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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

Expanding the Circle of Compassion

According to the American Pet Products Association, 70% of dog owners and 57% of cat owners say their pet is like a child or family member (APPA National Pet Owners Survey 2013-2014). Only 1% regard their pets as property. Yet in our legal and economic system, pets are property and nothing more. Virtually the only difference between a cat and a chair in the eyes of the law is that, although you can destroy your chair if you want to, you cannot deliberately and for no reason hurt your cat.

The amount of damages you can collect for the death of a pet is limited to the dollar value of the pet. You might have an elderly mutt whom you would not part with for $1 million, but if someone negligently or maliciously kills him, you would be lucky to collect $1 in damages. Everyone knows that this way of looking at pets is outdated, but the system does not change. It is not easy to change centuries of legal precedent.

Although the law regards pets as property, legal and governmental systems have made accommodations to protect pets. Judges in divorces sometimes consider the good of the pet in deciding who gets “custody.” States mandate hold times for strays. Cities are more frequently training police officers on how to deal with a protective dog without killing it when they make an arrest. In some jurisdictions lawsuits for emotional distress over negligent harm to a pet are allowed. The stated rationale for these accommodations is that they are protecting people, not pets, but the end result is the same – more protection for pets. These protections have lots of holes – for example, it is perfectly allowable in every state in the union for dog breeders to deliberately breed dogs who have painful and debilitating genetic defects such as brachycephalia.


Most No Kill advocates care about all animals, not just shelter animals. Along with our belief that shelter animals have a right to live their lives, we go a step further and extend that belief to all animals. Whether it is an orca at a theme park, a pig being raised for slaughter, a chicken held in a battery cage, or a great ape imprisoned in a cage at a zoo, we believe that animals should own their own lives. A great many No Kill advocates are vegetarian or vegan. And this is important, because as the presence of No Kill supporters in the shelter industry increases, we are transforming the shelter industry itself into a voice for the lives of all animals. Many shelters take in livestock along with dogs and cats. Shelter workers can get to know horses, goats, pot-bellied pigs, and poultry, along with rabbits, rats, birds, lizards, snakes, and many other types of animals. When you are caring for an animal and trying to find a home for it, it doesn’t matter what species it is.

There are many national organizations that have been working for decades to change our culture so that it respects the lives of all animals. Change is happening. More and more people are mindful of the cruelties of factory farming, and they are choosing to buy locally from small farmers or not to use animal products at all. Due to consumer demand there are now many products on the market that are not animal tested and contain no animal ingredients. There are excellent substitutes for leather in clothing and furniture. But this change, although it is noticeable, has been very slow.

The animal shelter could potentially help fill a gap in advocacy for animals, which is the lack of local institutions that are dedicated to solving local problems. In fact, if animal shelters became more involved in promoting the right of all animals to life, they would be hearkening back to their nineteenth-century roots. The very first animal-protection organizations in the United States were the SPCAs that formed after the Civil War. Those SPCAs spent most of their time trying to stop cruelty to horses and livestock. It was only decades later that most of them got involved with sheltering dogs and cats.


Municipal shelters may not be able to do much in terms of activism, and this is a good reason why the ideal situation for a community may be the public-private partnership for animal sheltering. There are IRS limitations on non-profit corporations as to political activism, and any non-profit shelter that wants to expand its assistance for all animals would be wise to get legal counsel to determine what it can and cannot do. But there are a great many things that a non-profit can do, and the need is certainly great. Problems that face animals in our states and communities include commercial puppy sales, tethering, breeding rules, live animal sales, exotic pet regulation, regulations on “nuisance” wildlife trappers, deer culling, and a host of other issues. The animal shelter is well-positioned to be a thought leader on how we regard all animals.

In fact, addressing this broader ethical role could help the shelter accomplish its core role of pet protection. In becoming familiar with the broader issues, shelter employees and volunteers will increase their community engagement and raise the profile of the shelter, as well as getting to know government leaders and other influential people in the community. The broader role will also increase the credibility of No Kill, because we will no longer be in the position of having to explain why we are arguing for dogs and cats while ignoring other animals who may have even greater needs. The fox really isn’t that different from the dog, and the cat shares a wild heritage with the raccoon and the deer. The expansion of the animal shelter’s circle of compassion may be the next logical step in the development of No Kill.



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