The Truth About Animal Shelters

Upon walking into the adoptable dog section of Seattle Animal Shelter, I’m greeted by a brown and white dog happily wagging his tail. Actually, he’s wagging his entire body. The front and upper walls of his kennel are glass, so I can easily see his wiggly dance, but he can’t hear other dogs barking as much, reducing his stress. He has a mural of Mt. Rainier on the back wall of his kennel, an elevated bed, plenty of water, a few dog toys, and a Kong stuffed with food. His kennel is quite spacious, allowing him to walk back and forth gleefully showing off his favorite toy.

This is not your grandma’s animal shelter.

The public at large often has a very stark, depressing image that comes to mind when picturing an animal shelter. “I can’t volunteer at the animal shelter,” a family member once told me. “The one time I visited, I cried.”

Let’s take a moment to look at what today’s animal shelters are really like, and take some time to look at the people who work there and the animals they serve.

Trigger warning: This post has discussion of euthanasia.


Back in the Old Days: “Kill” vs. “No Kill”

I started volunteering with animals in Michigan before moving to the Seattle area in 2007. At that time, I remember the rescue world being somewhat polarized in terms of “no kill” shelters and the vilified “kill” shelters.

At that time, a “no kill” shelter was best defined as a shelter that would not euthanize a dog for ANY reason. “Kill” shelters were those that sometimes had to euthanize dogs for lack of space, health reasons, or behavioral reasons.

I spent a brief amount of time volunteering with Michigan Humane Society, which fell into the “kill” category at that time. I wasn’t sure what volunteering there would be like, and whether it would be sad or bring me joy. I found that the people I worked with genuinely cared about animals and wanted to find them good homes. I first learned about clicker training from a trainer affiliated with the shelter, which served as a jumping off point into my exploration of positive dog training methods.

Upon further examination and discussion with other people doing rescue work, I began to notice something unsavory about shelters bragging about their “no kill” status: these shelters may have taken the liberty to brag that they never euthanized an animal, but they were also being extremely selective about the animals they were taking in.

Does your dog have a behavior problems like lunging and barking at other dogs? Nope, sorry, we can’t take him.

You want to surrender your cat that is urinating in your apartment? Nope, sorry, our no-kill shelter is at capacity, you’ll have to take your cat somewhere else.

It became apparent to me that these no-kill shelters were really about passing the buck: THEY weren’t euthanizing animals, but for the animals they turned away, they were simply going to be euthanized somewhere else. While they were maintaining a pristine reputation, they were not helping the community as a whole. I found it unfortunate that both the public and the rescue world seemed somewhat divided into these camps. In reality, nobody worked at a “kill” shelter because they wanted to kill animals. People volunteer and work at shelters to try to help as many animals as possible.



The New “No Kill”

Let’s fast-forward to today’s world of rescue and shelters. How are animal rescuers defining “no kill” today, in 2019?

Currently, the metric that most shelters and organizations are considered “no kill” if they have a live release rate of over 90%. In other words, for every 10 animals that are admitted to the animal shelter, at least 9 of them leave.

The 90% save rate figure can supposedly be traced to Nathan Winograd, founder of No Kill Advocacy Center, popularized in his book Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America.  

One of the first steps that animal welfare organizations took towards agreeing upon the modern definition of “no kill” is the 2004 Asilomar Accords, when a group of animal welfare industry leaders met to work towards reducing the euthanasia of healthy and treatable companion animals in the United States. An important part of the Asilomar Accords was agreeing upon the meaning of key definitions (like “healthy” and “treatable”).

While the Asilomar Accords certainly have their limitations, this was an important start towards animal welfare groups getting on the same page. Today, many animal welfare organizations calculate their release rates using parameters set by Shelter Animals Count. Shelter Animals Count provides standardized methods of collecting and sharing data in the animal welfare world so that more accurate metrics of progress can be determined.

Seattle Animal Shelter in Seattle, WA is a no kill shelter that has been a progressive shelter with policies ahead of its time for many years. This is particularly impressive given that Seattle Animal Shelter is a municipal shelter, meaning that they are not able to turn any animals away: any animal that comes to Seattle Animal Shelter, whether it is an owner surrender, a stray found within the city limits of Seattle, or an animal seized as part of a cruelty investigation, must be admitted.

Seattle Animal Shelter gained its no-kill designation around 2009. It determines its live release rate using parameters set by Shelter Animals Count. Seattle Animal Shelter has had a low cost spay/neuter clinic since 1982, a foster program since 1998, and a volunteer program in the shelter since the late 1990s, before most city shelters had similar programs.

The shelter’s fantastic foster program is a key reason why the shelter does not have to euthanize animals for lack of space. Foster parents willing to take animals into their homes open up spaces at the shelter for incoming animals, plus they reduce the stress of cats and dogs waiting for their forever home.

More recently, Seattle Animal Shelter has started a fospice (foster hospice) program, where animals near the end of life who would typically not be considered adoptable can spend the remainder of their days resting comfortably in volunteers’ homes instead of in a shelter environment.

Kara Main-Hester, the Deputy Director of Seattle Animal Shelter, confirms that Seattle Animal Shelter is a different place than the “pound” you once knew.

“We’re having a lot more conversations about ‘unadoptable’ animals,” reports Kara.

At one time, dogs that had bitten a human were considered unadoptable, and that is no longer necessarily the case. “We’re talking more about what is the individual dog doing in terms of their progress? What is an adoptable dog in terms of our community?”

Seattle Animal Shelter is considered a model shelter for other municipal shelters to look up to nation-wide: to achieve and sustain no kill status as a city shelter is a difficult task, and speaks to the outstanding work of the staff and volunteers there.

Disa Emerson, the Behavior Program Director at Seattle Humane in Bellevue, WA, confirms that the discussion around behavior has changed a lot in terms of determining which dogs are considered adoptable.

Seattle Humane’s live release rate is approximately 98%, meaning they are also classified as a no kill shelter. According to Disa, there is a different definition now of what types of dogs are considered candidates for rehabilitation. “It used to be that if a dog had bitten and broke the skin, it was not considered a candidate for adoption,” Disa notes. “Now, we consider different factors: Was the bite provoked? Was the dog trapped?”

Seattle Humane is a private shelter, meaning it does not adopt out stray animals, and accepts animals on a case-by-case basis. Often, the intake team at Seattle Humane will suggest foster-based rescue networks or other resources to families surrendering their animals to try to minimize their shelter time.

Seattle Humane will sometimes accept groups of animals from high-kill facilities in other states, or from shelters in areas impacted by disaster. This provides the animals a chance to be adopted in the Seattle area, where there is a greater concentration of homes ready to adopt a rescue animal, versus potentially being euthanized in their home state simply due to lack of space there.

“A shelter needs a leadership team that is on the same page in order to do this kind of work,” Disa points out. “We’re able to do this kind of work at Seattle Humane because of support from our leadership.”


Reading the Fine Print

While the Asilomar Accords and Shelter Animals Count have helped bring clarity to definitions and reporting in animal welfare, there is still a lot of gray area that some shelters exploit to their advantage. There is no certifying body that bestows a “no kill” label to an animal welfare organization, so some shelters are using less than ethical metrics when calling their organization “no kill.”

For example, some organizations have questionable interpretations of the Asilomar Accord’s terms “healthy” and “treatable.” In some shelters in the South, an animal with kennel cough may be considered untreatable (animals with kennel cough at Seattle Humane and Seattle Animal Shelter are treated and later adopted on a regular basis). Some animal shelters in Colorado euthanize all “pit bull” type dogs that enter their shelter rather than attempting to adopt them out, and refer to them as “unadoptable” because of local breed bans.

These shelters often do not count these “untreatable” or “unadoptable” animals towards their counts when determining their live release rates. In other words, they are euthanizing large numbers of dogs that would be considered adoptable companion animals in the Pacific Northwest.

Is a 100% Save Rate Possible? Taking a Look at the Bigger Picture

By all accounts, the animal welfare work being done by Seattle Animal Shelter, Seattle Humane, and numerous other organizations in the Pacific Northwest is progressive and impressive. Why then, is the live release rate not at 100%?

There are some cases in which an animal is not considered adoptable for health reasons.

Shelters like Seattle Animal Shelter have outstanding programs such as the Help the Animals Fund, which provides medical care for animals who are sick and injured (and would likely be euthanized at other shelters). However, some animals are so elderly or ill that euthanasia is the most humane option for them. In fact, some owners bring their animals to the shelter with the express intent to have them euthanized there rather than in a veterinary setting.

In addition, there are some cases where an animal is not adoptable for behavioral reasons.

When Seattle Humane considers whether or not an animal will be accepted as an adoption candidate, there are certain behaviors that indicate that a dog has a poor prognosis in terms of rehabilitation, and is not a safe companion animal to adopt out to the public.

I ask Disa Emerson for some examples of behaviors that would make a dog be considered unadoptable: “If a dog had attacked another animal and bitten it, picked it up, and shook it; a dog doing egregious bodily harm to a human with a bite; a sustained attack on a person; a bite history characterized by a lack of warning; or a bite history where it was fuzzy what was triggering the bites.”

For members of the public seeking to surrender an animal with such a history, they are informed that the dog will not be an adoption candidate at Seattle Humane. They can choose to surrender the dog and have it be euthanized, or they can choose to not surrender the dog and seek out other options.

What are the options for somebody who owns a dog with such a history, other than euthanasia?


Sanctuaries: Safe Haven or Life in Prison?

I ask Disa if there are any reputable sanctuaries in Washington State that provide a forever home for animals with such extreme bite histories. “No,” Disa replies, “Partly because of the amount of resources that have to go in to running such a sanctuary.”

Such sanctuaries are actually far and few between in the whole country. Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah, part of Best Friends Animal Society, is one example that comes to mind. Approximately 1,600 animals live at the sanctuary, some searching for their forever home, and some destined to live the remainder of their lives at the sanctuary. The sanctuary offers with a high degree of transparency, offering visits for animal lovers.

In the 1980s, when Best Friends Animal Society was forming, approximately 17 million animals were euthanized in shelters every year. Best Friends Animal Society formed a coalition to work together with other animal welfare organizations across the country to strive towards no kill practices. Due in part to their efforts, over 30 years later, the euthanasia of companion animals has reduced to about 800,000 animals a year, an astounding drop of 91%.

However, reputable sanctuaries that provide a high quality of life for unadoptable animals are few and far between. There are not nearly enough of these facilities to house all of the animals that are not appropriate companion animals.

Unfortunately, some people seeking a sanctuary as a humane alternative for euthanasia may be sending them off to a facility that is anything but humane. One local example of a sanctuary gone wrong is Olympic Animal Sanctuary in Forks, Washington. Steve Markwell, the owner of the sanctuary, advertised it as a place that would take the “worst of the worst” dogs from around the country and referred to it as a “last chance for bad dogs.”

Although the sanctuary listed its primary exempt purpose as “prevention of cruelty to animals,” former volunteers came forward in 2013 to report animal abuse occurring on the premises. Further investigation showed more than a hundred dogs living in filthy conditions inside a warehouse setting, fed only once or twice a week, and often deprived of clean water.

Most of the dogs were eventually rescued by other organizations and/or placed into homes. Several of them died due to the conditions.

Markwell was eventually jailed due to damaging a car with a protester inside, and is also under investigation for violating charity statutes in the State of Washington.

The city of Forks is working on legislation to prevent people from owning so many dogs in the future. Although this may prevent more tragedies in the Forks area, there is far too little regulation of animal sanctuaries nationwide. While some organizations may start taking in animals with the best of intentions, there is a line between running a humane sanctuary and hoarding animals in inhumane conditions that should not be crossed.

Some would argue, “Well, at least the animals are alive.” But what kind of life is this, really? When the line between responsible sheltering and hoarding is crossed, people who have surrendered their animals to these “sanctuaries” in hopes that their animals can safely and peacefully live out the remainder of their life have little legal recourse. Hoping to select the most humane option for their pet, if an owner is not careful, they could be signing their companion up for years of suffering.

What’s an Animal Lover to Do?

Animal welfare and rescue has made great strides in the United States in the past several decades. Here’s what you can do to continue to help save more lives:

  1. Be a responsible pet owner. Spay and neuter your pet. If you do choose to breed your pet, be a very intentional (rather than accidental) breeder with a good enough grasp of genetics, behavior, and socialization to raise animals that both further the breed and are great companion animals.
  2. Adopt your next pet! I always encourage people to adopt rather than shop! There are many fantastic animals waiting in shelters for their forever home. But if you are choosing to shop, do so very carefully. Accidentally supporting irresponsible breeders contributes to overpopulation, and ultimately, euthanasia.
  3. Support reputable shelters and rescue groups by donating or volunteering. There are some rescue organizations and sanctuaries that are not scrupulous and have unethical practices. For instance,  some rescues do not properly vet their animals, spreading disease. Other organizations even obtain their “rescue” puppies from puppy mills or auctions, which further encourages irresponsible breeding practices. Here’s what you should look for in a reputable organization:
    • They should vet animals (animals are given vaccinations before going home and are neutered).
    • They should behaviorally assess animals/look at behavioral history to determine if they are appropriate companion animals. If an animal has a bite history or behavioral problems, they should be forthcoming with the potential owner.
    • They should be clear on where animals are coming from (not mills or auctions).
    • There should not be absurd mark-ups (please note that rescues do need to charge a fee to cover the vet care, housing, and food for the animal).
    • They should take animals back if owner does not want/cannot care for them any longer.
    • They should have ethical husbandry and behavior practices; no abusive treatment should be occurring. Animals should have reasonably good quality of life while in their care.
    • They should carefully screen adopters to try to find a good match.
    • They should have a reasonably positive reputation in the community in which they operate.
    • They should be transparent about their save rates, how they calculate their data, which animals they consider adoptable, etc.
    • They should use their resources responsibly. Use charity watchdog groups to check and see how funds are being spent.
  4. Consider fostering! Fostering an animal is a great way to help local shelters create more space. It also helps an animal be less stressed until it can find its forever home, and can yield valuable information about how that pet behaves in a home setting. Most organizations will pay for food and vet bills for the foster animal, and many will also loan supplies like bowls, beds, etc. If you are short on money but have the time and desire to help shelter animals, fostering is a great choice!
  5. Educate others about responsible ownership, responsible rescues, and the true nature of animal shelters.
happylab

I hope that if you take away anything from this blog post, dear reader, it’s that the world of animal welfare is not black and white, “Kill” and “No Kill.” The truth is much more nuanced. In reality, “No Kill” is just a label. It’s up to a potential adopter or donor to learn more about an organization to determine if it’s a reputable cause doing great work for animals in the community.

While this post has covered some sobering topics, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that animal shelters and rescues have come a long way from where they were decades ago. The changes that have occurred in the field of animal welfare, and the increasing number of animal lives saved, are commendable. Animal welfare work is a difficult job; let’s continue to give shelters and rescues our support in saving lives.

Bias/conflict of interest disclosure: Jennifer Gumas has been involved with rescue and shelter work for over a decade. She has been a volunteer with Seattle Animal Shelter and Seattle Humane, both of which are featured in this article.

Works Cited:

“About Best Friends Animal Society.” Best Friends Animal Society, 20 Dec. 2018, bestfriends.org/about-best-friends.

Burnside, Jeff. “Man behind ‘Sanctuary of Sorrow’ Dog Shelter Goes to Jail.” KOMO, komonews.com/news/local/man-behind-sanctuary-of-sorrow-dog-shelter-goes-to-jail.

Greenwood, Arin. “What’s a ‘No-Kill’ Animal Shelter? The Answer Is More Complicated than It Seems.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 23 Jan. 2017, www.washingtonpost.com/news/animalia/wp/2017/01/23/whats-a-no-kill-animal-shelter-the-answer-is-more-complicated-than-it-seems/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.6fbeb46a0b78.

Harmon, Kelli. “Seattle Animal Shelter: This Is What Sustainability Looks Like.” Best Friends Magazine, 2018, pp. 20–20.

“Olympic Animal Sanctuary.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 23 Oct. 2016, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olympic_Animal_Sanctuary.

“The National Database Project.” Shelter Animals Count | 2016 Animal Sheltering Statistics, shelteranimalscount.org/home.

Recommended Reading for Shelter Workers and Volunteers: Lipsky, Laura van Dernoot., and Connie Burk. Trauma Stewardship: an Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009.

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