Animal shelters are in most cities across the country, reminding us of how far our society still needs to go before companion animals are no longer considered disposable.
The shelters provide a temporary home, care and the chance to find a new family for pets. And although all shelters work toward a common goal, they don’t always operate in the same way.
The 2 most common animal shelters are no-kill and open-access. No-kill shelters tend to receive more funding and positive attention than open-access shelters do because they don’t euthanize their pets. But the issue may not be euthanasia — the real concern could be the misunderstanding of the differences between the 2 shelters.
No-Kill and Open-Access
A common belief is that no-kill shelters are the same as open-access shelters except they choose not to euthanize their pets. That’s not true. Most no-kill shelters choose which pets to admit — and which pets to refuse.
Open-access shelters, on the other hand, take all animals, including those who no-kill shelters may have rejected. If that’s the case, no-kill shelters may not administer the injection, but they are still sealing the animals’ fates.
A big part of understanding why all animal shelters aren’t no-kill is realizing the difference between open-access and no-kill shelters. While the two aren’t always mutually exclusive, most open-access shelters cannot also operate as no-kill shelters.
Open-access shelters often accept:
- Aggressive pets
- Injured or sick animals
- Feral cats and dogs
The shelters may have contracts with their municipalities that legally obligate them to accept every stray or surrendered pet, regardless of the animal’s disposition.
No-kill shelters, on the other hand, can frequently refuse unadoptable pets. North Shore Animal League, the world’s largest no-kill animal shelter, concedes on its website that being no-kill “limits how many pets we can accept based on the space available in our shelter.”
Choosing Which Pets to Save
According to PETA, shelters that maintain a no-kill policy “close their doors to the neediest animals — those who are in danger of abuse or are injured, sick, elderly or aggressive.”
The shelters have little choice but to refuse those animals. If they want to keep their no-kill status, they have to operate with a more than 90% save rate, and if more than 10% of the incoming pets are unadoptable, that isn’t possible.
The problem is that refusing unadoptable animals at a no-kill shelter isn’t a solution for those pets. They aren’t going to disappear because the shelter closed its doors to them.
Possible outcomes for those animals include:
- Abandonment: They are left to fend for themselves.
- Being taken to another shelter: They’re surrendered to a shelter that will accept them and may even euthanize them.
- Death: With no other apparent options, some people will even kill their pets.
Sometimes the refused animals aren’t unadoptable — the shelter is just too full to accept more and must “maintain a waiting list for animals to be surrendered,” like Addison County’s Humane Society in Vermont. Refusing to house and rehome certain pets allows shelters to refer to themselves as “no-kill,” even if the rejected animals are dying anyway.
The Oregon Humane Society, a shelter with a 98% save rate, believes that “the public is better served by looking at a shelter’s admission policy and overall treatment record, rather than relying on a vague term such as ‘no-kill.’”
Finding Middle Ground
Living in New York City, I see a lot of response from animal lovers about the local shelters. There are a handful of no-kill organizations, including North Shore Animal League, and some high-kill facilities, like Animal Care Center of NYC.
The overwhelming majority of pet lovers attack open-admission shelters as pet murderers and strictly support the few no-kill organizations in the area. That means the shelters that are accepting more animals with more health and behavior problems are receiving less support, despite their dire need.
So why isn’t every shelter no-kill? For that to be possible, the number of shelters would have to increase drastically to ensure a kennel and cage for every needy pet — which would financially cripple the individuals, communities and cities that funded them.
Perhaps the solution is to find a comfortable middle ground where open-access shelters aren’t burdened with the rejected pets of no-kill shelters. Instead, all shelters could be open-access and strive to achieve a higher save rate while working even harder to stem the flow of unwanted animals through spaying and neutering, education and ending puppy mills.
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