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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

Capacity for Care

The reaction to my August 2nd blog post about the Association of Shelter Veterinarians (ASV) draft position statement on “The Use of ‘No-Kill’ Terminology” has unsurprisingly centered on what many people, myself included, feel is a hijacking of the concept of “capacity for care.” The draft position paper says “euthanasia of healthy and treatable companion animals is sometimes utilized in order to maintain a shelter’s capacity for humane care.” To those of us who care about shelter lifesaving, the concept of capacity for care is not an excuse for killing – instead, it means that animal shelters should take action to ensure that they are a “shelter” to the animals they take in, not just a way-station on the trip to the landfill.

In the old days, traditional animal shelters took the view that they were simply passive recipients of whatever animals came in the door, and that they had no choice but to kill when they ran out of time or space. That concept developed back in the bad times when we really did have a pet overpopulation problem in the United States. In the 1970s, animal shelters took in 5 times as many animals per capita as they do now, and there were large numbers of homeless dogs and cats in the environment who never came into the shelters at all. The tragedy of pet overpopulation overwhelmed animal shelters, and created a culture of passivity and killing in the face of the onslaught of homeless animals. Fortunately, there were leaders in the 1970s like Phyllis Wright, who figured out that the way to fix the problem was to fix the pets. She and others started a massive spay-neuter campaign. The turning point came when private veterinarians signed on and began recommending spay-neuter to their clients in the early 1970s. The number of animals coming into animal shelters cratered. In the 1990s when veterinarians began doing pediatric spay-neuter and volunteering their time for TNR, shelter intake plummeted again. By the year 2000, the great majority of communities in the United States had almost no feral or truly stray dogs, and in many communities the numbers of feral cats were stable or declining. It was a different world.

This different world was what allowed No Kill to take off as a movement, starting in 1989 with Ed Duvin’s publication of his ground-breaking essay “In the Name of Mercy,” and with Richard Avanzino setting in motion his plan for making San Francisco No Kill. Since then, shelters nationwide have gone from killing some 90% of intake circa 1975 to killing 40% or less today. With shortages of dogs today in many areas, and the new Million Cat Challenge paradigms for community cats, there is no reason why that 40% cannot shrink to the 10-20% range in the next 5 years. We can, within the next few years, be a country where all healthy and treatable shelter animals are saved. This is not a crazy, visionary idea. It is something that has been happening, and is happening, and anyone who does not see it simply hasn’t been paying attention. Every credible national organization, including Maddie’s Fund, Best Friends, the ASPCA, and the HSUS, would agree with what I’ve said here about what has happened up until now.

So, what does all this have to do with the draft ASV statement on No Kill terminology? Notice that veterinarians had a huge role to play in getting from the 90% average shelter kill rate of the 1970s to the 40% rate today. It was private veterinarians who guaranteed the spectacular success of the spay-neuter campaign of the 1970s and 1980s, by beginning to recommend routine spaying and neutering to their clients. It was veterinarians who perfected pediatric spaying and neutering and began to recommend it in the 1990s. It was veterinarians who volunteered their time for TNR efforts, or did TNR at cost, beginning in the 1990s. It was veterinarians who started the specialty of shelter medicine in 1999, and who created the ASV and won acceptance for shelter medicine as a specialty in an amazingly short time. It is veterinarians who have been critical in the remaking of the animal shelter, transforming it from the concrete-block death warehouse next to the town dump to the “summer camp” for dogs and cats that is a bright and welcoming community center of today. It was veterinarians who created the most innovative lifesaving effort of the last few years, the Million Cat Challenge. And finally, it was veterinarians, specifically shelter veterinarians who are members of the ASV, who perfected “capacity for care” programs that allow shelters to measure and control intake so that killing of healthy and treatable animals is unnecessary.

For all these reasons, I was stunned when I saw the ASV draft on No Kill terminology a few days ago. I felt like I had been yanked back into the 1970s, when the only thing shelter workers could do was work hard on spay-neuter and hope that the future would be better. I felt that there must be some mistake – that the draft was just a product of carelessness and that the drafters could not possibly have really intended to say what they had said. Not the ASV. Not the group of veterinarians, more than all others, who are leading the charge for lifesaving! Surely they could not have meant to take the term “capacity for care,” which stands for a shelter’s power to control its destiny by managing its intake, and twist that life-affirming term back into the mold of the old, hopeless, “we are helpless victims of circumstance who have to kill for time and space.”

I have heard from people who do not believe that this draft was just a careless mistake. They think that there is a faction within the ASV that still believes that shelters are helpless victims when it comes to their intake, and that shelters cannot take effective steps to manage intake and length of stay. In other words, that there is a deliberate effort to co-opt and warp the term “capacity for care” and use it as an excuse for killing. The ASV is allowing comment on this document until August 15th. A person from the ASV committee replied to my August 2nd blog post, so they are on notice of the issues. If the draft was just a horrible, careless mistake, then they have had that pointed out to them. Now we will have to wait to see what they do.

ASV – please do not ruin the reputation for caring about lifesaving that so many of your members have painstakingly built up by their life’s work. Please do not undermine the phenomenally successful Million Cat Challenge by co-opting one of the terms that is central to its program – capacity for care – and turning it into an excuse for killing rather than a program for life. Please do not throw a wrench into the work of saving shelter animals by offering an excuse for shelters that still take a passive approach. Tear up that draft, and write one that reflects what your best and most creative members are doing. We will all be waiting and hoping that you hear us.

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