Although intakes are down by double-digits compared to pre-pandemic levels, the number of dogs killed rose by 43% in the first quarter of 2023. Why?

Many shelters are not fully open to the public and have not re-embraced the No Kill Equation programs they scuttled during the pandemic: foster care, marketing and promotion, high-volume sterilization, offsite adoptions, and other robust adoption campaigns. It is why killing is up in communities like Los Angeles, CA, and prospects for No Kill success look grim in places like Austin, TX.

Tragically, they have been given political cover to do this by Best Friends Animal Society and the ASPCA, which are encouraging shelters to adopt similar policies.

While too many animals are still losing their lives in animal shelters, we know how to end the killing: a series of programs and services called “the No Kill Equation.” These include programs to:

  • Comprehensively find homes for animals who need them;
  • Get animals who are lost back to their homes;
  • Help people experiencing hardship keep animals in those homes;
  • Sterilize community cats;
  • Provide prompt and necessary veterinary care;
  • Foster sick, injured, and orphaned animals;
  • Rehabilitate and train traumatized animals;
  • Allow volunteers to socialize and network animals for adoption; and more.

Communities embracing the No Kill Equation still achieve 95-99% placement rates, proving that both pre- and post-pandemic, shelter killing is a choice. To the extent some shelters are not (re-)implementing these programs, we should require them to do so by passing laws, such as the Companion Animal Protection Act. Such legislation would improve animal shelters’ performance and reduce killing even more.

Second, we must fight efforts to dismantle the safety net that shelters undertake when they turn their back on animals — such as through Best Friends encouraging them to close their doors to adopters without an appointment or their embrace of Austin Pets Alive’s Human Animal Support Services.

Under HASS, care for homeless and stray animals is left to chance: people who find animals are told to take them into their own homes until their families are located or leave them on the street. According to Austin Pets Alive, the “hope” is that the lost animal “finds its way back home.” Such hope is misplaced. Indeed, for many animals, it proves fatal.

Austin Pets Alive calls it “community sheltering,” but that is nothing more than a euphemism for no sheltering. It is a dangerous bait and switch — a cynical ploy meant to redefine failure and the abandonment of animals as success and to defy the public’s humane expectation that their tax and philanthropically-funded animal shelters have a moral duty to provide care for the neediest and most vulnerable dogs, cats, and other animal companions in our communities. It also violates the rights of animals — specifically, the right of rescue.

In the past, I have criticized the “Five Freedoms” approach to sheltering — freedom from hunger/thirst, discomfort, distress, pain/disease, and freedom to express normal behavior — promoted by groups like the Association of Shelter Veterinarians. I argued that they miss the mark because there are six freedoms, not five. First and foremost, animals are entitled to freedom from being killed – or, more positively, freedom to live – something they do not acknowledge. From there – and only from there – the rest can follow.

Not only is the freedom to live the most important freedom, but none of the other “freedoms” are possible without it. How can you ensure that animals can express normal behavior if they can be killed? How can an animal have any freedoms — including the safety of being sheltered when they get lost — when any or all of them can simply be taken away by killing?

Moreover, in a shelter environment, experience has shown that those shelters with the highest rates of killing or the least likely to assist animals in need are the most likely to be plagued by neglect and even cruelty. Where there is no regard for life, there is little regard for welfare.

And while I acknowledged that animals deserve “the safety of being sheltered when they get lost,” I was not forceful enough. In other words, there are seven freedoms, not six, and certainly not five — the freedom from danger when it is within our power to protect animals against it. While closing one’s door to an animal in need, as HASS/“community sheltering” models do, may not undermine an animal’s right to live — although it doesn’t count animals who may get hit by cars or otherwise die from environmental hazards — it ignores an animal’s right of rescue.

The No Kill Equation’s success at eliminating the killing of healthy and treatable animals means the choice need not be to leave them on the street where they face a myriad of potential harms or to bring them into the shelter where they risk being killed. We must work more diligently to reform pounds, regardless of whether those institutions are killing or closing their doors to needy animals.

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