What’s in a Name? Understanding the static surrounding the “No-Kill” debate

February 27, 2012 by Tails Magazine in Featured, Home, March 2012 with 4 Comments

Dog in ShelterBy Brendan Quealy

If you are an animal lover, you have most likely heard of shelters promoting themselves as “no-kill.” And, you may have heard other facilities being called “kill” shelters. These two small descriptors are causing a giant rift in the animal welfare community.

When people refer to shelters that don’t turn away any animals as “kill shelters,” it is frustrating to those organizations that believe such language paints a negative image of the work they do. The term “open-admission” or “open-door” is preferred. Most municipal facilities must, by law, take in every single animal who shows up at their door. Along those same lines, many believe that “limited-admission” is a more accurate description than a “no-kill” shelter—a facility that chooses to limit the number of animals it cares for at any given time.

Despite the language debate, it can be agreed that both sides are working towards the same goal: saving the lives of as many animals as possible. The public’s perception of what “no-kill” and “kill” means, especially for the animals, is at the core of much of the politics that exist. A source from the Animal Welfare League in Chicago, an open-admission facility, says: “There is no such thing as ‘no-kill.’ That is misleading to the public and it is the most frustrating part of working in a shelter because people don’t see the volume of animals coming in.”

Dr. Robyn Barbiers, president of the Anti-Cruelty Society (ACS) in Chicago, says that while by most definitions the ACS is a “no-kill” facility, she does not want to use that term because she sees it as a misnomer that creates adversity. “I think that many people don’t know what the term ‘no-kill’ actually means,” explains Dr. Barbiers. “The vast majority of organizations that say they are no-kill do in fact euthanize animals that are suffering medically or behaviorally.”

Limited-admission/no-kill facilities have the ability to turn away animals for many different reasons—lack of space, too sick, or displays of behavior dangerous to the community. Of course, those animals need to be freed from their suffering somewhere—often at open-admission shelters. Many believe euthanasia is an act of kindness, and is a better solution than sentencing an animal to a poor quality of life or suffering in any way. “That is important to understand,” says Clay Foley, the humane educator at the Champaign County Humane Society, an open-admission facility. “Before I started working at the shelter, I didn’t know all that much and I thought no-kill shelters were the good ones and ones that euthanized were bad—it appeared black and white like that, but of course there are a lot of grays.”

The movement to address the crisis of unwanted animals killed due to a lack of adoptive homes can be traced back as early as the 1930s, picking up much momentum throughout the last decade. “One of the thoughts out there is that there are too many animals and not enough homes,” says Rich Avanzino, president of Maddie’s Fund, a family foundation established in 1999 to help fund the creation of a no-kill nation. “If we bring the message to the people that shelters and rescues are the best places to find an animal, we can end needless euthanasia overnight.”

Nathan Winograd, the executive director of the national No Kill Advocacy Center, completely agrees. “For a long period of time when the no-kill movement was first starting out, there were two complaints: Open-admission shelters can’t be no-kill, and to be no-kill you have to turn animals away. Those just aren’t true,” says Winograd. “Our goal has always been that no healthy or treatable animals are killed—so every shelter can put that policy in place.” Winograd says his issue is only with “regressive shelters that have built-in excuses. They blame their euthanasia rates on overpopulation and irresponsible [caretakers].” He also knows much of the problem is a direct result of the sale of puppy-mill puppies and irresponsible breeders adding to the pet population, while taking away homes from shelter animals.

“There is not a supply-and-demand problem, but there is a market share problem,” says Winograd. He estimates that there are about 23.5 million homes every year welcoming a new pet. If those people adopt, rather than purchase a pet, there will no longer be a need to euthanize any animals. Winograd believes that if all shelters make a concerted effort to change to a no-kill policy, of the 4 million animals that are put down every year—3.6 million can be saved. Some advocates point to spay/neuter as a way to move to no-kill. Winograd sees that as only part of the solution. “We need to continually raise the bar—take the lead and not wait for consensus,” he says. “We are not going back to the complacency of years ago.”

With the popularity of animal sanctuaries and animal hospices on the rise, Winograd’s goal is to see America eventually move to a 100 percent no-kill nation. “As veterinary and behavioral medicine advances, the number of animals we can classify as treatable will increase,” says Winograd. “I am an optimist, and I believe we can save them all.” That is the goal, of course—to save them all. “This is a community effort, and we should not bash what we can do as a community of animal lovers to help save companion animals,” says Avanzino. “We should not be wasting our money or our time fighting with each other because anyone who saves one dog or one cat deserves applause.”

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