenience is just that: killing him or her. And we have to call it what it is in order to help the public understand not only how their money is being used, but how they can help our society reform the sheltering system with their support.
I also believe it is deceptive and unethical to twist, distort, skew or co-opt the words "adoptable" and "unadoptable." A shelter animal is unadoptable if he or she is suffering or so irremediably ill that palliative care is not feasible and euthanasia is the only ethical choice to prevent suffering. An otherwise healthy shelter dog is unadoptable if he or she is genuinely a danger to the public and there is no sanctuary placement available for that dog. There is a continental divide between dogs who are genuinely dangerous and dogs who are simply scared, traumatized, under-socialized or not doing well in a shelter environment. Studies have shown that dogs don't behave in shelters the way they do outside of shelters or even just outside. The National Canine Research Council explains evaluation of dogs in shelters this way:
"Shelter evaluations 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."
As the concept of No Kill becomes more widely known and is increasingly on the public radar, some shelters have resorted to the deceptive task of pretending they are No Kill when they truly are not. No Kill means you do not kill healthy and treatable animals. No Kill does not mean that you label animals as unadoptable in some way in order to make statistics look better than they truly are or to somehow try to hide what is really destroying animals for space or convenience. It is easy for a shelter to call itself No Kill when it simply labels adoptable dogs as a public safety risk or it labels animals with treatable health conditions as having severe conditions or otherwise requiring "humane" euthanasia. And the problem with this practice is that it is incredibly hard to expose absent being physically present in the shelter or having access to detailed records for each animal destroyed.
On September 21, 2016, a healthy 1 year-old Boxer-mix named Jackson was destroyed at my local animal shelter. The shelter was very up front about it and went so far as to post about his death on their Facebook page. I was appalled not just that Jackson was dead, but that his demise was written about in such a way as to make the public think his death was unavoidable. The most offensive statement in the post about his death was this: "Jackson is finally at rest and away from the chaotic world we live in now." No. Jackson is dead because the shelter failed to engage in adequate rescue liaison, failed to keep him from developing shelter stress through adequate behavior programs, failed to find a foster home for him, failed to market him adequately to the public and failed to fully embrace no kill programs which serve to limit the number of animals in the shelter at any given time. The report from the shelter which sets forth data on dogs destroyed in September makes it hard to determine which one was Jackson. I'm pretty sure he is listed as a 2 ½ year old pit bull type dog destroyed for severe behavioral issues. And I'm very sure he was killed because it was just easier than keeping him alive.
If you are told your shelter is No Kill, ask questions to find out what that really means. It may just mean that the words adoptable and unadoptable have been co-opted to the point where they no longer mean what you think they mean. And it means that if your dog or cat ended up in the shelter for some reason, he or she could easily be labeled something they are not and destroyed for no good reason at all.
I cover a lot of topics on my website in an effort to help educate the animal-loving public on some serious issues regarding companion animals in our country. What all of these topics have in common is the fact that they all relate to the topic of the destruction of animals in buildings we ordinarily call shelters. Although most of the animal loving public may give little thought to what happens in shelters, the reality is that we are all paying for what happens there whether it is good or bad. Whether it involves life-saving or death. In all but the most progressive communities in our country, healthy and treatable animals are being systematically destroyed in municipally operated buildings using public funds while the public is blamed for that very process. If only the public _______________, the argument goes, this would not be necessary. You can fill in the blank with "was more responsible," "would only spay and neuter pets," "did not treat pets as disposable" and so on. While there are more and more no kill communities emerging with the passage of time, those places are still in the minority as public officials continue the decades old practice of adopting out a few animals and destroying the rest, doing nothing to stop that cycle.
Some events of recent weeks have caused me to reflect on the whole subject of political advocacy related to shelter animals. As the concept of "no kill" has evolved over the years and across the country, there are factions which have formed which are essentially at odds with each other. There are some who say that in order to reform our animal sheltering system, we should not be overly critical of those who manage shelters where animals die and that we should work harder on bridge-building to change what is happening. There are people in this faction who go so far as to say that governments are really only required to house animals for property reasons so we really shouldn't push them too hard. There are others, like me, who believe in diplomatic communication about this topic, but who also believe that it should be handled with a sense of urgency. As Nathan Winograd once aptly wrote, "with each day we delay, the body count rises." Because we are talking about the lives of animals (and their potential death), this subject is unique in terms of seeking accountability for the manner in which our tax dollars are spent. People complain to police departments all the time about increased patrolling related to reducing crime. They complain to public works departments about garbage pick-up. They complain to traffic engineering departments about the timing of traffic lights which they think are too slow or about roadway conditions. They complain about a host of issues most of which do not relate to the imminent threat of death.
I am, and have been, openly critical of the animal shelter in the city where I work. For me, this is no different that seeking municipal accountability for any other public service function of local government other than the fact that I think we simply cannot delay in implementing change. It is perfectly logical for me to not only say "I think you can to better" but to also make recommendations on how that can happen which are based on proven results in other communities using established programs which do not cost more. I know that the topic of animals is an emotional one for most people. The American public simply does not want tax dollars spent to destroy shelter animals when those same funds can be spent to ensure public safety and still keep animals alive. When progress is made, as is the case in the city where I work, I am fully capable of applauding that progress. I absolutely give credit where credit is due.
Where I differ with some is on this idea that I cannot applaud progress while still asking for more. This is not an episode of Let's Make a Deal where my choices are Door Number 1 (give praise) and Door Number 2 (be critical). Both of those behaviors have value. But when the lives of shelter animals are still at risk for whatever reason (lack of commitment, lack of program development, defensiveness to criticism), I not only have the right to remain critical, I also have an obligation to do that for the sake of my values and my exercise of the right to free speech. Does change take time? It sure does. But the truth is that we have to act with a sense or urgency when lives are at stake. As a veteran, I believe strongly in accountability for how our government operates at local, state and federal levels using public money. But I also believe that it you feel strongly about something, it is up to you to speak out about it so that those who govern us know what you want. Complaining to your friends or posting on social media is of little value and you have to take your complaints to those in positions to effect change.
I have been told by some in animal advocacy circles that I should stop criticizing my local shelter because they have done so well. I simply will not. I can acknowledge that a lot of things have changed and animals are safer here now than they were in the past. Since I know that healthy dogs still die in the shelter here, I simply will not stop being critical just because it makes some people uncomfortable. The lives of animals in our nation's shelters often depend on the outspokenness of advocates. If it is permissible for me to complain about a pot hole in the road, it is absolutely permissible for me to complain about a dead dog named Jackson who was a year old when he was destroyed to make space in the "shelter." And while I am sure shelter volunteers will demand that I spend hours in a shelter in order to have the right to complain, I am equally sure that no one would ask me to become a worker on a paving crew in order to help this city do a better job. Those who are public servants would do well to remember that role in our governments. We are paying them and they are using our money whether we approve of their behavior or not. Public service is not for everyone and we should not confuse branches of municipal government with private businesses which are more insulated from public comment.
I'm sorry we failed you, Jackson. I will not be silent. I will not go along to get along.
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