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10 June 2011 Issue

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Wish You Were Here: Concepts For No Kill Shelters


by Nathan J. Winograd and Jennifer Winograd

Studying history and the work of social justice movements that came before ours is a good way to learn strategies for effecting change. To peer back in time is to see into the future – to learn to anticipate and recognize predictable patterns of human behavior that occur when the status quo is challenged. The past provides lessons on how to harness what is best in humans as well as how to overcome what is worst, such as the habit of allowing our limited experiences to validate false and misleading dogmas that justify oppression as the inevitable, or natural, state of the world. Pet overpopulation, an idea that is used to explain the killing of millions of animals every year, is not unlike other false dogmas in history that fostered circular logic in order to justify and explain the status quo. For instance, the ideas of white and male supremacy once predominated and therefore fostered consequences that were then used as “proof” that the ideas themselves were true.

Consider that when the abolition movement began, even the vast majority of people who opposed slavery believed that white people were nonetheless superior to African Americans, and that black and white people could never live as equals. Where did this idea come from? It was the dominant paradigm, so people were raised to believe it. But they also used the consequences resulting from the oppression of African Americans as evidence that they were inferior.

Seeing black people living in poverty, unable to read or write and held in submission, racists reasoned backwards that that was the natural condition of black people. They used all of the facts – and results – of the oppression itself to justify the oppression as the obvious and natural state of the world. And even though there were examples in their midst of exceptions, of educated and even brilliant African Americans such as David Walker or Frederick Douglass, they were reasoned away as the exception, or their example, inconveniently inconsistent, was simply ignored.

The same is true of the women's rights movement until the 20th century. For most of human history and in virtually all cultures, women have been regarded as inferior to men and were therefore kept in circumstances that never allowed them to flourish or reach their inherent potential. Human history is until very recently, the story of great men, and few women. Is this because until recently there were no great women born? Or until recently women lacked the capacity to do significant things? Of course not – throughout history, women with talent and potential to do remarkable things were there all along, but their potential was suppressed. Considered inherently inferior, they were denied the opportunities afforded to men, and the resulting lack of female accomplishment, or resulting lack of evidence of the capability of women, was used to justify the idea that they were inferior, that women should not hold jobs outside the home, or that they lacked the intelligence to be responsible citizens and vote. Again, circular logic.

Likewise, in the humane movement, too many people fall into the trap of citing the killing that occurs in our shelters as proof that that killing is inevitable. They make the assumption that it would not be occurring unless it had to occur, unless that killing was the result of the natural state of things: human irresponsibility and the number of animals entering shelters being greater than the number of available homes, or, in a nutshell, “pet overpopulation.” To those with firsthand experience either working or volunteering at a traditional, high kill shelter, “pet overpopulation” is a logical explanation for the situation at the shelter with which they are acquainted. Not only have they been given this explanation by the shelter itself and every large, national animal protection organization confirms it, but the circumstances they see around them do as well. They see a lot of animals coming in, few adoptions, and conclude: what choice is there? And hence, the inevitable question, and the logical one, that is constantly asked of No Kill advocates: Just what are we supposed to do with all of the animals?

But as history shows, our perceptions do not always match the facts – that is, often the experiences we have not had shape our perceptions as much as those we have. Achieving No Kill requires a shelter to put into place programs and services that provide alternatives to killing. At a well run No Kill animal shelter, there are a variety of ways to respond to animals, depending on the reason that animal is in the shelter in the first place. There is not a one-size fits-all strategy of impound, holding period, adoption or killing, as is common in traditional, poorly run, high kill shelters. Each animal is treated as an individual, and the needs of every animal are addressed and met on a case-by-case basis.

For instance, a well-run No Kill shelter goes to great lengths to keep animals from coming in the door in the first place. When their animal control officers find lost animals in the field – they knock on doors or call the numbers on tags so that they can take the animal home instead of impound him/her. If the animal is impounded, shelter staff is efficient at cross checking lost and found reports, so that the number of lost animals that are reclaimed by their people is much higher, and they have hours that allow people with lost pets to conveniently visit the shelter to reclaim them. Alternatively, traditional shelters simply impound stray animals and do not cross-check lost and found reports with diligence, if at all. Their hours make it difficult for working people to visit to reclaim their animals. And so many lost animals who should find their way safely back home are killed instead.

Some animals entering a shelter are free-living cats. A No Kill shelter will spay/neuter and release those cats instead of kill them. Likewise, injured animals will receive medical attention, and then go into foster homes, as will other sick animals, orphaned neonatals, and dogs with behavior issues that need rehabilitation. And, lastly, further reducing the number of animals a shelter has to find homes for are local rescue groups. These groups take some of the animals entering the shelter, and a well-run No Kill shelter considers such organizations valuable allies, and has a friendly, cooperative relationship with them.

All of these programs – the programs and services of the No Kill Equation – are important because they lessen the pool of animals needing adoption. At a well run No Kill shelter, the pool of incoming animals that actually need adoption is in the end, much smaller than the total intake of animals entering the shelter. It is a much more reasonable number of animals to find homes for, made all the easier by having good adoption hours, and a well run adoption program that takes animals out into the community daily to find them homes through offsite adoption venues, especially if the shelter is in a remote or inconvenient location.

A volunteer from a well-run No Kill shelter, going to a traditionally run shelter with a high kill rate that lacked all of the alternatives to killing mentioned above, would be able to see all the roads not taken. They would see lots of animals coming in the door, and then going into the kill room, without any of the other options they know to be possible ever being considered, and they would understand clearly where the problem lies: the lack of programs, the lack of alternatives to killing. They would see that the problem is not “pet overpopulation,” but a lack of imagination, commitment, and determination to treat each animal as an individual with distinct needs that must be met.

But a volunteer who has no experience to the contrary, a volunteer at a high kill shelter, lacks this experience. And so they see lots of animals coming in, and lots of animals going out the backdoor in body bags, and without an understanding of all the alternatives that should have been chosen instead, erroneously conclude that there are more animals coming in than there are homes for, and that pet overpopulation is to blame. But it isn't true. That person is reasoning backward, and allowing the tragic outcome around them – a reality that could be changed with effort and didn't need to be but of which they cannot conceive because they never experienced it firsthand – to justify the tragic outcome: the killing is necessary because there is no choice, and because the outcome proves it to be so.

Those of us who have seen a shelter turn around quickly and dramatically when shelter leadership with the will to implement the alternatives replaced one who didn't, we have seen with our own eyes what is possible. In short, we have been to the Promised Land, and have first hand-knowledge, and experience, that those who justify the killing, who insist in the existence of pet overpopulation – are living in Plato's cave, mistaking shadows for reality. And it is our job to reach those within the humane movement whose hearts and minds are open to celebrating this good news, so that they can become our allies in the fight for the brighter future we know – and has already been proven time and again – to be possible.


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