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Posted on Jun 3, 2016

Animal Welfare: Solve for X

A curious thing happened in this space last week.

I wrote something and hit ‘publish.’

And one week later, that something has been visited by 95,000 people spread across 131 countries.

Apparently, I struck a nerve. A very, very deep nerve.

The comment section of that post exploded (or imploded, depending on your point of view). I watched, incredulous and excited as passionate discussion took place among the commenters. An open sharing of ideas is exactly what is needed.

But then an unsettling trend surfaced – a disturbing pattern that must be addressed: somewhere along the way, we animal advocates have turned against our own.

If you were to go back and peruse the comments, you would notice that they quickly devolve into a tangential ‘conversation’ between no-kill advocates and those who have been or still are in the trenches of kill shelters.

And a distinct undercurrent of ‘VERSUS’ flows through it all.

Militant idealism versus jaded realism.

The ones who have forgotten the struggle versus the ones who are still struggling.

Prosecution versus defense.

But what it really boils down to is passion versus passion. The passion of one group of people who care about animals versus the passion of another group of people who care about animals. If you were to poll a bunch of four-year-olds and ask them if it makes sense for two groups who care about the exact same thing to be against each other, they would yell ‘no!’ And then probably tell you all about the boo-boo on their knee and how they want to be a veterinarian princess when they grow up. I digress.

The point is, they would recognize that when you share the same purpose, the same end goal, it makes the most sense to work together. Particularly when that goal is to overhaul the state of animal welfare in this country.

Let’s examine some of the areas of contention, shall we:

Limited Admission/Open Admission, Kill/ No-Kill

Kill shelters by default are open admission – they have no control over intake.  However, it does not necessarily follow that open admission shelters are kill shelters – the potential exists for them to achieve no-kill status. However, frequently no-kill shelters are limited admission, meaning they control intake, typically by having a waiting list for admission or requiring appointment and/or surrender fees for someone to relinquish an animal to them. Fervent argument crops up when open admission and limited admission are compared to each other and the question becomes how does one get from point A to point B … and how long should it take. Which leads us to the next area of contention.

The No-Kill Equation

The eleven programs of the No-Kill equation are perfectly admirable as well as logical elements of reform: rescue partnerships, volunteers, foster care, TNR, pet retention, comprehensive adoption program, public relations/community involvement, medical/behavior prevention & rehabilitation, high volume/low-cost spay & neuter, proactive redemptions, and last but not least a ‘hardworking, compassionate shelter director.’ Those all sound fabulous, don’t they? So, what’s the problem – why is there discord among animal advocates about implementing these? Because the expectation of how long it takes to successfully execute all of these programs contrasts wildly between those who are already on the other side of claimed success and those who are still climbing the wall.

So how long does it take?

Well, according to previous commenters, anywhere from one day to one month.


Here’s the truth: incorporating those eleven tenets of no-kill requires a variable that is wholly unpredictable.

Community support.

Speaking from my own experience, I worked at a shelter that was trying mightily to check off all those boxes. They pour energy into building trusting relationships with area rescues. They have established a veritable army of volunteers. They publicize and fully support the lone high-volume/low-cost spay and neuter clinic erected a few short years ago to serve a multi-county area. They implemented a free training program to help pet-owners work through behavioral issues with their animals and also provide spay/neuter vouchers to low-income households. They keep their adoption fees incredibly low ($65 for dogs, $15 for cats … that includes spay/neuter, rabies vax, parvo/distemper vax, bordetella vax, heartworm test, physical exam for dogs and spay/neuter, rabies, FIV test and physical exam for cats). They passionately promote their animals through social media and conduct multiple off-site adoption/outreach events every single week to engage the public. They established a heartworm treatment program that is entirely funded by private donation. They provide an online space for the public to post their missing pets (which is checked daily by staff for any possible matches to intakes). And they have a remarkable shelter director who leads by example – fostering animals, rehabilitating animals who seem otherwise hopeless, engaging the public and cracking down on cases of animal cruelty.

That all sounds amazing, right? Guess what: they are still a kill shelter.

Let me give you an example of why. This shelter decided to start a TNR program – one of the key tenets of no-kill. Feral cats made up a huge fraction of animals being euthanized. The program launched. Would you like to know the response from the public?

‘Why are you releasing them? They should be killed.’

Cue extreme confusion. There was a large percentage of the population who genuinely believed that those cats should be killed. One complaint was because ‘those’ cats walked all over parked cars, leaving dirty little paw-prints.

It takes time to change minds and hearts. Depending on how ingrained the prejudice, it could be considerable time. Without community support, this program has been hindered and will not realize its full potential until the public majority understands its value to the community. In the meantime, feral cats still flood the shelter.

Another example is public attitude toward spay/neuter. We as animal advocates understand that part of being a responsible pet owner is ensuring no unwanted litters result. However, there are numerous people who believe not only that animals should procreate but that it is their right. Here’s a true story: one day, I was finishing up an adoption event off-site and a woman approached me with her child in tow. She asked about one of our female cats and I told her what our adoption fee covered, specifically the included spay. The women looked at me in horror and asked if we could not spay the cat. I told her no, that we ensured all animals we adopted out were spayed or neutered. She grew visibly upset and asked why I would deny a female cat the right to be a mother. At this point, I looked around for a hidden camera … this could not possibly be real.

It was.

I explained to her why we required all animals adopted out to be spayed and neutered and the benefits inherent. My words were somewhat hampered when I had to break off in order to ask her son not to antagonize the cats by beating on their kennels and trying to pull their tails. She left in a state of befuddlement.

Time and time again, I have been confronted by people who felt it was a given right for their (usually male) dogs to remain intact and wander the neighborhood.

‘They’re dogs – that’s what they do.’

No. That’s what YOU allow them to do. And the inevitable result ends up on the shelter’s doorstep.

Okay but really – how long?

For the mathematically minded, consider the equation:

success = X (11 tenets of no-kill)(time)($)

Solve for X.

Here’s a hint: it starts with community and ends with support. Without that, success is stuck in the no-man’s land of imaginary.

As much as I’d love to believe the commenters that state that no-kill can happen overnight, I’m too much of a realist to believe that the attitudes and minds of a very large population would or could immediately change in a short span of time.

Let me be clear: I believe change can and will happen but I am realistic enough to understand that its timeline is not one that I get to have the final say over. The public at large has that power. And for that power to be realized, they must understand their role in necessitating the need for animal shelters in the first place.

Constructive Dialogue vs. Heated Argument

Now that we know X, how do we ensure that the shelter we care so much about receives the community support necessary to success? This is where cooperation among all groups of animal advocates is critical. When shelters take their first steps down the path of improvement, it accomplishes nothing to have someone point out, “You’re not doing enough.”

It also accomplishes nothing to point to the generic tenets of no-kill and emphatically state, ‘Do this.’

Here’s what is helpful: constructive solutions specific to each shelter.

You might be thinking ‘hmmm, that’s hard.’

Yes, it is. But nothing, and I mean nothing, about being involved in animal welfare is easy.

Whether you are in the trenches of the kill shelter now, have already escaped them or avoided them entirely, we need to remember that we are working toward the same goal: a better life for the animals in our care. Let’s not waste time and energy attacking each other when we can instead learn from each other. That requires a listening ear from those who seek guidance and an empathetic voice from those with viable suggestions.

It also requires compassion on all fronts. As kill shelters make strides toward improvement, their workers are still juggling the emotional burden that comes with the territory. As no-kill shelters provide sanctuary for countless animals, their workers still bear the emotional baggage of hoping that animals will find a home quickly rather than languish for years.

We are in this together. We don’t have to like each other. We don’t have to agree on everything.

But we must work together for the sake of the very animals we serve.


If you work at a kill shelter, what are the specific problems you face?

If you have firsthand experience with no-kill success, what specific changes did you make and what was your timeline?



  1. It’s always amazing to me that the people that complain the loudest about animals being euthanized and about the people who are in the trenches everyday trying to save animal lives, are the ones who have created the problems you have so eloquently addressed. They should have to walk in the shoes of those who rescue and work at the shelters to see how heart-wrenching it can be!

  2. I have a very special place in my heart for cats, particularly feral ones. It breaks my heart and makes me extremely angry when people treat them as if they are worthless. Even some of the veterinary clinics I’ve taken my own cat too treat her less than she deserves because she’s semi-feral. I’m constantly reminding people that it’s not their fault they’re homeless and afraid, it’s ours. Phoebe was born at a barn, but her mother had to get there somehow, right? She is one of the biggest reasons I’m in veterinary school right now.

  3. I am the founder of Spay-Neuter-Now in upstate NY.We have a mobile clinic and cover 3 counties, a total size of about the state of Connecticut. We offer affordable s/n for both cats & dogs. I am very upset that so many shelters are saying they are no kill when it is not honestly possible until the overpopulation is brought under control. Unfortunately, too many are using it as a great fund raiser. Unfortunately too many “no kill” shelters point their finger at the shelter that is still euthanizing as being bad, bad. Think for a minute what happens to the animal when the so called no kill turns that animal away?
    The truth is that animal is dumped because the owner wants out! Is this solving the problem? I don’t think so. But there is a solution and that is mandatory s/n. Let us attack this problem in a honest fashion for the animals.

  4. I really admire your articles on shelters. I was an ACO in Olympia, Wa for 20 years.

    I’d just like to point out that not EVERYONE thinks “no kill” IS the ultimate goal.

    Example, feral cats. You’ll never convince me that these ex-domesticated animals are best served by being TNR and dumped back into a life of neglect. Australia is having to plan on killing millions of fetal cats just to save their native wildlife.

    An owner who has lived with an animal should have the right to request that animal be euthanized – without being pressured and harrassed. They may know it is best.

    And last, more is not always better. Shelters, like reputable breeders, owe it to the public to make sure they do not sell unsound (mental) animals to a trusting public. And the fact is, many backyard bred dogs DO have poor temperament. They are not culled, as a reputable breeder would do. When they end up in a shelter or rescue, the staff SHOULD take the responsibility to cull those dogs that need it.

    Focusing on numbers instead of quality of pet makes today’s shelters and rescues no different from pet shops where moving stock is the main goal.

  5. Heather, thank you for the follow up.
    Here is the story of my shelter, explained and shown in a Award winning documentary:

    “Those of us who have seen a shelter turn around quickly and dramatically when shelter leadership with the will to implement the alternatives replaced one who didn’t, we have seen with our own eyes what is possible. In short, we have been to the Promised Land, and have first hand-knowledge, and experience, that those who justify the killing, who insist in the existence of pet overpopulation – are living in Plato’s cave, mistaking shadows for reality. And it is our job to reach those within the humane movement whose hearts and minds are open to celebrating this good news, so that they can become our allies in the fight for the brighter future we know – and has already been proven time and again – to be possible.” — Jennifer Winograd

  6. I’m not involved with any shelter. I live in a county with no shelter, no animal control and only a part time vet. With lots of research and lots of thought and planning, I started an aggressive spay/neuter assistance program. I write grants and we do fundraisers to have money to help low income pet owners afford to have their pets sterilized and we have a low cost spay/neuter clinic bring a transport van into our county. We also educate our public about when and why they should be sterilizing their pets. We have done this for almost 9 years in the poorest county in the state of Tennessee. It is amazing to see the difference. Until animal welfare groups stop spending more money on housing animals than they do on helping provide spay/neuter assistance. I don’t see it it changing. Sterilizing animals after they are in rescue, shelters or animal controls is definitely necessary and should be done; however, there has to be help where unwanted animals start, within the communities. One of my favorite articles used an analogy about what people would do if babies were floating down a river to their death. Most people would jump in and save a few while the rest floated to their deaths. Others would go to the head of the river and find out why they are falling into the river and work to stop it there. Spay/neuter assistance programs are going to the head of the river. We make spaying and neutering affordable and available (transport). It works!

  7. Hi Heather!

    I spent over an hour reading with great interest your writings, particularly having to do with sheltered animals. In addition to our mutual concern for animals, I too am a photographer. As a matter of fact, over a 13 year span, I had one subject only, my pug “Vinny”. I photographed his entire life religiously up until the final two minutes before I had to let him go because of a cancerous tumor.

    It gives me great pleasure to write this note. It was 16 years ago that became aware of the joy of having an animal in my life. A little over ten-years ago I delved head first into the animal shelter situation with a determination to find a way to end the unnecessary killing of healthy pets. I refused to believe that there could be a problem without a solution, particularly when lives were being ended prematurely. I can honestly say I’ve worked tirelessly, every day during that period to come up with the solution that I’m preparing to roll out. The way I attacked the situation was to concentrate on the greatest problem which everyone involved is faces. Correction! That is the second greatest problem because the failure of owners to spay and neuter is the “greatest” problem. I’m in the process of launching CLUB NO-KILL 2027, a fundraiser club exclusively for Shelters and Rescues. Membership is open to all organizations regardless of country as the problem is universal. CLUB NO-KILL is a fund raiser club which utilizes a battery of 21st Century fund raiser models I’ve developed especially for shelters and rescues.

    I’m going to perform beta testing 3 U.S. cities, Los Angeles, Dallas and Chicago plus 3 international countries Philippines, Taiwan and Canada. Soon, 500 to 1,000 shelters and rescues will be involved in a fundraiser together with the goal of raising $1,000,000. There will be no stop date as the fundraiser will continue until the goal is met. 100% of one-million dollars will be divided among the participants. Over the course of a year, I will engage the club members in different fundraisers until the anniversary date comes whereupon another set of shelters and rescues with follow the same pattern.

    I can assure you that you’ll be amazed at what is about to be available to shelters and rescues. Indeed, they should be praised for the incredible and often thankless work they perform.

    Please over look any and all typos as I’ve put in a 12 hour day and it is very late. I would be most appreciative of your viewing CLUB NO-KILL 2027 and share any observations you care to.

    Allen & “Vinny the Pug”

  8. I just read this article after reading the article linked to it. Both beautifully summed up many of my frustrations with animal rescues. Ideology gets in the way.

    A few years ago I decided I should get my children a puppy. Before I go further, I should explain that I am a credentialed animal trainer and educator with 23 years of vet references. At the time I had two dogs and four cats. I contacted 3 organizations and inquired after dogs. The first shelter (a breed specific rescue) engaged me in a wonderful dialogue on why the dog I was interested in was a bad fit for me. I thanked them and moved on (none of the breed sites I visited provided the negatives on the breed and high prey drive has no place on a farm with free range poultry).

    The next two shelters, like the first also offered spayed female dogs of interest. Both declined me. Why? You might ask. Well, the first refused me because my younger son was 3 and they did not adopt out to families with children under five. Regardless of my experience and references, no exceptions. Aparently, I could sue them if my child was hurt by the dog they listed as ‘used to children’ (OK, why list the dog as child friendly?). The second shelter refused me because all dogs in the home had to be spayed. This included the senior rescue dog my vet advised I not risk spaying because, she had poor health. (I was told thier vet would safely perform the sugery, best part: they used my vet, you know, the one who advised against said surgery… Found that out a few years later)

    The experience was very frustrating. I could provide 23 years of vet references saying I never bred dogs and provided reasonable care for all of my animals including proper fencing and supervision to ensure my unspayed female did not get impregnated, since pregnancy would be just as bad as spaying risk wise. In the end I found a family with an unwanted litter of puppies and young children who played with them daily. I took my unspayed, unvetted female puppy home. The next day I took her to the vet for her shots and an exam. Then when the time can I had her spayed. Sadly the whole process cost me less than any of the no-kill shelters ask for their vetted spayed females. In the end I felt that the ideologies of the second two shelters prevented them for finding a dog a life time home for one of thier animals because of ridiculous expectations.

    Oh yes, why did I want a puppy? Simple: my senior dog that I had had since I rescued her from a shelter as a year old pup was suffering from health concerns due to advancing age. I wanted a puppy to train up while the senior dog was still alive to show her how to interact with my children. About a year later, my old girl got to the point when the morning came that she couldn’t stand on her own. My puppy was home for the children the day the old dog took her final trip to the vet. They lay with her on the floor and cryed. I would like to think I saved an unwanted puppy from being denied a home when she was brought to the shelter later unwanted after someone impulse bought the cute fur ball not realizing how high energy a herding dog can be. In the end being ‘resonsible’ and getting a shelter pet was denied me and would have cost me more. What did I learn from this? I am too polite to say.

  9. I supervise a small municiple animal shelter and have been in the ‘animal sheltering’ field for almost 20 years now in one way or another. Let me just say, I abhor the terms no-kill and kill to describe animal shelters. Honesty, the stigmas attached to animal shelters is half the problem and those terms just add to the misinformation. People tend to avoid animal shelters, adopters included, because they have this image of depressed, diseased, emotionally unstable animals who are inevitably going to be killed tomorrow. I mean, who can blame them for going to a parking lot to adopt that cute, happy, little fluff ball puppy? Just a pet peeve of mine, but I digress.

    The shelters in my area (DFW Metroplex in Texas), bust their humps every single day to do everything they can to avoid euthanizing animals due to lack of space. Some are better at it than others, but they are all doing the best they can with the resources provided. I cannot agree with you more about the success of the shelter depending on community support. Without it, you are just spinning your wheels.

    The shelter I supervise has changed immensely since I started in August 2015. Prior to my starting, almost 60% of the cats taken into the shelter were euthanized, but almost 55% of the dogs impounded were returned to their owners! Now, less than 10% of the cats who enter are shelter are euthanized and less than 5% of dogs are euthanized. This has been an ongoing process and definitely a team effort, with the community being a huge part of that team. We have a excellent shelter team who have made it their mission to develop relationships not only with placement partners and community cat advocates, but most importantly with our citizens and fellow city departments.

    We have had a lot of success and never have to euthanize animals due to lack of space anymore, but it is a constant battle. Let me be clear, while technically, our ‘live release rate’ qualifies us as a “no-kill” (again, I HATE that term), we will not place animals up for adoption who we feel are either too aggressive, too reactive, or too unpredictable. We will euthanize those animals. We are vigilant about educating out citizenry about the benefits of TNVR and have an incredible, all volunteer group who works tirelessly to help those who want to try TNVR. We work very closely with other shelters and placement partners to place animals, and even transfer animals between local shelters because sometimes, a change if scenery is all an animal needs to find a good home. We have an active foster and borrow a buddy program. We are also very proactive in searching for owners of stray animals and use our social media and web site to promote our shelter critters. Finally, we have a wonderful low cost vaccination and spay/neuter clinic right around the corner from our shelter, who we constantly refer people to during our relationship building exercises with our citizens.

    Our success certainly didn’t happen overnight and is a never-ending struggle. It’s a good struggle though and keeps us on our toes. We have been working on improving our animal placement strategies for about a year and a half now, and we still have improvements to make. The learning never ends. If we did not have the support of the majority of our community, none of this success would be possible. It’s all tentative too. One misstep, one disgruntled citizen could destroy or at least seriously hamper our efforts and set us back considerably. We tread lightly when needed, but thankfully that is usually not required. We would love to work ourselves out of a job, but that won’t happen in our lifetime. Hopefully, it will in the next.

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