In the terrifying final scene of the 1978 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, one of the characters meets up with Donald Sutherland’s character on the street. She calls out to him and walks toward him smiling, apparently relieved to see him, because they had been the last two holdouts in their group of friends to escape becoming pod people. As she approaches him, neither she nor the audience is aware that Sutherland’s character has finally been snatched by the aliens. Sutherland points at her accusingly, and outs her with a chilling alien scream.
Wow…if this isn’t a perfect metaphor for the current state of animal rescue; never more so than when the conversation turns to shelter reform.
There is no denying the fact: the American shelter system is broken.
According to the HSUS and the ASPCA, it is estimated that between 5-8 million animals enter the shelter system every year, and of those, about 60% of dogs and 70% of cats are killed.
That’s in spite of all the people in animal rescue who work every day to save lives. It’s such a huge problem that there are multiple focuses to try to save as many pets as possible. There are rescues that pull pets from shelters, transporters that move pets from places where they will likely die to places where they have a better chance of being adopted, networkers who share urgent animals on social media, groups that help stray pets find their way back to their families, everybody is working toward a common goal: save lives. So why is there so much divisiveness when it comes to shelter reform?
You have to look at the different points on the spectrum. At each end are alienating batshit crazy extremists who see the situation in black-and-white terms only. At one end are the Pod people who can’t tolerate anybody in rescue who doesn’t accept their tenets of shelter reform in toto. They are the Sutherlands who point their accusatory fingers at others in rescue and shrilly cry “apologist!” and “pro-kill”. They are the ones who believe that pet overpopulation is a myth. But you only need to look at Spindletop and Liberty Humane to see that they don’t have all the answers they purport to have.
At the other end of the spectrum are the Animal Rights extremists who think that animals are better off dead than kept “enslaved” as pets. They ‘rescue’ animals by killing them.
Everybody else is somewhere in the middle…and that’s exactly where we need to be.
It’s true that people shy away from going to shelters to adopt a pet because it’s too depressing. It’s true that shelter directors and employees kill because that’s the way they’ve always done it. It’s true that shelters kill even when there is plenty of space because they don’t want to clean kennels. I agree that there should be legislation in place that outlines acceptable standards of shelter procedure and holds shelter directors accountable.
But although I understand why they claim that pet overpopulation is a myth…I just don’t buy the propaganda. Overpopulation is about more than just adding and subtracting numbers. In the case of pets, it’s also about supply and demand. If people aren’t adopting from shelters and millions of animals are dying for lack of a home, then there is overpopulation.
So, just where do all those shelter animals come from, anyway?
The tornado disaster in Moore Oklahoma last week magnifies the problem and brings it into sharp focus. Any time there is a natural disaster, family pets are among the victims and survivors, and while people pick up the pieces, part of the sorrow and stress is in looking for pets buried in the rubble or lost in the chaos. Within hours of the devastation in Oklahoma, Internet sites and Facebook pages had sprung up to help families and their displaced pets reunite.
I was relieved to see a statement from one relief group that pets found and taken to animal control facilities and the fairgrounds where they were being temporarily housed, would be held for 30 days before being put up for adoption. But another animal rescuer pointed out that 30 days would probably not be long enough.
Victims of the disaster have lost everything; some are staying with family or friends in other cities and states, some may not have transportation to get to the fairgrounds or animal control facilities in neighboring counties to see if their pets are there. Some of them will not have Internet access to check the lists of missing and found pets. During the thirty day hold, many of the unclaimed pets will be transported to shelters in other states, making the chances of finding them next to impossible.
We’re getting better, but not a whole lot better, at this. When Hurricane Katrina hit, a lot of people didn’t evacuate because the emergency shelters would not allow them to bring their pets. People died because they loved their animals too much to leave them behind. Pets rescued after Katrina filled every shelter available to the area, as well as temporary shelters. For those who did evacuate and were separated from their pets, according to Time, only about 20% of those pets were reunited with their families. That means that the other 80% were transported to shelters across the country, where some were adopted out, and some were inevitably destroyed.
Pets that had belonged to people who’d already lost everything. Killed.*
The natural disaster happening every day in our shelter system is that the majority of pets who find themselves there have been picked up as strays. The biggest percentage of those strays are lost pets who have escaped their yards or run off to follow nature’s call.
Yet shelters still kill them;
- even knowing someone may be looking for them;
- even when rescues want to take them;
- even when there is no overcrowding.
How, in any shape or form, is this acceptable?
A shelter, by definition, is supposed to be a place of safety, not a place where our companion animals’ lives hang in the balance. Not a place where a lost family member can be put to death to make room for the next stray that may or may not be picked up. Many so-called “shelters” are veritable death camps.
Finding a way to stop the killing is a complex problem, and so far, no single contingent has all the answers! Our shelter system does need to be reformed, and more effort put into finding solutions that don’t include killing for convenience. We need to make sure that animals go out the front door with families, instead of out the back door in garbage bags.
The first step is to recognize the failings of our current system, and to stop accepting the way things are done, just because that’s how they’ve been done in the past. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is insane.
But changing the way shelters operate is just a part of the solution. As long as 5-8 million animals are entering the shelter system each year, working from just one end will never solve anything. We have to work from BOTH ends, slowing down the constant influx of animals by implementing low cost and free spay and neuter programs to reduce unwanted litters and eliminate the reason why many pets run off in the first place. Crazy as it sounds, maybe we even need programs that pay people to spay and neuter.
It’s not going to be the people at either end of the spectrum who stop the killing. It’s going to be all of us in the middle, implementing the sterilization programs, helping reunite lost pets with their families, educating the public, transporting pets to safety, fostering pets to keep them social and adoptable, volunteering at adoption events, and getting up and doing it again the next day, and the one after that.
* After Katrina, the PETS (Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards) Act was passed, which provides for companion animals in all disaster planning. The act requires that local and state governments include pets in all natural disaster evacuation plans in order for these governments to receive Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grants, and sets aside federal funding to establish pet-friendly emergency shelters and authorizes FEMA to help evacuate those with pets and just the pets themselves. You can read more about that here: