No-Kill Is No Kill?

by Mary Haight on June 6, 2011

No-kill has a lot of fans, but some  people are still not sure of what they are looking at.  They have a problem with the words “no-kill”, think it’s misleading and are not fans of Nathan Winograd, the unofficial, unelected spokesperson for the no-kill movement.  Well, even people in the movement can have issues with some of Winograd’s positions, so that a controversial figure creates some controversey is not so surprising.  What did surprise was a post  that seemed to be dismissing no-kill as some kind of fraud which opinion was based in part on a visit to a local, apparently poorly-managed no-kill shelter.  The post asked if no-kill was even humane.

I think the “Humane Society” disease was just passed on to “No-Kill”.   All shelters are different  from each other according to policies, politics, and personnel – humane societies and no-kills are not monolithic organizations. They don’t think, act, talk,  and  operate the same way.  Because of this, people will have a broad range of experience visiting no-kill shelters, not all of them good.

Well-meaning but inexperienced new rescues and shelters are often not financially, emotionally or otherwise prepared for the job.  Sure, it looks easy.  But when a rescue doesn’t know the depths of what they don’t know, or how to properly care for animals or clean and disinfect to prevent disease transmission, an outbreak can lead to tragedy. Unexpected medical expenses and sick animals can break the financial back of an organization. Established but declining shelters are also subject to these financial risks. These rescues or shelters can become the bad example pointed to as representative of all no-kills.  Bad examples can lead to questions about no-kill such as those posed on Julie Nutter’s blog:

  1. Is there a rationale for intake, who decides, are pets turned away
  2. What about aggressive or fearful dogs that will never be adopted out
  3. How often does no-kill lead to animal hoarding
  4. What is the quality of life at an average no-kill shelter
  5. Is the only difference that the surplus is not killed

Let me give me this a try. 

  1. Every shelter sets its own rules, as with any business, so there’s no one answer. Pets are always turned away (at no-kill shelters) although not without guidance and referrals. No kills are supposed to problem solve if  it’s a behavior problem, suggesting a few appropriate trainers if the family does not really want to give up the pet but has been unable to solve a problem. No-kill shelters are not typically large facilities. Everyone runs out of space. It’s about timing,  budget, and space.
  2. Some non-rehabitable dogs need a Sanctuary, many of which no longer take vicious dogs. That means those dogs are killed – not warehoused and institutionalized  in the misguided notion that life at any cost is a better idea. No-Kill is not a religion. Where this gets sticky is who is judging the rehabitability of say, fighting dogs. Experts must be used to assess the dogs. Fearful dogs that are not unpredictable biters can be transferred to other no-kills prepared to work with such dogs, or kept,  fostered and worked with. This depends, again, on the organization.
  3. No-kill does not lead to hoarding. Hoarding is psychological problem, not an organizational structure problem.
  4. There is no average no-kill shelter, as there is no average traditional shelter.  Everything depends on people and funding. No-kill is meant to provide a better quality of life, with socialization, walks, training where needed and possible, and playtime, grooming, bathing with volunteers.
  5. Quality of life should be evident in a no-kill facility. Dogs are not killed for space, organizations go out to where the people are to get more adoptions accomplished. Working with the public to keep pets in the home is another target that has not traditionally been a focus of shelters. Here is a post I wrote last year on going no-kill, do we have what it takes.  It has an excellent video at the end that makes shelter’s strategies more rigorous.  Some Animal Care and Control shelters in recent years have  seen significant changes in operations with various “friends” groups popping up to help the dogs  and cats get out of their cages and adopted.  Would these changes have  occurred without the public awareness that no-kill has brought? Change and vacuums….

Some groups who claim to be no-kill are not, some who are suffer from bad management. When is a no-kill, not a no-kill?  If they have no lifetime safety net for the animals they adopt – that’s a problem. How can those organizations claim to be no-kill?  Do they take returns? No?  That means the animal can end up at a high kill facility as a “give up.” Any  no-kill shelter or rescue worthy of the name has a safety net and will take the dog or cat back, no questions asked.  If a rescue has no adoption paperwork beyond a health certificate, it is doubtful they are a rescue at all – they may well be middle-men selling dogs to anyone who will pay.

There are poor leaders in the animal sheltering world, overpaid incompetents, bad actors, lousy employees who abuse animals, narcissists who believe  they are St Francis of Assisi’s second coming.  Shelters are no different in that way than any other business – at its core, that’s the problem – and it’s also part of the solution. Personnel, policy and politics can revolve around saving animals.

There are many good shelters around who work each day to get more animals into suitable homes..  They smell and look clean, the animals come to the front of their enclosures, cages or yards to greet you, the employees are informative and helpful, they don’t look at you like you are the enemy when you say you’d like to adopt a pet. Dogs are being walked, socialized, volunteers are checking in, you can tell the people care about the animals.

No-Kill has had a completely different mindset in the care and adoption of homeless pets. No-kill shelters have long recognized quality of life was absent in the traditional shelter, there were no enhancements, no one was allowed toys or bones to chew or scratching posts. Things in the traditional shelter world have changed – not widely, but change has begun.

Much depends on the people behind the organization, doesn’t it? Integrity, ethics, compassion, follow- through, organization, community presence, community support, good relations with other shelters that foster cooperation – these  characteristics do not belong only to one group or another. This is one of those areas where we actually *are* all in this together.  Are we going to make this about the animals, or are we going to make this about politics? Without cooperation, more animals die; with it more animals live.

Change is an uphill battle that happens over time. The more successes we see using a no-kill model, the faster that change can happen. The No-Kill movement has been the little group that could.  No-Kill is not so little anymore.  With the  general public’s support, the no-kill movement has managed to reshape the thinking of many larger organizations. Water running over stone changes the stone over time.. No-kill will keep pushing for change.  Proof that this movement has had a hand in changing things for animals for the better at traditional shelters is in the Shelter Guidelines laid out last year by a respected panel of 14 Shelter Veterinarians. It could have been written by any no-kill advocate.  You can hear about it on a podcast interview Eric Goebelbecker had with me at the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants site.  Now guidelines need to be implemented.

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