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Can No-Kill Be Legislated?


Is Chicago ready to be a no-kill city?

I hope so. But no-kill is a tad more complicated than merely a city proclaiming itself no-kill. And as much as I do support and appreciate Aldermen Edward Burke (14th) and Ray Lopez (15th) supporting an ordinance for Chicago to be no-kill, you can’t alone legislate no-kill and ‘make’ it happen.

Alderman Ray Lopez

Alderman Ray Lopez

The “no-kill” movement dates back decades. Animal lovers expressed concern about how animals were cavalierly being euthanized (really let’s be honest – they were killed) at shelters around America. This concern about too much killing even dates back to the 1930’s. Groups began to organize in support of spay/neuter.

However, the no-kill movement didn’t gain notice until the 1970’s. And organization and momentum didn’t happen until the early 1990’s.

pet expert Steve Dale writes about Chicago going no-killTo best I can tell, the first No Kill Conference was held in Denver, CO in 1996, attended by 125 people for all the right reasons.

However, it wasn’t long before many facilities supporting no-kill began to publicly criticize open admission facilities, and those shelters in the community that euthanize. It publicly became ‘them vs. us.’

To be honest – this was often an attempt to gain public sympathy and gain money for their own organizations from sympathetic donors.

I’ve always been angered by this strategy, which I’ve felt undermines the true goals of no-kill. Savvy marketers simply split the world into two.

Determining the line between real no-kill efforts and marketing wasn’t something the sympathetic animal-loving public recognized. Where this occurred (and still does), communities don’t benefit, but instead individual shelters have become wealthy. True enough, those places have more resources to at least theoretically help more animals. But divisiveness is never helpful, and the war of words in some places has intensified.

Of course, I want to see fewer animals killed. However, public officials or individual animal advocates can’t snap their fingers and make it happen because they say expert Steve Dale writes about Chicago going no-kill

It’s a good thing that in nearly every U.S. community of any size – open admission facilities must take in all animals, otherwise where would the animals go?  Do people really believe the workers at these facilities actually want to euthanize animals?

While I fully support the proposed legislation in Chicago (or any city) to move to a no-kill model, there are some realities that are more important than any legislation:

  • Is the community ready? Though this problem is dwindling in America, in some places spay/neuter is still not practiced, and unwanted litters are the norm. Offering spay/neuter where people live and at a low cost is important. Even more important is education. People can’t be forced to spay/neuter (that doesn’t work), they have to understand and agree with the value.
  • Rescue groups provide required relief to shelters, particularly municipal facilities. These rescues must be legit, and able to provide some basic medical care, and ultimately success at adopting pets they rescue (pure bred rescues, and others). Sometimes these rescues will relocate animals to places where they are more likely to be adopted. That’s a good thing because saving a life is saving a life. However, for example, some Chicago shelters accept rescued dogs from other states. These dogs are generally adopted. But they add to the volume of animals within the City limits. Too many animals from the “outside” may mean fewer animals are potentially adopted from “within.”
  • Foster networks: A key to lowering euthanasia in shelters is to get the animals out, particularly those most at risk. Getting kittens, in particular, into foster care is urgent, as kittens are very susceptible to health concerns in shelters. When they get sick, they are more likely to be euthanized. Simultaneously, in busy facilities, getting an animal out, may mean opening the space for another. Overcrowding (which may lead to stress and illness) also leads to increased euthanasia.
  • Fewer animals must be relinquished. Blaming a facility for people giving up their pets makes no sense. It’s hardly the fault of animal control in any community when pets in large numbers are given up. The community mind-set or culture that animals are disposable needs to change.
  • Trap-Neuter-Return: There are communities that still have not embraced TNR, and instead round-up community or feral cats, or at least some of them, and bring them into shelters. Aside from not being effective at controlling cat numbers, the problems with this approach are myriad. First, the majority of community cats aren’t socialized, and the process to transform an unadoptable cat to being adoptable may take months or years, and financial and personnel resources which could go elsewhere. Meanwhile, that cat is miserable in the shelter (at least at the start), and many call this approach downright inhumane. That cat is also taking up cage space a totally adoptable cat may use instead. Accepting feral or community cats is contradictory to no-kill. TNR is the best approach for the sake of the cats, and also consistent with no-kill.
  • Help for behavior problems. One of the most common – and many suggest THE most common explanation for relinquishment – are behavior problems. A community offering affordable and qualified help for pet owners does prevent that cat who misses the litter box or barking dog from landing at the shelter in the first place.
  • In-Shelter behavior resources: In my opinion saving some aggressive dogs can’t be done and shouldn’t even be tried (as those dogs adopted into a community may be a dangerous weapon). The reality is you can’t save them all. And having the attitude that you can save them all is not what no-kill should be. However, most fearful dogs and cats can be helped, even in a shelter setting, qualified help. Having resources to provide behavior help is necessary, the right thing to do for the animals’ welfare and lessens the chances that adopted pets will be returned
  • Teamwork: It does take that village – No-Kill requires a community effort, which means a coalition of shelters, rescues, foster programs and others. One or two no-kill facilities beating up on others is detrimental for the community.
  • Pets: Increasingly, adopting from shelters and rescues has become “a thing.” The notion of shelter adoption being equivalent to receiving damaged goods must be busted. I have no problem with pure bred dogs or cats from legit breeders. All breeders are sometimes targeted, that’s unfair. No-kill can do just fine side-by-side with legit breeders. We also need more people considering adding a pet into their life. And not from a pet store, where animals are from puppy mills. Instead, pet stores taking up the idea of working with local shelters/rescues to participate in adoption at their stores (good for the stores, and good for the community).

pet expert Steve Dale writes about Chicago going no-killAccording to the ASPCA, approximately 7.6 million companion animals enter animal shelters nationwide annually. Of those, approximately 3.9 million are dogs and 3.4 million are cats. Each year, approximately 2.7 million animals are euthanized (1.2 million dogs and 1.4 million cats). Good news – that’s far better than say, even five years ago. But each of those 2.7 million are individuals – and most died without a real reason – except they couldn’t find a home. Those orphans did nothing wrong.

Don’t get me wrong – I love that in Chicago aldermen seek to forward no-kill legislatively, perhaps ultimately a model for other cities. And I love the fact that Aldermen are on board. They must also know that the fewer euthanasia’s, the more money the community saves (aside from the emotional cost of euthanizing adoptable animals, there’s a real dollars and cents savings associated). And in Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is apparently on board as well.

However, the recipe for no-kill is highlighted above. Whether Chicago or any city succeeds – and I sure hope all cities do – it’s a matter of connecting those dots.


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Steve Dale is a certified animal behavior specialist who has been a trusted voice in the world of pet health for over 20 years. You have likely heard him on the radio, read him in print and online, and seen him speaking at events all over the world. His contributions to advancing pet wellness have earned him many an award and recognition around the globe.

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