No-kill shelters spotlighted on national stage

SFSPCA shows it can be done


In the midst of agony over euthanasia of adoptable pets comes the national debate between no-kill shelters and so-called “kill” shelters. The success of the San Francisco SPCA’s no-kill program and the establishment of the Duffield Family Foundation project to extend that success to a “No-kill Nation” bring the discussion to the front burner. Unfortunately, people have taken sides based more on political perspectives than on whether such a goal is feasible or even possible.

There are basically two schools of thought about shelter euthanasia: people tend to believe either that society is to blame for the deaths and therefore society must be punished with restrictive laws or they believe in education, compromise, and reason to bring about the desired goal. One perspective makes enemies of people, the other brings out the best.

When the San Francisco SPCA dropped its contract as the city’s animal control agency and began its quest to save all adoptable cats an dogs in the city, it was criticized by some other California shelters that questioned its definition of “adoptable” and complained that no-kill facilities merely shift the burden of killing to other shelters. But the SPCA turned a deaf ear to the censure and plowed on. It soon became obvious that only the very old, very ill, severely injured, or aggressive dogs were to be euthanized at the SPCA and that no animals would die for lack of space or because they had treatable diseases or behavior problems.

No-kill shelters

Most nonprofit no-kill shelters are privately run. They are not associated with any government, operate on donations and fund-raising projects, work closely with rescue organizations, and try a variety of innovative programs to reduce the numbers of stray animals in the community. They often spay or neuter every animal that leaves the premises, check for heartworm, treat dogs with minor illnesses or injuries, organize feral cat care colonies, conduct obedience training classes or work out training agreements with private instructors or membership clubs, and offer pet care education programs to schools. Some no-kill shelters work with service dog organizations to provide dogs for training as helpers for handicapped owners. Many offer spay-and-neuter assistance and vaccination clinics for low-income and indigent pet owners.

Volunteers often flock to private shelters because people are more likely to work with a dog if they know the end result is a chance at a good life, not euthanasia.

No-kill shelters do euthanize some dogs – old, chronically ill, severely injured, and aggressive dogs that cannot safely be put in new homes do die to make room for more adoptable animals. They also keep waiting lists so that needy animals can get in as soon as space is available and prospective dog owners can be referred to those who have a dog of a specific breed or type to give up.

Public shelters

Most states have laws regarding the incarceration of stray dogs, vicious dogs, and dogs that are impounded pending outcome of court cases. In many areas, these laws are carried out through contracts with private, nonprofit humane societies; since the contracts require that stray dogs be picked up and held for a minimum number of days, these societies are placed in the untenable position of killing some dogs to make room for others. Thus many healthy, adoptable dogs are euthanized.

Many of these societies also accept dogs and cats surrendered by their owners. These animals are also likely to be euthanized to make room for others if they are not adopted quickly.

Some public shelters are run by city or county governments. They are generally supported by tax dollars and dog licenses and their programs are limited by government budget allotments.

Since space is a problem in public shelters, the dividing line between adoptable dogs and unadoptable dogs is easy to cross. A dog that rebels at a dose of intranasal kennel cough vaccine, one that develops kennel cough or has ear mites, one that comes into heat, cowers in the corner, or growls at the kennel attendant is likely to be euthanized to make way for the next truckload of strays or group of owner-surrendered pets.

Public shelters also offer many of the same programs and services as private shelters. They work with rescue groups, offer some type of sterilization service, vaccinate adoptable animals, check for heartworm, and microchip outgoing dogs and cats. Some even provide counseling services for adopters and obedience classes for adoptees.

All shelters – public and private – need volunteers and funds if they are to reduce euthanasia of adoptable dogs.

Carrots or sticks?

The opposing shelter philosophies often boil down not to a kill vs no-kill modus operandi, but to a competition between those who would drive people to responsibility and those who would bribe people to do the right thing. Despite the fact that euthanasia of dogs has declined dramatically in the past dozen years through voluntary efforts, the former group often blames breeders for producing too many puppies and proposes breeding restrictions and mandatory sterilization of pets to end the killing in shelters. The latter group foregoes legislative solutions in favor of education and services that increase adoptions, help people sterilize their pets, make good pet selections, and keep the pets they own. They, too, promote spay and neuter of pets, but as a voluntary means to reduce unwanted litters, not a matter of law.

Some programs that work

  1. Landlord agreements: Since many dogs are given up when owners move into apartment, shelters can work with apartment managers to establish contracts for pet owners that require the dog to be obedience-trained, house-trained, and quiet. The contracts can require references from a veterinarian and from previous landlords. These agreements can broaden housing opportunities for pet owners, keeping some dogs from surrender to the shelter and allowing more adoptions to apartment-dwellers.
  2. Behavior counselors or obedience instructors: Many dogs are surrendered because the owners are frustrated with behavior problems that may be nothing more than failure to train or lack of understanding of normal dog behavior. An on-staff behavior counselor or obedience instructor or an agreement with a private trainer or obedience club can work to keep these dogs in their homes or get them ready for new homes.
  3. Prison programs: Allowing prisoners to foster and train shelter dogs has benefits for both – the dog learns manners and thus becomes more adoptable and the prisoner gets the opportunity to bond with the dog and learn responsibility.
  4. Puppy transfers: People want puppies, but spay and neuter programs have been so successful in some areas of the country that puppies are in short supply. Some shelters therefore import puppies from areas in which they are plentiful.
  5. Campaigns to promote older dogs: In spite of much evidence to the contrary, people still hold on to the old adage that says “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Nonsense. With a bit of extra care and commitment, older dogs can adapt to new circumstances and bring years of pleasure to families and individuals. Shelters can promote adoptions of older dogs through community campaigns that emphasize the advantages of a house-trained pet with good manners.
  6. Innovative sentencing: Public shelters can champion innovative sentencing for dog owners who violate animal control laws. Instead of fining owners and waiting for the next time Rover gets loose (or is turned loose), they can work with the courts to require that owners attend a responsible dog ownership session or take Rover to obedience school. (In some areas, fines are so high that owners cannot afford to bail out their pet; programs that instill responsibility rather than simply costing money are more likely to result in a reclaimed dog.)
  7. Identification programs: Shelters are in good position to adopt identification programs as means to return dogs to their owners. Insertion of a microchip in every dog that leaves the shelter (adopted or reclaimed) along with an offer to chip all dogs in the community could go a long way towards ending euthanasia of stray dogs.

Dog lovers concerned about euthanasia statistics have an unparalleled opportunity to make a difference by calling a local shelter – public or private – and offering their services to help with fund-raising, cleaning kennels, walking or grooming dogs, training dogs, fostering dogs, helping with education programs, etc. Shelters differ in their needs and programs, but most welcome assistance.

Norma Bennett Woolf

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