Are No-Kill Shelters the Solution?

Or are they “animal warehouses” as some critics claim?
By Julia Lane, June 2009, Updated February 2015

A shelter in rural Shelby County, Kentucky, recently celebrated one year as a no-kill facility. This is no easy feat in any state, where thousands of dogs and cats are euthanized weekly for lack of homes. Making Shelby County Humane Society and Animal Shelter completely no kill was ten years in the making, according to Woodstock Animal Foundation founder Denise Jones. It required the support and cooperation of the local community, including farmers willing to serve as foster parents.  

When I was in high school, I volunteered at a no-kill shelter in my community. It seemed like a great way to help animals in need. Unfortunately, I came away from the experience wondering if no kill truly helped homeless dogs and cats or was simply a feel-good Band-Aid for the overwhelming problem of pet overpopulation.

On the one hand, animals were safe until adopted, but if they were not adopted quickly, it was not unusual for dogs and cats to live at the shelter for months, even years. Some no-kill shelters have a wonderful foster home program, so the dogs and cats live in homes until they are adopted. That’s fine. But what about the no-kill shelters whose animals are confined to kennels with concrete floors for months or even years at a time? What kind of quality of life is that? Some animals cannot handle the lack of mental and physical exercise and go kennel crazy, which ultimately makes them unadoptable, making the point of a no-kill shelter moot.

To help prevent animals from living out the rest of their lives in kennels, some no-kill shelters only accept those pets they believe to be adoptable. But what happens to the animals who are turned away? They are taken to kill shelters, which can’t cherry-pick which animals they accept, or the owner finds another way to “get rid of them.” (Interpret that as you will.) As a volunteer with several breed rescue groups over the years, we occasionally get desperate calls from owners who hope we’ll see some glimpse of our breed in their dog so they will be accepted into our rescue program, assuming we have room, which we rarely do. It’s absolutely heartbreaking.

I like no-kill shelters in theory, but not always in practice. Frankly, the no-kill shelter concept oversimplifies the pet overpopulation problem. Solving this requires a multi-tiered approach, which some no-kill shelters embrace. How do we encourage pet owners to spay/neuter their animals and take responsibility for them for a lifetime? How do we inspire people to actively help the homeless pets in their own community? How do we educate the next generation so that we can put all shelters out of business?   

Julia Lane owns Spot On K9 Sports, a training facility in the Chicago area, and offers online dog-sport coaching. She is the author of several travel books, and her byline has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Poets & Writers and elsewhere.

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