No-Kill Confusion

I recently watched a YouTube video that demonstrats the confusion that people have about no-kill.   The author of the video, Kitten Lady, wrote, “Did you know that baby kittens can still be killed in a “no-kill” shelter? Watch my video to learn about how the standards in the Asilomar Accords fail to protect the tiniest and most vulnerable felines. It’s important for the public to know that even in “no-kill” communities, kittens still need our help and protection! ”

For the most part, Kitten Lady was right on about the struggles that animal shelter faces in trying to find homes for all of their animal guests, but she really missed the boat with she described the Asilomar Accords as an insurance policy.  The Asilomar Accords is a system to describe the health of an animal at intake and disposition.  Its intent is to provide a better understanding of decisions that are made toward an animal.  The shelter makes its euthanasia decisions based on the animal’s health, as well as overcrowding conditions and resources.  As I mentioned in the previous post, kitten season, the decision to euthanize kittens is the result of all of these factors.  The Asilomar Accords only provided a definition as to the kitten’s health condition at the time.  Being no-kill has little to do with whether an animal shelter kills kittens; it is about reducing their euthanasia to 10% of their total intakes.  Many shelters have programs that provide for the fostering of infant kittens.  Many kittens pasted through my home and I’ll be damned if anyone was going to euthanize them.

I suspect that video bloggers “stretch” their story to get people to watch their videos.  If they stretch it far enough, it becomes fake news.  It may also be a teaser for an new book that she is writing.

Kitten Season

The onset of kitten season is one of the most dreaded times for animal shelters.  Kitten season is one of the greatest factors that makes or breaks an animal shelter calling itself a no-kill shelter.   And demonstrates the nasty side of mother nature by flooding the animal shelter with kittens two to four times each year, many of the kittens being neonatal (unable to eat without assistance).  Factors that regulated the severity of kitten season are access to food, climate, and communicable diseases.

Although population is the primary limiting factor in are area’s carrying capacity, providing an additional food source will extend the carrying capacity beyond its natural limits.  As long as there is an adequate food source, cats will breed.  People who are feeding outside cats are providing the cats with incentive to continue to reproduce.

The northern states are more likely to have fewer breeding cycles due to harsh weather.  Freezing temperatures serve to discourage a breeding cycle or kill any young offspring.   The fewer breeding cycles provide the shelter with few incidents of shelter overcrowding.

Communicable diseases (usually feline panleukopenia) will usually kill off many kittens shortly after birth.  The disease also presents a major risk to the animal shelter as the community and local animal control officers bring in diseased cats at a time when the shelter is at its greatest capacity.  It is not uncommon to read new reports of animal shelter having to euthanize their entire cat population to rid the shelter of potential vectors while the shelter undergoes a disinfecting process.

All of these factors will cause the increase in euthanasia at the animal shelter.  If the number of euthanasias drive the number of total deaths over ten percent, the shelter loses its right to call itself no-kill.

When Going the Extra Mile is Not Enough

I have had the opportunity to participate in the evaluation  of animal sheltering over the past 30 years.  We migrated from index card record keeping to computer systems that post photos of lost pets on the Internet.  I have always encouraged my staff to go the extra mile in getting a pet back to his or her owner.

The evolution of the pet owner has evolved to recognizing the importance of spaying and neutering (in most of the country); but pet owners have not become better a vaccinating their pets or taking the initiative to look for their lost pets.

Animal Shelters are receiving less annual intakes due to spay/neutering efforts.  Shelters are not less crowded because animals are being held longer in hopes of finding them a new home.  Pit bull dogs are the greatest problematic breed because the breed occupies 50 percent of the kennel space in shelters.

When I first got into the business of animal welfare, a university veterinary professor told me the best way to control disease in an animal shelter is to not overcrowd the shelter.  Overcrowding causes stress to the animals and the maintaining a large number of animals will likely introduce disease.  As a result of the no kill movement, shelters are maintained in a state of overcrowding and as such shelters are frequently battling disease outbreaks.  If pet owners had previously vaccinated their pets, we would see fewer disease outbreaks.

The most notable issue that we see in animal shelters is the failure of pet owners to look for their lost pets.  The usual excuse is that, “He is always getting out and eventually comes home.”   The most important factor in being a pet owners is that the own should be smarter than their pet.  Pet owners should be able to create an escape proof yard.  I suspect that many pet owners are just too lazy to go looking for their lost pet, in many cases pet owners report they learned about their dog being in the shelter through a friend or social media.

In most of the country, animal shelters maintain a three day holding period.  Most reasonable people would realize that their pet is missing in three days and go to the shelter.  The three day period is sufficiently short that the animal is unlikely to breakout with a disease by coming into the shelter unvaccinated.  The owner can deal with the symptoms when they get home.

In an effort to cater to local communities, some shelters extend the holding periods up to 10 days.  Even with the longer holding periods, many pet owners find the time too short.  The problem with longer holding periods is that an unvaccinated pet may start showing symptoms of disease during day 5 or 6.   The animal shelter is then faced with treating the animal’s disease and becomes a risk to other animals.

Nothing is more upsetting than to have an animal owner reclaiming their sick lost dog on day nine and blame shelter staff for the animal’s illness.  It is easier to announce how dirt the shelter is with disease infested animals, than to admit that the owner didn’t see the importance of vaccinating their pet.

Due to the nature of animal shelters, there will ALWAYS be animals with diseases in them.  If you are not going to vaccinated your pet, then you should make sure that your pet never ends up in an animal shelter.  The only way to keep disease out of an animal shelter is to shut its doors to incoming animals.

Most animal shelters recognized the deficiency of pet owners in vaccinating their pets, so they vaccinate the pets on intake.  The problem with vaccinations is that they don’t begin to take effect for six to seven days and it is minimal affect at that.  So why do we bother vaccinating?  It is all part of going the extra mile for the animal.

Now it is time for pet owners to start going the extra mile for their pets.  They can begin by placing identification on their pets and begin looking for their lost pet within the first 24 hours.  The shorter the time an animal spends in an anima shelter the safer the animal will be from disease.

No Kill Announcement

One of the greatest desires of an animal shelter is to announce that they have met the criteria to call themselves No Kill.  It is a feel good moment for the shelter.  But there is often a backlash to such public declarations.

Many years ago, a shelter in northern Florida announced that it had gotten to the place where all healthy (without medical or behavioural problems) animals were being adopted.  The public misinterpreted this to mean that the shelter was no kill.  This misinterpretation lead to an increase of owner surrendered animals.  Owners are relieved of their guilt my surrendering their pets to a no kill facility.  We became overwhelmed.

The City of Austin experienced problems early on when they announced that they were no kill and all of a sudden they were being overwhelmed by people bringing in animals from surrounding countries.  So the tax payers in the City were taking on the expense for animals that were coming in from outside their jurisdiction. 

Sometimes we are so eager to announce a joyous occasions that we forget to prepare for its impact.  Many animal shelters announce that they are having an adoption event and frequently they will intake more animals than they adopt because people see an adoption event as a good time to surrender their pet guiltfree. 

The Cost of No Kill

There are many costs associated with no kill:

The definition of no kill

The term “no kill” is misleading.  Many people believe that the term means that every animal at an animal shelter is saved from death.  A rational person would realize that shelters deal with critically sick and injured animals and that a humane euthanasia is necessary.  In the early days of the no kill movement, organizations accepted a ninety percent live release rate as acceptable; so, any shelter releasing over ninety percent could call itself no kill.

Today, there is more pressure to increase the live release rate to something near one hundred percent.  So, the meaning of “no kill” is not clearly defined.

Financial costs

The no kill leaders contend that there are no costs associated with no kill.  Austin Texas is a good example as to proving how wrong they are.  Austin wanted to be the first major no kill city in American.  Austin had to build a new shelter and each year has had to contribute more funding for staff.  Volunteers are now complaining that the shelters are too full and that the staff cannot maintain humane care, so they are faced with another dilemma as to whether they have sufficient funds to build another shelter.

The cost to public safety

As the no kill movement progresses, more and more media is directed at animal shelters ignoring public safety.  Reports of animal shelter workers mauled by dogs in their care and adopters facing a reality that shelter staff failed to report aggressive tendencies of their new pet.  Many areas of the country are facing raising concern about the integrity of adoption organizations providing false information about the previous aggression that a dog has shown.  It became such a problem in Virginia that the Commonwealth had to create laws to make it illegal to lie about an animal’s history of aggression.  So another cost associalted with no kill is the loss of integrity of adoption organizations. 

Programs like managed intakes is a method shelters used to force owners and people finding stray animals from surrendering the animals to the shelter.  As a result many of them turned away from the shelter just release the animal to run loose in the country.

Lies, damn lies, and shelter statistics

Speaking of a shelter’s integrity, the no kill movement has led shelter managers to manipulate their intake and disposition statistics to make the shelter appear to have a higher live release rate.  The idea is that if a shelter cannot attain no kill status in real life, maybe they can on paper.

One shelter in Florida received national recognition for taking the domestic cats that they receive and returning them back into the community as stray cats.  The debate is whether it is better for the animals to have a chance at living or if they are creating a way that the animals will slowly starve out on the streets.  Either way, it is a great boost to their no kill statistics.

Public relations

It is interesting that an animal shelter director was taking heat in one locality for putting the public at risk, only to be hired by another locality to further their cause towards no kill.

The public is very vocal, but the public is not always right.  Shelter directors are always under pressure to have the highest live release rate.  That pressure causes them to make bad decisions.  As those bad decisions become worse, shelters are being sued for endangering the public (another financial cost).

It is becoming increasingly more difficult for animal shelter directors to make the decision to protect the public because the public demand seems to stop euthanasia.  We are a community of people seeking something to be enraged about, stopping euthanasia has all of the makings of being a good cause; except, it is based in ignorance. 

Cost to the animals

The initial cost of no kill is finding space for all of the animals.  Space is a constant.  Some shelters seek methods to keep animals out of their shelters (see the blog on managed intakes).  Most shelters just stockpile them.  I suspect that is the present concern with the Austin shelter.  Once a shelter begins stockpiling animals, more animals suffer abuse either through attacks by other dogs or lack of care.  It always becomes an issue of humane care.

More and more shelters are forced to take in animals from the same folks who have been rescuing for them.  Shelters and rescues seem to be unable to understand their maximum capacity.  As the number of animals increase, the stress to those animals increase.

I have always found it odd that the no kill movement leaders keep claiming that there is no pet overpopulation.  They tell us that it is a myth.  That folks like me are fabricating the myth to justify euthanasia.  After all, we can always make room for one more… can’t we?

Cost to the Five Freedoms

The purpose of animal welfare is to protect animals from unnecessary suffering:

  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst by ready access to fresh water and diet to maintain health and vigor.
  2. Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
  3. Freedom from pain, injury or disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
  4. Freedom to express normal behavior by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
  5. Freedom from fear and distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering

As shelters strive to become no kill, many times they have to compromise on our pledge to hold to their five freedoms.  It is very noble to try to save all of the animals in our shelters, but it should not be at the expense of the loss of humane care.

Social Media, the Back Story

It is no secret as to my feelings about social media.  I see it as a medium to turn normal people into bullies; to provide a soapbox to liars.

I have to give the no kill movement credit for turning me against social media.  The movement turns animal shelters into battlegrounds when the leaders of that movement encouraged volunteers to turn against the shelters that they volunteered for.

Volunteers are told that they were protected when speaking out against euthanasia as a first amendment right.  They are told stories of how volunteers speaking out made the difference.  They are told to take control of their shelter.  The movement’s intent is to turn animal shelter volunteers into no kill activists.

Most stories of volunteers “getting out of control” begins with the euthanasia of one or more animals.  Due to longer holding periods, it becomes more and more critical for animal shelters to provide enrichment programs to keep animals calm.  Those programs (like walking the dogs) work on most animals, but some just don’t respond to being caged for long periods of time.

Volunteers bond with the animals while taking dogs for walks.  The dogs bond with the volunteers.  In rare cases, a dog will only accept the volunteer; while aggressive to others.  When a dog becomes aggressive to animal shelter staff, a decision needs to be made concerning the dog.  If the decision is to euthanize the dog, the volunteer will not understand and might lash out at the people making that decisions.

In lashing out, the volunteer will garner support from other volunteers and create petitions, create narratives on social media, go to the local media and may even organize protests.  Their intent is to demonstrate to shelter management that volunteers should be feared.

The no kill movement has a motto that if you can put enough pressure on a shelter manager, they will leave.  If you go through enough managers, eventually you will get one that you like.  One who will place animals before people.  One who will ignore aggressive warning signs in dogs to adopt them out to families.  One who will do everything that he/she is told to do by the volunteers.

It appears that I am not alone.  A NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that 57 percent of Americans believe social media sites do more to divide the country and 55 percent said that the sites are more likely to spread lies and falsehoods.  The poll said that 61 percent thought that social media did more to spread unfair attacks and rumors against public figures and corporations.

Managed Intakes

Many animal shelters continue to fight their statistics to reach or maintain their status as a no kill shelter.  Most shelters that reach a 90% live release rate is considered no kill; but, there is a movement afoot to demand a live release rate of over 90%; many (uninformed) individuals believe a 100% live release rate is possible.  To attain higher live release rates shelters would have to adopt critically ill or injured animals as well as vicious animals.

The live release rate is controlled by intakes and dispositions.  Intakes are controlled by the number of people delivering animals to the shelter and those animals impounded by animal control officers on the streets of your community.  In some communities, animal control officers provide taxis service to people claiming that they have no transportation to take their pets to the shelter; even though a new model automobile is sitting in the drive way (they just don’t want to get the upholstery dirty.

Dispositions are the various outcomes that remove animals from the animal shelter’s inventory.  Dispositions include euthanasia, which is the disposition that most people object to.  Animal shelters have gotten good at explaining the justification for euthanasia, but shelters face those who armchair quarter back those decisions.  The primary way to reduce euthanasia is to control intakes through a mechanism called “managed intakes.”

People have gotten used to being able to dump their pets at the animal shelter for the most ignorant reasons: granny is coming for a visit, the pet doesn’t match the furniture; but mostly, the pet is too much work.  In order to maintain the flow of pets into the shelter, people are asked to wait for an opening.  I believe pet owners should play a role in the surrendering of their pet; but I do not believe that people finding stray animals should have to be placed in queue to turn in a stray.  This is happening fairly frequently at shelters.  Pet owners and people finding strays are left with few options in dealing with strays and problem pets.

One of the rules with animal adoption agencies is that an adoption agency will always accept back a failed adoption.  In Roanoke Virginia, our local humane society would use a process to force people into long wait times to return a pet that was not working out; they would direct the person to the public shelter to surrender the pet.  Once surrendered to the public shelter, at the humane society’s convenience, they would determine if they would “rescue” the pet back.  It was a contentious issue because the public shelter was always at capacity and the humane society operated at half capacity.  But, I digress…

With the high influx of animals coming into a facility, shelters devived a mechanism to bring the flow to a trickle and called it Managed Intakes.  For the first time, pet owners were forced to see the impact of their decisions and were told to wait for a better time.  During the waiting period, pet owners would be encouraged to find a different solution, maybe even take their pet to training to solve behavior issues.  Mostly, pet owners just called animal control to report their pet as a stray.

There are a few success stories as a result of shelters using this tactic, but due to the nature of people, Managed Intakes just push your intakes on to other organizations.  When people make up their minds that they have to get rid of their pet, there is usually no changing their minds.

Communities that are dealing with high euthanasia, the solution may not be an issue of poor shelter management; something else in the community could be impacting the situation.  The no kill movement is not concerned as to how your shelter has gotten to the place of high euthanasias, they just want to blame the shelter staff.  Shelter staff are now pushing the problem on through new mechanisms to manage their intakes; sometimes exasperbating the problem of stray running loose in your community.

The Problem with No Kill

It is a noble cause to find homes for the homeless pets in our communities.  I would never attempt to hinder the adoption of adoptable animals.  In the completion between animal shelters to declare their organizations as no kill, we have created hostilities between organizations.  The No Kill Movement has caused an isolation between adoption organizations.

The dynamics of becoming no kill is quite simple: increase adoptions or decrease animal intakes.  In Florida, our humane society wanted to declare that they were no kill, so as to access grants that are only available to no kill organizations.  In order to accomplish their no kill status, they chose to stop taking in stray animals.  The intakes increase at the public shelter at a time that the shelter was already beyond capacity.

The No Kill Movement is ineffective unless it is viewed from a big picture view.  One organization in a community claiming to be No Kill is worthless if all of the other organizations in that community are overwhelmed.  I am always amazed at the criticism that a public shelter receives from local no kill shelters that refuse to accept animals.

The admission status of a shelter seems to get lost in the condemnation that public animal shelters receive.  It is easy to be a no kill shelter when you can control what animals that you are willing to accept.  It is more difficult to be an open admission shelter in which you are expected to accept any animal that shows up (at any time).  It is easy to become overwhelmed in an open admission shelter.

The pressure on open admission shelters is great and has caused many of them to try no kill tactics.  The most common tactic is to attempt to reduce animal intakes.  They first started by trying to reduce owner surrendered animals.  Pet owners soon saw that in order to give up their pets, they would need to claim that their pets were strays.  Shelters then began to require that people had to make an appointment to surrender an animal.  When appointments were weeks or months out into the future, people saw that it was unreasonable to even attempt to surrender a stray pet.  People were left with releasing the pets in the parking lot of the shelter. 

This strategy takes an odd turn.  Although the shelter refused to accept the animal, they would quickly prosecute an person releasing the animal in their parking lot, charging them with animal abandonment.  All the while, the animal shelter views themselves as the good guy.  The purpose of a public animal shelter is to house stray animals, to keep them from being a nuisance or a danger to the community.  The No Kill Movement has caused communities to have more animals running loose.  It is a sad day when animal control officers have to turn a blind eye to the stray dog that runs out in front of their vehicle, because there are no open kennels in the shelter.

The No Kill Movement has forced people to turn a blind eye to the community problems that created public animal shelters in the first place.  Up until now, the No Kill Movement has only pitted one shelter against another.  The Movement is ineffective until it can announce that an entire community has become No Kill.  However, becoming a No Kill Community is not the end game; when the City of Austin announced it had gained no kill status, all of the surrounding communities began to flood Austin’s shelters with animals from adjacent countries.  Our end game is to become an No Kill Nation.

No Kill Equation

Those associated with the No Kill Movement have created a number of elements that they have identified as necessary for an animal shelter to become no kill.  They view this as an all or nothing arrangement; you either commit to every element or you will be declared as a lazy uncompassionate shelter director.

The equation is pretty simple: to reduce euthanasia at your shelter, you must reduce animal intakes and provide for more positive outcomes.  But, getting there becomes a little more complicated.

Reduce Animal Intakes

The first order of reducing the pet overpopulation is to reduce the breeding of pets through low-cost sterilization programs.  As the number of unwanted pets in the community are reduced, fewer will find their way into your shelter. 

Pet retention programs provide resources to pet owners to show alternatives to the dumping of their pet on the shelter when they lack financial resources to care for their pet or wisdom to deal with behavioral problems associated with their pet.

A few shelters are so committed to becoming no kill that they have resorted in shutting their doors to the intake of animals.  People finding stray animals are force to keep the stray until such time as it is convenient for the shelter to receive the animal.

Increase Placements

In my experience, I have found that creating rescue partners is the most successful avenue for the placement of pets in the shelters that I have directed; however, it is critical that a watchful eye is on those rescues to prevent them from getting into a hoarding situation.

Mobile adoptions are a project for volunteers.  The idea is to take animals from the shelter and deliver them to a highly visible area of your city to be viewed by the public.  Petsmart is always open to using their stores for adoption events.

Adoption Ambassador programs allow foster parents to screen potential homes for the animals in their care.  The main problem with this program is similar to a foster to adopt program where the animal is in a permanent home, but is on the shelter’s records so the shelter has to flip for the medical expenses on the whim of the person keeping the animal.  Also, people who foster animals tend to have stricter standards for giving up their “babies” to a new owner.  Be prepared for a lot of complaints from potential adopters that want a foster animal.

When all else fails, you can offer free adoptions.  Since people purchase on impulse, you should create strict guidelines for those who adopt a free pet.  It is critical that person has sufficient income to support day to day care for the animal and necessary medical needs of the animal.

Health Condition

Fifteen years ago it became clear that the only statistic that people were interested in was the number of animals that left the shelter alive.  It was clear the people did not understand the dynamics as to how shelters work.  Euthanasia was frowned upon from a statistical point of view; after all, we were dealing with living creatures.

All animals were grouped the same, so an animal shelter would be criticized for the animals surrendered by their owners to be euthanized for medical, behavioral and age related conditions.  Even today, animal shelters will refuse to take animals from owners so as to not have to deal with  the criticism that goes along with having a high euthanasia rate.

It became clear that keeping sick, injured, or old animals alive for statistical purposes was not humane, so in 2004 a group of people gathered together to create the Asilomar Accord: a way to classify an animal’s health condition at intake and at outcome.

Animals fell into four health categories: healthy, treatable, manageable, and unhealthy.  The classification gave a better window into the dynamics of a shelter’s statistics.  The classification system also aided shelters in their evolution to becoming no kill.  Shelters could focus on saving all of the healthy animals, and then move on to saving the treatable and manageable animals; leaving only the unhealthy (untreatable and unmanageable) animals to deal with.

An interesting aspect of the classification system was that animals could change health conditions during their stay at an animal shelter.  Sick animals abandoned by their owners could be nursed back to health and later adopted.  Healthy animals could develop behavioral problems associated with long confinement.  It became necessary to assess the animal’s health condition at the time of disposition.

If an animal’s condition degraded, the new health condition was recorded.  If the animal’s condition improved the animal’s health condition was unchanged, so that shelters could show statistically the role they played in helping unhealthy animals find new homes.

At the time that the Asilomar Accords was created animal shelters were not dealing with the overwhelming population of pitbull dogs in shelters.  In some cases the pitbull breed represented over seventy percent of dogs in a shelter.  We entered a time when the shelters were full of healthy dogs, but the community had ruled the breed as too great a risk with breed restrictions in rentals and insurance companies refusing to insure the animal.

In order to avoid euthanizing a healthy animal, shelters were forced to keep the dogs until such time as they displayed behavioral problems associated with their confinement.  Shelters then created enrichment programs that would delay the onset of confinement related behavioral problems in hopes of one day finding a home for the animal.  It became normal for animal shelters to hold animals over six months as dogs learned to cope with their confinement.