Practical - Index > Companion Animals

October 18, 2005
Issue of 'kill' and 'no-kill' shelters not so clear-cut
When it comes to euthanasia policies the moral high ground is tough to define
By Arianne Baker

When a stray dog is found roaming the street with unidentified wounds or when a student living in a dorm gets caught with a cat and can't bring it home, what happens?

For most animals in situations like these, the animal shelter is the answer. But shelters vary widely in both quality and practices, and both the funding source and euthanasia policies affect what will happen to the animal.

Municipal shelters are usually funded by either the town or the county, and exist primarily to solve animal nuisance issues. "Municipal animal shelters are funded by taxpayers to keep animal problems at a minimum, so they focus on picking up strays that are a nuisance, rabbits, skunks, raccoons, and animals that are dead on the road," said Research Assistant Professor Annette Rauch, a core faculty member of the Cummings Veterinary School's Center for Animals and Public Policy.

Private shelters, on the other hand, are typically non-profits established for the sole purpose of finding homes for homeless animals. "Privately funded shelters were started by people who wanted to find homes for animals, so by their very nature, they're going to focus heavily on treating animals for medical problems and getting those animals into homes no matter what it takes," Rauch said.

In the past these fundamental differences have led to very different outcomes for animals that enter the shelters. In some municipal shelters, Rauch explained, "animals have a certain holding time, and then they're out of there, whether by euthanasia or adoption."

Private shelters attempt to have every animal adopted - nearly the opposite policy of some municipal shelters. Disagreements have resulted from interaction between the two types of shelters.

"[The friction] comes from having a different mindset of what the primary goal is - this has created a lot of friction between those whose view is getting animals off of the street versus those who are there to help save animals," Rauch said.

One of Rauch's goals for sheltering animals is cooperation between municipal and private animal shelters. "We're trying to improve those relationships between municipal animal control and private animal shelters," she said. "We want to help them work together and go back and forth between each other instead of constantly going against each other."

Another sharp distinction between shelters is that between "kill" and "no-kill" (or "limited admission").

"Kill" shelters euthanize animals, while "no-kill" shelters claim not to euthanize. Each has its advantages: "kill" shelters can accept any animal that comes to their doors, with the understanding that un-adoptable animals will most likely be euthanized. "No-kill" shelters can avoid euthanasia by accepting only adoptable animals (which is why they are also known as "limited admission" shelters).

The divisive line isn't as simple as it may appear, though. "What's interesting is that the 'kill' shelters say that by not accepting these extra animals, the 'no-kill' shelters are forcing the 'kill' shelters to do the euthanasia for them," said Sarah Cornetto, who is currently studying for her master's of science in Animals and Public Policy at the Cummings Center.

Rauch agreed. "With many 'no-kill shelters,' there is not a lot of space and they fill up. When someone comes to the door, they have to say 'Sorry, we're full,'" she said. "To only have limited admission shelters can be a problem to the public - what are they supposed to do with their unwanted animals?"

Often the public's perception of "no-kill" is that they take the higher moral ground by not euthanizing animals. But Rauch feels differently: "It's unfair to come across as 'better' because they're turning away animals that they don't have space for, so the animals end up going to 'kill' shelters that are open and will take an animal regardless."

Cornetto has worked at animal shelters in New Jersey and Virginia - areas with vastly different animal problems.

"The best shelters that I've worked with have been a combination of 'no-kill' and 'kill,' where they would try to only take in extremely adoptable animals," she said. "Any animals with aggression or health problems would be euthanized - that helps to make sure that animals that could have a good home have the best chance at getting one."