Give Me Shelter From Euthanasia – in California and Beyond
Our movement has made steady progress in reducing the euthanasia of healthy and treatable pets in shelters. In the mid-1970s, the nation was euthanizing about 15 million dogs and cats each year, and that number is now down to three million, thanks to aggressive promotion of pet adoption, spay and neuter and pet retention programs. It’s still three million too many, and The HSUS is committed to getting that number down to zero for healthy and treatable animals.
Even in progressive animal welfare states, such as California, we have a long way to go. California shelters euthanize perhaps half a million dogs and cats annually, and it’s not just in the Central Valley and the rapidly growing Inland Empire of San Bernardino and Riverside counties. Half of all dogs and cats arriving at public and private shelters in California are euthanized, despite the efforts of governments, groups and individuals working to turn the situation around. They’re addressing the challenge through free or low-cost spay-and-neuter services, transfer of animals, stronger leadership, and reinforcement of activities focused on keeping animals from landing in shelters and getting them out alive when they do.
Any strong movement must engage in serious problem-solving on the big issues it confronts, and that goes for shelters and euthanasia. One particular problem relates to the euthanasia of cats. Of those who enter the shelter system, sadly, an overwhelming majority – 70 percent in California alone – do not come out alive.
Giving shelters the option to move much faster on adoption and transfer to rescues when they are handling cats without identification is a novel, progressive step forward. Cats in this class are very unlikely to be reclaimed by owners – for 15 years, the reclaim rate in California has stood at two percent. We can give 10 times that number of cats a much better chance at survival by moving them out soon after intake, rather than forcing shelters to hold them for a set number of days before making them available. This will reduce overcrowding, disease, and result in more lives saved.
That’s one reason why we supported California Assembly Bill 2343 introduced by Assemblyman Mike Gatto, who through his bill also wanted to address the chronic funding challenges associated with sheltering in the state.
Unfortunately, advocates in California were divided on the issue, with much of that dissension based on a false understanding of the bill and the political process. As a result we understand why Gatto decided to withdraw the bill on Friday. When lawmakers are put in the position of having to choose between different segments or players in the animal movement, it doesn’t inspire confidence in our cause, and it leaves lawmakers confused. Keeping the status quo, and failing to develop and apply new strategies, is very unlikely to help animals facing euthanasia in the months and years ahead.
For years, California’s budget shortfalls have resulted in no funding for key portions of the Hayden Law – a 1998 state statute named for the bill’s author, former California Senator Tom Hayden – that sought to strengthen the state’s animal sheltering laws and establish some important mandates. The shortfalls led officials to suspend laws that trigger payments to local governments, and for seven of the last 16 years much of the Hayden Law has not been in effect.
Even during years when there was funding for compliance, there have been challenges. According to the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, “shelters that euthanize the most animals receive the most state funds. Shelters that are the most successful in promoting adoptions receive the least state funds.”
AB 2343 would have created a grant program to replace the funds previously reimbursed to cities and counties for complying with the Hayden Law. These funds would have been distributed among agencies that complied, supporting agencies in a proportional way based on the number of animals leaving their facilities alive (through adoption, transfer or return to owner). An infusion of $10 million a year by the state would have incentivized the saving of animals, rather than euthanasia.
Gatto’s bill would also have given local agencies more tools to address the challenges they face every year during the summer months, when they often euthanize otherwise healthy kittens for reasons of space and capacity.
California’s still-suspended state sheltering laws embrace an important goal that remains critical everywhere -- to end the euthanasia of healthy and treatable companion animals. And AB 2343, which would have rewarded hard work and dedication on the part of shelters by supporting cost recovery for lifesaving outcomes – instead of reimbursing for euthanasia – represented the kind of approach we hope to see spread far and wide. It’s a goal we’ll continue to support.