The Great Debate

When you read this blog title, what did you imagine the controversial topic would be? To be fair, the options are seemingly endless.

I want to talk to you today about something that I can almost guarantee all of our readers will not agree on. The No-Kill Movement. This is a topic that came up during my time at the AFF Internship, and the conversation was an especially deep one, given that we had individuals present from both No-Kill and Municipal/Open-Admission Shelters. I appreciate that AFF takes a neutral stance on all controversial issues, but it was also eye-opening to hear the perspectives from individuals who are in the ‘pits,’ so to speak. Let’s start with the background…

Another photo from AFF!

Another photo from AFF!

The No-Kill Movement

Nathan Winograd is the advocate of a comprehensive movement for animal-shelter reform. Winograd and his supporters believe that no animal should ever be killed for any reason other than to alleviate the animal’s suffering or because the animal is so vicious as to be uncontrollable.

Private Shelters

A private shelter is funded by private donations. The primary purpose of these shelters is to find homes for lost or displaced animals, and provide them with a safe haven until such a home may be found. While specifics may vary, these organizations typically do not euthanize animals for reasons other than health or quality of life. However, no facility is limitless. Because of this, they often only admit animals that would be considered highly adoptable.

Animal Friends, a private animal shelter that is local to our area

Animal Friends, a private animal shelter that is local to our area

Municipal Shelters

A municipal shelter is run by a city, county, or other such public entity. These shelters are funded by taxpayer dollars. They are staffed by government employees, who may or may not have a background or education in regards to animals. Most often, these facilities are required by law to take in any unwanted animal that is brought in, regardless of available space or the animal’s condition.

Manhattan's Animal Care & Control, which is infamous for its conditions

Manhattan’s Animal Care & Control, which is infamous for its conditions

My Perspective

By now you should know that while I always strive to share authentic truths in this space, it would be dishonest of me to claim that the things I write are always without opinion or bias. I am not a journalist, reporting facts for the nightly news… this is my creative space where I attempt to share information that will interest others with similar passions and morals.

You also know by now that I adore my pets more than life itself. There is nothing that I wouldn’t do or give up to make their lives better. More importantly, I believe that the animals sitting in shelters are just as “special” as the ones who sleep soundly, curled up at my feet now, as I type this out to for all of you to read. I believe this so deeply that I reserve much of my life (financially and so far as my time and emotions) toward this cause. For anyone to say that my efforts are not made with the animals’ best interest at the forefront of my mind would be incredibly misguided.

Of course, I would love it if one day, all animal shelters were able to have 99%+ rates of release (meaning, that 99% of the animals that come into the shelter are released into loving homes, as opposed to being euthanized). With all of that being said, it might surprise you that I am not entirely in support of the No-Kill Movement. There. I said it. Now you wanna know why, right?

There are worse things than death

The reality of our world, is that many municipal and open-admission shelters are working with minimal budgets and mediocre facilities. They may operate with a miniscule staff or volunteer base. From experiences shared with me directly from employees in such shelters, animals are often kept in small cages (think of the stacked kennels you see in your veterinary office) and may or may not be walked a few times per week. Yes, you read that right… they are certainly not guaranteed even a daily walk, much less multiple times per day. There are no toys or blankets in their kennels, and kennel enrichment is a non-event. Can you imagine how quickly the dogs’ attitudes decline in such an environment? As for health care, it is procured by the local government worker, who has worked his way up, but boasts no prior experience with animals, and certainly not with veterinary care. This all may sound bad, but can I say that it is not anywhere close to one of the worst shelters in our country? If I told you which shelter it was, you would be astounded.

Don’t forget, these facilities are required to admit any animal that walks through their door. Young or old, sick or healthy, well-trained or aggressive, surrendered or ‘found’ as a stray… any animal must be accepted. Most importantly, these requirements are made regardless of space. There are only so many open kennels in any facility, and if adopters do not come through their doors, difficult decisions must be made. There is truly no other option.

None of us want to see photos like this, but they are a grim reality. This dog is available for rescue in CA.

None of us want to see photos like this, but they are a grim reality. This dog is available for rescue in CA.

It is a community problem

You may have read the above, ready to lay blame on the employees in that facility. But in reality, that does nothing. Those people are performing a thankless task, with endless stress and emotional strain, nights, weekends, and holidays, for very little financial return. Believe it or not, most of them are there because they can’t imagine walking away, and they want to make a difference for any animal they can.

The larger problem exists in our community. This large group of people who still believe that animals are disposable. This isn’t to be blamed on those of a certain ethnicity, in a specific zip code, or of a particular socio-economic status. If there are animals being killed in your community due to improper facilities, lack of homes, or lack of space, then it is a problem we are all responsible for. To me, the biggest problem with the No-Kill mentality, is that if a community has a shelter that claims to be No-Kill, what do they do when they run out of space? Regardless of a shelter’s social designations, each one is simply a collection of rooms in a building, with kennels or runs that end at some predetermined number. There is no magic button to add space! When a No-Kill shelter runs out of available room, they must turn animals away at their door. There is no other option for them, just as there is no other option for the municipal shelters. In this way, they are the same.

The difference is that when a No-Kill shelter turns away an animal, they do not know what happens to it. If it is an animal being surrendered, the owner may find another home for it or reconsider their decision. However, realistically the shelter is their last option, and so all others have been exhausted. Perhaps they take matters into their own hands, and find a way to ‘get rid’ of it, one way or another. If finances are the issue, maybe the animal starves or is neglected and denied medical attention. More positively, they may turn the animal loose or run it off, in hopes that someone will take it in. But most likely? If the animal is not admitted to the No-Kill shelter, the one that usually boasts extensive funding and eye-catching marketing tools, the animal somehow finds its way to the municipal shelter, who will not turn it away. To make room in the shelter for this new dog, space, and difficult decisions, must be made. Do you see how this comes full circle?

Because of this, I believe that until all shelters in a community, both private and municipal, are simultaneously able to boast high release rates and open-door practices, then no shelter should be able to call themselves No-Kill. Maybe these shelters don’t practice euthanasia within their walls, but if it is happening to animals in their community that they have turned away or are not able to accommodate, then they need to recognize that until they are part of the solution, they are still a part of the problem.


A Pittsburgh night walk that raises money for local shelters


I am not suggesting that the No-Kill Movement is a pointless one, or that it is misguided. We have to start somewhere, and their objectives are admirable. Furthermore, I am certainly not suggesting that municipal shelters have it all right, and that euthanasia is our only option. What I am suggesting, is that instead of labeling shelters in this way, taking sides, and pointing fingers, why don’t we all start working toward the same common goal? Let’s stop labeling each other… shelters should not be designated as Kill and No-Kill. These so-called ‘No-Kill’ shelters should not be advertising themselves as such until they are able to pull all At-Risk dogs from the municipal shelters. And perhaps instead of continuing to argue advocate our own missions, we should focus on marketing our adoptable animals, as well as Spay/Neuter programs and other practices that support the eradication of unwanted pets.

I would love to hear from readers on this subject. Did you have a strong viewpoint on this subject before you read my own? If so, what was it, and has it varied at all after you read my thoughts? Are there any facts that I have missed? I look forward to input from you all!

This is the Animal Rescue League of Pittsburgh, our area's only Open-Admission shelter. They admirably claim not to euthanize for space reasons, and advocate very hard for the animals in their care

This is the Animal Rescue League of Pittsburgh, our area’s only Open-Admission shelter. They admirably claim not to euthanize for space reasons, and advocate very hard for the animals in their care

9 thoughts on “The Great Debate

  1. I’ve read many Of Nathan’s books. I agree with EVERYTHING you have just written for us. I support my local shelter. They are NOT a no-kill. They have the hardest job, too many people could never bring themselves to do. They are forced to take in all animals brought to them, although they’re only allowed a certain number in their facility. So, what happens when the number goes over? Some of us know the answer too well:( Rescues are FULL, adoptions are FEW, and the tears down the employees faces are MANY. They do what they have to do. I can’t begin to tell you how many people look at me like i’m a crazy person for supporting this shelter. I say to them, “If you want a change, adopt, volunteer, work there, donate, put yourself in their shoes and then tell me how you feel.” This week we will be bringing home a sweet female Pittie, bring on the opinions, bring them on:)

    • I applaud you for your efforts! I’m sure it’s difficult but it’s the only way to change and make progress! Thank you for your dedication and congrats on your new daughter! :o)

  2. I couldn’t agree more! It may anger people to read this, but I believe death is more humane than awful living conditions whether that be in a tiny cage in a shelter for extended periods of time, in an abusive home, or stuck hopelessly at the end of a chain in a backyard. I think as a nation we should work toward no kill in the true sense, not just stacking more cages as intake increases. It has many factors – reducing the population by controlling puppy mills and through spay/neuter, changing mindsets about pets being throw-away, transporting pets to areas with a higher demand for certain type/size/breed, and educating folks about responsible pet ownership to name a few. I am very fortunate to live in a community with a no-kill municipal shelter. We only euthanize when it’s in the best interest of the pet (severe medical/behavior). We have been awarded for our save rates and practices. I say “we” because I volunteer a lot of my time there doing animal care and photographing pets for our Petfinder/Facebook pages. We have enrichment programs to make their stay more comfortable. Volunteers walk dogs and play with cats. Aside from a lavish sanctuary, it’s not an awful place to stay while pets are waiting for their forever homes. We even have pulled pets from high kill shelters within our state. We have been very fortunate to have donated funding to care for the medical needs too as many municipal shelters don’t budget for that. We have been able to amputate legs, do complicated surgeries, and take care of the every day doggy and kitty colds. I’m not saying we have all the answers and it’s been a long road to get where we are. In a larger community with a much higher intake, I can see it being much more difficult. But I am proud of our shelter and I will invest my efforts to one day see our nation not have to kill for space.

  3. It’s not even a matter of having to make room for surrenders- they can go straight back out the door because there is no hold time for them. Our nearest shelters are municipal high kill, but the rumors about the closest large no-kill shelter are not pretty (I say rumors, but I’ve seen reputable rescues confirm based on their firsthand experience). The municipal shelter they are near gets bashed when they have to euth, but the “no kill” shelter is rumored to drop off animals at the municipal shelter if they aren’t adopted quickly. They only take healthy animals expected to move very quickly – they boast an average of 1 week turnaround. No pits and won’t take it back for life. They probably save many lives, but it is NOT a perfect system and I realize not every no-kill shelter is that way. It saddens me how many individuals won’t admit the community is such a huge problem. The tools are there, and the shelters advertise them but they can’t force people to use them.

  4. I couldn’t agree more. While living in Chicago, I went to a “no-kill” shelter to volunteer and couldn’t believe what I saw. They had a ton of dogs labeled “human aggressive” that I couldn’t even interact with. Because they had been caged for soooo long, they had become incredibly pent-up and kennel crazy. Even with one or two walks a day, these dogs are spending the majority of their time in a small run or kennel, sometimes for years and years. The shelter had about 200 dogs at any given time and many were long-term residents. While I would love to see every single dog end up in loving home, I’m not sure that that’s a reality at this point.

  5. I agree with you. I wish and want so badly for every homeless dog to find shelter and love and I want to buy a farm and take them all in and the dream list goes on and on to infinity. The reality is, that sometimes, letting the animal go is the right thing to do. I believe as humans we must balance that ‘power’ of the decision with the utmost perspective of well being for the animal. The systems put in place at all the above rescue facilities are tested, pushed to extreme limits and at the end of a day i believe (or hope and pray) that most places do the best they can. I have this theory, that if we could just stop breeding dogs for a certain amount of time, that somehow we could get a hold on number of dogs that need rescuing. Thanks for starting the conversation.

  6. I’m sure this comes as no surprise, but I completely agree with you. There are unfortunately some very shady things that go on in the rescue world but sadly the general public is rarely aware of these things. Sure, “No Kill” sounds fantastic, and that’s where most people stop. For me, it always has been, and always will be, quality over quantity. And in order to get to the point where quantity dwindles to the point that all lives all chalk full of quality, we have to do our best to continue educating the public. For a bajillion reasons, we need more community awareness and support. Great post as always!

  7. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this. I could not agree more.

    And let’s not forget how no kill bleeds donation dollars and volunteers away from those shelters who could probably use them the most. To tout the “no kill” label while acting as though all the municipal shelters could all be no kill as well if they just tried a little harder is most disingenuous thing ever and it drives me insane!

    I am much more in favor a shelter aiming for a goal of “low kill” This seems not only a more honest representation to the general public but it also clues one into the fact that they have a realistic view of the rescue world.

    I shudder to think at some of the homes that the Nathan Winograd disciples have released dogs into. Of course I also shudder when I think of the unscreened dogs they have let out the door into the homes of unsuspecting families.

    And for what it is worth I am a seasoned pit rescuer and still the picture of that white dog makes me want to cry. Oh if I only had room for them all!

  8. The post and all the comments have been really interesting to read. I tend to believe No Kill is possible and we should still hold it as the ultimate goal because the shelter system as it is now is not efficient. There are a lot of improvements and changes that can be made to increase the number of shelter adoptions: getting the community more involved with fostering (both for the purpose of space in shelters and for quality of life of the dogs), changing the public’s preconceived notions about pit-type dogs (I would like to know who started these crazy rumors about them anyway- perhaps shelters from long ago who post-rationalized their killing of them, “it was aggressive and that’s why we had to kill it”), petitioning local governments to ban pet shops from selling puppy mill pups and ONLY allowing them to partner with rescues and shelter to offer homeless dogs/cats. The list goes on and on and I can guarantee that most shelters/ rescues have only tried a couple of these tactics. So for these reasons, I can’t stand behind killing dogs/cats because we haven’t tried/ thought/ innovated hard enough to justify death.

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