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“No Kill” Shelters: A Good Idea?


A few states have recently become “no kill” states. In 2019, Delaware was noted as the first such state, followed by Michigan. At first glance, this seems like a great idea. What could be better than ensuring homeless animals aren’t euthanized before they can be adopted? But is that all there is to it? Is there more we should be taking into consideration before we applaud this well-meaning effort?

What does “no kill” really mean?

The first thing to note is that the headlines you’re seeing are misleading. There is nothing legislative going on. Recognition as “no kill” states does not mean these states have passed laws doing away with euthanasia in animal shelters. What it does mean is that all official animal shelters in the state have agreed to become “no kill.” In other words, at least 90% of the animals a shelter takes in will also be released “live” (e.g., adopted, transferred to another shelter or organization). There is no practical way that 100% of an organization’s animals could avoid euthanasia, because some are sick or elderly, or they simply do not get adopted before they die of old age.

Is “no kill” really a good thing?

In general, yes. Many people agree that putting a “clock” on a homeless animal so that they are euthanized after a certain number of days isn’t really a great idea. But how often is that really the case? What is a “high kill” state? Are these outdated concepts that are more urban legend than fact?

According to the No Kill Advocacy Center, about six million animals enter shelters every year, and of those, approximately two million animals (32%) are killed (roughly 22% of dogs and 45% of cats). Community-specific statistics can be found at Saving 90. However, these statistics are cold facts and don’t account for the actual reasons animals are euthanized.

According to the ASPCA, about 710,000 animals that enter shelters as strays are returned to their owners; of those, 620,000 are dogs and only 90,000 are cats.

According to American Humane, in 1997, roughly 64% of the total number of animals that entered shelters were euthanized—approximately 2.7 million animals in just 1,000 shelters. It is estimated that approximately 3.7 million animals were euthanized in the nation’s shelters in 2008.

According to 2016 animal shelter statistics at Shelter Animals Count, organizations reporting from all 50 states and the District of Columbia included 768 different counties, 1,505 cities, and 2,065 ZIP codes.

  1. Total intake reported for 2016 was 2,681,052 animals.

  2. The most common source of intake was from strays at 1,345,557 (50.2% of the total intake). Owner relinquishments at 660,807 made up 24.6%, and transfers in at 435,810 made up 24.6%. There were 72,067 owner-intended euthanasias representing 2.7% of the intake, and 166,811 intakes (6.2%) were classified as “other.”

  3. The most common reasons for intake were, in order: 1) transfer from another shelter/organization (43.1%); and 2) owner relinquishment (25%).

  4. Outcomes were listed as follows: 16.1% still in shelter, 54.5% adoption, 14.2% transfer, 12.8% euthanasia, 9.9% returned to owner, 2.9% return to field [largely trap/neuter/release], 2.6% owner-intended euthanasia, 1.8% died, and 0.3% lost.

According to a 2014 NPR article, there are an estimated 14,000 shelters and pet rescue groups in the U.S., taking in nearly eight million animals each year. [Note: This article is a good read, covering this same topic of “no kill” versus “kill.”]

What is “high kill”?

You often hear about “high kill” states or shelters, but what that really means is “open intake” (i.e., they don’t turn away animals regardless of owner circumstances or animal health or age). Alternatively, many rescues, especially foster-based rescues, selectively take in animals, generally only if they have room, but they also take into account the “adoptability” of the animal based on the limited information they have at intake.

Why euthanize?

“Adoptable” is is a subjective word depending on the viewpoint of the organization. Some rescues consider any animal adoptable if it is in good health, regardless of the time it takes to get adopted, while some shelters may consider an animal unadoptable if it is not adopted within a certain amount of time. From a practical standpoint, one could argue that a young, healthy animal with severe behavioral problems (such as any type of aggression) is unadoptable, because the animal may live out its life in the care of the organization, thus using resources such as finances, personnel, and space that could be used for more adoptable animals. On the other hand, one could argue that an older, relatively unhealthy animal is adoptable because the “right” person may eventually come along who wants to give the animal a loving home for whatever time it has left.

Ultimately, it is important for each organization to determine its philosophy in this regard, and decide up front on a general policy or guidelines to follow in what animals it considers adoptable and under what circumstances it will euthanize. I believe there is a middle ground, with room for both types of organizations, and there are pros and cons to each approach. Nonprofit organizations as well as those that are government-sponsored have a responsibility to use their resources wisely, making practical decisions while considering their organizational mission.

What can I do to help?

Given all of this, how can you contribute to a “no kill” philosophy?

  1. Have your pet microchipped. Always remember to keep this information current, and provide an emergency contact. [Note that many shelters and rescues already microchip pets before they are adopted.]

  2. Be sure your pet wears an identification tag, rabies license, and city license. Include your name, address, phone number, and pet’s name.

  3. Keep licenses current, as they help shelters locate pet owners.

  4. When moving, put a temporary tag on your pet. Include a phone number of someone who will know how to reach you and/or your cell number.

  5. Don’t assume that your indoor pet doesn’t need tags. Many strays in shelters are indoor pets that escaped.

  6. Avoid letting your cat outside. In addition to the dangers predators, car traffic, and parasites, cats can get lost easily and be picked up by animal control.

  7. Finally–and importantly–adopt, don’t shop. Responsible breeders play a part in providing dogs for a specific purpose. But most people are looking for a companion, and shelters and rescues abound with adoptable companions of all shapes, sizes, and temperaments.

One final note

If you’re looking for a pet that’s not a cat or dog, consider adopting/rescuing! You may find an organization in your area that finds homes for a variety of pets. One example is Animal Education and Rescue, which serves Lake County, Illinois, and the surrounding areas, rescues and fosters just about any type of pet, including dogs, cats, guinea pigs, rabbits, hedgehogs, ferrets, and birds!


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