One of the most common questions I’m asked, both by people coming in to drop off animals and by friends of mine who ask about my job, is whether the shelter where I work is a “no-kill” shelter. When I reply that we’re not, nearly everyone seems surprised and disappointed. For some reason, people who know me seem to assume that, as the consummate animal lover, I’d never work in a facility that wasn’t “no-kill.” As for the public when they come in to bring me animals, it’s easy to see why they dislike hearing that I can’t guarantee that their beloved family pet or the stray they just found won’t humanely be put to death if we determine that this is the best course of action. The bottom line is that nobody likes euthanasia, and least of all those of us who deal with it on a daily basis. However, there is something to be said for those of us who recognize it as a necessary evil and aren’t hiding behind euphemisms to appease the public about what we have to do.
I disagree with the idea of “no-kill” shelters for two reasons. They either imply that euthanasia is never a correct choice, vilifying it in the public eye, or they do employ euthanasia—for the same stated reasons as the open admissions shelter where I work—and use the term falsely to make them look better and bring in more donor dollars.
First, there are the shelters and sanctuaries who truly are “no-kill” facilities. I only know of one organization in my area that actually refuses to utilize euthanasia, even in extreme cases, and I cannot tell you how much this mode of operation disgusts me. Having worked in many different facets of veterinary medicine over the last eleven years, I have seen just about every kind of suffering an animal can endure, and I have never seen a case where I disagreed with the veterinarian that euthanasia was the most humane option. I’ve spoken to a veterinarian who was employed by the organization in question, which allows its animals to languish with injuries and terminal illnesses, refusing to end animals’ pain because they can’t bring themselves to make that call. In my mind, that’s blatant cowardice. No creature should suffer misery and pain because their guardian doesn’t have the guts to decide to end it for them.
Then, more commonly, you get shelters who are “no-kill” in name only, still employing euthanasia for animals they deem unadoptable for health or behavior issues. They also utilize a practice known in the industry as “cherry-picking,” meaning they select on intake only those animals they believe will end up being healthy, behaviorally-sound pets. The leftover animals who don’t fit their standards are then most often shuffled to the nearest municipal shelter, where they have an even smaller chance at getting adopted due to overpopulation, low resources, and an already monstrous euthanasia rate. Obviously, the easiest way to decrease your euthanasia numbers is to take on only those animals you think you’ll have a pretty foolproof chance of adopting. But is that the right course of action to take when there are animals in the community who still need to be cared for, regardless of how sick or injured or aggressive they are?
The shelter where I work is an open-admissions shelter. If an animal walks through our door, we take it. Even if it’s attacking the person dropping it off right on our doorstep, or half-dead from injury when it’s carried into the building, we will accept it and do what we need to do for the animal. Because of this policy, we do sometimes run into times when space is tight, but we do everything in our power to try to make it so that few healthy, adoptable animals have to be put to sleep. Most of our adoptable dogs and cats have “roommates,” allowing us to free up more cages for incoming animals. We will set up temporary kennels on the floor to house animals until cage space is freed up. We frequently reach out to fosters for animals who may need time before they are adoptable and ask rescue organizations to take some of our cats and dogs into their systems, allowing us to take on more. And we run periodic promotions on our adoptable animals to try to get them into homes as quickly as we can.
We base our euthanasia decisions on an animal’s health, temperament, and overall adoptability to ensure that the animals we can save have the opportunities to find their forever homes, and it is never a decision that is taken lightly.
Of course, most of the animals who are euthanized for behavior problems—even the ones in so-called “no-kill” facilities—are animals who, in the right situation, probably could be worked with. I have seen miraculous turnarounds in animals’ behavior. Take, for instance, the dogs who were confiscated from Michael Vick’s property in Virginia four years ago. Here was a group of dogs that was, without a doubt, trained to engage in fights to the death. Out of fifty dogs, all but a handful were able to be adopted out. Most of the rest are still undergoing rehabilitation, in the hope that they will someday be able to go into a home and live the rest of their lives like normal dogs. Only three were deemed unable to be rehabilitated, and of the forty-seven dogs that were sent to be worked with, only one had to be euthanized. It was a flagship case for giving fighting pits a second chance, even motivating the Humane Society of the United States to change its official stance on the adoptability of these animals.
Unfortunately, though, most shelters and other organizations simply do not have the resources to undergo this kind of rehabilitation with every animal they have who is unadoptable for behavior issues, and the same can be said for animals with injuries or illnesses that require long-term and expensive medical care. Our shelter operates mainly on private donations, and we have to be very careful about where we spend that money in order to provide as many animals as we can with compassionate care and the best opportunity we can to get them adopted. This means we face difficult decisions about who we can work with and who we can’t, based on what is available to us and what we can afford.
In the end, the fault lies not at the feet of the people who utilize and perform shelter euthanasia on animals who would, in an ideal world, have a better chance. The fault lies with the people who neglect to spay and neuter their animals, who choose a purebred from a breeder over a lovable mutt in a shelter, and who mistreat and abandon the pets they made a commitment to when they took them on. We are simply the ones left to clean up the mess, and euthanasia remains an unfortunate necessity in that process.
"No-kill" facilities, by name and by action, seek to make the choice to euthanize look reprehensible in the public eye, and by doing so they do the rest of the shelter community a disservice.
There’s this phrase people like to use with those of us who work in animal welfare:
"You can’t save them all."
It comes from a place of kindness. People say it in an effort to acknowledge that we do our best, but that sometimes things don’t work out and not every animal gets a chance. What they don’t realize is that every person who works in this field hates that phrase.
We’re not fools. We know that there are animals in the world who won’t make it: cats and dogs in our shelters who won’t get a storybook ending, livestock bred for the sole purpose of dying, and entire species going extinct because of human selfishness and greed. It would be impossible for us to prevent the suffering and death of every single animal on the planet, a fact of which we are all keenly aware. Those around us, the people who care about us, fear that we stretch ourselves to thin and spend too much of our emotional energy fighting a losing battle as we struggle to make the world a better place for those who don’t have a voice to speak for themselves. And in some cases, they are right.
But we don’t let the daunting odds deter us from doing everything we can to work hard for the ones we touch who have even a glimmer of a chance. We don’t do it because it’s easy—we do it because we can’t stand by and watch while animals suffer. We volunteered for this task knowing full well what it entailed. We knew that there would be days where it seemed hopeless, like we were fighting an uphill battle and never gaining any ground no matter how hard we dug our heels in. We knew there would be tears and anger and that it would make us jaded toward our fellow men.
The flip side, though, which few people can really understand, is that we witness so many triumphs. Every single dog or cat that gets adopted to a new family is a victory. Every law passed to secure better living conditions for domestic animals matters. And every person who stands between a wild animal and a poacher’s gun is a hero. Those animals and their stories are what keep us going. They give us hope and validate all of our hard work, and they speak volumes above what everyone else tries to say about what we should and shouldn’t be “wasting” our energy on.
You can tell us we “can’t save them all” until you’re blue in the face. It won’t stop us from trying.