They Killed Animals

Ah, that deceit should steal such gentle shape,
And with a virtuous vizor hide deep vice! — King Richard III

Today, the single greatest cause of death for healthy dogs and cats in the United States remains deliberate killing at the local animal shelter. But as I argued over 10 years ago in Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation & The No Kill Revolution in America, they are not killed because of pet overpopulation.

The evidence shows that there are plenty of homes available, with demand for animals nationwide outstripping shelter “supply” ten-fold. Using the most successful adoption communities as a benchmark and adjusting for population, U.S. shelters combined should be adopting almost nine million animals a year. That is over four times the number being killed for lack of a home. In fact, it is more than total impounds, and of those, almost half do not need a new home. And the news gets even better. There are about 30 million people who are going to get an animal next year.

In 2008, when Redemption was published, that view was heretical. But with millions of people now living in communities served by municipal shelters placing 98-100% of the animals; with the vast majority of communities with placement rates in the mid to high 90s having achieved it in six months or less (many overnight) and before a high volume sterilization effort was undertaken; with peer reviewed supply-demand studies proving it; and with historically regressive groups which promoted killing in the face of No Kill alternatives like the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) now admitting that there are enough homes and we can adopt our way out of killing, this is not really subject to reasonable debate any longer. In short, the data proves it; experience proves it.

But was that always the case? In the 1970s, shelter intake was estimated at well over 20 million and as high as 26 million. As a result of these numbers, even today’s adherents of the No Kill philosophy make the claim that in the 1970s, pet overpopulation did exist and it was so severe that it necessitated the killing of animals. The conclusion is a non sequitur.

I’ve long challenged the claim that pounds have no choice but to kill animals today. The same was true in the 1970s. It is wrong today. It was wrong then. Here’s why, and more importantly, why it matters.

First, adjusting demand for population size and the number of animals already in homes, supply and demand is an admittedly a much closer calculus, but it is not clear-cut.

Second, those who legitimize the killing that occurred in the 1970s argue that even if there were enough available homes overall, killing was necessary because the sheer number of free-roaming animals provided a source of animals to compete with shelter adoptions. They also argue that community dog/cat sterilization was not an option because people would not have tolerated it, as we increasingly do today. To justify such a view, they argue that in the early 1970s, surveys of local mayors demonstrate that nuisance calls about animals were the No. 1 local public complaint. But drawing conclusions about “animal nuisance” calls 50 years ago is problematic because the inferences drawn from the data fail to account for the nuances in public attitude motivating such calls. The conclusion drawn from such surveys likely did not then and certainly do not now reflect prevailing public sentiment.

A study conducted of community dogs in Baltimore in the late 1960s and early 1970s proves it. Not only did residents consider these dogs “pets of the block,” but those picked up by dog catchers and taken to the local pound were often reclaimed and released back to the neighborhood by local residents. In fact, community dogs who were eventually adopted into homes from the street did not gain weight as they were already getting enough to eat from handouts.

But even if one could argue that most people wanted animals rounded up in the 1970s (as opposed to a vocal and intolerant minority which is much more likely), today, well over 80% of Americans surveyed think community cats should be left alone if the alternative is impound and killing. There are many factors that have influenced the changing perception and increasing tolerance for community cats among the general public, but perhaps none more so than changing attitudes within the humane movement itself.

No doubt many prior calls to animal control authorities were motivated by a belief—long perpetuated by the industry itself—that homeless cats were better off dead and that the “responsible” thing to do was to report such animals to those tasked with rounding them up: the local pound. How many people cited in 1970s studies as having made animal “nuisance” calls were in fact reporting the presence of community cats to the animal control authority because they were concerned with the animals’ welfare and had been schooled to believe that reporting such animals was in fact the “humane” thing to do? That those calls were catalogued as “nuisance” rather than “concern” reflects more about the attitudes of those taking the report than those making it.

For those complaints which were motivated by genuine intolerance, we cannot discount the role that fear mongering by national groups such as the HSUS played in stoking fears towards such animals through their spread of misinformation about disease and public safety; misinformation that inflamed public prejudices and was used to justify impound and killing. With groups like HSUS in the 1970s publicly advocating that, “ownerless animals must be destroyed. It is as simple as that,” should it come as a surprise if some members of the public reflected equally heartless, regressive views?

We also cannot discount the lack of support offered to local residents by pound officials and pound workers themselves. When SPCAs and humane societies took over the pound contracts for their local cities, regardless of how initially benign their motives in doing so, they quickly abandoned their traditional platforms of animal advocacy and cruelty prosecutions in favor of running the dog pound. Within a very short period of time, they became the leading killers of dogs and later, cats. As animal lovers who did not want to kill animals fled these organizations, working at a humane society became a job, not a mission. And that left animals at the mercy of those who were hired specifically to kill them.

As much as we want to believe “shelters” are supposed to protect animals from harm and rescue them when they are in trouble; and as much as we want to believe that the people who work in them care deeply about animals in need; and as much as that is what those places can and should be; the ideal and the reality are worlds apart, especially in an era—the 1970s—when “shelters” across the country did little more than kill animals.

Because shelter workers understood that they had the power to kill each and every one of these animals, and did in fact kill the vast majority of them, every interaction they had with those animals was influenced by the (false) perception that their lives did not matter, that their lives were cheap and expendable, and that they were destined for the garbage heap. Given that mindset, community animals were not likely to be a call upon their conscience and a challenge to resolve humanely, but a burden to eliminate by rounding up and killing them. And that is what they did.

Third, even in the 1970s, shelters were able to significantly cut kill rates by half very quickly through municipally-funded low-cost sterilization clinics. That would have dramatically changed the supply-demand calculus. The reason they were not more fully embraced was due to opposition by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and local veterinarians which balked at any real or imagined threat to business profits. With the AVMA opposed, none of the large national animal protection groups were willing to take a decisive stand. Instead, groups like HSUS and the American Humane Association demanded enforcement of animal control laws and increasing penalties for those whose animals they claimed were a “nuisance,” but they backed down from making demands for affordable spay/neuter for fear of betraying unity with industry groups. Instead, they merely supported “research to come up with a more economical sterilization program.” But the research was unnecessary since the solution was already at hand, as they were well aware. In short, they allowed the killing to continue. This was not the only innovation to save lives they resisted. As a whole, the “movement” showed profound indifference and even outright disdain to programs like foster care, adoption promotions, and surrender counseling; choosing to fight, rather than embrace them when first proposed in the 1970s, until well into the first decade of the 21st century. Indeed, some communities still fight them.

Fourth, we cannot assume that if shelter administrators could not kill the animals, they had no other alternatives. If necessity is the mother of invention, as it has been throughout our history as a species, it was their job to find alternatives, not to blindly accept the killing as a fait accompli. Had they taken killing off the table, human ingenuity and human compassion would have found a way to make it work, just as the No Kill movement has done since then by challenging the traditional and deadly dogma of yore, and, more importantly, those who refused to let go of it.

As is still true in some communities today, the two greatest causes of pound killing in the 1970s wasn’t “overpopulation,” it was habit and convenience, a toxic combination that not only needlessly claimed the lives of animals, but prevented innovation and kept true animal lovers from working at and making their mark in these organizations. Other than the industry’s own intransigence, there is no reason the profound changes we are now witnessing couldn’t have happened much sooner.

Those who ran pounds in the 1970s as the assembly lines of killing that they were deserve our condemnation, not our pity. The latter we reserve for their millions of victims. This isn’t a meaningless exercise. It is a moral urgency with implications for animals today.

Former California Governor Jerry Brown once said that the problem with many people who fight for a better, more just world is that they sometimes lack a language for progress. Across my now almost 30-year career helping animals, those words have rung continuously in my head, and are why I never let an opportunity pass to celebrate how far some communities have come, even if they have yet to reach the finish line. That is why I am the first person to celebrate when a shelter that once killed half of all animals achieves a 90% placement rate, even though 90% isn’t No Kill.

Why? Failing to do so is a recipe for burn out. It is a recipe for losing sight of just how far we’ve come and how much transformation is yet within our power. But for such achievements to motivate us to greater heights requires not just recognition of how much we have achieved, but more importantly, how. As someone who has borne witness to the remarkable transformation that has taken place in the sheltering industry over the last 15 years, I know that we did not get here by perpetuating the fiction that everyone working in shelters in the late 1990s or early 2000s truly cared whether or not the animals in their facilities lived or died. Indeed, we achieved success by granting ourselves permission to admit that many did not care and the animals whose very lives were at risk deserved better. And if that is true about conditions in pounds just over a decade ago when five million animals were dying, how could we possibly deny it when those pounds were butchering 16 million or more in the 1970s?

With too many animals still losing their lives in American shelters that have yet to embrace the lifesaving innovation of the No Kill Equation,  much work remains to be done. Romanticized fictions that grant absolution for the obscene amount of killing in our shelters 50 years ago are not ours to make. After all, we were not the ones whose lives were needlessly taken. More importantly, they are dangerous for the animals, too. The idea that we all want what is best for animals and that those working in shelters can be trusted to ensure that they receive it—while perhaps comforting to some—threaten to revive the very dogmas the No Kill movement worked so hard to break in order to sow the lifesaving success the sheltering industry is now experiencing. And in doing so, they threaten to hinder more innovations and therefore less killing by lulling us into a state of complacency.

Worst of all, they can mislead us into believing that we don’t have the right to criticize those who abuse the power over the life and death of animals because everyone in shelters cares and always has. Such whitewashing of history occurs when we claim that it was merely “too many animals” or public opposition to community animal sterilization that are to blame for past killing. In doing so, we encourage the false view that the progress we have made is  the result of collaboration—a meeting of the minds and hearts between the No Kill movement and the sheltering industry—rather than the David and Goliath battle between light and dark that it truly was. This is not only a betrayal of truth; it is a betrayal to every animal entering a shelter who is still at risk of being killed.


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