To Kill or Not to Kill
Is that the Question?
A look behind the curtain of America's animal sheltersand the
facts about euthanasia
by Kimball Lewis
Animal shelters have become an integral component of modern America. You'll find
an animal shelter, dog pound, animal rescue agency, animal control, or some form
of animal refuge for unwanted, abused, and abandoned pets in nearly every city, township,
and suburb from New York to New Mexico. While the shapes and sizes of these buildings
may vary, there are some painfully common threads among each of these institutions:
A never-ending sea of unwanted, cast away, disposable companion animals.
The dog pound of the 1940s was a place for the neighborhood mutt to be dropped off.
Rabies, or the threat of rabies, prompted many urban and rural communities to adopt
some form of animal shelter system. It was for the most part a fairly black and white
system. Strays were impounded, held for a short period of time and if unclaimed,
they were simply "put to sleep." As our society learns from its past mistakes
and endeavors to correct historic social ills, we have progressed in terms of the
way we operate animal shelters. Even the methods in which we put animals to sleep
have been modified to accommodate a more "humane" approach. The outdated,
horrible decompression chambers of the early animal shelter years were soon replaced
by carbon monoxide chambers and then by lethal injection. Today, Euthanasia Technicians,
or ETs, undergo state mandated training in most areas. These ETs learn to humanely
and carefully administer a sedative and then a lethal injection of sodium pentobarbital.
During the last decade of the 20th Century, there was an increasing push fueled by
public opinion, to reduce euthanasia in our shelters. Activists as well as the general
public felt that too many pets were being put to sleep and demanded answers as well
as new programs to stem the tide of killing. Animal shelters, especially those supported
by donations, quickly responded to donor sentiment by creating innovative programs
designed to reduce euthanasia. Other shelters responded by playing an internal number
game so that their stats simply looked more appealing while the number of animals
euthanized stayed the same or in some cases increased. The numbers game works like
this: The shelter would report how many adoptable animals were adopted and how many
had to be put to sleep. Many shelters pressured by donor outcry felt compelled to
show that they had the situation under control. They did this by simply labeling
more animals as "unadoptable" prior to euthanasia so that they could boast
incredible adoption rates to the public. It became commonplace to read of 80% and
even 90% adoption rates. What the pubic didn't see was an increase in euthanasia
of animals labeled as "sick" or "fear biter" or "dog aggressive."
There are a number of public and private shelters playing this shell game today.
On the other hand, some shelters made remarkable and sincere strides in euthanasia
reduction. These shelters accomplished this through expanded foster care programs,
increased spay and neuter accessibility within their community, and increased public
access to the shelter and the animals themselves, to name a few. Opening the doors
on Saturday and Sunday when families can adopt became more common. It used to be
that shelters were open Monday through Friday during the exact same hours when people
were at work -- a self-defeating practice.
There is the third scenario: The shelter that has suddenly shifted its policy to
a "No Kill" operation. In this situation, and there are many, the shelter
simply follows the basic laws of supply and demand. When the shelter is full, they
place a temporary freeze on animal intake. Like the motel with the "no vacancy
sign" illuminated, no room at the inn means no room at the inn. In this case,
while the shelter enjoys a "No Kill" status with their donors, there is
a small problem; the animals turned away when the shelter is full either wind up
at the next closest shelter or worse yet, abandoned on the roadside. Shelters that
close their doors when they are full are typically private, non-profit operations
since public animals shelters are funded by public dollars and aren't allowed this
type of latitude.
Regardless of which of the above scenarios you follow, believe in, or have witnessed,
there is one glaring problem with all of them: The
supply of unwanted animals still outweighs the demand for adoption.
In other words, no matter how creative you get with programs, hours of business,
marketing gimmicks, etc., there are still several million more dogs and cats then
there are available homes for them, each year. These animals will die. That is the
basic law of math.
So while the pubic cries for less euthanasia and the shelter does their level best
to accommodate this new found standard of morality, how to we address the real issue?
Who will stem the tide of unwanted dogs and cats, puppies and kittens, born each
day? The road to most animal shelters is paved with good intentions and that is commendable.
However the problem remains: There are simply millions upon millions of pets that
will be surrendered and euthanized this year and while the public demands more bang
for their buck from the local animal welfare and protection services, they forget
that these pets did not originate from the shelter. In fact, they originated in the
backyard of John Q. Citizen, that translates to you and me, your neighbor, co-worker,
boss, cleaning lady…
While the pubic focuses on how to maximize shelter efficiency and reduce euthanasia
the real focus should be placed outside the shelter and within society itself. How
is it then that we as a society have such duplicity in our role as animal advocates
when it is our consumerism that has brought this phenomenon to its current critical
level to begin with?
Let's take a look at the real mechanics of pet overpopulation. In order to do this
we must take a cursory overview of modern society.
We have become an "instant" society. Advertising agencies have played on
this for decades as virtually every component of our lives has been accelerated to
the "instant" mode. We loved instant coffee and so we wanted instant rice.
Instant hot chocolate gave way to instant microwave food preparation. Soon we had
instant home loans and instant credit for any purchase of any size. You are bombarded
with the commercials constantly. "Call so and so home loan company and get instant
approval." The very ease with which we are now able to acquire things means
that we no longer have to wait as long or work nearly as hard for the same things
our parents scrimped and saved for. We have become an "instant gratification"
society. But there is a price to pay for instant acquisition of things that bring
us pleasure. The price is an increasingly lowered tolerance for things that take
time and effort. The institution of marriage is a glaring example. If we are married
and our spouse does something(s) that bring us displeasure, we are now more likely
than ever to "divorce" ourselves from that which makes us feel bad. Instant
gratification has a backlash: "instant divestiture." We shed ourselves
of unwanted things much faster than in days gone by. We're in a hurry for the reward
and if the reward is not manifest in a constant, obvious way then we get rid of "it"
and move on in our quest for satisfaction. Unfortunately, companion animals have
become a very real part of this phenomenon.
During my years as director of some of this nations best animal welfare organizations,
I have had the bittersweet opportunity to see first hand the surrender of tens, if
not hundreds, of thousands of companion animals by ordinary folks. Ask the intake
staff at most shelters if they have a "Top Ten List" of reasons for owner
surrender of pets and they will likely be ready to recite the list. Interestingly,
the reasons are basically the same in New York City as they are in New Hope, Idaho.
The list reads something like this:
Landlord won't let me keep
Not enough time
Baby on the way
Moving (usually the next day)
Bites my child
Plays to rough with or knocks down our child
Aggressive toward others
Runs away too much, can't keep home
Unable to housebreak
Chews or digs too much
Keeps getting pregnant
Too many pets already
There are a number of others but you get the idea.
There are two reasons and two reasons only why America's animal shelters are so overcrowded.
First, there are too many dogs and cats being born and not enough spayed and neutered.
Second, we have become an "instant gratification/instant divestiture" society.
When you combine these two reasons you have a recipe for disaster.
Is there a magic cure to all of this? Not at all. However there is a starting point
for society to begin to reduce the needless euthanasia of millions of pets. The remedy
lies in our willingness to take three steps.
First, all of the education about spay and neuter has gone on long enough. Pets are
being born by the tens of millions in backyards across the country by people who
cannot or will not, for a variety of reasons, spay or neuter their companion animals.
As controversial as it sounds, as radical as it seems, the first step is to get off
the education bandwagon and legislate. Legislate mandatory spay or neuter for backyard
companion animals. Exceptions of course would be legitimate AKC breeders and show
Second, animal welfare organizations need to stop focusing so much on saving animals
and start helping people who own pets. For every companion animal there is a companion
-- a person. People get into situations with pets and need assistance. Often, the
resources are so limited that the owners don't know where to turn, and so they surrender
or even abandon pets. In Eugene, Oregon, at the Greenhill Humane Society, we developed
three new programs. First, the Domestic Violence Assistance Program provides free
housing for animals belonging to victims of domestic violence. Second, the Senior
Pet Assistance Program provides transport of pets to and from the vet, and in some
cases free veterinary care, for pets belonging to seniors. And finally the HALO Program,
or Homeless Animals Living Outside, provides veterinary services such as vaccinations
and health maintenance for pets belonging to homeless people. All three of these
programs have one thing in common: They are all aimed at helping people who just
happen to have pets. The idea is if you help the person, you help the animals. Helping
people build a lasting relationship with their animals is a win-win situation for
all parties involved, human and animal, and ultimately translates into less owner
surrender and less euthanasia.
Finally, we have to be ready and willing as a society to change our attitude toward
companion animal ownership. We need to be willing to make a long-term commitment
when we acquire a pet. This means taking the time to go to obedience classes. To
read up on puppy habits and behavior. To go to the vet on a regular basis. To puppy-proof
the yard or house when we bring home a new pet. I know, you're saying, "Hey,
I'm already a good pet owner," and I'm sure you are. None the less, there are
several million people each year who drop off unwanted litters and pets that they
can't cope with and they have to be coming from somewhere. The one place they are
not coming from is the animal shelter. How ironic then that we would demand less
euthanasia from shelters. It would be more fitting to demand less euthanasia from
ourselves and do whatever possible to aid our local shelters in fulfilling their
mandate as stewards of society's disposable animals.