"Kill" vs. "No Kill" Shelters: an Ecosystem

My wife and I have owned lots of dogs over the years, and they've all been rescues, either from the pound or some rescue group. We have pretty strong feelings about adopting a dog that needs a home as opposed to going to breeders or such.

This week, there was a Facebook post from Maui Pitbull Rescue (MPR):

https://www.facebook.com/pages/MPR-Maui-Pitbull-Rescue/145160815524156

In their feed, on March 23, 8:46pm, was this statement along with some photos of the dog:

“Alert!!!!! This pit mix is # 55 at MHS. He is to be euthanized. He was found two weeks ago and now no one has claimed him. Can anyone help. We don't have room at MPR at this time. He loves other dogs too.”

"MHS" is Maui Humane Society. What are they doing?

"Kill" Shelters

As it turns out, it's a pretty interesting story. MHS is what’s called in some circles a “kill shelter”, in that they euthanize some animals. So, why do they do that? Well, some facts: MHS is partially funded by Maui County. As such, they operate under some fundamental requirements:

  • They are required to accept all animals that arrive at their door. This includes:
    • mongoose
    • goats
    • chickens
    • wild ducks
    • turtles
    • bunnies
    • mice
    • rats
  • They are required to euthanize animals

Where do all those animals come from? Some are dumped dogs; people get tired of caring for a pet, drive them out to some remote location, kick them out of the car and drive away. Or people are going on vacation and, rather than arrange for someone to take care of their pet, they dump them. Or a dispute with a landlord means someone can no longer keep their pet. Or someone ends up in jail. Or someone gives a child a bunny for Easter, which thrills them only for a short time. There are hundreds of reasons why people dump pets. But the common factor is they're throwing away an animal that has depended on them for care, that has probably bonded with some or all of the household, that cannot understand why, all of a sudden, they are on their own.

A lot of these animals end up at Maui Humane Society. From their Fiscal 2013-2014 Annual Report

  • An average of 23 pets arrived daily
  • 3,000 pets were spayed or neutered
  • The number of feral cats received decreased 64% year over year
  • The number of strays is decreasing year over year

The breakdown:

  • Animals Received:
    • Cats & Kittens: 4,923
    • Dogs & Puppies: 2,308
    • Other Animals: 1,399
    • Total: 8,630
  • Animals Adopted:
    • Cats & Kittens: 769
    • Dogs & Puppies: 723
    • Other Animals: 241
    • Total: 1,733
  • Animals Reunited:
    • Cats & Kittens: 263
    • Dogs & Puppies: 531
    • Other Animals: 8
    • Total: 802
  • Animals Transferred:
    • Cats & Kittens: 1
    • Dogs & Puppies: 242
    • Other Animals: 16
    • Total: 259

What’s not in the Annual Report is some additional math:

  • Total Received: 8,630
  • Total Processed: 2,794
  • Not Accounted For: 5,836 (68%)

And here’s the breakdown of the unaccounted:

  • Cats & Kittens: 3,890
  • Dogs & Puppies: 812
  • Other Animals: 1,134

One has to assume that a significant portion of the unaccounted-for animals are euthanized. Why? Lots of reasons, but the main ones include:

  • Lots and lots of feral cats
  • Terribly injured/sick animals
  •  Malnourished animals; animals with mange
  • Behavior problems / not placeable

“No Kill” Shelters

"No Kill" shelters have no facilities for, or interest in, euthanasia. On Maui, there are a couple of them:

Maui Pitbull Rescue (MPR). Their website states:

"Maui Pitbull Rescue (MPR) is the only no-kill pitbull rescue shelter in the state of Hawaii.”

Hawaii Animal Rescue Foundation (HARF). On their website:

"We are a group of experienced animal welfare people in Hawaii that are buying land and building a NO KILL shelter." [emphasis theirs]

How do they operate without euthanasia? Well, as it turns out, they don’t, actually. These so-called “no kill” shelters are highly selective about what animals they take in. In some cases, they even survey the animals at MHS and take those animals they feel are the most adoptable. There are two holes in that logic, however:

  • The animals they refuse to take on have to go somewhere, namely MHS
  • If they find they can’t get an animal adopted, they take that animal to MHS — even if they “rescued” that animal from MHS in the first place

Holding the Bag

Where does that leave Maui Humane Society? Holding the bag, essentially. They are, as defined by their mission, the dumping ground for unwanted animals — but that includes animals rejected by no kill shelters, too.

There’s also a stigma that gets attached to MHS because they euthanize animals. That stigma is exacerbated when the no kill shelters make a huge deal about their not euthanizing animals, and especially when they send out alerts about an animal that is about to be put down at MHS. Now, that animal mentioned in an alert may just get adopted, but there are other possible outcomes:

  • MHS is negatively portrayed by the groups for whom they’re actually doing the dirty work
  • MHS is further discredited by people that don’t understand the shelter ecosystem
  • The animal may get adopted in a well-intended knee-jerk reaction to the alert, but then that adoption doesn't work out, and the animal finds itself back at MHS

It really is an ecosystem, as the flow of pets from sources to people to shelters to people, or to euthanasia, resembles a closed system: strays and abused animals have to go somewhere.

Some Other Perspectives

A lot of people have done a lot of thinking, and writing about this. People who work within that ecosystem and really know what they're talking about.

From SPCA, Los Angeles

“spcaLA does not euthanize for space or for time. We do not euthanize what we determine are adoptable animals.
"We will euthanize when an animal requires medical treatment that goes beyond our ability to humanely provide, or has a condition that puts other shelter animals or workers at risk.
"We will also choose euthanasia when an animal has negative behaviors, such as unmanageable aggression towards other dogs, or aggression towards people that goes beyond our ability to correct, especially if that behavior presents a safety concern to a potential adopter or to the community.
"We do not feel it is responsible to place a dangerous animal in the community. We also do not feel it is responsible to imply that we would.
"There are few organizations with the money and facilities to keep an animal that is ill or unsafe around people. In fact, keeping such animals while thousands of healthy, adoptable animals are euthanized because there is no place to keep them could be considered an unconscionable decision.
"While “no kill” is a popular phrase in today’s animal welfare environment, we do not find its use responsible. We discourage the use of the phrase “no kill.” It hides the problem. We instead want to be very clear to our community what our choices are and how our decisions are made.”

AHeinz57 Pet Rescue & Transport

“Bridging the Gap Between No Kill vs Traditional
“It’s not fair that our rescue gets to boast that we do not euthanize animals when we have to turn animals away because we don’t have room. The animals we don’t have room for end up at the traditional shelters because they do NOT turn animals away.”

Rescue with Your Eyes Open

So, next time you’re feeling sad or angry about animals getting put down, or better, thinking about finding an animal to rescue you, keep in mind the whole story. And if you do adopt a pet, take that adoption seriously, understanding that you're now, literally, responsible for that animal's life.