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Pacelle: Open Admission is Inhumane


For the second time this month, HSUS admits that “open admission” is inhumane for healthy cats when the end result is killing. In a blog about community cats by Wayne Pacelle, it is claimed that if shelters are going to take in healthy cats and kill them, it is better not to take them in. The truth is that there is no such thing as an “open admission” kill shelter  as  they are CLOSED to people who love animals, CLOSED to people who might have lost their job or lost their home but do not want their animals to die, CLOSED to Good Samaritans who find animals but do not want them killed, and CLOSED to animal lovers who want to help save lives but will not be silent in the face of needless killing. And so they turn these people and their animals away.  Nonetheless, it is an important step forward because,  at least for healthy cats, one of the great lies of the kill shelter industry, that “open admission is more humane” even when it results in killing, has fallen. The change in rhetoric is more evidence that the No Kill movement has so successfully changed the terms of the debate, HSUS is  finally  starting to admit that the problem lies with the shelters themselves—a literal about-face from the positions HSUS has unequivocally and historically advocated. If the current blog is  a shot across the bow to killing shelters that HSUS is moving away from defending shelters that kill animals to defending animals who shelters kill, I welcome it. Unfortunately, it is too soon to say that it is. And Pacelle’s blog is still wrapped in some antiquated dogma about cats, still far  behind where the No Kill movement is today, and is notable as much for what it refuses to say, as it is for what it has no choice but to finally admit. I review and comment on his blog below, a copy of which was mailed to Pacelle.

Are We Herding and Hurting Cats?
Wayne Pacelle
September 12, 2013

Every now and then our movement has an “aha” moment – when new information emerges or  new thinking causes us to question long-held assumptions, or even how we approach the complex  challenges facing animals in our society.

Wayne, since nothing here is “new information,” you are either being dishonest or admitting that you have failed to keep pace with 20 years of dynamic and exciting changes that have occurred in the field of animal sheltering as a result of the No Kill movement. As I do not believe you will ever admit you have chosen to sacrifice the lives of animals while remaining willfully ignorant, I am going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume the former. The truth of the matter is that while your shift in positions is welcome, it is not the result of “new” information. These are views and arguments No Kill advocates have been making for decades and imploring you to adopt for just as long. What has changed is that the position you have historically taken on this issue is no longer tenable in light of the fact that the grassroots rescue community and hundreds of shelters nationwide have moved ahead without HSUS, embracing these views in spite of your opposition and therefore no longer regarding HSUS as an “expert” who should be deferred to for guidance. Claiming to be an organization that represents the best interest of animals while tenaciously supporting a century-old form of animal sheltering entrenched in killing cannot be reconciled with an American public that rejects that killing. With three out of four Americans already believing it should be illegal to kill animals in shelters unless those animals are suffering or dangerous (and the fourth likely confused by the claim you have historically made that killing is both necessary and proper), any organization hoping to maintain a “leadership” position on this issue must, by sheer economic necessity, evolve their position.


The issue is not complex. Killing a healthy or treatable cat has never been an act of love, kindness or necessity. It has always been an act of violence.

We had one such moment at The HSUS a few years ago, when during the Hurricane Katrina crisis, we saw so many intact dogs and cats in the Gulf Coast states. Rather than presume “pet owner irresponsibility,” we instead dug in to find out why – deploying researchers to conduct surveys and focus groups and to gather and examine data. What we learned from  that research  – notably that socioeconomics, resources and access to services were at the heart of the problem – ultimately formed the core principles behind our pioneering  Pets for Life  program. People in neighborhoods with high numbers of stray animals are as receptive as anyone else to responsible pet ownership and the importance of spaying and neutering. Giving them the tools to act on their beliefs is the key to better outcomes.

Since the 1970s, when the City of Los Angeles established the first municipally funded spay/neuter program in the U.S., we have known that the biggest barriers to sterilization are cost and convenience. In fact, despite four municipal clinics running full time due to overwhelming demand, private vets were still performing 87% of all neutering in the City because the clinics were being used by poor people who could not otherwise afford to sterilize their animals. Since that time, numerous studies have come to the same conclusion: cutting the cost of sterilization increases the number of people who sterilize their animals. Are you seriously suggesting that you only figured this out in 2005? That would be an admission that HSUS only pretended to be an “expert” all those years. Or, as I suspect, are you simply employing a sophomoric rhetorical device to introduce a change in your historically regressive positions, rewriting history without an admission of wrong doing?

Our movement may be at the front-end of another “aha” moment with regard to how we respond to the un-owned outdoor cat population. When these so-called “community cats” arrive in shelters – whether brought there by nuisanced or well-meaning neighbors – their fate is often predetermined, and it’s not a good one. What’s more, the volume of cats coming into shelters isn’t enough to reduce the size of the cat population, and the only conclusion is that we aren’t doing much to help curb nuisances (You should not legitimize human intolerance by ascribing ill-motives to cats), cruelty (non sequitur), or predation on wildlife. The notion that cats are decimating wildlife populations has been thoroughly debunked for decades. Do we have to wait another 40 years until HSUS has an “aha” moment about this? When you ignore the data and continue to unfairly blame cats for predation on wildlife, you validate the ends of various anti-animal agendas which already exist, including those interest groups which currently scapegoat and call for mass extermination of community cats by unfairly blaming them for the environmental degradation caused by humans. The only time you should mention predation and cats at the same time is to debunk that agenda.

Dr. Kate Hurley, a veterinarian and the director of the  Koret Shelter Medicine Program  at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, joined me and several other sheltering leaders on stage at this year’s Animal Care Expo to take a deeper look at this situation – questioning whether the goals of animal shelters are met by the intake of otherwise healthy stray cats (Dr. Hurley penned the cover story in the current edition of  Animal Sheltering  magazine and recorded a Maddie’s Fund  webinar  on the same topic, which I recommend to you for further investigation).

I asked Dr. Hurley and her colleague, Dr. Jennifer Scarlett, veterinarian and co-president of the  San Francisco SPCA, to help me answer a few of the most common questions that have come up as we navigate toward a new paradigm for community cats – one that holds the potential to be better for cats, wildlife, and people.

Wayne Pacelle: Though total numbers have gone down over the last 40 years pretty dramatically, we are still euthanizing too many healthy and treatable dogs and cats in our country. Euthanasia rates vary by region, but increasingly, there is a widening gap between dogs and cats, in terms of outcomes for them. Cats are dying in shelters in big numbers, and especially so as a percentage of intake of cats. What’s behind this phenomenon?

Jennifer Scarlett:  When we look at statewide data in California from 1998 to 2010, we see a trend of dog intake going down and dog adoption and transfer to rescue going up. The result is a 22 percent drop in dog euthanasia over that period. For cats, their intake was slightly higher in 2010 with negligible change in adoption or transfer to rescue. So with more coming in and fewer leaving, and a euthanasia rate of around 70 percent, the situation has not improved. We’ve applied the same techniques for dogs and cats in shelters and what we’re learning is that not only do we need to treat them very differently once they enter a shelter, but we also need to look at different methods for keeping healthy cats out of the shelter in the first place.

It is no coincidence that it was higher right after the Governor suspended the 1998 Animal Shelter Law that increased holding periods for cats so that they could be reclaimed and adopted before they were killed. Now, largely thanks to HSUS and its partnership with regressive California shelters, cats are killed within 72 hours of impound.

Kate Hurley:  A lot of it likely has to do with ownership. The population of un-owned cats in the United States is estimated to be approximately the same size as the population of owned cats, yet historically shelter programs such as low-cost spay/neuter, public education and adoption programs have targeted animals with owners or those that could be placed into homes. Because the un-owned population of dogs is relatively small in the U.S., this strategy has been quite successful in many communities. However, for feral and un-owned cats, we need a different strategy.

Statements are not evidence. Admittedly, I used to believe this also, but the truth is that this is made up, like the HSUS statement that two unaltered cats results in 420,000 in seven years. The best data we have is that the number is probably closer to 15,000,000, a far cry from the 90 million companion cat population.

We have HSUS to blame for this as you have historically argued, and in fact continue to argue, that shelters should not be regulated and that they have a right to kill animals even in the face of readily-available, common-sense lifesaving alternatives they simply refuse to implement.

WP: What shelter policies need to be revamped to turn this around?  

JS:  The vision for shelters must be to provide a temporary safe haven for animals in need. The policy to get there is to balance our optional intake of animals (owner surrenders, healthy stray cats) with our ability to provide them with good care and positive outcomes.

While we agree that shelters should not take in healthy cats only to kill them and so we embrace the view that “open admission” is not better when the end result is killing, this view, while an improvement, is also based on outdated thinking. The fundamental lesson from the experiences of the now hundreds of cities and towns across the nation is that the choices made by shelter managers are the most significant variables in determining whether animals live or die. Several communities are more than doubling, and in some cases tripling, adoptions and cutting killing by as much as 75 percent and more—and it isn’t taking them five years or more to do it. They are doing it virtually overnight (the vast majority of communities with save rates between 90% and 99% achieved it in six months or less). They are proving that communities can quickly save the vast majority of animals once they commit to do so. In other words, shelters do not have to choose between killing cats or not taking them in as you suggest. They can take in cats and also save them. But since many prefer killing in the face of readily-available lifesaving alternatives, a “right” to kill you yourself have said shelters have, we’d rather they not take them in. Let’s not, however, continue to pretend they have no choice but to kill if they do. It’s as dishonest as your “aha” moments.  

KH:  For years, shelters have struggled to control the un-owned cat population primarily through euthanasia. Now that we have better estimates of the size of the un-owned cat population, we realize that shelters have only been impacting a tiny fraction of the total population through euthanasia, not nearly enough to reduce the overall population size, not enough to protect public health, wildlife, reduce the cat population or serve any of the other goals we might have hoped to realize through this practice. Now that we understand this, shelters can set euthanasia aside as a tool to control cat populations and focus on other alternatives – most notably, shelter/neuter/return – where healthy un-owned cats that would not be candidates for adoption are sterilized, vaccinated for rabies, ear-tipped and returned to the same location where they were found. Shelters can also help community members find strategies to co-exist with cats peaceably, just as we do with other creatures such as raccoons and opossums that might make an unwanted appearance in somebody’s back yard.

WP: Where do we start in making these changes, and what obstacles do you expect in trying to implement these ideas?

JS:  There isn’t a ‘one-size fits all’ solution. (This is not true. Every community that has ended the killing of healthy and treatable animals has done so by implementing the programs and services of the No Kill Equation. Once again, please do not make us wait several decades while animals continue to die needlessly for you to have an “aha” moment about this.) To begin, each shelter has to take an objective look at their capacity to provide positive outcomes for the animals that enter their facility. The common thread is to reduce intake, but the tactics for change can run the spectrum from managed intake to diverting all healthy cat intake to neuter and re-release, depending on the community. I believe the first obstacle to tackle is within our profession. Making the shift to control shelter populations at the front door may be a huge cultural change for some communities. Leaders who decide this is the best solution for their community have to be ready to invest a lot of work and communication to get their staff’s buy-in, respond to the public’s concern, and be willing to work with local wildlife advocates. The good news is that results will be worth it.

See note above. While I agree that responsibly reducing intakes, such as through a pet retention program and TNR for community cats, is important, it should be implemented as part of a comprehensive embrace of the No Kill Equation. In other words, this is just one part of the total picture. You cannot continue to ignore what shelters can but are not doing to save cats once they are in their custody. Specifically, you fail to focus on three of the most important programs to save lives: increasing adoptions, getting more lost animals home (through proactive reclaim efforts), and keeping cats alive long enough to do both.

KH:  I agree with Dr. Scarlett. One of the biggest obstacles for me, and I suspect for many others – both within the sheltering profession and for animal lovers and advocates in general – will be getting past the idea that admission to a shelter is always the best option for a cat who is homeless or whose owner can no longer keep him or her. For so long, it was commonly felt that shelters had to take every cat presented, as soon as it was presented, regardless of the shelter’s ability to provide humane care or ensure a good outcome. Anyone who has worked a summer in a shelter can tell you this is stressful for staff and volunteers, as well as cats! Instead, we need to consider each cat’s unique circumstances and balance these with what is happening at each shelter on any given day. When admission of a cat would cause over-crowding, poor conditions for cats in the shelter, or result in euthanasia of the newly admitted cat or another already in the shelter, then cats, shelters and communities are better served by finding alternative solutions. This could range from simply scheduling an appointment rather than immediately admitting the cat; to admitting the cat for sterilization, vaccination, and return to its habitat; to offering a community member or owner other alternatives to shelter intake, such as utilizing low-cost spay/neuter resources in the community, using non-lethal deterrents to resolve nuisance problems, behavioral counseling, neighbor mediation, or any number of solutions we can offer when systems are not overwhelmed.  

Wayne, I welcome the philosophical orientation away from the notion that in order to reduce shelter killing, we must reform the public rather than those who are actually doing the killing. I also welcome the admission that “open admission” is not better when the end result is the killing of cats. Better late than never. However, you are claiming that your thinking has changed based on “new” information and since you know that isn’t true, it continues a pattern of duplicity.

Second, you are still speaking from both sides of your mouth: on the one hand saying outdoor cats should be left alone rather than impounded and killed, and, on the other, implicating outdoor cats as a “nuisance,” suggesting that it is cruel for community cats to live outside, and blaming cats for impacting wildlife populations, none of which is true or based on evidence.

Third, you are making the claim that it is better for shelters not to take in healthy community cats because if they do, they will have no choice but to kill them. That is not the choice presented. Shelters can take them in and also save them, as hundreds of communities across the country have proved.

Fourth, you need to stop pretending that a solution to shelter killing does not already exist. It does. See the No Kill 101:

Finally, it isn’t enough to quote others who say these things as a means of insulating yourself from any backlash by your regressive shelter colleagues. We need to hear it from your mouth. Say it Wayne: “shelters should never kill healthy and treatable cats.” Let it be your words, not just Kate Hurley’s.

Despite all these shortcomings, if this, and the companion California Sheltering Report (see, are a shot across the bow to killing shelters that HSUS is moving away from defending shelters that kill animals to defending animals who shelters kill, I welcome it. I would just ask that you not make us wait 40 years to do so, like your Katrina “aha”  moment about spay/neuter, because the longer you wait, the higher the body count.

Wayne, the truth is that the No Kill movement has moved beyond the superficial and defeatist hand-wringing of HSUS to recognizing that shelter killing is not an inevitability imposed onto helpless shelters, but a problem with a real solution. And we also recognize that if you were truly sincere and willing to take a principled stand, you‘d stop speaking from both sides of your mouth. In other words, this isn‘t the blog you would have written. What would you and HSUS do differently?

For one, you would report to the public and shelter administrators that No Kill has been achieved, require full implementation of the No Kill Equation nationwide,  and demand the removal of shelter managers who refuse to do so. You would celebrate the communities that have achieved levels of No Kill success so that others could emulate their achievements. You would argue that No Kill is the only legitimate standard for animal sheltering and must be immediately embraced by all shelters. You would assist activists trying to reform their shelters rather than fighting them-even when doing so means confronting a shelter director who may be your friend or colleague. You would stop rewarding failing shelter directors with speaking engagements, with features in their magazines, with national awards, or with hundreds of thousands of dollars to be squandered. And you would invest some of your huge resources in lobbying for codification of No Kill into law, rather than fighting those efforts as you currently do.

That is how a leader, truly committed to the cause he is supposed to be championing, would behave. Instead, we get a modicum of progress swathed in a blanket of antiquated dogma that is still far behind where the No Kill movement is today: a statement that is notable as much for what it refuses to say, as it is for what it has no choice but to admit.

For further reading:

The Life of a Wild Cat

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

What if We Just Gave Them Away?


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