Features January 2009 Issue

What’s Wrong With “No-Kill” Animal Shelters?

Itís a worthy goal . . . but its reality today is a deceptive myth.

Imagine a world where no dog is ever euthanized for being homeless. Where there are more homes than dogs, and lists of potential adopters are maintained at every possible dog-adoption-source, with families and individuals anxiously awaiting the next available canine. Where every dog is treasured, and the thought of “rehoming” one of these wonderful, valuable creatures is totally preposterous. Wouldn’t we all be delighted to see that?

That’s a lovely vision. But today, in the United States, it is just that – a vision. Despite the growing ranks of shelters that claim to be “no-kill” and the proponents who claim that it’s possible to turn every shelter into a “no-kill” facility, in reality, we are far from being a “no-kill nation.” The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) estimates that 3 to 4 million homeless dogs and cats are euthanized at animal shelters in this country every year. Thirty years ago, that number was 17 to 18 million. Taken in perspective, that looks like a huge improvement, and indeed it is – but 3 to 4 million per year is still a lot of dead dogs and cats. So, if more and more shelters are adopting “no-kill” policies, where are all these deaths coming from?

"No-Kill" Does NOT Mean "No Death Row" for Difficult Dogs

Given the number of euthanized animals, it’s clear that “no-kill” is a misnomer. The animal protection profession has generally accepted the definition of “no-kill” as “no euthanasia of animals who are adoptable, or who will be adoptable after medical or behavioral treatment or rehabilitation.”

This means that even shelters that call themselves “no-kill” may, in fact, euthanize animals that they deem to be unadoptable. One “no-kill” shelter may decide that a dog with mild resource-guarding can’t be rehabilitated because it doesn’t have staff to work with dogs who need behavior modification, or because its organization regards all aggression-related behaviors as legally risky. Another “no-kill” shelter may have an entire department of behavior experts who work with the shelter dogs, and commit significant resources to behavior modification. At the first shelter the dog dies. At the second, he lives. But they’re both “no-kill” by industry definition.

The same is true with physical ailments. One shelter may be able to isolate and treat a dog with upper respiratory infection, or one with a broken leg, while another might euthanize that same dog due to lack of resources, or different priorities for finite resources. Both call themselves “no-kill.”

Some limited admission shelters disingenuously call themselves “no-kill” by hiding behind the industry definition, even though their supporters probably don’t understand the distinction. Some also claim the “no-kill” designation because when an animal must be euthanized they don’t do it themselves – they send it to a full-service shelter.

In my opinion, even legitimate, well-run limited admission shelters that rarely euthanize should avoid describing themselves as “no-kill.” The best ones are frank with their supporters about what they do, why, and how. These shelters honestly admit that try as they might, there are times when their humane choice is to euthanize an animal that’s not thriving under their care. Or they at least acknowledge their debt to the other shelters in the community that do take on the responsibility for caring for – and euthanizing –the animals that they can’t or won’t.

Not Enough Resources to Go Around

Here is one serious problem with the recent popularity of the “no-kill shelter” appellation: Competition for donor dollars for animal protection can be fierce, and the appeal of the “no-kill” designation – whether it’s accurate or misleading– tends to attract more support from the limited donor pool. Full-service shelters are just as needy, if not more so, than no-kill shelters, and for many, it’s a huge struggle to convince their donors not to jump ship for organizations with a happier-sounding mission. And few donors are aware that their donations to “no-kill” facilities may actually help fewer animals than contributions to full-service shelters.

Full-Service Shelter

Supporting your local full-service shelter will help it to improve conditions for all of the animals in your community, through adoption and spay/neuter programs, public education, behavior/training information, and more.

Perhaps the most tragic result of a poorly conceived no-kill policy, however, is that many “no-kill” facilities quickly become overwhelmed with unwanted animals, who, too often, are then subjected to overcrowded, sub-par living conditions for indefinite (sometimes years-long) periods. Quality of life takes a distant back seat for dogs in an overcrowded facility, and many dogs who are housed for life in a kennel suffer severe psychological distress resulting in depression, aggression, and/or obsessive/compulsive behaviors. Refusal to euthanize these dogs not only results in their mental and/or physical suffering, but also severely restricts the number of additional healthy, adoptable dogs these facilities could help.

Dedicated animal protection professionals made significant progress in their efforts to reduce euthanasia numbers well before the “no-kill” movement became widely popular a decade ago. Unfortunately, despite all of those efforts, as well as those of the “no-kill” proponents, euthanasia numbers have remained static in the past 10 years. (And, sadly, there has been a quantum rise in the investigation and prosecution of animal hoarders who have represented themselves as legitimate rescue groups. In many cases, they were the recipients of dogs from “low-kill” and “no-kill” shelters.)

Usually when something seems too good to be true, it is. Such is the case with the as-yet empty promise of “no-kill.” I do believe that someday, all animals who have potential to be adopted will find lifelong loving homes. That day hasn’t arrived, but I think it will. The achievement will require the continued hard work of dedicated and realistic animal protection professionals who continue public education, spay/neuter campaigns, and science-based animal behavior and training programs. It will take many more years. But yes, the day will come.

Pat Miller, CPDT, is Whole Dog Journal’s Training Editor.

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