What is a no-kill shelter? That is a tough one to answer as there is no universal legislation that all shelters or rescue organizations must follow nor is there any way of monitoring their actions. Based out of San Francisco, the non-profit organization ‘Maddie’s Fund’ defines ‘no-kill’ as “saving both the adoptable (healthy) and treatable dogs and cats, with euthanasia reserved only for non-rehabilitable animals”. The terms ‘adoptable’ and ‘unadoptable’ leave a lot of grey area that shelters are able manipulate, as they are subjective and dependent on the interpretation and implementation of the shelter’s mandate.
Over the last two decades, the label ‘no-kill’ for animal shelters and SPCAs has become the ideal – it brings in donations, gives the shelter a gentler image and has turned media attention away from the number of slaughtered animals per year to the numbers of ‘adoptable’ and ‘unadoptable’ animals. As an evolved and modern society, this should be the answer to the problem of the amount of animals destroyed each year but its not.
The California Legislature rewrote the laws regarding the definition of ‘no-kill’ in 1998. ‘Adoptable’ animals are defined as “only those animals eight weeks of age or older that, at or subsequent to the time the animal is impounded or otherwise taken into possession, have manifested no sign of a behavioral or temperamental defect that could pose a health or safety risk or otherwise make the animal unsuitable for placement as a pet, and have manifested no sign of disease, injury, or congenital or hereditary condition that adversely affects the health of the animal or that is likely to adversely affect the animal’s health in the future.”. (see 1834.4.(a) of Hayden Law)
‘Unadoptable’ or ‘non-rehabilitatable’ animals are then “animals that are neither adoptable or treatable.” (see 1834.4.(a) of Hayden Law)
‘Treatable’ and ‘rehabilitatable’ then become the terms that are easily manipulated or difficult to interpret. The 1998 California legislation describes it as such: “A treatable animal shall include any animal that is not adoptable but that could become adoptable with reasonable efforts.” (see Hayden Law 1834.4.(b))
How and why an animal is deemed ‘unadoptable’ is largely up to the individual shelter and its staff. San Diego County Animal Control is a no-kill shelter. However, in 2004 they claimed that out of the 17,421 animals euthanized at the shelter, only 15 were healthy and 8,089 were ‘non-rehabilitatable’. In other words, 46.4% of animals killed were ‘unadoptable’? Relate that to the dog park and nearly half the dogs there at any given time would not pass either a temperament test or a health check by San Diego Animal Control standards. Does that not sound a bit high and a whole lot suspicious?
The problem of the amount of animals unnecessarily killed each year is not up to the shelters to solve – it is a nation wide problem and the ‘no-kill’ mandate has taken the responsibility away from the people. There is now a belief that there is no longer a pet ‘over-population’ problem because shelters do not need to destroy healthy pets due to space limitations. That is not the case unfortunately and instead of stating the root of the problem, shelters are now able to label animals as ‘unadoptable’ because of temperament or health concerns but in the end, they are still destroyed.
Temperament testing is a controversial subject as well as highly subjective. The ‘Assess-a-Pet’ system of testing developed by Sue Sternberg and used by shelters throughout the States involves prodding a dog with a rubber hand while it is eating or chewing on a bone or toy in the stressful environment of the shelter. This test is to last for 15 minutes or until the dog growls or bites the fake hand. By her own admission, seven out of ten dogs fail the test, are labeled ‘unadoptable’ and destroyed because of it without adversely affecting the shelters ‘no-kill’ status (her methods are currently under scrutiny and will hopefully be discarded by shelters nation-wide).
What is a legitimate concern for public safety is another big grey area. For example, the FDA states that ringworm is a public safety concern yet it is completely treatable although time-consuming. Under California ‘no-kill’ law, an animal suffering from ringworm could be destroyed and the shelter retains its media friendly label.
The spay and neuter programs are working – there are approximately a third less animals destroyed today then there was ten years ago. Our society is taking a step in the right direction on lowering the number of unwanted pets. But what is the next step? If 46.4% of animals in the San Diego County were legitimately deemed ‘unadoptable’ then the next step is educating potential owners in how to socialize and train their animals to be acceptable members of society.
This starts with the breeder. Whether breeding top winning show animals or family pets, making sure that the potential owners understands that an animal is for life and not disposable, that training is a necessity and then matching them with animals that they are capable of controlling would make a substantial impact on surrendered pets. Most dogs that end up in shelters are large breeds and mixes often surrendered by people that did not understand the idiosyncrasies of the pup they took home. Maybe they did not realize how big the dog would get, how unmanageable a large adult dog is if left untrained or matched with a pup they were not equipped to raise (for example, first time owners should never be matched with the most dominant or the most nervous pup in the litter). A good breeder screens potential owners and, if they feel they will make a good home for a pup, then matches the pup to the knowledge and abilities of the person or family.
Many shelters that embrace the ‘no-kill’ mandate place newly surrendered animals in foster homes to rehabilitate the pet so adopting them out will not mean a risk to public safety and that the dog is not surrendered again a week later.
The saddest part is that many people that surrender and animal due to behavioral issues will buy another pup because the first one was a ‘reject’, continuing the cycle.
Education is the only answer yet it is the hardest solution. Shelter workers face an uphill battle that will only get harder with the popularity of the ‘pocket’ dogs carried by the Hollywood crowd. Small dogs are easily adopted but many of these dogs will have had little to no training and poorly socialized making foster care and rehabilitation a necessity.
So what is a ‘no-kill’ shelter? It is another step in the fight for animal rights and universal awareness of humankind’s role as guardians for our most faithful companions – the family pet.