MOVEMENT WATCH is an update on recent and current campaigns in the animal advocacy movement, with brief, rights-based analyses. MOVEMENT WATCH does not provide a full overview of any listed advocacy group’s work. Campaigns and news items are selected for their legal and social significance.
Thanks to our friends at Ánima for providing this document in Spanish on their web site.
Still Killing Them With Kindness
Must Advocates Choose Between Animal Welfare and Animals’ Lives?
In 2002, as our regular ActionLine readers know, Friends of Animals asked advocacy groups throughout the United States to join us in a no-kill policy for pets, combined with sterilization. What prompted this invitation? A trend was taking hold, one that pushed for the killing of animals and even for hardening that preference into national law. According to that argument, too many pet animals exist to expect them to receive decent treatment, so, to put it bluntly, most are better off dead.
Such thinking is a troubling sign. As terrible as life is for many human refugees worldwide, official policies for killing them should straightforwardly be opposed as violations of human rights. In the same way, the institutionalized killing of animals would be immediately understood as violation of their individual wants and interests, were our society to take the interests of other animals seriously.
Over a decade ago, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to end the routine killing of dogs and cats, demonstrating that a community can achieve what it can conceive. But a vocal pro-kill movement started up, apparently as a backlash to animal rights theory and planning. Their plan? To formulate a national policy of killing animals by lethal intravenous injections of sodium pentobarbital, because killing by injection is deemed less cruel than gas or long-term boarding.
At the same time, the philosophy behind no-kill shelters was dismissed as an impractical route that allowed workers to avoid facing facts and to escape society’s dirty work. It’s a mistake of logic to deride the no-kill philosophy as though its proponents are deliberately letting animals suffer. But proponents of official killing policies gained support by casting their proposal in euphemistic terms, constantly referring to their method of killing animals for institutional reasons as “euthanasia.” That term, properly used, refers to a death in one’s best interest. For example, we might decide that it’s appropriate to end the life of a terminally ill animal who is suffering terribly because, after thorough soul-searching, we’ve come to the conclusion that it’s in the animal’s best interest not to linger in pain with no hope of recovery. This soul-searching is not encouraged in most pounds. To its credit, the Washington (D.C.) Humane Society has taken the matter so seriously that it has embarked upon a no-kill policy. But by many estimates, the places we call shelters are points of no return, disposing of more than five million animals annually—not in their interest, but in our interest.
The routine killing of conscious animals simply to deal with their large numbers would not constitute euthanasia even if there were a painless method of implementing it. But there isn’t. Killings by lethal injection cause great suffering for unwanted animals, no matter how careful the workers are.
There is simply no good reason to undermine the excellent examples set by shelters and rehabilitators with no-kill policies with attempts to sanitize a repulsive practice. As Priscilla Feral has stated, “It is dangerous to kill off inconvenient individuals and call that killing by a term which implies that it is in the best interest of the dead to be dead.”
A Touchstone of Good Will
We believe that alternatives to the cycle of breeding and routine killing do exist. The city of San Francisco has provided a model for other communities, and we at Friends of Animals have successfully co-ordinated a national project responsible for sterilizing over two million dogs and cats since 1957. With your support, we intervene directly in the tragic cycle of reproduction; and, given the number of offspring a dog or a cat can have, this has spared tens of millions at the very least. All told, we get our largest number of positive member letters and messages for this specific project, even though it is run largely behind the scenes. Needless to say, it is not a money-maker. But it is a touchstone of constant good will in local communities throughout the United States.
Active community support for no-kill shelters and policies that ensure the sterilization of pets should be expanded so that it finds encouragement everywhere. This would stop clinics from senseless practices such as releasing thousands of fertile animals annually, or even tying grant money to shelters that supply puppies to the bigger clinics, which then hold them out to improve their adoption rates. Only sterilization ensures that the cat or dog released to a new home will not have kittens or puppies who end up back in the shelter, or abandoned elsewhere. People who are serious about giving an animal a good home can surely wait for the animal to be neutered.
Sabina De Giacomo, a veterinarian with the Animal CARE Foundation, notes that abandonment is another element of the tragic cycle. Dr. De Giacomo recommends ensuring the availability of counsel for people who are thinking of giving up their pets, and adds, “It would also make a huge difference if we finally made the push to disallow sale of animal lives for profit. We can’t sell children; we can only pay for adoption services; there’s a different level of respect for children as a result of this.”
Some of the larger shelter operations have faltered under the weight of their bureaucracies, and the animals have paid the price. The taxpayer-funded pound system in New York City has demonstrated a startling ability to kill tens of thousands of animals in the span of a year. During the year 2000, 60,877 animals—including 55,376 cats and dogs—entered the system. Just over one percent were reclaimed by owners. Less than a fourth were adopted. Nearly 68 percent were killed. By 2003, the situation had not changed much: New York City killed some 35,000 dogs and cats—nearly 100 each day. Notably, even this ratio of killing failed to guarantee decent treatment for those who are kept alive. Little wonder that policies for killing sheltered animals fail to inspire employees of such institutions to strive for stellar performance.
Friends of Animals surveys have shown that smaller shelters perform better than large ones in the population control effort. In 2002, 65 percent of our survey participants reported sterilizing every cat, dog, puppy, and kitten before releasing them, and several shelters had extended the rule to rabbits and guinea pigs. Still, this suggests that thirty-five percent of shelters are not neutering all of their released animals.
Smaller shelters might have problems affording access to veterinarians—particularly veterinarians familiar with early-age neutering. But when sterilization is expected, the no-kill movement can take hold and flourish. Unfortunately, not only have advocacy groups largely failed to support the no-kill movement, but the advocacy sector itself has been implicated in the maltreatment of sheltered animals.
In a continuing case which opened last summer in North Carolina, this issue came to a head. Two young employees of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (“PETA”)—one a 24-year-old trainee who had only been employed by the organization for two weeks—were arrested by police on animal cruelty charges after investigators found sacks of animals, including puppies, thrown into a refuse bin in the parking lot of a convenience market in Ahoskie, North Carolina—and then found more bodies in a PETA van. Bodies of cats and dogs had been found dumped in Ahoskie weekly for about a month on the same days PETA employees collected animals from shelters. Police found a death kit in the van, containing syringes and drugs that only licensed veterinarians can have. (Neither of the defendants holds a veterinary degree.) An Associated Press report quoted veterinarian Patrick Proctor of Ahoskie Animal Hospital as further stating that authorities found a female cat and her two “very adoptable” kittens among the dead animals, and that “these were just kittens we were trying to find homes for.”
At a press conference to respond to the coverage of the cruelty charges, PETA’s president, Ingrid Newkirk, didn’t condone the alleged dumping of bodies into a parking lot waste bin; nevertheless, Newkirk used euthanasia terminology to describe the organization’s routine killing of animals. Newkirk stated that “euthanasia is the kindest gift to a dog or cat unwanted and unloved” and that for many animals, it is “the only loving touch they have ever felt.”
Of course, the dead do not suffer. But neither do they get a chance to do anything else.
After the North Carolina charges first came to light, Vernon Weir of the American Sanctuary Association stated: Even if some animal control agencies and pounds do kill animals for institutional reasons, that doesn’t make it right, especially coming from advocates professing to have a high respect for animals. Animal rights groups should simply support adoption, spay/neuter, trap-neuter-return policies for feral cats, and sanctuary. Animal advocacy groups and sanctuaries should not be involved in killing healthy animals. The public gets confused by the message, and suddenly disposing of animals becomes acceptable, even justified.
As Weir states, the Ahoskie killings as described in media reports are not euthanasia. And they are a serious affront to animal rights advocacy. After all, killing is one of those things that the animal advocacy community formed to stop.
Current Trends and New Directions
The current situation for domesticated animals is mixed. In the good new column, since we last covered this issue, the New York City shelter system has been making changes in management, and more residents are expressing hope that New York can become a “no-kill city.”
On the other hand, since we last covered the emerging national pro-kill movement, it’s stepped up its pace as well. In 2004, a group of well-funded shelters and their associated fundraising groups, including Maddie’s Fund and New York’s North Shore Animal League, along with large animal protection groups, including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society of the United States, signed the Asilomar Accords. This document attempts to display a unified front for the promotion of continued killing, again by dismissing the moral imperative of a no-kill view. The Accords speak of institutional killing as euthanasia, and although the agreement’s guidelines instruct “stakeholders” not to “denigrate” one another, the agreement effectively denigrates trap-neuter-return policies by allowing feral cats to be killed rather than supporting the dedicated volunteers who model kindness in their communities by phasing out colonies through neutering, while caring for unowned cats who are already alive.
The Asilomar Accords fall into the now-familiar pattern: endorsing ambivalence by adopting out small numbers and killing the rest. This ambivalence benefits breeders, because removing animals who are deemed undesirable allows breeding to continue.
We have a decision to make: Shall we go along with, even have a hand in, society’s annual ritual of killing animals by the millions each year? Or shall we proceed in a new direction, like that advanced by trap-neuter-return advocates and no-kill shelters, based not on a traditional symbiosis with breeders, but on respect for animals?
The new way will not be the easy way. But most of our members look to us to take a leadership role. And this is why Friends of Animals will continue to support the work of community volunteers who look after fostered animals with care, and who work to see that abandoned animals aren’t treated as refuse. Ultimately, by cultivating wide support and a deep understanding of the advocate’s role, we can interrupt the cycle of breeding and killing domestic animals—a cycle which, after all, we human beings put into motion.
Tips for Local Action
- Tell a friend today about Friends of Animals sterilization certificate hotline: 1-800-321-PETS. Or purchase an affordable certificate online. The cycle of surplus, abandonment, suffering and death can only be effectively addressed by dealing with the matter of births.
- Consider offering to take the pet of a senior or a person with disabilities to a veterinary appointment.
- Also helpful are letters to community papers about the importance of animal-friendly rental properties, always combined with a suggestion that readers adopt animals and commit to avoid supporting breeders.
- Write letters in support of trap-neuter-return (TNR) initiatives for feral cats, and support the people who neuter and foster such cats. Suggest that your state put funds into TNR. Explain that feeding a stable colony of feral cats often gives a structure and purpose for many caregivers, especially among the senior population. Communities should encourage, rather than ban, such acts of kindness. But sterilizing the cats is crucial.
- Insist that your local shelter ensures the sterilization of all dogs and cats released for adoption, and that it works with community foster groups so that adoptions, followed by house checks, really happen. If you adopt an animal, welcome any house check set up by the foster group.