Guest column: Death by economics

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November/December 2007:
Guest column:
Death by economics
by Melanie Jackson
In the world of animal welfare the decision to terminate an
animal’s life is often based on economics rather than the animal’s
overall health and welfare needs.
To avoid depleting budgets more than the seasonal rhythm of
animal control contract payments, donations, and revenue from
adoption and surrender fees can be expected to replenish, shelters
have for decades typically maintained limits on how long an animal
may be held. If the animal is not adopted within that rigid time
period, or transferred to a rescue organization that can focus on
placing hard cases, the animal will be killed to make room for
another animal.

Often the killing is deemed necessary to keep animals from
going “kennel crazy,” but reality is simply that shelters–
especially shelters housing animals under animal control
contracts–usually lack the resources to hold animals either
indefinitely or in conditions that prevent “kennel craziness.”
Animal shelters and rescues receive about 6% of the total sum
spent on pets in the U.S. and Canada, and handle about 6% of the
total dog and cat population each year, but a proportional share of
the money is not enough to provide shelter animals with equivalent
care when much of the labor must be paid and the facilities are not
maintained as part of a human household budget.
More than 40 years ago, the U.S. Congress determined that
five working days was a holding period that gave impounded animals a
reasonable chance of being found or adopted, and wrote the five-day
hold into the U.S. federal Laboratory Animal Welfare Act of 1966,
which was amended into the Animal Welfare Act of 1971. The U.S.
federal standard applies only to animals in federally regulated
commerce, chiefly those who are sold by shelters to laboratories.
This is now only a few thousand animals per year, down from perhaps
hundreds of thousands before 1966; but because selling animals to
labs was then a major destination of impounded animals, the five-day
hold became the default standard for animals with any prospect of any
fate except death in the shelter.
The minimum holding period before an impounded animal may be
killed, then and now, typically varies from 24 hours to 72 hours.
Animals deemed to be “owner surrendered” may be killed immediately,
even if the person surrendering the animal may not actually be the
person to whom the animal belonged. The advent of microchipping and
routine scanning for microchips has revealed that up to 25% of
“owner-surrendered” animals are actually “surrendered” by someone
else, to whom the animal was a nuisance or a perceived rival for
attention and affection in a troubled personal relationship.
Back when half as many shelters in the U.S. and Canada were
killing six times as many animals as today, most shelters struggled
to conceal the extent of the killing from the public. In recent
years, some shelters and many rescue groups working to place shelter
animals use a “death row” approach to encourage visitors to choose
animals whose time is nearly up, by announcing via signs on the
animals’ cage “You might be this animal’s last chance.
Rover/Trixie/Stripe will be euthanized on _________ (fill in the
Web sites specializing in presenting photographs and details
of “death row” animals began going up circa 1996, and still have
considerable capacity to shock the public. A new site called
<>, launched on October 1, 2007 by Alex
Aliksanyan, brother of Companion Animal Network founder Garo
Alexanian, drew notice from Reuters, the Fox network, ABC, CBS,
Newsday, and The New York Times. More than 120 animal control
shelters around the U.S. were posting information about their
soon-to-be-killed animals to <> within less than
two weeks.
The use of emotional blackmail to try to rehome animals could
be considered appalling, and shelter marketing research long ago
demonstrated that it is much less effective that the positive,
upbeat approach used by high-volume no-kill adoption shelters and
rescue networks–but the animals on death row tend to be those who
have been rejected for one reason or another by the high-volume
placement agencies, for whom there may be no other chance.
More appalling than the desperation tactics of the people
trying to save doomed animals’ lives is being in the back room of a
shelter when the animals are culled, seeing rows and rows of dead
animals laid out on garbage bags to make room for the unending flow
of new animals soon to arrive.
Directors of organizations that choose to operate in this
manner typically state that the prolific nature of unaltered domestic
pets, human irresponsibility, and the necessity of keeping shelters
financially viable necessitates this approach.
But does it really? I have had the privilege of working in
an animal shelter at the management level, a shelter whose board of
directors had chosen for moral reasons not to make space by killing
animals. I worked for the Victoria County Humane Society, a very
small, volunteer-driven charity serving a large rural area in the
Kawartha Lakes region of Ontario. The Victoria County Humane
Society accepts both dogs and cats from the public, and houses dogs
for the local animal control district, which does not handle cats.
The Victoria County Humane Society kills animals only when extreme
health or unsafe behavior dictates killing them.
I don’t believe I could have worked there otherwise. Knowing
that animals have only a limited time in which to be adopted is
stressful for the staff and volunteers, and I suspect I am not
alone in believing that shelter animals perceive the stress through
their contact with their human caregivers. Being in an environment
in which there is security of life is mentally and emotionally
preferable for humans and animals alike.
Our fundraising staff and volunteers all worked really,
really hard to keep funds coming in, as the shelter did not rely on
a predictable budget based on planned turnover. The community
appreciated that the animals were valued as individuals, not as a
commodity, and gave generously.
Did we work harder than the fundraisers and volunteers for
shelters with a finite holding period? That could be debated. The
reality of high-volume killing was long concealed because fundraisers
knew the difficulty of raising money while doing such unpopular work.
Fundraisers for open admission shelters are still extremely sensitive
about other shelters’ use of the term “no kill,” because they
understand that no-kill shelters have a fundraising advantage. But
this raises the question as to why shelters choose a modus operandi
which compels them to work just as hard for less return in public
support and appreciation, while saving fewer animals.
I find the fundamental hypocrisy of this issue interesting.
Organizations exemplify their compassion by trumpeting their mission
to support animal welfare, while in the back room killing animals to
keep a revenue balance which might as easily be kept by simply taking
a different approach to their work.
If we were truly humane, we would value each life. The
shelter I worked with proved that almost every animal could find a
home. Some just took longer than others.

[Melanie Jackson, of Oakwood, Ontario, is an educator,
animal welfare activist, speaker and freelance writer.]
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