The New York City pound announced it is going to kill dogs and it is blaming the victims. How? It treats dogs poorly. And because it does, the dogs become stressed. And because they are stressed, City officials have announced that they will be killed. “Chronic stress can really put behavioral health into question,” they recently announced, “and we are reaching a point with some of our dogs where keeping them alive but confined is more distressing and less humane than considering euthanasia. Warehousing dogs is not the answer.”
It should 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.
Regressive shelters claim that the longer a dog stays in a shelter, the more likely he or she is to become stressed. Like in New York, these pounds often denigrate shelters who have dogs for weeks, months, and in some cases a year or more arguing that doing so is “warehousing.” Aside from the fact that the average length of time at a well-run No Kill shelter is only 14 days (about the time a dog would spend in a kennel while his human family is on vacation), studies show that that is not true even for long-term dogs as long as dogs are treated humanely.
Specifically, researchers looking at dogs across dozens of shelters found that “dogs adapt to the kennel environment over time” and “environmental enrichment helps animals to cope with their environments.” In other words, newly admitted dogs tend to be stressed. Dogs who only get the basics: food, water, and shelter are stressed. But dogs who are given enrichment are not stressed and the longer they are in the shelter, the less stressed they become.
And even if it were true that some of the dogs are chronically stressed in the shelter, it would not mean that killing would be acceptable. There is simply no such thing as an animal who is irremediably psychologically suffering. There is no such thing as an animal who is so traumatized that he wants to die. The view that they do flies in the face of a dog’s own reaction to the perception that she may be in harm’s way — which is not to run towards a threat to her life, but to flee it or display aggression as a means of deterring it.
It, therefore, does not make sense to respond to trauma or stress in an animal by doing the very thing a traumatized animal’s behavior demonstrates they are desperately trying to avoid: being harmed. Instead, when confronted with dogs under stress, the response should be to remedy the conditions that cause stress so that they no longer feel that way — foster care, adoption, or more humane sheltering.
In addition, when veterinarians speak of “irremediable physical suffering,” they have objective measures; baseline values against which to compare any lab or pathology data and experience with medications or other medical intervention which have been attempted. In other words, prompt, necessary, and comprehensive veterinary care has failed, the condition is beyond medicine’s ability to care for or manage, and the animal is suffering severe, unremitting pain. “Stress” and “behavioral health” fail on these counts.
While there are some objective measures — skin conductance, heart rate and blood pressure, salivary cortisol levels, and even stereotypical behaviors — at best, these measure current mental state, not future behavior or, more accurately, “resilience,” the successful adaptation and recovery from the experience of adversity. At worst, these measures are meaningless, especially if there are no baselines for the individual animal, which there almost never are in the shelter environment. In no other sub-discipline do veterinarians make medical determinations without data. But New York City isn’t even proposing this.
There is simply no definition of what constitutes “mental suffering” and no standards to how it will be applied, allowing staff to kill animals arbitrarily. Not only is this a real and immediate threat to shy and scared animals, but it is very dangerous precedent to introduce in the animal control practices of our nation.
That is why the No Kill Advocacy Center, my organization, is partnering with advocates in New York to write, introduce, and pass the Companion Animal Protection Act, which defines “irremediable suffering” as an animal who has “a poor or grave prognosis for being able to live without severe, unremitting physical pain even with prompt, necessary, and comprehensive veterinary care.” It would require pounds to house animals humanely. It would require them to rehabilitate animals who need it. And it would mandate robust programs like foster care, rescue partnerships, and adoption. In short, it would remove the discretion that allows bureaucrats — like those who run the New York City pound — to avoid doing what is in the best interests of animals and kill them needlessly.
Have a comment? Join the discussion by clicking here.