Articles HSUS

What Elephant?

This year’s national No Kill Conference in Washington D.C. drew over 800 people from 44 states and 10 countries. But beyond the numbers—an almost tripling of attendance from last year—two key demographics demonstrate how far we’ve come. The first is that almost half—46 percent—of all attendees came from shelters, including some of the largest municipal shelters in the nation. Traditional shelters are increasingly looking to the No Kill movement, generally, and the No Kill Advocacy Center, more specifically, and not traditional national organizations, because while we offer condemnation when it is deserved, we also offer solutions and assistance. If shelters want to save lives, they do not want antiquated dogmas which represent the past. That can only mean good things as we collectively move toward our inevitable No Kill future.

Groups like the Humane Society of the United States know this, which takes us to the second demographic: the large national groups also sent people to the No Kill Conference, including HSUS itself. I can only imagine how it felt to attend workshop after workshop from some of the most successful and innovative shelter directors, shelter veterinarians, shelter reformers, and animal lawyers in the country and hear a consistent theme: to save lives, not only must you ignore the advice from groups like HSUS, but you must fight them. To hear that the leaders of the most successful shelters and organizations consider your organization both irrelevant in terms of practical information and the enemy in terms of obstacles to success had to be a wake-up call to these groups to either get involved, get out of the way or get pushed aside.

It is no coincidence that fast on the heels of the conference, HSUS published a hastily created, non-formatted group of low-budget Microsoft Word documents they call a “Shelter Advocate Toolkit.”  It purports to show reformers what programs are necessary to save lives in shelters, why shelter directors do not innovate, how to communicate with them to encourage change, and what to do if they won’t. Progress? It sure sounds like it. But after reading the Toolkit, it would all depend on what your definition of “progress” is. If it means anything substantive, you’ll be disappointed.

The Toolkit amounts to little more than an attempt to remain relevant and nothing more. The documents themselves only play lip service to reform, while ensuring shelter directors they still have their back; that they still are (in their own words) the “strongest advocate” for shelters and the “dedicated people” who work at them. Not a single one of the resources listed, nor anywhere within the various documents that HSUS created do they mention the existence of No Kill communities or highlight the important fact that shelters in 63 communities representing hundreds of cities and towns throughout the United States  have 90+ percent save rates. In fact, 11 years after the creation of the first No Kill community, it is a milestone they have yet to publicly announce. They do not offer substantive guidelines for reformers or advocates, nor do they offer goals for lifesaving, referring to the No Kill movement’s call for 90+ percent save rates, as useless.

Moreover, the Toolkit fails to address the crisis of killing in our nation’s shelters, regurgitates antiquated dogma, equates saving lives with animal hoarding, blames No Kill advocates for the very killing they are trying to bring to an end, and reaffirms the necessity of one of the most deadly sheltering practices that cause animals to be killed out of sheer convenience: the thoroughly unethical practice of keeping available cages empty.

From the very first paragraph, HSUS gets it wrong, telling us that,

Most sheltering professionals and volunteers are highly committed to the animals they serve; however, when faced with too many animals in need and not enough resources to care for them all, even the most dedicated caretakers can struggle.

Our shelters are in crisis: neglect is rampant, cruelty is endemic and killing is the norm. Why? There is a culture of uncaring in shelters. Hard work, dedication to the animals and a desire to improve conditions is not rewarded. In fact, it is often punished. In Philadelphia a number of years ago, a whistleblower not only had his car vandalized, but was threatened with physical violence by a union-protected thug. Who outed him? Philadelphia’s then-Health Commissioner, who oversaw the shelter and wanted to silence critics. In King County, Washington, a whistleblower was transferred to another department for her own safety. In Miami, the whistleblower that stood up to cruel methods of killing was simply fired. In Indianapolis, a shelter director who tried to transform the local animal control facility had his car vandalized and was subject to threats of violence. Shelters today are places where the normal rules of compassion and decency toward animals to which the vast majority of people subscribe simply do not apply.

But HSUS wants shelter reformers to believe that they do care, even when shelter workers take turn shooting animals in the head for target practice, when they hold dogs down with a control pole and then repeatedly kick them, when they put cats and raccoons in the gas chamber to watch them fight before turning on the gas, when they allow a cat to starve to death, or when they do this:

On Feb. 11 this year, a small, timid Chow dog was scheduled to die at the Memphis Animal Shelter with a sedative injection followed by a lethal solution injected into the heart:


“Now you want to act stupid?” [an MAS employee] said to the Chow as he pulled the uncooperative leashed animal into the euthanizing room. “I know how to take care of this. This is my sedation.”


[The employee] then lifted the dog off the ground and held the choking animal over a sink as it urinated and defecated while gasping for air:

Why are they doing these things? According to HSUS, they are “dedicated caretakers” “faced with too many animals in need and not enough resources to care for them all.” In other words, there are too many animals not to neglect, abuse and then kill them.

Although HSUS finally admits that problems in shelters exist and even cites a few key programs of the No Kill Equation which shelters should be doing but aren’t, admitting to problems is not the same as working to fix them, especially while you simultaneously offer excuses that perpetuate and condone them. It also begs the question, if activists working to reform their local shelter actually turned to HSUS for assistance, would they do what they have always done and fight them and defend the shelter instead?

Will they do what they did in San Francisco when reformers were trying to pass a law requiring the shelters there to save rather than kill that community’s neediest animals and HSUS wrote the legislative body considering the legislation, asserting the right of shelters to kill and urging a “No” vote? Will they do what they did in Davidson County, North Carolina where they recently gave the shelter in that community a “Shelter We Love” award when it was revealed that not only were animals there killed by the gassing, but that shelter employees violated the law by placing animals of different species in the gas chamber together so they could watch them fight before turning on the gas? Or in spite of their admission that “there is actually very little oversight of sheltering organizations,” will HSUS continue to oppose the efforts of No Kill advocates to pass the Companion Animal Protection Act in states across the country to bring some desperately needed accountability to a field that has historically lacked it as they did in Texas and Florida?

Moreover, what will they do if shelter directors turn to them for guidance? Will they do what they did in Kentucky and dismiss reformers as “crazy”? I recently spent some time with a Kentucky animal control director who wanted to talk about how we could work together to improve the animal welfare landscape in Kentucky. She told me how last year, an advocate in her community gave her a copy of my book Redemption. But every time the advocate asked her if she read it, she said “No.” She told the advocate she started to do so, but that I was “angry,” so she stopped. The advocate would not relent. Finally, she read it.

She told me when she finished reading the book; she was the one who was angry. She was angry at herself for spending the last 15 years as an animal control director doing it wrong. She was angry at HSUS because they defended her when they should have been challenging her to do better. And she was angry that they chose to sacrifice the animals in order to do so because when she approached them about the kinds of reforms I advocate, they told her not to listen because I was “crazy.” The county shelter is now doing offsite adoptions, adoption promotions, and is instituting the other programs of the No Kill Equation and the save rate has climbed to around 80%. Normally closed on Saturdays, she wants to push into the 90s by staying open until 8 pm for adoptions.

If the “Toolkit” is any indication, we can expect more of the same. For in it, HSUS tells advocates what they have always told advocates: to ignore statistics, that No Kill equals hoarding, to defer to shelter directors, and not to criticize those who neglect and kill animals because it isn’t their fault when they do so. In fact, it is the fault of No Kill advocates for questioning the dedication of those directors.

Ignore Statistics

HSUS once defended the New York City pound, despite seven out of 10 animals being put to death, calling those statistics “useless.” In the Toolkit, HSUS tells reformers the same thing. According to HSUS,

Statistics can be made to paint just about any picture, good or bad. Before jumping to conclusions that your shelter’s euthanasia numbers are ‘bad,’ ask what the real story behind those numbers is. You may find the background paints a much different picture of how the shelter is operating and its overall commitment to the animals.

Save rates do not lie. Those shelters that have achieved No Kill consistently prove—no matter what the particular demographics of a community—that upwards of 95% of all animals entering shelters can and should be saved. Experience bears this out. No matter how hard HSUS tries to pretend otherwise, those shelters that do not have 90th percentile-level save rates are killing animals who can and should be saved and reform advocates across the country are using this as a reliable gauge of a shelter’s performance, as well as a goal for their efforts.

Instead, HSUS promotes what they call the “Five Freedoms”:

  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst
  2. Freedom from discomfort
  3. Freedom from pain, injury, and disease
  4. Freedom to express normal behavior, and
  5. Freedom from fear and distress.

Not only are there no standards as to how reformers should apply these in holding their shelters accountable, but HSUS ignores the most important freedom of them all: the freedom from being killed. Once dead, the other freedoms are irrelevant. For how can one be guaranteed food, water, comfort, medical care, socialization and safety when all those things can be taken away through an overdose of poison? As the rest of us are dedicated to the ending the tragic killing and needless killing of some four million animals a year, HSUS refuses to recognize the killing as a problem at all.

It Isn’t the Shelters Fault

“If they had fewer animals brought to their doors and more animals being quickly adopted,” HSUS writes in the Toolkit, “your shelter would certainly have more time and resources to spend on the more challenging individual cases.”

In other words, there are “too many animals, not enough homes.” Shelter killing is not something that is imposed from the outside. It is a choice. It is a choice made by the person who runs a shelter to take the easy, uncaring and inhumane way out. In fact, HSUS’ own study has proved that pet overpopulation is a myth. Moreover, the number of “open admission” No Kill shelters, some with per capita intake rates 20-times that of New York City, prove that shelters can adopt their way out of killing, can spend time and resources on the “more challenging” cases, and can do so despite large numbers of animals “brought to their doors,” despite HSUS claims to the contrary.

No Kill Equals Warehousing

According to HSUS,

Quality of life matters! Animals are not goods that can be warehoused indefinitely-they need lots of individual attention each day, not just for cleaning and feeding but for physical and mental stimulation. Sitting in a tiny cage for weeks and months on end hoping for a new home may not be in that animal’s best interest.

To begin with, there is not a single animal who would choose death over a few weeks or even a few months inside a cage if that is what it would take to guarantee that animals’ life. Every single person, including the staff at HSUS, would also choose life rather than death if they were in the same situation and given that choice, and yet for years HSUS and other kill shelter advocates have repeated the opposite as if it were an obvious truth. It is not. What they advocate for animals, no one—including the animals—would advocate for themselves.

And who said anything about warehousing animals? HSUS staff who attended the No Kill Conference watched successful shelter directors provide guidance about increasing adoptions and keeping animals moving quickly and efficiently though the shelter and into loving, new homes. They did not—nor do other No Kill advocates—promote “warehousing” of animals. Yet, HSUS continues to parrot this fiction by insisting that No Kill means just that. When I ran an open admission No Kill shelter, our average length of stay was eight days and no animal ever celebrated an anniversary there. Despite a per capita intake rate five times that of Los Angeles, in Reno, Nevada it has been roughly 14 days, about the length of stay for a dog in a boarding facility while that dog’s family is on vacation. Moreover, in neither case were they simply sitting in cages with no individual attention. They were/are being walked, groomed, socialized and played with.

It Isn’t the Shelter Director’s Fault They Neglect and Abuse Animals; it is Yours.

While HSUS does—perhaps for the first time ever—”admonish” shelter directors for failing to keep pace with innovations in sheltering, HSUS then turns around and tells reformers that they “need to trust that animal control professionals really do care about animals, and don’t enjoy having to kill them—in fact, quite the opposite is true; sheltering professionals suffer tremendous psychological impacts from the difficult burdens they carry. They need to be seen as partners in bringing an end to euthanasia, rather than the cause of the problem.”

Moreover, HSUS says,

As with any profession, the inner workings of a shelter are more complex than they may appear from the outside. There may be valid reasons why, for example, some cages at your local shelter are empty (a few cages may need to be kept open to animal control to drop off strays that are picked up in the community at any given time, or filling every cage may put the shelter over its humane capacity for care of animals):

For years, we have been told that we must trust and defer to the “experts” in animal sheltering—that they have knowledge and expertise that is beyond the layperson’s understanding, best expressed in HSUS assurance that “the inner workings of a shelter are more complex than they may appear from the outside.” It is this notion that for decades meant that almost no one dared to question those in positions of authority within the animal sheltering industry or their archaic, cruel policies which promote and lead to killing. And it is the very reason why our shelters are in the crisis they are in today.

In truth, there is no special knowledge that would make the common practice of convenience killing—killing animals when there are empty cages or when animals can be cohoused—ever morally acceptable. To assert so is to reveal a stunning lack of regard for the value of animal life. Those who espouse this deadly and disturbing idea are the ones lacking the qualities necessary to humanely oversee an animal shelter, not those of us who recognize that to kill an animal despite empty cages or to create empty cages is nothing short of obscene. And when we say so, when we seek legislation to prevent the killing of animals even when the shelter has a ready place for them to go to, HSUS can’t help but attack advocates for doing so.

They state,

As the communication gap widens, and people who care about animals find themselves working in opposition to each other, rather than with each other, it is the animals who suffer. Shelters become frustrated with what are, from their perspective, unproductive diversions (like social media smear campaigns, attacks on their personal and professional reputations, etc.), and become more unwilling to work with the public on any level. This distancing in turn reinforces the public’s mistrust of the shelter, making them wonder what the shelter is “hiding,” and convincing them that the shelter does not deserve their support. This vicious circle of mistrust ultimately diverts everyone’s precious time and resources, and drives us further from our goal of ending euthanasia.

Smear campaigns? Smearing implies dishonesty. Educating the public about the needless killing of animals occurring in their local shelter and asking for change is not a smear campaign. It is democracy. HSUS is, in effect, arguing that in demanding alternatives to killing, No Kill activists are to blame for that killing, even when our concerns have been brought to the attention of shelter directors, only to be met by hostile, defiant ears and be subject to retaliation.

In truth, campaigns for reform mounted by local animal lovers are doing the work HSUS has been entrusted to do but has failed to do for decades. They are demanding the accountability HSUS has never demanded from shelters, and it is that continuing failure—refusing to acknowledge that No Kill has been achieved and that every shelter can and should save roughly 95% of the animals entering their facilities—that perpetuates killing and drives “us further from our goal of ending” killing.

Like HSUS itself, the Toolkit is schizophrenic. By failing to offer substantive guidelines, by failing to set substantive standards, by assuring reformers that shelter directors and staff really do care even as neglect and abuse is rampant, by fighting reform locally while playing lip service for the need for reform, by telling shelter directors that they should do better while they tell reformers it isn’t the directors’ fault, the Toolkit offers very little beyond a repackaging of the same-old same-old; dogmas that condone and excuse the killing and which pretend that we can’t do better for animals even when community after community has already proved otherwise. More importantly, it reaffirms what we’ve already known for a very long time: if we are going to wait for HSUS to join the No Kill revolution, we’ll be waiting—and the animals will continue dying—for a very, very long time.


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