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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

No Kill and Plain Old Animal Welfare

In Which The Author Looks At Philosophy And Arrives At A Surprising Conclusion About The Best Method For No Kill To Market Itself (with apologies to Dickens)

The animal welfare era in the United States started somewhere around 1900. Before 1900, treatment of animals in a way that caused pain or fear, including killing, was ethically acceptable to most people as long as the treatment was motivated by a legitimate human interest such as business, health, or safety, and did not involve cruelty for cruelty’s sake. The harm in cruelty for cruelty’s sake was not the pain suffered by the animals, but the degradation of the humans involved. The animal welfare viewpoint is that use of animals, including killing them, is ethical as long as it is done “humanely,” i.e. without unnecessary pain or fear to the animal. Animal welfare uses the standard that an animal’s interest in avoiding pain and fear should be balanced against the good derived by a human’s use of the animal. This may not sound like much of a distinction from the 1800s, but in practice the difference was large. For example, throughout most of the 1800s it was ethically acceptable to beat a horse to make it pull an overloaded cart, or to tie the legs of calves and stack them on top of each other for transport. Such treatment is not acceptable under an animal welfare view.

The animal welfare viewpoint has by now survived a long time and is entrenched as part of our law and culture. Animal welfare is lacking in that so many of the “interests” cited by people to justify animal suffering, such as cosmetics testing and fox hunting, seem petty. Animal welfare is also revolutionary, though, in that it is a tacit admission that animals are not just property and their interests must be considered.

Some people today are trying to create a third era of our relationship to animals — an animal rights era. Under an animal rights view, it is not ethical for humans to use animals for human benefit. Keeping pets is very problematic under an animal rights view because keeping pets necessarily deprives them of many freedoms that undomesticated animals have, such as the freedom to travel, to choose their society, to live with equals, to mate as they choose, to eat what they want, etc. This is the problem of paternalism. One could argue that pets have a much better life than undomesticated or wild animals, but that assumes that a good life does not include freedom. We reject that idea out of hand for ourselves, so it is hard to justify it as a rationale for pet-keeping. [Note: The view that pet-keeping is unethical does not entail killing pets. Instead it entails stopping the breeding of pets so that existing pets, as they live out their lives in their homes and die of old age or disease, are not replaced with new pets.]

In any event, advocates for animal rights have so far had little success in moving society beyond the prevailing animal welfare view. Indeed, even animal welfare appears to have retrenched in some respects in recent decades with the unchecked growth of corporate power in general and factory farms in particular.

So where does No Kill fit into the spectrum of animal welfare to animal rights? Although we sometimes hear “rights talk” from No Kill advocates, when you examine the tenets of No Kill closely they are not that compatible with animal rights. No Kill is fine with pet-keeping, for one thing. For another, although some No Kill advocates are vegan, I think it is safe to say that the majority of them are not. Similarly, it seems doubtful that most No Kill advocates refuse to buy products that contain animal parts or were tested on animals.

A different type of rights justification for No Kill might be that shelter pets are more like family members than animals, and thus they should enjoy human rights by proxy. This view is not compatible with the No Kill movement, though, because it would allow for the killing of feral cats and unsocialized dogs, while calling into question the propriety of killing dangerous dogs who had been raised in homes. It also has the same problem of paternalism as the animal rights justification, since humans do not give up their right to make life choices simply by living in families. Even very young children are capable of expressing choices, and part of family life is to raise children to adulthood where they can make all of their own choices.

Could the relationship of domestic pets to humans serve as the basis of a contracts justification for special treatment of pets, including homeless shelter animals? Under this view, animals who are not merely domesticated but have also moved into the homes of people and become their companions have in essence entered into a contract with humans where duties and benefits flow both ways. In exchange for the love and companionship we get from domestic pets, we undertake to give them a certain quality of life for their full life span. This alternative would allow the killing of vicious dogs, because such dogs have not carried out their part of the contract. It also would avoid the problem of paternalism, because it is not rights-based. It is not compatible with No Kill, however, because it does not protect feral cats and unsocialized dogs. It also suffers from the problem of contingency, because it could be argued that the contractual duty exists only while the animal is living in a home, and disappears if the animal loses the home.

If the animal rights, proxy rights, and contractual approaches do not fit No Kill, what about the plain old justification of animal welfare? Animal welfare is, at base, a utilitarian philosophy of balancing the harm to an animal against the benefit to humans of a particular action. As it turns out, No Kill fits easily into the animal welfare philosophy. The harm to the animal in shelter killing is profound, because the loss of life is about the worst loss one can sustain. Some people would argue that suffering is the greater harm, and that shelter animals are in extreme danger of suffering neglect or cruelty in the future. There is no data to support this argument, however, so it can be dismissed from a utilitarian calculation, at least until the time when such data is available. The benefit to humans of shelter impoundment is that it gets animals off the street and keeps them from being nuisances. There is no benefit to humans of shelter killing itself, except as a means to maintain the ability to take animals off the street and to reduce costs of nuisance abatement. With No Kill, we now know that we can prevent homeless pets from being nuisances by impounding them and finding new homes for them. Medical treatment can be paid for by people who get satisfaction out of helping animals. Shelter killing thus provides no benefit to humans as long as the shelter can function without killing and with no additional costs. That is practically a description of the philosophy of No Kill.

As mentioned above, the animal welfare viewpoint is not great for animals because almost any non-trivial human interest can be used to justify subjecting an animal to pain or even death. In the case of No Kill, though, there is absolutely no benefit to humans from shelter killing, because in a No Kill shelter the shelter performs its job without any need for killing.

The animal welfare view has no problem with the issue of paternalism because it is not rights-based. It has no problem with the issue of killing dangerous dogs, because the benefit to the dog of being rehomed is outweighed by the danger to people and other animals of serious injury or death from the dangerous dog. An animal welfare view favors placement of feral cats in colonies and placement of unsocialized dogs in sanctuaries with other dogs, as long as these activities are supported by volunteers who get satisfaction from helping these animals, at no cost to taxpayers.

The animal welfare view of No Kill is not as glamorous as animal rights. It is not as uplifting as viewing No Kill as an historic battle for an oppressed class. It won’t allow us to feel like heroes. But the benefits of accepting that No Kill is simply a logical extension of animal welfare are huge. Animal welfare is already the standard for our culture’s treatment of animals. It is the way our establishments, including businesses and the legal system, have been dealing with animal issues for the last 100 years. We don’t have to change the way people think in order to gain acceptance of No Kill. We just have to point out that No Kill makes sense. It helps animals and does not hurt people. That’s all the argument we need.

So maybe we’d do better to get off our soap boxes and start explaining, with power points and graphs and success stories, why No Kill is merely a logical extension of the type of treatment of animals that we’ve already been affording them for the last 100 years. It won’t be as much fun as a march on Washington, but it may be a lot more effective.



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