The Association of Shelter Veterinarians (ASV) is an industry organization representing, as its name suggests, veterinarians who work in a shelter setting. In some shelters, it is veterinarians who have the final say as to which animals live and which animals die, and so the responsibility this organization bears to keep its members fully informed about and philosophically receptive to lifesaving innovation is tremendous. Yet tragically, it did not live up to these duties when it published a draft statement on “The Use of ‘No-Kill’ Terminology.” Regrettably, the draft embraced a view of animal life as cheap and expendable, championed thoroughly disproven misperceptions about the No Kill movement while remaining willfully blind to the tremendous successes achieved by shelter veterinarians working in those communities which have already ended the killing of healthy and treatable animals.

 

As the draft statement typified, too often, industry associations tend not to embrace progressive positions that reflect the most innovative and successful aspects of the group they represent. They tend not to aspire to a brighter future and greater accountability, but to defend poor performance and antiquated operating procedures. In the case of sheltering and the ASV, this entrenchment comes with deadly results.

 

But there is hope. The ASV asked for public comment and in response to those comments removed the draft. But since they have indicated it will be revised, I am making the letter in opposition I sent on behalf of the No Kill Advocacy Center public. In it, I also offered a complete revision of their draft. For those who want to send in their own comments to ensure that the final version reflects the best of the profession, you can do so to info@sheltervet.org

smokey1
 

August 3, 2015

Brian DiGangi
ASV Position Statement Committee Chair
Association of Shelter Veterinarians
3225 Alphawood Dr.
Apex, NC 27539

Dear Brian,

The No Kill Advocacy Center is a national animal protection organization dedicated to ending the systematic killing of animals in “shelters.” Our advisory board includes the most successful and accomplished past and current shelter directors, shelter veterinarians, animal lawyers, and shelter reformers. We have assisted dozens of communities across the country achieve save rates in excess of 90% and have consulted with some of the largest and best known shelters and animal protection groups across the world. This letter is in response to your request for feedback to your draft statement on “The Use of ‘No-Kill’ Terminology,” enclosed herein for easy reference, dated July 2015.

As the draft statement typifies, too often, industry associations tend not to represent the best of their profession. They tend not to embrace positions that reflect the most successful accomplishments of their members.  They tend not to aspire to a greater future, but to defend an antiquated past. They legitimize the most regressive factions within their industry and they hold back progress, often with deadly results. History is littered with such examples.

In the 1970s, for example, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) opposed the endorsement of municipal and SPCA-administered spay/neuter clinics that provided the poor an alternative to the prohibitively high prices charged by some private practice veterinarians. Despite the fact that low-cost sterilization services aimed at lower income people with pets had a well-documented rate of success in getting more animals altered and reducing the numbers of animals surrendered to and killed by “shelters” in a community, the AVMA would not agree to any program that threatened the perceived profits of veterinarians, even though users of these clinics could not afford traditional veterinary services. In 1986, the AVMA also asked Congress to impose taxes on not-for-profits for providing spay/neuter surgeries and vaccination of animals at humane society operated clinics. It has successfully opposed legislation and litigation that would allow families to get damages beyond market value even in cases of wrongful injury and death because of reckless veterinary malpractice. And, to this day, the AVMA refuses to unequivocally condemn the use of the cruel gas chamber to kill dogs and cats. In short, while historically claiming that it is motivated by ensuring the greatest care for animals and the people who love them, it has — time and time again — opposed the actions necessary to ensure that very outcome.

We do not, however, need to reach into history or to other organizations for such examples. Despite the growing success of the No Kill movement and the unassailable proof that communities across the country can save all healthy and treatable animals, in excess of 95% of all intakes, in 2010, the Association of Shelter Veterinarians (ASV) adapted the “Five Freedoms” from a related movement into the shelter environment. According to the ASV, shelter animals are entitled to freedom from hunger/thirst, discomfort, distress, pain/disease, and freedom to express normal behavior, but they are not entitled to freedom from being killed, which the ASV did not support. Not only is freedom from being killed the most important freedom of them all, but none of the other “freedoms” are possible without it. How can you ensure that animals are allowed to express normal behavior if they can be killed? How can an animal have any freedoms when any or all of them can simply be taken away by killing? Moreover, in a shelter environment, experience has shown that those shelters with highest rates of killing are the most likely to be plagued by rampant cruelty and neglect of the animals in their care, as well. Where there is no regard for life, there is little regard for welfare.

In failing to acknowledge this sad truth and what is necessary to overcome it — shelter reform — the ASV draft statement displays a total ignorance of the dynamic and innovative changes occurring in the field of sheltering as a result of the No Kill movement. It ignores the fact that there already are municipal shelters across the country saving all healthy and treatable animals with none of the dire consequences the draft statement falsely implies are the natural outcome of refusing to kill. According to one of those shelters, which currently saves 98% of all animals, “As an open admission shelter, we care for the young, the old, the healthy, the injured, and everything in between, including several special needs and some very hard-to-place animals that would be killed in other shelters.” And they are not alone. Roughly 1,000,000 people now live in communities saving at least 98% of the animals, while 9,000,000 people live in communities saving between 90% and 99% of animals. Said one: “We figured out how to save over 97% of ALL our animals in an open admission city pound… In my experience, animal advocates arguing that we ‘have to kill’ animals (followed by the usual excuses…) is false… Kill shelters are on the way out. Modern, high achieving shelters are going to make sure of that.” (For a comprehensive list of communities saving in excess of 90% of animals, visit saving90.org.)

Moreover, such communities span a wide range of geographic locations and socio-economic demographics. They include Northern and Southern communities, large cities and small towns, those that are relatively affluent and those with high rates of people living below the federal poverty line, as well as those which are both politically conservative and those which are politically liberal. Despite those differences, they share the dedication of their shelter leadership to implement a series of programs and services, collectively known as the No Kill Equation, which provide proven, humane and life-affirming alternatives to killing. When comprehensively implemented with integrity and determination, these shelters eliminated killing very quickly; the vast majority in six months or less and in some cases, overnight.

In other words, it is simply not true, as the draft claims, that, “Euthanasia of companion animals is a tool to prevent animal suffering” when applied to healthy and treatable animals. First, “euthanasia,” by its very definition, only applies to animals who are irremediably suffering. As such, the ASV is claiming “No Kill” is misleading through its own false and misleading statements. Second, and more importantly, killing a healthy or treatable animal is not an act of kindness; it is an act of violence. In fact, it is the ultimate act of violence, because the animals are gone, forever. It is killing, plain and simple. The term No Kill, when applied with integrity, is therefore hardly “ambiguous” if it is interpreted to mean what it says (see, e.g., No Kill Advocacy Center, No Kill 101, http://goo.gl/DvztgL, for a more in depth discussion of its definition and limitations) and is consistent with percentage proxies using data from a wide range of sources. (See, e.g., No Kill Advocacy Center, A Lifesaving Matrix, http://goo.gl/RPUhc4.)

It is also not true to state “euthanasia [sic] of healthy and treatable companion animals is sometimes utilized in order to maintain a shelter’s capacity for humane care.” Once again, that is killing, not “euthanasia,” and does ensure “humane care,” but rather, the most extreme and inhumane of responses: killing.  Second, such a view ignores foster care, rescue partnerships, and other strategies to increase shelter capacity, which are all employed by successful No Kill shelters in lieu of killing when space limitations occur, as they inevitably do from time to time due to the very nature of the industry. Third, it ignores both data and experience proving that when shelters comprehensively implement lifesaving programs, they can responsibly increase adoption and reclaims, reduce intakes, keep animals with their responsible caretakers, and thus save all the lives at risk. (See, No Kill Advocacy Center, The Myth of Pet Overpopulation, http://goo.gl/peFGqW.)

In addition, by comprehensively implementing those programs, animal shelters can stop killing and keep animals moving efficiently through the system and into loving, new homes, without having — as the ASV draft false claims — “Animal suffering ensue[ ].” No Kill does not mean poor care, hostile and abusive treatment, and warehousing animals without the intentional killing. It means modernizing shelter operations so that animals are well cared for and kept moving efficiently and effectively through the shelter and into homes. The No Kill movement puts action behind the words implied by every shelter’s mission statement: “All life is precious.” No Kill is about valuing animals, which means not only saving their lives but also giving them good quality care. It means vaccination on intake, nutritious food, daily socialization and exercise, fresh clean water, medical care, and a system that finds loving, new homes. For example, at the open admission No Kill animal control shelter I oversaw, the average length of stay for animals was eight days, we had a return rate of less than two percent, we reduced the disease rate by 90 percent from the prior administration, we reduced the killing rate by 75 percent, no animal ever celebrated an anniversary in the facility, and we saved well over 90 percent of the animals (over 95% using comparative save rate calculations).

Finally, the draft notes that, “the ASV discourages the use of terminology that defines an organization based on euthanasia practices.” In fact, “euthanasia practices” are the single most important determinant in defining shelters. There are shelters that choose to kill healthy and treatable animals, and those that choose not to. Reforming the sheltering industry so that the former become the latter is the highest calling for members of the ASV. In fact, a member of your profession writes that killing healthy animals in shelters is a violation of the veterinarian’s oath to protect animals and prevent suffering: “Veterinarians protect animal life. We do not end it to serve the professed needs of a culture that has not yet become sufficiently enlightened with respect to the welfare of its animals. Until it does, we will not participate in this practice, regardless of what our larger society deems acceptable.” (Dr. Patty Khuly, DVM, Why Veterinarians Shouldn’t “Euthanize” Shelter Pets, http://goo.gl/veFzci.)

Like the larger sheltering movement of which it is part, the field of shelter veterinary medicine is in transition, struggling to reach its fullest potential by overcoming internal forces that for years have prevented progress and substantive action behind what until now has been mere empty rhetoric (“no one wants to kill,” “we all want the same things”). The battle now raging within this field is a battle not of degree, but of kind—evidence of hopelessly incompatible contradictions: one championing death, and the other, life. This tension is vital to help the profession, and the movement of which it is part, reclaim the determination, spirit and goals of its early founders. And it will end only when the need to distinguish between “No Kill” and “kill shelters” no longer exists, because the latter will cease to exist.

That the ASV would continue to operate as though numerous counterexamples disproving the antiquated and now thoroughly disproven misrepresentations of No Kill sheltering do not exist is not only unprofessional, but suggests an alternative motivation than the one the draft position statement posits. A statement which claims to be about ensuring humane outcomes for animals but which champions the continued right of shelter veterinarians to kill them, while simultaneously failing to acknowledge and champion the work of the most successful veterinarians in your field, is not a roadmap to a brighter future for animals, but an entrenchment of a dark and regrettable past. It is crafted, above all else, to shield the worst performing shelter veterinarians from greater scrutiny for their failures. While such veterinarians may value this disavowal of greater accountability and expectations of their performance, such a position is deeply shortsighted and ultimately self-sabotaging to the integrity and reputation of both your organization and the profession.

By championing the right to kill and the antiquated rationales which seek to justify it, the ASV will inevitably alienate the next generation of shelter veterinarians who will increasingly aspire to emulate success, rather than failure. How can the ASV expect to be allowed to continue to speak on behalf of young, passionate shelter veterinarians who will, as the success of the No Kill movement continues to spread, find the agency’s official positions at odds with their own philosophical orientation which favors life over death? If, when seeking professional guidance from the ASV, they find instead a condemnation of their values, a defense of killing — the very thing they seek to overcome — and no genuine assistance as to how they might fulfill their professional responsibilities in the most humane and innovative manner possible, what value would there be for them in continuing to turn to the ASV? The ASV must evolve, or risk the same fate to which its current position statement on No Kill now needlessly relegates millions of healthy and treatable companion animals every year: oblivion.

We ask the ASV to embrace the future, not the past. We ask the ASV to embrace the truly groundbreaking and revolutionary work of the best and brightest shelter veterinarians making a profound, lifesaving difference in their communities, rather than — as the current draft does — protecting and legitimizing the most deficient; those who seek to continue killing long past the point we when figured out how to stop it. Reject the proposed draft in favor of one which reflects the same spirit, optimism and true commitment to animal welfare as the suggested alternative position statement which follows; an alternative which gives meaning to the oath members of your profession have sworn to uphold.

Very truly yours,

Nathan J. Winograd

The Association of Shelter Veterinarians supports the development of animal shelter operational policies based on the most innovative, lifesaving protocols possible. Under this paradigm, differing philosophies which do not recognize the paramount right of an animal to his or her life or the need for shelter leadership, including veterinarians, to implement readily-available and proven lifesaving alternatives to shelter killing are held anathema. The guiding principle in the provision of humane care should always be the animals’ needs, not human convenience, and chief among these is the right to life and to compassionate, responsible care which gives meaning to that right; outcomes which cannot be authentically represented or expressed if an organization’s does not likewise subscribe to such philosophical priorities.

 

Many shelters employ “no-kill” or “adoption-guarantee” terminology to describe humane work.  Shelters across the nation are proving that with the comprehensive implementation of proven, sustainable alternatives to killing, such approaches are effective at ending the century-old model of “adopt some and kill the rest” historically responsible for the death of millions of companion animals every year.  In fact, through the implementation of a series of key programs and services designed to increase adoptions and redemptions, decrease impoundments, relinquishments and birthrates, shelters can achieve save rates in the range of 95%-100% of all animals entering the shelter. Under this new and innovative model of sheltering, no healthy and treatable animals, rigorously defined, are killed.

 

As such, the ASV discourages the use of such terminology for organizations that engage in the following practices: those shelters which kill animals for lack of space in lieu of foster care, partnering with rescue groups or expanded adoption and public outreach efforts; those that kill animals unless those animals are irremediably suffering; or those that permit the killing of any healthy and treatable animal. Far from being humane, institutions which engage in such behaviors have chosen to maintain antiquated operating procedures that disavow and reject viable alternatives in favor of traditional but antiquated protocols that result in rampant killing.

 

In championing this narrowly defined definition of No Kill, we hope to dispel confusion, misperception, and, through our advocacy, encourage a greater embrace of No Kill policies and principles. We hope that the latter will serve to diminish discord within communities resulting from shelter leadership failing to embrace the most progressive and humane models of sheltering, not only to the demise of animals entrusted their care, but often to the great distress of animal lovers, shelter volunteers and rescuers in a community, as well as the general public on whose behalf shelter leadership serve. Indeed, the public in every community has the right to expect that the shelter they fund through their tax and philanthropic dollars will reflect, rather than hinder, their humane, progressive values when it comes to the treatment of companion animals and to give fullest expression to the animals’ inherent right to live.

 

As such, every shelter should be oriented first and foremost in defense of life, rather than finding justifications for continued killing. When employing killing to satisfy the most mundane of needs, needs such as space limitations which can be met by other, humane and life-affirming means such as foster care, rescue group partnerships and expanded adoption efforts and community outreach, animal life is deemed to be held cheap and expendable by those working in the shelter environment, leading not only to habitual, convenience killing, but often poor care and abusive handling as well. By contrast, shelter leadership and shelter veterinarians which model hard work, innovation and a commitment to respect the lives of the animals in their care encourage similar dedication to the animals and the shelter’s mission of lifesaving by his or her subordinates.

 

Failure to do so violates the oath of our profession to protect animals and prevent suffering and is hereby rejected.

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