What do you envision when you hear the words “animal shelter” “pound” or “humane society?” I picture a place where animals end up who are no longer wanted, needed or useful, or, in some cases, lost or had the nerve to be infected with an illness the owner can’t afford to treat. Some of these places, like the pound, are not as nice as others. Some are better, and some even call themselves “no-kill.” Is there such a thing as a no-kill shelter? Or is it all just a fairy tale, like that all-purpose “farm” upstate where every little kids’ pet ended up?
Most county facilities are underfunded, understaffed and fall somewhere near the bottom of the list of bureaucratic priorities. Naturally, the police and fire department, education, government salaries, solid waste management and a stable infrastructure are far more important than a few mangy mutts down on their luck, so county facilities don’t often have enough money to do the job. The facility itself may be old and tired and in need of costly repairs. The vehicles are held together on a wing and a prayer (and some duct tape) and the staff, well, the staff are good people who don’t get nearly enough credit. Many employees of the county “pound” started out as passionate animal lovers who wanted to make a difference but somewhere along the way gave up that dream and detachedly report to work. Not all, but some. And who can blame them? The pound euthanizes hundreds of healthy animals who never had a shot at life. That’s gotta wear on even the most hardened person. Their mission isn’t even to save animals; it’s public safety. Keeping the public safe from dangerous, roaming animals. Hey, if they save a few animal lives in the process, all the better.
Non-profit animal rescue shelters sometimes fare a little better. They have a well-maintained building housing a few kennels and crates and doing the best they can with what little donations come in. They’re staffed by enthusiastic and hard-working volunteers and employees and everyone agrees the shelter is doing God’s work, keeping animals off the street and out of harm’s way. Their priority is not keeping the public safe from animals, but keeping animals safe from the public. They have to put back together the broken bodies of small animals who had the misfortune of crossing paths with one of Lucifer’s agents. One by one they are brought in, victims of human cruelty, neglect or abject apathy. There are thousands of these shelters, all competing for public donations. It’s important that each shelter promotes itself as the best one, the one doing the most work, the best job, and doing it all on just pennies a day. Competition for that almighty donation dollar is keen, and shelters need to find ways to rise above the din of cries for more and more money. They need to disengage with the others. “We’re not like those shelters,” they proclaim, “We’re better!” But how do you make the people believe you are a better shelter than the one down the street? What can you do differently?
You add the words “NO-KILL” to your name. It’s common sense. If Animal Shelter A takes in dogs and cats and does a great job but from time to time must euthanize for space and Animal Shelter B does just as good a job and doesn’t euthanize for space, nine out of ten people will chose to donate to the shelter that claims it’s a no-kill shelter. And that makes sense.
But is it magical thinking?
Here’s where the water muddies just a little. A shelter only has so many cages, say, 30. And when all 30 of those cages, kennels, runs, whatever you want to call them, once they are full, they will stay full until an animal gets adopted, creating an open kennel. If no animals get adopted, no kennels open up. Shelter A can no longer respond to the community’s needs for a safe place to take a stray dog or cat. Does the public stop giving money because the shelter can no longer help the community? Nope, they take the animal to the shelter down the street, the one that doesn’t proclaim itself no-kill and then continue to donate to the no-kill. What’s wrong with this picture?
When one shelter calls itself a no-kill, it’s ruining the other shelter’s chances of survival because they know this marketing ploy works to get public donations directed away from the other shelters and directed towards them. Can a shelter truly be a no-kill?
Here are the choices: It’s truly a no-kill and never kills any animal. They don’t kill the cranky old pit mix that was abused and now hates men, they don’t kill the three-legged cat who will require three more surgeries until he may be ready for adoption and they don’t kill that really ugly, looks-like-a-fruit-bat-crossed-with-a-Cocker spaniel dog who has heartworms and needs to be cured before he can go out on the adoption floor. They certainly don’t kill the pretty dogs and cats who may or may not ever find a home. This results in more animals being turned away at the door, or worse, simply abandoned. It results in some dogs and cats languishing in cages for months, even years, before they finally get cage rage, go insane or become so depressed that euthanasia is the merciful thing to do.
The second choice is a low-kill shelter. These shelters are the ones who euthanize non-adoptable animals: the old, the sick, the grouchy. They euthanize these animals so that when an animal that may have a chance will have a place to go and will probably get adopted. Truly, which shelter is helping the greatest number of animals?
Those no-kill shelters rarely are de facto no-kill. They may not euthanize animals on the premises, but they can and do send them to the county facility where there is unlimited access and always room. There, the animals can take their chances. Since more people visit the county facility, maybe the animals will find love there. If not, they will die a merciful and peaceful death. A no-kill shelter with a small adoption rate is really no different than a hoarder. They are holding animals with the hope they may be adopted, but is there a cost to these animals who have to live in a cage? Are the few extra dollars the words “no kill” win these shelters worth an animal who is lonely, caged and forgotten? Is it really fair that the county “pound” gets the rap for “killing all those animals” when the whole story is not being told?
I commend those people who work in those tough jobs as animal control officers. They see things that would cause most of us to tip over a bottle of Bacardi and crawl in. They do their jobs, knowing they are despised by gentle, decent people and they do it with professionalism. It reminds me of Jack Nicholson’s line in A Few Good Men – “You can’t handle the truth!” They do their jobs because most of us truly couldn’t handle the truth about what goes on out there in the world. We only hear about the truly horrific animal cruelty cases, but for each one you hear about, there are hundreds you don’t. I once worked as an animal cruelty officer and I’m not to proud to admit I sure couldn’t handle the truth most days.
I’ve worked at shelters my whole life. I have had times of great sorrow when I thought I could never face another day going into work and seeing those same sad faces months and months on end. I’d have panic attacks when I had to tell someone we couldn’t take their 11 year old dog because we didn’t have room and we won’t have room tomorrow and I’m sorry you’ve been deployed but I can’t help you. Did the dog make it or did the guy simply drop him off in a woods somewhere and drive away?
A sagacious and kind veterinarian once told me “Hey, we put animals to sleep all the time for surgery and for dental procedures. The difference is, they just don’t wake up. The animal dies peacefully in his sleep. Isn’t that what we all want for ourselves? To die peacefully in our sleep and never know?
And when you look at it that way, I can see there is a fate worse than death and it can sometimes be found at a no-kill shelter.
Image credit: Tobias Akerboom (at hutmeelz)