The Animal Shelter Equation

Traditional vs. no-kill shelters: well, the choice is obvious, isn’t it? Aren’t no-kill shelters saving more animals? Why would you ever set foot inside the “other” kind if you had a choice between the two? This is actually a much more complicated issue than you might think.

First of all, today’s animal shelters are meant to be a temporary stopping point between a life where proper care could not be provided and a new home, where the situation is hopefully more stable. In a better world than ours, pets would move smoothly from one to the other, using the shelter merely as a conduit. There would be a certain number of animals seeking homes and the same number of households seeking to adopt a pet. Tragically, that is not the world we live in. Instead, there are always many more homeless animals—a number that could arguably be described as a tidal wave—than there are open arms to take them in. The inescapable truth is that some of those animals must be euthanized. It’s happening every day, every hour, on a larger scale than you would wish to imagine.

Some of the animals arrive in terrible shape. Shelters are often the end point for ownerless animals that are ill or injured, or when the pet owner can not afford veterinary care. No one would debate the ethics involved in relieving these animals of their suffering. However, young and/or healthy animals will also need to be euthanized when there are no more vacancies. Shelters are buildings. There’s only so much square footage.

Despite the name, no-kill shelters actually do euthanize animals when it is in the animal’s best interest; however, they can only retain their “no-kill” designation if the number of deaths does not surpass 10% of the incoming population. Since needy animals have always outnumbered safe adoptive homes, the only way to control this math is to control which animals are awarded entrance to the shelter. In order to meet the quota, fully 90% of them must be robust and attractive, sure to be adopted. Those individuals are then housed indefinitely until a family picks them out. When shelter capacity is reached, additional applicants are turned away or put on a waiting list. Those pets haven’t found a home or even had a chance at finding one, and the no-kill shelter certainly hasn’t saved them.

Traditional shelters, on the other hand, accept all comers with an eye to keeping every adoptable pet on the premises, but for a limited number of days or weeks. Their model gives a large number of animals a moderate chance at adoption. In contrast, the no-kill model gives some animals a long time in the spotlight while giving many others no chance at all. The number of homeless pets euthanized each year is staggering, and the existence of no-kill shelters actually does little to change that. When deciding where to donate money or adopt a pet, the type of shelter you choose doesn’t matter nearly as much as the fact that you chose to do it at all.

Dr. M.S. Regan