There are some articles related to the No Kill movement, particularly related to the phrase “No Kill,” which seem to be perpetual. They are shared, reshared and shared again years after the fact. A local contact of mine for whom I have a great deal of respect shared an article from 2021 recently which takes issue with the phrase “No Kill,” makes claims about open admission v. limited admission shelters and which endorses a sheltering philosophy called Socially Conscious Sheltering about which I have blogged before. I asked my contact for the opportunity to speak with her about the article and about SCS and have reached out to her so we can have that conversation. Much of the opposition to No Kill philosophies is founded on false information. It is not possible to respond to every article written in opposition to No Kill philosophies, but there are times when No Kill advocates need to speak out and be clear in an effort to educate the public. That is the purpose of this blog.
The article shared by my contact is entitled, “Language Matters: The False Dichotomy of Kill/No Kill.” It was published on May 7, 2021, by Dr. Jennifer Woolf on a platform called VetzInsight.
I’ll address just few things that caught my attention which I feel are most important.
[The phrase “No Kill is] divisive and unnecessary.
I disagree. To me, the phrase “No Kill” is informative. As Dr. Woolf notes in her article, language matters which means words matter. Shelters must use words the same way as they are used by the public. If I seek the help of my veterinarian to end the life of my geriatric dog to alleviate suffering, that is euthanasia. We do not say I killed my dog. If my healthy and treatable dog ends up in an animal shelter and his life is ended, that was not done for reasons of mercy. We cannot possibly say my dog was euthanized. My dog was killed. No Kill means that we don’t end the lives of healthy and treatable animals and that we use the word euthanasia according to the definition. When we call the deaths of healthy and treatable animals euthanasia, we undermine not only the value of those lives but of the lives of animals who were euthanized as an act of mercy and love.
When we refer to a shelter as a No Kill shelter, that means the shelter does not end the lives of healthy and treatable animals. I am fully aware there are some shelters that claim No Kill status to garner public favor when they are not No Kill facilities. It is up to all of us to call out that co-option of the phrase "No Kill" when it happens.
When people say the phrase “No Kill” is divisive, they are focusing more on the phrase than they are focused on the lives of animals. I fully promote use of the phrase No Kill because it is already on the public radar and it is not difficult to understand.
Shelters are not “kill” and “no-kill." They are “open admission” and “limited admission."
Shelters are kill and No Kill. If a shelter ends the lives of healthy and treatable animals for space or convenience, it is a kill shelter. If a shelter saves the lives of all healthy and treatable animals, it is a No Kill shelter.
The description of shelters as open admission and limited admission has been the subject of much debate in animal sheltering and welfare circles for ages. People behave as if there are only two options: 1) to intake all animals regardless of source or circumstance; or 2) to limit the intake of animals. Talk about a false dichotomy. Many people believe that municipal animal shelters are open admission related to intake not only of animals found running at large (for which the shelter has a public safety function) but also of owned animals. Absent some contract to the contrary, municipal shelters are not obligated to take owned animals and should only do so on a managed basis - which is the third option: managed admission.
Christie Keith wrote a blog on this subject years ago that I have shared many times because it is still relevant today. I quoted part of her blog in my book with Christie’s permission:
A shelter or animal control agency that responsibly manages its intake flow is still an open admission shelter. Shelters that fulfill the legal or contractual requirements of their municipality as to what animals they are required to admit, and that additionally have provisions for emergency intake for animals in immediate need, are open admission shelters.
But some folks simplified [the phrase "No Kill" to mean] stop euthanizing any pets.
I have heard the argument many times that people think “No Kill” means no animals die. It is an argument most often used by people who oppose No Kill philosophies, accusing those of us in the no kill movement of advocating for animal suffering. In almost two decades of animal advocacy, I have never met with or interacted with any person who really thinks that shelters keep suffering animals alive and that no animals are ever euthanized. Of course they are. While they are ordinarily only a very small portion of any animal shelter census, there will always be animals in shelters who are either suffering or are irremediably ill for which euthanasia is the only option. The No Kill movement is one of compassion. The notion that animals would be allowed to suffer needlessly is absurd. The Animal Evaluation Matrix to which I have linked here is an extremely helpful guide related to euthanasia decision by shelters.
Many municipal shelters are open admission. This means they take in all unwanted animals including the sick, the old, and the dangerous. In many cases, it also means they legally cannot turn away any animal.
I personally know of no municipal animal shelter that is required to take every owned animal right this very minute. Cities and counties just don’t function that way. All cities control the amount of property taken from citizens because there are costs associated with those functions. (I know people object to the description of pets as property, but there are some legal advantages to that at this time in our history particularly related the ability of a municipality to seize animals from their caregivers).
The word “unwanted” is also not helpful. Just because an animal ends up in a shelter does not mean that happens because no one wants them. More often than not it is because they got loose from the people who do love them and want them. In cases where people seek to surrender their animals to shelters, there are certain some heartless people who do so and should never have had the animal in the first place. The vast majority of people who seek to surrender an animal do so in desperation due to the combination of some life crisis and their inability to see another solution in the moment. When we see animal problems for what they are - people problems - we can help many people keep their pets by providing them with resources to do that or providing them alternatives to surrendering their pet. With regard to animals found running at large, there are some who are dangerous. This is ordinarily a very small percentage of the dogs entering shelters who may have some cognitive issue which causes their behavior to be unpredictable or makes them a genuine danger to the public. This is not the same, however, as dogs who are labeled as aggressive due to behavior created by the shelter environment itself which often overstimulates dogs and in which the people running the shelter expect those dogs to behave the same way they would outside of the building.
On the other hand, many private shelters are limited admission.
I would go one step further and stay that ALL private shelters, meaning nonprofit shelters which operate on donations and grants using mostly volunteer labor, are limited admission and for good reason. If a shelter receives no funding through tax dollars, has limited capacity to house animals and limited resources to care for those animals, it makes perfect sense to limit admission to just those animals for which the shelter can adequately provide care in order to function responsibly.
In order to honor this relationship between open-admission and limited-admission shelters, there is a new movement towards socially conscious sheltering. It eliminates the false dichotomy of kill/no-kill. It suggests that we're all in this together.
I have written about Socially Conscious Sheltering before and I will not cover that subject again here in depth. The foundation of SCS is the Five Freedoms that were developed for livestock and while there is nothing wrong with the freedoms in general, the problem is when the lives of animals are ended because the shelter failed to adequately provide an animal with a particular “freedom.” We must also remember the freedoms do not include a freedom to live, absent which the other five freedoms mean nothing. The website for SCS has been updated since I first blogged about this approach four years ago. The website now includes a number of tenants which ultimately achieve nothing because they are the animal welfare version of a political speech. The words look good on a website. They sound good. How could someone possibly disagree with them? In the trenches of animal welfare advocacy where I spend my time, tenants and intentions don’t do much good to keep shelter animals alive. If that is our goal, the solution is known and has been for almost 20 years: the programs and services of the No Kill Equation which can be implemented by any shelter, municipal or nonprofit.
Language matters. Saving the lives of shelter animals matters more.
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