Killing Shelter Dogs: A Story of Violence

A story in the Boston Globe by Amy Sutherland is making the rounds on social media. It’s called “Saving Shelter Dogs: A Love Story” and it’s an example of how to emotionally manipulate people into accepting wrong opinions. It can’t even be called a fluff piece because it is more than fluff. It’s actually harmful. But people are loving it, some calling it “excellent,” many crying after reading it, and apologists for shelter killing are using it to throw up their hands and conclude that the problem of large, exuberant dogs in shelters is “unsolvable.” It isn’t.

The article tells the story of three dogs the author worked with as a volunteer at the Animal Rescue League of Boston (ARL), which is billed as a shelter willing to go the extra mile, willing to do whatever it takes to save dogs, including surgery. But the reality, according to the author, is that dogs deteriorate at the shelter and after a few months, dogs are killed for their own good because no one wants them. People are irresponsible and dogs, like Happy — a “joyful,” “confident,” and “curious” dog who was passed over too many times until he started acting out and lunging at people, once nipping someone on the hand — are paying the price:

As the steely January skies roll in, the staff take Happy into the auditorium for a game of fetch one morning. They feed him a cheeseburger. Then, seven months after he arrived, seven months from when he thought pigeons were fun and women with big purses were terribly interesting, they put Happy down. No one knows what could have been done, but everyone, volunteers and staff, is filled with remorse.

If we are to believe the author, there are no solutions. Why? People surrender dogs for trivial reasons. They won’t open their homes to many of these dogs. And after a few months in the shelter, they deteriorate to the point where they are “no longer shelterable” and ultimately no longer “homeable” and must be killed. And the people who plunge them full of poison? They are, of course, the heroes who would leave no stone unturned if it meant an animal lived instead of died. They simply do not have the money, the time, or the ability to do so because “No one knows what could have been done.”

She’s wrong. But before I explain why, I do not want to give the impression that the author is being dishonest. A shelter volunteer who provides badly needed socialization for dogs facing death, the author is an eloquent advocate for shelter dogs who are ultimately adopted and clearly believes what she writes (and she writes beautifully).

She could spend her free time doing whatever she wants and thinking only of herself. Instead, she chooses to care for shelter dogs. And not just any dogs; dogs her shelter has tagged for potential killing. That is admirable. And because of the work she and others do, two of the three dogs in the story, the majority the ARL takes in in fact, are “saved.”* And helping save dogs is the work of love.

But that doesn’t make her a subject matter expert on the ones who aren’t saved or why they are being killed, especially if her experience is limited to ARL. And it doesn’t make her piece any less dangerous for dogs who are in shelters that aren’t really willing to go the extra mile or who are looking for reasons to kill dogs. And  just because she just doesn’t know what she doesn’t know doesn’t mean we have to pull punches.

Dogs are being killed. And that killing is being excused. And the reasons she offers as to why are wrong. Here’s what the author doesn’t say.

The Animal Rescue League of Boston Is Immensely Wealthy Despite Its Poor Performance

The Animal Rescue League of Boston is not just one of the wealthiest small shelters in the country. It is arguably the wealthiest. It takes in over $23,000,000 per year and has cash assets of about $100,000,000. And yet it only takes in 3,000 animals a year. It’s a “limited admission” shelter so it isn’t burdened by a constant flow of animals. It has all the money in the world for these dogs. It has all the time in the world for the dogs in its care. And, if it chose to, it has the ability to save these dogs. In other words, ARL has no excuse for killing dogs like Happy.

How is it that there are municipal, open admission shelters saving 98% and even 99% of dogs (and cats) — some taking in over five times the number of animals — on a fraction of the ARL’s budget and with a constant flow of intakes, but the wealthiest, limited admission shelter in the country, with all the time in the world only has a live release rate of 83% (and only 80% for cats)?

The answer as to how other shelters are able to succeed where ARL does not is simple: These other shelters aren’t making excuses. They are putting in place all of the innovative and dynamic initiatives that have redefined sheltering over the last decade. And they don’t blame the public for their failure to do so. For example, Austin, TX’s municipal shelter saved 99% of dogs last month (98% for all of 2016) through a combination of playgroups, rescue partnerships, comprehensive adoption marketing, and a behavior protocol that focuses on solutions, rather than excuses. Like Happy, a small number of dogs have been there for some time, a few over a year, but they weren’t killed by being labeled “no longer shelterable” and ultimately no longer “homeable.” It also took in 9,395 dogs to ARL’s 893.

To get away with it, ARL has to pretend shelters like Austin do not exist. The ARL calls killing for population control necessary because the public is to blame and — without the slightest hint of irony given its own immense wealth — shelters don’t have the resources to do more. With this kind of excuse making, it is little surprise that Boston is not No Kill despite that it is home to the two wealthiest, local agencies in the nation: ARL and the equally wealthy but half-hearted Massachusetts SPCA which not only has the largest veterinary hospital in North America, it takes in more money annually ($61,000,000) and although it has fewer total cash assets, it is still a whopping $87,000,000.

Behavior Rehabilitation Can Occur Quickly

Austin’s  success is no surprise. A review of the literature on resilience in humans and applied to dogs through the pioneering work of the No Kill Advocacy Center, bioethicist Jessica Pierce, and Dr. Karen Overall, the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, demonstrates that dogs are incredibly resilient, that there is no such thing as “irremediable psychological suffering” in dogs, and that all dogs with behavior trauma can be appropriately rehabilitated and/or placed through criteria that depends on the severity of the trauma.

In addition, successfully rehabilitating dogs suffering from even severe behavior problems doesn’t take as long as conventional wisdom would suggest. In one study of shelter dogs with behavioral challenges, including barrier reactivity, fear-based aggression, resource guarding, kennel stress, prey drive, and bite history, 40% of the dogs were in foster care for up to one week before being placed, 48% were in foster care between eight days and one month, and the remainder were in foster between one and eight months. In other words, 88% of the dogs were in foster care 30 days or less before shelter staff determined they were ready for adoption and some of the dogs even had secondary issues including extremely high energy, possible dog aggression, dog selectivity, fear of men, undersocialization, separation anxiety, and reactivity. And yet, the author claims no one will foster dogs who are “fearful” or “skittish” and no one will adopt them. Wrong. Something can’t be impossible if it has already been achieved.

Even in more severe cases, such as dogs facing profound trauma from physical abuse, dog fighting, hoarding, and puppy mills, the average amount of time for rehabilitation in dogs taken in by another shelter was only 12 weeks. That doesn’t mean some dogs don’t take longer. It also does not mean there are not challenges, even immense challenges, to placement. Some of these dogs spend a very, very long time in treatment before they are adopted.

But what it does mean is that dogs are incredibly resilient, we can build resilience in traumatized dogs, and we can—and eventually will—end the killing of all dogs for behavior reasons. In fact, the path to do so is now clear. Doug Rae, the director of the Humane Society of Fremont County in Colorado, is instructive. The Fremont Humane Society runs the animal control shelter for seven cities under contract. Rae also previously ran a private shelter in Rhode Island and “open admission”/municipal shelters in Arizona, Indiana, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, including those taking in as many as 30,000 animals per year. Says Rae:

Over the years, I have rarely seen a truly ‘aggressive’ dog. The vast majority are simply scared. I was speaking with a Board member for a shelter on the West Coast : and she said that her shelter saves 96-97% of the animals and that 3 or 4% are dogs who are aggressive and need to be killed. In my experience, the percentage of truly aggressive dogs I have seen in small to very large shelters is well under one quarter of 1%.

In fact, if Doug Rae is correct, and the most recent scholarship on the issue would indicate he is, less than 1% of dogs fall outside our ability to rehabilitate right now and for them, long-term protective placement such as a sanctuary is a viable option. For the rest, cohousing, playgroups, redesign of shelters, foster care, basic training, improvements in rehabilitation regimens (i.e., moving toward true behavior modification and away from rudimentary concentration on either negative punishment or positive rewards in a way that is nothing more than stimulus control operant conditioning), drug therapy, and other techniques would allow shelters to ultimately place them. And for the ¼ of 1% of dogs who do require longer term care in a sanctuary? ARL can afford to provide that care.

All this is well and good, the author might say, but that kind of rehabilitation isn’t possible in a shelter because it’s the shelters themselves that are “the central problem.” As one shelter leader put it to me,” she writes, “it’s not a question of if a shelter dog will deteriorate. It’s a question of when.” She is wrong here, too. Austin proves that.

Dozens of other shelters saving 98-99% of dogs prove it (as do the few who save 100%, but this is less interesting as eventually, every shelter will get an animal who is truly irremediably suffering).  And so does the scholarship.

Kennel Stress Is Not an Inevitability; It Results From Poor Sheltering Protocols

It will surprise no one that many “dogs experience fear and anxiety immediately upon admission” to a shelter. These are dogs who are used to living in homes or even on the street and then find themselves kenneled in a strange, loud, often dirty, and stressful environment, separated from the home or place and people with whom they are accustomed.

But what is surprising is that the same is not necessarily true for long-term kenneling. Conventional wisdom says that the longer a dog stays in a shelter, the more likely he or she is to become “kennel crazy.” The author certainly believes so. A study of dogs across a dozen shelters in the U.K., however, found that dogs who are given “mental and physical stimulation, time out of the kennel and close interaction with people” are not stressed and the longer they are in the shelter, the less stressed they become.

The study also found that dogs should be able to see (and I would argue, interact) outside their kennel in order to “reduce frustrated attempts to see what is going on beyond their kennel.” Most shelters are designed so that dogs can’t see people and other dogs in neighboring kennels in the hopes that this will reduce barking. Where there is glass, it is usually opaque. Where there are adjoining kennels, they are usually concrete. Where there are fences or bars, they usually face a wall (and include a “do not touch the animals” sign for people walking by). These are mistakes as they are not conducive to dog welfare or their intended purpose of reducing frustration. In fact, they exacerbate it.

Fifteen years ago when I directed the construction of a shelter in Central New York, I worked to make sure the environment we created to house dogs met their needs. It was built with clear glass so dogs could see outside their kennels, added sniff goals so dogs could smell and touch, and added windows and sniff holes between kennels so dogs could also interact with their doggy neighbors. We took in as many animals as the Animal Rescue League on a fraction of their budget. ARL  can clearly afford to do this, too.

A better and ethically consistent future in animal sheltering inevitably awaits us if the No Kill movement can continue to do what it has always done until every last animal entering our nation’s shelters—whatever the species, whatever the challenge—no longer faces killing: overcome the flawed but mutable traditions we have inherited from prior generations.

We won’t do so, however, as long as we continue to offer excuses, especially prettily written, lyrical, golden tongued excuses that emotionally manipulate people into viewing the killing of a healthy dog as a fait accompli as opposed to the immoral, egregious betrayal it actually is. And that is what this story is — a more eloquent way of offering the same excuse pounds have been offering for a century and the No Kill movement has proven false: there are too many dogs, not enough homes, people are irresponsible, shelters are no place for dogs, and the people who have to kill these dogs are kind hearted animal lovers doing the public’s dirty work.

Romanticizing Violence

Unfortunately, the author does not stop there:

When people say to me, “I don’t know how you do it,” or tell me, “I’d adopt all the animals in the shelter,” I joke, “Then you would be an animal hoarder.” But what I think is You don’t know the half of it. When I signed on to work with the red dogs, I unwittingly agreed to work with the ones most at risk of being put down for their behavior. I agreed to step into a shadow, to give my heart to dogs I might never see again for the most final of reasons. Of course the staff have made the same choice, though I wonder if some of the young women who take shelter jobs understand exactly what they have signed up for. I don’t know how they give their hearts away. I don’t know how I do, either. All I know is that we do.

Suggesting the alternative to killing is warehousing, even in “jest,” can only be done by ignoring the protocols of shelters which have truly achieved No Kill. And it can only be done by ignoring their results. At the open admission No Kill shelter I ran, for example, the average length of stay for animals was eight days, we had a return rate of approximately 2%, we reduced the disease rate by nearly 90% from the prior administration, we reduced the intentional killing rate by 75%, no animal ever celebrated an anniversary in the facility, and over 95% of dogs were saved. That was 15 years ago. Today, even higher live release rates are possible and have been achieved. Once again, something can’t be impossible if it has already been achieved.

It is tempting to see this article as tragic, rather than dangerous; tempting to feel sorry for her (and the dogs), rather than angry at her (for justifying their needless killing). But that would be a mistake. Because on top of all the other erroneous conclusions, long disproven, she now also resurrects the ugliest one of them all, the one which was designed to defend killing by painting the alternative as darker. She tells us we have to choose between shelter killing and animal hoarding. People who think otherwise simply don’t know. And people who do are giving their hearts.

To her eloquence, I’ll offer something plain spoken: a person who loves dogs, who wants what is truly best for them, would recognize they no more want to die than she does, and anyone truly committed to speaking on their behalf and representing their best interest would reject the impulse to use such an unmistakable tragedy as an opportunity to wallow in sentimental, self-indulgent, and ill-informed cliches. The death of Happy calls for righteous indignation at those who killed him and the furious search for solutions, not normalization, capitulation, and romanticization.

With a few quick Google searches, she would have come to realize that ARL had a choice. And, in the end, so did she. She could use her column to inform her dog-loving readers that a better way has been already been found, that Happy died in vain at the hands of people too committed and too complacent with antiquated ways of running a shelter to live up to their stated mission and solemn responsibility to the animals in their care through innovation. Instead, she chose to add her name to the many that have come before; those who have sought to reconcile our society to that needless killing by misportraying it as a necessity borne of public irresponsibility. Tragically, when presented with that fork in the road, she chose the road most travelled, and for dogs like Happy, that has made the difference between life and death for far too long.

The Boston Globe calls it a “love story” but for dogs like Happy, it is anything but. There’s simply no way to torture the definition of the word love to encompass the intentional killing of dogs, because killing an animal — an animal who is not irremediably suffering — is not an act of love. It is an act of violence.


*  For most animals entering and then leaving shelters alive, however, the term “saving” is a euphemism. If an animal has been hit by a car or is suffering from a serious disease and enters a shelter which provides that animal with veterinary assistance that prevents death, that animal has been saved by a shelter. Likewise, when a rescue organization takes an animal from death row at a pound, that animal has also been saved because the rescuer intervened to prevent the animal from being killed by someone else. But when the term “saving” is used to describe a pound choosing to adopt out an animal instead of killing that animal, killing is implied to be a natural outcome of animal “homelessness” that must be overcome, which it is not. Homelessness is not a fatal condition—or at least it shouldn’t be. Moreover, the vast majority of animals who enter pounds are healthy and treatable and not in danger of dying but for the threat the pound itself poses. Pound employees cannot accurately be described as having “saved” an animal when the only threat the animal faced was the one that the pound itself presents. In short, if someone was threatening to kill you, and chose to let you live instead, would you describe that person’s actions as having “saved” you?


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