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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

The Withering Away of the Animal Shelter?

Friedrich Engels, one of the original philosophers of communist political theory, once said that there would be no need to abolish the state by force because it would wither away once the principles of social and economic justice were broadly understood. Somewhat similarly, many people feel that once the “pet overpopulation” problem is solved, animal shelters will wither away, or at least shrink to very small agencies that deal only with emergency situations involving sick, injured, and dangerous animals. I believe this idea of the animal shelter withering away, which was originated by No Kill critics but is shared by many No Kill advocates, is actually an assault on the core values of No Kill.

Before we can have this discussion we need to define “pet overpopulation,” and right away we have an important philosophical divide. Many people (including me) think the proper definition of “pet overpopulation” for cats and dogs is when there are more cats and dogs needing homes in a given year than there are homes for them. The people who believe in the withering away of the animal shelter, however, define “pet overpopulation” somewhat differently, as anytime you have adoptable animals coming into an animal shelter. Since the year 2000, animal shelter intake has stayed roughly the same nationwide (as best we can tell from the limited statistics available) at about 7 million cats and dogs per year. People who define pet overpopulation as adoptable animals coming into animal shelters believe that we need to concentrate on reducing that 7 million number. People who look at it as a supply and demand issue disagree, and feel that what we need to do is balance intake with live dispositions. Further reduction of intake is only needed if the number of available homes is insufficient for the current intake.

Since the year 2000, supply and demand for healthy and treatable shelter dogs in the United States have been in rough balance. For cats, TNR has grown dramatically and we now also have the new breakthroughs of SNR and balancing cat intake with shelter capacity, which have obviated the need for killing healthy or treatable shelter cats. Since this is the case, I believe we need to change our efforts away from further increases in spay-neuter targeted at pet owners, and toward placing shelter animals in the available home or field situations, including emphasizing adoptions, return-to-owner, transports, TNR, and SNR. Note that I did not say we should “reduce” spay-neuter efforts aimed at owned pets.

Those efforts are still important, but spay-neuter rates of owned pets are very high already, on the order of 80-95%, and we have just about squeezed all the juice out of that orange. We can probably get some additional benefit from micro-targeting by zip code and going door-to-door in neighborhoods where pit bulls are being bred, but otherwise, a maintenance effort for spay-neuter of owned pets is all we need. Obsessing over the idea that we need to make the animal shelter wither away by doubling down on spay-neuter will be a waste of time and resources.

But this issue goes far beyond the proper place of spay-neuter. It has broader implications that go to the heart of what No Kill stands for and what the future of No Kill will be.

We have replenishment of the dog population from sources that we cannot control. For dogs, we have commercial breeders who sell large numbers of dogs to individuals. Even with good pet retention programs, sometimes these owners will want to or have to give up their dogs. We will never get everyone to spay and neuter their dogs, so there will continue to be some surprise puppies. And sometimes dogs will get lost and their owners either won’t look for them or will look in the wrong places.

Rather than keep knocking ourselves out trying to make the world of dog owners perfect, which is never going to happen, we might as well accept that we are going to have a certain number of dogs a year who need rehoming. Cats are a completely different story than dogs, but cats also are going to need continuing sheltering. There is a reservoir population of feral cats that replenishes the supply of cats. There are virtually no feral dogs in United States cities anymore, but there are lots of feral cats everywhere. Because cats can live in the wild we will never be able to reduce the feral cat population to zero, any more than we could reduce the raccoon or squirrel populations to zero.

Rather than thinking of this as a bad thing, we should welcome it. Rather than looking at 7 million animals a year going into shelters as a problem we need to fix (which may be futile since we haven’t figured out how to fix it in the last 15 years) we should look at it as an opportunity to maintain a safety net and a compassionate marketplace for pets. In a recent article I posited that the number of people adopting dogs will continue to rise, causing a shortage of adoptable dogs. If this happens, instead of celebrating it perhaps we should attempt to find dogs to meet that demand.

Some people who believe in the withering away of the animal shelter think that private organizations will take over specialized duties that used to belong to the animal shelter. For example, one organization might do TNR and SNR, while another organization serves as a clearinghouse for lost pets, another one rehabilitates dogs with behavior problems, etc. While the policies are good, I think the idea of completely separating these functions into different entities is a bad idea. Animal control and sheltering are a “natural monopoly” in the same way that utilities and cable service are natural monopolies. The reason that communities have historically had animal control and sheltering concentrated in one entity, or in a small number of entities that work closely together, is precisely because the efficiencies of that arrangement are so high. It is fine to have separate groups that do TNR, behavior rehabilitation, etc., but we also need a central clearinghouse so that each small group does not have to reinvent the wheel by doing all the associated tasks of animal impoundment, record keeping, evaluation, handling, etc. separately.

Dogs and cats would be hurt by fragmenting the animal care system, because it would fragment and weaken their safety net. The safety net for dogs and cats depends above all on people communicating and networking — on community engagement. The shelter is a natural place for that network to form. The behaviorist who wants to get routine health screening for dogs being rehabilitated knows the veterinarians. The people who do TNR have met city council members at the shelter’s yearly fundraiser, and they know who will be sympathetic to the cats when changes in ordinances are being discussed. The SNR people can coordinate much better with the Lost and Found people if they know them personally and work with them every day. Getting consensus on changes that are needed is much easier when everyone is in touch with the big picture.

Centralized shelters also serve as a magnet for media exposure and attracting new people and donations. People who would never think about donating to a pet retention group will donate to the shelter, which can then funnel money to pet retention. Fundraising, which is of course a critical aspect of the safety net, is much easier with one strong local presence that gets a lot of publicity, and publicity is much easier for the shelter to get than it would be for a bunch of small, specialized groups. Publicity is also key to attracting adopters and new volunteers and fosters.

Perhaps the most important reason that the withering away of the animal shelter would be a bad thing is that it would mean giving up the shelter’s place in the pet market. We need a marketplace for pets where the suppliers are concerned above all with the welfare of the pets they are supplying. As I discussed in the post about the coming shelter dog shortage, we as animal advocates have to start thinking about what we want the pet marketplace of the future to look like. If the shelter withers away, then where will people go when they want a pet? If there is no shelter where they can adopt, then they will go to commercial breeders, including backyard breeders and puppy mills. The withering away of the animal shelter, if it happens, will be a bonanza to people who want to breed cats and dogs for money.

In 2012, about 35% of dog and cat acquisitions were from animal shelters or rescues (which generally acquire their animals from shelters or as owner surrenders) or places like PetSmart and Petco that provide space for shelter and rescue animal adoptions. (Data courtesy of the American Pet Products Association.) That’s more than 1/3 of the pet market that is currently held by animal shelters, either directly or indirectly through rescues. If shelters wither away and give up this market to commercial breeders it will be a disaster for dogs and cats, because there will no longer be any suppliers in the pet market who actually care about the well-being of pets. Rather than continuing to obsess over cutting shelter admissions more and more we should be obsessing over increasing this market share as much as we can. Today there is something of a trend for people to adopt pets rather than buy. We need to spend our time trying to encourage the public’s desire to adopt, instead of spending our time trying (futilely) to further increase spaying and neutering of owned pets.

The No Kill movement in particular needs to think about where we want to go with animal sheltering, and we need to fight back against the idea that the most desirable state of affairs is for the animal shelter to wither away because it is no longer needed. The core idea of No Kill has always been to connect the person who wants to adopt with an animal that they can adopt. Continuing to do that in the future will require No Kill to start consciously thinking about the structure we want to see in the pet market and No Kill’s place in the pet market.



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