Editorial: Sheltering is pointless until the need is reduced
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 2003:
“We live in a deeply depressed, impoverished, remote and
backward corner of the far side of hell,” someone laments to us
almost every day. “We have never had low-cost or free pet
sterilization and vaccination, let alone a neuter/return program for
feral cats and street dogs. People poison or shoot dogs and cats
with impunity. The dogcatcher sells dog meat, dog leather, cat
pelts, and live animals for use in laboratories. Millions of
animals are in urgent need. Please help us fund a shelter to house
100 of them.”
Such pleas are heartrending, but under such circumstances,
either operating or funding a shelter is pointless, mindless, and
likely to only rearrange the misery in that particular part of hell’s
overcrowded and starving half acre.
No humane society anywhere should even think about starting a
shelter until and unless it receives a gift or bequest of the land
and money needed to build and run the shelter without diverting
resources from sterilization, vaccination, and public education.
Later, if sterilization, vaccination, and public education
are successful, starting the right kinds of shelter at the right
times might represent worthwhile expansions of the mission. But
until the numbers of homeless dogs and cats are markedly reduced, and
until the public shows increased sympathy and tolerance toward them,
putting funds into shelter work makes less sense than using money as
Fortunately, putting sterilization, vaccination, and
public education first is the least costly way to get started. Public
education can begin with as little as one volunteer sharing knowledge
by word-of-mouth. Providing low-cost or free sterilization and
vaccination requires paying veterinarians, which necessitates
fundraising, but does not require building or buying a clinic, of
either the fixed-site or mobile variety, until the funds become
Other than hiring vets, the most useful investment a
sterilization and vaccination program can make will usually be in
providing transportation to relay animals to and from the
veterinarians, on behalf of elderly, disabled, and poor people who
have no transportation of their own. If volunteers with vehicles are
not available, vans can be rented as needed.
Street dog catching and feral cat trapping for sterilization
and vaccination can likewise be done by volunteers, if necessary.
This work must come before sheltering, because whether or
not petkeepers can afford sterilization and vaccination, or are
responsible enough to do it, it still needs to be done. Ignoring
that need is like ignoring that a neighbor’s house is on fire just
because you happen to know that he smokes in bed. Ideally the
neighbor can be educated into more responsible behavior, but either
way the fire must be extinguished.
If sterilization and vaccination is properly promoted, and
humane education is successful, a community will never need
conventional animal control shelters.
The most successful approach to preventing dog and cat
overpopulation in impoverished and remote areas that ANIMAL PEOPLE
has ever seen is the “No-kill, no-shelter” concept pioneered in Costa
Rica by Alex Valverde, DVM, Gerardo Vicente, DVM, and Christine
Crawford, founder of the McKee Project. We think enough of it that
we recently sponsored Dr. Vicente to address the Asia for Animals
conference in Hong Kong and then do a speaking tour of India.
Vicente, like Valverde, is a past president of the Costa
Rican Veterinary Licensing Board. His background is in public
health. From that background and perspective, Vicente emphasizes
that without community support, nothing can be accomplished. The
public must understand a successful anti-pet overpopulation project,
and must feel inspired to cooperate with it. This excludes the
blame-the-public attitudes and rhetoric that persist among too many
animal rescuers, especially those who maintain shelters as a
perceived bastion against a cruel and uncaring world that they seldom
actually try to engage.
Vicente proudly points out that Costa Rica has no animal
control shelters, has closed those it once had, and does not want
or need any more.
As Vicente explains, shelters of any kind take a lot of
money to build and run. Even the U.S., spending $2 billion a year
on animal sheltering, between public and nonprofit investment, does
not yet have complete shelter coverage of every community.
Indeed, after more than 125 years of shelter-building, half
of the rural counties in the U.S. still have no shelter, public or
private–and shelter-building has meanwhile proved futile, because
enough shelter space can never be built to contain every dog and cat
without a home so long as dogs and cats breed freely or are
Nor is it possible to lastingly reduce dog and cat numbers by
killing the surplus. The U.S. amply demonstrated that fallacy during
the 20th century, catching and killing more dogs and cats in
shelters than the probable sum of all the dogs and cats who were
eaten in the whole of Asia. Only in the past 12 years has U.S.
shelter killing fallen below that appalling volume.
No matter how many dogs and cats are killed, the fertile
remainder can always breed rapidly up to the carrying capacity of the
habitat, somewhere between becoming a public nuisance and suffering
Poor areas, rural areas, and developing nations, Vicente
emphasizes, cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the rich. Animal
shelters will always become death camps and slaughterhouses, Vicente
points out, if dog and cat reproduction is not controlled before the
shelters are built.
If the population is controlled, which must always be the
first priority, the relatively few animals who require special care
could be housed as efficiently in all but the biggest cities by
shelterless nonprofit humane societies, using foster homes or
This is especially true of remote and rural areas, where the
distance to be traveled to a centrally located shelter tends to
become an incentive to dumping animals instead.
Rather than spending money to run a shelter in any community
which lacks the concentrations of donors and adoptors to make
sheltering economically viable, animal rescuers need to set up
networks which enable the nearest rescuer to collect any animal who
is being surrendered, or may be redeemed and rehomed with reasonable
effort after pickup by government animal control, and then deliver
the animal to the most appropriate foster home.
The coordinating office needs no more than a desk, a telephone,
Internet service, the knowhow to ensure that participating foster
homes furnish quality care, and the fundraising capacity to help the
fostering volunteers cover their costs, including the costs of
immediately sterilizing and vaccinating all incoming animals.
Adoptions can be arranged in at least four ways without any
need to have a shelter:
* By using the adoption programs of pet supply superstores
such as PETsMART, and Petco, wherever they exist.
* By arranging frequent adoption events at other heavily
frequented public places.
* By using a web site with photos to help advertise the
availability of the animals.
* By partnering with a high-volume adoption center in a big
city which can place puppies, kittens, and otherwise easily adopted
These days many U.S., Canadian, and western European
big-city shelters have a shortage of highly adoptable animals, though
still no scarcity of hard cases. Remote and rural animal rescuers,
however, along with those in other parts of the world, are still
receiving huge numbers of puppies, kittens, and small dogs.
Transferring these animals to adoption centers, in exchange for
sterilization funding, helps everyone, and enables the adoption
centers to compete successfully for “market share” against pet shops
and puppy mills that sell unsterilized, unvaccinated animals.
When and how to build a shelter
After successful sterilization, vaccination, and humane
education programs are underway, expanding into sheltering should
begin with establishing an adoption center. An adoption center is a
shelter of sorts, but the most successful are more like fashionable
boutiques than shelters in the conventional sense, displaying
relatively small numbers of adoptable dogs and cats in a convenient
location, where it is easy for them to attract notice, be happy,
healthy, and comfortable, and–while awaiting adoption–get
whatever training they may need to succeed in a home.
The adoption center should not be used for longterm care, nor
for large numbers of animals, since offering too many animals tends
to leave prospective adopters unable to choose. If animals cannot be
placed quickly, they do not belong in an adoption center. The idea
behind an adoption center is to help reduce the numbers of animals in
custody, and help fill vacant niches in homes with sterilized,
vaccinated animals. Animals who are not promptly adopted should be
rotated off exhibit and back to foster care to de-stress.
A successful adoption program–or shelter program of any
kind–cannot operate from dreary rows of parasite-infested
stinking-out-loud steel-and-cement cages beside the town dump.
Placing animals in good homes requires treating them as if they have
value. Treat animals as if they have value, and people will want
them–and the way a humane organization treats animals will be
perceived, by default, as the community standard of pet care.
Bear in mind that dogs and cats do not go kennel-crazy from
being in a shelter too long. Rather, they go kennel-crazy because
mad scientists whose sole object was to drive dogs and cats insane
probably could not devise an instrument to do it more effectively
than the typical traditional shelter. The standard cement-floored,
cement-and-chain-link walled, tin-roofed dog run is an atrocity,
whose basic design came from the spare horse stalls in which hunting
packs were kept during the Middle Ages.
Dogs need compatible companions, they need room to run, they
need security from being stared at strange dogs, they need outdoor
air and light, and many have a reflexive urge to dig, especially
when stressed. Give a dog what a dog needs, and it is very easy to
keep dogs happy and healthy. Deprive a dog of any of these things,
and you will soon have sick and despairing dogs. Teach a community to
deprive a dog of these things, and you will have a community full of
maladjusted dogs being surrendered to shelters or dumped on the
Cats need to be able to climb-and they prefer quiet. There
is no animal easier to care for than a cat. Even great apes in zoos
often keep pet cats successfully-and so has at least one now deceased
grizzly bear. Unfortunately, great apes and the occasional bear
seem to have a better sense of what a cat needs than many shelter
directors. Too often ANIMAL PEOPLE visits humane societies full of
nervous, panic-stricken, and sneezing, runny-eyed cats, sometimes
confined to sterile laboratory-style cells the size of a microwave
oven, who have to listen to kennel-crazed dogs barking around the
If the ancient Egyptians were right that human beings will
face a cat on Judgement Day, many a shelter director may be passing
a very hot eternity.
If dogs and cats are kept in a facility that looks like a
jail, smells like a cesspool, and sounds like hell in full cry,
dogs and cats for miles around will be treated like doomed souls on a
chain-gang, because the condition of the shelter sends the message
that the humane community considers this okay. Treat dogs and cats
as honored visiting friends, conversely, and the community
standards will rise to that standard.
Finally, after a community has effective outreach
sterilization, vaccination, and humane education programs, and
adoption facilities that place every animal who can be quickly
placed, and after the resources become available to do more, it is
worthwhile to start a care-for-life sanctuary as a backup to the rest
of the system. This is for the relatively few animals who cannot be
adopted, when all other components of no-kill animal control are up
People give up pets for many reasons. Whether or not we
think the reasons are “valid,” giving up pets is a fact of life
which must be accommodated. Many are given up not because they are
not loved, but because desperate people feel they have no choice:
they have lost their job, lost a home, an animal has bitten or
scratched a child, the spouse hates the animal, the landlord is
threatening to evict them, or the pet-keeper has died.
If the people feel that a pet is going to either find a home
or be well looked after at a sanctuary, they will bring the animal
into the adoption-and-care network. The animal will not end up being
abandoned in the misguided hope that the animal “will have a better
chance” than if brought to a shelter that routinely kills
Animal control agencies that can respond immediately to
nuisance animal complaints and act as a dog-and-cat lost-and-found
are nice to have. So are full-service humane societies that can
provide emergency veterinary care, do humane education, do animal
rescue, and investigate cruelty complaints, all under one roof.
They are not, however, what it takes to end dog and cat