Newsletter Article:

Shelter Euthanasia — Whose Fault is it Anyway?

Across the country, animal shelters with open-admission policies are often attacked for humanely euthanizing many of the hundreds of thousands of unwanted animals that come through their doors. These shelters really are being blamed for the need for euthanasia.

The blame is misplaced. It should be directed at irresponsible pet owners who refuse to have their animals neutered, at backyard breeders who continuously breed their animals, at unscrupulous operations such as “puppy mills”, and at a throw-away society whose members do not make lifetime commitments to the pets they acquire.

Why are (open-admission) shelters being treated as scapegoats while so many people seem oblivious to the real culprits? Because critics have mistaken the symptom (euthanasia) for the cause. Because in today´s sound-bite society, it’s difficult to educate people on complex issues. The person who utters the catchiest phrase or offers the quickest fix rules the day. It’s easier for people to demand “stop killing animals” than to consider the possibility that they do not understand the magnitude and complexities of animal overpopulation and its tragic consequences.

How did this happen? Why are shelters being treated as scapegoats while so many people seem oblivious to the real culprits? Because critics have mistaken the symptom (euthanasia) for the cause. Because in today´s sound-bite society, it’s difficult to educate people on complex issues. The person who utters the catchiest phrase or offers the quickest fix rules the day. It’s easier for people to demand “stop killing animals” than to consider the possibility that they do not understand the magnitude and complexities of animal overpopulation and its tragic consequences.

Open-admission shelters know that despite their best efforts to get animals adopted into loving and responsible homes, there are not enough homes for them all. These shelters must daily face the reality that many unwanted animals must be euthanized. And despite the sadness of it, the shelters also know that a painless death in the arms of a caring technician is preferable to the fates that unwanted animals suffer outside the shelter. If you could fit the truth into a sound bite, it would be that if shelters ceased euthanizing animals, it would not stop animals from dying — it would stop them from dying humanely.

Critics of animal shelters that perform euthanasia refuse to accept this truth. They believe they know better, and are quick to attack good shelters that do a wonderful job for the animals in their care and perform a multitude of positive services.

Critics advance several ideas to solve the euthanasia problem. One is that shelters should stop euthanizing animals — period. Another is that shelters should “make it easier” for people to adopt. They believe that if it were easier to adopt, all animals would find homes and none would be euthanized. These solutions would have tragic results for the animals.

When a shelter stops humanely ending the lives of unadoptable animals, the cages quickly fill up. That means refusing shelter to other needy animals. Where do the rejected animals go? What happens to them? These are questions the critics refuse to address. Examined closely, the answers to such questions are unacceptable to caring people.

If turned away, countless unwanted animals are abandoned in places where they can starve to death, be attacked and killed by other animals, be hit by cars, or be picked up by individuals who sell them to experimental laboratories. Others can end up in the hands of “animal hoarders.” (Animal hoarders are individuals who amass many more animals than they are able or willing to care for; as a result, the animals generally suffer a lingering death from starvation or lack of medical care.) Kittens and puppies are often handed out in front of stores to anyone who will take them. Kittens are also dumped in the mistaken belief that they can survive as “mousers.” Most don’t. Those that do survive become feral (wild). They breed and form cat colonies where feline diseases and often rabies kill not only them but also other animals in the vicinity. Among the most unfortunate animals of all are unwanted dogs whose owners condemn them to a living death by tethering them to a dog house or a tree, depriving them of companionship, and feeding and watering them haphazardly.

These are the scenarios which the critics refuse to contemplate. They prefer to assume that if animals have been spared euthanasia, they are safe. Too often, animals are “saved” only to suffer.

As far as increasing adoptions, it is imperative to explore innovative ideas to attract caring and responsible adopters; however, lowering adoption standards “to make it easier” is not one of them. Critics believe in eliminating the requirement that fertile animals be neutered before they leave the shelter. Also, they object to requiring a deposit if the animal is too young to be neutered. The truth is if fertile animals were allowed to leave the shelter simply to increase adoptions, the unwanted offspring of those animals would be lined up at the shelter door, abandoned, or given away unneutered often to irresponsible caretakers. If a shelter did not collect a neuter deposit on immature animals, those animals would stand less chance of being neutered when they reached maturity.

Critics also believe that potential adopters are “turned off” by an adoption pre-screening process. But, if a shelter eliminated pre-screening, which should include, for example, checking to see if the prospective adopter had any record of animal abuse, animals might be put in the hands of known abusers. If landlord checks were not made, a renter might adopt an animal that a landlord then orders off the premises. If applicants’ identifications were not checked, animals might end up in research laboratories rather than in loving homes. (This is often the fate of animals that are advertised in “free to a good home” newspaper ads.)

In short, without proper screening of potential adopters, the fates of shelter animals could turn out the same as those who are rejected when the cages are full. Only good policies and the person doing the screening stand between an animal and a fate worse than death. Granted, even excellent screening procedures are not a guarantee that animals will have permanent good homes, but they do offer the animals a better chance than handing them out with no questions asked.

And what of those animals that are accepted and remain at a shelter that refuses to euthanize? If no one adopts them within a reasonable period, the stress of continued confinement can cause them to develop behavior problems and become “cage-crazy.” Dogs that started out as congenial companions can begin to snap at their attendants (or potential adopters) or attack the dog who shares the cage. Cats may snarl and scratch when the cage door is opened or can become withdrawn. No wonder! What kind of life is it to spend months and sometimes years in a cage? Is imprisonment fair to a companion animal? Does it fit the definition of “humane?” These are serious questions and issues that don´t fit into a sound bite.

Instead of attacking open-admission shelters and the people who work there, critics might consider joining with others to address the causes of the over-population problem. They could educate people on responsible pet ownership and the importance of neutering, work to establish low-cost spay/neuter programs, and urge legislators to pass laws that require mandatory spay/neuter of cats and dogs. The results of these actions would reduce the number of unwanted animals and the need for euthanasia — something everyone wants.

Yet, only when pet owners ensure that their pets are neutered, only when backyard breeders and puppy mill operators are stopped from the exploitative breeding of animals, only when pet owners make a lifetime commitment to the animals they adopt, will the pet overpopulation problem be brought under control. Only then will the need for euthanasia be dramatically reduced.

Obviously, the critics of open-admission shelters care deeply for animals. Of course they desperately want the need for euthanasia eliminated. So does every euthanasia technician who ends the lives of healthy, but unwanted, animals. Yet, only when pet owners ensure that their pets are neutered, only when backyard breeders and puppy mill operators are stopped from the exploitative breeding of animals, only when pet owners make a lifetime commitment to the animals they adopt, will the pet overpopulation problem be brought under control. Only then will the need for euthanasia be dramatically reduced. Until then, animal shelters will be forced to clean up the tragic results of society’s behavior in a manner that is most humane to animals — whose only “fault” was being born.


New York State Humane Association Humane Review, Vol.XII, No.1, Spring 1998.

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