It felt like a good summer for animals. In mid-August Julián Castro became the first (and so far only) Democratic presidential candidate to release an animal welfare policy statement. In September, Michigan became the second U.S. state to announce it had reached “no kill.” (Delaware was the first.) After years of the Trumpian death machine, it was like a rush of fresh air into a suffocating, fetid room.
And yet in the real-world context of dog and cat rescue, one couldn’t help but feel a bit … underwhelmed. “No kill” was “an amazing first for our state,” said the chair and founder of the Michigan Pet Fund Alliance. It was “a different path,” offered Castro. “My hometown of San Antonio achieved no-kill status in less than a decade.”
If only it were that simple. America as a whole has been working toward a “no kill” goal for decades, reassured every few years that we’re about to arrive. We haven’t. There are reasons why—and they’re why, as a current call to action, those words are almost meaningless.
To be clear: Criticizing “no kill” isn’t calling for an end to adoption and rescue or a return to the truly terrible old days when rampant killing of shelter animals was just a fact of life. As recently as the 1970s, loose animals—both strays and pets—roamed America’s streets, and otherwise decent people thought nothing of dropping the resulting litters at local shelters to be “put to sleep.” Somewhere between 13 and 23 million cats and dogs died yearly back then, and that no one knows the exact figure is another sign of how little anyone cared: No national reporting structure even existed. Today, shelter euthanasia rates are down dramatically—as much as 90 percent —thanks to the spread of sterilization followed by increased advocacy for adoption and rescue. There are around 14,000 rescue groups of different sizes and focus in this country, and a 2017 paper published in the journal Animals confirmed what these hard-working people already knew: that for dogs, rising adoption rates had helped to bring the killing down.
Credit “no kill” advocacy for some, maybe many of these changes? Sure. Whoever first coined the term, it was brilliant—immediately graspable, a slogan, philosophy, exhortation, declaration of moral outrage, and promise, all in one. Millions of animal lovers have gathered under its umbrella. But the simplicity that makes the phrase so compelling has also made it difficult in practice.
On the most basic level, there’s no consensus on what it means. Most extreme believers say that no animals should be euthanized unless they’re terminal or irredeemably suffering, and that with enough effort, homes can be found for all the others. (Those few deemed unadoptable can be sent to “sanctuaries.”) More common are those who believe in “mostly don’t kill,” that while some animals are sick and screwed up enough to justify putting them down, an array of efforts can save the rest: increased spay/neuter campaigns, adoption promotion, fostering, rescue group alliances, transporting animals from places of oversupply, shelter management changes. Within this vision, a shelter (or city or state) reaches “no kill” when at least 90 percent of the animals it takes in come out alive.
Concrete numbers may be reassuring, but they can be slippery. In a 2018 Psychology Today piece, Hal Herzog, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Western Carolina University and long-time researcher on animal-human relations, offered his own analysis of the Animals study data. Herzog reported that (as most rescuers already knew) euthanasia averages mask huge geographic variation. Within the U.S., for example, far more animals are put down in the south than in the north; in California, euthanasia is higher inland than it is on the coast; in the Los Angeles metro area, it’s higher in shelters run by the county than the city, and higher in some city neighborhoods than others. Even as Michigan celebrated its new status, the Pet Fund Alliance chair acknowledged that “we still have a few communities struggling.”
The reasons behind these differences add a further layer of complication. Animal policy is set locally, so even within a single county separate small cities may have different laws—for how much it costs to license an intact versus sterilized animal, whether or not to impose mandatory spay and neuter laws and how rigorously to enforce them, how shelters are funded and what programs they adopt. (For example, only 32 states require dogs adopted from a public shelter to be sterilized.) Communities vary culturally in how animals are viewed and treated, how aware pet owners are of available resources, how accepting of practices like sterilization. Herzog, for instance, notes that “states with higher rates of gun ownership had more dog deaths,” maybe because “people in the South don’t like restrictions on the sex lives of their pets any more than they like zoning or gun laws.”
Then there’s the huge issue of human economics—or more specifically, the fact that truly helping needy pets requires helping their equally needy owners. The Animals study data showed something else rescuers and shelter workers already knew: States with lower average incomes kill more domestic animals than wealthier ones, and so do shelters in low-income neighborhoods. Shelters in low-income neighborhoods also have higher rates of owner surrender. Behind those figures: poverty.
In low-income areas, spay/neuter services or routine veterinary care may be unaffordable or inaccessible—in some rural areas and inner-city neighborhoods, there literally are no veterinarians. The animals of the economically challenged are far more likely than those of the affluent to be impounded by animal services (for instance when they escape a badly-fenced yard), then trapped in the system when reclamation fees and fines are beyond the family budget. (These escalating fees mirror other “poverty penalties,” such as license suspension for drivers who can’t afford to pay traffic tickets.)
Staying housed while caring for a pet can be an ongoing struggle. Women without means trying to escape domestic violence find few shelters that will take animals. (Even as research shows that abusers frequently threaten to hurt or actively harm their partners’ beloved pets as a means of control.) For homeless pet owners, sociologist Leslie Irvine observed in My Dog Always Eats First, the choice often comes down to keeping a beloved pet or being housed—traditionally, homeless shelters have not accepted animals. Similar choices face low-income families. One of the key findings in a 2015 study published in Open Journal of Animal Sciences was that pet owners with incomes below $50,000 were significantly more likely than those with money to re-home animals due to cost, particularly of medical care, and housing issues like lack of access to pet-friendly housing ability to pay housing pet deposits. In fact, other surveys show that among the top reason Americans surrender their pets are moving, cost, and a landlord who doesn’t allow pets.
The very real connection between pet ownership and rental housing issues—landlords’ use of previously unenforced “no pets” clauses to push evictions; the shortage of apartments that allow pets makes Julián Castro’s call for pet-friendly policies in federally affordable new housing construction a good start to a necessary conversation. It’s too bad he offered a plan that didn’t address existing housing. Around 4.8 million households receive federal rental assistance, and both private landlords offering Section 8 housing, and public housing authorities can and do restrict pets, whether banning them all, or just specific breeds — most typically pits, Rottweilers, and chows. Human economics also governs what animal welfare efforts can realistically be. Cutting euthanasia by finding pets new homes requires human capital—a roster of volunteers, local rescues and available foster homes — and budgetary support that may be beyond a city’s reach. Just two hours south of Castro’s No Kill San Antonio, for instance, is the city of Edinburg, in the impoverished Rio Grande Valley. Its Palm Valley Animal Shelter, was once described by Best Friends CEO Julie Castle as among those “that are so dramatically under-resourced and over-burdened that they might as well be operating in the 1970s.” A partnership between that mega-organization and the shelter has reportedly raised its save rate from 36 to (a still not great) 51 percent, and even that success had setbacks: During an effort to hold, then transport 800 puppies and small dogs out of the area, many developed distemper—which is endemic in the Valley—and had to be euthanized. Some got sick after they were in their new homes.
To tangibly help these struggling communities, Castro called for the establishment of a $40 million Local Animal Communities grant program within the USDA to “expand access” for vaccinations and spay/neuter in underserved communities, as well as support adoption programs and efforts to reduce thousands of existing feral cat colonies through the strategy of Trap, Neuter, Release (TNR). Activists I spoke to heard that figure and laughed. The year Austin, Texas, a much-celebrated “no kill” city reached its goal, the shelter budget went up more than $1 million and the next year, it requested a million more in “emergency” funds. TNR remains both logistically difficult—a big percentage of skittish felines must be caught to bring any colony’s birth rates below replacement level—and controversial. A 2013 analysis from the Smithsonian conservation biological Institute and the Fish and Wildlife service estimated that domestic cats kill around 2.4 billion birds in the Continental U.S. each year. In late August, the New York Times reported that a toxoplasmosis infection responsible for killing up to 8 percent of California sea otters had been traced to outdoor domestic cats. It also costs big bucks. According to a 2010 study prepared for Best Friends Animal Society, even supposing the use of volunteer labor and veterinarians offering a discount rate, eradicating the national feral cat population through TNR would cost $8.7 billion.
Even all the money in the world “isn’t enough,” says Lori Weise of Downtown Dog Rescue, who has been working for over 20 years in L.A.’s most challenged neighborhoods. “Money doesn’t help without a plan.”
Another unfortunate reality of the 90 percent “no kill” goal is that even when reached, it may be less real than it appears. Shelters under public and political pressure to have “good” euthanasia numbers also have the incentive to play good numbers games, whether that means adopting out sick or potentially dangerous animals to avoid having to put them down or conversely calling them “untreatable” so they can be euthanized without marring the live release rate. In June, for example, Gothamist reported that Animal Care and Control in New York City (which was supposed to have reached “no kill” five years ago) was excluding from its euthanasia rate statistics owner-surrendered dogs and cats with “problems” like mouthing on their leashes, jumping, and cowering in fear. “Transport”—sending shelter animals from one state to a (presumably better) other, also can be subverted. One “coalition partner” in L.A.’s current “no kill” effort proudly describes its contribution as moving small breed dogs from local shelters to … New York City.
Another strategy: policies that deliberately limit shelter intake. In “no kill” San Antonio, says a source long involved in that city’s rescue world, a “diversion” program allows anyone who finds a stray to keep it at home, while classifying the animal as a shelter impound. “Then, if it’s given away—to whoever— or even escapes, it can be counted as a successful live release.” San Antonio also requires residents to make appointments before surrendering animals, and its website warns that if the shelter is full “you may be asked to seek alternate arrangements.” In practice, says the source, “people turned away just abandon the animals when they leave.”
Or the statistics race leads to not looking too carefully at adopters. The growth of disreputable rescues and outright rescue scams is a constant source of anguish in the rescue world; social media warnings like “There is a Reckless Rescue that has been taking dogs from L.A. Shelters. Please BEWARE!!” appear daily. Worse are organizations that take in more animals than they can properly care for, and individuals who use the guise of rescue to mask hoarding. Yearly, thousands of dogs and cats are removed from “rescue hoarders”—Someday Acres (Tennessee), Tiggy Town Senior Dog Rescue (Arizona), Road to Home (New York), Elk Grove Animal Rescue (California) … A much-celebrated “live release” from a shelter may land a dog or cat in a fate worse than death. At the Elk Grove rescue, animal service workers found 58 dogs and sick, dehydrated puppies living in a barn “with a strong odor of urine and feces” who hadn’t been been given food or water for 24 hours, as well as “a large Pit Bull dog inside a plastic crate that was not large enough for the for the dog to turn around in, its head was crouched inside, and it was unable to extend its tail.” Road to Home was closed after whistleblowers released a video of over 100 dogs living in a dilapidated warehouse, locked 24/7 in cages filled with urine and feces.
Finally, even when adoption efforts successfully move adorable puppies and apartment-friendly small “fluffies” to new homes, legions of the less desirable—seniors, overbred pit bulls, middle-aged chihuahuas—are left behind. This past June, TV station KVUE in “no kill” Austin reported that the city’s three shelters were at “critical capacity” with nearly 800 dogs and cats, some of which had been held over 3 years. Animals were being housed in pop-up kennels placed in meeting rooms and offices because, said the Austin Animal Center’s communications manager, “we have nowhere for them to go.”
The contradictions of “no kill” are no secret within the rescue world, debated (sometimes quietly, sometimes very loudly) by rescue groups and rescuers, shelter managers, vets. In 2018, an editorial in the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association journal denounced the movement as “destructive” and called for a new model, “socially conscious sheltering” with similar animal welfare goals, but without a numerical end point. Any shelter could save 98 percent of the pets that came in, the authors noted, but only if it was to “manage to a single statistic, and not to the best interest of animals.” In August, 2019, those principles were adopted by the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care & Control.
Maybe “socially conscious” will be a popular new model, maybe not. Maybe other Democratic candidates will declare their own support for animal welfare — if they don’t, we should call them on it. But perhaps it’s time for all of us to dump slogans and platitudes in favor of addressing a complicated, nuanced issue with similarly nuanced action. That means spending as much or more effort on keeping animals from going into shelters as getting them out. Offering humane education “is a cost-effective approach that’s barely being tried,” says Aaron Fisher, founder and CEO of Atlanta Rescue Dog Café, which teaches responsible pet ownership to children as young as pre-K, many in underserved communities. “Hardly a sliver of grant money supports it. Then we wonder why kids grow up and don’t know how to care for their animals.”
It means subsidizing sterilization services and making them easily accessible and providing affordable vet access in poor and rural areas. (Encouraging vets to embrace this effort, suggests Lori Weise, means finding a way to do it that doesn’t require them to sacrifice their own income.) It means legal services that help tenants deal with pet-related housing issues, and more programs that help pet owners with problems hold onto their pets. Shelter-based “intervention” programs, like those run by Downtown Dog Rescue and Home Dog L.A. “don’t have the sexiness that adoptions do, but we can’t adopt our way out of crowded shelters as long as animals keep coming in,” says Kerry Armstrong Lowe, HDLA’s founder and executive director. By offering vet vouchers, food, dog houses, fence repair and help with reclamation fees, since 2013 the two organizations have kept more than 15,000 dogs out of two city shelters.
“No kill” was a powerful starting point for a movement toward change, but the words have become short-hand and a catchphrase that doesn’t lead us forward in the real world. The future demands more than a number.