An Act of Will

On my Facebook page, I received the following comment:

I LOVE what you are doing and I know that the No-Kill approach is the only real solution and is the wave of the future. However, I don’t understand the attitude that “any shelter that has ever euthanized has people who just didn’t try and don’t care.” I know from experience that that is NOT true. I volunteered for quite awhile at a rural Georgia shelter (a few years ago). It was open-admission. We had a large foster network and were constantly advertising for more fosters (and every single foster home was always SLAM full); we took animals to adoption events EVERY weekend; we had a “pet of the week” article every week in the local newspaper; we kept our “petfinder” site meticulously detailed; we utilized every “no-kill” approach that I know of; and still, the flow of animals into the shelter ways always MUCH greater than the flow out. Because of lack of donations, we were forced to share space with the county-run Animal Control; when Animal Control got a call to pick up a stray, the law required that they HAD to go get it and bring it to the shelter—space HAD to be made. We did as much shuffling and pleading and wrangling on these days as much as possible; but these were the days that led to healthy animals getting euthanized. When this happened, it broke the hearts of the ladies involved, who would cry for days. It was a tragedy. But I know that we tried as hard as anyone could, and we were simply unable to be no-kill—even though that’s what we all would have wanted more than anything. It’s not true that people involved with kill shelters don’t try and don’t care. Anyone who thinks that should spend at least a month volunteering at a rural shelter in the South.

It was a comment worthy of a comprehensive response. My response is not mean to attack, so it should not be read that way. I’ve had a very productive dialog with the commenter. I only wanted to share it more widely because I think a lot of people who care deeply about animals also buy in to the belief of the inevitability of killing.

I, too, believe that No Kill’s full conquest of the status quo is inevitable. But I disagree with all the other assumptions and conclusions in the comment. I disagree with any insinuation, either overt or implied, that while No Kill is the “wave of the future,” we can’t be a No Kill nation today. There are now plenty of communities that prove otherwise and it didn’t take them five years or ten years to do it. They did it virtually overnight. These communities also once had shelter directors and staff who said they had no choice but to kill and perhaps some really believed that. But history has proven them wrong. And even if they firmly believed it, and even if they cried when they did it, from the standpoint of the animals killed, I don’t think it matters whether those were real tears or crocodile tears. I suppose perhaps we should judge them differently or forgive them for what they did in ignorance. But I can’t shake the feeling that it is not for me or anyone else to forgive them for believing in the inevitability of killing, however wrong they were or are, when we are not the ones paying the ultimate price for that belief. The reality is that the animals were still killed needlessly, their lives taken from them based on a myth of too many animals, not enough homes. And whether sincere in their belief or not about the “need” to do so, the animals are still dead. I guess I’d rather have the sincerity than the laziness and uncaring, but those aren’t the only two choices are they?

I’ve said this often, but it bears repeating, that there is nothing unique about those communities which have achieved No Kill. They, too, once killed. They, too, once claimed it was inevitable. In some cases, they, too, were regressive, neglectful, and even cruel. The only thing that changed was that someone took over and said “enough.” I guarantee that if the commenter visited one of those communities today, she would see that the shelter she describes did not do everything they could. They might have thought they did, but the reality is that when you take killing off the table, it forces you to be incredibly creative and innovative and that is what these shelters are. It is one thing to say “we had a volunteer program.” It is quite another to have 3,000 active volunteers. It is one thing to say “we foster animals.” It is quite another to say that 1 out of every 4 animals spent time in foster care because that is what was needed to prevent killing and so that is what was done. In fact, because she says the shelter had a “lack of donations,” as if that was imposed rather than a result of their own lack of comprehensive marketing and fundraising efforts, I say this confidently. For too long, shelters have had this reactive mindset, as if all they can do is respond the best they can to what is imposed on them from outside. “We ran out of foster homes.” “We ran out of volunteers.” “We ran out of adopters.” “We ran out of cages.” “We ran out of money.” Not enough foster homes, volunteers, adopters, money are just typical excuses used to justify killing. And none of them need be true.

The ASPCA, an organization which does very little for animals relative to their ability, which in fact fights to allow killing to continue despite alternatives, takes in over $120,000,000 per year. HSUS spends $100,000,000 every year and keeps getting richer, even while Wayne Pacelle takes fully funded trips to private villas in Italy, paid for by the philanthropic contributions of unsuspecting donors. The money is out there.   The homes are out there—over 23 million people looking to get a new pet every year compared to 4 million being killed in U.S. shelters, of which many do not even need a new home. They need other things, such as TNR, pet retention, or proactive reclaim efforts. The volunteers and foster parents are out there, too. Ask the shelter in Reno or Charlottesville. By being proactive, you can decrease the number of animals coming in, you can increase the number reunited with their families, you can increase the number of adopters and rescue partners, the number of volunteers, the number of foster parents, and yes, the number of dollars coming in to allow you to do more of everything.

That is why I will never accept the false notion that anyone HAS to be kill. I took over an open admission “rural shelter” where I was told people didn’t care, that they didn’t adopt, that they saw animals as disposable, that they refused to spay/neuter, where the number of animals coming in exceeded the number of animals going out, in a shelter that was running a $124,000 a year deficit due to “lack of donations.” But I refused to kill, could not bring myself to do it, did not want to do it, could not make the walk from kennel to morgue with a creature who thought we were going for a walk and so would not order any of my staff to do it either.

I won’t underplay it. That first year was incredibly challenging. But having taken killing off the table, it was also a year of incredible creativity, of will, of heart, of guts, of long hours and lots of stress, of being on-call 24/7. But the volunteers rose to the occasion (they were the ones that first said enough!), the foster parents rose to the occasion, and the rescue groups rose to the occasion. Some of the staff didn’t, so we had to replace them—a 50% turnover in the first six months. But the rest of them did, as did the new ones we brought on. We built up the infrastructure, we built up our programs, we reached out to a community that supposedly didn’t donate, care, spay/neuter, foster, or adopt and they rallied behind us. Because when the community saw that we didn’t kill, that we rejected killing, that we refused to kill, they also rose to the occasion. They did donate and they did volunteer and they did adopt. And we reduced killing by 75% to become the safest community for homeless animals in the U.S., in the process also erasing the deficit in one year, finishing the following year with a $23,000 surplus. That community has been No Kill ever since—for eight years running now. And it was as bad as any shelter when I started. Just read one volunteer’s account of the Tompkins County SPCA before I got there by clicking here.

I’ve also worked with, consulted for, assessed, and/or visited shelters in every region of the country. That is why I have no reservation stating that uncaring and neglect is endemic and epidemic in animal control. But, although the commenter claimed it as a direct quote, I have never said what was attributed to me that “any shelter that has ever euthanized has people who just didn’t try and don’t care.” I never said it, for one, because I would never use the word “euthanized” to describe killing, as the word “euthanize” cannot provide a thick enough gloss to conceal the disturbing, awful truth. Nor have I ever said that every, single person who works in a killing shelter is uncaring. And I also don’t agree that the South has it on other parts of the country in terms of sheltering challenges. All one has to do is visit the Central Valley of California or the “shelter” in King County (Seattle), Washington to know that.

We must also face the fact that even kind-hearted people who work hard might not be fit to run shelters where lives are at stake. Hard work is a prerequisite to running a shelter, caring about animals is a prerequisite, but neither is sufficient by themselves. Running a shelter requires people who refuse to compromise their principles, who have the requisite skill set to get the job done without killing, who never reach for the needle when the animal is neither hopelessly ill or injured, irremediably suffering, or a vicious dog with a poor prognosis for rehabilitation—no matter how many there are and no matter how long it takes to find them a home. Each and every one of them is an individual with a right to life, and each and every one of those animals deserves individual consideration that gives that right meaning. Not everyone is cut out for that. Just because someone loves animals and works hard doesn’t mean they would make a good shelter director. I’ve no doubt that they’ll do a better job than most of the directors out there because those directors don’t love animals and don’t work hard. But better than what we have now is not enough to overcome the historical problems and institutional inertia that exists in most animal shelters.

Unfortunately, some people are accustomed to such a terribly low standard of performance that they feel satisfied with efforts far below those needed to truly achieve No Kill. It sounds like the shelter in Georgia did more than most. But it didn’t do enough. And saying it did better than many, even most, isn’t necessarily saying much. Nationwide, our shelters are little more than poorly run, mismanaged, assembly lines of killing. There has never been accountability. Historically, when shelters turned to the large, national organizations for guidance, they’ve not received assistance in order to effectively gauge their performance. They have not been given life-affirming protocols to follow in order to improve their lifesaving results. They’ve been told that they are doing a good job, that they are heroes, and that the killing is not their fault. In other words, the advice that does come from the ASPCA, the American Humane Association, and HSUS is harmful and counterproductive. In fact, to this day, HSUS, the ASPCA, and AHA refuse to admit that No Kill communities exist. They have no idea how to achieve it themselves. And when given the opportunity to do so, they actively fight against it.

Indeed, just two weeks ago, I did a radio interview in New York City where the Vice-President of Companion Animals for AHA was also interviewed. As those who read my blog know, it was a jaw dropping experience for many reasons, not the least of which was her claim that we need to adopt out 2.4 billion animals—six hundred times the number being killed—to end the killing. But her ignorance did not stop there. When asked how we should measure a shelter director’s effectiveness, she said she didn’t know but that most shelter directors she knows “care.” How are we to judge whether a shelter is doing all it can? AHA can offer nothing but meaningless platitudes.

These are the “experts” shelters have been turning to for decades. These are the organizations whose advice is considered the gold standard. That is why poorly run shelters are the norm. Why killing is the norm. And local activists—lacking personal experience of a truly well run shelter—settle for too little, and accept the outcome of inadequate efforts as proof of the impossibility of the goal, rather than as what it really is—an inadequate effort.

So they accept the killing as inevitable. They accept the piecemeal, stymieing, ineffective approach of the large national organizations that continue to push the goal line five years out after every five year plan fails to achieve the promised results. And, as a consequence, some advocates do not have an accurate sense of the widespread potential for a No Kill nation that exists today and which is the birthright of every animal who enters a shelter.

As a result, killing is accepted as a “solution” even when it is the most extreme and violent of all possible responses to an animal who ends up in a shelter. It is seen as a logical outcome when its mere suggestion should inspire shock, horror, and incredulousness, as well as resourcefulness. As long as shelters keep it as an option, the necessary alternatives—the work necessary to create those alternatives—will not be realized.

As I’ve stated so many times before, No Kill starts as an act of will—a bold assertion that killing is no longer an option, and that humane, life-affirming solutions will be employed instead. And in more and more communities, that is exactly what is happening. It is an incredibly exciting time in the No Kill movement. The number of shelter directors who are seizing this opportunity and transforming their shelters is truly inspiring. It is the goal of the No Kill Advocacy Center, and our No Kill Conference, to continually bring their success to the public’s attention in order to both inspire other directors to do the same and highlight to activists what is truly possible, what they should be fighting for in their own communities, and how they should settle for nothing less. As the large, national organizations sit idle and listless, fighting our efforts at reform, denying the problems in our nation’s shelters that are so glaring and overt to animal lovers, continuing to deny that No Kill communities exist despite their increasing numbers, we are building an alternative consensus without them. And we are building the necessary infrastructure to move all our shelters out of their dark, regressive orientation and into the brighter future we know is possible.

Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.