Why Isn’t Every Shelter a No-Kill Shelter?

Editor’s note: We’re beyond paw-roud to offer this post as part of our partnership with Animal Humane Society (AHS). You may know these peeps for their outstanding adoption offerings, but we’ve been blown away as we’ve learned about the additional services they offer to our community.

“I’d only adopt from a no-kill rescue or shelter.” This commonly heard sentiment sounds reasonable enough. After all, what kind of person would choose to support a “kill shelter?”

It’s not as simple as you might think. When we began to explore the no-kill issue, we learned there’s so much more going on with that label than meets the eye. Misconceptions abound, so we asked the pet lovers at Animal Humane Society, the leading animal welfare organization in the Upper Midwest, to shed some light on this not-so-simple — and not-so-constructive — designation.

Different Philosophies

To start, it’s helpful to understand the difference between two types of animal rescue organizations:

  • Open admission. Open-admission shelters commit to taking in any and all animals that come through the door, including strays, surrendered pets, animals who are very sick or injured, aggressive pets, and animals that are rejected from private shelters, among others. Open-admission shelters do not turn animals away for any reason.
  • Limited admission. Limited-admission organizations decide which animals to accept and reject. This is often a good thing: some limited-admission groups specialize in helping certain breeds or types of animals, while others can offer aid to animals with special needs or complicated medical conditions.

Open-admission status can be a requirement, as is the case for many municipal shelters, or it can be a choice. For Animal Humane Society, it’s the latter: “[We believe] in an open admission philosophy where every animal is accepted regardless of health, age, breed, or temperament. Open admission is essential to providing shelter and care to animals that would otherwise have no safe refuge.”

Defining “No-Kill”

In short, homeless animals have to go somewhere, and open-admission shelters are there to take in all of the pets that limited-admission shelters don’t have the capacity and resources to take care of.

Many people hear the term “no-kill” and take it to mean a rescue or shelter that would never euthanize a pet in its care. Not true: The generally agreed-upon definition of this designation is a rescue or shelter that is able to ensure that 90 percent or more of all animals that come through the door leave alive. Some organizations that self-designate as no-kill place 90+ percent of adoptable or healthy animals they take in, rather than 90 percent of all animals they take in.

As Janelle Dixon, President and CEO of AHS, notes: “Unfortunately, no-kill doesn’t mean what most people think it means. It’s like labeling food products ‘natural’ or ‘gourmet.’ Those terms appeal to the public but without any kind of watchdog or standards they are virtually meaningless. You can’t take them at face value.”

In summary, there isn’t a universally agreed-upon definition for “no-kill,” but one thing is clear: no-kill doesn’t mean no euthanasia.

Can an Open-Admission Shelter be No-Kill?

As you can imagine, open-admission shelters face a far greater challenge reaching no-kill status than limited-admission rescues. When an open-admission shelter is able to achieve a greater than 90% placement rate, it’s a huge accomplishment. Our jaws dropped when we learned that in its fiscal year 2018 AHS had a placement rate of 95.2% among all animals who came through its doors.

How is that possible? In addition to its supremely dedicated, hard-working pack of staff and volunteers, AHS attributes its success to ample community support and proactive programs such as spay/neuter and surrender prevention.

Don’t Call them “Kill” Shelters

Due to overpopulation, under-funding, and lack of community support, many open-admission shelters can have trouble reaching that no-kill bar — and are often unfairly villainized as a result.

Some people even describe them as “kill shelters.” In reality, open-admission shelters are run by human beings who have dedicated their lives to helping as many animals as possible. These well-meaning workers can be demeaned and demoralized for the very important, compassionate work that they do every day. Calling them “killers” is not helpful – and it’s not okay.

As Dixon puts it, “People who work at AHS do so because they love animals and have a connection to the mission. They don’t go to work every day and pick dogs or cats they want to kill. When we make the difficult decision to euthanize an animal it’s about providing the most caring outcome for a cat with advanced cancer or an aggressive dog that can’t be placed in a home. Euthanasia is an act of compassion.”

“No-Kill” Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story

At the end of the day, looking at no-kill status is not the best way to judge an animal welfare organization. For example, Dixon explains: “You might have one organization with a 90 percent placement rate that takes in 1,000 animals in a year and another with an 80 percent placement rate that takes in 20,000. The organization that saves 900 animals may be celebrated for its no-kill status while the one that saves 16,000 is disparaged as a kill shelter. But which has a greater positive impact for animals and the community?”

Set aside the term “no-kill” and you’ll find that the vast majority of rescues and shelters are working toward the common goal of helping animals and their owners. “Mutual respect of and collaboration between agencies implementing limited admission and open admission philosophies is essential,” AHS emphasizes.

Great News: You Can Help

Here’s some good news for you, readers: Getting more active, animal-loving participants into the mix can make a huge difference for both open- and limited-admission rescues and shelters.

Here are some simple ways to pitch in:

  • Volunteer with your local shelter or rescue (click here to learn about volunteering with AHS).
  • Sign up to be a foster parent for pets in need.
  • Donate!

If you only take away one thing from this entire post, may it be this: shelters and rescue organizations of both designations are doing invaluable work for animals in communities across the country. With few exceptions, shelters that miss the no-kill threshold are open-admission, under-funded, understaffed, and under-supported. They’re the shelters that need the most compassion and help.

Even open-admission animal shelters can achieve no-kill placement rates, just as AHS has, provided that they get enough support from their communities.

That means you.

Here are some simple ways to pitch in:

(Photo by Joey Banks via Unsplash)

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This article was brought to you by the dog lovers at Animal Humane Society. Through low-cost spay and neuter services, wellness exams, training, expert advice and more, AHS is committed to helping pets and their families thrive together. Learn more and donate today.

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