Saying No to “No Kill”

I recently had the privilege of attending a national shelter conference. A place where, it would seem, the final word (if there is one) on animal welfare and sheltering would come. One day I sat through an 8-hour workshop on two of the most controversial words in animal welfare: “no kill.” Not the concept. Just the words: “No kill.”

What does “no kill” mean and why is it such a loaded phrase? Well, first of all, let me state that the concept itself is not the problem. Everyone wants to save every single “healthy and treatable animals.” Every single one. No one wants to euthanize any animal.

There are three major categories of shelters:

  • Open admission shelters are tasked with taking in every animal brought to them. For these shelters, euthanasia is a hard fact of everyday existence.
  • Then there are limited admission shelters, like the Washington Animal Rescue League, that have the option to admit an animal to their adoption program or turn them away (usually for non-adoptability issues, such as aggression). For these shelters, euthanasia is logarithmically reduced to an enviable fraction of what the open admission shelters are forced to deal with.
  • Finally, there are sanctuaries, which have the option of turning animals away, but rarely, if ever, euthanize.

The problem is that we are all trying to take care of animals, and we need to do this job together. Using terminology like “no kill” pits shelters against each other (e.g., sanctuaries are more virtuous than municipal shelters because they theoretically don’t euthanize animals). Of course, every one of us decries the senseless killing of any animal.

As a nation and a society, we’re not even at that point where all healthy and treatable dogs and cats are saved. And yet, some shelters call themselves “no kill.” It’s pure marketing, which is why the League dropped this language years ago, although we could most certainly profit from it.

We can help animals better by helping shelters do their jobs well. That includes all of us. So let’s drop the factional language that separates us. And work to “optimize” adoptions in the best, most efficient manner possible given the specific responsibilities we are asked to fulfill. The animals are counting on it.


More On “No-Kill” Divisiveness

The public loves the term “no kill.” But do they understand it? I think that the term itself is misleading and confuses most people. To the public, “no kill” means exactly what it says. Nothing is killed. And why wouldn’t people think that? But technically, a “no kill” shelter is one that places every “adoptable” animal in a home. Time and space are not factors. But those who are unhealthy or “untreatable” physically or behaviorally are euthanized. That’s what “no kill” means. Nothing. It’s marketing and pandering on a national scale. And we should stop saying it.

Clarification is greatly needed. We need to use terms that work towards cohesion between animal groups that share the grave responsibility and honor to care for the most helpless among us. Using terms like “no kill” is just wrong when that’s an impossible bar to reach. And one that hurts every one of us using it.

We need to face the fact that some euthanasia will always exist. Even if we were to succeed in saving and re-homing every healthy and adoptable animal—the sad truth is that we are no where near that goal in this country—there will always be those poor creatures that are too sick to be re-homed. And euthanasia is the humane thing to do. And, unfortunately, there will always be those animals that are too dangerous to send back into homes. That’s reality.

Failure to accept this reality can lead to some real horror stories. In this business, I hear rumors of shelters dumping former pet cats into feral colonies and former pet dogs in barnyards to be guard dogs. Hopefully, these are just rumors. But not long ago, the League accepted 70 dogs from a “no kill” rescue operation in Mississippi. The dogs were emaciated, nearly feral, and covered with mange. The survivors had been living on the carcasses of those who died. Is this where the term “no kill” is taking us? If so, who needs it?

We all need to work together to end the euthanasia of healthy, adoptable animals and give every single dog and cat in America the home he or she needs and deserves. But we will be much more effective in pursuit of that goal if we are honest about the extent of the problem, united and cohesive as a movement, and more passionate about saving animals than blaming our colleagues.


Every animal has two stories…one about himself or herself, and one about us.

However you stumbled upon my new blog, it’s a pretty safe bet you have some connection to the animal welfare field you’ve adopted a dog or cat, you work or volunteer at a shelter, you’re part of a rescue group or you’ve bookmarked an animal adoption page on your computer.

WARL_BlogWhatever your connection, you know that the animals’ stories bring up very big issues. They tell us volumes about who we are as people, what terrible and wonderful things we are capable of, and what is really worthwhile about life. It often involves them.

At an animal shelter, something like this can happen at any moment…

A puppy comes in nearly dead of heat stroke after being left in a hot car. His guardian doesn’t seem too concerned. She just wants us to take the puppy so she can be on her way. What makes her so nonchalant? And why do we care so deeply about this puppy whom we’ve never seen before, that we spare nothing to save his life?

The process of rescuing, rehabilitating and rehoming animals is full of decisions, often difficult ones. The animals are totally reliant on us for their care but can only express their wishes in the most rudimentary forms (through their eyes, wagging tails, whimpers, purrs, and cries). We, not they, have to decide what’s best for them.

Here’s a dilemma we faced recently…

The cat transferred from another shelter tests positive for FIV, an immune deficiency that he can live with for years. He’s certainly adoptable but he’ll need a special home, and it will most likely take months to find him one. Meanwhile, how many other cats will be euthanized in area shelters because they have no more room for homeless cats?

These stories and the issues they raise make our field unique. Filled with the drama of animals’ suffering, recovery and fresh starts, our days bring a constant stream of shock, sadness, joy, and often enough, surprising triumphs.

Some moments are truly uplifting, as when…

A pit bull who was turned in because he was too much to handle and was threatening the neighbors becomes a training star at the shelter and finds a grateful family. They report, “We can’t imagine life without Seamus. He’s the perfect addition to our household!”

In this blog, I plan on sharing the stories and reflections that come out of our experience working with animals at the Washington Animal Rescue League. Either on their way or safely sheltered and “out of harm’s reach,” all of these animals have stories. That’s the point of this blog, and of our very unique shelter. I invite you to offer your own reflections, convictions, and stories. And by all means, let me know how we’re doing.