September 8, 2015

Kill vs. No-Kill Shelters: The Great Debate.


People don’t usually become involved with animal shelters unless they are passionate about animal welfare. But there are different ideas out there about how to promote best the mission of improving animal lives.

Unfortunately, the rhetoric surrounding animal shelters galvanizes controversy and divides the community. Shelters often are categorized as “kill” or “no-kill.” Using such emotionally charged language as the baseline for distinguishing different types of shelters is a gross miscarriage of justice. It simultaneously demonizes one type of establishment and deifies another, without delving into the major complexities involved in each.

Although circumstances vary, usually “no kill” shelters are closed admission. That means they are not required to accept every animal presented. Animals that clearly have life-threatening ailments, or those that are definitively not capable of rehabilitation can be turned away. The sad repercussions of “no kill” shelters that have a zero euthanasia policy are that they will deny admittance to terminally ill animals, or allow terminally ill animals to endure until they are adopted or expire. Either way, the animal suffers.

On the other hand, “kill” shelters, are often open admission. They will take any animal regardless of its health condition (including the terminally ill) or the likelihood of rehabilitation.

Open admissions shelters break down into two categories:

1. Shelters that regularly euthanize healthy, adoptable animals to make room.
2. Shelters that will make every effort not to euthanize any healthy, adoptable animals.

It is an important distinction to make, as many people assume that all shelters that euthanize animals have a proverbial “sell-by” date. What this means, is if the animal has not been adopted by a certain date it will automatically be put down. It is true that this happens in some shelters, notably under-funded local government facilities.

There are, however, open admissions shelters that will only euthanize an adoptable animal for space under the direst circumstances. I’ve seen shelters that kept animals for months, even over a year in one case, in an attempt to place the animal in the right home. The main problem I find with open admissions animal shelters is that there does have to be a decision point where someone evaluates whether or not an animal could be adopted.

The criteria for adoptability includes health and temperament. Health seems like it should be straightforward. If an animal isn’t critically or terminally ill it is nursed to good health and adopted into a forever home, right? Wrong. Unfortunately, there’s often somewhat of a cost-benefit analysis associated with ailments and ability to provide care. Frequently certain ailments, such as some cancers, can cause an animal to be automatically euthanized.

Fortunately, there are funds that sometimes go towards extensive animal rehabilitation at specified shelters. For example, at the Hawaiian Humane Society, there is Max’s Fund, dedicated to providing intensive care outside of what shelter clinic staff can provide. This fund has been used for amputating unsalvageable limbs or other major surgeries that could not otherwise be provided. Without the fund, countless animals would not currently be alive much less thriving in new homes.

However, not all shelters have this kind of resource, though. Many animal shelters are drastically under-funded, and simply do not have the resources to provide all of the life-saving care needed to help animals get adopted.

Once an animal has passed a health screening, it is further screened for temperament. Sometimes this is an easy process. Dogs that have a history of aggression and have shown aggression to shelter staff are unlikely adoptable. On the other hand, a dog may be submissive and overwhelmingly friendly, and it will go out for adoption right away. Often though there’s a gray zone where an animal could go either way with temperament, and those cases are gut wrenching to decide. Shelter staff do not want to euthanize healthy animals, but they also want to protect the safety of community members who trust them to screen out dangerous animals. It’s a quagmire without a good solution.

Not just dogs are evaluated for temperament, other animals such as hamsters, guinea pigs, birds, and cats are all also evaluated. I was surprised to discover at one shelter that almost all adult feral cats that had never been owned and were totally self-sufficient were euthanized. The shelter didn’t have the resources to sterilize and release the cats, nor was it their policy to release unaltered animals back into the wild (as that would only contribute to more feral animals).

Neither open admission nor closed admission shelter system is without fault. “Kill” shelters are sometimes forced to euthanize healthy animals while “no kill” shelters can turn away any animal for any reason. As potential adopters, the best advice is to do your research and trust your judgment. It’s important to know the differences between the types of shelters that exist to aid in any adoption decision.



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Author: Julie Zack Yaste

Assistant Editor: Carlotta Luis/Editor: Travis May

Images: Flickr/WoodyHibbard

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