Helter Shelter: “Pet overpopulation,” the no kill conundrum, and the animal welfare controversy
It has been almost three weeks since I attended Nathan Winograd’s "No Kill Nation" conference. Billed as the definitive conference for the No Kill Movement (yes, all caps), I just had to attend. I mean, what kind of self-respecting veterinarian wouldn't get behind the concept of not killing?
So why did it take me so long to write about it?
While my betters (as in: Christie Keith over at PetConnection) did some really savvy live blogging during the D.C. conference, I had to sit, stewing and mulling, for more than a couple of weeks before getting off my butt to write something about what’s perhaps the most important debate affecting companion animals in the U.S.
Yet I found myself somewhat conflicted. And I’m still not sure why that might be. But here’s my conundrum, as I outlined for today’s USA Today column:
No one wants to kill pets. No one, that is, unless we’re talking about true psychopaths or political extremists. But that’s not exactly the demographic in charge at the ASPCA or at your average municipal shelter. And yet most shelters choose to kill thousands of pets every year.
In the U.S., we have a serious killing problem. Millions of healthy pets are put to death here every year. Per capita, our shelter death rate is more than ten times that of the U.K.
Death ... dying ... kill ... killing ...
Have you noticed that I’ve yet to use the word euthanasia in this column? That’s because euthanasia is not the problem. Plenty of animals must be humanely euthanized in municipal facilities every day. They’ve been hit by a car, afflicted with cancer or otherwise suffer some life threatening condition.
Yet that’s not the kind of death that statistically prevails at the places we all call "shelters." No, it’s mostly the other kind ... the kind that happens to healthy animals we as a society have come to call the "unwanted" or the "unadoptable"; the kind of putting to death I tend to consider more like killing.
Just as no one wants to kill pets, few shelters have warmed up to the use of the word "kill" in this context. It connotes murder, assassination, criminality. Bad stuff, I’ll agree. Nonetheless, I can’t come up with a better term for it.
After all, "euthanasia" is rooted in the Greek word for "beautiful death" — a term which cannot possibly apply should we be talking about ending the life of an otherwise healthy animal. What’s "beautiful" about that?
OK, so are you starting to get the picture? I’m not too happy about what’s happening daily in shelters across the country. Which is why I’m gunning for the "no kill" movement’s goals:
Pioneered by Nathan Winograd, a successful shelter director and author of Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America (a book that’s rapidly becoming an animal welfare classic), the No Kill Equation is simply this: a progressive view of sheltering animals and what it takes to get them adopted out instead of killed.
In other words, it’s what all progressive shelters should be doing. That means adopting lean business models and Fortune 500 customer service solutions, leveraging rescue groups’ muscle and guerrilla fundraising tactics, offering low cost spays and neuters to low-income families, and doing everything possible to recruit and implement volunteers.
The idea is this: The status quo has for too long informed us that animals must be killed because there is no other solution to the overpopulation problem perpetuated by the unwashed masses. We have to kill animals because Joe the pet owner isn’t enlightened enough to adopt responsible pet-keeping habits.
But not everyone agrees that the "No Kill Movement" is the solution.
Indeed, one high-ranking source from one of the largest pet welfare organizations in the U.S. was adamant in her disdain for a philosophy that would advocate withholding euthanasia in pets whose conditions demand it by way of serving a no kill shelter’s purpose. Extremism was at play here. Worse yet, she advanced, the pathology of hoarding was being enabled by this philosophy.
I saw her point: that those who would refuse to kill might be compelled to keep animals alive with a less than reasonable regard for their suffering. But I have to say ... I wasn’t feeling it.
I can’t quite get behind the concept that the kind of people who would come up with the enlightened "No Kill Equation" and espouse rational solutions more reminiscent of the boardroom than of the traditional shelter boards could be advocating hoarding as a way to tweak their stats. Here's Christie Keith's take on that.
Nor was I at all convinced that the traditional shelter organization guru had it all wrong — not at all — at least not with respect to her espoused commitment to progressive sheltering, most of which matched the "No Kill Equation" to the letter. What I did see was a depressing disconnect; that both camps had essentially agreed on the same tactical points. Yet instead of moving forward in tandem towards this crucial goal, an invisible political divide had settled. And depressingly, it had all centered around that one critical word: "kill."
All of which makes this veterinarian think that, much though she feels euthanasia to be an inappropriate term, perhaps there should be something a tad less inflammatory than the k-word in our lexicon. Maybe then we’d manage to get ourselves united towards this one obvious solution. But then, people being what they (we) are ... there’s probably no word, no style, and no personality in charge that we’d ever manage to agree on.
Dr. Patty Khuly