Size Matters, But So Does How You Use It

This little dog is most likely feeling the warmth of the sun for the very last time. As an “owner surrendered” dog, there is no holding period. No requirement that he be made available for adoption. No law that says he must be offered to rescue groups. In all likelihood, he was put to death within minutes of being turned in.


New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s conditional veto of legislation that would have, among other things, allowed shelters across the state to kill animals if “the age, health, or behavior of the animal warrants euthanizing it before seven days have elapsed,” resulted in a outcry of relief from animal lovers across the state. Even with New Jersey Office of Animal Welfare regulations limiting a broad interpretation, the provision would have created a loophole big enough for the proverbial Mack truck to drive through it. In other words, it would have meant cherished companions would have been slaughtered within minutes of arrival, before aggrieved families had an opportunity to reclaim them simply because someone arbitrarily deemed them too old, too sick, or too aggressive without any substantive basis for doing so.

That an animal may lack objective beauty, or be older in years, does not mean that that animal isn’t deeply loved by his or her family; it does not mean someone else might not deeply love that animal if they were offered for adoption; and, it certainly does not mean that the animal isn’t worthy of compassion and lifesaving. Killing for convenience is never compassionate, no matter how many times the “catch and kill” proponents at HSUS and PETA tell us it is. In fact, it is the ultimate form of violence, a violation of the animal’s most basic rights.

In his veto message, Governor Christie stated that the provision “creates the potential that older or mildly injured animals could be [killed] immediately and before even a diligent search by an owner could locate a lost pet.” He is absolutely right. The offending provision was stricken by the Senate and the Governor signed the bill into law without it. It was a triumph of public will. Not only did the Governor’s Office get thousands of e-mails asking him to veto the bill, but both the New Jersey Office of Animal Welfare and the Mayor of Newark opposed the provision.   It helps for the animals to have friends in high places.

Because most people were not aware of the provision until it reached the Governor’s desk and, by necessity, advocacy focused on getting the provision stricken, an important discussion surrounding holding periods did not occur. In fact, missing from any discussion of holding periods in New Jersey was a very important question: Does size really matter? Or, as the old quip tells us, is it how you use it that counts?

Rethinking Holding Periods

As most states do, New Jersey requires stray animals to be held for a minimal period of time (seven days) before they can be put to death. Animals relinquished by their families can be killed immediately upon impound, and many are, within minutes of arrival. Only California has a holding period for “owner relinquished” animals. But with pounds across the country doing a poor job of helping lost animals get home (only 25% of dogs and 2% of cats are reclaimed), many stray animals will just be held for their holding periods and then killed. Some will be offered for adoption, but overall 40% of dogs and 60% of cats will lose their lives. How can we do better?

In 1998, as part of a comprehensive shelter reform bill known as the “Hayden Law” after its Senate sponsor, California increased the state mandated holding period from a paltry 72 hours to four or six business days, not including the day of impoundment. Groups mired in killing, like the Humane Society of the United States, opposed the measure, arguing that increasing the holding period would cost other animals their lives because it would reduce available kennel space. Even if this argument were true (it is not), HSUS’ argument missed the boat because California built in incentives to maximize reclaims, transfers to rescue groups, and adoptions freeing up cage space above and beyond other strategies like foster care. In other words, it created the infrastructure to increase the chances animals would leave the shelter quickly and alive. In addition to making it illegal for shelters to kill animals if rescue groups were willing to save them, one of the ways it did that was by bifurcating the holding period in order to force California pounds to make animals available for adoption or transfer to rescue groups. Rather than simply hold animals for six days and then kill then, California required shelters to make those animals available to rescue and adopters during the hold period. The new holding period read, in relevant part, that animals “shall be held for owner redemption during the first three days of the holding period, not including the day of impoundment, and shall be available for owner redemption or adoption for the remainder of the holding period.” In other words, after three days, the animal could go to rescue groups or be adopted, but not killed. And therein lies the rub.

We should not shorten holding periods ever. In fact, in states like Hawaii (at a paltry 48 hours), they need to be longer. Much, much longer. But they also need to be smarter. Because while size does matter (bigger is better), so does what you do with it. California’s bifurcated holding period which mandated that animals not just be held so that their families could reclaim them, but also that they be made available for adoption and to rescue groups meant animals normally killed without those opportunities now had them, even if only minimally.

That groundbreaking tenet was the basis for one of the most important provisions of the Companion Animal Protection Act model legislation. CAPA reads, in relevant part,

The required holding period for a stray animal impounded by any public or private sheltering agency shall be five business days, not including the day of impoundment, unless otherwise provided in this section: (1) Stray animals without any form of identification and without a known owner shall be held for owner redemption during the first two days of the holding period, not including the day of impoundment, and shall be available for owner redemption, transfer, and adoption for the remainder of the holding period;

For relinquished animals, CAPA reads, in relevant part,

The required holding period for an owner relinquished animal impounded by public or private sheltering agencies shall be the same as that for stray animals and applies to all owner relinquished animals, except as follows: (1) Any owner-relinquished animal that is impounded shall be held for adoption or for transfer to a private sheltering agency or rescue group for the purpose of adoption for the entirety of the holding period; (2) Owner-relinquished animals may be adopted into new homes or transferred to a private sheltering agency or rescue group for the purpose of adoption at any time after impoundment.

New Jersey, Revisited

In the case of New Jersey, the required holding period thankfully remains seven days, but it should be bifurcated so that animals do not sit for seven days waiting for a family who may not come, without being made available for adoption or transfer to rescue groups in the process. While shelters are, first and foremost, bailees for people’s lost companions, their goal should be to get all the animals out alive. That means not only maximizing the number who go back to their original families, but it should also mean maximizing their chances of going to rescue groups or newly, adoptive homes. Out of embarrassment that they are surrendering an animal or because some pounds do not accept “owner relinquished” animals, some people turn their companion animals in and claim they are strays. In those cases, those animals will be sitting in a kennel, often outside of public view, “waiting” for someone who will not come because that someone is the one who turned the animal in. By bifurcating the holding period, families still have ample opportunity to find their lost animals, but those animals who will not be reclaimed will have some opportunity to be saved by rescuers or adopted into new homes.

I’d rather a dog or cat get adopted and a family who did not come to the shelter for four days to look for their lost pet miss out, than a number of relinquished animals be killed because strays are in those kennels. I am not naïve, and I am not excusing pound killing. As I’ve argued numerous times, we can save all the stray animals and we can save all the relinquished animals. We could be a No Kill nation today. But we aren’t. And we aren’t because pound directors are uncaring and lazy, mired in failed philosophies, bogged down in defeatist excuse-making, institutional inertia, and/or because the staff is not held accountable to results. That is what the New Jersey bill’s sponsors failed to realize. They thought they were creating “a humane way to quickly end animals’ suffering.” But given that pounds are not humane, they were consigning savable animals to death. We need to remove the discretion pound directors have to kill animals, not give them more because they abuse the discretion they already have to kill animals without ever making them available for adoption or available to rescue organizations. A state mandated, bifurcated holding period which requires animals to be made available for reclaim, adoption, and transfer, will help do that. It will increase reclaims, it will increase rescues, and it will increase adoptions. A win for the animals and a win for municipalities not only looking to cut costs (of killings) but to find new sources of revenue (adoptions).

But while the blame for most killing lies at the feet of the staff at killing “shelters,” I also cannot deny that municipalities, protected by the myth of pet overpopulation and defended by pro-killing organizations such as the ASPCA, American Humane Association, National Animal Control Association, PETA, and HSUS, have not invested in lifesaving. The excuse of pet overpopulation and the need to kill is what allowed corrupt Philadelphia city officials in the Health Department to open a new municipal pound back in 2002 with few cages and a paltry budget. That is why Philadelphia had less kennels despite a population of 1.4 million people and an intake rate of 25,000 animals a year, than Charlottesville, Virginia with only 250,000 people and a fraction of the impounds. In that environment, we need to give every animal a chance because too many across the country are simply not being offered for adoption at all. Too many are killed within minutes of arriving as in the case of relinquished animals while pound directors say they have no choice because they have run out of cages.

A bifurcated holding period would require pounds to make all animals—both stray and “owner relinquished”—available for adoption and transfer to a rescue group. In addition, municipalities should go further than even the current version of CAPA. Rather than sit in a dirty pound where the animal may get sick, the bifurcated holding period should allow the animal to be transferred to the rescue group immediately upon impound, with the same rights of reclamation for the “owner” as if the animal was still in the shelter. This not only allows animals to remain healthy, but it frees up scarce kennel space, without giving pounds a “quick kill” provision as New Jersey tried to do. And it shifts the cost of care from taxpayer to private philanthropy. In other words, the animals would remain in the “constructive” custody of the pound while being held in a foster home, private shelter, or rescue group during the reclaim portion of the state mandated holding period; but taxpayers would incur none of the cost.

That is what I would propose to New Jersey. That is what I would propose in all fifty states. It would save lives and it would save money—a “win” for municipal bean counters and a “win” for the animals. In other words, it would solve problems rather than just create new ones. But does government do that anymore?