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November 08, 2007

Setting Aside Semantics: Not Killing Pets Must Be Our Goal

If you discern a difference between the words, 'no kill,' and the words, "No-Kill," you understand that I'm about to wade into a quarrel.

If, on the other hand, you don't see much difference except for capital letters and a hyphen, well good for you. You're on the right track.

You see, America views those of us in the animal protection movement as being against the needless killing of animals. America happens to be correct. Everyone sincerely committed to the cause of animal protection embraces the concept of animals living complete and quality lives—uninterrupted by torment or cruelty.

Brown and white pit bull dog in shelter
Addressing pet overpopulation is essential
to helping animals in shelters.

The organization I lead has been committed to the principle of protecting animal life since its inception more than a half-century ago, and so are our members and staff. It was The HSUS, more than any other group, that pioneered the concepts of legislation, education, and sterilization to combat the pet overpopulation problem.

We don't just say it, mind you. It's the foundation of everything we do and of every aspiration we hold.

So am I in favor of no kill? You bet I am. Have been and always will be. And, yes, so is The HSUS.

There is, of course, more to the story. Some in our movement have been advancing a different kind of "No-Kill." This "No-Kill" means operating animal shelters in which healthy and treatable dogs and cats are not euthanized for time and space considerations.

The "No-Kill" crusade, as embodied by its responsible voices, has done its share of good for our humane movement. It has asked tough questions and prompted a re-examination of the purpose of animal shelters in the United States. That's healthy and needed.

So, no kill as a philosophy is noble; no kill as an objective or aspiration is essential. Really, nothing else can be our goal.

But ... and naturally, there is a "but" here. But "No-Kill" as an outcome cannot be universally expected to occur overnight, and it cannot succeed without multi-pronged efforts by committed communities. Its conscientious backers recognize that. It's simple mathematics. If euthanasia is not occurring and intake of dogs and cats is significantly exceeding adoptions, then overcrowding and warehousing—and the attendant suffering—are the undesirable and also unacceptable outcomes. Or if shelters close their doors to animals in need, then the problem is just being pushed off to someone or someplace else, with euthanasia the likely outcome and with the fundamental dynamics essentially left unchanged.

Gray tabby cat at the Humane Society of South Mississippi
© The HSUS/Petros
A cat at the new Humane Society
of South Mississippi shelter.

On the other hand, we must not accept routine euthanasia as a social norm. We should raise expectations and set aggressive goals, but recognize that shelters can't do it without community engagement at every step. We must continue to reduce rates of relinquishment by ramping up affordable and accessible spay and neuter options and helping people resolve normal pet behavior issues. At the same time, we must show a renewed commitment to bring additional resources, a sustained sense of urgency, diligence, volunteerism and creativity to expand the number of suitable homes and adopt more animals. We can redesign shelters to be more inviting to potential adopters, make it possible for apartment dwellers to have pets, develop sophisticated and research-driven marketing campaigns, partner with other community-based institutions, and so much more.

The problem is not unsolvable. Nationwide, only about 20 percent of dogs in homes come from shelters—the rest come from other sources. It would only take a relatively small increase in the adoption rate along with a modest reduction in the birth rate to go a long way toward solving the problem of euthanizing healthy and treatable dogs in many communities.

Yet there are countervailing forces. Many puppy mills are now completely unregulated by the federal government, and they are selling animals direct to the public over the Internet. These marketers of dogs make it easier than ever for consumers to be duped into obtaining a puppy mill dog. The HSUS's recent investigations into the puppy mill industry suggest that the problem is larger even than we imagined, with perhaps as many as 10,000 puppy mills churning out dogs for the pet trade. The dogs suffer immensely, and America's shelters are left to pick up the pieces.

Two poodles rescued from Virginia puppy mill
© The HSUS/Kathy Milani
Two dogs rescued from a Virginia puppy mill this week. Their
rescue comes on the heels of an investigation by The HSUS.

And there are other types of challenges. There are too many pit bulls being bred, mistreated and discarded in this country. Many urban shelters are packed with them—with pit bulls, in some communities, accounting for as many as 70 percent of all dogs in the shelters. Many people who want to provide a loving home won't consider these animals. And many people who want a dog as a weapon or a fighting animal do want them. This dynamic does not lend itself to an easy solution, and that's why The HSUS has been advocating mandatory spaying and neutering of pit bulls in our communities*—partly because these animals are the most abused companion animals in our society and they deserve extra protections. They are the dog of choice for dogfighters, who are responsible for incalculable suffering.

[*Editor’s Note: The animal welfare field continues to make advances in its efforts to help pit bull dogs, particularly with respect to combating negative stereotypes about pit bulls and promoting adoption. Since this blog was published in 2007, The HSUS has suspended efforts on compulsory spay/neuter of pit bulls, and elected to concentrate instead on increasing the availability of free or low-cost spay/neuter services and connecting pet owners with these services.]

Our communities also face large populations of feral cats. If admitted to a shelter, feral cats face no adoption prospects—nearly 100 percent are euthanized—and other cats spring up to take the place of those removed. Recognizing these population dynamics, we side with the growing number of organizations that advocate Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) strategies, and active management of colonies. TNR, combined with ongoing management of feral cat colonies prevents reproduction, brings down the population over time, improves cats' quality of life, and reduces their impact on wildlife.

Feral cats
© iStockphoto
Trap-Neuter-Return strategies help bring down feral cat
populations over time.

Even with these major challenges, the situation is improving. In the 1970s, shelters in America euthanized 12-20 million dogs and cats when there were 67 million in people's homes. Today, we euthanize around 4 million animals while there are more than 135 million dogs and cats in people's homes. From perhaps 25 percent of dogs and cats in America euthanized every year, to about three percent—that's major progress for animals.

Let's keep moving forward until no healthy and treatable animals are euthanized. Let's focus on that, and not deplete our energy or divide our strengths with evermore strident internal debates—no kill vs. "No-Kill." These two words belong to all of us, no matter how they are punctuated. Every day we spend criticizing each other in the circular argument between rightness and reality is a day when the puppy mill operators and the dogfighters and the Internet sellers and puppy importers get something less than our full attention. If we're willing to challenge ourselves and work together, we can get to our lifesaving goal far quicker. And this we must do—lives are depending on us.

I welcome your thoughts on how to speed up progress so that no one can fathom a difference between the words, no kill and "No-Kill."

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