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Shelter killing is a choice
And yet, excuses for it have reached peak absurdity
Last month, shelters across the country participated in NBC’s “Clear the Shelters” adoptathon. Thousands of shelters had their best day ever. After finding homes, over 161,500 cats and dogs did, too. That “is the highest single-year adoption mark in the campaign’s eight-year history.” Since the event specifically targets municipal pounds, most of these are animals who otherwise faced killing.
The success of Clear the Shelters came during a year when shelters have been sounding the alarm about being at overcapacity due to slowing adoptions. They have also claimed there is nothing they can do about it. Indeed, some of the most extreme naysayers — those who appear to want shelters to kill so they can gleefully proclaim the failure of No Kill — have claimed that we can’t adopt more because we have reached “peak dog” in the U.S. They argue that the number of households who want dogs is maxed out and will result in a downward trend in numbers for generations.
In addition to turnover in the pet population (as a result of animals dying or getting lost), the success of Clear the Shelters proves the absurdity of those claims. Other factors that disprove the assertions include growing pet acquisitions by Millennials and GenZers, the success of communities that continue to place 99% of dogs and other animals, and national intake and adoption data.
What do the numbers show?
Before the pandemic, roughly 4.5 million animals entered shelters annually, significantly lower than in past years, thanks to sterilization programs, pet retention efforts, and people taking their lifetime commitments more seriously. In fact, the senior pet became the fastest growing segment of the pet population. In addition to lower intakes, redemption rates remained steady, and adoption rates increased, as the percentage of animals acquired via adoption — compared to being purchased or obtained in other ways (e.g., found, family, friends) — grew to about ⅓ of all pet acquisitions.
Has something changed post-pandemic? Those who tend toward shelter killing apologia claim that people are surrendering their pandemic-acquired pets in droves and, because of economic challenges, are not adopting. Both of these arguments are wrong. Not only is consumer confidence continuing to rise, but in 2021, dog and cat adoptions increased over pre-pandemic levels and, in the case of cats, increased significantly. In 2022, intakes remain below the already lower pre-pandemic levels.
So why is there an increase in the number of headlines claiming — and often in the direst terms — that shelters are facing capacity issues? One reason is that the media would have ignored these challenges in the past as not being newsworthy. In other words, shelters have been facing capacity issues for years. The difference now is that the media publishes the stories because they realize their readers care about the issue — a lot. In other words, the headlines themselves may be evidence of progress rather than regression. Another reason is that length of stay has increased in some shelters, which is bad news. Length of stay is how many days an animal is at the shelter before being adopted. The longer the stay, the more likely a shelter will run out of room. Why is this happening given that all other indicators show that shelters should be doing much better, not worse?
Good choices lead to good outcomes
The answer is because of the practices of post-pandemic shelters. In fact, the shelters facing the most significant challenges are the ones that have still not fully opened to the public for adoption and are doing so by choice. And not only are some shelters refusing to be fully open to the public, some — like the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care and Control — have announced that they never will.
In other cases, shelters have not re-embraced the No Kill Equation programs and services they scuttled during the pandemic: foster care, marketing and promotion, offsite adoptions, and robust adoption campaigns, including being open when people are off work and families are together, such as on weekends and evenings. Despite more significant challenges, these programs resulted in 95% - 99% pre-pandemic placement rates. In other words, pre-pandemic shelters were successful despite higher intake numbers, lower rates of sterilization, opposition to TNR both within and outside the movement, greater opposition from private practice veterinarians and veterinary medical associations to their providing low-cost veterinary services, including vaccinations, sterilization, and wellness care, public fixation on pedigree and, therefore, a higher percentage of people buying rather than adopting animals, irrational fear of “pit bulls,” smaller budgets, and media indifference.
We’ve turned most of those on their heads. So it is no surprise that those communities that comprehensively implement those programs sustain placement rates of 99% post-pandemic without turning animals away or closing their doors. If that success, events like Clear the Shelters, and the national data prove anything, it is this: the No Kill Equation still works. That should surprise no one.
Bad choices lead to bad outcomes
If, on the other hand, intakes are outpacing outcomes in some communities because length of stay is increasing or adoptions are down, the reason should also not be surprising: shelters need to ramp up the programs and services that overcome these challenges.
But some are choosing not to do it. It is why killing is up in communities like Los Angeles, CA, and prospects for continuing No Kill success look grim in places like Austin, TX. Shelter managers in these communities are no longer embracing offsite adoptions, foster care, marketing and promoting shelter animals, and staying open seven days a week to get animals into homes. For example, Los Angeles County will no longer allow people to visit the shelter to adopt animals without an appointment meaning fewer visitors and, therefore, fewer adoptions. Similarly, Austin, TX, has closed for adoptions on Sundays, despite adopting thousands of animals annually on that day alone in years past. Is it any surprise that length of stay has gone up or that these shelters reach capacity more often?
But instead of holding shelter leaders in these communities accountable, groups like Austin Pets Alive, Best Friends, Maddie’s Fund, the National Animal Control Association (NACA), the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), and others are enabling them by either encouraging them to scale back operations or making excuses for their having done so. One of the loudest voices in this camp has even claimed that shelter staff can’t embrace solutions because they don’t know about them:
Because of high turnover rates at all levels of shelter professionals, the majority of people leading and working in shelters today started during a time when intake was historically low, which means the intense pressure and speed of at-capacity sheltering is relatively new to them. On top of that, shelters rely heavily on institutional knowledge of longtime staff members, especially during tough times. When these staff members are no longer there, shelters have to figure it out without historical knowledge.
Of course, they could use Google. They could stop listening to Austin Pets Alive, Best Friends, Maddie’s Fund, NACA, and HSUS, which are giving them awful advice like closing their doors, requiring appointments, or even breeding puppies. They could compare and contrast with successful shelters. They could employ a little creativity or common sense. They could do what anyone who grew up on planet Earth would do: the obvious. If you run out of cages and kennels, you send animals into foster care. If people do not come to the shelter to adopt, you take the animals to them by holding offsite adoption events. If the cats are not social with people, you sterilize and return them to their habitats. If someone is concerned because their dog is barking and neighbors are complaining, you offer them targeted strategies to resolve the barking. If someone brings you kittens because they could not afford sterilization, you ask them to also bring the mama, too. You adopt the kittens, and you return the mother to them after you spay her. If people arrive at the shelter to look at the animals, you let them in without an appointment. In short, you employ the No Kill Equation.
The No Kill Equation is how we reduced killing by 90% from its high water mark. And it is why tens of millions of Americans lived in cities and towns that placed above 95% and as high as 99% of shelter animals pre-pandemic and still live in them post-pandemic. Some of these communities are large; some small. Some of these communities are urban; some are rural. Some are in the North; others are in the South. Some are rich, while others have high poverty rates. These communities criss-cross the nation in blue states and the reddest parts of the reddest states. They are as diverse as America itself and share only one thing in common: they all achieved success the same way.
No more excuses
So, for shelter staff and managers who are new and lack “institutional knowledge” of the No Kill Equation and for those who are not new but have (conveniently) forgotten how to perform their duties humanely because of voluntary amnesia, wilful blindness, or any other reason, the No Kill Equation is how you run a shelter without killing and without turning animals away. Its programs are humane, readily available, affordable, and, when comprehensively implemented to the point that they replace killing entirely, effective. The No Kill Equation should be mandatory in each and every shelter in the country. And someday, it will be.
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