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'No-kill' or humanely euthanize: What's best for Colorado shelter animals?

Posted at 6:46 PM, Oct 19, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-20 00:21:00-04

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DENVER — While almost all animal lovers agree that they want what’s best for animals, how they define that and go about that has caused one of the most heated debates in the pet realm: Should animal shelters go to a “no-kill” philosophy?

Defining no-kill is pretty tricky. The Washington Post published in 2017 that “There is no certifying body that bestows the no-kill label, and there is no universally held definition of it.”

A no-kill shelter is widely described as not euthanizing any healthy or treatable pet for reasons like needed space or behavioral issues.

Denver7 acknowledges this is a complex topic with a variety of intricacies and viewpoints. We’ll try to address as many as we can below.

A national view

An estimated 6 million animals enter the shelter system every year across the U.S.

Between 1.5 million (ASPCA) and 2 million (No Kill Advocacy Center) of those dogs and cats are killed each year.

The ASPCA and PETA both believe that under certain circumstances, euthanasia is the acceptable and humane decision for animals.

No-kill as a safe haven

MaxFund is the largest no-kill shelter in Denver, taking in both dogs and cats.

“We will not euthanize for out of space or behavioral, medical, any of those things,” shelter manager Cheryl Stapleton said.

The only time they’ll euthanize an animal is if it is severely ill, injured, or dying. Stapleton cited the animal’s quality of life.

“We’re here to make a safe haven,” she said.

There is a limited capacity at MaxFund, and not all animals have to be accepted.

“We can’t, but we’ll sure try. At that point, we will start a waitlist, give me a couple of weeks,” Stapleton said.

Traditional shelters euthanize 'when necessary'

The Dumb Friends League is the largest "open admission" shelter in Colorado. They also do not refer to themselves as a no-kill shelter.

“The Dumb Friends League truly believes in best outcomes for all animals. Sometimes that requires euthanasia,” Dr. Apryl Steele, the shelter’s president & CEO, said. 

The DFL takes in about 20,000 animals per year, and have to take in any animal that comes to them regardless of age, behavior, or medical issue.

“We believe in socially informed sheltering, meaning every healthy and safe animal should be placed and should be adopted,” she said.

That means the DFL will euthanize if an animal is extremely ill, injured, or dying or if it is aggressive or has behavioral issues. The president says if an animal is in pain and there is no way to get it out of that pain, it is “inhumane to not provide euthanasia.” She added that if an animal shows signs of extreme aggression, then they will “take that socially responsible route and make a euthanasia decision.”

“We are creating suffering by saying we refuse to euthanize an animal,” Dr. Steele said.

Steele added that the DFL will not put down a healthy animal for reasons of space and that fewer animals are euthanized today than at any point in their history.

Small town success with going no-kill

If there is a question as to whether a county-wide, open admission shelter can go no-kill and have success, Fremont County is that example. The Humane Society there killed more than half of the animals that came in the door only four years ago. That’s when new director Doug Rae took over and adopted the no-kill philosophy.

“We’re getting paid to save lives. What’s so damn difficult about that?” Rae asked.

According to the shelter, within the first three months they saved 96 percent of all animals that came in. That number comes from the number of animals who are euthanized versus the ones that are adopted out, returned back to their owners, transferred to another place, or given to rescues.

“Last year was 99 percent. This year through August, we are at 97 percent,” he said.

Fremont County also says they only will euthanize in the case of extreme illness or injury. They do not put animals down for behavioral issues.

Rae hopes his model will spread to the rest of Colorado. Given the low number of adopters in the county and the number of animals they take in (about 1,500 per year), he doesn’t see any reason for a shelter not to adopt no-kill.

“We’re underfunded; we’re understaffed; we get too many animals in, and we’re still making it happen,” he said.

The percentage argument

Fremont County’s director referred to the “save rate” or the “live release rate” in their arguments for why no-kill was the best practice. Rae also added that they treat animals as individuals and the number will follow. But those numbers are also a point of contention within the no-kill debate.

“If a shelter is not saving 90 percent, they are not trying,” Davyd Smith of No Kill Colorado told Denver7.

The organization tracks save rates and publishes a yearly report on counties and individual shelters.

The Dumb Friends League’s percentage hovers around 90 percent, according to their president & CEO. She says the only way to guarantee a high save rate (that no-kill shelters require) would be to manage the population that comes into the shelter. That’s something they don’t do.

“Imagine you have a critical care unit at a hospital and there was a mandate that 90 percent of people entered the unit had to survive. You could only accept people that had a good prognosis,” Dr. Apryl Steele said.

PETA says basing how a shelter or organization operates based on this number alone is a slippery slope.

“When shelters concentrate more on their statistics and are pressured to implement policies that are designed to improve statistics animals are the ones who suffer,” Teresa Chagrin of PETA said.

The worry on behalf of PETA is that shelters would either turn away sick or injured animals that would eventually have to be put down to “keep their stats up,” or turn to a hoarding mentality.

Extremes don’t fit in Denver

There are several arguments for and against no-kill, many of those are addressed below. There are some extreme examples that both sides use in pushing for their particular viewpoint, but they don’t really apply to the overall argument at least in the top Denver shelters (as well as many parts of Colorado).

Some of those pushing for the no-kill philosophy nationally argue that shelters are needlessly and hastily euthanizing pets by the hundreds or thousands because they simply don’t want to spend the time or money to treat the animals. As mentioned above, the Dumb Friends League says they will never euthanize for space and spend thousands of dollars per year on treatment for sick or injured pets. They have eight full-time veterinarians on staff. The shelter’s 90 percent save rate also means that euthanasia isn’t being overused or abused.

On the flip side, the pushback against no-kill sometimes contains claims, including from PETA, that some no-kill shelters take in sick or injured animals, refuse to put them down humanely, so the animals suffer. Or the shelters continue to take in animals when full, and it can become a hoarding situation where animals spend their lives in cages. MaxFund in Denver does neither of those things.

Differences within no-kill

Something that makes this complicated debate even murkier is the differences within the idea of going no-kill. Since there is no set definition, how shelters operate can vary. Since there is no official definition or certifying organization, no-kill organizations do not have to follow established guidelines or hit specific numbers.

“The no-kill movement is killing the mission of real no-kill,” founder and operator of Creative Acres Animal Sanctuary Maxine Mager said.

The Creative Acres Sanctuary recently dealt with a fire, and they are not currently accepting animals. But Mager says she will never kill an animal that people bring to her. The sanctuary is not open admission, and according to their website, they will take in animals with medical conditions “on a case by case basis.” She tells Denver7 she operates by more of a dictionary definition that no-kill means not killing any animal, not even a small percentage.

“Shelters that brand themselves 'no-kill' manipulate and twist it to what they want it to mean. Their philosophy of it is not the meaning of it,” she said.

Can it go statewide?

Proponents of no-kill say the philosophy not only could work but should be the way Colorado handles all of its shelters. No Kill Colorado cited success stories in Fremont County, as well as larger shelters and cities across the country.

“Austin did it, and Charlottesville did it, and Fremont did it. You can’t say it’s impossible if it exists,” Smith said.

The City of Pueblo passed a controversial law called the Pueblo Animal Protection Act that mandates a 90 percent save rate within the city. That goes into effect starting January 1, 2019.

No Kill Colorado believes it can happen even in the crowded Denver metro.

“Denver metro and Colorado can be no-kill overnight,” Smith said. “If it went on the ballot we would win.”

A ballot initiative to make Colorado the first all no-kill state was proposed in 2014, but never made the ballot due to a lack of signatures.

What’s best for the animals?

“It’s kind of like a moral thing. We have to do right by every animal that comes in this building,” Fremont County’s Doug Rae said.

“We’re choosing to (euthanize some animals) because we’re compassionate thinking about the animal. We’re not just passionate thinking about how it makes us feel,” Dr. Apryl Steele of the DFL countered.

“Many animals euthanized in shelters are being euthanized because it is the compassionate thing for them,” PETA added.

“We should always save. There’s always a way,” Smith said.