When “no-kill” doesn’t mean no kill

If you’re like me, when searching for a companion animal to adopt or a shelter to support, you specifically seek out a no-kill shelter. After all, the mission of accepting relinquished, lost, or stray dogs and cats without killing them is noble and something we believe all shelters should strive for, right? Also, although I know animals in an open-door shelter need to be adopted, every animal begging for attention and adoption stirs up such guilt in me for not selecting them. It’s a horrible feeling to see so many lovable animals and know that many of them will die instead of finding a forever home. I’d rather not feel this way, so it gives me greater peace of mind to go to a no-kill shelter. Or at least, it once did.

It turns out that the term “no-kill” doesn’t actually mean that the shelter doesn’t euthanize. Rather, the term describes shelters that strive for a 90% save rate. The save rate is calculated by taking all live animals in a shelter in one year (adoptions, transfers to other no-kill shelters, reclaimed animals, and shelter residents) and dividing that by the total number of animals that were in the shelter that year. Another rate of measurement is based on human metrics — for every 1,000 people in a community, no more than two animals should be euthanized. A shelter may use one or both of these methods when calculating and publishing their save rate.

To be clear, no-kill shelters strive to save every animal. In fact, many shelters are raising the bar and setting a goal of a 95% save rate. However, the directors of these shelters argue that some animals are considered unable to be rehabilitated or unable to have their behaviors managed. Animals that cannot be rehabilitated are ones that are determined to be suffering due to physical ailments or injuries and are unlikely to ever become healthy when treated with the normal level of veterinary care a private pet owner might provide. Unmanageable animals are dogs or cats that have been deemed a danger to other animals or people. Because the flow of animals that need help is never-ending (7.5 million animals enter the shelter system each year in the United States), the argument is that no-kill shelters would best expend their resources on animals that have a better likelihood of being successfully adopted. The philosophy is that it is better to kill a few animals in order to save the majority.

The term “no-kill” also receives a bad rap because it is bandied about by shelters that wish to appear as though they follow the no-kill philosophy with the 90% goal. Keep in mind that there is no regulatory body that certifies animal shelters as “no-kill.” This means many shelters may choose to define no-kill according to a different standard not typically accepted by the animal welfare community.

For example, some less reputable shelters provide statistics on successful placement of “adoptable” animals. That term is a red flag for a shelter’s true philosophy because “adoptable” can mean anything the shelter’s managers want it to mean. Some poorly performing shelters often decide that animals under eight weeks, older than five years, or ill with even minor illnesses like a cold are “unadoptable” and will euthanize them immediately. These statistics would never be included in the shelter’s promoted “save rate.” There have reportedly even been some shelters that on certain days have decided that black cats are too difficult to adopt out, so they are labelled “unadoptable” and immediately euthanized.

The best way to determine a shelter’s true philosophy? Read their literature and website content carefully, paying attention to the language used to describe their mission and save rate. A good shelter is transparent with its data, even when the data may show some room for improvement. A good shelter also utilizes volunteers in all aspects of their operations. If a shelter keeps part of a building off-limits to all volunteers or is secretive about its procedures, chances are that the shelter is engaging in disreputable behaviors.

Other types of shelters are called “open door,” and they will euthanize healthy and treatable animals to make cage space. Although this policy may be viewed as cruel and harsh, these shelters notably are never too full to accept one more animal. Unfortunately, one coming in means that another must leave and if adoption is not in the works — well, you know the rest.

“Animal control” is the term for government-run shelters that accept all animals, but they regularly euthanize animals that may even have a good chance of adoption simply because there is no room for more animals and no time to wait for just the right adopter. Again, the flow of animals is only increasing and we have to remember that shelters are not the answer — they’re just a method to try to cope with the rampant problem of companion animal overpopulation and abandonment.

“Never-kill” shelters never kill any animals, even ones that exhibit problematic behavior or may have diseases and conditions that will not allow the animals to recover with standard veterinary care. Many animals will ultimately spend the rest of their lives here, and some people argue that this creates animals with socialization issues who may end up spending the rest of their days in a cage or kennel space.

Most no-kill and never-kill shelters are completely full, which means the influx of animals continues onward to open-door shelters or animal control. The problem of animal overpopulation and abandonment is based in our society’s attitude towards animals and our culture of disposability that sheds everything considered problematic, obsolete, or no longer useful, including living creatures. The epidemic of backyard breeding, puppy mills, unchecked breeding of unspayed, unneutered animals, abandonment, and owner surrenders completely tax the shelter system.

Although animal rights and welfare advocates disagree about the best philosophy for managing out-of-control pet populations, all agree that the solution must be based in the community with a change in attitudes and habits to stem the inward flow of animals into the system.

Ultimately, this means when I go looking for a companion animal next time, I will look at both no-kill and open-door shelters, that is if I can find the strength not to break down when I see all the animals clamoring for attention that will never find a forever home.

Originally published at baileylaurajean.com on February 7, 2019.

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