Saturday, August 16, 2008

Terminology: Killing vs. Euthanasia, Acceptable Homes for Pets, and More

I use the term "kill" in this blog very deliberately because No Kill's entire goal is to reach a time when only "euthanasias" are performed in our nation's shelters, and this is not the case today. The dictionary definition of euthanasia is to humanely end the life of an animal that is hopelessly sick, injured, and suffering, as well as seriously vicious dogs that pose a threat to the public. According to the No Kill Advocacy Center's research, more than 90 percent of animals entering shelters do not fit these categories, and finding alternatives for feral (wild) cats is key as well. The last place a feral cat belongs is in a shelter, where it will meet with death each and every time.

When necessary to end an animal's suffering or protect people from dangerous dogs, and these decisions need to be made with the utmost of care and assessment, euthanasias that are performed should be carried out in the most humane and respectful way possible. Otherwise, shelters are treating animals in the way they criticize the public of doing -- as throwaway, disposable.

In some twisted sense of logic, or maybe to be able to sleep better at night, it could be that shelters have to tell themselves that in the end, they are "rescuing" animals from a sure life at the end of chain (or being relinquished to a shelter again in the distant future) because all shelters see and concentrate on is the worse of the worst. That's part of that endless loop of killing that shelters are stuck in at this moment, except for some examples throughout the U.S. that show no kill is within our reach, and not in some distant, miraculous future.

The Role of Spay/Neuter in No Kill Programs

Without a doubt, spay and neuter is one of the programs of the No Kill Equation, and not just access to low-cost options but efforts made to get out in the public (especially areas that do not spay/neuter as much) and perform high volumes of surgeries. In my last post, I provided a link to the Best Friends site and some articles that talk about these efforts. I also provided a recent example of success in running a spay/neuter van in Chaparral for one weekend and how great the need is to get back there and to other areas like it to provide these and other services (vaccinations, microchipping, etc.).

It is widely known that finance is the biggest barrier to most people not fixing their pets and that people with high incomes are four times as likely to spay and neuter. With surgeries running over $100 these days (and that's without the pre-surgery blood test costs that vets recommend), that is not surprising, especially now with average income families struggling more than usual. And, even in this community, when I am out talking to the general public, most of them are not aware of the two low-cost/no-cost options in our community now -- SNAP and FSNP. Why is that, and how do we get the word out and encourage people to use these options more, and what other services can we provide to increase the volume?

I agree wholeheartedly with the anonymous comment I got from the person who said spay/neuter is key. This person also made reference to issues of overcrowding in shelters trying to "get to" no kill. That is a mistake shelters make -- announcing this as a goal for years and years out. The general public is not well-informed, so I can see where more animals are turned in by people washing their hands of the animal and assuming it will not die. That is what was happening here of late.

However, the other important point is that no kill IS an act of will for a shelter -- starting from the day you make the proclamation to stop the killing. If you are in that mindset, you exhaust every option before death and look for alternatives and become self-critical to improve. And, though no one would say success comes overnight, it has been shown that major strides can be made in a year's time. Engaging the support of everyone in the public is key and educating them of the programs needed and how to support them will help move away from simple overcrowding to options for moving animals out on a timely basis.

What is the No Kill Equation?

This equation is a set of comprehensive programs that shelters have to rigorously put into place from Day 1 to make real strides toward the reduction in the percentage of animals being killed. I'll explain each in more detail as this blog progresses and how our community could accomplish these programs, but here's the simple, high-level list out of the No Kill Advocacy Center's documentation (

I. Implementation of a feral cat TNR program
II. High-volume, low-cost spay/neuter services and support
III. Partnering with rescue groups
IV. Building a foster care network
V. Comprehensive adoption programs
VI. Pet retention efforts and services
VII. Medical and behavioral rehabilitation
VIII. Public relations/community involvement
IX. Establishing a big volunteer base of support
X. Hiring a compassionate director

What did I mean by adopting animals to less-than-perfect homes, and how does that impact killing rates?

I got a great comment from "bowser" out of the South Valley who--along with others--probably misunderstood a previous comment I made that shelters are overly picky about who they adopt to and that they often turn away good, acceptable homes based on some ideal of perfection for their shelter animals or based on the "bad" owners they deal with daily, yet the irony is that many that are rejected would probably love and care for their pets very adequately, while the alternative is probably death in shelters with kill rates of 70+ percent.

To be honest, the rate of killing is not solely tied to the "bad" people out there, and based on the 165 million animals in households throughout the U.S. today, that 5 million of those end up dying in shelters is tragic, but that means 160 million are cared for and in their homes, and of these, it would be interesting to learn how many are neglected/abused. I'd have to guess that that percentage is also a lesser number than those well cared for. It is these other types of people -- the decent people -- that shelters need to try to find to adopt their animals.

As someone who volunteers and runs off-site adoptions for organizations in our area, I want to assure you that I would never make the decision to adopt to a person who had plans to tie up a dog 24/7 or who was getting a dog for solely utilitarian purposes -- that's not the way to reach no kill. In talking to a person, these motives are usually revealed. I have had to reject a few adopters for several reasons. However, this is done carefully ... weighing the quality of life the animal will have with this person (as far as you can tell) vs. dying at the shelter now, and this subjective decision should be made by well-trained adoption counselors based on a series of open-ended questions instead of check boxes on a form. There is the element of the unknown, and shelters do have animals returned regularly post-adoption. However, to not adopt out to avoid a return is not giving an animal a new chance at life, is it?

Everything is connected in the no kill programs ... pet relinquishment in an "open-admission" shelter such as ours means our shelter has to accept any animal dumped on them; however, the staff could make efforts to counsel and talk to the people and try to determine the reason for the relinquishment. If it is a behavioral or environmental issue that could be resolved, perhaps just giving the people the advice and tools they need would help mitigate some relinquishments. Giving them the sobering truth in a non-judgmental way, and requiring a tour of the shelter, might also help turn that tide. Pet retention services and education are needed because though shelters have always concentrated on humane education for youth, what about advice and education for adults that sometimes don't know any better but might do better if given the choice and other options to try?

There is no benefit of the doubt at shelters ... it seems to me like someone walking into a shelter to adopt is already trying to do the right thing, or -- like 80+ percent of the people in our nation -- they would be getting a pet from a breeder or unknowingly from a puppy mill via a pet store or the Internet. So, to automatically assume that each of these interested adopters will be like the bad people shelters deal with daily is very skewed in one direction.

I wonder what would happen if bowser did a check of his/her entire neighborhood and how most of the pets in the area are cared for? Are most tied up, or do some have a decent life? Is a decent life only one that is "perfect", and what does that mean?

I'll give you an example I heard about from our shelter recently. A woman was interested in adopting a golden retriever or mix and was told by a friend of hers, a volunteer, that one was available at the shelter. She stopped by and was asked to fill out a full application before she could see the dogs available for adoption. One of the policies at our shelter is to not adopt out to "outdoor-only" homes for dogs. However, they go one step further and ask the person where the animal will be kept "during the day". This woman said the dog would be "outside" in the daytime, and she was told that her application was rejected, and she was not allowed to see the dogs.

She turned around and adopted a dog a few days later at a sanctuary instead, where she was asked a series of questions that led to more information. The woman lived on two secure acres; the dog would be inside with the family in the evenings (after work) and given proper care; and there was plenty of shade and protection from the elements for the dog outside. So, ironically, a sanctuary that does not engage in any killing and can be very particular about who it adopts to approved this woman's adoption vs. a shelter that is still killing many, many animals.

I ask, does this make sense? What has happened to our animal-protection systems that they routinely make decisions toward death in the name of doing what is "best" and from some twisted sense of love for "their" animals that anything short of perfection is not enough?

That's why these decisions need to be made on a case-by-case basis, and not by a standardized form. Decisions need to be made fairly and from an objective perspective despite the only picture most shelter staff have in their minds of the public pet owner is a dog at the end of a chain. This is a great challenge to most shelter staff, who understandably think the worst of everyone but in doing so often set animals up to die and punish the good people out there, which -- again -- far outnumber the bad. This then leads to more animals being disposed of in our landfill.

In the adoption counseling curriculum I developed for a local humane society that conducts offsite adoptions, there are clear guidelines for what makes a good, acceptable home, and they are as follows:

  • It seems like a good match between the chosen pet and adopter/family
  • The pet’s social, behavioral, and companionship needs will be met
  • The pet will have a livable, comfortable environment
  • The pet will receive the needed veterinary care
  • The pet will be respected, valued, and not abused/neglected
Even some of these can mean different things to different types of dogs. For example, a pit bull or other dog that lives well in hot weather can stand to spend some time outside on a hot day in our climate while putting a winter dog like a husky through this is more troublesome. Maybe an owner has some other accommodations for the pet as well, such as a misting system on a timer that will cool the dog off throughout the day. You would not learn this without an in-depth conversation.

There might be an outside-only dog that gets daily play sessions and walks vs. one that is completely abandoned and ignored. It is these kinds of shades of gray from which adoption counselors must work and make the determination that a life with this family is better or worse than death. The less a shelter has to put animals to death, the more and more restrictive they can become, if they so choose.

Nevertheless, I agree that a lifetime at the end of a chain is a slow, sad, unfortunate death for many dogs, who are social, pack animals that have to be a part of their families in one way or another. In that extreme case, death today is better than death at the end of a chain.


I was very humbled to find a comment from a group that I want to model my no kill study group after: Thank you for reading this blog, and I hope to join you in your efforts and other groups like yours in the near future. I know we all believe in our hearts that a "no kill nation is within our reach"--the mantra of the No Kill Advocacy Center.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

We currently have two cats from the animal shelter on North Main and I have been in process of making a slow decision to add a dog to the mix. Every few months I would drop by and look at who was there and think about whether it was the right time to add the dog to our family. Our animals are full respected members of our family and probably have better health care than the people. We have had shelter animals exclusively for decades. My reaction to the sign on the door saying that I needed to fill out the full adoption paperwork before I came in was like, "Ok. That's clear. You don't want me to come in and look." So I turned around and left. I haven't been back.
Yes, I can understand why, but it also felt like a slap in the face to someone who was seriously looking to take an older dog and give it a good home.
There is quite a division between what publicity appears in the paper and the attitude of the shelter when you get there.