“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.

Beast

If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ve been following our preparations for relocation to Maui. Part of that adventure included getting Beast, our Alaskan Malamute, to the island as well. Sadly, those plans have now changed.

Beast had been having some throat issues for a while, and we thought we had it pretty much taken care of. Last week, the coughing became suddenly worse, and he started refusing food. Sarah took him in to the vet, and the X-ray revealed a huge tumor in his throat, distorting his trachea, and putting him at risk of asphyxiation, a horrible way to go. Sarah was with him in Newport with family while I was in Kula setting up the house. I turned off the saw, realized I had a text from Sarah, and called her. Her first words were “he’s gone, baby, I’m so sorry.” Sarah had been trying to reach me, and I either couldn’t hear the phone or wasn’t getting reception, so she had to make the hard call by herself, a hellish task. We can only be thankful that the choice was clear.

Change is hard for dogs, and the last month or so had been especially challenging for our boy, with strange people viewing the house, packing, things disappearing into boxes. We set his travel crate up in the living room with us and he really took to it, preferring to stay in there quite a bit, denning. Then out of the house and into a hotel for a week. Sarah was working, so Beast and I were on our own, together constantly, going for walks, exploring the pet store, finding the hotel room, learning about elevators. He was game, curious, playful and, a bit unusual for him, snuggly.

On the 30th, I gave him a hug and a belly rub, and departed for the airport for Maui. I didn’t know it was the last time I’d see the dog I’d adopted seven years before.

Since my departure, Sarah had him roaming the beaches in Oregon, playing with his new dog friend Odie on the ranch in Newport, and seemingly rediscovering some of the puppyhood he’d never had. His last weeks were filled with adventure, and he embraced it.

When I first brought Beast home with Belle, he was the troubled one, lacking any sort of confidence, glued to Belle’s side. Touching him anywhere back of his shoulder blades caused him to cower and cry in fear. Three years later, I could grab his tail and he’d understand it was play – but that was a long, gentle process to get him to realize he had a place in our home that was his. We watched him blossom, learning it was all right to play, to ask for attention, to demand dinner. When we lost Belle, he became our only child, the sole center of our dog-world. He moved out of her shadow and started expressing himself more than ever before. He watched more television than any dog I’ve ever known.

Beast was a gentle giant, curious but insecure, loving but only just beginning, really, to understand how to ask for love, fascinated by little children. I like to think he’s running with Belle now, free and happy. Our pack is smaller, and we miss him terribly.

Belle

Six and a half years ago, I adopted a couple of Alaskan Malamutes – Beast and Belle. Those were the names they came with, and I decided to let them stay that way. Two very different personalities, both somewhere between two and four years old, one black with white accents (Belle) one white with black and sable accents (Beast). 

Since that time, these two characters have made our life richer by far, and I love them both to pieces. But I have to admit I’ve had a favorite, as Belle, in her quiet, confident, pushy way, took up more room in my heart than any dog I’ve ever known. At over a hundred pounds, she still managed to convince me that she was, in fact, a lap dog. 

Mals frequently live to be somewhere between ten and fourteen years old, and both of these guys have been for the most part healthy and definitely happy.

But cancer doesn’t care about healthy and happy. On July 19th, we found lumps in Belle’s armpits, and took her in the next day for an exam. The diagnosis was multicentric lymphoma, pretty advanced, and the prognosis wasn’t good. We discussed the options with the vet, mainly no care, palliative care using prednisone, and full-on chemotherapy. Doing nothing simply wasn’t an option, but with her age and the fact that the vet found swollen lymph glands all over her little body, and after searching everywhere for every bit of information we could find, we decided that we’d go with prednisone, manage her pain and love her all the more until the end.

Belle tolerated the medications pretty well, but the tail rarely wagged any more, her frequent vocalizations were almost nonexistent, and the playfulness wasn’t there. She lasted a few weeks, and had some good days, including a few head-butts and even a couple of here-I-am-in-your-lap moments, and I held her all the more closely, knowing they’d be among the last. 

On August 13th, something was clearly different in her behavior, an extra amount of stillness. When we arrived home from work, we had a long talk, cried a bit, and decided it was time to put Belle down. The animal hospital was backed up a bit, which turned out to be a blessing as we sat out on a lovely lawn, Belle clearly enjoying lying in the cool grass. The staff was sensitive and kind, and Belle passed away quietly with her nose up against my leg and our hands holding her.  We were, and are, devastated.

On returning home, Beast clearly knew something was up, ranging around the house, stopping and staring, parking himself at the head of the stairs, waiting for Belle to appear, even barking, just once. When I realized that he was simply doing, physically, what Sarah and I were doing in our hearts, it broke my heart all over again. 

Run fast and far and free now, my lovely girl. 

 

 

The Battle for Spike

Spike is a stuffed animal. My mother used to nestle him in the crook of her arm for comfort when she slept. Because of this, Spike earned a place of honor in my mom’s coffin when she passed away a year ago, along with a photo of her family and a small bottle of Gilbey’s gin.
This is my first time dealing with formal death rituals like this. The family, being my sister and myself with our spouses, comprises the “family”: It was our job to approve of the way mom looked lying in state (“Her hair just isn’t right. Can you get her jacket to lie properly?”) and add what accoutrements we thought appropriate for her body’s next journey. I nestled Spike up against her arm (I couldn’t put it under her arm because her hands wouldn’t curl properly around him. The dead: go figure).

Enter The Housekeeper. Someone who’s been caring for mom off and on for 27 years, who’s taken to calling mom “mom”, much to mom’s offense. Who walked up to the coffin and started rearranging things to her liking while the actual family looked on incredulously. We’ll call her “Flo”.

At some point, I decided a line had been crossed, that Flo’s presumptuousness could not go unchecked, and that line was where Flo decided to rearrange Spike. Stepping in, I stated quietly “I prefer Spike nestled like this” and replaced him in his original position. Much to everyone’s amazement, Flo decided she couldn’t accept that, and a literal tug-of-war ensued, me keeping Spike in place and saying things like “Flo, I want things to stay this way” and Flo, with a monomaniac focus on that stuffed animal, determined to change things to suit herself. To my amazement, I had to stop Flo no less than three times. For a long moment, the husband and I locked eyes. Her husband started to pull her away from the coffin – even then, she remained focused on Spike, reaching for that dog, determined to have her way. For myself, I’d never felt such a powerful combination of a feeling of righteous, outright rage at what I perceived was a deeply inconsiderate behavior toward My Family and My Mom, and an irony that we would be, quite literally, in combat over a stuffed animal, over my mother’s body.

This conjures up all sorts of cultural imagery. The competing lovers jumping into a grave of a lost one; the Egyptian ritual of placing an entire entourage into the pyramid. We manipulate our dead to make ourselves, the living, feel more comfortable about their passing.

Spike ultimately stayed where I and my sister thought he should. I made sure of it.

So long, mom

Mom died yesterday afternoon, 11/2/2011. She was 87 years and one month and one day old, and I loved her very very much. It was a long battle, as she’d been ready to go for quite a while, fighting off the things that encroach on most people’s lives when they reach that age.

Mom was a softie with a steel core. A swede, she toughed it out when I was five and she discovered that her son had cancer, and that she was also about to become a divorced mother of two. We all survived that, and she saw my sister and me though our childhoods and out into the world as her own world contracted down around her condo. In the end, she was housebound, bored, and, as she put it, “over it.” The last days before her death, she was occasionally feisty, somewhat mobile, played her beloved piano a bit. She went quietly, in her own bed, just the way she wanted to.

She was my friend. I recall the exact conversation when that happened, when we evolved past mother and son to become friends who could speak their mind to each other, keep each other honest, support each other, and love each other.

Most of all things, I will miss you, my friend.