Breaking Ranks: The Evolution of Dr. Kate Hurley

And what it means for the future of animal sheltering


If the attitudes and beliefs of Dr. Kate Hurley, the director of the U.C. Davis Shelter Medicine Program, are any indication, the kill-oriented sheltering movement is in trouble. I just finished watching Hurley’s video “New Approaches to Community Cats” where she tells shelter directors to stop taking in and killing cats regardless of whether they are friendly or “feral,” where she tells them that as it relates to scared cats, there is simply no such thing as “humane euthanasia,” where she blasts the viewpoint that “open admission is better,” and where she says that killing is not a necessity; it is, first and foremost, a choice. As a long-time critic of the historically regressive and reactionary views championed by Dr. Hurley, I found myself applauding what appears to be—at least on the issue of cats—a complete turn-around in Dr. Hurley’s message and beliefs.

While she gets some things wrong (starting with the title that these approaches are “new” rather than something she ignored and fought against for well over a decade), the video was a breath of fresh air and an important contribution to the movement because of who she was and is, a key barometer of things to come, and one more nail in the coffin of the “catch and kill” paradigm of animal sheltering she used to epitomize.

To understand just how far Dr. Hurley has come and, more importantly, what it says about the future of animal sheltering, it is important to look at where she started: because this champion of No Kill cat sheltering, this shelter adviser who now speaks to shelter directors and tells them, in no uncertain terms, if you want to stop killing cats, all you have to do is stop killing cats, was once public enemy number four to the No Kill movement nationally, right behind Ingrid Newkirk, Wayne Pacelle and Ed Sayres. But not anymore. Dr. Hurley has broken ranks.

A Rehabilitated “Cereal” Killer

For the past decade and until very recently, Dr. Kate Hurley made a career out of two things: 1. Killing a lot of animals and 2. Encouraging others to kill a lot of animals. In 2008, Dr. Hurley went to Reno, Nevada to derail the No Kill initiative  then in its infancy by telling government officials that killing was the right thing to do. She proposed changing the term killing “for space” to “community overpopulation index” in order to take the onus off of the shelter and its then-regressive policies and point the finger of blame elsewhere. That term went over big with the (thankfully now former) director at animal control who had a policy of keeping 75% of cages intentionally empty even while threatening to kill animals “for space.” To Hurley, the killing didn’t have anything to do with the fact that 75% of the cages sat empty; it was the public’s fault because of its “community overpopulation index.” Ignoring her advice, the shelter director was pressured into retirement, the community embraced the No Kill Equation and in 2012, had a 94% rate of lifesaving.

San Francisco did not fare as well. In 2009, Dr. Hurley successfully helped to derail a No Kill campaign in that city, testifying that its achievement wasn’t possible because of “pet overpopulation.” Hurley further claimed that No Kill “lead[s] to overcrowding, poor record-keeping, widespread disease and behavior problems.” As a result, Hurley concluded that a No Kill policy “virtually guarantees they will torture and kill thousands of animals.” To make her point, Dr. Hurley showed San Francisco Animal Welfare Commission members slides of messy cereal box aisles in a supermarket to “show” what happens when you put too many animals/cereal boxes on a shelf while arguing that, we have to “respect our animals just like we respect our cereal.” She also used the analogy to impart the apparent importance of limiting consumer choice. While showing shelves jammed with cereal boxes, she explained why offering people too many choices resulted in no sales at all (although I think Kellogg’s would take umbrage at her point). To Hurley, if you have too many animals/cereal boxes, you should just throw some of them away. Of course, Dr. Hurley’s presentation ignored that throwing away cereal is not the same as throwing away the lives of animals; one is alive, the other isn’t. You don’t have to kill cereal before doing so.

But suggesting that you throw out the animals based on a bizarre analogy is not only unethical, it was predicated on a factually incorrect and incoherent premise: the false belief in pet overpopulation in San Francisco. As Hurley was well aware, San Francisco animal control was impounding less than 6,000 dogs and cats annually. That’s 7.5 dogs and cats for every 1,000 human residents, about half the national average and ten times less than successful No Kill communities. By contrast, Reno was taking in 39 per 1,000—five times the rate of San Francisco. It also took in almost three times the actual total number: 16,000 per year without killing healthy or treatable animals. In fact, communities impounding over 70 animals per 1,000—ten times the rate of San Francisco—had save rates in excess of 90%. In other words, San Francisco could conceivably take in ten times the rate of animals it was impounding animals and still not resort to killing. Even the San Francisco SPCA (which ironically asked Dr. Hurley to testify) admitted this by their very actions. At the same time they claimed they could not save more animals because of pet overpopulation, they were also claiming that they had no choice but to import thousands of animals from outside the City every year to meet adoption demand because of a shortage of animals within San Francisco.

But arguing the necessity of killing despite readily available lifesaving alternatives is not the worst of Dr. Hurley’s past. Not only did she herself round up and kill animals, putting even healthy “feral” cats to death with no holding period of any kind when she was a was an animal control officer, she was also hired by HSUS to “clean up” an overcrowded Las Vegas shelter and to Hurley, that meant killing roughly 1,000 animals and encouraging the shelter to continue to kill them after a paltry 72 hours as a matter of policy, taking the lives of precious animals and turning them into a pile of ash.

In New Jersey, after hearing Kate Hurley speak, the former director of the Animal Welfare Association of New Jersey followed her advice by reducing the number of cages in the cat adoption room by half. When a new director abandoned the approach and began following the No Kill Equation model of sheltering, cat adoptions nearly doubled and the agency became the most successful adoption agency in the entire state of New Jersey.

Finally, Hurley and her team were responsible for an increase in the number of cats killed in Wisconsin’s Dane County Humane Society in 2007, after the shelter eviscerated the foster care program and made the decision to keep every other cat cage empty (thereby cutting capacity in half and resulting in the killing of cats already on the adoption floor)—all at Dr. Hurley’s suggestion. One by one, the cats occupying those cages were taken off the adoption floor and injected with an overdose of poison, their lifeless bodies thrown in the trash like Hurley’s cereal boxes.

Until her recent conversion, Dr. Hurley epitomized everything that is wrong with animal sheltering in America; which explains why shelter directors, national organizations which defended kill shelters, and killing apologists who worship at the altar of these organizations have historically loved Hurley. A darling of HSUS, she ignored alternatives to killing, she ignored data and experience, she betrayed the animals in deference to her killing colleagues, she likened those trying to end killing to those with a mental illness who torture animals, killing animals herself and causing countless others to lose their lives as well. In short, when animals lovers tried to reform their local shelters, Dr. Hurley was the draconian shelter director’s go-to “expert” and she obliged: going from community to community to defend the killing. She could not sink any lower.

But then out of the ashes rose a different Dr. Hurley.

The Phoenix Rises

Today, Dr. Hurley tells shelter directors that the very definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. More diplomatically, Hurley asks shelter directors to look at their goals, see what they’re doing, and ask themselves, “How is that working out for you?” And the conclusion Hurley says is inescapable: It is not working out—most especially for the cats. In short, she is now telling shelter directors that everything she once told them to do was wrong.

Hurley now tells shelter directors that taking in (and killing) cats does not resolve citizen complaints, it does not reflect the community’s concerns or values, it does not help reunite lost cats with their families, it does not help cats find new homes, it does not end suffering (in fact, it perpetuates and intensifies it), it does not mitigate harm or reduce the number of cats, and it is not cost-effective, all the traditional excuses for why animal shelters do so.” The bottom line,” says Hurley, “[is that] traditional sheltering is not an effective tool to eliminate or protect community cat populations.”

Moreover, she says, “Using a tool [intake and killing at shelters] that’s mismatched to the job is hurting cats, shelters, and communities, and distracting us from finding real solutions.” In short, taking in cats to kill shelters is wrong. Killing cats is wrong. And moreover, it is a choice. According to Hurley, if you take killing off the table, you’ll be forced to find innovative and creative solutions to end the killing. If you want to stop killing, Hurley asks, “How about we just stop?”

Without waiting for an answer, she goes on to debunk the myth that “open admission” shelters are either necessary or better and says, as it relates to cats, the idea should be abandoned. If you cannot take in a cat without killing, she says, “just say no” to taking in the cat. Finally, she says that as it relates to cats who are unsocial to humans (cats we call “feral”), “humane euthanasia” does not exist. It is—she says—nothing less than “torture.”

Instead of killing, Hurley tells shelter directors that at the same time they are embracing offsite adoptions, reducing adoption fees, putting in place comprehensive adoption programs, neutering and releasing, and providing better medical and behavioral care for cats (in other words, the No Kill Equation), they should be leaving stray cats alone, regardless of whether they are friendly or “feral” because life on the streets is more humane than death in the shelter. In fact, Hurley says, the great outdoors is great. The likelihood of being reunited with their families is greater for cats if they are allowed to remain where they are rather than being admitted to the shelter. In one study, explains Hurley, cats were 13 times more likely to be returned home by non-shelter means (such as returning home on their own) than by a call or visit to a shelter. And another study found that people are up to three times more likely to adopt cats as neighborhood strays versus adopting from a shelter. At the same time, the risk of death for street cats in communities has been found to extremely low, with outdoor cats living roughly the same lifespan as indoor pet cats. In other words, the risk of death is lower and the chance of adoption higher for cats on the streets than cats in the shelter. In a study of over 100,000 alley cats, less than one percent of those cats were suffering from debilitating conditions.

While the crowd to which Dr. Hurley made these statements was not large (there were only a handful or two of people in the room), they were the right people: shelter directors. These are the very people who hold the power over life and death; the people who can continue killing cats or choose to stop doing so.

Room to Grow

There’s no question that Dr. Hurley has now become a great advocate for cats facing execution in shelters. Her journey from “catch and kill” defender to No Kill cat advocate is astonishing both in scope and breadth. But there’s still plenty of room for growth; the most important area being that Dr. Hurley has yet to recognize that a shelter can be open admission and No Kill. In other words, it isn’t a question, as Dr. Hurley implies, of a shelter closing its doors to cats or saving their lives by refusing to admit and then kill them (although if that were the choice, I agree with her). When it comes to friendly cats, we can keep the doors open and save their lives. As the head of the shelter medicine program at U.C. Davis, as a person who professes an expertise in sheltering and by her own admission was wrong about so much else, it is disappointing to hear her talk as though she is entirely unaware of the experiences of the now well over 130 open admission shelters posting save rates between 90 and 99% for cats. Their approach and the methodology they employ to achieve these results represent the cutting edge of her field, and there is a moral as well as professional obligation to be informed about their success and how it was achieved, especially since she is putting herself in the position as a professed expert to those looking to her for guidance.

Moreover, she continues to use the word “euthanasia,” the catch and kill crowd’s favorite misnomer and one that allows them to mask the ugly reality of feline genocide from the American public. Her use of the word cannot be logically reconciled with her own admission that it doesn’t exist and that, especially as it relates to “feral” cats, it is nothing less than—in her own word—”torture.” In fact, she acknowledges that, saying that the only reason she still uses the word is to extend respect for the “motivations” of those doing the killing. And it is at this point in the video that we realize that Dr. Hurley has yet to evolve into an understanding or acceptance of the truly tragic state of our national sheltering system, rife as it is with cruelty, neglect and uncaring. To make her point, she asks by a show of hands how many of those in attendance do not love cats. I found myself wincing. (I also found myself wincing when she made a joke of her old beliefs that cost so many animals their lives; the situation called for somber reflection, not levity.)

Of course, no one is going to raise their hand to such a question. Who would dare admit to being uncaring about cats in a room full of people whose job it is to care about cats?  But while their lack of a show of hands may say one thing,  the facts tell a different story. If you were to ask the same question to staff members at the pound in Davidson County, North Carolina—people who like to put cats and kittens in the gas chamber with raccoons in order to sadistically watch them fight before turning on the gas, laughing while they do it—they would not raise their hands, either. If you were to ask the same question to staff members at the pound in Memphis, Tennessee, where animals are intentionally starved to death and often abused, they would not raise their hands, either. And if you take Hurley’s realizations to their logical conclusion—killing is a choice, killing is not humane, killing is torture—then those who choose to do it cannot be said to love cats by definition as the two are mutually irreconcilable. Killing a cat is not an act of love; it is an act of violence.

Regardless of whether she ever realizes that fact by taking the obvious, irrefutable, and inevitable logical step that flows from her “new” approaches—that people who kill cats do not love cats because killing is a choice—she does not have to take that step in order to come to that same conclusion. The data, the experience, in other words, the truth, is already out there. Although the animal protection movement has long perpetuated the fiction that our nation’s shelters provide a humane and compassionate safety net of care for our nation’s homeless animals, the facts tell a very different, very tragic, story.

In truth, the first time many companion animals experience neglect or abuse is when they enter a shelter. As the movement to end shelter killing has grown in size and sophistication, the networking made possible through the internet and social media has allowed animal lovers to connect the dots between individual cases of animal cruelty and neglect in shelters nationwide. These incidents reveal a distinct pattern. Animal abuse at local shelters is not an isolated anomaly caused by “a few bad apples.” The stunning number and severity of these cases nationwide lead to one disturbing and inescapable conclusion: our shelters are in crisis.

Frequently overseen by ineffective and incompetent directors who fail to hold their staff accountable to the most basic standards of humane care, animal shelters in this country are not the safe havens they should and can be. Instead, they are often poorly managed houses of horror, places where animals are denied basic medical care, food, water, socialization and are then killed, sometimes cruelly.

And not only do people in shelters work at a place that commits this ultimate form of violence, they have, in fact, been hired to do exactly that. Can we really be surprised when they don’t clean thoroughly, don’t feed the animals, handle them too roughly, neglect and abuse them or simply ignore their cries for help while they slowly starve to death or die of dehydration? How does shoddy cleaning or rough handling or failing to feed the animals compare with putting an animal to death? Because shelter workers understand that they have the power to kill shelter animals, and will in fact kill many of them, every interaction they have with those animals is influenced by the perception that the animals do not matter, that their lives are cheap and expendable and that they are destined for the garbage heap. The killing itself leads to abuse, to neglect, and to more killing. Where there is no respect for life, there is no regard for welfare. And where there is neither respect for life nor a regard for welfare, there are no true animal lovers. Why?

Because truly caring people, people who actually do love animals, either do not apply to work at these agencies or if they do, they do not last. They quit when they realize that their efforts to improve conditions and outcomes are not rewarded, that their fellow employees are not held accountable, that neglect isn’t punished, and in fact, they will be for trying to improve things. And they quit because they don’t want to kill. By design, the traditional sheltering paradigm has made our shelters not only deadly and abusive to animals, but hostile and unwelcoming to people who do care, leaving animals at the mercy of those who don’t but who will always claim, as political expediency requires, that they do.

Will Dr. Hurley evolve to realize this truth as she has others? And having that realization, will she then also realize its corollary: that merely asking for change from shelter directors who do not care—something which the No Kill movement has been doing for years only to find our pleas falling on deaf, defiant ears—does not yield the same change as publicly fighting and legally mandating it do?  Will she become as vocal a champion of her new, progressive views as she once was for her regressive ones? Will she speak out in favor of legislation requiring shelter directors to stop killing cats in the same way she once publicly spoke out against those very laws? Will she support the efforts of local No Kill activists who are trying to reform their shelters by publicly speaking out against uncaring shelter directors as she once so vocally spoke out in their defense, crisscrossing the nation to derail the brave and tenacious efforts of No Kill advocates? In the end, will she become as powerful a voice in defense of life as she once was in defense of death? Those of us in the No Kill movement will anxiously watch to see whether this video is a harbinger of even greater things to come, and whether the woman who was once one of our fiercest and most stalwart opponents becomes one of our greatest champions.

The Tide Is Turning

In addition to what the evolution of Dr. Kate Hurley says about Dr. Kate Hurley, it also speaks volumes about the animal protection movement as a whole and where it is now headed. As more and more communities reject killing and embrace No Kill alternatives, as the evidence mounts and the success increases, as the data and experience paint a clear and unambiguous picture that we can end the killing and we can do it today, those who champion killing will find themselves on the wrong side of history, joining the losing side that is already on the wrong side of truth, right, ethics, and the hearts and minds of the American people. How long can the others who have walked in lock-step with Dr. Hurley until her recent conversion continue to ignore the truth by clinging to defunct, regressive ideologies that do nothing but fail, and for the animals, that result in nothing but neglect, abuse, killing, and to borrow Dr. Hurley’s phrase, torture? If Dr. Hurley is any indication, and I believe that she is, the answer is, not much longer.

Does Dr. Hurley’s conversion signal that we are near the tipping point—that moment in the history of our movement when the traction and influence we have been gaining tip the balance of power and momentum in favor of No Kill, away from death and toward ever greater lifesaving? Will others follow Dr. Hurley’s lead and begin abandoning the sinking ship of shelter killing and the traditional excuses and rationalizations which have been used to justify it, leaving those  who refuse to evolve in lonely and unsympathetic isolation? Absolutely.

Wayne Pacelle and Ingrid Newkirk, are you listening?  Evolve.

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