Thursday, June 18, 2009

Missing the Point, or: Blaming the BandAid

I've been reading a lot of interesting blogs and articles lately about "No-Kill" and lowering euthanasia rates in shelters. I admit, I've resented "no-kill" for may years, mainly because of the hypocrisy. Most "no-kill" shelters abuse that word- they love the hype and attention it brings to their facilities, when in reality, they actually kill, or euthanize, whatever word you want to use, animals and find tricky ways to hide it. Years ago, I read this statement and felt it articulated a very reasonable statement from a limited-intake facility. It reads, in part: "There are few organizations with the money and facilities to keep an animal that is ill or unsafe around people. In fact, keeping such animals while thousands of healthy, adoptable animals are killed because there is no place to keep them could be considered an unconscionable decision." The East Bay SPCA is a limited intake facility that does not euthanize adoptable animals, and does not euthanize for space or time. Of course, every agency has a different definition of "adoptability" and I have mixed feelings about keeping an animal in a shelter indefinitely. Actually, I'm not sure my feelings are that mixed: I feel pretty strongly that in most cases shelters as "sanctuary" are pretty uncool lives for a dog- a social, pack-oriented animal- and I'd have to be convinced that a cat was having his/her needs met in a pretty spectacular setting to believe that that was a life, not warehousing.

The Asilomar Accords laid out some definitions of adoptability in 2004 that can be used fairly broadly, and applied fairly specifically at an individual shelter. Unadoptable animals at most shelters are generally euthanized. You can read the statistics at the participating animal shelter on the Asilomar website. Even the much-touted no-kill SFSPCA euthanized 100 animals in 2008. Obviously, this is a very small number, but it proves the East Bay SPCA's point that there is no "no-kill."

One of the very vocal and influential proponents of no-kill, Nathan Winograd, was the director of the SFSPCA at one point. He believes "we can look forward to a time when the wholesale slaughter of animals in shelters is viewed as a cruel aberration of the past." I think this is a noble goal with piss poor wording. I was recently referred to a pamphlet from the Nevada Humane Society about how they achieved a 92% save rate for dogs and a 78% save rate for cats. This is an awesome pamphlet, and I highly recommend all animal welfare professionals read it. It gives specific programs and tips for how to achieve them. It does not, on the other hand, point fingers at animal shelters, their workers, and the inhumane slaughter of innocent animals.

This is where I believe the "no-kill" movement is missing the point.

Every animal shelter, even the "no-kill" strivers like the SFSPCA and the Nevada Humane Society euthanize animals. Some open door shelters euthanize more than others, and some, for a variety reason, have abysmal numbers. These shelters may not have caught up with the times, they may have ridiculously low budgets (the current issue of Animal Sheltering magazine reminds everyone what I've always said- Animal Control departments who live under the police are like the stepchildren of the department, funded at the very bottom of the totem pole), they may be run poorly, they may just live somewhere where disease and lack of education leads to a high number of "unhealthy/untreatable" (to use Asilomar language) animals. There are a million reasons. There are also many shelters in between what many people call "high-kill" and the "no-kill" shelters that the movement wants everyone to strive for.

But none of this addresses the main issue: shelters, from the best to the worst are not creating animals. They are not creating the controversial "overpopulation problem." Dog Politics sums up Nathan Winograd's thoughts: (I'm paraphrasing here) there are enough homes for homeless animals, because everyone is buying pets- from puppy mills and backyard breeders, so there must be homes for shelter animals. So it's the fault of shelters that animals die. Shelters, the shelter workers, acutally, kill animals. They don't euthanize them, they kill them. Slaughter them. There is nothing humane about euthanasia. In fact, if you want to read Winograd's rebuttal to everything I've written and everything I'm about to write, and basically see his (and most of the "no-kill" movement's) disgust for any shelter not on board with "no-kill" you can just go ahead and take his Virtual Shelter Tour. I'll go ahead and reiterate his warning: it's graphic. And I'll go ahead and insert my own eyeroll: it's more graphic than reality. It's all the possibilities of badness in any shelter rolled into one page.

Off of my anti-Winograd rant and back to the point: shelters do NOT create animals. OK, there's a few disreputable rescue groups and shelters that I know of that will allow pregnant dogs and cats to whelp. This is lame, and in my mind, unconscionable. And I do know that some states still do not require spay/neuter prior to adoption. This is ridiculous, and counter productive. And, I appreciate dialogue about how to improve sheltering. Against my better judgement, I give money to the H$US and subscribe to Animal Sheltering, because I like to learn how to improve in my field. I think it's good that people like Nathan Winograd and bloggers like Dogpolitics and KC Dog Blog are out there keeping shelters honest: there *are* shitty shelters out there. We all need to improve. I can take constructive criticism, and there *are* lives at stake. I mean this totally sincerely (it's hard to read tone on the internet) and part of this blog was inspired by a great discussion from KC Dog Blog.

But pointing fingers at animal shelters and the fact that every shelter euthanizes animals (I'm going to focus on shelters that only euthanize unadoptable animals) misses the point: in most cases the shelter did not create the unadoptable animal. (BadRap's recent blog suggests that poor sheltering can lead to deterioration and unadoptability. I agree with this part of the blog- part of why I'm against long-term sheltering.) The shelter is not breeding and placing inappropriately (more on this at a later date). The shelter is taking in animals that are lost, or surrendered, or abused, or abandoned, or who-knows-what-else. They are cleaning up after a problem and doing the best to turn around and make this problem into a solution: companion animals (or redemptions, etc). If I were going to work on making this a "No Kill Nation" I wouldn't start with animal shelters, I would start with where these animals are coming from. (If you've taken Winograd's tour already, you'll see that he thinks this is bullshit.) I really think a community paradigm-shift is in order. This is a big picture problem, and shelters are a BandAid for what really is a problem, yes: an over-population problem. We ARE a nation of pet lovers, like the "no-kill" folks say, but we aren't a nation of educated pet lovers. We haven't all caught on that if we love our companion animals, we need to care for them appropriately. That we can't breed them all at will. That if we feed cats, we have to alter them, and take responsibility for them. That if we own a dog, we must care for it medically and socialize it- because if it ends up in a shelter, it might end up being considered unadoptable.

Some examples: If an animal ends up in a shelter covered head to toe in mange, with a systemic secondary infection, and is deemed unadoptable, euthanized for humane reasons, or is beyond the resources to treat, what is the long term answer? Of course the finger will be pointed at the shelter or the owner, short-term. Why doesn't the shelter have a foster program to care for the animal? Why don't they have the money to buy the ivermectin and help the owner keep the animal, or some other solution? But long term, we need to educate people who are breeding animals with demodex, which is hereditary. We need to educate owners of people who have dogs with mange about providing vet care in the early stages prior to the dog having a more painful and expensive condition which is beyond the capabilities of many people to treat. Accusing the shelter of cruel killing is not the answer. Accusing an individual pet owner of neglect, while possibly accurate, is not going to solve a big picture problem. When someone brings in 3 litters of kittens over the course of one kitten season, and says they're from a neighborhood cat that someone abandoned 6 years ago, and it turns out they've been feeding it since then; is it the shelter's fault if some of the kittens are euthanized because they're unhandleable or because their eyes are sealed shut with URI or herpes? Rather, it seems like we need a cultural shift to educate people that feeding outdoor cats without taking ownership of them and spaying/neutering is not responsible. Feeding=breeding with cats, unless they're spayed and neutered. Would the time being spent harassing shelters for euthanizing kittens be better spent educating feeders of unaltered outdoor cats? This would lower intake numbers, which might (naturally) lower euthanasia numbers.

And who is producing so many of the animals in shelters? There's the cats, and I have a theory about that for another day. But dogs- where do they come from? Responsible breeders make up a tiny portion of the animals we see. There's hobby breeders, back yard breeders, puppy mills, pet stores, etc. In my "no-kill" world, I would be working on these from the root, and from the buyers- hit supply AND demand. It would be great if everyone adopted from shelters, and it would be great if there was no other option. It would be great if everyone reclaimed their lost pets (Winograd has a slightly mean-spirited but generally on-point article about this), and reclaimed them altered. But bottom line, a lot of unaltered pets are being sold and given away. This is NOT the shelters doing.

I sound defensive. I don't feel defensive, I just feel like the emphasis on "no-kill" is focusing on such a small part of a big problem. Maybe it should be called the "shelter-improvement" program or something. Then the "no-kill" movement could focus on what's really going on: a system that requires animal sheltering in the first place.


EmilyS said...

The main problem with "no kill" is with the term itself.

NO ONE, including Winograd, thinks "no kill " means "no animals get dead". He himself thinks about 95% save rate is the best that will ever be achieved because some dogs are indeed too sick or too dangerous.

So yes, it's a deceptive and divisive term.

But the goal of "killing no adoptable animals" (and defining "adoptable" in the most broad way) is very laudable.

Valerie said...

bravo, macinator, for addressing this touchy subject with focus and clarity.

mandolinquent said...

As someone who also works in sheltering, could I just say a very hearty "well said, macinator!" to you. Great post, great blog!