Responsible Rescue Part 2: "Kill Shelter"
What is a “kill shelter”?
The term “kill shelter” is generally used to mean a shelter that euthanizes animals. Nearly every publicly funded shelter that is “open intake” (meaning that the shelter must accept all animals brought in, regardless of breed, medical condition, behavior, number of animals already in the system) is technically a “kill shelter.” That is, a shelter that must euthanize for space. And that is because of the simple math of available space and supply of animals. If there are too many animals for the space (physical space but also availability of supplies including food and medical care, staff to take care of them, etc.) then some of the animals have to be euthanized. At the very heart of it is an issue of supply and demand. There is too much supply of animals. There is not enough demand for these animals.
People have a big problem with the euthanasia of companion animals. It is absolutely heartbreaking to know how many companion animals are euthanized in this country every year. Estimates range from hundreds of thousands to millions of just dogs every year. Cats and dogs are the majority of what we think of, but it also applies to rabbits, small rodents, etc. It is an absolute tragedy that this occurs. There is no one who will disagree with that.
The problem comes when people blame the “kill shelters” themselves for the euthanasia of the animals. No one is saying that these shelters are perfect. Often they are government run, poorly funded, poorly staffed, outdated, poorly ventilated, and can even sometimes be irresponsibly managed. Most public shelters are far from perfect. But the real problem comes when people begin to villainize the shelter and the shelter workers for the necessary euthanasia of animals, because they are not responsible for the current situation.
These people are showing up every day for minimal pay to do their best to make these animals’ lives better while they can. And when they have to euthanize an animal, it breaks them. That’s what they’ve been working to prevent. But time and again they have to do it, and then they have to show up and care for more animals, not knowing what will happen to them, if they will make it out either. Being a volunteer who shows up at a “kill shelter” for a few hours a month is heartbreaking. I can’t even imagine dedicating myself to doing it full time.
But the internet is not a place of nuance. People see “at-risk” lists and begin to shout from behind their keyboards. They call the shelter staff murderers. They call for the volunteers to take action and take the dogs home to save them. They call for rescues to pull all the sweet innocent misunderstood babies (these are often pit bull type dogs with bad behavior notes or even bite histories). What they don’t understand is there is simply not the ability to do so. There is just nowhere for them to go. And what happens is that rescues pull dogs from the at-risk list to “save” them. But when there are not enough foster or adoptive homes (and it is a fact that there are not), these dogs end up in limbo. In the purgatory of warehouse boarding, often for years at a time. We’ll talk more about that later in this series.
Here are the factors we can truly blame for animals being euthanized in shelters:
Lack of spay and neuter
There are too many companion animals in this country (and the world in general). There are not enough homes for them. If you are not a responsible breeder (we’ll get to this in a subsequent blog post), get your dog fixed. Accidents happen. Dogs get out, dogs breed. Even one accidental litter is too many because it’s a mistake that could have been avoided. Get your dog fixed.
Again, we’ll talk about what a responsible breeder is. But to sum it up, anyone who breeds a dog should be responsible for that dog and all produced offspring for the rest of their lives. If you are not required to sign a contract with a breeder that you will return that dog to that breeder no matter what happens, and that the breeder will continue to care for it, then that is not responsible. You are responsible for the lives you choose to bring into the world. Shelters are full of irresponsible breeders’ dogs. And that doesn’t just mean puppy mills. Anyone with an accidental litter (see point #1) who doesn’t follow up with where the offspring end up is an irresponsible breeder.
Lack of understanding around dog behavior and training
People have unrealistic expectations about dog behavior and don’t want to put in the work around training. Some would, but don’t even know where to begin. One of the most common reasons dogs end up in shelters is behavior. Often surrenders occur when the cute puppy grows up and becomes a large, unruly teenager. Many shelters implement free training programs and support to help avoid surrender. But in general if you’re not willing to put in the physical and sometimes monetary investment of training, you shouldn’t get a dog.
Lack of access to affordable vet care
We’ve all been there. Vet care is expensive. Pet insurance is becoming more popular, but it’s not doable for everyone. Many shelters have programs in place to offer discounted medical care, but it’s simply not always achievable. Often people are doing the best they can, and are giving the dog a great home most of the time, but in a medical emergency need help. Donations to programs that offer discounted spay and neuter or offer grants to pets in need can help keep some of these dogs out of the shelter system.
Breed specific legislation and policies
This is a reason that dogs enter shelters and a reason dogs never leave. Public perception toward pit bulls is changing, but not fast enough, and laws are lagging behind. There is still a ton of BSL in place in local governments, and it’s totally legal to discriminate and ban dogs based on appearance alone in housing. For example, one of the “highest kill” shelters in the country is Miami Dade. There is a huge “pit bull” population in the shelter. But the city of Miami has a breed ban. That means that no one in the Miami Dade county can adopt a pit bull type dog from the local shelter. Dogs have to be adopted by someone outside the county, transported outside the country, or euthanized. Until BSL and breed specific discrimination of any kind is prohibited under the law, this will continue to be a huge cause of surrenders and the subsequent euthanasia of pit bull type dogs in shelters.
Not enough adopters
This is the largest limiting factor in getting dogs OUT of the shelters once they’re in. There are not enough homes. There are not enough foster homes, and there are not enough adoptive homes. Until public perception about breed and rescue changes, this will continue to be the #1 impediment to getting dogs out and the #1 reason for euthanasia of shelter dogs.
So what should we say instead?
In general, the use of the term “kill shelter” is problematic. It gives the impression that there is any choice in the matter. I learned a few years ago that a better term is “open intake,” which highlights the fact that these shelters take in every single dog (and other animal) that comes their way. These are the shelters that urgently need volunteers and advocates, and the ones most likely to be maligned because they’re not “no kill.” The next post in this series will explain that term, and why the way it’s misunderstood has become dangerous in the animal welfare space.