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The Chicago Issue: The No-Kill Question

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ShelterCat.NoKillIn March of this year, Aldermen Edward Burke and Raymond Lopez introduced a campaign to make Chicago a “no-kill” city. Their “No-Kill Chicago” resolution supports policies that are both “a humane and fiscally responsible alternative that can save local governments money while promoting an increase in pet adoptions.” The goal is for shelters and rescues to euthanize only those animals who are terminally ill or pose a threat to the public in some way.

The good news is that everyone in the community can get behind saving more animals. The city, the aldermen, numerous animal welfare groups, and the Chicago Animal Shelter Alliance (CASA) are working together to assess the current infrastructure, revealing areas within the system that need to strengthen, change, or grow. From there, we can build a successful model designed to address Chicago’s unique challenges.

We’ve always been a city that approaches animal problems with our own original ideas. When aggressive dogs became a headline issue in 2003, many other cities enacted Breed Specific Legislation (BSL)—laws that discriminate based solely on breed. Instead of jumping on the BSL bandwagon, we examined the dilemma and drew our own conclusion. As a result, the historic “Animal Control Act” was signed into law, in which specific deeds, not breeds, are punished. From Yorkie to Poodle to Rottweiler, all animals are held to the same standards, and consequences are only enforced when a dog is deemed “dangerous” by their actions. It’s about promoting a positive result and taking the time to do the right thing, rather than just signing on to what’s popular at the moment.

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It may be a subtle ideological shift, but being for something sends a more positive message than being against something. As Mother Theresa so famously stated, she would not attend an anti-war demonstration, but would happily participate in a peace rally. She understood that promoting what you want, rather than what you don’t want, creates a more powerful and motivating place to begin. Our language shapes our reality. And while the “no-kill” movement may have the best intentions behind it, the term itself poses some issues.

If we use the word “no-kill” to describe shelters that euthanize 10 percent or less of the animals who enter their facility (a common way to define the term), than “kill-shelter” is automatically used to describe the others. These agencies prefer their more accurate designation—“open- admission” shelters, so called because they accept every single animal who shows up at their door.

A “no-kill” shelter may never have to end an animal’s life within the walls of their facility because when they are at capacity, the staff must start turning animals away. Overflow never becomes an issue, but those animals must go pullquotesomewhere. In Chicago, that often means they end up at Animal Care & Control (CACC) or other open-admission shelters that take animals in regardless of how many others are in their care.

For most municipal shelters like CACC, open-admission is the law. They don’t have the opportunity (as “no-kill” shelters do) to turn anyone away due to a lack of space. This policy generally means an open- admission shelter must euthanize more than 10 percent of its population due to insufficient resources.

The debate within the animal welfare community is that having the term “no- kill” propagates the “kill-shelter” term, which implies that some shelters out there prefer to kill animals rather than save them. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Despite attempts to adopt out as many animals as they can, many open-admission shelters in the Chicagoland area end up euthanizing due to a lack of space and resources. According to Diane Spryka of the Animal Welfare League, an open-admission shelter, while she may have euthanized animals with love and compassion, she has never killed an animal. She believes “killing” implies ending a life with malice or intent, which is certainly not the case when you work in animal welfare.

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Many animal welfare supporters propose that instead of calling the campaign “No- Kill Chicago,” the city instead adopts another term—such as “Humane Chicago” or “A Home for Every Animal,” which encompasses the real actions that need to take place.

In order for Chicago to start increasing the number of animals who get out of the shelter/rescue system alive, we need an attitude shift that goes beyond the banning of open-admission shelters. Our mission is to find a home for every animal. How can we get there? By supporting spay/neuter initiatives, making sure animals who must be re-homed are done so quickly and efficiently, and getting every human looking for a new pet to think adoption first.

The community must realize the major role they play in this issue, and make some conscious changes in behavior. When recycling began gaining popularity, people fought it. It seemed too hard and confusing. But as a result of education and awareness, even my six year old now automatically seeks out the blue garbage cans and sorts his trash. Same thing with the banning of plastic bags—carrying reusable ones is now the norm. By continuing to educate and share the message that homeless animals are not damaged goods, the perception about shelters and rescue groups shifts. More people begin to think of these animals as adorable future furry family members and choose to adopt, rather than purchase, their next animal companion.

At the end of the day, despite the semantics, it is the work that gets done on behalf of the animals, and the intent and spirit with which the laws are written, that matters. We, as a community, need to get involved and hold Chicago’s leaders to task—moving forward together to serve and care for Chicago’s animals the very best we can.

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We asked Chicago-area residents which term they would get behind and why—”No Kill Chicago” or a proposed alternative such as “Humane Chicago.” Here’s what they had to say:

“No-kill seems like a term that could be polarizing. Something softer, like Humane Chicago, seems more tied to human values. Even people who don’t know anything about it might be compelled to be sympathetic to the issue.” – Tracy M.


“No-kill Chicago, because it sounds more severe and like the city is actually taking action. It’s also a term that a lot of people are familiar with.” – Aaron G.


“No-kill seems a bit too PETA-ish… like it has lots of potential political baggage. Humane seems more neutral and happy.” – Debbie B.


“People could take it very literally. If I got behind ‘No-Kill Chicago’ and then found out they were putting dogs to sleep for humane reasons, I’d think there was something shady going on.” – Mark S.


“Humane Chicago is something I could get behind. No-Kill Chicago sounds it it could be dealing with the insane violence issues.” – David L.


“I prefer a name like Humane Chicago because it is less offensive.” – Sarah S.


“I would love to see Chicago become a No-Kill city, but knowing that likely wouldn’t happen, anything to make things more humane. I feel all animals deserve to get a fair chance and be placed in a good home (obviously some exceptions exist). As for no-kill, to me it just means that [there is] no killing just for the sake of freeing up space or getting rid of animals. There are so many adoption groups that take animals in and find them fosters and eventual forever homes. I’d like to see the city work directly with more of these groups, whether in Chicago, the state of Illinois, or elsewhere.” – Ari B.

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