The Fallacy of “Fates Worse Than Death”

This little dog is most likely feeling the warmth of the sun for the very last time. In all likelihood, he was put to death within minutes of being surrendered to Memphis Animal Services, a badly mismanaged house of horrors where animals are neglected, abused, and systematically put to death, the vast majority without ever being offered for adoption. Sadly, too many people who should know better defend the killing, arguing that they have no choice, that if they do not impound and kill, the dog would suffer; that there are fates worse than death. Even if those were the only two choices (they are not as the No Kill communities throughout the country have proven), there are no fates worse than death. And it is an arrogant abuse of our power over defenseless animals to think it is our right to make such a determination for them.

The following is from the chapter “The Fallacy of ‘Fates Worse Than Death'” in Irreconcilable Differences: The Battle for the Heart & Soul of America’s Animal Shelters

Recently, I received a letter from a woman who has spent half a century doing animal rescue work. Her description of the experiences she has had over the years, including the heartbreaking rescue of a near-dead kitten abandoned by a dumpster, demonstrates that she cares deeply about animals. And yet, she opposes the No Kill philosophy because she believes that “there are fates worse than death.” And she cannot conceive of a No Kill nation because she sees a crisis of uncaring in the United States, a conclusion drawn from decades of seeing abandoned, neglected, and abused animals. She knows this, she says, not from “percentages, data, and studies,” but from “what she has seen with her own eyes.”

Sadly, she and other animal rescuers who share these views have been in the trenches of rescue work so long, that they have become myopic; consequently, they have concluded that the lives of animals are filled with little more than pain and suffering. They believe in the inevitability of certain outcomes, and what they witness seems to confirm this point of view. In addition, the large national animal protection organizations which they turn to for guidance reaffirm their beliefs: people don’t care, irresponsibility is rampant, there are too many unwanted animals, and the only choices for most of these animals are a quick death in a shelter or suffering on the streets. Because they lack experience at progressive shelters that would challenge these views and they have trained themselves not to see evidence to the contrary all around them, they believe that “killing is kindness” and the alternative is worse.

What is driving these misplaced perceptions is a lack of perspective—perspective which comes from a larger view they cannot see and which the animal protection movement has failed to provide. If they took a step back, if they allowed themselves to see what is happening nationally, if they kept an open mind and stayed informed about the successes of the No Kill movement, they would see something else entirely. They would see the “big picture”—which reveals that there is not an epidemic of uncaring in the population-at-large, but in fact, quite the opposite. That there is a way out of killing and that a No Kill nation is not only possible, it is happening in communities all over the United States and it is well within our reach on a national scale.

Roughly eight million dogs and cats enter shelters every year, a small fraction compared to the 165 million in people’s homes. Of those entering shelters, only four percent are seized because of cruelty and neglect. Some people surrender their animals because they are irresponsible, but others do so because they have nowhere else to turn—a person dies, they lose their job, their home is foreclosed. In theory, that is why shelters exist—to be a safety net for animals whose caretakers no longer can or want to care for them. And the majority of animals who enter these shelters can, and should, be saved.

Imagine if shelters provided good care, comfort, and plenty of affection to the animals during their stay at these way stations funded through tax and philanthropic dollars by a dog- and cat-loving culture. And imagine if all shelters embraced the No Kill philosophy and the programs and services which make it possible. We would be a No Kill nation today.

Already, there are many No Kill cities and counties. Several of these communities doubled adoptions and cut killing by over 75 percent—and it did not take them five years to do so. They did it virtually overnight. But what happened in these places is not happening in most communities. Not because it isn’t possible, but because it has not been a priority for shelter managers and bureaucrats. In these shelters, unmotivated and uncaring employees shirk their duties: they fail to feed the dogs and cats; make them sick by cutting corners on cleaning protocols; leave them in squalor; and show open hostility to volunteers who could help by socializing, grooming, and giving the animals the love and attention they deserve. These shelters refuse to make adoptions a priority, choosing to kill the animals out of expediency.

Tragically, many animals experience neglect or abuse for the first time after they enter shelters. The sick and fearful animals rescuers often see are the victims of the shelter’s abuse. They see new animals coming in and the old ones leaving in body bags. And they blame the public, although the shelters refuse to implement simple, common-sense alternatives to killing. What they don’t see, unless they live in a community whose shelter has embraced a culture of caring and lifesaving is a shelter filled with adopters, volunteers, well-cared-for animals, feral cats at sterilization clinics, puppies and kittens at offsite adoptions, clean cages, and kind, welcoming staff.

The contrast between a regressive, kill shelter and a fully functioning No Kill shelter could not be starker. But because they don’t see the latter and have been repeatedly told that the former is the “best we can do,” they ignore plainly inhumane treatment and accept a system of sheltering that is nothing short of medieval. If they had a larger perspective—a progressively run, lifesaving shelter to compare to the one they are familiar with—they would see that the tragedy is actually the nation’s sheltering system, run by uncaring directors, civil-service and union protected shirkers, and politicians who have abdicated their fiduciary duty to ensure that these institutions mirror the public’s values, which are, in reality, incredibly humane.

The sad fact is that our perceptions do not always reflect the truth because we can misconstrue what we experience. For instance, I recently met a veterinarian who was convinced that feral cats are suffering horribly. I explained that after twenty years of feral cat advocacy and work in the animal sheltering field, I found little evidence to support such an assertion and that, in fact, several studies reveal that they are by and large happy and healthy and enjoy a good quality of life. I asked if her perception might be obscured: Since she does not participate in feral cat spay/neuter clinics, she sees only sick or injured feral cats and never encounters the vast majority, who are thriving. “I never thought of that,” she said, leaving me with the hope that I had planted a seed that would blossom into a new, more positive, and more accurate perspective.

Many in the humane movement suffer from a similarly limited perspective because of the work they do and where and how they spend their time. The problem appears larger and more pervasive than it is. Visiting poorly performing shelters on a regular basis, they lose sight of a broader, more accurate perspective of how most people really feel about animals.

They fail to realize that there are more people who care than do not care and that most people are decent to animals, concerned about their welfare, and can be trusted with their guardianship. They ignore that people spend $48 billion every year on their animals, a number that grows even as most other economic sectors are plummeting. They ignore that people miss work when their pets get sick. They ignore that people cut back their own needs during difficult economic times because they can’t bear to cut back on the needs of their animal companions. And they don’t recognize that No Kill success throughout the country is a result of people—people who care deeply.

People who volunteer at the shelter, who foster needy animals, who donate money even in times of economic uncertainty, who adopt from the shelter because their shelter welcomes them—by being clean, encouraging volunteerism, asking them to foster, treating them politely, and making it easy for them to adopt. Communities where shelters have boldly and sincerely proclaimed their desire to become No Kill have found an eager public ready to help make it a reality.

In fact, evidence of caring is often all around those who believe that others don’t care enough about animals, but they can’t recognize it as such or dismiss it as the “exception.” Though they constantly encounter “exceptions,” they don’t assimilate what it means. They fail to reach the proper conclusions even when the people who adopt the animals they rescue send letters and photographs, and thank them repeatedly for enriching their lives. They fail to recognize this when they see people at the dog park, or crossing their paths on their morning dog walks around the neighborhood. They even fail to recognize them in the stories, the care, and the embraces at their own veterinarian’s office—the waiting rooms never devoid of people,   the faces of scared people wondering what ails their animal companions, and the tears as they emerge from the exam rooms after saying good-bye for the last time.

They don’t see that books about animals that have touched people’s lives are not only written in ever-increasing numbers but are best sellers because people do care, and the stories touch them profoundly. They don’t see that the success of movies about animals is also a reflection of the love people have for them.

They fail to see how people were terrified as news spread of the pet food recall in 2007, when tainted pet food from China made their companion animals sick. And while animals were killed by tainted food, they were not the only ones to get hurt. Their caretakers suffered too: thousands of caring, helpless people witnessed the anguish of their pets because their government and a government overseas betrayed them for industry profits.

If they would only open their eyes, these animal rescuers would see that shelters that have fully embraced the public and implemented the necessary lifesaving programs, have proved that there is enough of this love and compassion in every community to achieve No Kill despite the irresponsibility of the few.

If those who rescue animals but remain opposed to No Kill took genuine stock of what was around them, they would see that while any case of an individual animal suffering abuse or neglect at the hands of a human is unacceptable and tragic, the number of these incidents is small compared to the number of dogs and cats loved, pampered, and cared for by the American public. To therefore use the plight of a tragic few to legitimize and endorse the systematic killing of millions by our nation’s corrupt and broken animal shelter system is not merely misguided; it is egregious. And it institutionalizes abuse and neglect by failing to challenge the actual causes of the horrible situation they encounter in regressive shelters. Ultimately, by supporting these shelters, albeit naïvely, they grant absolution to those truly responsible for animal suffering and killing, and help perpetuate these tragic outcomes. In short, they make things worse by failing to demand better, and by failing to support those who are.

Ironically, though they see themselves as loving and caring, their hearts are closed. Blinded by dogma, they filter everything they see and everything they experience through the belief that animals are victims of uncaring and cruel people—and their belief that it is a problem of such scope and magnitude that the only way out is killing. As a result, they condone a real problem—mass killing—as a “solution” to a phantom one.

What makes this point of view especially disturbing is the illogical leap it causes people to make from a false assumption (animals are suffering in overwhelming numbers) to a violent conclusion: mass killing is acceptable, indeed desirable. Because even if the first assumption were true (it is not), the conclusion simply does not follow. There are many, many possibilities in between to combat it—education, adoption, redemption, sanctuary, rescue, rehabilitation—that are ignored simply because the notion that killing is the “logical” outcome has dominated the sheltering dialogue for so long and so completely. It is regarded as acceptable and inevitable even though it is the most unnecessary, extreme, and inhumane of all responses.

Even if a case could be made that the public does not care, embracing death for these animals remains a non-sequitur. While these rescuers work to stop animals from suffering, they inadvertently champion the same attitude towards them that allows for such abuse—indeed, that perpetuates it: the idea that animals do not matter, that their lives are of little value and are easily expendable. Their assumption that animals must be killed in shelters undermines the entire principle which should be motivating their rescue efforts. Animal cruelty is horrible not only because of the pain and suffering of animals but because it often kills them. And killing animals is the ultimate betrayal. To “rescue” them from abuse and potential killing only to advocate for killing makes no sense whatsoever. Even if they are not convinced of the viability of No Kill alternatives, to be responsible advocates, they are nonetheless obligated to try, especially since it works in many communities.

In the end, their argument comes down to the belief that there are fates worse than death. And, sadly, too many people in rescue work accept this notion, even though it is patently false, and incorrectly assumes only three choices are available: killing at the pound, killing at the hands of abusers, or being killed on the streets. Working hard to end the scourge of abuse and neglect—and to punish the abusers—is not mutually exclusive with saving the lives of the innocent victims. In fact, the moral imperative to do one goes hand in hand with the other.

Yet in rescue work, some argue that death for the animals is a way out of suffering, forgetting that the right to live is inviolate. These people ignore that what they seek for animals they would never seek for themselves or other people. They ignore that no matter what the context and all through history—in Cambodia, Germany, under the Taliban, in Serbia-Croatia, in Rwanda, as in Darfur—despite the savagery, people cling to life, they cling to hope, and none of the survivors (and none of their rescuers) would suggest they should have been “humanely euthanized” by their liberators. To suggest such would perpetuate the violence and abuse.

While cruelty and suffering are abhorrent, while cruelty and suffering are painful, while cruelty and suffering should be condemned and rooted out, there is nothing worse than death, because death is final. An animal subjected to pain and suffering can be rescued. An animal subjected to savage cruelty can even become a therapy dog, bringing comfort to cancer patients, as the dog fighting case against football player Michael Vick shows. There is still hope, but death is hope’s total antithesis. It is the eclipse of hope because they never wake up, ever. It is the worst of the worst—a fact each and every one of us would recognize if we were the ones being threatened with death. And it is an arrogant abuse of our power over defenseless animals to think it is our right to make such a determination for them.

I am not naïve. I understand that the method of killing is important, and if we lived in a two dimensional world of shadows—if we lived in Plato’s cave—where the choice truly was nothing more than to be killed inhumanely or to be killed in a less brutal way, we would pick the latter. Although I have called repeatedly for the end of shelter killing, I have also supported efforts to abolish cruel methods of doing so—which too many shelters have refused to do. But that is not the choice presented. The choice is not, as rescuers contend, a choice between continued suffering and death at the pound. This is not what the animals face. Once they are rescued from abuse, more suffering should no longer be an option.

No one argues that shelters should leave animals to their abusers or that we adopt animals out to them. Everyone agrees that abuse is terrible, something no animal should endure. Of course, they must be rescued from these horrible fates. But once rescued and taken into protective custody, the question becomes: Do we give them a second chance and find them homes? Or, do we allow them to become victims yet again by killing them? Why the leap to arguing that because they experienced abuse in the past, they should be killed now? Or that all the other animals entering shelters should be killed? It is patently illogical.

In essence, champions of the “fates worse than death” argument advocate a “solution” of the mass killing of millions of animals as a response to the abuse or neglect suffered by some animals, which does absolutely nothing to erase the abuse that has already been done. How is killing some animals a prescriptive against future abuse, when we cannot know nor predict when or where it is about to occur, unless we exterminate all animals, everywhere, to guard against the possibility of it ever occurring again? Taken to its logical conclusion, it would mean killing every dog and cat in every shelter. This is not only an obvious obscenity; it is to propose a slaughter with no end.

Yet despite these disturbing and misguided views, I do not believe that such people are necessarily beyond rehabilitation. Certainly, I do not legitimize their point of view, nor do I believe that future generations will look back kindly on their support of killing, even in light of their false perceptions. Ultimately, it does not matter to the dog or cat being injected with poison by a shelter worker whether the motivation is lack of caring, laziness, cowardice, politics, or a real belief in the need to do so. The consequences are the same—death—and equally tragicirrespective of who is doing the killing and why it is being done. Yet even though they are absolutely wrong, we should not give up trying to rehabilitate them, because, in the end, they can become allies.

What they need is perspective—a larger view they cannot see from the trenches about the incredible success all around them: That the four million killed in shelters do not tell the full story. That the story is also about the 165 million dogs and cats in homes. That the kitten abandoned in a dumpster is overshadowed—though no less tragic for it—by the great lengths people go to when their animals are sick or by the compassion of those who inevitably come forward to give that kitten a second chance. That while the shelter in their community is killing at an astonishing pace, shelters in other communities have stopped when they embraced, rather than condemned, the larger public, and committed themselves to ending the killing by asking the public for help.

It is incumbent on No Kill advocates to help them see the bigger, more accurate, and more optimistic picture. Because unlike the lazy shelter manager or the uncaring shirker or the self-serving politician, these people care about animals and can change in earnest. They can become believers. And when they do, they become a further force for change. We must continue to expose the fallacy of their beliefs—that the choice is between an expedient shelter death or slow suffering on the streets or in the hands of abusers; that in order to be No Kill, shelters must warehouse animals because there are too many for the too few available homes; and that, even if those were the choices, it is acceptable for activists who claim to speak on behalf of animals to accept or champion for those animals that which neither they, nor the animals if they could speak, would accept: death.

And so we come back to the primary principle of the humane movement: Animal shelters must be the safety net, not an extension of the neglect and abuse animals face elsewhere. And like other service agencies that deal with human irresponsibility, shelters should not use that as an excuse to negate their own responsibility to put in place necessary programs and services to respond humanely, and therefore, appropriately.

This is the perspective they need. And with enough of it, they’ll eventually see. Eventually, they, too, will be liberated from pessimism and share in the optimism, the hope, and the tremendous potential this truth offers our animal friends. They’ll have their epiphany when they finally see through the fog under which they have lived: the condemnation of the public that has been ringing out so deafeningly for decades that is has drowned out the truth and legitimized the killing. It may take some time—time and perspective—but it is our solemn duty as No Kill advocates to give it to them until they do, even while we vociferously oppose the deadly policies they currently champion.

To purchase, Irreconcilable Differences, click here.