Why "Kill Shelters" Exist: An Overview

What happens behind the scenes in animal shelters is a large, complex and emotional topic which will be addressed at many points in this blog. This post provides a basic overview of the shelter (animal control) system. You’ll learn why achieving ‘No Kill’ communities is so challenging and what can be done to help.

No humane person ever wants to see healthy, adoptable animals euthanized and yet this occurs in staggering numbers in our shelters on a daily basis. This reality strikes an intense emotional chord with many who vow to never support or associate with ‘kill shelters’. This reaction is entirely understandable but, ironically, the inherent divisiveness in distinguishing between the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’ only makes the problem worse. In reality, those organizations often known as ‘kill shelters’ are the entry point of animals into the shelter system; the widest part of a funnel, as it were, into which homeless animals fall…a part of a continuum in which ‘no kill rescues’ and the general public also play a vital role.

In other words, animal rescue is not “either/or”. It’s “both/and.”

And it will continue to be that way, at least for now in our region, although promising initiatives are underway elsewhere in the country that could change the local rescue landscape in the future. (To be discussed in later posts.)

Here is what we all hope to see happen:

ac funnel ideal
This is what actually happens currently in our local open/immediate admission centers, especially in regional animal controls:
ac funnel
So first, let’s change our language around this issue because language has power and wrong language causes a lot of needless damage.

What is often referred to as a ‘kill shelter’ is better known as an ‘open admission shelter’.

Homeless animals, whether strays or owner-surrendered need somewhere to go. There is no shortage of heartbreaking news outlining the horrific ways in which people try to dispatch unwanted animals on their own.  ‘No Kill’ shelters may be hard pressed to accept such animals, and may have to limit their admissions due to finite space and resources (including the availability of foster homes) as defined at any given moment. In other words, No Kill shelters always have to ask themselves:

Do we have enough food, money and foster care to take this animal TODAY?

It the answer is no, the animal can’t be accepted. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a mad scramble to find resources to change that ‘no’ into a ‘yes’, but at the end of the day, there is either space or there isn’t.  And THAT is why we NEED open admission shelters. It’s at least an attempt to protect and provide for animals who have no other options.

Where do all those animals come from?

You name it.  There are strays, of course. Some of those may be lost. Some may be recently bred females who are no longer useful to their owners. Some may have been dumped.  Some are actually family pets that are claimed to be strays so the owners can avoid paying the surrender fee.

Yes, people do things like that. I’ve witnessed this last situation many times but one will never leave me. I had walked into the back of the shelter where a surrendered rooster was crowing (yes, rooster) only to come to the front to see a couple surrendering a small ‘stray’ dog. The dog was attempting to cling to the man while he held it out like a dirty diaper. Any child could see this animal was bonded to this couple. And yet, they denied knowing him.

And the cock crowed. And the dog was taken.

And because he was a ‘stray’ he had to wait in the kennel for a full seven days, in case his ‘owners’ might be looking for this possibly lost dog. The dog was absolutely terrified. It was in full panic mode and became aggressive as a result. It did not pass its temperament test. It did not have a happy ending.

**If you ever meet cranky animal welfare person who acts like they hate you when all you are trying to do is adopt an animal or ask about volunteering, this  is why. It’s hard not to hate people a little bit on days like the one I just described. Really hard. And there may be NO time to process situations like these and get back securely to a happy place before the next person walks in the door because there is a rooster, and a goat, and a turtle, and 6 guinea pigs and someone just brought in a box of ducklings…it’s not just cats and dogs and rabbits. (Yes, a goat. Wearing a harness.)

And then there are owner surrenders…due to divorce, new baby, owner death or illness or disability, owner move, or allergies. (Or ‘allergies’ because after you’ve had a cat for ten years…you know, it sounds a little like code for ‘I’m just kind of over this pet’, which, actually someone did say once when surrending their ten year old.  “We just don’t really want a  cat anymore.” ). Sometimes the new puppy isn’t accepted by the old dog and the old dog goes. Or the cat gets kicked out by the kitten.

And then there are pet hoarders. Add to that the reports of animal neglect and abuse that require the animal be brought in by animal control officers.  A litter of kittens found in a garden. A pregnant dog.

Suddenly ‘thousands’ of animals aren’t hard to imagine, are they? And then we have to consider….
ali in kennel

Historically, animal control centers were not built to be adoption centers.

Animal control centers were originally built to be just that: temporary holding centers. They were never intended to be adoption centers where animals could reside for weeks, or possibly months, waiting for a home. The kennels are really meant for short term holding. Some animals deal with that better than others. The one’s that can’t can show their stress in many different ways. Some may deteriorate to the point that they become aggressive and unadoptable. Some bark their heads off like crazy or jump and go bananas everytime someone walks by.

Those are the dogs that we say “aren’t showing well.”  People don’t want to adopt dogs that look crazy even if they understand intellectually that this is kennel stress and may not be the dogs TRUE personality at all.

Those dogs may be on the adoption floor but if their stress increases and the behavioral issues escalate, they can get pulled. Their only way out is through a ‘rescue pull’. If a rescue doesn’t take them in time, the shelter may, for the sake of sparing the animal unrelenting mental anguish, decide to euthanize the animal, even if they have space available to keep it. “In time” is a moving target, and depends on how well the animal is holding up in the high stress shelter environment. (Ali, the dog pictured here, was a rescue pull after spending months at the shelter. She recently found her forever home.)

SHELTER SPEAK: A ‘rescue only’ animal is one that is only able to leave the open admission shelter via a licensed animal rescue organization who will place them in a foster home. That transfer is known as a ‘rescue pull.’

Currently, the availability of foster homes is the key to decreasing the numbers of animals euthanized in our open admission shelters. (Preventing their entry to begin with is beyond the scope of this article.)

Community support in the form of people opening their homes as fosters, thereby allowing rescues to accept more animals, is THE major factor in helping our local open admission shelters, particularly regional animal control centers, to decrease their euthanization rates.

This is not the final word on the matter as advances in shelter design and adoption initiatives continue to improve while programs like Pets for Life is making strides in keeping animals out of the shelter system all together.  With hard work, open minds and many willing hands, we will see efforts such as these take root in our own community. This post just gives you the snapshot of where we are today.

In the end, it does not matter where one gets involved…whether it is at the open admission end of the funnel or further down the path by fostering for ‘No Kill’ rescues. It’s the same funnel. We are all in this together.

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