June 16, 2013

Is the Shelter System Failing Our Animals?

Killing an animal because it is “unwanted” is not a justification. It’s lazy and only happens because we aren’t trying hard enough.

On June 11th, many animal shelters in the U.S. participated in “Just One Day,” a day in which shelters across the country pledged to not euthanize any savable animals. Instead, they worked to post photos of available animals on Facebook, Twitter, etc., they offered discounted rates, opened for extended hours and rallied the community to adopt as many animals as possible.

Last year, it worked. Between 7,000 and 9,000 animals were placed on June 11, 2012. That’s between 7,000 and 9,000 lives saved in one day.

The day is supported by various organizations, including the No Kill Advocacy Center, Animal Ark and Animal Wise Radio.

It’s a commendable action. But it makes me wonder what shelters are doing the other 364 days of the year.

An animal shelter is thought of by many as a safe haven for animals—one that provides food, warmth and care. Many times it’s thought of as a little doggy or kitty hotel, where people can take their pets to stay until they find their next loving home. It’s not thought of as a place where animals go to die.

Unfortunately, however, that’s often what it is—especially if an animal is injured, sick or older.

Millions of animals that enter the shelter every year never leave it. Of the 80 million animals that enter, three to four million adoptable animals are euthanized because they don’t have a home.

This is unacceptable.

Is it really okay that we have to designate a day every year as one in which we won’t needlessly kill?

The term “overpopulation” is often tossed around as the problem in shelters. We hear that they are too full of unwanted animals already and that there aren’t enough homes for all of the animals who need them, so inevitably, some have to “go.”

However, according to “You Can Do It: A No Kill Guide for Animal Shelters,” Americans acquire over 23 million pets every year. That means if we stopped getting our animals from breeders and pet stores, we could easily save the three to four million animals that are needlessly killed in shelters.

Another problem, according to Nathan Winograd, Director of the No Kill Advocacy Center is that often it’s “the practices of the shelter itself that lead to killing, not the mere fact of animal homelessness.”

He says, “If a shelter does not maintain adequate adoption hours or has poor customer service, refuses to work with volunteers, foster parents, or rescue groups, fails to treat and rehabilitate sick, injured or traumatized animals, the shelter is not doing what is necessary to bring their killing to an end. And, unfortunately, this is precisely what is happening at shelters nationwide.

Our system for caring for animals who need help is so broken that the very place that is supposed to offer protection is actually the one that is most dangerous.

I don’t say this to discredit the work shelters do. I know they work hard and that they save a lot of animals. But they don’t fulfill their purpose of providing a safe space for all animals.

Case in point: Last weekend I found a lost dog, and instead of taking it a shelter I knew I had to do everything in my power not to take it to a shelter.


Because for an older dog like the one I found, I knew he already had a strike against him.

So I took him to the vet to see if he was chipped (he wasn’t). I drove the streets of the neighborhood where I found him asking anyone and everyone if they knew him (they didn’t). I posted flyers on every other sign post. I posted his picture on Facebook and put an ad on Craigslist. I called all of the local shelters and gave them my contact information in case anyone was looking for him. Later, some friends walked him around the neighborhood, again asking anyone and everyone if they knew him.

At one point I called all of Denver’s local shelters to get a sense of what my options would be. Many didn’t accept strays. (So even if I wanted to take him to a shelter I couldn’t.) Denver’s only no-kill shelter was full. Another shelter said they would take him, but that if he didn’t pass their adoptability tests, he would be put down.

So instead I waited, desperately hoping to hear from his owners, and thinking there has to be a better way.

The system as it stands now doesn’t work. It fails every animal that is put down unnecessarily. And it fails the community. How many other lost dogs are brought into the shelters every day and never given a chance to find a home? How many sick or injured animals never receive the chance to heal?

There is a better way.

Many communities in the U.S., most notably Austin, Texas, have become “No Kill” communities. This means they never unnecessarily euthanize an animal.

Similarly, many rescue organizations operate in this way, utilizing every available resource, especially foster homes, to ensure each animal is adopted rather than euthanized.

If places like Austin can stop the killing every day, we all can.

Right now however, too many people and animal welfare organizations are against the No Kill Movement. PETA and the Humane Society of the United States are two of the largest opposing organizations, arguing that the no kill model isn’t a viable option and cite issues such as “warehoused” animals, in which unadopted animals spend years living in a cage. However, if the no kill model is followed correctly, this doesn’t happen.

PETA also defends its policy of euthanizing animals, stating that “No one despises the ugly reality of euthanizing animals more than the people who hold the syringe, but euthanasia is often the most compassionate and dignified way for unwanted animals to leave the world.”

The italics are mine. In a country that adopts 23 million pets a year, how can any animal be unwanted? Who doesn’t want the animals? PETA?

Further, isn’t it the role of an animal rescue organization to find a way for “unwanted” animals to be “wanted?” I understand that sometimes animals are suffering, and the compassionate thing to do is to euthanize them.

But aren’t we giving up on the innocents a little too quickly? Killing an animal because it is “unwanted” is not a justification. It’s lazy and only happens because we aren’t trying hard enough.

In the no kill practice, every possible resource is used to get every healthy animal in to the right home.

Is it challenging? Yes. Does it work perfectly? Not always. But shouldn’t we at least try? Don’t we owe to the vulnerable and voiceless among us?

Communities are working within this model every day and are proving it works.

We have no excuse.

It’s time to get involved and help our communities step up to the plate.

As for the little guy I found, he was reunited with his owners late Saturday night after they saw the Craigslist ad. It was an awesome reunion.

Bonus: Click here for more on bringing no kill to your community.




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Ed: Kate Bartolotta

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