Is the Shelter System Failing Our Animals?

Via Stephanie Vessely
on Jun 16, 2013
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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


About Stephanie Vessely

Stephanie Vessely lives in Denver, Colorado and is somewhere in the middle of a lifelong love affair with words. She feels a little out of place a lot of the time and thinks writing about herself in third person is awkward. She is regularly saved by yoga and is searching for Truth. These are a few places she’s found it: the swaying of tree branches, the ocean, the laughter of her niece and nephew and her own heart, when she can be still enough to hear it. She’s an aspiring vegan who loves travel, hates small talk and hopes to help save the animals. Someday, she’ll learn how to tap dance. In the meantime, she keeps scribbled secret notebooks and knows everything is as it should be, even if she has a hard time remembering it. Follow her on Facebook or visit her website.


11 Responses to “Is the Shelter System Failing Our Animals?”

  1. Cat B says:

    I would like to see "just one day" where the people who perpetuate the problem with breeding are sought out and shut down.

  2. ALDOGMOM says:

    Austin's system is now failing. They are out of space – few adopters and fewer fosters. As of a couple of weeks ago, their shelter is no longer accepting owner surrendered animals. This is the point where the stray population will explode and the suffering will increase incrementally.

    I can tell you from personal experience that there are much worse things than humane euthanasia…being hit by a car and left to die by the side of the road, heat stroke, starvation, dehydration, injuries that are painful and never treated…the list goes on and on.

    I have worked in companion animal rescue in three different states for over 40 years. I would love for the no-kill model to become a reality. Unfortunately, the math just does not work. There are and always have been more animals than people who can care for them.

    We cannot rescue our way out of this problem. There is no-kill and slow-kill. One is kind – the other is not.

  3. Barbra Brady says:

    Aldogmom says it very well: "There is no-kill and there is slow-kill." I'd go so far as to say there is no such thing as "no-kill."

    I worked for the Humane Society of Western Montana for over five years. It is one of the most progressive, state-of-the-art shelters in the country. They have an open door policy, meaning no pet is left behind. (Their adoption rate last year was 99.2%.)

    I know from experience what "slow-kill" can mean. When some people are told the no-kill shelter they've come to is full, they make other, quite inhumane choices. I've heard them say they will tie a rock around a dog's neck and throw it in the river, or turn it loose in the woods. Even known of people who think it is more humane to shoot a dog they could no longer take care of than take it to "death row." Yes, some people call a shelter Death Row. Far from it. As Ms. Vessely writes, "An animal shelter is thought of by many as a safe haven for animals—one that provides food, warmth and care."

    For many "unwanted" dogs and cats–ones who have been turned out and left to fend for themselves–an animal shelter may be the best thing that has ever happened to them. For some dogs a shelter is the first time they have a clean warm bed, healthy food, socialization, and been free from abuse. These animals may come in missing a jaw from a gunshot wound, or a raw, bleeding neck from a too tight collar. Extreme examples? I saw it on a regular basis. When such an animal comes into a shelter, even if it has to be euthanized (which is never a random action), that time at the shelter may be the ONLY happy days of its life.

    Which is one reason shelter's are so "strict" with adoption policies. Let's take the hypothetical animal I just wrote of. It has finally made it a safe, comfortable, loving environment. If it were randomly adopted out without carefully consideration just to keep from euthanizing it, it might well find itself in a home that cannot give it proper care at best, or be abused. (We humans can do desperate things in desperate circumstances>0

    No shelter practices euthanasia willy-nilly. All possible outcomes for that animal are weighed, and indeed, in many cases (due to overpopulation, let's put our energy on spay-neuter) euthanasia IS the most humane. Sad, but a reality.

    I may have to duck for cover with this comment, but I wonder if every person (not to suggest Ms. Vessely) who asks "How can any animal be unwanted?" is also Pro-Life (anti-abortion–are pregnancies never unwanted?) when it comes to humans?

  4. Emily Burke says:


    Thank you so much for writing this. As an animal rescuer, advocate and mom two four fabulous canines, I can say that you are absolutely right. Something has got to give, and I think it starts with education, legislation, and most importantly a shift in peoples' perceptions of animals.

    For every person on this planet there are 7 dogs brought into shelters EVERY DAY. The only way we can curtail this problem is to focus on legislation that will negatively impact back yard breeders.

    One of my rescues came from Manhattan ACC. They will occasionally have a "euth free" day, which is always a blessing for those of us that support the animals in that shelter. Unfortunately, I've noticed that the days before and after this often have double the numbers on their "kill list" versus an average day. This often means 20+ dogs, generally perfectly healthy, aside from the occasional kennel cough, who are slated to die the next day. Even numbers like these are overwhelming to the people who are at the forefront of the fight: the rescuers who go to the shelters every day and try to save as many animals as they can.

    The problem is so great that many healthy, adoptable animals never even see the adoption room floor. I've heard stories over the years of some animals being kept in a non-public area for years, and no one ever knew they were at the shelter. I believe this is another example of the poor management of some shelters.

    It's a daunting task to take on, but I feel that there are enough animal lovers and supporters out there. We all need to stand together and work toward the most logical solution for these poor animals.

    Thanks again for bringing light to this issue!


  5. svessely says:


  6. svessely says:

    I agree that there are much worse things, but I take issue with the term "humane euthanasia." I understand that there is a math problem and that the system isn't working perfectly yet, but does that mean we shouldn't try?

    I'm not familiar with the term slow-kill – can you elaborate? Also, I tried to find more information about Austin's system failing but couldn't find anything. Would you mind sending me links or pointing me in the direction of that information?


  7. svessely says:

    Hi Barbra,

    Thanks for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response. I have to reiterate what I said to the commenter above however—just because it hasn't worked perfectly yet, does that mean we shouldn't try?

    I think there is something morally bankrupt about us when we say the best we can do is kill humanely. We should be aiming for never killing because it's the right thing to do. Just because we aren't there yet doesn't mean we can't be some day. Every day more people are waking up to the realities of what happens in animal shelters. That's a positive sign.

    Yes, all of those animals you mentioned certainly have a better life in a shelter than with their horrible owners. But wouldn't you agree that it would be even better if they got to leave the shelter and live with a loving owner, rather than just being killed?

    And bringing up abortion is neither here nor there and has nothing to do with the topic of the article. It's an entirely different debate and not even a little bit the same thing. We don't put down children who find themselves homeless or abused.

    My point was that if we as a country adopt 23 million pets a year, then there are certainly people who want the three to four million pets we also put down every year.

    Thanks again for sharing,

  8. Barbra Brady says:

    It's such a numbers game, unfortunately. Humane education toward spay/neuter has come a long way in decreasing the overpopulation of numbers of pets/numbers of available, suitable homes. Things are improving, but there are still many people who do not spay/neuter for a number of reasons aside from breeding. There are still a great many people who believe a cat, say, needs to go through one heat cycle before being spayed. Not true! Fortunately young kittens and puppies are spayed/neutered as young as two months–not everyone knows this is a good and healthy thing.

    I worked in a humane society in a university town where we saw so many students surrender pets (that they got "free" from an ad) when they moved to a different apartment, got a new roommate, graduated, etc. And college age folks love to have dogs, its' cool–I was one of them! So, policies such as shelters contacting college students' parents to make sure they'd be cool with taking in the dog should the student be unable to keep it are helping cut down on "what are we gonna do with him?" situations.

    Yes, in a closer to perfect world no pet would have to be euthanized. We are far, far closer to that than we were 20 years ago. And with the level of humane education that is being publicized, the "numbers game" will become a fair one.
    Thanks for your article, Stephanie!

  9. Barbra Brady says:

    Emily, thanks for the stats re: number of people on the planet per 7 dogs every day! Legislation, yes, and the current director of the U.S. Humane Society is doing an outstanding and outspoken job on that front. For those of us who are passionate about animal welfare grassroots can go a long way. Volunteering to speak to groups about the many issues, back yard breeders are one such issue.

  10. Lisa Avebury says:

    I have been a volunteer on the front lines in Los Angeles with Best Friends Animal Society since 1994. I go twice a month to one of the oldest county shelters in the system to do a "Shindler's List" style transport of dogs to no kill rescues out of state. Last month we got almost 300 out and sent to other states where they will be adopted. Last year NKLA was launched. This stands for No Kill Los Angeles. This is a public awareness campaign on all fronts to get people to understand the urgent need to stop the needless euthanasia of animals simply because there is no room for them. Out motto is…


    Check out the website here…


  11. Eddie Conna says:

    great article, and well said.