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 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